Grade A's New People And Ideas Lift Oakland Baseball

Posted: October 05, 1990

The best front office in sports built a dynasty by spending money and taking risks. It hired untraditional executives who view the business of baseball as something more than griping about rising player salaries. It worked hard to forge deep ties with the club's host city.

"And we had a significant advantage," said Andy Dolich, the Oakland Athletics' vice president for business operations. "We took over the worst- run operation in sports history. Anything we did had to be an improvement. It's like someone handed you an Edsel factory and a lot of money and said, 'Here, improve the product.' How could we fail?"

To call Charles Finley's Oakland A's of a decade ago an Edsel might be overly kind. Indeed, not since the Browns left St. Louis in 1953 had any major-league franchise fallen as far. The A's lost 108 games in 1979, playing in a stadium dubbed "The Concrete Mausoleum." They averaged fewer than 4,000 fans per game and had a season-ticket base of just 300.

Over a two-year period in the early 1980s, the A's reported losses of $28.4 million. No one in baseball - including the commissioner - expected the franchise to survive in the East Bay.

Today, the A's are baseball's reigning champions, methodically marching toward a third straight World Series. They have won 306 regular-season games since 1988, the best three-year performance since the 1974-76 Cincinnati Reds.

Their clubhouse overflows with talented and colorful players. Their lawyer- turned-manager, Tony La Russa, is touted as the second coming of John McGraw, or, at least, Albert Einstein.

But their most impressive performance has come off the field. The franchise that was regarded as road kill a decade ago set a major-league road-attendance record this season and drew 2.9 million fans at home. It turned a healthy $5 million profit in 1989 and may do better this season. The owner is considered a civic hero.

Professors at the Harvard Business School now use the Athletics as a case study to demonstrate excellence in management. And no one talks of the team leaving Oakland.

Dolich, along with Sandy Alderson, the vice president for baseball operations, is given much of the credit for the A's resurgence. Both men were brought in by Walter A. Haas Jr., the Levi Strauss & Co. heir who bought the club from Finley in 1980.

"I don't think they do anything different than the rest of us," said Tom Grieve, general manager of the Texas Rangers. "They're just doing it better. It's like the old Green Bay Packers sweep: You know it's coming, but you still can't stop it."

But the A's are doing things that cause many of baseball's traditionalists to swallow hard on their tobacco chaws. Alderson calls it "progressive management," which, when translated, means, "Just because baseball has worked this way for 100 years doesn't make it right."

That is why the Athletics hired sports psychologist Harvey Dorfman, who began a "performance-enhancement" program for minor-league players that uses such tools as visualization, breathing techniques and concentration exercises.

It is why the A's coaches - the best-paid in baseball - spend an hour before each game huddled with their players over a portable video console reviewing tapes of that day's opponents, trying to gain any possible advantage.

And it is why Alderson has become successful. Baseball's old boys scoffed in 1983 when Haas put him in charge of personnel. What, they wondered, did this former Marine officer know about scouting teenage prospects? And what could he have learned at Dartmouth University and Harvard Law School that would in any way help him swing a trade?

But Alderson was smart enough to know his limitations. He surrounded

himself with a coterie of well-paid talent evaluators - including La Russa, Bill Rigney and Ron Schueler - and he valued their opinions. The brain trust prompted the A's to draft young stars Jose Canseco, Mark McGwire, Walt Weiss and Terry Steinbach. It also helped Alderson arrange trades for Rickey Henderson, Bob Welch, Dennis Eckersley and, this season alone, Willie Randolph, Harold Baines and Willie McGee.

"One of the things that separates the A's from some traditional organizations is that their people are given authority, and they are listened to," said California Angels general manager Mike Port. "It is not an organization of yes men."

It is also not an organization afraid to take risks. The A's have taken other teams' problem players - Dave Stewart and Dave Parker, for instance - and made them part of a positive group dynamic.

And just last spring, when the nation's No. 1 pitching prospect, Texas righthander Todd Van Poppel, announced plans to go to college before starting his professional baseball career, the first 13 teams in the draft passed on him and his 97-m.p.h. fastball.

The A's, picking 14th, were in a gambling mood. Alderson chose Van Poppel, and - despite Van Poppel's initial protests that the A's had wasted their pick - eventually signed him. The top team in baseball had successfully landed the top prospect.

"It wasn't just the money," Van Poppel said. "I don't think I would have signed with any other organization. But they were very classy. They were the kind of people I always wanted to work for."

Perhaps it wasn't the money. But Van Poppel's contract - three years for $1.2 million, plus a $600,000 signing bonus - is the highest ever for a high school draft pick. It is another example of the Athletics not being afraid to spend money for top-shelf talent.

The A's $20 million player payroll is the second-highest in baseball this season. The only team spending more, the Kansas City Royals, finished below .500, demonstrating that big spending works only if you do it judiciously.

Other teams gripe about the costs of free agency and salary arbitration, but the A's use those systems to their advantage. Oakland's philosophy is to spend big to get and keep the stars who win games and attract fans. That means letting lesser players walk when they become free agents.

Last winter, for example, the A's let free agents Parker, Tony Phillips and Storm Davis leave. For considerably less money, they used Mike Gallego to replace Phillips, and acquired Scott Sanderson to replace Davis. (As the club's third starter in 1989, Davis won 19 games. This year, in the same role,

Sanderson won 17.) With the compensation pick they received for Parker, they were in position to draft Van Poppel.

This season, the A's signed Canseco to a five-year, $23 million contract. They are said to have budgeted $12 million over four years to keep Welch, a potential free agent this winter. McGee and Sanderson, whose contracts are also up, appear likely to move on, to be replaced by other interchangeable parts.

"The A's are not afraid to lose players they feel are replaceable," said Texas' Grieve. "But with their foundation - Canseco, McGwire, Stewart, Welch and a few others - they'll do what they have to in order to keep those guys."

That stability is not just good business, it also inspires loyalty among fans - the kind of loyalty that brought a tenfold increase in attendance over the past decade. The A's now have 26,000 season-ticket holders, one of the highest figures in baseball.

"One of our primary goals is to establish the A's as an institution here, like the Cubs in Chicago or the Phillies in Philadelphia," Dolich said. ''Those clubs draw fans even in down years. Those institutions are loved even when they lose. We're trying to build that kind of permanent loyalty among our fans."

A primary component of that process has been improving the ambience at the Coliseum. The 22-year-old stadium will never have the charm of Fenway and Wrigley, but team officials have done their best to make it seem less like the symmetrical, concrete ballpark that it is. In recent years they built an old- fashioned, manually operated board for out-of-town scores, hired a disc jockey to spin between-innings top-40 tunes, and set aside room for picnic grounds and a family play area.

And they have drawn people to the stadium with some of sports' most creative promotions. Other teams have cap days and glove days; the A's give away baseball pants, jerseys and even shoes. Young fans who went to eight special games this season can now boast an entire Athletics uniform.

Dolich is also the father of "Fantasy Play-by-Play," in which aspiring broadcasters get to "cover" an inning of A's baseball from a broadcast booth. The Vin Scully wannabees won't be heard by anyone outside the booth until they take home a cassette tape ($20) or videotape ($35) of their call of the game.

Next season, the A's plan to introduce a computerized baseball game. Fans at the park will be able to duplicate actual game situations and make managerial decisions: Should you bunt? Hit and run? A hand-held computer will show the odds of success. One can only imagine La Russa's excitement over being second-guessed by 40,000 Oakland fans.

Working within the community has been an integral part of the A's success. When Haas, an Oakland native, bought the franchise, he vowed to use it to help the city combat its ugliest elements: crime and drugs. That is why A's players regularly speak at schools and social clubs, and why the team provides a seemingly limitless stack of free tickets to worthy organizations.

"The A's are an active part of the community from the top of the corporate ladder on down," Alameda County Supervisor Don Perata recently told the San Jose Mercury News. "By every measurement, every test you could apply, they come up with four stars."

The favorite is pitcher Stewart, a former three-star sport at Oakland's St. Elizabeth High School. Stewart's resume reads like that of a future mayor. He sponsors several youth-league baseball and track teams. He is the founder of Kidscorps, a nonprofit agency that helps develop year-round sports programs in the area. And he serves as a spokesman for Volunteers of America and Planned

Parenthood.

"We're just a baseball team," Dolich said. "We can't solve all this city's problems. But we can help by being involved. And we can bring some pride to Oakland by winning."

Oakland seems poised to receive a lot more pride in the future.

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