Photo: Adapted from AP
A few years ago the Tampa Bay Rays weren’t just the doormat of Major League Baseball — they were the laughing stock of all pro sports.But in 2008, the Rays won the AL East en route to a World Series appearance. In 2010, they won the division again over the big money boys in New York and Boston.
After a full decade of horror, the turnaround shocked the baseball world, but how did they do it?
Jonah Keri’s The Extra 2% is a combo baseball and business book, but it’s not a how-to about how to run a baseball team or a business. Even through it draws immediate comparisons to Michael Lewis’ Moneyball because of the subject matter, it’s not that either.
It’s simply a deep history of the Rays: what they went through to get a team to St. Petersburg, the tragic failings of an incompetent owner, and the strategies that pried the club out of the gutter.
Way back in 1988, St. Petersburg, Florida came minutes away from getting a baseball team, but the Illinois state legislature literally stopped the clock to get a deal done on deadline to keep the White Sox in Chicago. In the late 1990’s, St. Pete got their team, but the ugly, warehouse-like monstrosity of a stadium now known as Tropicana Field had already stood empty for 10 years.
At least they had a team though, right?
Painfully inept owner Vince Naimoli (at least that’s how he’s portrayed in the book) was in charge, and he led the then-Devil Rays into one of the worst decade-long runs MLB has ever seen. He lashed out at the media and community and spent profusely on ageing former-stars, including the formation of the ill-fated “Hit Show.” For 10 years, the Rays remained in last place of the AL East every year except for one.
Enter Stuart Sternberg. The former Goldman Sachs partner bought majority ownership of the Rays in 2005 and set the wheels in motion to undo the Naimoli era. He brought in Matt Silverman and Andrew Friedman — who both left behind successful Wall Street careers — to help him and they put into place a set of changes that would catapult the Rays to World Series contenders.
And they did it quick. In just three years they had their first division title.
Photo: AP Images
The Rays adopted a new, healthier culture, shunning the harsh dictatorship that stifled employees during Naimoli’s reign. Sternberg and his cohort of outsiders used a baseball-adapted version of traditional arbitrage (combo deals that take advantage of differences in market prices) to shape the squad, along with quantitative analysis and new metrics to supplement traditional scouting.They didn’t just accept new analytical technology — they embraced it, hiring experts in an effort to gain any possible edge to topple the Yankees and Red Sox.
Few books go in to such depth to describe the inner dealings of a baseball front office. The reporting Keri put into The Extra 2% must have been painstaking and the access granted into the Rays inner sanctum (while still extremely limited) was unprecedented.
While the book might not have a looping story arc told through vibrant characters, the straightforward description of the mesh between business and baseball make The Extra 2% good reading material for MBAs across the country and baseball fans alike.
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