It is late July 2002, and Mike Magnante has “picked a bad time to pitch poorly.” In a game between Oakland and Cleveland, Magnante has walked too many players and thrown too many balls. The reason Magnante was playing at all was that Art Howe, the team manager, brought him in—supposedly because he though Magnante, a left-handed pitcher, would be better against left-handed hitters on the Cleveland team. This is absurd, since Cleveland’s left-handed hitters have a good record against lefty pitchers. Mike Magnante is thirty-seven and pear-shaped and hasn’t seen a lot of play this season. On July 29, he gives up five runs with no outs: the game is effectively over.
The chapter begins with a textbook example of bad management. Instead of listening to the statistics (i.e., that, generally speaking, the Cleveland Indians do well against lefties), Art Howe has made a reckless, intuitive decision to put Magnante into the game; as a result, the A’s are losing. Had Howe opted for a more dispassionate, statistical approach to his job, the A’s might have won the game.
That evening, Billy Beane waits for a call from Mark Shapiro, the GM of the Cleveland Indians. He’s going to pursue a trade with the Indians, and the trading deadline is July 30. One of the Oakland A’s biggest assets has been their ability to get better after the middle of the season—in no small part because Billy Beane is so talented at making good trades. Billy has a few simple rules for making trades, including knowing exactly what each player is worth, in dollars, and being extremely persistent. Billy’s weakness as a trader is that he sometimes allows newspapers to influence his decisions instead of paying attention to the numbers.
Billy Beane is a talented GM, and, as we’ll see, this means being able to negotiate clever trades with other teams. Beane is, in effect, a Wall Street trader who knows how to pitch experts in his field in mere seconds. However, Billy can be reckless with his trades, since he lets media pressure influence his decisions (not unlike how he let coaches’ pressure influence his playing in the eighties).
Billy Beane wants to get rid of Mike Magnante and acquire a talented player named Ricardo Rincon from Cleveland, but he doesn’t want to pay the rest of Rincon’s salary. He decides that, instead of Mike Magnante he’ll auction Mike Venafro, another pitcher, to rival teams that might be interested in Rincon. Billy calls the Giants’ GM and offers him Venafro in return for a minor league player. Immediately after, he calls Mark Shapiro and tells him, “the market for Rincon is softening.” A few minutes later, Shapiro calls back and explains that the other GM who’s interested in Rincon has called with a lower offer: Billy makes a trade with Shapiro to acquire Rincon, just as he’d planned. The last step is to sell Mike Venafro to another team—he calls the Mets, asking them about trading someone for Venafro. Paul, listening to Billy’s phone call, quickly compiles a list of potential Mets players that the A’s would be interested in acquiring.
In trading, Beane is at a huge disadvantage, since the Oakland A’s don’t have much money. This means that, in effect, he must not only negotiate to acquire good players, but also to avoid paying those players’ full salaries. In this passage, Beane skillfully manipulates the Giants into backing away from their own bid for Ricardo Rincon, thereby convincing Shapiro that the A’s would be the best, most reliable buyer for Rincon. The passage also shows how Paul and Billy work together on trades: even if Paul lacks Billy’s charisma and negotiating savvy, he knows how to work quickly under pressure.
After fifteen minutes of conferring with Paul, Billy calls Steve Phillips, the GM of the Mets, and asks him for 233,000 dollars and one of two players. The Mets GM begins nitpicking and negotiating with Billy’s offer, and Billy quickly realizes that Phillips is doing so because he thinks that he’s going to get Rincon. Billy tersely tells Phillips that the A’s will be taking Rincon, and instructs him to think of a player to trade, quickly.
After many years as GM of the Oakland A’s Billy knows how to read other GMs over the phone—here, he quickly deduces that the Mets are trying to stall in order to steal Ricardo Rincon from him.
Billy hangs up the phone, and his assistant tells him that Pete Gammons, a reporter from ESPN, is calling. Ordinarily, Billy wouldn’t take a call at such a tense moment, but Gammons sometimes has useful information. Billy tells Gammons, “I’m finishing up Rincon,” in the hopes that Gammons will spread the world that Rincon is taken (even though the deal isn’t complete). In return, Gammons tells Billy that the Montreal Expos are trading a hitter, Cliff Floyd, to the Red Sox. Billy is disappointed to hear this, since he was hoping to get Floyd for himself.
Billy knows how to use all the tools at his disposal; thus, he consults with Pete Gammons, a highly informed ESPN journalist. One reason Billy does so in the middle of a tense negotiation is that he wants Gammon to pass on word that Rincon is taken, which discourages other teams from trying to poach Rincon, as the Mets were just trying to do.
Billy can be brutal with his managing. For instance, only a few months after acquiring Jeremy Giambi and holding him up as Exhibit A for the Oakland A’s new winning strategy, Billy traded Jeremy for John Mabry, a decision that many, even Paul, thought was irrational. However, Jeremy’s play was inconsistent, and, more importantly, he had problems with drinking and drug use. After losing Jeremy and acquiring Mabry, the Oakland A’s began to win—after two months with Mabry, they were 60-46. Now, people said that Billy had been a genius for trading Jeremy for Mabry.
A couple things to notice here. First, Billy seems not to think twice about firing Jeremy Giambi: he’s having drug problems. Jeremy’s dismissal reminds us that no amount of statistics can predict the future. Even if, mathematically speaking, Jeremy is likely to have a good season, he can still go off the deep end. Second, notice that Billy accidentally gets a great hitter in Mabry, someone who Billy was initially reluctant about including in the lineup at all. Even on a team that practices sabermetrics, there are plenty of accidents, lucky and unlucky.
Early in July, Billy made another set of trades. Recognizing that one of the stars of the Oakland A’s, Carlos Pena, was overvalued, Billy used Pena to make trades with the Detroit Tigers and the Yankees; he ended up getting 600,000 dollars, a good, cheap pitcher, and two of the Yankee’s best young players. Later in July, Billy used another one of Oakland’s popular, overvalued players, Cory Lidle, to make a highly lucrative trade with the White Sox for one of their leadoff hitters, Ray Durham.
Billy feels no more compunction about losing Pena than felt about losing Jeremy Giambi: the trade is the right economic decision for the Oakland A’s. Part of being a GM, Lewis implies, is being able to suspend one’s guilt and loyalty in the interest of the franchise. Furthermore, Billy excels as a GM partly because he’s good at pumping up his players’ value on the market and then selling them off.
While he’s been talking to Gammons, Billy misses a call from the Montreal Expos GM, Omar Minaya, the man “who controls the fate of Cliff Floyd.” Minaya explains that Floyd is passionately opposed to going to Oakland, since he’s heard that Oakland is a poor franchise and won’t be able to pay him much. Billy questions Minaya’s decision to trade Floyd to the Red Sox. Quickly and expertly, Billy creates uncertainty in Minaya, and then, very innocently, asks, “If you’re going to send Floyd to Boston, why don’t you send him through me?”
In this scene, we see Billy Beane at his absolute best: calm, levelheaded, but also slick and persuasive. From our perspective, it’s clear that Billy is trying to use Omar Minaya’s lack of confidence to his own advantage.
Billy suggests that Minaya send Cliff Floyd to him “for a few minutes, and let Billy negotiate with the Red Sox.” Billy promises that he’ll do a better job of selling Floyd to the Red Sox than Minaya ever could—in return, Billy will pocket some of the extra cash he draws from the Red Sox, and allow Minaya to have one of Oakland’s minor leaguers. Minaya finds Billy’s offer hard to follow. Calmly, Billy suggests that Minaya tell the Red Sox that he (Minaya) wants another player, Kevin Youkilis (a player who Billy wants, but who Minaya has never heard of). Minaya is skeptical—why should he jeopardize his deal with the Red Sox by asking for another player? However, Billy convinces Minaya that the Red Sox are desperate enough for Floyd that they’d gladly sacrifice another player, especially one as inconsequential as Youkilis. What Billy doesn’t know, however, is that the new management for the Red Sox has recognized Youkilis’s talent, following Billy’s approach, and intends to keep him.
In effect, Billy wants to act as a middleman for Minaya’s trade with the Red Sox, and then charge Minaya a “transaction fee” for his services. Cleverly, Billy tries to be persuasive, but also not too clear, when explaining things to Minaya: if he explains himself too clearly, than Minaya himself could just do what Billy describes and keep his money. Gradually, we realize what it is Billy really wants: Kevin Youkilis, a talented player that, unbeknownst to Minaya, Billy has been eyeing for a long time. We can guess that, after Minaya is through with his trade with the Red Sox, Billy will find a way to get Youkilis for himself, which, contrary to his casual attitude, is what he wanted all along. The fact that the Red Sox do, in fact, want to keep Youkilis suggests that Billy’s sabermetric approach to baseball is slowly catching on with his competitors.
Billy hangs up and realizes that he’s spent too much time talking to Omar Minaya—he needs to lock up the Ricardo Rincon trade by raising some cash. He tells Mike Crowley, the president of the A’s, that if the A’s can’t figure out how to unload Mike Venafro, Billy will sell Rincon for twice the price next year. Mike Crowley finds this news baffling—Billy just offered to take an equity stake in one player. Before Crowley can get confirmation from the A’s owners, Steve Schott and Ken Hofmann, Billy calls Mark Shapiro and tells him that he’s ready to acquire Ricardo Rincon. He tells Paul to tell Mike Magnante that he’s off the team, and, in all likelihood, done with the big leagues. Still on the phone with Shapiro, Billy asks Shapiro to send Rincon over to the A’s that night, so that Rincon can play in the game against the Indians. Shapiro is surprised, but he agrees.
In the heat of the moment, Billy has no time to get approval for the Rincon trade from his superiors, the owners of the Oakland A’s. Furthermore, Billy is forced to lock in the Rincon trade before he’s found a way to trade off Venafro—in other words, before he knows how he’s going to pay for Rincon. As a result, Billy pledges that, in the event that he doesn’t manage to trade off Mike Venafro in the next five minutes (thereby canceling out the financial burden of buying Rincon), he will make up for the net loss to the A’s by selling Rincon for double the price next year. This passage might seem a little confusing—and it is: Billy is such a pro that he can keep track of five trades at once.
Shortly afterwards, Ricardo Rincon, who is from Veracruz, Mexico, and doesn’t speak fluent English, meets with Billy. Billy tells Rincon that, effective immediately, he’s on the A’s, and that he’ll be playing tonight. Meanwhile, Mike Magnante gets the news that he’s leaving the A’s, and he takes it quietly. As a younger man he would have been angry, but somehow, in his long career playing pro ball, he’s learning to think of himself “the way the market thought of him, as an asset to be bought and sold.”
In the blink of an eye, players transfer from one team to another, and, moreover, from one part of the country to another. Billy’s actions in the chapter might seem heartless: in one dispassionate phone call, he ends Mike Magnante’s baseball career. It’s depressing, furthermore, that Mike seems to think of himself a piece of property. After years of being traded from team to team, though, he’s been trained to assume as much.