ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED 12/31/15 on OaklandClubhouse.com
It’s the time of year for retrospection. I tend to do that kind of thing naturally and in smaller sections, or should I say “seasons”? This compilation includes the top nine “things” that will stay with me from this 2015. It is my list, totally subjective, totally from me, not best performances. Things from my personal memory slideshow, some I wrote in my end-of-season recap; some I didn’t, primarily because they weren’t quantifiable. You also won’t find big, publicized, obvious things like breaking in the new digs at Fitch, or the fact that Will Farrell started his 10 teams in 1 day as a member of the Oakland Athletics, or having Justine Siegal spend some time at Instructs.
I didn’t include the breakout spring training performance of “media darling” J.P. Sportman. When I think of spring training, before Will Farrell and his antics, I can practically hear Susan Slusser’s voice echoing the TV broadcasters as they celebrate another great hit or acute baserunning, or defensive play by “JP SPORTMAN!!” The Connecticut Kid who was drafted in the 27th round of the 2014 draft was on fire in big league camp in March! But this is something everyone knew about – TV, radio, social media. My list is of events that were a bit more obscure – unless you were hanging around the A’s Arizona complex all year.
Now that all the fine print is done, in chronological order, here are my Top 9 Most Memorable Events of the 2015 Baseball Season:
1) Ryan Gorton’s conversion
“When his playing days are over, Ryan Gorton will be a big league manager.” I wrote those words in July 2014, in beautiful Adelanto, California. I was there for the series between the High Desert Mavericks (then, a Seattle Mariners affiliate) and the visiting Stockton Ports, as part of my annual Cal League trip. Ryan was the first player I saw when I arrived. As always – and I mean ALWAYS – he greeted me by name, with a pleasantry, and a smile.
Ryan was drafted in the 31st round of the 2012 draft out of Oregon State as a catcher. He spent his rookie season with short-season Vermont then jumped to Stockton in 2014. His defensive numbers behind the plate were good in both seasons, but his offensive production was lacking. The decision to move him out from behind the plate was bound to happen. I just didn’t expect it to happen so fast.
During spring training, Ryan was part of the core backstops, but as the full season teams broke camp, Ryan stayed for Extended Spring Training. The conversion had begun. Then, on June 19th, during the last pre-season intrasquad game and less than three months removed from being the receiver, Ryan was on the mound. My first impression was how natural he looked. His confidence and body language made it seem like he’d been the passer all his life.
Ryan appeared in six games in the AZL before being promoted to Vermont, and then on to Low-A Beloit to finish the season. Finish, he did. With a 0.50 WHIP. This was his first trip to Beloit, as he skipped over it as a position player. He is just so smart, pitching coach Steve Connelly used the expression “Savant” and that fits him perfectly.
Technically, Ryan’s professional debut on the mound was on August 21, 2013 with the Vermont Lake Monsters, in the 14th inning against Houston’s Tri-City team. Gorton allowed the go-ahead run on four hits, and Gorton took the loss.
He seems to have rebounded just fine.
2) Lana Akau’s emerging bat
Iolana Akau was just 17 when he was drafted in the 20th round in 2013. I’ve spent the better part of two seasons watching the Hawaiian-born catcher in the AZL. He has a cannon for an arm on his sub-6-foot-frame, and a baritone voice that still doesn’t match what I expect to hear when I talk to him.
At the start of his third professional season, at the ripe old age of 19, Lana’s bat became the attention-getter. During the first week of Extended Spring Training, I don’t know if Lana had an AB where he struck out swinging. By his own bewildered admission, he was seeing a beach ball coming out of the pitchers’ hands.
The best moment came during a game at the Cubs, when Lana’s dad was visiting from Hawaii. For the first time in game action in his professional career, the 2008 Little League World Series Champ went yard. The timing could not have been more perfect! Except maybe if it had been during an official game, where the date will live on forever, because remember, Extended Spring stats don’t count. There’s no proof that it happened … or is there?
For whatever reason, I chose to record that specific at bat. That specific pitch, when it cleared the fence on the Cubs’ practice fields. His official numbers won’t reflect it, but May 13, 2015 will always be a special date to Lana, his father, and to me.
3) The Returns of Kevin Johnson & Tom Gavitt
Kevin Johnson was drafted in the 24th round in 2013 out of the University of Illinois; Tom Gavitt was Oakland’s 19th round pick in 2014 from Bryant University in Rhode Island. Kevin is a right-handed pitcher; Tom is a catcher. Each had Tommy John surgery after being drafted by Oakland, and the start of their professional careers were each delayed by a full year. Johnson entered the record books on April 11, as his Beloit Snappers took on the Lumberkings in Clinton, Iowa; Gavitt debuted against the Angels at Tempe Diablo Stadium on Opening Night of the AZL.
Selfishly, I wanted Kevin Johnson’s debut to be in the Arizona League. I would have been there to watch his first official pitch thrown. I’d have flooded my Twitter followers with the significance of his arrival after the challenging path he had to take, and (of course) I would have recorded it to share for all to enjoy.
Johnson was drafted in 2013 and didn’t debut until 2015. He hadn’t even worn a jersey until the end of the 2014 AZL season, when he served as the bat-boy for one game. I was there.
The Illinois product made his four-inning debut in the Midwest League. He struck out three, walked three, and gave up four hits, but no one scored and, though he didn’t factor in the decision, he was official. I followed – and cheered – every pitch from Arizona. Great day.
Tom Gavitt was in the bullpen for much of the Extended Spring games. Technicalities aside, he was drafted in June 2014, had Tommy John surgery soon after. The catcher-UCL damage thing is becoming more of a trend than many realize.
Watching Gavitt as he saw game action in early May, and watching him work in the ‘pen, there was no doubt he was ready to embark on his career.
June 20, 2015: AZL Opening Night is when many would make their professional debuts, but it would be difficult to find one who was more appreciative of what it meant to be in the lineup than Tom Gavitt. Though he wasn’t the starting catcher, it was nonetheless emotional (for me) when he replaced Nick Collins behind the plate in the 6th inning.
For all reasons symbolic, my very favorite photo of those I took this year is of Gavitt greeting home plate ump Joe Schwartz for the first time. I watched Gavitt from his first step out of the visitors’ dugout so intently that – hard as it is to believe, I almost forgot to capture it with my camera until that moment.
Photo by Kimberly Contreras
Again, every debut is important; I value each and every time I can experience that of a young ballplayer, but there are some that tug at your heart a little more because the already-incredibly-difficult path to playing professional baseball was made even more so with obstacles and blocks along the way.
4) Brett Vertigan’s breakout season
Brett Vertigan is the type of young man you’d like your own son to emulate. His work ethic, high standards, and humble demeanor would be reasons enough, but then you watch him on the field or at the plate and you can’t help but be impressed. He’s a wonderful, respectful young man who lets his actions on the field do the talking for him.
On August 14, 2014, I was listening to the Vermont Lake Monsters game, as I often would. In the top of the 5th inning, a member of the Aberdeen Ironbirds launched a fly ball to shallow right field. Brett Vertigan was in right, Trent Gilbert at second base, and both collided in an attempt to make the catch. I stopped what I was doing to listen; waiting for Vermont’s broadcaster to announce that both players were up on their feet and all was well. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case. Vertigan had to be carted off the field and his season came to an end. One week later, he spent his 24th birthday traveling home to Southern California.
The experience only made the UC-Santa Barbara product more focused and determined to succeed. After a tremendous spring training, the 10th round pick from 2012 broke camp with the Beloit Snappers. Beginning that first weekend in Clinton, it was clear to everyone that Vertigan wouldn’t be in the Midwest League for long. Just ask the Lumberkings’ broadcasters. During their broadcast of the third game of the season, the opposing team’s announcers admitted they refer to Vertigan as the “newest member of the Stockton Ports.” On a regular basis I listen to the broadcast of MANY minor league games and have done so for many years. Observations like this from the opposing team’s broadcasters do not happen often.
Less than a month later, Brett was headed home to California. He was, in fact, the newest member of the Stockton Ports. No one was happier with this promotion than his mom Shelly, who, for the first time ever, was able to see her son play professional baseball. She became a regular in Stockton and stadiums throughout the Cal league.
Vertigan’s offense production was off the charts. He’s not a power hitter, so the thin air wasn’t used to his advantage. It had no impact on his incredible walk-rate or his instinctively advanced base running skills either. If you listened to the Stockton Ports broadcasts like I did, you regularly heard uber-smart broadcaster Zack Bayrouty extole the praises of Vertigan’s route efficiency in the outfield.
While his skills on the field were easy for even the casual fan to admire, it is one particular incident off the field that epitomizes who Brett Vertigan is, to me: after a game where a tough scoring decision was made, Brett approached the official scorer and requested that the ruling be changed. He insisted that he should receive the error allowing a run to score rather than charging the pitcher with an earned run.
Rumor has it, that wasn’t the first time Brett Vertigan made a request of this nature. I’m not surprised.
This was the season that everyone knew Vertigan was capable of having.
5) Boys leave for Vermont
There’s one guarantee at the end of Extended Spring Training, every healthy player wants to be on the roster in Vermont, not in Arizona. The weather, the fans, the bus rides, the weather are all factors. The upside for me is that I get to know the boys who stay in the Fire League. As much as I enjoy our summer group, and as much as I miss them when they leave, I want to miss them. I want them to be in Vermont or Beloit or wherever, because that means they’re healthy and performing well.
For the past few years, there has been a group of boys who, for one quirky set-back or reason have not been able to move on from the AZL, and me. RHPs Cody Kurz and Dustin Driver, LHP Chris Kohler, and C Lana Akau left Arizona and as much as I missed them, I was so happy. I enjoyed listening to someone else describe their play that I’ve spent the past few years observing.
6) The 2015 Draft
Everyone knows Eric Kubota and the amazing A’s area scouts won the June draft … in the category of names, at least. Best class of awesome names, ever: Skye Bolt, Bubba Derby,Boomer Biegalski, James Naile, Dustin Hurlbutt, and Tim Proudfoot. Thank you and goodnight.
After the first week or so, I’d forgotten about the unique names. On second thought, I didn’t even take that long.
My first preseason visit to Fitch was three days before the season started. University of Illinois lefty Kevin Duchene was the first one to greet me. He had no idea who I was, but he was a gracious host. As we walked toward the batting cages and passed several other new arrivals, I knew I was going to like this group. Each draft class has its own personality and the 2015 Baby A’s are no exception.
There are hundreds of memories I have of this group, but they all come back to one word: gratitude. That first visit, the feelings of appreciation and gratitude were seemingly contained in each blade of grass on every field. The more I learned about each young man, the more my impression was confirmed. Many of the draftees overcame great obstacles and resistance to be standing in 113 degree heat in Mesa, Arizona. No one even noticed the heat.
Fast-forward to the waning days of the AZL and there was a fun sense of anticipation making its way around the campus. The reason? Instructs. Every player was looking forward to both learning and improving, and to reuniting with their fellow rookies who were in Vermont or Beloit.
Each young man is a true competitor, works hard to improve in every way, and appreciates the opportunity to learn to improve. And they truly like one another. I know this is a widespread sentiment, but this group takes it to another level.
7) BBC reporter Anthony Zurcher visits the Fire League
Each year I do some sort of a “Guide to the AZL” where I try to prepare new visitors (namely parents of the newly drafted) for the unique environment of games played in 110 degree heat, at 7PM, with very few fans, and no concession stands. I don’t believe anyone reads them, but I’ve done my part to warn … I mean prepare … the public.
Imagine my surprise when Melissa Lockard, the editor/ publisher / chief of everything on OaklandClubhouse.com, told me that a reporter from the BBC (yes, that one) reached out to her and was interested in doing a story on the AZL based on my Guide. I was surprised. It’s not like I sugar coat anything about the experience; what could possibly interest him? I did my research. I didn’t take this lightly. I’m protective over the boys (and coaches, and staff) here. I don’t care who you are, if you go through me, it won’t be easy to gain access to any of them.
I learned that BBC reporter, Anthony Zurcher, an American reporter, would be in town for a conference. As a baseball lover, and father of two young ball players, he wanted to introduce the AZL to his readers. Fortunately, his one free day in Phoenix included a home game at Fitch Park. We met at the facility at 4pm, spent time out on the fields watching the team prepare for their game against the visiting Rangers, and then cooled off inside as I found myself in an interesting situation, I was the one being interviewed.
Before the game, Anthony talked with several of the players and coaches, and took some photos of his own, as well. During the game he talked to more players who were in the stands. When I introduced him to them, the quizzical look I had when Melissa first told me about Zurcher’s interest was replicated on the boys’ faces as well.
The temperature at first pitch was 113 degrees. Dipped to 108 at 9pm, and was a chilly 105 at 10pm. Of course the game went into extra-innings. Of course it did. I kept checking on Anthony, he was warm but fine, and he stayed for the whole game.
Anthony told me the story wouldn’t be published right away. He is a political writer and was covering Donald Trump’s campaign. But in September, the article on the Arizona Summer League was published. Here’s the link: http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-34110560
8) A return visit to Papago
The Kansas City Royals moved into the facilities at Papago Sports Complex for the summer while their facilities in Surprise were under construction. As soon as the change was announced, I checked the schedule. The only game scheduled for the A’s to travel to Papago was in August.
On August 4th, when the visiting Athletics took the 1st base dugout at Papago for the first time, there was a combination of familiarity and confusion. The home of the Athletics for decades now belonged to someone else. I make no secret of my love of Papago in the summer. There is no more beautiful view of Mother Nature’s work than the fields at 64thstreet and McDowell. When the summer storms approach, the colors and movement are mesmerizing.
9) The rise of ‘Chico’
Jesus Zambrano is a right-handed pitcher from Valencia, Venezuela, who was signed at the age of 16. Valencia is the hometown of Mariners’ ace, Felix Hernandez, who also signed his first contract at age 16. King Felix is 6’3”, 225 lbs; Zambrano is 5’11”, 170lbs, and is 10 years younger than the King.
At the age of 19, both were on the mound in Tacoma, Washington, dazzling their opponents. When Felix was there, he was on his way to Seattle. When Zambrano was there 10 years later, it was a surprise spot start for the Nashville Sounds. The biggest difference is that the younger son of Valencia had never pitched above the Arizona Rookie League. Ever. But if you watched his performance (thanks to MiLB.tv) and listened to longtime Rainiers broadcaster Mike Curto, that fact seemed more like a typo than reality.
There was no sign of nerves or insecurity from the young man who turned 19 just one week before his Triple-A debut on August 30th. I’ve always called him “Chico” (young man in Spanish). But he showed the Tacoma Rainiers and everyone else that he’s not a kid. His performance was as strong as his numbers suggest: 4IP, 3 hits, 3 earned runs including a home run to Jabari Blash (who was on a tear), 4 strike outs and 1 walk. Dan Otero got the win that day. During his second start for Nashville, Chico received the well-earned W over the Royals’ Omaha Storm Chasers.
10) Enjoying the Fall League
Just like “free baseball”! The prospects that Oakland sent to the Arizona Fall League –Chad Pinder, Renato Nunez, Jaycob Brugman, RHPs Kris Hall, Brendan McCurry, Aaron Kurcz (later replaced by Jeff Urlaub) and new addition, LHP Sean Manaea. I could not have been more proud to follow the Mesa Solar Sox; wonderful team, wonderful players!
Oakland also sent Steve Connelly to serve as the pitching coach for the Solar Sox. As most found in Oakland’s coaching system, the right-handed pitching “Conns” was drafted by and made his major league debut with Oakland. The University of Oklahoma NCAA World Series champ spent his first two years in Vermont and then in Beloit. Along with his wife Emily and their two adorable children, Steve is enjoying every aspect of his job.
Whenever possible, my pregame routine would include what I called my “Convo with Conns”. Of course I’d get the lowdown on which of “our boys” would see game action that day (or night) but the best parts were always the things that can’t be shared. Suffice to say that I already considered Steve one of the best guys I know, but watching him and listening to him talk about the pitchers “his guys”, my respect for him is off the charts.
Clearly the path to the big leagues on the coaching side of things goes straight through Oakland’s minor league coordinator positions. In the fall of 2013, Todd Steverson became the major league hitting coach for the Chicago White Sox; Marcus Jensen replaced him as Oakland’s minor league hitting coordinator for the 2014, until he was called up to Oakland as the assistant hitting coach. Greg Sparks replaced Marcus for this past season, until he announced in November that he would be the new Assistant Hitting Coach in Chicago, reuniting Steverson and Sparks. Newcomer – sort of – Jim Eppard takes over for Sparks after having spent 13 seasons in the Angels organization.
Former pitching coordinator Gil Patterson (YOU’LL learn to throw a cutter, and YOU’LL learn to throw a cutter and YOU’LL learn to throw a cutter!) left Oakland after the 2012 season to join the Yankees and was replaced by Scott Emerson as the minor league pitching coordinator until “Emo” became the bullpen coach in Oakland and Garvin Alston assumed the role for the 2015 season. “G,” as he’s affectionately called, is now the new bullpen coach for the Arizona Diamondbacks; reunited with many former Oakland A’s, includingDave Stewart and Tony LaRussa. And just as Garvin has joined former Oakland guys, the green and gold welcomes back one of their own: GIL PATTERSON!