If you’re a died-in-the-wool A’s fan—you know, the kind that Bernie leans at the drop of a hat and waits in line three or four hours to claim their cherished new bobblehead giveaway—you have to be excited about the team’s new acquisitions this month. Time will tell just how successful each trade or free agent signing was. However, if you walked the lobby at the Swan & Dolphin Hotel in Orlando as I did this week, you heard universal praise from GMs, media and even a couple of agents about most of our player moves. And while the two deals we swung earlier today might be wait-and-see propositions, there appears to be big upsides for Colorado left-hander Drew Pomeranz, a former fifth overall draft pick, and mercurial leadoff man Billy Burns, the Nationals’ Minor League Player of the Year this season.
Yet, while we can look forward to an organization getting stronger with some shrewd additions, I can’t help but feel some remorse by two news developments that unfolded today.
A 10 a.m. news conference at the Winter Meetings was held by Brad Horn, the highly-respected PR man for the Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. He announced that long-time Texas Rangers’ play-by-play man Eric Nadel was this year’s winner of the Ford C. Frick Award. Nadel, a friend and fellow blues enthusiast (we trade CDs and MP3s every time we see each other), is richly deserving of the Hall of Fame honor. He’s been a sports radio fixture in the Lone Star State for 35 years.
However, his selection also meant our beloved Bill King was passed over yet again by the voting committee. As a courtesy, Horn shared the news with me 10 minutes before the press briefing. While I was deeply disappointed—as was A’s Vice President of Broadcasting and Communications Ken Pries and A’s voice Ken Korach who authored the King “Holy Toledo” book—no one could be more disappointed than the thousands of Bay Area fans who cherished every broadcast Bill ever did and mourned his unexpected passing six years ago.
Earlier in October, I had sent a copy of Ken’s wonderfully-written book, along with a letter, to each member of the Ford C. Frick Award committee. There were glowing quotes from dozens of people in the book, including such sports icons as Hall of Famers John Madden, Rick Barry and Tony LaRussa, and a foreword by Jon Miller, whose plaque also resides in Cooperstown. In my letter, I told each voter we understood there were many worthy recipients, but while you may not be able to read Holy Toledo cover to cover before voting, I implored them to at least turn to page 111 and read the transcribed broadcast account of King’s remarkable call of Kirk Gibson’s World Series home run off Dennis Eckersley and the moments leading up to that historic clout. Due to the classic calls of Jack Buck and Vin Scully of the same play, I suspected none or very few of the voters had ever even heard Bill’s version on A’s radio. As usual, King’s description of the Series-turning homer was absolutely masterful. Not only did he capture the moment perfectly, adding his typical flair for the dramatic, he set the scene like no other broadcaster can. Other Hall of Fame broadcasters had to marvel how Bill actually anticipated that Eckersley’s 3-2 pitch to Gibson might be a back-door slider.
Unlike past years that Bill was eligible for selection and he finished in the top three in fan voting on the Hall of Fame website, this past month I received phone calls or notes from a number of committee members, including such legendary broadcast figures as Vin Scully and Bob Costas. They thanked me for sending Ken’s book and said they learned things about Bill they never knew. One member, who will remain nameless, also told me that King’s death may have delayed his chances of being selected, as the voters might not feel the urgency to vote him in when there are living candidates that would also be fine choices. That may be a bitter pill for some of us to swallow, but at the same time, there is validity to his comment. Now, under the new Ford C. Frick Award procedures where a different era of broadcasting is voted upon each year, we must wait until 2017 for the next time Bill’s era is on the ballot. If anything, the longer the wait, the sweeter it will be for A’s fans and King’s family and friends when he finally receives this long overdue honor.
And a second news story hit the Twitter World this afternoon, when it was announced that Jerry Blevins had been shipped to the Washington Nationals for Billy Burns. While we never should get too close to our players, knowing they are only a phone call away from being scratched off our roster, it’s no secret that Blevins was not only a clubhouse and front office favorite, he was also a great fan favorite. And this was a distinction that he plainly earned. Whether it was doing countless community outreach appearances on behalf of the A’s, collaborating with Coco Crisp on introducing the “Bernie Lean” song and dance to his teammates and the Coliseum faithful, or providing veteran leadership to a young and talented bullpen, Blevins demonstrated what a classy and team-oriented role model should be. His cerebral take on things, not to mention his at-times goofy sense of humor, will be sorely missed next season. And thanks to his dedication and work ethic, it was truly a pleasure to watch this string-bean-of-a-man develop into a strikeout artist who developed into one of the better left-handed specialists in the American League. It was that development which eventually made him a valuable commodity that today brought a coveted minor leaguer to Oakland in return.
When the Nationals visit the O.co Coliseum in early May, I wouldn’t be surprised to hear a few chants of “Jerry, Jerry!” when the former A’s favorite starts warming up in the bullpen. And if that’s the case, I think we’ll all understand. So long Jerry. You left a mark here in Oakland, and for that, we say thank you and wish you nothing but the best.
Well, I guess it’s finally time to exhale. It was masterful how Billy Beane and the A’s brain trust were able to swing so many deals in essentially a 24-hour period earlier this week. I think it speaks volumes about their advance preparation, decisiveness and vision for our club. As we approach next week’s Winter Meetings, we will certainly arrive in Orlando in a position of strength. The depth of our starting pitching and bullpen, and to a lesser extent, our middle infield and catching, makes us an attractive partner with other teams looking to improve their rosters for 2014.
Yet for Billy, it’s all about “pieces” to the puzzle. And a puzzle is a good analogy. When the MLB Executive of the Year begins hunting for new players, it’s not only talent he’s looking for. He’s also looking for the right fit and compliment. Whether it was John Jaso complimenting Derek Norris, or Eric Sogard serving the same purpose with Alberto Callaspo, collectively they fit into a baseball puzzle that has produced 96 wins and a division title last year. Now, with the inevitability that last season’s All-Star pitchers Bartolo Colon and Grant Balfour most likely will leave for greener ($$$) pastures, the A’s baseball honchos have addressed virtually all their needs to stock another winning club in 2014. Consider the new pieces:
- LHP Scott Kazmir—He helps balance our rotation as a lefthander and provides a veteran presence whose best years may still be ahead of him. His post-All Star Break ERA with Cleveland last year: 3.38.
- Closer Jim Johnson—As good as Balfour was the past two seasons, there’s a case to be made that Johnson was even better. Also in the prime of his career, he’s led the majors in saves each of the past two seasons (51 in 2011 and 50 in 2012) with a sub-3.00 ERA. And he did it in a hitter’s park, with a playoff-contending team and facing mostly the bats of the American League East.
- RHP Luke Gregerson—He’s been a workhorse in San Diego who established himself as one of the National League’s better set-up men. His 105 holds over the past four years are second most in the NL and tied for fourth-most in the majors over that period.
- OF Craig Gentry—This may be the sleeper of this week’s flurry of additions. If you look closely, Gentry could be the quintessential Athletic. He can play multiple positions—left, right and center field—can steal a base when you need one and hits well at the Coliseum (.333 lifetime). His rifle arm and range in the outfield is well documented, plus he gives Bob Melvin a great option for pinch-running late in a game. And also consider this: Gentry owned the third-best batting average (.280) on Rangers last year, and his .338 average after the All-Star Break ranked third best in the American League. And it should be noted he started 50 games over the last two months of the season.
- INF Nick Punto—Another veteran grinder who can play multiple infield positions and is a plus defender. And while his overall batting numbers may not impress, his success against left-handed pitchers places him in an ideal platoon situation. He hit .309 vs. southpaws last season and .302 in 2012.
- LHP Fernando Abad—He may not have captured the attention of the players acquired this week, but picking up Abad from the Nationals might be another sleeper. When you can find a left-handed reliever whose fastball is clocked in the 95-96 range and has a nasty sinker, you jump on it. And Billy did. This will be his fifth season in the big leagues. He might have been under the radar in D.C., but when you look at his numbers (3.31 ERA in 39 games, 32 strikeouts and 10 walks in 37 innings) from last year, they suggest he might have to change his name to Fernando Agood before too long.
One common thread to most winning teams, I have found, is this: excluding the Yankees, Red Sox and Dodgers and perhaps a couple more high-priced clubs, the key to a team’s roster is value. If you were to look at the A’s as they’re currently constituted, breaking down the “value” of each player if they were on the common market, you would have to say they collective worth of our team is much more than its $70-some million. While I won’t go into individual examples, suffice it to say that on the open market, this is a team with talent equivalent to a payroll almost double its current figure. I’ve experienced this before on other teams I’ve worked for. It tells you the baseball office is doing a fine job evaluating and spending its money.
THANKSGIVING LEFTOVERS: Great seeing A.J. Griffin and Sean Doolittle in our A’s offices yesterday. The two popular pitchers flew in to town Wednesday afternoon, and our Player & Media Relations Manager Adam Loberstein ran them through the gauntlet, first with studio visits to Comcast SportsNet and 95.7 FM The Game, followed by a corporate sponsor dinner Wednesday night. Yesterday, they greeted a couple hundred children at the Oakland Zoo and stayed busy handing out holiday gifts and feeding the animals. Griffin said his favorite animals were the giraffes. They also visited a children’s hospital before returning home to Arizona…Our skipper, Bob Melvin, has been spotted often at Warriors’ games at Oracle Arena. His love of W’s dates back to his childhood when he would follow the team, thanks to his godfather, Warriors’ long-time trainer Dick D’Oliva…Former A’s pitcher Dave Stewart continues to be a great role model in his hometown of Oakland. He and three-time Manager of the Year Dusty Baker, along with ABC7 news anchor Cheryl Jennings, are appearing at the 1000 Mothers to Prevent Violence gala next Thursday, Dec. 12 at the Jack London Aquatic Center. It’s a great cause, as recognized by Jerry Blevins, Doolittle and the rest of the A’s bullpen this past season, as they donated $3,500 of their own money to Lorrain Taylor, the founder and CEO of 1000 Mothers, which provides comfort and services to families who have suffered the loss of a loved one due to violence. The Oakland Police Department has begun to refer such families to 1000 Mothers to Prevent Violence as the best option in the City for care. There are still limited seats left for the dinner (dress is not formal) at $75 each, but you better hurry. The phone number for orders is 510-583-0100. Registration is from 5-6 p.m. with the program starting at 6:30.