August 2011

GOING YARD CAN GO A LONG WAYS FOR A’S FANS

Monte Moore, the former legendary voice of the A’s, used to call them “taters” and “dingers.”  Fans used to sit in the right field bleachers under the sign that read “Reggie’s Regiment,” waiting for future Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson to uncork one of his patented home runs.  More recently, you might have spotted a t-shirt at the Coliseum that proclaims that “Chicks Dig the Long Ball.”  No doubt, Oakland A’s fans through the years have been treated to some of the greatest home run hitters of modern times, from  Jackson to Mark McGwire, from Jose Canseco to Jason Giambi, from Sal Bando to Eric Chavez.  Unfortunately, sluggers have been in short supply over the past few years in Oakland. Even at the traditional power positions–the corner infield and outfield positions–it has been rare to see a 20-homer season.  In fact, last year, third baseman Kevin Kouzmanoff led the team with only 16 home runs (I suspect he’ll hit a few more in his new home, Coors Field).

So, what has transpired over the past few weeks is sweet music to A’s fan who covet the long ball.  Not only has left fielder Josh Willingham gone on a home run tear that has seen him “go yard” nine times in his last 23 games, but last night we witnessed the explosive bat of newly-acquired first baseman Brandon Allen.  While the former Diamondback certainly had shown glimpses of his batting prowess in his first week in Oakland–roping two doubles and two triples and hitting in the rarefied air of a .400-plus average–the power display he unleashed at Yankee Stadium last night could go down in franchise annals as one of the more impressive A’s debuts ever in the Bronx.  Beyond belting his first two home runs as an Athletic, Allen left little doubt of the outcome of both, as one landed in the second deck, the other in the third deck of the New Yankee Stadium.  Much like Willingham, Allen possesses the kind of legitimate power that no Major League park can contain.

Willingham, who is tied for the American League lead in home runs (11) and ranks fifth in RBI (30) since the All-Star Break, will become a free agent after this season.  But it’s difficult for A’s fans not to contemplate the raw-boned slugger joining Allen in the middle of our 2012 lineup, providing the kind of one-two punch that could be the cornerstone of a more powerful and balanced offense in Oakland.  Health has been the real key to Willingham’s recent surge, as he has started 38 of the A’s last 40 games since coming off the DL with an Achilles strain.  His 20 home runs and 74 RBI are certainly impressive on their own merit, but they’re even more impressive considering he’s played in only 103 games.  This good run of health may suggest that the way Bob Melvin and our training staff is handling him–including occasional days at DH–bodes well for Willingham’s future production.

Historically, defense and pitching still does win championships, no doubt.  But as any baseball fan will tell you, it’s awfully fun to watch the home team launch a few missiles into the bleachers, too.  Willingham, Matsui, and now Allen, are starting to resemble some of those A’s power hitters of yore.  But for a one young boy named Reid Manley from Napa, his appreciation for dramatic home runs is clearly in the present.  Unless his father has provided a history lesson of the Bash Brothers or Reggie, all little Reid knows is what he experienced at the Coliseum last Saturday when his hero, Josh Willingham, hit the team’s first pinch-hit home run of the season. His before-and-after reaction, chronicled here on YouTube, pretty much says it all.  Take a look, enjoy the moment, and allow yourself to dream about this becoming a more common occurrence in A’s Land:

Willingham, Matsui Lead A’s Power Surge

This is how it was supposed to be.  The A’s were down 3-1 in the fifth inning yesterday at Tropicana Field and then BOOM.  Hideki Matsui smoked a David Price fastball into the right field bleachers and suddenly the two-run deficit evaporated before our very eyes.  Then later when the game went into extra innings, Josh Willingham stepped to the plate and smashed a Jake McGee delivery over the left field fence to propel a 5-4, 10-inning win for the never-say-die A’s. After watching the festivities from the press box, I couldn’t help but think this was exactly what Billy Beane envisioned when he acquired both Matsui and Willingham during the off season.  In fact, watching yesterday’s offensive fireworks–not to mention the entire lineup’s awakening during the past month–has actually made it even more maddening for A’s fans I suspect.  We always knew they had this kind of production in them, as their past seasons suggested it.

Bob Melvin, certainly an experienced hand, made an early commitment to certain veteran players when he assumed the managerial reins at mid-season.  And since the All-Star Break, a once moribund lineup has begun to function in exciting, wondrous ways that seemed unfathomable only one month earlier.  I mean, really.  Would you have predicted that a team that ranked at or near the bottom in batting average, runs scored, home runs and slugging percentage would now be leading the Major Leagues in hitting (.299), on base percentage (.370) and slugging percentage (.473) since the All-Star Break?  Yesterday’s heroes have played prominent roles in the turnaround.  Matsui has arguably been the hottest hitter in all of baseball since the break.  His big fly yesterday extended his hitting streak to 15 games and he’s now hitting a Major League-leading .451 with seven doubles, five home runs and 22 RBI in the 22 games since the All-Star Game.  And Willingham, who has exhibited legitimate power all season long (as his team-high 17 homers would suggest), ranks among the American League’s leaders in walks (7th, 14), home runs (9th, 6) and RBI (13th, 19) since the break.  Then, when you add a resurgent Cliff Pennington, who’s hitting .375 since the break and Coco Crisp, the AL’s stolen base leader(37) who’s hitting .275 with a team-high 22 doubles as perhaps the team’s most consistent performer, and you see why this team is starting to gain traction.  Then add Jemile Weeks as our dynamic new leadoff man who’s done nothing but impress with his .293 batting average and team-best six triples, and Ryan Sweeney, who’s getting a little more playing time and has hit .326 since the All-Star Break.  And we’re not even counting David DeJesus, who has perserved through perhaps his most frustrating season and has gone 5 for 10 with a double, two homers and two RBIs in the A’s wins the past two days.

Yet, as the Gods of Baseball would have it, our pitching staff’s performances have waned a bit during this same period of offensive fortune.  However, we’re still making overall progress.  To post a 12-10 record since the All-Star Break, particulary against mostly upper-tier opponents like the Yankees, Angels, Tigers and Rays, speaks well about how this team, under Melvin, has begun to gel.  That said, we all know that reality can be cruel at times, something our current 51-63 record would suggest.  But, sports in its purest form is about competing.  Competing no matter what the circumstance.  Hopefully we can all let go of the A’s ulcerating first half of the season and enjoy a current team that has become just that–a team.  For the first time this year, we’re beginning to look pretty solid in every facet of the game.  So, when Matsui or Willingham launch a home run, or Crisp steals two or three bases, or Pennington and Weeks turn a fancy double play, my hope is you’ll not only see a great game, but you’ll also see a better future for the Green and Gold.  Hang in there and keep the faith.  All indications are there are better days ahead.

UPDATE – With The Tweeting Frenzy Over, It’s Back To Baseball

My most recent blog, posted last night, caused a stir among at least one of our beat writers, and perhaps rightly so.  This writer took me to task, saying I was wrong to say tweeters got the Harden-to-Boston trade (or non-trade) story “flat wrong.”  It was not my intent to suggest it was any of our beatwriters who misrepresented the stage of that possible deal.  They merely said that the A’s and Red Sox were close to a deal.  My comments, obviously a bit too broad, were directed at tweeters and other media, broadcast and internet, around the country that ran with the story prematurely, saying the trade was imminent or had been done.  That said, I must apologize for any misperceptions my words may have caused. The last thing I would want to do is throw my own beatwriters under the bus.  I’m crazy, but not that crazy. Also, I offer a correction.  I wrote that around 10 am Sunday there were reports out of Phoenix that we had traded Ziegler to the Diamondbacks.  Actually, truth be told, the first reports came from the San Francisco Chronicle.  So, my bad.  E-me.  Next time, I promise to check my facts better.

With The Tweeting Frenzy Over, It’s Back To Baseball

The final 24 hours leading up to yesterday’s trading deadline were exhilarating, unpredictable and awkward, all at the same time; and in today’s world of instant communication, the tweeters were working overtime. By the time I arrived at the Coliseum Saturday afternoon, there was a flurry of Harden-to-Boston tweets filling the internet stratosphere.  Of course, this was all news to the A’s pitcher, not to mention me. The wonderful invention of Twitter has empowered us to communicate messages faster than you can say Fautino De Los Santos. Accuracy? Well, that’s another matter.  It seems many journalists and bloggers, some under heavy pressure from their editors, are more concerned about the speed in which they can “break” a story, even if time proves their facts flimsy and ultimately flat wrong. The Rich Harden story is a prime example.  I always have to chuckle when transactions are reported on the internet or other medium, and you’re sitting in the eye of the storm and you know the deal is not done.  And whether it’s a medical issue or a change of heart, many a deal goes sideways in those final hours.

As Saturday afternoon wore on, the media corps had asked Bob Melvin whether he could confirm the deal during his pre-game session in the dugout.  Then during the game, beat writers and team broadcasters took turns approaching me –actually pleading with me–about when the story might be confirmed, and “please, oh please, don’t let Harden leave the clubhouse before we can talk to him!”  I make light of it, but obviously these folks are just doing their job.  But confusion is certainly the order of the day (or night as it were).  It all went full cycle when Harden, standing at his locker, spoke with the reporters after the game, letting them know that he would be taking his normal turn in the A’s rotation Tuesday in Seattle.  In other words, it was much ado about nothing.

Yesterday, meanwhile, started innocently enough.  I arrived at the park around 9:30 a.m.  Soon after, reporters entered the clubhouse and began taking inventory.  Coco here?  Check.  Willingham?  Yep.  Bailey?  Yeah, there in the corner.  Then around 10 o’clock or so, Twitter Nation began to buzz again. There were reports out of Phoenix that the Diamondbacks were acquiring Brad Ziegler–our Ziggy –for first baseman Brandon Allen and minor league reliever Jordan Norberto.  Soon thereafter, Assistant GM David Forst informed me that the trade would happen if there were no red flags in team doctors’ evaluation of Allen and Norberto. He projected that process would be completed by 11 a.m., at which time he, Billy Beane, Farhan Zaidi and Melvin would summon Ziegler into the manager’s office to break the news. Only problem, though, was Ziggy was in team chapel–held in the weight room on home Sundays–when our baseball braintrust got the green light from our doctors. So, I waited outside the weight room so I could direct Brad to Melvin’s office as soon as chapel ended.  Once he was told about the trade, my assistant Mike Selleck made it official by sending out our press release and yes, tweeting the bare essentials for all to see.  For me, the toughest part was saying goodbye to one of the most cooperative athletes I’ve dealt with in more than three decades of my career.  Whether it was media interviews, community programs or season ticket holder events, you could always count on Zig.  And yesterday was no different.  After calling his family and Diamondbacks’ GM Kevin Towers, he agreed to come to the dugout for one final media session.  He was still wearing A’s gear, although he took off his green cap as a subtle reminder that he was no longer an Oakland Athletic.  After the questions ended, many writers came up to Brad and exchanged hugs.  No question, he was their “go-to guy” after tough A’s losses. And then, I walked back through the tunnel to the clubhouse.  But before I did, I caught one last view of Ziggy.  He had stopped in the walkway near the dugout and was signing autographs and visiting with dozens of fans along the railing.  It was an appropriate scene for one of the good guys in this business.  Tweet that!

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