July 2013

THERE’S ONE GIRL WHO CAN NAME MORE THAN THREE A’S PLAYERS

During Saturday’s FOX telecast of the A’s-Angels game, one announcer reportedly said that the national audience cannot name three Oakland players. This is a very popular view by many people who do not follow Bob Melvin’s first-place club on a regular basis.

If they did, they might know that Grant Balfour saved 44 consecutive games, a 113-year franchise record and the sixth longest such streak in Major League history. They might also know that Josh Donaldson plays a Gold Glove caliber third base perhaps comparable to Baltimore’s Manny Machado, and that he owns an almost identical batting average (.296 to Machado’s .297), has hit seven more home runs and driven in 11 more RBI than the Orioles’ young phenom. They would also know that Jed Lowrie has the second-highest batting average (.299) among shortstops in the American League. They might even know that Bartolo Colón, who ranks among the AL’s top three in wins, ERA and complete games, has a legitimate chance at winning his second Cy Young Award to join a select group of pitchers. And they would be aware that setup man extraordinaire Ryan Cook has a 2.15 ERA in 45 relief appearances and owns the longest current streak of homerless innings (46) of any pitcher in baseball.

1I do know this: there is a little girl from Modesto who can probably name every player on the A’s roster. Her name is Mykayla Herrera. She is eight years old and was born with Osteogenesis Imperfecta, which is a brittle bones condition that is genetic. Several months ago, I was contacted by a gentleman named Eric Wallace, the president and co-founder of an organization called the Sons of Baseball Foundation. Similar to the Make-A-Wish Foundation, they try to grant a wish to a deserving baseball fan. Mykayla is a die-hard A’s fan who watches or listens to every game during the season. She’s a very tiny girl due to her condition, but when she arrived with her parents, grandparents and other family and friends, her smiling face lit up the Coliseum. (Photo credit Luis Torres)

We hosted her on the field before Sunday’s game. The Sons of Baseball provided authentic A’s jerseys with “Herrera” on the backs to Mykayla and her family. Although there was not batting practice yesterday, her favorite player—Coco Crisp—agreed to come onto the field to meet her. He brought a baseball with him and signed it “To Mykayla, Coco Crisp.” The look on her face when he walked on the field was priceless. Her dream really was coming true. Little did she know her pre-game experience was just beginning.

2Soon after Coco left, she watched Bob Melvin do “The BoMel Show” with broadcaster Ken Korach in the dugout. When the show was taped, both men walked onto the field to say hello to Mykayla. She and her family could not believe their good fortune. Once Melvin returned to the dugout to address the media, the A’s pitchers took the field to do their daily pre-game stretch. One of the stragglers was Balfour, who stopped by to say hello to the Herrera family as well. I’m not sure if Mykayla was more fascinated by meeting the A’s closer or listening to his Australian accent. Either way, he was a big hit. When the pitchers were finished, a large bear-of-a-man stopped by the dugout, where Mykayla’s mother had placed her next to the bat rack. The sweet girl’s grandfather yelled, “It’s Bartolo Colón!” Her eyes widened almost as much as her smile. He touched her face, said a few words in Spanish, and then in English told her to wait and that he had something else for her. Colón jogged back to the clubhouse and reemerged with one of the official All-Star Game baseballs he was given in New York. He signed it and handed it to her. Pretty cool scene.

Before long, Tommy Milone also joined in as I introduced him to Mykayla. “This is the guy who was the winning pitcher in yesterday’s game.” She quickly responded: “I knew that!” At this point, it was past noon and our little fan probably thought the meetings were over, and she could get rest before she threw out the game’s ceremonial first pitch—another part of her MVP Experience provided by the Sons of Baseball. However, just when she was about to leave the dugout, one final player made his way to see her. To crown her day, the 2013 Home Run Derby champion, Yoenis Céspedes, walked straight towards Mykayla with bat in hand. But before he could personally sign the bat, he bent over and gave her a kiss on the cheek. The Cuban outfielder literally took her breath away. But not for long. She was truly in heaven, as the bigger-than-life star sat next to her on the bench, as family members took photos that soon will be part of her bedroom in Modesto. Fellow Cuban Ariel Prieto, A’s coach and Yoenis’ interpreter, joined in the party, also giving Mykayla a peck on the cheek and sharing some warm thoughts in their native tongue.

Once the player and coach had returned to the clubhouse to get their game faces on, it was almost time for the first pitch. Her grandfather told me that Mykayla had been practicing for days. Held by her mother and barely standing on the patch of grass near home plate, the shortest person at the ballpark let the ball fly, and in an ironic stroke, it was the A’s tallest player, Nate Freiman, who caught the pitch. Then, it was time for the family to join a group of about 30 family and friends from Modesto in the stands to watch the game. Even when the Angels bolted out to a 5-0 lead by the second inning, the irrepressible Mykayla Herrera just knew her boys would come back and win the game. And that they did, rallying to post a 10-6 victory that widened their lead in the AL West to a season-high six games. I know for me personally, as well as our players, it was a day bigger than baseball and one we won’t soon forget. Something tells me Mykayla might just feel the same way.

ONE ALL-STAR SELECTION DOESN’T DAMPEN A’S FIRST HALF

If you’re the Oakland A’s, maybe one is, indeed, the loneliest number.  Despite having the best record in all of baseball since June 1 of last year, we will send a grand total of one player to the 2013 All-Star Game at Citi Field in New York July 16.   That one player will be 40-year-old starting pitcher Bartolo Colon.  And oh how he deserves it.  An eight-game winning streak, 11-3 record and AL Pitcher of the Month in June, Colon seems to have recaptured the form that won him a Cy Young Award in 2005.

Grant Balfour, who just tied Hall of Famer Dennis Eckersley’s franchise record for consecutive saves, didn’t make the cut.  That might be a first in All-Star annals, a closer with 40 straight saves who doesn’t make the team.  Neither did third baseman Josh Donaldson, who leads the American League in game-winning hits and ranks among the Top 10 in batting average, doubles, RBI, on-base percentage, slugging percentage and multiple-hit games—not to mention Gold Glove caliber defense.  This, despite being one of the league’s bona fide MVP candidates at the halfway point of the campaign.

It makes me think of those true-blue A’s fans who unfurl that banner out in the left field bleachers every game:  “Respect Oakland Baseball.”   But this is not a blog about sour grapes.  All of the players who were named on the American League All-Star Team are certainly worthy.  And in some ways, us landing only one All-Star is so Oakland.  Maybe being located in a small city on the West Coast is a disadvantage for national attention.   Or maybe the fact that we play so well as a team isn’t very sexy.  In a lot of ways, we really aren’t about individuals.  Instead, we’re about Donaldson and Jed Lowrie, who might just be the best offensive left side of an infield in the American League.  And we’re about Yoenis Cespedes, Coco Crisp, Josh Reddick, Seth Smith and Chris Young, who might comprise the best overall outfield in the majors.  Or we’re about Balfour, Ryan Cook, Sean Doolitttle, et. al., who arguably could be the AL’s premier bullpen.   Same could be said for our starting rotation, which top to bottom, might be as deep as any team in baseball (BTW, does any other team boast a Brett Anderson or Sonny Gray in reserve?).   Ditto for our bench, which for any given game might be Smith, Brandon Moss and John Jaso.  Does any other team in the league feature such potent bats?

So, while I understand the teeth-gnashing and “we-wuz-robbed” cries coming from the Uptown District and other East Bay locales, don’t dwell on our scarcity of All-Stars.   As A’s fans who have watched this team win a division title and take World Series entry Detroit to a final Game 5 last year, and then follow that up with their best start in 23 years in 2013, you know the deal.  Under the vision and leadership of Billy Beane and Bob Melvin, this Oakland A’s team is about only one thing:  winning.  So when our boys return home next weekend to host the Boston Red Sox in a final three-game series before the All-Star Break, come out to the Coliseum and let them know how much we appreciate what they play—and stand—for.  It’s a noble cause, one which may lead to memories much greater than an All-Star Game.

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