COMPLETING THE (BASEBALL) CIRCLE OF LIFE

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

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

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

VETERANS LEAD THE WAY ON 5-4 ROAD TRIP

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

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

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

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

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

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

ROBINSON ONE OF THE GREATS OF OAKLAND

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

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

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

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

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

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

APPRECIATING OUR GAME THROUGH THE EYES OF FANS

When you make your living in baseball, sometimes you get so occupied with the daily grind that you seem to forget why you first got into this business.  But just as you run the risk of becoming jaded, it all comes back into focus in a New York second when you encounter human scenes that serve as reminders of how lucky you are to work in this industry.  Like a parent looking through the eyes of one of their young children, you begin to appreciate the simplest things in the game when you’re around fans who truly love America’s National Pastime. And they come in all shapes and sizes, young and old.

Last Sunday, the A’s hosted several thousand youngsters on our annual Little League Day.  Veteran reliever Jerry Blevins and Bullpen Coach Rick Rodriguez held a brief clinic and Q&A session before the game.  As I looked into the stands during the presentation, I could see the faces of wide-eyed kids, all with priceless looks of amazement and wonder.  Sitting in a big league park, listening to men in big league uniforms talk about when they were Little Leaguers, all the while knowing that hot dogs and Jemile Weeks were still to come on a glorious sunny day in Oakland was almost too much for some to comprehend.  For some 10-year-old from Castro Valley or Livermore, the memory of this day might last a lifetime.

Then there’s Johnny Doskow, a baseball lifer who has admirably filled in for the irreplaceable Ken Korach while the Voice of the A’s continues to heal from March knee surgery.   Right now, Johnny is the proverbial kid in a candy store.  One of the best announcers in minor league baseball, the Sacramento River Cats’ play-by-play man has dreamed about being in the big leagues for all of his adult life.  And it shows.  While he knows Korach will return sometime early next month, the affable Doskow is savoring every moment of his Oakland A’s adventure.  Big league clubhouses and broadcast booths…first class travel and hotels…Major League per diem…clubhouse post-game spreads that will not be mistaken for the Cedar Rapids Kernals…and the world’s greatest players performing in three-deck stadiums.  Every time I see Johnny’s face, it’s like he’s saying, “It doesn’t get any better than this.”

Another reminder about the special relationship some people have with this game presented itself earlier this week, when I accompanied Manager Bob Melvin to the first 2012 meeting of the A’s Booster Club, a seasoned but enthusiastic group of about 200 loyal fans who gather at Francesco’s restaurant on Hegenberger near Oakland Airport regularly during the season.  All decked out in green and gold, some date back to the year the club was established in 1968—the year Charlie Finley moved the A’s west from Kansas City.  With many colorful characters, the spirited debates began even before the program did—“Why isn’t Jonny Gomes playing more?…”I think Yoenis Cespedes could be the next Reggie Jackson!”….”Why don’t the A’s play more day games?”—and then Melvin walked to the podium with thunderous applause.  One old-timer yelled from the back, “We’re so glad you’re our new manager!”  Not that all the questions directed toward the A’s manager were soft balls.  Let’s face it, fans miss Gio.  Heck, I miss Gio.  But Melvin always humanizes the situation.  He told them it took someone as talented as Gio to fetch four high-ceiling prospects as promising as Tommy Milone, Brad Peacock, Derek Norris and A.J. Cole.  Also, unsolicited, the A’s skipper added this:  “We’re going to get through this.  Don’t worry, there are some great days ahead with this organization.  And I want you to know how much we appreciate how loyal and supportive you have been. Keep coming out to the Coliseum.  Our players see you out there.”  Especially those red-hots (green-hots?) in the right field bleachers.  You know, the combustible ones that, at the drop of a hat, burst out into ear-piercing shouts while waving their arms and various objects in a rather insane manner.  I’m not sure if they’re simply the remnants of Matsuiland left over from last season, but whoever they are, we love ‘em.  Talk about great fans.  They’re off the charts.  And they had plenty to yell about in the bottom of the 14th inning of Wednesday’s homestand finale against the White Sox. We’re just lucky we have railings out there because when Yoenis Cespedes uncorked his game-tying home run, and moments later, Kila (The Killer) Ka’aihue delivered the game-winning single, we might have seen a few of our valued faithful go overboard.

We need every one of you.  We may not have the most fans attending our games this season, but I can’t imagine better ones.  Take pride in that fact.  I know we do.

THIS JUST IN: IT’S A LONG SEASON

The numbers are not pretty.   Josh Donaldson, .120….Coco Crisp, .146….Daric Barton, .190….Kurt Suzuki, .194….Jemile Weeks, .196…only two A’s hitters on the roster batting .250 or higher (Kila Ka’aihue and Seth Smith)…and a lineup that has been shut out three times in the season’s first 11 games.  Go ahead, A’s fans, let out a collective scream!  But don’t jump ship quite yet.

As we all know, baseball is a streaky game.  Every team in the majors experiences a two-week period like A’s hitters are having.  Of course, normally that sample size happens in June or August, not the opening 11 games of the season.  I think all of us—fans, media and yes, even front office types like me—tend to be a little too over analytical in the early season.  Same thing when one of your star players goes 1-for-11 to open the post-season.  “He looks terrible!  They better bench him!”  That said, I think the old sports axiom is still true:  You’re never as bad as when you’re playing your worst, and you’re never as good when you’re playing your best.  Most likely, you’re somewhere in between.

So where do A’s hitters go from here?  Well, quite literally, they go from Jered Weaver last night, to Dan Haren this evening, to Ervin Santana and C.J. Wilson to complete the Angels series in Anaheim.  That’s not exactly the tonic to break a slump.  But the beauty of baseball is nothing is certain.  It’s why you play the games.  And at some point, whether it be this week on the road, or during our next homestand against the Indians and White Sox (April 20-25), the cream will rise to the top.  Coco Crisp is a .275 lifetime hitter in 10 big league seasons.  Jemile Weeks batted .303 last year.  Kurt Suzuki has hit above .270 in two of his four full seasons in the majors.  Josh Reddick batted .280 for the Red Sox last year, and has already hit enough line-drive outs to last a season.  Seth Smith is a .275 lifetime hitter who has pounded out batting averages of .284 or higher in three of his last five years in Colorado.  And Cuban rookie Yoenis Céspedes, while still learning pitchers and his foreign surroundings, has shown flashes of the power and athleticism that made him so attractive on the free agent market this year. Something here tells me better days are ahead for this group. 

Meanwhile, our overall pitching to date has been somewhat of a pleasant surprise.  The staff ERA of 3.25 ranks third best in the American League—this, despite the loss of three All-Star pitchers in offseason trades.  Veteran starters Brandon McCarthy (0-2, 3.60 ERA) and Bartolo Colón (2-1. 3.72 ERA) have been solid in the rotation, while Tommy Milone (1-1, 2.57 ERA) has been an early-season revelation.  In the bullpen, new closer Grant Balfour (0.00 ERA, 2-for-2 in saves) and setup men Ryan Cook (0.00 ERA) and Brian Fuentes (2.45 ERA) have been stingy in their brief appearances.

As we entered this season, I think everyone knew that a heavy dose of patience would be required to allow our young-but-talented players to develop.  I would hope all A’s fans would tap into that patience during this offensive drought.  Eleven games does not make a season.  One breakout game at the plate will do wonders for this group.  Let’s hope that game is tonight. 

A’S PLAYERS WELCOMED LIKE ROCK STARS AT AUTOGRAPH SESSION

When we arrived at Tokyo’s outlet of Oshman’s Sporting Goods store this morning, the line of green-and-gold adorned A’s fans was almost out the door.  One by one, Bartolo Colon, Brandon McCarthy and Kurt Suzuki—batterymates for the team’s first two games of the season against the Mariners later this week—strolled past security guards and a roped off area to the back of the store, where they were seated at a table behind a huge photo backdrop that trumpeted the upcoming Opening Series Japan 2012.  As they approached their destination, rock music blared from large speakers nearby.  And I guess that was a special touch clearly appropriate for the occasion, for these three Athletics were truly being received like “rock stars.”  As excited as everyone seemed, I was expecting a spontaneous chant of “Let’s Go Oakland” to break out more than 5,000 miles away from the Coliseum.

As you might expect in a country where precision and politeness seems to be a born trait, the autograph signing sponsored by MLB and Majestic ran quite smoothly.  McCarthy and Suzuki addressed the adoring crowd with opening pleasantries, and then they joined Colon in getting down to business.  They signed miniature posters that were provided, as well as A’s merchandise presented by the fans.  And after every time they spoke, the crowd erupted into applause.  The look on our guys’ faces suggested they were all thinking the same thing:  “Hey, I could get used to this!”  Meanwhile, their every move was captured on video by MLB Productions and by our very own Senior Manager of Digital Marketing, Travis LoDolce, who shot photo stills for his daily A’s blog during the trip.  Of course, both were receiving stiff competition from Brandon McCarthy’s wife, Amanda, who jockeyed for position to shoot her own video of Brandon while he was interacting with everyone.  Bartolo’s wife, Rosanna, also accompanied the McCarthys in the van from the hotel, while Kurt’s wife, Renee, arrived separately at the store with family members to witness the remarkable scene.  Zuk told me about his sister living one year here in Tokyo, and how he would coax her to always buy the latest athletic shoes and ship them home.  Now, he can do that in person.

As is always the case when I travel to another country, you reach the same conclusion before long.  No matter our culture or language differences, it becomes so clear that people around the world share many more similarities than differences.  There were fathers and sons there today, two generations of baseball fans who not only relate through their love of the sport, but also share the connection between Japanese and Major League Baseball.  Through the massive coverage by Japanese network television and newspapers of the A’s last year—thanks primarily to the addition of the great Hideki Matsui, along with the launch of the movie Moneyball—the common baseball fan here is quite familiar with our players and team.  Just like many of us, they know everything about their favorite players—nicknames, mannerisms, jersey number—whether it be Jemile, Coco, Dallas or Zuk.  As we drove back to the New Otani Hotel afterwards, basking in a brilliant day of sunshine in this great metropolis, I think everyone in our party was grateful for this unique experience.  That experience will continue tonight, as we kick off our playing schedule with a much-awaited exhibition game against the legendary Yomiuri Giants, long regarded as the “New York Yankees of Japan.”   This evening, we will be both visitors on the diamond and visitors in this proud country.  As Japan continues to recover from the disaster of last year, for one night, there will be no boundaries or worries for the thousands of people who will attend this international matchup at the Tokyo dome—only avid fans of the sport of baseball.  Play ball!

AS THE A’S TURN: A SOAP OPERA WORTH WATCHING

I’ve always said the difference between baseball and other sports is this:  Other sports are merely sports; baseball, on the other hand, is a daily soap opera.  The twists and turns of a week, let alone a full season, makes following a Major League Baseball team an addiction to most horsehide fans.  Now when it comes to the 2012 Oakland A’s, a team that many pundits wrote off months ago when major trades resulted in wholesale changes to its roster, these are surprising and pleasantly unexpected days in the desert.  What I have observed over the past several weeks are a plethora of fascinating storylines that would rival any in baseball.  Think I’m crazy?  Well consider all that has transpired in A’s Land in the past few months.  Here’s a sampling of memorable scenes and developments worthy of a new soap called “As the A’s Turn:”

 

  • In the span of 11 days in December, the A’s trade three All-Star pitchers—Trevor Cahill, Gio Gonzalez and Andrew Bailey—and in the process, stock their organization with 10 of the top prospects in baseball.  Soon, fans are asking such rhetorical questions as “Who’s Brad Peacock and Colin Cowgill?”

 

  • Then, a day before position players are scheduled to practice, the dreadlocked enigma named Manny Ramirez arrives in camp, holds an on-the-field press conference at Phoenix Muni, flanked by his wife Juliana and two sons, amidst a flock of reporters.  He later takes some of his patented hacks in the cage, as A’s players, coaches and execs let their imaginations run wild.

 

  • When the first full-squad workout day commences the next morning, a scream is heard from Field 1 at the Papago training facility as Scott Sizemore tears his ACL during a routine pitcher’s drill.  Soon reality sets in, as the team learns that its starting third baseman will be lost for the season.  Suddenly, a four-way competition ensues to replace him, with big-league utilitymen Eric Sogard and Adam Rosales now in play, along with two more intriguing candidates in converted catcher Josh Donaldson and 33-year-old Wes Timmons, a career minor leaguer still chasing the dream.

 

  • Then out of nowhere, ESPN The Magazine rolls off the presses with an unlikely subject gracing its cover.  Is that really Brandon and Amanda McCarthy posing beneath the header, “Chicks Dig the Groundball?”  It sure is, and it’s at a grocery counter near you.

 

  • And during the first week of camp, the A’s also had special broadcasting guests on hand.  For the first time in many years, the club’s flagship radio station had an every-day presence, as Mark Kreidler, Dan Dibley and Whitey Gleason entertained the folks back home with four-hour doses of “The Rise Guys” on 95.7 FM The Game.  Some of the more indelible moments came courtesy of Scott Hatteberg, who shared a hilarious story about the first time he met childhood idol Don Mattingly while rounding first base against the Yankees, and Dallas Braden, who offered a few quips and biting comments about the McCarthys’ appearance on ESPN The Magazine and his role as Welcoming Committee chair for the arrival of Manny, among other sorted things.  By the way, is there a better morning sports talk show in the country than The Rise Guys?  For any of you who have not tuned it yet, you’re in for a real treat.
  • Then, it was time for the triumphant return of Oakland’s version of Brad Pitt to Phoenix Muni.  Unassuming as always, wearing shorts and flip flops, there was Billy Beane, fresh from attending the Academy Awards.  Continuing a Moneyball victory tour that seems to have no end, Billy stood in the clubhouse and regaled the beat writers with Hollywood stories of Oscar parties and primo seats at the event. The photo of him with daughter Casey and wife Tara, all in black formal wear on the red carpet, was truly priceless.  So much so, that Director of Baseball Administration Pam Pitts—no relation to Brad, thanks to a meager “s”—thought so highly of it, the picture adorns the glass wall in her office here in Phoenix.

 

  • Let us not forget perhaps the biggest splash of spring training.  The Cuban Adonis, Yoenis Cespedes, slipped on A’s jersey No. 52 one day, and presto, a future superstar was in our midst.  And from his introductory press conference, to his eye-popping first round of batting practice, to his show-stopping first game in which he walked, hit a RBI single and then crowned the A’s-Reds telecast on CSN California by absolutely annihilating a Jeff Francis fastball over the left field fence, the “Yo-Yo Man” exhibited a charisma and star quality that hasn’t been seen in these parts in a long time.  Only a couple of days ago, I was standing above the first base dugout, watching new hitting coach Chili Davis talk hitting (duh) with newly-minted A’s sluggers Ramirez and Cespedes.  I couldn’t help but remark, to no one in particular, “two months ago, I don’t think we envisioned this scene.”

 

  • Then, just as potential boredom was surfacing among the cacti, here strolls Sal Bando, Campy Campaneris and Blue Moon Odom, paying a visit to Bob Melvin and A’s camp.  It was priceless to see Campy introduce himself to Cespedes, a fellow Cuban.

 

  • Slowly but surely, A’s fans have become better acquainted with some of the new faces on the team.  Take Josh Reddick, the prize piece in the Bailey trade with Boston.  There appears to be many layers to this young outfielder, as chronicled in a recent article by A’s beat writer Susan Slusser.  Ala Daric Barton, Reddick is a WWE-aholic.  He sits on a stool in the clubhouse that features some Smackdown photo. And, of course, there’s the WWE championship belt atop his locker—a belt he tends to show off at every chance he gets (Photo Day, interview during MLB Network’s 30 Teams in 30 Days segment, etc.).  Yet it’s the human interest side of Josh that has everyone rooting for him.  Slusser spoke at length with Josh, about a choppy childhood, and also with his inspirational father, who lost an arm in a power-line accident yet remained his son’s coach and driving force for success.  If you haven’t read it, check out last Saturday’s San Francisco Chronicle.  Outstanding.

 

  • And before being sent back to the minor league camp, A’s fans got an exciting glimpse of the future in former first-round picks Michael Choice, Grant Green and Sonny Gray.  Each displayed the talent and work ethic which projects to future stardom.  Who knows, we may see one or more of this triumvirate in a Major League uniform later this year.

 

Believe me, I could go on.  There are three open spots in the starting rotation, with the likes of Tyson Ross, Graham Godfrey, Tommy Milone, Jarrod Parker and Brad Peacock making their bid, while Braden and Brett Anderson continue to take positive steps towards returning in-season from their surgeries.  There’s also plenty of intrigue surrounding first base, where Brandon Allen, Kila Ka’aihue, Chris Carter and Barton continue to wage a battle.  And when all these positions are decided, the A’s will find themselves halfway across the world, opening their season in Tokyo against the Mariners in Japan Series 2012.

 

So with a camp full of surprises and unique occurrences, what were our players up to on their off day yesterday?  I ran into relief hopeful Erick Threets in the hotel elevator and he said Coco Crisp had organized an outing.  “Some of us guys are going paint-balling.”  Then later this morning in the clubhouse, Michael Taylor mentioned he had participated in the activity. I had to ask him the obvious question: How could a smart guy with a Stanford education play a game where he’s the biggest target (6-5, 256)? “Hey, I needed to take one for the team,” he said. Yes, quite literally.

A FAMILIAR FACE PAYS VISIT TO A’S CAMP

Prior to today’s spring training opener, manager Bob Melvin held a brief clubhouse meeting with the team.  On the bulletin board, the daily schedule indicated the primary reason was to “review signs.”  Yet, A’s players got a little more than they bargained for.  After the discussion about takes, bunts, steals and indicators waned, Mr. Melvin shared a bit of franchise history with his troops.  The Oakland skipper introduced Sal Bando, the man he chooses to honor by wearing his No. 6 jersey.  And why shouldn’t he?  After all, Bando still lives in rarified air when you talk about the greatest leaders in U.S. professional sports history.   Who outside of Michael Jordan, Bill Russell and Bart Starr can claim to be the captain of teams that won three straight World Championships?

Well, Captain Sal was the heart and soul of a band of A’s players who ran the table in 1972, 1973 and 1974 in collecting three straight World Series trophies.  While his career statistics were not Cooperstown worthy—.254 average, 242 HR, 1039 RBI—it was Bando’s intangibles that galvanized a ridiculously talented team into a champion.  As a leader, he was the strong, calming force on an eclectic cast of characters as diverse as Reggie Jackson and Campy Campaneris.  And that leadership revealed itself in many ways.  No one on the A’s was a more clutch hitter.  Yet, it was not an uncommon sight to see Bando drop down a perfectly executed bunt in the seventh inning of a tied game if that’s what the situation called for.  Try naming another cleanup hitter in baseball who would willingly do that?  And then there was his bazooka arm and soft glove.  Invariably, it was Captain Sal who would bail out a pitcher with a late-inning, around-the-horn double play.

What made this morning so special is Bando has not been sighted at Phoenix Muni or the Oakland Coliseum in many years.  That has been partly due to his subsequent role as general manager of the Brewers from 1991-99, and the fact that he divides his time now between homes in Milwaukee and here in Arizona.  He also told me around the batting cage today that “the change of owners and management over the years tends to further distance you from the people you once knew.”  So, when equipment manager Steve Vucinich fitted him with an official green-and-gold cap this morning, it was a sight to warm the heart of any longtime A’s fan.  Even more so when he joined former teammate Phil Garner, now an A’s special adviser, at the dugout railing.  Old stories about Charlie Finley, Rollie Fingers and Ken Holtzman began to flow.  It was Bando, as GM, who once hired Garner as his field manager in Milwaukee.  And who was Garner’s bench coach with the Brewers in 1999?  Bob Melvin.  So, in many ways, today served not only as the triumphant return of Captain Sal to his old team, but a reunion of sorts for three outstanding baseball men.  It also served as a reminder that leadership, fundamentals and team chemistry can make a difference in this game.  Sal Bando was living proof.

BRADEN WELCOMES THE A’S NEW ADDITION

This is why we love Dallas Braden.  Whether it’s Hideki Matsui or Manny Ramirez, he’s a One Man Welcoming Committee.  As you may recall, last year Mr. 209 came up with this nifty idea to entertain dozens of Japanese media who were staked out in the clubhouse to chronicle the arrival of national hero Matsui.  Weeks earlier, Braden had mail-ordered a life-sized blow-up Godzilla.  He was like a kid on Christmas morning when the box arrived at Phoenix Muni.  Along with the help of a few teammates, Braden decorated the synthetic creature much in the same fashion he would have decorated his Christmas Tree.  No. 55 A’s jersey.  Check.  Yellow wristbands.  Check.  Oakland cap.  Check.  Jockstrap.  Why, of course, check.  When Matsui finally arrived and turned the corner into the clubhouse, all he saw was about 40 new teammates staring at him to see what his reaction would be to Dallas’ handiwork.  Of course, Hideki didn’t immediately see his inflatable likeness.  All he saw were 80 eyeballs focused on him.  Then he looked to his left and saw The Creature sitting in the chair at his cubicle and everyone broke out laughing.

Now fast forward to 2012 Spring Training.  Earlier this week, word of Manny’s signing with the A’s blew through the social media world like sagebrush in the Arizona desert.  On cue, Braden’s intricate brain waves activated.  What to do?  What to do?  First, affable equipment manager Steve Vucinich assigned Ramirez a locker adjacent from Braden’s.  I have a feeling “Vuc” made that decision solely for entertainment value.  Within minutes of Manny reporting this morning, Braden laid down his version of a welcome mat.  Without saying a word, a roll of trainer’s tape in hand, Dallas walked to his locker with great purpose.  He proceeded to lay down tape to outline a square around his chair.  Then, with a sharpie, he simply wrote “Bio Hazard” on the tape—apparently an effort to keep the media mobs away from crushing him when they leave Manny’s locker.  But Dallas was not done yet.  Then, with a wry smile on his face, he walked around the corner from his locker to the walkway where players first enter the clubhouse each morning.  There, he posted a sign that simply read, “Manny Town.”  Below that, he taped up another sign that said, “Take A Number.”

I’m not sure if Manny saw the signs before he left the clubhouse today, but if he didn’t, they will greet him in the morning when the A’s stage their first full-squad workouts.  As for today, Ramirez could not have been more cordial.  After being outfitted in his green-and-gold gear and shaking hands with many of his new teammates, he hit the Phoenix Muni field for a round of batting practice with other position players.  With cameras rolling—ESPN, Comcast, FOX Sports, ESPN Deportes, NHK Japan—Manny joined Scott Sizemore, Cliff Pennington and Jemile Weeks in the first hitting group.  It didn’t take long for a few balls to sail out of the yard, some flying high and far enough to suggest Oakland added a little power with today’s new arrival.  With his final swing of the morning, Ramirez trotted around the bases, then picked up his glove and shagged balls in right field.  A few minutes later, he spotted his beautiful wife, Juliana, and their two young sons on the grass near the first base dugout.  He came over to apply a Manny Group Hug.  All smiles everywhere, they joined him in addressing the large media contingent gathered on the field.  Manny answered all their questions and seemed in no rush to leave the spotlight.  Yet, while he stood up to the TV glare, Dallas Braden was multi-tasking.  Beyond his Manny Town antics, the veteran A’s left-hander—and we do mean left-hander—was also working on a way to properly acknowledge the unexpected star treatment of Brandon & Amanda McCarthy on this month’s cover of ESPN The Magazine.  “I’ve got a big ol’ Fathead coming, except they’re superimposing my face on his head,” Dallas said.  “It will be displayed in a way that should properly honor them.”

And to think there were people in the Bay Area who thought the A’s were going to be boring this season.

ANOTHER SEASON BEGINS ANEW

As we waited for our Southwest Airlines flight to board at Oakland Airport this morning, A’s Director of Baseball Operations Farhan Zaidi, AP sportswriter Janie McCauley and I exchanged pleasantries.  All three of us were headed to Phoenix to start the marathon known as Major League Baseball.

While the names might change on your flight each year, the scene is quite familiar.  Spring Training is about to begin, and this trip truly signals the end of winter.  As I write this first blog of 2012, it makes me think of the ritual of leaving home for the warm environs of Arizona.  While working for another MLB team years ago, I remember listening to Bob Quinn, remarkably a third generation GM in baseball.  His father and grandfather before him had taken that same cross-country car ride each February.  Bob so fondly recounted the same, cherished steps taken every year.  The car would be packed up from Milwaukee or Philadelphia, where snow and frigid temperatures were bid adieu, as he or his father would drive south, state by state, until the sun began to shine and a welcomed 70 degrees would greet them as they reached their Spring Training destination.

While the Bay Area hardly compares to the harsh winters of those locales, I’m sure our very own Billy Beane, along with his trusty canine companion Taggert, enjoy the same pleasure of their annual car trip to Arizona as he anticipates a new, still unwritten season with the A’s.  I know I felt the same way when we touched down at Phoenix International Airport, the sun-splashed Camelback Mountains, plush green golf courses, and endless red rocks always a welcome sight.

My routine will continue this afternoon.  Day One at Spring Training is always the same.  I pick up my rental car, stop by the Phoenix Municipal Stadium offices to set up my office—hey, there’s Honey Bear’s BBQ as I drive up Van Buren—head to the grocery store for food and toiletries, and finally check in to the team hotel, the Doubletree Suites near the airport.   Tomorrow, pitchers and catchers report.   The irrepressible Dallas Braden will hold court in the clubhouse, no doubt, as he welcomes the staff’s newbies like Jarrod Parker, Brad Peacock and Tommy Milone, and also renews his friendships with returning veterans such as Brandon McCarthy, Brian Fuentes and Grant Balfour.  Beyond Braden’s state-of-the-209 address, I suspect Janie McCauley and our beat reporters Susan Slusser, Joe Stiglich, Jane Lee and Kate Longworth will zero in on former Cy Young Award winner Bartolo Colon tomorrow, as the 39-year-old right-hander will check into A’s Central for the first time after making somewhat of a comeback with the Yankees last season.  Colon, most likely slated to start Oakland’s second game against the Mariners in Tokyo March 29, could give Bob Melvin’s staff a much-needed veteran presence as we begin preparing for the 2012 campaign with several rotation spots still to be determined.

In speaking with Susan Slusser yesterday—someone who’s logged several years on the beat and has earned a gilded reputation in the business—we both agreed that this should be one of the more interesting Spring Trainings in recent memory.  The 25-man roster that breaks camp is far from settled, as multiple positions promise to be wide-open competitions.  It will be a talent-laden group vying for those spots, although many of the more-gifted players bring limited experience to Papago Park.  How it all turns out will be the fun part, as we watch, day-by-day, for the unexpected twists and turns of Spring Training.  Whether it’s following our blogs on the club’s website, or the regular reports on Comcast SportsNet or 95.7 FM The Game—both of the team’s broadcast partners will be on location every day next week—or reading insightful articles by our beat writers, we hope you jump right into the “Soap Opera” with the rest of us. Baseball is back, and it’s about time!

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 58 other followers