February 2011

Coco Sets The Tone In Camp This Week

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The more we see Coco Crisp–and we hope to see him at the top of the lineup with
great regularity in 2011–the more we realize this is a player destined to be in
the center of everything this year.  The
man has serious flair.  It starts in the
parking lot, where his black Rolls Royce convertible is well, noticeable, among
a sea of SUVs. 
And this week on the beautifully manicured diamonds of Papago Park
and Phoenix Muni, the A’s center fielder seemed to be in The Man in the Middle
everywhere you turned. 

 

On Wednesday, he welcomed
the first female to ever throw batting practice to an Oakland team. 
You may have read about 36-year-old Cleveland native
Justine Siegal, a long-time player and coach who founded the
non-profit organization Baseball for All, an equal-opportunity advocacy group.  She made baseball history this week by
pitching BP to two major league teams–her hometown Indians and our Oakland A’s.  She was a little nervous at first, throwing
four straight balls to Crisp.  But leave
it to Coco, the Class Clown, to help loosen
things up.  He kidded back and forth with
Justine, feigning bunts, mock anger and idle threats.  It seemed to relax Justine, who proceeded to hurl
a very respectable round of BP.  In a
way, it was a metaphor for what Crisp does for his own team.   He never lets his teammates forget that
baseball is a game and having fun is mandatory. 

 

But more Coco
in a minute.  Let me get back to
Justine.  The genesis of this lady facing
our players was this year’s Winter Meetings in Orlando, where she approached
Billy Beane about gaining the opportunity.  Billy said he was happy to give her an
opportunity and that he would have his PR man–that would be me–call her to make
arrangements for Spring Training.  I spoke
with Justine a couple of times during the offseason, as we confirmed the date
she would throw and the logistics for her to get outfitted in an A’s uniform
and when we would meet in Arizona.  It was such a pleasure to finally meet her
and learn more about her foundation and why she so badly wanted to pitch to
Major Leaguers.  Her sole purpose was to
break down any barriers or prejudices towards girls or women reaching their
dreams and potential in the game of baseball. 
For so many years, 13-year-old girls have been told it, “hey you were a
great Little Leaguer playing with the boys but it’s time to switch over to
softball.  You might as well because
there no next level for you in baseball.” 
Justine’s message–her life’s work, really–is to tell America and the
world that there should be no limits placed on who plays baseball or at what
age or level.  She points out that nearly
half of all Major League Baseball fans are women, a sector of the population
which loves the game every bit as much as men do.  So why can’t they play hardball as long as
they wish?  I think what struck me most
about Justine was simply her fearless mindset that day.  A solitary, almost lonely figure, she showed
tremendous courage.  While some in the
audience may have thought she had very little in common with the A’s players
she faced–Crisp,
David DeJesus, Daric Barton and Landon Powell–I thought just the opposite.  All athletes must show courage in laying it
all on the line, and on that day, I could see that our players understood and
respected what Justine was doing.  They
knew it took real guts. 
Fear and intimidation could have crept into your mind at any given
moment (“What if I can’t throw any strikes and ruin their batting
practice?  What if Landon crushes me with
a come-backer?”).  I don’t want to overstate
what she achieved that day, but in many ways, it may very well be the first
step towards a future
Jackie Robinson moment in
breaking another barrier.  I can remember
speaking with African American and Latin players who played in the majors in
the 60′s.  They said it would not have
been possible if they had not earlier dreamt of becoming big league ballplayers. 
But before Jackie broke that barrier, young Black and Latino players
never even dreamt of the possibility.  So, as our new Aussie addition
Grant Balfour might say, “Good on ya, Justine!”

 

As for Coco,
his week had just begun.  Thursday was
Photo Day for the media at Phoenix Muni, with team photographer
Michael Zagaris, AP Photo, Comcast Sports Net, MLB Photos and
several newspaper and trading card companies on hand, as well as about 25 or 30
photographers and TV camera people representing Japanese media outlets.  The charismatic Crisp, in rather dramatic
fashion, made the group wait as team stretch neared.  Starting at 7 o’clock that morning, every A’s
coach and player had already gone through the gauntlet.  We all were waiting for Crisp before we could
call it quits.  Seemingly out of the
morning mist, No. 4 appeared at the final minute, all smiles and giggles.  I could not imagine a better closer for Photo
Day.

 

Then yesterday, it was Coco who set the tone at A’s camp yet again.  As the team’s second intrasquad game of camp
was about to commence,
Dallas Braden
peered from the mound as he awaited Crisp’s arrival into the batter’s box.  When Crisp strode into the box, we noticed
something slightly different about his well-tailored uniform.  He had stuck a piece of tape on the back of
his jersey above his number.  It seemed
to be a hyphenated word.  As we looked
closer, we could read it:  “A-Rod.”  Braden, not to be outdone, decided to have a
little fun of his own.  He wound up and
then uncorked one of the of most unlikely first pitches of any scrimmage in memory.  It looped high above–and behind–Coco.  The sorriest knock down pitch I have ever
seen.  Needless to say, Coco
had no problem whatsoever digging in for the next pitch.  Ah, there’s nothing quite like a cup of Coco in the morning. 
As the old postcard used to say, “Wish you were here.”

Matsui Mania Officially Begins In A’s Land

For a guy who
hasn’t even picked up a bat or thrown a ball yet,
Hideki
Matsui
is already
creating quite a stir in the desert. 
This morning, the A’s new slugger arrived at the team’s Papago Park
minor league complex to shoot a commercial for Japanese television.  The commercial is for Komatsu, a
Japanese-based construction company which used to employ Hideki’s father,
Masao
Matsui
, for 23
years. 
Ted Polakowski, our director of minor league
operations, and I looked on with amazement as a small village of people and
vehicles descended on the Papago complex this morning.  Equipment and food trucks, Winnebagos–even an
industrial forklift–and catering tents served as a backdrop to dozens of local
Little Leaguers who joined Matsui-san on one of the baseball fields for
filming.  However, by early afternoon,
the rains and winds came, and the shoot was cut short. 

 

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But Hideki’s
day was far from over.  With the help of
his long-time PR aide, former Japanese sportswriter
Isao
Hirooka
, we then made
Matsui available for his Spring Training debut to both the Bay Area and
Japanese media.  First, there were rows
and rows of Japanese photographers, lined neatly in a small space on the patio
outside the Papago administrative building. 
Clearly, Matsui is a real pro who has posed for these “photo ops”
countless times.  Under bright lighting
and in full Oakland uniform, he waggled his bat, smiled for the cameras and
took a few swings.  Then he switched to
his glove, pounding the pocket and striking a different pose.  I kept thinking, “man, this guy is a real pro.”  Then once the photographers were satisfied,
Matsui seamlessly moved over to one of the picnic tables on the patio.  He sat down and spoke to the Bay Area media
through an interpreter.  He could not
have been more accommodating for the Chronicle’s
Susan Slusser, Bay Area News Group’s Joe
Stiglich
and the other
media.  Then when that session ended, Matsui
moved over to another area on the patio, where he addressed a much larger Japanese
media contingent.  Talk about stamina!

 

Of course, I
would be remiss not to share one other Matsui-related story that came from
today.  While he was entertaining media
at our Papago complex, three of Hideki’s new teammates were entertaining themselves back at the team clubhouse at
Phoenix Municipal Stadium this afternoon. 
Like a kid on Christmas morning, the irrepressible
Dallas
Braden
could hardly
contain himself as he awaited the delivery of a special gift he had ordered for
Matsui–a six-foot high inflatable Godzilla
replica.   As scheduled, it arrived
around 1 o’clock this afternoon.  Some of
the team clubbies inflated the plastic creature, then Braden and fellow
conspirators
Andrew Bailey
and
Craig Breslow
began their handiwork.  First, Dallas tossed
on the A’s alternative gold jersey–a tight fit, I must say–complete with the
word Matsui and No. 55 displayed on the back. 
Then Breslow suggested baseball cleats. 
Braden was delighted that he had one pair of Japanse-made spikes, which
he proudly fitted onto Godzilla’s feet. 
Then came the wrist bands, an A’s cap, and the
Pièce de résistance, a jock strap!  
Tomorrow morning, we expect Godzilla to meet Godzilla.  The world awaits.

A Final Around-The-Horn Before Spring Training

Well, the countdown to
cactus continues.  In about another week,
the annual rituals will begin.  We’ll be
checking into the team hotel in Phoenix
and voila, Spring Training will commence
in earnest.  In case you hadn’t noticed I’ve put my blog on ice for a couple of
months since the Winter Meetings.  But
now I think it’s time to offer up a few notes and anecdotes I’ve been storing
up lately.  Hopefully you’ll find some of
interest.

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If there was any doubt that
baseball’s popularity is truly international, just add a slugging designated
hitter from Japan
and an Australian set-up man to your roster during the offseason.  In the world where we live–media
relations–the free agent signing of
Hideki Matsui
brings a lot more than home runs and RBI to the A’s.  It also brings about 50 additional Japanese
media to the scene.  Writers and
photographers from wire services like Kyodo
News
and Jiji Press or daily
newspapers such as the Yomiuri Shimbun,
Nikkan Sports
and Chunichi Shimnbun,
will join us in Spring Training and stay with us throughout the season.  So will broadcasters from the Toyko Broadcasting System, Fuji TV and NHK, with NHK also
televising about 40 of our games live during the 2011 season.  It will totally change the dynamics in the
clubhouse and pre-game on the field, as Bob Geren, the players and our Bay Area
media will have a lot of company this year. 
For Spring Training, we’ve already made plans to add additional seating
and risers in the press box at Phoenix Muni. 
My prediction:  it’s going to be a
tight fit. 

 

85405654.jpgThen you add veteran
reliever Grant Balfour, who hails from Sydney, and Australian
journalists have also jumped on board.  I
just spoke with a U.S.
correspondent from Channel Nine, one
of Australia’s
leading TV networks, who plans to cover camp later this month.  I anticipate many other media from “down
under” will be calling soon.  As far as
we’re concerned, the more the merrier!

 

Did you notice the mention
of
Dallas
Braden
in the most recent edition of Sports Illustrated?  It appeared in a feature story about Giants’
closer
Brian
Wilson
. 
It’s been well documented that Braden and Wilson are good friends and
off-season travel mates.  Two years ago,
it was Europe. 
This past offseason, the eccentric duo decided to explore Thailand.  There was mention that they were regularly
found jogging in the jungle, which of course, made me wonder what local Thai
residents–not to mention the wildlife–thought about those peculiar numbers tattooed
on Braden’s torso….2 0 9, indeed!

 

I’m really fortunate to have
two remarkable researchers and number crunchers on my media relations
staff. 
Mike Selleck has been our long-time baseball information person and
he’s respected throughout baseball for his game notes, especially his obscure
or unknown nuggets.  One fact he
unearthed that very few Bay Area fans were aware of is this:  not only did the 2010 Oakland starting
rotation post the best ERA (3.47) in the majors, but that figure represented
the best turned in by a rotation in the American League in 20 years (Boston,
3.32 in 1990)!  And it was accomplished
with a rotation that averaged only 23 years of age for much of the season. 

 

Another crack PR staffer is
our newly-hired
Adam Loberstein, who did some
rather interesting research of his own recently.  He decided to add the 2010 statistics of our
new offseason additions, then subtract the stats of last year’s A’s who are no
longer on the roster, and see where we would place in the league rankings.  What he found with the additions and
subtractions was the Oakland bullpen improved
its Opponents Batting Average figure from .248 to .217, which would have elevated
them from fourth best in the AL
to first in all the majors.  What’s more, last  year’s 3.75 ERA would improve to 2.94, moving
the A’s relievers from a No. 6 ranking in the American League to first in the AL and second in the majors. Offensively, our new additions (most notably Matsui,
Josh
Willingham
and David DeJesus) would have improved our 2010 on-base percentage
from .324 to .339, a swing from being ranked ninth to tied for third best in
the AL.  So, clearly we’re better on paper than last
year.  Now the trick is transferring it
from paper to the playing field.

 

 

A'sbilly1.jpgThis year marks the 30th
anniversary of the zenith of Billyball, as it was Billy Martin’s 1981 A’s club that shocked the baseball world by
winning the American League West with a 64-45 record during a strike-shortened
season.  That ’81 club of misfits started
the season by posting an 18-3 record in April, still the best April in Oakland franchise
history.  They opened the season with a
Major League-record 11 straight victories, including eight on the road.  And in that 11-game period, A’s pitchers
threw 10 complete games and compiled an overall 1.27 team ERA.  Martin’s no names roared into the playoffs,
where they swept Kansas City
in three games, outscoring the Royals, 10-2, in the AL Divisional Series.  But Cinderella’s run ended soon thereafter
when Martin’s old team, the Yankees, returned the favor by sweeping the A’s in
the AL Championship Series in three games.

 

 

This year’s Cactus League
schedule will start with a bang for A’s fans, as Oakland hosts 2010 NL Central
champion Cincinnati (March 1) and last year’s World Series participants Texas
(March 4) and San Francisco (March 5) during the first week at Phoenix
Municipal Stadium.

 

Word has it that Scott Hatteberg, the man whose walk-off home run clinched the
Athletics’ American League-setting 20th straight victory in 2002, will be
spending some time in A’s Spring Training as a special instructor this
year.  He’ll join Hall of Famer
Rickey Henderson in that capacity.

 

The 2011 A’s Media Guide is
due off the presses by the end of this month.  
On the cover?   The Big Four: 
Trevor Cahill, Gio Gonzalez, Brett Anderson and Dallas Braden.

 

There’s been much
commotion–understandably so–about the Giants taking their 2010 World Series
trophy on tour in Northern California this offseason, giving their fans an
opportunity to pose with the cherished piece of hardware.  Recently, 
a Bay Area sportswriter called me about a column he was writing which
would cite how local pro sports franchises have chosen to display any past
World Championship trophies.  He wanted
to confirm that we still keep our 1972, 1973, 1974 and 1989 trophies in our
office reception area, available to the general public.  I confirmed that we did.  And I also could not restrain myself from
adding one final comment:  “There is one
difference for our fans compared to Giants fans.  When our fans pose for their photo, it’s a horizontal shot.”

 

 

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