Dog Days in February?
False Travis Buck sightings? Real Michael
Lewis sightings? Michael Taylor
launching one into orbit? It’s in all in
a day’s work here at A’s Central in the desert.
This morning started with the traditional team meeting in the clubhouse,
which is held each spring before the first full squad workout. Bob Geren addressed his troops, including a nice acknowledgement
Bailey winning last year’s American
League Rookie of the Year award. Beyond
a sign of respect to Bailey, the A’s manager probably wanted to make a very
salient point to all of his young players in camp. His message was loud and clear: everyone here has an opportunity to compete
and it’s up to you to take full advantage of it. In Andrew’s case last year, he clearly did.
One scene today that was unexpected if not downright
bizarre,was seeing a half dozen dogs roaming the hallowed turf of Phoenix Muni
this afternoon after workouts. Team
photographer Michael Zagaris–aka, “The Z
Man”–was on hand for the annual photo shoot with A’s players for the AvoDerm
Natural Pet Calendar, which is a promotional giveaway at the Coliseum April
18. If you were here today, you would
have seen some rather unique pairings featuring Brett Anderson, Dallas Braden, Craig
Breslow, Landon Powell and newcomer Kevin Kouzmanoff with such canine hopefuls as a Bulldog, Frenchie,
Chocolate and Yellow Labs, and a Bracco Italiano. While it’s good to see him again in a green
and gold uniform, I’m fairly certain Lenny DiNardo
will not be featured in this year’s calendar.
This, I hear, really disappointed the Bracco Italiano.
Perhaps the best clubhouse line of the day came from
catching prospect Josh Donaldson, he of the flowing
mane under his cap. After today’s
workout at Papago, he said in mock disgust, “Man, this is getting
tiresome. I had four different fans come
up to me, thinking I was Travis Buck and wanting my autograph.” It’s no wonder he was mistaken for Travis,
considering he actually looks more like
Buck than Buck does–or at least Buck,
circa 2009, before he shaved his head. The
good news for those Travis Buck followers–and you know who you are–it should be
noted that he did report to camp with his hair grown out, although not yet to
the length that makes him Travis Buck
(as so aptly featured on his 2008 bobblehead).
When I left the clubhouse and returned to my office
this afternoon, I got off the elevator and almost got blindsided (appropriately) by a man who looked very familiar. It was none other than best-selling author Michael Lewis, someone I have long admired who wrote such wildly
successful books as “The Blind Side” and “Moneyball.” He was here to visit good friend, Billy Beane, the subject of “Moneyball” who reportedly
will be portrayed by Brad Pitt in the movie version
which starts shooting later this year.
Clearly a superstar in the literary world, I was struck how friendly and
approachable Michael was. Both Berkeley residents, we
chatted for a few minutes before he headed up to Billy’s office. He mentioned that he’s about to publish
another book about Wall Street, and that he’s also working on a sequel to
Moneyball focusing on the journey of pitchers through the minor leagues.
One final scene from today that I won’t soon forget
was standing at the cage of Field 4 at Papago during live batting
practice. Left-handed reliever Brad Kilby was pitching to outfielder Michael Taylor in the
first pitcher-hitter confrontation of the spring. Kilby’s fastball was clearly getting the best
of Taylor early
on, which is quite common when hitters first step in against live
pitching. There’s always a lot of taking
of pitches–Jack Cust today didn’t swing the
bat once against a very impressive Vin Mazarro
in an earlier session–but before I could even bat an eyelash, whoosh.
Taylor threw his bat head forward and connected on an inside heater
that started as a low line drive and just soared, clearing the left field fence
and then soaring some more. While Geren
was not there to witness it, word travelled fast. By the time he visited Field 4, he had
already learned of Taylor’s
christening blow. Good thing the A’s
skipper was wearing his usual sun glasses.
It was the only way for him to cut down the glare of a future so bright.
The sun finally arrived at Phoenix Muni today and not
a moment too soon. It’s amazing how it
changed the whole atmosphere at camp.
More smiles everywhere. Except
for our young lefty Gio Gonzalez. When you are of Cuban heritage and grew up in
60-degree weather–sun or no sun–is still
cold. “Bobby, I can’t take this. It’s freezing out there.” I just told Gio to chill out, so to speak,
but actually this crisp weather might be good for him. Mike Selleck,
our baseball information specialist extraordinaire, came up with this dandy on
Gonzalez: last year when the game time
temperature was 72 degrees or hotter, Gio was 5-2 with a 2.84 ERA in seven
starts; however, when the mercury dipped under 72 at game time, he was 1-5 with
a 7.88 ERA in 10 starts
I’m not sure if it’s because of the competition at
several positions this spring or that this group just likes to hang together,
but it was remarkable to see so many position players working out before their
report date this morning. Leaning on the
dugout rail, I couldn’t help but notice a few of them. The ball seems to jump off Chris Carter’s bat, and like the A’s other jumbo-sized prospect Michael Taylor, he clearly uses all fields. Also, I couldn’t help but wonder what Daric
Barton’s mindset is this spring, as I watched him field ground balls at first
base. He was trading off there with
Carter, newly-acquired Jake Fox and
six-time Gold Glover Eric Chavez, who’s hoping to play several positions this
year. Barton, who still is looking to
have a breakout season at the plate, has made himself into an outstanding
defensive first baseman. But when a Gold
Glover like Chavez suddenly is on your turf, and a couple of sluggers like
Carter and Fox have also joined the party, one had to wonder what’s occupying
Daric’s mind. They say competition
brings out the best in an athlete, and something tells me Daric is about to take
it to a different level this year.
One of the real pleasures of Spring Training
is the plethora of fine dining establishments here in the Valley of the
Sun. You could eat at a different place
every night and wouldn’t run out of choices.
While I realize most Spring Training fans flock to fashionable
Scottsdale, some of my personal favorites are located right here in
Phoenix. There’s Lon’s at the Hermosa
for mesquite-grilled cuisine in a Santa Fe-like setting, sensational Italian
fare at La Fontenella, down-home BBQ at Honey Bear’s near Phoenix Muni,
martinis and big-league steaks at venerable Durant’s on Central Avenue, and the
Barrio Café for gourmet Mexican food in an authentic family atmosphere. However, the one Scottsdale-based restaurant
that is truly a Spring Training classic is Don & Charlie’s, a steak and
chop house on Camelback (near Scottsdale
Don Carson, a Chicago
transplant, is a dear friend. When I
first started coming to Arizona
for Spring Training in 1993, I was introduced to Don and just marveled how he
took every single player, coach, manager and front office executive under his
wing. Rarely did they even pay for their
dinners there. Over recent years, it’s become such a mad house that it conjures
up the old Yogi Berra line about “it’s so
crowded, nobody ever goes there anymore” line.
Of course, for baseball fans, that’s kind of the charm of it. You never know who you might see there. Last year I brought my family there, and
there’s Hall-of-Famer Fergie Jenkins. And if you’re an A’s fan with any street
cred, you would have hated to see another guy who was at the bar: Will Clark. One baseball legend who was not there that
night–and someone I wish I knew beyond a few handshakes over the years–was Mr.
Baseball himself, Bob Uecker. A close friend of Carson’s, I can’t help but share this one
last story with you that Don told me about Uecker.
When broadcaster Harry Caray died on Feb. 18, 1998, a memorial service was held
in Palm Springs,
where Harry lived in the offseason. Both
Carson and Uecker were, of course, good friends of the Cubs’ announcer, so they
decided to drive from Arizona to Palm Springs for the
service. Don couldn’t judge how long it
would take to drive there, so they ended up arriving rather early to the
church. They entered and sat down in one
of the back rows. At the front of the
church, there was a coffin. Don,
somewhat puzzled, under his breath, asked Uecker, “Hey Ueck, isn’t that coffin
kind of small? I mean, Harry was a pretty
big man.” Without the slightest
hesitation, Mr. Baseball, replied, “Oh no, that’s not for Harry. That’s just for his glasses.”
Saturday was report day for A’s
pitchers and catchers, which of course, signals the official start of another
baseball season. While unsuspected rain
showers hit outside, trainer Steve Sayles and team doctors ran players through
tests inside our Papago
Park training complex.
For returning players, it was merely routine.
But for our new acquisitions like ace pitcher Ben Sheets and outfield
prospect Michael Taylor, today was more than a battery of medical exams. It was a time to become acquainted with their
new teammates, coaches, training staff and clubbies.
Throughout the morning, I observed Sheets in
many get-to-know-you sessions. He and Bob
Alejo, our veteran strength and conditioning director, were spotted near the
weight machines, engaged in animated conversation about workout programs and
philosophies. Then an hour later, as Ben
iced his arm, he sat on a trainer’s table next to Justin Duchscherer, the other
half of the A’s new one-two punch at the top of the rotation. Beyond being the most decorated pitchers on
the staff, they clearly had other things in common. Even at their relatively young ages, they are
both elder statesmen on this team. And
one hails from Texas (Duchscherer) and the
other from Louisiana. If they have any musical talents, I thought,
maybe they can form a Cajun and Texas Blues band called the “Thirty
Somethings.” Oh well, at least it was
nice to see them forming an early bond.
Then in another area of the weight room, the ever-popular veteran second
baseman Mark Ellis made a surprise appearance with his son Briggs, and was
making his own self-depreciating jokes to anyone within earshot. “We’re the youngest and oldest A’s here
today!” Briggs didn’t seem to quite understand the humor, but when you’re
playing with two way cool miniature
cars on the clubhouse carpet, the world is pretty simple.
Of course, the media corps also descended on Papago Park
this morning. While Sheets and Taylor drew interest as
the new guys on the block, I think it’s safe to say that the effervescent
Dallas Braden stole the show. Holding
court with the writers and TV reporters for a good 20 minutes, Braden covered
the gamut with his usual colorful anecdotes.
One minute, he was sharing his experiences vacationing in Amsterdam this offseason, discussing the finer points of
spending hours in a Van Gogh
Museum (“including a whole floor of self portraits…man this
guy had an ego!”) to bemoaning the
fact that he can no longer get the quintessential ham-and-cheese croissant that
he devoured daily at a quaint Amsterdam cafÃ©.
The next minute, he’s excitedly talking about how he’s virtually adopted
the University of Pacific baseball team, located in his hometown of Stockton. He has been their unofficial BP pitcher during
the winter, and he’s befriended some of the UOP pitchers to the point that he’s
asked them to come hang out at his pad on occasion. Dallas admits that he’s becoming a Pacific
baseball junkie (“I am incessantly texting back and forth about how they’re
doing in games.”) When it comes to
turning a phrase, Mr. 209 Area Code is a born natural. If ever a PR director needed someone to
provide rainy day stories, it is Dallas Braden. And after 20 minutes of humor and precious
quotes, he left the building in a flash.
I couldn’t help myself in telling the media, “Ladies and gentlemen, that
was Dallas Braden. He will appear daily
at Phoenix Muni for your entertainment pleasure this spring. Get there early.”
Sometimes in the offseason,
you almost feel out of sync. The natural
rhythm of having a baseball game every day ends abruptly. As the team’s PR man, your phone calls and
media requests diminish considerably. It’s
kind of like that old “Maytag Repairman” TV commercial. Veteran actor Jesse White, sitting in his
office and wearing that natty khaki jacket, bemoans the fact that Maytag
washers never break down. He was the
loneliest guy around. Well, sometimes I feel the same way during the offseason.
However, this past week was not one of those times. The Bay Area media came out in full force
last week when we hosted an informal media event at the Coliseum featuring Bob Geren, our coaching staff and six of our players. Eric Chavez and Coco Crisp attracted the most
attention from the local TV stations and sportswriters, Chavy because they were
interested in his physical status heading into Spring Training, and Coco because this was his first Bay Area appearance since
his offseason signing with the A’s.
While my relationship with
Chavy only dates back to a year ago, I do sense that he enters this season with
great peace of mind. Through surgery and
rehab, he’s done everything he can do to be ready for this season. While he knows nothing’s guaranteed when
you’ve had five surgeries in the last two years, Eric seemed genuinely
optimistic about this season. What surprised me a little was just how happy and
light-hearted he seemed. Considering all
he’s been through, maybe he finally feels like he’s seeing some light at the
end of the tunnel. Meanwhile, Coco flashed some of that star quality he’s been known
for. He entertained media for more than
an hour with colorful stories of his childhood, then he dazzled over-the-air
audiences with a special appearance on KPIX-TV’s Sunday Sports Final with
Dennis O’Donnell–I received a glowing report from producer Brian Stites, who
said Crisp absolutely has a future career in broadcasting if he’s
interested–and a guest call-in appearance on KNBR Radio the following morning
in which he talked about his long-time involvement in Major League Baseball’s
RBI Program for inner-city youth. It’s a
subject Coco knows a little about, having grown up in Inglewood, Calif.
in South Central LA.
Also last week, our media
and player relations manager Kristy Fick
and I took Ryan Sweeney, Landon Powell and Gio Gonzalez to the Cal campus, where
Comcast SportsNet Bay Area was on location for their “Chronicle Live”
show. The studio set was literally on
the hardwood floor of Haas Pavilion, where the California Golden Bears’
basketball team would be playing Oregon
later that evening. It was interesting
to watch our guys in a totally foreign setting. Gio, being the clown–in a good kind of way,
of course–that he is, couldn’t resist going on the court to shoot a few
hoops. While Landon looked on with great
disinterest, Gio displayed a rather
unique left-handed style that probably would not be mistaken for Kobe or LeBron. Of course, it’s tough to throw his patented
deuce with a basketball. Later that
evening, the boys stayed for the Pac-10 matchup. Cal
pretty much claimed victory by halftime with a late half spurt, but I don’t
think Powell was very impressed having grown up in ACC country in
While the successful media
event came and went, the very next morning I get a call from Billy Beane.
He informs me that our red-hot outfield prospect Grant Desme has decided
to retire from baseball to enter the priesthood. First, I check my calendar to make sure it’s
not April 1. Then I digest what Billy
said, and my instincts tell me this is not
going to be a slow news day at A’s Central.
I call Grant to wish him well and tell him how much I admire his
commitment. I also tell him to get ready
because a national media avalanche is about to hit. He agrees to go on a media conference call
later that afternoon, one that not only includes several Bay Area writers, but
also media throughout the nation including the New York Times, Chicago Sun-Times, Orange County Register among
others. Within the first 72 hours of his
announcement, we hear from CBS National News, The Dan Patrick Show, ESPN.com, the Los Angeles Times, HDNet TV, MTV (yes, MTV), several Sirius/XM Satellite Radio
shows, ESPN’s E60, many Catholic organizations, and my personal favorite, a
film documentary company from….The
Netherlands! Josh Ishoo, our former
student intern who recently was hired by San
Diego, offered a very funny line when he heard the
news. “Too bad he wasn’t involved in the
Kouzmanoff trade. Then we could have
headlines that read, ‘Desme Rejects Padres to become a Padre!” While we
know Grant’s decision was a very serious matter, a little levity is always
But this new-found A’s media
frenzy did not end with the Desme revelation.
A couple days later, it was time for four-time All-Star pitcher Ben
Sheet to stride to the podium for a hurriedly-called media conference Tuesday
afternoon at the Coliseum. After lying
low for several weeks, baseball’s Maytag Man was right back in the thick of
it. I hosted a major news announcement
which featured live TV coverage by both MLB Network and Comcast SportsNet Bay
Area and a battery of photographers and local scribes. Sharing the same Southern roots and sporting
a similar two-day beard, my first impression of Sheets was “this guy reminds me
of Brett Favre!” Same accent, same self-sure
demeanor. Also, what struck me most was
his competitive fire and that he appeared to be a person very comfortable in
his own skin. He could not have been
more accommodating at the press gathering.
Beyond doing the usual Q&A at the front table, he also patiently sat
down with at least five TV stations and three radio reporters afterwards for
the obligatory one-on-ones. I think A’s
fans are really going to like Ben. He’s
a no nonsense veteran with tremendous work ethic. If he returns to the form that saw him named
the National League’s starting pitcher at the 2008 All-Star Game, our pitching
staff might just carry us further than some people think this season. In the meantime, like the Maytag Repairman, I
need to rest up until the next news story hits.
Until then, don’t forget…..only 20 days until pitchers and catchers report.
When the A’s consummated the
Kouzmanoff (right) trade with the San Diego
Padres last week, most pundits nodded and offered the obvious analysis. Oakland
had, indeed, found a much needed middle-of-the-order hitter for their 2010
lineup. Afterall, the 6-1, 210-pound
slugger has averaged 20 home runs, 31 doubles and 82 RBI over the last three
seasons despite playing home games at San Diego’s
But what may have gone unnoticed is GM Billy
Beane has acquired yet
another key defensive piece to the roster.
Kouzmanoff, admittedly an inconsistent fielder in his early days, has
blossomed into one of baseball’s best defensive players at the hot corner. Last year, he set a National League record
for fielding percentage (.990) by a third baseman, committing only three errors all season long. Think about that for minute. Playing one of the toughest positions on the
diamond, he was charged with only three
Yet, the Kouzmanoff acquisition signals more
than the addition of a good, all-around player.
It represents another step in Beane’s rather unheralded plan to build an
outstanding defensive team in 2010. Consider
this: the A’s infield now features two
deserving Gold Glove candidates in Kouzmanoff and second baseman Mark Ellis–not to mention an on-the-mend Eric Chavez, who has already won six Gold Gloves–plus speedy
shortstop Cliff Pennington, who reeled off
an errorless streak of 35 consecutive games last year in earning the starting
job, and Daric Barton, who was a
revelation at first base last season with a .998 fielding mark. Meanwhile, the starting outfield, as its
constituted today, features two spectacular speed burners in Rajai Davis and Coco Crisp
in left and center (or vice versa), and Ryan Sweeney, the human highlight reel who tied for fourth in the
American League in outfield assists (11) last year, in right. Then add team leader Kurt Suzuki behind the plate–he led all 2009 AL catchers in
games played and game started, and ranked second in assists–and there’s every
reason to believe Oakland will field one of the better defensive units in the
Perhaps that fact won’t resonate
with everyone since defense is clearly the least
sexy aspect of baseball. But if that
underappreciated side of the game leads to the A’s shaving half a run off our
pitching staff’s ERA, don’t be surprised if that change in run differential
results in more victories this season.
So as you watch the remaining NFL playoff games this month leading to
February’s Super Bowl, maybe you should take that age-old football cheer to
heart, and adopt it at the Coliseum this summer…..Let’s hear it: “Defense!
The worst kept secret of the Hot Stove League
became reality today when Billy Beane
officially announced that the A’s have signed Coco Crisp (right) –aka, “The Cereal
Man”–for the upcoming 2010 season.
For some Oakland
fans, the signing was unexpected and maybe even a bit bewildering. With Rajai Davis (below) blossoming into a legitimate center fielder,
leadoff hitter and stolen base threat in 2009, it would seem the A’s would not
be seeking another player with similar attributes. Whether the merits of this deal will stand on
its own remains to be seen, but anyone who knows Mr. Moneyball would never rule
out that this is only the first step towards a bigger-picture reshaping of the
team that might involve subsequent player moves.
That said, let’s just look at what Crisp–stop
laughing, that’s his legal
name!–gives the 2010 A’s. He gives us
improved speed and defense, and he adds a veteran major league hitter. Much like Adam Kennedy gave us last season, Coco
is just a flat-out baseball player. He
can help a team win games in many different ways, whether it is with his bat,
his glove, his arm or his legs. So,
while many would have anticipated that the Athletics’ first big move of the
winter would be adding a powerful bat, the addition of Crisp should prompt us
to ask this simple question: are we a
better team now than before his signing?
It will be interesting, however, to see how this plays out. Does Crisp play center field and Davis moves
to left? Where does the A’s newest
addition hit in the order? Or, as I
said, does the arrival of Crisp begin the process of subsequent trades or
transactions in the next month or two?
What I do know, though, is the A’s continue
their long tradition of featuring players with colorful names. You would think Coco Crisp immediately makes
our Top 10 All-Name Team in franchise history.
In the modern era, he’s a shoo-in to join the likes of Shooty Babitt, Vida Blue, Campy Campaneris, Blue Moon
Odom, Catfish Hunter and Mudcat Grant in that upper echelon of monikers.
However, I’m not sure whether he would crack the
Top 10 names if you include the early years when the Athletics played in Philadelphia. Check out this Top 10 list of pre-1940
players on our all-time roster: Bock Baker (1901), Topsy Hartsel (1902-11), Socks Seibold (1915-17, 1919), Moxie Divis (1916), Ping Bodie (1917), Mule Haas (1928-32, 1938), Bevo LeBourveau (1929), Wedo Martini (1935), Rabbitt Warstler (1934-36) and Skeeter Newsome (1935-39).
with that sterling note, we conclude our blog entries for 2009. We’re closing the office for the remaining
days of December, and I must say, for our son, Luke, Coca Crisp will only rank
second on the All-Name Team. The leader
in the Rose Clubhouse is another 2009 free agent. Goes by the name of Santa Claus. I think he
might be another one of those talented Dominican shortstops. Here’s hoping you enjoy the most precious
gifts of all–your family and friends–as we all celebrate this joyous holiday
season. Pitchers and catchers report to Phoenix Feb. 20. See you next year!
It’s never fair to heap
unfair expectations on a young athlete. So the fact that the A’s newly-acquired outfielder Michael Taylor can launch tape-measure home runs, steal bases and
play defense like a young Dave Winfield is beside the point. Suffice to say, I
think Billy is ecstatic that Taylor
was available. Clearly, he paid a steep
price in shipping another blue-chipper, Brett Wallace, to the Blue Jays to consummate
the deal. In return, however, I think we
acquired a legitimate five-tool player with huge upside. From all reports, Taylor is the real deal. Power, speed, rifle arm and amazing
athleticism for such a big man. If you
don’t believe me, check out this clip on YouTube : http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eDZqtBpcWWw).
today, I coordinated a media conference call with Michael and our beat
writers. If there were any doubts
whether Mr. Taylor attended Stanford
University, those doubts
were dispelled rather quickly on the call.
There were no standard answers to the reporters’ questions. One writer asked him whether he preferred
playing left or right field. Most
guys would have merely said, “I’m happy to play either place as long as I’m in
the lineup.” Not Michael. He said something like, “Well, if you play
right field, a mistake will most likely cost you a base, while not necessarily
in left field. Of course, it also
depends on the ballpark. At Fenway,
right field is more challenging while you have the Green Monster in left.” Talk about an articulate young man. This kid oozed confidence and
intelligence. I opened the proceedings
by asking him, tongue-in-cheek, “Michael, why don’t you share with these folks
the highlights of your long and storied career with Toronto.”
He didn’t miss a beat. “Yeah right.
I think it lasted all of about 38
minutes,” he said with the hint of a giggle.
many Stanford student-athletes, Michael seems to have that star mentality to go
along with his unique talent. I have
seen where that can make the difference on whether someone actually reaches
true superstardom. Obviously, it will
play out on the diamond this year and in years to come. But if you’re an A’s fan, I think you should
be wearing a smile today. Billy did
good. And go ahead and allow yourself to
daydream about a time, hopefully real soon, when the middle of Oakland’s lineup
features a pair of 6-6, 250-pound bookends named Taylor & Carter, reminiscent
of an earlier era of A’s baseball. Bash
Brothers II you say? Since both of these
guys can hit with power and also steal bases, maybe a more appropriate moniker
would be The Mash & Dash Brothers!
Another slow day in Winter
Paradise. Snowflakes aside, not much to
report here in Indy. We finished up the
league PR Meetings this morning, mostly concentrating on the explosion of
social media and how baseball can best integrate its communications efforts
with the Facebooks and Twitters of the world.
At noon, the annual Managers Luncheon was held at the Marriott, an event
solely held for the benefit of sports writers covering the Winter Meetings. There’s a half-hour reception, followed by an
informal 90-minute lunch and Q&A session.
Each major league manager is placed at a round table and media join
in. Bob Geren hosted our A’s media, Joe Stiglich of the Contra
Costa Times/Oakland Tribune, John Shea of
the San Francisco Chronicle and Tom Singer of MLB.com (filling
in for the departed Mychael Urban). I
had to chuckle a bit, however, when five Japanese media joined our table. Clearly, an unfounded rumor that the A’s are
interested in a certain pinned-striped free agent from the Pacific
Rim had rattled a few cages.
What I have found over the years is this: if there are no real stories to report,
rumors start to surface with great regularity.
But no harm, no foul. Geren was
his usual gracious self, engaging in conversation with the Asian journalists,
asking them questions about professional baseball in Japan
and where they are stationed in the U.S.
About a dozen of the club PR
directors met with MLB President Bob DuPuy
yesterday afternoon. It’s always good to
hear his perspective on things and also appreciate the fact he asks us for our
opinions. Offering a big-picture view,
he said he was very pleased with this past baseball season, particularly since
it started with less than ideal conditions.
There were the concerns associated with a sagging economy. Then the A-Rod revelations during spring training followed, along with the
early-season suspension of Manny Ramirez. But as those steroid-related stories began to
fade, baseball fans seemed to turn their attention away from that issue,
perhaps confident that baseball, indeed, was restoring its reputation through a
serious drug testing program that even penalized some of the superstars of the
game. Add the amazingly smooth launch of
MLB Network, a World Baseball Classic that drew more fans than the Winter
Olympics, President Obama’s visit during the All-Star Game in St. Louis, and exciting playoff races, and
the sport gained tremendous momentum heading into the postseason. And that momentum continued throughout the
division and league championship series, thanks to good baseball and several
large markets represented, so it was no wonder TV ratings and public interest
were well above normal in 2009. While
it’s hard for us A’s fans to swallow, there’s no question the vaunted Yankees
winning the World Series only added to the overall national interest of Major
League Baseball this year.
Final observations and notes from the Winter
Meetings: First, for those of you just dying for my restaurant
review of St. Elmo’s Steakhouse, the legendary eatery in downtown Indianapolis, let me put
my food critic hat on. I would rate St.
Elmo’s among the better steak houses I have ever eaten at, certainly comparable
to Bern’s in Tampa,
Peter Luger’s in Brooklyn, Morton’s in Chicago
or Manny’s in Minneapolis. I ordered the bone-in ribeye, which was truly
big league. It was recommended I also try their famous
shrimp cocktail, which was very good.
However, the horseradish in the cocktail sauce was almost nuclear.
I still wonder if it destroyed some of my nose membranes. Of course, the real fun at the Winter
Meetings is you are apt to run into other baseball people at such
restaurants. There was a contingent from
the Cardinals there. I had to give a
double-take when I saw Tony LaRussa
there. Tony is well known for his
vegetarian views, so a beef haven like St. Elmo’s wasn’t exactly the obvious
place I expected to see the Cardinal skipper.
When we returned to the hotel, the lobby was still buzzing. Ironically, most of the conversation was not
about trades or player rumors, but centered on Peter Gammons’ surprise move from ESPN to the MLB Network, which
was announced yesterday. Of course,
we’re thrilled to add the Hall of Fame writer to our network lineup. If you want to talk “ball,” what could be
greater than a panel that includes Gammons, Bob Costas and Tom Verducci?
Billy Beane held his final session with the Bay Area
media this afternoon, moment before he was to catch a flight back to the Bay
Area. He acknowledged that he and David
Forst had had additional meetings and phone conversations with player agents,
mostly just kicking the tires to see which free agents might be available. But basically Billy reiterated his earlier
contention, that the Winter Meetings are good for setting perimeters and
gathering information, but player deals are much more likely to crystallize
once GMs return their offices. In other
words, my bone-in ribeye very well might have been the highlight of the
Meetings. But next time, I think I’ll
pass on the shrimp cocktail.
As promised–or was that predicted?–all was quiet on the
Athletics’ front during the first full day of the Winter Meetings. Last night the media met with Billy
Beane for their
initial Q&A session with our GM. The A’s suite is always full of baseball
personnel, from assistant GM David Forst
and director of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi, to director of player personnel Billy Owens and director of scouting Eric Kubota. Head
athletic trainer Steve (Soupy) Sayles also stopped
by during our session, sporting a new mustache and goatee, prompting Billy to
quip, “Hey, it’s Fu Man Soup!”
In observing Billy at Winter
Meetings since I joined the A’s, I find him to be highly entertaining and
accommodating to the media even when he really has no hard news to offer
them. That, to me, is an art form. At the same time, Billy is incredibly honest
with his intentions. He told the writers
that we most likely would spend most of our efforts talking with player agents
here who represent free agents, as we are more likely to fill a need taking
this route than via a trade. He admitted
that he is fielding phone calls from other GMs who are inquiring about our
young talent, but he said we really have no intentions of parting with the
lifeblood of our future. Billy also
admitted that he does not see one player putting us over the top, that we have
a number of voids to fill and that he hoped most of those voids will disappear
in time due to the emergence of our young prospects.
Incidentally, you can tune
into MLB Network and Comcast Sports Net Bay Area tonight to see more A’s
coverage, as Billy will join Victor Rojas, Dan Plesac and Tom Verducci
on the MLB TV set in the hotel some time after their coverage starts at 3 p.m.
PT (6 p.m. ET), while Billy will also appear on Comcast’s Chronicle Live show at 5 p.m. PT tonight. In addition, manager Bob
Geren meets the media
later today in the formal press conference room, so you can expect coverage
from our writers, as well as MLB.com television coverage.
Perhaps the most emotional
part of today came this morning during the MLB PR Meetings when the Baseball
Assistance Team (B.A.T.) made a presentation.
The organization, which was founded in 1986 by a group of former big
league players and is now primarily funded by the MLB players’ payroll
deduction program and an annual banquet in New York City, featured one of our
own–the A’s long-time director of minor league operations, Ted Polakowski.
For those of us within the
“A’s Family,” we are well aware and have felt tremendous anguish over the
personal ordeal he and his family endured last year. Ted’s wife Cheryl, who served as the team’s
administrative assistant at the Papago
Park minor league
complex, was diagnosed with a very aggressive form of cancer during 2009 spring
training. You can only imagine how
devastating the news was, particularly since the Polakowski’s have four
children. Ted showed tremendous courage
today in addressing the league’s PR people, sharing his story about running up
medical bills of $200,000 or more while Cheryl was receiving experimental
treatments in Mexico. During this nightmarish time, B.A.T. came to
their assistance with much-needed funding support. Sadly, Cheryl passed away, but you could see
in Ted’s eyes and voice that he truly felt grateful that Major League Baseball
is, indeed, a “family.” That term can
sound trite sometimes, but for the Polakowski’s, it had a very deep meaning
that they’ll never forget. Ted said he
merely wanted to repay the debt by making sure others connected with Major
League Baseball–not just uniform personnel but also front office employees–were
aware that this assistance is available to everyone in baseball.
New sightings in the hotel lobby: I saw an old
friend, Larry Reynolds, who represents
many Major League players as president of Reynolds Sports Management. He’s the brother of MLB Network studio
analyst Harold Reynolds, and we go back to our Stanford days when Larry was a
speedy centerfielder and leadoff hitter for Mark Marquess‘ Cardinal team and I was a young sports information
director there. Of course, when we
bumped into each other, the discussion was not about player deals, it was about
whether Stanford might lose Jim Harbaugh
to Notre Dame….also a priceless sight for old-school baseball people was
watching Cubs’ manager Lou Pinella
holding court with some writers for a good hour, and the irrepressible Tommy Lasorda and Jack McKeon
doing same….meanwhile, Bay Area resident Tony LaRussa
almost runs me over coming out of the elevator this afternoon, asking “where do
I go for the media session?” I was happy
to point him to the room, thinking to myself, “how can someone who just turned
65 look in such great shape?” Must be
either his vegetarian diet or his work with animal shelters. Or perhaps the fact he can scroll Albert Pujols onto his lineup card most days….
It’s a veritable Lobbyfest
here at the Marriott today. As soon as
you leave the snow-covered sidewalk outside and enter the hotel lobby, you
think one of two things: either the
Indiana State Fair has decided to go indoors–minus the farm animals–or the Pope
has arrived and is about to address the masses.
Or to borrow a well-worn phrase, the Marriott lobby looks like a zoo.
There are literally hundreds of
people jammed into a very small space. In one corner, there’s Peter Gammons,
Buster Olney and ESPN producers
discussing what stories they are working on for tonight. In the area near the front desk, there’s the
A’s former bench coach Don Wakamatsu,
now the Mariners’ manager, being interviewed by a TV crew. Meanwhile, veteran scribe Mark Gonzalez of the Chicago
Tribune is trading barbs with a couple of my PR counterparts, and I
exchange pleasantries with two long-time baseball writers, Paul Hagen of the Philadelphia
Daily News and Peter ******* of the Baltimore Sun. Hagen
says he’s finally recovered from the long postseason covering the Phillies
through the World Series (of course, I think to myself, if only our beat writers could have those
complaints next season!)
Earlier this morning, I sat
through a series of topics in the MLB Public Relations Meetings. In light of reduced budgets and growing
environmental awareness, the group has decided to drastically reduce the
printing of both club media guides and league publications in 2010. Only a very limited amount will be
distributed to key media and broadcast partners, but all media will have access
to our information online and on computer flash drives. I’m proud we have taken this step, which is
long overdue. It will save thousands of
dollars and also thousands of trees!
There was also an hour and half set aside for various round-table
discussions, where such league partners as ESPN, TBS, Sirius/XM, MLB Network,
MLB.com, the Baseball Writers Association of America (BBWAA) and others were
situated throughout a meeting room. It
was good to renew friendships, and also to discuss any new developments in
their area or ways we can improve our working relationship.
And speaking of relationships, that was the
very subject that John Lowe of the Detroit Free Press, vice president of
the BBWAA, and I discussed during the roundtable session. We both agreed that the relationships–yes,
even the friendships–between writers and PR people have deteriorated in recent
years, to the point where many out-of-town writers and PR representative don’t
even know each other any more. Clearly both sides are under a lot more
stress these days, with many writers living under the constant pressure of
losing their jobs or having to file so many stories each day that they no
longer have time to phone their sources or merely do any critical thinking before they write. And PR people continue to take on more work
assignments, forcing them to spend more time in their office or hotel room
instead of “pressing the flesh” and work at developing or maintaining
relationships with media. I know this
subject transcends my job and the sports industry, as I have friends in other
businesses who share the same frustrations.
On a more positive note,
tomorrow I plan to make my first visit to St. Elmo’s Steakhouse, rated as an Indiana institution and
true landmark. So, even if Billy doesn’t
swing that blockbuster trade in the next couple of days, I am guaranteed at
least one memorable highlight at this year’s Winter Meetings. Now, I must close and head back to The Lobby,
where the baseball Hot Stove League lives and breathes. If I hear any good rumors, you’ll be the
first to know.
As always, stay tuned…