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December 10, 2014
DON'T COUNT OUT BEANE, A'S JUST YET
SAN DIEGO -- These are the times Billy Beane loves most of all. You can see it in his eyes and hear it in his voice. He loves to be doubted. He feeds off it, is motivated by it. He's as competitive as any man you'll ever meet.
Through the years, Beane has learned to drown out the noise. In fact, this gift is a significant part of his genius. He simply does not care what others think. He believes in what he's doing. He believes in his people.
For the last 17 seasons, Beane has run the smartest, most efficient operation in baseball. He's the architect of eight playoff teams despite payrolls that typically rank in the bottom five.
He revolutionized baseball with his use of analytics, evaluating players in a way they'd never been evaluated before. These days, every team employs analytics to some extent, and yet, the A's continue to be innovative, unafraid and successful.
Beane may not be listening to what others are saying, but he knows the buzz around the Oakland Athletics this offseason. What is Billy doing this time? What is he thinking? Why has he given up on the 2015 season?
He can tell by the questions reporters ask, by their tone, by the skepticism. Again, though, the bottom line is that he doesn't care.
So here we go again.
In the last 11 days, he has traded three All-Stars for nine players between the ages of 18 and 26 years old. Only one of them -- third baseman Brett Lawrie -- has significant Major League experience.
In dealing third baseman Josh Donaldson to Toronto, first baseman Brandon Moss to Cleveland and pitcher Jeff Samardzija to the White Sox, he acquired four infielders, four pitchers and a catcher.
For a farm system left depleted by a series of trades for veterans, Beane appears to have significantly replenished it. At least that's the plan. But he no longer has three of the players who helped the A's make the playoffs last season.
"What we're trying to do is walk that delicate balance to getting younger and also trying to be as good as we can as quickly as possible," Beane said. "We've never been an organization that says, 'Hey we're going to punt for the next five years and get a top 10 Draft pick.' That's not in our DNA. It's just not who we were, and we're not going to do that. How competitive we are is yet to be determined, but the idea wasn't to not be competitive in an effort to rise up the draft chain."
He didn't have to trade a single one of these veterans. That's the part that has led to some second-guessing. Samardzija could be a free agent after next season, but the A's would have had control of Donaldson for four more years and Moss for two.
Beane saw it differently. He saw a club that finished 11 games behind the Los Angeles Angels in the American League West and wasn't going to re-sign free-agent pitchers Jon Lester and Jason Hammel.
He could not see the A's making up those 11 games on the Angels by standing pat. He thought his Minor League system didn't have the depth it had before the trades for Lester, Hammel and Samardzija last summer.
"We had to take a hard look at where we were," Beane said. "It's an overused line, but hope's not a great strategy. We knew the losses we were going to have. We knew where the payroll was going. We knew the Minor League system was thin. You're looking at the bottom falling out at some point, and if we see it coming, we're not going to keep going there.
"We're just trying to be realistic and pro-active. A year from now, we probably would have hit ourselves for not doing what we knew was the obvious. Now is the time to get the organization healthier again in terms of acquiring young players."
So he attacked his roster just as he did three years ago when he dealt three All-Star pitchers for 10 players who were about as unknown as the guys he just acquired. With those deals, a narrative was written.
The A's would not win in 2012.
That narrative was incorrect. The A's won 94 games and the AL West in 2012.
OK, here's the fun part about this offseason. With a smaller payroll, with roster flexibility, Beane intends to go on a cautious spending spree.
He has an assortment of players targeted. Three years ago after he'd made those three trades and after the Oakland-is-done columns were written, his acquisitions made less news.
He signed Coco Crisp, Bartolo Colon and Yoenis Cespedes and traded for Seth Smith. Those players, along with some of the talent he acquired in the three trades, helped the A's succeed in 2012.
He would like to write that script again. One of the players he acquired from the White Sox is 24-year-old Marcus Semien, who probably will be Oakland's starting shortstop on Opening Day.
He also got at least two starting pitchers from Toronto -- Kendall Graveman and Sean Nolin -- who could compete for jobs in 2015. He got Lawrie as well. And with Sonny Gray and Scott Kazmir at the top of a nice rotation, with Crisp still in center and Josh Reddick in right, the A's still have a chunk of players from successful teams.
Write off the A's? Not yet.
"Now it's hopefully looking to add," Beane said. "It's not to say that we couldn't make trades, but I don't think they'd be perceived as quite as dramatic as these might have been."
So regardless of what else Beane does, the A's almost certainly will be younger and less of a known quantity in 2015. That said, they still may compete. At least that's the plan.
"What's fun is ultimately having a product that has a chance to get better each day," Beane said. "I'm always worried when you get on the other side and are starting to get worse. And you know as a general manager when you're around the club everyday, you know your Minor League system, you know the issues you're going to be facing during the season."
In other words, he changed the A's before he was forced to change them. He has done this before every few years as the A's approach a point where payroll will force them to make tough decisions.
It's offseasons like this one that have established his brilliance, and in that way, shown every other club a blueprint for succeeding without great wealth. His impact on the game can't be overstated.
In the end, though, he will be evaluated again by the games the A's win in 2015. He's fine with that. He's confident, too. Could this be his finest hour? Probably not. He has had too many to count.
By Larry Getlen
December 14, 2014
In 2002, George Koonce, a nine-year linebacker in the NFL who had last played during the 2000 season, was confronted with a harsh reality. After holding out hope for almost two years that he’d be able to find a roster spot in the NFL, his wife, Tunisia, hit him with an ugly truth.
“George, you’re done,” she said. “It’s over.”
Koonce didn’t speak to her for several weeks, then took off, saying he was going to the beach for a few days.
On his drive back, he decided to take a turn at 75 miles per hour, “just to see what would happen.”
He flipped his truck but walked away. When he got home, he told Tunisia, “that part of me is dead now. I’m ready to move on.”
Koonce was one of the lucky ones.
“Is There Life After Football?” brings us inside the lives of NFL players to show why so many wind up in dire straits after their time on the field, from depression to debilitating lifelong injuries to catastrophic financial mismanagement.
While much-publicized concussions and head injuries account for some of the problem, they’re just one possible hardship of many for those who spend years slamming into each other at full speed.
“Since 2011, at least seven NFL players or former players have committed suicide,” the authors write, noting that one of these, Jovan Belcher, “also killed his girlfriend.”
Super Bowl quarterback Jim McMahon suffers from dementia. Hall of Fame running back Earl Campbell “can barely walk,” and “quarterbacking legend John Unitas lost the use of [his] hands and fingers.”
Ex-NFLers Curt Marsh and Jim Otto have both “lost limbs to football injuries.”
On the money end of things, Terrell Owens “is nearly penniless despite earning top dollar for years,” and “seven-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle Warren Sapp has filed for bankruptcy.”
The book seeks, among other things, to dispel the myth that everyone who plays in the NFL is financially set for life.
The average NFL career is only 3.5 years long, and while even rookies currently earn around $400,000, the types of money we hear about for superstars — $22 million a year for Green Bay Packer Aaron Rodgers, for example — is rare. Most players never come close.
But however much money players make, it’s often far more than they know how to handle.
As a result, many players make bad financial decisions from the get-go, starting with reckless spending during their playing days — from Adam “Pacman” Jones, who talked of once spending “over a million dollars in one Las Vegas weekend,” to Andre Rison, who estimates he spent the same on jewelry.
“Around the locker room, players’ cars, clothes, houses and ‘bling’ are constantly scrutinized. If they’re not up to par, they’re ridiculed,” they write.
The authors cite former offensive tackle Roman Oben, who eschewed fancy cars for “a Toyota Land Cruiser with 68,000 miles on it. His teammates taunted him mercilessly.”
As such, players already fueled by lifelong dreams of luxury are persuaded to max it out. The previously frugal Koonce found himself making it rain in wasteful ways.
“There is so much excitement; you have basically just hit the lottery,” he says in the book. “Once I made the roster, my first big purchase was a 1992 white Corvette with red interior for $38,000…[Later] I bought a Mercedes and a Hummer. Players really go overboard on automobiles.”
As soon as the ink is dry on their first contract, players are overwhelmed by confusing advice from family and friends, who believe that they should be “helping” the player manage their finances.
After signing a $6 million contract with the Browns in 1985, quarterback Bernie Kosar hoped to secure an agent to handle his money.
But his father, who “didn’t really have a job after the mills closed,” wound up in the role instead and, according to Kosar, “was paying off his mortgage and…the house and cars” with the quarterback’s signing bonus.
Kosar thought he was helping his father out of a jam but later learned that dad had his own $1 million contract with the team. Between that, never-paid-back loans to family and friends, and bad investments spearheaded by same, Kosar lost about $15 million.
Koonce tells of “an onslaught of requests from his family shortly after his first payday,” including from “aunts, uncles and distant cousins he barely knew.” Due to the familial connections, he found himself unable to say no. A trucking company he began with his sister cost him more than $500,000.
“Guys open up restaurants, and that is one of the most volatile industries you can get into,” said linebacker Bart Scott in the book. “[Friends] ask you to do it, and then you ask for their business plan and they say ‘What is that?’ Exactly.”
But if using family and friends as financial advisors is a bad move, actual advisors can be worse.
“Regulated or not, shady advisors have made quite a mark on the NFL financial scene,” the authors write. “Before closer scrutiny was instituted, at least 78 players lost more than $42 million between 1999 and 2002 because they trusted money to agents and financial advisors with questionable backgrounds.”
Adding insult to injury, the sketchy advice sometimes comes from former players themselves. OneAnother former player turned financial pro said that “he couldn’t reveal how much he was charging to manage [another] player’s tax-exempt municipal bonds ‘because of the Patriot Act.’” Turned out the advisor was “taking $146,000 every year.”
“Players don’t see their bills or keep track of their payments. They’re in the dark about taxes. They lose touch with their own money,” the authors write.
“You think of sharks in the ’hood, you think of gang bangers and drug dealers. You haven’t seen nothing ’til you step into some of these white-collar criminals,” said Scott, to which investment manager Ed Butowsky adds in the book, “I know many people who have had money wired out of their accounts to private equity accounts or into other accounts without their knowledge.”
The losses incurred by some players are staggering. Sapp made “$82,185,056 during his NFL career. He ended up with $826.04 in his bank account,” and filed for bankruptcy in 2012.
Former linebacker Keith McCants signed a $7.6 million contract in 1990 but tells the authors that he “bought a yacht, a mansion and a couple of cars. That ain’t a million dollars. That’s several million. I pretty much gave it away.”
Even if a player manages to hang onto his money, figuring out what to do with himself in retirement can be just as challenging.
For one thing, few players actually “retire.” Koonce’s fate is more common, where players, over a long, drawn-out period filled with slowly diminishing hope, keep themselves in shape for a job that never materializes.
Once they realize the truth, then they must determine the next step.
For men who’ve been immersed in football to the exclusion of all else since high school, this can be crushing, as they have no idea how other people live, much less find work or spend 40 hours a week in a cubicle.
“[Retired defensive back] Troy Vincent recalls killing time in his unscheduled life by washing clothes every day until his wife told him that normal people don’t do laundry that often,” the authors write. “So he started cutting the lawn three times a week. He literally didn’t know what else to do.”
While many eventually find a path — Koonce got a Ph.D. in sports administration and is currently vice president of advancement at Marian University in Wisconsin, and Vincent is the NFL’s executive vice president of football operations — some simply drift, never finding a way to replace the excitement and totality of football in their lives.
“Some players are humiliated when they’re confronted with being normal — taking ordinary jobs,” the authors write.
None of this matters, however, if they’re physically incapable of working.
“More than 4,500 living players maintain that they have symptoms of football-related brain damage. That’s nearly a quarter of all living NFL alumni,” the authors write, later adding that, “former players are over five times more likely than other men their age to suffer from dementia.”
But brain injuries are just one part of the problem, as an NFL career ravages not just the brain, but the body.
“Nine out of 10 former players wake up each day to nagging aches and pains that they attribute to football. About eight in 10 report that the pain lasts most of the day. Among younger retirees aged 30 to 49, one third say their work lives are limited in some way by the after-effects of injury,” write the authors. “Retired players are much less likely than their age peers in the general population to rate their health as excellent or good, and nearly 30% of NFL retirees rate their health as only ‘fair’ or ‘poor.’”
The league’s younger alumni, aged 30-49, are “five times as likely” as their non-NFL age counterparts to have problems with mobility and strength, from walking stairs to lifting objects, and 15% of this group are “unable to work as a result of football-related disabilities.”
At 42, after nine years in the NFL, running back Brandon Gold “wakes up in pain, sometimes hardly able to move.” When he went for an MRI, the doctors asked, “What kind of car accident were you in?”
But despite the risks, which the players know well, the NFL’s tough guy mentality resists change, and players have bristled against new rules designed to lighten the impact.
“I understand they want the sport to be safer,” All-Pro safety Troy Polamalu says in the book. “But eventually you’re going to start to take away from the essence of this game, and it’s not really going to be the football that we all love.”
“a vibe the team got from a pair of agents who felt as if they needed to make sure that their client did not accept a so-called “team-friendly” extension, like another client”
Lowballing Lester haunts Sox
SAN DIEGO — There’s no need, yet, to go all Andre the Giant from the top rope on the Red Sox for what’s sounding like their lost cause in Jon Lester.
If the Red Sox wind up with one from Column A — Cole Hamels or Max Scherzer or especially Chris Sale — and one or two from Column B — James Shields, Justin Masterson, Rick Porcello, Ian Kennedy, Yovani Gallardo — then the howls that the Sox seemed to be bracing for in anticipation that Lester will choose the Cubs or Giants instead of them will fade quickly to silence.
But no matter how much the Red Sox would rather keep the potential protesters muzzled and behind barricades by shifting the focus to better days ahead, the ballclub can and should still be held accountable for creating what is, until further notice, a mess of their own making.
An avoidable mess, too.
When the Sox lowballed Lester with a four-year, $70 million offer in spring training, they ruined what turned out to be their best chance at signing the lefthander when they still had a chance.
Whether it was the hubris of a team coming off an unexpected World Series championship or a vibe the team got from a pair of agents who felt as if they needed to make sure that their client did not accept a so-called “team-friendly” extension, like another client, Dustin Pedroia, signed, or the Sox simply did not want to and never would sign a 30-something-year-old starter to a six-year deal, the process got off to a bad start early.
Perhaps details will emerge that cast the Red Sox in a more favorable light once the Lester situation is fully resolved, but for now, it was easy to see why general manager Ben Cherington wanted to turn the page from March and look ahead to 2015 when he met with the media at the winter meetings yesterday.
“Maybe there will be a time to talk more about this and to sort of look back on the history of what’s happened but I don’t feel like the time is right now,” said Cherington. “I think, as I’ve said before and we’ve tried to communicate, we have always tried to be respectful of Jon, his desires, obviously had an interest in negotiating with him and still do. We’ll see where it lands.
“I’m not sure right now is the time to sort of look back and think about and do an analysis of what’s happened. It’s just we are here where we are.”
And where the Red Sox are is a place of uncertainty and doubt, until it’s not anymore.
If they have nothing else, Sox fans have long memories, and their memories of Lester are all good. He was the best starter the team groomed since Roger Clemens and there is no heir apparent.
Of course, they are going to be upset and look for who’s to blame if Lester does not return.
Cherington is far more aware of what the Red Sox have in store, or think they have in store, should Lester fall through the cracks. He can’t divulge his end game yet, which leaves everyone rightfully indignant that it has to be one without Lester. Life without Lester might very well be better than what it could be with him on the back-nine of his career.
Until that happens or the team tries to sell it as such, Cherington understands what’s at stake.
“Our fans expect us to deliver on the field and win games. If we do that, at the end, that’s all they care about,” said Cherington. “We know in order to give ourselves the best chance to do that next year we’ve got to add to the pitching staff. We’re going to do that, one way or another. We don’t know exactly how yet. There are all sorts of ways we could do that. So, I think our fans expect us to build a good team more than anything.
“Of course there’s a connection to certain players, more so than others. With guys who have played here, there’s going to be more of a connection. But ultimately, they’re going to care about what happens on the field. And we’ve got to be most focused on that.”
Lester likely was going to give the Red Sox one last chance to improve their offer before his decision which is expected no later than today, so perhaps this pretend autopsy exercise will have been a waste of time. That still will not whitewash what happened in March.
If the Red Sox started on the right foot with Lester, they wouldn’t look as if they didn’t have a leg to stand on while at the brink of his decision.
WHEN IT'S NOT ABOUT THE MONEY
For me, Andrew Miller was one of the most highly anticipated signings of the off-season. Miller, an outstanding left-handed setup man for the Red Sox and Orioles last year, was sure to set an AAV record for a non-closer.
I said Miller could see a four-year deal for $40 million. It was reported that he got that offer from the Houston Astros, but didn't take it. Instead he signed a four-year, $36 million deal with the Yankees. What kind of backwards universe are we living in when the New York Yankees land free agents by offering them less money?
The real issue here is for the Houston Astros. While I'm not ready to jump on board with Sports Illustrated's prediction of them winning the 2017 World Series, the Astros are getting better. Houston is an income-tax-free state and a nice place to live. Losing a free agent to whom they made the best offer is a discouraging red flag.
The Astros had a host of PR blunders last year, including the shenanigans involved with them not signing the No. 1 overall draft pick Brady Aiken, firing their manager who claimed front-office interference, the leaking of 10 month's worth of trade data, and their handling of 2013 No. 1 overall pick Mark Appel. The organization has been trying to reverse their poor image. The hiring of Reid Ryan as team president and A.J. Hinch as manager has been a good start.
For a relief pitcher, the opportunity to cash in on a multi-year deal is rare. Andrew Miller might not get a chance like this ever again, yet he took (slightly) less money to be where he wanted to be.
We might see the same thing with Jon Lester. The Cubs are in and even if they offer the best deal they might not be the best fit for Lester, who wants to win.
It's mostly about the money, but not always.
COMEBACK KID: Right-hander Nick Travieso, the club's top pick in the 2012 draft, had a breakout year this year. He went 14-5 with a 3.03 ERA for Single-A Dayton. He was 8-1 with a 2.25 ERA in July and August.
This after going 7-6 with a 4.65 ERA in the his first two years of pro ball.
"I just had a lot more confidence in the second half," Travieso said. "What worked for me in the past is what I needed to go back to – go out there and pitch the way I knew how to."
For Travieso, 20, that meant getting back to the fastball.
"I really relied on my fastball a lot more," he said. "I was a lot more confident with it. Secondary stuff will get you so far, but you can't get anywhere without the fastball. I realized that. It took me a little while."