March 2010

SPRING TRAINING: THE GAME WITHIN THE GAME

Crystal blue skies, temperatures
in the high 70’s, and the glorious aroma of orange blossoms in bloom.  Spring Training in Arizona may not be heaven, but according to
reliable sources, you can at least see
heaven from here.  That being said,
spring camp is anything but relaxing and carefree for some A’s players.  These final days in the desert represent
“crunch time” for a select few veterans and prospects who are still trying to
earn a spot on this year’s Opening Night roster. 


Tonight as I peer out of the Scottsdale
Stadium press box, I see a 31-year-old right-hander named Jason Jennings who is
pitching for his baseball life.  Signed
to a minor league contract Feb. 28, Jennings
is far removed from his 2002 Rookie of the Year season with the Colorado
Rockies.  He brings a rotund 12.27 ERA
into tonight’s game against the Giants–not exactly the kind of spring he needs
to turn heads among Oakland’s baseball brass as they consider him for either a
fifth starter or middle relief role. 
Depending on how he does tonight, he may or may not get another start in
Arizona.  So, Jason knows the deal.  He needs to step it up, and he needs to step
it up now. 


There are other players in camp who must
play “the game within in the game” as well. 
There’s the versatile Eric Patterson, primarily an outfielder and second
baseman, who is out of options.  With
veterans like Jack Cust, Gabe Gross and even Travis Buck offering more big
league experience as backup outfielders, and Adam Rosales apparently the club’s
primary utility infielder, Patterson is battling steep odds to land a job on
the 25-man roster.  However, you can’t
say Eric isn’t doing everything possible to make the A’s final decision difficult.  He’s hit .364 with six RBI and four walks in
his last eight games and is tied for fifth in the Cactus League in triples.  And there’s Jake Fox, an off-season
acquisition from the Cubs who has yet this spring to exhibit the power the A’s
coveted when they made the trade.  Will
Fox’s miniscule .063 average this month have much bearing on his chances of
making the cut?  Or will his 11 home runs
and 44 RBI in only 82 games last year with Chicago–not to mention his no-option
status–carry the most weight?  


While Jennings, Patterson and
Fox live in a more pressurized world due to the precarious stage of their
careers, there are a few younger players who tasted the major league lifestyle
last year and are embroiled in daily competition for their second season with
the big club.  Gilded armed starters
Trevor Cahill, Gio Gonzalez and Vin Mazzaro fall into that category, as all
three continue to compete for the A’s fifth slot in the rotation.  Without question, all three have promising
futures.  But while Ben Sheets, Justin
Duchscherer and Dallas Braden take the mound this spring to merely work on new
pitches or raise their pitch counts, the aforementioned young guns are trying
to hang zeroes in every inning they toil. 
They all know that per diem and salaries–not to mention travel
accomodations–are vastly different in Oakland
than they are in Sacramento.


Tonight, Jennings
made progress, striking out four batters and allowing two runs in three innings
of work.  Patterson, a late-inning
substitution at second base, booted a routine grounder hit by Pablo Sandoval in
the seventh which opened the door for a game-deciding two-run rally by the
Giants.  As the days dwindle here in Arizona, both men know a
life-altering decision is on the horizon. 
The window of opportunity is closing quickly. 

SPRING TRAINING: THE GAME WITHIN THE GAME

Crystal blue skies, temperatures
in the high 70’s, and the glorious aroma of orange blossoms in bloom.  Spring Training in Arizona may not be heaven, but according to
reliable sources, you can at least see
heaven from here.  That being said,
spring camp is anything but relaxing and carefree for some A’s players.  These final days in the desert represent
“crunch time” for a select few veterans and prospects who are still trying to
earn a spot on this year’s Opening Night roster. 


Tonight as I peer out of the Scottsdale
Stadium press box, I see a 31-year-old right-hander named Jason Jennings who is
pitching for his baseball life.  Signed
to a minor league contract Feb. 28, Jennings
is far removed from his 2002 Rookie of the Year season with the Colorado
Rockies.  He brings a rotund 12.27 ERA
into tonight’s game against the Giants–not exactly the kind of spring he needs
to turn heads among Oakland’s baseball brass as they consider him for either a
fifth starter or middle relief role. 
Depending on how he does tonight, he may or may not get another start in
Arizona.  So, Jason knows the deal.  He needs to step it up, and he needs to step
it up now. 


There are other players in camp who must
play “the game within in the game” as well. 
There’s the versatile Eric Patterson, primarily an outfielder and second
baseman, who is out of options.  With
veterans like Jack Cust, Gabe Gross and even Travis Buck offering more big
league experience as backup outfielders, and Adam Rosales apparently the club’s
primary utility infielder, Patterson is battling steep odds to land a job on
the 25-man roster.  However, you can’t
say Eric isn’t doing everything possible to make the A’s final decision difficult.  He’s hit .364 with six RBI and four walks in
his last eight games and is tied for fifth in the Cactus League in triples.  And there’s Jake Fox, an off-season
acquisition from the Cubs who has yet this spring to exhibit the power the A’s
coveted when they made the trade.  Will
Fox’s miniscule .063 average this month have much bearing on his chances of
making the cut?  Or will his 11 home runs
and 44 RBI in only 82 games last year with Chicago–not to mention his no-option
status–carry the most weight?  


While Jennings, Patterson and
Fox live in a more pressurized world due to the precarious stage of their
careers, there are a few younger players who tasted the major league lifestyle
last year and are embroiled in daily competition for their second season with
the big club.  Gilded armed starters
Trevor Cahill, Gio Gonzalez and Vin Mazzaro fall into that category, as all
three continue to compete for the A’s fifth slot in the rotation.  Without question, all three have promising
futures.  But while Ben Sheets, Justin
Duchscherer and Dallas Braden take the mound this spring to merely work on new
pitches or raise their pitch counts, the aforementioned young guns are trying
to hang zeroes in every inning they toil. 
They all know that per diem and salaries–not to mention travel
accomodations–are vastly different in Oakland
than they are in Sacramento.


Tonight, Jennings
made progress, striking out four batters and allowing two runs in three innings
of work.  Patterson, a late-inning
substitution at second base, booted a routine grounder hit by Pablo Sandoval in
the seventh which opened the door for a game-deciding two-run rally by the
Giants.  As the days dwindle here in Arizona, both men know a
life-altering decision is on the horizon. 
The window of opportunity is closing quickly. 

30 YEARS LATER, BILLYBALL STILL RELEVANT IN OAKLAND

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As I recently watched Rajai Davis do his thing in a
Cactus League game–double, stolen base and run scored in the first inning of
last Sunday’s game against Kansas City–I couldn’t help but think of an earlier Oakland
A’s era. It was called Billyball,
starring the always colorful Billy Martin as team manager.  This year marks the 30th
anniversary of that unique chapter of our franchise’s history.  I see a few similarities between those A’s
clubs of 1980-82 and our current edition. 
Back in 1980, Martin inherited a young team that had endured a 108-loss
season the previous year.  His plan to
reverse the A’s fortunes was based on stellar starting pitching, solid defense,
daring base running and competent situational hitting.  Is this starting to sound familiar?

 

Before long, this young and unproven club was
unnerving the opposition with double steals and steals of home plate–they stole
home seven times in 1980–suicide
squeeze bunts, hit-and-run plays, and even a successful hidden ball trick on
Opening Day!  A dear friend of mine, the
late, great Ralph Wiley of the Oakland
Tribune
(and later Sports Illustrated
and ESPN fame), witnessed this
new, exciting brand of baseball unfold under Martin’s direction.  He decided there was only one way to describe
what was happening in Oakland.  He would call it, Billyball.  The name stuck
and soon it appeared in club advertisements and national media coverage.  Remarkably, Martin piloted the 1980 A’s to an
83-79 record and second-place finish in the AL West, which represented a
29-game improvement from the previous season. 


Led by second-year outfielder Rickey Henderson, who broke Ty Cobb’s
American League record with 100 stolen bases, that ’80 club won with speed (175
stolen bases) and pitching (league-best 3.46 ERA).  Martin, who believed pitchers should finish
what they start, would have laughed at today’s pitch-count obsession.  His first A’s pitching staff posted a mind-boggling
94 complete games, still the Oakland
team record.  In fact, A’s pitchers
reeled off nine consecutive complete
games from Aug. 9-17 that season.

 

Right-handers Rick Langford (28, still a club mark)
and Mike Norris (24) combined for 52 complete games in 1980.  Norris, the Cy Young Award runner-up, carved
up AL hitters
for a 22-9 record and 2.53 ERA, while Langford wasn’t far behind at 19-12 with
a 3.26 ERA.  Matt Keough (16-13, 2.92),
Steve McCatty (14-14, 3.86) and Brian Kingman (8-20, 3.83) rounded out a
five-man rotation that combined for 1,257 innings–an average of 251 innings per pitcher.

 

As an encore, Martin led Oakland to a 64-45 record to claim the AL
West title by five games in a strike-shortened 1981 season.  The A’s enjoyed an April for the ages that
year, going 18-3.  Despite a dearth of
front-line position players, the A’s fleet-footed trio of Henderson, Dwayne Murphy and Tony Armas
comprised one of the better outfield units in the league, virtually eliminating
balls from falling in the gaps.  2010 A’s
fans, does this sound familiar?

 

While Martin’s tenure in Oakland was brief and went
up in flames after a 68-94 downturn in 1982, Billyball will always have a warm place in the heart of A’s
fans.  Oakland was really struggling, having
suffered through three straight dismal seasons, losing 98, 93 and 108
games.  Attendance had hit an all-time
low in 1979, averaging only 3,984 fans
per game.  Buoyed by Billyball, Martin revived an ailing franchise.  His teams reeled off the three highest home
attendance seasons since the A’s moved to Oakland
in 1968–in other words, more fans than the team drew in any of their three
World Series championship seasons of 1972-74. 
Billyball, truly a remarkable
chapter in Oakland
A’s history.  Whether another improbable
chapter can be written in 2010 with the likes of Rajai Davis, Coco Crisp and
Ryan Sweeney and a plethora of gifted young pitchers, remains to be seen.  It will all start on Opening Night against
the Mariners April 5.

SO LONG NOMAR, YOU WERE A CLASS ACT

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Like many of you, earlier this week I watched the
televised news conference where Nomar Garciaparra officially announced his
retirement from baseball.  Appropriately,
“No Mah” had signed a one-day minor league contract with Boston so he could hang ‘em up as a Red Sox.  Knowing about his rare condition that genetically
made him susceptible to muscle injuries, the news that he was ending his
playing career at age 36 really wasn’t surprising to me.  Yet, as I sat there in my office at Phoenix
Muni watching him at the podium, I couldn’t help but reflect on my first
meeting with the Red Sox legend.  As you
know, we signed him to a one-year contract about this time last spring.  I’ve dealt with a lot of superstar athletes
in my career–Barry Bonds, John Elway, Steve Young, Deion Sanders, Aaron
Rodgers, Natalie Coughlin, Darryl Strawberry, Jeff Kent, Joe Carter, to name a
few–so I’ve seen all kinds of personalities and egos through the years. 


When I first encountered Nomar, I was prepared
for anything.  We met in the clubhouse
here in Phoenix.  He greeted me with his hand out and a warm
smile.  We shook hands and I told him I
needed to take him upstairs to our administrative offices to have his “mug
shot” taken by a photographer. Then he would join Orlando Cabrera, who was also
signed that day, for a brief media session in a nearby conference room
overlooking the field.  When we arrived
in the lobby area of our offices, I stopped to introduce Nomar to our long-time
Spring Training receptionist Wilona Perry. 
I was interested to see how he would respond to her, as I have always
found that you can tell a lot about a person by how they treat “ordinary”
people.  Virtually every star player or
celebrity I’ve known has been cordial and kind to the owner, the GM or the
network sportscaster.  Sadly, that is not
always the case with rank-and-file folks. 

But
I will never forget how Nomar treated Wilona. 
He could not have been more kind to her. 
He probably spent 15 minutes just chatting with her, even regaling her
with the now well-publicized story about how he and his brother once saved an
inebriated young woman who had accidentally fallen into the bay near his
condominium in Boston.  It was clear to me that Nomar had a big heart
and virtually no ego, and that he
clearly could separate Nomar Garciappara, the icon, from Nomar Garciaparra, the
real person.  As he left the lobby, he
made a point to shake Wilona’s hand one more time to say what a pleasure it had
been for him to meet her.  Then
we proceeded upstairs to the press conference. 
And before we could even start the conference, Nomar had personally
walked up to each and every journalist in attendance and greeted them with a
sincere handshake.  At this point, I was
starting to think, “This guy is too good to be true.”  Well, as I learned during last season, Nomar
was even better than I could have
ever imagined. 

While his path crossed
mine in the twilight of his career, I’m not sure I have ever admired an athlete
more than Nomar.  To watch him arrive
early every day at the clubhouse so he could be stretched–I’m sure with much
pain–and massaged so he might be available to play, if only for pinch-hitting
duties, was a revelation to me.  Most
superstars who had already tasted fame and fortune would have really had a hard
time accepting such a limited and arduous role. 
Nomar, however, never complained and was a remarkable gentleman.  He always treated everyone, from the media,
the fans, the trainers, the groundsmen, the clubbies, to someone from the front
office staff, with the utmost respect and kindness.  It made me recall an experience I had in a
previous life as the San Francisco Giants’ VP of Communications. 

Shawon Dunston, the former Chicago Cubs’ star
shortstop, joined the Giants late in his career after injuries had curtailed
his playing time.  Like Nomar, Shawon was
a very proud man with an accomplished background.  One of the more touching clubhouse scenes I
have ever witnessed was when one of Shawon’s young sons asked his father, “Hey daddy,
what position are you playing now?  I
don’t see you at shortstop anymore.” 
Shawon’s eyes began to tear up. 
He paused, and then answered, “Well, son, things have kind of
changed.  My position now is just…just to
be a good teammate.  As I look back to last year–Nomar’s final
chapter of a remarkable career–I know one thing that is absolutely
certain.  If you asked anyone in the A’s
clubhouse about Nomar Garciaparra, to a man they would say, “he was good
teammate.”  And perhaps more than
statistics, records or awards, those simple words might be the greatest tribute
a player can ever receive.

PHOTO DAY: SKAALEN & CRISP AND EVERYTHING IN BETWEEN

Photo Day is always one of
the rituals of Spring Training and today we honored that ritual by staging
ours.   Choosing the short straw among
the PR staff, it was my responsibility to arrive at the stadium at the obscene
time of 5:45 a.m. to accommodate photographers who set up equipment early.  Once the clock struck 7 a.m., A’s coaches and
players started to file by in rapid fashion, stopping at the various stations
along the way.  Hitting coach
Jim Skaalen, clearly a “morning person,” was the first to show
up at 6:59 a.m.  In home whites, Jim entered
the visiting clubhouse, where team photographer
Michael Zagaris and AP’s Eric Risberg
were the first two stops.  Skaalen was
the first of 70 coaches and players to run the gauntlet, which also included stations
for MLB Photos and Comcast SportsNet inside, plus newspapers and various
MLB-licensed trading card companies situated outside near the home dugout.

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Shortly thereafter, Bob Geren and some of his coaches arrived on the scene.  It is a time-worn tradition that the manager
and his staff get VIP treatment when they check in for Photo Day.  They immediately are taken to the front of
the line, ahead of the players.  And who
was the player at the front of the line, almost at the Promised Land? 
Craig Breslow.  First, I had to hold him for Geren.  Then Curt Young was
waved ahead.  Then
Tye Waller.  Breslow, demonstrating
the same type of poise and composure he exhibits on the mound, didn’t even
flinch.  The good news today, was we finished
Photo Day on time, thanks to stellar cooperation from the all guys. 
Coco Crisp, donning his not-yet-familiar No. 4 jersey, was the last player to be shot and he
was 15 minutes early.  This was a good
thing.  One thing you learn as a veteran
PR man is, don’t ever deliver players to practice late, because if you do,
managers tend to let you know they are not
happy.  Today, Geren was happy.

 

One guest instructor who
may have gone through as many Photo Days in his playing career as anyone alive
is Hall-of-Famer
Rickey Henderson.  What a
privilege it was to watch the all-time stolen base king working with our
players over the weekend.  Suited up and
looking like he could still play, Rickey has been instructing
Rajai Davis, Crisp and some of the younger base runners on the proper explosion
techniques for getting the optimum jump. 

Years ago when I was the
PR director across the bay for that other
Major League team, I had the great fortune to know another Hall-of-Famer named
Willie Mays.  I see a lot
of similarities between the A’s No. 24 and the Giants’ No. 24.  There’s a certain genius in their view of the game. 
They just see things that ordinary players do not.  And maybe just as impressive is the sheer
passion they continue to have for the sport. 
Both almost have an ageless quality about them.  When Rickey or Willie talk baseball, the
energy level is always at full throttle. 
And if you are a player standing next to them at the batting cage, you
can’t help but just feel that energy
and passion.  It inspiring, really.

I’ll be leaving for the
Bay Area after tomorrow’s intrasquad game and won’t return to camp until
Monday, so my next blog won’t come your way until some time next week.  If you’re not down here in the desert, make
sure you tune into XTRA Sports 860 AM for our first Cactus League game this
Thursday, March 4, when the A’s travel to Mesa to play the Chicago Cubs at
12:05 p.m. PST (1:05 Arizona Time).  The
familiar voices of
Ken Korach, Ray Fosse and
Vince
Cotroneo
will be booming on our
50,000-watt station.  Ladies and
gentlemen, 2010 A’s baseball is about to arrive!

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