Yesterday over 15,000 folks braved lousy weather and showed up to the Oakland Coliseum complex for A’s FanFest, an event meant to sell tickets and acclimate fans to new players, which is something it seems this team does in great volume every year. I was on the airwaves of the A’s flagship, 95.7 The Game, for two hours doing player interviews along with my colleague Guy Haberman.
The No. 2 starter
First up was starting pitcher Scott Kazmir, who is entering the second year of a two-year deal which saw him reach the All-Star Game for the third time last summer. I asked him if this last appearance at the Midsummer Classic was the favorite of his three, and he confirmed that it was, considering that since his previous trip he had donned the uniforms of teams such as the Sugarland Skeeters, Gigantes de Carolina and Leones del Escogido.
Kazmir told me off-air that after his various injuries he literally almost had to learn how to pitch all over again. A star pitcher in high school who broke Josh Beckett’s Texas state records for strikeouts, he lived on his velocity alone, as do most young hurlers. I inquired at what point did he become a pitcher and not simply a thrower, and he revealed that he was in the big leagues by then. If healthy, he and Sonny Gray are the only men on the staff guaranteed spots in the rotation. He’s vital to this team even more than last season, and he’s not short of confidence or preparation, so fingers crossed he stays fit.
The reclamation project
Next to sit down with us was another former first-round pick of the Mets, first-baseman Ike Davis. A once untradeable player for New York, he now finds himself on his third team in less than a year. I mentioned how impressed I was with his father when as a teenager I watched him pitch for the Yankees. Ron Davis was the virtually the game’s first-ever set-up man, setting the stage for Hall of Fame closer Goose Gossage. As a 16-year-old in 1981, I saw the demise of Billy Ball when the A’s were swept by the Bronx Bombers in the second round of the playoffs, and Davis and Gossage were an intimidating tandem. (The A’s had swept Kansas City in the first round of that strike season’s playoffs.) When the Yankees had the lead after 6 innings that year, they were 77-2 because of that relief tandem.
So Ike took after his father and had a 23-0 record as a star pitcher at Chapparall High in Scottsdale. He then had a storied three years at nearby Arizona State, breaking PAC-10 hitting records whilst also being the Opening Day starting pitcher. After the best statistical season ever for a Mets rookie in 2010, it was a forgone conclusion that he and David Wright would hold down the corner infield spots for the next decade. I asked him how it all went pear-shaped so rapidly. “A broken ankle and a bad year is all it took,” he surmised. Last season saw him begin as the starting first-baseman for the Mets and it ended with him being designated for assignment by the Pirates. And now he’s wearing Green and Gold – things have moved fast but he’s got an excellent chance to have a Renaissance of his career. He will be in the lineup versus righties and also will provide the A’s with the defense of a real first-baseman. No more Vogt, Callaspo, Moss, etc.
The pie guy
Lastly Josh Reddick took a seat and we talked a lot about various topics since he was generous enough to stay with Guy and me for 45 minutes. When Reddick was in his first year with Oakland, I did a live post-game show with him at an airport hotel and he still seems to be the same sincere, friendly, yet outspoken guy he was then. He’s always been a favorite of Billy Beane, who has publicly raved about Reddick’s defense, so I’m not surprised he wasn’t one of the many players who were dealt. But I asked him about the double-edged sword of his 2012 season where he hit 32 home runs and earned a Gold Glove, because people would expect no less from him in the future. As we know, he’s not lived up to that incredible season since then, as injuries and prolonged slumps have scuttled the last two campaigns. The good news is that he did hit 20 points higher in 2014 than in 2013, so hopefully he’s ascending again.
He also pointed out that while he loved former hitting coach Chili Davis, the former A’s hitting coach was never in the cage when Reddick was hitting, and he was guilty of over-coaching. But he didn’t blame Davis and wished him well. Josh was also wearing a new number, 22, as he graciously gave up his old number 16 to Billy Butler for “a winch and an XBOX ONE.” Reddick is also very involved in charities, not just for young baseball players in his home state of Georgia, but additionally for those in the Caribbean. He’s also the only professional athlete I know around these parts who will get a beer and shoot some pool with fans after a game. He’s the man in right field for now, and a big season will do him well as he enters his last arbitration year. He realizes he’s no longer a No. 3 power hitter, so he won’t try to be Babe Ruth.
Two new (potential) starters
I also got a chance before the FanFest to speak personally with two young pitchers acquired in trades, Chris Bassitt and Sean Nolin, formerly of the White Sox and Blue Jays, respectively. These young men are part of the “haul” from the Samardzija and Donaldson deals, and both have a shot to make the rotation this spring. The A’s saw Bassitt pitch very well against them last season in just his second big league start, and Nolin is a fast-riser who told me his pitching style is “aggression with finesse.”
Grand Slam Breakfast?
I then got a chance to chat with Mr. Country Breakfast himself, Billy Butler. It took 3-years and $30 million to get Butler to the Coliseum, which is pretty rich for the A’s blood. But if you remember when the team was throwing away their huge leads in the division and then the Wild Card last year, a real major league hitter like Butler is exactly what they needed then. I don’t care if he’s not a big slugger, I just want him to keep raking and driving in runs. He told me that the World Series loss “feels like yesterday” to him and that he tips his hat to Bumgarner for his epic performance.
After yesterday I’m more than ready for some baseball. And I think the A’s are going to be fine. After the last three years, it’s hard not to be optimistic despite all the upheaval.