March 2011

Spring Has Sprung! It’s Time For REAL Baseball!

It was getaway day in the desert yesterday, and collectively, I think this team is ready for the marathon that lies ahead.  Following our Cactus League finale against the Rockies at Salt River Fields, players, coaches and staff were bused back to Phoenix Muni for quick showers, then on to Phoenix International Airport for the charter to Oakland.  As I surveyed the situation on board, it’s clear that Manager Bob Geren and his staff are visibly pleased with the results they saw during six weeks of workouts and Spring Training games.  And why not?  Their check list is pretty much complete:

  • Stay Healthy—The A’s came out of camp relatively injury free.  Outside of All-Star closer Andrew Bailey and fifth-starter candidate Rich Harden, Geren’s club looks fit and ready.  And even Bailey’s arm setback was a reprieve of sorts, as tearing adhesions from offseason cleanup surgery is a best-case scenario if ever I heard of one when a mandated trip to see Dr. Andrews (aka, Mr. Tommy John surgeon) suggested otherwise.  While a specific timetable for their return has not yet been plotted, both Bailey and Harden (tight lat muscle) should be rejoining the team early in the season, perhaps even within a few weeks.
  • Competition for Open Positions—Entering Spring Training, it would have seemed there were three primary areas of competition for roster spots.  The hope was that several viable candidates would emerge and a healthy competition would ensue that might deliver the best possible options.  Well, it absolutely went according to script.  With Adam Rosales still on the mend from offseason foot surgery—he should be back by early May—there was a spirited battle for the utility infielder role.  In fact, the smoke has yet to clear, as Eric Sogard, Andy LaRoche and Wes Timmons head north for the Bay Bridge Series still awaiting a final verdict.  And Steve Tolleson, who briefly served in the same utility role last season, displayed his usual defensive prowess to make it a legitimate four-way competition until he was optioned to the minor league camp due to a sub-par batting average.  Another interesting contest was waged by Brandon McCarthy, Tyson Ross and Bobby Cramer for the No. 5 starter.  Friday, the skipper gave McCarthy the nod, although he also suggested that Ross and Cramer are still prime candidates for the long reliever slot on the staff—a decision that will need to be made later this week.  And to a lesser extent, a bevy of gifted relievers with quality major league experience, headed by Jerry Blevins, Joey Devine—and maybe even the reliable Brad Ziegler—tried to out-duel each other all spring for what essentially were one or two spots in a crowded bullpen.  Devine, who like starter Josh Outman, made estimable progress this spring, was optioned this morning to allow him more time to ramp up following his Tommy John surgery from 2009.  Final choices for Opening Night are still to come, but one thing is certain:  some very capable pitchers and position players will be left off the 25-man roster that christens the season, and that suggests this is a deeper team than a year ago.
  • Evidence of an Improved Lineup—While rarely did we see the projected Opening Night lineup together in any one Spring Training game, individually we saw promising glimpses of both our new acquisitions like David DeJesus and Josh Willingham, as well as returning hitters like Coco Crisp, Kurt Suzuki and Kevin Kouzmanoff, who this year will be asked to perform in positions more commiserate to their talents.  While Hideki Matsui compiled a rather frigid batting average this spring, those long-time observers of the Japanese legend suggest that Godzilla is sure to appear when stadium lights are flicked on this weekend.
  • The Return of the Big Four—Even though this quartet set the tone last season by anchoring a starting rotation that posted the best ERA in all of baseball, the relative youth of Trevor Cahill, Brett Anderson, Gio Gonzalez and Dallas Braden would generally suggest you can’t take last year’s performance for granted.  So, while we have somewhat penciled in another stellar season for this group, it was nice to see each of them pitch with such purpose this spring.  In short, they were as good as advertised.  All four seem to be poised and ready for great seasons.  And, of course, this is sweet music for new pitching coach Ron Romanick and Geren.

So now, the real season is upon us.  As they might say in the boxing game, “Let’s get ready to rummmmbblle!”


The 2011 A’s Are A Study Of Good Chemistry

Back in the early 70’s, the
Oakland A’s were notorious for their disharmony
in the clubhouse.  When the media
referred to them as the “Swingin’ A’s,” they weren’t kidding. 
Reggie Jackson,
Gene
Tenace
or Rollie Fingers may have been World Series heroes, but that didn’t
necessarily make them like each
other. However, I think it’s fair to say that this year’s Athletics are polar
opposites.  In all my years in sports, I
cannot recall a better team chemistry than the one I’m seeing down here in
Phoenix.

 

4A7C2810.JPG

It’s just a happy
clubhouse.  At one end of the room,
there’s
Brian Fuentes with a remote
control, directing a miniature helicopter that’s hovering over a table of
pitchers playing cards.  At another
corner, you’ve got
Kurt Suzuki applying a bear hug
on one of the clubbies.  On St. Patrick’s
Day, it’s the colorful
Dallas Braden,
sporting an oversized green golf hat, ala Bill Murray at Pebble Beach,
entertaining MLB Radio Network broadcasters Kevin Kennedy and Jim Duquette on
the field before the game.  Or it’s
legendary Japanese slugger
Hideki Matsui,
despite nursing a heavy heart two days after the earthquake and tsunami hit his
homeland, feeling compelled to answer the “Matsui, Matsui!” shrieks of
youngsters at Phoenix Muni and returning to the ballpark railing to sign
autographs.

 

And there are the even more
subtle signs that this is a team where players genuinely care about each
other.  Off days are usually considered
almost religious holidays for big league players, as they are so rare and much
needed after several consecutive days of games or workouts.  Yet, last week on our only off day of spring
training, there was Braden–sporting a knit stocking cap despite 80 degree
weather–and fellow starter
Trevor Cahill,
making an appearance at our Papago Park minor league complex at 9:30 in the
morning.  Why?  To show support for their two teammates,
Craig Breslow and Tyson Ross,
who were both pitching to minor leaguers that day.  I was there to report their performances to
our beat writers, yet I could recognize it was a poignant scene.  “This is what good teammates do,” I thought.

 

And I saw the same common
thread when
Jim Leahey, our VP of Marketing,
unveiled the A’s new advertising campaign last weekend.  While the finished TV commercials were
hysterical, what really struck me was watching the “out-takes” at the end of
the video presentation.  It was the way
Gio Gonzalez, despite the 38-degree weather he encountered during
dunk tank scenes in February filming sessions, was so playful with the other
players on set.  Same for Suzuki and
Cahill, and especially Ryan Sweeney. 
These guys didn’t just look like ballplayers.  They looked like dear friends.  To see the commercials and outtakes click
here: www.oaklandathletics.com/commercials

 

I guess the question is will
this translate into a playoff team this season? 
Obviously, time will tell.  But if
you believe in the intangibles–camaraderie, trust in each other, and a positive
atmosphere–that make a team a team,
then I think you can start believing in the 2011 A’s.  This could be a very special group.

Random Thoughts In The Desert

Ladies and gentlemen, you
are part of history today.  Oh, you
didn’t hear? This is my 50th edition since I started Clubhouse Confidential
last season.  That, and $2, will get you
a Venti Pike’s Roast at Starbucks. 

Some random observations and
thoughts about the past week of Spring Training in this, the 50th anniversary
issue of my blog:

Bob Geren, now in his fifth year
as manager, has really grown into his role with the media.  Ironically, it may be the additional 50 or so
Japanese media that has served as a catalyst. 
It seems as though the A’s manager loves a crowd.  He seems to actually be feeding off the
energy of a larger media corps.  Not only
has he provided solid baseball information every day during our pre-game session
in the dugout, but he’s brought downright humor on occasion. His best comedic
source are stories about
Frank Howard,
the gargantuan (6-7, 250 pounds) former Washington Senator and Los Angeles
Dodger outfielder who later coached for many major league teams.  It seems Geren has a new “Hondo” story daily,
and every one is hilarious.

042410MZ_117.JPGHow great was it for Adam Rosales yesterday morning? 
The A’s super sub continues to rehab from offseason foot surgery which
will most likely sideline him until about May 1, yet the irrepressible utility
man can be seen early and late in the clubhouse daily.  Talk about a lifer, this guy lives, breathes
and eats baseball.  So, there he was
around 10 a.m. yesterday on the Phoenix Muni turf, playing catch with Hall of
Famer
Rickey
Henderson
, probably one of his childhood
idols.

I have the rare privilege of
spending hours in the A’s clubhouse, so let me share with you a couple of
poignant scenes I observed in the past couple of days.  The first involved
Mark Ellis, and it spoke volumes of his character as a team
leader.  We had two split squad games last
Sunday, one played in Phoenix and the other in Peoria against the
Padres.  Players from our minor league
camp, usually donning such exotic numbers as 92 or 95, are sent to Phoenix Muni
those mornings to help fill out our team rosters at both games.  This past Sunday, a rather non-descript–and
definitely unrecognized–minor leaguer entered our clubhouse.  Who was there to greet him but nine-year
veteran Mark Ellis.  “Welcome!  Hi, I’m Mark. 
Have you seen Vuc (equipment manager
Steve Vucinich) to get your gear for today?”  Ellis went out of his way to be a good teammate.  He shook the minor leaguer’s hand, then
personally escorted him to Vuc’s office. 
That young kid will never forget what Mark did for him, and I would
suspect a number of major leaguers in the clubhouse also took notice of Mark’s
kind gesture.  Pure class. 

I had another rather private
moment involving reliever
Joe Bateman,
a non-roster invitee who’s racked up eye-popping numbers in nine minor league
seasons but knows his time is dwindling to land a major league job.  That urgency was never more apparent than
when he pitched in Oakland’s
game in Maryvale against the hard-hitting Brewers last week.  In relief, he served up back-to-back home
runs to
Ryan Braun and Casey McGehee to his first two batters, and allowed three runs on three
hits in one-third inning.  Later, he left
the field and returned to the visitor’s clubhouse.  I was there and decided to offer some kind
words to the slender right-hander.  I
told him that Braun and the Milwaukee
bombers do that to a lot of
people.  Knowing this is a game of
results, Joe would have no part of it.  “I
don’t need no (sic) pep talk!  I’m a
grown man,” he snapped.  I totally understood
what he was saying, so there was no need for me to say another word.  There was a neat postscript to this story,
however, as the next time Bateman pitched two days later against the Padres in
Peoria, he was summoned with the bases loaded and pitched out of the jammed
unscathed.  In fact, he proceeded to reel
off a 1-2-3 shutout inning the following frame as well.  He followed that with a scoreless ninth
yesterday at Phoenix Muni, slamming the lid on a 6-2 win over that same Padres
team.  Ah, the life of a relief
pitcher.  No wonder they have short
memories.

109403645.jpgAnd then there’s Gio Gonzalez.  Beyond being
an ultra gifted pitcher with a golden arm, Gio also has a personality that can
light up a room.  Or in this case, an
entire press box.  Our Sunday home game
vs. the Brewers was broadcast on XTRA Sports 860 and
Ken Korach asked whether we might deliver Gio to the booth
following his outing.  The Cuban
lefthander made short work of Milwaukee,
striking out five in three hitless innings. 
I told my assistants to kill two birds with one pitcher by staging his
postgame writers’ session in the back of the press box just before he joined
Korach in the booth.  Just as my young assistant
Adam
Loberstein
was about to make the
announcement in the box that Gio was available for questions, his microphone
was commandeered by none other than Gonzalez, who asked the Bay Area and
Japanese media that “Anyone have any questions for me?  Speak now or forever hold your peace!”  The place erupted.  Then Gio dazzled the scribes in much the same
fashion his curveball did to the Brewers a few minutes earlier.  And from all reports from Korach afterwards,
he made it an impressive Trifecta with another sterling performance on the
airwaves.  Every club needs someone like
Gio, who makes baseball fun.  Isn’t that what it’s supposed to be?

85268693.jpgAnd finally, I share with
you a glimpse of the “Z Man.”  We speak
of Michael
Zagaris,
one of the smartest, most
talented–and yes, zaniest–people I
know.  In case you don’t know, Michael
offers us more than three decades of sports photography experience.  He’s been both the A’s and Forty-Niners’ team
photographer since the early 80’s.  Yet,
what may be even more interesting is his past history as a touring music photographer
for such legendary acts as the
Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin and Eric Clapton.  So, I couldn’t help myself but invite the Z
Man to join me in attending a rare
Savoy Brown
concert at the Rhythm Room, a well-worn roadhouse in central Phoenix. 
The band, part of  British rock
and blues explosion of the 60’s that also produced such groups as
Foghat and Humble Pie,
almost tore the roof off that night.  Original
Savoy Brown member
Kim Simmonds celebrated his 45th consecutive year with the band by
unleashing one of the greatest guitar live performances I have ever seen.  And the Z Man was clearly in his element. There
were multiple standing ovations, while Zagaris harkened back to his early rock days
across the pond, comparing Simmonds to
Jeff Beck
and Clapton and other great guitarists of yore. 
It was a great diversion for both of us during these dog days of
spring.  Okay, I guess they’re not dog days.  Maybe prairie dog days?  On that note, my 50th blog is officially
done.  And with that prairie dog comment,
my writing career might be done as well.

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