Dog Days in February?
False Travis Buck sightings? Real Michael
Lewis sightings? Michael Taylor
launching one into orbit? It’s in all in
a day’s work here at A’s Central in the desert.
This morning started with the traditional team meeting in the clubhouse,
which is held each spring before the first full squad workout. Bob Geren addressed his troops, including a nice acknowledgement
Bailey winning last year’s American
League Rookie of the Year award. Beyond
a sign of respect to Bailey, the A’s manager probably wanted to make a very
salient point to all of his young players in camp. His message was loud and clear: everyone here has an opportunity to compete
and it’s up to you to take full advantage of it. In Andrew’s case last year, he clearly did.
One scene today that was unexpected if not downright
bizarre,was seeing a half dozen dogs roaming the hallowed turf of Phoenix Muni
this afternoon after workouts. Team
photographer Michael Zagaris–aka, “The Z
Man”–was on hand for the annual photo shoot with A’s players for the AvoDerm
Natural Pet Calendar, which is a promotional giveaway at the Coliseum April
18. If you were here today, you would
have seen some rather unique pairings featuring Brett Anderson, Dallas Braden, Craig
Breslow, Landon Powell and newcomer Kevin Kouzmanoff with such canine hopefuls as a Bulldog, Frenchie,
Chocolate and Yellow Labs, and a Bracco Italiano. While it’s good to see him again in a green
and gold uniform, I’m fairly certain Lenny DiNardo
will not be featured in this year’s calendar.
This, I hear, really disappointed the Bracco Italiano.
Perhaps the best clubhouse line of the day came from
catching prospect Josh Donaldson, he of the flowing
mane under his cap. After today’s
workout at Papago, he said in mock disgust, “Man, this is getting
tiresome. I had four different fans come
up to me, thinking I was Travis Buck and wanting my autograph.” It’s no wonder he was mistaken for Travis,
considering he actually looks more like
Buck than Buck does–or at least Buck,
circa 2009, before he shaved his head. The
good news for those Travis Buck followers–and you know who you are–it should be
noted that he did report to camp with his hair grown out, although not yet to
the length that makes him Travis Buck
(as so aptly featured on his 2008 bobblehead).
When I left the clubhouse and returned to my office
this afternoon, I got off the elevator and almost got blindsided (appropriately) by a man who looked very familiar. It was none other than best-selling author Michael Lewis, someone I have long admired who wrote such wildly
successful books as “The Blind Side” and “Moneyball.” He was here to visit good friend, Billy Beane, the subject of “Moneyball” who reportedly
will be portrayed by Brad Pitt in the movie version
which starts shooting later this year.
Clearly a superstar in the literary world, I was struck how friendly and
approachable Michael was. Both Berkeley residents, we
chatted for a few minutes before he headed up to Billy’s office. He mentioned that he’s about to publish
another book about Wall Street, and that he’s also working on a sequel to
Moneyball focusing on the journey of pitchers through the minor leagues.
One final scene from today that I won’t soon forget
was standing at the cage of Field 4 at Papago during live batting
practice. Left-handed reliever Brad Kilby was pitching to outfielder Michael Taylor in the
first pitcher-hitter confrontation of the spring. Kilby’s fastball was clearly getting the best
of Taylor early
on, which is quite common when hitters first step in against live
pitching. There’s always a lot of taking
of pitches–Jack Cust today didn’t swing the
bat once against a very impressive Vin Mazarro
in an earlier session–but before I could even bat an eyelash, whoosh.
Taylor threw his bat head forward and connected on an inside heater
that started as a low line drive and just soared, clearing the left field fence
and then soaring some more. While Geren
was not there to witness it, word travelled fast. By the time he visited Field 4, he had
already learned of Taylor’s
christening blow. Good thing the A’s
skipper was wearing his usual sun glasses.
It was the only way for him to cut down the glare of a future so bright.
The sun finally arrived at Phoenix Muni today and not
a moment too soon. It’s amazing how it
changed the whole atmosphere at camp.
More smiles everywhere. Except
for our young lefty Gio Gonzalez. When you are of Cuban heritage and grew up in
60-degree weather–sun or no sun–is still
cold. “Bobby, I can’t take this. It’s freezing out there.” I just told Gio to chill out, so to speak,
but actually this crisp weather might be good for him. Mike Selleck,
our baseball information specialist extraordinaire, came up with this dandy on
Gonzalez: last year when the game time
temperature was 72 degrees or hotter, Gio was 5-2 with a 2.84 ERA in seven
starts; however, when the mercury dipped under 72 at game time, he was 1-5 with
a 7.88 ERA in 10 starts
I’m not sure if it’s because of the competition at
several positions this spring or that this group just likes to hang together,
but it was remarkable to see so many position players working out before their
report date this morning. Leaning on the
dugout rail, I couldn’t help but notice a few of them. The ball seems to jump off Chris Carter’s bat, and like the A’s other jumbo-sized prospect Michael Taylor, he clearly uses all fields. Also, I couldn’t help but wonder what Daric
Barton’s mindset is this spring, as I watched him field ground balls at first
base. He was trading off there with
Carter, newly-acquired Jake Fox and
six-time Gold Glover Eric Chavez, who’s hoping to play several positions this
year. Barton, who still is looking to
have a breakout season at the plate, has made himself into an outstanding
defensive first baseman. But when a Gold
Glover like Chavez suddenly is on your turf, and a couple of sluggers like
Carter and Fox have also joined the party, one had to wonder what’s occupying
Daric’s mind. They say competition
brings out the best in an athlete, and something tells me Daric is about to take
it to a different level this year.
One of the real pleasures of Spring Training
is the plethora of fine dining establishments here in the Valley of the
Sun. You could eat at a different place
every night and wouldn’t run out of choices.
While I realize most Spring Training fans flock to fashionable
Scottsdale, some of my personal favorites are located right here in
Phoenix. There’s Lon’s at the Hermosa
for mesquite-grilled cuisine in a Santa Fe-like setting, sensational Italian
fare at La Fontenella, down-home BBQ at Honey Bear’s near Phoenix Muni,
martinis and big-league steaks at venerable Durant’s on Central Avenue, and the
Barrio Café for gourmet Mexican food in an authentic family atmosphere. However, the one Scottsdale-based restaurant
that is truly a Spring Training classic is Don & Charlie’s, a steak and
chop house on Camelback (near Scottsdale
Don Carson, a Chicago
transplant, is a dear friend. When I
first started coming to Arizona
for Spring Training in 1993, I was introduced to Don and just marveled how he
took every single player, coach, manager and front office executive under his
wing. Rarely did they even pay for their
dinners there. Over recent years, it’s become such a mad house that it conjures
up the old Yogi Berra line about “it’s so
crowded, nobody ever goes there anymore” line.
Of course, for baseball fans, that’s kind of the charm of it. You never know who you might see there. Last year I brought my family there, and
there’s Hall-of-Famer Fergie Jenkins. And if you’re an A’s fan with any street
cred, you would have hated to see another guy who was at the bar: Will Clark. One baseball legend who was not there that
night–and someone I wish I knew beyond a few handshakes over the years–was Mr.
Baseball himself, Bob Uecker. A close friend of Carson’s, I can’t help but share this one
last story with you that Don told me about Uecker.
When broadcaster Harry Caray died on Feb. 18, 1998, a memorial service was held
in Palm Springs,
where Harry lived in the offseason. Both
Carson and Uecker were, of course, good friends of the Cubs’ announcer, so they
decided to drive from Arizona to Palm Springs for the
service. Don couldn’t judge how long it
would take to drive there, so they ended up arriving rather early to the
church. They entered and sat down in one
of the back rows. At the front of the
church, there was a coffin. Don,
somewhat puzzled, under his breath, asked Uecker, “Hey Ueck, isn’t that coffin
kind of small? I mean, Harry was a pretty
big man.” Without the slightest
hesitation, Mr. Baseball, replied, “Oh no, that’s not for Harry. That’s just for his glasses.”
Saturday was report day for A’s
pitchers and catchers, which of course, signals the official start of another
baseball season. While unsuspected rain
showers hit outside, trainer Steve Sayles and team doctors ran players through
tests inside our Papago
Park training complex.
For returning players, it was merely routine.
But for our new acquisitions like ace pitcher Ben Sheets and outfield
prospect Michael Taylor, today was more than a battery of medical exams. It was a time to become acquainted with their
new teammates, coaches, training staff and clubbies.
Throughout the morning, I observed Sheets in
many get-to-know-you sessions. He and Bob
Alejo, our veteran strength and conditioning director, were spotted near the
weight machines, engaged in animated conversation about workout programs and
philosophies. Then an hour later, as Ben
iced his arm, he sat on a trainer’s table next to Justin Duchscherer, the other
half of the A’s new one-two punch at the top of the rotation. Beyond being the most decorated pitchers on
the staff, they clearly had other things in common. Even at their relatively young ages, they are
both elder statesmen on this team. And
one hails from Texas (Duchscherer) and the
other from Louisiana. If they have any musical talents, I thought,
maybe they can form a Cajun and Texas Blues band called the “Thirty
Somethings.” Oh well, at least it was
nice to see them forming an early bond.
Then in another area of the weight room, the ever-popular veteran second
baseman Mark Ellis made a surprise appearance with his son Briggs, and was
making his own self-depreciating jokes to anyone within earshot. “We’re the youngest and oldest A’s here
today!” Briggs didn’t seem to quite understand the humor, but when you’re
playing with two way cool miniature
cars on the clubhouse carpet, the world is pretty simple.
Of course, the media corps also descended on Papago Park
this morning. While Sheets and Taylor drew interest as
the new guys on the block, I think it’s safe to say that the effervescent
Dallas Braden stole the show. Holding
court with the writers and TV reporters for a good 20 minutes, Braden covered
the gamut with his usual colorful anecdotes.
One minute, he was sharing his experiences vacationing in Amsterdam this offseason, discussing the finer points of
spending hours in a Van Gogh
Museum (“including a whole floor of self portraits…man this
guy had an ego!”) to bemoaning the
fact that he can no longer get the quintessential ham-and-cheese croissant that
he devoured daily at a quaint Amsterdam cafÃ©.
The next minute, he’s excitedly talking about how he’s virtually adopted
the University of Pacific baseball team, located in his hometown of Stockton. He has been their unofficial BP pitcher during
the winter, and he’s befriended some of the UOP pitchers to the point that he’s
asked them to come hang out at his pad on occasion. Dallas admits that he’s becoming a Pacific
baseball junkie (“I am incessantly texting back and forth about how they’re
doing in games.”) When it comes to
turning a phrase, Mr. 209 Area Code is a born natural. If ever a PR director needed someone to
provide rainy day stories, it is Dallas Braden. And after 20 minutes of humor and precious
quotes, he left the building in a flash.
I couldn’t help myself in telling the media, “Ladies and gentlemen, that
was Dallas Braden. He will appear daily
at Phoenix Muni for your entertainment pleasure this spring. Get there early.”
Sometimes in the offseason,
you almost feel out of sync. The natural
rhythm of having a baseball game every day ends abruptly. As the team’s PR man, your phone calls and
media requests diminish considerably. It’s
kind of like that old “Maytag Repairman” TV commercial. Veteran actor Jesse White, sitting in his
office and wearing that natty khaki jacket, bemoans the fact that Maytag
washers never break down. He was the
loneliest guy around. Well, sometimes I feel the same way during the offseason.
However, this past week was not one of those times. The Bay Area media came out in full force
last week when we hosted an informal media event at the Coliseum featuring Bob Geren, our coaching staff and six of our players. Eric Chavez and Coco Crisp attracted the most
attention from the local TV stations and sportswriters, Chavy because they were
interested in his physical status heading into Spring Training, and Coco because this was his first Bay Area appearance since
his offseason signing with the A’s.
While my relationship with
Chavy only dates back to a year ago, I do sense that he enters this season with
great peace of mind. Through surgery and
rehab, he’s done everything he can do to be ready for this season. While he knows nothing’s guaranteed when
you’ve had five surgeries in the last two years, Eric seemed genuinely
optimistic about this season. What surprised me a little was just how happy and
light-hearted he seemed. Considering all
he’s been through, maybe he finally feels like he’s seeing some light at the
end of the tunnel. Meanwhile, Coco flashed some of that star quality he’s been known
for. He entertained media for more than
an hour with colorful stories of his childhood, then he dazzled over-the-air
audiences with a special appearance on KPIX-TV’s Sunday Sports Final with
Dennis O’Donnell–I received a glowing report from producer Brian Stites, who
said Crisp absolutely has a future career in broadcasting if he’s
interested–and a guest call-in appearance on KNBR Radio the following morning
in which he talked about his long-time involvement in Major League Baseball’s
RBI Program for inner-city youth. It’s a
subject Coco knows a little about, having grown up in Inglewood, Calif.
in South Central LA.
Also last week, our media
and player relations manager Kristy Fick
and I took Ryan Sweeney, Landon Powell and Gio Gonzalez to the Cal campus, where
Comcast SportsNet Bay Area was on location for their “Chronicle Live”
show. The studio set was literally on
the hardwood floor of Haas Pavilion, where the California Golden Bears’
basketball team would be playing Oregon
later that evening. It was interesting
to watch our guys in a totally foreign setting. Gio, being the clown–in a good kind of way,
of course–that he is, couldn’t resist going on the court to shoot a few
hoops. While Landon looked on with great
disinterest, Gio displayed a rather
unique left-handed style that probably would not be mistaken for Kobe or LeBron. Of course, it’s tough to throw his patented
deuce with a basketball. Later that
evening, the boys stayed for the Pac-10 matchup. Cal
pretty much claimed victory by halftime with a late half spurt, but I don’t
think Powell was very impressed having grown up in ACC country in
While the successful media
event came and went, the very next morning I get a call from Billy Beane.
He informs me that our red-hot outfield prospect Grant Desme has decided
to retire from baseball to enter the priesthood. First, I check my calendar to make sure it’s
not April 1. Then I digest what Billy
said, and my instincts tell me this is not
going to be a slow news day at A’s Central.
I call Grant to wish him well and tell him how much I admire his
commitment. I also tell him to get ready
because a national media avalanche is about to hit. He agrees to go on a media conference call
later that afternoon, one that not only includes several Bay Area writers, but
also media throughout the nation including the New York Times, Chicago Sun-Times, Orange County Register among
others. Within the first 72 hours of his
announcement, we hear from CBS National News, The Dan Patrick Show, ESPN.com, the Los Angeles Times, HDNet TV, MTV (yes, MTV), several Sirius/XM Satellite Radio
shows, ESPN’s E60, many Catholic organizations, and my personal favorite, a
film documentary company from….The
Netherlands! Josh Ishoo, our former
student intern who recently was hired by San
Diego, offered a very funny line when he heard the
news. “Too bad he wasn’t involved in the
Kouzmanoff trade. Then we could have
headlines that read, ‘Desme Rejects Padres to become a Padre!” While we
know Grant’s decision was a very serious matter, a little levity is always
But this new-found A’s media
frenzy did not end with the Desme revelation.
A couple days later, it was time for four-time All-Star pitcher Ben
Sheet to stride to the podium for a hurriedly-called media conference Tuesday
afternoon at the Coliseum. After lying
low for several weeks, baseball’s Maytag Man was right back in the thick of
it. I hosted a major news announcement
which featured live TV coverage by both MLB Network and Comcast SportsNet Bay
Area and a battery of photographers and local scribes. Sharing the same Southern roots and sporting
a similar two-day beard, my first impression of Sheets was “this guy reminds me
of Brett Favre!” Same accent, same self-sure
demeanor. Also, what struck me most was
his competitive fire and that he appeared to be a person very comfortable in
his own skin. He could not have been
more accommodating at the press gathering.
Beyond doing the usual Q&A at the front table, he also patiently sat
down with at least five TV stations and three radio reporters afterwards for
the obligatory one-on-ones. I think A’s
fans are really going to like Ben. He’s
a no nonsense veteran with tremendous work ethic. If he returns to the form that saw him named
the National League’s starting pitcher at the 2008 All-Star Game, our pitching
staff might just carry us further than some people think this season. In the meantime, like the Maytag Repairman, I
need to rest up until the next news story hits.
Until then, don’t forget…..only 20 days until pitchers and catchers report.