7/24/2007: I was sitting up in the third deck, right field bleachers of Edison Field (right near the foul pole) when I thought for certain that I had just witnessed the birth of a star. This event certainly didn't occur in the evening sky amidst the smog-fueled ether of Orange County...rather, what I saw took place between the white chalk lines of the baseball field sprawled out in front of me. In the midst of a taut, well-pitched game that seemed like it would be a see-saw battle to the end, one player stood up and took over the game and "willed" the Athletics to victory...and that man was Travis Buck.
The mangy-haired right fielder did a little bit of everything for the A's that game: he destroyed Angel pitching by spraying an opposite-field double to the gap in left-center, pulling a line-drive single to right field and smashing a 2-run homer over the center field wall. He created havoc on the basepaths by stealing a base after his single, after which he eventually scored the winning run. He then helped preserve his offensive campaign by making several highlight-reel plays in right field to rob the frustrated Angel hitters of extra-bases. After it all, the A's had a 4-3 win to celebrate and the birth of a star to consecrate. But then 2008 happened...
Buck's 2008 was the very definition of a "lost year". He never seemed comfortable right from the start of the season and his minor league "get back on track" assignment was derailed by all sorts of strange medical issues. I'm not gonna lie to you, it was a little depressing for me to watch the once-proud Buck (who once brashly threw his helmet in the Yankees' face(s) after a particularly emphatic late-game victory in 2007) flail so horrendously at the plate and visibly lose all confidence in himself. However, after an extended break from baseball activity altogether, Buck seemed like the old brash youth of yesteryear during his September '08 resurgence, where he hit .367 with 4 homers and had 12 RBIs in the final 12 games of the season.
Besides being a nice comeback-kid type story, Buck's recovery back to major league quality-hitter could not have come at a better time...now without Carlos Gonzalez, but with Matt Holliday and Ryan Sweeney in center, Buck now has a vote of confidence from management to jump right back out to right field and resume his ascendancy to stardom...or at least to consistent contributor on a competitive team.
Daric Barton's story somewhat mirrors Buck's in that 2007 was a banner-year for the young hitter but 2008 was an utter failure in many (sometimes strange) ways. Barton struggled all season until September (his favorite month of the year). No doubt it's concerning that it took the 22-year old 5 months, his 23rd birthday and a few stitches to the skull to figure out major league pithing...however, he finally did it and for what it's worth, I'm proud of the guy. Facing adversity for the first time in his career on a losing team in the biggest spotlight, he finally turned the corner and established some momentum for the rest of his career.
Going forward, I think the recent struggles of both Buck and Barton will make them better players in the future. They both have very strong track records and are still young enough that their lost seasons are not catastrophic to their development. It'll be interesting to see how each of them responds next season. Buck will be pushed by Aaron Cunningham from the minor league ranks, ditto Barton from Sean Doolittle and both could even be relegated to bench duty if the A's sign Giambi.
Yet, even though all the headlines will be dominated by rumors about Furcal and Giambi, the Killer B's might be the two most important A's come mid-summer: though their respective stars have faded, we've all got to trust our eyes and our memories and believe that they both have some brilliance left in their bats. With Holliday, a healthy Chavez, Furcal and/or Giambi, the A's offense could be respectable...but with 2007-like contributions from Buck and Barton, the offense could even be enviable, and after that one muggy July night an Anaheim, that's what I'll be banking on.