Smart management - it's a winner

August 25, 2002|By Peter Schmuck

It was so simple, but it took until just the past year or two to figure it out.

While large-market teams bid up the price of marquee players - and created the mess that has led to the current labor dispute - a couple of revenue-challenged franchises found a new formula for success.

First, it was the Seattle Mariners, who let go of three of the best players in the game over a three-year period and emerged as one of the strongest franchises in the industry.

Now, it is the Oakland Athletics, who couldn't possibly have expected to maintain their status as one of the best young teams in baseball after allowing Jason Giambi and Johnny Damon to become free agents last winter.

Maybe smart management hasn't become obsolete in the world of big-money sports.

A's general manager Billy Beane has quickly made a name for himself as an intelligent and imaginative executive with a great eye for young talent. He focused the developmental efforts of the organization on pitching (which is not exactly a revolutionary concept) in the same way that the Atlanta Braves did in the early 1990s, the only difference being that Beane has had to do it without a net.

The Braves were able to spend big money to sign Greg Maddux in 1992 and pair him with homegrown Tom Glavine to build the best starting rotation of the decade. The A's drafted and developed the three top pitchers in their rotation, got 2001 13-game winner Cory Lidle as a throw-in in the deal to rent Damon for last year and picked up promising Ted Lilly from the New York Yankees earlier this season.

Still, who would have expected the A's to enter the final week of August at the top of the American League West standings and on pace to win 98 games?

The loss of Giambi alone should have been devastating, but the A's gave up one of the most productive power hitters in the game and lost one of the best leadoff men, which isn't how you usually go about reaching the playoffs for a third straight year.

The Mariners, of course, already had proved it could be done. They traded away Randy Johnson in 1998 because of concern that they would not be able to afford to re-sign him. They did the same thing with Ken Griffey before the 2000 season. Superstar shortstop Alex Rodriguez left as a free agent a year later, and the Mariners responded by tying the all-time record with 116 regular-season victories in 2001.

During that strange shakeout, the Mariners moved into a new stadium and now are one of the top revenue teams in either league. The A's, forced to compete for Bay Area fans with the popular San Francisco Giants, may never be able to say the same, but Beane has proved that it isn't all about money.

Strike fallout

Everybody loses if the 2002 season is interrupted by a work stoppage, but the biggest victims of a players strike would be the fans on the West Coast, who have enjoyed one of the best races in the history of the divisional format.

The resilience of the A's and the impressive, exciting Anaheim Angels have created a three-way AL West run with the Mariners that figures to validate baseball's decision to go to an unbalanced schedule.

Two of the three teams are scheduled to play head-to-head every day from Sept. 9 until the end of the season, the only exception a day off for the entire division on Sept. 23. The Angels and A's play eight times. The Mariners and A's play six times. And the M's and Angels play six games in the final 10 days of the season.

Confidential to players and owners: You don't want to miss this!

Don't forget Twins

OK, so the biggest victims might be the fans of the upstart Minnesota Twins, who are beginning to resemble the surprising 1994 Montreal Expos, who had the best record in baseball when the players began the 232-day work stoppage in August.

There's plenty of victimology to go around, though any English teacher can tell you there's no such word as victimology.

More strike fallout

Well, at least the latest labor dispute did not come in a season with a lot of big individual subplots. The 1994 strike hit with Matt Williams chasing Roger Maris' single-season home run record and threatened the integrity of Cal Ripken's consecutive-games mark.

There are a lot of players having great seasons this year, but nobody is threatening to make history in any major way. Fortunately, Mark McGwire eclipsed Maris and Barry Bonds overtook Big Mac during periods of relative labor peace. Bonds even got in under the wire with his 600th home run.

Be thankful for small favors.

Broken-bat Barry

They're still buzzing about Bonds' broken-bat home run last weekend at Pro Player Stadium. He isn't the first player to crack a bat and hit a home run, but he didn't just crack it - he shattered it.

"I saw him holding the stick of his bat in his hand," said Florida Marlins outfielder Kevin Millar. "I look up and it's two rows out of the park. I looked at [center fielder] Preston Wilson and went, `Oh, my God.' I've never seen anything like that in my life."

Pitcher Josh Beckett could shake his head in similar amazement.

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