I started preparing for the Play Like a Pro Day a week ago.
I treat each upcoming event as a project, much as I did when I was working. I give the project lead time, prepare a mental if not a written list of what I must do to prepare, and then schedule it during the lead time, usually a week.
The one requirement the notice from the A’s mentioned was that I needed a glove. I have never owned a baseball glove in my life. Hell, I hadn’t even thrown a baseball or softball in 10 years, and hadn’t worn a glove in 30 years. So when I returned from my latest trip, the first thing on my list: Get a glove.
Rick’s suggestion to go to Play It Again Sports in Fremont was a good one. I found a really really used glove for $10 plus tax. It was an outfielder’s glove, and thanks to my insistence that it be a hardball glove and not a softball glove, it had a great pocket. Not a great deal of padding for an 80-mile-an-hour fastball, but good enough.
The next step was finding someone to practice with. My roommate graciously gave up a half hour on a Friday afternoon, one day before the event, to play catch with me. Luckily she found her own glove, hidden for a couple of years in the trunk of her car. Our high lobs toward each other steadily grew into harder throws, encouraging me that, hey! Maybe old habits don’t die out completely. In the face of emergency, you go back to your training, right?
So on Saturday, August 20, 2005, Rick and I walked the Faith Fancher Cancer Awareness 5K at Lake Merritt in Oakland, and then turned our attention to the A’s clinic. We arrived at 12:15 at Gate D, and joined about 75 other people in line. Check-in was easy, and they gave each of us an A’s cap and a ticket to tonight’s game against the Kansas City Royals.
Rick looked at me and said, “Are we the oldest ones here?” We looked around at the fans, average age maybe 35, and admitted, “It’s close!” Real close.
The P.R. guy took us to the MVP seats above the dugout, told us what to expect of the day, and then led us onto the field through the box. He had split all of us into five groups of about 15 people each. Each group had a player assigned to it, and each player had a responsibility to cover his subject matter, thusly:
Eric Chavez – hitting
Rich Harden – pitching
Bobby Crosby – infield
Mark Kotsay – outfield
Jason Kendall - catching
When we all saw the players, we broke into spontaneous applause! This wasn’t the “B” Team they were throwing at us – these were the All Stars!
Rick and I were in Group #1, so we headed over to Eric Chavez, who was quietly waiting for us by the backstop. He was standing by a t-ball set-up, and there were a couple of bats by his feet. However, he quickly discovered that our group only wanted to talk to this great player, not try hitting. There were only about 20 minutes spent with him, and they weren’t going to waste their time.
I saw as I glanced up that Bobby Crosby had his first group fielding balls. They were throwing ground balls to each other and using their gloves, and he would throw in comments occasionally. But my group never wanted to do that. We just talked to each player and sometimes took some quick pictures of each.
Here are a few comments from each of the players. Most of these comments weren’t really solicited by the dumb questions we fans asked. Their in-depth answers were mainly created by the players themselves, and offered a unique perspective into what I was discovering to be a very difficult game to properly play.
Eric Chavez – Eric had a slight growth of beard and a very casual way of speaking to us. It seems foolish to say, but I was awestruck at the time re: how handsome and poised this young man was. In answer to Rick’s question, who’s the toughest pitcher you’ve ever faced, Eric answered “Pedro Martinez.” He said he hates to face him because Pedro’s ball moves so much. Chavez gave us several hitting tips, including the fact that he personally changes his stance daily to get a good look at the pitcher and his release point. He takes advantage of video so that, even during a game, he’ll duck into the video room to see himself in a previous at-bat against the same pitcher. “It’s a tremendous advantage,” he told us.
Rich Harden – Rich is tall but muscular, much more muscular than I thought a pitcher would look. He has an easy smile, a bit more than Chavez, but obviously takes his job seriously. He showed us the two-finger fastball and the four-finger fastball, and a few other pitches (where to put the fingers against the seams), and my most vivid memory of this moment was watching the 45-year-old woman next to me, obviously thrilled to be there, gripping her baseball in the same way, focusing on getting it right as if the next victory depended on it. When I congratulated Rich on his win of the night before, he laughed and said he really didn’t have it last night. He admitted that his fastball wasn’t working at all. As Jason Kendall would tell us later, it’s a good thing that Rich has three other rather nasty pitches. Rich told us that Manny Ramirez is probably the toughest hitter he has ever faced in his brief career. He said Manny will change his approach from at-bat to at-bat, the way the best ones do, and that inside pitch that worked so well against him last time could be the one he hits out next time. “Vladmir Guerrero can be easy or hard,” he reported. “If you hit your spots, it’s easy. That’s really what it comes down to.”
Bobby Crosby – I noted Bobby was tall and thin when I met him during the FanFest celebration earlier this year. He seems so serious, rarely cracking a smile. He showed us how to tackle the ball when it’s coming towards you, how he tries to get a jump on the ball when it’s coming off the bat: “I imagine a little circle in front of me. When the hitter is going through his swing, before the bat hits the ball, I lean into the circle.” His legs start to move and he can control in which direction he moves to field the ball. The worst baserunner to him is Ichiro “and believe it or not, Benjie Molina.” Ichiro is so fast that Bobby gunslings the ball in an overhead fashion, picking up the ball as quickly as he can to gun it to first. “Sometimes I don’t have a good grip but I’ve gotta make that throw.” Benjie is tough because he’s the slowest baserunner you’ve ever seen, “and frankly I just don’t know what to do with all that time! I find myself thinking, ‘You better get this throw right.'” Bobby told us that it was awesome playing next to Chavez, as he covers more territory than the average third baseman. Would you rather play with Scutaro or Ellis? He smirked slightly and diplomatically said, “It doesn’t matter. They both put it where I want it” on a double play. He told us he talks to Ellis when someone’s on base, whereas he pretty much directs Scutaro on how they’re going to play it.
Mark Kotsay – Kotsay, shorter than I imagined, with his sunglasses always on, treated us like a lecture hall. Fast-speaking and opinionated, he seemed very self assured. “I don’t care if you use one hand or two hands,” he started off, “just get it right. If you catch the ball with one hand, fine, but if you miss, maybe you should think about (using two hands).” He did say on this issue that one advantage of using both hands is, you can be ready to throw sooner, before the runner has two or three steps on you. He told us that the outfielders go over scouting reports, which he sometimes disagrees with, and he directs the other fielders where they’re placed. The center fielder, he said, can see the pitcher and the batter best, and can make adjustments faster. The worst park to play in, as far as outfielder Kotsay is concerned, is Angel stadium. “The walls come up too fast for me there.”
Jason Kendall – Jason had a stubbly beard and much to our surprise wore prescription glasses while he talked to us. His knuckles all seemed large and swollen, his fingers like they had each been broken at one time. He was the most glib of all the players, joked around with us a bit, and told some great stories. And talked baseball. “Chavvy and Kots will swing at anything and everything. So, if I’m the leadoff hitter, I try to give them a few extra pitches to look at. To tell you the truth, I’m more comfortable swinging with two strikes on me anyway.” He smiled conspiratorially and confided that he has a good relationship with all the umpires. “After 10 years, I’ve worked with them all.” He buys them beers whenever he gets a chance. He mentioned that all the young umpires are scared at the new Quest system, where an umpire review board sits in designated stadiums (like McAfee) and critiques the umpires. Old umpires like Joe West, however, are not scared. “’Hell, I’d like to see them do something to me,’” Kendall mimicked West, as he bought him another beer. And he’ll say things to “players I know, like Stairsy (Matt Stairs) the other day – ‘Oh, too bad you missed that pitch ‘cause it’s the last (fastball) you’ll ever see!'” Jason, who used to catch in the National League, seems to prefer that style of baseball, “it’s more of a game,” as the entire game is built around the pitcher. “The 8 and 9 hitters are so-so,” and the strategy revolves around them. Kendall told us that this year “is the most fun I have had in my career! Remember when we were struggling in April and May? The clubhouse was the same. It was the same.” Except that they were all trying to do too much. “I was swinging for the fences! I know I’m not a homerun hitter! I know what I can do and what I can’t do.”
The fans in our group were interesting themselves. We had the obligatory jerk, who insisted on asking most of the questions, and who liked, with each player, to sneak up on the player, throw his arm around him (without touching him) so that he could get a “chummy” photo with him. Sheesh. And we also had a Little League coach who would tell Bobby Crosby, for instance, what he was teaching his kids – “I tell them to throw low to the player” – only to be told by Bobby that they should throw high, “because most of those balls will skip by the kids.” The coach quickly changed the subject. But, in general, the group was a nice mixture of young and older, and we obviously shared one thing in common, our love of baseball and the Oakland A’s. I was amazed at how much each fan knew, not about baseball (that was for sure), but about the players.
After our hour or so of huddling with the players, we all gathered in line. The assistants handed each of us a new baseball and we could get it autographed by all five players. This was our last chance to say how much we appreciated the time they took for us, and to have a great season. I also took an extra minute to thank the original P.R. guy who took us onto the field.
As we left the field (with Rick muttering over and over, “I’m not going to leave. They can’t make me!”), I noticed Ron Washington giving some tips to some young ballplayer we didn’t recognize. He was obviously some rising young star who was taking infield practice. Wash would bat the ball to him and the young man would scoop it up in his glove. As Bobby Crosby told us, Wash is great with praise and never yells, and we watched that unfolding just a few feet from us as we approached the gate to go back up the stairs. Wash put the bat down, came toward the player and positioned his glove more correctly on the ground. “These are the details,” Rick said. We were watching, and earlier listening to, the difference between minor league and major league. It’s all in the details.
And so I never got my chance to throw the ball around with Bobby, or bat with Chavez. Thank God. What will I do with my $10 glove? I’ll keep it. Who knows, maybe I can get someone to play catch with me this weekend. Or maybe I’ll be picked for the Play Like a Pro next year? I could only hope.