In the 1980s, after Billy Beane signed with the Mets, he felt uncomfortable. Oblivious to his reticence, the Mets general manager (GM) sent Billy to the high-level rookie team, with college players, and Darryl Strawberry to the low-level rookie team, with high schoolers. Billie didn’t fit in with his older teammates. In his early months with the team he disappointed Roger Jongewaard, the Mets’ head scout, who had assumed that Billy would quickly graduate from the rookie team to the big league team. Billy and Strawberry were promoted to the Mets’ Double-A team in Mississippi. There, Billy excelled at wooing women, but “crumbled” on the field. While Strawberry was named MVP for the Texas League, Billy batted a mediocre .220.
In this chapter, Lewis will fill in some of the blanks regarding Billy Beane’s career. After being drafted by the Mets, Billy struggled with his new rookie team: as Lewis already hinted in Chapter One, Billy’s struggles were psychological as well as physical. Billy was under a tremendous amount of pressure to succeed, and he didn’t make many close, supportive friends. But instead of giving Billy the psychological support that he needed, Jongewaard and the other Mets workers assumed that Billy would be fine.
Billy’s problems continued throughout his time with the Mets’ Double-A team. His roommate, Lenny Dykstra, rose to become a promising player, and there were rumors that he was being groomed to play left-field on the Mets’ big league team. On paper, Lenny was an inferior athlete to Billy in every way: he wasn’t as smart, and he couldn’t hit as hard or run as fast. But Lenny’s single-mindedness gave him concentration and endurance. In 1984, after a stint in the Mets’ big league training camp, Billy was sent back to the minor leagues—his coaches told him that they didn’t think he really wanted to play baseball.
Lewis again suggests that Billy’s failings as a ballplayer stem from his lack of psychological preparation for major-league play, not just his physical weaknesses. Remember that he wasn’t even sure he wanted to sign with the Mets in the first place. Lenny, by contrast, is single-minded in his pursuit of success in the major leagues. As a result, Lenny thrives while Billy struggles.
Billy was an exceptionally talented player: fast, quick-thinking, hard-working. His great weakness was that he couldn’t hit consistently. At bat, he lost focus, and became furious when he missed. In 1985, while Billy was still struggling in the minor leagues, Lenny was brought up to the big league team. Shortly afterwards, the Mets traded Billy to the Minnesota Twins. With the Twins, Billy performed inconsistently, and his GMs quickly wrote him out of the starting lineup.
Billy’s weaknesses weren’t purely psychological: he wasn’t the best hitter, either. However, even with hitting, Lewis suggests that Billy came up short because he lacked focus and discipline. After years of being told that he was the best, Billy couldn’t deal with failure, however small, and he couldn’t summon the focus necessary to succeed.
For the next few years, Billy moved back and forth between Triple-A and big league teams in Detroit, Oakland, and Minnesota. During this time, he acquired a reputation as “the guy destined for the Hall of Fame who never panned out.” He tried to find ways to perfect his swing, but he never succeeded; furthermore, he continued to suffer from performance pressure. Billy played alongside numerous people who became big stars, and he played minor roles in important games. As a result, he called himself “the Forrest Gump of baseball.”
Throughout the chapter, Lewis emphasizes the way that other people perceive Billy: by this point, he’s seen as someone who failed to live up to his potential. Expectations cripple Billy’s potential. Instead of investing himself whole-heartedly in the game, he finds himself cracking under pressure.
Why did Billy’s career never pan out? His friends and teammates offered hundreds of explanations. He lacked confidence; he tried too hard to impress people; he lacked discipline; he was “all over the place.” During Billy’s time playing for the Oakland A’s in the eighties, he spent time with the team’s resident sports psychologist, Harvey Dorfman. Harvey later said that Billy’s problem was that he had “trouble with failure.” Instead of teaching Billy how to cope with failure and intense pressure, his coaches rushed him through his career, expecting that he’d keep succeeding instead of cracking under the pressure.
It’s notable that almost all the explanations Billy’s friends and teammates offer reflect his lack of focus. A great athlete, Lewis suggests, isn’t just physically talented—he must also be psychologically ready for the pressures of major-league sports. Instead of taking a calm, rational view of Billy’s talent (in other words, recognizing that there were aspects of his game that needed improvement), Billy’s coaches and scouts pressured him to succeed, virtually guaranteeing that he’d fail.
In 1990, Billy was twenty-seven years old—the prime of his baseball-playing years—and newly married to his high school girlfriend. He’d begun to face the fact that, inexplicably, he’d gone from a top prospect to a failure. However, instead of abandoning baseball for good, he went to the Oakland A’s and demanded a job as an advance scout. The GM and big-league team manager were baffled—it was as if a Hollywood actor was demanding a job as a cameraman. Nevertheless, Sandy Alderson, the GM of the A’s, decided to give him the job—it was clear to them that Billy didn’t want to play baseball anymore, and, perhaps, he never really had.
In 1990, Billy enters phase two of his career: baseball management. While most people would (and did) consider Billy’s career move a bad choice, Billy obviously didn’t have much desire to play professional baseball. As his lackluster career proves, you can’t become a successful athlete if you don’t care to be one.
At the time when Billy was becoming a talent scout, the A’s were going through a series of major changes. Since the 70s, the team had been owned by Walter A. Haas, a wealthy philanthropist who believed that it was his job to “do Oakland proud” by lavishing money on the team. In 1995, Haas died, and the two real estate developers who inherited his estate, Steve Schott and Ken Hofmann, told Sandy Alderson that he needed to run the team on a tighter budget.
The end of Walter Haas’s tenure as owner of the Oakland A’s coincided with an overall shift in the way sports franchises were managed. Where before, franchises were seen as philanthropic (read: money-losing) endeavors, franchises were now seen as businesses, which needed to maximize profits by any means necessary.
In response to demands for a tighter budget, Alderson pioneered a scientific approach to building a good team. He argued that, historically, good batters were undervalued. Furthermore, he believed that the key to winning baseball was avoiding outs, not hitting home runs. Therefore, the best hitters were those with a good “on-base percentage”—i.e., a low probability of getting out. By 1995, he’d created a corporate culture structured around on-base percentage.
Billy Beane was the first GM of the A’s to adopt a full-scale sabermetric approach to drafting athletes; however, he wasn’t the first A’s GM to take a scientific approach to his job. Alderson recognized that teams could win more games by adopting a steadier, more consistent strategy of play: instead of going for home runs, he encouraged his athletes to avoid outs.
Alderson’s methods were critical in rethinking baseball, but he wasn’t influential enough to change the way major-league teams played; his innovations applied mostly to the minor leagues. The manager of the Oakland A’s major league team—in other words, the employee tasked with overseeing the team’s day-to-day practices and making decisions during games—Tony La Russa, didn’t respect most of Alderson’s ideas. The result was that Oakland players would work their ways through the minor leagues under Alderson’s supervision, learning how to be cautious and tactical, and then, once they graduated to the major league, would become too aggressive. In the late nineties, Tony La Russa was fired for losing too many games, and Alderson replaced him with a manager named Art Howe, who he hoped would implement his policies.
Alderson’s methods were proven to win more games; however, instead of getting the message and rethinking his big-league team’s strategy, Tony La Russa continued to use the same management strategies as ever. La Russa’s obliviousness says a lot about the conservatism and traditionalism of baseball: athletes, coaches, and GMs are often reluctant to institute sweeping changes in “America’s pastime.”
In the early nineties, Billy Beane worked as a talent scout. His wife left him, supposedly because she thought he was too intense. Billy devoted himself to scouting; gradually, he realized that he was more interested in managing baseball than he’d ever been in playing. He loved Alderson’s scientific approach to the game. Billy’s excitement grew after Alderson referred him to a writer named Bill James. James’s ideas led Billy far away from the pressures of professional baseball and toward a calm, rational approach to the game.
Billy Beane admired the scientific, sabermetric approach to baseball management because it eliminated uncertainty, and therefore pressure, from the game. As an athlete, Billy hadn’t been able to deal with pressure in a healthy way; thus, from a purely psychological perspective, it makes a certain amount of sense that Billy, as a GM, favored sabermetrics.