How to hit a home run
An ex-baseball player and a law graduate changed sports management
In 2003, a savvy financial journalist called Michael Lewis wrote Moneyball: the Art of Winning an Unfair Game, one of the most influential sports books yet written. Not only was the title a sly fusion of disparate worlds, but Lewis also managed to yoke a book about the business of sport to a human story with an almost tragic arc.
The tragedy was that of Billy Beane, the general manager of a then-middling Californian baseball franchise, Oakland Athletics ("Oakland A’s"). As a young baseballer, Beane had it all. He was tall, athletic and talented. He was good-looking, possessed of the fabled lantern jaw. He could, said those who saw him, go all the way.
Yet as he moved up the ranks, his progress stalled. He got lost; he got down on himself. When it mattered, he couldn’t deal with the lonely grind of "pro" ball.
Not surprisingly, he entered management nursing a profound sense of grievance. To his credit he asked himself why and probed the sport for institutional weakness. He realised baseball scouting was wedded to age-old myths. Too often ball players were scouted and traded lazily, according to what they looked like and could do, rather than what the numbers said they had done. As a youngster, Beane himself was caught in this very blind spot. He should have been a baseball great, but wasn’t. He looked right but, finally, this didn’t count for enough.
Why not, he wondered.
Epstein started out as an unconventional general manager, a neophyte swimming against the current. In 2011, he left Boston, having diverted the riverMichael Baumann
Using the pioneering work of Bill James, a statistician working in the arcane science of sabermetrics — the empirical analysis of baseball — Beane began to burn down baseball’s myths. The false wisdom gained by the gnarled scout sitting in the bleachers was first to go; next came the sometimes dubious worth of the (often over-valued) star player. He realised, too, that it was infinitely better to trade college graduates than draft high-school leavers hyped by the system. He debunked so much that virtually nothing was left.
It wasn’t only grievance and self-loathing that drove Beane. He acted as he did because the Oakland A’s were poor. Exactly 15 years ago, for instance, Oakland and the Tampa Bay Devil Rays had a budget of roughly a third of that of the New York Yankees. They were compelled to be efficient, so they traded more wisely. As Lewis put it: "Many of the players drafted or acquired by the Oakland A’s had been the victims of unthinking prejudice rooted in baseball’s traditions."
Beane’s team was so successful, his deconstruction of baseball’s sacred truths so racy, that half of corporate America beat a path to his headquarters to sniff out the secret. Even Hollywood came knocking. The league’s serial underachievers, the Boston Red Sox, tried to poach him. They couldn’t, so they did the next best thing, giving a job to Theo Epstein, a self-confessed Beane acolyte.
Epstein, a law graduate, was 28 when the Red Sox management hired him in 2002. It was an appointment so controversial, according to the jaundiced scribes of Boston’s papers, that it was fundamentally nonsensical. Epstein wasn’t a player and had little experience. What on earth was Red Sox president Larry Lucchino thinking?
At no time did they ask if perhaps the Sox needed to think out of the box. The so-called "Curse of the Bambino" had prevailed at Boston for years, and they clearly needed to do something different.
As one of baseball’s most successful early franchises, the Sox won the World Series in 1918 but in the off-season the following year they traded Babe Ruth — "the Bambino" — to their rivals, the New York Yankees. So began their troubles, muttered their more superstitious fans.
On his appointment, Epstein made immediate changes, with a raft of new, cheaper buys and some statistical innovations. In 2003 he fired manager Grady Little. The following season, facing a 0-3 deficit against the Yankees in a best of seven in the American League Championship Series, the Sox burgled the series by winning four on the trot, capping a memorable season by winning the World Series against the St Louis Cardinals. It had taken Epstein two years to reverse the curse.
"Epstein started out as an unconventional general manager," wrote Michael Baumann on The Ringer website, "a neophyte swimming against the current. In 2011, he left Boston, having diverted the river."
Epstein’s later years at the Sox were a grind. He needed a fresh challenge and that was provided by the Chicago Cubs. Like the Sox, some believed they suffered from a curse — in their case, the "Curse of the Billy Goat".
In 1945 Cubs fans asked tavern owner William Sianis to remove his pet goat, Murphy, from Wrigley Field stadium because he smelled. Sianis was furious, saying: "Them Cubs, they ain’t gonna win no more." And they didn’t — until last year, when Epstein helped them take the World Series for the first time in 108 years.
The need for new thinking
Epstein has the charisma that allows him to crunch numbers with the nerds and get down and dirty with the jocks. Those close to him say he can be as difficult as the next man, but one characteristic stands out: he’s a good listener. Added to this, he’s empathetic, able to plug in to what makes the person sitting opposite him tick.
"I don’t think I’m a chameleon," he insisted in a recent interview with sports channel ESPN. "I can feel where people are coming from, what makes them tick, where they are vulnerable, what makes them feel good about themselves. I get just as much out of it as they do. I love connecting."
He has changed the way America thinks about managing sports teams, a revolution begun by Beane. Way back when, managers and chief executives were ex-players (like Beane). Now they’re Ivy League graduates who might have been investment bankers. They’re financially smart and emotionally savvy (an area in which SA administrators so obviously and painfully fall down).
The final piece in the Epstein puzzle — a couple of months ago Fortune magazine voted him the greatest leader in the world — is his sensitivity to notions of character. When the Cubs make a decision prior to the draft, a seemingly disproportionate amount of time is spent discussing a player’s character. Epstein believes a player’s ability to deal with failure is crucial if he’s got the right stuff.
The Cubs make it their business to interview a prospective recruit’s teachers, girlfriends and former coaches, all in an attempt to find out exactly who he is. Perhaps, all those years ago, that was Beane’s problem. He looked good but didn’t have a durable enough character.
That came later, as he developed the Oakland A’s into the most overachieving little team baseball had ever seen — and, in doing so, initiated a remarkable business and baseball story that Epstein has plugged into and extended.
As good a story as this is, what can be gleaned from it by those operating in the fraught environment of SA sport?
First, Epstein and the post-Beane revolution in US baseball have surely taught us that the cult of charm goes a long, long way.
On the other hand, cynics will say: "So what?" Rugby boss Louis Luyt had charm but he also had obvious limitations — he was a poor delegator and a bully, and seldom a team player.
Added to Epstein’s undoubted charm is surely the idea that sport needs to be treated like a business, proceeding along rational business lines.
In this regard, Cricket SA is by far the best-run of the major local sporting federations. The downside is that under CEO Haroon Lorgat it threatens to become a super-bureaucracy, with the organisation besotted with "key performance indicators" and matrices.
And, unlike Epstein, Lorgat is poor at the soft stuff; his people skills are not what they should be.
If you’re looking for a contemporary case study of how things shouldn’t be done, you need look no further than SA Rugby. It has lumbered along with an antiquated structure that gives a spot at the top table to small provincial presidents like those from, say, the Griffons. Many of us wouldn’t be able to find them on the map.
Such quaint throwbacks to amateurism mean that rational business decisions are hamstrung by committees. The US system is lean, mean and meritocratic, while SA’s structures are traditionally bloated by large executive bodies. These executives are often alienated from the operational folk down in the bowels of the organisation, while US structures — and those favoured by Epstein at the Cubs — are horizontal.
As we hold our breath for another rugby season of underachievement, it seems that we need to see more blood on the floor before we can think like US baseball — before we can think of change.