April 2014

RANDOM THOUGHTS & OBSERVATIONS

Sometimes character and leadership on a team is more noticeable when the seas are turbulent. While there’s no cause for alarm when a three-game losing streak in April leaves you with a 13-8 record (now 14-8 following last night’s 10-1 win in Houston), I found it impressive how the A’s players responded to recent losses. Josh Donaldson, one of the best all-around third basemen in the game, took extra ground balls during pre-game infield after making errors in back-to-back contests. And after Tuesday night’s ulcerating 4-3 loss to the rival Rangers and a quick turnaround to a matinee game the following day, there was J.D. in the underground batting cage, taking dozens of hacks to ease his mind and refine his swing. When Sean Doolittle blew a save opportunity in Anaheim, he reacted like the team player—and leader—that he is. He was visibly happy in the clubhouse, telling reporters how great it was that the team rallied to win. It was the same Sean Doolittle, who after signing a new five-year contract, told his PR Director he would be glad to meet the media before the game but insisted that the session end a few minutes before the pitchers’ stretch on the field. He told me, “I just don’t want any of the guys to see me running late to stretch.” This, from a man who earlier in the day became a millionaire. Nick Punto, known to be a great clubhouse chemistry guy in Minneapolis, St. Louis and Los Angeles, demonstrated to his new teammates that if it will help the team, he would lay down a nifty push bunt to keep a rally aflame. And speaking of being a good teammate, it was heart-warming to see the subtle signs of support many players offered reliever Jim Johnson and outfielder Josh Reddick when they were scuffling during the first 10 days of the season. They were all small gestures that add up to a winning team….

The folks at Sony were nice enough to send our public relations office some complimentary “MLB 14 The Show” PlayStation 3 video games this week. I brought my copy home and gave it to my son Luke, a college student on spring break and avid gamer. After playing the new edition that night, he told me he really enjoyed the new version. However, he also informed me that the Oakland A’s were listed 24th in overall team rankings. “Dad, that’s a PR problem. Kids don’t play teams ranked that low.” After digesting what he said, I told him I agreed with him and would make a call to my Sony contact and ask her why a team who has won consecutive division titles and more games than any other in Major League Baseball since the start of the 2012 season would be ranked so low. She was very cordial and responsive, saying that the programmers who do the rankings base it on a rather complicated formula which includes an analysis of each team’s top 80 players on both the Major League roster and in the minor league system.   Not to be mean spirited, but I almost asked her who the programmers thought played for us, Rodney Dangerfield and Aretha Franklin? R-E-S-P-E-C-T. I guess we’ll have to keep earning it….

There’s something really unique—quirky really—about the bowels of the Coliseum, places that fans never have the opportunity to see during our home games. As you step off the elevator on the ground level, there to your left are these tall metal contraptions on wheels that are used to haul luggage in and out of the clubhouses. They appear to have once been painted, but now look so worn that you think they probably should be on display in a museum. If you can believe it, they actually look older than the Coliseum does. Perhaps they originally were transported when the team moved from Kansas City. No, actually they look even older than that. More like some type of torture device or maybe a medieval chariot used by the Romans. No, really. And when you walk straight ahead out of the elevator, there are five high hurdles lined up neatly as though the starter’s pistol might be shot at any minute. Michael Henriques, our strength and conditioning coach, had Jim Johnson, Drew Pomeranz and other relievers lined up the other day, with each being asked to lift their left leg up and over the hurdles in a swinging motion.   I assume the purpose is for strengthening and flexibility. In passing, I asked Johnson if he was in the 110 or 440 event.   It’s also quite common to see players from both teams stretching or rolling over a foam cylinder on the same floor outside the clubhouses. While newer venues have specific space or rooms dedicated to such undertakings, the Coliseum does not. So media or other players routinely step over or around the players working out. It’s the Oakland way! Editor’s note: It should be acknowledged, however, that the JPA has installed brand new carpet in and outside the clubhouses, as well as in the press box. Nice improvement….

At age 30, Jesse Chavez has every right to feel proud of his early-season accomplishments as a shining member of our starting rotation. Prior to his last start Sunday, there he was leaning on the padded barrier outside the dugout, soaking up the sun and his good fortune. But his road to the majors was filled with unexpected detours and disappointment.   But anyone who observes the Slender One can see why he has persevered. First, he is a talented pitcher with a wide assortment of plus pitches. Second, he has a sense of humor and nonchalance about him that keeps him on a positive path. It may not be quite as pronounced as the one worn by singing sensation Pharrell Williams, but Jesse usually swings through the clubhouse doors with a Bolero style brimmed hat that does his Mexican heritage complete justice. The brim of the hat is twice as wide as he is. And his wicked sense of humor is on full display after most A’s wins, as he sneaks into the crowd of reporters interviewing the starting pitcher, usually holding a salt shaker or bottle of hot sauce as though it’s his microphone, and making funny faces in an effort to crack up his teammate. However, when Chavez toes the rubber, he’s all business. He’s an assassin in cleats. In other words, he fits right in with the other Athletics, loose clubhouse and all….

OPPORTUNITY IS ALL THESE GUYS NEEDED

It’s no surprise that A’s pitchers have played a prominent role in the team’s 5-3 start to the season. Stocked with an exceptional arsenal of quality arms, this Oakland club might even exceed the mound exploits of the past two AL West Division champions.

And while talent is a common trait, it’s also clear to me that virtually every one of our pitchers has benefitted greatly from one thing: opportunity.

  • Despite his relative youth and experience, A’s management has not played it safe with Sonny Gray.  He drew Game 2 and Game 5 starts against Detroit in last year’s ALDS, responding with a 2.08 ERA. This season, he was the Opening Day starter and has posted a 0.75 ERA in two starts.
  • Scott Kazmir, only two years removed from pitching in an Independent League, got the chance—the opportunity—to continue the resurrection of his career when Oakland signed him to a two-year free agent contract.   The crafty southpaw is 2-0 with a 2.03 ERA thus far.
  • Jesse Chavez, who bounced around baseball as both a starter and reliever with six different organizations, got a rare opportunity to join the A’s starting rotation at age 30 this year and he’s seized it with a vengeance.   In mowing down the Twins for seven innings yesterday, the Human String Bean has chiseled out a 1.38 ERA in two starts this season.
  • Two seasons ago, the equal-opportunity A’s promoted Dan Straily, an obscure 24th-round draft pick out of Marshall University in Huntington, W.V., through two minor league levels in a matter of months and placed him into the Major League rotation for seven starts at 23 years old.   Straily, who allowed only three runs in his first start last weekend, owns a 12-10 record and 3.96 ERA in his young career, leap-frogging more ballyhooed prospects to establish himself as a bona fide starter.
  • We all know the slugger-turned-pitcher story of Sean Doolittle, but if he had not been given the opportunity—there’s that word again—to pitch by the Athletics, he might very well be out of baseball by now.
  • Dan Otero, claimed off waivers from the Yankees last year, might be the Poster Child for making the most of an opportunity.   As soon as he stepped foot into the A’s organization, all Otero has done is throw strikes and compiled subterranean ERAs. He garnered a 0.99 ERA with 15 saves in 23 appearances with Triple-A Sacramento last season before being summoned to the big club, where he was 2-0 with a 1.38 ERA, plus 5.2 scoreless innings in the playoffs. Yesterday, he demonstrated all his skills, dousing a Twins rally, eating up innings (2.3) and closing/winning a game and whittling his ERA to a paltry 1.69.
  • And there’s newcomer Drew Pomeranz, who’s making the most of his new scenery and new role as a reliever. As the fifth overall pick in the 2010 Draft by Cleveland, the flame-throwing lefty was trumpeted as the Next Big Thing. But after he was traded to Colorado midway through the 2011 season, his spotty control in three partial seasons with the Rockies eventually caused a move to the bullpen. Acquired by the A’s in a pitcher-for-pitcher trade involving Brett Anderson this offseason, Pomeranz seems to have a new lease on his baseball life.   He’s thrown three scoreless innings in relief for Oakland thus far.

Of all people, it was French military and political leader Napoleon Bonaparte who once quipped, “Ability is nothing without opportunity.” While Bonaparte died in 1821, Gray, Kazmir, Chavez, Straily, Doolittle, Otero and Pomeranz are all alive and well in 2014. And whether they know it or not, the French emperor was absolutely correct.

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