July 2014

WOMEN CONTINUE TO EXPAND ROLE IN BASEBALL

When I was 12 years old, I was already hooked on baseball.  Not only was I playing it in school, but I was an avid fan of both the A’s and Giants while growing up in Auburn, a historic Gold Rush town at the base of the Sierra Foothill Mountains above Sacramento.  As was the case in an earlier generation, my mother was a house wife.  While she had no real interest or knowledge of the game I loved, it was her love for a snot-nosed kid that led her to listen to Monte Moore or Russ Hodges on the radio during day games so she could report back to me when I returned home from school.  Eventually Monte and Russ became like family to mom, and she actually started keeping a scorebook while watering our garden in the back yard.  It was also my mother who would wrap my arm in a hot towel when it became sore from over-throwing and she would even re-lace my catcher’s mitt when it was needed.  While that’s my earliest memory of a woman who shared my passion for baseball, this past week was full of reminders that Abner Doubleday created a sport that belongs to both sexes.

During the 25-year celebration of our 1989 World Series Champions recently, an interested visitor to the festivities was Susan Fornoff, a pioneer of sorts as one of the first ever female Major League beat writers.  She covered that ’89 A’s club for the Sacramento Bee.  Walking into a baseball clubhouse in those days had to be a harrowing experience for a lone woman writer, but over time, she earned the manager’s and players’ trust, and a barrier was torn down.  Her early work paved the way for dozens of female writers to make baseball their careers.  Never is that more evident than here in Oakland, where Susan Slusser of the San Francisco Chronicle, Jane Lee of MLB.com and Janie McCauley of the Associated Press comprise three of the four beat writers who cover the A’s regularly.  Kate Longworth, who has moved into the studio this year, has also served as an on-site reporter at the Coliseum for Comcast SportsNet California in recent seasons.   All four are some of the best journalists that cover our team.

Yet another reminder of the role women have played in our great game unfolded at Cooperstown this past weekend.  Jane Forbes Clark, who has served as chairperson of the board of directors of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum for the past 14 years, once again oversaw the induction ceremonies as the highest ranking official.  And in an ironic full-circle twist, it was Slusser, a woman, who championed the cause of a 93-year-old male writer that proved the impetus for the great author Roger Angell to be inducted into the writer’s wing of the Hall as the 2014 J. G. Taylor Spink Award Winner.  It was Angell, a regular contributor and editor for the New Yorker magazine, who first inspired Slusser as a young girl through his eloquent and vivid prose about baseball.  Not long after that day, Susan knew she wanted to be a baseball writer.  She eventually rose to become one of the country’s most respected major league scribes, and last year became the first female president of the Baseball Writers Association of America.

Over the years in this business, I have also seen more and more women accepted in my field. Dozens of female public relations specialists now hold high-ranking positions in baseball.  In fact, the senior vice presidents for club relations in both the American (Phyllis Merhige) and National (Katy Feeney) Leagues have been held by veteran women who have played prominent roles in the Commissioner’s Office for several decades.  Same on the club front, where ladies such as Staci Slaughter of the Giants and Bonnie Clark of the Phillies serve in executive roles as PR vice presidents and key advisors for their respective teams.

And closer to home, Debbie Gallas has worked in the A’s public relations department as the media services manager for the past 16 years.  In terms of issuing credentials, nurturing relationships with writers, broadcasters and photographers and overseeing many of the department’s administrative duties, she may be as good as anyone in the business—male or female—and the best compliment everyone gives her is this:  she gets things done!  Our baseball operations folks have also tapped into female talent.  Billy Beane recently penned an op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal as part of their 125th year of publishing promotion that featured leading thinkers in the country.  Part of Billy’s futuristic theme was his prediction that Major League Baseball will become even more inclusive in the years to come.   It will matter less and less whether you have come from a traditional baseball background.  Brain and analytical power will carry the day, and gender or ethnic background has no bearing.  The A’s GM has already been practicing what he preaches, as evidenced not only with the brilliant hiring of MIT and Harvard graduates as assistant general managers, but also employing Pamela Pitts as his director of baseball administration, and Kate Greenthal as a scouting assistant.

This trend only should grow stronger in the years ahead.  So beyond passing the eye test when you look into the stands at a big league park, where women comprise half your fans, don’t be surprised if one day there will be a woman general manager or president of a team, or even maybe a league commissioner.  And if that does happen, it will make it a better game.

A SALUTE TO SIX A’S WHO COULD HAVE BEEN ALL-STARS

Just how far have the Oakland A’s come in the past few years?  Well, the days of Jack Cust, Bobby Crosby and Travis Buck seem like a distant memory, as do the five straight losing seasons from 2007-2011.  Beyond having the best record in baseball this year, the Athletics have also carved out the best record in the majors over the past three seasons.

As many of you loyal A’s fans know, there has also been a seismic shift in the team’s national profile this year.  Whether it’s Scott Kazmir’s remarkable comeback story or the hard-to-believe transition of erstwhile first baseman Sean Doolittle into one of the premier closers in baseball, many of our players have become household names seemingly overnight.  And with that notoriety—not to mention superior production—the A’s landed no less than six players on the American League All-Star team this season (seven if we count newly acquired pitcher Jeff Samardzija, a NL All-Star choice).

Doesn’t it seem like only yesterday that our A’s only had one player chosen each season for the All-Star Game?  Almost always a pitcher for the AL bullpen?  Justin Duchscherer, Andrew Bailey, Grant Balfour, Ryan Cook.  It was a banner year if we had two players selected in the same season.  Yet, this year, the A’s had an embarrassment of riches with not one, not two, but six All-Stars!  To truly appreciate just how far the team has come, consider this:  We have another six players on this year’s club who absolutely could have been our lone All-Star representative in those previous lean seasons.

Let’s start with right-handed starter Sonny Gray (9-3, 2.97 ERA), who ranks among the American League’s Top 10 in victories, ERA, opponents’ batting average (.228) and opponents’ slugging percentage (.320).  Not only that, but dating back to when he first arrived on the scene almost a year ago today (July 10, 2013), Gray has posted the eighth-best ERA in the American League (2.87).  And the A’s No. 3 starter Jesse Chavez has been one of the most consistent pitchers in the league, registering a 7-5 mark and 3.06 ERA (11th in the AL), including 11 quality starts in 18 appearances.

And how about Coco Crisp?  Beyond his circus catches in center field, Coco is batting .291 and ranks in the American League Top 10 in both on-base percentage (.387) and stolen bases (16).  Plus, he brings unique pop to the leadoff spot, with seven homers and 31 RBIs.

Then look to the bullpen.  No argument in Doolittle representing Oakland’s relief corps in Minneapolis Tuesday, but there are clearly three other pitchers who could have very easily been tabbed as well.  The unflappable Dan Otero (7-1, 2.10 ERA), maybe the most versatile reliever in the game today, leads all American League relievers in wins, innings pitched (55.2) and pitches per inning (13.3).  Fernando Abad (2-3, 1.93 ERA) ranks fifth in opponents’ slugging percentage (.234) and opponents’ batting average (.161) among AL relief specialists.  And set-up man Luke Gregerson (2-1, 2.12 ERA) has been a workhorse in allowing only 39 hits in 46.2 innings and leading all AL relievers in appearances (45 games).

And we might have had a seventh almost All-Star if he hadn’t joined the team until June 1.  Stephen Vogt has arguably been the A’s best player the past six weeks.  We’ll give him an honorable mention.  Not only has he played five different positions (catcher, first base, left field, right field and designated hitter), but he has batted .376 with four home runs and 17 RBI in only 101 at-bats.  If he had enough ABs to qualify, he would be leading the majors in batting average and would rank fourth in OPS (.972).

So, while we can all agree that the A’s were indeed fortunate to have a major league-high six players elected All-Stars—seven counting Samardzija—it’s the next six “near All-Stars” that truly demonstrate how productive the 2014 Athletics’ have been as we near the Break.  Judging by the competitive race shaping up in the AL West—clearly the best division in baseball—we’ll need everyone on the roster to continue playing at a very high level to claim a third straight divisional crown.   O.co Coliseum should really be rockin’ the final three months of the season.

HIGHER EXPECTATIONS HELP KEEP EYE ON THE PRIZE

High standards and expectations are a good thing, right?  When you zoom to back-to-back seasons of 94 and 96 victories, respectively, and are on pace to win 98 games this season, new and higher expectations simply come with the territory.  It also made our just-completed series in Detroit truly maddening.  All three games against our AL Central nemesis were tense, hard-fought affairs, and while the A’s came up empty handed, each game resembled the type of playoff competition we’ve grown accustomed to when these two teams have squared off the past two years.

That said, Bob Melvin and his club know full well that they must still go through Motown if they hope to realize their goal of winning a World Series.  So it would be easy to say it matters whether you beat Justin Verlander or win a series at Comerica Park.  On some level, that’s certainly true.  However, our late August dismantling of the Tigers in Detroit last season—we scored 34  runs in claiming three of four games—didn’t seem to have much impact when we returned to Michigan as the leaves began to fall in autumn.

A linear thinker would probably conclude the A’s returned home content last night after a 4-4 road trip in which two  of  the  three teams  they faced are postseason contenders, and five  of the  games were played without a designated  hitter—a distinct  disadvantage to  any American League team.  Yet, the old adage that championship teams win at home and play .500 ball on the road doesn’t seem to have that acceptable ring anymore.  I know what you’re thinking:  We’re better than that! 

Well, when you’re flying high in Miami, then shot down in Detroit, it’s understandable that you are left feeling a little wanting.  No question, there are higher expectations this year.  It’s the price you pay for success.  And most importantly, there are higher expectations in the A’s clubhouse.  These remarkable players that have bonded together to post the best record in Major League Baseball continue to keep their eyes on the ultimate prize.

And to lend a little perspective, let me remind you that this A’s team has grinded out baseball’s best record despite a first  half that featured five straight three-city road trips—an almost unheard of gauntlet—against mostly upper-division opponents. After the All-Star Break, Oakland will not take even one road trip of more than two cities and seven games.  And only nine of the 21 series that they will play after the Break will be against teams which currently have winning records.  Of course, any manager will tell you it’s dangerous to play that game.  After all, it is baseball, where nothing is guaranteed.  What is guaranteed, however, are high expectations.  And that’s a good thing.  It tends to lead to even higher accomplishments.

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