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Today in Oakland A’s history (4/1): A’s open 1996 season in Las Vegas

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With baseball on hiatus, here’s a look back at another weird moment in A’s history.

This ballpark didn’t exist yet in 1996, but it’s now home to the A’s Triple-A affiliate in Las Vegas.
Photo by Jeff Speer/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The 2020 MLB season is on hiatus during the coronavirus pandemic, so we’ve got some time to burn and a baseball void to fill. Fortunately, there are decades of Oakland A’s history to look back on, and even rerunball is better than no ball at all. Let’s reminisce!

For the past week, A’s info manager Mike Selleck has been posting a daily “this date in history” memory on Twitter. Let’s take a deeper look at today’s edition.

There are many different angles to this particular memory, but let’s start with why they were opening their season at a neutral site. For that part of the story, we turn to radio voice Ken Korach, who was coincidentally making his A’s debut in the booth that day alongside legend Bill King. A few years ago, Korach wrote about that experience in a guest column for Athletics Nation:

In the case of the A’s as Opening Day 1996 approached, there was growing concern over whether the Coliseum would be in baseball shape as the stadium was being “renovated” to accommodate the Raiders’ return to the Bay Area. The Raiders played the 1995 season at the Coliseum in the old football configuration, but one of the conditions of their move back called for the construction of the massive concrete edifice known dis-affectionately as Mt. Davis. Everybody knew that Mt. Davis wouldn’t be finished in time for the ‘96 baseball regular season, but since the work was taking place beyond a newly configured outfield fence, the A’s and Coliseum officials believed that the regular season would start on-time and that the construction would be nothing more than a nuisance. ...

As delays mounted, those more cosmetic concerns gave way to real issues regarding whether games should be played in a giant construction zone. By the middle of March the A’s were facing the looming possibility of not just the opener, but an entire homestand (which would also feature the Detroit Tigers) being played elsewhere.

Long story short, it was the Raiders’ fault. The wheel of fortune has turned since then, though, and now it is the Raiders who will open their next season in Vegas — and they won’t be coming back the next week, as their move is permanent. The universe does have a sense of humor, or at least of poetic justice.

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The game itself featured plenty of action, including five homers, but the unfortunate result was a 9-6 A’s loss. Cashman Field was considered a bandbox, as you might expect from any stadium in the desert of Las Vegas, and Korach noted the following quote from then-manager Art Howe: “I don’t know if there was a legitimate home run hit all night.”

Oakland jumped out to an early 2-1 lead, but by the end of five innings the Blue Jays were ahead 6-2. Toronto added to the lead a few innings later, and then the A’s answered back with three runs in the 8th, but it wasn’t enough for a full comeback. Here’s the full box score and play-by-play.

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One of the best parts of old box scores is geeking out over the names in the lineups. This is a particularly fun era for me to look back on, because it was a formative time in my life as a young fan — I was born in 1985, so I was 11 years old.

Toronto’s lineup was packed with memorable players. Selleck pointed out one of them in his tweet, as starting third baseman Ed Sprague is now the A’s Director of Player Development. That’s quite a high-ranking position in the organization, and one he inherited from predecessor Keith Lieppman. Sprague, who was born and raised in the Bay Area, had previously won two rings with the Jays. Two seasons later, in 1998, he was traded to Oakland, where he played 27 games before moving on (to Pittsburgh, where he was an All-Star in 1999).

Leading off for Toronto was Otis Nixon, who now ranks 16th all-time in stolen bases (620, two spots behind Bert Campaneris). In 1992, Nixon’s Braves had lost to the Jays in the World Series, and now he was wearing their jersey. Batting third was Joe Carter, hero of the ‘93 Fall Classic, which he ended via just the second World Series-ending walk-off homer in history. In the sixth and seventh spots were two up-and-coming youngsters, Carlos Delgado and Shawn Green, who would eventually combine to hit 801 homers in their star careers (Delgado did the heavier lifting at 473, but Green had the single-season high of 49). Batting ninth was shortstop Alex Gonzalez, but not that one, the other one.

In the cleanup spot was first baseman John Olerud, one of the most underrated players of all time. He never hit 25 homers at the prototypical power position, but his career .398 OBP and three Gold Gloves give an idea of his all-around value. In 1993 he batted .363/.473/.599 with 54 doubles, 24 homers, and nearly twice as many walks (114) as strikeouts (65), en route to a third-place finish in the MVP voting and his second straight championship ring. He left Toronto after this 1996 season, but success followed him — he helped lead the Mets from squalor in ‘96 to the NLCS in ‘99, and then he went to Seattle to become a core member of the record-setting 2001 squad that won 116 games.

In addition to his skills on both sides of the ball, Olerud’s signature was his headwear. After suffering a brain aneurysm in college, he gave his noggin some extra protection by wearing a batting helmet while playing defense, making him one of the most recognizable players in the sport at the time. The helmet also spawned one of many great Rickey Henderson stories, though this one is reportedly a myth.

Sadly, the Olerud family was in the news again last month for another medical reason. John’s 19-year-old daughter, Jordan, passed away on March 1 from a rare chromosome disorder that she’d dealt with since birth.

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Meanwhile, the A’s side of the ledger featured a substantially less famous lineup, but still one that Oakland fans can look back on fondly. Mark McGwire was still on the team, and he hit 53 homers that year, but he missed the opening “homestand” with a foot injury. In his absence, his shoes were filled by a 25-year-old named Jason Giambi. It was Giambi’s first full season in the bigs, and he played a lot of it at 3B and LF, but over the next few years he took the mantel from McGwire as the team’s larger-than-life superstar slugger at first base.

After Giambi, the next most famous players were catcher Terry Steinbach (who homered that day) and shortstop Mike Bordick, who aren’t huge names nationally but are beloved to A’s fans. The 8th-inning comeback attempt came on a three-run homer by Geronimo Berroa, and if you’re old enough to have seen him play then you can’t read his name without hearing PA announcer Roy Steele exuberantly calling it out over the Coliseum speakers. This video below isn’t of his Opening Day dinger, but rather a walk-off job a few days later, still at Cashman Field.

Batting eighth was Torey Lovullo. I remember him as the guy who would sub for McGwire late in games, either as a defensive replacement at 1B or as a pinch-runner. These days, you might know him better as the Arizona Diamondbacks manager. In this game he was playing third base, a position that was mostly covered by Scott Brosius the rest of the season (in what proved to be Brosius’ career year).

Among the other names of the day were Opening Day starting pitcher Carlos Reyes, who had arrived as a Rule 5 draft pick a few years prior; lefty reliever Buddy Groom, one of my favorite names ever; former 1st-round draft pick Brent Gates, who never quite panned out into the 2B of the future; CF Ernie Young, who started a triple play later in the homestand with an amazing catch (see video below); and outfielder Phil Plantier, who blasted 34 homers for the Padres a few years prior (at age 24) but then never recaptured that magic. I remember relievers Mike Mohler and Don Wengert, but have no memory of reliever John Briscoe or outfielder Pedro Munoz.

On top of all that, though, the best hidden gem in this box score is that it marked the A’s debut of Matt Stairs. Already 28 years old, and with only 141 career MLB plate appearances to his name at the time, he pinch-hit for Bordick in the 9th and grounded out against closer Mike Timlin. Stairs stayed in a bench role that year, but he joined the starting lineup the next season and remained there for four summers.

Standing just 5’9, shaped like a bowling ball, and rocking a mullet for the ages, the “Professional Hitter” went on to mash 122 homers wearing green-and-gold, including 38 in 1999. He even stuck around long enough to see Oakland reach the playoffs in 2000. He parlayed that late-blooming success into a 19-year, 12-team career that lasted past his 43rd birthday, featuring a 2008 ring, an all-time MLB record with 23 pinch-hit dingers, and the third-most homers (265) by any Canadian-born player.

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The A’s lost this game and went just 78-84 during a forgettable season, but it was still a historically significant day. Beyond the oddity of playing in Vegas, it brought us the team debuts of both Korach in the booth and Stairs in the box.

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Selleck started his daily history tweets a week ago. While I’m not going to go back and write up the previous ones, here they are in case you’re curious:

  • 3/26: To replace the usual daily notes, I’m digging into our #ThisDateInAthleticsHistory files. To start things off, on March 26, 2008 Emil Brown hits a three-run home run as the A’s defeat Boston, 5-1 in Tokyo, Japan…Rich Harden strikes out nine in six innings for the win
  • 3/27: On March 27, 1981 the A’s acquire Tony Phillips from San Diego in a five-player deal…Phillips played nine seasons with the A’s and was a member of the 1989 World Championship club.
  • 3/28: On March 28, 2019 Mike Fiers, Lou Trivino, Joakim Soria and Blake Treinen combine on a three-hit shutout in the A’s 4-0 win over Los Angeles in Oakland’s Coliseum opener after playing two games in Japan.
  • 3/29: On March 29, 2012 Cuban native Yoenis Céspedes hits his first Major League home run as the A’s defeat Seattle 4-1 in Tokyo, Japan.
  • 3/30: On March 30, 2019 Brett Anderson tosses six scoreless innings to extend his home scoreless innings streak to an Oakland record 34.1 innings in the A’s 4-2 win over the Los Angeles Angels.
  • 3/31: On March 31, 2019 Khris Davis homers for the fourth time in the A’s first six games as Oakland defeats the Los Angeles Angels, 2-1.