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Wednesday, July 5, 2006 | Billy Beane, forgetting he’s one of baseball’s most prominent figures, looked around in awe at the Hall-of-Fame plaques hanging in the San Diego Hall of Champions, home to my day job. With a wry smile, he mused that if he was a better baseball player he might have a place in San Diego’s Hall of Fame.

The Oakland A’s general manager visited his hometown last week during the A’s three-game series against the Padres at Petco Park. We asked the Mt. Carmel High alumnus, who was the inspiration behind Michael Lewis’ best-selling book “Moneyball,” to speak at the Hall about the game and the business of baseball.

Beane, who studied in Oakland’s front office under now Padres CEO Sandy Alderson, applies a science to the game to build the A’s roster as opposed to the status quo of subjective decisions. He sees hitting a baseball as a skill that can be measured more than as a test of athleticism.

His playing career helped him come to these conclusions. Beane didn’t turn out to be the star he was projected as a first-round draft pick of the New York Mets in 1980. He was a prodigious athlete, but consistently hitting a baseball was a skill he lacked. He had turned down a Stanford scholarship for football and baseball after the Mets seduced him with his Hall-of-Fame potential.

They meant Cooperstown, not Balboa Park.

But that past failure on the field has made Beane the success he is today in the front office. He saw the way old-time baseball scouts misjudged talent because he was an example of how they missed. He began drafting players and signing undervalued free agents on their skill – not their athleticism. He zigged while the rest of baseball continued to zag.

It’s why the A’s, despite one of baseball’s lowest payrolls, are in first place in the American League West. They’re on their way to their eighth straight winning season in Beane’s nine years as general manager. If they maintain their AL West lead, it will be their fourth division title and fifth playoff trip.

Beane gave his audience what it wanted to hear as far as discussing the science and the business of baseball. But he also seemed to be having fun just talking sports as a long-time San Diego sports fan.

Sports, I get the feeling, is something he enjoys now more than he did as an athlete. It’s fun the way it was fun as a kid when his father, Bill, took him to Padres, Chargers and San Diego State games.

“I’m extremely proud of San Diego and to be from here,” Beane said. “I’ve already grilled (SDSU athletic director) Jeff Schemmel about the football team. My dad used to take me to see Brian Sipe and Dennis Shaw playing for Don Coryell.”

Here, Beane stepped from the lectern, spread his stance, raised his hips and lowered his back and mimicked former SDSU coach Don Coryell encouraging his players with a sweeping clap of his hands that would whistle through blades of grass on the turf.

“My memories are long,” Beane said. “I look forward to their return to prominence in football just like in basketball. I was sitting in front of my TV going nuts (watching the NCAA tournament game against Indiana).”

He spoke of San Diego’s fraternity of athletes, mentioning how baseball players from his era wanted to follow Detroit Tigers All-Star shortstop and Kearny High alumnus Alan Trammell into the Major Leagues.

“It’s the greatest thing when you come back home,” Beane said. “I’ve got friends I played Little League with and went to junior high and high school with. They’re people who have sons and daughters 6 or 7 years old. I was watching USC football games, and I saw Reggie Bush with ‘619’ on his face. It was no mystery to me. I know what it represented. I heard players in our clubhouse say, ‘What’s that mean?’ It was so obvious to me. That’s a sign of the fraternity that the city has always had among its athletes.”

Funny thing is, he wasn’t feeling much different a few weeks earlier when Beane quietly made a last-minute trip to San Diego to scout Vista High pitcher Trevor Cahill, an All-CIF pick the A’s drafted on June 6 in the second round.

“When I walked into the place, right away I spoke to about five people I hadn’t seen in 20 years,” Beane said. “It was a testament to the fraternity of San Diego athletes. I had moved on and done something else, but people still read my name and recognize me as a guy who used to live here. It gave me an incredible sense of pride.”

There might someday still be a place for Billy Beane in San Diego’s Hall of Fame, even if it’s as a general manager who couldn’t hit a baseball the way old-time scouts projected.

Tom Shanahan is voiceofsandiego.org’s sports columnist. He is the media coordinator for the San Diego Hall of Champions. You can e-mail him at toms@sdhoc.com. Or a send a letter to the editor.

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