Billy Beane’s first words are surprising. “Have they stopped building houses over there that no one would live in?” He wants to know about the ghost estates and Ireland’s recovery from the crash.
Billy Beane is a man of surprises. We all know the story by now. As General Manager and Vice-President of Major League Baseball’s the Oakland Athletics, Beane firmly established himself as a revolutionary sports figure. He quit playing in 1990, at the unheard-of age of 27, to work for Oakland as a scout. He was promoted to GM in 1997. Under his guidance, Oakland turned baseball on its head.
Working with a barely-there budget, Beane, heavily influenced by the work of cult baseball figures like Bill James and Eric Walker, hired Ivy League graduates to crunch numbers and use statistics to rethink how a baseball franchise with no money could be competitive on the field and sustainable off it. Oakland signed under-valued, unfashionable players because they had solid on-base percentage. Oakland refused to entertain the commonly-used gauge of batting average to determine the best performers. Oakland did things radically different. Oakland analysed the numbers deemed irrelevant by others. And Oakland began to win. Between 2000 and 2006, the team made the playoffs five times (something akin to, say, Norwich, pre-relegation, repeatedly challenging for the Premier League). It was a rags-to-riches story befitting of Hollywood treatment. And, in 2011, Moneyball — based on Michael Lewis’ revered literary investigation of Beane’s and Oakland’s success – was released to critical acclaim.
Last year, Oakland were eliminated from the post-season by Detroit. Last year, they spent $68.5m (26th of 30) on their payroll while Detroit spent $149m (5th of 30). Last year, the Boston Red Sox won the World Series, having spent almost $159m on salaries (4th of 30). It’s a minor miracle Oakland are even part of the conversation. But still, in 2013, Beane was named MLB Executive of the Year for a second time. Despite richer clubs stealing his ideas and winning championships, he continues to innovate and remains relevant while staying true to his philosophies. He deeply respects those that do likewise.
Ever since a trip to London a number of years ago, Beane has become a voracious football fan. He’s devoured books, absorbed hours of podcast pedantry and watched as many games as possible. He’s developed relationships with key football figures – Mike Forde, the former head of Football Operations at Chelsea and Damien Comolli, who has served as Director of Football at Tottenham and Liverpool. Comolli was an interesting character for Beane. Comolli had spent many years at Arsenal working under Arsene Wenger. And Beane loves Wenger.
“I find his background interesting. An economics major who speaks multiple languages who very much came into the sport as a blend of an academic and football man. I see more and more of that with the type of people who are coming into baseball. It’s the type of person I hire. Somebody without an emotional bias based on their own experience, one that has discipline and whose business approach correlates to success on the field.”
Beane sees Wenger as a kindred spirit. An innovator who transformed a sports environment with new strategies and made fools of bigger, richer behemoths who should’ve known better. When Wenger arrived in North London in the mid-90s, the Arsenal players were bemused at the basic changes. No more plates of beans before games. No more cans of Coke. But elsewhere, Wenger began to deploy more radical strategies.
He continued his love affair with statistics to evaluate players. His scouting network was vast and potential signings were methodically researched. Obscure names like Patrick Vieira and Emmanuel Petit arrived from mainland Europe. Arsenal won the double. Within two seasons, Petit and winger Marc Overmars were gone to Barcelona. A teenager, Nicolas Anelka, signed for half a million, spent 30 months at the club and was sold to Real Madrid. Three big-name players transferred but £55m earned. It appealed too much to the canny French economist. But Arsenal kept winning. A few seasons later, The Invincibles were born and it was Wenger’s greatest triumph.
But then the oligarchs arrived and changed the landscape. Arsenal haven’t won a trophy since 2005. But, Wenger has steadfastly stuck to his principles. In 2006 the club finished fourth with a side containing Thierry Henry, Cesc Fabregas, and Robin van Persie. They sold them all for a handsome profit. They brought through Ashley Cole, Gael Clichy and Alex Song before selling them on too. And throughout it all, they’ve never finished outside the top four. Despite constantly selling their biggest assets, Arsenal have remained immensely competitive.
Beane, considers this a remarkable achievement.
“Sport is not just about what happens on the field, it’s off the field as well. Combining both elements successfully is a challenge. There are many teams that have success on the field and ultimately, mainly because their finances aren’t managed correctly, quickly disappear into oblivion. What you have with Arsenal is a great business model, a great venue where the debt is being paid off and a team on the field that year-in, year-out is in the top four in one of the most competitive leagues in the world. So, regarding any disappointments they may have had recently, you shouldn’t forget the successes they’ve had.”
But, Arsenal fans want trophies. Wenger apologists, it seems, are being shouted down. His peers have chimed in with their opinions too. Jose Mourinho, his age- old nemesis, called him a ‘specialist in failure’. Many want Wenger to go. They feel his stubborn belief in an out-dated philosophy has ensured a decade of frustration.
They’ve watched their big names walk away to join bitter rivals and win. Over the last two seasons, even fourth place has been a dog-fight. Wenger will counter that the 79-point tally this term is the club’s best since 2008, that there’s been solid progress. He’ll find it hard to find many sympathetic ears. But he can count on the unwavering support of one man: majority owner Stan Kroenke — a friend of Beane’s.
“The relationship with the guy above you is the most important in any sport. If you can’t manage above, it doesn’t matter how good you can manage below because, and you have it in all sports, when there’s no consistency in management it’s hard to move forward with a long-term plan.”
Like Wenger, Beane has felt the brunt of sports fans’ short-termism. Having spectacularly over-achieved for so long, Oakland regressed to the mean and failed to make the play-offs between 2007 and 2011. It had come full circle. Beane was now negotiating with younger, well-educated general managers at richer teams who had been students of the Moneyball strategy. They copied Beane’s work and, with the benefit of much bigger budgets, attained success quickly. It was around this time that he began to obsess over football and spotted similarities between the sports. The era of the super-franchise had begun and Hollywood endings were a thing of the past.
But Beane is relentlessly defiant. He begins the majority of his sentences with ‘listen’ or ‘the fact of the matter is’. He ignores those who disagree with his tactics. He ignores those who agree with them too.
“Anytime you’re in a high-profile public business where there’s a lot of passion and emotion surrounding it, you’ve got to ignore all of the noise. Both good and bad. Plenty of times people will want to pat you on the back, just as they’re willing to criticise because of temporary results. No plan interrupted is ever successful. And anytime you get resistance, if you’re willing to listen and give in, you’re probably not going be successful long-term. That’s the biggest challenge if you’re running a club – to ignore that temporary noise that exists when things aren’t perfect.”
But, surely doubt creeps in? Surely, as the whispering gets louder and the headlines bolder, the criticism permeates even those blessed with the thickest of skins? “It’s challenging but you have to turn yourself into a bit of a cyborg where you shut off your emotions and ultimately, internally, know what you’re doing is going to put the club in the right spot and those same people that are criticising you will, hopefully, someday, be saying something different.”
Beane has always been suspicious of emotional decision-making. He prefers rationality, as evidenced by his obsession with numbers. He’s spoken in the past about treating baseball as a maths equation with an answer while his biggest influence is Warren Buffett, the legendary US investor. It’s no coincidence that Beane has compared Wenger to Buffett in the past.
What Beane is paying particular attention to right now is injuries and how best to minimise the effect they have on his baseball team. According to him, using in- depth analysis in an attempt to curb the effect of losing players to injury is something many sports teams are investigating. Interestingly, Wenger believed a collection of injuries to key players like Aaron Ramsey, Theo Walcott and Mesut Ozil put an end to Arsenal’s title challenge earlier this year and promised to investigate whether the club were to blame. Beane feels the potential benefit is huge.
“In any sport, injuries are going to be as big a factor in where a team finishes as much as anything. You’re always going to have them, but is there a way to minimise the down-time? If a guy is out for six weeks, can you minimise it to three? We learned the hard way. We had injuries torpedo many seasons that looked like being successful. As much as possible, we try and quantitatively understand the loss of each player, going through them man-for-man and doing the best we can in terms of finding a replacement — somebody who minimises the drop-off as much as possible.
You’ll never replace a Theo Walcott with an exact replica at a low-cost – it’s just not possible so it’s not easy. Many times, budgets prevent you, access to talents prevents you. But it’s certainly something we’ve tried to do here.”
As football continues to consume Beane, many feel he might one day take on the running of a team. His friend, John Henry, who tried to hire him as the Boston Red Sox GM in 2002, has overseen a renaissance at Liverpool. One which Beane was expecting.
“It doesn’t surprise me because both John and Tom (Werner) are great businessmen and it looks like they hired the right guy to implement their plan in Brendan Rodgers. In some ways, if you really look at the core of that club, it’s not dissimilar from how John put together the Red Sox with a significant amount of young players that will be there for years.”
For the moment, Beane is happy to watch from afar and just be a fan. He’ll study today’s FA Cup final at Wembley with interest. He’s met Wenger on a couple of occasions. Once, at a conference in London, they chatted for hours. But, in many ways, Beane already knew him. He could see the resemblance. Mirror twins, you seen. Reluctant, determined revolutionaries both.
“Anyone who gets into this line of work wants to win every game, every competition. To reach the level that Arsene Wenger has reached, the idea that you ever walk away from any match okay with losing is just not part of the DNA. I despise losing more than I enjoy winning. There’s an absolute laser-beam focus on winning every game regardless of how big or small it is. That just comes with the territory. Regarding the FA Cup, I’ll be watching and I’ll be rooting. There will be a tremendous amount of satisfaction if they can win it.”
As our conversation ebbs to an end, we shoot the breeze about music.
Beane is excited.
“I heard that Liam Gallagher tweeted out the letters O-A-S-I-S, or something? I love Oasis. It’d be pretty cool if they were to get back together.”
A man of surprises.