A’s fans, your team is currently resting uncomfortably at the .500 mark after
32 games. The rhetorical question is
this: is that a good or bad thing? Well perched at
.500 can have different connotations to different people. For those who think our 16-16 record is
merely a continuation of last year’s team that carved out an 81-81 mark, maybe
the .500 mark is a negative. And with
our early season bloated with superior pitching and anemic hitting, it’s no
wonder some frustrated A’s fans will declare “same old, same old.”
my view is a bit more encouraging.
First, the general feeling in the clubhouse, as well among our
fans, was that last year we pretty much
maxed out by posting an 81-81 record and second-place finish. This year, the vibe is much different. This
team expects to win and is clearly frustrated with a .500 mark at
this juncture of the early season. I
think these guys know they’re a better club this season. In fact, they knew it in spring
training. And when you think about it,
the vital signs are more postive then you might think for a 16-16 team. First, we sport a .500 record (8-8) on the
road, playing top-rate competition. The
axiom that championship teams play .500 baseball on the road is true, so even
though we really haven’t consistently played good baseball this past month, the
fact remains that we’re getting it done on the road. Then consider some other other omens. We’re in AL West contention even though we’re
missing our All-Star closer (Andrew Bailey), Perfect Game starter (Dallas
Braden) and last year’s most valuable supersub (Adam Rosales). And, we’re coming off a solid 4-3 homestand
against the defending AL champion Texas Rangers and baseball’s winningest team
this year, the Cleveland Indians, with recent wins triggered by the clutch
hitting of the three key offseason lineup acquisitions in David DeJesus (two
homers Wednesday), Hideki Matsui (walk-off home run Monday) and Josh Willingham
(game-tying homer and double Monday). Then add the apparent return of Michael
Wuertz’s devastating slider out of the pen and the recent dominating
performance of new starting pitcher Tyson Ross, and this club clearly is moving
in the right direction, .500 mark or not.
had the distinct pleasure to work with Dusty Baker for nearly 10 years when he
managed the Giants and Dusty always told me, “early in the season, the key
is to stick around .500. If you can hang
around .500, eventually you’ll catch a hot streak and you can make your
move. It’s the teams that dig a hole
early that have trouble getting into contention.” So folks, don’t
despair. I know yesterday’s 12-inning heart-breaker
wears on all of us. A win would have
clinched another series win and a 5-2 homestand. But as my friend Dusty would also say, it’s
not a race, it’s a marathon. So, we jet
to Kansas City, where I plan to grab some big league barbeque–some place called
LC’s, located in a former gas filing station (ambience, yes!)–and also expect
our boys to grab two or three wins (sauce optional). Keep the faith, A’s Nation. I think this group knows it can hit
better than it has. And they also know
it’s up to them, and no one else, to prove it.
Time, as it always does, will tell.
Bay Area residents, I dare you. I dare you to find a nicer place to spend three hours soaking up 70-degree weather than at an A’s day game at the Coliseum. And I also dare you to find a more affordable option on the local sports scene today. And I dare you to find a more exciting and talented young pitching staff than the 2011 Oakland A’s, which features four early All-Star candidates in their midst.
That said, I hope you take heed and come out to the yard during the next homestand early and often. Weather prognosticators are expecting high 60′s and low 70′s with plenty of sunshine during the seven-game run against AL divison leaders Texas (Friday-Monday) and Cleveland (Tuesday-Thursday). Three of the four games vs. Michael Young, Adrian Beltre & Co. will be matinee affairs, while the Indians’ series finale will also be staged under glorious sun! Really, is there anything much better than day baseball! Green grass, blue skies and white shoes. Yes!
And that’s not even considering the great season-long deals that our marketing guru, Jim Leahey, has concocted to provide every-day value to A’s fans. I mean, virtually every day of the week offers something pretty cool. There’s free parking on all Chevy Free Parking Tuesdays (except 5/31). BART $2 Wednesdays mean selected $2 game tickets. And new this year, 10,000 fans will receive coupons for free hot dogs for Thursday games. Fridays, beyond being a popular Fireworks Night (2 of the 5 Fireworks games are on Fridays in 2011), may offer Bay Area sports fans the best bargain anywhere–Xfinity Friday Family Packs, whereby a family or group of four can attend a big league baseball game, eat a dinner consisting of a hot dog, bag of peanuts and a soft drink, all for only $50 total! Try that one on for size at another sports venue in the Bay Area! And this does not even count the promotional giveaways on most weekends at the Coliseum. This Saturday will be Rickey Henderson Bobblehead Day, while Sunday is Kids Magnet Set Day. And don’t forget next Thursday’s special Atleticos T-shirt/Cinco de Mayo giveaway, the final day game of the homestand! So when it comes to value, great team matchups and magnificent weather, I dare you to find a better deal than A’s baseball. Whether you’re a parent looking for a family outing for your kids, a hardcore baseball fan who wants to see how the A’s will fare against top competition, or just someone looking to “catch some rays” now that our lousy weather is over, look no further than 66th Avenue. Go A’s!
You want to know how special yesterday’s win was? Let me share a telling stat from last year’s team. When the 2010 A’s trailed in a game after eight innings, their record was 2-68. That’s right. Two and 68. In other words, last year’s team wasn’t exactly The Comeback Kids. But this season is a new day, or at least early returns suggest it is.
On the heels of Kurt Suzuki’s dramatic game-winning home run in the 10th inning of Monday’s series opener, the A’s did one even better on getaway day in Chicago. Facing what appeared to be an insurmountable 4-1 deficit in the ninth, Conor Jackson, Josh Willingham and Hideki Matsui—part of the new face of this year’s club—opened the inning with three straight authoritative hits. Up in the U.S. Cellular Field press box, I was starting to wonder, at least privately, “could this team actually rally and win this thing?” Matsui’s bullet to right field shaved the deficit to 4-2. Then Bob Geren, who has been given a roster clearly with more talent and flexibility this year, began to make moves like a manager with more options than previous seasons. First, he sent Coco Crisp into the game to pinch-run for Godzilla. Then he pinch-hit Daric Barton for Kevin Kouzmanoff, bringing in a player that banged out four hits the night before to face a right-handed reliever. Barton walked—not exactly a shocking development—and then Kurt Suzuki worked the count to 2-0, then 3-1 against reliever Matt Thornton with the bases loaded. At that point, Thornton went country hardball and blew a 96-, then 97-MPH fastball past the A’s catcher for an ill-timed strikeout. Again, Geren was able to summon another proven bat off the bench, inserting Ryan Sweeney for Andy LaRoche. Ozzie Guillen countered with Tony Peńa out of the pen, and the big right-hander also served up gas which Ryno could not catch up to. But just when A’s fan were about to pack up their scorebooks and turn off Comcast Sports Net or The Wolf, little Cliff Pennington greets Peńa with a laser single up the middle of the diamond to drive in Willingham and Crisp to tie the game.
Geren’s new options continued to unfold in the bottom of the ninth, when he moved Jackson from right field to third base, while leaving Barton (1B) and Sweeney (RF) in the game in their customary positions and actually improving Oakland’s defense at a critical juncture of the game. After Grant Balfour shredded the Sox’s vaunted sluggers in the ninth—Adam Dunn and Carlos Quentin via the strikeout and Paul Konerko via a harmless foul pop to Suzuki—the A’s new firepower came surging forward again in the top of the 10th. After Mark Ellis grounded out, Jackson and Willingham drew walks. Then Crisp and Barton, only inserted into the game the previous inning, came up huge with RBI singles that forged a 7-4 lead. While Brett Anderson had to settle for a no-decision despite a solid 5.2 innings of work, he was happy to hand the ball to a succession of lock-down relievers—Craig Breslow, Brad Ziegler, Balfour and then closer Brian Fuentes—who delivered 4 1/3 innings of scoreless pitching which paved the way for an improbable win. When the dust settled, I think I counted at least 12 players who made significant contributions. It was truly a team win, which of course, are the best kind. They help form closer bonds between players—especially those new to this team—and suggest the total sum may, indeed, be greater that the individual parts.
So, after a 1-4 start to the season which was undermined by some defensive lapses, your Oakland A’s have gone 5-2 against very legitimate competition. Geren’s Boys won the last two road series against arguably the top two teams in the AL Central in Chicago and Minnesota, and had it not been for an ill-timed home run off the bat of Yunel Escobar in Toronto, we win all three series on this arduous road trip. For a new group to face such adversity when they were staring up at a 1-4 start, and then respond with some pressurized victories, it suggests this unit is becoming a real team. And with that, comes more confidence, a close-knit feeling, and a collective Esprit de corps that may drive this group to greater heights in the weeks and months to come. Detroit arrives in Oaktown this evening for a four-game series, then Boston for a brief two-game set that ends the home stand. You may want to come out and see what all the commotion is about.
My first observation following yesterday’s 2-1 win in Toronto: Trevor Cahill (left) looks like the same guy who won 18 last year and earned All-Star honors—if not better. His ball still darts downward with a bite almost unfair to hitters. And this, from a 23-year-old kid who still sports peach fuzz on his cheeks.
It took some courage from Bob Geren to remove him from a 3-hit masterpiece after eight innings and a 105-pitch count, but in the long run, I think they felt it was time for Brian Fuentes to notch his first save. We don’t make a serious run at the AL West crown unless we’re clicking on all cylinders, and that means Fuentes, Bailey and Balfour providing the final touches on A’s wins. Same goes for sitting down David DeJesus in favor of Conor Jackson (left, below) and plugging in Andy LaRoche to rest the ear-infected Ellis. Jackson and LaRoche will play vital roles on this team if we want to join the 90-win echelon of other playoff contenders. This means specialists and backup players will need to step up and flourish when they’re asked to perform, whether it is an occasional start, a pinch-hitting appearance, or a summon from the bullpen.
The good news is they’re passing the early tests. After a bout with a finger blister, Fuentes looked like his old self at the Rogers Centre, whipping that cross-body heater that can tie hitters up in knots. Jackson has been nothing but sensational in his two starts this season. Not only has he wielded a hot bat, he’s also more than held his own in the field. His shoestring catch of a sinking liner off the bat of Adam Lind in the sixth inning today may have been even more impactful than his game-deciding RBI single was in the eighth. And LaRoche, thrust into the unaccustomed role of utilityman, may have emerged as our most consistent hitter in the early season while starting at shortstop, third base and second base in consecutive games.
Yes realists, we are only 2-4 as we enter the frigid confines of Target Field. But as I mentioned in my previous blog, this is a work in progress. While expectations are high, and the early season schedule presents challenges, those wearing green and gold uniforms are focusing merely at the task at hand. With 156 games left to the finish line, there will be many revelations in store as the season unfolds. Today, the Twins christen their home season. Brett Anderson will take the mound for the Athletics, aiming to spoil another team’s Opening Day in the same fashion King Felix did in Oakland last week. As always, time will tell.
Like every Major League Baseball team in April, the Oakland A’s are entering the early stages of finding a team identity as they jet eastward to Toronto. You can rest assured, error-laced Opening Night and our bullpen struggles last weekend is not a true reflection of this team! As is customary, Canadian officials will require each of us to present U.S. passports to gain entrance on foreign soil when we land at Pearson International Airport. However, the collective I.D. of the 2011 A’s will not be printed in a government document. Instead, it will play out over time this season. That’s part of the fun of being a fan, because despite what preseason prognosticators might suggest, the true identity—and character—of a team is always determined by the 25 players on the roster.
It’s a process. On the field, Bob Geren and his staff are focused on meshing diverse talents into a cohesive unit. But, maybe more importantly, this is the time when clubhouse chemistry starts to bubble to the surface. Old friendships are renewed and new ones take root. Mr. Willingham, meet Mr. Ellis. Mr. Balfour, want to play catch? I found last weekend interesting, in that our two opening losses to Seattle seemed to create a sense of urgency among the troops—something you wouldn’t expect with 160 games left to play. Clearly, players shared the same high expectations that have been tossed around national media circles this spring, and they seemed determined to right the ship, and right it now. And no better way than to let the guy in the next locker know that “I’ve got your back because, hey, we’re teammates and I care about you. Let’s go get ‘em!”
Take David DeJesus and Gio Gonzalez, both electric personalities who seem to have become fast friends. They’ve developed some type of fist-and-body bump routine every time they see each other that’s way more hip than I can personally comprehend. Let’s just say that former A’s bat boy MC Hammer would be proud. Back-end reliever Brian Fuentes turned to family—his real one and his new one—to soothe the painful memory of a rocky outing, as he proudly introduced two of his young children to his new teammates in the clubhouse Sunday. Another scene after Sunday’s 7-1 win was sidelined All-Star closer Andrew Bailey, skipping around like a school boy in the clubhouse, high-fiving Gio and fellow reliever Jerry Blevins for a job well done. Yet, maybe the most central figure in bringing this club together Sunday was Hideki Matsui, the consummate pro, who’s the team’s closest connection to the Japanese earthquake nightmare. He was the rallying point for the organization’s efforts to raise money for the Red Cross yesterday (the team generated more than $65,000). Matsui also gave his country a brief moment to escape their pain and suffering by lining a Doug Fister pitch down the left-field line for a second-inning double which was the 2,500th of his legendary career. After the game, everyone from Geren to Gonzalez gushed about the A’s new slugger and the historical significance of his amazing milestone.
It’s that respect and true caring for each other that might very well be the trademark of this Oakland club. Time—and our win-loss record—will tell if these qualities will serve the A’s well.
It was getaway day in the desert yesterday, and collectively, I think this team is ready for the marathon that lies ahead. Following our Cactus League finale against the Rockies at Salt River Fields, players, coaches and staff were bused back to Phoenix Muni for quick showers, then on to Phoenix International Airport for the charter to Oakland. As I surveyed the situation on board, it’s clear that Manager Bob Geren and his staff are visibly pleased with the results they saw during six weeks of workouts and Spring Training games. And why not? Their check list is pretty much complete:
- Stay Healthy—The A’s came out of camp relatively injury free. Outside of All-Star closer Andrew Bailey and fifth-starter candidate Rich Harden, Geren’s club looks fit and ready. And even Bailey’s arm setback was a reprieve of sorts, as tearing adhesions from offseason cleanup surgery is a best-case scenario if ever I heard of one when a mandated trip to see Dr. Andrews (aka, Mr. Tommy John surgeon) suggested otherwise. While a specific timetable for their return has not yet been plotted, both Bailey and Harden (tight lat muscle) should be rejoining the team early in the season, perhaps even within a few weeks.
- Competition for Open Positions—Entering Spring Training, it would have seemed there were three primary areas of competition for roster spots. The hope was that several viable candidates would emerge and a healthy competition would ensue that might deliver the best possible options. Well, it absolutely went according to script. With Adam Rosales still on the mend from offseason foot surgery—he should be back by early May—there was a spirited battle for the utility infielder role. In fact, the smoke has yet to clear, as Eric Sogard, Andy LaRoche and Wes Timmons head north for the Bay Bridge Series still awaiting a final verdict. And Steve Tolleson, who briefly served in the same utility role last season, displayed his usual defensive prowess to make it a legitimate four-way competition until he was optioned to the minor league camp due to a sub-par batting average. Another interesting contest was waged by Brandon McCarthy, Tyson Ross and Bobby Cramer for the No. 5 starter. Friday, the skipper gave McCarthy the nod, although he also suggested that Ross and Cramer are still prime candidates for the long reliever slot on the staff—a decision that will need to be made later this week. And to a lesser extent, a bevy of gifted relievers with quality major league experience, headed by Jerry Blevins, Joey Devine—and maybe even the reliable Brad Ziegler—tried to out-duel each other all spring for what essentially were one or two spots in a crowded bullpen. Devine, who like starter Josh Outman, made estimable progress this spring, was optioned this morning to allow him more time to ramp up following his Tommy John surgery from 2009. Final choices for Opening Night are still to come, but one thing is certain: some very capable pitchers and position players will be left off the 25-man roster that christens the season, and that suggests this is a deeper team than a year ago.
- Evidence of an Improved Lineup—While rarely did we see the projected Opening Night lineup together in any one Spring Training game, individually we saw promising glimpses of both our new acquisitions like David DeJesus and Josh Willingham, as well as returning hitters like Coco Crisp, Kurt Suzuki and Kevin Kouzmanoff, who this year will be asked to perform in positions more commiserate to their talents. While Hideki Matsui compiled a rather frigid batting average this spring, those long-time observers of the Japanese legend suggest that Godzilla is sure to appear when stadium lights are flicked on this weekend.
- The Return of the Big Four—Even though this quartet set the tone last season by anchoring a starting rotation that posted the best ERA in all of baseball, the relative youth of Trevor Cahill, Brett Anderson, Gio Gonzalez and Dallas Braden would generally suggest you can’t take last year’s performance for granted. So, while we have somewhat penciled in another stellar season for this group, it was nice to see each of them pitch with such purpose this spring. In short, they were as good as advertised. All four seem to be poised and ready for great seasons. And, of course, this is sweet music for new pitching coach Ron Romanick and Geren.
So now, the real season is upon us. As they might say in the boxing game, “Let’s get ready to rummmmbblle!”
Back in the early 70′s, the
Oakland A’s were notorious for their disharmony
in the clubhouse. When the media
referred to them as the “Swingin’ A’s,” they weren’t kidding. Reggie Jackson,
Tenace or Rollie Fingers may have been World Series heroes, but that didn’t
necessarily make them like each
other. However, I think it’s fair to say that this year’s Athletics are polar
opposites. In all my years in sports, I
cannot recall a better team chemistry than the one I’m seeing down here in
It’s just a happy
clubhouse. At one end of the room,
there’s Brian Fuentes with a remote
control, directing a miniature helicopter that’s hovering over a table of
pitchers playing cards. At another
corner, you’ve got Kurt Suzuki applying a bear hug
on one of the clubbies. On St. Patrick’s
Day, it’s the colorful Dallas Braden,
sporting an oversized green golf hat, ala Bill Murray at Pebble Beach,
entertaining MLB Radio Network broadcasters Kevin Kennedy and Jim Duquette on
the field before the game. Or it’s
legendary Japanese slugger Hideki Matsui,
despite nursing a heavy heart two days after the earthquake and tsunami hit his
homeland, feeling compelled to answer the “Matsui, Matsui!” shrieks of
youngsters at Phoenix Muni and returning to the ballpark railing to sign
And there are the even more
subtle signs that this is a team where players genuinely care about each
other. Off days are usually considered
almost religious holidays for big league players, as they are so rare and much
needed after several consecutive days of games or workouts. Yet, last week on our only off day of spring
training, there was Braden–sporting a knit stocking cap despite 80 degree
weather–and fellow starter Trevor Cahill,
making an appearance at our Papago Park minor league complex at 9:30 in the
morning. Why? To show support for their two teammates, Craig Breslow and Tyson Ross,
who were both pitching to minor leaguers that day. I was there to report their performances to
our beat writers, yet I could recognize it was a poignant scene. “This is what good teammates do,” I thought.
And I saw the same common
thread when Jim Leahey, our VP of Marketing,
unveiled the A’s new advertising campaign last weekend. While the finished TV commercials were
hysterical, what really struck me was watching the “out-takes” at the end of
the video presentation. It was the way Gio Gonzalez, despite the 38-degree weather he encountered during
dunk tank scenes in February filming sessions, was so playful with the other
players on set. Same for Suzuki and
Cahill, and especially Ryan Sweeney.
These guys didn’t just look like ballplayers. They looked like dear friends. To see the commercials and outtakes click
I guess the question is will
this translate into a playoff team this season?
Obviously, time will tell. But if
you believe in the intangibles–camaraderie, trust in each other, and a positive
atmosphere–that make a team a team,
then I think you can start believing in the 2011 A’s. This could be a very special group.
Ladies and gentlemen, you
are part of history today. Oh, you
didn’t hear? This is my 50th edition since I started Clubhouse Confidential
last season. That, and $2, will get you
a Venti Pike’s Roast at Starbucks.
Some random observations and
thoughts about the past week of Spring Training in this, the 50th anniversary
issue of my blog:
Bob Geren, now in his fifth year
as manager, has really grown into his role with the media. Ironically, it may be the additional 50 or so
Japanese media that has served as a catalyst.
It seems as though the A’s manager loves a crowd. He seems to actually be feeding off the
energy of a larger media corps. Not only
has he provided solid baseball information every day during our pre-game session
in the dugout, but he’s brought downright humor on occasion. His best comedic
source are stories about Frank Howard,
the gargantuan (6-7, 250 pounds) former Washington Senator and Los Angeles
Dodger outfielder who later coached for many major league teams. It seems Geren has a new “Hondo” story daily,
and every one is hilarious.
How great was it for Adam Rosales yesterday morning?
The A’s super sub continues to rehab from offseason foot surgery which
will most likely sideline him until about May 1, yet the irrepressible utility
man can be seen early and late in the clubhouse daily. Talk about a lifer, this guy lives, breathes
and eats baseball. So, there he was
around 10 a.m. yesterday on the Phoenix Muni turf, playing catch with Hall of
Henderson, probably one of his childhood
I have the rare privilege of
spending hours in the A’s clubhouse, so let me share with you a couple of
poignant scenes I observed in the past couple of days. The first involved Mark Ellis, and it spoke volumes of his character as a team
leader. We had two split squad games last
Sunday, one played in Phoenix and the other in Peoria against the
Padres. Players from our minor league
camp, usually donning such exotic numbers as 92 or 95, are sent to Phoenix Muni
those mornings to help fill out our team rosters at both games. This past Sunday, a rather non-descript–and
definitely unrecognized–minor leaguer entered our clubhouse. Who was there to greet him but nine-year
veteran Mark Ellis. “Welcome! Hi, I’m Mark.
Have you seen Vuc (equipment manager Steve Vucinich) to get your gear for today?” Ellis went out of his way to be a good teammate. He shook the minor leaguer’s hand, then
personally escorted him to Vuc’s office.
That young kid will never forget what Mark did for him, and I would
suspect a number of major leaguers in the clubhouse also took notice of Mark’s
kind gesture. Pure class.
I had another rather private
moment involving reliever Joe Bateman,
a non-roster invitee who’s racked up eye-popping numbers in nine minor league
seasons but knows his time is dwindling to land a major league job. That urgency was never more apparent than
when he pitched in Oakland’s
game in Maryvale against the hard-hitting Brewers last week. In relief, he served up back-to-back home
runs to Ryan Braun and Casey McGehee to his first two batters, and allowed three runs on three
hits in one-third inning. Later, he left
the field and returned to the visitor’s clubhouse. I was there and decided to offer some kind
words to the slender right-hander. I
told him that Braun and the Milwaukee
bombers do that to a lot of
people. Knowing this is a game of
results, Joe would have no part of it. “I
don’t need no (sic) pep talk! I’m a
grown man,” he snapped. I totally understood
what he was saying, so there was no need for me to say another word. There was a neat postscript to this story,
however, as the next time Bateman pitched two days later against the Padres in
Peoria, he was summoned with the bases loaded and pitched out of the jammed
unscathed. In fact, he proceeded to reel
off a 1-2-3 shutout inning the following frame as well. He followed that with a scoreless ninth
yesterday at Phoenix Muni, slamming the lid on a 6-2 win over that same Padres
team. Ah, the life of a relief
pitcher. No wonder they have short
And then there’s Gio Gonzalez. Beyond being
an ultra gifted pitcher with a golden arm, Gio also has a personality that can
light up a room. Or in this case, an
entire press box. Our Sunday home game
vs. the Brewers was broadcast on XTRA Sports 860 and Ken Korach asked whether we might deliver Gio to the booth
following his outing. The Cuban
lefthander made short work of Milwaukee,
striking out five in three hitless innings.
I told my assistants to kill two birds with one pitcher by staging his
postgame writers’ session in the back of the press box just before he joined
Korach in the booth. Just as my young assistant
Loberstein was about to make the
announcement in the box that Gio was available for questions, his microphone
was commandeered by none other than Gonzalez, who asked the Bay Area and
Japanese media that “Anyone have any questions for me? Speak now or forever hold your peace!” The place erupted. Then Gio dazzled the scribes in much the same
fashion his curveball did to the Brewers a few minutes earlier. And from all reports from Korach afterwards,
he made it an impressive Trifecta with another sterling performance on the
airwaves. Every club needs someone like
Gio, who makes baseball fun. Isn’t that what it’s supposed to be?
And finally, I share with
you a glimpse of the “Z Man.” We speak
Zagaris, one of the smartest, most
talented–and yes, zaniest–people I
know. In case you don’t know, Michael
offers us more than three decades of sports photography experience. He’s been both the A’s and Forty-Niners’ team
photographer since the early 80′s. Yet,
what may be even more interesting is his past history as a touring music photographer
for such legendary acts as the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin and Eric Clapton. So, I couldn’t help myself but invite the Z
Man to join me in attending a rare Savoy Brown
concert at the Rhythm Room, a well-worn roadhouse in central Phoenix.
The band, part of British rock
and blues explosion of the 60′s that also produced such groups as Foghat and Humble Pie,
almost tore the roof off that night. Original
Savoy Brown member Kim Simmonds celebrated his 45th consecutive year with the band by
unleashing one of the greatest guitar live performances I have ever seen. And the Z Man was clearly in his element. There
were multiple standing ovations, while Zagaris harkened back to his early rock days
across the pond, comparing Simmonds to Jeff Beck
and Clapton and other great guitarists of yore.
It was a great diversion for both of us during these dog days of
spring. Okay, I guess they’re not dog days. Maybe prairie dog days? On that note, my 50th blog is officially
done. And with that prairie dog comment,
my writing career might be done as well.
The more we see Coco Crisp–and we hope to see him at the top of the lineup with
great regularity in 2011–the more we realize this is a player destined to be in
the center of everything this year. The
man has serious flair. It starts in the
parking lot, where his black Rolls Royce convertible is well, noticeable, among
a sea of SUVs.
And this week on the beautifully manicured diamonds of Papago Park
and Phoenix Muni, the A’s center fielder seemed to be in The Man in the Middle
everywhere you turned.
On Wednesday, he welcomed
the first female to ever throw batting practice to an Oakland team.
You may have read about 36-year-old Cleveland native Justine Siegal, a long-time player and coach who founded the
non-profit organization Baseball for All, an equal-opportunity advocacy group. She made baseball history this week by
pitching BP to two major league teams–her hometown Indians and our Oakland A’s. She was a little nervous at first, throwing
four straight balls to Crisp. But leave
it to Coco, the Class Clown, to help loosen
things up. He kidded back and forth with
Justine, feigning bunts, mock anger and idle threats. It seemed to relax Justine, who proceeded to hurl
a very respectable round of BP. In a
way, it was a metaphor for what Crisp does for his own team. He never lets his teammates forget that
baseball is a game and having fun is mandatory.
But more Coco
in a minute. Let me get back to
Justine. The genesis of this lady facing
our players was this year’s Winter Meetings in Orlando, where she approached Billy Beane about gaining the opportunity. Billy said he was happy to give her an
opportunity and that he would have his PR man–that would be me–call her to make
arrangements for Spring Training. I spoke
with Justine a couple of times during the offseason, as we confirmed the date
she would throw and the logistics for her to get outfitted in an A’s uniform
and when we would meet in Arizona. It was such a pleasure to finally meet her
and learn more about her foundation and why she so badly wanted to pitch to
Major Leaguers. Her sole purpose was to
break down any barriers or prejudices towards girls or women reaching their
dreams and potential in the game of baseball.
For so many years, 13-year-old girls have been told it, “hey you were a
great Little Leaguer playing with the boys but it’s time to switch over to
softball. You might as well because
there no next level for you in baseball.”
Justine’s message–her life’s work, really–is to tell America and the
world that there should be no limits placed on who plays baseball or at what
age or level. She points out that nearly
half of all Major League Baseball fans are women, a sector of the population
which loves the game every bit as much as men do. So why can’t they play hardball as long as
they wish? I think what struck me most
about Justine was simply her fearless mindset that day. A solitary, almost lonely figure, she showed
tremendous courage. While some in the
audience may have thought she had very little in common with the A’s players
she faced–Crisp, David DeJesus, Daric Barton and Landon Powell–I thought just the opposite. All athletes must show courage in laying it
all on the line, and on that day, I could see that our players understood and
respected what Justine was doing. They
knew it took real guts.
Fear and intimidation could have crept into your mind at any given
moment (“What if I can’t throw any strikes and ruin their batting
practice? What if Landon crushes me with
a come-backer?”). I don’t want to overstate
what she achieved that day, but in many ways, it may very well be the first
step towards a future Jackie Robinson moment in
breaking another barrier. I can remember
speaking with African American and Latin players who played in the majors in
the 60′s. They said it would not have
been possible if they had not earlier dreamt of becoming big league ballplayers.
But before Jackie broke that barrier, young Black and Latino players
never even dreamt of the possibility. So, as our new Aussie addition Grant Balfour might say, “Good on ya, Justine!”
As for Coco,
his week had just begun. Thursday was
Photo Day for the media at Phoenix Muni, with team photographer Michael Zagaris, AP Photo, Comcast Sports Net, MLB Photos and
several newspaper and trading card companies on hand, as well as about 25 or 30
photographers and TV camera people representing Japanese media outlets. The charismatic Crisp, in rather dramatic
fashion, made the group wait as team stretch neared. Starting at 7 o’clock that morning, every A’s
coach and player had already gone through the gauntlet. We all were waiting for Crisp before we could
call it quits. Seemingly out of the
morning mist, No. 4 appeared at the final minute, all smiles and giggles. I could not imagine a better closer for Photo
Then yesterday, it was Coco who set the tone at A’s camp yet again. As the team’s second intrasquad game of camp
was about to commence, Dallas Braden
peered from the mound as he awaited Crisp’s arrival into the batter’s box. When Crisp strode into the box, we noticed
something slightly different about his well-tailored uniform. He had stuck a piece of tape on the back of
his jersey above his number. It seemed
to be a hyphenated word. As we looked
closer, we could read it: “A-Rod.” Braden, not to be outdone, decided to have a
little fun of his own. He wound up and
then uncorked one of the of most unlikely first pitches of any scrimmage in memory. It looped high above–and behind–Coco. The sorriest knock down pitch I have ever
seen. Needless to say, Coco
had no problem whatsoever digging in for the next pitch. Ah, there’s nothing quite like a cup of Coco in the morning.
As the old postcard used to say, “Wish you were here.”