June 2023

The Sad Epilogue to Moneyball
and the Oakland A's

Patrick Walsh | Scene4 Magazine

Patrick Walsh

If you read the 2003 Michael Lewis bestseller Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game, saw the 2011 film adaptation with Brad Pitt, or are simply a well-versed baseball fan, then you know that for a few years back in the early 2000s, Oakland Athletics general manager (GM) Billy Beane performed miracles. Despite being hamstrung by the lowest budget of any Major League Baseball team, he doughtily competed with the wealthiest ones, taking his underfunded underdogs to the playoffs four years in a row (2000-2003) and all the way to the American League (AL) Championship series in 2006.

Moneyball the movie starts with actual footage of the A's losing to the Yankees in the elimination game of the 2001 AL Division Series. Intermittent black screens with captions orient the viewer to what's happening. One screen with dollar figures punctuates the highlights:


Then the names of the teams slowly titrate into view:

    New York Yankees
    Oakland Athletics

It's a piece of astonishing data. Both teams won 102 games that season. But as Boston Red Sox owner John Henry, played by Arliss Howard, says to Beane (Pitt) over coffee at Fenway Park later in the film: "You won the exact same number of games that the Yankees won, but the Yankees spent 1.4 million per win and you paid 260,000."

How did Billy Beane do it? Exploiting ignorance would be a concise way of putting it. Beane embraced a new way of evaluating both prospects and current Major League players, a radical methodology pioneered by baseball historian and statistician Bill James and one antithetical to the way scouts and GMs traditionally put a dollar sign on the muscle: by looking at the record of a player's performance.

What a concept, huh? To use Beane's analogy in an ESPN.com interview, it's like going with a broker who chooses stocks not by gut instinct but by actually digging into a company's financials.

And so for a while, the Oakland A's had a secret weapon. Statistical analysis—sabermetrics as it is called in reference to the Society for American Baseball Research—allowed Beane and his staff to find overlooked diamonds, a strategy memorably articulated in the film by Jonah Hill as Peter Brand, the affable Yale economics major whom Beane hires as an assistant:

    Using stats the way we read them, we'll find value in players that nobody else can see. People are overlooked for a variety of biased reasons and perceived flaws—age, appearance, personality. Bill James and mathematics cuts straight through that. Billy, of the 20,000 notable players for us to consider, I believe that there's a championship team of 25 people that we can afford because everyone else in baseball undervalues them—like an island of misfit toys.

After witnessing the budget-defying success of the 2001 A's, Red Sox owner John Henry tried to hire Billy Beane, the reason for that aforementioned conversation over coffee in the scene at Fenway Park. Beane politely turned down $12.5 million a year, roughly a third of his own team's entire baseball operations budget and a sum which would have made him the highest paid GM in all of sports. Tellingly, John Henry had already hired Bill James.

Whether Beane knew it or not, that job offer signaled the beginning of the end of any advantage his Oakland Athletics had in vying with wealthy teams. The so-called Moneyball approach only works if the rest of baseball follows the status quo. Since John Henry and his business partner Tom Werner bought the team in 2002, Boston has usually had one of baseball's three highest payrolls. Combine deep pockets with Bill James and what do you get? Well, the Red Sox won the World Series in 2004 and 2007. And again in 2013. Oh yeah, and once more in 2018.

It's pretty simple: if you're a poor team that only has sabermetrics and the wealthy teams also embrace sabermetrics, you're finished.

But the story only gets worse for the Oakland A's. In 2005, a group of investors led by billionaire John Fisher acquired the team. Hey, a billionaire owner, just what the bargain basement A's needed, right?

Not so fast. Fisher inherited his fortune from his parents, The Gap clothing store co-founders Doris Feigenbaum Fisher and her late husband Don. Since 2016, John Fisher has wielded full ownership of the Athletics. Forbes magazine estimated his net worth at $2.4 billion as of April 2022. Forbes also reported in 2019 that Fisher, along with his mother and two brothers, donated $9 million in dark money to the innocuously named Americans for Job Security which turned out to be a cabal of mostly California-based billionaires vigorously opposed to the 2012 reelection of President Barack Obama (who, by the way, ranks 6th all-time in job creation with 8.9 million.)

So, here's a guy who could come up with a year's payroll for his team by riffling through the pockets of his tuxedos in his closet. He's got money to waste on trying to thwart his perceived political enemies, but his baseball team perennially ranks among the lowest if not utterly last in payroll.

Like so many filthy-rich sports franchise owners, he has whined and haggled with his host city over having a new stadium built using taxpayer money, an old swindle pitched time and again with the thoroughly debunked ruse of "economic stimulus" and "job creation." You can look it up: stadiums and sports arenas owned by millionaires or billionaires and paid for by taxpayers are a scam; aside from not creating any new jobs, the owners get richer while ordinary citizens see their taxes, ticket prices, and concession fees soar.

And by the way, Major League Baseball has revenue sharing. The split from the most recent national/local television rights deal means that each team as of the 2022 season makes $100 million before they ever sell a ticket. Think about that.

A's ownership falsely claims that attendance has plummeted because of the decrepit Oakland Coliseum in which the team plays. But when the A's have been good, the fans have flocked to the ballpark, dump that it is. Park improvements have been modest at best, a skinflint's gesture to justify the real plan: move the team to Las Vegas. Just this past April, A's ownership announced it had concluded a deal for land in Nevada on which a new stadium would open for the 2027 season.

Uh-huh, the Sin City A's.

Meanwhile, the once mighty Athletics are moribund, their 10 wins and 42 losses as of this writing the worst record by far in either the American or National League. It's related to the fact that they have the lowest payroll in baseball, an anemic $56 million.

"Moneyball"—how ironic. In John Fisher as team owner, the Oakland Athletics and their fans have money and no ball.


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Patrick Walsh | Scene4 Magazine

Patrick Walsh is a writer and poet. After college, he served four years on active duty as an infantry officer in the 25th Infantry Division. He also holds a Master of Philosophy degree in Anglo-Irish literature from Ireland's University of Dublin, Trinity College. His poems and freelance articles have appeared in numerous journals and newspapers in the U.S. and abroad. For more of his columns and other writings, check the Archives.


©2023 Patrick Walsh
©2023 Publication Scene4 Magazine





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