I’ve put this off long enough. I need to just write and be done with it. The problem is…I don’t really want to. I don’t like goodbyes. When I’m at a going-away party, I’m the one who heads to the kitchen to clean-up, then sneaks out (once the dishes are done but) before it’s time for the tears. Can’t do anything now. My kitchen is clean, and there isn’t a party, so I’ll just have to cut to the chase.
As much as I have loved every minute of the past six-plus years, my time covering the Baby A’s – my Baby A’s – has come to an end. If you know me – either thru social media or in real life – you know how much I love what I’ve been able to do; how much I care about the boys and their families; the Oakland A’s organization, and most especially those on the scouting and player development staffs. I’ve been accused of being too sensitive and too protective where the boys are concerned. Maybe I am, and I’m ok with that. Over the years, I’ve spent so much time from Extended Spring, AZL, and into Instructs and the Arizona Fall League – I know these boys. I observe everything that happens – maybe “absorb” is a better word. When the hype is focused elsewhere, to the point when activities at Fitch Park, on Athletics’ Way, are all but forgotten by the outside world. What happens at Fitch, or at any of the player development “sanctuary” in Arizona throughout the year? Magic. That’s what.
These activities – the magic – has been the center of my world. I see the struggles and conflicts the players experience, I see and hear the field staff and trainers unify in support of every young man wearing green and gold, and I love witnessing the breakthrough that leads to a stronger, more confident young man. I love the very first sign or improvement; when it all starts to click. I love watching the coaches who worked with him, when they see it come together for him. Never anything loud or obvious, but it should be. They’re changing lives; saving careers here. It’s magical. Unfortunately, if outsiders are reporting the same incident, without background or insight, they focus on the irrelevant, and that’s all that’s available on social media. So, yeah, I take it personally, not for myself, but for the boys and the staff. I’m not going to counter a report like that because none of this is anyone’s business, really. However, I’m quick to approach a poacher, when I see what they’re about to do. I’m not always nice about it, but I get my point across. The more I’m around, the less I report because so much of it is none of anyone’s business.
I’ve been privileged to do what I do, and the access with which to do it, because of two people, to whom I owe so much, I’ll never be able to repay: Melissa Lockard and Keith Lieppman.
Melissa is simply the best. She IS OaklandClubhouse; she’s the master behind everything on the site, years of quality, in-depth articles and profiles (not just click-bait as is much too common these days.) Working with Melissa, not the team or the organization, is the reason I signed up for this ride in the first place. Who could blame me? She’s a smart, strong woman of principles whose professionalism, integrity, and passion for the game is a force that rivals gravity. When it comes to the Oakland Athletics Baseball Club, she’s a frickin’ savant! It’s been like having a personal search engine! From the first visit I made to Papago through the Fall League Championship Game a few months ago, my number one priority has always been the same: to ensure my conduct reflects positively on her, and to make her proud. I never once lost sight of the fact that I wouldn’t be there if it weren’t for her.
As a publisher/ editor, her principles and guidelines for anything submitted were clear: We don’t pretend to be the GM, we report and provide insight in an ethical manner. And… check this out, she has this CRAZY almost pre-historic demand that we cite and credit the source of ANYTHING we use in our articles. Isn’t that wild?? I’m sure there are some organizations Googling what that means right now – including some from the league’s staff. Then again, there are specific people who will just wait until Melissa writes about it and then copy, paste and distribute as their own work. Most of that isn’t horrible if they would just CREDIT THE DAMN SOURCE! Journalism 101, kids.
In terms of content, there was only one article she ever sent back for me to change. Who can say that about an editor? Unbelievable! The article was on Michael Ynoa making his first appearance above the AZL in 2012. Having been at his debut in Arizona, spending time with him, watching him with his teammates, and getting to know him a little bit, I felt that his AZL batterymate and good friend, Reynoldo Mateo should have been his receiver at his first game at the next level instead of Bruce Maxwell. Still do. But this has nothing to do with ability; Bruce was without a doubt the stronger, more dominant defensive catcher, my perspective was from a comfort level. I know the importance of the battery-pairings and felt Ynoa’s first outing in Vermont should have been with his AZL catcher who was also added to Vermont’s roster. Regardless, I removed that comment and more importantly, appreciated and respected Melissa’s redirection.
To recap: Melissa is the best, in every possible way; she is also a naturally good, nice person. If you mess with her I’m gonna call you out. Even now. Especially now. Got it? Good.
Moving on to one who shares so many of the same qualities as Melissa. In this world of job changes and multiple employers, where names on jerseys at the Coliseum are best attached with Velcro, a foundation set in Arizona provides a stable environment to develop players and coaches alike thanks to the leadership of Oakland’s 2nd round in the January 1971 draft, a 3rd baseman from the University of Kansas Keith Lieppman is not only the man you want to be entrusted with your development, he’s the kind of person you want to be when you grow up.
Amazingly, he’s had one color scheme is his wardrobe for more than 46 years. Wow! But what’s even more unbelievable is that he has been the Farm Director for 30. In this age of newfangled approaches to player development, many organizations have made wholesale changes in effort to find the recipe for building a legacy of championships. Oakland is not in this group. And that’s the best, smartest thing they could do. “Lipp” as he’s called by many is the standard of exceptional leadership against which all others are measured. From our very first interaction, he was kind and incredibly helpful. And as a journalism major, he was the perfect first-interview of a new organization.
Keith’s goodness is so obvious, it’s as if there’s a neon arrow pointing to him as he goes through his daily life. Talk to anyone who reports to him and you’ll find a rare selfless loyalty that makes a bystander green with envy. In the cut-throat business of professional, affiliated baseball, anyone fortunate to work for Keith knows he has their back and would do anything for them. They know it’s a priority to Lipp to foster an environment that makes each of them better coaches, leaders, husbands & fathers. This level of commitment is returned with an understanding of how fortunate they are to call him their boss. Mention Keith’s name to ANYONE who ever worked for him, and it becomes a love fest. Of course, modest as he is, Keith doesn’t see things that way. He credits his staff with everything good that happens. Of course.
Over the years, Keith provided even me with a very respectable level of comfort. Case in point: on the 2nd to last day at Papago (October 2014), I repeated the same question I had asked a hundred times before: how will the final day at Papago be commemorated? Every other time I got a shoulder-shrug, at best. On this day, Keith listened as I insisted on taking a photo to commemorate the final group occupying the long time home before moving to Mesa. To my delight, he agreed and even organized all staff members present to be in the photo. Though the “suits” (front office folks) were in a meeting, all were invited to join the heart of the staff and personnel for a commemorative photo; only one made the effort; of course, it was Grady Fuson. In all the years, and a million photos, that final group photo at Papago is my very favorite, and seeing Keith and Grady, front and center, is a constant reminder of everything that’s good about the Oakland A’s.
Grady, whose official title is “Special Assistant to the General Manager” has been known to say he’s Keith Lieppman’s assistant. But what he is, really is a teacher by calling. His voice is always the loudest and most encouraging when it matters the most. You won’t find anyone of his caliber anywhere In major league baseball who is as front-line invested in the success of each player as Grady. He’s brilliant but he doesn’t flaunt it. To me, he’s never been anything but kind and incredibly respectful. He’s so down-to-earth, I’ve told him I’d love to watch a game with him; not say a word just listen to his thoughts. He’s never laughed at me, knowing I couldn’t be quiet for that long without asking a million questions. But that’s Grady. He’s in a league of his own.
Personally, a lot has changed from when I first started on this adventure. Then, all 3 of my kids lived at home; I was still going to PTO meetings, and the most important sports schedule had one if not both of my boys on the roster. Today, I have 2 college graduates (including a first-grade teacher) as well as a son-in-law, and a son who’s pursuing his dream of being an actor and living in New York City. As they say, “don’t blink.”
In that same time frame, I witnessed a group of the most talented ballplayers play and win together like it was the only thing they’d ever known. They were led by then-Manager Marcus Jensen, and pitching coach Jimmy Escalante. Both men were stellar examples of class and respect; so important to see at this most impressionable level. Their recipe for success continued at every level despite some key subtractions and a few additions to the core group. With some luck – ok, maybe quite a bit of it – they’ll help make July- 2012-me look smart when I responded “2017” in answer to a question of their projected impact in Oakland. That group of boys whom I affectionately and almost immediately named, the “Swingin’ Baby A’s” have given hope to a fan base that’s already embracing them. So, if not in 2017, the championships will return to Oakland soon enough – if the core group remains intact.
My Swingin’ Baby A’s were so good offensively, in fact, they consumed all the attention of this hard core pitching-and-defense gal. That is until Gil Patterson called me out for not reacting to the pitchers – and defensive efforts – the same way I would to the others. Mind you, this was as he introduced himself to me during a game at Papago one summer night. I’d seen him at the games but couldn’t tell which kid was his. He would encourage them all with the same belief that only comes from the heart; I remember thinking how fortunate his kid was, whichever one he was. In all my years, I’d never mistaken a coach for a parent, but I also hadn’t ever met Gil Patterson. I’ll say it again, if you are (or your son is) a pitcher in Oakland’s system, you must give thanks. There are no guarantees in baseball, however, with Gil on your side you are at a distinct advantage. Watch him work with the boys, listen to how he talks to them, the tone of his voice, the words he uses. It’s like eavesdropping on a father-son talk, one where the son is learning to throw a cutter, that is. Ugh. I’m really, really going to miss that.
Other things I’m going to miss: the obvious one; watching the boys learn and develop. I will root for all of them; whether they stay in Oakland’s system, move elsewhere, or transition out of baseball completely. I will follow the games – I won’t deny myself the pleasure of listening to the wonderful Zack Bayrouty in Stockton and Bob Hards in Midland whenever possible. I predict a breakout year for Chris Iriart (aka Babe Ruth) and Casey Meisner, and I warn everyone to not sleep on Jeramiah McCray. A wise man once said, “If you find a kid with 70 speed who can play center field, take him.” Hit two triples to left field after going 0-for-13. Nothing is impossible for this kid.
I could talk about each one of the boys. Each is gifted and hard working, or they wouldn’t be where they are. What I want every one of them to know is that rankings are not important. Yes, I get upset at them when I see stupid things like Matt Chapman, Oakland’s #1 pick in 2014, one of, if not the best defensive 3rd baseman ranked 100? Be better than I am. (Cuz you and I both know Chapman is a BEAST and will make a lasting impact in the big leagues very soon.)
I’ll miss the masterful turf manager, Chad Huss, and everyone on his exceptional staff. Always so good to me. Means more than you know.
I’ll miss coaches, like Ruben Escalera my friend, the hitting instructor I listen to most; Webster Garrison, the light that shines from you, Webby is a gift! Juan Dilone (DILO!!) big teddy bear. Aaron Nieckula: I passed on MLB tickets to stand in my kitchen and listen to Midland win its first (of three) championships. The energy and passion is contagious. Finally watching Ryan Christenson in action in the Arizona Fall League was even better than I expected. He’s special. Then there’s his pal Steve Connelly – love him almost as much as I love Emily and their beautiful babies. My “Convo with Conns” in the 2015 Fall League were the highlight of every day. Craig Lefferts, “Lefty” the original sprinter from the pen to the mound, AND one of the friendliest, most positive people I know! He’s so nice, makes me forget he’s a kitty from that school down south.
Carlos Chavez will always be connected to our beloved Bob Welch. Part of the Extended Spring team of 2014, easily to most impactful period. Most of the boys on that Extended roster have transitioned out of baseball, but every one of them has something that will never be taken from them: they were the last ones to benefit from the wisdom of Welchie.
I’ll really miss the workouts before AZL opening night; when all the newly drafted boys take the first step toward fulfilling their lifelong dream.
I’ll miss witnessing the efforts of the hardest working group in baseball; the area scouts. Whether I’ve met them in person or not, there was no bigger fan of their tireless efforts than I. Scouts are the unsung heroes, the backbone of the game we all love. Oakland’s scouts are just a little more special, if you ask me.
One more thing before I close. Before my time with Melissa, I had already contributed to the A’s, or more accurately, to Billy Beane’s financial well-being. When Moneyball was released. I purchased enough hard copies I should have qualified to write a forward in the reprint. Whether it was a coach at my kids’ school or a kid on the baseball team or a friend of mine, if we discussed the book, I would just hand them my copy and buy a new one for myself, and repeat. I even did it again last week with a new friend.
Don’t get me started with my kids’ 2009 Mothers’ Day purchase of the video game “MLB Front Office Manager.” I was so excited to get started on it but never got past creating an avatar. Why? There wasn’t a female option. Pissed me off. Never played it.
This is already much longer than I anticipated, but since it’s my blog, I don’t care. Though I’ll not be covering a team, I will always be around baseball. I haven’t decided how to proceed with my social media accounts. I’ll figure that out in time. Feel free to unfollow – and alert your friends who’ve muted me and have them do the same. J
Thank you for following and for reading and for welcoming me into your lives.