Talking Baseball With Grady Fuson

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The villainy is palpableLast July, it seemed like a good idea: with the long awaited Academy Award-friendly adaptation of Michael Lewis's Moneyball about to hit theaters, why not chase down the folks that were part of that story—specifically the ones that weren't the focus of the story—and see what they've been up to since the book's publication. It probably would've turned out great, if I were any sort of well-connected sports journalist with years of experience to rely on.

Instead, I spent a good couple of months leaving unrequited voicemails and e-mails with motivational speaker agencies, sports academies, and various baseball front offices. I had a list of about 15 folks I hoped to contact, everyone from Moneyball poster/whipping boy Jeremy Brown to A's video coordinator turned Tampa Bay Rays director of player personnel Dan Feinstein. I heard from four, and actually talked to three. Two interviews, due mostly to the wet-behind-the-ears technique of yours truly, didn't turn out so well. The third was with Grady Fuson. Fuson is not much of a presence in Lewis' book, but Aaron Sorkin's screenplay turns Fuson into the film's de facto bad guy. (To be precise, Fuson is more the chief henchman of the actual big-bad, which is Baseball Orthodoxy.) In the film, the character of Grady Fuson is a gruff seen-it-all hard-ass who wouldn't think twice about laying hands on another man. In our conversation, by contrast, Fuson was gracious and easy-going, and the long-time scout turned baseball executive—he's currently Special Assistant to the General Manager in Oakland and has spent time in the front offices of the Rangers and Padres—was more than willing to chat about his thoughts about his life in baseball, his work with the A's, and both the film that got released (and which will be released on DVD and Blu-Ray on January 10) and Steven Soderbergh's doomed original production. Special thanks to editor Sean Fennessey for greenlighting my original pitch, and then giving me permission to publish this conversation elsewhere.

Raposa: As a scout, was there a type of player you had a soft spot for?

Fuson: The type of player you're attracted to kind of still stays the same. You know, everybody in scouting wants an athlete, they want velocity, they want power, they want speed. I think what separates scouting opinions from others are the ability to look inside the athletic mode, the ability to look inside the delivery and say, you know, I certainly like the velocity but this isn't the type of delivery that is gonna create consistency, touch, finish. But at the same time, statistical data has been something I've been intrigued in, even before I was a scouting director. I've been a believer in balancing those things out. Wherever I've been in leadership positions, that's been the approach. That doesn't mean you don't get attracted to a guy that has poor numbers but he's a high-skilled player, versus a player where you don't like anything about him but he has good stats. Those are the freakish things in the business. The perfect player is that one that, really, things balance themselves out from objective to subjective.

Raposa: Given the impact that Oakland's lack of money has in attracting free agents, does that affect the team's drafting strategy as well?

Fuson: Well, you know, back in the day when I was overseeing the whole scouting department, we had many more money issues than I believe we have now. Since I've come back to Oakland the last couple of years, and even prior to me coming back, money has not stood in the way of Oakland drafting players. They've been very aggressive; they've been more aggressive in the international market than they ever were before. So from that side, they continue to be aggressive when it comes to the scouting and development end.

Raposa: Do you see any certain type of player or skill being undervalued to the extent that it could be the "next hot thing?"

Fuson: Well, I think everything in the world's been tried, so I don't know what's undervalued. You know, the one thing that's evident is that performance continues to be a highly rated, attractive thing, so when you look at players that perform, whether it be at the college level, whether it be at the rookie ball level, whatever level, performance is a big part of the battle. There's players that perform and put up numbers in your system that maybe you don't hold to the highest regard, but at the same time performing players become attractive to other clubs. I think we're at a good spot here in Oakland where statistics are still highly used, there's more of a ramped-up scouting staff, there's more scouts on the staff, we're deeper in the international world, we're deeper in the pro scouting world, and we're deeper in the amateur world. I think we've gotten to the point now where we've got that balance in everything we do.

Raposa: Since you left in '02 and came back last year, have you seen a difference, philosophy-wise in what the A's are doing now versus when you were last with the team?

Fuson: Oh, without a doubt. Like I said, at the end of my tenure, I think the statistical thing was probably starting to climb to its peak, how much that was being used by Billy and people that were in there, Paul [DePodesta]. I think there came that period in '03, '04, '05, where they kind of moved back to a little bit more traditional scouting. They increased the number of professional scouts they had, they kind of flipped for a while. One of the big things in the book was, my last year, when we picked Jeremy Bonderman and there was an uproar about taking a high school pitcher, and da-de-da-dee-da. But if you go back and look at the A's draft in '04, all they took was a bunch of high school pitching. So they went against their own grain there. There's definitely some merit, I've seen Billy talk about it numerous times—there are so many clubs now that see things in a mirrored way, where they're trying to achieve the same balance between statistics, metrics, good scouting, and so the same player becomes attractive to numerous teams, versus just one or two or three. Especially when you look at the draft, where you have this one time a year to make a procurement on players, you're not gonna get all your players that you put your eyes out there to get, because there's other clubs that evaluate them very comparably to you.

Raposa: I read an early draft of the script that featured a scene where your character was having a "stats versus scouts" fight with Billy Beane in his office. Was that sort of schism in the A's front office when you were there originally?

Fuson: Yeah, that was over the top, dramatically—we really never had fights. In my last year or so in Oakland, running the draft in 2001, that was my last draft, you could see there was a little bit more of an urge towards the statistical side. It was the year I left, '02, I'd left and gone to Texas as the Assistant GM and oversaw development & scouting. The '02 is what they really consider the Moneyball draft.

Raposa: Were you approached by people involved in producing either version of the movie?

Fuson: Yeah, the first movie, when Steven Soderbergh was going to be the director, I was basically gonna play my own part.

Raposa: Okay, yeah, I talked to Jim Mecir, and he mentioned that him and Erik Hijlus and a few other guys were actually flown out to California to prep for the movie, and two days after that they were told to go home. Was that similar to what you experienced?

Fuson: Yeah, everybody had these different times they were gonna go out to film. Jim probably was going out there in the early group. But yeah, the film got shut down about a day or two before it was supposed to shoot. There were numerous people that were going to play themselves. Art Howe was gonna play himself, Scott Hatteberg was gonna play himself, I was gonna play myself, there were two or three of my scouts that were gonna play themselves. But what was funny was that we had no idea. I hadn't seen a script.

Raposa: So you agreed to do this before you saw what the script looked like?

Fuson: Oh yeah. Shit, the way I looked at it, we're gonna go to Hollywood for a week and be taken care of, this'll be a reunion, it'll be fun. And at the time, I was still with San Diego. I looked at it like, "Let's have a good time." Now what's funny is a year ago, the guy that apparently was supposed to play me in the new script, he called me. He wanted to get a feel of me and blah blah blah. And so the more I got bullshitting with him, I said, "Well, what kinda role are you playing, what's being said?" And this guy just had some unbelievable lines that were gonna be said in this movie, and I'm going, "Oh my God." I even joked with Billy afterwards, I said, "Listen, if this is true what's he's gonna say I say, you better give me a 10-year deal, I'll never get another job in baseball."

Raposa: [laughs] Were you being portrayed as the anti-stat villain?

Fuson: Oh yeah. They had me being the Antichrist, man. What's funny is I still don't know how—whatever role I am in this, I don't know.

Raposa: Yeah, I looked at the cast list on IMDB, and I didn't see a character with your name. So it might be a similar situation to Paul DePodesta, where a composite character was created to represent him...

Fuson: Yeah, yeah, I agree. Somebody pulled up the cast list during the draft this year, and my name wasn't there, and the guy Ken Medlock that is apparently playing me isn't there. But some people that have seen the movie already—I think Billy and David Forst and Mike Crowley, I think they've already seen the movie before its final edit, and they say, "No, you're in there." I don't know if I'm in there by name or what.

Raposa: Did they say anything about the movie and its fealty to what actually happened?

Fuson: Yeah, I think most of them came away…it seemed very fictitious. And it's…well, I've seen the trailer, have you seen the trailer?

Raposa: Yeah.

Fuson: I mean, it looks okay.

Raposa: It's like they're going for, I think I heard someone call it "Friday Night Lights with spreadsheets."

Fuson: [laughs]

Raposa: It seems like an "underdog triumphing over unbelievable odds" kind of thing. Or they're at least trying to present it like that.

Fuson: Yeah, it'll be interesting.

Raposa: Do you plan on seeing it when it comes out?

Fuson: Oh, without a doubt, oh yeah. Can't wait. It's a baseball movie, who doesn't go see a baseball movie? [laughs]

Raposa: Do you have a favorite?

Fuson: You know, the movie I really like is the one with Kevin Costner, where he's a pitcher with Detroit, For The Love Of The Game. I certainly loved the girl movie, A League of Their Own, I thought that was well done. I was never much of a Bull Durham guy and all that. Those are just corny flicks.

Raposa: [laughs] You mean they weren't realistic? Come on!

Fuson: [laughs] I used to say back then, "If one of these parents that we're trying to draft a kid from were to see this, we would never sign a player."

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