Sunday, October 2, 2011
Baseball Economics Expert Billy Beane: The Man Behind Moneyball
Share What’s life like today for Billy Beane, the man who revolutionized baseball as a GM in the ’90s? For one thing, he’s adjusting to being portrayed by Brad Pitt in the film version of Moneyball. For another, he’s quietly overhauling the world’s most popular sport. Soccer, get ready to be Beane'd!
At ?rst you think it’s the junk room, a cellar where they dump old, broken things. But gradually it dawns on you: This really is the Oakland A’s clubhouse. Billy Beane, the A’s general manager, is sprawled on a battered sofa, his giant feet on the grubby beige carpet. The Oakland Coliseum has barely changed since 1981, when my dad drove me, a rabid 11-year-old A’s fan, up from Palo Alto to see the A’s beat the Red Sox 4-3 on a Dwayne Murphy homer. It must now be the most dilapidated stadium in the major leagues.
In this very room not long ago, Beane and Brad Pitt sat eating takeout pizza from Zachary’s in Berkeley. Pitt was hanging around, preparing to play Beane in the movie Moneyball, and as the GM explains, “He’s not the kind of guy who can just walk down to the local restaurant.” Pitt also sneaked a visit to Beane’s house, in the hills near Oakland. “I didn’t think it was a big deal,” Beane says, “but my wife and the nanny seemed to think it was. They were up at ?ve in the morning getting ready, which is the ?rst time my wife’s got up at ?ve in the morning.”
Beane spends a lot of time sitting in this room watching European soccer on the big television. While he watches, the A’s players watch him. Beane remembers sitting on his battered sofa last year when Arjen Robben of Bayerne Munich volleyed in the shot that knocked Manchester United out of the Champions League. Beane, nearly 50 now, jumped into the air and whooped. An A’s player looked up and laughed. What an absurd sight. You didn’t often see Beane whooping when his own team won a ball game.
“Just watch that goal,” Beane instructed the player, and because Beane is the boss and 6'4" and still sports the Charles Atlas physique that once lured half the baseball and football scouts in the U.S. to his parents’ house in San Diego, the A’s player watched the replay. And the second replay. Finally he got it: That skinny, bald little European was as great an athlete as the A’s player himself. “Wow,” said the A’s player, though maybe he said it only to please the boss.
Like millions of other Americans, Beane has come to follow soccer with the almost unhealthy fervor of a convert.
“I watch as many of the games as I can,” he admits. “I’m a bit of a junkie.”
And he’s also a soccer revolutionary. Five thousand miles from Europe, almost unseen by the media, Beane in?uences the thinking of soccer powerhouses like Chelsea and Manchester City. He regards Arsenal’s French manager, Arsène Wenger, as a soul mate, and you could even call him the brains behind Liverpool, the English club Red Sox owner John Henry bought last fall. Beane and his followers are now changing soccer—just as he previously changed baseball.
Sometime in late 2009, Beane and I began phoning and e-mailing each other to chat about soccer. I ?rst met him in real life in October 2010, and he turned out to be an unusual mix: an amiable Californian with big eyes behind his round glasses, and at the same time a bone-hard American businessman. I found the contact enjoyable, but also surreal. I had trouble seeing Beane as an actual person. Like millions of others, I already knew him from Michael Lewis’ book Moneyball, about the remaking of the Oakland A’s a decade ago. To me Beane was a great literary character, like Winston Smith or Holden Caul?eld.
We know most of his story from the book: The son of a naval of?cer grows up to be a brilliant teenage athlete, courted by major-league baseball clubs and elite college football programs. In the junk room this morning, I ask whether he ever played soccer.
“Not once,” says Beane.
Did he never even kick a ball?
“We had a hybrid game at junior high we called speedball, which would disgust anybody from outside the United States. You could actually catch the ball in the air and throw it. I did have a Pelé poster on my wall from the Cosmos. Most Americans in the ’70s knew Pelé. They weren’t quite sure what he did, but they knew of him.”
In the classic high school divide, Beane was both jock and nerd. His parents, who had married young and never had a shot at college, wanted Billy to use his brain. “Our family wasn’t particularly well-off,” says Beane. “Really, the reason my dad introduced me to sports was the ability to acquire a college scholarship. It was a way to pay for college.”
That’s why in 1980 the Beane family was excited when Stanford tried to recruit him as a quarterback. Beane likes to joke that if he’d accepted the scholarship, you’d never have heard of the guy who was then Stanford’s quarterback, John Elway. Anyway, Beane turned down Stanford. The New York Mets were offering him $125,000 to play baseball, and the middle-
class military kid felt he ought to take the money. Beane missed out on college.
“I don’t look at it as a regret now,” he says. “I’d say missed opportunity is probably a better way to put it. The people you’re going to school with, what you’re exposed to in future world leaders, senators—I missed that opportunity, and I don’t think you can really put a price tag on that. But it was a great life lesson.” Beane has tried never again to make a decision based on money alone.
Beane began playing in the minors, but from the beginning he had inklings of having chosen the wrong profession. He recalls: “I wanted to be the guy running the club. And as I’ve gotten older, I wanted to be the guy running the business, because it’s such an important part of sports now.”
Beane never became the great player the scouts had seen in him. “As a baseball failure—” I begin my question.
Beane pulls a pained face: “Can we… do we have another…? Is there a synonym that we can use? How about ‘my relative success’?”
He did, after all, make the major leagues. In 1990 he was a 27-year-old outfielder with the Oakland A’s. That was when he walked into the A’s front of?ce and said he wanted to quit playing and become an advance scout. As Lewis notes in Moneyball, nobody ever quits the bigs
at age 27 to become a scout. But Beane wanted to be the guy running the show.
Naturally, he treated his new career as a kind of further education—graduate school, if you like, at the University of Billy Beane. The great thing was that baseball at the time had recently acquired its very own revolutionary intellectual movement: sabermetrics. The story of Moneyball is how Beane became general manager of the A’s and reformed the club along sabermetric lines. “We just stole these ideas from people smarter than ourselves,” he says now, then corrects himself: “Stole, that’s the wrong word.”
Beane hired smart young statisticians, like 24-year-old Harvard grad Paul DePodesta. Their job was to ?nd undervalued players, and to further Billy Beane’s education at the same time.
As Moneyball records, stats worked for the A’s. Whereas other clubs did things because they’d always done them that way, the A’s came up with new ways of running a baseball club. Whereas other clubs tried to recruit living Greek statues like the 18-year-old Billy Beane, the A’s were quite happy to sign fat players. “Big-boned is the term we prefer to use,” chuckles Beane. Always they were trying to ?nd players who had been undervalued by other clubs.
Other people began to notice. In 2002 John Henry, owner of the Boston Red Sox, tried to lure Beane to Boston. He offered him a minimum of $12.5 million over ?ve years, more than a GM in baseball had ever been paid. Beane ?rst said yes, but then he said no. He wasn’t going to make a decision based on money again. Instead, Henry hired a 28-year-old Yale graduate named Theo Epstein.
The A’s punched above their weight for years. The team won the American League West four times between 2000 and 2006. With a bit more luck they might have made it to a World Series.
And there the story might have ended, with Beane a minor celebrity at a small club, but for the fact that he had met a clever guy who lived down the road from the Oakland Coliseum: Michael Lewis.
The University of Billy Beane is always on the lookout for visiting professors. Lewis, the master of business books, was the perfect candidate for a man who had educated himself largely from business books. “I consider him both a friend and an incredibly stimulating person to be around,” says Beane. Partly for that reason, and partly because Beane is a canny businessman who knows the value of publicity, he let Lewis hang around for a year. In 2003 Lewis published Moneyball. Suddenly everyone in baseball knew what Beane and his fat A’s had been doing.
More and more clubs began to copy them. Baseball, says Beane now, “has turned into more of a science—I think more of a science than even people will publicize.” But Moneyball’s in?uence goes even further: It changed other sports, too. In 2004 an NBA team hired a full-time statistician for the first time. Now they all have statisticians. And from there the revolution spread across the Atlantic to sports like rugby, cricket, and even soccer.
The conquest of baseball by Moneyball methods was formally sealed in 2004, when the Red Sox of John Henry and Theo Epstein won the club’s ?rst World Series since 1918. In 2007 they won another. In a way these were triumphs for Beane, but they weren’t visible triumphs.
Once almost everyone in baseball went Moneyball, the A’s lost their advantage.
It’s surely no coincidence that, as the A’s have tailed off somewhat, Beane has developed an obsession with soccer.
It began when Beane’s wife had a birthday. Like most men, Beane couldn’t think of a present. He panicked. Luckily, he says, “I had a cheap ?ight to London. So I said, ‘Hey, honey, we’re going to London for your birthday.’?”
“I didn’t go over anticipating falling in love with soccer,” he claims now. But, inevitably, he did treat the trip as a sort of seminar in English culture. Every morning in London he’d study the British newspapers. He noticed that they barely ran a word about the NFL or baseball. Instead, they went on about soccer all the time. On romantic strolls with his wife, Beane noticed that in front of almost every pub was a chalkboard with the times of that day’s televised soccer matches. From the A’s junk room he recalls, “I’m a big college football fan here, and it was very similar to how college football is in the South, where you have this passion and you have a large number of massive fans in this small area.”
Back home in California, Beane started studying for his major in soccer. “I literally have read every piece of literature I could ?nd on it,” he says.
But Beane is a jock as well as a nerd, and the other thing that drew him to soccer was the athleticism of the players. It turned out they weren’t little wimps at all. Watching them, Beane saw that “these are the exact same guys who are playing our sports. They just chose this sport. Had they grown up in the States, they would be playing at the highest level at whatever sport they did.” For instance, when other Americans ask him what Barcelona star Lionel Messi is like, Beane will say, “Well, just imagine if you had Barry Sanders—who’s one of the greatest running backs in the history of the NFL—his quickness and his ability to change direction, with the vision of Steve Nash on a basketball court. That’s Lionel Messi.”
Just around the time Beane became interested in soccer, something fortuitous happened: People in soccer became interested in him. Beane got friendly with soccer execs like Arsenal’s Damien Comolli, Bolton Wanderers’ Mike Forde, and a German expat in California named Jürgen Klinsmann. When the legendary striker later became manager of the German national team, he hired more sports scientists than anyone in soccer had ever seen and guided Germany to a surprising third place at the 2006 World Cup. Afterward Klinsmann joined German super-team Bayern Munich and sent Beane a Bayern shirt with billy beane on the back. Beane liked the shirt but admits he is too self-conscious to wear it into the local Starbucks. (In July Klinsmann was named manager of the U.S. national team.)
Beane had become a soccer junkie. However, he still spent his days surrounded by baseball junkies, paid to think and talk about baseball. That couldn’t last. The University of Billy Beane needed a small soccer faculty. One day when the A’s were looking for a new young statistician, Beane interviewed an MIT economics graduate named Farhan Zaidi.
At this point in the conversation, Beane summons Farhan, a cheery, small, round guy with a sense of humor. He’s the kind of person you’d expect to meet late one night after a gig at a bar in a college town, not in a professional sports club. At MIT he specialized in behavioral economics. (“Like that’s real useful,” teases Beane.) But when Farhan came for his job interview, Beane quizzed him on one topic: Oasis, the favorite band of both men. When it then transpired that Farhan was a soccer junkie, too, he was hired. “I tried to direct the conversation in each of those directions,” Farhan admits now.
Farhan had been to the World Cups in 1998 and 2002. When World Cup 2006 in Germany came around, they both reasoned that they really ought to go, even if it happened to fall in the middle of the baseball season. Together with A’s owner Lew Wolff, they played hooky and ?ew over. “We were just like college kids with backpacks, shorts, going to every match we could,” Beane recalls.
After that World Cup, whenever the A’s players teased Beane about soccer, he’d tell them, “The rest of the world can’t be wrong.” The main thing that had struck him in Germany was the emotion of the fans. You didn’t see that so much in American sports. He drew two conclusions: Where there’s emotion, there’s money to be made. And where there’s emotion, people are probably making emotional decisions.
Rational Moneyball thinking might have a place in soccer too.
In 2005 Beane’s best friend in soccer, Damien Comolli, became technical director of Totenham Hotspurr (a.k.a. Spurs) and did his best to turn them into a sort of London version of the A’s. Comolli used the new data becoming available (on numbers of tackles, miles run, shots on target, shots stopped, and so on) to value soccer players.
In 2007 Comolli paid $14 million to bring an unknown 17-year-old left-back named Gareth Bale to the team. It seemed an absurd sum. Bale came from little Southampton and had played
only a couple of internationals for not-very-fashionable Wales. But on the phone to Oakland, Comolli would talk about him with great excitement.
A couple of summers ago, when Spurs visited California, Beane got to see Bale up close. He recognized the type at once: “An 18-, 19-year-old kid, broad-shouldered, lean.” Bale was fast, athletic, and strong—a most unusual combination. Beane says, “If he were in the States, he would never have touched a soccer ball. He’d be playing wide receiver for the New York Jets, he’d be playing center ?eld for a major-league baseball team, or he’d be a shooting guard for an NBA team.” The great athletes, whatever their sports, are each other’s brothers. By the time Bale was 20, it was clear he was a sort of superman.
In October 2010 the news had broken that John Henry, the Red Sox owner, was in England.
He’d flown over to buy Liverpool, one of England’s blue-chip soccer clubs. Beane was enthused by the impending deal. Henry had perfected Moneyball at the Red Sox. Imagine, mused Beane, if he could do something similar in soccer. Beane says, “John understands numbers, and in sports it’s about numbers. John is a very rational person.”
“He tried to hire you,” I say.
“Well, that’s the irrational part of him,” said Beane.
A few weeks after Henry’s purchase, French papers reported that Comolli would leave his then-club, St-Etienne, and predicted that he’d join Liverpool. So it proved. It was clear where John Henry had been getting his advice on potential soccer hires. Henry was indeed planning
a “Moneyball of soccer,” hampered only by his near-total ignorance of the sport.
It must have been useful to ask Mr. Moneyball himself for the right direction.
A lot of calls now ping back and forth between Liverpool and Oakland. In the A’s junk room, Beane says, “Damien, you can call him anytime. He’s up all the time. I’ll e-mail him, and it will be two in the morning there, and he’ll be up and he’ll say, ‘Hey, I’m up watching the A’s game,’ because he watches a lot of A’s games on the computer. The guy never sleeps.” It seems that Beane has become an unpaid consultant to Liverpool’s Moneyball project.
At the end of the interview in the junk room, I give Beane an old baseball card of himself to sign. billy beane: out?eld, it says. It’s from 1987, when he was back in the majors with the Minnesota Twins. The season before, according to the card, he’d batted .213.
Beane takes the card from me and studies it. “I think this is at the old Cleveland Stadium,” he says, even though about the only thing you can see behind the young Beane in the picture is a batting cage. “You know, you take these when you’re 22, and you don’t think you’re going to be immortalized for the rest of your life, and you sure wish you’d shaved that day.” I realize then how much of his life he’s spent being seen through a slightly distorted medium: through baseball cards, through that Greek statue of a body, through Michael Lewis, and now through Brad Pitt.
Beane goes off with the A’s stadium manager to ?nd a sandwich. Then he comes back, and he and Farhan sprawl on the battered sofas and talk soccer, baseball, data, and irrationality off-the-record for half the afternoon.