Let’s face it folks, the improbable is becoming even more improbable.
Brandon Hicks, a 26-year-old infielder claimed off waivers from Atlanta who hit .038 (1-for-26) for the Braves over the past two seasons and batted only .211 for Triple-A Gwinett in 2011, smacks a walk-off home run to beat AL West-leading Texas in Wednesday’s matinee at the Coliseum.
The following evening in Oakland, a cerebral right-hander drafted in the 13th round out of the University of San Diego continues to defy the odds by pitching the A’s to a series-opening 4-3 win over the New York Yankees, owners of the best record in baseball. This, from A.J. Griffin, a kid who was converted from reliever to starter last year whose brief bio appears in the minor league section of our media guide.
Then on Friday, the second straight rookie starter sparkles, as Tommy Milone strikes out a career-high 10 hitters over eight shutout innings, setting the stage for the much-traveled Brandon Moss. A career .236 hitter in parts of five seasons with three previous Major League teams who was signed to a minor league contract in November, Moss delivers a walk-off single to beat the Yankees, 3-2.
Already assured at least a split in the series, unbelievably the best was still yet to come. Jarrod Parker, yet another rookie pitcher, follows Milone’s masterpiece with one of his own, handing a 2-1 lead to the closer. Except on this Saturday, the closer is not All-Star Ryan Cook, who’s given the night off after clinching three straight wins. No, the honors go to the most improbable Athletic of all—Sean Doolittle. By now, you probably know his story….41st overall player chosen in the 2007 Draft as a hot-shot first base prospect…misses the entire 2011 season due to a torn left patella that requires surgery that essentially ends his baseball career as a position player…starts to tinker with pitching late in his rehab, trying to recapture his prowess on the mound during his college days at the University of Virginia…he pitches only one game in the Arizona Fall League, then after an impressive Spring Training he zooms up the minor league ladder from Stockton, to Midland, to Sacramento before being called up to the big league June 4.
So, now, still less than a year removed from being a non-pitcher, Doolittle is summoned from the bullpen to face the most feared lineup in baseball. Unflappable as a description doesn’t do him justice. His glove customarily tucked under his chin, he stares down the big, bad Pinstripers, allowing one harmless single and proceeding to strike out the side in posting his first major league save—a save he will never forget. Personally, what I will not forget is the scene in the clubhouse afterwards. Right at the front of the reception line at the top of the tunnel was 67-year-old John “Blue Moon” Odom, the former A’s legend visiting from his home in Anaheim, doing some kind of a Michael Jackson shimmy which, at that moment, made about as much sense as anything else about these 2012 A’s.
You want more? Okay, let’s try Sunday. Bartolo Colon, a man who could be the father of the three previous starters in the series, stumbles in the early going in allowing four runs to his former team. At this point, with CC Sabathia toiling for the Yanks, A’s fans are probably telling themselves, “Well, at least we won the series.” As ESPN’s Lee Corso might say, “Not so fast, friend.” You want improbable? Okay, let’s start with the best .200 hitter in the majors, Brandon Inge, released by Detroit April 29, launching a home run to close the deficit to 4-1. Then follow that with Kurt Suzuki, relegated to part-time status after hitting .184 with three RBI over his last 33 games, rediscovering his mojo and snapping a personal 78-game home run drought by drilling a solo shot into the left field bleachers to slice the lead in half. After adding another run, however, the A’s still faced the daunting task of facing Yankee closer Rafael Soriano—who entered the game having blown only one save all season—in the ninth still trailing 4-3. Seth Smith, who possesses surprising power to center field, arrived right on cue as he turned on a Soriano fastball and sent it over the head of the helpless Curtis Granderson—and over the fence—to tie the game in dramatic fashion. Meanwhile, Oakland’s AL-leading bullpen slammed the door on New York’s potent offense, as lefties Jordan Norberto and Jerry Blevins and workhorse Grant Balfour reeled off zeroes the rest of the way. A Derek Norris single and Jemile Weeks one-out sacrifice bunt in the 12th inning set the stage for yet another walk-off hero. Coco Crisp, this pie is for you! Single over the out-stretched glove of Robinson Cano. Game over. Four-game sweep accomplished.
In reflection of what just transpired, this blog would not be complete without a mention of the electrifying Yoenis Cespedes. While we have seen this building for quite some time, there’s no doubt that the New York series was his official coming out party. He will no longer be our little secret. In the land of superstars called the Yankees, no player shined more brightly than the charismatic 26-year-old Cuban. The way the ball jumped off his bat—including another laser home run and four-hit game—and the blazing speed he exhibited on the base paths and in the outfield was perhaps the most impressive aspect of the weekend. Prior to the series, there was a poignant moment in the hallway outside Steve Vucinich’s office. It’s where Vuc has displayed every cover of Sports Illustrated that has featured an Oakland A’s player through the years. Prior to batting practice one day, there was Zuk giving the Yo-Yo Man a personal tour. They walked past covers of Reggie Jackson, Catfish Hunter and Mark McGwire. Then Cespedes stopped in his tracks, as he looked at another SI cover that featured the Roadrunner, Campy Campaneris. He smiled and shouted, “Cubano!” I had to chuckle, and think “Why not dream, Yo? Some day that will be you.”
And a few final observations as we prepare for today’s series opener in Toronto:
– First, there may be teams with much higher payrolls and much nicer home venues than the Oakland A’s. But I seriously doubt there is one team having as much fun as this club is having right now. The slapping of sticks in simulated hockey games—Sunday it was Inge, Gomes, Weeks and who knows who—continue to ring out in the upstairs tunnel above the clubhouse before home games. And on Saturday prior to BP, we were also treated by former Red Sox Josh Reddick doing an over-the-top, laugh-out-loud impression of Kevin Youkilis, complete with the waggling of his upright bat, followed by hands thrown heaven-ward after a make-believe home run.
– Second, you have to feel for our baseball braintrust headed by Billy Beane. When the Angels added Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson during an off-season signing spree, Billy remarked that those Angels’ acquisitions, coupled with the return of the two-time AL Champion Texas Rangers in the division, made his decisions to trade All-Stars Trevor Cahill, Gio Gonzalez and Andrew Bailey much easier to digest. But now, it is his own handiwork which may cause a few sleepless nights for the A’s GM. This club has jelled beyond anyone’s wildest dreams, with Bob Melvin and his staff nurturing the young upstarts while also freeing the seasoned veterans to provide the leadership that has led to the best record in the majors since June 2. Whether we’re buyers or sellers at the trading deadline remains to be seen, but there’s no questioning that the landscape has changed dramatically since the season started. The magic and team chemistry we’re witnessing on a nightly basis can only, in recent memory, be compared to the 2002 club that went on that wild, 20-win streak depicted in the recent move, Moneyball—an accomplishment being celebrated next month at the Coliseum on the 10-year anniversary of Scott Hatteberg’s home run that clinched the final win. It was truly a remarkable walk-off moment at the Coliseum. Now, 10 years later, we have already staged 11 walk-off victories in perhaps an even more improbable season.
– So, with all that has happened during the just-completed 5-1 homestand against arguably the best teams in baseball, it only stands to reason that we would start the road trip tonight at Rogers Centre with a colorful Aussie on the mound, Travis Blackley, a 29-year-old journeyman who was claimed off waivers May 15 from the Giants after pitching for Chihuahua of the Mexican League in 2010 and KIA of the South Korean League last year. Folks, welcome the 2012 Oakland A’s, where improbable is a way of life. Get used to it. We’re in for a wild ride the rest of the way.
WALK-OFF WINS, COLORFUL CHARACTERS, RISING YOUNG STARS, LIGHTS-OUT PITCHING HIGHLIGHT A’S FIRST HALF
Sometimes in sports, the improbable happens. There’s no plausible explanation how a team considered an also-ran simply ignores pre-season predictions and decides to join the party. Isn’t this what we love about sports?
While it’s still premature to draw conclusions, your barely-old-enough-to-shave A’s have climbed the hill to .500 and sit only 2 ½ games out of the second Wild Card spot at the All-Star Break. They lead the majors in walk-off victories (eight) and lead the American League in ERA (3.38). So, how did this happen? How did a team that lost three All-Star pitchers in the offseason, features a pitching rotation with only one returning starter from 2011, has employed a Major League-high 17 rookies and American League-low team payroll, managed to become relevant almost overnight? From the inside, here’s my take:
Team Chemistry—It’s difficult to quantify what I see in our clubhouse almost on a daily basis. Over in one corner, there’s The Pride of Petaluma, Jonny Gomes, wearing a canary-yellow boxing robe embroidered with a green No. 31 and “Gomes,” and telling rookies, “Hey, don’t be afraid to be a hero today!” A few lockers down, there’s Brandon Inge, a Detroit Red Wings fan wielding a hockey stick and trying to shoot a “puck” past the robed Gomes. In between, first-year Athletic Josh Reddick—he of the flowing locks and 20 home runs at the break—has his WWE championship belt on display. On the 4th of July, Gomes has Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” jacked up to glass-shattering decibels before that afternoon’s game against the Red Sox. Now, on the opposite side of the clubhouse are other characters that would most certainly rival Gomes, Inge and Reddick, although these guys are pitchers. There’s Mr. Rehab from the 209, Dallas Braden, who continues to be the Epicenter of Ecentricity. Nothing is off limits for the Vocal One. Recently, he decided to serve as Jerry Blevins’ campaign manager for the team’s election for a new union player rep. His hand-made slogans for Blevins were attached to virtually every surface in the clubhouse, although the verbiage written cannot be shared in this blog. Positioned next to Dallas in the clubhouse is the ageless Bartolo Colon, who while must quieter than Braden, might be his equal in terms of mischief. In all my years in professional sports, I have never seen someone as loose or fun-loving on game day as this former Cy Young Award winner. He constantly is playing games with me in the clubhouse. Before Sunday’s game, I’m strolling past Bob Melvin’s office toward the training room. Out of nowhere comes Colon—truly a bear of a man—and what does he do? He chest bumps me. That’s right, chest bumps me. On the day he is pitching. So much for pre-game rituals. And, of course, there’s the resident Aussies, Grant Balfour and Travis Blackley, two fun-loving veterans who act like they don’t have a care in the world. Then add the cool index and star quality of guys like Coco Crisp, Jemile Weeks and Yoenis Cespedes, and our 2012 club is truly one of the more colorful in all of baseball. Bottom line, what it really means is this is a loose club, one that is playing with fun and confidence. And all 25 guys are pulling the same direction, thanks to Melvin and his staff, and could care less about personal statistics. The only stat for them is wins. And considering they won 21 of their last 34 games while facing the likes of the Texas Rangers, San Francisco Giants, Los Angeles Dodgers and Boston Red Sox leading up to the break, the idea of a winning record and playoff contention is no longer so far fetched.
Young, Good & Getting Better—While a 43-43 record may not overwhelm some, it’s impressive when you consider the key players on this team are rookies or near rookies. What other club in baseball can boast such neophytes as position players Reddick (.268, 20 HR, 43 RBI, 8 SB), Cespedes (.263, 9 HR, 36 RBI), Weeks (.222, 5 triples, 12 SB), Brandon Moss (.253, 10 HR, 18 RBI in 26 games), Derek Norris (.244, 2 HR, 6 RBI in 11 games) and Chris Carter (.353, 3 HR, 5 RBI in six games), or pitchers such as All-Star Ryan Cook (2-2, 1.41 ERA, 8 saves, .105 opponents BA), Jarrod Parker (5-4, 2.86 ERA), Tommy Milone (8-6, 3.57 ERA), A.J. Griffin (0-0, 1.50 ERA), Sean Doolittle (1-0, 2.45 ERA, 24 SO, 3 BB in 14.2 innings) or Jordan Norberto (2-1, 3.03 ERA)? In fact, it’s not a stretch to say the A’s will have multiple Rookie of the Year candidates this season, starting with Cook, Cespedes, Parker and Millone. And because all of them are getting estimable playing time, this is now a much more experienced nucleus of young players who are becoming a tight, more seasoned unit as we approach the dog days.
Arms, Arms, Arms—Besides clubhouse humor, the one constant on the 2012 A’s has been pitching. Despite the relative youth of the staff—only starters Colon and Brandon McCarthy, and relievers Balfour and Blevins can be considered veterans—pitching coach Curt Young has worked wonders in establishing a group that leads the American League in both overall ERA (3.38) and starters ERA (3.67). Before we go further, just consider some of the pitching-rich teams in the AL, starting with the two pre-season favorites in our own division, the Rangers and Angels. As our roster is currently constituted (including McCarthy on the DL), no less than nine of our pitchers boast an ERA under 3.00—Evan Scribner 0.00, Cook 1.41, Griffin 1.50, Jim Miller 1.78, Doolittle 2.45, McCarthy 2.54, Blevins 2.57, Blackley 2.63 and Parker 2.86. All of that adds up to Oakland pitchers allowing two runs or less in 15 of the last 23 games, and A’s starting pitchers yielding two runs or fewer in 20 of the last 23 games. Any way you slice it, that’s phenomenal pitching. And as they say, it’s hard to get beat if you don’t give up any runs.
What the pundits will be saying about this unique group at season’s end is anyone’s guess. But if you’re looking for positive vital signs, it goes a lot further than Jonny Gomes’ embroidered name on his robe.
Brandon Moss has been looking for an opportunity like this his entire baseball life. Since being drafted in the eighth round by Boston in 2002, the A’s new first baseman has been trying to land a permanent job with a Major League team. But despite hitting 134 home runs and driving in 612 runs in 10 minor league seasons, when the 28-year-old Moss knocked on a big league team’s door, it seemed Fats Domino greeted him with an all-too-familiar refrain: “I hear you knocking, but you can’t come in”…
Oh sure, there was that one season—2009—when he played in 133 games with the Pittsburgh Pirates, hitting .236 with seven homers and 41 RBI. Then a month after the season, he and wife, Allison, welcomed their first child, son Jayden, into the world. At age 25, Brandon probably felt like everything was falling into place and he had, indeed, made it to The Show for good. Unfortunately, the Pirates had other ideas, returning him to Triple-A the following year, and he’s been struggling ever since in hopes of rekindling the promise he once had. In what appeared to be a under-the-radar transaction back in November, Moss was signed to a minor league contract by Oakland. He joined a jam-packed outfield during Spring Training, clearly a long-shot to make the club. But while he was assigned to Sacramento when camp broke, the big left-handed slugger left quite an impression in the desert. He led the A’s in batting (.500, 11-for-22) and lashed three doubles, a homer and seven RBI in seven Spring Training games. Anyone who watched his at-bats then had to think, “Hey, this guy can really hit.”
That was the last I saw of Brandon Moss until the middle of May, when I accompanied the River Cats on a road trip through Albuquerque and Round Rock—a trip necessitated by media interest surrounding Manny Ramirez joining the team. While most of my time was spent with Manny and the local journalists, it also gave me a chance to reacquaint myself with some of our minor league players. What I observed of Moss was a player with a sweet stroke to all fields, and someone who could drive the ball out of any Pacific Coast League ballpark. I also saw an extroverted personality who seemed to be the life of the clubhouse. Yet, among the levity, you had to wonder if the veteran outfielder was starting to wonder if his professional days were numbered. Sometimes, though, your opportunity arises not so much because of you—although he had launched 15 home runs in Sacramento’s early season—but more because of outside forces. As A’s fans are keenly aware, except for Daric Barton’s solid 2010 season (.273 BA, 100 walks, .393 OBP), the team has been searching for a bona fide run producer at first base since Nick Swisher manned the post in 2007. In the past year, the club has tried behemoth Chris Carter there, acquired Brandon Allen from Arizona (Brad Ziegler trade) and Kila Ka’aihue (free agent, Kansas City), and welcomed back a fully-healed Barton, with hopes one of them might finally seize the position for good. Unfortunately, none did, and Moss was asked to transition from outfield to first base at Sacramento. It was a position he had played briefly during his minor league career, but it was asking a lot for him to play flawless first base on the big league level when he was called up June 6.
But that’s exactly what he has done thus far with the A’s, digging throws out of the dirt, making good decision on grounders hit between him and Jemile Weeks, and overall, playing the position in a fashion that would belie his experience there. And even better, he has swung the bat like a corner infielder should. He’s hitting .308 with two doubles, five home runs and nine RBI in his first eight games with the team. In fact, he’s batting a more robust .438 with two doubles, four homers and eight RBI over his past five games. Maybe we shouldn’t be surprised by his early success. After so many bus rides, early hotel wake-up calls and minor league ballparks, it would seem that Brandon Moss simply said no mas. He had had enough. Maybe he knew full well that another opportunity may not come his way. So, this Sunday when the A’s host San Diego on Father’s Day, it will be Jayden Moss’s father who has every reason to be thankful. He’s in the big leagues in Oakland and he’s in the starting lineup. That’s all he ever asked for.
Being a player on the fast track to the big leagues is one thing. But being Sean Doolittle? Now that’s an entirely different story. You want to know how much territory this erstwhile first baseman has covered this year as the A’s new pitching phenom? Well, let’s start in Stockton, California. That’s where Doolittle was assigned after an eye-opening Spring Training. Once an elite first base prospect for Oakland until knee surgery in 2009 appeared to have ended his promising career, he decided to give it the old college try before hanging up his cleats for good. And when we say college try, that means Doolittle returned to the mound, where he once pitched at the University of Virginia. So, all he did with the Single-A Ports was post a subterranean 0.87 ERA in six games while—and get this—striking out 21 batters and walking just two in 10.1 innings. Clearly, this newly-transitioned hurler was already too good for Single-A. In rapid fashion, he was promoted to Double-A Midland on April 26.
In Midland, Doolittle just continued to pump strike after strike, hitting the speed gun at 94 and 95 MPH. After eight games with the Rockhounds, his pitching line was remarkably similar to his numbers in Stockton: 0.82 ERA, 19 strikeouts and four walks in 11.0 innings. Many in the organization had to be wondering, “Is this kid for real?” Well, it only gets better. On May 27—only a month since he made the step from Single-A to Double-A, Sean was promoted again. He appeared in two games with Triple-A Sacramento, allowing no runs, one hit and fanning eight while walking only one. Clearly, this guy was making an undeniable case for a higher league. And as we know, the only one higher was the one our A’s play in.
So, Monday, in strolled Sean Doolittle into Steve Vucinich’s clubhouse off 66th Avenue. And then in the fifth inning Tuesday night, he took another stroll, this time to the Coliseum pitching mound, where he proceeded to strikeout Nelson Cruz and go on to register 1.1 innings of scoreless relief. Yesterday, he was the A’s media darling, as writers and TV stations flocked to his locker or the field for one-on-one interviews. You would think his head would be spinning, considering how far he’s come in such a short time. But instead, he seems to be just soaking it in.
Traveling secretary Mickey Morabito asked him yesterday if he needed to drive to Sacramento to pick up any of his belongings. With no exaggeration, Doolittle responded, “I have no belongings in Sacramento. I wasn’t there long enough. My belongings are still in Midland.” And then he added, “And my car, it’s still in Stockton.”
How anxious was Manny Ramirez to play in his first meaningful game in more than a year? Well, this is how excited he was: the Dreadlocked One flew into Albuquerque a day early, just so he could get in a few early hacks before his 10-game minor league stint began. That was yesterday, when A’s Director of Player Development Keith Lieppman—of all people—snapped this rather telling photo of Manny entering Isotopes Park in his maroon Sacramento River Cats uniform. Of course, Lip proudly reminded me that he did major in photo journalism during his college days at the University of Kansas.
I suggested to our baseball brass that it might take a little pressure off Manny and the Albuquerque Isotopes’ PR director if I flew to New Mexico and organized a couple of pre-game media sessions with Ramirez in the dugout. I arrived this morning and the first media fest was staged this afternoon, comprised solely of local journalists, with the Associated Press the only national presence. One writer asked Manny why he decided to try a comeback now. After all, he had already accomplished more than most players in Major League history. Manny answered the question with a question. “Why not?” asked the man with 555 career home runs and 1,831 RBI. Essentially, his reason was simple. This is what he does, and has done for almost his entire life, dating back to his days growing up in the Washington Heights section of Manhattan, where he was named New York City Public School Player of the Year as a senior at George Washington High School. And like all the great ones—Ted Williams, Stan Musial, Rod Carew, Tony Gwynn—Manny loves nothing in life more than swinging a bat. Former teammate Scott Hatteberg tells the story of when they were Red Sox teammates at spring training one year. “Manny drives into the parking lot in his sports car, opens the door and climbs out already wearing his batting gloves. That’s how much he loves hitting.”
Tonight, he’ll finally find himself penciled into a lineup. He’s batting third for the River Cats, followed by the twin towers, Chris Carter and Michael Taylor. But preceding the game here in Albuquerque, the Isotopes are staging a celebrity softball game between a team of actors that includes Bryan Cranston of “Breaking Bad” and Lou Diamond Phillips of “La Bamba” and “Young Guns” fame, and the Wounded Warriors, a group of veterans who have lost limbs in service to their country (and have recently been featured in a segment of “Bryant Gumbel’s Real Sports” on HBO). I understand that many of the veterans sat in the stands at last night’s game, and they had a visitor. Manny Ramirez, who by Major League rules was required to leave the field at the end of batting practice, stayed around and came up to visit with the U.S. military men. He shared his new-found faith, the tough lessons he has learned, and how he’s thankful to be given a second chance—in baseball and in life. Going full circle, from Phoenix, to Albuquerque, to Round Round, to Sacramento, and hopefully on his 40th birthday (May 30), to Minneapolis, where he hopes to make solid contact for the Oakland A’s in a big league game. How sweet the sound.
Much of the talk about the 2012 A’s centers around the rookies and rightfully so. After all, Oakland has already played 12 rookies during a season that is only six weeks old—by the far the most rookies of any team in baseball. Seattle is next with seven rookies. And the A’s young talent has been as good as advertised thus far, with the likes of outfielder Yoenis Cespedes and pitchers Tommy Milone, Ryan Cook, Jarrod Parker and Jordan Norberto all bona fide early Rookie of the Year candidates.
Yet, the story of this team’s just-completed 5-4 road trip—a trip that ran through two of baseball’s hottest teams (Tampa Bay and Baltimore) and one of the toughest road venues in the majors (Fenway Park)—is not the rookies. It’s veterans who have stepped up to produce pivotal performances on the field, and critical leadership off of it. No one more personified that role than Petaluma’s Jonny Gomes, who signed with the A’s as a free agent in the offseason. In many ways, you might be better off dropping the “Gomes” and just call him “Jonny Gamer.” Whether it’s hitting a clutch home run, crashing into an outfield wall to make a catch or, yes, even stealing a base, Jonny Gamer comes to play. In fact, he did all three during the Rays’ series, going 5 for 9 with three RBI during the three-game set. He entered Saturday’s contest as a pinch-hitter in the seventh inning and ultimately became the star of the game. With the score tied 3-3 in the bottom of the 10th, it was Gomes who hauled in a Carlos Pena opposite-field fly that seemed headed for extra bases. It wasn’t so much that Jonny caught the ball as much as he tackled it. Arms and legs sprawled everywhere. When the smoke cleared, he had robbed Pena of a certain double that would have placed the A’s in serious jeopardy of a second straight loss. Instead, Jonny left a dent in the left field fence and a dagger in the heart of his former team’s fans. Then the Pride of Petaluma stole the game’s headlines when he mashed a solo home run in the top of the 12th that decided the verdict of a 4-3 road win. Back in the lineup as the starting left fielder yesterday, Jonny Gamer came up big again with a single, double, two RBI and a stolen base in a 9-5, come-from-behind victory that clinched the series.
Brandon Inge, another veteran who was only added to the roster seven days ago in Boston, has stabilized Oakland’s third base situation with his steady glove and positive clubhouse presence. And yesterday afternoon, he also delivered one of the biggest home runs of the young season, pouncing on a Matt Moore 3-1 pitch in the third inning for a three-run blast that erased a 4-2 deficit. He added a seventh-inning sac-fly and the A’s never looked back.
On the mound, two veteran All-Stars also emerged to help show the way. Brian Fuentes, the prototypical professional no matter what role manager Bob Melvin places him in, came into Wednesday night’s tumultuous game at Fenway and slammed the lid on a 4-2 victory that also netted “Tito” his 200th career save—only the sixth left-hander to achieve that plateau in Major League history. Returning the closer’s role to Grant Balfour for the Tampa Bay series, Fuentes went on to contribute three scoreless innings of relief over the weekend. His compatriot, Bartolo Colón, appeared headed toward a series-clinching win in Baltimore last Sunday, only to see his brilliant 8.1 innings of work disintegrate when Balfour failed to close the door on an apparent 2-0 A’s win. However, Colón demonstrated to the club’s rookies what a leader truly is five days later. Nursing an upset stomach that struck prior to the first pitch, Bartolo battled his way through five arduous innings and three solo home runs Saturday, giving Oakland the chance to win the game in extra innings.
And beyond the A’s “graybeards” like Gomes, Inge, Fuentes and Colón, Melvin also received key contributions from some of his younger veterans. Kurt Suzuki, despite being nailed on the hand by a Daniel Bard pitch in Boston Wednesday that later would require x-rays, refused to abandon his pitchers, working the remainder of that victory, as well as the 12-inning marathon in St. Pete Saturday. Against his wishes, Melvin rested Zuk and his resurgent bat—he’s hitting .314 over his last 10 games—yesterday. Ace starter Brandon McCarthy also answered the bell during the nine-game, 10-day junket, twirling a pair of victorious gems in Baltimore (7.0 ip, 5 h, 2 r) and Boston (6.2 ip, 5 h, 1 r). So did reliever Jerry Blevins, who lowered his ERA to 1.42 by reeling off 4.2 scoreless innings on the trip. And let’s not forget the contributions made by Josh Reddick, who’s batting .310 with five multiple-hit games, three home runs and eight RBI in his past 10 contests.
There will be plenty of time for the A’s talented crop of rookies to make their mark. But I’m sure it’s comforting for Melvin and his staff to know that the team’s veterans have stood up and are being counted on as the Athletics have jumped out to a rather surprising 15-14 record and second-place showing in the AL West as we head to Oakland for seven games of home cooking.
Saturday’s statue unveiling at Camden Yards before the A’s-Orioles game that honored Hall of Famer Frank Robinson got me thinking. Is there any place in America that produced more barrier-breaking or game-changing athletes than Oakland, California? You think I’m kidding? Okay, let’s start with Robinson, Rickey Henderson, Bill Russell (the Celtic, not the Dodger) and Curt Flood. And this does not count Joe Morgan, Dave Stewart and Vada Pinson. Or the late, great Willie Stargell or current All-Star shortstop Jimmy Rollins, from nearby Alameda.
Consider the difference the aforementioned foursome made on the sport they played:
- Frank Robinson — He may be one of the most underappreciated ubër stars in sports history. Playing with a burning desire to win every game he played, he often willed his teams to win. In only six seasons in Baltimore, he led the Orioles to four World Series. The former McClymonds High School legend retired with 586 career home runs to rank No. 4 on baseball’s all-time list. And he hit every one of them well before the Steroid Era began. In my mind, Robby still belongs among the elite home run hitters, well above his current No. 9 ranking. He was also a 14-time All-Star and the only player in Major League history to win a MVP award in both the National (Cincinnati, 1961) and American (Baltimore, 1966) Leagues. Yet, with all those accomplishments, they pale in comparison to what he did after his playing days. In 1975, he was hired as player-manager of the Cleveland Indians. As the first African American to manage a Major League team, he was the natural extension of another Robinson—Jackie—in knocking down barriers that some day would give other deserving people of color opportunities that were non-existent before their pioneering efforts. So if you want to talk about historic figures in sports history, you might want to mention Frank Robinson in your first breath.
- Rickey Henderson — We all know Rickey’s story, so I won’t belabor the point. Born in Chicago but raised in Oakland, he simply redefined the position of leadoff hitter and destroyed any preconceived limits on the act of stealing a base. He was one of a kind, and proudly, he was inducted into Cooperstown as an Oakland Athletic.
- Bill Russell — I know this is supposed to be a baseball blog—an A’s blog, specifically—but to make my point, you have to include the former USF and Boston Celtic center. I mean, if you were to go to the dictionary and look up the word “winner,” there’s a pretty good chance his photo would appear next to the definition—two NCAA championships on the Hilltop in San Francisco, followed by 11 NBA titles in 13 years as the cornerstone and leader of Red Auerbach’s Celtics. But beyond the championships, Russell was also a game-changer. He would do it first as a player, where his blocked shots and defense revolutionized the pro game, with his blocks essentially “steals.” Unlike today’s players who derive great pleasure swatting shots into the stands for ESPN SportsCenter replays, Russell would tip the opponent’s shots to himself and then start a devastating Celtic fast break. And like Frank Robinson, Russell was named Boston’s player-coach, nine years earlier in 1966. Again, Russell was the first African American head coach in NBA history, and not only the first, but a coach who led his team to two championships. Amazingly, another McClymonds High alumnus.
- Curt Flood — A seven-time Gold Glove outfielder, three-time All-Star and member of the St. Louis Cardinals’ 1964 and 1967 World Series championship teams, Flood changed the entire paradigm for the way baseball would operate as a business. He courageously challenged baseball’s reserve clause—a clause that had prohibited players from becoming free agents. He won the case, although he did with much personal sacrifice, and today every player in the majors should thank the late, great Curt Flood for opening the door to the New World of free agency that has benefitted every player who followed.
And while these four faces should be chiseled into the Oakland hills for eternity, we should also appreciate a long line of other baseball greats that started their journey a stone’s throw from the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum. There’s Joe Morgan, a 10-time All-Star, five-time Gold Glove infielder, two-time National League MVP and member of Cincinnati’s 1975 and 1976 World Series champions. There’s our Dave Stewart, who was a 20-game winner four straight years with the A’s (1987-90), author of one no-hitter, winner of the 1989 World Series MVP award, and a member of three world championship teams (1981 Dodgers, 1989 A’s and 1993 Blue Jays). There’s Willie Stargell, a seven-time All-Star, both the National League and World Series MVP in 1979. And another McClymonds High alumnus, Vada Pinson, was a four-time All-Star and one-time Gold Glove winner who played on the 1961 Cincinnati Reds that won the National League pennant. And finally, there’s Jimmy Rollins, born in Oakland and raised in Alameda, who continues to build a resume that includes a 2007 NL MVP award, three All-Star and Gold Glove selections, and a World Series Championship ring with the Phillies.
In all, this group includes five Hall of Famers—Robinson, Henderson, Morgan and Stargell, and Russell in basketball—and a case to be made for a sixth in Flood, who impacted Major League Baseball as much as anyone, when you consider the path the sport took after he won his legal challenge. So, boys and girls, a quick history lesson about some local kids who made good. And then some.
EDITOR’S NOTE: My thanks to reader Ruth Lafler, who made two great points about my blog. First, it’s VADA Pinson, not Vida. I must have had the Blue Blazer on my mind. And second, I left out another sports pioneer who grew up in Oakland: Olympic track star Jim Hines. Born in Dumas, Arkansas and raised in Oaktown, Hines, of course, joined John Carlos at the 1968 Mexico Olympics to make one of American history’s most profound statements for Civil Rights when they took the medal stand with gloved fists pointing skyward. It was a seminal moment in the Free Speech and Civil Rights movements.
When you make your living in baseball, sometimes you get so occupied with the daily grind that you seem to forget why you first got into this business. But just as you run the risk of becoming jaded, it all comes back into focus in a New York second when you encounter human scenes that serve as reminders of how lucky you are to work in this industry. Like a parent looking through the eyes of one of their young children, you begin to appreciate the simplest things in the game when you’re around fans who truly love America’s National Pastime. And they come in all shapes and sizes, young and old.
Last Sunday, the A’s hosted several thousand youngsters on our annual Little League Day. Veteran reliever Jerry Blevins and Bullpen Coach Rick Rodriguez held a brief clinic and Q&A session before the game. As I looked into the stands during the presentation, I could see the faces of wide-eyed kids, all with priceless looks of amazement and wonder. Sitting in a big league park, listening to men in big league uniforms talk about when they were Little Leaguers, all the while knowing that hot dogs and Jemile Weeks were still to come on a glorious sunny day in Oakland was almost too much for some to comprehend. For some 10-year-old from Castro Valley or Livermore, the memory of this day might last a lifetime.
Then there’s Johnny Doskow, a baseball lifer who has admirably filled in for the irreplaceable Ken Korach while the Voice of the A’s continues to heal from March knee surgery. Right now, Johnny is the proverbial kid in a candy store. One of the best announcers in minor league baseball, the Sacramento River Cats’ play-by-play man has dreamed about being in the big leagues for all of his adult life. And it shows. While he knows Korach will return sometime early next month, the affable Doskow is savoring every moment of his Oakland A’s adventure. Big league clubhouses and broadcast booths…first class travel and hotels…Major League per diem…clubhouse post-game spreads that will not be mistaken for the Cedar Rapids Kernals…and the world’s greatest players performing in three-deck stadiums. Every time I see Johnny’s face, it’s like he’s saying, “It doesn’t get any better than this.”
Another reminder about the special relationship some people have with this game presented itself earlier this week, when I accompanied Manager Bob Melvin to the first 2012 meeting of the A’s Booster Club, a seasoned but enthusiastic group of about 200 loyal fans who gather at Francesco’s restaurant on Hegenberger near Oakland Airport regularly during the season. All decked out in green and gold, some date back to the year the club was established in 1968—the year Charlie Finley moved the A’s west from Kansas City. With many colorful characters, the spirited debates began even before the program did—“Why isn’t Jonny Gomes playing more?…”I think Yoenis Cespedes could be the next Reggie Jackson!”….”Why don’t the A’s play more day games?”—and then Melvin walked to the podium with thunderous applause. One old-timer yelled from the back, “We’re so glad you’re our new manager!” Not that all the questions directed toward the A’s manager were soft balls. Let’s face it, fans miss Gio. Heck, I miss Gio. But Melvin always humanizes the situation. He told them it took someone as talented as Gio to fetch four high-ceiling prospects as promising as Tommy Milone, Brad Peacock, Derek Norris and A.J. Cole. Also, unsolicited, the A’s skipper added this: “We’re going to get through this. Don’t worry, there are some great days ahead with this organization. And I want you to know how much we appreciate how loyal and supportive you have been. Keep coming out to the Coliseum. Our players see you out there.” Especially those red-hots (green-hots?) in the right field bleachers. You know, the combustible ones that, at the drop of a hat, burst out into ear-piercing shouts while waving their arms and various objects in a rather insane manner. I’m not sure if they’re simply the remnants of Matsuiland left over from last season, but whoever they are, we love ‘em. Talk about great fans. They’re off the charts. And they had plenty to yell about in the bottom of the 14th inning of Wednesday’s homestand finale against the White Sox. We’re just lucky we have railings out there because when Yoenis Cespedes uncorked his game-tying home run, and moments later, Kila (The Killer) Ka’aihue delivered the game-winning single, we might have seen a few of our valued faithful go overboard.
We need every one of you. We may not have the most fans attending our games this season, but I can’t imagine better ones. Take pride in that fact. I know we do.
The numbers are not pretty. Josh Donaldson, .120….Coco Crisp, .146….Daric Barton, .190….Kurt Suzuki, .194….Jemile Weeks, .196…only two A’s hitters on the roster batting .250 or higher (Kila Ka’aihue and Seth Smith)…and a lineup that has been shut out three times in the season’s first 11 games. Go ahead, A’s fans, let out a collective scream! But don’t jump ship quite yet.
As we all know, baseball is a streaky game. Every team in the majors experiences a two-week period like A’s hitters are having. Of course, normally that sample size happens in June or August, not the opening 11 games of the season. I think all of us—fans, media and yes, even front office types like me—tend to be a little too over analytical in the early season. Same thing when one of your star players goes 1-for-11 to open the post-season. “He looks terrible! They better bench him!” That said, I think the old sports axiom is still true: You’re never as bad as when you’re playing your worst, and you’re never as good when you’re playing your best. Most likely, you’re somewhere in between.
So where do A’s hitters go from here? Well, quite literally, they go from Jered Weaver last night, to Dan Haren this evening, to Ervin Santana and C.J. Wilson to complete the Angels series in Anaheim. That’s not exactly the tonic to break a slump. But the beauty of baseball is nothing is certain. It’s why you play the games. And at some point, whether it be this week on the road, or during our next homestand against the Indians and White Sox (April 20-25), the cream will rise to the top. Coco Crisp is a .275 lifetime hitter in 10 big league seasons. Jemile Weeks batted .303 last year. Kurt Suzuki has hit above .270 in two of his four full seasons in the majors. Josh Reddick batted .280 for the Red Sox last year, and has already hit enough line-drive outs to last a season. Seth Smith is a .275 lifetime hitter who has pounded out batting averages of .284 or higher in three of his last five years in Colorado. And Cuban rookie Yoenis Céspedes, while still learning pitchers and his foreign surroundings, has shown flashes of the power and athleticism that made him so attractive on the free agent market this year. Something here tells me better days are ahead for this group.
Meanwhile, our overall pitching to date has been somewhat of a pleasant surprise. The staff ERA of 3.25 ranks third best in the American League—this, despite the loss of three All-Star pitchers in offseason trades. Veteran starters Brandon McCarthy (0-2, 3.60 ERA) and Bartolo Colón (2-1. 3.72 ERA) have been solid in the rotation, while Tommy Milone (1-1, 2.57 ERA) has been an early-season revelation. In the bullpen, new closer Grant Balfour (0.00 ERA, 2-for-2 in saves) and setup men Ryan Cook (0.00 ERA) and Brian Fuentes (2.45 ERA) have been stingy in their brief appearances.
As we entered this season, I think everyone knew that a heavy dose of patience would be required to allow our young-but-talented players to develop. I would hope all A’s fans would tap into that patience during this offensive drought. Eleven games does not make a season. One breakout game at the plate will do wonders for this group. Let’s hope that game is tonight.
When we arrived at Tokyo’s outlet of Oshman’s Sporting Goods store this morning, the line of green-and-gold adorned A’s fans was almost out the door. One by one, Bartolo Colon, Brandon McCarthy and Kurt Suzuki—batterymates for the team’s first two games of the season against the Mariners later this week—strolled past security guards and a roped off area to the back of the store, where they were seated at a table behind a huge photo backdrop that trumpeted the upcoming Opening Series Japan 2012. As they approached their destination, rock music blared from large speakers nearby. And I guess that was a special touch clearly appropriate for the occasion, for these three Athletics were truly being received like “rock stars.” As excited as everyone seemed, I was expecting a spontaneous chant of “Let’s Go Oakland” to break out more than 5,000 miles away from the Coliseum.
As you might expect in a country where precision and politeness seems to be a born trait, the autograph signing sponsored by MLB and Majestic ran quite smoothly. McCarthy and Suzuki addressed the adoring crowd with opening pleasantries, and then they joined Colon in getting down to business. They signed miniature posters that were provided, as well as A’s merchandise presented by the fans. And after every time they spoke, the crowd erupted into applause. The look on our guys’ faces suggested they were all thinking the same thing: “Hey, I could get used to this!” Meanwhile, their every move was captured on video by MLB Productions and by our very own Senior Manager of Digital Marketing, Travis LoDolce, who shot photo stills for his daily A’s blog during the trip. Of course, both were receiving stiff competition from Brandon McCarthy’s wife, Amanda, who jockeyed for position to shoot her own video of Brandon while he was interacting with everyone. Bartolo’s wife, Rosanna, also accompanied the McCarthys in the van from the hotel, while Kurt’s wife, Renee, arrived separately at the store with family members to witness the remarkable scene. Zuk told me about his sister living one year here in Tokyo, and how he would coax her to always buy the latest athletic shoes and ship them home. Now, he can do that in person.
As is always the case when I travel to another country, you reach the same conclusion before long. No matter our culture or language differences, it becomes so clear that people around the world share many more similarities than differences. There were fathers and sons there today, two generations of baseball fans who not only relate through their love of the sport, but also share the connection between Japanese and Major League Baseball. Through the massive coverage by Japanese network television and newspapers of the A’s last year—thanks primarily to the addition of the great Hideki Matsui, along with the launch of the movie Moneyball—the common baseball fan here is quite familiar with our players and team. Just like many of us, they know everything about their favorite players—nicknames, mannerisms, jersey number—whether it be Jemile, Coco, Dallas or Zuk. As we drove back to the New Otani Hotel afterwards, basking in a brilliant day of sunshine in this great metropolis, I think everyone in our party was grateful for this unique experience. That experience will continue tonight, as we kick off our playing schedule with a much-awaited exhibition game against the legendary Yomiuri Giants, long regarded as the “New York Yankees of Japan.” This evening, we will be both visitors on the diamond and visitors in this proud country. As Japan continues to recover from the disaster of last year, for one night, there will be no boundaries or worries for the thousands of people who will attend this international matchup at the Tokyo dome—only avid fans of the sport of baseball. Play ball!