- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 26, 2004

When new Los Angeles Dodgers owner Frank McCourt named 31-year-old, Harvard-educated Paul DePodesta his general manager last week, it marked the ascension of another bright, young, Ivy League mind to a job many consider the most important in baseball.

Still to be determined is whether it was just that, or another shot fired in the Moneyball revolution.

“Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game” is the book by Michael Lewis that has been as welcome to parts of the baseball establishment as a fastball aimed at the ear hole. It is the story of the Oakland Athletics and how general manager Billy Beane, with brazen assuredness, has overcome a small market, an old stadium and a limited payroll to build a winning team.

Through intense and creative application of statistical analysis, and relying more on past performance than scouting, the A’s have more than kept pace with the big spenders. Only Seattle, by one game, has won more than Oakland the last four years. Lewis calls it a battle between “the computer and the scout’s internal compass.” Beane calls it “making the game efficient.” DePodesta was Beane’s top assistant and efficiency expert and is featured prominently in the book.

But the focus clearly is Beane, a former No.1 pick of the New York Mets whose career didn’t pan out and whose volatile personality and perceived arrogance rub some people the wrong way. Many in baseball don’t appreciate the notion that Beane, whose methods clearly differ in that he actively pursues players other teams underestimate or disregard, has somehow reinvented the game.

“I’ve got a few arrows in my back,” he said.

DePodesta, who grew up in the Old Town section of Alexandria and graduated from Episcopal High School before heading off to Harvard to earn his degree in economics and play football, is trying to avoid the arrows. He has distanced himself somewhat from “Moneyball” and the controversy it has generated.

“Every situation is unique,” he said. “What makes sense in Oakland might not necessarily make sense somewhere else.”

He added, “At the same time, I think there are basic truths and tenets that absolutely translate from market to market.”

One basic truth is that Major League Baseball’s front offices are starting to resemble “a Wall Street handbook,” as Beane put it.

After the 2002 season, the Boston Red Sox made 28-year-old Theo Epstein the youngest general manager ever. A Yale graduate and a former intern with the Orioles, Epstein was Boston’s assistant GM at the time. He got the job because Billy Beane changed his mind after accepting it.

The Cleveland Indians’ general manager is Mark Shapiro, 37, the son of Baltimore-based agent Ron Shapiro and a Princeton man. And after DePodesta left the A’s, Beane promoted David Forst, 27 and another Harvard grad, to replace him.

“We’re seeing people who have already accumulated some significant baseball experience, and people are willing to take a chance on them without necessarily consulting a birth certificate,” said Arizona Diamondbacks general manager Joe Garagiola Jr.

Said Beane: “I think we’re seeing some really bright minds get in the game. We’re getting people who think outside the box. I think people realize you need people not only good at putting baseball teams together but also the business side of it.”

Born in Philadelphia and a Phillies fan as a kid, DePodesta started out learning the business side of sports from the ice, as well as the ground up. After leaving Harvard, where he was a 5-foot-11, 165-pound reserve wide receiver, he joined the marketing and promotions staff of the American Hockey League’s Baltimore Bandits and put his degree to use by slingshotting T-shirts into the crowd.

He also worked for the Baltimore Stallions of the Canadian Football League in both football operations and finance before landing an internship with the Indians in 1996. It was here that DePodesta’s real education began, under the tutelage of then-GM John Hart, who later went to Texas, and Hart’s assistant, Dan O’Dowd, now the Colorado general manager. Mark Shapiro was there, too.

“I was surrounded by some phenomenal people,” DePodesta said.

It was O’Dowd’s hiring of Shapiro, he said, that opened the door for others of similarly unconventional backgrounds.

“Dan was the first baseball executive to say, ‘I don’t care if he didn’t play, I want to hire bright, passionate people,’” DePodesta said. “Mark comes in and blows everybody away and because of that, Dan says, ‘Hey, this is a great idea.’”

At the end of his first year with the Indians, DePodesta found himself at Fenway Park in Boston checking out the Yankees for the playoffs, his first real scouting assignment. There he met J.P. Ricciardi, a colleague of Beane, who was about to be become the GM in Oakland.

DePodesta and Ricciardi immediately hit it off. “He was the one scout who said, ‘Hey, who is this 23-year-old guy?’” DePodesta recalled. “He took me under his wing.”

Relationships can be worth more than a Harvard sheepskin. Not only did DePodesta and Ricciardi become friends, Beane and O’Dowd had gotten chummy. So when a front office job opened up in Oakland in 1998, guess who got it?

What would become known as Moneyball was starting to take root, and DePodesta was right there for it. The seeds had been planted by Beane’s predecessor, Sandy Alderson, who left to join the commissioner’s office. A tough, ex-Marine Corps officer, Alderson also was a lawyer with degrees from Dartmouth and Harvard Law School.

As player salaries escalated wildly, Alderson, who knew the size of the Oakland market would make it impossible to keep pace, started challenging some of baseball’s timeworn traditions with the form of statistical analysis — scorned by many as geek stuff — known as sabermetrics.

“He really opened up my mind,” Beane said. “I was in the game my whole life, and here was a guy who questioned the traditional way of doing things. And because he was so bright, I trusted him and believe the things I believe in.”

Beane started believing in numbers and what they meant, really meant. Every other organization also relies on statistics, but Beane and DePodesta took it to a new level. Stolen bases were meaningless, drafting high school players a waste. On-base percentage and a pitcher’s ability to throw strikes instead of just heat were valued above all else. Walks were huge. It wasn’t how a player looked in a uniform but whether he could control the strike zone. The role of scouting was de-emphasized.

The A’s lost slugging first baseman Jason Giambi and Johnny Damon, a defensive whiz in center field, to free agency and still won 103 games in 2002, one more than the year before. Why? They got the right combination of players.

It also helped that Oakland had assembled, mainly through astute scouting, the dominant pitching trio of Tim Hudson, Mike Mulder and 2002 Cy Young Award winner Barry Zito. Beane’s critics — and there are many — point to this, along with the fact the A’s have yet to win a playoff game in four appearances under his stewardship.

Beane almost relishes the criticism.

“The only controversy is from a few people who feel threatened inside the game,” he said. “Anytime there’s a change from the norm and a culture being challenged, there’s going to be resistance.

“And that’s good. It allows you to blaze trails and do things that you want to do. And when all is said and done, the changes are going to be good and are going to make the game more efficient.”

DePodesta isn’t Beane’s only disciple. Following the Oakland blueprint is Ricciardi, who took over as the Toronto Blue Jays’ GM in 2002 — after DePodesta, who felt he wasn’t ready, turned it down. In two seasons, Ricciardi has cut the payroll from $80million to $50million while the club has increased its victory total.

“We operate in a different spectrum,” Ricciardi said. “But I think we can continue to compete. We have obvious restrictions. But we’re a better club than we were, our farm system is good and we’re going in the right direction.”

Boston’s Epstein also believes in many of the Moneyball efficiency theories. It’s just that with a payroll of $125million, he gets to do a lot more with them. So will DePodesta, whose budget has been set at about $100million — not outlandish by today’s standards but clearly a windfall for him after clipping coupons with the A’s.

“It just really opens up the field,” he said. “I don’t know if it changes our approach that much, but it creates a lot of options. There was a whole pool of players that would have looked great in an Oakland uniform. But we could never entertain the idea of signing them.”

DePodesta faces several challenges. His hiring was not universally applauded and he has been criticized for his age. (One writer said the Dodgers turned the general manager’s job into an “entry-level position”). The franchise has not won a playoff game since 1988 and is in danger of becoming overshadowed in Southern California by the Anaheim Angels, who won the 2002 World Series and continue to make aggressive moves to strengthen their team.

How much of the Moneyball philosophy DePodesta incorporates remains to be seen. But unlike in Oakland, where change was not entirely welcome by some within the organization, he said he is pretty much on the same page with his new club.

“The book makes us out to be these mavericks, but one thing I’m finding is there are more similarities than differences [within the Dodgers] in terms of philosophy,” he said.

“Certainly there are some key things I’m going to take and try to implement with my own techniques. That’s probably the most basic tenet [of Moneyball], that it’s constantly a work in progress and that we don’t have all the answers and it’s all about the relentless pursuit of new knowledge.”

Spoken like a Harvard man. And a baseball man.

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