During the final week of Spring Training, I had the pleasure to attend a preview screening of “42,” the new Legendary Pictures/Warner Brothers movie about Jackie Robinson. Both Chadwick Boseman (Jackie) and Harrison Ford (Dodgers’ executive Branch Rickey) were outstanding in lead roles, and the film certainly is a great reminder on why we honor the man who broke baseball’s color barrier. This Monday night at the Coliseum, every A’s and Astros player, coach and manager will be wearing the No. 42, as we pay tribute to Robinson on the date (April 15) he first played in a Major League game back in 1947.
I can remember many years ago, while in a previous job, I accompanied former outfielder Ellis Burks to a local middle school assembly. Burks, who was born in Vicksburg, Mississippi, where his family experienced the racial tensions of the 60’s, was part of a pilot program honoring Jackie Robinson which eventually was adopted by all of Major League Baseball. Our message to these 12- and 13-year-olds was this: Jackie Robinson is the greatest role model and hero in American sports history. His actions both on and off the field not only changed the face of sports in this country, but it also changed the way America would view race relations and social justice. Many people forget that Jackie was truly a lone pioneer during that time in American history. This was eight years before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat and Martin Luther King, Jr. led the Montgomery Bus Boycott.
Prior to Jackie joining the Dodgers, young African American males never thought it was even in the realm of possibility that one day they could play in the Major Leagues. They wouldn’t even allow themselves to dream it was possible. My good friend and Hall of Famer Orlando Cepeda once told me the same thing. “Jackie wasn’t just a hero in the black community. He was our hero too! Until he broke the barrier, Latins like me, Roberto (Clemente) and the Alou brothers could only hope to play against Negro League players when they played winter ball on the islands.” As a child of the 60’s, I fell in love with the game of baseball watching Orlando, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Juan Marichal, Bob Gibson, Frank Robinson, Elston Howard and so many other exciting stars who were people of color. I cannot imagine what that decade would have been like without those great players. I think also, it sheds some light on what Major League Baseball missed when a previous generation of minorities—the likes of Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, Cool Papa Bell and Buck Leonard—were not allowed to play. That all changed after a young man named Jackie Robinson, a highly-educated and multi-sport star at UCLA, agreed to accept the unenviable challenge presented by Mr. Rickey.
Later in his life—unfortunately not depicted in the movie—Jackie continued to be an advocate for racial equality and a true pioneer. Retiring from baseball after the 1956 season, he accepted an executive position with Chock full o’Nuts, becoming the first black vice president of a major American corporation. Later he would help found Freedom National Bank, a black-owned and operated commercial bank based in Harlem, as well as establish the Jackie Robinson Construction Company, which built housing for low-income families. Yet, Jackie was more than a role model in business. He also remained a social activist, serving on the board of the NAACP and supporting the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Ironically, his final public appearance involved the Oakland A’s. It was before Game 2 of the 1972 World Series in Cincinnati. Commissioner Bowie Kuhn invited him to throw out the ceremonial first pitch to commemorate the 25th anniversary of his Major League debut. The white-haired Robinson, showing the ravages of several years living with diabetes, accepted a plaque and spoke before the first pitch. “I’m going to be tremendously more pleased and proud when I look at that third base coaching line one day and see a black face managing in baseball.” Nine days later on Oct. 24, 1972, Jackie passed away at the young age of 53. Two years later, the Cleveland Indians named Frank Robinson the first African American manager in Major League history. Many other black managers have followed, including Dusty Baker, Cito Gaston, Willie Randolph, Ron Washington, and just this year, Bo Porter with the Astros. But Robinson’s influence went beyond baseball. Magic Johnson became a business leader in Los Angeles after his basketball career and is an investor in the Dodgers. Colin Powell became the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and later Secretary of State. Oprah Winfrey became a media mogul and social conscience in this country. Rapper and entrepreneur Jay-Z is now part-owner of the NBA’s Nets, ironically based in the same New York borough (Brooklyn) where Jackie Robinson made history. And, of course, the first African American president, Barack Obama, is in his second term as our nation’s leader.
I suspect Jackie Robinson is looking down on us and quite pleased with the progress we have made. However, Jackie was not one to rest on his laurels. I have no doubt he would still be pushing for more progress if he was here today.
Of course, if you’re an A’s fan, you also have another reason to love and cherish Jackie Robinson. Following the 1956 season, the Dodgers traded him to the arch-rival Giants. Robinson, facing an unimaginative horror, chose to retire instead of ever wearing the orange & black uniform. Our kind of guy.
Prior to the season, ESPN’s baseball guru Buster Olney made a rather bold statement about the 2013 A’s. He said Bob Melvin’s club might be the deepest in the American League. However, if you followed the Oaklanders last season, that claim may not sound so bold. In fact, the 2012 AL West champs were all about depth and interchangeable parts.
Now, just a week into our new season, examples of that depth have already come into play. Let’s start with the pitching staff. The fact that 24-year-old Dan Straily can strike out 11 batters, walk none and allow two runs in 6.2 innings Friday night in Houston but then be sent down after the game to make room for No. 5 starter Bartolo Colon kind of illustrates that point, doesn’t it? But if you look even closer, I think it’s the depth we have in the back end of our rotation that will really serve this team well as the season continues to unfold. With Tommy Milone (13-10, 3.74 ERA last year), A.J. Griffin (7-1, 3.06) and Colon (10-9, 3.43) as our numbers three through five starters, we figure to own a significant advantage over most teams in the league. We saw that the first time through the rotation last week against the Mariners and Astros. And while Brett Anderson dodged a bullet—actually two bullets—in Sunday’s start at Minute Maid Park that battered his throwing hand, if he had been deemed unfit to pitch, Straily would have been on the next plane to rejoin the team for Anderson’s next start. You want to talk about depth?
And if we had received word that the Ragin’ Australian, Grant Balfour, needed more time to rehab his surgically-repaired knee and wouldn’t have been available to open the campaign, just think of our choices as his temporary replacement: the right-left, flame-throwing duo of All-Star Ryan Cook and Sean Doolittle, or newly-acquired 30-year-old veteran Chris Resop, a minor league closer who has pitched in 137 games for Pittsburgh over the last two seasons. What other team in the American League has those kinds of choices? In fact, what other team in the league was forced to send down such quality arms the likes of Jordan Norberto (4-1, 2.77 last year), Pedro Figueroa (0-0, 3.32), Mike Ekstrom (team-best 1.20 ERA in 10 spring training games) or Hideki Okajima (17-8, 3.11 ERA in 261 career games with Boston) because there was simply no room in the bullpen?
Injuries sprung up among the A’s position players in recent weeks, too, again demonstrating why A’s fans should feel good about the club’s current depth chart. First, it was middle infielders Hiro Nakajima (hamstring) and Adam Rosales (intercostal), who were placed on the 15-day disabled list the final week of spring training. That left the starting shortstop job to Jed Lowrie, already a proven big leaguer at the position from his days in Boston and Houston. In the first seven games, Lowrie has done more damage at the plate than any other A’s player, leading the team in batting average (.500), RBI (6), on-base percentage (.567) and slugging percentage (1.000) and tied for the club lead in home runs (3).
Then Sunday, Gold Glove outfielder Josh Reddick decided to play bumper cars with the stadium railing down the right field line. It was a scary moment as he was escorted off the field with his right hand held immobile. While we’re glad to say x-rays proved negative, losing a player who led the 2012 club in home runs and RBI—even for a couple of days—is normally something that would have had a significant effect on a team’s lineup. However, not many teams have two proven hitting outfielders in reserve the caliber of Chris Young and Seth Smith. Young, a previous All-Star who has enjoyed three 20-homer, 20-stolen base seasons in the past with Arizona, promptly crowned Sunday’s 9-3 win over the young Astros by blasting a three-run homer in the fifth inning. Smith, a .268 career hitter in 616 big league games and one of the better fastball hitters in the league, was another hero Sunday, scorching a two-run double in the second inning.
We saw this type of balanced attack last season, when Oakland not only had 14 walk-off wins during the regular season but 11 different players doing the honors. But that was last year. I don’t think anyone in their right minds would predict that many walk-off victories will come our way again this year. However, this year’s team may actually be deeper than last season. That should bode well as we run another marathon in 2013. As we have already seen in the season’s first week, it can be a different player that can make the difference in any given game.