October 18, 2012
Three Nights in October, Part Two
Ian wrote Wednesday about covering his first postseason game, in Oakland. Today: his second game, Game Four of the A's-Tigers ALDS.
I’d been nursing a nasty cold for a week or so. It started in my head, but had migrated to my chest. I don’t like to take drugs—I’m a teetotaller, truth be told—but I’d resorted to DayQuil and cough syrup just to be able to get out of bed. It makes the walk across the footbridge from BART to the Coliseum something of an adventure—my steps unreliable, I felt like I was gliding rather than walking.
There was nothing doing in the interview room when I arrived, so I popped my head into the hitting cage, which is literally next door. If you ever heard any thwocking during the pregame pressers, now you know why.
Yoenis Cespedes was in the cage when I arrived. All three days. Hitting instructor Chili Davis fed balls to Cespedes, underhand, then ducked behind the pitching screen. He offered a constant stream of instruction and encouragement in Spanish. Later I asked Davis if this was Cespedes’ regular routine.
“Every day,” he told me. “It’s not as bad since Suzuki left. He used to have me here at 11:30 in the morning. It used to be him, Rosales, Cespedes, and Cowgill. But since ‘Zuk left, it’s more like 12, 12:30.”
I asked Davis what adjustments Cespedes had made since coming to the A’s.
“Patience. Early on he wanted to prove he could hit for power, but we all knew he had power. We told him that if he was patient, he’d be a better hitter, more consistent, and not have those highs and lows between the home runs. And he listened.”
Chili asked me why I’d been lurking outside the batting cage. I told him that I was fascinated by the mechanics of hitting. He seemed mostly satisfied with that. I killed time in the press box and roaming the halls until the manager interviews reconvened at 3:30.
Phyllis Merhige runs the interview room with an iron fist (which emanates from a crisp linen shirt). She’s MLB’s senior vice president of club relations and the voice you hear choosing the questioners. She knows every single reporter by name, from the big national guys to the beat writer from the Watsonville Register-Pajaronian. Over the course of the three days I saw Phyllis light up a rogue videographer (no shooting video in the interview room; if you need video, you get it from the pool feed), confront an older man for wearing an Athletics jacket (no logos of any kind permitted within the interview room; when she learned the man was Coco Crisp’s father, she smiled and let it slide, sort of), and hug and kiss Jim Leyland (on the cheek, but still).
Before Game Four, many of the questions directed to A’s skipper Bob Melvin had to do with the sellout crowds. After all, Oakland spent most of the season playing to home crowds of 12-or-so thousand, and all three playoff games ended up as sellouts. Melvin referred to the home fans as “our 10th-man advantage.”
“It’s a true blue-collar fan base,” Melvin said. “They're very loud. It always sounds like double the attendance that we have here. If it is 10, it sounds like 20; if it's 20, it sounds like 40. We had what, 37 last night? It sounded like well over 50.”
I developed something of a mancrush on Mr. Melvin over the three days. We didn’t interact much—we passed in the tunnel occasionally, and he was always cordial. In the pressers, he was thoughtful, smart, and candid (or at least as candid as one can be in that context; it’s not a very high bar). He seemed to make an honest effort to answer the questions that were asked rather than just repeat some baseball homily. It’s easy to see how Melvin, so smart and charismatic, could motivate a young team to overachieve. Hell, I’d probably take a bullet for him.
Detroit skipper Jim Leyland may not be as easy on the eyes as his opposing number, but he’s easily as likable. He has no tolerance for bullshit—if reporters ask him a stupid question (and they do), he stares at them and then makes them clarify until it makes sense. But then he answers. It’s not personal: he’s just old and can’t afford to waste any time.
Max Scherzer was set to face off with A.J. Griffin in Game Four. You probably know the whole A.J. Griffin story already: 24-years-old, started the 2012 season at Double-A Midland, promoted to the majors in late June. After that, all he did was post a 7-1 record and a 3.06 ERA. Casey Tefertiller also informs me that Griffin is a fluent Spanish-speaker and acts as an interpreter for his Spanish-speaking teammates. Feel like a loser yet? What were you doing when you were 24?
He’s also smart, poised, and hilarious. In an interview-room appearance the afternoon before his then-potential Game Four start, a reporter asked him to compare his playoff experience with the High-A Stockton Ports to his impending big-league start. “The California League and the Major Leagues are pretty comparable,” he deadpanned.
Game Four was tight throughout. Griffin pitched well, but not as well as Scherzer. In the fourth, Prince hit a home run where Coco Crisp couldn't catch it—about 20 rows deep in the right-field bleachers—to put his Tigers up 2-0. Oakland would get on the board in the sixth with the help of a Fielder error and a Scherzer wild pitch, but Detroit would get a huge run in the eighth off of Sean Doolittle to push the score to 3-1. It felt like Oakland’s dream season was coming to an end.
In the press box, reporters put the finishing touches on their game stories. Meanwhile, things had gotten interesting in the other ALDS series. One of the dozen or so TVs remains tuned to the Yankees-Orioles game. Earlier Raul Ibanez (pinch-hitting for A-Rod, no less) had hit a two-run homer to tie the game in the ninth, and some of us looked up to see him hit a solo shot to win it in the 12th. We get no audio from the TV broadcast, so the news ripples through the press box like a game of telephone, as one reporter relays the unlikely news to the next. Meanwhile, back in Oakland, Jose Valverde prepared to take the mound.
You know now how that turned out, of course. Josh Reddick singled, Josh Donaldson doubled, Seth Smith doubled them both home to tie the game. Valverde retired the next two A’s hitters, but Coco Crisp stepped in and ripped a hanging splitter into right field. Smith was rounding third just as Tigers right fielder Avisail Garcia got to the ball, and it looked like there would be a play at the plate, but Garcia overran the ball and Smith scored easily. The A’s notched their 15th walkoff win of the year and forced a deciding Game Five.
You’ve heard the old saw about cheering in the press box, and the lack thereof? Well, I’m here to tell you that’s horseshit. The press box veritably erupted when Coco connected and Smith scored. And it wasn’t me or Zach, the new guys, either: it was national writers, whose game stories just got blown up, who’d have to work like hell to rework them and still make their deadlines. That’s how exciting it was and how awesome baseball is. As long as you’re not Jose Valverde, I guess.
After the game, the two managers, Crisp, and Smith did interview-room duty.
Smith reprised his deadpan comedy routine. When asked if he was “thinking two out of the box,” he wryly replied “At first I was just happy I hit it.” Another reporter tells Smith that skipper Bob Melvin just said “there’s nobody he’d rather see in that situation than Coco,” and Smith cocks his head like a dog startled by a high-pitched noise and shoots back, “I don’t know if I should be offended by that or not,” and brings the house down.
Crisp, on the other hand, was obviously amped. He complimented the fans and his teammates—Reddick, Smith, and Stephen Drew (whom he repeatedly referred to as J.D.). If you watched the presser on TV, you probably didn’t see the light in Coco’s eyes. They were, literally, shining. It was something to see.