The Hunt For Green Oak-Tober

It’s hard to beat the sounds, sights and pageantry of post-season baseball, Oakland A’s style. For the playoffs, the Athletics have opened the upper deck of the Coliseum, where on Friday night they captured a crowd of more than 48,000 fans, their biggest in nine years.

photo-4

 

Rodney Hobbs and his 11-year-old son Braden were among the first to arrive at the Coliseum. “We left Sonora, California at about 3:45 this morning and had to drop off the wife at the airport,” Rodney told me. Hobbs explained  that he and Braden “decided to go ahead and (we) found some tickets and here we are.”

Walter Vita of Sacramento brought his enthusiasm and his A’s tattoo to the ballpark. “We left home about 8 o’clock. We were actually second in the gate so you know it was great.”

And Nick Giampaoli of Lincoln also left early for the Coliseum. “I got on the road at 9:30 this morning. I’ve been here since noon and I was one of the very first people to get through the gate and I’m very proud to be an Oakland A’s fan.”

Tailgating is a strong tradition in Oakland, where fans enjoy grilling and chilling before the game.

Tailgating in Oakland

Tailgating in Oakland

I asked A’s fan Laurie Jones about the art of pre-gaming. She told me, “My husband is a master barbequer, so we’ve got tri-tip going, we’ve got sausages, chips and dip and all kinds of stuff and even adult beverages and it’s a good time. I even called in sick.”

A's fans know how to tailgate

A’s fans know how to tailgate

The fans in Oakland are passionate about the Oakland Athletics, but the core of the team is the Sacramento River Cats. In fact, 21 of the 25 players on the post-season roster played this year in Sacramento. “I’m here from Sacramento to cheer on the River Cats, who are now playing on the Athletics,” A’s fan Ana Sandoval told me. “I know I’m a huge fan of the River Cats, whether it’s Josh Donaldson, Eric Sogard or Stephen Vogt, so it’s really great to come out and see them on the big club and playing for a championship this year.”

Game 2 starter Sonny Gray is one of those former River Cats. In the A’s clubhouse, I asked him to describe how the chemistry of the River Cats helped prepare the A’s for the playoffs. “Yeah the chemistry is awesome,” Gray told me. “It’s amazing and it’s made it such an easy transition for me coming up here. The guys have  been awesome from day one. I think it goes to show we have not only a good team, but a good organization.”

Sonny Gray

Sonny Gray

The A’s have a strong family tradition that includes fans like Don and Jason Newman, a father and son team from Sacramento. “The A’s are the hottest team right now,” Don Newman said. “We wanted to come down and be here for the first game of this division series.” His son Jason added, ” This playoff game is an exciting experience for us but for me it’s spending time with my dad. It’s really special to spend time together at an A’s game.”

Let's play ball!

Let’s play ball!

Also at Game 1 was lifelong fan Donald Marquez, who wrote a book called “Generation A’s Fans” to describe his love affair with the Athletics. Marquez is on the book’s cover, as a 4-year-old, in the arms of A’s legend Reggie Jackson. “Dad, mom, used to bring me to the games way back when,” Marquez told me. “My oldest brother, the entire family used to come and pretty much spend all the major holidays in the bleachers.”

Lifelong A's fan Donald Marquez

Lifelong A’s fan Donald Marquez

The A’s won back-to-back-to-back championships from 1972-74. They also captured a World Series title in 1989 when they beat the San Francisco Giants, their cross-Bay rivals. A’s fans are hoping a little of that magic will return this year.

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Dodgers First to Clinch, Last in Class

Have you seen the pictures?

Dodgers Dive In

Moments after the Los Angeles Dodgers became the first team to clinch a playoff berth, Yasiel Puig, Hanley Ramirez, Adrian Gonzalez, Matt Kemp, Michael Young and other Dodgers plunged into the pool at Chase One Ballpark, home of the Arizona Diamondbacks:

Not Classy

Sure they were excited, I get that. And some of the players are very young and inexperienced in the ways of winning. But there were enough veteran ballplayers there to know better. Somebody should have said, “Stop, this is a really bad idea.”

Have you ever seen Derek Jeter pull a stunt like that? Or Albert Pujols? They know a lot about winning and the first rule is to celebrate like you’ve done it before.  Act like it’s no big deal. Give a few high fives and back slaps and then head back to the weight room to gear up for the playoffs. Keep your eye on the prize of winning the World Series. Then and only then, can you you pop the champagne and carry on like crazies, but make sure you do it in the locker room, not your next door neighbor’s pool.

Don’t ever rub it in the face of the home team, especially in their pool. The Dodgers disrespected the Diamondbacks and the game of baseball and showed no class by hijacking Arizona’s pool. No individual, no team, no celebration should ever be bigger than the game itself.

Winning a division doesn’t make you a champion. The Dodgers will find that out when the St. Louis Cardinals win the pennant. And if the Redbirds clinch in Dodger Stadium, you can bet they won’t be racing go-karts down Chavez Ravine to mock the home team. With 11 World Series championships and 18 National League pennants, the Cardinals know how to win and do it with dignity.

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Jackie Robinson’s Legacy Lives On

I’ve had the honor of meeting Rachel Robinson twice now. The first time was in 2007 at the California Museum in Sacramento, where her late husband Jackie was inducted into the California Hall of Fame. She was energetic and a beacon of light on that cold December night. I told her we had something in common. It turns out both of us lived for many years in Stamford, Connecticut, my home town. Rachel, a California native, lived in Stamford with Jackie when he played for the Brooklyn Dodgers. Stamford is the place where I grew up, with many happy memories.

And then on Monday, I had the chance to meet Rachel Robinson again, this time at the California State Capitol. The California Legislative Black Caucus paid tribute to Robinson for her work on behalf of the Jackie Robinson Foundation, which she founded in 1973, the year after her beloved husband died.

Rachel Robinson honored at the California State Capitol

Rachel Robinson honored at the California State Capitol

“Of course we were devastated by his death, ” Robinson told me. “But we needed to find a way to have the legacy live on. And both he and I – and all of our family and friends who were interested in education.” She explained they knew that “education was the key to a good life.” The Jackie Robinson Foundation is a national, non-profit organization established to provide greater access to higher education for disadvantaged youth. To date the foundation has provided college scholarships for more than 1,400 students nationwide. “And we have almost a 100 percent graduation rate,” Robinson told me.

Rachel Robinson

Rachel Robinson

While in Sacramento, Robinson hosted a special screening of the movie, “42″, the story of Jackie Robinson’s historic rise to the Major Leagues. He was the first African American player to break the color barrier when he started for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. The movie is a powerful, but painfully accurate depiction of a segregated American society, in which blacks faced oppressive racism and had to drink from separate “colored” water fountains. 

But Rachel Robinson has heard from many of today’s youth who have seen the movie. “They’re horrified at some of the things they see in the movie,” she told me. “But they’re also surprised by it and then they get excited about fighting back. You know we didn’t just fade and (not) meet the challenges.” Robinson said.

Robinson has counseled kids about meeting their own challenges – everything from poverty to bullying. “So when I write back I ask them to consider what they’re doing and their own family, their own neighborhood, their own school so that they can feel positive about being able to go forward and have strength and have a good life, despite what’s in the environment.”

Jackie Robinson was an All-Star second baseman for the Dodgers, whose number 42 has now been retired by every Major League Baseball team, except for one. Mariano Rivera, an All-Star reliever for the New York Yankees, also wear number 42, but after he retires this year, the number will never be seen on a player again. “We’re very proud the number was being retired,” Rachel Robinson said.

As for Rivera, she said, “I’m meeting him for a ritual, his goodbye at Yankee Stadium next week. And I’ve been so proud of him, because he’s not only a superb ballplayer but he’s a charming good man and has carried it with dignity. And I think he’s added some special sentiment to that number.”

Over his 10-year career, Jackie Robinson was a .311 hitter with 137 home runs, 734 runs batted in and 197 stolen bases, including nineteen thefts of home. But statistics don’t begin to tell the full story. Robinson’s leadership, his courage under fire and his grace under pressure made him a perfect role model for  Roy Campanella, Don Newcombe, Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Willie McCovey  and generations of African American ball players who were inspired by him. 

While Robinson fought hard to integrate Major League Baseball, ironically today African Americans comprise just 8 percent of the rosters of all 30 teams — that’s roughly half the number the number from the 1970′s. It’s a fact that’s not been lost on Rachel Robinson.

“I’m sad about that,” she told me. “And I’ve talked to the commissioner about it and I’ve talked to the higher ups in baseball. They say that they’re working to change that situation and to move more people forward. But I think it’s happening too slowly and now with enough emphasis. Diversity is still a problem for us.”Rachel Robinson at age 91, is still battling for civil rights today. And judging by her reception at the California State Capitol, where she was swarmed by admirers, there’s no doubt that Rachel Robinson is making a difference.

It was an honor meeting Rachel Robinson

With Rachel Robinson at the Capitol

 

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The Most Exciting Player in Baseball

He’s 22 years old and plays the game with unbridled enthusiasm. Until he gets benched for throwing a temper tantrum at the plate,  then walks like a slug instead of running to his position on the field.

Such is the dynamic of Yasiel Puig, who is both electrifying and agonizing as the rookie right fielder for the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Dodger Stadium

He’s known as the Wild Horse, but sometimes he acts like a spoiled stallion that won’t be tamed, even if he bucks his rider and trips over his own feet.

Puig is hitting .351 with 19 doubles and 14 homers in half a season of action:

Puig Statistics

And when he comes to the plate, everyone stops what they’re doing to watch the guy who just may be the most exciting player in baseball. His ability to mesmerize 50,000 fans reminds me of Barry Bonds in his prime — a player who sizzled in the spotlight and brought everyone to their feet. You don’t want to be hustling a hot dog at the concession stand when he comes to the plate, for fear of missing something big.

Puig

 

I had a chance to see Yasiel Puig play in person last Saturday night in Los Angeles, where the Dodgers hosted the San Diego Padres. Puig was both brilliant (when he nailed a runner at home with a dart from right field that bounced on one hop to the catcher for an easy swipe of the baserunner) to baffling(when he walked

1st Base

but then got caught stealing at second by 10 feet). Puig went 0-4 with a boneheaded base running move but made the defensive play of the game that allowed the Dodgers to hold the Padres to 1 run in a 2-1, come from behind victory.

The Wild Horse wears no saddle but has much to learn. His playful exuberance and passion for the game are infectious, but his immaturity and miniscule minor league experience work against him. Given time, training and proper instruction from his coaches and teammates, Puig has potential to be one of the greats of the game. But in the meantime, he is a work in progress and what fun it will be to watch him grow up.

As for the Dodgers, they are rock solid now with the addition of former Giant Brian Wilson. The Bearded One took the mound in the 8th inning in relief and earned a victory after pitching a scoreless inning, followed by a Dodger rally in the last half of the frame.

Brian Wilson

The Dodgers have also added veteran Michael Young from the Phillies, giving them another solid infielder and steady bat for the stretch drive. The Dodgers are a lock to win the National League West, but I predict they will fall to the Cardinals in the battle for the pennant. St. Louis has five superb starters and is strong at every position. Second baseman Matt Carpenter leads the Majors in runs scored with 103. Pitching ace Adam Wainwright is tops in MLB with 5 complete games and leads everyone with just 1.26 walks per nine innings.

Sure the Dodgers have Clayton Kershaw, whose 1.89 ERA is the best in baseball, along with just 0.92 walks plus hits per inning. Both teams are great, but I give the Cardinals the edge with playoff experience. And even though the Dodgers have the most exciting player in baseball, he is just a rookie after all, who has never played in the postseason. Perhaps the Wild Horse will gallop his way to the World Series, but I  wouldn’t bet on it. Either way, it sure will be exciting to see him in action this October.

 

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Baseball Legends Speak Out On Suspensions

Sacramento’s baseball legends are very vocal about the suspensions of a dozen players by Major League Baseball. The 50-game ban includes Nelson Cruz, an outfielder for the Texas Rangers, Jhonny Peralta an infielder with the Detroit Tigers, Everth Cabrera, a shortstop for the San Diego Padres and others for their role in using performance enhancing drugs (PEDs). The 211-game suspension against Yankee superstar Alex Rodriguez is under appeal.

“I think children are getting the message. I think parents and coaches are getting the message that it is not acceptable,” said Leon Lee, a current baseball instructor with the California International Baseball Group and former star in the minor leagues and Japanese baseball. Lee is also the father of Derrek Lee, an All-Star in 2005 and 2007 with the Chicago Cubs.

I met Leon in Folsom, where he was throwing batting practice to 19-year old prospect, Charlie Hammond.

Leon

“Now baseball’s starting to send a message,” Lee told me. “You have to do it on your own merit. I like that.”

I asked Lee about the use of performance enhancing drugs during his era, the 1970′s. “During the time I played, the amphetamines were an issue,” he said. “You know we called them greenies. You stay out until 3 o’clock in the morning, 4 o’clock in the morning, you come dragging in there and the guys say, ‘hey man just pop one of these and you’re ok’. And guys were always looking for that advantage. And hopefully kids coming up now will realize — don’t put that in your body. You don’t need that.”

Lee’s student Charlie Hammond agreed. “I’ve always been of the opinion that you should never put any substances in your body,” he said. As for the big suspensions, Hammond told me, ” It definitely shows that the consequences do not outweigh the benefits.”

Lee added, ” I think the kids are saying this is not going to be cool to do this any more.”

Those sentiments were echoed by Jerry Manuel, a former Major League manager with the Chicago White Sox and the New York Mets. “The young players have to recognize that this sport, our sport, is trying to do everything it can to keep the playing field level,” Manuel told me at his baseball academy in Elverta, California.

Manuel now runs the Jerry Manuel Foundation with his son Anthony Manuel. JMF’s mission, as stated on its Web site, is “to educate African American young men with Charter School standards and train them in the fundamentals of baseball.”

Manuel noted that baseball’s punishments seemed to affect one group of players in particular. “I’m a little bit concerned with the disproportionate number of Latin players on that list,” he told me. “Are they getting the right messages from Major League Baseball? Are they understanding that? Are they getting clarity on that? Or are they getting it from their agent,” he wondered.

I asked Manuel if baseball’s recent crackdown on steroids was perhaps getting lost in translation. “I think so,” he said. “Because I know a couple of those guys. And when I was with the Mets, one of the young men barely spoke the language. And sometimes, coming from abject poverty, you’ve got a whole group of people who you are responsible for that you got off the island — and you’re trying to do everything you can to provide not only for yourself, but for family members.”

“Does Major League Baseball need to do a better job of communicating with these players,” I asked. “Absolutely,” he said. “We need to do a better job of when these players are represented by someone, then they understand clearly the laws of the land of Major League Baseball.”

The Jerry Manuel Foundation is a magnet program for kids interested in baseball. They take classes at Alpha Middle School in Elverta. “We’ll discuss this at length,” Manuel told me. “We’ll have a day where we’ll have a home room, an hour of discussion about this particular situation. This will be one of the subjects that we will definitely attack.”

Jerry’s son Anthony Manuel is the head coach at the  Foundation, where he was giving batting lessons this week to 12-year old Jackson Haney.

Anthony

“There’s no room for cheating,” Anthony told me. “That’s not going to be acceptable.  Hard work and (a strong) work ethic can take you a long way.”

The culture of baseball now seems to be changing, with more players than ever demanding the sport be clean, with no tolerance for PEDs. “You’re cheating the fans,” Anthony said. “You’re cheating the family, you’re cheating the game. Because it’s not real results that you’re getting.”

It was a lesson quickly absorbed by Jackson Haney. “If you break the rules, you got to pay,” he said.

 

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The Joy of Catching a Foul Ball

My dad took me to my very first baseball game at Yankee Stadium, when I was about 5 years old. Since then, I’ve attended hundreds of games, always with my trusty mitt in hand.

But despite having a glove, I’ve never caught a batted baseball from any Major League game. Sure I’ve come close, like the time I went to a friend’s birthday party and snagged a practice ball that was part of a pre-game warmup. I was about 9 at the time and the pitcher for the Angels was tossing the ball back and forth with his catcher. One of his pitches caught the catcher by surprise and the ball bounced off his knee, and then dribbled over to my seat by the 3rd base dugout. So I did what any kid would do — I scooped up the ball with my Yankee hat and scampered into the stands as fast as I could because the Angels catcher was running after me. Fortunately, he stopped at the railing, but I hid from him the entire game, while tucking my prized possession deep inside my sweatshirt. It was exciting to evade the catcher, but not quite the same experience I longed for in my dream of  catching an actual batted ball.

Many years later, as an adult, I dove into a row of seats in front of me to scoop up a foul ball from the bat of a River Cats player at Raley Field. I knew then I was ready to catch my first Major League batted ball, but my scoreless streak had only just begun.

Over the years, I went to dozens of A’s and Giants games, but still my faithful glove came home empty-handed every time. Out of frustration, I stopped bringing my mitt to games. And then it happened.

In the 4th inning of Sunday’s ballgame between the A’s and Angels (yes those same  Angels), Oakland’s Stephen Vogt stepped to the plate against Tommy Hanson. Vogt, a member of the River Cats just two weeks ago, lifted a lazy pop foul into Section 120, just three rows in front of me. A dozen fans raised their arms, but the ball  landed squarely on the concrete and bounced high into the air with backspin, heading straight towards me. My instincts took over as I reached up with my left hand and snagged the ball bare-handed, while cradling the coveted souvenir with my right hand.

I caught a ball

Finally, after decades of frustration, I was now a member of the Foul Ball Club, ironically without the help of my faithful companion, the mitt. I inspected the ball carefully to verify it was indeed an official Major League Baseball, signed by none other than Commissioner Allan H. Selig, better known as Bud Selig. And for just a moment after catching that ball, I felt like I was a 12-year old kid again.

The ball

The gift from the baseball gods on my birthday weekend was the best present a kid (at heart) could ever get, but it was about to get better. For the A’s rallied from a 5-0 deficit, to win the game 10-6 and send the fans into a frenzy.

Banjo Triple

What a fantastic finish to a great game I’ll never forget. And now I’ve got a new item to add to the bucket list: Catching a Home Run ball. But for that one I think I’ll bring back my trusty mitt!

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Twins legend Joe Mauer is the father of Twins

All-Star catcher Joe Mauer of the Minnesota Twins is literally the face of the franchise.

Joe Mauer Action Figure

Mauer 2 Joe Mauer Action Figure

I spotted these Joe Mauer paper mache’ cutouts in downtown Minneapolis on the way to Target Field a few years ago.

Target Field: Home of the Minnesota Twins

Target Field: Home of the Minnesota Twins

Joe Mauer missed Wednesday’s game against the Angels in Anaheim to fly back to the Twin Cities, just in time for him to receive his biggest catch ever: Twin daughters named Emily and Maren.

Mauer Fathers Twins

Congratulations to the father of the Twins!

 

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Cabrera and Davis Dominate Baseball

Miguel Cabrera, the Detroit Tigers slugger, is the hottest hitter in baseball. Chris Davis, the powerful first baseman for the Baltimore Orioles is not far behind. Together, the two players dominate nearly every single offensive category in baseball. Here are the stats:

Cabrera and Davis Dominate

Indeed, in twelve key offensive statistics, Cabrera or Davis are tops in nine of those categories, including batting average, home runs, RBI, runs, hits, total bases, on-base percentage, slugging percentage and on-base plus slugging percentage.

Davis just smashed two homers on Saturday and now has 30 through June. If he keeps going at this pace, he’ll end up with 60 HR, a Ruthian-like number. Meanwhile, Cabrera is without a doubt, the toughest out in baseball, with a .375 batting average and a 1.139 on-base plug slugging percentage. And nipping at his heels is Davis, whose OPS is 1.133.

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The Gift of Baseball

On this Father’s Day weekend, I am grateful for being a dad and having the opportunity to travel to Nicaragua with my daughter Sarah to visit my son Matt. We spent six days together in a beautiful country that will one day develop into a popular destination for tourism and it’s possible that baseball will help lead the way.

Baseball is very popular in Nicaragua and on any visit you’ll be sure to see kids playing ball in the city streets and rural fields across the country. Adults follow Major League Baseball with a passion, rooting primarily for the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox.

Nicaraguans closely monitor the progress of two fellow countrymen, Everth Cabrera, the shortstop for the San Diego Padres who hails from Nandaime (near Granada); and Winton Lopez, a right handed pitcher for the Colorado Rockies. Lopez is from the city of Leon.

Ballfields are common in the bigger cities like Granada,where young players hope to become Major Leaguers.

Granada Baseball

We also visited this stadium in Matagalpa:

Matagalpa Stadium

In Matagalpa, we saw young baseball prospects training with coaches from Nicaragua, Cuba and the Dominican Republic. While there, we were blessed to have the opportunity to donate a dozen new baseballs to the team, to replace the torn up balls they had been using.

Matagalpa Baseball

Baseball is a passion for Nicaragua, where Dennis Martinez is still fondly remembered for the Perfect Game he threw on July 18, 1991 for the Montreal Expos against the Los Angeles Dodgers. You can see the entire game, a 2-0 shutout, here:

El Presidente El Perfecto

Here’s the box score of the game:

Dennis Martinez Perfect Game

Martinez, a star pitcher for many years with the Baltimore Orioles, is the winningest Hispanic pitcher in the history of Major League Baseball with 245 wins.

Martinez Career Stats

He is often referred to as “El Presidente” and is now a bullpen coach with the Houston Astros.

Dennis Martinez Interview

Martinez was the first Nicaraguan player in MLB and his success helped pave the way for future stars including Cabrera and Lopez. Now the focus is on the new generation of players from Central America.  Perhaps one day they will emerge  from the diamonds of Matagalpa, Leon or Granada. The people of Nicaragua will be watching.

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Baseball Buddies

Baseball is a game of wins, losses and…good deeds. Two Bay Area brothers formed Baseball Buddies to provide leftover equipment to kids in need. Jordan Leffler, age 15, and his 14-year-old brother Matthew discovered a treasure trove of used baseball cleats — still in good condition, while cleaning out their garage in San Jose.

The boys wanted to donate the goods to youth baseball teams that couldn’t afford equipment. So with the help of Barryessa Little League, the boys started Baseball Buddies and began collecting donated bats, gloves, helmets and cleats from the community.

Soon they had enough equipment to help fill a plane at Travis Air Force Base, where the baseball goods were shipped to young ballplayers in Honduras. Their donated items have also helped kids in Haiti and to the Boys and Girls Clubs in San Jose.

In today’s world, it’s nice to hear about kids doing something positive to make a difference.

Here’s a link to the Baseball Buddies web site:

Baseball Buddies



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