When we arrived at Tokyo’s outlet of Oshman’s Sporting Goods store this morning, the line of green-and-gold adorned A’s fans was almost out the door. One by one, Bartolo Colon, Brandon McCarthy and Kurt Suzuki—batterymates for the team’s first two games of the season against the Mariners later this week—strolled past security guards and a roped off area to the back of the store, where they were seated at a table behind a huge photo backdrop that trumpeted the upcoming Opening Series Japan 2012. As they approached their destination, rock music blared from large speakers nearby. And I guess that was a special touch clearly appropriate for the occasion, for these three Athletics were truly being received like “rock stars.” As excited as everyone seemed, I was expecting a spontaneous chant of “Let’s Go Oakland” to break out more than 5,000 miles away from the Coliseum.
As you might expect in a country where precision and politeness seems to be a born trait, the autograph signing sponsored by MLB and Majestic ran quite smoothly. McCarthy and Suzuki addressed the adoring crowd with opening pleasantries, and then they joined Colon in getting down to business. They signed miniature posters that were provided, as well as A’s merchandise presented by the fans. And after every time they spoke, the crowd erupted into applause. The look on our guys’ faces suggested they were all thinking the same thing: “Hey, I could get used to this!” Meanwhile, their every move was captured on video by MLB Productions and by our very own Senior Manager of Digital Marketing, Travis LoDolce, who shot photo stills for his daily A’s blog during the trip. Of course, both were receiving stiff competition from Brandon McCarthy’s wife, Amanda, who jockeyed for position to shoot her own video of Brandon while he was interacting with everyone. Bartolo’s wife, Rosanna, also accompanied the McCarthys in the van from the hotel, while Kurt’s wife, Renee, arrived separately at the store with family members to witness the remarkable scene. Zuk told me about his sister living one year here in Tokyo, and how he would coax her to always buy the latest athletic shoes and ship them home. Now, he can do that in person.
As is always the case when I travel to another country, you reach the same conclusion before long. No matter our culture or language differences, it becomes so clear that people around the world share many more similarities than differences. There were fathers and sons there today, two generations of baseball fans who not only relate through their love of the sport, but also share the connection between Japanese and Major League Baseball. Through the massive coverage by Japanese network television and newspapers of the A’s last year—thanks primarily to the addition of the great Hideki Matsui, along with the launch of the movie Moneyball—the common baseball fan here is quite familiar with our players and team. Just like many of us, they know everything about their favorite players—nicknames, mannerisms, jersey number—whether it be Jemile, Coco, Dallas or Zuk. As we drove back to the New Otani Hotel afterwards, basking in a brilliant day of sunshine in this great metropolis, I think everyone in our party was grateful for this unique experience. That experience will continue tonight, as we kick off our playing schedule with a much-awaited exhibition game against the legendary Yomiuri Giants, long regarded as the “New York Yankees of Japan.” This evening, we will be both visitors on the diamond and visitors in this proud country. As Japan continues to recover from the disaster of last year, for one night, there will be no boundaries or worries for the thousands of people who will attend this international matchup at the Tokyo dome—only avid fans of the sport of baseball. Play ball!
I’ve always said the difference between baseball and other sports is this: Other sports are merely sports; baseball, on the other hand, is a daily soap opera. The twists and turns of a week, let alone a full season, makes following a Major League Baseball team an addiction to most horsehide fans. Now when it comes to the 2012 Oakland A’s, a team that many pundits wrote off months ago when major trades resulted in wholesale changes to its roster, these are surprising and pleasantly unexpected days in the desert. What I have observed over the past several weeks are a plethora of fascinating storylines that would rival any in baseball. Think I’m crazy? Well consider all that has transpired in A’s Land in the past few months. Here’s a sampling of memorable scenes and developments worthy of a new soap called “As the A’s Turn:”
- In the span of 11 days in December, the A’s trade three All-Star pitchers—Trevor Cahill, Gio Gonzalez and Andrew Bailey—and in the process, stock their organization with 10 of the top prospects in baseball. Soon, fans are asking such rhetorical questions as “Who’s Brad Peacock and Colin Cowgill?”
- Then, a day before position players are scheduled to practice, the dreadlocked enigma named Manny Ramirez arrives in camp, holds an on-the-field press conference at Phoenix Muni, flanked by his wife Juliana and two sons, amidst a flock of reporters. He later takes some of his patented hacks in the cage, as A’s players, coaches and execs let their imaginations run wild.
- When the first full-squad workout day commences the next morning, a scream is heard from Field 1 at the Papago training facility as Scott Sizemore tears his ACL during a routine pitcher’s drill. Soon reality sets in, as the team learns that its starting third baseman will be lost for the season. Suddenly, a four-way competition ensues to replace him, with big-league utilitymen Eric Sogard and Adam Rosales now in play, along with two more intriguing candidates in converted catcher Josh Donaldson and 33-year-old Wes Timmons, a career minor leaguer still chasing the dream.
- Then out of nowhere, ESPN The Magazine rolls off the presses with an unlikely subject gracing its cover. Is that really Brandon and Amanda McCarthy posing beneath the header, “Chicks Dig the Groundball?” It sure is, and it’s at a grocery counter near you.
- And during the first week of camp, the A’s also had special broadcasting guests on hand. For the first time in many years, the club’s flagship radio station had an every-day presence, as Mark Kreidler, Dan Dibley and Whitey Gleason entertained the folks back home with four-hour doses of “The Rise Guys” on 95.7 FM The Game. Some of the more indelible moments came courtesy of Scott Hatteberg, who shared a hilarious story about the first time he met childhood idol Don Mattingly while rounding first base against the Yankees, and Dallas Braden, who offered a few quips and biting comments about the McCarthys’ appearance on ESPN The Magazine and his role as Welcoming Committee chair for the arrival of Manny, among other sorted things. By the way, is there a better morning sports talk show in the country than The Rise Guys? For any of you who have not tuned it yet, you’re in for a real treat.
- Then, it was time for the triumphant return of Oakland’s version of Brad Pitt to Phoenix Muni. Unassuming as always, wearing shorts and flip flops, there was Billy Beane, fresh from attending the Academy Awards. Continuing a Moneyball victory tour that seems to have no end, Billy stood in the clubhouse and regaled the beat writers with Hollywood stories of Oscar parties and primo seats at the event. The photo of him with daughter Casey and wife Tara, all in black formal wear on the red carpet, was truly priceless. So much so, that Director of Baseball Administration Pam Pitts—no relation to Brad, thanks to a meager “s”—thought so highly of it, the picture adorns the glass wall in her office here in Phoenix.
- Let us not forget perhaps the biggest splash of spring training. The Cuban Adonis, Yoenis Cespedes, slipped on A’s jersey No. 52 one day, and presto, a future superstar was in our midst. And from his introductory press conference, to his eye-popping first round of batting practice, to his show-stopping first game in which he walked, hit a RBI single and then crowned the A’s-Reds telecast on CSN California by absolutely annihilating a Jeff Francis fastball over the left field fence, the “Yo-Yo Man” exhibited a charisma and star quality that hasn’t been seen in these parts in a long time. Only a couple of days ago, I was standing above the first base dugout, watching new hitting coach Chili Davis talk hitting (duh) with newly-minted A’s sluggers Ramirez and Cespedes. I couldn’t help but remark, to no one in particular, “two months ago, I don’t think we envisioned this scene.”
- Then, just as potential boredom was surfacing among the cacti, here strolls Sal Bando, Campy Campaneris and Blue Moon Odom, paying a visit to Bob Melvin and A’s camp. It was priceless to see Campy introduce himself to Cespedes, a fellow Cuban.
- Slowly but surely, A’s fans have become better acquainted with some of the new faces on the team. Take Josh Reddick, the prize piece in the Bailey trade with Boston. There appears to be many layers to this young outfielder, as chronicled in a recent article by A’s beat writer Susan Slusser. Ala Daric Barton, Reddick is a WWE-aholic. He sits on a stool in the clubhouse that features some Smackdown photo. And, of course, there’s the WWE championship belt atop his locker—a belt he tends to show off at every chance he gets (Photo Day, interview during MLB Network’s 30 Teams in 30 Days segment, etc.). Yet it’s the human interest side of Josh that has everyone rooting for him. Slusser spoke at length with Josh, about a choppy childhood, and also with his inspirational father, who lost an arm in a power-line accident yet remained his son’s coach and driving force for success. If you haven’t read it, check out last Saturday’s San Francisco Chronicle. Outstanding.
- And before being sent back to the minor league camp, A’s fans got an exciting glimpse of the future in former first-round picks Michael Choice, Grant Green and Sonny Gray. Each displayed the talent and work ethic which projects to future stardom. Who knows, we may see one or more of this triumvirate in a Major League uniform later this year.
Believe me, I could go on. There are three open spots in the starting rotation, with the likes of Tyson Ross, Graham Godfrey, Tommy Milone, Jarrod Parker and Brad Peacock making their bid, while Braden and Brett Anderson continue to take positive steps towards returning in-season from their surgeries. There’s also plenty of intrigue surrounding first base, where Brandon Allen, Kila Ka’aihue, Chris Carter and Barton continue to wage a battle. And when all these positions are decided, the A’s will find themselves halfway across the world, opening their season in Tokyo against the Mariners in Japan Series 2012.
So with a camp full of surprises and unique occurrences, what were our players up to on their off day yesterday? I ran into relief hopeful Erick Threets in the hotel elevator and he said Coco Crisp had organized an outing. “Some of us guys are going paint-balling.” Then later this morning in the clubhouse, Michael Taylor mentioned he had participated in the activity. I had to ask him the obvious question: How could a smart guy with a Stanford education play a game where he’s the biggest target (6-5, 256)? “Hey, I needed to take one for the team,” he said. Yes, quite literally.
Prior to today’s spring training opener, manager Bob Melvin held a brief clubhouse meeting with the team. On the bulletin board, the daily schedule indicated the primary reason was to “review signs.” Yet, A’s players got a little more than they bargained for. After the discussion about takes, bunts, steals and indicators waned, Mr. Melvin shared a bit of franchise history with his troops. The Oakland skipper introduced Sal Bando, the man he chooses to honor by wearing his No. 6 jersey. And why shouldn’t he? After all, Bando still lives in rarified air when you talk about the greatest leaders in U.S. professional sports history. Who outside of Michael Jordan, Bill Russell and Bart Starr can claim to be the captain of teams that won three straight World Championships?
Well, Captain Sal was the heart and soul of a band of A’s players who ran the table in 1972, 1973 and 1974 in collecting three straight World Series trophies. While his career statistics were not Cooperstown worthy—.254 average, 242 HR, 1039 RBI—it was Bando’s intangibles that galvanized a ridiculously talented team into a champion. As a leader, he was the strong, calming force on an eclectic cast of characters as diverse as Reggie Jackson and Campy Campaneris. And that leadership revealed itself in many ways. No one on the A’s was a more clutch hitter. Yet, it was not an uncommon sight to see Bando drop down a perfectly executed bunt in the seventh inning of a tied game if that’s what the situation called for. Try naming another cleanup hitter in baseball who would willingly do that? And then there was his bazooka arm and soft glove. Invariably, it was Captain Sal who would bail out a pitcher with a late-inning, around-the-horn double play.
What made this morning so special is Bando has not been sighted at Phoenix Muni or the Oakland Coliseum in many years. That has been partly due to his subsequent role as general manager of the Brewers from 1991-99, and the fact that he divides his time now between homes in Milwaukee and here in Arizona. He also told me around the batting cage today that “the change of owners and management over the years tends to further distance you from the people you once knew.” So, when equipment manager Steve Vucinich fitted him with an official green-and-gold cap this morning, it was a sight to warm the heart of any longtime A’s fan. Even more so when he joined former teammate Phil Garner, now an A’s special adviser, at the dugout railing. Old stories about Charlie Finley, Rollie Fingers and Ken Holtzman began to flow. It was Bando, as GM, who once hired Garner as his field manager in Milwaukee. And who was Garner’s bench coach with the Brewers in 1999? Bob Melvin. So, in many ways, today served not only as the triumphant return of Captain Sal to his old team, but a reunion of sorts for three outstanding baseball men. It also served as a reminder that leadership, fundamentals and team chemistry can make a difference in this game. Sal Bando was living proof.