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The first thing they always did was run you. When big league scouts road tested a group of elite amateur prospects, foot speed was the first item they checked off their lists. The scouts actually carried around checklists. Tools is what they called the talents they were looking for in a kid. There were five tools: the abilities to run, throw, field, hit, and hit with power. A guy who could run had "wheels"; a guy with a strong arm had "a hose." Scouts spoke the language of auto mechanics. You could be forgiven, if you listened to them, for thinking they were discussing sports cars and not young men. On this late spring day in San Diego several big league teams were putting a group of prospects through their paces. If the feeling in the air was a bit more tense than it used to be, that was because it was 1980 and the risks in drafting baseball players had just risen. A few years earlier, major leaguers had been granted free agency by a court of law, and after about two seconds of foot shuffling, the owners put prices on players that defied the old commonsensical notions of what a baseball player should be paid. Inside of four years the average big league salary had nearly tripled, from about $52,000 to almost $150,000 a year. The new owner of the New York Yankees, George Steinbrenner, had paid $10 million for the entire team in 1973; in 1975 he paid $3.75 million for baseball's first modern free agent, Catfish Hunter. A few years earlier no one thought twice about bad calls on prospects. But what used to be a thousand-dollar mistake was rapidly becoming a million-dollar one.
Anyway, the first thing they always did was run you. Five young men stretch and canter on the outfield crabgrass. Darnell Coles. Cecil Espy. Erik Erickson. Garry Harris. Billy Beane. They're still boys, really; all have had to produce letters from their mothers saying that it is O.K. for them to be here. No one outside their hometowns has heard of them, but to the scouts they already feel like household names. All five are legitimate first-round picks, among the 30 or so most promising prospects in the country. They've been culled from the nation's richest trove of baseball talent, Southern California, and invited to the baseball field at San Diego's Herbert Hoover High to answer a question: Who is the best of the best?
One of the scouts turns to another and says: I'll take the three black kids [ Coles, Harris, Espy]. They'll dust the white kids. And Espy will dust everyone, even Coles. Coles is a sprinter who has already accepted a football scholarship to play wide receiver at UCLA That's how fast Espy is: The scouts are certain that even Coles can't keep up with him.
Pat Gillick, the general manager of the Toronto Blue Jays, drops his hand. Five born athletes lift up and push off. They're at full tilt after just a few steps. It's all over inside of seven seconds. Billy Beane has made all the others look slow. Espy finished second, three full strides behind him.
When he was a young man Billy Beane could beat anyone at anything. He was so naturally superior to whomever he happened to be playing against, in whatever sport they happened to be playing, that he appeared to be in a different, easier game. By the time he was a sophomore in high school, Billy was the quarterback on the football team and the high scorer on the basketball team. And on the baseball field he encouraged strong feelings in the older men who were paid to imagine what kind of pro ballplayer a young man might become.
By his junior year he was 6'4", 180 pounds and still growing, and his high school diamond was infested with major league scouts who watched him hit better than .500. Ramrod-straight and lean, but not so lean that you couldn't imagine him filling out. The boy had a body you could dream on. "There are good guys and there are premium guys," says Roger Jongewaard, then the head scout for the New York Mets, who owned the draft's first pick. "And Billy was a premium premium guy. He had the size, the speed, the arm, the whole package. He could play other sports. He was a true athlete. And then, on top of all that, he had good grades in school and he was going with all the prettiest girls. He had charm. He could have been anything."
Because of all that, Jongewaard and the many scouts like him missed all the clues. They didn't notice, for instance, that Billy's batting average collapsed to just above .300 in his senior year. It was hard to say why. Maybe it was the pressure of the scouts. Maybe it was that the other teams found different ways to pitch to him, and Billy failed to adapt. Or maybe it was plain bad luck. The point is: No one even noticed the drop-off. "I never looked at a single statistic of Billy's," admits one of the scouts. "It wouldn't have crossed my mind. Billy was a five-tool guy. He had it all." Jongewaard says, "You have to understand: We don't just look at performance. We were looking at talent."
But in Billy's case, talent was a mask. Things went so well for him so often that no one ever needed to worry about how he behaved when they didn't go well. When things didn't go well for Billy on the playing field, a wall came down between him and his talent, and he didn't know any other way to get through the wall than to try to smash a hole in it. It wasn't merely that he didn't like to fail; it was as if he didn't know how to fail. The scouts never considered this. By the end of Billy's senior year the only question they had about Billy was: Can I get him?
It would take a decade for Billy Beane to figure it out, but he was ill-suited to play professional baseball. He would finish his career with a stat line (.219 batting average, .246 on-base percentage, .296 slugging percentage and a grand total of 301 big league at bats) that told a tale of failure and frustration. He had all the tools; what he lacked was whatever it was that tools do not reflect—what turns a young man into a big league ballplayer.
Years later Billy Beane would say that when he'd decided to become a professional baseball player, it was the only time in his life that he'd done something just for the money, and that he'd never do something just for the money ever again. He would never again let the market dictate the direction of his life. The funny thing about that, now that he was running a poor major league baseball team, was that his job was almost entirely about money: where to find it, how to spend it, whom to spend it on. There was no more intensely financial period in his life than the few weeks, just after the regular season opened, leading up to the amateur draft. There was also no time that he found more enjoyable. He didn't mind living with money at the center of his life, so long as he was using it on other people, and not having it used on him.