June 2011

Bob Melvin & The Fightin’ Bananas

As we return home from a 2-4 road trip, I offer you some random–yet hopefully insightful–observations about your Oakland A’s.  First, it starts with the  mystical powers of those magnificent gold jerseys.  By now, I’m sure you know the mercurial history of Oakland’s alternate tops.  Clearly, they were not designed to accompany our gray pants on the road, but when you rattle off a five-game home winning streak like we did last week, fashion statements be damned.  We’re talking baseball superstition here.  And while the winning streak ended, Bob Melvin and the “Fightin’ Bananas” accorded themselves quite well in the near-fluorescent jerseys in New York and Philadelphia. It took 13 innings and a graze-of-the-jersey pitch from Brad Ziegler to end the magic in 13 innings Wednesday.  Equipment man Steve “Voos” Vucinich put them back on the shelf for the Mets’ finale and series opener in Philly, but pitching ace Trevor Cahill decided to channel the power once again, and the Fightin’ Bananas were back on display Saturday at Citizens Bank Park.  Like the Mets broadcasters before, the Phillies’ announcers just reamed us for the garish look and the fact the tops and bottoms don’t seem to match.  Of course, they’re entitled to their opinions.  But thanks to a Cahill masterpiece and some timely hitting, the Athletics rose up to tag Cole Hamels with only his fourth loss of the season.  And while Melvin and his Plantain Men didn’t fare quite as well yesterday, the fact remained that they mustered–or is that mustard –eight hits off Roy Halladay and kept the game’s outcome in doubt until the waning moments.  So, maybe those shockingly bright gold jerseys are worth wearing when the A’s need an added jolt.  Who knows, maybe this will end up being known as The Season of the Fightin’ Bananas.

Another week of working with our new manager continues to reveal more about Bob Melvin.  After yesterday’s narrow loss, he was a picture of dejection and frustration.  Clearly, this is not a man who will ever accept losing.  He could have easily rationalized the 3-1 defeat, chalking it up to facing one of the game’s elite pitchers.  But instead, he would have no part of it.  He wanted to tell his players, the media, even his PR man, that it was not okay to lose this game or the series, because we can’t think that way.  You could tell he believed that his club could, maybe even should, beat a Halladay who wasn’t at his most dominant yesterday.  It’s that competitive spirit that has served Melvin well whereever he’s managed.  And it fits into his pro-active, aggressive approach to the game.  A Josh Willingham steal of third base led to a win over the Tim Lincecum and the Giants last week.

The same have-no-fear mantra has been preached by Hall of Famer Rickey Henderson whenever he visits the team.  And perhaps their top disciple is rookie Jemile Weeks, who seemed to thrive on the big stage of New York and Philadelphia.  Not only has he provided a .300 hitter and stolen base threat at the top of the order, as evidenced by his two-steal, three-run performance in the NY opener Tuesday and three-hit outburst in Saturday’s win over the Phils, but he has shown a flair at second base that has made him a fan favorite almost overnight. You want to talk about swagger?  How about making a back-handed flip from his glove to start a 4-6-3 double play to slam the lid on Saturday’s win?  And he chose to do it before a sellout crowd of over 45,000 howling fans in South Philly–fans who have razzed players much more prominent than Weeks, not to mention booed future Hall of Famer Mike Schmidt and also a guy named Santa Claus.

As I watched our injury-riddled starting rotation continue to pitch impressively on the trip, I couldn’t help but think, “what other team in baseball can run out their No. 8 and No. 9 pitchers on the depth chart and get these kind of results?”  That’s exactly what we did in the Giants series, when Graham Godfrey and Guillermo Moscoso outpitched Lincecum and Jonathan Sanchez in beating San Francisco, and that pair, along with Josh Outman, continued to deliver sterling efforts on the trip.  In fact, Moscoso (2.68 ERA) and Outman (3.10 ERA) have both posted outstanding ERA as emergency fill-ins.  The good news is reinforcements are on the way, as Brandon McCarthy, Rich Harden and Tyson Ross should join the big club from rehab assignments by the end of the week or early in July, it would appear.

And for those of you looking to enjoy Bay Area summer weather and A’s baseball, we’ve got an intriguing homestand on the way.  This Tuesday, the Florida Marlins and their new–or is that old–manager, the 80-year-old Jack McKeon, invade the Coliseum for a three-game interleague set.  Then Oakland concludes its interleague schedule this weekend, when Melvin’s old club, the Arizona Diamondbacks, pay the East Bay a visit.  And the homestand continues when Seattle, the AL West’s most surprising team, kicks off a three-game series on the 4th of July.  Four of the nine home games will be played in the bright sunshine of day baseball.  And who knows, they may also be played in the brightness of those crazy gold jerseys.  I wonder if Dole or Chiquitas might be interested in sponsoring them?

A Rare In-Season Managerial Move Overshadows 1-9 Road Trip

The road trip from hell is over.  Mercifully.  It’s rare when a team returns home after a 10-game trip that produced one win.  And it’s even more rare when such a woeful showing is not the focal point of the local media.  Instead, most scribes and on-air folks are reporting on something even more rare:  an in-season managerial change.

For me personally, it started with a red-eye flight to Chicago Wednesday night. I had received a heads up from GM Billy Beane earlier that afternoon that Bob Melvin would be replacing Bob Geren Thursday. While I was keenly aware of the media speculation about him, to actually hear the words that Geren would no longer be our manager was almost stunning to me.  No matter his record, he was a good, decent man, and as Billy said in his briefing, a good baseball man.  When you spend the kind of time together that we did every day in the clubhouse, in his office, on team charters and buses, your manager becomes part of your extended family.  You emphathize with his every up and down, and you share in his victories.  However, part of being a professional is you need to move quickly past the personal part.

The early notice Billy gave me was ample time to write a first draft press release, scribble some notes on how and when to best service the media the next day, and then join Billy and Assistant GM David Forst on a 10:53 pm flight from SFO to O’Hare.  As I’ve experienced with previous news of this nature, the inner circle needs to be kept small to control the timing of the announcement.  This becomes even more critical when there’s still private meetings and planning that need to occur prior to going public.  Billy, David and I arrived at the downtown Chicago Westin Hotel on Michigan Avenue around 6 am, only to learn that–incredibly–we actually beat  the team’s check-in from Baltimore. The team, already reeling from their ninth straight loss, did not pick up their keys in the Westin lobby until 6:30 am, thanks to stormy weather which detoured their flight with an unscheduled stop in Springfield, IL.  The same treacherous conditions also delayed Melvin’s flight from New York, pushing back his arrival time from 10 am to almost noon at the hotel.

Billy and David opted to meet with the coaching staff around 11 am, at which time David gave me the green light to email our prepared press release to the Bay Area, national and Japanese media, along with all A’s front office staff.  Our planned sequence continued to unfold, hour by hour, through the afternoon.  Beane and Forst met with Melvin in the hotel just prior to a 1 pm media conference call where Billy patiently took questions from a wide range of journalists and tried his best to explain the rationale for the managerial change.  As soon as the call ended, we were all headed downstairs to the 2 pm team bus to the stadium.  The frenetic pace continued when we got to U.S. Cellular Field, as equipment man Steve Vucinich outfitted Bob Melvin in his new uniform, including his requested No. 6 jersey to honor Sal Bando, captain of those three straight World Series championship teams of the early 70’s.

Minutes later, I was ushering Melvin and Beane to an interview room across the corridor from our clubhouse for a 3:30 pm media conference.  It turned out to be comprised mostly of TV cameras, including one feeding the conference live to our partner Comcast SportsNet California back home.  There was only a sprinkling of sports writers in attendance, with the San Francisco Chronicle’s Susan Slusser one of the only A’s beat writers in attendance. Most Bay Area and Japanese writers had been delayed en route from Maryland by the same horrendous weather that had effected all of us.  Melvin seemed to wear his heart on his shirt sleeves a bit during the 15-minute conference, harkening back to his childhood days when he used to watch Captain Sal and those great A’s teams at the Coliseum and how excited he was to be wearing those same white shoes and green-and-yellow caps his heroes once wore.

Following the conference, the new A’s skipper got a chance to return to his office for about a half hour of game preparation, then introducing himself to some of his new players, and finally joining Ken Korach in doing the first-ever edition of The Bob Melvin Show that will now precede every remaining game this season.  The second bus from the hotel arrived around 4:30 pm, which signalled us to close the clubhouse so Melvin could conduct an introductory team meeting.  I’ll never forget June 9, as not only was it historic in the naming of Bob Melvin as interim manager, but it was just a rather bizarre scene in general.  It seemed almost like a scene from the Land of the Living Dead, as whether sportswriters, players, coaches or A’s front office types, we were all doing splendid renditions of modern-day zombies.  Sleep deprivation and all-night travel will do that to a person.

Before I conclude this “Anatomy of a Managerial Change” blog, let me offer some early observations of our new field general. First, make no mistake about it, this is a Bay Area guy through and through.  He’s clearly coming home.  When he speaks of Bay Area sports history, or merely his old stomping grounds in Menlo Park and Palo Alto, you can feel the excitement and passion in his voice.  It’s one thing to be a manager in the major leagues, but it’s entirely something else to be a big league manager of your childhood team.

Judging by what I’ve seen so far, this is a man who is going to be real “hands on” as a manager.  I saw him numerous times seeking out players in the clubhouse, whether it be to stress a baseball point or merely to start a relationship.  Same went for his early dealings with the media.  He has been extremely accomodating, not to mention thoughtful and forthcoming (hey, the guy went to Cal!).  When discussing our glut of quality outfielders on the roster the other day, I was struck by how honest he was and willing to share his feelings:  “Ryan (Sweeney) is kind of the odd man out today, and I feel bad about that because we need to get him some at-bats.” And comments from players, PR directors or writers who have dealt with Bob in the past seem to only confirm my first impressions.  White Sox beat writer Mark Gonzalez of the Chicago Tribune, who covered Melvin in Phoenix when he wrote for the Arizona Republic, raved about his managing style and people skills.  Conor Jackson, the only current Athletic who previously played for Bob (Diamondbacks), was just as effusive with his praise. And Mike Swanson, former D-Backs PR man who now works with the Royals, told my assistant how thrilled he was for Bob and how much he was looking forward to seeing him this week when Kansas City plays in Oakland.  We know none of these glowing reports guarantees success on the field in this fickle game of baseball, but it certainly gives all of us hope. Now, I hope to see you at the Coliseum this week when we host the Royals and Giants in a short six-game homestand.  Come out and welcome our new manager.  He’ll be the one wearing Captain Sal’s old uniform.

A (Chris) Lamb In A’s Clothing

Working for a professional baseball team can be a surreal experience on occasion.  The life I lead as the A’s public relations director represents an entirely different world than the one I live in as a father and husband in my off hours at our home in Berkeley.  One moment, I may be arranging for a FOX interview with Andrew Bailey or working with our merry band of Japanese media that chronicles Hideki Matsui’s every step, then the next minute I’m taking the BART Richmond line home that night so I can buy groceries and cook dinner for my wife and son before we tune into The Colbert Report on the Comedy Channel. It’s maybe not quite as exciting as a big league ball game, but definitely more rewarding.

Yesterday, however, my two worlds intersected in the most unlikely way.  While sitting in our draft “war room” at the Coliseum, the A’s selected left-handed pitcher, Christopher Lamb of Davidson College, with their 11th round pick.  My first thought was “how can this be?”  And could you really blame me?  To me, this wasn’t Christopher Lamb of Davidson; this was little Chris Lamb of Albany Little League and Berkeley High School!  This was Chris Lamb, that skinny kid who used to hang around the local baseball fields and pitch batting practice to younger kids like my son, Luke. Talk about a local boy made good story.  We’ve known the Lamb family since Chris’ father, Marvin, chairman of the psychology department at Cal State East Bay, used to coach my son in Albany Little League. I cannot think of a kid with better manners or a nicer disposition than Chris Lamb.  While he was four years older than Luke, we always saw him at University Village where the Albany Little League fields are located.  Sometimes Chris was just there to support his younger brother Nick, who played with my son and now is a virtuoso jazz pianist at Berkeley High. Sometimes Chris would actually umpire their games.  And then, as I said, there were times when he would volunteer his talents as BP pitcher to the younger kids. He almost seemed like a big brother to everyone, not just his real bother Nick.

Beyond being a sports family, the Lambs are very education oriented (Chris’ mother is also a college professor at San Jose State and Cal).  So it was no surprise that Chris not only excelled on the diamond but also in the classroom at Berkeley High. With superlative grades and test scores, he entertained thoughts of attending various Ivy League schools before accepting a baseball scholarship to Davidson, another elite academic institution.  Along the way, Chris continued to grow and blossom into a legitimate prospect. As he added some MPHs to his fastball and refined his off-speed pitches, suddenly the adjective “crafty” was starting to precede his name.

While hundreds of high school and college players are drafted each year, what dawned on me yesterday is every single kid has a personal story and a community that shares in the pride their families must feel on such a special, milestone day.  I had hoped to see Chris Monday night in Berkeley–his younger brother Nick was performing at the famed Berkeley music venue Freight & Salvage–and wish him well the night before his big day.  We opted for a late dinner at home instead.  When Eric Kubota and our baseball folks chose his name on the 11th round, I knew I had to call Chris to congratulate him.  “So, Chris, do you have any white cleats lying around?” I asked.  He laughed and said he and the family were very excited to be picked by a hometown team.  He didn’t have to say it.  The emotion in his voice told me all I needed to know.

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