OAKLAND — The A’s are hip-deep in the American League playoff race, so high-revving architect Billy Beane is at his most obnoxious.
The man who has been pulling strings and spinning gold in Oakland for the better part of a quarter-century likes winning but does not enjoy the process. Not in September, when he is compelled to spend much of his energy fighting within himself, trying to keep panic from rioting inside his gut.
Anybody who has been around the A’s for a few years, such as manager Bob Melvin, understands that if the team matters in September, there will be moments when folks must brace themselves from Hurricane Billy.
The blessing for everyone is that Beane is acutely aware of this. He’s 57 years old, with 22 seasons running the baseball side of A’s. He has learned a few things along the way but still is not able to keep cool in the heat of high stakes.
“I’m just as wired, but in a different way,” Beane told NBC Sports Bay Area on Thursday. “I don’t demonstrate it as much as I did when I was younger. But I still need my outlets. You can’t take that away. You just can’t.
“I’m glad it’s like that. Bobby [Melvin] will tell you — anyone who I’ve worked with will tell you — when we’re not good, usually I know when we’re not good and it’s usually my fault. And I’m a kitten. I’m the easiest guy to work for.
“When we’re good, I’m a son of a bitch.”
Melvin doesn’t disagree. Not verbally, at least. Asked how things were going with his boss, the manager raised his eyebrows and cocked his head.
“It’s that time,” Melvin, in his eighth full season, said with a grin.
“But I will say this: My relationship with Billy is good. It’s never been better than it is now.”
There is a lot for both men to like, as these are good times for the A’s. They enter a weekend series against Texas with a 14-4 record in September, a 92-61 record overall and a two-game lead in the American League wild-card race.
The magic number for Oakland to reach the postseason for the second consecutive season is down to eight. The A’s, once again, are flourishing in the underdog status that comes with operating under one of the lowest payrolls in Major League Baseball.
That’s a product of Beane at his best, knitting a team that has the talent to win and allowing his manager to provide the daily voice. Billy and his staff have hunted value buys ever since he was promoted to general manager in 1997, one year after the team was sold by the Haas family, which prioritized winning over the profit margin.
This is the third incarnation of A’s under Beane to post at least two consecutive seasons with at least 90 wins. The first lasted four seasons, 2000-03, is most identified with the term “Moneyball” but also had the benefit of fabulous young talent, some inherited and some purchased on the cheap. The second lasted two seasons, 2012 and 2013, and featured a broad assortment of starting pitchers, the best of which was ancient Bartolo Colon.
Not one of those six teams won a playoff series. Plenty of regular-season success, nothing in October, and Beane has had to live with those money-time failures as well as being a man portrayed by Brad Pitt in a movie based on the quest of a baseball executive.
Does Beane need, at some point, a World Series win to validate the book, the movie and the hype?
“It’s never been about me, and I mean that,” he said. “But I can see the impact of a championship on a city and the people who follow that team. I’ve never felt like winning a championship was about any sort of validation. I’d always thought if that were the case, you’re probably a little insecure, if that’s what you’re looking for, for your self-esteem.
“I have, however, seen the impact of a team’s performance on the people who follow that team and the community. The thing that impresses me most, and it’s the coolest thing, is when I’m in Danville and the A’s are good, I see A’s stuff everywhere. And I take so much pride when that’s the case. And the depressing thing is when we’re not good and I don’t see it anywhere.”
The A’s have struggled to retain fans, many of whom have abandoned the Coliseum in the wake of constant roster turnover that strips good teams and starts a rebuild. The incarnations keep the payroll at desired levels but are tough on those who buy tickets, especially when they know the team is profitable.
That’s not Billy’s problem, even those he owns a small percentage of the A’s. He’s given a budget, and his job is to deliver the best possible team within those parameters. The 2019 team payroll of $93.1 million, according to Spotrac, ranks 25th among 30 MLB teams. It’s less than half that of the Yankees ($218 million), well behind that of the Astros ($168 million) and considerably lower than that of the Twins ($124.9 million).
Oakland is winning with a formula we’ve seen before: Young talent — Marcus Semien, Matt Olson, Matt Chapman, to name three — having productive seasons, enough pitching to stay in ballgames and wonderful clubhouse chemistry.
“Each group we’ve had has been very unique, and this one is no different,” Beane said. “This one is really businesslike on the field, not really that emotional on the field, but as soon as the game is over, a switch just comes on. It’s like the disco ball comes out and everything. It’s a sight the public doesn’t see.
“It’s not something you wouldn’t want your kid to see, which I can’t always say for postgame celebrations. It’s just really funny.”
That’s as close as Billy comes to having fun in September, watching happy players — on those occasions when he can stay at the ballpark long enough to see it. It’s That’s rare, though, that he can bring himself to watch the game, much less the end of it.
By the time the A’s gritted out a 1-0 win over the Royals in 11 innings on Wednesday afternoon, Beane was long gone. He left after seven innings. Couldn’t take the drama. He didn’t stick around Tuesday night, either, leaving the ballpark with Oakland trailing 1-0 after six.
He drives along, as in the movie, telling himself he’ll check the score at specific intervals. To just, you know, follow his team. After all these years on the job, Billy still doesn’t trust himself to respond with the poise and clarity needed in a moment of crisis.
“Listen, if there’s a play in the fifth inning on May 26, which is about Game 40, that one little micro event is probably not going to impact the end of the season,” he said. “However, if I react the wrong way emotionally to that micro event, that decision I make could impact the season. And that’s what I want to stop myself from doing.
“I remove myself when I’m getting emotional.”
Should the A’s find their way into October, Beane vows he will, in fact, accept the playoffs for its focused intensity and that he actually will enjoy that process.
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“I’ve always been somewhat realistic,” he said. “When we get to the postseason, I’ve kind of gotten to the point where it like, ‘Hey, you know, try and enjoy it, because you never know when you’re going to be back.’
“There is an element of luck that goes on that either helps you or hurts you. And there’s nothing you can do about it. So just enjoy the hell out of it while you’re there.”
Until then, though, Billy is going to have moments when he is a walking, talking vessel of hell. If he hasn’t learned to turn down the fire by now, it’s not likely he ever will.