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AN Spring Training Report: Part II

I want to start off with a couple of quick things I failed to mention yesterday. Both Susan Slusser and Josh Suchon are exceptionally nice and friendly people. The A's are not only blessed with some of the best beat writers in the business, but they're also great people. Slusser actually introduced me around to several players, including Jermaine Clark, who is really funny. He claims that, since he's from Vacaville and Jermaine Dye was from Vacaville, that the A's have met their quota for Jermaine's from Vacaville. Jermaine is also exceptional with the fans, telling several young fans that high school will not be the end of their world. They have much better things coming. Sage advice from a smart man.

Jermaine Clark offering sage advice to a young A's fan.

I also forgot to mention one small, but interesting little incident that happened with Huston Street which sums up the guy's character. As I was fumbling around, trying to find my pen to write down Huston's information, I dropped my pen. Street didn't hesitate and bent down to pick it up. I can NOT overemphasize what an incredible person this guy is. Just remarkably polite and friendly.

Ken Korach also agreed to meet me back at Muni on the 24th for an interview. I can honestly say that Ken Korach is probably my favorite broadcaster around. King is a legend and I love the guy (I even have the King bottle opener that has his famous call of the 20th consecutive win off Hatteberg's walkoff), but Korach is just the best. He's right up there with Vin Scully, in my humble opinion and he'll be respected as such one day when King and Scully retire.

After I'm finished in my role straddling the line between media and fan, Markos and I run back to the car in the parking lot where I proceed to change out of impartial media outfit to superfan extraordinaire. In my haste, I left my camera in the car because I was suddenly carrying very personal player information, like cell phone numbers and email addresses, and I was extremely distracted in making sure I protected that information. I must've quadruple-checked my pocket for both the tape recorder and paper.

Also, something I must come clean about. I subjected many of the A's players, front office people and media to photos of my baby all weekend. In particular, I continually shared this photo:

My daughter in her Papi's giant spring training A's cap.

I realized that it probably wasn't a big deal to them, but heck, I'm a new dad and I'm very proud of my little baby girl. Any way...

So, I left off with the game against the Texas Rangers. Danny Haren seemed to be throwing nothing but fastballs the entire game and since the Rangers have good fastball hitters, the result was predictable. It's one of those moments that makes you think, perhaps Haren is just hiding his best stuff for the regular season. Hopefully. Haren also isn't helped by Eric Byrnes less-than-stellar play in left field. He misreads several balls off the bat and also misjudges two fly balls in a row. It's a frustrating sight to see, considering that the Little Three, Haren, Blanton and Meyer will all need as much help defensively as possible while they feel their way through their first full seasons at the MLB level.

After the game ends, Markos and I rush back to the hotel to prepare for the evening. I'm sunburned and can feel it on my cheeks. That's what happens when you spend five months trapped inside with a baby and then are suddenly thrust out into the Arizona sun (you also gain a bit of a sympathy belly during your wife's pregnancy- UGH).

We make our way over to Frasher's Steakhouse in Scottsdale, which is funny in itself because Markos is a vegetarian. He even predicted before we went, "Great, I'm going to get to have carrot sticks for dinner." And guess what? He had carrot sticks for dinner. Me? I'm too nervous to eat as I know I'm going to get a chance to talk with Barry Zito and perhaps arrange an interview with him for the following morning. Zito's one of the stars of the book and good friends with Urban, so his attendance is guaranteed. As for the other players, that's more undecided.

We arrive about 15 minutes late, and the party is already going. Urban is making his way through the crowd, saying hello to everyone. He seems a natural at this book party thing. I introduce myself to him which is strange because he and I have become close through email, AIM and phone. I also get to meet his lovely wife, who is so friendly and asks about Maya. Out come the photos. Poor Mrs. Urban.

I settle in for a little while at the beat writers table with Slusser, Suchon and several other reporters who regularly cover the A's. At that moment, Billy Beane and his wife come in and he spots all the scribes sitting together and comes over chuckling, "Guess all the writers have a way of finding each other," he laughs. He and I shake hands as he says, "Hey, Tyler, everything go OK with you today?"

"It went great, Billy. Thanks for everything. I've got a little gift for you later, if you have a second."

"Sure, I'll catch up with you later. I've got to get something to eat."

At that moment, Pedro Gomez from ESPN walks in. I decide I have to meet the guy who is currently working at ESPN and assigned to tail Barry Bonds. We talk for a little while and he's a nice, genuine guy. I feel bad for his assignment to basically be Bonds' shadow for several months. He agrees to take a photo with me:

Me and Barry Bonds' best buddy Pedro Gomez.

Both Beane and Zito gives toasts to Mychael Urban. Zito calls Urban a buddy and a good dude. Beane says, "Aces is a great book if you can get past the introduction."

Billy Beane and Barry Zito talking about guest of honor Mychael Urban.

It's impressive to see the type of affection given for Urban, and it's well-earned. I feel fortunate just to be a part of this private party.

As the toasts end, Rich Harden, Eric Byrnes and Adam Melhuse walk in. They're here to both support the book, but I think to also listen to Sally Zito and her brother play later in the bar of the steakhouse.

I wind up chatting with Harden. He remembers meeting me before, which is funny because he winds up being the only player I met to remember meeting me already. Harden is also another of the A's classy players. He's got star written all over him, yet he pauses to talk with me about the effect the hockey season cancellation has had on his family back home. Apparently a lot at first, not so much anymore. He also talks about hitting the weights hard in the offseason and working his arm into shape. He feels ready to go and it's only March 23. It's good to be an A's fan.

Harden also agrees to check in with AN occasionally this upcoming season when he can get to his email. He isn't as good about checking email he claims. I ask him if I can get a photo. He agrees:

Sun-burned Me and Rich Harden.

Later I catch Byrnes as he's leaving. He seems in a rush, so I don't really get a chance to talk with him. He kind of makes his way through a party the way he plays baseball. Constant motion. He does pause to take a photo with me:

Byrnes stopped whirling for one moment to take this photo.

Funny thing is as soon as Byrnes is out of earshot and there's no chance of him hearing, Markos mumbles, "Hey, learn how to catch in the outfield."

I tell him, judging by the size of that dude's arms, good call on waiting until he couldn't hear you. He laughs and says, "Oh no, you're going to blog this, aren't you?"

Well, of course I am...

I go back to the party and get a copy of the Aces book signed by both Urban and Zito. Z is having a blast chatting up people and just enjoying the atmosphere. Urban seems like a proud father sending his child off to college. Happy and sad all at once, realizing that he's given his book all he can for it to succeed in the real world. It's up to the book now.

Urban and Z signing copies of Aces for the people at the party.

Z, Urban and Beane then pose for photos as the party starts to wind down...AN gets it's own:

Billy, Urban and Z posing for yours truly.

I catch Billy as he's leaving. I decide to give him his present, which is an AN tee personalized with his name on it and everything. I also meet his beautiful wife Tara. I give him the tee and he genuinely seems to like it. His wife also thinks it's great and asks if I have any women's tees. As a matter of fact, I do, so I give her one and also one for their daughter. I also show Billy and his wife the photos of Maya...I can't resist sharing. Billy then says something to me about the Ayn Rand-type drawings that were on the site at one point. I say, "You mean the ones that are like the Communist poster?"

He says, "Yeah, those were really cool."

I told him I would've loved to have had those made into shirts, but I didn't have a high res of the image. I then ask Billy if I can check in with him throughout the year, and he says he'd be more than happy to do it.

Zito and his sister then play for the crowd, acoustic. It's good stuff. Not the horrible stuff Chavy spoke of earlier in the day. But that's probably because Sally is doing the majority of the singing.

It was really dark and I had to throw several elbows to get this close. But that dark silhouette on the left is our own Big One, Barry Zito.

I also make it a point to grab Zito before he goes on and just ask him if I can interview him one-on-one tomorrow. I explain to him what the site is and how he has many fans that follow his every move. He says he'd be happy to around noon on March 24. The trip has turned from great to incredible to off-the-charts successful.

After listening for a little while, I take my leave back to the hotel, knowing I want to get to the ballpark early the following day as I have interviews lined up with Street, Zito and Korach. I also brought tee shirts to give to the players who agree to check in with AN at times throughout the year. I plan on giving them to Street, Swisher and Chavez as Chavy has also said he would send an update every now and then (I connected with him the following morning).

I'm exhausted, crawl into bed and plan to get up bright and early tomorrow morning.

I wake up at 7:30 a.m., get ready and I'm at the ballpark at 8:30 on the nose. I'm the first one there, so I take a seat in the dugout and just wait. The park is quiet at this hour, with nothing but the batting screens up to protect the infielders. I can't believe my fortunes in getting these opportunities. My goal in creating AN was to bring this fanbase as close as humanly possible and I feel like I'm actually accomplishing what I set out to do.

Korach wanders up to me around 8:50 a.m. and says, "Wow, no one can beat you to the ballpark, eh?" I laugh, "Guess I'm just excited at this opportunity. Have to try and make the most of it."

Korach and I do an interview and it's a thorough joy to speak to the guy. I'd been heaping praise on him since I met him yesterday and he probably thought I was being disingenuous, but I'm not. I really love his work.

Midway through the interview, Swisher emerges from the tunnel and, not wanting to miss a chance to give him his tee, I spring up and grab it. I excuse myself from the interview and give it to Swish. He laughs when he reads the back of it, but starts showing it off to teammates as though he's proud to have it. I spot Street and he promises to catch me after he's done stretching that day.

I finish off my interview with Ken, who is incredibly understanding. He also seems to really enjoy AN saying that people really do keep up the intelligent discourse at the site. He was also kind enough to take a photo with me during the Aces party:

Me and Ken Korach, one of the best in the business.

The players come out and do their stretching drills, which looks a little something like this:

The A's and their early morning stretching before heading over to HoHoKam Park to play the Cubs March 24.

I also get a chance, since the stadium is nearly empty, to really hear some of the things that are said on the field while batting practice is going on. Chavez is fielding at third. And he's making silly, ridiculous plays while Rene Lachemann continuously yells at the rest of the team, "That's why he's got gold, boys, that's why he's got gold."

Chavy has had unbelievable batting practice sessions. Almost everything he hits is a moon shot. I've seen Chavez take BP quite a bit, but I've never seen him hit them out at the rate and consistency he is doing it now. It might be a product of the favorable Arizona conditions, but WOW, his swing looks fabulous.

Chavy and batting practice go together like peanut butter and chocolate.

Eric Byrnes steps up to the plate a little later and is launching balls all over the place...he nearly hits Van Buren with a couple of balls. Ken Macha starts yelling, "Oh, there's Captain America...and there they go." Also, Byrnes hits a rocket straight at Scott Hatteberg's head while he's standing at shortstop just chatting with Eric Chavez. Chavez spears the screaming liner before it hits Hatteberg and Macha yells, "You boys can't be sleeping when we've got a right-handed stick like that in the box."

It's kind of comforting seeing Macha this way as earlier that morning I sat in on his morning press conference with the media. He is reserved with the scribes, to say the least. But I'm seeing a different Macha here, yelling and joking with his players. It's a stark contrast to his public persona. It's a Ken Macha I could grow to love.

Macha is also playing a little first base. And looks darn good doing it. He's snaring well-hit balls searing the infield grass and making good, hard throws to second base to start the double play motion. He's doing all this while showing Swish a few things about the position. Macha the mentor.

As batting practice comes to a close, I get my interview with Huston Street. It's an excellent interview. Street is calm, patient and gives great responses. He's also humble and reserved. Street is quickly becoming one of my new favorite A's.

I give him his tee shirt and he's very thankful for it. I come away with a complete new respect for the Texas kid, especially when I realize that the bus heading over to HoHoKam is supposed to have him on it and I'm keeping him from getting ready (he never mentions a word of this to me). I also ask him to remind Zito that I'm waiting for him.

A few minutes pass and Zito emerges from the clubhouse. He interviews with me, and for the first time, I feel like I drop the ball a bit. I don't ask all the questions I have written down because Barry seems a bit distracted and the vibe isn't right. I do ask quite a few questions, but it doesn't go as well as some of the interviews with the other players. For the first time in several opportunities, I feel like I let AN down a bit by not being the best I can be. It's partially nerves for me because Z has been one of my favorite players for a few seasons. But I at least take pride in the fact that I got a one-on-one interview with Zito, and he agrees to pose for a photo:

Zito at Phoenix Muni posing for yours truly.

As I finish with Zito, I realize that I've lived a dream for many A's fans. Make no mistake, I am and always will be a fan of this team, first and foremost. I feel fortunate to follow a team that has personalities like Beane, Chavez, Street, Crosby, Swisher and Zito. And others who work around the team like Mychael Urban, Susan Slusser, Ken Korach, Josh Suchon and Robert Buan are also incredibly welcoming, friendly and always eager to help. I feel so very fortunate that my passion can be shared with this unbelievably astute audience and I'm humbled by the opportunities you've afforded me. If it wasn't for you, I would've never been given this access to our team. So, thank you, thank you, thank you, AN, for giving me the glorious opportunity to be your vessel and carry your message of support to the team. It is not falling on deaf ears.

(Coming in the next few days, interviews with Chavez, Crosby, Swisher, Street, Zito and Korach)