Sunday, December 21, 2014

Book Review: "The Kansas City Athletics: A Baseball History" -- Part I

The Kansas City Athletics: A Baseball History is an important part of the Athletics historical cannon; however, it is certainly not a beach book. Its length of 352 pages and academic writing style slow the casual reader down. In short, you will conk out a few pages in each night when reading before bed – making its completion a bit of an accomplishment.

One of the striking aspects of the book is that it makes the argument that the Kansas City/Arthur Johnson years were actually not effectively a time when the team served as a farm team for the New York Yankees, despite what many consider to be a series of one-sided trades, including shipping out a young Roger Maris. Author John E. Peterson contends that the swaps were more balanced than the team is given credit for by critics, including Cooperstown, N.Y.'s mayor Jeff Katz who -- in an unofficial capacity -- authored a strong counterpoint with The Kansas City A's and the Wrong Half of the Yankees: How the Yankees Controlled Two of the Eight American League Franchises During the 1950s

The bookends of the book also perhaps the most critical sections – the final years of the Philadelphia incarnation and the birth of the Charlie Finley era. The remainder, a season-by-season recap, is important, but dry material.

(Author’s Note: I read this book on my Kindle, making citing pages virtually impossible.)

Early on, we get a peek into the last burning embers of the once-mighty Philadelphia Athletics. 
This passage, regarding the 1950s finances of the team was telling:

The indebtedness of the team was staggering. The team had not even paid for the uniforms worn by players during the previous season.

A last-ditch attempt to save the Athletics by a group of Philadelphia businessmen, in conjunction with one of Connie Mack’s sons, is mentioned. Curiously, the author suggests that Johnson’s bid was successful thanks to two seemingly non-material issues: 1) he was kind to Connie Mack’s chauffeur – who had been pressed into shuttling the frail Mack to an American League meeting regarding the franchise's fate – and; 2) the Kansas City group showed up for the definitive meeting with Mack one hour earlier than scheduled. Johnson slipped a fifty dollar bill to the chauffeur and was granted access to Mack before the Philadelphia contingent. Of course, the story is more intricate, but this aspect was particularly interesting.

Historical reports laud Johnson as a shrewd financier. Peterson writes:

...he was an individual who could arrange mutually profitable deals involving millions of dollars through the ingenious use of lease-backs, second mortgages, large cash loans and special stock issues without any individual investing much of his own money. 

Regarding the purchase of the Athletics, Peterson summed up the feeling at the time of the deal:

In Chicago financial quarters, the talk was that Johnson swung the Athletics deal without a dollar of fresh money appearing on the table.

In reality, Johnson likely spent slightly more that $570,000, as sums moved in both directions, including payments by the Phillies for Connie Mack Stadium and Kansas City for Johnson's minor league stadium in town.

What seems clear, however, is that Johnson was a savvy businessman who did get a very good deal for the Athletics. (One thing to bear in mind is that if the Philadelphia contingent was successful in gaining control of the team, they would have been on the hook for the mortgage at Connie Mack Stadium and would not have received a pay-out from the Phillies for the facility.)

Six years later Charlie Finely purchased the Athletics for $4 million, a valuation that meant Johnson's Kansas City investor group reaped a 400 percent return on their investment.

When Finley Comes to Town

Of more interest to Oakland Athletics fans are the Charlie Finley origins. Charlie O. always talked a very good game, for instance, after purchasing the team:

"My intentions are to keep the A's permanently in Kansas City and build a winning ballclub....I have no intention of ever moving the franchise. I will spend any reasonable amount of money to get the Athletics into the first division....I believe the Athletics can be built up, but that will take money....I am not interested in capital gains, nor am I a fast-buck man."

Some of Finley's early plans included a sizable direct-mail campaign and offering, then-innovative, nine-game plans.

Much like what unfolded in Oakland, in 1962,, two years after his purchase, Finley was grumbling about attendance and was making eyes with a new city:

Reports indicated that Finely still wanted to move the team to Dallas. Before the season started, city councilman Charles Shafer was told Finfley refused to consider a two-year contract to broadcast the A's games because the team would move to Dallas after the 1962 season.

Finley formally applied to the league to move the team on May 18, 1962, but was denied as the American League meeting called was to discuss plans to aid the minor leagues, not relocation, thus making him out of order. A furious Finley issued his grievance to the media:

"Those goddam club owners think they can keep me from moving the team. I'll show them a thing or two. I've got some tricks I haven't used yet. My lawyers tell me they can't keep me in Kansas City, some kind of antitrust crap."

Beyond attendance, Finley's issues in Kansas City included parking, access roads, and concession problems.

The answer for Finley was a for the city council to submit a general obligation bond issue that would fund a 50,000 seat stadium with 15,000 parking spaces. For Athletics fans, this ultimate by Finley feels timeless:

"Unless Kansas City is willing to start action for a new and modern stadium, its days as a major league city are numbered. The present stadium is the worst in the major leagues in many respects."

Finley's grumblings did not lead to an immediate bond being floated, but did yield action in the form of feasibility (remodeling/parking additions/new stadium) studies and served as the origin

Birth of Green-and-Gold

In 1963, one of the on-the-field developments was that Finley put the lats names of players on jerseys, something that had not happened since the team's inception in 1901. However, this proved to be a one-year fad, with a twist -- Finley printed abbreviated names such as "Cooz" (Wayne Causey) and "Hawk" (Ken Harrelson).

Of greater historical importance, 1963 marked the launch of the Athletics current color scheme -- green-and-gold, The '63 squad donned vests in the "Kelly green"/"Fort Knox gold" variant. Peterson claims these colors were chosen because they were Finely's wife's favorite colors. (Other books have noted that Finley aped the scheme used by his hometown university, Notre Dame.)

Peterson offered this passage regarding the reception of the new duds:

The press ridiculed the uniforms and opposing players taunted the A's with comments like, "Hi there, beautiful."

The Athletics lone "All-Star," Norm Sieburn, did not play in the game as Yankees manager Ralph Houk felt the green-and-gold uniform would embarrass the American League.

The Athletics also changed the start time for games, moving weekday games to 7 p.m. from 8 p.m. and Saturday games to 6 p.m. Finley explained the team's calculus:

"Most of our fans come from 50 miles away. We want them to get to bed at a decent hour."

Enter the Chiefs

In February of 1963, Lamar Hunt announced that he was moving his Dallas Texans to Kansas City. The city gave him a very favorable lease, $1 a year for the first two years with the city taking half of concession sales. After the first two years, provided ticket sales were above $1.1 million, the city would receive five percent of gross receipts. However, should sales not reach the $1.1 million target, rent would revert to $1. In a sign of things to come, Kansas City also remodeled Municipal Stadium to make it more friendly for football.

Finley was inflamed and demanded similar terms. The city council responded that the team's rent was lowered in 1955 and 1956 (to $25,000) -- when the franchise first arrived. However, in comparison, the subsequent years' bills were north of $100,000 -- peaking at $148,000 in 1959 and clocking in at $125,000 in 1963.

Kansas City's then-mayor, H. Roy Bartle, and the outgoing nine-member city council hammered out and offered to Finley a seven year lease similar to what was offered to the Chiefs -- $1 a year for the first two years (regardless of attendance), then five percent of gross receipts if admission exceeded 950,000. If attendance dropped below this level, the rent became $1.

Peterson noted that Finley loved the contract, he was quoted as saying:

"...a wonderful contract. It was so wonderful, in fact, that no one in his right mind would ever have wanted to leave Kansas City."

The long-short, detailed in the book, is that the lease was subsequently ruled invalid and Finley was re-agitated. He telephoned a reporter at the Atlanta Journal and loudly complained. Finley then went to Atlanta and returned with a decision to move the team to that city.

The ever-combustible Finley, upon bumping into Cheifs' coach Hank Stram, informed him that Atlanta had a new stadium in the works and that Lamar Hunt should consider joining the Athletics in decamping from Kansas City:

"This is a horse-shit town. No one will ever do any good here."

By July 1963, Finley's focus had shifted to Oakland as several owners had expressed reservations about supporting a team in Atlanta -- travel costs and leaving the territory open for another club were mentioned.

Much like Atlanta, Oakland had plans to build a new stadium complex -- what would eventually become the Oakland Coliseum and Arena.

Finley's argument to the league for leaving Kansas City was financial: he claimed to have lost $800,000 in 1961 and $600,000 in 1962. At numerous points, Peterson details how Finley was somewhat ham-handed in negotiating broadcast rights. Finley claimed that the team took in only $200,000 in broadcast revenue in 1962, in comparison to $1 million collected by the Yankees.

With Oakland on his mind, and the Coliseum not yet constructed, Finley dialed San Francisco Giants owner Horace Stoneham regarding sharing Candlestick Park until an Athletics stadium was ready. Peterson details:

Stoneham told Finley he would not share the stadium and told the reporters "one of the reasons we (the Giants) moved from New York was that we were assured we would have the Bay Area to ourselves.

However, in a bit of delicious historical irony, the Giants couldn't block the Athletics as Oakland was regarded as "open territory."

Four More Years

The real value of Peterson's text can be found in the juicy details of Finley's squabbles with Kansas City and his flirtations with different locales. Included on this list is Louisville, Kentucky. He even went as far as to sign a conditional two-year contract with the city to use its current AAA stadium. Peterson sums it up perfectly:

Finley had, in effect, moved the team without league approval.

Finley offered:

"I don't expect it to be a bed of roses, but after I have had an opportunity to present all the facts, I am sure they will be appreciative of our problems and definitely give us approval. We have these caps that have KC on the front and we don't want to throw them away, so I think we'll call ourselves the Kentucky Colonels. Or maybe we'll just scrap the caps and call ourselves the Louisville Athletics or maybe the Louisville Sluggers."

American League owners rejected the move by a margin of 9-1 and gave Finley until February 1, 1964 to conclude a lease with Kansas City.

Enter the Finley bluster:

"This is still a free country and I don't believe that anybody can force me to operate my business in a city where I've lost a million dollars in three years. If I'm forced to sign, I'll sue the league..."

Finley pivoted and a plan was hatched to move the team to Oakland, playing on an interim basis at Youell Field. AL owners also rejected this proposal by the same margin, 9-1. (The lone dissenting vote is Finley.)

Attempts to purchase the team by the business community in Kansas City were rebuffed or never considered by Finley and, ultimately, he signed a four-year lease.

Part II: Coming Soon!

There is still a lot of developments to cover, as we explore 1964 to 1968, weigh in on the KC years and examine parallels to today's stadium situation.

Friday, December 12, 2014

"Hope Is Not a Great Strategy"

The popular sentiment, or at least one of the most vocal sentiments, with respect to the Athletics shipping off "All Stars" Josh Donaldson, Brandon Moss and Jeff Samardzija is that ownership -- mainly front man Lew Wolff -- is being "cheap." Accusation of abuse of the fan base are reverberating across the Twittersphere. In particular, this comment stood out on the SMB feed:
While it's understandable and comes from the hearts' of true Athletics fans, it ignores the guiding principles of Moneyball:

  • Buy low, sell high.
  • Don't invest in declining assets.

When heaping praise on he-who-shall-not-be-mentioned, a similar sentiment was expressed. Yoenis Cespedes' stock was sky high thanks to two titanic Home Run Derby performances and some AND-1 mixtape calibre outfield plays. A certain then-Red Sox pitcher was, statistically speaking, having perhaps his peak year. Pain was felt all around with the result, but it was a decision guided by how the Athletics have always operated.

  • Get maximum value relative to where the franchise is in the competitiveness cycle.

The reality is that, injured or not, Moss ended up having an average year and largely was a non-factor down the stretch -- before magically reappearing in the Wild Card game.

Moss' WAR was 2.5 and his average was .234. His best attribute was his attitude, followed by his 25 home runs.  Moss is 31 and arbitration eligible. He is going to command around seven million. Remember, this guy was a scrap-heap pickup. It's better than even odds that Moss' best years were in green-and-gold. Moneyball doesn't pay for past performance.

Donaldson is perhaps the best case A's fans have of ownership "abusing" the fanbase. Not only is he a great story, a converted catcher and fringe prospect in the Rich Harden-Cubs deal, he is a fiery guy who plays hard and posted some amazing numbers. Tyler Kepner of the New York Times even gushed that he was, based on WAR, the best player in the game.

Still, there were cracks in the firmament. Donaldson slumped mightily in 2013 after the All Star break and seemed to peak in 2014 around the time Kepner's article came out. Make no mistake though, Donaldson -- based on his last two years -- is a stud and the A's won't be getting a +6 WAR from Brett Lawrie. (Although, the switch to grass may help him blossom.)

Instead, the Athletics are saving a good amount of money, as Fox's Ken Rosenthal writes:

Donaldson projects to earn $4.5 million in his first year of arbitration, according to Matt Swartz of MLBTradeRumors.com. His salaries after that, assuming normal health and production, could be $7.5 million, $11 million and $16 million, a rival agent said. And those numbers actually might be conservative. So, the savings for the Athletics figure to be in at least the $40 million range.

The prospects are TBD. The Athletics might really regret this trade. But, JD's value was Mike Trout-high and nagging concerns like his leg-kick-timing no doubt entered into the calculus. The other thing to consider is that the Athletics swapped a plus defender at 3B for another plus defender. While WAR  has entered the lexicon, its defensive component can be glossed over. On the offensive side of the ledger, Donaldson only hit .255 last year -- albeit with 29 home runs.

While true that Donaldson may have had his issues with Beane, he himself may have issues without now-Red Sox hitting coach Chili Davis, a man who worked wonders for the Athletics.

Longer-Term Vision

One of the often mentioned words regarding competitive baseball clubs is that there are "windows" in which a team has a decent chance of: a) making the playoffs; and b) winning the World Series. Jonah Keri, a fabulous writer, had serious egg on his face when before the 2012 season he offered that the Athletics had felt their window to compete had closed and that was the motivation behind shipping off Gio Gonzalez, Trevor Cahill and Andrew Bailey.

From the Grantland piece:

Oakland’s trades of Trevor Cahill, Gio Gonzalez, and Andrew Bailey last month signaled a rebuilding process within a rebuilding process.

It turns out Keri, a really, really smart guy, guessed wrong. Beane sold high on each player. With the exception of one very fine season (2012 for Gonzalez), all three have failed to blossom into true "All Stars." Cahill and Bailey are virtually forgotten and Gonzalez is still a 2-3 pitcher, not quite an ace. The only common denomination among the three is that they all received big paydays.

The trades, from a marketing perspective, were disastrous in the short run. (In general, it is best to avoid buying the Athletics yearly calendar.) Fans were upset and similar allegations of no "long term vision" and ownership being cheap were uttered.

Of course, the "prospects" netted in this trade helped propel the team to three great seasons and included two future All Stars -- Derek Norris (2013) and Ryan Cook (2012). A cogent argument could be made that the savings from shedding these players -- or assets as Beane might call them -- also enabled the team to be the high bidder on Cespedes -- also an All Star (2013).

Hearing rumblings that Beane et al. might be looking to add -- now that he has subtracted so much -- sounds heartening and familiar. This is Beane in a piece by Oakland Tribune scribe John Hickey:

"We've collected young players, and we're going to try to redeploy the extra payroll."

A long-term vision should be defined by winning baseball and, no matter how championship-less the club remains, for their budget (real or self-stated) the team continues to excel in the aggregate.

Again from Hickey's piece:

Beane simply doesn't believe in the tear-down-to-bare-ground-and-rebuild philosophy. Since 1997 under Beane, the A's have won at least 74 games every year. The only other major league teams who can make that claim are the Yankees and the Cardinals, two postseason regulars.

Here is some historical perspective on this accomplishment from ESPN's Buster Olney:

The last year they posted fewer than that, Jose Canseco was their designated hitter, Scott Brosius was their third baseman and they had just started to install a young infielder named Miguel Tejada into their everyday lineup. It was 1997, and Oakland finished that season with 65 wins and 97 losses. 

Year after year since, the Athletics have ranked near the bottom of the majors in payroll, given the constraints of their market, and yet year after year, they have tried to win.

In contrast, here's an instance where the Athletics were truly cheap and lacked vision. From the National Baseball Hall of Fame's newsletter Inside Pitch:

On Dec. 10, 1935 – 79 years ago this week – the Philadelphia Athletics traded future Hall of Fame slugger Jimmie Foxx and pitcher Johnny Marcum to the Boston Red Sox in return for Gordon Rhodes, George Savino and $150,000. 

By 1935, Foxx had collected two MVP Awards and crushed 302 home runs. He belted 58 homers in 1932, two shy of Babe Ruth’s record at the time, and won the American League batting Triple Crown in 1933. His natural strength, cultivated as a boy on his family farm in Sudlersville, Md., was so formidable that Hall of Fame pitcher Lefty Gomez declared Foxx “has muscles in his hair.” 

Rhodes, meanwhile, lost 20 games for Philadelphia in 1936 and retired. Savino, a catcher, never made it out of the minor leagues.

The truly cash-strapped Athletics traded one of the greatest sluggers ever to pay the bills.

The modern-day Athletics are frugal, but cheap is a stretch.

The Counter-Narrative

It's human nature to tie events (favorable or unfavorable) to our convictions. To say that Wolff, the bane of large swaths of the fan base for his inability to commit and build a new stadium in Oakland, is orchestrating a concerted effort to dampen fan enthusiasm while enriching his ownership group is a an easy, if emotional-driven, connect.

The initial SMB tweet regarding the team not really caring about the size of the season ticket base is grounded in the fact that, thanks to numerous streams of revenue sharing (luxury tax, MLB Advanced Media, shared MLB.com merchandise sales) and due to the city and county owning the O.co and taking their cut of the gate, the Athletics financial sheet likely shows that the vast majority of operating income is not attendance driven. The gate is gravy. The proverbial Pepsi machine in Moneyball is always well stocked.

The Athletics due to their perceived status as "small market" have the political cover to make decisions that big market clubs "can't do." However, winning drives these choices.

An interesting aside: All MLB teams will be increasing their digital revenue in the near future, thanks to HBO turning to MLB Advanced Media for streaming.

The fact remains that numerous instances of the Athletics spending money have occurred recently. They don't fit with some fan narratives and depictions of Wolff, Beane, Fisher, et al. and are conveniently glossed-over.

For instance:
  • Extending Sean Doolittle.
  • Extending Coco Crisp.
  • Signing Scott Kazmir.
  • Trading for Jim Johnson (who made $10 million last year).
  • Signing Yoenis Cespedes.
Are the Athletics big-spenders? No. But, fans shouldn't want them to be profligate. The list of big contracts to "big" stars by big market teams that have worked out poorly is long. There are also a lot of players whose value exceeds their production -- Jed Lowrie will soon join the list. The problem is that players are paid based on past performance, and they usually get their best contract after their most productive playing days are over.

Building a Fan Base

By what measures exist (social media, historical gate attendance, merchandise sales), the Athletics fan base is below-average. It really burns one to shell out for a nice custom gold jersey with a player's name on it, only to wake up with a relic as they have been shipped off. It even applies to shirseys, meaning that the average Athletics fans' wardrobe is littered with short-timers and names of years past. This dynamic, the lack of a stable, marketable player, has certainly not helped develop fans. However, in recent years it has been given far too much weight.

The biggest threat the Athletics face is, and has been, the Giants and their shiny trophies. Championships breed passionate fans. Winning the World Series (vicariously through your favorite team) is, for a true baseball fan, the defining moment(s). The Athletics 2012 run was magical, but to paraphrase Beane, "No one remembers you unless you win the last game of the year."

The Giants are a marketing machine and have strategically positioned their minor league teams -- in San Jose and now Sacramento -- such that their Northern California presence is dominating. Before you say, "The Athletics seceded Sacramento," consider that the River Cats really wanted the Giants. From a column by the Sacramento Bee's Marcos Breton in September:

“Our fans were overwhelmingly leaning toward the Giants or they didn’t care which big-league team we were affiliated with,” (River Cats President) Jeff Savage said.

The Athletics badly want to win. It will validate their whole philosophy and bury the ghosts of post-season past. Again, noting human nature wires us to think this way, they may also want to win to gain  greater relevance and political capital for use in a stadium quest.

Just Don't Do It

The only jerseys, shirseys or player-related paraphernalia Athletics fans should purchase is that related to players long-retired and safe from the trading block.

Based on past results and with faith in "the process," only the name on the front matters. The Athletics might truly stink this year (although it's doubtful). However, at the very least the team won't be overly-burdened by big contracts to players in decline; or crippled by inertia.

As Beane noted in Hickey's article:

"Hope is not a great strategy."