POSTCARDS FROM THE 2011 WINTER MEETINGS #1

As the 2011 Winter Meetings commence today at the Hilton Anatole in Dallas, Oakland A’s beat writers Susan Slusser, Joe Stiglich and Jane Lee will scour the hotel lobby and vigorously work their cell phones in search of any noteworthy development on the free agent or trade front. In fact, I just spotted a contingent of my old Japanese media friends in the lobby, who are still riding herd on the Hideki Matsui story and where he might land in 2012, so add them to the list.  In light of Billy Beane’s recent comments about the club sitting in wait-and-see mode until Major League Baseball’s Blue Ribbon Committee comes down with its ballpark recommendation – after nearly three years of study, we might add – expectations are rather low that we’ll see much action this week in the Lone Star State. However, if you’re part of the A’s Faithful, I can offer you a few things to look for during the meetings.

Beyond the reports filed by our Bay Area reporters covering the event, you’ll be treated to hours of live coverage by national TV networks and Comcast SportsNet Bay Area.  Later today, Beane will appear on MLB Network’s Hot Stove show at 3 p.m. PST, followed by segments on ESPN’s Baseball Tonight at approximately 3:25 p.m. and on CSN Bay Area’s Chronicle Live program at 7 p.m. In addition, skipper Bob Melvin joins MLB Network Radio on Sirius/FM with Mike Ferrin and former Mets’ GM Steve Phillips at 3:30 p.m.  Melvin also is scheduled to appear Tuesday on MLB Network’s Hot Stove show at 2:45 p.m. PST and later on Comcast SportsNet Bay Area’s Chronicle Live.

It should be interesting to see the reaction Billy gets this week, particularly in the hotel lobby where fans congregate. His already high profile has been elevated to near Rock Star status with the movie premiere of Moneyball.  Being protrayed by Brad Pitt will tend to do that.  While Billy has been very gracious with his media time, he tends to shy away from the bright lights in favor of spending time in the A’s baseball suite during the Winter Meetings.  He and Assistant GM David Forst, well aware of the team’s unsettled outfield situation and need for some middle-of-the-order hitters, will no doubt be laying the groundwork for possible future deals.  Beyond that, it’s difficult to predict if anything of substance will materialize this week.

One area of interest here will be a couple of Hall of Fame announcements.  By the time you read this blog, the Golden Era Committee might have revealed this year’s inductee.  Former A’s owner Charlie Finley is one of those being considered.  While he may not be the favorite this time around, there’s no doubt he is worthy of the honor.  Beyond assembling a team that won three straight World Series championships from 1972-74 and produced four Hall of Famers in Catfish Hunter, Rollie Fingers, Reggie Jackson and Dick Williams, Finley also impacted the history of the game through his innovative ideas.  Among them were the designated hitter in the American League and night baseball in the World Series.  Also, this Wednesday at 8 a.m. PST, the Hall of Fame will announce the 2012 Ford C. Frick winner, the broadcaster elected to Cooperstown.  Of course, our beloved Bill King, who so eloquently described A’s baseball for 25 years before his untimely death, is among the favorites.  Let’s cross our fingers and hope this is finally the Year of the King.  If it’s good news Wednesday, I would expect thousands of Bay Area sports fans to shout, in unison, that old familiar refrain made famous by Bill: “Holy Toledo!”

This is the first of a series of daily blogs I plan to write this week. I hope it brings you closer to the Winter Meetings here in Dallas. We appreciate you thinking about us during the offseason.

Anyway You Pronounce It, Jemile Weeks Is A Rising Star

In a season most A’s fans are understandingly willing to forget, my suggestion to you is this: don’t.  While he did it in a backdrop of sub-.500 baseball, a true rising star was born in the summer of 2011. His name was Jemile Weeks, and he took flight almost from the time he first slipped on those distinctive white shoes.

And it was an improbable flight at that. Starting off, he had the unenviable task of replacing a long-time fan favorite in Mark Ellis at second base.  Most baseball observers questioned whether he was ready for “The Show,” based on an injury-plagued minor league career that had sidelined him for large chunks of both the 2009 and 2010 seasons.  But on June 7, this scrawny little kid (5-9, 160) from Orlando, Fla. wandered into Camden Yards in Baltimore and was fitted with jersey No. 19.  It’s a jersey that won’t be coming off for a long, long time.  Exuding uncommon confidence for a rookie, A’s fans instantly fell in love with the club’s new leadoff hitter with the flamboyant dreadlocks.  Not that the rest of the baseball world was taking notice.  Opponents’ broadcasters and public address announcers had a difficult time pronouncing his unique first name. Invariably, he was called Juh-MEEL instead of Juh-MILE.

Well, the mispronunciation is ancient history now, as the baseball world clearly does know who Jemile Weeks is.  After all, he’s one of the leading candidates for 2011 American League Rookie of the Year.  Yesterday, with the help of my trusty PR assistant Adam Loberstein, I prepared a one-page fact sheet on “The Case for Jemile Weeks” and emailed it to our national media who vote on post-season honors.  Some of the statistics and rankings we came across were rather staggering.  Among the better, more compelling ones:

  • If he had enough at-bats to qualify, Weeks’ .305 batting average would be tied for seventh best in the American League.
  • If he had enough at-bats to qualify, Weeks’ .400 average with runners in scoring position would lead the Major Leagues.
  • Weeks is the only AL rookie to lead his team in batting average with his .305 figure, the second highest by a rookie in Oakland history (Mitchell Page, .307 in 1977).
  • Weeks is ranked in the Top 10 among AL rookies in 12 statistical categories.  Only KC’s Eric Hosmer appears in more (14).
  • Weeks became the first player in Oakland history with 100 hits and 20 stolen bases in their first 80 games.  In fact, no A’s player had even reached 100 hits in their first 80 games.  If you take Weeks’ numbers and double them for a full season, he would have 200 hits and 40 stolen bases this year.

Yet what may have spoken volumes about the r-e-s-p-e-c-t that Jemile is starting to get in the league occurred Sunday in Anaheim.  With two out, runners on second and third, and the score tied 5-5 in the top of the ninth inning, Mike Scioscia chose to intentionally walk Weeks to face the always-dangerous Coco Crisp.  Aretha Franklin would have been proud.

As a somewhat late entry, Weeks will not be considered the favorite to win the Rookie of the Year award.  But I wouldn’t count him out just yet.  After all, baseball writers have certainly been kind to previous Oakland candidates.  We’ve landed seven Rookie of the Year trophies since 1986—Jose Canseco, Mark McGwire, Walt Weiss, Ben Grieve, Bobby Crosby, Huston Street and Andrew Bailey.  Mark down Monday, November 14 on your calendars.  That’s the day we’ll find out who wins this year’s award.

GOING YARD CAN GO A LONG WAYS FOR A’S FANS

Monte Moore, the former legendary voice of the A’s, used to call them “taters” and “dingers.”  Fans used to sit in the right field bleachers under the sign that read “Reggie’s Regiment,” waiting for future Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson to uncork one of his patented home runs.  More recently, you might have spotted a t-shirt at the Coliseum that proclaims that “Chicks Dig the Long Ball.”  No doubt, Oakland A’s fans through the years have been treated to some of the greatest home run hitters of modern times, from  Jackson to Mark McGwire, from Jose Canseco to Jason Giambi, from Sal Bando to Eric Chavez.  Unfortunately, sluggers have been in short supply over the past few years in Oakland. Even at the traditional power positions–the corner infield and outfield positions–it has been rare to see a 20-homer season.  In fact, last year, third baseman Kevin Kouzmanoff led the team with only 16 home runs (I suspect he’ll hit a few more in his new home, Coors Field).

So, what has transpired over the past few weeks is sweet music to A’s fan who covet the long ball.  Not only has left fielder Josh Willingham gone on a home run tear that has seen him “go yard” nine times in his last 23 games, but last night we witnessed the explosive bat of newly-acquired first baseman Brandon Allen.  While the former Diamondback certainly had shown glimpses of his batting prowess in his first week in Oakland–roping two doubles and two triples and hitting in the rarefied air of a .400-plus average–the power display he unleashed at Yankee Stadium last night could go down in franchise annals as one of the more impressive A’s debuts ever in the Bronx.  Beyond belting his first two home runs as an Athletic, Allen left little doubt of the outcome of both, as one landed in the second deck, the other in the third deck of the New Yankee Stadium.  Much like Willingham, Allen possesses the kind of legitimate power that no Major League park can contain.

Willingham, who is tied for the American League lead in home runs (11) and ranks fifth in RBI (30) since the All-Star Break, will become a free agent after this season.  But it’s difficult for A’s fans not to contemplate the raw-boned slugger joining Allen in the middle of our 2012 lineup, providing the kind of one-two punch that could be the cornerstone of a more powerful and balanced offense in Oakland.  Health has been the real key to Willingham’s recent surge, as he has started 38 of the A’s last 40 games since coming off the DL with an Achilles strain.  His 20 home runs and 74 RBI are certainly impressive on their own merit, but they’re even more impressive considering he’s played in only 103 games.  This good run of health may suggest that the way Bob Melvin and our training staff is handling him–including occasional days at DH–bodes well for Willingham’s future production.

Historically, defense and pitching still does win championships, no doubt.  But as any baseball fan will tell you, it’s awfully fun to watch the home team launch a few missiles into the bleachers, too.  Willingham, Matsui, and now Allen, are starting to resemble some of those A’s power hitters of yore.  But for a one young boy named Reid Manley from Napa, his appreciation for dramatic home runs is clearly in the present.  Unless his father has provided a history lesson of the Bash Brothers or Reggie, all little Reid knows is what he experienced at the Coliseum last Saturday when his hero, Josh Willingham, hit the team’s first pinch-hit home run of the season. His before-and-after reaction, chronicled here on YouTube, pretty much says it all.  Take a look, enjoy the moment, and allow yourself to dream about this becoming a more common occurrence in A’s Land:

Willingham, Matsui Lead A’s Power Surge

This is how it was supposed to be.  The A’s were down 3-1 in the fifth inning yesterday at Tropicana Field and then BOOM.  Hideki Matsui smoked a David Price fastball into the right field bleachers and suddenly the two-run deficit evaporated before our very eyes.  Then later when the game went into extra innings, Josh Willingham stepped to the plate and smashed a Jake McGee delivery over the left field fence to propel a 5-4, 10-inning win for the never-say-die A’s. After watching the festivities from the press box, I couldn’t help but think this was exactly what Billy Beane envisioned when he acquired both Matsui and Willingham during the off season.  In fact, watching yesterday’s offensive fireworks–not to mention the entire lineup’s awakening during the past month–has actually made it even more maddening for A’s fans I suspect.  We always knew they had this kind of production in them, as their past seasons suggested it.

Bob Melvin, certainly an experienced hand, made an early commitment to certain veteran players when he assumed the managerial reins at mid-season.  And since the All-Star Break, a once moribund lineup has begun to function in exciting, wondrous ways that seemed unfathomable only one month earlier.  I mean, really.  Would you have predicted that a team that ranked at or near the bottom in batting average, runs scored, home runs and slugging percentage would now be leading the Major Leagues in hitting (.299), on base percentage (.370) and slugging percentage (.473) since the All-Star Break?  Yesterday’s heroes have played prominent roles in the turnaround.  Matsui has arguably been the hottest hitter in all of baseball since the break.  His big fly yesterday extended his hitting streak to 15 games and he’s now hitting a Major League-leading .451 with seven doubles, five home runs and 22 RBI in the 22 games since the All-Star Game.  And Willingham, who has exhibited legitimate power all season long (as his team-high 17 homers would suggest), ranks among the American League’s leaders in walks (7th, 14), home runs (9th, 6) and RBI (13th, 19) since the break.  Then, when you add a resurgent Cliff Pennington, who’s hitting .375 since the break and Coco Crisp, the AL’s stolen base leader(37) who’s hitting .275 with a team-high 22 doubles as perhaps the team’s most consistent performer, and you see why this team is starting to gain traction.  Then add Jemile Weeks as our dynamic new leadoff man who’s done nothing but impress with his .293 batting average and team-best six triples, and Ryan Sweeney, who’s getting a little more playing time and has hit .326 since the All-Star Break.  And we’re not even counting David DeJesus, who has perserved through perhaps his most frustrating season and has gone 5 for 10 with a double, two homers and two RBIs in the A’s wins the past two days.

Yet, as the Gods of Baseball would have it, our pitching staff’s performances have waned a bit during this same period of offensive fortune.  However, we’re still making overall progress.  To post a 12-10 record since the All-Star Break, particulary against mostly upper-tier opponents like the Yankees, Angels, Tigers and Rays, speaks well about how this team, under Melvin, has begun to gel.  That said, we all know that reality can be cruel at times, something our current 51-63 record would suggest.  But, sports in its purest form is about competing.  Competing no matter what the circumstance.  Hopefully we can all let go of the A’s ulcerating first half of the season and enjoy a current team that has become just that–a team.  For the first time this year, we’re beginning to look pretty solid in every facet of the game.  So, when Matsui or Willingham launch a home run, or Crisp steals two or three bases, or Pennington and Weeks turn a fancy double play, my hope is you’ll not only see a great game, but you’ll also see a better future for the Green and Gold.  Hang in there and keep the faith.  All indications are there are better days ahead.

UPDATE – With The Tweeting Frenzy Over, It’s Back To Baseball

My most recent blog, posted last night, caused a stir among at least one of our beat writers, and perhaps rightly so.  This writer took me to task, saying I was wrong to say tweeters got the Harden-to-Boston trade (or non-trade) story “flat wrong.”  It was not my intent to suggest it was any of our beatwriters who misrepresented the stage of that possible deal.  They merely said that the A’s and Red Sox were close to a deal.  My comments, obviously a bit too broad, were directed at tweeters and other media, broadcast and internet, around the country that ran with the story prematurely, saying the trade was imminent or had been done.  That said, I must apologize for any misperceptions my words may have caused. The last thing I would want to do is throw my own beatwriters under the bus.  I’m crazy, but not that crazy. Also, I offer a correction.  I wrote that around 10 am Sunday there were reports out of Phoenix that we had traded Ziegler to the Diamondbacks.  Actually, truth be told, the first reports came from the San Francisco Chronicle.  So, my bad.  E-me.  Next time, I promise to check my facts better.

With The Tweeting Frenzy Over, It’s Back To Baseball

The final 24 hours leading up to yesterday’s trading deadline were exhilarating, unpredictable and awkward, all at the same time; and in today’s world of instant communication, the tweeters were working overtime. By the time I arrived at the Coliseum Saturday afternoon, there was a flurry of Harden-to-Boston tweets filling the internet stratosphere.  Of course, this was all news to the A’s pitcher, not to mention me. The wonderful invention of Twitter has empowered us to communicate messages faster than you can say Fautino De Los Santos. Accuracy? Well, that’s another matter.  It seems many journalists and bloggers, some under heavy pressure from their editors, are more concerned about the speed in which they can “break” a story, even if time proves their facts flimsy and ultimately flat wrong. The Rich Harden story is a prime example.  I always have to chuckle when transactions are reported on the internet or other medium, and you’re sitting in the eye of the storm and you know the deal is not done.  And whether it’s a medical issue or a change of heart, many a deal goes sideways in those final hours.

As Saturday afternoon wore on, the media corps had asked Bob Melvin whether he could confirm the deal during his pre-game session in the dugout.  Then during the game, beat writers and team broadcasters took turns approaching me –actually pleading with me–about when the story might be confirmed, and “please, oh please, don’t let Harden leave the clubhouse before we can talk to him!”  I make light of it, but obviously these folks are just doing their job.  But confusion is certainly the order of the day (or night as it were).  It all went full cycle when Harden, standing at his locker, spoke with the reporters after the game, letting them know that he would be taking his normal turn in the A’s rotation Tuesday in Seattle.  In other words, it was much ado about nothing.

Yesterday, meanwhile, started innocently enough.  I arrived at the park around 9:30 a.m.  Soon after, reporters entered the clubhouse and began taking inventory.  Coco here?  Check.  Willingham?  Yep.  Bailey?  Yeah, there in the corner.  Then around 10 o’clock or so, Twitter Nation began to buzz again. There were reports out of Phoenix that the Diamondbacks were acquiring Brad Ziegler–our Ziggy –for first baseman Brandon Allen and minor league reliever Jordan Norberto.  Soon thereafter, Assistant GM David Forst informed me that the trade would happen if there were no red flags in team doctors’ evaluation of Allen and Norberto. He projected that process would be completed by 11 a.m., at which time he, Billy Beane, Farhan Zaidi and Melvin would summon Ziegler into the manager’s office to break the news. Only problem, though, was Ziggy was in team chapel–held in the weight room on home Sundays–when our baseball braintrust got the green light from our doctors. So, I waited outside the weight room so I could direct Brad to Melvin’s office as soon as chapel ended.  Once he was told about the trade, my assistant Mike Selleck made it official by sending out our press release and yes, tweeting the bare essentials for all to see.  For me, the toughest part was saying goodbye to one of the most cooperative athletes I’ve dealt with in more than three decades of my career.  Whether it was media interviews, community programs or season ticket holder events, you could always count on Zig.  And yesterday was no different.  After calling his family and Diamondbacks’ GM Kevin Towers, he agreed to come to the dugout for one final media session.  He was still wearing A’s gear, although he took off his green cap as a subtle reminder that he was no longer an Oakland Athletic.  After the questions ended, many writers came up to Brad and exchanged hugs.  No question, he was their “go-to guy” after tough A’s losses. And then, I walked back through the tunnel to the clubhouse.  But before I did, I caught one last view of Ziggy.  He had stopped in the walkway near the dugout and was signing autographs and visiting with dozens of fans along the railing.  It was an appropriate scene for one of the good guys in this business.  Tweet that!

New York Is A Link To Baseball’s Storied Past

Love ‘em or hate ‘em, the New York Yankees are intertwined with the history of baseball like no other team.  Yes, their payroll continues to approach the GNP of some Third World countries.  Yes, they make more appearances on network television than Bob Costas.  And yes, they play in baseball’s most expensive new stadium where even the visiting clubhouse is so spacious you have to send for a search party just to round up your players for pre-game batting practice. But having just spent last weekend in the Big Apple, I must say this.  The Yankees and their fans, as well as the New York media, may appreciate and embrace the history of baseball like no other place on the planet.

You see it at the team hotel in midtown Manhattan.  The autograph seekers arrive early to their customary sidewalk spot  on 51st Street, and they can recite every A’s player’s current stats.  You see it when the team bus rolls into the Bronx, and every block leading to The House That George Built features nothing but Yankee merchandise stores.  Jerseys of Ruth, Gehrig, Mantle, DiMaggio, Jeter and Sabathia hang from the shop windows.  And of course, inside the park, there are those Hall of Fame plaques behind center field of Yankee players of yore.  The plaques don’t end there either.  In the pressbox where I work, there’s plaques of legendary former Yankee PR men, along with a photo tribute to a recently-deceased official scorer who presided over games for four decades. However, he had nothing on the late Bob Sheppard, whose photo adorns the press lounge to acknowlege for serving as perhaps the greatest public address announcer of all-time (heck, he’s still so loved by local fans, the Yankees play a taped version of his dignified introduction of Jeter every time Mr. 3000 strolls to home plate).

But what I experienced last weekend went beyond a lovefest for Everything Yankee.  That was made abundantly clear the first time A’s designated hitter Hideki Matsui came to bat Friday night.  He received a rousing ovation. This, two years since he played for hometown team and won the 2009 World Series MVP. The Yankees also played a heart-warming video tribute to honor Godzilla reaching the 500-homer milestone two nights earlier in Detroit.  Very classy.  Another round of applause came Hideki’s way when the Japanese slugger hit No. 501 Saturday in fueling Oakland’s 4-3 win. Yesterday, New Yorkers showered some love David DeJesus’ way, too, when he made a nice catch in right field.  While it may not hurt that David was born in nearby Brooklyn and went to college at Rutgers, it seemed the applause were merely to show their appreciation for a good play, no matter the uniform or local lineage.

And while many of the legendary journalists I used to see in the New York press box have retired or passed away, I did enjoy meeting Bob Rosen, an old-timer who works for Elias Sports Bureau.  He was sitting right in front of me.  Our conversation led towards the current travails of the Dodgers.  Before I could say much, he quickly pulled out a stack of photos from his briefcase.  They were taken in 1957.  At Ebbetts Field!  It was remarkable seeing these 3×5 color shots that showed those large advertising signs of that era along the right field fence.  There were outside shots of the famed Ebbetts Field rotunda entrance.  And photos of future Hall of Famer Roy Campanella, and a game action photo of Roger Craig on the mound pitching for the Dodgers.  And this gentlemen from Elias not only had these photos, he shot the photos.  A living, breathing link to baseball’s past right before me.  Of course, being a die-hard Dodger fan who lost his boyhood team to the beaches of Southern California, he couldn’t help making one final comment about the Dodgers’ current situation. “Serves them right.  I knew there was a curse.  They never should have left us!”

Let’s Face It: Gio Is One Of The Game’s Best Pitchers

I get a kick out of those who continue to insist Gio Gonzalez battles “emotional demons” occasionally when he pitches.  Listen, I don’t dispute the fact that the A’s lefthander is a high-energy extrovert, and that he had trouble controlling his emotions earlier in his career.  But to still dig up that characterization is not only inaccurate, it’s unfair and discredits what he’s accomplished.  Let’s face it, Gio has blossomed into one of the game’s best starting pitchers. And that’s not just me saying it; the numbers suggest it.  Since the start of last season, the “Cuban Cannon” has rattled off a 24-15 record (.615 winning percentage) and 2.89 ERA while muzzling opposing hitters to the tune of a .224 average.  His ERA and opponents’ batting average over that span both rank 5th in the American League, with only well-known names like Weaver, Verlander, Lester and King Felix perched above him.  Additionally, our All-Star southpaw has exhibited some of the more electric stuff in the league during that season-and-a-half period, striking out 290 batters in 320.2 innings while allowing only 267 hits.  When the A’s score three runs or more in his starts, Gio is absolutely money; money, as in he’s a whopping 26-1 in his career when he has three or more runs to work with.  That’s right—TWENTY SIX wins, ONE loss.  And even though he’s toed the rubber for an offense-challenged Oakland club, his 24 wins since the start of 2010 still rank eighth most in the American League.

It’s always nice to recall the early days of Gonzalez.  I still remember that 2008 afternoon in Toronto, sitting on the team bus outside our hotel when a wide-eyed young man walked on board.  Actually he kind of bounced on board.  I had never met Gio, yet it was quite obvious that it was him, right there in the flesh, about to make his Major League debut that night at Rogers Centre.  You might recall the story about how he had left his passport back in Hialeah, Fla. and had to meet his mother at the airport en-route to Canada so he could enter the country–and the first chapter of his big league career.  To see Gio grow up before your very eyes, not only on the mound–where he learned, more than anything, to trust your stuff and also to minimize damage in making deep-in-the-game performances commonplace–but also in becoming just a fine young man.  No one on the team is more caring or giving to others and no one is more grounded in this crazy hero-worship world of professional sports.  It was a rare treat to watch Kate Longworth’s post-game Comcast interview on the field at Chase Field with Gio, his brothers and father, just minutes after the All-Star Game ended. Clearly, this is a tight-knit family and extremely proud of “little Gio.”  We saw how one of his brothers was sporting a No. 47 AL batting practice jersey with the word, “Hialeah” on the back above the numerals.  And that’s not the only place you’ll find the Gonzalez’ hometown.  Gio has it stitched on his glove so he can see it before every pitch he throws.  Talk about never forgetting where you came from.  Reminds me of another effervescent lefthander who once shined at the Coliseum. He also had a cool name, hailed from a small southern town and was a real fan favorite.  His name was Vida Blue.

Yesterday was truly MC Hammer Day at the ballpark, but it could have just as easy been Gio Day.  He blanked the Angels on a workman-like four-hitter through seven innings that netted his ninth win of the year.  The A’s crack marketing department unleashed something called “Celebrity Heads” during the game in celebration of 80′s Weekend, as these gargantuan heads of President Regan, Sylvester Stallone and Don Johnson raced across the field between innings.  Johnson was clothed in wardrobe reminiscent of his role in the TV hit series, “Miami Vice.”  Also, only appropriate, as our same marketing department was also selling the current issue of Athletics Magazine in the stadium.  On the cover?  Gio Gonzalez, with palm trees in pastel colors incorporated in the cover design.  The cover headline? Miami Nice.  Indeed.

As A’s Soap Opera Resumes, There’s Hope For Some Happy Episodes Ahead

Former MLB Commissioner Bart Giamatti used to say that baseball was designed to break your heart.  As we watched Josh Hamilton crush that Andrew Bailey fastball and send it soaring into the second deck at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington Saturday night and a much-needed A’s victory suddenly became perhaps the season’s most devastating loss, I couldn’t help but think Mr. Giamatti might be on to something. That demoralizing 7-6, ninth-inning setback was Oakland’s 20th one-run loss of 2011. In other words, 20 of the A’s 53 losses this year have been decided by one foot tap of home plate. Alarmingly, that’s almost 40 percent of the team’s entire loss total!

We all came into this season with higher expectations, based on the return of a brilliant young pitching staff and the offseason acquisitions of three proven Major League hitters and two accomplished relievers. So to watch this once promising club spin in a downward spiral the past few weeks has been tough on all of us.  Perhaps the All-Star Break arrived at an opportune time.  Players and coaches probably need a mental break from the game.  GM Billy Beane and his top lieutenant David Forst can use this week to contemplate changes or ways to jump-start a struggling team.  New skipper Bob Melvin, whose managerial moves and demeanor this past month seem to be beyond reproach, has flown home to New York for the break, no doubt digesting what he’s experienced since donning the A’s uniform and trying to devise a winning formula for the second half.

While fielding lineups with three or four players hitting .225 or below might be the first clue to why Oakland played at a .424 clip before the Break, the offense has not been the only culprit this season.  Defense, thought to be a strength entering the campaign, has betrayed the A’s since Opening Day.  Their 71 errors rank second most in the American League and third most in the majors.  What has been of particular concern is the glove work on Oakland’s infield, as 67 of their 71 miscues this season have been committed around the diamond (the breakdown is:  18 by third basemen, 14 by shortstops, 13 by pitchers, nine by first basemen, seven by catchers and six by second basemen).  So, this makes Beane’s and Forst’s challenge even more daunting, as they must weigh how much they can add offense at the expense of defense.  Clearly, they are losing ball games as much because of an inefficient defense as with scoring the second fewest runs in the American League at the Break.  That said, kudos should go out to Coco Crisp, who is batting a productive.267, with a team-leading 18 doubles, five triples and 26 stolen bases, not to mention eye-popping catches in center field, for his first half performance.  The same can be said for two relative newcomers in second baseman Jemile Weeks, who’s hitting .287 with three triples, eight doubles, eight RBI and seven steals in only 31 games since his Jume call-up, and converted third baseman Scott Sizemore, who has also batted .287 with five doubles, four homers and 14 RBI in just 28 games since being acquired in a trade with Detroit.

One thing that has always struck me about baseball is, like no other sport, it is a soap opera that unfolds every day.  Much can change in a matter of weeks, and every season is filled with ups and downs that can tear at your heartstrings.  What’s in store for the Oakland A’s after the All-Star Break has yet to be written.  Will the team rebound and begin to fulfill its preseason promise?  Will player moves at the trading deadline dictate Melvin’s goals and lineup in the second half?  Will there be more Jemile Weeks stories provided by further call-ups from Sacramento?  How will pitching aces Gio Gonzalez and Trevor Cahill finish their seasons?  As we follow the A’s fortunes, beginning with a four-game series against the Angels this weekend, these answers will began to form.  Stay tune for an interesting journey.

Bob Melvin & The Fightin’ Bananas

As we return home from a 2-4 road trip, I offer you some random–yet hopefully insightful–observations about your Oakland A’s.  First, it starts with the  mystical powers of those magnificent gold jerseys.  By now, I’m sure you know the mercurial history of Oakland’s alternate tops.  Clearly, they were not designed to accompany our gray pants on the road, but when you rattle off a five-game home winning streak like we did last week, fashion statements be damned.  We’re talking baseball superstition here.  And while the winning streak ended, Bob Melvin and the “Fightin’ Bananas” accorded themselves quite well in the near-fluorescent jerseys in New York and Philadelphia. It took 13 innings and a graze-of-the-jersey pitch from Brad Ziegler to end the magic in 13 innings Wednesday.  Equipment man Steve “Voos” Vucinich put them back on the shelf for the Mets’ finale and series opener in Philly, but pitching ace Trevor Cahill decided to channel the power once again, and the Fightin’ Bananas were back on display Saturday at Citizens Bank Park.  Like the Mets broadcasters before, the Phillies’ announcers just reamed us for the garish look and the fact the tops and bottoms don’t seem to match.  Of course, they’re entitled to their opinions.  But thanks to a Cahill masterpiece and some timely hitting, the Athletics rose up to tag Cole Hamels with only his fourth loss of the season.  And while Melvin and his Plantain Men didn’t fare quite as well yesterday, the fact remained that they mustered–or is that mustard –eight hits off Roy Halladay and kept the game’s outcome in doubt until the waning moments.  So, maybe those shockingly bright gold jerseys are worth wearing when the A’s need an added jolt.  Who knows, maybe this will end up being known as The Season of the Fightin’ Bananas.

Another week of working with our new manager continues to reveal more about Bob Melvin.  After yesterday’s narrow loss, he was a picture of dejection and frustration.  Clearly, this is not a man who will ever accept losing.  He could have easily rationalized the 3-1 defeat, chalking it up to facing one of the game’s elite pitchers.  But instead, he would have no part of it.  He wanted to tell his players, the media, even his PR man, that it was not okay to lose this game or the series, because we can’t think that way.  You could tell he believed that his club could, maybe even should, beat a Halladay who wasn’t at his most dominant yesterday.  It’s that competitive spirit that has served Melvin well whereever he’s managed.  And it fits into his pro-active, aggressive approach to the game.  A Josh Willingham steal of third base led to a win over the Tim Lincecum and the Giants last week.

The same have-no-fear mantra has been preached by Hall of Famer Rickey Henderson whenever he visits the team.  And perhaps their top disciple is rookie Jemile Weeks, who seemed to thrive on the big stage of New York and Philadelphia.  Not only has he provided a .300 hitter and stolen base threat at the top of the order, as evidenced by his two-steal, three-run performance in the NY opener Tuesday and three-hit outburst in Saturday’s win over the Phils, but he has shown a flair at second base that has made him a fan favorite almost overnight. You want to talk about swagger?  How about making a back-handed flip from his glove to start a 4-6-3 double play to slam the lid on Saturday’s win?  And he chose to do it before a sellout crowd of over 45,000 howling fans in South Philly–fans who have razzed players much more prominent than Weeks, not to mention booed future Hall of Famer Mike Schmidt and also a guy named Santa Claus.

As I watched our injury-riddled starting rotation continue to pitch impressively on the trip, I couldn’t help but think, “what other team in baseball can run out their No. 8 and No. 9 pitchers on the depth chart and get these kind of results?”  That’s exactly what we did in the Giants series, when Graham Godfrey and Guillermo Moscoso outpitched Lincecum and Jonathan Sanchez in beating San Francisco, and that pair, along with Josh Outman, continued to deliver sterling efforts on the trip.  In fact, Moscoso (2.68 ERA) and Outman (3.10 ERA) have both posted outstanding ERA as emergency fill-ins.  The good news is reinforcements are on the way, as Brandon McCarthy, Rich Harden and Tyson Ross should join the big club from rehab assignments by the end of the week or early in July, it would appear.

And for those of you looking to enjoy Bay Area summer weather and A’s baseball, we’ve got an intriguing homestand on the way.  This Tuesday, the Florida Marlins and their new–or is that old–manager, the 80-year-old Jack McKeon, invade the Coliseum for a three-game interleague set.  Then Oakland concludes its interleague schedule this weekend, when Melvin’s old club, the Arizona Diamondbacks, pay the East Bay a visit.  And the homestand continues when Seattle, the AL West’s most surprising team, kicks off a three-game series on the 4th of July.  Four of the nine home games will be played in the bright sunshine of day baseball.  And who knows, they may also be played in the brightness of those crazy gold jerseys.  I wonder if Dole or Chiquitas might be interested in sponsoring them?

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