Are these the new Swingin’ A’s?

By Art Spander

OAKLAND — Well, all was quiet on the western front. Also in the East Bay clubhouse. No punches. No concussions. No conversation either. All reminders of the Swingin’ A’s of the 1970s are only coincidental.

Those guys could play baseball. They won three consecutive World Series, ’72-73-74. Those guys also could fight. Each other. There’s nothing wrong with teammates smacking each other around, as long as when the umpire yells “Play ball,” the priorities are reassessed.

As the Hall of Famer Rollie Fingers said two years ago when the ’74 champions had a reunion at the Coliseum, “We had some characters and, we were beating the bleep out of each other. But still we won.”

The ’16 A’s have not for the most part, although Oakland looked more than competent Tuesday night at the Coliseum, defeating the AL Central-leading Cleveland Indians, 9-1.

Solid pitching, timely hitting. Which is the way it used to be.

Minus an attempted haymaker or two. Ah, such memories of the glory and gory days.

Game One of the ’74 Series was at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles. Writers from around the country stood around the cage during batting practice, most skeptical of the Athletics’ reputation.

“I don’t believe all those stories of the fighting,” a journalist told the late Ron Bergman, in those days the only correspondent who covered every A’s game. At almost that very moment, Fingers and fellow pitcher John “Blue Moon” Odom began to brawl in the visitors’ clubhouse.

Ray Fosse was a catcher on the ’73 and ’74 A’s. Now at 69, he works with Glenn Kuiper as the Oakland television commentator. Fosse became famous for being run over by Pete Rose in the 1970 All-Star Game — and for breaking up a fight between Billy North and Reggie Jackson in that ’74 A’s title season.

“I just tried to pull Billy away,” said Fosse, who having incurred a crushed disk in his neck that still hurts, is reluctant to say much more about that battle.

Ballplayers are with each other virtually every day from February until October, on buses and planes, in cramped clubhouses. Nerves fray, tempers explode.

Jeff Kent once took a swing at Barry Bonds in the Giants’ dugout at AT&T. That Danny Valencia of the A’s conked teammate Billy Butler wouldn’t have been particularly noteworthy except that Butler was diagnosed with a concussion, a serious condition.

In fact, while one offers condolences to Butler — who must have taken a beating from Valencia — the incident has for a brief moment made the A’s relevant once again. Consigned to the back pages of the Bay Area’s dailies, they suddenly became front-page news.

They would prefer to do it by being successful, but until then any sort of attention will do.

“It’s not the first time guys have gotten in a fight in the clubhouse,” said Oakland general manager David Forst correctly.

“Unfortunately, when we’re having the kind of season we’re having, it’s a big story. If we were winning, it would be colorful, but we’re not.”

Precisely, and even though the A’s fined both Valencia and Butler, Forst and manager Bob Melvin perhaps were not displeased in their athletes showing some fire, if they didn’t appreciate Butler getting concussed.

Oakland team chemistry has been lacking — “not great” is the way Forst described it — which is hardly unexpected the way the A’s repeatedly ship people from Oakland to Triple A Nashville, and vice versa.

The insecurity has to have an effect on young players. How can there be chemistry when there’s no stability?

Through it all, Melvin, the A’s manager, has remained resolute and pleasant. While it’s true any manager is only as good as his players, the entire business, from lack of talent to losing a player because he was socked by a teammate, must be a downer. 

The rare triumph, such as Tuesday night’s — after loses in eight of the previous nine games — allows Melvin a brief chance to escape the craziness of the past few days, not to mention the season.

“Certainly we had this incident, but when you have losing seasons and you’re not playing well, it’s not going to go as well as when you’re winning,” Melvin conceded when asked about the fight.

“And we’ve had two tough seasons. So in that respect, you don’t expect everything to be warm and fuzzy all the time.”

As men such as Rollie Fingers and Billy North from those 1970s teams readily would confirm.


S.F. Examiner: Giants need to prove magic of spring isn’t lost in fog of summer

By Art Spander
San Francisco Examiner

Bruce Bochy was telling the truth. A game in April is no less important — critical, was the word he used — as a game in August. But April is gone. So is the Giants’ lead. They are in second place now, behind the Dodgers, a team hailed and by some — Giants fans — hated.

A team against which San Francisco tonight begins a three-game series at Dodger Stadium.

Read the full story here.

©2016 The San Francisco Examiner


Newsday (N.Y.): As he often does, Bartolo Colon gives Mets what they need

By Art Spander
Special to Newsday

SAN FRANCISCO — The fan in the dugout box to the first-base side of home plate, the one who unbuttoned his Mets jersey to display a stomach supposedly the equal of Bartolo Colon’s? The pitcher never noticed.

He was focused on something more important.

Read the full story here.

Copyright © 2016 Newsday. All rights reserved.


No longer any sweetness in Giants’ torture

By Art Spander

SAN FRANCISCO — This is torture, but there is no sweetness. The Giants are coming apart, greatness slipping away. Even on a day of blue skies there is gloom, foreboding, a sense of inevitability that runs counter to what we have seen, what we expected.

Sport is so bewildering, at times so demoralizing. A baseball team that for weeks seemingly couldn’t lose, a team that a month ago had the best record in the majors, is now a team that can’t win. Literally.

The Giants dropped another one Wednesday, this time to the Pittsburgh Pirates, 6-5. Or maybe that should read "again," this time to the Pirates. Three games against Pittsburgh at AT&T Park, three defeats.

The team that was 57-33 at the All-Star break, the team that had an eight-game lead in the National League West two weeks earlier, has lost 21 of its last 30 — nobody in baseball has done worse than that — and is now in second, behind the hated Dodgers.

There have been momentous shifts before. The Giants, the New York Giants, trailed the Brooklyn Dodgers by 13 games in August 1951, ended up tied and won the playoff on Bobby Thomson’s “shot heard 'round the world.”

There’s no sure thing. Except these days that the Giants will lose.

“We’re in a funk,” said Bruce Bochy, the San Francisco manager, before Wednesday’s game. And then, as if to prove him correct, the Giants blew a 4-0 lead like that, in a half-inning, when starter Matt Cain began the top of the fifth with a hit batsman and three straight walks and closed it by giving up a two-run homer to Andrew McCutchen.

Wham, a blow to left by McCutchen. A blow to the psyche by McCutchen.   

A 4-0 lead after four? Surely this was a game that would end the woes. It wasn’t, and with the New York Mets coming in for four games starting Thursday night and then the Giants going to Los Angeles for three games starting Tuesday, perhaps the woes won't end until the season does.

The Giants are not a bad team, but they are playing bad baseball. When they hit, as they did on Wednesday, they can’t pitch. When they pitch, as they did 11 days ago when Madison Bumgarner threw a two-hitter and lost, 1-0, they can’t hit.

A team built on pitching, the Giants gave up eight runs in consecutive games, first to Baltimore, next to the Pirates. They lost both, of course.

There was an eerie quiet in the Giants' postgame clubhouse. The few players in sight sat and checked their  phones. Not until Cain, as required, showed up for his interview, did anyone talk above a whisper.

Earlier, Bochy, the onetime catcher, had said in another room that Cain “lost his release point,” meaning that the place in his delivery where the ball is fired had changed. Like that.

Four batters, no hits, one run. Then a single for two more runs. Then a sacrifice fly for another run, and the game was tied, 4-4. But not for long. After another out, McCutchen hit one into the left field bleachers. Javier Lopez replaced Cain. Too late.

Bochy was thinking about his bullpen, which has been used far too much, and about Cain’s confidence, trying to save his relievers, trying to save Cain’s self-belief. Another time, that would have worked. Now, nothing works.

“It didn’t play out the way I thought,” said Bochy, when asked if he were second-guessing himself about the tactic. “I saw some good things. That one inning got away from us.

“Then their bullpen did a good job. The way we were swinging the bat, I thought we could come back.”

They nearly did, if anyone cares about possibilities along with results. With the bases loaded and no one out in the bottom of the ninth, Buster Posey — who already had three hits, despite that back pain — stepped up to the plate. But he hit into a double play, with the final run scoring, and so it goes.

“We’re taking some blows,” agreed Bochy. “We’ve lost some of our mojo. But we’re resilient. This is a tough club.”

A tough club that has found out how tough baseball can be.


Raiders Carr just wants to win — like Al Davis

By Art Spander

NAPA — This was Al Davis talk, but from Derek Carr. Davis has been gone four and a half years now, and yet for the Raiders, for a player like Carr, it was as if Al still was parading around the field in training camp reminding us to just win, baby.

Carr wants nothing else, even in preseason games. “Anytime I put on a jersey,” said Carr, “my whole mindset is, ‘What do I need to do to win?’”

Most likely be on the field for more than a dozen plays, or something like that, to which most NFL starting quarterbacks are limited in the first or second week of what, in truth, are practice games.

No reason to take a chance with injuries, and conversely you’ve got to give a chance to the backups.

So for Carr, there’s impatience. Ten plays last weekend against Arizona, although with Matt McGloin throwing a couple of touchdown passes, an Oakland victory. Thursday night, it’s the Packers at Green Bay.

“There’s something where, like, if you lose,” said Carr, “it stings, because you’re a competitor.”

And unquestionably, in his third year, a leader — the leader. As a quarterback is supposed to be. Someone who understands the plan and people, and no less importantly himself. Someone as adept at dealing with the media as with a safety blitz.

The Raiders closed camp early Tuesday afternoon, not long after Carr, enthusiastic — as always — and reflective gave what would be the final session behind the podium for Napa 2016. And, according to some rumors, the final ever.

If the Oakland Raiders indeed are to become the Las Vegas Raiders, as Al’s son, Mark, is planning — scheming? — then, according to the predictions, training camp would be switched to Reno. Not that anyone associated with the Raiders would discuss it.

“Man, I’m just . . . I didn’t even think of that until you said that,” Carr offered. “That’s how focused we are on football. I love Napa. I love the Bay Area. If it is, I loved it. If it’s not, I look forward to coming back.”

It was the belief of the late Bill Walsh (whose first job in pro football was as an assistant to Davis in 1966, when Al was the Raiders' head coach) that a quarterback needs three years to develop: in the rookie year mostly watching, in the second year playing when he could succeed, in the third year becoming the starter.

Now rookies, such as Jared Goff with the Rams this season and Carr back in 2014, instantly are first-string, learning in the school of hard knocks and one-sided defeats. Peyton Manning himself endorsed the method with the man who succeeded him at Indianapolis, Andrew Luck.

“You’ve got to get out there and find out,” in effect is what Manning advised.

Carr definitely did. That first year, the Raiders lost their opening 10 games. For someone who prizes a win in preseason, the pain still lingers from the difficult beginning. Yet, Carr rarely gets down.

“Ninety-nine percent of the time,” he said of his attitude, “it’s real. It really is. I just love people, being around people. But there’s one percent of the time when you wake up and your body hurts or something bad happened with a friend or family member, and it bugs you. I’m human.”

But he recovers quickly enough.

“I just remind myself who I am,” said Carr, “my foundation, what I believe and who I am. That’s how I go about it, because I want to make sure I’m always the same for my teammates. Like when we were 0-10, it was hard. But I tried every single day to be the same guy. So, as they saw that when we were losing, when we started winning and I was the same guy, they knew it just wasn’t a game.”

He meant his behavior, not football, which is just a game — and more.

“When I came out of (Fresno State), I felt very prepared,” said Carr, “When I hit the NFL, there hasn’t been anything that was said to me that didn’t make sense. It’s all about experience, though. It’s just a matter of experiencing those things, those blitzes, those coverages.

“It made sense to me why they were doing it, but I had never seen it before so it wasn’t in my memory bank. Those two years of experience are what really gave me the most knowledge.”

We’ll find out whether, in his critical third year, they also give Carr the winning edge.