This is why we love Dallas Braden. Whether it’s Hideki Matsui or Manny Ramirez, he’s a One Man Welcoming Committee. As you may recall, last year Mr. 209 came up with this nifty idea to entertain dozens of Japanese media who were staked out in the clubhouse to chronicle the arrival of national hero Matsui. Weeks earlier, Braden had mail-ordered a life-sized blow-up Godzilla. He was like a kid on Christmas morning when the box arrived at Phoenix Muni. Along with the help of a few teammates, Braden decorated the synthetic creature much in the same fashion he would have decorated his Christmas Tree. No. 55 A’s jersey. Check. Yellow wristbands. Check. Oakland cap. Check. Jockstrap. Why, of course, check. When Matsui finally arrived and turned the corner into the clubhouse, all he saw was about 40 new teammates staring at him to see what his reaction would be to Dallas’ handiwork. Of course, Hideki didn’t immediately see his inflatable likeness. All he saw were 80 eyeballs focused on him. Then he looked to his left and saw The Creature sitting in the chair at his cubicle and everyone broke out laughing.
Now fast forward to 2012 Spring Training. Earlier this week, word of Manny’s signing with the A’s blew through the social media world like sagebrush in the Arizona desert. On cue, Braden’s intricate brain waves activated. What to do? What to do? First, affable equipment manager Steve Vucinich assigned Ramirez a locker adjacent from Braden’s. I have a feeling “Vuc” made that decision solely for entertainment value. Within minutes of Manny reporting this morning, Braden laid down his version of a welcome mat. Without saying a word, a roll of trainer’s tape in hand, Dallas walked to his locker with great purpose. He proceeded to lay down tape to outline a square around his chair. Then, with a sharpie, he simply wrote “Bio Hazard” on the tape—apparently an effort to keep the media mobs away from crushing him when they leave Manny’s locker. But Dallas was not done yet. Then, with a wry smile on his face, he walked around the corner from his locker to the walkway where players first enter the clubhouse each morning. There, he posted a sign that simply read, “Manny Town.” Below that, he taped up another sign that said, “Take A Number.”
I’m not sure if Manny saw the signs before he left the clubhouse today, but if he didn’t, they will greet him in the morning when the A’s stage their first full-squad workouts. As for today, Ramirez could not have been more cordial. After being outfitted in his green-and-gold gear and shaking hands with many of his new teammates, he hit the Phoenix Muni field for a round of batting practice with other position players. With cameras rolling—ESPN, Comcast, FOX Sports, ESPN Deportes, NHK Japan—Manny joined Scott Sizemore, Cliff Pennington and Jemile Weeks in the first hitting group. It didn’t take long for a few balls to sail out of the yard, some flying high and far enough to suggest Oakland added a little power with today’s new arrival. With his final swing of the morning, Ramirez trotted around the bases, then picked up his glove and shagged balls in right field. A few minutes later, he spotted his beautiful wife, Juliana, and their two young sons on the grass near the first base dugout. He came over to apply a Manny Group Hug. All smiles everywhere, they joined him in addressing the large media contingent gathered on the field. Manny answered all their questions and seemed in no rush to leave the spotlight. Yet, while he stood up to the TV glare, Dallas Braden was multi-tasking. Beyond his Manny Town antics, the veteran A’s left-hander—and we do mean left-hander—was also working on a way to properly acknowledge the unexpected star treatment of Brandon & Amanda McCarthy on this month’s cover of ESPN The Magazine. “I’ve got a big ol’ Fathead coming, except they’re superimposing my face on his head,” Dallas said. “It will be displayed in a way that should properly honor them.”
And to think there were people in the Bay Area who thought the A’s were going to be boring this season.
As we waited for our Southwest Airlines flight to board at Oakland Airport this morning, A’s Director of Baseball Operations Farhan Zaidi, AP sportswriter Janie McCauley and I exchanged pleasantries. All three of us were headed to Phoenix to start the marathon known as Major League Baseball.
While the names might change on your flight each year, the scene is quite familiar. Spring Training is about to begin, and this trip truly signals the end of winter. As I write this first blog of 2012, it makes me think of the ritual of leaving home for the warm environs of Arizona. While working for another MLB team years ago, I remember listening to Bob Quinn, remarkably a third generation GM in baseball. His father and grandfather before him had taken that same cross-country car ride each February. Bob so fondly recounted the same, cherished steps taken every year. The car would be packed up from Milwaukee or Philadelphia, where snow and frigid temperatures were bid adieu, as he or his father would drive south, state by state, until the sun began to shine and a welcomed 70 degrees would greet them as they reached their Spring Training destination.
While the Bay Area hardly compares to the harsh winters of those locales, I’m sure our very own Billy Beane, along with his trusty canine companion Taggert, enjoy the same pleasure of their annual car trip to Arizona as he anticipates a new, still unwritten season with the A’s. I know I felt the same way when we touched down at Phoenix International Airport, the sun-splashed Camelback Mountains, plush green golf courses, and endless red rocks always a welcome sight.
My routine will continue this afternoon. Day One at Spring Training is always the same. I pick up my rental car, stop by the Phoenix Municipal Stadium offices to set up my office—hey, there’s Honey Bear’s BBQ as I drive up Van Buren—head to the grocery store for food and toiletries, and finally check in to the team hotel, the Doubletree Suites near the airport. Tomorrow, pitchers and catchers report. The irrepressible Dallas Braden will hold court in the clubhouse, no doubt, as he welcomes the staff’s newbies like Jarrod Parker, Brad Peacock and Tommy Milone, and also renews his friendships with returning veterans such as Brandon McCarthy, Brian Fuentes and Grant Balfour. Beyond Braden’s state-of-the-209 address, I suspect Janie McCauley and our beat reporters Susan Slusser, Joe Stiglich, Jane Lee and Kate Longworth will zero in on former Cy Young Award winner Bartolo Colon tomorrow, as the 39-year-old right-hander will check into A’s Central for the first time after making somewhat of a comeback with the Yankees last season. Colon, most likely slated to start Oakland’s second game against the Mariners in Tokyo March 29, could give Bob Melvin’s staff a much-needed veteran presence as we begin preparing for the 2012 campaign with several rotation spots still to be determined.
In speaking with Susan Slusser yesterday—someone who’s logged several years on the beat and has earned a gilded reputation in the business—we both agreed that this should be one of the more interesting Spring Trainings in recent memory. The 25-man roster that breaks camp is far from settled, as multiple positions promise to be wide-open competitions. It will be a talent-laden group vying for those spots, although many of the more-gifted players bring limited experience to Papago Park. How it all turns out will be the fun part, as we watch, day-by-day, for the unexpected twists and turns of Spring Training. Whether it’s following our blogs on the club’s website, or the regular reports on Comcast SportsNet or 95.7 FM The Game—both of the team’s broadcast partners will be on location every day next week—or reading insightful articles by our beat writers, we hope you jump right into the “Soap Opera” with the rest of us. Baseball is back, and it’s about time!