OAKLAND, Calif. — Before Michael Lewis' book "Moneyball" hit the best sellers list and before Brad Pitt brought Oakland A's general manager Billy Beane to the big screen in the Academy Award-nominated film of the same name, the concept of building a small-market club through shrewd acquisitions, farm system strengthening and an obsession with on-base percentage had already been featured north of the border.
Arguably, the first incarnation of the Moneyball concept occurred in Montreal in the early 1990s. The lead back then was played by Dan Duquette, now the Orioles' executive vice president of baseball operations.
"We were Moneyball 1," laughed Duquette, who spent six years with the now defunct Expos, including 1992 and 1993 as vice president and general manager.
Duquette left Montreal early in 1994 to go to his hometown and free-spending Boston Red Sox, who he led until a regime change in 2002. He was out of big league baseball until November 2011, when the Orioles hired him to steer a fairly directionless ship.
This week, Beane's A's and Duquette's Orioles meet for a four-game series in Northern California, the first time since the two clubs surprised the sporting world in 2012 by making the playoffs after being among baseball's bottom feeders the previous year.
Still considered flukes by many pundits, the A's (13-9) and O's (12-9) have virtually picked off where they left off last season — with two of the four best records in the American League heading into Thursday. And they've done it with similar blueprints.
"Our team improved 24 games over the previous year. We hustled. Our staff hustled. We found players internationally. We found some players like [Nate] McLouth, [Miguel] Gonzalez who came up to help the team," Duquette said.
"And Billy signed [Brandon] Moss, picked up Moss and he had a good year for them. [Beane] made a good trade with [Josh] Reddick and he brought up some players from his farm system. And [Yoenis] Cespedes was a good signing. So there are some similarities between the two teams in terms of how we became competitive."
There are also some obvious differences: For one, the Orioles have more money to play with than the A's. According to USA Today's annual Opening Day roster valuations, the A's payroll to start the season was $63.4 million, fourth lowest in the game. The Orioles were at roughly $91 million, which is 15th out of the 30 teams.
That lack of payroll flexibility has forced Beane to trade away potential star players before they become too expensive, something the Orioles haven't had to do.
"Billy is in a small market, so he has challenges, right? He goes with young players and he also works the waiver wire effectively. Also, he trades players like Gio Gonzalez; he was forced to trade him for some younger players. He's traded away some good pieces," Duquette said. "We have to have a strong farm system, so we have a foundation to make trades … Our strategy is to have a good farm system and add the best players to the big leagues through the farm system. And have deep scouting and be aggressive in international scouting, do a good job in domestic scouting and also look for value in the free agent market."
Duquette understands the difficulties that Beane faces, and he also realizes that smart management can allow a low-budget team to compete regardless of revenue. Despite having one of baseball's lowest payrolls, Duquette's Expos had the sport's best record from 1992 to 1994, and they were considered the National League favorite for the 1994 World Series had the season not been cut short by the players' strike.
By that point, Duquette was already with the Red Sox, but the 1994 Expos club that had baseball's best record was constructed by Duquette through trades, drafts and international signings.
"A lot of these same tenets — having a good player-development operation, building a good team — those kind of tenets are still the same," Duquette said. "And Billy has been able to [do those things] and successfully contend in Oakland the last couple of years."
Much has been made about Beane's infatuation with on-base percentage — that was a major focus of the book and movie — and Duquette is also a big fan of seeking out hitters with high OBPs. But this current Orioles club isn't exactly an on-base machine — with a .324 mark heading into the road trip.
"We are still working on that," he said with a laugh.
Duquette points out that OBP was something he focused on when he was building those Montreal clubs, but the concept pre-dates his tenure and Moneyball's rise.
"These things are getting a lot of publicity. But [Orioles Hall of Fame manager Earl Weaver] recognized the value of on-base percentage. You have to have guys on base before you score runs," Duquette said. "So they were popularized in the mainstream by Moneyball, but we were using a lot of the same tenets in the early 90s. We had to."
Duquette said he watched the "Moneyball" movie and enjoyed it. But if he had one criticism it's that he believed Beane's true success in building the A's was compiling a three-headed pitching monster of Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder and Barry Zito. The acquisition of high-OBP guys like Scott Hatteberg was secondary to the A's ascension, Duquette believes.
"Billy has been able to bring up some really good pitching from the farm system. He has a really good feeder program through his player development," Duquette said. "We have been able to get some decent pitching from our farm system, but Billy is a little bit ahead of us in the numbers."
Duquette made a cameo — actually, two — in "Moneyball." There was a scene in which Beane is told via a phone call that Duquette is ready to sign Johnny Damon to the Red Sox.
Damon signed with Boston, but technically Duquette said it was his assistant, Lee Thomas, who handled all of the direct negotiations with agent Scott Boras.
There's also an actual news clip with Duquette holding up a Red Sox jersey and presenting it to Damon. It was Duquette's 15, um, seconds of movie magic fame.
"My mom called me up to yell at me and said, 'You didn't tell me you were in the movie,'" Duquette said. "I said, 'I was afraid you would blink and not see me, Mom.'"
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