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AN Spring Training Report: Part I

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It all began at 4:30 a.m. on March 23. My flight was leaving for Phoenix at 6 a.m. and I needed to get to the airport. I woke up that morning realizing that I had an opportunity to make Athletics Nation unlike any team blog on the Internet. The site was going to have access and damn it, I was going to do something with that opportunity.

The two-hour flight required some preparation and prioritization. I wanted to get Chavez, Zito, Street and Swisher interviews at the minimum. I figured it would be a good mix of old school A's (if old school consists of guys in their mid-20s) and new school A's. All four players are destined to be a big part of the A's this season.

So, I needed to read and reread the questions to make sure I was prepped. I mutter to myself, "Gotta ask Zito about that two-seamer and how he's induced so many double plays this spring. Focus, Blez, focus."

As I'm prepping my questions, an older gentleman on the plane has a heart attack. No kidding. I could take this as a harbinger of things to come, but I don't. Flight attendants are scrambling, people are turning to see what happened, yet my focus remained undaunted (the gentleman wound up being fine so I'm not that cold). I keep whispering to myself, one shot, one opportunity to make my mark. I know that as soon as I step off the plane and get my rental car, I'm going to need to rush to the ballpark. I've been advised that the earlier I get to the field, the better chance I have to secure my intended targets.

I rush to the park after getting my rental car and meeting my buddy Markos. I kind of remember how to get to Phoenix Muni from last season.

We get to the park, and I rush down to the field. I'm a little late because a lot of the players are already on the field. And oddly enough, there also seems to be a lot of media types. I recognize several of them. They're almost all from Sacramento. I see the sports guys from KCRA and UPN KMAX 31. I'm suddenly filled with dread in realizing that I'm probably not going to get one-on-one interviews with the players. I spot Robert Buan and Ken Korach, and having met Robert in the past, I feel comfortable enough to go over and say hello. I'd also traded emails with Ken in the past (turns out Ken reads the site). The two couldn't be more friendly and welcoming. They treat me like one of the guys. It's a small achievement for bloggers, especially sports bloggers.

Then as I'm chatting with Buan, I notice someone come out of the dugout. It takes me a second for my brain to compute. Holy crap, that's Peter Gammons!!!

I want to talk to him badly, so I excuse myself from Buan and wander up and introduce myself as Gammons is typing away on his Blackberry or Treo or whatever handheld it is that he has. I tell him what a big fan of his I am and how I respect the fact that he's always digging for the reasons behind the A's moves, unlike many of his colleagues. He is only half paying attention to me as he's finished with his message and now scanning the players all around looking for someone who can give him a nugget or something to help him.

I ask him what he thinks of the A's this year.

"I really like it. The fifth starter battle is interesting and I think Blanton is going to do well. Haren has looked great."

I then seize the opening. "Peter, I run a site that covers the A's in great detail. Would you be willing to do an interview for the site?"

"Sure. I'd love to, but I can't now."

"Would you be willing to do it via email?"

"No problem."

Wow, I think to myself, a Hall of Fame writer has agreed to be interviewed for AN. Beautiful. The trip has already been a worthwhile excursion and I haven't even chatted with one of the players yet.

I spy Swisher hanging around close to the dugout. Opportunity has arrived. Carpe diem...

"Hey Nick, do you have a quick second? I'm from Athletics Nation.com and I'd love to interview you."

"I'll get you in a few minutes, buddy, I promise."

Hmmmm. Had I just been brushed off? I can't force the issue, so it's up to Nick now.

I stand idly by until I notice Bobby Crosby get pulled aside by several TV people. Interviews start to take place. Darn it! Guess I'm not going to get something by himself. Well, at least I can ask some of my questions.

I hustle over just in time to hear one of the TV guys say, "So, who do you have in your NCAA tourney?" Sighing loudly, I stick my tape recorder in with the microphones.

Many ask ridiculous questions like, "Bobby, I've heard that when you get called up to Oakland, people really say, you're being sent down." It's more of a statement than a question, I guess. Now, I'm not one to criticize regularly, but WOW, this is sports journalism in the 21st century? God help us all.

Finally, I butt my nose in and start asking questions that aren't related to the Final Four or how great the River Cats organization is. And what do you know, it winds up boring the TV cameras enough so they start leaving. I can't help but feel a sense of accomplishment in asking questions like, "What have you been specifically working on this spring to make sure you have a solid sophomore year?" Nothing bores TV cameras like a player talking about the importance of staying back and trusting his hands.

This would be a recurring theme that day. It turns out that March 23rd just happened to be Sacramento media day. And so, players like Crosby, Byrnes, Street and Swisher, who've toiled in the Cats uni, would be target number one for these TV cameras. Thankfully, I came armed with probing baseball questions that are guaranteed not to produce simple soundbites.

I finish up with Crosby and myself and a radio guy are the only two left. I hadn't originally planned on interviewing Bobby, so I didn't have a long list of questions like I had for the other players.

I turn around to see Eric Chavez getting the same treatment Crosby was just getting. So again, I stick my nose in just in time to spot one of the television "personalities" playing a tape of someone singing to Chavy. Oh. My. God. It's obviously Zito and they're going for the canned TV reaction shot. Chavy, to his credit, plays along and laughs, "That's gotta be Zito cause he's horrible."

Let me say, I don't mind this kind of thing. As a matter of fact, I think it's fun to do something different for the interviews, but for the love of everything green and gold, at least ask something baseball-related. Not just Final Four questions and playing a tape of Zito singing. Do you know anything about the team?

Any way, I pull my, "Chavy, you finally started hitting lefties last season, do you feel like you're over that criticism?" question out and again, the TV guys disperse, searching for other prey.

They find it in Nick Swisher. And the same guy goes into his pocket for the Zito tape. Swish isn't as kind as Chavy...he kind of looks at the man like he has three heads. So I stick my head into the group and start asking baseball-related questions again. Once more, the TV cameras leave and the only ones left are a few radio people and one print person. I get an interview with the player who might give Rickey Henderson a run for his money in terms of quotability. We talk about everything from switch-hitting to Halo 2 to Usher. It's a natural conversation that evolves from baseball to other things...not the other way around.

I end up asking Swish if he'd be willing to check in every other week this season on AN with a diary. He agrees to do so. Later on that evening I would tell Billy about the upcoming Swish diaries on AN and he gives me a sly smile as if to say, "Wow, now that's gonna be entertaining."

After the success with Swisher, I wander down to the end of the dugout and spot Huston Street guarding Barry Zito while Z is signing autographs in the crowd. Street is standing on the bullpen pitching mound, so I take a chance and head on down there. As I get to Huston, I figure I'll have a little fun and ask him if he wants me to catch for him...barehanded and all. He chuckles at the thought and tells me, "I just gotta make sure that I block any balls coming at Zito."

Ah, he's getting the rookie treatment. He promises to do an interview later.

I hang around until the end of batting practice and players are going in the clubhouse when Street gets cornered by a much older reporter. Street, being the unbelievable gentleman he is, sits down and chats with this gentleman for quite a while. So much so that game time is rapidly approaching. I wait patiently by, wanting to get the one-on-one time with the player likely to be a huge part of the Oakland pen for several years to come.

He wraps it up, and then asks me where I'm from, in an ultra-polite, Huston Street-kind of way.

"I actually produce the Web site AthleticsNation.com," I tell him, not expecting him to have a clue what it is.

"Oh, you mean Athletics Nation as in AN. I read that all the time," Street replies.

My brain tries to calculate this. Street is reading what I write about the team. The kid from Texas with the nasty slider and remarkable charm reads AN. He even referred to it as "AN."

The first thing out of my mouth before I can stop it, is, "Shut up! You do not."

Nice, I just told the most pleasant person I think I've ever come in contact with to shut up. Real good, dude.

Street just laughs and says that he'd be happy to do an interview but he really needs to get back to the clubhouse since it's so late. I tell him I'm coming back tomorrow morning if he'll promise an interview with me then. He says he would be happy to.

He also agrees to do diaries on AN every other week throughout the season.

Street and Swisher joining the fray here at AN. An interview with Gammons. Scaring off TV personalities with baseball talk.

This has been one productive day. And there's more to come as I haven't yet gone to the Aces party. The baseball game with the Rangers becomes secondary. Although I spot Peter Gammons sitting with Beane behind homeplate all day long. I wonder what they are talking about.

(Tomorrow: The Aces party and scoring a couple more interviews. Tuesday: The first of several player interviews will run.)