A NEW BILLY BALL IS INTRODUCED IN THE DESERT
They say you can’t steal first base, but after watching Billy Burns I’m not so sure. On the verge of setting land speed records every time he bursts out of the batter’s box, the Georgia Express is virtually a human blur on the base paths. As veteran baseball scribe John Shea noted in his San Francisco Chronicle blog today, Burns ranks seventh in the majors in steals this spring. Not individually. As a team. In other words, only six MLB teams have more stolen bases than Burns, who’s a perfect 7-for-7 on swiping bags. Acquired in an offseason trade that sent the popular Jerry Blevins to the Nationals, the mercurial switch-hitter is also batting .318 with a .423 OBP in eight Cactus League games to date. His blazing speed is reminiscent of Rickey Henderson, intimidating defenders who are becoming keenly aware of his rare gift. Last weekend against Texas, you saw a Ranger second baseman drop a routine groundball because he knew he had to hurry his throw to first base. In that same game, the Texas catcher mishandled a strike because Burns was already bearing down on second base and only a lightning-quick release would avert a steal. Might he be a new version of Billy Ball? At 5-9, 180 pounds, Burns is built like a bantam weight boxer. His upper body suggests he might lead the clubhouse in the lowest percentage of body fat. As media were wrapping up their questioning of Billy at his locker recently, I ended the session by announcing that “Billy has to run to the showers now”…..
And speaking of Billys, I always get a kick out of international fascination with our rock star GM Billy Beane. The constant requests from around the globe remind me of when I was a youngster on vacation with my family. Driving across the country, we would play the count-the-license-plates game, seeing how many different states we encountered on the highway. I’ve been known to see Billy in the hallway and merely say, “Brazil today, Billy. It’s their Time magazine.” Earlier this week, it was Wejae Yi from the Chosun Daily News in South Korea sitting down with Billy in his Phoenix Muni office for a brief interview. Prior to their meeting, Wejae asked me a tough question: “Who’s older, Billy Beane or Brad Pitts?” Being the conscientious PR man that I am, I told him that Billy is about a year older (51 to 50). But knowing where my bread is buttered, I also added “I think Billy looks younger, however”….
So far, our spring training has been quite uneventful in a very good kind of way. For the most part, we’re staying healthy (both Ryan Cook and Craig Gentry are nearing game activity) and our reservoir of pitching looks as good as advertised. Probably the biggest news items of the early spring have been Eric Sogard’s rise to fame as the #FaceOfMLB runner-up in the recently completed MLB.com contest, and Josh Reddick robbing Mike Morse of not one, but two homers in the Cactus League opener at Scottsdale stadium. The first catch, which I’m convinced might have been an optical illusion, aired on many network television shows including NBC’s Today Show. While it came in an exhibition game, something tells me Josh might have earned a few early Gold Glove votes with his patented Spider-Man antics….
It’s interesting to watch our four catchers wage a battle for spots on our 25-man roster. Stephen Vogt, who endeared himself to all A’s fans by delivering a game-winning walk-off single in Game 2 of the ALDS last fall, has been wielding a hot stick thus far this spring with a team-leading .538 average and four RBI. Derek Norris (.273, 4 RBI) and John Jaso (.200, 2 RBI) have both homered, and newcomer Chris Gimenez (.250) owns a .400 on-base percentage and gives Oakland a veteran defensive presence behind the plate. While all four guys know that one or two of them won’t make the Opening Day cut, it’s impressive to watch all four form close friendships that epitomize the team attitude of this 2014 club. It’s what championship teams are made of….