April 2010

COHESION, CHEMISTRY AND COMRADERIE FUEL A’S EARLY SUCCESS

In today’s sports world,
people can easily become obsessed with individual statistics and glamorous
superstars.  With fantasy leagues, video
games and constant ESPN SportsCenter
highlights bombarding our consciousness, rarely do we pause to ponder why some
All-Star laden teams miss the playoffs while other clubs lacking those
high-voltage stars are surprise contenders. 
As we jet to St. Petersburg today for the
start of a six-game road trip, the first-place Oakland A’s are a prime example of how
chemistry can transform a group of athletes into a unified force. 


In short, what I’ve observed over the past
several weeks is a collection of blue-collar players–or is that Green Collar?–who are fast becoming a
real team.  That team evolution can manifest itself
in many subtle or not-so-subtle ways. 
Maybe it starts with
Ben Sheets
instilling a unique comradeship with his new teammates, not to mention a loose,
fun atmosphere in the clubhouse.  Still
seeking his first victory as an Athletic, Big Ben arrived at the Coliseum the
other day wearing Warriors’ NBA gear head to toe and toting a new Nurfball basketball rim and ball set.  Before long, the A’s clubhouse was filled
with blaring music, raucous laughter and a frat house vibe warmly reminiscent
of earlier days in Oakland.

 

Or maybe we started to
become a real team when
Dallas Braden confronted A-Rod the
other day when the Yankee slugger jogged across his mound.  While Dallas expressed his
feelings to Rodriguez in no uncertain terms, his message also reverberated
throughout the A’s clubhouse.  Mr. 209
was, perhaps, sending a message not only to Mr. Tabloid but also letting his
teammates know the 2010 Oakland A’s will not be subservient to anyone.  It almost reminded me of the
Jim Harbaugh incident at Stanford when he took over the football
coaching reins there.  People scoffed
when Harbaugh, in reference to
Pete Carroll
of perennial Pac-10 champion USC, said that Stanford would “bow to no
man!”  In a different way, I remember hearing
the same thing from a former baseball GM I once worked for.  “Rosey,” he said, “somebody’s got to
win.  We’re good guys, so why not us?”

 

Other signs of “we” over
“me” this year?   How about the weekly
sight of team barber
Rajai Davis, wielding electric
clippers in the clubhouse rest room, cutting his buddies’ hair, but maybe more
importantly, engaging in small talk that brings teammates closer together.  Or
Kevin Kouzzzzzzzzzzmanoff, another new kid on the block, returning to the lineup
yesterday despite a gimpy ankle and sore calf that probably needed more rest.  Clearly, he saw how our lineup looked
the previous day, and he knew the club needed his bat in the middle of the
lineup.  The A’s new third baseman sucked
it up, played with some discomfort and absolutely was a catalyst in us winning
the rubber match of the Indians’ series. 
And you don’t think his new teammates noticed what a gamer Kouz was in
taking one for the team?  Same could be
said for
Kurt Suzuki, who belted his third
homer in four days last Friday despite a stiff back, or
Daric Barton, who refused to come out of the lineup last week
even though his right elbow was swollen almost twice the size of his left one,
and then proceeded to ignite key rallies in Oakland wins.

 

And if not Barton or
Kouzmanoff providing heroics, then it’s
Gio or the Duke.  As the old
axiom goes, it’s seemingly been a different hero every game.  And with that, the 2010 A’s are truly becoming
a greater team than the sum of its parts. 
Whether they can continue to play baseball at a .600 clip and reside on
the AL West’s top rung remains to be seen. 
But if they do, you can bet I’ll be spewing plenty more clichés about
this group.  They’re playing like a team. 
What a concept!

WHY JACKIE ROBINSON’S LEGACY STILL MATTERS

Later
this week, the Oakland A’s will join the rest of Major League Baseball in
paying tribute to one of America’s great civil rights pioneers.  On April 15, every team in baseball will
honor
Jackie
Robinson
by wearing his familiar No. 42
on their game jerseys.  Here in Oakland, the A’s will
welcome nearly 500 Bay Area elementary and middle school students, teachers and
parents as their guests at the game for their recent participation in the
Jackie Robinson “Breaking Barriers Essay Contest,” which was co-sponsored by
Major League Baseball.  Through this
essay contest, it is our hope that these youngsters will learn why Jackie is
such an important figure in our country’s history and also that they, too, can
overcome barriers. 

Thumbnail image for 80684980.jpg

When
Jackie became the first African American to break the color barrier in baseball
in 1947, consider this
:  Martin Luther King, Jr. was only 18 years old at the time, almost ten years before he would lead the
Montgomery Bus Boycott, and 16 years
before he would deliver his famous “I Have A Dream” speech during the March on
Washington in 1963.  Without question,
Dr. King met tremendous resistance during his fight for civil rights.  But can you imagine the climate in this
country when Jackie Robinson first suited up as a Brooklyn Dodger? 

By Commissioner Selig mandating that every club retire Jackie’s number
back in 1997, it absolutely sent the right message to everyone involved in the
game.  Jackie’s story needed to be heard
then and it continues to be as pertinent today as it was more than a half
century ago.  It heartens us to see youngsters
like eighth grader
Rosario Abonce of Rancho Medanos
Junior High School in Pittsburg
and fourth grader
Monica Martinez of Tara Hills Elementary School in San Pablo write in their essays about how his
courage and determination inspired them as well.

Robinson
also inspired other minority ball players that would follow him, including the
many African American and Latin superstars of the 1960’s–
Willie Mays, Hank
Aaron, Roberto Clemente, Orlando Cepeda, Frank Robinson
, among others–who rewrote the baseball history books
with their marvelous skills and accomplishments.  Sports have always served as an agent for
social change, as performance has no color. 
The diversity of athletes, whether it is race, religion, national origin
or economic status, has served this country well in teaching tolerance,
understanding and teamwork. 

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Jackie
Robinson led the way in professional sports. 
So, when you think of our team’s rich heritage here in Oakland, also remember that Jackie made it
possible for the likes of
Blue Moon, Vida, Reggie, Rickey and Stew and many
other great players of color to enjoy remarkable careers with the Athletics through
years.  We all owe a debt of gratitude to
No. 42.

A WEEK TO REMEMBER FOR OAKLAND’S OWN

          One of the real rewards of
this job is watching young players live out their childhood dreams.  For
Tyson Ross, many
of his dreams were realized this week.  I
first met Tyson during the summer of 2008. 
The 6-6, 225-pound right-hander had been selected by the A’s in the
second round of that year’s draft and was subsequently signed to a minor league
contract.  He was paying a visit to the
Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum before reporting to single-A Kane County.  Of course, it wasn’t the first time he had
stepped foot inside the Coliseum, having grown up in Oakland
and attended both Bishop O’Dowd High School
and Cal.

Tyson.JPG

On
that sunny afternoon in 2008, he and his parents, Willie and Jean, were all
smiles in the A’s dugout.  Clearly, it
was a dream come true for Tyson to sign a professional contract with his
childhood team, the Oakland
A’s.  Little did he and his family realize
but 21 months later, he would live a much bigger dream:  wearing a Major League uniform as part of the
A’s 2010 Opening Day roster.  I still can
see that look on his face–a mix between euphoria and disbelief–when he was
informed by the A’s brass in
Bob Geren’s
office after the final Bay Bridge Series exhibition game that he had, indeed,
made the 25-man roster. 

First,
he returned to his locker, where a group of media were milling around.  Beyond the ear-to-ear smile, Tyson could only
manage three words at first:  “I made
it!”  For many of the writers who had
covered him in spring training, I think they also enjoyed the news.  Not only because it was a great
local-boy-made-good story, but they–like I–had witnessed what a fine young man
Tyson is.  His warm smile, humble
demeanor and cooperative nature had made him one of the clubhouse favorites in Arizona.  In fact, after doing a Comcast satellite
talk-back interview for Chronicle Live
from his spring apartment in Tempe
a few weeks ago, I received an almost unprecedented phone call from the Comcast
truck technician.  He called me just to
let me know how cooperative and kind Tyson had been with him.  That type of call is unheard of in my
business.

After
meeting with the media, Tyson came into (equipment manager)
Steve Vucinich’s office.  He
asked Vuc if it would be okay for him to call his family to let them know he
made the team.  I was privileged to be
standing in Vuc’s office when he made the call. 
It was really a tender moment, hearing the excitement in his voice as he
told the most important people in his life–those who had driven him to summer
league games, iced his arm after games, helped him stay focused on his
academics at O’Dowd and Cal, in other words, those who loved him since birth
and had always been there for him–that he had made The Show.            Since
that night, it’s been a whirlwind for Tyson. 
The local media continued to flock to him after Opening Night. Comcast’s
Kate
Longworth
did a clever little feature on
“The Passing of the Ball Bag,” interviewing Andrew Bailey as he literally handed Tyson the pitcher’s
ball bag–a chore reserved for the incoming rookie as part of a time-honored
tradition in baseball.  But the flurry of
media attention had just started for Oakland’s
Own. 

In
Game 3 of the Mariners’ series,  Ross was
summoned from the bullpen with two outs in the sixth inning in relief of
starter
Justin Duchscherer.  A’s public address announcer Dick Callahan pronounced his entrance:  “Now pitching for the A’s….making his Major
League debut….number 66….Tyson Ross!”  From
the press box, I swear I could see Tyson’s heart pounding.  But despite being amped up–he forgot to hold
on
Franklin
Gutierrez
at first base, which resulted
in a stolen base on his first pitch–Ross soon settled into the game.  His 95 MPH fastball and nasty slider was no
match for
Rob Johnson, who will now always
be remembered as Tyson’s first Major League strikeout.  Ross mowed down the Mariners again in the
seventh inning.  Then in the eighth, he
faced immortality with
Ken Griffey, Jr. at the plate.  When Kurt Suzuki almost hung on to Junior’s two-strike foul tip, I
could only imagine the reaction in the stands by the Ross Family.  In unison, they probably all jumped out of
their seats.  However, Tyson soon added
the exclamation point to his maiden Major League appearance.  He came back to ring up the future Hall of
Famer and completed two-and-one-third scoreless innings in playing a key role
in Oakland’s 6-5 victory over Seattle. 

It
was a storybook night for the kid who once played youth baseball games at the
Bushrod baseball fields on the other side of San Leandro Blvd., literally in the
shadow of the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum. 
It’s happened so quickly for Tyson Ross, you really can’t blame him if
he’s not quite sure what’s real and what’s a dream these days.  In either case, it’s a safe bet he’s in no
hurry to wake up.  After all, he’s having
the time of his life.

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