WHY IT’S IMPORTANT WE HONOR JACKIE ROBINSON

During the final week of Spring Training, I had the pleasure to attend a preview screening of “42,” the new Legendary Pictures/Warner Brothers movie about Jackie Robinson.  Both Chadwick Boseman (Jackie) and Harrison Ford (Dodgers’ executive Branch Rickey) were outstanding in lead roles, and the film certainly is a great reminder on why we honor the man who broke baseball’s color barrier.  This Monday night at the Coliseum, every A’s and Astros player, coach and manager will be wearing the No. 42, as we pay tribute to Robinson on the date (April 15) he first played in a Major League game back in 1947.

I can remember many years ago, while in a previous job, I accompanied former outfielder Ellis Burks to a local middle school assembly.  Burks, who was born in Vicksburg, Mississippi, where his family experienced the racial tensions of the 60’s, was part of a pilot program honoring Jackie Robinson which eventually was adopted by all of Major League Baseball.  Our message to these 12- and 13-year-olds was this:  Jackie Robinson is the greatest role model and hero in American sports history.  His actions both on and off the field not only changed the face of sports in this country, but it also changed the way America would view race relations and social justice.  Many people forget that Jackie was truly a lone pioneer during that time in American history.  This was eight years before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat and Martin Luther King, Jr. led the Montgomery Bus Boycott.

Prior to Jackie joining the Dodgers, young African American males never thought it was even in the realm of possibility that one day they could play in the Major Leagues.  They wouldn’t even allow themselves to dream it was possible.  My good friend and Hall of Famer Orlando Cepeda once told me the same thing.  “Jackie wasn’t just a hero in the black community.  He was our hero too!  Until he broke the barrier, Latins like me, Roberto (Clemente) and the Alou brothers could only hope to play against Negro League players when they played winter ball on the islands.”  As a child of the 60’s, I fell in love with the game of baseball watching Orlando, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Juan Marichal, Bob Gibson, Frank Robinson, Elston Howard and so many other exciting stars who were people of color.  I cannot imagine what that decade would have been like without those great players.  I think also, it sheds some light on what Major League Baseball missed when a previous generation of minorities—the likes of Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, Cool Papa Bell and Buck Leonard—were not allowed to play.  That all changed after a young man named Jackie Robinson, a highly-educated and multi-sport star at UCLA, agreed to accept the unenviable challenge presented by Mr. Rickey.

Later in his life—unfortunately not depicted in the movie—Jackie continued to be an advocate for racial equality and a true pioneer.  Retiring from baseball after the 1956 season, he accepted an executive position with Chock full o’Nuts, becoming the first black vice president of a major American corporation.  Later he would help found Freedom National Bank, a black-owned and operated commercial bank based in Harlem, as well as establish the Jackie Robinson Construction Company, which built housing for low-income families.  Yet, Jackie was more than a role model in business.  He also remained a social activist, serving on the board of the NAACP and supporting the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  Ironically, his final public appearance involved the Oakland A’s.  It was before Game 2 of the 1972 World Series in Cincinnati.  Commissioner Bowie Kuhn invited him to throw out the ceremonial first pitch to commemorate the 25th anniversary of his Major League debut.  The white-haired Robinson, showing the ravages of several years living with diabetes, accepted a plaque and spoke before the first pitch.  “I’m going to be tremendously more pleased and proud when I look at that third base coaching line one day and see a black face managing in baseball.”  Nine days later on Oct. 24, 1972, Jackie passed away at the young age of 53.  Two years later, the Cleveland Indians named Frank Robinson the first African American manager in Major League history.  Many other black managers have followed, including Dusty Baker, Cito Gaston, Willie Randolph, Ron Washington, and just this year, Bo Porter with the Astros.  But Robinson’s influence went beyond baseball.  Magic Johnson became a business leader in Los Angeles after his basketball career and is an investor in the Dodgers.  Colin Powell became the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and later Secretary of State.   Oprah Winfrey became a media mogul and social conscience in this country.  Rapper and entrepreneur Jay-Z is now part-owner of the NBA’s Nets, ironically based in the same New York borough (Brooklyn) where Jackie Robinson made history.  And, of course, the first African American president, Barack Obama, is in his second term as our nation’s leader.

I suspect Jackie Robinson is looking down on us and quite pleased with the progress we have made.  However, Jackie was not one to rest on his laurels.  I have no doubt he would still be pushing for more progress if he was here today.

Of course, if you’re an A’s fan, you also have another reason to love and cherish Jackie Robinson.  Following the 1956 season, the Dodgers traded him to the arch-rival Giants.  Robinson, facing an unimaginative horror, chose to retire instead of ever wearing the orange & black uniform.  Our kind of guy.

A’S ALREADY SHOWING QUALITY DEPTH

Prior to the season, ESPN’s baseball guru Buster Olney made a rather bold statement about the 2013 A’s.  He said Bob Melvin’s club might be the deepest in the American League.  However, if you followed the Oaklanders last season, that claim may not sound so bold.  In fact, the 2012 AL West champs were all about depth and interchangeable parts.

Now, just a week into our new season, examples of that depth have already come into play.  Let’s start with the pitching staff.  The fact that 24-year-old Dan Straily can strike out 11 batters, walk none and allow two runs in 6.2 innings Friday night in Houston but then be sent down after the game to make room for No. 5 starter Bartolo Colon kind of illustrates that point, doesn’t it?  But if you look even closer, I think it’s the depth we have in the back end of our rotation that will really serve this team well as the season continues to unfold.  With Tommy Milone (13-10, 3.74 ERA last year), A.J. Griffin (7-1, 3.06) and Colon (10-9, 3.43) as our numbers three through five starters, we figure to own a significant advantage over most teams in the league.  We saw that the first time through the rotation last week against the Mariners and Astros.  And while Brett Anderson dodged a bullet—actually two bullets—in Sunday’s start at Minute Maid Park that battered his throwing hand, if he had been deemed unfit to pitch, Straily would have been on the next plane to rejoin the team for Anderson’s next start.  You want to talk about depth?

And if we had received word that the Ragin’ Australian, Grant Balfour, needed more time to rehab his surgically-repaired knee and wouldn’t have been available to open the campaign, just think of our choices as his temporary replacement:  the right-left, flame-throwing duo of All-Star Ryan Cook and Sean Doolittle, or newly-acquired 30-year-old veteran Chris Resop, a minor league closer who has pitched in 137 games for Pittsburgh over the last two seasons.  What other team in the American League has those kinds of choices?  In fact, what other team in the league was forced to send down such quality arms the likes of Jordan Norberto (4-1, 2.77 last year), Pedro Figueroa (0-0, 3.32), Mike Ekstrom (team-best 1.20 ERA in 10 spring training games) or Hideki Okajima (17-8, 3.11 ERA in 261 career games with Boston) because there was simply no room in the bullpen?

Injuries sprung up among the A’s position players in recent weeks, too, again demonstrating why A’s fans should feel good about the club’s current depth chart.  First, it was middle infielders Hiro Nakajima (hamstring) and Adam Rosales (intercostal), who were placed on the 15-day disabled list the final week of spring training.  That left the starting shortstop job to Jed Lowrie, already a proven big leaguer at the position from his days in Boston and Houston.  In the first seven games, Lowrie has done more damage at the plate than any other A’s player, leading the team in batting average (.500), RBI (6), on-base percentage (.567) and slugging percentage (1.000) and tied for the club lead in home runs (3).

Then Sunday, Gold Glove outfielder Josh Reddick decided to play bumper cars with the stadium railing down the right field line.  It was a scary moment as he was escorted off the field with his right hand held immobile.  While we’re glad to say x-rays proved negative, losing a player who led the 2012 club in home runs and RBI—even for a couple of days—is normally something that would have had a significant effect on a team’s lineup.  However, not many teams have two proven hitting outfielders in reserve the caliber of Chris Young and Seth Smith.  Young, a previous All-Star who has enjoyed three 20-homer, 20-stolen base seasons in the past with Arizona, promptly crowned Sunday’s 9-3 win over the young Astros by blasting a three-run homer in the fifth inning.  Smith, a .268 career hitter in 616 big league games and one of the better fastball hitters in the league, was another hero Sunday, scorching a two-run double in the second inning.

We saw this type of balanced attack last season, when Oakland not only had 14 walk-off wins during the regular season but 11 different players doing the honors.  But that was last year.  I don’t think anyone in their right minds would predict that many walk-off victories will come our way again this year.  However, this year’s team may actually be deeper than last season.  That should bode well as we run another marathon in 2013.  As we have already seen in the season’s first week, it can be a different player that can make the difference in any given game.

A LOOK AT THE A’S LEADERS

Leadership is an interesting thing in team sports. It can come from many places, some unexpected. I know many of you who followed the A’s last season were aware of the roles veteran players like Jonny Gomes and Brandon Inge played in helping create a winning chemistry in the clubhouse. Both were “gamers” on the field and team “cut-ups” off it.

As you also know, neither Gomes nor Inge have returned for the 2013 season. Of course, this begs the question, “Is there a leadership void on this year’s team?” After spending most of the past seven weeks in Arizona and observing the interaction of this year’s roster, this much is clear to me: We have multiple leaders on this club, and each one tends to lead in a different way.

In the bullpen, look no further than Grant Balfour and Jerry Blevins. During the second half of last year’s magical campaign, Balfour was not only mowing down hitters and stockpiling saves, he was also asserting himself as a veteran leader to both pitchers and position players. He was scribbling inspirational thoughts on the clubhouse blackboard, and stomping around the mound in a fit of rage that had to jack up his teammates. This spring, his leadership has taken a different form—that of a man obsessed at rehabbing his surgically-repaired knee in record time so he could reclaim his proper place as Oakland’s closer. Any player in camp had to admire how hard the affable Aussie worked in the training room, weight room and on the field to return to action. As for Blevins, he’s the longest tenured Athletic on the team. A proud alumnus of Dayton University—which must explain why he strolled into the clubhouse Tuesday wearing a long, wool scarf with a Dayton Flyer logo in 85-degree heat—he readily shares his wisdom and quick wit with his younger teammates. There’s a cool and calm he exudes that has to rub off on the Sean Doollittles and Ryan Cooks.

In the starting rotation, Bartolo Colon and Brett Anderson provide a quiet leadership. Simply by his actions last year, Colon gave his fellow pitchers a daily reminder that baseball is a game and they should all have fun playing it. Almost goofy at times, it was not uncommon for the big right-hander to toss a baseball up in the air, over and over again, while at his clubhouse cubicle. Or walking up to no one in particular and giving them a handful of candy, or even better, an unexpected chest bump that could rattle your foundation. Yet on the mound, the 39-year-old Dominican continues to demonstrate that successful pitching is still about throwing strikes. Anderson might be even more quiet than Colon, preferring to let his rigorous pre-game regimen and wicked pitch repertoire do his talking. The manager, Bob Melvin, however, said recently that Brett seems to be coming out of his shell this year, and offering opinions that reflect the high baseball acumen he has acquired having grown up in a baseball family.

Of the position players, many of the A’s outfielders have the potential to be every-day leaders on this team. Coco Crisp, who invariably was in the middle of dramatic moments last year, is a game-changer in so many ways, whether it be tracking down a ball in center field, stealing a base when it’s needed or delivering a clutch hit in the late innings. As he showed last year, Coco also is a fun-loving veteran who brings a light touch to the clubhouse and a little swagger on the diamond. Yoenis Cespedes, despite his many God-given talents, is the first player in the cage each morning. No one works harder on the A’s, and no one is more serious about improving as a player. This does not go unnoticed by his teammates. Josh Reddick, well, he’s Josh Reddick. Since the first day he appeared in white shoes last spring, he has been a player who plays with no fear. Yes, he can be a little wacky on occasion, not to mention highly entertaining on his Twitter account. But at the end of the day, is there anybody who attacks the game like the Bearded Wonder? And you can bet he’ll find new and creative variations of post-game celebrations this year that are sure to delight fans and his teammates alike.

One person you might not think of as an obvious leader is Chris Young, our new acquisition from Arizona. He was thrust into an unenviable situation this offseason when he was traded here, as the A’s were returning a starting outfield that was considered one of the best in baseball. Young, an All-Star center fielder in his own right, arrived this spring knowing he would not be the regular at his natural position. Talk about a test of character from the get-go. And all I have seen from Chris Young is a great teammate trying to fit in. From Day One of camp, he never complained and he never sulked. He’s been a total professional, all the while opening a lot of eyes with his superior glove work in the field and his silky smooth swing at the plate. His unselfishness and team-first attitude was reminiscent of Jonny Gomes when he saw only one at-bat in the ALDS. Judging by the balls jumping off his bat in the desert, something tells me Young will get plenty of plate appearances in 2013. The same could be said for Jed Lowrie, another front-line player who arrived via a deal with Houston only to find a crowded infield. Lowrie, also a veteran presence, merely rolled up his sleeves and got to work. With the recent injuries to Adam Rosales and Hiro Nakajima, Lowrie is sure to play a vital role as we christen the season.

So, while we appreciate what both Gomes and Inge gave us last year, the time has come for new leadership on the team. That, along with the steady hand of Manager of the Year Bob Melvin, gives us every reason to believe another winning season and playoff berth is within our grasp in 2013. It all starts with Seattle in a four-game series next week. Hope to see you at the Coliseum, where the fun is just beginning.

A’S FANS CAN SEE THE FUTURE IN PETERSON, CHOICE, RUSSELL

One of the enjoyable sidelights of Spring Training is getting an early glimpse of future stars in your farm system.  There seems to always be an unexpected sensation that bursts onto the scene each spring.  Even though we have 14 games left in Arizona before heading north, this spring has already showcased three young A’s phenoms that will bear watching in the next few years.  So, remember these names:  Shane Peterson, Michael Choice and Addison Russell.  All three have left lasting impressions and could be appearing at the Coliseum sooner than you might think.

Peterson, the last remnant of the Matt Holliday trade with the Cardinals, has been a Cactus League revelation.  Sporting a sweet stroke and a propensity for using all fields, the 25-year-old outfielder has rattled off four multi-hit games and currently ranks third in the Cactus League in batting (.457), is tied for the league lead in doubles (5) and is second in hits (16).  And this does not even count the double and homer he hit last Friday against Texas, which were washed away with a fourth-inning rainstorm in Surprise.  As Manager Bob Melvin commented to a group of reporters recently, “Evidently, he doesn’t make many outs.”

Peterson_S_1A former Long Beach State standout and second-round pick by St. Louis, Peterson has always toyed with the .300 mark during his minor league career.  But judging by his inflated 2012 numbers, it seems he may have had an epiphany last season.  After hitting .274 with Double-A Midland, he was promoted to Sacramento where he figuratively tore the cover off the ball.  Hell, he might have even literally tore it off the ball.  His stat line in 38 games with the River Cats:  .389, seven homers, 23 RBI, .484 on-base percentage, .618 slugging percentage.

Choice, whose legs resemble veritable tree trunks on a sturdy 215-pound frame, showed enough in his first 20 at-bats this spring to turn some heads in the A’s front office.  At that point, he was hitting .550 and leading the Cactus League.  He’s tailed off since, going 2 for 16 over his last seven games, yet he’s still batting .361 and among the league’s Top 10 in both hits and RBI.  He’s hit some majestic drives in camp, many opposite field shots.

I had the pleasure to sit next to his father in the stands for one game at Phoenix Muni.  He told me about how the University of Texas-Arlington—located in his hometown—was the only college to offer him a scholarship.  Considering what a physical specimen he is—and I’m sure was—I found it hard to believe he didn’t get more offers coming out of high school.  What we’ve seen in the desert is a determined young man who displays power, speed, the ability to hit the ball where it’s pitched and a polished fielder in center field.  And, of course, in my line of business, you can’t help but love the name.  When he arrives in Oakland, he’s going to be a headline writer’s dream:

A’S OUTFIELDER A PRIME CHOICE 

OAKLAND ROOKIE MAKING IT A DIFFICULT CHOICE

CHOICE WORDS BY A’S SLUGGER

The A’s first-round selection in the 2010 Draft, Choice seems have put his injuries of the past behind him.  If it wasn’t for the outfielder glut on the big league roster, he could very well make a run at a spot this year.  A September call-up is more likely.

While the 19-year-old Russell is a relative neophyte compared to Peterson and Choice, he appears mature beyond his age.  We list him at six-feet tall in the media guide, but he looks taller in person.  He left little doubt that he might be a quick riser in the system before he was reassigned to minor league camp on Sunday.  Last year’s first-round pick, Russell impressed on three different levels last season, hitting .415 in the Arizona Rookie League, .340 in Short Season Vermont and .310 in Single-A Burlington.  His combined .369 average, 26 extra-base hits and 45 RBI in 44 games prompted Baseball America to suggest he may have had the best first season of anybody in baseball last year.  Lofty praise, indeed.  But when you watch him at the plate, as well as in the field, you quickly surmise this is not your ordinary 19-year-old.  As Melvin said Monday, he reminds him of the first time he saw a young Justin Upton in Arizona’s camp when he was with the Diamondbacks.  In fact, the A’s manager went so far to say Russell might have put together some of the most sophisticated at-bats of anyone in camp.  “Unlike most young players who try to pull the ball to impress, Russell hit the ball where it was pitched,” the Oakland skipper said.  “Very impressive.”

I suppose he could have said that about all three players.  So, A’s fans, while we should rejoice over so many young players returning from last year’s AL West champions, there’s plenty of good reason to be excited about the team’s future.  With shining gems like Shane Peterson, Michael Choice and Addison Russell on the horizon, we might just keep this thing going for a few more years.

FOR ONE DAY, A SLICE OF ITALY AT THE YARD

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.

IT’S STRICTLY BUSINESS FOR THE 2013 ATHLETICS

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….

BDU1ENcCYAAhnAhIt 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.

PITCHERS AND CATCHERS REPORT TODAY!

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.
  • Detroit Tigers v Oakland AthleticsChip 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.
  • hiroThe 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!

IT’S ALMOST BASEBALL SEASON: BLOGGERS UNITE!

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.

WINTER MEETINGS SHOWCASE GOLDEN AGE OF BASEBALL BROADCASTING

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.

New York Yankees v Oakland AthleticsEven 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.

A’S LOOKING ONLY TO TWEAK AT WINTER MEETINGS

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.

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