What can stop the Athletics? The bottom line

John Eisenberg

October 09, 1990|By John Eisenberg

OAKLAND,CALIFORNIA — OAKLAND, Calif. -- "Deep pockets!" Sandy Alderson said, his rising voice signaling amazement. He shook his head at the question, a grin growing. "Let me tell you. We don't have the highest payroll in baseball. We're not even close. I think the Red Sox have a higher payroll than we do. In fact, I don't think so. I know so."

The general manager of the Oakland A's was sitting in the dugout during batting practice, wearing an Oxford blue shirt, a conservatively striped tie, dark blue slacks, wire-rim glasses, gray hair at his temples -- right out of a Brooks Brothers catalog.

He is a 42-year-old attorney who jogs and prefers wearing jeans to work, and the best baseball team of this generation has his fingerprints all over it. Now, his payroll has tripled since 1987, and people are asking funny questions. "How much of your success is due to baseball cunning," an intrepid reporter was asking, "and how much is due to deep pockets?"

Alderson smiled that little smile. "I find it not only ironic that people are talking about the A's having deep pockets," he said, "but I find it cynical. We run this team on the revenue we generate, period, and if you think our TV contract is bigger than the teams in New York or Los Angeles, you're crazy."

Sore subject, clearly. "It's almost laughable to say we have deep pockets," he said. "I will say this: Our owner wants to win. And he isn't looking for a big return on his investment. He just doesn't want to lose money. So he doesn't put other money into it. Not a penny."

The owner of the A's is Walter Haas, who made his fortune as chairman of Levi Strauss. He could buy the entire AL West if he woke up with the whim tomorrow, but it is his rule that the A's run by themselves. So Alderson cringes when he hears about this money falling from the sky that allows him to repay Jose Canseco and Dave Stewart and Rickey Henderson and Dennis Eckersley for their magnificent services.

"Levi Strauss doesn't want to have anything to do with us," he said. "They distance themselves. They don't advertise in our park. They don't even want to contemplate the possibility of something like a woman going into a locker room and someone saying the wrong thing and the situation working into maybe a boycott of their product."

So get it straight: Alderson can spend what he makes (Orioles: take note), but he doesn't have money falling from the sky. He does have a story to tell about trading Henderson just six years ago because attendance was so miniscule the A's couldn't afford the salary. And he has a story to tell about waking up nervous these days even though attendance has more than doubled in four years and the world appears to be his oyster.

His concern is that while his payroll is shooting up, up, up -- a gain of $8 million in the next year alone, he estimates -- the team can't generate much more revenue than it already does, creating a problem familiar to most of us south of the Haas family on the money tree: finding the dough to pay your bills.

See, the A's aren't going to draw many more fans than the 2.9 million they drew this year, and their television revenue, limited by the small size of their market, will never be big. They can raise ticket prices, but you can't sock the fans too hard. So. . .

"We had to let four free agents go last year in part because we couldn't afford them," Alderson said. "It's possible that will happen again this year. We understand what's up. We know you can't just keep adding players all the time. We're big boys. We know there comes a time when you have to start subtracting."

The A's subtracted Dave Parker, Storm Davis and Tony Phillips via free agency last winter. That's a clubhouse leader, a 19-game winner and a valuable infielder -- all gone. Most teams couldn't bear it. Alderson found replacements and made it work, but how many times can he pull such magic?

This year, Willie McGee and Bob (27 wins) Welch are free agents. Remember, the A's added Harold Baines and McGee in August, an All-Star one-two that started all this deep-pockets talk. The payroll will be more than $30 million in 1991, when Canseco's and Stewart's raises kick in. So maybe Alderson can fit in Welch, maybe, but you can see where the day might come when there are just too many stars to pay everyone what he wants.

"It's pretty much a high-wire act at this point," Alderson said. "Not an easy thing. That doesn't mean we're any different from the other 25 clubs. Most of them try to make ends meet. But it's probably true that we're getting close to maximizing our profits. So we have to look hard and project the future and try to do the things we think are right for the club."

It is difficult to envision the A's as vulnerable as they move toward their third straight American League pennant and maybe their second straight World Series title, with 13 All-Stars on their roster and all of baseball a couple of strides behind. But the game itself isn't necessarily their problem.

This is a franchise that has been at the pinnacle of the sport three other times this century, and all three dynasties were broken up because the owner couldn't afford the price of success. Connie Mack sold off his best players in the 1930s. Charlie Finley tried to in the '70s.

When someone pointed this out to Alderson on a day when his team was contemplating a sweep of the Boston Red Sox in the American League Championship Series, he nodded his head. "I'm aware of the history," he said. "Oh, yeah."

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