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It's not 'Moneyball,' but A's are making sense

Other teams could learn a lesson from Oakland, which has baseball's smallest payroll.

October 06, 2012|By Bill Shaikin

If you like your sports with a morality play attached — the team of destiny, the team that refused to lose, the team that overcame adversity, and so on — then root, root, root for the New York Yankees and the Oakland Athletics.

The Yankees spent the most money on players this season. The Athletics spent the least.

If the Yankees and A's advance to the American League Championship Series, the story line will be all about the money. The David-vs- Goliath cliche will be working overtime.

The context is more important to the vitality of the sport: Are the A's the outlier, or can teams that cannot buy All-Stars by the bundle seriously challenge the Yankees?

The A's spent about $59 million on their 40-man player payroll this season, the Yankees about $222 million, according to figures compiled last week by the commissioner's office.

The three other biggest spenders — the Philadelphia Phillies, Boston Red Sox and 0Angels, in order — failed to make the playoffs.

Of the 10 postseason entries, five came from the top 10 in player payroll, four from the middle 10, and the A's from the bottom 10.

Under baseball's revenue-sharing system, the Yankees are paying all their own bills and subsidizing the A's too. The A's are making money, even with an alienated fan base — until this week, anyway — and a decrepit stadium.

Business is good. But the object of the game is to win the World Series, not to win the bang-for-the-buck standings.

Baseball can no more neutralize economic advantage than it can turn New York into Milwaukee. The challenge is to offer enough economic assistance that sharp management can overcome a fat wallet.

The Washington Nationals made the playoffs for the first time. The Baltimore Orioles made the playoffs for the first time in 15 years.

The only teams not to qualify for the playoffs at least once in the last decade are the Kansas City Royals, Pittsburgh Pirates, Seattle Mariners and Toronto Blue Jays.

"My goal was to try to get management back into it, so it wasn't just sheer money," Commissioner Bud Selig said. "I think we have made substantial progress.

"Do we have a ways to go? You bet."

If other teams are paying attention, they can learn from the A's.

This isn't about pocketing welfare from the rich teams and hoping to get lucky once every few years. This is about a decidedly unconventional business plan: ownership that trusts and empowers its maverick general manager, who would rather try to develop a really good team than field the sustained mediocrity that too many teams peddle as "competitive."

The A's had nothing to lose, of course. No one was watching them play anyway, the residual effect of their "new ballpark or bust" strategy.

With the freedom to try something different, the A's did. They have been burdened by "Moneyball" — by the book, by the movie, by the misguided notion that General Manager Billy Beane fancied himself the second coming of Abner Doubleday.

In the old-school baseball world, "Moneyball" became shorthand for "on-base percentage good, stolen bases bad." Not quite what the book said, but never mind.

Of the 10 playoff teams this season, which one has the lowest on-base percentage?

That would be the A's.

Which one has stolen the most bases?

That would be the A's.

Which one had the courage to trade perhaps its three best pitchers last winter?

That too would be the A's.

The Detroit Tigers and ace Justin Verlander, the defending Cy Young Award winner, open the division series against the A's on Saturday.

"A lot of people are saying they might be the underdog in this series, even though they've won more games than us, which is crazy," Verlander told reporters in Detroit.

They did spend $80 million less than the Tigers to win six more games, which is crazy. They might be the underdog, or they might not, but the team that spent the least money of any club in the majors is 11 victories from a parade.

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