Category: Uncategorized

Thank You…

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.

 

Kim

 

The Definitive Guide to Oakland A’s Minor League Spring Training

Originally published 03/06/16 on OaklandClubhouse.com

03/06/2016

Everything you need to know about the Oakland A’s minor league spring training schedule — from times and game locations to maps of the facilities and tips for maximizing your experience

To even the most casual baseball fan, spring training is a fun experience. You don’t have to be able to name the 1981 World Series MVPs to enjoy sitting in the warm sun with a cool beverage in hand watching a split squad game between the Oakland A’s and the LA Dodgers at Camelback Ranch in Glendale. Just enjoy the environment and watch out for fly balls. However, if your son, brother, boyfriend, or husband is one of those players on the field and in uniform, then the entirety of spring training means something different to you. Especially if his games aren’t played in the stadium, but on the back fields.

It’s for this group of Arizona-bound travelers that I offer this quick guide to spring training. Maneuvering around the backfields of various facilities isn’t as easy as it could be, especially when no two facilities operate the same way. Especially if this is your first, with a vested interest. In addition to these tips, you’ll also find a comprehensive schedule of minor league games and their locations, as well as maps to each team scheduled to play this spring.

First: If you traveled to Mesa this summer or fall to see him in the Arizona Rookie League (AZL) or perhaps during the Fall Instructional League, don’t expect much to be the same. Spring training is run by the big league clubs. Unlike the non-revenue-generating AZL and Instructional Leagues, spring training is big money for the teams, for local businesses, and for the state of Arizona. Security is very tight, too.

The good news is that admission to minor league spring training games are still free – that’s one thing they have in common. Parking, however, may set you back, depending on the facility. First, let’s review some essentials:

The Basic Information

Minor League spring training games, just like those during Instructs, are not official games. There are no official stats nor any media coverage. Since these are exhibition games, the opponents are local to save on travel and time (in other words, not all Cactus League teams will square off during minor league spring training).

Games start at 1pm local time on the minor league fields.

There are four teams divided into two squads – Triple-A, & Double-A /  High-A & Low-A.

Two games are played at each location. They play the same opposing team on the same day, but one squad will travel to the opponents fields while the other squad will play at home.

  • For instance: Wednesday, March 23rd: the Athletics and Cubs face each other.
  • Oakland’s AAA/AA squad travel the four miles to Sloan Park
  • Oakland’s A+/A squads host the Cubs at Fitch Park
  • Then, on Tuesday, March 28th, the two organizations face off again. This time the AAA/AA squads stay at Fitch and host the Cubs, while the A+/A clubs travel to Sloan.

Anything and everything can be changed without notice. The players go where they’re told; don’t rely on them to update you with changes. No one informs me either, but if I do learn of changes, I will tweet it out, but I am not informed ahead of time of changes.

Always bring with you to games:

  • 2 WATER BOTTLES per person {1 frozen} and some easy snacks such as grapes, crackers, nothing that melts.
  • Concession stands are not open during the games. Restrooms are open.
  • Remember to always clean up after yourself.
  • Sunscreen
  • Comfortable shoes (there will be some walking, no matter where)
  • Optional, but one that I strongly suggest is a towel to sit on. There are usually metal bleachers to sit on, but cannot guarantee their cleanliness.

PLAN TO ARRIVE EARLY, ESPECIALLY AT AWAY GAMES, ESPECIALLY THOSE NEXT TO A STADIUM WITH A GAME ALSO BEING PLAYED AT 1PM.

Be patient arriving and departing; traffic can be bad with all games starting at the same time. Most parking attendants, etc. are only focused on the big league (revenue generating) game. Often, especially at the start of games, the “security” or parking staffers don’t even know there are games being played. This can be very confusing – not to mention frustrating.

MINOR LEAGUE GAME PARKING:

Is a pain at the Giants Minor League Facility on the south east quadrant of Hayden and Camelback Rd (not Scottsdale Stadium)

Limited parking lot that is shared with a city run fitness facility. Parking down the street is most likely an option – this is where the comfy shoes come into play.

  • Bring cash for parking at: Angels (Tempe Diablo) and possibly Cubs

The Cubs sell out almost every game, and traffic on Rio Salado & Dobson (the main artery to Sloan Park) is designed for one thing only: the revenue generating game in the stadium.

As you’ll see on the maps I created for this purpose, you’ll see the less-traditional way to get into the minor league fields at Sloan Park.

Salt River Fields is home to the Rockies and Diamondbacks

  • Rockies fields and entrance are on the SOUTH side of the complex
  • Dbacks fields and entrance are on the NORTH side (off Via de Ventura)

Camelback Ranch Glendale is home to the White Sox and Dodgers. For only one day, the AAA / AA A’s travel west to play the Dodgers. There is a game in the stadium, but it’s a 7pm start. Parking should not be a challenge. There should be signs directing where to go for Minor League games. Just be sure you’re going to the right set of games.

And then there’s the home facility – Fitch Park.

The only restrictions are: 

  • Please park in the general lot – just off to the right, past the entrance to the fields – and walk back to the field entrance.
  • As at all facilities, the Tower is for team staff (as in “decision makers”) only.

It’s good to be home.

STADIUM PARKING

In the even that you choose to attend a stadium game while you’re here, bring cash to park when seeing the following teams: Angels, Cubs, A’s, Padres, & Mariners. They all charge for parking at stadium games. Reason being there are volunteer groups that help out throughout the stadiums, and the parking fees generally support the volunteer group.

Keep in mind: Triple A and Double A games begin Wednesday, March 16th at the Cubs. There is no game at the stadium that day, so it will be much easier getting in and out. The lower level games – A+ and A – begin Monday, March 21st AT THE GIANTS facility. Sorry.

The Game Schedule

Oakland A’s 2016 Minor League spring training schedule

The Maps

Map to Tempe Diablo Stadium

Baby A’s Are Locked and Loaded!

Originally published 2/18/16 on OaklandClubhouse.com

The Oakland A’s don’t officially open spring training until Saturday, but there are already several players at Fitch Park preparing for the new season. Kimberly Contreras has a report from the early days of spring 2016.

LOCKED AND LOADED!

With a nod of respect to the few big leaguers I SAW in action before camp officially starts, here’s a quick update – a teaser, if you will – of the all the good stuff happening on Athletics Way!

Locked and loaded should be the theme for the A’s system in 2016. Each and every hitter I saw in my three days at early camp was exactly that. Maximum effort on fielding drills; extra grounders, extra plays with a specific improvement and requested by the fielder.

Fielding drills were fun to watch with the third base trio involved: Matt ChapmanMax Muncy and Renato Nunez. Chapman looks great, but you don’t need to ask him how he feels, just watch his defensive skills on display. Muncy is taking his experiences in 2015 and putting them to good use already. Locked and loaded. Nunez, whose off-season was shorter than that of the others, is coming off a successful Arizona Fall League performance.

At first base, receiving the throws from Chapman – and his pin point cannon – is Matt Olson. The resident “Walk King”, who has a better sense of the strike zone than most who call balls and strikes, is ready to put into practice the lessons last season. Matt traveled to Europe this offseason before serving as a groomsman, along with Daniel Robertson andBilly McKinney, in the January wedding of their dear friend Addison Russell.

Joey Wendle, who spent 2015 with the Triple-A Nashville Sounds, was the lone man at second base for these drills. Just as shortstop Marcus Semien was the lone man at the six position until Chad Pinder arrived. Pinder, the reigning Texas League Player of the Year, had a shorter off-season, as well, playing in the Arizona Fall League.

During live batting practice, the players in camp early absorbed the wisdom and insight of big league assistant hitting coach Marcus Jensen. Whether he was talking shop behind the shell while bullpen catcher Phil Pohl was throwing his first rounds of the season, or if Marcus was on the mound himself, the early bird hitters hung on his every word. Watching, as Marcus gave immediate feedback, you could see the body language change when his message “clicked”, was processed, and then put into action. 

Beau Taylor, who split the 2015 season between High-A Stockton and Double-A Midland,B.J. Boyd, the real Pride of Palo Alto, who had a really good season in High-A Stockton, and Chapman are in the right place, mentally and physically, everything to come together in 2016.

In the batting cages, just like on the field, it was extra-this and extra-that.  Swings, buckets, time, and live pitches and feedback from 2015 Beloit and 2016 Vermont hitting coach Lloyd Turner; they wanted more of everything and executed accordingly. No one looking to impress or out-perform his abilities, just focused on being the best he can be.

 

 

 

I passed or peeked my head in the cages several times each day. They were always busy, lots of hitting off the tee – highly underrated exercise. I believe Bruce Maxwell was in there every time I looked. Bruce will leave Mesa and report to Team Germany on March 14th and work out with the team prior to the WBC Qualifiers in Mexicali on March 17—20.

I watched their body language and how they’d react when they didn’t feel they executed as they should have – not the result, the execution. To a man, they are locked and loaded. And camp hasn’t even officially opened for pitchers and catchers yet, let alone for the position players. 

In addition to those mentioned above, the hitters and fielders I saw this week include Josh Phegley, Billy Butler, Jake Smolinski, and Andrew Lambo. I know other players reported early, I just didn’t see them.

Day 3 of my visit to early camp was focused more on seeing pitchers for the first time. To my delight, in addition to the non-roster-invitees throwing bullpens, I saw several pitchers who have reported even earlier; some will participate in the minor league mini-camp, which begins one week from today – February 25th – and others aren’t due until March 5th.  I usually stay quiet to observe and not distract from work being done, especially at times like this, but when I saw these boys, I wasn’t quiet. Dustin Driver, Heath Fillmyer, Dakota Chalmers, Heath Bowers, and Jordan Schwartz are present and accounted for.

Dillon Overton, Sean Manaea, Ryan Dull, Sonny Gray, Sean Doolittle, Dylan Covey, Seth Frankoff, Daniel Coulombre, and Chalmers all threw bullpens. I saw some of each, but a group who saw all included manager Bob Melvin, bullpen coach Scott Emerson, and rehab pitching coordinator, Craig Lefferts, to name a few.

Manaea was nice enough to talk with me a bit after his bullpen session. The 6’5” lefty has an equally big and illuminating smile. When I first met him prior to the start of the Arizona Fall League, before I ever saw him throw a pitch, his kind, genuine personality, and warm welcoming smile endeared him to me. I wondered what his disposition would be like on the mound. I knew he threw fire but he just seemed too nice. Ha! As I quickly learned, “Game Day Sean” is all business, and I don’t believe batters would ever use the term “kind” to describe him. Ever.

Thankfully, today was not a game day. The Indiana State University product, who came to Oakland in the mid-season trade with Kansas City for Ben Zobrist, put on a show in front of the big league skipper. I asked if he felt any pressure throwing in front of Melvin et.al, given the speculation and projection that he could very well pitch his way on to the opening day roster.

His response: “No, it’s great. Fun, exciting. This whole experience is just…awesome!”

Sean attended the MLB Rookie Development Program in Washington, D.C. earlier this year, and has been working out at the facility in Mesa since early January. He, too, is locked and loaded.

On Saturday, pitchers and catchers will officially report to camp and they’ll take physicals and such. Then, on Sunday, the first public workout of pitchers and catchers will open camp with morning workouts (9:30-ish til 12 or so) at Fitch Park – 160 E. Athletics Way, Mesa, Arizona 85201. 

City of Mesa Honors Athletics Way

Originally published 2/16/16 on OaklandClubhouse.com

       Photo by Bill Mitchell

City of Mesa honors the ‘Athletics Way’ in street name-change ceremony

KIMBERLY CONTRERAS

02/16/2016

MESA, AZ – The City of Mesa honored the Oakland Athletics franchise as they begin their second season with their Arizona facilities at Fitch Park.

It’s here. Baseball is back. Camps don’t officially open until later this week, but at every facility in the Cactus and Grapefruit Leagues, big leaguers and non-roster invitees are already getting to work. The fields at Fitch Park, spring and player development home to the Oakland Athletics, are no exception. Earlier today, close to 60 players were on the fields taking batting practice, throwing bullpens and working on fielding drills. Players and staff will continue to arrive each day as the A’s second season at Fitch Park officially begins.

Inside the facility, everything looks great in the Lew Wolff Training Center. The walls, lined with photos from great moments in Oakland’s history, welcome those who enter as if to say, “All is well with the world because you are here and there is baseball to be played.”

Stepping outside, the fields, of course, look spectacular; head grounds keeper Chad Husswould have it no other way. The almost-90-degree temps, with no relief in sight, can be intimidating this early in the year, but stand in the shade and cool off quickly. It really is a dry heat. Then you hear the familiar sounds of players calling out to one another, bats hitting balls that are caught and thrown; you can see the play in your mind just by the sounds. Yes, baseball is back. Everything just as it was when we left last fall.

Well, there is one change.

And it’s pretty cool.

Fitch Park is little-over half a mile south of Hohokam Stadium on Center Street. To enter the fields and watch workouts or minor league games, you turn off Center and head down to the public parking area off to the right. This is a short private road that houses a building belonging to the City of Mesa on one side, and the Arizona offices of the Oakland A’s on the other. Only two buildings on the street, only two buildings with the street address of 6th Place. Same address the previous inhabitants, the Chicago Cubs, used for the many years they called Fitch Park home.

City of Mesa Mayor John Giles and OaklandClubhouse correspondent Kimberly Contreras / Photo by Bill Mitchell

Sixth place, huh? You’re in a five-team league and you’re on 6th Place. Your address, that is. Well, that’s ok, that didn’t hurt the Cubs any did it??? Wait… So it may not have been the name of the street that did in the Northsiders, but why take any chances?On February 2, 2015, while doing one of my photo updates of the new facilities, I took 100 photos, and didn’t really look at details until I got home. That’s when I read the sign: “Welcome to the Lew Wolff Training Complex. Public Parking on 6th Place.” Ugh. This needed to changed. I had to say something.

I’ve said it a thousand times; Oakland A’s fans are smart, loyal, and tough. They know, and I mean *know*, baseball. They stay through the down times – though they may be vocal, they pack a football stadium during the decent times, and they celebrate like nothing I’ve ever seen during the great times. They know, and can identify front office personnel, the players and coaches in the minor league system, and they even know some of the scouts.

They know all the details of the latest issue preventing them from buying season tickets at a stadium with brand new plumbing. They want their team(s) to stay IN OAKLAND and not move to San Jose or LA. They’ve been through a lot, but they take nothing for granted. They know it’s not going to be easy and they put almost every other fan base to shame.

Many travel to spring training and stay for more than a day or two. They know their team’s spring training home, and it was safe to say most were sad to be leaving the majestic setting of Papago Park, and the institution known as Phoenix Municipal Stadium. This is a tight fan base, steeped in its tradition.

Oakland A’s President Michael Crowley / Photo by Bill Mitchell

So, while it may not seem like much to most, leaving Papago, where you entered on Walter Haas Hwy, to fields named after beloved managers like Mack and LaRussa, for the new digs on 6th Place, it just didn’t sit well with me.

I approached the mayor of Mesa, Arizona – John Giles. I had never met him before last spring. I don’t live in Mesa, never have. Matter of fact I live about 45 minutes northwest of Fitch. There was nothing in it for him to even entertain my idea of changing the name of the road to anything but what it was. But he listened anyway.

At one point he reminded me that the Cubs had the same address for all their years at Fitch. I asked him how many championships the Cubs won during that time. We briefly discussed name options, including my first suggestion “Bob Welch Way”. Bottom line, it was clear that the mayor thought this could work. He said it would. But I’ve worked with enough elected officials to know that I don’t write in ink.

About a month ago I heard from the mayor and he said I would soon receive an invitation to the renaming of 6th Place. That was the first contact I’d had with him since the end of spring training – 10 months ago.

This afternoon, Tuesday, February 16, 2016, the unveiling of “Athletics Way” took place at the north east corner of Center Street and – what use to be – 6th Place.

It was a lovely ceremony with speakers including: Mesa’s City Manager Chris Brady, Oakland A’s president Michael Crowley, Mayor John Giles and District 4 CouncilmemberChris Glover, who represents the area of Fitch Park. Also in attendance were Vice MayorDennis Kavanaugh, Councilmember David Luna, and Councilmember Kevin Thompson.

Crowley spoke about the fact that coming to Mesa has always felt like “coming home” even before the record-breaking spring in 2015, and he is happy and proud to have Athletics Way on the map.

Mayor Giles began his speech admitting that he has been an Oakland A’s fan from when he was a little boy watching games in Rendezvous Stadium. Named all the greats he saw:Rollie Fingers, Reggie Jackson, etc. who were his heroes growing up. Very cool. He then shared some far-too-generous words about me. (However, if you come to my house, you may find that snippet playing on a loop for the foreseeable future.)  Wonder if I can make a ring tone from it? But I digress…

Lily King-Cisneros and the crew with Mesa Channel 11 covered the ceremony, and famed photographer Bill Mitchell took some beautiful photos, as always. Among those in the small crowd were members of the Mayor’s exceptional staff, including Melissa Randazzo andJessica Stone; and from the Athletics, Brad Huss, Steve Vucinich and Ted Polakowski.

If you see Mayor Giles around during spring training, be sure to thank him for his efforts. Remember, he’s an Oakland Athletics fan, too.

Bruce Maxwell to Suit Up for Team Germany – WBC

Originally published 02/09/16 on OaklandClubhouse.com 

2016-03-06 12.33.15

KIMBERLY CONTRERAS

02/09/2016

Oakland A’s catching prospect Bruce Maxwell will participate in the World Baseball Classic qualifying tournament with Team Germany.

MESA, AZ — The Oakland A’s pitchers and catchers officially report to big league camp on February 20th. Catcher Bruce Maxwell — a non-roster invitee to the A’s big league camp — is already in the Phoenix area getting ready for the season. His energy is high, his focus is unwavering, and his mindset is void of all things counterproductive. His time with the big league club will be paused for a week in mid-March, but it’s for a very good reason.

On March 14th, Maxwell will leave Mesa, Arizona, and join Team Germany as they head to Mexicali, Mexico, to compete in a qualifying round for the 2017 World Baseball Classic. The four-day, six-game double elimination tournament begins on March 17 when Maxwell and Team Germany take on Nicaragua at 12:30 pm PST. Mexico will host the Czech Republic in the night cap of Day 1 at Mexicali’s Estadio B Air.

Maxwell learned of Team Germany’s interest in adding him to their roster from A’s Director of Player Development Keith Lieppman.

“It is a great honor to be able to suit up and do what I can to help Germany win the qualifier and advance to the World Baseball Classic,” Maxwell said.

Lieppman says the honor is well deserved.

“Bruce has become a top flight receiver after making huge progress in his receiving and throwing skills,” Lieppman said. “He has a good grasp of pitch sequencing and building good relationships with his pitching staff.”

And, though it is the oft-mocked statement made by players as they report to spring training, Lieppman’s concluding statement is, in fact, true: “Bruce is in the best shape of his career.”

The Alabama native was born in Weisbaden, Germany, while his father, a career Army officer, was stationed there. In 2012, Oakland drafted Maxwell in the 2nd round out of Birmingham Southern College, where he was named the Division III National Player of the Year. His power bat from the left side and natural leadership ability led the 6’2”, 230lb Maxwell to the backstop position, where his defensive and game-calling skills have strengthened each season.

A member of the back-to-back Texas League Champion Midland RockHounds in 2014 and 2015, Maxwell’s past two seasons have been about growth and development. Maxwell’s first focus as a pro was improving defensively — catching was relatively new to him when he turned pro. Since arriving in Midland midway through the 2014 season, he has had to adjust to Double-A pitching while playing in a home ballpark tough on left-handed power-hitters. That adjustment was made a little more challenging for the Army kid, who only knew to try harder and do more in order to improve. A true blessing, according to Maxwell, has been the trust and guidance of A’s minor league pitching coach John Wasdin, and the recent addition of minor league hitting coach Eric Martins.

Martins, a former A’s farmhand himself, joined the RockHounds in 2015 after spending the past several years as a highly respected A’s area scout, says that Maxwell has been finding his identity at the plate.

“Bruce learned a lot about himself as a hitter,” Martins said. “The last few years he was caught up in trying to hit for power and he forgot that he can hit and that the power will come. The numbers don’t show it, but Bruce has as much raw power as anyone we have in the organization. He focused on solidifying his approach and pick and choose when he wants to try and hit a ball out. Defensively, he did an outstanding job in handling the pitching staff and having a good, solid game plan against opposing hitters.

“He’s really cleaned it up behind the plate and has turned himself into a really good defender. He’s a hard worker who is always one of the first guys to the field; working out and getting in his routine. He’s really hard on himself and wants to do well so much that sometimes it’s to his demise. Left-handed hitting catchers with power are an enticing commodity and Bruce fits that mold well. This is a big year for him; he knows it and he’s spent the off-season getting after it. I think the organization will be pleased by what they see on him in spring training.”

Prior to the last WBC, Team Canada — which included Joey Votto, Justin Morneau andMichael Saunders — put an end to Germany’s journey.  Though Maxwell doesn’t yet know who his teammates will be, as anyone who knows, or has ever even met the charismatic catcher, there are no strangers in this world, as far as Maxwell is concerned; just friends he hasn’t yet met. He’s a man of the people, a true fan favorite, and an incredible teammate. On March 21st, regardless of which country advances to play in 2017, one thing is for sure, there will be a spike in the international fan base of the Oakland A’s by way of Bruce Maxwell.

Year One – Corey Zangari

Originally published 1/25/16 on FutureSox.com

By Kim Contreras, January 15, 2016 at 7:51 am

Year One - Corey Zangari

Bottom of the ninth, two outs, and the bases are loaded. One run ties it. Two runs and the Mariners win it all.  White Sox first baseman Corey Zangari is locked in. As the ball leaves the bat of Mariners’ Juan Camacho, Zangari follows it into foul territory, gets underneath it and makes the catch.  And with that, the White Sox are 2015 AZL Champs. There wasn’t a doubt in his mind as he made the catch. There weren’t any nerves either. That’s because winning is all he knows how to do.

First, with his American Legion team at age 9, Corey won the first of three consecutive home run derbies. Then, at Carl Albert High School, when he and his Titan teammates played in four and won three, Oklahoma state championships. Could have been 4 if Corey hadn’t been intentionally walked every time he stepped to the plate. However, if you’re the opposing team, you know that in the previous two games he hit 3 home runs, including 2 grand slams, accounting for 11 RBIs. You’d have walked him too.

If his games were televised, each time the catcher from Midwest City stepped to the plate, they would be must-see tv. You’d put down the remote and watch the right-handed power in all its developing glory. At 6’4”, 240 lbs, Zangari is an imposing figure, especially since he celebrated his 18th birthday a week before playing in his final high school game.

Both parents were athletes growing up; dad, Matthew, ran track, and mom, Kathy played softball and basketball but neither has the same physical development that Corey does though younger brother Caleb shows potential. Corey’s aptitude for the game started as a toddler when his mom introduced him to the game of baseball. Through American Legion, his arm developed just like his bat; both with power, and he was already taller and bigger than most of his peers.

CARL ALBERT HIGH SCHOOL, MIDWEST CITY, OKLAHOMA

As a freshman at Carl Albert High School, Corey joined a program that had already produced J.T. Realmuto, drafted by the Marlins in 2010. And on the team was Sophomore Gavin LaValley and Senior Taylor Hawkins. ‘Z’, as his mom calls him, would be the 4th power hitter in five years. Corey was not assigned to the Varsity squad until mid-season when he was called up to varsity by legendary coach Wayne Dozier, someone who knows a lot about winning himself. During Zangari’s high school career (2012 – 2015) the team posted a record of 139-18-1 – this translates to an 89%-win percentage.

Under Dozier’s leadership, the Carl Albert Titans won 563 games in 17 years. Since 2006, they played in the state championship game 7 times, emerging the victors in 5 (2007, 2009, 2012, 2013, 2014) and the runners-up in 2006 & 2015.  Since 2010, Coach Dozier has had 4 players drafted high enough to forego their college commitments and sign professional contracts out of high school.  They include: Realmuto (Miami Marlins, 2010 /3rd round), Taylor Hawkins (Tampa Bay Rays, 2012 /12th round), Gavin LaValley (Cincinnati Reds, 2014 /4th round) and Corey Zangari, (Chicago White Sox, 2015 /6th round).

Zangari, the youngest of the group, learned the importance of creating a culture of winning, where the momentum works in favor of the team, even in challenging times because the players have a bond with one another. No one gives up, they keep fighting. That was the culture awaiting him his freshman year at CAHS. He learned this because it’s the only way he knew. According to Dozier:

“We had a very close-knit group of players that spent a lot of time together away from the field. They would spend many a night at Gavin LaValley’s (Reds’ organization) house throughout the year and especially at playoff time. We would also have team meals together at my house and then go to movies together as a way to become a closer-knit team.”

Corey was always excited about all of these things and was always asking when we could do it again. His attitude was contagious, especially with some of the other team members who might not be inclined to do that sort of thing. These players began to be more involved.

In 2012, Zangari wasn’t added to the varsity roster until midway into the season. A few weeks later, he was in the starting lineup for his first of four consecutive championship games. Then, without a great deal of experience, Corey was named and remained the team’s lead catcher. Due to a common theme found when asking about his strengths, Corey’s desire to learn and excel expedited his baseball development so that it soon matched that of his physical stature. He logged games in the outfield and at first base as well.

Prior to his senior year, the hard-hitting righty spent time developing into a hard throwing right handed pitcher. His fastball would touch 95, though not consistently. His command of the strike zone was also understandably underdeveloped. But there was promise in his potential, enough to be listed as a pitcher, along with Ashe Russell, Justin Hooper, and Mike Nikorak for the Under Armour All-American Game at Wrigley Field in 2014. He was one of only two pitchers to go 2 innings.

As an integral reason for the three consecutive championship seasons, Corey was on the radar of MLB scouts in the area, especially that of Clay Overcash.

The White Sox area scout knew he wanted to sign Corey the first time he saw him play. The more he saw of the power-hitting junior, the more convinced he became that the White Sox were the perfect fit. He also knew that with the right deal, there would be a good chance Zangari would forego his commitment to play for Oklahoma State and sign a professional contract instead. “He always had a plan to hit, but his greatest strength from the first time I saw him was his ability to make adjustments as a hitter.”

There’s a good chance the teams that faced Zangari and the Carl Albert Titans, especially in 2015, would agree with that assessment. With LaValley gone – drafted by the Reds in 2014 – it was Corey’s team now. No one to lean on or learn from, he was now the leader, on the field and in the clubhouse. Corey struggled a bit at first, according to his coach, “…by trying to be too vocal. After we had some discussions, he realized that to be a leader, to be a truly mentally tough player, it was better for him to say less and focus more on traits of mental toughness.”

He started to lead by example, and as his teammates followed. “Corey’s confidence strengthened and he became more comfortable as a team leader, and in living with his own success and failure.”

In January, Zangari, a member of the National Honor Society, received the prestigious Ferguson Jenkins Award at the annual Warren Spahn Awards Gala. The Jenkins award, sponsored by the Oklahoma Public School Resource Center, recognizes excellence by students in their sport as well as in the classroom. Among other recipients that evening was Wayne Dozier, Outstanding Coach of the Year, and two-time Cy Young Award winner from the LA Dodgers, Clayton Kershaw. The Dodgers’ ace received the Spahn Award, the best left-handed pitcher in the game.

(Photo courtesy of Kathy Zangari)

Corey  Zangari, Clayton  Kershaw, Ferguson Jenkins

Corey Zangari, Clayton Kershaw, Ferguson Jenkins

Little did anyone realize when this was taken that the two award recipients would become neighbors when spring training comes around. The Dodgers and White Sox share facilities at Camelback Ranch, Glendale.

ANOTHER CHAMPIONSHIP SEASON?

As always, the goal is to play until the final out of the season, and for the fourth year in a row, Corey and his Carl Albert teammates played in the championship game. The Titans did not win the title, due in large part to the fact that Corey’s bat was silenced. Even when there was nobody on base, he was intentionally walked each time he stepped to the plate. That may sound extreme at first, but if the team from Shawnee High School wanted to dethrone the reigning champs, they knew better than to let Zangari swing a bat.

After being “The Kid” for three years, Corey was now, “the Man.” He, literally and figuratively, stepped up to the plate and made the opposition regret having pitched to him. He alone was the subject of meetings as teams prepped to face the Titans. He was already having a monster year the best year of his career; hitting half of his 38 career home runs in his senior year.  In the playoffs, when it mattered the most like he did all year long, Corey came up big. In the two must-win games, he hit 3 home runs, including 2 grand slams (one each game) and a 2 run home run, to leave no doubt who would advance to the title game. Won and Won.

Of the many memories Dozier holds dear to of his time with Corey, it all boils down to this:

“Corey is a clutch player. He was able to raise the level of his game to an even higher plateau after many of the players, the backbone of our 3-year state championship run, had graduated. We were not as deep or talented as before, so Corey stepped up and produced at a greater level. He put more weight on his shoulders and responded with unbelievable consistency, especially during the playoffs.”

Kathy Zangari’s son turned 18 on May 7th, but he was already a man.

THE DRAFT

Less than a month after the championship game, Corey’s life would change forever.

Overcash wanted Zangari in the White Sox organization from the first day he saw him, and once he signed the 6th round pick, it was official.

“Anytime you take a high school player you worry a little about how they will adapt to professional baseball and the daily grind. After spending five days in the dugout with him in Jupiter at world wood bat tournament, I felt like he was ready. He’s really a great athlete; such a mature kid when it comes to hitting, too. “

When asked for a big leaguer to compare to Corey, the longtime area scout didn’t pull any punches: “Paul Goldschmidt…with an infectious personality.”

He’s not wrong about that.

WELCOME TO GLENDALE!

Shortly after signing his contract with the White Sox, Corey headed for the player development facility in Glendale, Arizona where he would spend the next 3 ½ months playing in the Arizona Summer Rookie League (AZL) or as it is often referred to, “The Fire League.” Games are played in the evening, but the 7 pm first pitch temperature is often 100 degrees or even above. The 2015 season was one of the hottest summers on record, too. The heat takes a toll on everyone, but you adapt.

As all teams do to some extent, the White Sox host a pre-season mini-camp for the draftees. Veteran guest instructors are brought in to talk to and work with the young rookies whose lives have been in a whirlwind of excitement and change. In another example of insight and understanding what the newest kids need, former Sox DH/1B Jim Thome was, for a few days, Corey Zangari’s coach. The elder power hitter watched the rookie send a few sailing over the batters’ eye in batting practice.

“He [Thome] told me, ‘Yes, you can definitely hit. But we need to work on the fundamental round. Gotta get to work on the fundamentals of hitting.’ I wasn’t sure exactly what he meant at the time, but I did whatever he told me to do, the best I could do it and it seemed to work.” Corey shared.

Truth be told, Corey may not have known what it was called, but as Overcash states, “He is a mature hitter, who hits for power.” Let the distinction be clear, the in-game adjustments, and toward the end of the season, even in-at-bat adjustments that he made could not have happened if he were merely a power hitter. Zangari is a hitter, who can hit for power.

However, it was taking this hitter longer than he wanted to record his first professional hit. Not until his 3rd game, after going 0-10, but it was worth it. With catcher Seby Zavala on base, Corey announced himself to the world of professional baseball with a loud 2 run home run to left field, and the “Killer Z’s” were born.

Offensively, the AZL White Sox were a force to be reckoned with. Each batter was a grinder. The organization’s philosophy on hitting centers on having a plan and being aggressive. That combination resulted in a team leading the league doubles, hits and OPS, 2nd in HRs and runs scored, SLG, OBP. Another sign that the two-pronged approach was working, the team was in the top 5 in walks and had the 2nd fewest strikeouts. This team production is why 4 of the 9 positions on the AZL All-Star team were White Sox. Well, if we’re going to be precise, there were 3 players, named to 4 positions. Zangari was the DH and the 3B, despite never having played the position. Never mind the details, just get the big picture: he’s good. Really good. Everyone knows it.

The transition from catcher to 1st base required a greater focus on the defensive details by the 18-year-old rookie. He didn’t get frustrated, he became more determined; extra drills, extra reps, extra effort of whatever would help him improve. In contrast to his physical presence and his mental approach, he was among the very youngest in the league at all times.  Easy to forget, at times.

THE INTERVIEWS 

While I attended many games and spoke to him at different times, I formally interviewed Corey on two separate occasions in August.

My 3 takeaways were: 1) How grounded he is; doesn’t try to be anything other than who he is. Impressive, especially for being so young. 2) That he’s a respectful young man, not just one who says what he should in order to be seen as respectful – there’s a difference.  3) How much he loves the game of baseball.

The most surprising thing I learned about him: his favorite food is sushi!

One game that Corey won’t ever forget – nor will I or anyone else in attendance – was at home against the Indians on August 5th.

In the bottom of the 2nd inning, Seby Zavala scored; Corey and teammate Micker Adolfo were heading home on a single by Danny Mendick. As Zangari scores, he turns to direct Adolfo, At the same time, the catcher moved to the outside of the plate, forcing Adolfo to head to the inside the plate, when his cleat got stuck in the ground. Adolfo’s body turned, his leg did not. Resulting in a spiral break of his tibia. Freak accident.

8/5/15 Zangari scores, Adolfo rounding 3rd

8/5/15 Adolfo falls,

8/5/15 Adolfo writing after cleat sticking in the dirt as he tried to score.

8/5/15 - Micker  Adolfo leaving the field

What is unforgettable is the sound Adolfo made as he fell and writhed on home plate in great pain. The deep shrill and the pain on his face was too much for me. Corey and the rest of the team were motionless while Adolfo was cared for, then carried off the field. It was the last game of the season for one of Corey’s roommates and good friends.

I caught up with Corey again on August 15th and asked how he was doing. He said he had been “in a little slump.” This was news to me because I checked the box scores every day and nothing stood out. When I asked if he knew what was causing the “slump”, he paused for a moment and then broke down the mechanics of his swing and how he needed to adjust his hands to keep up with the rapid pace of the game on the professional level. He then followed with “but it just takes one hit to end it.” During his self-analysis, I couldn’t help notice his hands involuntarily act out what he was describing that he should be doing. The moves were discrete and seemed instinctive.

I asked what he would normally do if he were experiencing the same thing at home. “Talk to my mom.” he said.  That’s a good approach anytime, but especially when mom played softball and knows both the game and her son so well. When I suggested he call her, he said he didn’t have to because she and his dad, Matthew, arrived in Phoenix and would be at the game that night.

I don’t have to tell you that the slump ended that night, do I? Corey went 4-5 with 2 RBI. Slump over. The next night at the Reds, he logged his first – and only – multi-home run game of the season. Two 2 run home runs. I repeat: the slump was over.

THE POST-SEASON

August 30th

http://www.milb.com/milb/stats/stats.jsp?sid=milb&t=g_box&gid=2015_08_30_dodrok_wsxrok_1

Earlier I shared Coach Dozier’s memory of watching Corey mature and become a clutch player. This single elimination playoff game against the Dodgers is when I can pinpoint seeing Corey Clutch. In retrospect, it’s quite fitting that in a playoff game, when it matters the most, Zangari performs best. I took the picture below in the bottom of the 11th inning. The losing team packs up and starts their off-season. Perfect time for Corey to step up to the plate.

Bottom of the 11th, Aug 30, 2015 – Just before he walks it off!

Bottom of the 11th, Aug 30, 2015 - Just before he walks it off!

Runners on first and second. Corey takes a breath, swings the bat and Danny Mendick scores the winning run on a base hit. Walk off White Sox. Next, they defeat the Royals 4-1 to move on to the title game against the Mariners, as the visitors.

Pregame and throughout every inning of the nail-biter, there did not appear to be the same nerves on the field that permeated the stands.

Middle of the 9th; White Sox lead 3-1 and are 3 outs away from their first AZL championship. The bottom of the 9th took years off the lives of many in the stands. One run scored, pitching change, a walk to load the bases. I survey the players on both teams; everyone seems to be mentally present. Then with 2 outs and the bases loaded, first baseman Corey Zangari tracks the ball as it leaves the bat and heads to foul territory by first base. With the same expression he wore the whole game, he’s locked-in. He wants the ball, every ball, to come to him. He knows he’ll make the play. As he positions himself under the foul ball for the 3rd out of the game and the final out of the season, there’s not a doubt in my mind that he’s going to make it. He does. Ball game. AZL Champs and none of it came easily.

AZL Championship Game 09/02/15  Zangari with the catch!

The next day, Corey was on a plane to join the Great Falls Voyagers, the short season affiliate in the Pioneer League. He joined former roommate Jordan Stephens for the final week of their season.

The stats below do not include post-season play, which is too bad. It’s also sad that there’s no measurement for coming through in the clutch.

Coach Dozier says, “Big players are going to turn up big in big games. That’s the competitor in them and that’s what they do. They look for situations. They’ll find a way to be successful and the other guys will wilt.

There is no doubt that Corey Zangari is a big player.

10/01/15 Instructs - Zangari & Puig

 

Year One – Jordan Stephens

Originally published 12/22/15 on FutureSox.com

Year One - Jordan Stephens
Pitcher Jordan Stephens, AZL White Sox (Kim Contreras / Future Sox)

***This article is the first of a three-part series, covering a full year’s journey for three players drafted and signed in 2015 by the White Sox.***

This time last year, Jordan Stephens was a red-shirt junior at Rice University; shut down after suffering a setback in his first bullpen followingTommy John surgery. Today, he’s the newest addition to MLB Pipeline’s list of the Top 30 White Sox prospects. It’s been an arsenal and a roadmap that has made the difference in the past twelve months; the same as he’s used throughout his young life. An arsenal of pitches – fastball, slider, change-up, and his devastating curveball and two-seamer duo.

Jordan’s path to success starts at his feet: firmly planted in a foundation of family, focus, and hard work. It travels to his heart, where champions are made. And it finally arrives at the control center from which all success is achieved: his mind.

I’m going to take a deep look at how 2015 unfolded for this 23-year-old right-handed pitcher from Alvin, Texas, but first let’s provide some background.

Alvin High School

Jordan Shane Stephens turned 23 on September 12th. He carries his athletic frame (6’1”, 190lbs) and graduated from Alvin High School in 2011 – where he played his home games on the field named after another Alvin native, Nolan Ryan.

According to Mike Rogers, former long time varsity coach for the Alvin Yellowjackets, the Jordan Stephens we see today is very much the same as he was in high school.

“Jordan was that quiet, confident player; always very focused. His teammates relied on him and his ability to be relaxed and focused, to be “the guy” in big moments of the game. He was the starter of our must-win games.”

On the mound his senior year, Stephens gave up 57 hits, including 6 doubles and 2 home runs, issued a measly 18 walks while striking out an even 100 – all in 65.4 innings. When he wasn’t toeing the rubber for Coach Rogers, Jordan also played shortstop or second base. His average was just below .300, with 11 hits, including a double and a home run, and he walked 5 times. On the base paths, he was a perfect 3 for 3 in stolen bases, swiping more bags as a baserunner than he allowed as a pitcher (1).

In his final prep season, Jordan’s fastball was 88-92 but, Rogers says, “he really enjoyed throwing his breaking pitches to rack up high strike out numbers.” Clearly, it worked: 100 of the 197 outs of his senior season came by strike out.

Coach Rogers also shares that when Jordan was younger, he worked with Brian Alexander from Alvin Community College, and Davis Pierce, former Rice Assistant coach. “He always knew he wanted to be a major leaguer. I couldn’t be more proud of his accomplishments and look forward to following his career.”

Rice Owls

Houston is 30 minutes or so northwest of Alvin, which made it easy for friends and family to support Stephens when he took the mound for coachWayne Graham and the Rice Owls. During his solid freshman season in 2012, he started 8 of his 14 games and struck out 40 batters in his 39 innings pitched.

In 2013, behind tournament MVP Stephens, the Rice Owls defeated the host Oregon Ducks in Eugene, before falling to North Carolina State in the Raleigh Super-Regionals. The Owls were knocked out of contention when they fell 5-4 to the Wolfpack in the longest game in tournament history – 17 innings. Jordan was the starting pitcher, allowed only one run and dazzled the NC State lineup (future teammates Jake Fincher and Brett Austin) for the first 6 1/3 innings. Ten innings later, Rice’s season was done. But momentum heading into 2014 was in the right direction.

This was also when White Sox Area Scout, Chris Walker, first saw the strike-throwing right-hander from Alvin. At the time, his arsenal included his fastball, velo up a bit to 90 – 93, and touched 95 at times; a two-seamer with good life at 89 – 92; his out pitch, as in high school, was his 11-5 curve ball; along with a slider and change-up to round things out.

About that first time seeing Stephens, Walker remembers: “He didn’t have his best stuff that day but be he mentally beat the team he was pitching against. At that point, I knew I wanted him to be in our organization.”

February 28, 2014

Minute Maid Park, home of the Houston Astros, was also the site of the weekend tournament Houston College Classic in 2014. Game 1 for Rice was against the rival Texas Longhorns. Stephens, the Friday night starter, was looking to extend his record to 3-0, all the better to be against Texas. In the first inning, he got the first batter to ground out, then a walk, a hit, a strike out looking and a whiff to end the 1st. Emotions were high but as usual, their starter was in control.

Bottom of the 2nd: Stephens looks to be in control… is he? I’ll let Jordan explain from here:

“I was already in so much pain, taking aspirin before and after every outing since fall ball. Earlier in the year (2013) I took off for winter, but when it was time for the season to start, I had to start with the aspirin. I was sore after every outing. Sore. But especially this game. When I came out for the 2nd inning, it was hurting. A lot. My velo was dropping but thankful to have gotten the first 2 batters out. Count was 2-2 to the 3rd batter, I threw what was supposed to be a fastball, and I felt the “pop”; felt like I just hyperextended my arm. It hurt a lot, but I didn’t grab my arm or anything. I had to get out of the inning. I just lobbed it up there, at like 68 miles an hour, and it was lined out to third base, thankfully. We walked back to the dugout. The catcher already said something to the coach about something not being right. Coach greeted me and I just said, ‘My arm’s done.’”

I asked if he had any doubt about what the “pop” was.

“No,” He responded, “it wasn’t attached anymore. It was hanging down here. I’m pretty sure I pitched all those games [in the fall and the 2 starts in February] with it torn.”

Hanging there. This is him showing me what that meant:

Jordan Stephens - UCL

 

In his typical, humble, understated yet ultra-competitive way, he knew that he would do whatever it took to return to the team and to continue playing the game he loves.

When Dr. Patrick McCulloch performed the surgery on March 6, 2014, Jordan said it felt as if he were in a unique situation; being so young and having this procedure. Within a month, though, thanks to fellow top draft prospects like ECU’s Jeff Hoffman, and of course the discussion about Brady Aiken’s arm health (one year before he had his UCL replaced) he learned how many of his contemporaries were joining him in the rapidly growing fraternity of Tommy John veterans.

Jordan is a smart, introspective young man. I asked him if he thought one of the reasons for UCLs needing to be replaced at an alarming rate and with decreasing longevity had anything to do with the 50 week baseball season (which is capturing the attention of middle school aged ball players and up now), without any hesitation he said, ”Yes.”

“Everyone nowadays is playing too much Select Ball. Never taking a break.” Kudos to Jordan for understanding.

I asked if he ever thought about playing football, to mix things up a bit. He said, “No. In high school, I never wanted to play football. I didn’t want to get hurt or be taken off-course. I had one goal, and that was it.” That last sentence, “I had one goal, and that was it” sums up this young man’s focus and drive to be better than the best he can be.

The details of his surgery prove that his maturity is not just mental. Here’s why: typically, the Palmaris longus tendon is harvested from the forearm and grafted in place of the old UCL. Because it is a redundant tendon, meaning it’s not used and as we humans evolve, some are born without one. Case in point: Jordan Stephens. Instead, his surgeons harvested Jordan’s Gracilis from the inside of his leg. This too is a less-than-necessary connector. The Gracilis, coming from the leg, is thicker and more durable than the Palmaris longus, which even to a layperson would sound like better, more durable option.

Instead of having one extremity to rehabilitate, Jordan was charged with both his right arm and his right leg. All conditions worked in his favor, though. It is common to experience a setback or two while rehabbing from this procedure. Jordan’s one and only setback took place last December – 9 months after surgery and just as he prepared to throw his first bullpen session. He was immediately shut down until the new year. When he returned to the program, all went as planned.

In fact, Jordan’s rehab progressed so well, and so quickly, he returned to game action in only 49 weeks. That’s 11 months, 1 week from surgery. Rehab guidelines and timetables vary by person, but a full return to game action, at the level where the patient was playing when he was hurt, on the most optimistic of time frames, start at 12 months. Is this one more example of how evolved Stephens is? Possibly. But one person who was not surprised by the efficient return was Coach Rogers:

“He’s always had an outstanding work ethic, so it did not surprise me at all that he was able to come back from Tommy John surgery in 11 months. His mechanics were always very simple and solid.”

Jordan’s signing-scout, Walker, however, wasn’t initially as certain as Rogers: “The quick return did concern me at first but after watching Jordan pitch for a few outings all concerns went away.”

Jordan vs the Longhorns – Take 2

February 15, 2015. The Texas Longhorns traveled to Houston to face the Rice Owls. Jordan Stephens wanted … no, he needed to get in this game and avenge his last outing almost a year ago.

Fast forward to the top of the 9th. The game is tied at 3, bases are loaded and no outs. Coach Wayne Graham makes his call to the pen and brings in the righty. For the first time in almost a year after major surgery, Stephens returns to the mound in competitive action, against the rival Longhorns, in a pressure-packed moment. So many emotions, so much adrenaline! Each factor alone is enough to try even the best of us. Not Jordan Stephens, though. Well…he may have felt the pressure, but it didn’t show and it didn’t impact his execution.

How did he perform? It took all of 12 pitches to end the inning. The drama doesn’t get much more intense. Then, to enter the game with bases loaded and, on TWELVE pitches, gets out of the jam and no one scores. This is a movie in the making! Even though Texas scored in the top of the 10th and won the game, the story of that day, was the emotional, dominant return of Jordan Stephens. He, again followed his roadmap to success.

Including his return outing, Jordan appeared in 17 games, for a total of 59.2 carefully monitored innings in his 2015 college season, most (11) as the starter. He gave up 51 hits, 30 runs (21 earned), 1 home run, allowed 17 walks, and claimed 75 strike outs. This was all completed within 15 months post-op.

MLB DRAFT

As the June draft approached, Stephens didn’t know where or by whom he would be drafted. Chris Walker did. As he decided the first time he saw Stephens pitch, Walker lobbied in the White Sox “war room” and the team grabbed him their 5th round selection (142nd overall), actually the team’s third pick of the draft (the club didn’t have 2nd or 3rd round picks this year). The Houston-area native signed for under the $380K slot, as is common practice in cases such as his, and he was now officially a South Sider.

“Jordan has to be one of the most mentally strong individuals I’ve ever met. He’s the true definition of a bulldog on the mound. If he doesn’t have his best stuff that day. He’ll just out-compete you.” said Walker.

When asked for an MLB comp, Walker readily admits the 5th rounder reminds him of former White Sox RHP Jake Peavy. “Both have great movement to their pitches and both are huge competitors.” When it comes to their personal lives, both pitchers are said to be humble and very family-oriented.

Walker concludes, “I’m looking forward to watching him progress throughout his career.”

AZL

The Arizona Summer Rookie League (AZL) is usually where young high school draft picks, later round college players, Latin American players in their first state-side look, and those who have strict outing limits are assigned. Stephens was most definitely on an innings limit. After his 59.2 innings at Rice; 14.2 in the AZL; 3 in the Pioneer League; and 1 during Fall Instructs. 76.4 post-Tommy John innings is enough for his first year.

I had the pleasure of seeing 5 of his 9 appearances in Arizona, as well as his single outing at Instructs. The first thing I noticed about Jordan was his impeccable posture as he comes set on the mound. The next thing I noticed was all the ground ball outs his induces. After a little research, given the small sample size, it turns out it didn’t take anything special to notice what a ground ball inducing machine he was.

For his professional debut, Stephens faced the offensive powerhouse known as the AZL Brewers on July 16th. His one inning came as the starter and when he got Milwaukee’s lead-off batter and 1st round pick, Trent Clarkto strike out swinging, Stephens was in the books. Outing number two was against the Athletics. He faced one over the minimum with 2 ground outs and a strike out. Essentially, if you just copy and paste that performance 9 more times, you’ll have his rookie season in a nutshell. Aside from his debut, Jordan would follow starter Christopher Comito’s 5 innings with one and then two of his own.

In addition to his impressive stats and performance, Jordan Stephens is a tremendous teammate as well – a “helper” by nature. When White Sox 1st round pick Carson Fulmer reported to Glendale in preparation of his single outing debut, Jordan spent a little time with him, including giving a ride to the facility. Rave reviews all around.

There is a small circle of the elite leaders in player development. The White Sox Director of Player Development, Nick Capra, is in that select group. His honest and insightful assessment of the skill and make-up of those under his charge earns him respect from far and wide in the baseball world.

I distinctly remember watching Stephens’ one and only inning during Instructs with Capra. As Stephens walked off the mound, I asked Nick his thoughts about the former Rice Owl. In true form, Capra replied, “I put him right up there with Fulmer.”

After his last outing in the AZL on August 26th, Stephens was promoted to Great Falls of the Pioneer League. Wonderful for Jordan, except that the AZL White Sox, of which he was a vital member on and off the field, was blasting through their post-season opponents (and a nasty Mother Nature, as well) on their way to their first AZL title.

As manager Mike Gellinger and the AZL White Sox defeated the Mariners in the championship game, Jordan was following along in Great Falls, but he was with his teammates in Arizona in spirit. He was especially happy for his good friend Chris Comito, who was outstanding as the winning pitcher of record. It would have been nice to have Jordan celebrate with his teammates and coaching staff that night. When the team is awarded their rings during spring training, Jordan will receive one, too, of course.

I should note that each conversation I had with Jordan throughout the summer always included his praise of the AZL coaching staff, and especially for his first professional pitching coach, Felipe Lira.

The Offseason

October 1st meant his first professional season was in the books.

AZL totals: 9 games, 14.2 innings, 44 outs, 52 batters. – 22 GO / 3 AO / 18Ks / 2BBs / 1 ER. As I mentioned, though it’s a small sample size, Jordan’s two-seam fastball has magical, ground-ball-inducing powers. Half of the outs he got were on the ground. He also averaged 1.2 batters over the minimum.

Great Falls totals: 2 games, 3 innings, 2 hits, 0 runs, BB, 3 strike outs.

Jordan returned home to his family in Alvin in early October. Time to rest, reconnect with friends and family, and reflect on all that happened in the past year. It was also time to make plans for the future. Just before Thanksgiving, Jordan asked his longtime girlfriend, Katie, to marry him. The ring on her finger, the smile on her face, and in her Instagram post confirmed that she said Yes. This too will be a busy year for Jordan, leading up to the couple’s big day on October 22, 2016.

Thinking ahead on Jordan’s behalf, given the timing of the world series, I believe the happy couple will be spending more than one anniversary in a big league ballpark somewhere. That will be a very good reason to postpone a celebration.

Just as Coach Mike Rogers, and scout Chris Walker both expressed, Jordan Stephens from Alvin, Texas has an incredibly bright future ahead of him, and I look forward to following every step of the way.