Early observations in camp….
Understandably, this spring has been far less dramatic than last year. The commotion created by the media circus covering the arrival of Yoenis Cespedes and Manny Ramirez last February is now a distant memory. The absence of such mega-personalities as Dallas Braden and Jonny Gomes makes this year’s clubhouse seem rather sedate as well. In its place, however, is a 2013 team that seems to project an authentic air of confidence and sense of purpose. Bob Melvin practices are relatively short, but it’s clear that everyone is all business and a lot of ground is covered every day. I suspect some of that stems from a young team that tasted the postseason last year and wants to build on their accomplishments. It would also figure that their collective focus comes from some healthy competition at multiple positions—the obvious being the bullpen, outfield and middle infield. We’ve had competition for starting jobs in recent springs, but the difference this year is this: there is actually more than one player who could succeed as a starter, while in past years, there was competition more because there may not have been an obvious or safe choice to man the position. In short, it appears this edition of the Oakland A’s is dealing from a place of strength….
Some have said it will be awfully difficult for Melvin’s club to duplicate last season’s record and division finish. They might be right, although we shouldn’t forget that many of the key players in last year’s title run did not join the team until midseason. And all that group did is play .655 baseball in their final 110 regular-season games (72-38). Admittedly, that will be a tough pace to match, yet it may not take that kind of winning percentage to defend the AL West. In any case, it’s nice to think about Jarrod Parker, A.J. Griffin, Sean Doolittle, Brandon Moss and Josh Donaldson playing a full season in the Green & Gold this year, not to mention the new offensive potential supplied by offseason acquisitions like Hiro Nakajima, Chris Young, Jed Lowrie and John Jaso….
It was just like old times in the Papago batting cages Monday. Cespedes and Josh Reddick both put on a clinic of opposite field hitting, followed by lightning bolts that cleared the fence in every direction. Same went for Moss, who looks intent on expanding his 21-homer partial season of a year ago….
For the second year in a row, Scott Sizemore had his spring abruptly halted, although this time it was a much happier occasion. His wife, Brooke, gave birth to their first child Friday, a girl named Layla. Sizemore, now fully recovered from his knee surgery, took a couple days off from early practice to witness the glorious event….
Despite language barriers, Nakajima seems right at home in the A’s clubhouse. He brought his No. 3 game uniform and effervescent smile to Photo Day on Monday and was quite playful with the photographers, even hiding his face behind his “name” sign at one point. He brings that same bounce onto the playing field, although he’s no nonsense at shortstop and at the plate. While he’ll be listed as a Major League rookie this year, it’s quite clear he will give this club a veteran presence that should prove valuable. On a more humorous note, I couldn’t help but chuckle the other day when Hiro and his interpreter were holding a conversation with our resident Aussies Grant Balfour and Travis Blackley in the clubhouse after practice. They were talking cars, of all things, with “The Nak Man” sharing a cell phone photo of his sweet ride with the Men Down Under. Style and fast cars, a universal male subject, no matter what your heritage. If only Cespedes would have joined into the conversation…..
Starting this Saturday, exhibition games begin. I think our guys are pretty close to being ready.
Baseball season starts anew today as A’s pitchers and catchers report for the time-honored exercise called Spring Training. As the team’s public relations director, I know I am one of the privileged few who can enjoy, first-hand, the many sights and sounds that each spring brings. Here are a few I look forward to seeing again this week:
- Driving my rental car along Walter Haas Drive off 64th Street, then pulling inside the gate to the Papago Park players’ lot. A short walk later, I’ll be greeted by Catfish Hunter Field, the pristine adjacent practice fields and my first glimpse at the Red Rock formations beyond the outfield fences. One of the more glorious sights in all of baseball.
- Chip Hale, the A’s feisty bench coach and Czar of Camp. If you were to look up the definition of organized in the dictionary, there would be a photo of Chip next to the word. I can’t wait to see the effervescent Hale, the perennial early riser, posting his first practice schedule on the clubhouse bulletin board. When that posting occurs, to me, it’s officially the start of Spring Training. When Super Bowl coach Jim Harbaugh speaks of attacking the day “with an enthusiasm unknown to mankind,” he must be referring to Chip Hale. If you spend a few minutes in the Phoenix Muni clubhouse every morning, you’re bound to see the Chipper walking, in a hurry, to every corner of the facility, always on his way somewhere. Either that, or when games start, he’s in his back office concocting today’s lineup. His buzz cut appearance and demeanor suggesting a former Marine drill sargent, I didn’t know what to expect the first time I encountered the new bench coach last spring. What I discovered very quickly is he’s one of the most personable guys you’ll ever find. There’s a positivity that seems to emanate from him and it’s contagious. I can’t wait to catch it again this season.
- The sight of Cliffy Clavin and Mikey Thalblum, and other staff, fixing the clubhouse spread and making multiple pots of coffee in preparation of the nearly 60 players who will be in camp this year. Cliffy and Mikey have that deft touch in making the clubhouse feel like a home away from home for everyone in camp.
- The familiar scene of bullpen catcher Casey Chavez in the back room, rubbing down baseballs with grade-A mud from who knows where.
- The cool, crisp mornings at our Papago Park complex, when Manager Bob Melvin accommodates Bay Area and national media near the picnic tables outside the administrative building. This week we welcome back some of our media friends from Japan, who took a one-year hiatus when the A’s did not re-sign Hideki Matsui but now return to chronicle the Major League debut of colorful shortstop Hiro Nakajima at age 30.
- Chili Davis, hands down winner of last year’s Hitting Coach of the Year if there was such an award, sipping his first cup of coffee in the wee morning hours as he makes his way down the foul warning track at Phoenix Muni en route to the back batting cages and some early work with aspiring young hitters.
- Curt Young and Mike Gallego, former A’s players and now vital members of the team’s coaching staff, donning the Green and Gold for yet another season. Both men exude a calm of confidence, and provide a unique bridge to the winning tradition of a past Oakland era.
- The new arrival of Darren Bush, the highly successful Triple-A manager promoted to big league bullpen coach this offseason, whose finger prints can be found on probably 80 or 90 percent of the players in camp this spring. His shared histories with these players should prove invaluable to Melvin and the team.
- And finally, the A’s baseball braintrust of Billy Beane (2012 MLB Executive o the Year), David Forst, Farhan Zaidi and Dan Feinstein, returning after a rather remarkable assemblage of talent last year—almost all of which return in 2013. And, of course, they will still adhere to the company’s strict dress code: golf shirt, shorts, shades and flip flops. Baseball, the Oakland A’s way.
Let the games begin!