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A’s for Alex

A's for Alex

Alex Lessner & Chris Lessner

“Hey Ruben,” I whispered to my friend and A’s veteran minor league coach Ruben Escalera, “what do the yellow wristbands mean?” “They’re for Cre’s little son, Alex.” [he paused, presumably for my heart to sink] “He has cancer.”

I immediately thought back to 2012 when the darling 7-year-old bat boy, whose helmet was as big as he was, would hustle as he’d bring water and baseballs to the umpires or to retrieve a bat left behind.  This sweet child was a much of a fixture – and hard worker – at Papago and now at Fitch as any other member of the staff, including his father, Chris. Of the million questions populating my brain, most were answered when I read the dark green letters printed on the yellow neoprene band: “A’s for Alex.” Three simple words, one powerful, comforting statement on the tight-knit family based at the Lew Wolff Training Center in Mesa Arizona. With this group in his corner, I pity the opponent.

LIFE BEFORE CANCER
Alex Lessner and his older brother Tyler have grown up on the fields at Papago and Fitch. Their dad, Chris is completing his 21st year as a certified athletic trainer with Oakland, almost all that time based in Arizona. Chris (who’s known as “Cre”) would bring his sons to work on weekends and during summer break. They learned from an early age how to behave in baseball, how to work and how important it is to hustle. They earned the respect of coaches and players, and, best of all, spent time with their dad. Though not as often as when they were younger, thanks to busy school, sports, and social calendars, the boys still spend as much time on the fields when they can.

Working hard, doing well in his honors classes, and playing sports is how Alex spends most of his time. He’s a multi-sport athlete, playing soccer, football and his favorite of all, baseball. He’s pretty good, too. In May 2016, just before his 11th birthday Alex went 3 for 3 with 6 RBIs, 2 home runs and a double off the top of the centerfield fence at the Reach 11 Complex in North Phoenix in a tournament with the Madison RAMMS. A fun, final game of the season! Though he would miss playing baseball in the summer, he could not wait to start playing tackle football in the fall.

AUGUST 2016
Football practice started the first week of August, when the daytime temperature in Phoenix is still 110 degrees. Add the mid-monsoon humidity and nightly threat of storms, and it is uncomfortable day or night even without football pads. It sounds grueling, and it is, but in this case, tackle football may have also saved Alex’s life.

August 1: First practice for his Pop Warner tackle football team. Daytime high temp and humidity were as expected – miserable – but Alex didn’t care; he was too excited. Besides, as a Phoenix-native, he’s played sports in this weather all his life. When Chris called home to see how practice was, the report wasn’t what he expected. Chris’s wife, Steph described Alex being slow and sluggish; and needing frequent breaks. Each practice was increasingly worse (vomiting during practice, increased fatigue) but through it all, Alex never wanted to quit or complained. He objected when Chris decided to keep him home on Thursday.  When he returned on Friday full of energy feeling great, there was a collective sigh of relief; the worst appeared to be over. Appeared to be. Until Saturday morning when the previous day’s high was outmatched by a severe plummet. The 11-year-old was so fatigued he would not have moved if his dad had not made him go shopping for new cleats and minimal school supplies.

New week, new school year, but the same inconsistent endurance. Why? Alex did not have a fever or other signs of illness; no complaints of feeling sick. It didn’t make sense.  When an obviously bewildered Chris returned twenty-minutes after practice began, he was greeted by one of the Pop Warner coaches. The fireman-by-day told Chris that Alex was not “… deconditioned; there’s something more to this.” In retrospect, the signs indicating something wasn’t right with Alex were there. But perpetual-second-guessing is a staple of parenting.

During an exam the next day, the pediatrician found nothing conclusive and suggested Alex might be battling a cold or maybe his asthma was acting up and advised that he forego practice the rest of the week. School was draining, and though he experinced some nausea during PE, it was manageable, all signs pointed to the doctor being right. Just in time, too: club baseball practice would be starting soon. Put another quarter in the carousel of second-guesses.

Or not.

Alex didn’t make it through the first stretch of the first practice before getting sick in the dugout trashcan. In true “trooper” form, he hustled back to the field only to be shut down after taking 4 grounders. Enough was enough. Chris took him directly to the Urgent Care closest to their central Phoenix home: the world renowned Phoenix Children’s Hospital. Alex underwent several tests and a panel of bloodwork in 8 hours. Aside from finding an enlarged spleen and an irregular liver, there were more questions when they left than they had when they arrived. Tests included an ultrasound on his stomach, an EKG, and a chest x-ray. The blood work ordered was a Basic Metabolic Panel (BMP), standard for routine physicals or, as in this case, for emergency room patients to find chemical imbalances (glucose and calcium levels; balanced electrolyte and fluid levels) in need of immediate attention.

As instructed, the Lessners saw their pediatrician the following day for a more thorough panel of bloodwork. A Complete Blood Count (CBC) measures the White Blood Cells, Red Blood Cells and Platelets and is key to identifying cancer.  After waiting an eternity (or 24 hours) there was a diagnosis, “Alex has a blood disorder…  [he has] leukemia.” Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia, to be precise.

Eighteen days from the first noticeable symptoms the Lessner family headed to PCH to meet with the team of specialists and review the diagnosis, treatment, and next steps. The medical team started by naming and explaining the diagnosis as well as the steps of treatment and progress. Alex listened attentively, nodded in understanding, saving his energy for fighting cancer rather than the diagnosis. The same was not true for his parents or for his brother. As they listened to the experts explain in detail what would become the “new normal” of their lives, they found themselves alternating between feeling gut-punched and to collectively thinking – hoping –  this was just a bad dream.

THE DIAGNOSIS
Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia (A.L.L.) is an aggressive (acute) cancer of the blood and bone marrow that starts at the early formation of white blood cells (at the lymphoblast stage) in the bone marrow. According to the American Cancer Society:

“A.L.L. is the most common childhood cancer affecting fewer than 200,000 cases (US) per year, and because leukemia cells usually invade the blood fairly quickly, they can then spread to other parts of the body, including the lymph nodes, liver, spleen, central nervous system (brain and spinal cord), and testicles (in males.) It can progress quickly and if not treated, would probably be fatal within a few months.” (2)

Remember: the first set of tests at PCH showed Alex with an enlarged spleen and an irregular liver. An early diagnosis and an aggressive treatment plan worked in his favor. If not for football practice who knows how long it would have been before Alex showed signs for concern.

The treatment plan began immediately. The only way to stop the aggressive cancer cells in their earliest stages of development was to attack with large dosages of cancer killing chemotherapy drugs Vincristine & Cytarabine. Anti-nausea medicine was key to helping the 11 year old through one of the maligned side effects of the treatment.

In order to get the chemo into his system, a port with a tube that feeds into a vein near his heart was inserted just under the flesh of Alex’s chest. The port is shaped, for example, like a giant Rolo candy (individually wrapped chocolate covered caramel bites). Once implanted the chemotherapy drugs are easily administered by inserting a needle into the center of the “Rolo” for the duration of his three-stage, 36-month treatment process.

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THE TREATMENT PLAN
STAGE 1 (MONTH 1) INDUCTION: The first and most intense of three stages began immediately with the insertion of the port. High dosages of chemotherapy drugs necessary to kill the cancer cells, also weaken the immune system. Alex required frequent exams and check-ins with his medical team to ensure the intensity level was in balance and that the cancer cells weren’t spreading to his brain through his blood and fluid (known as cerebrospinal fluids or CSF). The only way to monitor this is by a spinal tap.  If you cringe at the thought of this procedure, imagine how Alex must have felt as he had the first of 15 (and counting.)

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There is no break in the war raging in his little body, but, as expected he was considered to be in remission at the end of the first stage. Remission does not mean “cured” or “cancer-free”. It means 99% of the 100 billion cancer cells are gone, but also that 1% (or 100 million cells) remain and must continue to be attacked.

STAGE 2 (MONTHS 2-4) CONSOLIDATION/ INTENSIFICATION was more intense than the first stage as its focus was on attacking the remaining cancer cells hiding in the body. The higher concentration of chemo drugs took a toll on his already-weakened immune system, requiring longer and more frequent stays at PCH but he got through, with his dad by his side every day and night.

Alex responded to each step of each phase the way he did most things in his young life: with acceptance and a low-key positive approach. He didn’t panic or display any fear. He absorbed information and processed experiences to strengthen his battle against the evil invader. No complaining, no worrying, no irritable behavior, and no questioning, “why me?” While it’s easy to be impressed by such a display of courage, especially from a child, Chris was more concerned with his son’s mental health. He didn’t want him to suppress his feelings or to think he “had to be” strong. An evolved father like Chris knows the value of expressing and processing emotions and there were a couple of times when the physical exhaustion, especially in the hospital, gave way to a natural and healthy breakdown into tears. With his father to comfort him until it passed, Alex Lessner was ready to refocus on the task at hand: beating cancer and Chris Lessner returned to worrying.

Even in the best of times “parenting” and “worrying” are synonymous. Whether it’s Alex or first-born son Tyler, Proud Papa Chris’s eyes light up when he describes his sons as smart, hardworking and good young men. He’ll tell you about Tyler, who is entering his sophomore year at Brophy College Prep and how his talents are demonstrated in the tech or gaming area, or how Alex’s interests outside of his honors classes have centered around sports. He loves talking about his boys almost as much as he loves talking with them. But, as parents are told once the baby is born, make some room in the closet because a houseguest will arrive soon. His name is Worry and he’s never leaving. So, while Alex may not be afraid or concerned, his dad is enough for both.

STAGE 3 (MONTHS 5 – 36+) MAINTENANCE: The first two stages combined for 25% of the time and 75% of the intensity and treatment. Conversely, and though oversimplifying, the final stage spreads the remainder of the chemo treatments over the rest of the projected time frame. Alex’s routine during this stage includes taking daily and weekly pills, along with monthly/ bi-monthly chemo sessions. Scheduled “re-induction” treatments – repeating the same intense process from the first month are built in as a “booster”. Close and careful monitoring of his white cell count is as important as ever.

THE BASEBALL WINTER MEETINGS
In the world of professional baseball, there’s an important step between Thanksgiving and Christmas: the Winter Meetings. A week-long event where staff and decision-makers in Major and Minor League Baseball, affiliates, stakeholders, and job-seekers gather to, among other things, decide on issues and actions for the coming season. In December 2016, just outside of Washington D.C. members of the Professional Baseball Athletic Trainers Society or PBATS participated in their annual vote for a service-organization partner for the upcoming season. The elected recipient, its cause and mission, is promoted by PBATS throughout the year and is the beneficiary of the groups’ single-day fundraising effort during spring training. In previous years, Oakland’s Nate Brooks (former minor league rehab coordinator promoted to medical coordinator) and Jeff Collins (former minor league medical coordinator, current assistant athletic trainer for the big league club) represented the Athletics in a leadership capacity.

In years past, members voted to partner with organizations such as Wounded Warriors, St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital, and MLBs B.A.T (Baseball Assistance Team).  On a multiple choice ballot, three months after MLB and Stand Up to Cancer kicked off a month long effort recognizing September as Childhood Cancer Awareness month, an overwhelming majority of PBATS voters selected the National Pediatric Cancer Foundation, whose mission is to fund research that will end childhood cancer as their 2017 partner. Lessner was home in Phoenix with Alex and the family, but his colleagues in DC called him when the selection was announced. Great news, even if he didn’t know much about the organization, he knew their mission and that’s all that mattered. In some small way, those who cast their vote for the NPCF, would make a difference in the lives of the most innocent victims, like Alex:  kids and cancer.

Helping those close to us in their time of need or suffering is necessary. Maybe more so for those on the giving end because as human beings, it’s in our DNA to take care of one another.  The PBATS vote was made just a day after the passing of the Athletics  long time minor league video coordinator, Mark Smith.  He was beloved by all in baseball who knew him and was a fixture in Arizona and with the Athletics. Heartbreakingly, Mark was the 4th member to be taken from the small but mighty A’s player development family in a span of 2.5 years. First, the incomparable Bob Welch, then young pitcher Michael Nolan; and, in April 2016 rehabbing tenured pitching prospect Sean Murphy. Mark grieved, as we all did, for those taken too soon and without warning.  When it was he whom we next had to mourn, it didn’t seem real.

There was little time to catch our breath and come to terms with Mark’s passing, before the family would suffer another loss, one that was felt on two levels with the passing of 2016 draft pick, Casey Thomas. The shortstop had been a valuable member of the AZL A’s during his rookie season, died on May 1, 2017. As tragic a loss, our hearts broke for his father, Tom, a veteran and well-respected evaluator, is a member of Oakland’s scouting cadre. The Thomas family is based in Arizona, not far from Fitch where Tom had been a welcomed and familiar face.

As a close-outsider, I too, experienced each loss. With each heartache came an overwhelming feeling of helplessness that never really left. The internal question “Is there something we could have done…?” became increasingly louder. I hurt for each of the members of the tight-knit group, especially for the boys who spent much of their time in Arizona. Death is difficult enough to process for adults; but even more so for the kids, some of whom had never experienced that kind of loss. But as a unit, a team, a family, they grieved together and the bond among them is now stronger than ever.

KINGS OF THE CLUBHOUSE
Back in Arizona, James Gibson, Thomas Miller, and Chad Yacobetti, aka The Kings of the Clubhouse set out to do something, anything to help the Lessners, both Alex and their friend “Cre”. They decided yellow neoprene wristbands would be the way to raise both awareness and funds. Neoprene is durable, flexible, and waterproof. It’s easy to slip on and stays there, and it’s easy to wear. Players show their support during practice and games without worry of it breaking. Yellow represents one of Oakland’s 2 colors as well as a nod to the color that represents Childhood Cancer (gold.) Printed in dark green is the mission statement behind the wristbands: “A’s for Alex”.

The Kings didn’t have a marketing plan; they figured they would sell them to co-workers, teammates anyone who passed through the employee entrance to the Lew Wolff Training Center with 100% of the funds to the Lessners for expenses or to make their lives a little easier. The suggested donation amount was set at $5.00. But like a speed limit sign in the middle of nowhere, no one saw the tiny number as they blew right past. Generosity was on display to benefit one of their own.

Miller: “We just wanted to do something to show Cre and the kids that they are not alone in this fight.” Mission accomplished, Thomas.

CHILDHOOD CANCER AWARENESS 365 & PBATS
Before games started in spring training, PBATS held their One-Day Charity Fundraiser. Across the league, big league campers with all 30 teams learned about childhood cancer and the life-changing work of the National Pediatric Cancer Foundation from a representative or one with personal experience. At the end of the presentation, each player, trainer, front office member etc. was asked to donate the equivalent of one day’s meal money to the PBATS partner.

Oakland’s big league campers heard from Thomas Miller who explained the impact childhood cancer is currently having on the Oakland A’s family. There were many who were in camp for the first time; no connection to Lessners. But there were many who knew both Lessners either from growing in the system (like Sonny Gray) or spending time rehabbing (Stephen Vogt or Chris Bassitt). There were also some good guys who understood the meaning and gave with their wallet to support the cause and proudly wore the “A’s for Alex” wristband to support the family (like Khris Davis.)

The 2017 PBATS One-Day Fundraiser brought in a total of $38,296. On this one day, the Oakland Athletics raised $8,000 – 20% of the total amount. Miller appreciated the opportunity to talk to the players, “Everyone [in big league camp] was super supportive and the minor league guys were even better. It’s been really cool to see all the support.”

Almost before Miller was done with his presentation, Sonny Gray, Oakland’s #1 pick in 2011 and the team’s ace until traded to the New York Yankees in July, wrote a generous check and gave it to Chris in exchange for the yellow band which he wore almost every day, except when he was pitching. In a priceless show of support, Sonny wore the “A’s for Alex” band in his formal spring training photos. Now that he’s a member of the Yankees, that final photo means even more.

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Rehabbing big leaguers like Stephen Vogt and Chris Bassitt were among the first to show their support. Bassitt was a regular in the training room in Mesa after his Tommy John surgery in May 2016. Like Gray, Bassitt quickly and generously exchanged a donation for an “A’s for Alex” wristband and also wore it proudly in his individual photos  by Getty Images during spring training.

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Vogt spent quite a bit of time in Arizona rehabbing during the 2014 season. Though his goal was to get healthy and return to Oakland, his presence was a gift to everyone at Papago. Vogt’s leadership to the young catchers during Extended Spring training was invaluable. Like Gray and Bassitt, Vogt proudly displayed his support for Alex in his spring training photos.  After a generous donation proudly wore his yellow band in support of Alex on his right wrist for every game, including his final appearance as a member of the Athletics, in left field. The current Milwaukee Brewer will never be forgotten by the Lessner family.

vogt2

Khris Davis was traded to Oakland in 2016 but that didn’t stop him from wearing at least one – often two – bands showing his support of Alex in game action. The exuberant “Khrush” Davis has a special place in the hearts of the Lessner family.

khrush

While Miller addressed those in big league camp about the Lessners and childhood cancer, Chris addressed the group he knew well: the minor leaguers. The response was even more uplifting than expected. Cancer was personal because they knew Alex, and for the pitchers, it was Chris who would work with them immediately following their exit from a game. They wanted to help. Below is a sample of those wearing wristbands throughout the season supporting Alex and his fight against A.L.L.

minor league guys

Beloit Snappers pitching coach Carlos Chavez and his staff displayed their support for Alex throughout the Midwest League season.

BeloitStaff

gabe chad

A big Thank You to Shannon Starr and the Oakland A’s Booster Club. True to Shannon’s nature and the booster club’s generosity, they bought the last 10 wristbands on hand. Shannon presented Chris with a donation on her last visit to Phoenix.

THE “NEW NORMAL”
Six months into their “new normal” way of life meant spring training was in full swing. Chris returned to his busy work schedule and Alex was in a groove with his new school routine – part time in the classroom with a homebound teacher to supplement instruction. He was able to enjoy a modified pre-teen social life with friends and even got to throw out the first pitch on opening day for his team the Madison RAMMS. When it was time for his scheduled chemo treatments at Phoenix Children’s Hospital he would step out of his daily 11-year-old life and into one of a child beating-up on cancer, with his dad by his side – figuratively and literally.  This was just part of their “new normal” way of life.

Chris knows how fortunate he is to be Alex’s full-time caretaker. He’s able to spend every night – and day – with his son when he’s in the hospital or not doing well because of two things: 1) his support system at work. It starts at the top with the “family first” leadership of A’s Director of Player Development, Keith Lieppman, and is strengthened by the family at Fitch, including the Kings of the Clubhouse, and his colleagues who happily and readily assume his responsibilities when he has to leave work on a moment’s notice. Though often unsure if he will return later that day or in two weeks, there is never a problem or concern; the only question asked of him is what else they can do to help. 2) The excellent medical coverage provided by Major League Baseball.

THIRTY-SEVEN DAYS
Once spring training ends and those assigned to full season minor league or big league rosters are gone, there’s a break just long enough for the staff and players in Arizona to catch their breath before the Extended Spring Training programs begin in mid-April. Early workouts, noon-time games, evenings at home. A more traditional schedule for those with families, like the Lessners.

Tyler continued to work hard in school as his freshman year at Brophy was coming to an end. He and his brother were spending more time together, playing video games, etc., due to the fact that Alex didn’t have practice or games 5 nights a week. It was good for their relationship and the time together was important. As the older brother, Tyler was worried and scared for Alex at first, but their “new normal” way of life, Dad’s approach of “accept, adapt, excel” became a way of life for the whole family. It would soon be put to its most rigorous test.

Alex wasn’t feeling well the last week of April. It didn’t long for his fever to reach 104, but it took even less for Chris to get him admitted into PCH. Identifying the reason for the high fever was a challenge and it lasted several days. In the process, they removed the port that was implanted after his diagnosis in August, when they found it had a fungal infection. Instead, they would use IVs to keep him hydrated, nourished, and medicated. Still, the fever persisted. His little body was fighting off something that the medical staff at a premier children’s hospital could not find. Cannot imagine the strength it would take to watch your child go through something like that. Because, as a parent, there’s nothing you can do.

Soon after, his medical team discovered Alex had developed pancreatitis – painful upper-abdomen, vomiting. They inserted a peripherally inserted central catheter (PICC line) a tube that flows through a vein to the heart as a sort of “superhighway” of fluids – an entrance for hydration and medication and an exit for blood needed for frequent testing.

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Unfortunately, the first picc line was too short. It was replaced with a longer tube, in the same arm. The process of inserting, removing, and re-inserting a foreign object (the tube) through the veins and into the heart is not a simple procedure. Enduring the discomfort and lack of success from one failed picc line is a lot, but to repeat it soon after is more than most could take without expressing frustration, pain, or even a meltdown. Remarkably, Alex did none of that. Not even with the severe pain from the pancreatitis or the persistent 104 degree fever. The only words that come to mind are “brave” “strong” “courageous”. All of this for an 11-year-old child. Unfathomable strength.

Once his body was able to accept and absorb the medication and hydration, Alex felt a little better each day. He was able to move around and participate in some of the great activities PCH offers to help take the focus off being sick. More than once Chris sang the praises of Phoenix Children’s Hospital: “… everyone on the staff is great with the patients and with us parents. They are true professionals.”

Another bright spot is the frequent low-key visits made to the young patients from a handful of named players on the Arizona Diamondbacks roster. Guys like Jake Lamb and Paul Goldschmidt visit often. They play games and spend time focusing on and being with the kids. As one who spends his life working with the biggest names in the game, Chris was impressed by the focused attention from the big name athletes. It’s that kind of connection that eases the spirits of the children and their parents, especially those who long term patients.

For Alex, some days were better than others: one step forward, two back. The nights were the most difficult time. Consistent REM sleep was non-existent for Alex and for Chris, who slept in his room on an inflatable air mattress he purchased in the fall. The almost hourly intrusion of checking blood pressure, changing IVs, taking his temperature, etc. would wake Alex (and Chris.) In the daytime, since it is a teaching hospital, there was no making up for the previous night or more accurately, the previous 24 nights’ sleep.

A marked event took place after night 25. The 2nd picc line needed to be replaced, only this time in his right arm. The child who has the patience of Job had taken enough – more than enough, more than what most adults could imagine if they were in his place. After all the poking and prodding and sleep interruption AND all of the withheld emotion, it was his third procedure in as many weeks that opened the flood gates of emotion. To have lasted any longer would have seemed inhumane if it weren’t Alex doing it himself. The meltdown in his father’s arms didn’t last long, but no one would have blamed this brave young soul if it was measured in days rather than minutes.

A FATHER’S LOVE
Chris remembers this day because there have been so few like it. Alex doesn’t try to be strong; it’s not an act, that’s just how he is. There is no drama in his DNA. But you can’t listen to his story – or see him and know what he’s going through – without marveling at how he’s handling the physical and emotional strain.

There is no male bravado from his father, either. Chris has a healthy perspective of emotions and wants his sons to be comfortable with theirs. He’s not afraid to cry, especially when discussing Alex and his journey, as he did here: “He is so strong, so tough. But I don’t want to keep telling him that because I don’t want him to think he must be tough. Feelings are good, being scared at times is natural, crying is good for you. I want him to know that he doesn’t have to be strong all the time. He just IS.”

On the subject of Alex and playing sports: “Alex is good at everything he does, probably because he enjoys whatever he’s doing and he works hard at it. Baseball is his favorite…. he loves it. When it’s possible, Alex will always choose to wear the number #35. As a tribute to Bob Welch, who was great with Alex. He even has it on his glove.”

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Alex is so good at sports. He loves playing and competing with his teammates. But if he said he doesn’t want to play another sport and he wants to do take up astronomy or stamp collecting or…. anything, that would be great. As long as he is happy and enjoys what he’s doing, that’s what matters. That’s all that matters with both of my sons.”

GIVING BACK
Midway thru their 37-night-stay, the Lessners each received a gift that was so fitting, only someone who’d walked in their shoes could have selected it. Indeed, the thoughtful gift-givers were a father and son who were just a few months father along in the treatment process. The fathers knew Chris would need a nice, fully stocked and refillable toiletry kit, and he was right. The make-shift kit Chris had been using was history!

When he asked his son what they should give to Alex, he answered immediately: a fuzzy pillow and blanket. Yes, there were plenty of pillows and bedding available upon request, but no matter how many hospital pillows you have, they’re still hospital pillows. The son knew how much Alex needed to feel the comfort of what he was missing from home; a fluffy, fuzzy pillow and blanket. Possibly the two best gifts ever in part because of the thoughtfulness with which they were given and the practical need they serve that neither Chris nor Alex knew they needed.

These simple but perfect gift ideas got Chris thinking about how he could give back and help others who would be in the same position he and Alex are in now. He already donated most of the funds raised from the “A’s for Alex” wristbands to the NPCF in Alex’s name. The Kings wanted to help offset expenses, but thanks to excellent health insurance, and no loss of income there was nothing to justify keeping most of it. Because they live in the same neighborhood as Phoenix Children’s Hospital, there was no commuting expense either – gas or wear and tear on the car.

The wristbands continued to sell and worn. With each new person learning of Alex and his battle with leukemia came the question, “How can we help?” Chris was grateful for the concern and support but he knows there are so many children and families who need help. To jump start their philanthropic efforts, they’ve set up a YouCaring.com page: A’s for Alex – YouCaring.com

GOING HOME
Alex celebrated his 12th birthday at the end of May with 60 close friends and family members. The guest list included many from the a’s Extended Spring Training contingent and would have been longer, but Phoenix Children’s Hospital has rules in place to protect its patients from outside influences. Alex was happy to see everyone. Some were first-time visitors, most were not. In the nine months that he’d been battling cancer, love and support in all forms has poured from the hearts of friends he knows and those he’s yet to meet. Though he appreciated the attention – and the presents –  the only thing he really wanted was to sleep in his own bed. Thirty-two days was a long time to be away from home, especially when you’re a kid. So, when his doctors said he would have to wait five more days, he knew he could hold on a little longer, especially since it meant he would lay his head down on his pillow on his bed at home by the end of the week.  Alex was happy and set his thoughts to Friday.

The medical team never expressed anything other than in the positive, “the next step is this…” etc. After 37 nights, the longest of all their stays in the 9 months since hearing the word “cancer”, Alex (and Chris) returned home to sleep in their own beds for the first time in 6 weeks and the family resumed their new-normal lives. Tyler’s freshman year of high school was in the books, and he was happy to have Alex back home. A silver lining from the diagnosis, is the bond that’s even stronger now between the Lessner boys.

Alex has understood his limitations since the day the family met with the specialists upon his original diagnosis. But for months, due to a myriad of setbacks, the excruciatingly long wait to do his favorite thing in the world was finally over. On the fields at the Lew Wolff Training Center on Athletics Way in Mesa, Arizona, among a hundred or so newly drafted and returning A’s in their first early pre-AZL workout, Alex and his dad had a game of catch. And for a moment, all was right with the world.

RELAPSE
Alex was ready for the new school year to start. He was excited to get back to learning and socializing and being one of the kids. After six weeks of continuous improvements in his energy and wellness, where the family’s “new normal” evolved into just “normal”, all signs appeared to be positive. Then one morning he woke up with a sore throat and a fever, and by dinner was back in the hospital. That’s how quickly things change for a kid battling cancer. His immune system is still slowly regaining strength, only to be squashed again with the next round of chemo.

They know the drill, they’ve done it many times. Except this time, the first thing Chris gathered as they left the house was his son’s pillow. Hours later, when Alex was settled in his room and connected to the necessary machines it was time to rest. It’s also when Chris realized there was only a straight chair and that’s where Chris would “sleep” for the night. Unlike that of child’s, his own comfort was the last thing on his mind, until the last possible moment. His sleep-free night further validated the drive to help other parents in the same position.

The next morning Alex’s ANC was at 64. Blood counts are key to identifying and marking progress or reason for concern in cancer patients, with the most important being the absolute neutrophil count (ANC). A healthy person has an ANC between 2,500 and 6,000. Given that if it dips below 500 it’s cause for great concern, imagine the degree of concern when Alex was admitted the night before, his count was at 68 (double-digits.) After fluctuating for a week all counts stabilized at a level high enough for a discharge. While 500 is a number of concern for a healthy person, 250 is the magic number for one with cancer.

A TIMELY LESSON IN ACCEPTANCE   
In middle-school, fitting-in is almost as important as breathing. At times, kids can be cruel to one another for not being like everyone else for not fitting-in. So, if you’re a cancer patient who missed most of the last school year, can’t play on the school’s sports teams, and who looks a little different because of the super-deluxe dosages of cancer killing meds in your system, are you going to fit in to a public middle-school in central Phoenix? You sure are!

When I asked Alex how the kids at school treated him that first week, his puzzled expression followed by his response gives me hope for the future. He had no idea what I meant. None. Like I was speaking a language he had never heard. I rephrased by asking more specifically about their actions toward him and his expression changed from “huh?” to “What is she talking about?” He finally responded with a shoulder shrug and, “Yes, everything is the same. It’s good. No difference.”

He also mentioned, casually, that there are others in his medium sized school who have beaten or are currently battling cancer. No stigma, no pity, no special treatment. Just another kid. I love the fact that my question sounded silly to him. When he walked away, I asked his father the same question – expecting a different response. I like being wrong at times like this.

With obvious pride of one who’s witnessed this acceptance firsthand, “These kids, even at the middle school level are so much more accepting, more understanding than ever before.”

Whatever is happening in the world right now, there is hope in the next generation.

A’s FOR ALEX
Major League Baseball kicked off Childhood Cancer Awareness month by having players on all 30 teams wear MLB issued the campaign’s official color, gold wristbands with an embroidered gold ribbon on each. At home, most teams continued to honor the cause with a campaign promotion and pregame ceremony.

Thanks to the Kings of the Clubhouse (James, Thomas, and Chad) for not waiting until a specific month or timeframe to raise awareness and funds to fight childhood cancer. They just wanted to help one of their own; to let him and his family know they weren’t alone. If you would like to help support the “A’s for Alex” movement, to help the families of the lives of young cancer patients, please visit their YouCaring page here.

SOURCES:

https://www.cancer.org/cancer/acute-lymphocytic-leukemia/about/what-is-all.html
http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/pancreatitis/symptoms-causes/dxc-20252598
http://pbats.com/one-day-charity-raises-38286-for-cancer-research/
http://m.kidshealth.org/en/parents/blood-test-bmp.html
https://www.cancer.gov/types/leukemia/patient/child-all-treatment-pdq
https://nationalpcf.org/
https://www.mskcc.org/cancer-care/patient-education/your-implanted-port
http://www.mayoclinic.org/tests-procedures/lumbar-puncture/basics/definition/prc-20012679
http://m.mlb.com/news/article/251415954/mlb-hosts-childhood-cancer-awareness-day/
https://www.cancer.org/treatment/understanding-your-diagnosis/tests/understanding-your-lab-test-results.html
http://www.chop.edu/treatments/peripherally-inserted-central-catheter-picc

 

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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