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October 22, 2012

Punk Hits

Three Nights In October, part 3

by Ian Miller

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Ian spent three games with a press credential covering the Oakland A's in the ALDS—his first postseason in the press box. Previously: Game Three, and Game Four. Today: meeting Peter Gammons, imagining "what-if," and saying goodbye after Game Five.

We don’t get a true summer in the Bay Area. May to August is just a stretch of perfect days in the 60s and 70s. Mornings are shrouded by fog that burns off mid-morning, so it’s warm (but not overly so) until the fog rolls back in at night.

While I enjoy our natural air conditioning, it makes night games frigid affairs. The stands in Oakland or San Francisco in July look like Green Bay in November: lots of parkas, blankets, and those weird chemical handwarmer packs. What the hell is in those things, anyway?

What we do have, most years, is a glorious Indian Summer. Temperatures in the 80s. Night games in short sleeves. We had that for games Three and Four. But Thursday, Game Five, was foggy and cold. Forecast was rain.

That didn’t deter the intrepid tailgaters in Oakland. Even at 2 p.m., folks were barbecuing and drinking, with one customized SUV bumping “Bernie Lean,” the A’s adopted anthem, loud enough for all of East Oakland to hear.

When I got to the interview room, Peter Gammons was watching the Cards-Nats game on one of the big screens and offering a steady stream of insight. Just being in his vicinity was magical—not just because he’s Peter Freaking Gammons, but also because he was constantly talking baseball. He knows everyone and has an anecdote for every occasion. At no point does this become annoying; it’s fascinating, always about the game, never about him.

I waited for a break in the action and introduced myself to him, using Kevin Goldstein as my entrée. I told Peter that I worked with Kevin at BP until recently, and that Kevin sends his regards.

“Kevin is perfect for that job,” he told me. “Great people skills.” I passed him in the hall later as I walked out to the field to watch the A’s take BP, and he flashed a big smile and offered a warm “hello.” I felt like I was floating again, but this time it wasn’t the cough syrup.

Watching outdoor batting practice is a constant struggle. My natural inclination is to watch the entire flight of the ball, especially when someone like Chris Carter or Yoenis Cespedes is hitting, but I try to watch the man. Load, stride, impact, follow-through. Head, hands, hips. It’s almost as satisfying to watch someone perfectly square up and drive a ball as it is to do it yourself.

I don’t know where to stand. Photographers and reporters and ring the home plate area, most on the dirt track around the home dugout. There are security personnel, but they’re standing back by the grandstands. There’s no one to protect me from myself: I could walk right up to Chris Carter if I wanted, or pick up Yoenis Cespedes’ bat from where it lays in the grass outside the cage. I have the good sense not to do either.

But how close can I get? I walk back and forth around the cage to get better views of this lefty or that righty, but try to keep a respectful distance. I take a step closer every few minutes, hoping no one notices.

Bob Melvin takes over for Mike Gallego for the final group of A’s hitters, which includes Coco Crisp and Stephen Drew. Before Game Four, I watched Crisp hit from both sides of the plate, driving balls with authority from the right side but pounding them into the ground from the left. His left-handed mechanics and timing seemed hopelessly out of sync. Before Game Five, however, he drove balls from both sides, backspinning pitch after pitch deep into the power alleys.

Melvin appears to have great rapport with all his players, but seemed especially close to Drew, whom he coached for four years in Arizona. When Drew skied a ball to deep left that scraped the wall and landed on the warning track, Melvin shook his head and intoned “Well, that’s a damn shame.”

When it came time for the Tigers to hit, Miguel Cabrera was the first player out of the tunnel. He stood outside the cage as Oakland players and coaching personnel collected bats and balls. I was standing three feet from Miguel Cabrera, maybe less. If I were in the stands, I’d be hollering at him, trying to get his attention. But he was standing right there; I could have touched him. (Again, I didn’t.)

Later I’d walk over to the grandstands and lean in to shake hands with and say hello to my friend Ryan, a die-hard A’s fan who attended all three games. I was acutely aware that, to the folks in the stands, I was that guy: I was on the field, had access, was “special.” When I’m in the stands, I resent the hell out of me: Why does he get to be on the field while I’ve got a security guy in my face? I expect they felt the same. But I wonder if they’d feel as awkward as I did standing within arm’s reach of the imminent MVP. Actually having that access is a complex (and yet still totally awesome) thing.

Game Five was a rematch of Game One, Parker vs. Verlander. Verlander verlanded all over the A’s hitters for nine innings, spotting his fastball perfectly, sitting at 95 and touching 98. (Never hit triple digits; must’ve been a little fatigued, I guess.) In the early innings he relied on his fastball to get ahead, and then put away hitters with offspeed stuff. In the middle innings, he took advantage of the aggressive, geared-up Oakland hitters by starting them with junk and inducing weak contact. (This seemed to be a hallmark of Alex Avila game-calling: he and Max Scherzer employed this same gameplan the night before, to great effect.)

The Tigers put up two runs in the third, but it still felt like Oakland was in it. What’s one more walk-off after the season they’d had?

The odds of a 16th walk-off fell precipitously when the Tigers scored four more in the seventh. After all, Detroit had a T-1000 model pitching cyborg on the mound, a guy who throws harder in the ninth than he does in the first. The A’s got two men on in the eighth—the first inning in which Verlander allowed multiple baserunners, and only the second time Oakland got a man as far as second—but Verlander retired Crisp, the previous night’s hero, to end the inning, then retired the side in order in the ninth. A complete game shutout in which he allowed four hits and fanned 11 to propel his team into the ALCS.

Boos erupted from the packed house as the visitors’ dugout emptied and Verlander was mobbed by his teammates on the mound. But quickly, decisively, the boos were drowned out and replaced by cheers. The Oakland players emerged from their dugout to salute the fans, and the fans reciprocated with a “Let’s go Oakland!” chant as loud as any we heard during the actual games.

Before they headed into the clubhouse to celebrate, the Tigers players doffed their caps to their opponents and to the home fans: they, too, knew they’d just witnessed something very, very special.

In the interview room, Jim Leyland sat down on the dais and, before he took a question, complimented the A’s players, coaches, and fans. “They were tough to beat,” he added. Reading his comments in the paper the next day (or in a sprawling online article two weeks later), you just don’t get the same impact. It sounds like a stock manager answer, the kind of platitudes the Unwritten Rules require a victorious skipper to utter. But being there, watching him say it, I remain 100 percent convinced that it was heartfelt. Either that or he’s one helluvan actor. 

Next Austin Jackson, who knocked in two and scored twice, joined Verlander at the interview table. Both men are soaked through with beer and champagne, but both smile broadly. Verlander’s dark eyes shine the way Coco’s did the night before. Someone asked him how he felt.

“Sticky.”

Verlander and Jackson answered a few more questions before Phyllis informed the assembled that the interview room would be closing shortly. On my way out I glanced to my left, into the batting cage: on the floor was a large wad of plastic sheeting—minutes earlier, I presume, it had been covering the A’s players’ lockers. Now it lay, dry and de trop, on the concrete floor. I couldn’t help but wonder where they stashed the Oakland versions of the “ALDS CHAMPIONS” hats and T-shirts.

It was after the A’s unlikely (or, if you believe in Oakland magic, inevitable) comeback in Game Four that I realized I never wanted this to end. I was pulling double-duty—day job during the day (OK, during the morning, at least), then out to the Coliseum until midnight or so for the game and the pre- and post-game proceedings. Plus that chest cold I was complaining about earlier. Normally this would’ve reduced me to a whimpering mess—even when I’m healthy, I need 12 to 14 hours of sleep every night to be at my best. But I felt energized after each game (and I don’t think it was just the Dayquil).

Now that it was over, I really didn’t want it to end. I meandered around the tunnels, negotiating the crowd of friends and families waiting for the players to emerge. (Lots of women with long blonde hair and tight-fitting, personalized Athletics shirseys; lots of guys with flat-brim hats; lots and LOTS of cute little kids; oh, and there’s Coco Crisp’s dad again. The resemblance really is remarkable.)

Eventually I found myself in the grandstands behind home plate. The stadium lights are still on, the field is illuminated, but the place is deserted save a few operations and security personnel taking care of business. I’m looking at the upper deck in straightaway center field, where a tarp is emblazoned with a script Athletics logo. Earlier that day the A’s announced that they would remove the tarps if Oakland advanced to the Championship Series, increasing stadium capacity by 12,000.

Maybe next year. 

 

Ian Miller is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Ian's other articles. You can contact Ian by clicking here

Related Content:  Oakland Athletics,  Detroit Tigers,  Alds

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