How anxious was Manny Ramirez to play in his first meaningful game in more than a year? Well, this is how excited he was: the Dreadlocked One flew into Albuquerque a day early, just so he could get in a few early hacks before his 10-game minor league stint began. That was yesterday, when A’s Director of Player Development Keith Lieppman—of all people—snapped this rather telling photo of Manny entering Isotopes Park in his maroon Sacramento River Cats uniform. Of course, Lip proudly reminded me that he did major in photo journalism during his college days at the University of Kansas.
I suggested to our baseball brass that it might take a little pressure off Manny and the Albuquerque Isotopes’ PR director if I flew to New Mexico and organized a couple of pre-game media sessions with Ramirez in the dugout. I arrived this morning and the first media fest was staged this afternoon, comprised solely of local journalists, with the Associated Press the only national presence. One writer asked Manny why he decided to try a comeback now. After all, he had already accomplished more than most players in Major League history. Manny answered the question with a question. “Why not?” asked the man with 555 career home runs and 1,831 RBI. Essentially, his reason was simple. This is what he does, and has done for almost his entire life, dating back to his days growing up in the Washington Heights section of Manhattan, where he was named New York City Public School Player of the Year as a senior at George Washington High School. And like all the great ones—Ted Williams, Stan Musial, Rod Carew, Tony Gwynn—Manny loves nothing in life more than swinging a bat. Former teammate Scott Hatteberg tells the story of when they were Red Sox teammates at spring training one year. “Manny drives into the parking lot in his sports car, opens the door and climbs out already wearing his batting gloves. That’s how much he loves hitting.”
Tonight, he’ll finally find himself penciled into a lineup. He’s batting third for the River Cats, followed by the twin towers, Chris Carter and Michael Taylor. But preceding the game here in Albuquerque, the Isotopes are staging a celebrity softball game between a team of actors that includes Bryan Cranston of “Breaking Bad” and Lou Diamond Phillips of “La Bamba” and “Young Guns” fame, and the Wounded Warriors, a group of veterans who have lost limbs in service to their country (and have recently been featured in a segment of “Bryant Gumbel’s Real Sports” on HBO). I understand that many of the veterans sat in the stands at last night’s game, and they had a visitor. Manny Ramirez, who by Major League rules was required to leave the field at the end of batting practice, stayed around and came up to visit with the U.S. military men. He shared his new-found faith, the tough lessons he has learned, and how he’s thankful to be given a second chance—in baseball and in life. Going full circle, from Phoenix, to Albuquerque, to Round Round, to Sacramento, and hopefully on his 40th birthday (May 30), to Minneapolis, where he hopes to make solid contact for the Oakland A’s in a big league game. How sweet the sound.
Much of the talk about the 2012 A’s centers around the rookies and rightfully so. After all, Oakland has already played 12 rookies during a season that is only six weeks old—by the far the most rookies of any team in baseball. Seattle is next with seven rookies. And the A’s young talent has been as good as advertised thus far, with the likes of outfielder Yoenis Cespedes and pitchers Tommy Milone, Ryan Cook, Jarrod Parker and Jordan Norberto all bona fide early Rookie of the Year candidates.
Yet, the story of this team’s just-completed 5-4 road trip—a trip that ran through two of baseball’s hottest teams (Tampa Bay and Baltimore) and one of the toughest road venues in the majors (Fenway Park)—is not the rookies. It’s veterans who have stepped up to produce pivotal performances on the field, and critical leadership off of it. No one more personified that role than Petaluma’s Jonny Gomes, who signed with the A’s as a free agent in the offseason. In many ways, you might be better off dropping the “Gomes” and just call him “Jonny Gamer.” Whether it’s hitting a clutch home run, crashing into an outfield wall to make a catch or, yes, even stealing a base, Jonny Gamer comes to play. In fact, he did all three during the Rays’ series, going 5 for 9 with three RBI during the three-game set. He entered Saturday’s contest as a pinch-hitter in the seventh inning and ultimately became the star of the game. With the score tied 3-3 in the bottom of the 10th, it was Gomes who hauled in a Carlos Pena opposite-field fly that seemed headed for extra bases. It wasn’t so much that Jonny caught the ball as much as he tackled it. Arms and legs sprawled everywhere. When the smoke cleared, he had robbed Pena of a certain double that would have placed the A’s in serious jeopardy of a second straight loss. Instead, Jonny left a dent in the left field fence and a dagger in the heart of his former team’s fans. Then the Pride of Petaluma stole the game’s headlines when he mashed a solo home run in the top of the 12th that decided the verdict of a 4-3 road win. Back in the lineup as the starting left fielder yesterday, Jonny Gamer came up big again with a single, double, two RBI and a stolen base in a 9-5, come-from-behind victory that clinched the series.
Brandon Inge, another veteran who was only added to the roster seven days ago in Boston, has stabilized Oakland’s third base situation with his steady glove and positive clubhouse presence. And yesterday afternoon, he also delivered one of the biggest home runs of the young season, pouncing on a Matt Moore 3-1 pitch in the third inning for a three-run blast that erased a 4-2 deficit. He added a seventh-inning sac-fly and the A’s never looked back.
On the mound, two veteran All-Stars also emerged to help show the way. Brian Fuentes, the prototypical professional no matter what role manager Bob Melvin places him in, came into Wednesday night’s tumultuous game at Fenway and slammed the lid on a 4-2 victory that also netted “Tito” his 200th career save—only the sixth left-hander to achieve that plateau in Major League history. Returning the closer’s role to Grant Balfour for the Tampa Bay series, Fuentes went on to contribute three scoreless innings of relief over the weekend. His compatriot, Bartolo Colón, appeared headed toward a series-clinching win in Baltimore last Sunday, only to see his brilliant 8.1 innings of work disintegrate when Balfour failed to close the door on an apparent 2-0 A’s win. However, Colón demonstrated to the club’s rookies what a leader truly is five days later. Nursing an upset stomach that struck prior to the first pitch, Bartolo battled his way through five arduous innings and three solo home runs Saturday, giving Oakland the chance to win the game in extra innings.
And beyond the A’s “graybeards” like Gomes, Inge, Fuentes and Colón, Melvin also received key contributions from some of his younger veterans. Kurt Suzuki, despite being nailed on the hand by a Daniel Bard pitch in Boston Wednesday that later would require x-rays, refused to abandon his pitchers, working the remainder of that victory, as well as the 12-inning marathon in St. Pete Saturday. Against his wishes, Melvin rested Zuk and his resurgent bat—he’s hitting .314 over his last 10 games—yesterday. Ace starter Brandon McCarthy also answered the bell during the nine-game, 10-day junket, twirling a pair of victorious gems in Baltimore (7.0 ip, 5 h, 2 r) and Boston (6.2 ip, 5 h, 1 r). So did reliever Jerry Blevins, who lowered his ERA to 1.42 by reeling off 4.2 scoreless innings on the trip. And let’s not forget the contributions made by Josh Reddick, who’s batting .310 with five multiple-hit games, three home runs and eight RBI in his past 10 contests.
There will be plenty of time for the A’s talented crop of rookies to make their mark. But I’m sure it’s comforting for Melvin and his staff to know that the team’s veterans have stood up and are being counted on as the Athletics have jumped out to a rather surprising 15-14 record and second-place showing in the AL West as we head to Oakland for seven games of home cooking.