Saturday’s statue unveiling at Camden Yards before the A’s-Orioles game that honored Hall of Famer Frank Robinson got me thinking. Is there any place in America that produced more barrier-breaking or game-changing athletes than Oakland, California? You think I’m kidding? Okay, let’s start with Robinson, Rickey Henderson, Bill Russell (the Celtic, not the Dodger) and Curt Flood. And this does not count Joe Morgan, Dave Stewart and Vada Pinson. Or the late, great Willie Stargell or current All-Star shortstop Jimmy Rollins, from nearby Alameda.
Consider the difference the aforementioned foursome made on the sport they played:
- Frank Robinson — He may be one of the most underappreciated ubër stars in sports history. Playing with a burning desire to win every game he played, he often willed his teams to win. In only six seasons in Baltimore, he led the Orioles to four World Series. The former McClymonds High School legend retired with 586 career home runs to rank No. 4 on baseball’s all-time list. And he hit every one of them well before the Steroid Era began. In my mind, Robby still belongs among the elite home run hitters, well above his current No. 9 ranking. He was also a 14-time All-Star and the only player in Major League history to win a MVP award in both the National (Cincinnati, 1961) and American (Baltimore, 1966) Leagues. Yet, with all those accomplishments, they pale in comparison to what he did after his playing days. In 1975, he was hired as player-manager of the Cleveland Indians. As the first African American to manage a Major League team, he was the natural extension of another Robinson—Jackie—in knocking down barriers that some day would give other deserving people of color opportunities that were non-existent before their pioneering efforts. So if you want to talk about historic figures in sports history, you might want to mention Frank Robinson in your first breath.
- Rickey Henderson — We all know Rickey’s story, so I won’t belabor the point. Born in Chicago but raised in Oakland, he simply redefined the position of leadoff hitter and destroyed any preconceived limits on the act of stealing a base. He was one of a kind, and proudly, he was inducted into Cooperstown as an Oakland Athletic.
- Bill Russell — I know this is supposed to be a baseball blog—an A’s blog, specifically—but to make my point, you have to include the former USF and Boston Celtic center. I mean, if you were to go to the dictionary and look up the word “winner,” there’s a pretty good chance his photo would appear next to the definition—two NCAA championships on the Hilltop in San Francisco, followed by 11 NBA titles in 13 years as the cornerstone and leader of Red Auerbach’s Celtics. But beyond the championships, Russell was also a game-changer. He would do it first as a player, where his blocked shots and defense revolutionized the pro game, with his blocks essentially “steals.” Unlike today’s players who derive great pleasure swatting shots into the stands for ESPN SportsCenter replays, Russell would tip the opponent’s shots to himself and then start a devastating Celtic fast break. And like Frank Robinson, Russell was named Boston’s player-coach, nine years earlier in 1966. Again, Russell was the first African American head coach in NBA history, and not only the first, but a coach who led his team to two championships. Amazingly, another McClymonds High alumnus.
- Curt Flood — A seven-time Gold Glove outfielder, three-time All-Star and member of the St. Louis Cardinals’ 1964 and 1967 World Series championship teams, Flood changed the entire paradigm for the way baseball would operate as a business. He courageously challenged baseball’s reserve clause—a clause that had prohibited players from becoming free agents. He won the case, although he did with much personal sacrifice, and today every player in the majors should thank the late, great Curt Flood for opening the door to the New World of free agency that has benefitted every player who followed.
And while these four faces should be chiseled into the Oakland hills for eternity, we should also appreciate a long line of other baseball greats that started their journey a stone’s throw from the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum. There’s Joe Morgan, a 10-time All-Star, five-time Gold Glove infielder, two-time National League MVP and member of Cincinnati’s 1975 and 1976 World Series champions. There’s our Dave Stewart, who was a 20-game winner four straight years with the A’s (1987-90), author of one no-hitter, winner of the 1989 World Series MVP award, and a member of three world championship teams (1981 Dodgers, 1989 A’s and 1993 Blue Jays). There’s Willie Stargell, a seven-time All-Star, both the National League and World Series MVP in 1979. And another McClymonds High alumnus, Vada Pinson, was a four-time All-Star and one-time Gold Glove winner who played on the 1961 Cincinnati Reds that won the National League pennant. And finally, there’s Jimmy Rollins, born in Oakland and raised in Alameda, who continues to build a resume that includes a 2007 NL MVP award, three All-Star and Gold Glove selections, and a World Series Championship ring with the Phillies.
In all, this group includes five Hall of Famers—Robinson, Henderson, Morgan and Stargell, and Russell in basketball—and a case to be made for a sixth in Flood, who impacted Major League Baseball as much as anyone, when you consider the path the sport took after he won his legal challenge. So, boys and girls, a quick history lesson about some local kids who made good. And then some.
EDITOR’S NOTE: My thanks to reader Ruth Lafler, who made two great points about my blog. First, it’s VADA Pinson, not Vida. I must have had the Blue Blazer on my mind. And second, I left out another sports pioneer who grew up in Oakland: Olympic track star Jim Hines. Born in Dumas, Arkansas and raised in Oaktown, Hines, of course, joined John Carlos at the 1968 Mexico Olympics to make one of American history’s most profound statements for Civil Rights when they took the medal stand with gloved fists pointing skyward. It was a seminal moment in the Free Speech and Civil Rights movements.
When you make your living in baseball, sometimes you get so occupied with the daily grind that you seem to forget why you first got into this business. But just as you run the risk of becoming jaded, it all comes back into focus in a New York second when you encounter human scenes that serve as reminders of how lucky you are to work in this industry. Like a parent looking through the eyes of one of their young children, you begin to appreciate the simplest things in the game when you’re around fans who truly love America’s National Pastime. And they come in all shapes and sizes, young and old.
Last Sunday, the A’s hosted several thousand youngsters on our annual Little League Day. Veteran reliever Jerry Blevins and Bullpen Coach Rick Rodriguez held a brief clinic and Q&A session before the game. As I looked into the stands during the presentation, I could see the faces of wide-eyed kids, all with priceless looks of amazement and wonder. Sitting in a big league park, listening to men in big league uniforms talk about when they were Little Leaguers, all the while knowing that hot dogs and Jemile Weeks were still to come on a glorious sunny day in Oakland was almost too much for some to comprehend. For some 10-year-old from Castro Valley or Livermore, the memory of this day might last a lifetime.
Then there’s Johnny Doskow, a baseball lifer who has admirably filled in for the irreplaceable Ken Korach while the Voice of the A’s continues to heal from March knee surgery. Right now, Johnny is the proverbial kid in a candy store. One of the best announcers in minor league baseball, the Sacramento River Cats’ play-by-play man has dreamed about being in the big leagues for all of his adult life. And it shows. While he knows Korach will return sometime early next month, the affable Doskow is savoring every moment of his Oakland A’s adventure. Big league clubhouses and broadcast booths…first class travel and hotels…Major League per diem…clubhouse post-game spreads that will not be mistaken for the Cedar Rapids Kernals…and the world’s greatest players performing in three-deck stadiums. Every time I see Johnny’s face, it’s like he’s saying, “It doesn’t get any better than this.”
Another reminder about the special relationship some people have with this game presented itself earlier this week, when I accompanied Manager Bob Melvin to the first 2012 meeting of the A’s Booster Club, a seasoned but enthusiastic group of about 200 loyal fans who gather at Francesco’s restaurant on Hegenberger near Oakland Airport regularly during the season. All decked out in green and gold, some date back to the year the club was established in 1968—the year Charlie Finley moved the A’s west from Kansas City. With many colorful characters, the spirited debates began even before the program did—“Why isn’t Jonny Gomes playing more?…”I think Yoenis Cespedes could be the next Reggie Jackson!”….”Why don’t the A’s play more day games?”—and then Melvin walked to the podium with thunderous applause. One old-timer yelled from the back, “We’re so glad you’re our new manager!” Not that all the questions directed toward the A’s manager were soft balls. Let’s face it, fans miss Gio. Heck, I miss Gio. But Melvin always humanizes the situation. He told them it took someone as talented as Gio to fetch four high-ceiling prospects as promising as Tommy Milone, Brad Peacock, Derek Norris and A.J. Cole. Also, unsolicited, the A’s skipper added this: “We’re going to get through this. Don’t worry, there are some great days ahead with this organization. And I want you to know how much we appreciate how loyal and supportive you have been. Keep coming out to the Coliseum. Our players see you out there.” Especially those red-hots (green-hots?) in the right field bleachers. You know, the combustible ones that, at the drop of a hat, burst out into ear-piercing shouts while waving their arms and various objects in a rather insane manner. I’m not sure if they’re simply the remnants of Matsuiland left over from last season, but whoever they are, we love ‘em. Talk about great fans. They’re off the charts. And they had plenty to yell about in the bottom of the 14th inning of Wednesday’s homestand finale against the White Sox. We’re just lucky we have railings out there because when Yoenis Cespedes uncorked his game-tying home run, and moments later, Kila (The Killer) Ka’aihue delivered the game-winning single, we might have seen a few of our valued faithful go overboard.
We need every one of you. We may not have the most fans attending our games this season, but I can’t imagine better ones. Take pride in that fact. I know we do.
The numbers are not pretty. Josh Donaldson, .120….Coco Crisp, .146….Daric Barton, .190….Kurt Suzuki, .194….Jemile Weeks, .196…only two A’s hitters on the roster batting .250 or higher (Kila Ka’aihue and Seth Smith)…and a lineup that has been shut out three times in the season’s first 11 games. Go ahead, A’s fans, let out a collective scream! But don’t jump ship quite yet.
As we all know, baseball is a streaky game. Every team in the majors experiences a two-week period like A’s hitters are having. Of course, normally that sample size happens in June or August, not the opening 11 games of the season. I think all of us—fans, media and yes, even front office types like me—tend to be a little too over analytical in the early season. Same thing when one of your star players goes 1-for-11 to open the post-season. “He looks terrible! They better bench him!” That said, I think the old sports axiom is still true: You’re never as bad as when you’re playing your worst, and you’re never as good when you’re playing your best. Most likely, you’re somewhere in between.
So where do A’s hitters go from here? Well, quite literally, they go from Jered Weaver last night, to Dan Haren this evening, to Ervin Santana and C.J. Wilson to complete the Angels series in Anaheim. That’s not exactly the tonic to break a slump. But the beauty of baseball is nothing is certain. It’s why you play the games. And at some point, whether it be this week on the road, or during our next homestand against the Indians and White Sox (April 20-25), the cream will rise to the top. Coco Crisp is a .275 lifetime hitter in 10 big league seasons. Jemile Weeks batted .303 last year. Kurt Suzuki has hit above .270 in two of his four full seasons in the majors. Josh Reddick batted .280 for the Red Sox last year, and has already hit enough line-drive outs to last a season. Seth Smith is a .275 lifetime hitter who has pounded out batting averages of .284 or higher in three of his last five years in Colorado. And Cuban rookie Yoenis Céspedes, while still learning pitchers and his foreign surroundings, has shown flashes of the power and athleticism that made him so attractive on the free agent market this year. Something here tells me better days are ahead for this group.
Meanwhile, our overall pitching to date has been somewhat of a pleasant surprise. The staff ERA of 3.25 ranks third best in the American League—this, despite the loss of three All-Star pitchers in offseason trades. Veteran starters Brandon McCarthy (0-2, 3.60 ERA) and Bartolo Colón (2-1. 3.72 ERA) have been solid in the rotation, while Tommy Milone (1-1, 2.57 ERA) has been an early-season revelation. In the bullpen, new closer Grant Balfour (0.00 ERA, 2-for-2 in saves) and setup men Ryan Cook (0.00 ERA) and Brian Fuentes (2.45 ERA) have been stingy in their brief appearances.
As we entered this season, I think everyone knew that a heavy dose of patience would be required to allow our young-but-talented players to develop. I would hope all A’s fans would tap into that patience during this offensive drought. Eleven games does not make a season. One breakout game at the plate will do wonders for this group. Let’s hope that game is tonight.