Friday, October 12, 2012

The Twenty-Five

I had a paper route for much of my childhood. Five days a week, I delivered the Valley Times, a free newspaper, to 70-odd families in my neighborhood. At the end of each month, I'd go door-to-door and ask if families wanted to "subscribe" to this free paper. It was $2.50. I'd usually get about 10, at least half of them from people I knew pretty well who I assume took pity on the kid asking them to pay for something they didn't have to pay for.

It was an annoying piece of business for me. I've never been much of a salesman. But there were incentives, monthly prizes offered by the newspaper to carriers who exceeded the prior month's subscriptions. The more you got, the bigger the prize. Sometimes, the prize was a ticket to an Oakland A's game.

Thanks to the Valley Times, and some particularly industrious collection work by yours truly,  I ended up at the Coliseum one June night in 1982 watching my new favorite team.


I grew up in a house full of Giants fans and all my earliest baseball memories are of black and orange and freezing my butt off at Candlestick. But Oakland was closer to where we lived, so I got to see the A's more as I got older, as I cottoned to baseball. The old stone bowl off Hegenberger was where we went for Little League Day. I badgered my Dad into taking me when the Red Sox were in town so I could see Yastzremski play. I was simply a baseball fan and not one of a particular team.

That changed when Billy Martin was hired to manage the A's. In 1980, they surprised everyone by finishing over .500 a year after losing 108 games(!). By the time Opening Day 1981 rolled around, I was impossibly giddy. When they ran off 11 straight wins to begin the year, I was handed a lifetime sentence. I was an A's fan. They made the cover of Sports Illustrated, rare validation in those days. There was the A's starting rotation--Norris, Langford, Keough, McCatty and Kingman--under the header, "The Amazing A's and Their Five Aces."


The Amazing-ness didn't last too long. There was a strike that year and oh how cruel that was. Nearly a third of the season lost while the A's were in first place. I was having enough problems with puberty and preparing to enter high school, it's not like I needed my primary fixation taken away from me that summer. Looking back, it's pretty much a microcosm of what it means to be an A's fan. No matter how good things get, there's always something.

Yes, they won the "first half" AL West title and beat the Royals in the post-season before succumbing to the Yankees, predictably, in three straight. No matter. I was giddy for Opening Day 1982.

The pattern was set.


It's a strange thing to be at a ballgame by yourself. For me anyway. I have a comment for everything, which is as true now, at 45, as it was then, at 14. On the buss headed to that 1982 game, I tried to engage others in A's conversation. "Can we turn this losing streak around?" "What do you think of the Dan Meyer trade?" I got no takers. So I watched my heroes take on the Royals in silent agony.

I had a sense of entitlement. This was my team. I am at the game. They can't possibly let me down.

Trailing 2-1 in the 9th, with the great Quisenberry on the mound to save it for KC, Jeff Newman stepped to the plate. Great beard on Jeff Newman. He hit one hard, crack of the bat, horsehide in flight, and I exploded out of my seat. I knew they would do it! I knew it.

Amos Otis caught it, comfortably, on the center field warning track and what I felt then was despair. Abject, irrevocable despair. It's a feeling I can conjure to this day, can easily transport myself into that second deck seat. Even as I write--and feel--this, I know it sounds silly. It was not. It was loss.


My buddy Kool Breeze is a Reds fan. A couple years ago, when they stunk up the NLDS against the Phillies, I called to offer my condolences. His reaction was something I didn't expect, but recognized. "They don't care about me," he said. Meaning, his fandom, his despair, his loss, was not anything the team and players ever considered.


Since that night in 1982, I've stored countless memories of my A's experiences. My mood has risen and fallen with their success and failures. Some players have been moved into my personal Pantheon--Dave Stewart, Carney Lansford, Tim Hudson, Matt Stairs, Mark Ellis, Mike Heath, Eck. Some have angered me to a point nobody would be proud to admit. There have been 20-game win streaks, playoff debacles, waves of injuries, promises unfulfilled, surprises beyond any prognostication.

It's different now. Not my passion for the team, but the way in which I consume the sport. I remember the hilarious and obsessive way I used to hunt for the score, back before the internet and Extra Innings and I remember missing the first couple innings of Game 1 of the ALCS in 1988 because I had to pick up Donny at the bus station. The antennae on my car was busted off, so, in order to hear the game on the radio, Donny had to ride with the window down, sticking his finger where the antennae used to be so we could get reception.

Now, I can get A's news 24/7. I can express my (numerous) opinions on Twitter and message boards. I can read every beat writer. I can read every blog. I can get statistical analysis I don't understand, but still use to make my point. There is no mystery any longer. There is no unique honor like an SI cover. And what this all accomplishes is that I feel more attached to the team than ever. Even if that's a mirage of impersonal interactions via electronics, it feels as if the relationship is more stable and equal, as opposed to the one-sided hero worship of my youth. We're in this together.


"They don't care about me," Kool Breeze said. Not like we care about them, he means. That's probably true. But last night...last night.

I spent the last two innings watching their faces. Coco, Yoenis, Brandon, Josh, Cliff, Jarrod. I saw how they felt. Everybody could. Sadness, yes. A feeling of things unfinished? Sure. But also pride. Not a single face in that dugout betrayed the idea that they had done all they could.

That's exactly how I felt. Exactly how 36K in the Coliseum felt. When it ended, they booed a bit, offense at the Tigers jumping around on our mound. But then, remarkably, the cheers got as loud as they'd been all year. They chanted "Let's go Oakland!" and slowly, the players came out of the dugout. They raised their caps to the crowd, turned the full radius of the stadium. The whole team. Milling around, sheepish, but also proud. They hugged. They clapped. And the crowd kept going.

None of us wanted it to end. Winning the World Series would have been awesome. Seeing this A's team get to play more games would have been just as good. The crowd kept cheering and you could see the A's wanting to give them more.

Not necessary, gentlemen. We were just saying, "Thank you." We're in this together. We know you care.


I'm bummed out this morning. Not gonna lie. But I'm not unfulfilled. I'm lucky to have gotten on this particular roller coaster. And if I ever feel any differently, I'll remember this team. Every last one of these players is in the Pantheon. And despair? Not remotely.

Thursday, October 04, 2012


My lovely wife has looked at me strangely quite a bit these past few weeks, all my pacing and hand-wringing while I watched a baseball game. "Fan" comes from "fanatic" and while she likes sports a lot, she's not one who is emotionally invested in any team, does not let her mood become affected by wins or losses. Over sushi last week, I tried to explain to her why I was behaving the way I was.

"I love this team," I said. "I love every last one of 'em. And I want them to win because they deserve it. They're defying everything and everybody with this run and if they fall short, I won't love them any less, but it will be unfair."

Well, they didn't fall short. They staged another remarkable run this last week, another win streak, and an electric finale to win the AL West.


The A's are a team of improbable stories. They have a converted catcher at third, a former sweet-swinging first baseman who is now a key cog out of the bullpen, an outfielder at first base, himself a minor-league free-agent who posted a .954 OPS, the Cuban Bo Jackson (I joked when we signed Cespedes that he was the rare FA to sign in Oakland, because Cuba is one place where Oakland seems an upgrade in locale) and a 180 lb. right-fielder who muscled up for 32 home runs.

Stories everywhere. Another is Pat Neshek.

The A's plucked him from the Orioles' AAA club in August and added him to their mix-and-match bullpen. He's a side-winding righty with goofy mechanics and a humorous follow-thru that ends with him looking like a slightly-buzzed flamingo. Once a regular in the Twins 'pen, he'd undergone Tommy John surgery and bounced between AAA and the Bigs the last three years. He did well for us, a good option to get an out or two against right-handers. He gave up a couple big homers but you couldn't get down on him for that. He is Pat Neshek. You don't expect him to be Dennis Eckersley. He contributed to this magical season. He's a member of my favorite A's team ever.

I'm sure you've all heard the story by now. After the A's clinched their playoff spot on Monday night, Neshek's wife went into labor. He flew to Florida to be there for the birth. He tweeted his joy at both his personal and professional luck and his wife gave birth to a son on Tuesday. Less than a day later, the baby died for unknown reasons.

I can't even...


In the booze-soaked A's locker room yesterday, A's reliever Ryan Cook gave an eloquent interview. "I can't describe anyone in here as other than 'resilient,'" he said. After being used in his fifth straight game, he talked about how he felt. "I woke up this morning, feeling like crap and I had to look at myself in the mirror and say, 'You gotta figure it out, bud, have to figure out how to get up today,' and as soon as we got out here and saw the crowd and the electricity, that's all it took. These fans are something else."


I love this team. I know all A's fans feel the same way. And along with the ecstasy of triumph yesterday, I know they are all hurting for the Neshek family, as well. Twenty-five (plus) brothers in that clubhouse and every one of us who wore green and gold to work today are praying for their comfort and an easing of this terrible burden. I know it's not much, can't even begin to touch their pain and loss, but we're here.   

This is not in any way an attempt to make this about me, but I am reminded of something a friend told me six years ago when I was in my own time of heartbreak and despair. He said, "You have friends who are here to help you up when you fall. Some of us will even carry you for a while. Never forget that."

I never have. I hope the crowd and the cheers and the electricity can carry the Nesheks, even if only for a moment. We love this team.

Tuesday, October 02, 2012

Pie'd Pipers

AJ woke up this morning like he always does, twisting away with a grimace from the dog's excited licking. He quickly focused, however.

"Did the A's win?" he asked, staring at me.


Before this season started, I figured the A's for about 70 wins. In fact, I made a wager with my son on that exact number. If they won more than that, he would collect $5. This was my calculated way to make sure AJ rooted for my team, instead of falling to the peer pressure around him in a region chock full of Angels fans, classmates and friends who were crowing all off-season about the local team's addition of Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson. The Angels were certain to be contenders and nothing sways a young boy's fancy more than a winning team. I should know. I broke from my own parents--Giants fans--at the age of 12 when Billy Martin came to manage the A's. I've been the green and gold sheep of the family ever since.

I paid AJ off three weeks ago, after the A's flew by the 70-win mark. He used his bounty for an ice cream sandwich at the ballpark. The A's beat the Angels that night, 6-5.


It was not an auspicious off-season.  Still saddled with the crumbling eyesore of the Oakland Coliseum, all attempts at a new venue filibustered into oblivion by Bud Selig and the Giants, Billy Beane traded away three All-Star pitchers, all but admitting to the press that he was thinking three or four years down the road when it was more conceivable that a) the A's would be playing somewhere else, with a 21st century revenue stream and b) they might again be able to compete with the free-spending and talented Rangers and Angels.

In spring training, the A's starting third baseman ruptured his ACL. His replacement was a converted catcher.* They had a black hole at first base, manned by powerless, rudderless former prospect Daric Barton and AAA fillers like Kila Ka'aihue. Question marks in the corner outfield slots with untested Josh Reddick and wild card Yoenis Cespedes. And a re-made rotation featuring fragile Brandon McCarthy, robust--to put it mildly--Bartolo Colon, a couple truly awful and non-descript guys and a rookie.

*More, much more on Josh Donaldson to come

Yes, they added some interesting players. Jonny Gomes and Seth Smith have been useful parts during their careers. Ryan Cook came over with a live bullpen arm. Rookie starters Tommy Milone and Jarrod Parker showed flashes in Arizona, with the former making the club out of spring training and the latter coming up in late-April.

Still, a couple months into the season, the A's were 22-30, right about where I--and every other rational human--expected them to be. I kept one eye on them as the Kings pummeled their way to the Stanley Cup and didn't even bat that single eyelash when they called up a fella named Brandon Moss, a 29-year-old off-season acquisition, who proceeded to bash six homers in his first nine games and is currently sporting a .947 OPS. Or when they added Brandon Inge to provide some leadership and timely hits at third, in lieu of the hapless Josh Donaldson (Donaldson was rocking a slash line of .153/.160/.235 at the time).

A decent June was no cause for too much attention, but then they won six of seven going into the All-Star break to reach .500. It was then that my ears perked. And it was for no rational reason at all.


AJ was born in 2001. That year, the A's were expected to be World Series contenders. They were coming off an AL West title and added Johnny Damon. Well, they stumbled out of the gate, the Mariners went freaking bonkers and it looked like another lost season until they provided a glimmer of hope. They swept the Diamondbacks and got to .500 at the break. They never did catch the M's, but went 57-19 in the second half to grab the wild card (at which point Jeremy Giambi didn't slide and let's not talk about that any further).

As you all know, Caleb, my second child and son, was born this year and the A's again made a mini-run to get to the break at .500. The symmetry could not have been more perfect. I even joked about it on Twitter. And the seeds of belief were sown.

They came roaring out of the break, winning 10 of 11, manager Bob Melvin expertly mixing and matching his lineup. That streak included a four-game sweep of the Yankees, two of them in dramatic, walk-off fashion. In fact, that became their m.o., punctuating each victory with a pie to the face of the player that produced the game-winner. They were not just winning, but they became fun. After years of painful offensive ineptness, they started banging dingers like nobody's business, led by Reddick, Cespedes, Moss and another call-up, Chris Carter, the perpetual prospect who finally--mostly--figured out which pitches to swing at (Moss and Carter, playing primarily as a first-base platoon, have combined for 37 HRs).

The pies, the walk-offs, the success of the rookie all seemed possible.


Inge got injured somewhere around in there and Donaldson got called back up to take over third again. He had hit well back at AAA, but...ugh...that slash line again: .153/.160/.235. I again took to Twitter and made the following joke:

"I'm sure Josh Donaldson is excited to be back with the #Athletics. At least until he sees his stats on major league scoreboards."

To my surprise (and AJ's uncontrollable delight), Donaldson saw the tweet. He responded:

@JoeSpeaker That was funny. I lol'd. I'm just gonna try to help the team, bro.

I can't be entirely sure if he was being sarcastic, or if he really did think it was funny. AJ is certain he was peeved and that he "called me out." Regardless, Josh Donaldson's slash line since his re-call is .286./355/.494. Silly. AJ would remind me of the tweet every time Donaldson came to bat and took to calling him "Bringer of Rain," which is Donaldson's Twitter handle. He found some other nicknames, too, referring to Moss as "That Guy," because an Angel fan asked me "Who is that guy?" after Moss hit an absolute bomb in Anaheim.


They ran off nine in a row in late August to put themselves firmly in the picture. One would almost think they were in control. Then they got swept--demolished, really--at home by the loaded Angels and every pessimistic thought I ever had surged right back to my frontal cortex. Colon had recently been banned for PEDs and, in the final game of that Angels series, McCarthy was hit in the head with a line drive off the bat of Erick Aybar (serious talk here, I hate the Angels almost as much as I love the A's, but Aybar was all class in this episode, so good on him). When we found out McCarthy had surgery due to bleeding/swelling in his brain (as well as a cracked skull), it was deflating. Not at all in a baseball sense, but in a human sense. As I said, this team became fun and that is in large part to its personalities. McCarthy is probably first among equals in that regard and we are all thankful he is well and hopeful he will be back with us next season.

So that series proved to be a real bummer and the A's remaining schedule was nothing short of a minefield. Seventeen of the next 20 on the road. But for a three-game set in Seattle, all of their opponents were in the playoff hunt (Angels, Tigers, Texas, Yankees, Orioles). A 10-game road trip to the east coast and Texas. Seventeen straight games to finish the season with no days off, a fact which became amplified when the A's bullpen got completely cashed in a brutal 14-inning loss to the Yankees.

That game drained me of all energy and a considerable portion of belief. It left them 1-4 at that point on the trip and brought the Angels back within 2 1/2. Brett Anderson, who had returned from Tommy John surgery pitching remarkably hurt himself again and the A's were suddenly trotting out a rotation of five rookies, two of whom were pitching in A-ball last year. I could see it all falling apart and it wasn't fair. This team deserved to get to the post-season. For all the hurdles in their way, the ballpark, the payroll, the injuries, the rookie starters, they persevered. They earned their way here. They didn't buy their way here.

They hung on, winning a gut-wrenching three of the next gut-wrenching five, made it home with a two-game cushion. I was beside myself. I could not string together a non-A's related thought. I drove Emet upstairs with my psychosis, mood hinged on every pitch.

Four straight wins later--one thanks to a game-tying 9th-inning home run from Josh Donaldson--they're in. Two more wins and they'll--improbably--win the division.


I'm satisfied. I will always and forever look back on this season as one of total joy, regardless of what happens from here on out. This is a great team to root for, an easy team to love, and I'm so thankful to have gotten to be along for the ride. 


"Did the A's win?" he asked, as he stared at me.

I laughed. "Yes, they won. Remember? I let you stay up until it was over."

AJ blinked, wiped the sleep out of his eyes. "Oh yeah. Balfour struck out the side in the 9th."

"Yep. Then Reddick pie'd Bob Melvin."

"He did?"



"Yes, AJ."

"Can I wear my Reddick jersey to school today?"