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Original Issue

Stacked Decks

A series of bold moves by the A's and the Tigers stoked rumors of a rivalry, but the (god)fathers of the deals swear it's not personal, just business

FIRST THE A'S acquired starting pitchers Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel from the Cubs, on July 5. On July 23 the Tigers picked up closer Joakim Soria from the Rangers. Then came baseball's trade deadline, July 31: In the morning the A's added Red Sox ace Jon Lester, and late in the afternoon the Tigers pried away the Rays' ace, David Price.

It was billed as an arms race, a chess match, a pose-off, a prizefight. In one corner was well-heeled, well-coiffed Detroit general manager Dave (the Iron Brow) Dombrowski. In the other was the A's longtime plucky underdog, Billy (the Stalker) Beane. That one-on-one dynamic seemed to be confirmed when it was reported last Thursday that Dombrowski, having acquired Price mere ticks before the deadline, engaged in some light trash talk by texting Beane, "You have 1 minute to acquire Chris Sale," in reference to the White Sox' No. 1 starter.

There were, however, a few problems with the prevailing narrative. Beane says he texted Dombrowski, not vice versa: "You gave me only one minute to try and get Chris Sale," he wrote. And he did it to subvert the popular notion that he and his Tigers' counterpart had engaged in a two-man transactional war, not to confirm it. At one point he even included a smiley-face emoticon.

The idea that the A's were gunning for the Tigers—who, it should be noted, have eliminated Oakland from the playoffs in consecutive years—aggravates Beane because it overlooks the very real threats his team faces within the AL West. As of Sunday the Angels were 66--44, one game behind the A's and five wins ahead of the Tigers. "What fool would do this job for this long, have a one-game lead and start talking about October?" Beane asks. "When I first heard, 'This is done only for October—bulls---! You desperately want to make the playoffs, and you desperately want to win the division so you don't play in the one-game playoff. I can't imagine a bigger faux pas than looking forward two months when you've got a really good team right behind you."

Beane also didn't like the suggestion that he and Dombrowski engaged in an emotionally driven game of one-upmanship instead of a series of carefully considered, if bold, tactics. "We had lost two starters to injury in spring training, had to substitute two guys in, and the back end of our rotation was on fumes," Beane says. "I had to make sure we didn't run out of gas. And, simply put, Lester's a No. 1 starter. Those guys are rarely, if ever, available. If that caliber of player is out there, you go get him."

The A's July trades attracted so much attention not just because of the players they acquired but also those they gave up, which included their top prospect, the 20-year-old shortstop Addison Russell (to the Cubs), and their cleanup hitter, Yoenis Cespedes (to Boston). The organization had invested a lot of capital in both, monetary and emotional. Before they drafted Russell 11th overall in the 2012 draft, Beane and his top two lieutenants, David Forst and Farhan Zaidi, had watched him in person—they still laugh about how Zaidi tripped in the bleachers, spilling an enormous tray of food—and they have tracked his progress each day since. They had taken a major gamble on Cespedes, signing the Cuban escapee to a four-year, $36 million contract in February 2012, and watched him become an All-Star.

The bottom line is that in an age in which most clubs maintain a white-knuckled grip on their assets, both the A's and the Tigers stand out because they do not. "That's how you get good players—by trading good players," says Beane. It seems obvious, but it has become so rare a strategy that when clubs pursue it, the public immediately believes that some other factor, a sub-rosa rivalry, must be in play.

It isn't. Beane and Dombrowski were simply doing what has made them the second- and fifth-longest tenured GMs in the league. And among the most successful too. "I'm not going to complain about the excitement," Beane says of the modern playoff system, "but it's almost like this cruel game show. You realize that sometimes you're spinning the wheel." Beane's actions last week were all about giving the A's a better chance of landing this year's top prize, and perhaps the bigger news is that such a seemingly basic strategy has come to seem so unusual, and even vaguely suspicious.


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