Love ‘em or hate ‘em, the New York Yankees are intertwined with the history of baseball like no other team. Yes, their payroll continues to approach the GNP of some Third World countries. Yes, they make more appearances on network television than Bob Costas. And yes, they play in baseball’s most expensive new stadium where even the visiting clubhouse is so spacious you have to send for a search party just to round up your players for pre-game batting practice. But having just spent last weekend in the Big Apple, I must say this. The Yankees and their fans, as well as the New York media, may appreciate and embrace the history of baseball like no other place on the planet.
You see it at the team hotel in midtown Manhattan. The autograph seekers arrive early to their customary sidewalk spot on 51st Street, and they can recite every A’s player’s current stats. You see it when the team bus rolls into the Bronx, and every block leading to The House That George Built features nothing but Yankee merchandise stores. Jerseys of Ruth, Gehrig, Mantle, DiMaggio, Jeter and Sabathia hang from the shop windows. And of course, inside the park, there are those Hall of Fame plaques behind center field of Yankee players of yore. The plaques don’t end there either. In the pressbox where I work, there’s plaques of legendary former Yankee PR men, along with a photo tribute to a recently-deceased official scorer who presided over games for four decades. However, he had nothing on the late Bob Sheppard, whose photo adorns the press lounge to acknowlege for serving as perhaps the greatest public address announcer of all-time (heck, he’s still so loved by local fans, the Yankees play a taped version of his dignified introduction of Jeter every time Mr. 3000 strolls to home plate).
But what I experienced last weekend went beyond a lovefest for Everything Yankee. That was made abundantly clear the first time A’s designated hitter Hideki Matsui came to bat Friday night. He received a rousing ovation. This, two years since he played for hometown team and won the 2009 World Series MVP. The Yankees also played a heart-warming video tribute to honor Godzilla reaching the 500-homer milestone two nights earlier in Detroit. Very classy. Another round of applause came Hideki’s way when the Japanese slugger hit No. 501 Saturday in fueling Oakland’s 4-3 win. Yesterday, New Yorkers showered some love David DeJesus’ way, too, when he made a nice catch in right field. While it may not hurt that David was born in nearby Brooklyn and went to college at Rutgers, it seemed the applause were merely to show their appreciation for a good play, no matter the uniform or local lineage.
And while many of the legendary journalists I used to see in the New York press box have retired or passed away, I did enjoy meeting Bob Rosen, an old-timer who works for Elias Sports Bureau. He was sitting right in front of me. Our conversation led towards the current travails of the Dodgers. Before I could say much, he quickly pulled out a stack of photos from his briefcase. They were taken in 1957. At Ebbetts Field! It was remarkable seeing these 3×5 color shots that showed those large advertising signs of that era along the right field fence. There were outside shots of the famed Ebbetts Field rotunda entrance. And photos of future Hall of Famer Roy Campanella, and a game action photo of Roger Craig on the mound pitching for the Dodgers. And this gentlemen from Elias not only had these photos, he shot the photos. A living, breathing link to baseball’s past right before me. Of course, being a die-hard Dodger fan who lost his boyhood team to the beaches of Southern California, he couldn’t help making one final comment about the Dodgers’ current situation. “Serves them right. I knew there was a curse. They never should have left us!”
I get a kick out of those who continue to insist Gio Gonzalez battles “emotional demons” occasionally when he pitches. Listen, I don’t dispute the fact that the A’s lefthander is a high-energy extrovert, and that he had trouble controlling his emotions earlier in his career. But to still dig up that characterization is not only inaccurate, it’s unfair and discredits what he’s accomplished. Let’s face it, Gio has blossomed into one of the game’s best starting pitchers. And that’s not just me saying it; the numbers suggest it. Since the start of last season, the “Cuban Cannon” has rattled off a 24-15 record (.615 winning percentage) and 2.89 ERA while muzzling opposing hitters to the tune of a .224 average. His ERA and opponents’ batting average over that span both rank 5th in the American League, with only well-known names like Weaver, Verlander, Lester and King Felix perched above him. Additionally, our All-Star southpaw has exhibited some of the more electric stuff in the league during that season-and-a-half period, striking out 290 batters in 320.2 innings while allowing only 267 hits. When the A’s score three runs or more in his starts, Gio is absolutely money; money, as in he’s a whopping 26-1 in his career when he has three or more runs to work with. That’s right—TWENTY SIX wins, ONE loss. And even though he’s toed the rubber for an offense-challenged Oakland club, his 24 wins since the start of 2010 still rank eighth most in the American League.
It’s always nice to recall the early days of Gonzalez. I still remember that 2008 afternoon in Toronto, sitting on the team bus outside our hotel when a wide-eyed young man walked on board. Actually he kind of bounced on board. I had never met Gio, yet it was quite obvious that it was him, right there in the flesh, about to make his Major League debut that night at Rogers Centre. You might recall the story about how he had left his passport back in Hialeah, Fla. and had to meet his mother at the airport en-route to Canada so he could enter the country–and the first chapter of his big league career. To see Gio grow up before your very eyes, not only on the mound–where he learned, more than anything, to trust your stuff and also to minimize damage in making deep-in-the-game performances commonplace–but also in becoming just a fine young man. No one on the team is more caring or giving to others and no one is more grounded in this crazy hero-worship world of professional sports. It was a rare treat to watch Kate Longworth’s post-game Comcast interview on the field at Chase Field with Gio, his brothers and father, just minutes after the All-Star Game ended. Clearly, this is a tight-knit family and extremely proud of “little Gio.” We saw how one of his brothers was sporting a No. 47 AL batting practice jersey with the word, “Hialeah” on the back above the numerals. And that’s not the only place you’ll find the Gonzalez’ hometown. Gio has it stitched on his glove so he can see it before every pitch he throws. Talk about never forgetting where you came from. Reminds me of another effervescent lefthander who once shined at the Coliseum. He also had a cool name, hailed from a small southern town and was a real fan favorite. His name was Vida Blue.
Yesterday was truly MC Hammer Day at the ballpark, but it could have just as easy been Gio Day. He blanked the Angels on a workman-like four-hitter through seven innings that netted his ninth win of the year. The A’s crack marketing department unleashed something called “Celebrity Heads” during the game in celebration of 80′s Weekend, as these gargantuan heads of President Regan, Sylvester Stallone and Don Johnson raced across the field between innings. Johnson was clothed in wardrobe reminiscent of his role in the TV hit series, “Miami Vice.” Also, only appropriate, as our same marketing department was also selling the current issue of Athletics Magazine in the stadium. On the cover? Gio Gonzalez, with palm trees in pastel colors incorporated in the cover design. The cover headline? Miami Nice. Indeed.
Former MLB Commissioner Bart Giamatti used to say that baseball was designed to break your heart. As we watched Josh Hamilton crush that Andrew Bailey fastball and send it soaring into the second deck at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington Saturday night and a much-needed A’s victory suddenly became perhaps the season’s most devastating loss, I couldn’t help but think Mr. Giamatti might be on to something. That demoralizing 7-6, ninth-inning setback was Oakland’s 20th one-run loss of 2011. In other words, 20 of the A’s 53 losses this year have been decided by one foot tap of home plate. Alarmingly, that’s almost 40 percent of the team’s entire loss total!
We all came into this season with higher expectations, based on the return of a brilliant young pitching staff and the offseason acquisitions of three proven Major League hitters and two accomplished relievers. So to watch this once promising club spin in a downward spiral the past few weeks has been tough on all of us. Perhaps the All-Star Break arrived at an opportune time. Players and coaches probably need a mental break from the game. GM Billy Beane and his top lieutenant David Forst can use this week to contemplate changes or ways to jump-start a struggling team. New skipper Bob Melvin, whose managerial moves and demeanor this past month seem to be beyond reproach, has flown home to New York for the break, no doubt digesting what he’s experienced since donning the A’s uniform and trying to devise a winning formula for the second half.
While fielding lineups with three or four players hitting .225 or below might be the first clue to why Oakland played at a .424 clip before the Break, the offense has not been the only culprit this season. Defense, thought to be a strength entering the campaign, has betrayed the A’s since Opening Day. Their 71 errors rank second most in the American League and third most in the majors. What has been of particular concern is the glove work on Oakland’s infield, as 67 of their 71 miscues this season have been committed around the diamond (the breakdown is: 18 by third basemen, 14 by shortstops, 13 by pitchers, nine by first basemen, seven by catchers and six by second basemen). So, this makes Beane’s and Forst’s challenge even more daunting, as they must weigh how much they can add offense at the expense of defense. Clearly, they are losing ball games as much because of an inefficient defense as with scoring the second fewest runs in the American League at the Break. That said, kudos should go out to Coco Crisp, who is batting a productive.267, with a team-leading 18 doubles, five triples and 26 stolen bases, not to mention eye-popping catches in center field, for his first half performance. The same can be said for two relative newcomers in second baseman Jemile Weeks, who’s hitting .287 with three triples, eight doubles, eight RBI and seven steals in only 31 games since his Jume call-up, and converted third baseman Scott Sizemore, who has also batted .287 with five doubles, four homers and 14 RBI in just 28 games since being acquired in a trade with Detroit.
One thing that has always struck me about baseball is, like no other sport, it is a soap opera that unfolds every day. Much can change in a matter of weeks, and every season is filled with ups and downs that can tear at your heartstrings. What’s in store for the Oakland A’s after the All-Star Break has yet to be written. Will the team rebound and begin to fulfill its preseason promise? Will player moves at the trading deadline dictate Melvin’s goals and lineup in the second half? Will there be more Jemile Weeks stories provided by further call-ups from Sacramento? How will pitching aces Gio Gonzalez and Trevor Cahill finish their seasons? As we follow the A’s fortunes, beginning with a four-game series against the Angels this weekend, these answers will began to form. Stay tune for an interesting journey.