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.
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.
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!
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!”
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.
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.
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?
The road trip from hell is over. Mercifully. It’s rare when a team returns home after a 10-game trip that produced one win. And it’s even more rare when such a woeful showing is not the focal point of the local media. Instead, most scribes and on-air folks are reporting on something even more rare: an in-season managerial change.
For me personally, it started with a red-eye flight to Chicago Wednesday night. I had received a heads up from GM Billy Beane earlier that afternoon that Bob Melvin would be replacing Bob Geren Thursday. While I was keenly aware of the media speculation about him, to actually hear the words that Geren would no longer be our manager was almost stunning to me. No matter his record, he was a good, decent man, and as Billy said in his briefing, a good baseball man. When you spend the kind of time together that we did every day in the clubhouse, in his office, on team charters and buses, your manager becomes part of your extended family. You emphathize with his every up and down, and you share in his victories. However, part of being a professional is you need to move quickly past the personal part.
The early notice Billy gave me was ample time to write a first draft press release, scribble some notes on how and when to best service the media the next day, and then join Billy and Assistant GM David Forst on a 10:53 pm flight from SFO to O’Hare. As I’ve experienced with previous news of this nature, the inner circle needs to be kept small to control the timing of the announcement. This becomes even more critical when there’s still private meetings and planning that need to occur prior to going public. Billy, David and I arrived at the downtown Chicago Westin Hotel on Michigan Avenue around 6 am, only to learn that–incredibly–we actually beat the team’s check-in from Baltimore. The team, already reeling from their ninth straight loss, did not pick up their keys in the Westin lobby until 6:30 am, thanks to stormy weather which detoured their flight with an unscheduled stop in Springfield, IL. The same treacherous conditions also delayed Melvin’s flight from New York, pushing back his arrival time from 10 am to almost noon at the hotel.
Billy and David opted to meet with the coaching staff around 11 am, at which time David gave me the green light to email our prepared press release to the Bay Area, national and Japanese media, along with all A’s front office staff. Our planned sequence continued to unfold, hour by hour, through the afternoon. Beane and Forst met with Melvin in the hotel just prior to a 1 pm media conference call where Billy patiently took questions from a wide range of journalists and tried his best to explain the rationale for the managerial change. As soon as the call ended, we were all headed downstairs to the 2 pm team bus to the stadium. The frenetic pace continued when we got to U.S. Cellular Field, as equipment man Steve Vucinich outfitted Bob Melvin in his new uniform, including his requested No. 6 jersey to honor Sal Bando, captain of those three straight World Series championship teams of the early 70′s.
Minutes later, I was ushering Melvin and Beane to an interview room across the corridor from our clubhouse for a 3:30 pm media conference. It turned out to be comprised mostly of TV cameras, including one feeding the conference live to our partner Comcast SportsNet California back home. There was only a sprinkling of sports writers in attendance, with the San Francisco Chronicle’s Susan Slusser one of the only A’s beat writers in attendance. Most Bay Area and Japanese writers had been delayed en route from Maryland by the same horrendous weather that had effected all of us. Melvin seemed to wear his heart on his shirt sleeves a bit during the 15-minute conference, harkening back to his childhood days when he used to watch Captain Sal and those great A’s teams at the Coliseum and how excited he was to be wearing those same white shoes and green-and-yellow caps his heroes once wore.
Following the conference, the new A’s skipper got a chance to return to his office for about a half hour of game preparation, then introducing himself to some of his new players, and finally joining Ken Korach in doing the first-ever edition of The Bob Melvin Show that will now precede every remaining game this season. The second bus from the hotel arrived around 4:30 pm, which signalled us to close the clubhouse so Melvin could conduct an introductory team meeting. I’ll never forget June 9, as not only was it historic in the naming of Bob Melvin as interim manager, but it was just a rather bizarre scene in general. It seemed almost like a scene from the Land of the Living Dead, as whether sportswriters, players, coaches or A’s front office types, we were all doing splendid renditions of modern-day zombies. Sleep deprivation and all-night travel will do that to a person.
Before I conclude this “Anatomy of a Managerial Change” blog, let me offer some early observations of our new field general. First, make no mistake about it, this is a Bay Area guy through and through. He’s clearly coming home. When he speaks of Bay Area sports history, or merely his old stomping grounds in Menlo Park and Palo Alto, you can feel the excitement and passion in his voice. It’s one thing to be a manager in the major leagues, but it’s entirely something else to be a big league manager of your childhood team.
Judging by what I’ve seen so far, this is a man who is going to be real “hands on” as a manager. I saw him numerous times seeking out players in the clubhouse, whether it be to stress a baseball point or merely to start a relationship. Same went for his early dealings with the media. He has been extremely accomodating, not to mention thoughtful and forthcoming (hey, the guy went to Cal!). When discussing our glut of quality outfielders on the roster the other day, I was struck by how honest he was and willing to share his feelings: “Ryan (Sweeney) is kind of the odd man out today, and I feel bad about that because we need to get him some at-bats.” And comments from players, PR directors or writers who have dealt with Bob in the past seem to only confirm my first impressions. White Sox beat writer Mark Gonzalez of the Chicago Tribune, who covered Melvin in Phoenix when he wrote for the Arizona Republic, raved about his managing style and people skills. Conor Jackson, the only current Athletic who previously played for Bob (Diamondbacks), was just as effusive with his praise. And Mike Swanson, former D-Backs PR man who now works with the Royals, told my assistant how thrilled he was for Bob and how much he was looking forward to seeing him this week when Kansas City plays in Oakland. We know none of these glowing reports guarantees success on the field in this fickle game of baseball, but it certainly gives all of us hope. Now, I hope to see you at the Coliseum this week when we host the Royals and Giants in a short six-game homestand. Come out and welcome our new manager. He’ll be the one wearing Captain Sal’s old uniform.
Working for a professional baseball team can be a surreal experience on occasion. The life I lead as the A’s public relations director represents an entirely different world than the one I live in as a father and husband in my off hours at our home in Berkeley. One moment, I may be arranging for a FOX interview with Andrew Bailey or working with our merry band of Japanese media that chronicles Hideki Matsui’s every step, then the next minute I’m taking the BART Richmond line home that night so I can buy groceries and cook dinner for my wife and son before we tune into The Colbert Report on the Comedy Channel. It’s maybe not quite as exciting as a big league ball game, but definitely more rewarding.
Yesterday, however, my two worlds intersected in the most unlikely way. While sitting in our draft “war room” at the Coliseum, the A’s selected left-handed pitcher, Christopher Lamb of Davidson College, with their 11th round pick. My first thought was “how can this be?” And could you really blame me? To me, this wasn’t Christopher Lamb of Davidson; this was little Chris Lamb of Albany Little League and Berkeley High School! This was Chris Lamb, that skinny kid who used to hang around the local baseball fields and pitch batting practice to younger kids like my son, Luke. Talk about a local boy made good story. We’ve known the Lamb family since Chris’ father, Marvin, chairman of the psychology department at Cal State East Bay, used to coach my son in Albany Little League. I cannot think of a kid with better manners or a nicer disposition than Chris Lamb. While he was four years older than Luke, we always saw him at University Village where the Albany Little League fields are located. Sometimes Chris was just there to support his younger brother Nick, who played with my son and now is a virtuoso jazz pianist at Berkeley High. Sometimes Chris would actually umpire their games. And then, as I said, there were times when he would volunteer his talents as BP pitcher to the younger kids. He almost seemed like a big brother to everyone, not just his real bother Nick.
Beyond being a sports family, the Lambs are very education oriented (Chris’ mother is also a college professor at San Jose State and Cal). So it was no surprise that Chris not only excelled on the diamond but also in the classroom at Berkeley High. With superlative grades and test scores, he entertained thoughts of attending various Ivy League schools before accepting a baseball scholarship to Davidson, another elite academic institution. Along the way, Chris continued to grow and blossom into a legitimate prospect. As he added some MPHs to his fastball and refined his off-speed pitches, suddenly the adjective “crafty” was starting to precede his name.
While hundreds of high school and college players are drafted each year, what dawned on me yesterday is every single kid has a personal story and a community that shares in the pride their families must feel on such a special, milestone day. I had hoped to see Chris Monday night in Berkeley–his younger brother Nick was performing at the famed Berkeley music venue Freight & Salvage–and wish him well the night before his big day. We opted for a late dinner at home instead. When Eric Kubota and our baseball folks chose his name on the 11th round, I knew I had to call Chris to congratulate him. “So, Chris, do you have any white cleats lying around?” I asked. He laughed and said he and the family were very excited to be picked by a hometown team. He didn’t have to say it. The emotion in his voice told me all I needed to know.
Many years ago, the words “Tommy John” were simply used to describe a crafty left-handed pitcher whose nasty sinker induced countless groundballs every time he took the mound. Today those words, of course, tend to appear ahead of one other word: surgery. John, who won 288 games over 26 Major League seasons, would have had his career cut short had it not been for a revolutionary new medical procedure that reconstructed his ulnar collateral ligament in 1975.
Since then, hundreds of pitchers have successfully undergone the same surgery. As I witnessed the Sacramento call-ups of Josh Outman and Joey Devine last week, it dawned on me that 2011 might just be the year of Tommy John for the A’s pitching staff.
Outman, who hadn’t pitched since 2009, certainly gave a ringing endorsement to TJ surgery when he twirled a brilliant five-hitter over seven innings Monday against the Angels in his first big league start of the year. He and his new-and-improved left arm will need to play a key role in the Oakland rotation, at least for the next couple months, as Brandon McCarthy (stress shoulder fracture) and Tyson Ross (strained oblique) continue to mend. Then add to the bullpen a rejuvenated Devine–he of the 0.59 ERA in 2008 before Tommy John surgery–who seems to have recaptured his old form with three scoreless innings in his three relief appearances after a two-year layoff.
Outman and Devine are by no means the only A’s members of the Tommy John fraternity. Where would we be without the Man from Sydney, Grant Balfour? He benefited from TJ surgery back in 2005, and has risen to great heights since, including three appearances in the 2008 World Series with the Rays, not to mention a 3-1 mark and 2.08 ERA in 15 games with Oakland thus far this year.
And there’s 25-year-old righthander Fautino De Los Santos, part of the Nick Swisher deal with the White Sox, who filled a roster spot briefly this past week after a Triple-A call up. While De Los Santos did not see any action during his Oakland stint, he figures prominently in the A’s future after successfully responding from 2008 Tommy John surgery.
Yet, the most significant TJ alumnus is two-time All-Star closer Andrew Bailey, who should rejoin the club in the next week or two after rehabbing a strained right forearm that has sidelined him since spring training. We all held our collective breaths when Andrew had to halt his spring appearance against Cleveland in mid-inning, clutching his right arm–and knowing that he once sat on the operating table of Dr. James Andrew, the Godfather of Tommy John surgeries.
So, next time you come out to the Coliseum or watch a road game on Comcast SportsNet California, and you glance down to the A’s bullpen or watch Outman fire his first pitch as the team’s starter, raise a glass to the old lefthander, Tommy John, who perhaps unknowingly, chan
ged the course of baseball history with a radical surgery that has now become commonplace.
And if Bailey, Outman, Devine, Balfour or De Los Santos need any reinforcements from Sacramento, maybe later this year the team will call up Willie Eyre, who’s 3-2 with a save and 2.08 ERA in 18 relief appearances. Eyre would feel right at home. After pitching for the Texas Rangers, he had Tommy John surgery in 2007.