- Jim Caple, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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OAKLAND, Calif. -- Genius has a short shelf life in baseball.
Theo Epstein, who could have routed Ken Jennings, Stephen Hawking and Wikipedia in "Jeopardy" just two years ago, can no longer tie his own shoes. Ozzie Guillen, who could have brokered peace in the Middle East last fall, now can't even get his own dog to obey him. And Joe Torre, who once could have lowered taxes, balanced New York's budget and still solved the city's crime and homeless problems, can no longer read a subway map.
But amid our "You're Exactly as Smart as This Year's Winning Percentage" sports culture, here's a general manager who annually -- and deservedly so -- sits atop baseball's Mensa list: Oakland's Billy Beane.
It isn't easy fielding a team when you can only offer free agents food stamps, postdated checks and IOUs, but Beane manages somehow. Because of Oakland's financial situation, the Athletics have lost All-Star starters Mark Mulder and Tim Hudson, MVPs Miguel Tejada and Jason Giambi, plus All-Stars Jermaine Dye, Johnny Damon and Keith Foulke. Yet, they've remained competitive, reaching the postseason five times in the past seven years and finishing in second place the other two seasons. They won the American League West title for the fourth time in the past seven seasons and open the ALCS on Tuesday night against the Detroit Tigers.
Asked how much of Oakland's success is due to Beane, Oakland third baseman Eric Chavez replied, "Everything."
"He always has young starting pitchers that stay healthy," Chavez said. "He's always done a good job of bringing veteran guys in who fit well in the clubhouse. And they have an eye for talent. The young guys they bring up [come through]. A lot of organizations bring up guys and a year or two later they're out of the ball game. The scouting people here do a good job. And Billy ultimately [has] the final answer of who he wants."
Beane was portrayed in Michael Lewis' controversial book, "Moneyball," as a baseball genius, a shrewd new-age general manager who saw ways to exploit a system that often appeared to be built against him. People may quibble with some of the book's specific arguments, but they can't argue with Beane's perennial success. The hardest thing a general manager can do is compete year after year with a limited budget, but Beane has. Oakland's $62 million payroll not only is the lowest among the eight postseason teams, it is closer to Pittsburgh's than Detroit's.
Maybe Beane really is a genius.
"Billy knows baseball, and he's very smart," Tigers general manager Dave Dombrowski said. "If you ran your organization by how it was stated in 'Moneyball,' you'd have trouble. But Billy doesn't do that. People forget. He was a baseball player. He was a tremendous prospect. He played in the majors. He was a scout. He worked and learned under Sandy Alderson. He knows baseball."
Dombrowski knows all too well the impermanence of the "genius" label. When he won the World Series with the Marlins in 1997, he was so smart he could have advised Alan Greenspan on interest rates. But he lost so many brain cells by the time the Tigers lost an AL-record 119 games in 2003 that he needed help getting out of the elevator. Now that Detroit is in the ALCS, his IQ has jumped so high he solves Sudoku while learning Japanese on tape.
"You get to the point where I don't even pay attention to that stuff," Dombrowski said. "We're at a point nowadays where we get so much coverage and so many articles, sports talk shows, the Internet there are a lot of good baseball people, and sometimes they get branded unfairly, sometimes they get branded fairly. Sometimes things work out, and sometimes they don't work out. But if you're in this game for an extended period of time, it normally means you're doing something that's working out."
Obviously, Oakland's success goes well beyond Beane. Manager Ken Macha and all the scouts, coaches and players throughout the club's system have worked hard to improve. This season's team may not be as talented as those in the past, but its fielding and fundamentals are better.
"People forget. He was a baseball player. He was a tremendous prospect. He played in the majors. He was a scout. He worked and learned under Sandy Alderson. He knows baseball. "
-- Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski on Billy Beane
Most teams, however, have people at all levels working just as hard to improve. And yet not many teams actually do improve. Especially not when they're losing star players almost every season as Oakland has.
"You get used to it, but you don't have to like it," Chavez said. "It's not fun. I've lost a lot of close friends. But the one thing that makes you happy is that we've been competitive and keep winning."
Midway through the division series with Minnesota, Beane recalled an ugly moment after the Athletics blew a 2-0 lead in the 2003 Division Series with Boston. He was asked repeatedly what went wrong and how he could guarantee Oakland would advance to the next round in future years. Frustrated, he snapped back, "Give me a $200 million payroll, and I'll guarantee it!"
Turns out he only needed $62 million. But if he can win consistently on that and less, think what Beane could do with $200 million.
"He may not do anything," Chavez said. "It's like when David Ortiz said he'd like to see what Derek Jeter could do in Boston's lineup. But you can't do that. You can't improvise and play roles. All you can do is judge people by what they've got. He may blow the money. He may have $200 million and blow it."
There's always that chance, but somehow I doubt it.
Oakland could win its first world championship in 17 years this month. Or it could win the ALCS against Detroit and lose the World Series. Or the A's could get swept by Detroit and go home to play golf. But no matter what happens, the next two weeks won't tell us nearly as much about Beane's genius as a general manager as the past seven years already have.
If he isn't a genius, he could at least give New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick some pointers.
Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com. You can reach Jim at jimcaple.com