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Remembering Jason Isringhausen, Johnny Damon, and Hideki Matsui

The 2018 Hall of Fame ballot included three former Oakland A’s, but none made the 5% cut for next year.

Izzy seals the division title.
Photo credit should read MONICA M. DAVEY/AFP/Getty Images

The Baseball Hall of Fame elected four new members on Wednesday, but none of them have any connection with the Oakland A’s. Chipper Jones spent his entire career with the Braves, Trevor Hoffman was all NL and mostly Padres, and Jim Thome and Vladimir Guerrero are two sluggers who never did late-career DH stints in the green and gold. Congrats to the new honorees, and best of luck to the deserving Edgar Martinez next year.

But this is Athletics Nation, so let’s see how the news relates to Oakland — or doesn’t relate to us, as it turns out. Of 33 names on the ballot, only three of them ever played for the A’s, for a total of five seasons between them. All three were on the ballot for the first time, but unfortunately none of them received enough support (5%) to remain there next year.

  • Johnny Damon, OF (8 votes, 1.9%)
  • Hideki Matsui, OF (4 votes, 0.9%)
  • Jason Isringhausen, RHP (0 votes, 0.0%)

Don’t get me wrong; this is no injustice. These players don’t belong in the Hall of Fame. But each of them were stars in their own right, and we cheered them all loudly and passionately when they were here. Just making it onto the HOF ballot at all is impressive, so as they fall out of future consideration let’s take a moment to appreciate them.

Jason Isringhausen

I was born in 1985. I just missed the three straight trips to the World Series, and the first season I have concrete memories of is 1991. That’s about the most A’s fan thing that an A’s fan ever A’s’ed.

I still got to enjoy the stars of that era, especially Eck, Rickey and McGwire, and I was aware that they made the playoffs in 1992. But for the most part, I grew up following a garbage team going through a lengthy, painful rebuild.

They finally began to stir in 1999. Oakland was hovering around .500 throughout July, with a new young core led by MVP candidate Jason Giambi, and they decided to make a push at the trade deadline. I was excited to welcome established veterans Kevin Appier and Randy Velarde, who had both previously been favorites of mine for no particular reason.

But the most interesting deadline upgrade, and perhaps the one that best foreshadowed the future of the club under new GM Billy Beane, came in the bullpen. Billy Taylor had risen from obscurity to become a legit closer, but he was 37 years old, showing signs of decline, and hitting free agency at the end of the year. He was shipped to the contending Mets in exchange for former top prospect Jason Isringhausen, who had gone from being the future ace of New York to a bullpen reclamation project by age 26. Rental reliever Greg McMichael came along too, but Isringhausen was the prize.

This one checked all the boxes we later came to know and love/hate. Beane sold high while Taylor was still cosmetically racking up saves (check), capitalized on his trade value before losing him for nothing in the offseason (check), and took a chance on a bold, unorthodox option in an important role (check).

The gamble paid off handsomely. Izzy was lights out down the stretch, taking over the closer role by the end of August and converting all eight of his save chances. The A’s fell short of the postseason, but at age 14 it was the first time I’d really gotten to experience the heat of a pennant race and he was a huge part of it.

The next year got even better. Isringhausen saved 33 games and made the All-Star team, and the rest of the young A’s similarly blossomed around him — including the emergence of the Big 3 in the rotation. This time they did make it to the playoffs, and Izzy was right there in the middle of the iconic highlight in the pivotal Game 162. Protecting a 3-0 lead with the tying run at the plate, two outs, and two strikes, he dropped in a beautiful curveball to seal the victory and clinch the AL West division title.

The newspaper clipping of that game recap hung on my bedroom wall for years, with a big photo of Izzy celebrating triumphantly. Not until their magical 2012 did the A’s do anything to rival the feeling I got from that first division crown.

Isringhausen was only around for one more season after that. He saved 34 games on another division-winning squad, then departed as a free agent. He spent the better part of the next decade with the Cardinals, and it was there that he racked up the bulk of his 300 career saves and postseason experience. He was on the HOF ballot mostly because of his time in St. Louis, but it was in Oakland where his Hall Of Very Good career truly got its start and he remains a centerpiece of some of my best childhood baseball memories.

Johnny Damon

I don’t have nearly as much to say about Damon. He only spent one disappointing season in Oakland, and the most famous thing he did here was leave as a free agent ahead of the 2002 Moneyball campaign. But I still remember him fondly.

Damon was easy to like when he came up on the Royals, as the devilishly handsome CF speedster who slapped triples and swiped bags. It was exciting to see the A’s add him even as a rental, and Beane’s dominance over Kansas City GM Allard Baird was so thorough that we also squeezed an unheralded infield prospect named Mark Ellis out of him in that trade (as well as starter Cory Lidle from the Rays; it was a three-team swap, another classic Beane move).

Unfortunately, Damon had an off-year in the expansive Coliseum, though he was strong in the otherwise ill-fated ALDS. Like Isringhausen, his HOF case comes mostly from what he did after leaving Oakland. He and his caveman beard were easy to root for on the curse-busting Boston team of 2004, and he holds the paradoxical distinction of having won rings with both the Red Sox and Yankees. Even more unique, Jonah Hill ripped him apart in the Moneyball movie.

That speech summed up Damon well — a good player, a star even, but not the right guy for the A’s. If you blinked then you may have missed his time here, but it came during one of the immortal heights of Oakland baseball.

As a bonus, the draft pick compensation for Damon’s departure brought us Nick Swisher (and Mark Teahen Octavio Dotel). His transaction tree still lives on through Jesse Hahn and tiny shares of Sean Manaea, Jharel Cotton, Frankie Montas, and Raul Alcantara.

Hideki Matsui

Our last stop down memory lane is more recent. By 2011 the A’s were well-known for filling their DH role with aging, former-star sluggers. They’d seen a couple future Hall of Famers pass through in Frank Thomas and Mike Piazza, and this time they turned their sights to 37-year-old Hideki Matsui.

Unlike Izzy and Damon, the bulk of Matsui’s career came before his stint in Oakland rather than after. He’d spent a decade in his native Japan earning the nickname Godzilla, then the better part of another one with the Yankees earning a ring. He’s the only player to win the World Series MVP award without ever playing an inning of defense the entire season, though David Ortiz and Paul Molitor both won as primarily designated hitters.

In Oakland, though, his biggest influence came off the field — specifically, in the bleachers. The previous year he’d played for the Angels, and their fans had created Matsuiland to welcome him. When he moved here, the tradition was passed on with him. It consisted of 10 signs, each with one letter spelling out Matsuiland, which were held up every time he came to the plate. It only lasted here one year, but the folks who organized it and led the charge are the same people you now recognize as the famous RF bleacher crew.

That same season saw the debut of Bacon Tuesday starring Jeff Francoeur, but Matsuiland was the ever-present reminder that a handful of fans still loved the A’s through thick and thin. The RF bleachers’ rise to prominence began there.

What makes Matsui’s time here extra fun for me is that it was the year I worked gamedays for the team. I was at the park for most of the home schedule, so even though he didn’t do much I was there to see a lot of it. Of course I took the opportunity to hold the Matsuiland sign a couple times.

Matsuiland, ACTIVATE!

Congrats to Isringhausen, Damon, and Matsui on at least making it onto the Hall of Fame ballot, even if only for one year. They all put together wonderful careers, including meaningful stops in Oakland.