TWO TOP BAY AREA SPORTS STORIES ON DISPLAY TONIGHT

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.

BABY-FACED STRAILY A POSTER CHILD FOR 2012 A’S

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?

A’S KNOW HOME FIELD ADVANTAGE CRITICAL TO PLAYOFF HOPES

Another hurdle cleared.  A 4-2 road trip suggests this team felt no hangover effects from last week’s four-game sweep of the Yankees in Oakland.  Whew.  If anything, the all-for-one, one-for-all  Atleticos seemed genuinely buoyed by the conquest of New York, and their deadly mix of stifling pitching and lethal offense resulted in consecutive series wins in Toronto and Baltimore.  In the process, Bob Melvin’s boys sped past the Angels and now sit within striking distance of the two-time defending American League champion Texas Rangers.

If this sounds kind of remarkable to you, it’s only because it is.  But when you break it all down, there are many factors at work.  Yoenis Cespedes has emerged as a bona fide star, leading the majors in hitting (.443) since the All-Star Break and now giving even the uber-talented Mike Trout a legitimate run for Rookie of the Year honors (I know that sounds ridiculous, considering what Trout has meant to the Halos this season, but take a look at the numbers—the Yo Man is starting to creep up statistically on the odds-on favorite to win the award).  Josh Reddick continues to play with reckless abandon in the field and a slew of extra base hits at the plate—this, when not modeling authentic Spider-Man costumes in the clubhouse (no really, I saw it with my own eyes Saturday at Camden Yards).  Chris Carter, Brandon Moss and Brandon Inge, proving that batting average can be overrated, have supplied Melvin with plenty of home run and RBI sock at the corner infield positions during this unworldly 18-4 stretch.  Coco Crisp has re-emerged as a leadoff force, while switch-hitting compatriot Jemile Weeks showed flashes of his 2011 form over the weekend at both the top and bottom of the lineup.  Add Seth Smith, the man who single-handedly drives pitcher’s psyches and pitch counts to extremes before usually ripping a decisive blow, and you can see why our offense averaged 8.5 runs on our road trip.  And, of course, our pitching has been a constant all season long.  No matter who takes the mound—rookie, veteran, Aussie—you can pretty much write in a quality performance.  And while the quintet of Bartolo Colon, Tommy Milone, Jarrod Parker, A.J. Griffin and Travis Blackley have done quite nicely, there are also veteran reinforcements on the way.  Opening Day starter Brandon McCarthy, top-of-the-rotation left-hander Brett Anderson and staff leader/perfect game author Dallas Braden are all in various stages of rehab work which should lead to their respective returns in the coming weeks.  Sweet music to the ears of all A’s fans!

Yet, the key to this improbable playoff run is the well-worn confines of the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum.  Any team with postseason aspirations has to establish and exploit a true home field advantage.  That’s something that the A’s new skipper has been preaching ever since he took over the reins in midstream last year.  And at the most unexpected moment—a two-out, two-strike, ninth-inning walk-off homer by rookie Derek Norris that salvaged the final game of the Giants series—a seed was planted in Oakland that has sprouted into a magical run for the A’s at the Coliseum.  Since that fateful pitch thrown by Santiago Casilla, Melvin’s troops have won 11 of their last 13 games on home soil.  And to fuel the fire further, seven of those 11 victories have been of the walk-off variety.  Since opening the season with a 10-16 home mark, the A’s have now proceeded to post a blistering 18-5 record at the Coliseum since June 6.  In any league, that’s domination at home.  Then you consider that 14 of those 18 wins came at the hands of division-leading teams like the Yankees, Dodgers and Giants, plus the then-playoff contending Red Sox, and the legitimacy of Oakland’s home field advantage can no longer be disputed.

Tonight, the A’s christen a 10-game homestand featuring quality opponents in the Rays, Blue Jays and Angels.  We certainly hope all A’s fans will frequent the Coliseum often this week and throughout the stretch run.  The excitement you collectively created in our past homestand against Texas and New York absolutely played a role in our 5-1 record against the American League favorites.  Beyond the next 10 games, the A’s will play 16 of their next 22 games in the Oakland Coliseum.  While it will be difficult to duplicate what the team accomplished in July, let’s make August a month of more walk-off thrills and meaningful victories.  Together, we might just ride this wave to new, dizzying places that, only three months ago, nobody thought possible.  See you at the yard!

THE IMPROBABILITY OF A’S BASEBALL: GET USED TO IT

Let’s face it folks, the improbable is becoming even more improbable.

Brandon Hicks, a 26-year-old infielder claimed off waivers from Atlanta who hit .038 (1-for-26) for the Braves over the past two seasons and batted only .211 for Triple-A Gwinett in 2011, smacks a walk-off home run to beat AL West-leading Texas in Wednesday’s matinee at the Coliseum.

The following evening in Oakland, a cerebral right-hander drafted in the 13th round out of the University of San Diego continues to defy the odds by pitching the A’s to a series-opening 4-3 win over the New York Yankees, owners of the best record in baseball.  This, from A.J. Griffin, a kid who was converted from reliever to starter last year whose brief bio appears in the minor league section of our media guide.

Then on Friday, the second straight rookie starter sparkles, as Tommy Milone strikes out a career-high 10 hitters over eight shutout innings, setting the stage for the much-traveled Brandon Moss.  A career .236 hitter in parts of five seasons with three previous Major League teams who was signed to a minor league contract in November, Moss delivers a walk-off single to beat the Yankees, 3-2.

Already assured at least a split in the series, unbelievably the best was still yet to come.  Jarrod Parker, yet another rookie pitcher, follows Milone’s masterpiece with one of his own, handing a 2-1 lead to the closer.  Except on this Saturday, the closer is not All-Star Ryan Cook, who’s given the night off after clinching three straight wins.  No, the honors go to the most improbable Athletic of all—Sean Doolittle.  By now, you probably know his story….41st overall player chosen in the 2007 Draft as a hot-shot first base prospect…misses the entire 2011 season due to a torn left patella that requires surgery that essentially ends his baseball career as a position player…starts to tinker with pitching late in his rehab, trying to recapture his prowess on the mound during his college days at the University of Virginia…he pitches only one game in the Arizona Fall League, then after an impressive Spring Training he zooms up the minor league ladder from Stockton, to Midland, to Sacramento before being called up to the big league June 4.

So, now, still less than a year removed from being a non-pitcher, Doolittle is summoned from the bullpen to face the most feared lineup in baseball.  Unflappable as a description doesn’t do him justice.  His glove customarily tucked under his chin, he stares down the big, bad Pinstripers, allowing one harmless single and proceeding to strike out the side in posting his first major league save—a save he will never forget.  Personally, what I will not forget is the scene in the clubhouse afterwards.  Right at the front of the reception line at the top of the tunnel was 67-year-old John “Blue Moon” Odom, the former A’s legend visiting from his home in Anaheim, doing some kind of a Michael Jackson shimmy which, at that moment, made about as much sense as anything else about these 2012 A’s.

You want more?  Okay, let’s try Sunday.  Bartolo Colon, a man who could be the father of the three previous starters in the series, stumbles in the early going in allowing four runs to his former team.  At this point, with CC Sabathia toiling for the Yanks, A’s fans are probably telling themselves, “Well, at least we won the series.”  As ESPN’s Lee Corso might say, “Not so fast, friend.”  You want improbable?  Okay, let’s start with the best .200 hitter in the majors, Brandon Inge, released by Detroit April 29, launching a home run to close the deficit to 4-1.  Then follow that with Kurt Suzuki, relegated to part-time status after hitting .184 with three RBI over his last 33 games, rediscovering his mojo and snapping a personal 78-game home run drought by drilling a solo shot into the left field bleachers to slice the lead in half.  After adding another run, however, the A’s still faced the daunting task of facing Yankee closer Rafael Soriano—who entered the game having blown only one save all season—in the ninth still trailing 4-3.  Seth Smith, who possesses surprising power to center field, arrived right on cue as he turned on a Soriano fastball and sent it over the head of the helpless Curtis Granderson—and over the fence—to tie the game in dramatic fashion.  Meanwhile, Oakland’s AL-leading bullpen slammed the door on New York’s potent offense, as lefties Jordan Norberto and Jerry Blevins and workhorse Grant Balfour reeled off zeroes the rest of the way.  A Derek Norris single and Jemile Weeks one-out sacrifice bunt in the 12th inning set the stage for yet another walk-off hero.  Coco Crisp, this pie is for you!  Single over the out-stretched glove of Robinson Cano.  Game over.  Four-game sweep accomplished.

In reflection of what just transpired, this blog would not be complete without a mention of the electrifying Yoenis Cespedes.  While we have seen this building for quite some time, there’s no doubt that the New York series was his official coming out party.  He will no longer be our little secret.  In the land of superstars called the Yankees, no player shined more brightly than the charismatic 26-year-old Cuban.  The way the ball jumped off his bat—including another laser home run and four-hit game—and the blazing speed he exhibited on the base paths and in the outfield was perhaps the most impressive aspect of the weekend.  Prior to the series, there was a poignant moment in the hallway outside Steve Vucinich’s office.  It’s where Vuc has displayed every cover of Sports Illustrated that has featured an Oakland A’s player through the years.  Prior to batting practice one day, there was Zuk giving the Yo-Yo Man a personal tour.  They walked past covers of Reggie Jackson, Catfish Hunter and Mark McGwire.  Then Cespedes stopped in his tracks, as he looked at another SI cover that featured the Roadrunner, Campy Campaneris.  He smiled and shouted, “Cubano!”  I had to chuckle, and think “Why not dream, Yo?  Some day that will be you.”

And a few final observations as we prepare for today’s series opener in Toronto:

– First, there may be teams with much higher payrolls and much nicer home venues than the Oakland A’s.  But I seriously doubt there is one team having as much fun as this club is having right now.  The slapping of sticks in simulated hockey games—Sunday it was Inge, Gomes, Weeks and who knows who—continue to ring out in the upstairs tunnel above the clubhouse before home games.  And on Saturday prior to BP, we were also treated by former Red Sox Josh Reddick doing an over-the-top, laugh-out-loud impression of Kevin Youkilis, complete with the waggling of his upright bat, followed by hands thrown heaven-ward after a make-believe home run.

– Second, you have to feel for our baseball braintrust headed by Billy Beane.  When the Angels added Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson during an off-season signing spree, Billy remarked that those Angels’ acquisitions, coupled with the return of the two-time AL Champion Texas Rangers in the division, made his decisions to trade All-Stars Trevor Cahill, Gio Gonzalez and Andrew Bailey much easier to digest.  But now, it is his own handiwork which may cause a few sleepless nights for the A’s GM.  This club has jelled beyond anyone’s wildest dreams, with Bob Melvin and his staff nurturing the young upstarts while also freeing the seasoned veterans to provide the leadership that has led to the best record in the majors since June 2.  Whether we’re buyers or sellers at the trading deadline remains to be seen, but there’s no questioning that the landscape has changed dramatically since the season started.  The magic and team chemistry we’re witnessing on a nightly basis can only, in recent memory, be compared to the 2002 club that went on that wild, 20-win streak depicted in the recent move, Moneyball—an accomplishment being celebrated next month at the Coliseum on the 10-year anniversary of Scott Hatteberg’s home run that clinched the final win.  It was truly a remarkable walk-off moment at the Coliseum.  Now, 10 years later, we have already staged 11 walk-off victories in perhaps an even more improbable season.

– So, with all that has happened during the just-completed 5-1 homestand against arguably the best teams in baseball, it only stands to reason that we would start the road trip tonight at Rogers Centre with a colorful Aussie on the mound, Travis Blackley, a 29-year-old journeyman who was claimed off waivers May 15 from the Giants after pitching for Chihuahua of the Mexican League in 2010 and KIA of the South Korean League last year.   Folks, welcome the 2012 Oakland A’s, where improbable is a way of life. Get used to it. We’re in for a wild ride the rest of the way.

WALK-OFF WINS, COLORFUL CHARACTERS, RISING YOUNG STARS, LIGHTS-OUT PITCHING HIGHLIGHT A’S FIRST HALF

Sometimes in sports, the improbable happens.  There’s no plausible explanation how a team considered an also-ran simply ignores pre-season predictions and decides to join the party.  Isn’t this what we love about sports?

While it’s still premature to draw conclusions, your barely-old-enough-to-shave A’s have climbed the hill to .500 and sit only 2 ½ games out of the second Wild Card spot at the All-Star Break.  They lead the majors in walk-off victories (eight) and lead the American League in ERA (3.38).  So, how did this happen?  How did a team that lost three All-Star pitchers in the offseason, features a pitching rotation with only one returning starter from 2011, has employed a Major League-high 17 rookies and American League-low team payroll, managed to become relevant almost overnight?  From the inside, here’s my take:

Team Chemistry—It’s difficult to quantify what I see in our clubhouse almost on a daily basis.  Over in one corner, there’s The Pride of Petaluma, Jonny Gomes, wearing a canary-yellow boxing robe embroidered with a green No. 31 and “Gomes,” and telling rookies, “Hey, don’t be afraid to be a hero today!”  A few lockers down, there’s Brandon Inge, a Detroit Red Wings fan wielding a hockey stick and trying to shoot a “puck” past the robed Gomes.  In between, first-year Athletic Josh Reddick—he of the flowing locks and 20 home runs at the break—has his WWE championship belt on display.  On the 4th of July, Gomes has Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” jacked up to glass-shattering decibels before that afternoon’s game against the Red Sox.  Now, on the opposite side of the clubhouse are other characters that would most certainly rival Gomes, Inge and Reddick, although these guys are pitchers.  There’s Mr. Rehab from the 209, Dallas Braden, who continues to be the Epicenter of Ecentricity.  Nothing is off limits for the Vocal One.  Recently, he decided to serve as Jerry Blevins’ campaign manager for the team’s election for a new union player rep.  His hand-made slogans for Blevins were attached to virtually every surface in the clubhouse, although the verbiage written cannot be shared in this blog.  Positioned next to Dallas in the clubhouse is the ageless Bartolo Colon, who while must quieter than Braden, might be his equal in terms of mischief.  In all my years in professional sports, I have never seen someone as loose or fun-loving on game day as this former Cy Young Award winner.  He constantly is playing games with me in the clubhouse.  Before Sunday’s game, I’m strolling past Bob Melvin’s office toward the training room.  Out of nowhere comes Colon—truly a bear of a man—and what does he do?  He chest bumps me.  That’s right, chest bumps me.  On the day he is pitching.  So much for pre-game rituals.  And, of course, there’s the resident Aussies, Grant Balfour and Travis Blackley, two fun-loving veterans who act like they don’t have a care in the world.  Then add the cool index and star quality of guys like Coco Crisp, Jemile Weeks and Yoenis Cespedes, and our 2012 club is truly one of the more colorful in all of baseball.  Bottom line, what it really means is this is a loose club, one that is playing with fun and confidence.  And all 25 guys are pulling the same direction, thanks to Melvin and his staff, and could care less about personal statistics.  The only stat for them is wins.  And considering they won 21 of their last 34 games while facing the likes of the Texas Rangers, San Francisco Giants, Los Angeles Dodgers and Boston Red Sox leading up to the break, the idea of a winning record and playoff contention is no longer so far fetched.

Young, Good & Getting Better—While a 43-43 record may not overwhelm some, it’s impressive when you consider the key players on this team are rookies or near rookies.  What other club in baseball can boast such neophytes as position players Reddick (.268, 20 HR, 43 RBI, 8 SB), Cespedes (.263, 9 HR, 36 RBI), Weeks (.222, 5 triples, 12 SB), Brandon Moss (.253, 10 HR, 18 RBI in 26 games), Derek Norris (.244, 2 HR, 6 RBI in 11 games) and Chris Carter (.353, 3 HR, 5 RBI in six games), or pitchers such as All-Star Ryan Cook (2-2, 1.41 ERA, 8 saves, .105 opponents BA), Jarrod Parker (5-4, 2.86 ERA), Tommy Milone (8-6, 3.57 ERA), A.J. Griffin (0-0, 1.50 ERA), Sean Doolittle (1-0, 2.45 ERA, 24 SO, 3 BB in 14.2 innings) or Jordan Norberto (2-1, 3.03 ERA)?  In fact, it’s not a stretch to say the A’s will have multiple Rookie of the Year candidates this season, starting with Cook, Cespedes, Parker and Millone.  And because all of them are getting estimable playing time, this is now a much more experienced nucleus of young players who are becoming a tight, more seasoned unit as we approach the dog days.

Arms, Arms, Arms—Besides clubhouse humor, the one constant on the 2012 A’s has been pitching.  Despite the relative youth of the staff—only starters Colon and Brandon McCarthy, and relievers Balfour and Blevins can be considered veterans—pitching coach Curt Young has worked wonders in establishing a group that leads the American League in both overall ERA (3.38) and starters ERA (3.67).  Before we go further, just consider some of the pitching-rich teams in the AL, starting with the two pre-season favorites in our own division, the Rangers and Angels.  As our roster is currently constituted (including McCarthy on the DL), no less than nine of our pitchers boast an ERA under 3.00—Evan Scribner 0.00, Cook 1.41, Griffin 1.50, Jim Miller 1.78, Doolittle 2.45, McCarthy 2.54, Blevins 2.57, Blackley 2.63 and Parker 2.86.  All of that adds up to Oakland pitchers allowing two runs or less in 15 of the last 23 games, and A’s starting pitchers yielding two runs or fewer in 20 of the last 23 games.  Any way you slice it, that’s phenomenal pitching.  And as they say, it’s hard to get beat if you don’t give up any runs.

What the pundits will be saying about this unique group at season’s end is anyone’s guess.  But if you’re looking for positive vital signs, it goes a lot further than Jonny Gomes’ embroidered name on his robe.

MOSS CAPITALIZING ON GREEN-AND-GOLD OPPORTUNITY

Brandon Moss has been looking for an opportunity like this his entire baseball life.  Since being drafted in the eighth round by Boston in 2002, the A’s new first baseman has been trying to land a permanent job with a Major League team.  But despite hitting 134 home runs and driving in 612 runs in 10 minor league seasons, when the 28-year-old Moss knocked on a big league team’s door, it seemed Fats Domino greeted him with an all-too-familiar refrain: “I hear you knocking, but you can’t come in”…

Oh sure, there was that one season—2009—when he played in 133 games with the Pittsburgh Pirates, hitting .236 with seven homers and 41 RBI.  Then a month after the season, he and wife, Allison, welcomed their first child, son Jayden, into the world.  At age 25, Brandon probably felt like everything was falling into place and he had, indeed, made it to The Show for good.  Unfortunately, the Pirates had other ideas, returning him to Triple-A the following year, and he’s been struggling ever since in hopes of rekindling the promise he once had.  In what appeared to be a under-the-radar transaction back in November, Moss was signed to a minor league contract by Oakland.  He joined a jam-packed outfield during Spring Training, clearly a long-shot to make the club.  But while he was assigned to Sacramento when camp broke, the big left-handed slugger left quite an impression in the desert.  He led the A’s in batting (.500, 11-for-22) and lashed three doubles, a homer and seven RBI in seven Spring Training games.  Anyone who watched his at-bats then had to think, “Hey, this guy can really hit.”

That was the last I saw of Brandon Moss until the middle of May, when I accompanied the River Cats on a road trip through Albuquerque and Round Rock—a trip necessitated by media interest surrounding Manny Ramirez joining the team.   While most of my time was spent with Manny and the local journalists, it also gave me a chance to reacquaint myself with some of our minor league players.  What I observed of Moss was a player with a sweet stroke to all fields, and someone who could drive the ball out of any Pacific Coast League ballpark.  I also saw an extroverted personality who seemed to be the life of the clubhouse.  Yet, among the levity, you had to wonder if the veteran outfielder was starting to wonder if his professional days were numbered.  Sometimes, though, your opportunity arises not so much because of you—although he had launched 15 home runs in Sacramento’s early season—but more because of outside forces.  As A’s fans are keenly aware, except for Daric Barton’s solid 2010 season (.273 BA, 100 walks, .393 OBP), the team has been searching for a bona fide run producer at first base since Nick Swisher manned the post in 2007.  In the past year, the club has tried behemoth Chris Carter there, acquired Brandon Allen from Arizona (Brad Ziegler trade) and Kila Ka’aihue (free agent, Kansas City), and welcomed back a fully-healed Barton, with hopes one of them might finally seize the position for good.  Unfortunately, none did, and Moss was asked to transition from outfield to first base at Sacramento.  It was a position he had played briefly during his minor league career, but it was asking a lot for him to play flawless first base on the big league level when he was called up June 6.

But that’s exactly what he has done thus far with the A’s, digging throws out of the dirt, making good decision on grounders hit between him and Jemile Weeks, and overall, playing the position in a fashion that would belie his experience there.  And even better, he has swung the bat like a corner infielder should.  He’s hitting .308 with two doubles, five home runs and nine RBI in his first eight games with the team.  In fact, he’s batting a more robust .438 with two doubles, four homers and eight RBI over his past five games.  Maybe we shouldn’t be surprised by his early success.  After so many bus rides, early hotel wake-up calls and minor league ballparks, it would seem that Brandon Moss simply said no mas.  He had had enough.  Maybe he knew full well that another opportunity may not come his way.  So, this Sunday when the A’s host San Diego on Father’s Day, it will be Jayden Moss’s father who has every reason to be thankful.  He’s in the big leagues in Oakland and he’s in the starting lineup.  That’s all he ever asked for.

DOOLITTLE BREAKING NEW GROUND WITH METEORIC RISE

Being a player on the fast track to the big leagues is one thing.  But being Sean Doolittle?  Now that’s an entirely different story.  You want to know how much territory this erstwhile first baseman has covered this year as the A’s new pitching phenom?  Well, let’s start in Stockton, California.  That’s where Doolittle was assigned after an eye-opening Spring Training.  Once an elite first base prospect for Oakland until knee surgery in 2009 appeared to have ended his promising career, he decided to give it the old college try before hanging up his cleats for good.  And when we say college try, that means Doolittle returned to the mound, where he once pitched at the University of Virginia.  So, all he did with the Single-A Ports was post a subterranean 0.87 ERA in six games while—and get this—striking out 21 batters and walking just two in 10.1 innings.  Clearly, this newly-transitioned hurler was already too good for Single-A.  In rapid fashion, he was promoted to Double-A Midland on April 26.

In Midland, Doolittle just continued to pump strike after strike, hitting the speed gun at 94 and 95 MPH.  After eight games with the Rockhounds, his pitching line was remarkably similar to his numbers in Stockton:  0.82 ERA, 19 strikeouts and four walks in 11.0 innings.  Many in the organization had to be wondering, “Is this kid for real?”  Well, it only gets better.  On May 27—only a month since he made the step from Single-A to Double-A, Sean was promoted again.  He appeared in two games with Triple-A Sacramento, allowing no runs, one hit and fanning eight while walking only one.  Clearly, this guy was making an undeniable case for a higher league.  And as we know, the only one higher was the one our A’s play in.

So, Monday, in strolled Sean Doolittle into Steve Vucinich’s clubhouse off 66th Avenue.  And then in the fifth inning Tuesday night, he took another stroll, this time to the Coliseum pitching mound, where he proceeded to strikeout Nelson Cruz and go on to register 1.1 innings of scoreless relief.  Yesterday, he was the A’s media darling, as writers and TV stations flocked to his locker or the field for one-on-one interviews. You would think his head would be spinning, considering how far he’s come in such a short time.  But instead, he seems to be just soaking it in.

Traveling secretary Mickey Morabito asked him yesterday if he needed to drive to Sacramento to pick up any of his belongings.  With no exaggeration, Doolittle responded, “I have no belongings in Sacramento.  I wasn’t there long enough.  My belongings are still in Midland.”  And then he added, “And my car, it’s still in Stockton.”

COMPLETING THE (BASEBALL) CIRCLE OF LIFE

How anxious was Manny Ramirez to play in his first meaningful game in more than a year?  Well, this is how excited he was:  the Dreadlocked One flew into Albuquerque a day early, just so he could get in a few early hacks before his 10-game minor league stint began.  That was yesterday, when A’s Director of Player Development Keith Lieppman—of all people—snapped this rather telling photo of Manny entering Isotopes Park in his maroon Sacramento River Cats uniform.  Of course, Lip proudly reminded me that he did major in photo journalism during his college days at the University of Kansas.

I suggested to our baseball brass that it might take a little pressure off Manny and the Albuquerque Isotopes’ PR director if I flew to New Mexico and organized a couple of pre-game media sessions with Ramirez in the dugout.  I arrived this morning and the first media fest was staged this afternoon, comprised solely of local journalists, with the Associated Press the only national presence.  One writer asked Manny why he decided to try a comeback now.  After all, he had already accomplished more than most players in Major League history.  Manny answered the question with a question.  “Why not?” asked the man with 555 career home runs and 1,831 RBI.  Essentially, his reason was simple.  This is what he does, and has done for almost his entire life, dating back to his days growing up in the Washington Heights section of Manhattan, where he was named New York City Public School Player of the Year as a senior at George Washington High School.  And like all the great ones—Ted Williams, Stan Musial, Rod Carew, Tony Gwynn—Manny loves nothing in life more than swinging a bat.  Former teammate Scott Hatteberg tells the story of when they were Red Sox teammates at spring training one year.  “Manny drives into the parking lot in his sports car, opens the door and climbs out already wearing his batting gloves.  That’s how much he loves hitting.”

Tonight, he’ll finally find himself penciled into a lineup.  He’s batting third for the River Cats, followed by the twin towers, Chris Carter and Michael Taylor.  But preceding the game here in Albuquerque, the Isotopes are staging a celebrity softball game between a team of actors that includes Bryan Cranston of “Breaking Bad” and Lou Diamond Phillips of “La Bamba” and “Young Guns” fame, and the Wounded Warriors, a group of veterans who have lost limbs in service to their country (and have recently been featured in a segment of “Bryant Gumbel’s Real Sports” on HBO).  I understand that many of the veterans sat in the stands at last night’s game, and they had a visitor.  Manny Ramirez, who by Major League rules was required to leave the field at the end of batting practice, stayed around and came up to visit with the U.S. military men.  He shared his new-found faith, the tough lessons he has learned, and how he’s thankful to be given a second chance—in baseball and in life.   Going full circle, from Phoenix, to Albuquerque, to Round Round, to Sacramento, and hopefully on his 40th birthday (May 30), to Minneapolis, where he hopes to make solid contact for the Oakland A’s in a big league game.  How sweet the sound.

VETERANS LEAD THE WAY ON 5-4 ROAD TRIP

Much of the talk about the 2012 A’s centers around the rookies and rightfully so.  After all, Oakland has already played 12 rookies during a season that is only six weeks old—by the far the most rookies of any team in baseball.  Seattle is next with seven rookies.  And the A’s young talent has been as good as advertised thus far, with the likes of outfielder Yoenis Cespedes and pitchers Tommy Milone, Ryan Cook, Jarrod Parker and Jordan Norberto all bona fide early Rookie of the Year candidates.

Yet, the story of this team’s just-completed 5-4 road trip—a trip that ran through two of baseball’s hottest teams (Tampa Bay and Baltimore) and one of the toughest road venues in the majors (Fenway Park)—is not the rookies.  It’s veterans who have stepped up to produce pivotal performances on the field, and critical leadership off of it.  No one more personified that role than Petaluma’s Jonny Gomes, who signed with the A’s as a free agent in the offseason.  In many ways, you might be better off dropping the “Gomes” and just call him “Jonny Gamer.”  Whether it’s hitting a clutch home run, crashing into an outfield wall to make a catch or, yes, even stealing a base, Jonny Gamer comes to play.  In fact, he did all three during the Rays’ series, going 5 for 9 with three RBI during the three-game set.  He entered Saturday’s contest as a pinch-hitter in the seventh inning and ultimately became the star of the game.  With the score tied 3-3 in the bottom of the 10th, it was Gomes who hauled in a Carlos Pena opposite-field fly that seemed headed for extra bases.  It wasn’t so much that Jonny caught the ball as much as he tackled it.  Arms and legs sprawled everywhere.  When the smoke cleared, he had robbed Pena of a certain double that would have placed the A’s in serious jeopardy of a second straight loss.  Instead, Jonny left a dent in the left field fence and a dagger in the heart of his former team’s fans.  Then the Pride of Petaluma stole the game’s headlines when he mashed a solo home run in the top of the 12th that decided the verdict of a 4-3 road win.  Back in the lineup as the starting left fielder yesterday, Jonny Gamer came up big again with a single, double, two RBI and a stolen base in a 9-5, come-from-behind victory that clinched the series.

Brandon Inge, another veteran who was only added to the roster seven days ago in Boston, has stabilized Oakland’s third base situation with his steady glove and positive clubhouse presence.  And yesterday afternoon, he also delivered one of the biggest home runs of the young season, pouncing on a Matt Moore 3-1 pitch in the third inning for a three-run blast that erased a 4-2 deficit.  He added a seventh-inning sac-fly and the A’s never looked back.

On the mound, two veteran All-Stars also emerged to help show the way.  Brian Fuentes, the prototypical professional no matter what role manager Bob Melvin places him in, came into Wednesday night’s tumultuous game at Fenway and slammed the lid on a 4-2 victory that also netted “Tito” his 200th career save—only the sixth left-hander to achieve that plateau in Major League history.  Returning the closer’s role to Grant Balfour for the Tampa Bay series, Fuentes went on to contribute three scoreless innings of relief over the weekend.  His compatriot, Bartolo Colón, appeared headed toward a series-clinching win in Baltimore last Sunday, only to see his brilliant 8.1 innings of work disintegrate when Balfour failed to close the door on an apparent 2-0 A’s win.  However, Colón demonstrated to the club’s rookies what a leader truly is five days later.  Nursing an upset stomach that struck prior to the first pitch, Bartolo battled his way through five arduous innings and three solo home runs Saturday, giving Oakland the chance to win the game in extra innings.

And beyond the A’s “graybeards” like Gomes, Inge, Fuentes and Colón, Melvin also received key contributions from some of his younger veterans.  Kurt Suzuki, despite being nailed on the hand by a Daniel Bard pitch in Boston Wednesday that later would require x-rays, refused to abandon his pitchers, working the remainder of that victory, as well as the 12-inning marathon in St. Pete Saturday.  Against his wishes, Melvin rested Zuk and his resurgent bat—he’s hitting .314 over his last 10 games—yesterday.  Ace starter Brandon McCarthy also answered the bell during the nine-game, 10-day junket, twirling a pair of victorious gems in Baltimore (7.0 ip, 5 h, 2 r) and Boston (6.2 ip, 5 h, 1 r).  So did reliever Jerry Blevins, who lowered his ERA to 1.42 by reeling off 4.2 scoreless innings on the trip. And let’s not forget the contributions made by Josh Reddick, who’s batting .310 with five multiple-hit games, three home runs and eight RBI in his past 10 contests.

There will be plenty of time for the A’s talented crop of rookies to make their mark. But I’m sure it’s comforting for Melvin and his staff to know that the team’s veterans have stood up and are being counted on as the Athletics have jumped out to a rather surprising 15-14 record and second-place showing in the AL West as we head to Oakland for seven games of home cooking.

ROBINSON ONE OF THE GREATS OF OAKLAND

Saturday’s statue unveiling at Camden Yards before the A’s-Orioles game that honored Hall of Famer Frank Robinson got me thinking.  Is there any place in America that produced more barrier-breaking or game-changing athletes than Oakland, California?  You think I’m kidding?  Okay, let’s start with Robinson, Rickey Henderson, Bill Russell (the Celtic, not the Dodger) and Curt Flood.  And this does not count Joe Morgan, Dave Stewart and Vada Pinson.  Or the late, great Willie Stargell or current All-Star shortstop Jimmy Rollins, from nearby Alameda.

Consider the difference the aforementioned foursome made on the sport they played:

  • Frank Robinson — He may be one of the most underappreciated ubër stars in sports history.  Playing with a burning desire to win every game he played, he often willed his teams to win. In only six seasons in Baltimore, he led the Orioles      to four World Series.  The former McClymonds High School legend retired with 586 career home runs to rank No. 4 on baseball’s all-time list. And he hit every one of them well before the Steroid Era began.  In my mind, Robby still belongs among the elite home run hitters, well above his current No. 9 ranking.  He was also a 14-time All-Star and the only player in Major League history to win a MVP award in both the National (Cincinnati, 1961) and American (Baltimore, 1966)      Leagues.  Yet, with all those accomplishments, they pale in comparison to what he did after his playing days.  In 1975, he was hired as player-manager of the Cleveland Indians. As the first African American to manage a Major League team, he was the natural extension of another Robinson—Jackie—in knocking down barriers that some day would give other deserving people of color opportunities that were non-existent before their pioneering efforts.  So if you want to talk about historic figures in sports history, you might want to mention Frank Robinson in your first breath.
  • Rickey Henderson — We all know Rickey’s story, so I won’t belabor the point.  Born in Chicago but raised in Oakland, he simply redefined the position of leadoff hitter and destroyed any preconceived limits on the act of stealing a base.  He was one of a kind, and proudly, he was inducted into Cooperstown as an Oakland Athletic.
  • Bill Russell — I know this is supposed to be a baseball blog—an A’s blog, specifically—but to make my point, you have to include the former USF and Boston Celtic center.  I mean, if you were to go to the dictionary and look up the word “winner,” there’s a pretty good chance his photo would appear next to the definition—two NCAA championships on the Hilltop in San Francisco, followed by 11 NBA titles in 13 years as the cornerstone and leader of Red Auerbach’s Celtics. But beyond the championships, Russell was also a game-changer.  He would do it first as a player, where his blocked shots and defense revolutionized the pro game, with his blocks essentially “steals.” Unlike today’s players who derive great pleasure swatting shots into the stands for ESPN SportsCenter replays, Russell would tip the opponent’s shots to himself and then start a devastating Celtic fast break.  And like Frank Robinson, Russell was named Boston’s player-coach, nine years earlier in 1966.  Again, Russell was the first African American head coach in NBA history, and not only the first, but a coach who led his team to two championships.  Amazingly, another McClymonds High alumnus.
  • Curt Flood — A seven-time Gold Glove outfielder, three-time All-Star and member of the St. Louis Cardinals’ 1964 and 1967 World Series championship teams, Flood changed the entire paradigm for the way baseball would operate as a business.  He courageously challenged baseball’s reserve clause—a clause that had prohibited players from becoming free agents.  He won the case, although he did with much personal sacrifice, and today every player in the majors should thank the late, great Curt Flood for opening the door to the New World of free agency that has benefitted every player who followed.

And while these four faces should be chiseled into the Oakland hills for eternity, we should also appreciate a long line of other baseball greats that started their journey a stone’s throw from the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum.  There’s Joe Morgan, a 10-time All-Star, five-time Gold Glove infielder, two-time National League MVP and member of Cincinnati’s 1975 and 1976 World Series champions.  There’s our Dave Stewart, who was a 20-game winner four straight years with the A’s (1987-90), author of one no-hitter, winner of the 1989 World Series MVP award, and a member of three world championship teams (1981 Dodgers, 1989 A’s and 1993 Blue Jays).  There’s Willie Stargell, a seven-time All-Star, both the National League and World Series MVP in 1979.  And another McClymonds High alumnus, Vada Pinson, was a four-time All-Star and one-time Gold Glove winner who played on the 1961 Cincinnati Reds that won the National League pennant.  And finally, there’s Jimmy Rollins, born in Oakland and raised in Alameda, who continues to build a resume that includes a 2007 NL MVP award, three All-Star and Gold Glove selections, and a World Series Championship ring with the Phillies.

In all, this group includes five Hall of Famers—Robinson, Henderson, Morgan and Stargell, and Russell in basketball—and a case to be made for a sixth in  Flood, who impacted Major League Baseball as much as anyone, when you consider the path the sport took after he won his legal challenge.  So, boys and girls, a quick history lesson about some local kids who made good.  And then some.

EDITOR’S NOTE:  My thanks to reader Ruth Lafler, who made two great points about my blog.  First, it’s VADA Pinson, not Vida.  I must have had the Blue Blazer on my mind.  And second, I left out another sports pioneer who grew up in Oakland:  Olympic track star Jim Hines.  Born in Dumas, Arkansas and raised in Oaktown, Hines, of course, joined John Carlos at the 1968 Mexico Olympics to make one of American history’s most profound statements for Civil Rights when they took the medal stand with gloved fists pointing skyward.  It was a seminal moment in the Free Speech and Civil Rights movements.

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