Eric Chavez: An Epic Story of a Career Cut Short

True story:

I woke up Saturday morning thinking about Eric Chavez.  And those thoughts turned into an idea for a new post, of which I was going to title, "Have we seen the last of Eric Chavez?"

Of course, we all know by now that the six-time Gold Glove award winner is at least considering retirement, as told via e-mail to Susan Slusser- and made known to AN by louismg:

"I've pondered retirement," Chavez said. "I'd lie if I said I didn't. The truth of the matter is that I don't know what I'm going to do."

 

My first thought- even though clearly nothing is set in stone- was, "Why isn't this bigger news?"

Then I remembered that Eric Chavez has managed to suit up for just 154 games since Opening Day 2007, and he's become sort of a forgotten soldier as the A's continue towards a youth movement similar to the one orchestrated by the team during Eric's first season in 1998.

That and he decided to share his thoughts with Slusser during Chris Carter Week.

Oh, and also because Nico told us "it's over, guys" three months ago.

While Eric continues to mull over what is surely one of the most difficult decisions an athlete has to face- the A's are likely to influence the verdict by declining to pick up his option next year- he wouldn't mind the opportunity to play before the crowd in Oakland one more time:

"I'd love to come back and play the last month of the season with the team. I just don't know if that's going to happen, but it would mean the world to me to be in uniform when the season ends. Either way, I'll be in Oakland one way or the other, to come back and play, or to say goodbye."

 

Eric's sentiment was echoed by our very own iglew:

I want to see him healthy in time to be in the dugout with the rest of the guys for September call-ups. And although he doesn't warrant a starting spot, I'd like to see him get a little bit of playing time here and there in the last few games. I'd like one of the games in the final homestand to be some sort of Chavez appreciation night, at which he'd announce that he'll be retiring at the end of the year, so that the fans can express all our years of Chavvy love and appreciation.

Agreed.

But should that day never come to pass- and let's face it, the A's brass isn't too big on public displays of nostalgia- let's say we put our Carter crushes aside on this off-day, and express our Chavvy love and appreciation right here and now.

 Chavez-20

Reduced to a spectator, Chavez longs for one last hurrah.

I never had my picture taken with Eric Chavez.  I don't have his autograph.  Hell, I've never even met the guy.  I was 31 when he made his major-league debut, far removed from collecting baseball cards and worshipping men who make their living playing a boy's game.

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A young Chavez at the bat, March 1999. 

And yet, I feel some sort of strange connection to him, and not just because neither of us are Mexican enough.  Maybe it's because he hit a homerun on my birthday on four different occasions (2001, 2002, 2004, and 2006).

Whatever the case, the A's were significantly more exciting with a healthy Chavez in the lineup.  From 2002 to 2008 I had season tickets in Section 122, and was treated to a magic show on a nightly basis.  Oh sure, he made all the routine plays, but whenever I thought he could not possibly top himself at third base, he went ahead and proved me wrong.

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Even from the seat of his pants, Chavez was better than most. 

***

Eric Chavez was born in Los Angeles on December 7, 1977, and his rise to stardom came without ever having to leave the state of California.  Well, for the most part.

He was twice selected All-American by Baseball America while attending Mount Carmel H.S. in San Diego- in fact he was the only junior so honored.  The A's chose Chavez with their first-round pick (10th overall) in 1996, and after tearing up the minors- Visalia, Huntsville, and Edmonton- he played his first big-league game on September 8, 1998.  He was named Minor League Player of the Year that season, and after batting .311 in sixteen games with Oakland, gaudy expectations overflowed- for Chavez and the A's:

Need further proof of Oakland's youthful pride? Take a look at the television promos for the upcoming season. In one commercial 21-year-old third baseman Eric Chavez is hitting the streets to solicit votes for Rookie of the Year. In another, A's coaches are shown scouting an 11-year-old pitcher. And in the campaign's hilarious feature spot, manager Art Howe is about to turn in for the night on a road trip when he is startled by a mysterious noise coming from the room next door. It turns out that Grieve and the team mascot, an elephant named Stomper, had been bouncing on their beds like four-year-olds. "We're building something big and something really great here in Oakland," says Chavez. "It's just a matter of time before we get things happening again with this team."

The '99 A's won 87 games for their first winning season since 1992.  They were just warming up.  Oakland won the American League West in 2000, and took the eventual World Champion Yankees to a deciding fifth game.  After a woeful start in 2001 (8-18), the A's went 94-42 the rest of the way- including 45-11 from August on- to earn a wild-card trip to the post-season.

 Chavez-03

In his familiar batting pose, April 2001.

Eric Chavez was in the middle of the fun.  Over September and October- a span of 27 games- Chavy batted .379, slugged .738, crushed 10 home runs, and had 31 RBI's.  Such sparkling play earned him Player of the Month honors for the first- and only- time of his career.  Together he (32) and Miguel Tejada (31) became the first shortstop-third base combo in history to crank out 30 or more homers in the same season. 

 Chavez-10

Chavez and Tejada formed a frightening left side of the infield.

For good measure, Chavez won his first Gold Glove, an honor he was careful not to let go to his head:

"I just won't allow myself to feel comfortable about winning that award," he said. "As hard as I worked to improve, I can't take it for granted. I can't just sit back and feel confident about it. I'm a lot more comfortable at the plate, but I can't really say that about my defense."

 Chavez-06

The first of six consecutive Gold Gloves.

Once again the A's fell in five games to the Yankees, and teammate Jason Giambi decided if he couldn't beat ‘em, join ‘em, and signed a 7-year contract with New York.  But it was Jason's OBP- not his leadership- that the A's would miss most.  Or so they thought:

"Jason wasn't too vocal," Chavez says. "[Manager] Art [Howe] would go to Jason and say, 'Maybe you should have a team meeting.' And Jason would go, 'Aw, Skip, do I have to?' He was very quiet. People are making too much out of that.

"What we'll miss is that Jason was so good at getting on base. Even if he didn't get a hit, he'd get his two or three walks. One thing Jason did was carry the team. Me, Miggy [ Miguel Tejada], David Justice, Jermaine.... One of us has to emerge as that consistent go-to guy."

But the A's matched the Yankees' league-leading 103 victories- thanks, in large part to a 20-game win streak that captured the nation's attention:

The team's offensive boom-since the start of the streak the A's have averaged a league-high 6.5 runs per game-coincided with the installation of the lefthanded-hitting Chavez as its cleanup man. Like his team, Chavez, 24, heats up when the weather does; he's a career .256 before the All-Star break, a .303 hitter after it. This season he's become more disciplined at the plate, and the result (a .337 average, six home runs and 29 RBIs since the streak started) is the best second half of his career. Chavez has concentrated on being more selective, which he learned from former teammate Jason Giambi. "Jason would give the team four good at bats every game," Chavez says. "That's what I'm trying to do."

As the streak became The Streak, I watched Game 17 at home with my cousin, Scott.  The A's scored two in the first, went up 3-1 on Chavy's seventh-inning blast, then fell back into a tie when Minnesota rallied for a pair in the eighth.  The A's mounted a threat in their bottom half and when Tejada was intentionally walked to load the bases, Eric Chavez came through once more.  His sizzling single up the middle scored two, and while 42,000 fans went nuts at the Coliseum, I delighted in Art Howe's reaction on TV: whistling and excitedly pointing out to Chavez at first base.  What a scene.  The 6-3 win concluded an eye-popping 24-4 August.

Chavez-12

The A's- thanks to Chavez and Lidle- caught fire in August '02. 

Oakland won its second division crown in three seasons, and Chavez led the charges with a career-best 34 homeruns. He also earned a second Gold Glove. Ah, to be 24 and on top of the world.  Even ESPN caught on, and proved to be prescient, too:

If they made a movie of the A's 2002 season, who would play you? 

Chavez: Antonio Banderas. My friends used to make fun of me and tell me that I looked like him when I was younger.

After falling to Minnesota in the 2002 ALDS, Art Howe was out, and Ken Macha was in.

***

Accessories.  My thesaurus describes them as "trimmings", "garnishes", "frills", and my personal favorite, "side dishes".  The 2003 baseball season, at least in our little part of the world, offered no such samplers, no fries with that shake.  There were no MVP's or Cy Young award winners on this squad.  In fact, no one in an A's uniform hit .300, won twenty games, or socked thirty homers.  And there was certainly no outrageous winning streak to lose our heads about.  Yeah, there was the usual mad dash to the finish line (22-11) but even that appeared mild compared to years past.  The only thing that resembled anything close to normal was Eric Chavez striking gold at third base for the third consecutive year.

Chavez-14

OK, where am I supposed to put all of these? 

Oh, and the usual October heartbreak; this time to Boston.

Came 2004, and Billy Beane had a decision to make.  And he chose Chavez, signing him for six years at 66 mil.  Love it or hate it, there were opinions aplenty on the matter:

It may be obvious, but in baseball, not all dollars are equal. $11 million to the Oakland A's is a heck of a lot different than $11 million to the Red Sox or the Dodgers (and let's not even get started on the Yankees). Obviously you have to overpay for a star, but when you're on a tight budget already, the financial hit is a harder one. Signing Eric Chavez means locking up a dependable, quality regular for a long time, but it also means that Billy Beane must continue to pull bargains out of his hat.

I attended my first Spring Training that year and watched as Chavy christened the contract with a homerun in his first at-bat.  If anything, the A's were more balanced in '04- at least in the power department. Chavez paced the team with 29 homeruns (and drew a league-leading 95 walks).  He was joined in the 20-homer club by Jermaine Dye (23), Bobby Crosby (22), Erubiel Durazo (22), and Eric Byrnes (20).  One glaring difference to Chavez' game was his newfound success against left-handed pitching:

"He's figured some things out as far as his approach to lefties," says hitting coach Dave Hudgens, a southpaw who often throws batting practice to Chavez. "He's willing to take some pitches, even some strikes, because he's not afraid to get behind in the count. And he's waiting that extra split second on the pitch, which is allowing him to take the ball the opposite way. Those are things that an over-eager hitter wouldn't do."

Chavez-11

Chavez stops to admire a long homerun in the 2002 ALDS. 

One streak continued and one came to an end in 2004, as Chavez racked up another Gold Glove, while the A's missed out on the post-season party for the first time since '99.  With two-thirds of the Big Three traded away before the 2005 season, Chavez oozed optimistic- something A's fans would grow accustomed to during his various injuries:

We're not a team built to score eight runs a game, but if they (the remaining starters) keep us in games, we have a chance of winning. We've got talent, and hopefully that will get us through it. I know people are saying we lost Mark and Huddy, but believe me, this team is confident. Very confident."

But on June 9, the A's- having been swept out of Washington- were just 23-36.  Eric Chavez was pissed:

After the series finale, normally mellow third baseman Eric Chavez, who broke in with Oakland in 1998 and is the team's longest-tenured player, stood and unleashed a 15-minute tirade. "I was sick of getting our butts kicked," Chavez says. "There are a lot of young guys who just seemed happy to be here, and the losing didn't sting them as much as it should. I told them that how we were playing was unacceptable."

Says rookie righthander Joe Blanton, "Chavy's speech opened our eyes. We started to feel a real sense of urgency, and a bunch of us younger guys were like, 'O.K., let's pick it up.'"

 

And pick it up the A's did, going 40-14 over one stretch, only to watch the Angels celebrate a division title on their home turf for the second straight season.

Chavez-26

At 23-36, the A's of early '05 were nothing to spit about.

***

The 2006 campaign would be Eric's last full season in an A's uniform.  Full enough, anyway; he appeared in 137 games that year. I recall an early-season game against the Yankees. With the A's down 3-2 in the bottom of the sixth, Chavez stepped up. "Come on, Eric, pretend it's June and get a hold of one", I thought to myself. As I reached for a beer, the roar of the crowd caught my attention and I looked up to see the ball heading towards the right-field bleachers.  Tie game.

Chavez-16

 Chavez celebrates one of his 230 career HR's with the A's.

A notorious slow starter- which is one of the reasons he's never been named to an All-Star team- Chavez had a fine April for a change.  It proved not to be a harbinger of things to come; he posted his lowest batting average (.241) and homerun total (22) since 1999.  Still, he won his sixth Gold Glove.  And he came up big the day the A's beat Minnesota to advance past the first round of the playoffs, after so many October horrors of years past.

 Chavez-21

Chavez shares his Gold Glove-ness with Ron Washington.

In the first inning, I got the first of two premonitions.  The Twins had first and second with only one out, when I envisioned a ground ball to Chavez.  Sure enough, the next pitch was hit his way, and Chavy turned it into a 5-4-3 double play.  In the bottom of the second, I got another one.  Again it involved Chavez, and the slugger made it come true with a rope into the right-field seats for a 1-0 lead.

Hmm, maybe there's a connection to Chavy after all.

Chavez-24

Eric's homerun put the A's ahead in Game 3 of the '06 ALDS. 

***

I don't see the need to go into the gory details of  Eric's injury issues which have become an annual punchline:  How many games will he play?  100?  50?  30?  With Chavez you always bet the under.  And that's a shame for someone- if he were to retire today- will have worn an Oakland A's uniform for more games than any other player who spent his entire career here.

Chavez-27

One of two career walk-off homers. Here's the vid

I prefer to remember him for what he once was, not what he could have been (which, IMO, was a borderline Hall-of-Famer).  He was Houdini with a glove at the hot corner, taking our collective breaths away on lazy summer evenings when the low-budget A's were rubbing elbows with baseball's top dogs.

Chavez-23

It's the tongue: like Mike, Chavez often stuck out in the field. 

And now it looks as if the inevitable has become unofficially official.  As A's fans, we can feel cheated at a career cut too short (shorter than this post, perhaps), or we can celebrate that Eric Chavez was a part of our lives for the better part of 12 years.

Maybe it's ok to do both.

 Chavez-28

Will this be the last homerun of Chavez' big-league career?

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