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APPRECIATING OUR GAME THROUGH THE EYES OF FANS

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.

THIS JUST IN: IT’S A LONG SEASON

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. 

A’S PLAYERS WELCOMED LIKE ROCK STARS AT AUTOGRAPH SESSION

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!

AS THE A’S TURN: A SOAP OPERA WORTH WATCHING

I’ve always said the difference between baseball and other sports is this:  Other sports are merely sports; baseball, on the other hand, is a daily soap opera.  The twists and turns of a week, let alone a full season, makes following a Major League Baseball team an addiction to most horsehide fans.  Now when it comes to the 2012 Oakland A’s, a team that many pundits wrote off months ago when major trades resulted in wholesale changes to its roster, these are surprising and pleasantly unexpected days in the desert.  What I have observed over the past several weeks are a plethora of fascinating storylines that would rival any in baseball.  Think I’m crazy?  Well consider all that has transpired in A’s Land in the past few months.  Here’s a sampling of memorable scenes and developments worthy of a new soap called “As the A’s Turn:”

 

  • In the span of 11 days in December, the A’s trade three All-Star pitchers—Trevor Cahill, Gio Gonzalez and Andrew Bailey—and in the process, stock their organization with 10 of the top prospects in baseball.  Soon, fans are asking such rhetorical questions as “Who’s Brad Peacock and Colin Cowgill?”

 

  • Then, a day before position players are scheduled to practice, the dreadlocked enigma named Manny Ramirez arrives in camp, holds an on-the-field press conference at Phoenix Muni, flanked by his wife Juliana and two sons, amidst a flock of reporters.  He later takes some of his patented hacks in the cage, as A’s players, coaches and execs let their imaginations run wild.

 

  • When the first full-squad workout day commences the next morning, a scream is heard from Field 1 at the Papago training facility as Scott Sizemore tears his ACL during a routine pitcher’s drill.  Soon reality sets in, as the team learns that its starting third baseman will be lost for the season.  Suddenly, a four-way competition ensues to replace him, with big-league utilitymen Eric Sogard and Adam Rosales now in play, along with two more intriguing candidates in converted catcher Josh Donaldson and 33-year-old Wes Timmons, a career minor leaguer still chasing the dream.

 

  • Then out of nowhere, ESPN The Magazine rolls off the presses with an unlikely subject gracing its cover.  Is that really Brandon and Amanda McCarthy posing beneath the header, “Chicks Dig the Groundball?”  It sure is, and it’s at a grocery counter near you.

 

  • And during the first week of camp, the A’s also had special broadcasting guests on hand.  For the first time in many years, the club’s flagship radio station had an every-day presence, as Mark Kreidler, Dan Dibley and Whitey Gleason entertained the folks back home with four-hour doses of “The Rise Guys” on 95.7 FM The Game.  Some of the more indelible moments came courtesy of Scott Hatteberg, who shared a hilarious story about the first time he met childhood idol Don Mattingly while rounding first base against the Yankees, and Dallas Braden, who offered a few quips and biting comments about the McCarthys’ appearance on ESPN The Magazine and his role as Welcoming Committee chair for the arrival of Manny, among other sorted things.  By the way, is there a better morning sports talk show in the country than The Rise Guys?  For any of you who have not tuned it yet, you’re in for a real treat.
  • Then, it was time for the triumphant return of Oakland’s version of Brad Pitt to Phoenix Muni.  Unassuming as always, wearing shorts and flip flops, there was Billy Beane, fresh from attending the Academy Awards.  Continuing a Moneyball victory tour that seems to have no end, Billy stood in the clubhouse and regaled the beat writers with Hollywood stories of Oscar parties and primo seats at the event. The photo of him with daughter Casey and wife Tara, all in black formal wear on the red carpet, was truly priceless.  So much so, that Director of Baseball Administration Pam Pitts—no relation to Brad, thanks to a meager “s”—thought so highly of it, the picture adorns the glass wall in her office here in Phoenix.

 

  • Let us not forget perhaps the biggest splash of spring training.  The Cuban Adonis, Yoenis Cespedes, slipped on A’s jersey No. 52 one day, and presto, a future superstar was in our midst.  And from his introductory press conference, to his eye-popping first round of batting practice, to his show-stopping first game in which he walked, hit a RBI single and then crowned the A’s-Reds telecast on CSN California by absolutely annihilating a Jeff Francis fastball over the left field fence, the “Yo-Yo Man” exhibited a charisma and star quality that hasn’t been seen in these parts in a long time.  Only a couple of days ago, I was standing above the first base dugout, watching new hitting coach Chili Davis talk hitting (duh) with newly-minted A’s sluggers Ramirez and Cespedes.  I couldn’t help but remark, to no one in particular, “two months ago, I don’t think we envisioned this scene.”

 

  • Then, just as potential boredom was surfacing among the cacti, here strolls Sal Bando, Campy Campaneris and Blue Moon Odom, paying a visit to Bob Melvin and A’s camp.  It was priceless to see Campy introduce himself to Cespedes, a fellow Cuban.

 

  • Slowly but surely, A’s fans have become better acquainted with some of the new faces on the team.  Take Josh Reddick, the prize piece in the Bailey trade with Boston.  There appears to be many layers to this young outfielder, as chronicled in a recent article by A’s beat writer Susan Slusser.  Ala Daric Barton, Reddick is a WWE-aholic.  He sits on a stool in the clubhouse that features some Smackdown photo. And, of course, there’s the WWE championship belt atop his locker—a belt he tends to show off at every chance he gets (Photo Day, interview during MLB Network’s 30 Teams in 30 Days segment, etc.).  Yet it’s the human interest side of Josh that has everyone rooting for him.  Slusser spoke at length with Josh, about a choppy childhood, and also with his inspirational father, who lost an arm in a power-line accident yet remained his son’s coach and driving force for success.  If you haven’t read it, check out last Saturday’s San Francisco Chronicle.  Outstanding.

 

  • And before being sent back to the minor league camp, A’s fans got an exciting glimpse of the future in former first-round picks Michael Choice, Grant Green and Sonny Gray.  Each displayed the talent and work ethic which projects to future stardom.  Who knows, we may see one or more of this triumvirate in a Major League uniform later this year.

 

Believe me, I could go on.  There are three open spots in the starting rotation, with the likes of Tyson Ross, Graham Godfrey, Tommy Milone, Jarrod Parker and Brad Peacock making their bid, while Braden and Brett Anderson continue to take positive steps towards returning in-season from their surgeries.  There’s also plenty of intrigue surrounding first base, where Brandon Allen, Kila Ka’aihue, Chris Carter and Barton continue to wage a battle.  And when all these positions are decided, the A’s will find themselves halfway across the world, opening their season in Tokyo against the Mariners in Japan Series 2012.

 

So with a camp full of surprises and unique occurrences, what were our players up to on their off day yesterday?  I ran into relief hopeful Erick Threets in the hotel elevator and he said Coco Crisp had organized an outing.  “Some of us guys are going paint-balling.”  Then later this morning in the clubhouse, Michael Taylor mentioned he had participated in the activity. I had to ask him the obvious question: How could a smart guy with a Stanford education play a game where he’s the biggest target (6-5, 256)? “Hey, I needed to take one for the team,” he said. Yes, quite literally.

A FAMILIAR FACE PAYS VISIT TO A’S CAMP

Prior to today’s spring training opener, manager Bob Melvin held a brief clubhouse meeting with the team.  On the bulletin board, the daily schedule indicated the primary reason was to “review signs.”  Yet, A’s players got a little more than they bargained for.  After the discussion about takes, bunts, steals and indicators waned, Mr. Melvin shared a bit of franchise history with his troops.  The Oakland skipper introduced Sal Bando, the man he chooses to honor by wearing his No. 6 jersey.  And why shouldn’t he?  After all, Bando still lives in rarified air when you talk about the greatest leaders in U.S. professional sports history.   Who outside of Michael Jordan, Bill Russell and Bart Starr can claim to be the captain of teams that won three straight World Championships?

Well, Captain Sal was the heart and soul of a band of A’s players who ran the table in 1972, 1973 and 1974 in collecting three straight World Series trophies.  While his career statistics were not Cooperstown worthy—.254 average, 242 HR, 1039 RBI—it was Bando’s intangibles that galvanized a ridiculously talented team into a champion.  As a leader, he was the strong, calming force on an eclectic cast of characters as diverse as Reggie Jackson and Campy Campaneris.  And that leadership revealed itself in many ways.  No one on the A’s was a more clutch hitter.  Yet, it was not an uncommon sight to see Bando drop down a perfectly executed bunt in the seventh inning of a tied game if that’s what the situation called for.  Try naming another cleanup hitter in baseball who would willingly do that?  And then there was his bazooka arm and soft glove.  Invariably, it was Captain Sal who would bail out a pitcher with a late-inning, around-the-horn double play.

What made this morning so special is Bando has not been sighted at Phoenix Muni or the Oakland Coliseum in many years.  That has been partly due to his subsequent role as general manager of the Brewers from 1991-99, and the fact that he divides his time now between homes in Milwaukee and here in Arizona.  He also told me around the batting cage today that “the change of owners and management over the years tends to further distance you from the people you once knew.”  So, when equipment manager Steve Vucinich fitted him with an official green-and-gold cap this morning, it was a sight to warm the heart of any longtime A’s fan.  Even more so when he joined former teammate Phil Garner, now an A’s special adviser, at the dugout railing.  Old stories about Charlie Finley, Rollie Fingers and Ken Holtzman began to flow.  It was Bando, as GM, who once hired Garner as his field manager in Milwaukee.  And who was Garner’s bench coach with the Brewers in 1999?  Bob Melvin.  So, in many ways, today served not only as the triumphant return of Captain Sal to his old team, but a reunion of sorts for three outstanding baseball men.  It also served as a reminder that leadership, fundamentals and team chemistry can make a difference in this game.  Sal Bando was living proof.

BRADEN WELCOMES THE A’S NEW ADDITION

This is why we love Dallas Braden.  Whether it’s Hideki Matsui or Manny Ramirez, he’s a One Man Welcoming Committee.  As you may recall, last year Mr. 209 came up with this nifty idea to entertain dozens of Japanese media who were staked out in the clubhouse to chronicle the arrival of national hero Matsui.  Weeks earlier, Braden had mail-ordered a life-sized blow-up Godzilla.  He was like a kid on Christmas morning when the box arrived at Phoenix Muni.  Along with the help of a few teammates, Braden decorated the synthetic creature much in the same fashion he would have decorated his Christmas Tree.  No. 55 A’s jersey.  Check.  Yellow wristbands.  Check.  Oakland cap.  Check.  Jockstrap.  Why, of course, check.  When Matsui finally arrived and turned the corner into the clubhouse, all he saw was about 40 new teammates staring at him to see what his reaction would be to Dallas’ handiwork.  Of course, Hideki didn’t immediately see his inflatable likeness.  All he saw were 80 eyeballs focused on him.  Then he looked to his left and saw The Creature sitting in the chair at his cubicle and everyone broke out laughing.

Now fast forward to 2012 Spring Training.  Earlier this week, word of Manny’s signing with the A’s blew through the social media world like sagebrush in the Arizona desert.  On cue, Braden’s intricate brain waves activated.  What to do?  What to do?  First, affable equipment manager Steve Vucinich assigned Ramirez a locker adjacent from Braden’s.  I have a feeling “Vuc” made that decision solely for entertainment value.  Within minutes of Manny reporting this morning, Braden laid down his version of a welcome mat.  Without saying a word, a roll of trainer’s tape in hand, Dallas walked to his locker with great purpose.  He proceeded to lay down tape to outline a square around his chair.  Then, with a sharpie, he simply wrote “Bio Hazard” on the tape—apparently an effort to keep the media mobs away from crushing him when they leave Manny’s locker.  But Dallas was not done yet.  Then, with a wry smile on his face, he walked around the corner from his locker to the walkway where players first enter the clubhouse each morning.  There, he posted a sign that simply read, “Manny Town.”  Below that, he taped up another sign that said, “Take A Number.”

I’m not sure if Manny saw the signs before he left the clubhouse today, but if he didn’t, they will greet him in the morning when the A’s stage their first full-squad workouts.  As for today, Ramirez could not have been more cordial.  After being outfitted in his green-and-gold gear and shaking hands with many of his new teammates, he hit the Phoenix Muni field for a round of batting practice with other position players.  With cameras rolling—ESPN, Comcast, FOX Sports, ESPN Deportes, NHK Japan—Manny joined Scott Sizemore, Cliff Pennington and Jemile Weeks in the first hitting group.  It didn’t take long for a few balls to sail out of the yard, some flying high and far enough to suggest Oakland added a little power with today’s new arrival.  With his final swing of the morning, Ramirez trotted around the bases, then picked up his glove and shagged balls in right field.  A few minutes later, he spotted his beautiful wife, Juliana, and their two young sons on the grass near the first base dugout.  He came over to apply a Manny Group Hug.  All smiles everywhere, they joined him in addressing the large media contingent gathered on the field.  Manny answered all their questions and seemed in no rush to leave the spotlight.  Yet, while he stood up to the TV glare, Dallas Braden was multi-tasking.  Beyond his Manny Town antics, the veteran A’s left-hander—and we do mean left-hander—was also working on a way to properly acknowledge the unexpected star treatment of Brandon & Amanda McCarthy on this month’s cover of ESPN The Magazine.  “I’ve got a big ol’ Fathead coming, except they’re superimposing my face on his head,” Dallas said.  “It will be displayed in a way that should properly honor them.”

And to think there were people in the Bay Area who thought the A’s were going to be boring this season.

ANOTHER SEASON BEGINS ANEW

As we waited for our Southwest Airlines flight to board at Oakland Airport this morning, A’s Director of Baseball Operations Farhan Zaidi, AP sportswriter Janie McCauley and I exchanged pleasantries.  All three of us were headed to Phoenix to start the marathon known as Major League Baseball.

While the names might change on your flight each year, the scene is quite familiar.  Spring Training is about to begin, and this trip truly signals the end of winter.  As I write this first blog of 2012, it makes me think of the ritual of leaving home for the warm environs of Arizona.  While working for another MLB team years ago, I remember listening to Bob Quinn, remarkably a third generation GM in baseball.  His father and grandfather before him had taken that same cross-country car ride each February.  Bob so fondly recounted the same, cherished steps taken every year.  The car would be packed up from Milwaukee or Philadelphia, where snow and frigid temperatures were bid adieu, as he or his father would drive south, state by state, until the sun began to shine and a welcomed 70 degrees would greet them as they reached their Spring Training destination.

While the Bay Area hardly compares to the harsh winters of those locales, I’m sure our very own Billy Beane, along with his trusty canine companion Taggert, enjoy the same pleasure of their annual car trip to Arizona as he anticipates a new, still unwritten season with the A’s.  I know I felt the same way when we touched down at Phoenix International Airport, the sun-splashed Camelback Mountains, plush green golf courses, and endless red rocks always a welcome sight.

My routine will continue this afternoon.  Day One at Spring Training is always the same.  I pick up my rental car, stop by the Phoenix Municipal Stadium offices to set up my office—hey, there’s Honey Bear’s BBQ as I drive up Van Buren—head to the grocery store for food and toiletries, and finally check in to the team hotel, the Doubletree Suites near the airport.   Tomorrow, pitchers and catchers report.   The irrepressible Dallas Braden will hold court in the clubhouse, no doubt, as he welcomes the staff’s newbies like Jarrod Parker, Brad Peacock and Tommy Milone, and also renews his friendships with returning veterans such as Brandon McCarthy, Brian Fuentes and Grant Balfour.  Beyond Braden’s state-of-the-209 address, I suspect Janie McCauley and our beat reporters Susan Slusser, Joe Stiglich, Jane Lee and Kate Longworth will zero in on former Cy Young Award winner Bartolo Colon tomorrow, as the 39-year-old right-hander will check into A’s Central for the first time after making somewhat of a comeback with the Yankees last season.  Colon, most likely slated to start Oakland’s second game against the Mariners in Tokyo March 29, could give Bob Melvin’s staff a much-needed veteran presence as we begin preparing for the 2012 campaign with several rotation spots still to be determined.

In speaking with Susan Slusser yesterday—someone who’s logged several years on the beat and has earned a gilded reputation in the business—we both agreed that this should be one of the more interesting Spring Trainings in recent memory.  The 25-man roster that breaks camp is far from settled, as multiple positions promise to be wide-open competitions.  It will be a talent-laden group vying for those spots, although many of the more-gifted players bring limited experience to Papago Park.  How it all turns out will be the fun part, as we watch, day-by-day, for the unexpected twists and turns of Spring Training.  Whether it’s following our blogs on the club’s website, or the regular reports on Comcast SportsNet or 95.7 FM The Game—both of the team’s broadcast partners will be on location every day next week—or reading insightful articles by our beat writers, we hope you jump right into the “Soap Opera” with the rest of us. Baseball is back, and it’s about time!

POSTCARDS FROM THE 2011 WINTER MEETINGS #4

The scene yesterday in the Chantilly West Ballroom at the Winter Meetings would be one of the greatest fantasies a baseball fan could ever have.  Each year, all 30 Major League managers gather for a special reception and lunch with members of the Baseball Writers Association of America.  Standing within a couple thousand square feet are the Who’s Who of big league skippers.  Joe Madden, sporting a pair of his distinctive eyewear and a slick sports coat, is at one end of the room, sharing an anecdote or two with a national baseball writer.  A’s manager Bob Melvin, certainly no stranger to this annual event, having experienced two previous managerial stints with Milwaukee and Arizona, is surrounded by two other Northern California-born managers in Cincinnati’s Dusty Baker and Dale Sveum, the new field general of the Chicago Cubs. 

Over at the drink line is former Yankee great Don Mattingly, the Los Angeles Dodgers’ manager, talking to an old friend, Buck Showalter, the Baltimore Orioles’ skipper.  And, of course, there’s the man in perpetual motion, new Marlins’ manager Ozzie Guillen, who has already generated as much buzz for the re-born Miami franchise as the signing of Jose Reyes, Heath Bell and Mark Buerhle during these meetings.  Even for someone as jaded as me, who has worked in professional sports for three decades, I find the managers luncheon to be a true spectacle.  Where else can you find 30 high-profile leaders in one location outside of a NATO or U.S.-European Union Summit? 

Yesterday reminded me of the first time I had the privilege to attend a private dinner in Cooperstown, hosted by Jane Forbes Clark, the Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Baseball Hall of Fame. It was held prior to the induction ceremonies that particular weekend.  It was a wonderful affair, and like any life-long baseball fan, I felt like the proverbial kid in the candy store.  All of my childhood heroes had come to life, with Hall of Famers standing in the buffet line ahead and behind me.  It was baseball’s version of the movie Night at the Museum.  Former stars tended to flock together by team.  There at one table were former Baltimore Orioles, including Brooks Robinson and Jim Palmer.  Meanwhile, I was in the food line discussing entrée choices with Johnny Bench, Joe Morgan and Tony Perez of the Big Red Machine.  Sometimes we take things for granted, but when you are dropped in the middle of living and breathing Hall of Famers, you quickly realize this is a pretty fun gig.  

As for A’s Assistant GM David Forst, subbing for Billy Beane with the Bay Area journalists, he seemed to have a little fun himself in bantering back and forth.  Only the past few hours, Twitter posts were coming in at a dizzying pace, noting multiple teams that allegedly have shown interest in some of the A’s top pitchers.  Forst would not confirm any specifics, but he did acknowledge there was significant interest shown by teams he or Billy had spoken with earlier in the day.  While David said, point blank, that there would be no deals consummated last night, he did say they have a better idea of the current landscape than they did when they arrived in Dallas Sunday.

This morning, us remaining A’s staff members attended the Rule 5 Draft, and will soon board flights and be on our way home. Thanks for following our blog this week.  I hope it gave you some insight on the proceedings.  Pitchers and catchers report to Phoenix in 41 days.  The season nears.

POSTCARDS FROM THE 2011 WINTER MEETINGS #3

Well, another day is in the books at the Winter Meetings for the Oakland A’s.  To best describe what transpired at Billy Beane Central, I’ll borrow a line once written by my good friend Ben Hyman while he was plying his trade at The Baltimore Sun.  “On a day that nothing happened, nothing happened.”  That about sums it up, boys and girls.  Well, maybe not exactly.  Certainly the A’s braintrust had further meetings and phone calls with other teams today, and possible deals were discussed.  Any of those conversations could be important steps in a process that eventually triggers a trade.  But for now, Billy’s state-of-the-day address to Bay Area beat writers in his suite last night was without much substance or fanfare – or pretense on Billy’s part.

For a second straight night, a recurring subject was the A’s outfield positions.  Billy acknowledged that Ryan Sweeney would be the team’s starting right fielder if Opening Day were tomorrow.  However, beyond that, he could make no definitive statements.  Of the young, upcoming players in the system, he said no one had distinguished themselves with a dominant performance that would merit “500 at-bats this year in Oakland.”  Billy did offer kudos to Jermaine Mitchell, an outfielder who impressed in Sacramento last year before a knee injury required surgery.  He also said Michael Taylor had a solid year with the River Cats last season, but still ideally wants to see him “dominate” on the Triple-A level.

Probably the lightest moment of the media session came later, when Billy poked a little fun at Gaku Tashiro, the affable dean of Japanese baseball writers in the United States who is serving as a pool reporter.  He asked Gaku why the Japanese media corps continues to cover him and the A’s even though Hideki Matsui is no longer under contract with Oakland.  “Are you guys going to cover us for the rest of my life?” the A’s GM quipped.  He then told Gaku about his experience at the coffee shop in the morning.  He was having breakfast with another team’s GM when he spotted a Japanese photographer with a zoom lense.  “I leaned behind a column, and he leaned right with me and took another shot.”   It appears that Billy, while not leading the league in free agent signings this week, may very well lead the majors in paparazzi.

Mr. Beane was headed to the airport last night to catch a flight, leaving our hotel suite operations to the capable Assistant GM David Forst.  Whether he’ll have new quips for Gaku or other Bay Area writers tomorrow remains to be seen.  In the meantime, I personally made a major acquisition this evening.  I visited the Original Sonny Bryan’s for some down-home Texas barbecue brisket.  It’s a quirky place in that diners, since 1958, have been eating their meals sitting in school classroom desks.  The trick is to not eat so much brisket or Frito Pie that you get stuck in your seat.  After much sampling, I can honestly say Sonny’s cue is big league.  I luckily sprung free from the desk, post-feast, and returned to the Hilton Anatole unscathed.  It’s back to baseball and the Winter Meetings today, though, the final full day in Dallas.

POST CARDS FROM THE 2011 WINTER MEETINGS #2

For me personally, the Winter Meetings are as much about seeing old friends as anything else.  It may sound cliché, but there truly is a “baseball family.”  While the Meetings are conducted, I’m also attending the Public Relations Meetings, which span three days.  These are my people!  While we work for competing teams, we are part of a fraternity.  As a group, we share the same challenges and goals.  Everything that affects the image of our franchise, we take personally.   And if we don’t, then we’re in the wrong business. 

We discussed many issues that impact our universe.  Dan Halem from MLB’s Labor Relations Department spoke to us about the new basic agreement.  Kevin Sullivan, the ex-White House communications chief, addressed the group about social media, building a message and how players can avoid embarrassing pratfalls in the media.  Joe Torre, now executive VP of Baseball Operations for the League, and his aide Peter Woodfork provided an update on umpires, and how meticulous their office is in quality control, how high umpires consistently score under any matrix used, and also emphasized that the Men in Blue are human beings, just like the rest of us.

Yet perhaps the most interesting – and yes, even heart-warming – exchange came from national baseball journalists Ken Rosenthal and Jon Heyman, who joined the PR directors to discuss how they view this phenomenon called Twitter.  First, what they said that was interesting.  Rosenthal, the former Baltimore Sun reporter who now stars on multiple FOX Sports platforms, opened the session by expressing some regrets about the rapid evolution that has seen Twitter totally reshape the media business and how consumers’ habits have changed.  “It’s where we break news now,” said a reluctant Rosenthal, shrugging his shoulders.  “It has its good and bad points.”  While recognizing the immediacy provided by Twitter, Rosenthal also said he agonizes over the fact that the two-source rule that used to be the industry standard in deciding to run a story has pretty much been tossed asunder.  One source and it’s tweeted in a New York second.  And that goes for the veteran scribes, who know that, in their industry, if you “lose” in the tweet posting game – even by one or two minutes – you finish behind the competition.  Rosenthal said there are many more mistakes made, himself included, in what he described as “a lessening of standards” in the media business.  Heyman, who just left Sports Ilustrated to take a position with CBSSportsline.com, echoed Ken’s feelings.  He welcomed the vehicle that Twitter provides for breaking stories.  “It used to be where we would file a story at 8 p.m. and then pray no other writer broke it before we did.  Now, we can control that by immediately tweeting it the moment we’ve got the story.”  

As for the heart-warming part, I think what I enjoyed most about their presentation was this:  While both Rosenthal and Heyman are fierce competitors, along with the likes of Buster Olney, Jayson Stark and Jerry Crasnick, you could see they were friendly rivals who clearly respected – maybe even empathized with – each other.  In a way, they, too, are part of the baseball family.  They have been covering countless Winter Meetings, World Series and ordinary every day games. Through the years, they have built close relationships with hundreds of journalists, GMs, PR types, agents and, of course, players and managers.  Yes, they call them “sources,” but in a way, they also consider them friends.  That is not a conflict of interest, merely a statement about the human condition.  And I, for one, am glad we can enjoy the company of people, no matter which side of the fence they work from, or whether they’re a team rival. 

Next up, I’ll give you an update from the GM suite.  Billy Beane spoke to our beat writers recently, but to be truthful, there wasn’t much to report.   He said he remains open-minded about possible trades, and has communicated or met with more than half the teams in MLB.  However, he also cautioned the writers, stressing that being open-minded does not necessarily mean we’re “shopping” any players.

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