March 2013

A LOOK AT THE A’S LEADERS

Leadership is an interesting thing in team sports. It can come from many places, some unexpected. I know many of you who followed the A’s last season were aware of the roles veteran players like Jonny Gomes and Brandon Inge played in helping create a winning chemistry in the clubhouse. Both were “gamers” on the field and team “cut-ups” off it.

As you also know, neither Gomes nor Inge have returned for the 2013 season. Of course, this begs the question, “Is there a leadership void on this year’s team?” After spending most of the past seven weeks in Arizona and observing the interaction of this year’s roster, this much is clear to me: We have multiple leaders on this club, and each one tends to lead in a different way.

In the bullpen, look no further than Grant Balfour and Jerry Blevins. During the second half of last year’s magical campaign, Balfour was not only mowing down hitters and stockpiling saves, he was also asserting himself as a veteran leader to both pitchers and position players. He was scribbling inspirational thoughts on the clubhouse blackboard, and stomping around the mound in a fit of rage that had to jack up his teammates. This spring, his leadership has taken a different form—that of a man obsessed at rehabbing his surgically-repaired knee in record time so he could reclaim his proper place as Oakland’s closer. Any player in camp had to admire how hard the affable Aussie worked in the training room, weight room and on the field to return to action. As for Blevins, he’s the longest tenured Athletic on the team. A proud alumnus of Dayton University—which must explain why he strolled into the clubhouse Tuesday wearing a long, wool scarf with a Dayton Flyer logo in 85-degree heat—he readily shares his wisdom and quick wit with his younger teammates. There’s a cool and calm he exudes that has to rub off on the Sean Doollittles and Ryan Cooks.

In the starting rotation, Bartolo Colon and Brett Anderson provide a quiet leadership. Simply by his actions last year, Colon gave his fellow pitchers a daily reminder that baseball is a game and they should all have fun playing it. Almost goofy at times, it was not uncommon for the big right-hander to toss a baseball up in the air, over and over again, while at his clubhouse cubicle. Or walking up to no one in particular and giving them a handful of candy, or even better, an unexpected chest bump that could rattle your foundation. Yet on the mound, the 39-year-old Dominican continues to demonstrate that successful pitching is still about throwing strikes. Anderson might be even more quiet than Colon, preferring to let his rigorous pre-game regimen and wicked pitch repertoire do his talking. The manager, Bob Melvin, however, said recently that Brett seems to be coming out of his shell this year, and offering opinions that reflect the high baseball acumen he has acquired having grown up in a baseball family.

Of the position players, many of the A’s outfielders have the potential to be every-day leaders on this team. Coco Crisp, who invariably was in the middle of dramatic moments last year, is a game-changer in so many ways, whether it be tracking down a ball in center field, stealing a base when it’s needed or delivering a clutch hit in the late innings. As he showed last year, Coco also is a fun-loving veteran who brings a light touch to the clubhouse and a little swagger on the diamond. Yoenis Cespedes, despite his many God-given talents, is the first player in the cage each morning. No one works harder on the A’s, and no one is more serious about improving as a player. This does not go unnoticed by his teammates. Josh Reddick, well, he’s Josh Reddick. Since the first day he appeared in white shoes last spring, he has been a player who plays with no fear. Yes, he can be a little wacky on occasion, not to mention highly entertaining on his Twitter account. But at the end of the day, is there anybody who attacks the game like the Bearded Wonder? And you can bet he’ll find new and creative variations of post-game celebrations this year that are sure to delight fans and his teammates alike.

One person you might not think of as an obvious leader is Chris Young, our new acquisition from Arizona. He was thrust into an unenviable situation this offseason when he was traded here, as the A’s were returning a starting outfield that was considered one of the best in baseball. Young, an All-Star center fielder in his own right, arrived this spring knowing he would not be the regular at his natural position. Talk about a test of character from the get-go. And all I have seen from Chris Young is a great teammate trying to fit in. From Day One of camp, he never complained and he never sulked. He’s been a total professional, all the while opening a lot of eyes with his superior glove work in the field and his silky smooth swing at the plate. His unselfishness and team-first attitude was reminiscent of Jonny Gomes when he saw only one at-bat in the ALDS. Judging by the balls jumping off his bat in the desert, something tells me Young will get plenty of plate appearances in 2013. The same could be said for Jed Lowrie, another front-line player who arrived via a deal with Houston only to find a crowded infield. Lowrie, also a veteran presence, merely rolled up his sleeves and got to work. With the recent injuries to Adam Rosales and Hiro Nakajima, Lowrie is sure to play a vital role as we christen the season.

So, while we appreciate what both Gomes and Inge gave us last year, the time has come for new leadership on the team. That, along with the steady hand of Manager of the Year Bob Melvin, gives us every reason to believe another winning season and playoff berth is within our grasp in 2013. It all starts with Seattle in a four-game series next week. Hope to see you at the Coliseum, where the fun is just beginning.

A’S FANS CAN SEE THE FUTURE IN PETERSON, CHOICE, RUSSELL

One of the enjoyable sidelights of Spring Training is getting an early glimpse of future stars in your farm system.  There seems to always be an unexpected sensation that bursts onto the scene each spring.  Even though we have 14 games left in Arizona before heading north, this spring has already showcased three young A’s phenoms that will bear watching in the next few years.  So, remember these names:  Shane Peterson, Michael Choice and Addison Russell.  All three have left lasting impressions and could be appearing at the Coliseum sooner than you might think.

Peterson, the last remnant of the Matt Holliday trade with the Cardinals, has been a Cactus League revelation.  Sporting a sweet stroke and a propensity for using all fields, the 25-year-old outfielder has rattled off four multi-hit games and currently ranks third in the Cactus League in batting (.457), is tied for the league lead in doubles (5) and is second in hits (16).  And this does not even count the double and homer he hit last Friday against Texas, which were washed away with a fourth-inning rainstorm in Surprise.  As Manager Bob Melvin commented to a group of reporters recently, “Evidently, he doesn’t make many outs.”

Peterson_S_1A former Long Beach State standout and second-round pick by St. Louis, Peterson has always toyed with the .300 mark during his minor league career.  But judging by his inflated 2012 numbers, it seems he may have had an epiphany last season.  After hitting .274 with Double-A Midland, he was promoted to Sacramento where he figuratively tore the cover off the ball.  Hell, he might have even literally tore it off the ball.  His stat line in 38 games with the River Cats:  .389, seven homers, 23 RBI, .484 on-base percentage, .618 slugging percentage.

Choice, whose legs resemble veritable tree trunks on a sturdy 215-pound frame, showed enough in his first 20 at-bats this spring to turn some heads in the A’s front office.  At that point, he was hitting .550 and leading the Cactus League.  He’s tailed off since, going 2 for 16 over his last seven games, yet he’s still batting .361 and among the league’s Top 10 in both hits and RBI.  He’s hit some majestic drives in camp, many opposite field shots.

I had the pleasure to sit next to his father in the stands for one game at Phoenix Muni.  He told me about how the University of Texas-Arlington—located in his hometown—was the only college to offer him a scholarship.  Considering what a physical specimen he is—and I’m sure was—I found it hard to believe he didn’t get more offers coming out of high school.  What we’ve seen in the desert is a determined young man who displays power, speed, the ability to hit the ball where it’s pitched and a polished fielder in center field.  And, of course, in my line of business, you can’t help but love the name.  When he arrives in Oakland, he’s going to be a headline writer’s dream:

A’S OUTFIELDER A PRIME CHOICE 

OAKLAND ROOKIE MAKING IT A DIFFICULT CHOICE

CHOICE WORDS BY A’S SLUGGER

The A’s first-round selection in the 2010 Draft, Choice seems have put his injuries of the past behind him.  If it wasn’t for the outfielder glut on the big league roster, he could very well make a run at a spot this year.  A September call-up is more likely.

While the 19-year-old Russell is a relative neophyte compared to Peterson and Choice, he appears mature beyond his age.  We list him at six-feet tall in the media guide, but he looks taller in person.  He left little doubt that he might be a quick riser in the system before he was reassigned to minor league camp on Sunday.  Last year’s first-round pick, Russell impressed on three different levels last season, hitting .415 in the Arizona Rookie League, .340 in Short Season Vermont and .310 in Single-A Burlington.  His combined .369 average, 26 extra-base hits and 45 RBI in 44 games prompted Baseball America to suggest he may have had the best first season of anybody in baseball last year.  Lofty praise, indeed.  But when you watch him at the plate, as well as in the field, you quickly surmise this is not your ordinary 19-year-old.  As Melvin said Monday, he reminds him of the first time he saw a young Justin Upton in Arizona’s camp when he was with the Diamondbacks.  In fact, the A’s manager went so far to say Russell might have put together some of the most sophisticated at-bats of anyone in camp.  “Unlike most young players who try to pull the ball to impress, Russell hit the ball where it was pitched,” the Oakland skipper said.  “Very impressive.”

I suppose he could have said that about all three players.  So, A’s fans, while we should rejoice over so many young players returning from last year’s AL West champions, there’s plenty of good reason to be excited about the team’s future.  With shining gems like Shane Peterson, Michael Choice and Addison Russell on the horizon, we might just keep this thing going for a few more years.

FOR ONE DAY, A SLICE OF ITALY AT THE YARD

The green, white and red flag flew proudly beyond the center field fence. The unfamiliar blue-topped uniforms displayed names like Allessandro Maestri, Luca Panerati and Tiago Da Silva. The media lunch was catered, appropriately, by Buca de Beppo.

In case you were wondering, this was not your typical day at Phoenix Muni. Team Italia, preparing for their World Baseball Classic opener against Mexico March 7, paid the A’s a visit for a rare exhibition game today. The team’s Manager Marco Mazzieri, who once starred as an outfielder for his hometown team of Grosseto, Tuscany, fielded a roster of mostly Italian natives or American minor leaguers, with the few exceptions being the Dodgers’ Nick Punto, the Padres’ Chris Denorfia, the Pirates’ Jason Grilli and the Mariners’ Alex Liddi. Actually, Liddi is an Italian native. In fact, the Seattle third baseman represents the World Baseball Classic ideal: He’s the first player born and raised in Italy to play in the Major Leagues.

Yet, as Liddi and his teammates stood in front of the visitor’s dugout as Il Cano degli Italiani, the Italian national anthem, blared through pre-game ceremonies, it was clear who was the biggest star on their team. It was the hitting coach, of course. Guy named Mike Piazza. The former Dodger, Met, Padre and Athletic owns a .308 lifetime batting average with 427 home runs as perhaps the greatest hitting catcher of his generation. Now, he gives back to the game in paying tribute to his heritage.

In truth, Team Italia fared better than expected against the defending AL West champs, who ran out much of their “A” lineup this afternoon. Opening Night starter Brett Anderson breezed through three innings of one-hit ball, and Coco Crisp, Jed Lowrie, Yoenis Cespedes and Eric Sogard led an 11-hit parade in a 4-3 win. Considering the experience and talent disparity, how much Bob Melvin could assess his club’s performance is debatable.

But what is not debatable is whether baseball has become a global game. We see it every day in our clubhouse, where nations such as Australia, Cuba, Japan, Venezuela, Mexico and the Dominican Republic are presented. And watching MLB Network’s World Baseball Classic coverage of China closer Jiangang Lu leaping off his feet, his arms raised in exultation, after his team rallied for a 5-2 victory over Brazil in Fukuoka, Japan, it’s pretty clear that this rising international competition is truly meaningful to countries that compete. That includes the country where Abner Doubleday invented the sport. Team USA is managed by future Hall of Famer Joe Torre, and boasts a roster that includes such big league All-Stars as Joe Mauer, David Wright, Mark Teixeira, Ryan Braun, Giancarlo Stanton and Gio Gonzalez.

While Italy has benefitted from various Major League clinics staged by Tommy Lasorda, Torre and Piazza, among others, they still have a ways to go to make a dent in their soccer-crazy country. But the mere fact that they can play on the same field as a Major League team speaks volumes on how far the game is advancing overseas. While you may have missed today’s game, I encourage you to tune in to this month’s WBC tournament on MLB Network. If you do, you’ll get a glimpse of the future of Major League Baseball. And if you doubt that last statement, just ask Hiro Nakajima and Yoenis Cespedes. They played for their respective countries in the last World Baseball Classic.

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