The green, white and red flag flew proudly beyond the center field fence. The unfamiliar blue-topped uniforms displayed names like Allessandro Maestri, Luca Panerati and Tiago Da Silva. The media lunch was catered, appropriately, by Buca de Beppo.
In case you were wondering, this was not your typical day at Phoenix Muni. Team Italia, preparing for their World Baseball Classic opener against Mexico March 7, paid the A’s a visit for a rare exhibition game today. The team’s Manager Marco Mazzieri, who once starred as an outfielder for his hometown team of Grosseto, Tuscany, fielded a roster of mostly Italian natives or American minor leaguers, with the few exceptions being the Dodgers’ Nick Punto, the Padres’ Chris Denorfia, the Pirates’ Jason Grilli and the Mariners’ Alex Liddi. Actually, Liddi is an Italian native. In fact, the Seattle third baseman represents the World Baseball Classic ideal: He’s the first player born and raised in Italy to play in the Major Leagues.
Yet, as Liddi and his teammates stood in front of the visitor’s dugout as Il Cano degli Italiani, the Italian national anthem, blared through pre-game ceremonies, it was clear who was the biggest star on their team. It was the hitting coach, of course. Guy named Mike Piazza. The former Dodger, Met, Padre and Athletic owns a .308 lifetime batting average with 427 home runs as perhaps the greatest hitting catcher of his generation. Now, he gives back to the game in paying tribute to his heritage.
In truth, Team Italia fared better than expected against the defending AL West champs, who ran out much of their “A” lineup this afternoon. Opening Night starter Brett Anderson breezed through three innings of one-hit ball, and Coco Crisp, Jed Lowrie, Yoenis Cespedes and Eric Sogard led an 11-hit parade in a 4-3 win. Considering the experience and talent disparity, how much Bob Melvin could assess his club’s performance is debatable.
But what is not debatable is whether baseball has become a global game. We see it every day in our clubhouse, where nations such as Australia, Cuba, Japan, Venezuela, Mexico and the Dominican Republic are presented. And watching MLB Network’s World Baseball Classic coverage of China closer Jiangang Lu leaping off his feet, his arms raised in exultation, after his team rallied for a 5-2 victory over Brazil in Fukuoka, Japan, it’s pretty clear that this rising international competition is truly meaningful to countries that compete. That includes the country where Abner Doubleday invented the sport. Team USA is managed by future Hall of Famer Joe Torre, and boasts a roster that includes such big league All-Stars as Joe Mauer, David Wright, Mark Teixeira, Ryan Braun, Giancarlo Stanton and Gio Gonzalez.
While Italy has benefitted from various Major League clinics staged by Tommy Lasorda, Torre and Piazza, among others, they still have a ways to go to make a dent in their soccer-crazy country. But the mere fact that they can play on the same field as a Major League team speaks volumes on how far the game is advancing overseas. While you may have missed today’s game, I encourage you to tune in to this month’s WBC tournament on MLB Network. If you do, you’ll get a glimpse of the future of Major League Baseball. And if you doubt that last statement, just ask Hiro Nakajima and Yoenis Cespedes. They played for their respective countries in the last World Baseball Classic.
Early observations in camp….
Understandably, this spring has been far less dramatic than last year. The commotion created by the media circus covering the arrival of Yoenis Cespedes and Manny Ramirez last February is now a distant memory. The absence of such mega-personalities as Dallas Braden and Jonny Gomes makes this year’s clubhouse seem rather sedate as well. In its place, however, is a 2013 team that seems to project an authentic air of confidence and sense of purpose. Bob Melvin practices are relatively short, but it’s clear that everyone is all business and a lot of ground is covered every day. I suspect some of that stems from a young team that tasted the postseason last year and wants to build on their accomplishments. It would also figure that their collective focus comes from some healthy competition at multiple positions—the obvious being the bullpen, outfield and middle infield. We’ve had competition for starting jobs in recent springs, but the difference this year is this: there is actually more than one player who could succeed as a starter, while in past years, there was competition more because there may not have been an obvious or safe choice to man the position. In short, it appears this edition of the Oakland A’s is dealing from a place of strength….
Some have said it will be awfully difficult for Melvin’s club to duplicate last season’s record and division finish. They might be right, although we shouldn’t forget that many of the key players in last year’s title run did not join the team until midseason. And all that group did is play .655 baseball in their final 110 regular-season games (72-38). Admittedly, that will be a tough pace to match, yet it may not take that kind of winning percentage to defend the AL West. In any case, it’s nice to think about Jarrod Parker, A.J. Griffin, Sean Doolittle, Brandon Moss and Josh Donaldson playing a full season in the Green & Gold this year, not to mention the new offensive potential supplied by offseason acquisitions like Hiro Nakajima, Chris Young, Jed Lowrie and John Jaso….
It was just like old times in the Papago batting cages Monday. Cespedes and Josh Reddick both put on a clinic of opposite field hitting, followed by lightning bolts that cleared the fence in every direction. Same went for Moss, who looks intent on expanding his 21-homer partial season of a year ago….
For the second year in a row, Scott Sizemore had his spring abruptly halted, although this time it was a much happier occasion. His wife, Brooke, gave birth to their first child Friday, a girl named Layla. Sizemore, now fully recovered from his knee surgery, took a couple days off from early practice to witness the glorious event….
Despite language barriers, Nakajima seems right at home in the A’s clubhouse. He brought his No. 3 game uniform and effervescent smile to Photo Day on Monday and was quite playful with the photographers, even hiding his face behind his “name” sign at one point. He brings that same bounce onto the playing field, although he’s no nonsense at shortstop and at the plate. While he’ll be listed as a Major League rookie this year, it’s quite clear he will give this club a veteran presence that should prove valuable. On a more humorous note, I couldn’t help but chuckle the other day when Hiro and his interpreter were holding a conversation with our resident Aussies Grant Balfour and Travis Blackley in the clubhouse after practice. They were talking cars, of all things, with “The Nak Man” sharing a cell phone photo of his sweet ride with the Men Down Under. Style and fast cars, a universal male subject, no matter what your heritage. If only Cespedes would have joined into the conversation…..
Starting this Saturday, exhibition games begin. I think our guys are pretty close to being ready.
Baseball season starts anew today as A’s pitchers and catchers report for the time-honored exercise called Spring Training. As the team’s public relations director, I know I am one of the privileged few who can enjoy, first-hand, the many sights and sounds that each spring brings. Here are a few I look forward to seeing again this week:
- Driving my rental car along Walter Haas Drive off 64th Street, then pulling inside the gate to the Papago Park players’ lot. A short walk later, I’ll be greeted by Catfish Hunter Field, the pristine adjacent practice fields and my first glimpse at the Red Rock formations beyond the outfield fences. One of the more glorious sights in all of baseball.
- Chip Hale, the A’s feisty bench coach and Czar of Camp. If you were to look up the definition of organized in the dictionary, there would be a photo of Chip next to the word. I can’t wait to see the effervescent Hale, the perennial early riser, posting his first practice schedule on the clubhouse bulletin board. When that posting occurs, to me, it’s officially the start of Spring Training. When Super Bowl coach Jim Harbaugh speaks of attacking the day “with an enthusiasm unknown to mankind,” he must be referring to Chip Hale. If you spend a few minutes in the Phoenix Muni clubhouse every morning, you’re bound to see the Chipper walking, in a hurry, to every corner of the facility, always on his way somewhere. Either that, or when games start, he’s in his back office concocting today’s lineup. His buzz cut appearance and demeanor suggesting a former Marine drill sargent, I didn’t know what to expect the first time I encountered the new bench coach last spring. What I discovered very quickly is he’s one of the most personable guys you’ll ever find. There’s a positivity that seems to emanate from him and it’s contagious. I can’t wait to catch it again this season.
- The sight of Cliffy Clavin and Mikey Thalblum, and other staff, fixing the clubhouse spread and making multiple pots of coffee in preparation of the nearly 60 players who will be in camp this year. Cliffy and Mikey have that deft touch in making the clubhouse feel like a home away from home for everyone in camp.
- The familiar scene of bullpen catcher Casey Chavez in the back room, rubbing down baseballs with grade-A mud from who knows where.
- The cool, crisp mornings at our Papago Park complex, when Manager Bob Melvin accommodates Bay Area and national media near the picnic tables outside the administrative building. This week we welcome back some of our media friends from Japan, who took a one-year hiatus when the A’s did not re-sign Hideki Matsui but now return to chronicle the Major League debut of colorful shortstop Hiro Nakajima at age 30.
- Chili Davis, hands down winner of last year’s Hitting Coach of the Year if there was such an award, sipping his first cup of coffee in the wee morning hours as he makes his way down the foul warning track at Phoenix Muni en route to the back batting cages and some early work with aspiring young hitters.
- Curt Young and Mike Gallego, former A’s players and now vital members of the team’s coaching staff, donning the Green and Gold for yet another season. Both men exude a calm of confidence, and provide a unique bridge to the winning tradition of a past Oakland era.
- The new arrival of Darren Bush, the highly successful Triple-A manager promoted to big league bullpen coach this offseason, whose finger prints can be found on probably 80 or 90 percent of the players in camp this spring. His shared histories with these players should prove invaluable to Melvin and the team.
- And finally, the A’s baseball braintrust of Billy Beane (2012 MLB Executive o the Year), David Forst, Farhan Zaidi and Dan Feinstein, returning after a rather remarkable assemblage of talent last year—almost all of which return in 2013. And, of course, they will still adhere to the company’s strict dress code: golf shirt, shorts, shades and flip flops. Baseball, the Oakland A’s way.
Let the games begin!
In a salute to the ever-expanding universe of sports websites, I’ve decided to start my 2013 season in a rather appropriate fashion. I’m going to blog about bloggers.
Specifically, I would like to offer some observations about A’s bloggers—and die-hard fans—who attended Sunday’s BlogFest, which was hosted by our Media Relations & Broadcast Coordinator Adam Loberstein as part of A’s FanFest at the Oracle Arena.
There has been a major shift in sports coverage in recent years, with new fan “voices” materializing in blogs sprinkled across the internet. Some, like Athletics Nation and newballpark.org, have been around for a number of years. Others—like Beaneball, A’s Farm and Swingin’ A’s, among many others—have also entered the fold and shown promise. Mostly, these blogs have added to the overall A’s coverage, along with reliable standbys like the San Francisco Chronicle and Bay Area News Group, by providing fans with interactive components that seem to resonate with a new generation of fans seeking a platform for expression.
In the second year of the event, we had 15 bloggers out at FanFest last weekend. That number represented three times the bloggers who attended last year’s event. We utilized the Warriors’ Interview Room, in the bowels of Oracle, for three question-and-answer sessions featuring Manager of the Year Bob Melvin, Assistant GM David Forst and Third Base Coach Mike Gallego.
I must admit, it looked rather strange for me to see “reporters” with notepads and laptops, dressed in green-and-gold merchandise—one even sporting a Rickey Henderson replica jersey. And sensing this was their moment to delve into the A’s inner sanctum, they left very few stones unturned. Questions covered the gamut, from defensive metrics, to evaluating international players, to the virtues of platooning, to how the recent John Jaso trade came together. Heck, one blogger even posed a question, then two follow-up questions, about The Forgotten Man—Daric Barton!
While Melvin and Forst were outstanding, most reports indicate that the diminutive Gallego stole the show. In a 15-minute burst, Gags regaled his attentive audience with tales of former teammate Walt Weiss, his interest in being a future Major League manager, sharing an honest early assessment of new shortstop Hiro Nakajima, and even offering a rather surprising opinion about five-tool outfielder Yoenis Cespedes. He thinks the Yo-Yo Man could also play shortstop in the rare chance he’s given the opportunity. Probably a more entertaining thought than a practical one, but for the bloggers, it was fun just to speculate. Can you imagine that howitzer of an arm throwing across the diamond?
This marks the third time that we’ve hosted a blogger event in the past year (we also staged an in-season Blog Day last September), and it’s become very clear that these “citizen journalists” and their hordes of readers are providing a valuable new outlet for A’s fans to chat and share opinions. They’re also a welcomed addition for the team, as we continue to broaden our fan base.
Beyond casting a wider net, the integration of the new world of bloggers also underscores a basic opportunity that should exist for everyone—to participate and share in the passion one has for the best game ever invented. Beisbol!
So, no matter whether it’s old school or new school media, we welcome your coverage of the 2013 Oakland Athletics. Trust me, there’s plenty to go around.
There is much debate over which era was the golden age of baseball. Many feel the 1960s were unsurpassed as a decade of superstars, with the likes of Mays, Aaron, Mantle, Clemente, Robinson, McCovey and Koufax. Others would argue for the Big Red Machine, Swingin’ A’s and We-Are-Family Pirates of the 70s, while some might favor the great Yankee championship teams of yore. And there are those who claim the talent level of today’s players is higher than ever before.
But when it comes to network TV coverage of our game, there has never been anything close to what MLB Network and ESPN is now providing to the millions fans who love baseball. While this has been a rather slow Winter Meetings, it certainly hasn’t lacked in coverage by these two media giants. If you’re a true fan, you already know where to go for 24-hour, seven-days-a-week coverage of Major League Baseball. I must admit I do catch myself marveling over the amazing growth we have experienced in this area.
ESPN was the original in broadening daily coverage by introducing Baseball Tonight, which gave us a nightly dose of all the game highlights, news developments and lively debate. Before long, the folks in Bristol had hired some of the top baseball writers in America—Peter Gammons, Buster Olney, Tim Kurkjian, Jayson Stark—to share the studio panel with Karl Ravech and popular former players. Their live set in Nashville has been prominently on display all week, with managers, GMs and players spending time on air, which of course, has to be a fan’s delight.
Even closer to home, MLB Network is celebrating its four-year anniversary this season. It’s hard to imagine this all-baseball, all-encompassing media outlet was launched so recently. For every fan—really, for anyone associated with the game—this has become absolutely must-see TV. Unlike ESPN with its wide spectrum of sports coverage, MLB Network gives you wall-to-wall coverage of America’s No. 1 sport—beisbol. This week in Nashville, this upstart network has really showcased why it has become almost habit forming for Major League viewers. When not getting lost in the hotel lobby or attending the Public Relations Meetings here, I have retreated to my room to catch up on emails, phone calls and other work. Here at the Opryland, you can also turn on Channel 55 and watch all the live coverage on MLB Network. I look up one moment, and there’s host Brian Kenny, respected former GM John Hart and Sports Illustrated’s Tom Verducci debating the merits of the Mets signing David Wright to a new mega-deal. This, of course, came on the heels of the David Wright making an appearance on the show. Intermittently, I get news updates on trades, signings and rumors from some of the best reporters in the business, ranging from MLB.com’s Gammons to CBS Sports’ Jon Heyman to FOX’s Ken Rosenthal. I also glance up from my laptop several times to see live guests ranging from Bud Black to Mike Scioscia to our very own Bob Melvin. They’re all very captivating interviews with knowledgeable people asking questions of baseball people in the know.
And, of course, there’s those wacky guys (Chris Rose and Kevin Millar) who host Intentional Talk, a daily show that really connects with our players, having—and poking—fun every minute along the way. I know many of you loved some of their priceless interviews with Jonny Gomes and Brandon Inge last year. Needless to say, Rose and Millar are right in their element, talking “ball” in the heart of Hot Stove central.
As someone who works in baseball and has seen the remarkable evolution of sports coverage on television, I recognize how lucky we are to have such network outlets so devoted to our sport. What’s more, Bay Area baseball fans can “double dip” in sampling their television fare, thanks to the same complete coverage—and commitment—that Comcast SportsNet has demonstrated in the past several years. This week, they sent an on-site producer and two “insiders” to provide coverage of the A’s and Giants. The hours of programming CSN provides, along with MLB Network and ESPN, on a yearly basis was beyond anyone’s wildest imagination only five years ago. So, when it comes to the golden age of baseball broadcasting, look no further than 2012. We should all appreciate it and soak it up.
For the first time in several years, the A’s baseball brass heads to the Winter Meetings in a rare position. They only have to make minor tweaks to a team that won 94 games last season—the second most in the American League behind the Yankees. Of course, the odds are those tweaks won’t actually occur at the Gaylord Opryland Hotel this week. It would be Billy Beane’s hope that at least some substantive conversations with agents and other team general managers will take place, perhaps laying the foundation for deals in the weeks ahead.
The A’s already acquired one of the better all-around outfielders in the National League when they traded Cliff Pennington to Arizona to obtain Chris Young, whose powerful bat, speed and defensive prowess will give Bob Melvin flexibility and one more weapon in his arsenal in 2013. Maybe we should petition the league to see if we can add a 10th man to our defense. That way Young, Coco Crisp, Josh Reddick, Yoenis Cespedes and Seth Smith can flip to see who plays “rover.”
While there’s no reason for Billy to tip his hand on what he and his trusty triumvirate of David Forst, Farhan Zaidi and Dan Feinstein are planning to do, it would be safe to say that a front-line shortstop, and maybe to a lesser extent, a veteran starting pitcher, are on the list. Although we chose not to exercise the option of late-season addition Stephen Drew, it appears we remain interested in him and appreciate what he contributed down the stretch to our division title run. However, as a free agent, there are certain to be other suitors for Drew’s services as well. With four more months before Opening Night, there still is plenty of time to address the shortstop situation.
For me personally, the greater challenge this week will be navigating the gargantuan property called the Opryland Hotel. Whoever designed this place must have had a sense of humor. It is comprised of an endless expanse of lobbies, atriums, bars and indoor plants. Last time I was here, I learned quickly that every quadrant, corner or section of the inner sanctum looks identical to the other. While it certainly is a beautiful venue, you are guaranteed to get lost several times during the Meetings. And this is not a good thing, since the primary objective of the Winter Meetings is to, ugh, meet. Blank stare, increased breathing…and then the inevitable double take… It’s not pretty. I know. I have been one of those wandering souls in the Opryland’s Land of the Lost. I would think GMs and player agents can circumvent this by simply meeting in their suites, which I guess has become the most common method no matter where the Meetings are held.
It’s not quite that simple as a club PR director. You are charged with the responsibility of delivering your general manager and manager to the various media locations off the various foyers during the week. There are appearances on the live sets of ESPN and MLB Network, Sirius/XM Radio and informal media conferences for the national and Bay Area media covering the event. Every year, I make a point of surveying the hotel layout before those interviews take place. It has crossed my mind that leaving bread crumbs from each location to the hotel elevator might not be such a bad idea. It’s embarrassing enough if I get lost, but the last thing I want to do is get the 2012 Executive of the Year and AL Manager of the Year lost, too. Maybe I should invest in a GPS navigator.
No matter, we forge on. BoMel does his 30-minute informal session with the media corps later today. He also is scheduled to appear on Comcast SportsNet Bay Area’s “Chronicle Live” show in the 5 o’clock hour. If you tune in and he’s a no-show, you’ll know his PR guy took a wrong turn at the shrubs and his worst fear has been realized.
Can this get any better? Well, if you have been following this team for awhile, the logical answer would be, “Why, of course, it’s what they do.” Not that there’s much logic being entered into the equation lately. At this point, you have probably been inundated with all the improbable factoids about this Little Team That Could. Thirteen games back in late June. Five games back with nine to play. Leap-frogging the two AL West behemoths—one a team that dominated Winter Meetings headlines by signing the top hitter and pitcher on the free agent market, the other the two-time defending American League champions—to plant the division banner on the Coliseum pitching mound at game’s end Wednesday. It was the same mound that the ski-goggled Jonny Gomes used as his personal playground after the game, conspiring with the A’s grounds crew to spray his teammates with a power hose full of water in full force.
And talk about full force. How about the 36,000 fans that crammed into the O.co Coliseum? Could it have been any louder? Even Grant Balfour got shouted down. Now, all these great storylines will be introduced to the nation, as our A’s head to Motown to start the AL Division Series with the Tigers at Comerica Park Saturday. While there’s plenty to enjoy on many levels, to me, the essence of the 2012 Oakland A’s is this: If you appreciate the true virtues of sports when it’s played at its very best, then you’ve got to love this spunky group from Oakland. At the risk of burying you in time-honored clichés, let me explain why I feel this way. This team represents so many good things, many traits that have gotten lost in the high-priced world of professional sports: teamwork, personal sacrifice for the greater good of the team, deep self-belief, bouncing back from adversity, trusting your teammate, hustle, tenacity, mental toughness, lacking egos, playing the game for the fun of it. Somehow, when you watch this team, you can actually feel the purity of the sport emanating from the field.
In speaking with Brandon Moss and his family after game, we had a brief heartfelt discussion about how far we’ve come, and how far we may still go. As one of the league’s hottest hitters sat, exhausted, on the stairs above the clubhouse, I told him the beauty of all this is we don’t have to change a thing. There are no mysteries ahead. We will be playing the best teams in baseball, much like we have done during the past month. There is no need to change our strategy or style of play. We just need to keep
doing what we’ve been doing. And if you’re an A’s fan, that should excite you. After all, our players already know they are capable of continuing this magic carpet ride. And why shouldn’t they feel that way? They’ve been doing this for most of this season.
As we head east for the start of a potentially historic 10-day road trip to Detroit, New York and Texas, I would like to address a key aspect of the 2012 A’s that sometimes goes overlooked. Unselfishness.
For anyone who visits our clubhouse, it doesn’t take long to realize this team has no egos. These guys behave like there truly is no “I” in t-e-a-m, as the saying goes. Never did that seem more evident than on Aug. 21, the night that Stephen Drew arrived in Oakland following his trade from the Diamondbacks. As he tried on his new A’s threads in the Coliseum clubhouse, there was Cliff Pennington two cubicles over. It could have been an awkward moment, considering Drew’s acquisition clearly signaled the end of Penny’s reign as the regular shortstop. Instead, it might be the most poignant scene of this remarkable season. There was Cliff, extending a hand to Drew. It was he—the man who had just lost his job—who was trying to make his new teammate feel comfortable. He was friendly, animated and genuinely going out of his way to welcome Drew, who like Penny, was a former first-round draft choice. And three weeks later, Pennington continues to pull for his new teammate. It was only this past Saturday that the team’s erstwhile shortstop was spotted, passionately pumping his fist in the dugout on the Comcast SportsNet telecast as his replacement hit a key home run in the A’s 5-2 win that clinched a series win over Baltimore. Yet there’s a lot more than cheerleading that Pennington has given the team since Drew arrived. There is also a renewed commitment by Penny to help the team anyway he can. He enthusiastically accepted his new assignment, to share the starting job at second base with Adam Rosales. So much so that he has earned the majority of playing time there, thanks to his rifle arm and brilliant fielding, along with a .366 batting average (15 for 41) over his last 13 games.
And Pennington’s team-first attitude is far from isolated on this A’s club that boasts the second-best record in the American League. Travis Blackley, the colorful Aussie (is there any other kind?), has embraced one of the more unsung roles in baseball—that of a swingman. The veteran southpaw, whose love and persistence for the game has led him to a career path through such exotic places as South Korea and Mexico in recent years, has been a true revelation as both a spot starter and long reliever. He’s 1-0 with a 2.86 ERA in 13 appearances out of the bullpen, while also etching a 4-3 mark and 3.97 ERA in 12 starts. In a way, he’s been the glue that has kept the starting rotation purring along merrily for virtually the entire season. He may be the ultimate interchangeable part on this team.
The same can be said of Yoenis Cespedes, Oakland’s superstar-in-the-making. A fixture in center field during his baseball days in Cuba, he originally was positioned there with the A’s in spring training and the early season. However, it became more and more apparent that Coco Crisp’s range and acrobatic catches were best suited at his natural position, and Cespedes relinquished center field to his older and more seasoned teammate. The results since then have been nothing less than spectacular, especially when you add Josh Reddick in right to complete one of the better defensive outfields in all of baseball.
Jonny Gomes and Seth Smith, two of the club’s more valued veterans, have further set the tone by primarily sharing DH and outfield roles. Their unselfish approach has not only seen them combine for great production at the plate, but it has provided the younger players with a great example of teamwork. The platoon of Chris Carter and Brandon Moss at first base, and Derek Norris and George Kottaras at catcher, has further strengthened that team bond. As traveling secretary Mickey Morabito tries to find enough charter airline seats and hotel rooms for a current roster that has swelled to 34 players on this trip, it becomes more and more clear. It takes a village to be the 2012 Oakland A’s. And if you want to throw out one last cliché, let’s try this one: You’re only as strong as your weakest link. For these young and hungry A’s, I think that’s very good news.
Beyond the obvious connection with native son Jonny Gomes, it does seem only appropriate that the Oakland Athletics would host the Petaluma National Little League team upon their triumphant return from Williamsport. After all, are there two more improbable stories in Bay Area sports this year? Or any year, for that matter?
Gomes, a very busy man, is not only making a key contribution as a part-time starter (15 HR, 37 RBI in 78 games) in Oakland, but he’s been the spiritual leader of two teams—the A’s and Petaluma. It became a common scene to see Jonny camped in front of the clubhouse television before games, living and dying on every pitch of Petaluma’s magical run to the U.S. Championship Game. Now, when Manager Eric Smith and his Little Leaguers arrive at the Coliseum tonight and shag balls during batting practice, you half expect Jonny to be wearing the same canary-yellow jersey—sleeves cut off, of course—and “West” cap that “his kids” wore last week. Having gotten to know Jonny a little this year, I wouldn’t put it past him. And when we start assessing these crazy A’s chances to reach the postseason, I think it’s about time to say the same thing.
When you post the best record (51-27) in baseball since June 2, register the best July mark (19-5) in the 111-year history of your franchise, and now return home on a six-game winning streak after a four-game road sweep of Cleveland, the body of evidence starts to catch your attention. It’s August 31st people! For those of you die-hards out there, I realize you have been with us every step of the way. We’ve all invested a lot in this team, and deservedly so. This team is clearly more than a sum of its parts. To start with, it is exactly that—a team. When Brandon Inge goes down, Josh Donaldson answers the bell and goes on a hitting tear to provide critical offensive punch in the lower half of our lineup. Whether as a starter or long reliever, Travis Blackley has proved invaluable as one of the more undersung pitchers. Yesterday, it’s reliever Jim Miller who stops the bleeding in the final two innings of a 12-7 slugfest that didn’t want to end. And also yesterday, there’s backup catcher George Kottaras delivering a three-run double that staked Bob Melvin’s club to a 4-1 lead that they refused to relinquish.
In recent years, an A’s fan’s only wish was that their team was playing “meaningful games” in the month of September. Well, that time has returned to the Coliseum this year. We have only a precious 15 games left on the home schedule, starting with this six-game homestand against the Red Sox and Angels. It’s a big weekend with the Little League heroes of Petaluma being honored pre-game tonight, a celebration of the “Bernie dance” on Saturday with actor Terry Kiser (the star of the “Weekend with Bernie” movies) throwing out the first pitch, and then the always poignant Breast Cancer Awareness Day front and center on Sunday.
So, if you thought this season has been more fun than expected, we’re only getting started. The games really count from here on in. And if there’s one thing we have learned about this team it’s this: Don’t underestimate their will to win. As Mr. Gomes, in his duel cheerleading role, has told our youngsers as well as the Petaluma Little League team this year: “Hey fellas, don’t be afraid to be a hero!”
Hope to see you at the yard this weekend. I know I wouldn’t miss it. There’s something special going on here.
Just how young is this A’s team? Well, as we checked into the Landmark private terminal at Oakland Airport today, our latest rookie pitching phenom Dan Straily proudly pulled a wallet out of his trousers as we headed to the security screening station. With a wry grin, the pride of Marshall University opened it to his Oregon driver’s license. I literally made a double-take. The young teenager pictured looked about as old as an Athletics’ batboy—14 years old tops. “They shot this on my 16th birthday,” he said with a chuckle. We both shook our heads, realizing the absurdity of what has transpired in this young man’s life almost overnight.
Of course, the same can be said about numerous A’s players this season. Maybe what has been the most gratifying about this upstart team is they know they have truly earned what they have accomplished up to this point. Even with shortstop Cliff Pennington activated off the disabled list Tuesday, the 2012 Oaklanders feature only four players on their current 25-man roster who were with us for Opening Night last season. That’s right, four—Coco Crisp, Grant Balfour, Jerry Blevins and Pennington. So, this group inherited nothing. Billy Beane, David Forst, Farhan Zaidi and Dan Feinstein were the architects of a total rebuild job. And Bob Melvin and his staff have taken this new assemblage of personnel and molded it into a tight-nit unit that is equal parts exceptional young talent, veteran leadership, and slow-developing castoffs who never lost belief in themselves. And as outfielder-turned-Spiderman Josh Reddick told reporters following yesterday’s stirring 9-8 win over the Angels, when you sweep the Beasts of the East (Yankees and Red Sox) during an unworldly July, you start to believe you can beat anyone. Press clippings and team payrolls, be damned!
Yet, this is a team that doesn’t rely only on chemistry and spirit. Over the past several weeks, it’s becoming more and more evident that the A’s arsenal of quality arms may actually give them an edge over the competition. At times running out four rookies in their five-man rotation—including two (Straily and A.J. Griffin) who were roommates at Single-A Stockton last season—and featuring two other rookies (Ryan Cook and Sean Doolittle) in the back end of their suffocating bullpen, this group of fresh arms has been the key ingredient in propelling the A’s staff to the best ERA in the American League. Yes, statistically better than the Angels and their four aces, better than the Rangers and their World Series-tested group, better than the David Price-led, pitching-rich Rays, and yes, better than the presiding Cy Young Award winner Justin Verlander and the veteran Tigers. Not only do numbers not lie, the A’s young guns are also passing the sight test. Whether it’s outdueling CC Sabathia and the Yankees, or C.J. Wilson and the Angels, the Athletics’ pitchers have just run through a two-month gauntlet of elite opposing starters, and more often than not, the Green and Gold have prevailed.
And while several contenders swung deals to acquire front-line pitchers at the Trading Deadline, the A’s baseball brass were fully aware in-house reinforcements were already on the way in the August. Brandon McCarthy, the team’s Opening Night starter, has been cleared to start tomorrow night in Chicago after a lengthy rehab assignment. Brett Anderson, another potential top-of-the-rotation star, should be showcasing that filthy slider with the big league club within days as he rounds into shape at Sacramento after 2011 Tommy John surgery. Griffin, who says his rapid ascent this year is because “I only see nameless, faceless batters on the mound when I pitch,” should also be returning from a short DL stint caused by a stiff shoulder recently. And, of course, we always hold out hope that the effervescent Dallas Braden will return before season’s end as he heals from last season’s shoulder surgery and last month’s groin strain.
As the young Straily learned yesterday at the Coliseum, there will be up and downs as the playoff race heats up. In the first inning, he masterfully struck out the Angels’ talented trio of Mike Trout, Torii Hunter and Albert Pujols in succession. Then the pendulum swung the other way, as he was tagged for four solo home runs, forcing him to exit the game after surrendering a 4-1 lead in the fifth inning. But in what has been a recurring story of this improbable A’s season, other team members picked up Straily with a five-run rally and clutch relief pitching to steer yet another tense game to the win column. The overall result has the Athletics perched in second place in the AL West with a 60-51 record, the fifth-best mark in the American League and sharing the current Wild Card lead. As I survey our lofty position, I can’t help but wonder: isn’t it about time for Dan Straily to renew his driver’s license so he can take a more age-appropriate photo?