Front office, open purse lift, keep A's atop baseball world

October 14, 1990|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,Sun Staff Correspondent

OAKLAND, Calif. -- If the Oakland Athletics had long been recognized as the pre-eminent baseball organization on the planet, then the afternoon of Aug. 29 was just a reminder that they plan to be on top of the world for quite some time.

That was the day that the A's proved again that they have a superiority complex. That was the day they shocked the rest of the American League by acquiring soon-to-be National League batting champion Willie McGee and designated hitter Harold Baines in two separate but equally staggering waiver deals.

The rich got richer. The second-place Chicago White Sox fired their general manager -- some say because he allowed those two players to clear waivers and make the trades possible. The "best team in the world," as Boston Red Sox manager Joe Morgan later would refer to the A's, got better -- a lot better. How could such a thing happen?

Back up a couple of months to the June free-agent draft. The A's chose 14th and got the best high school prospect in the country. Pitcher Todd Van Poppel was the top-rated pitcher in the draft, but the Atlanta Braves had been warned not to waste their No. 1 pick on him. He had committed to go to the University of Texas. He wasn't going to sign. The A's signed him. How could such a thing happen?

Welcome to the wonderful world of Walter Haas, the owner who would rather win than make money, and who apparently manages to do both.

The A's have done a 180-degree turn from the days when Charles O. Finley owned the best team in baseball and tried to sell it for spare parts. The club was stripped down to a handful of front-office employees by the time Finley sold it to the Haas family in 1980, but has been reborn as the most sophisticated front-office machine in baseball history.

Bespectacled general manager Sandy Alderson pads around the offices in tennis shoes and faded jeans while ties and jackets are de rigueur in almost every other major-league operation. But the casual atmosphere belies the hard-hitting organizational philosophy that has built the most powerful team since Cincinnati's Big Red Machine of the mid-1970s.

The A's are entering their third straight World Series and are looking to become the first team to win back-to-back world championships since the New York Yankees won in 1977 and '78. The oddsmakers say they should succeed, but placing odds on the A's almost makes it sound as if they have left something to chance.

Alderson has spent the past three years making certain that nothing -- least of all a pennant -- is allowed to slip through the cracks. The A's haven't avoided the injuries and obstacles that face other teams in the course of a 162-game season, but no one has been prepared better for them.

Enter Baines and McGee, two more answers to the $30 million questions: How far will the A's go, and how much are they willing to spend to remain the dominant team in baseball?

Alderson tried to answer that when he sat down with reporters in Boston last week. He said that every expenditure has to be justified. He said there has to be revenue to cover spending. He said there has to be performance to justify what will soon be the largest payroll in the history of baseball. He did not say that the team has to make a lot of money.

"As far as we're concerned, we run a good business operation, and a good business operation has to be a successfully operating organization," Alderson said.

In other words, the A's are in the business of winning, something they do pretty regularly. The club has averaged 102 victories the past three seasons. Lest anyone discount the quality of the competition, the A's are a combined 17-5 against the best of both leagues in the playoffs and World Series since 1988.

There apparently is a limit to the largesse the organization is willing to dispense, though the club obviously has not reached it yet. Director of baseball administration Walt Jocketty told The Boston Globe last week that the day will come when the team might have to hold the line on further expenditures.

"I think it's definitely coming to the point where we may have to hold down costs for a while," Jocketty said. "I think the fact that our payroll is so high [$24 million this year] has a lot to do with the fact that we have some of the best players in the game. You have to pay them accordingly. You have to continue to win, and you have to continue to draw, or it becomes a case of diminishing returns. But I think we can't go much further; there's going to have to come a point where you draw the line."

That line has not yet been crossed, but the A's soon will have to decide whether to add McGee -- a potential free agent -- to their list of high-priced players.

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