Only an exhibition game? Not Giants-Dodgers

By Art Spander

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Only an exhibition game? Not when the Giants play the Dodgers. Not with the image of Marichal and Roseboro still hovering in the mind. Not with the memories of Reggie Smith climbing into the stands at Candlestick to try and attack a fan. Not with the Dodgers finishing 40 games ahead of the Giants last season.

“You wake up,” said Giants first baseman Brandon Belt, “you know you’re playing the Dodgers and everything changes inside of you.”

What didn’t change was the Dodgers pummeling the Giants, 9-3. Wait, a week ago the Giants pummeled the Dodgers by the same score, 9-3. So that’s it. They end the Cactus League at 1-1. But in truth that’s not it.

Not when a century of history, beginning back when they were the Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants, shadows them. Not when tales of Bobby Thomson’s pennant-winning home run, the “shot heard ‘round the world,’ are revived. Not when thoughts of the brawls and the boos never die.

Steven Duggar, the rookie centerfielder, who may or may not be on the roster when the Giants break camp, who Sunday, with Scottsdale Stadium packed to the extreme (12,141) hit his third homer of the spring, sensed that this was no ordinary exhibition.

“There was more buzz,” he said. “You could feel the vibe.”

Once they were in neighboring boroughs in New York City. Then they shifted to California, some 400 miles apart. But for spring training, ever since the Dodgers moved into their complex at Camelback Ranch in Glendale, the clubs are probably separated by only 25 miles.

And their fans are everywhere, attired in Giants black or Dodgers blue — and aren’t those two colors symbolic of the brawling between the teams, and unfortunately occasionally between the fans?

“Beat L.A.” is the normal chant from a Giants crowd. You didn’t hear that Sunday at Scottsdale. What you did hear were boos when Yasiel Puig’s name was announced and after he doubled in the first inning to drive in a run for the Dodgers, one of his two hits.

You also heard, “Let’s go Dodgers.” How did those people get in?  

How Chris Berman, the retired ESPN announcer, a professed Giants fan — you don’t have to be impartial in television — got in was through the Giants. He was invited by team management and even went out to the mound to change pitchers in the seventh inning

“A bit of levity,” said Bruce Bochy, the Giants’ manager.

After last season, the Giants can use some. Last place. The Dodgers in first, en route to the World Series. Spring games are not supposed to mean much — other than Giants vs. Dodgers — but a study of the starting lineups for each team indicates L.A. is far superior.

The heart of Dodgers' order, three through six, is Cody Bellinger (who Sunday had a hit); Puig (who had two hits and an RBI); Yasmani Grandal (who had a home run and two RBI); and Joc Pederson (who was hitless). Puig is batting .400.

The Giants' strength, if they have one, is pitching. Jeff Samardzija started Sunday for San Francisco and was decent for his third start. He did yell at home plate up Mark Ripperger in the second after a pitch was called a ball. The crowd picked up his displeasure and hooted a bit, but that was about it. Other than Samardija’s three walks in the inning.

Samardzija said he enjoyed the reactions of the crowd, which lifted the game from the ordinary. “They had a good turnout,” said Samardzija, of the Dodgers fans, “and we had a great turnout. It gives the game a little more excitement when the fans are into it more.”

Most spring games, Bochy is unconcerned with what occurs. He cared about this one. “We didn’t play that well,” he conceded.

“The rivalry? Look at the sellout. We wish we had played better, but we did beat them at their place. There’s always added interest when these two teams play, a lot of noise.”

Baseball as it should be. The games don’t show in the standings, but they certainly do to the fans.


Piscotty shows what he can do for A’s

By Art Spander

MESA, Ariz. — This was Stephen Piscotty the ballplayer, the man talented enough to be picked in the first round of the major league draft. He still was the humanitarian, the loving son, helping nurse an ailing parent.

But for a short while, he could be viewed like any other big leaguer in spring training, for his performance.

The Piscotty story is sad and heartwarming. The St. Louis Cardinals traded him to the Athletics so he could be close to his mother, who has amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, the disease that struck Lou Gehrig in the late 1930s, and for whom it was labeled.

Piscotty came to bat Saturday with a man on in the second and hit a shot over the fence in left in a Cactus League game at Hohokam Stadium that Oakland eventually would lose to the San Diego Padres, 10-4.

It could be glossed over as just another of the many home runs in the desert during the exhibition schedule. Except it wasn’t. And Piscotty, 27, is not just another ball player, as you must be aware.

This was his first homer of the spring, his first, unofficial as it might be to many, since coming to the A’s in December. A trade that showed that big-time sport, all dollars and show, has a very human side.

“He takes good approach to hitting,” A’s manager Bob Melvin said of Piscotty. “This is spring training, but a home run like that with a new team makes it easier on yourself.”

For the past several months, since Piscotty’s mother, Gretchen, was diagnosed, nothing has been easy. With the loss of muscle control, she requires round-the-clock attention.

She has been attended to by Piscotty’s father, and his two younger brothers, and after the Cardinals consented to send him to Oakland — “That’s what makes the Cardinals one of the class organizations in sports,” A’s executive Billy Beane told the Bay Area News Group — and until spring training began, by Piscotty.

“I knew I’d be gone a few months,” Piscotty said, “but I’ll be back home, Before (at St. Louis) it would have been hard going into the season, leaving and not coming home for eight months.”

A’s management has always wanted Piscotty, who played his high school ball at Amador Valley, over the hills from Oakland, and then developed at Stanford. The opportunity to get him was serendipity.

Maybe it shouldn’t have been a surprise that Piscotty would do well against the Padres. As a rookie in 2015, he hit two homers on a Sunday against them at Petco Park. Asked that day if it was his best game as a pro, he responded in classic understatement, “Probably.”

When home, Piscotty is back in the room he once shared with his brothers. “Although,” he said, chuckling, “they’re out of there now.”

Piscotty became engaged in February, and his fiancée helps at the family home. A bad situation, a terrible situation — there is no known cure for ALS, but Piscotty has helped create a fund for research — has become tolerable.

He is playing his sport, and for a team for which he cheered as a kid, and he has been able to reconnect with his mother.

"I thought, if I were to get traded, this is the absolute best option for me and my family," Piscotty told after the transaction. "I think the best word that sums up a lot of our emotions is bittersweet. We're pretty emotionally tied and invested in [the Cardinals'] organization, so it's sad to kind of cut ties with that. But I think family comes first, obviously, and sometimes there are things more important than baseball.”


For Austin Jackson, a new team and old values

By Art Spander

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — He was out there for the first time this spring training, and Austin Jackson, whose career includes a World Series — against the Giants, no less — and a catch so spectacular it’s a YouTube staple, went about it as the major leaguer that he is.

A new team, a new season, but old values. Only an exhibition game, but in effect a way of life. You’re always on display.

In his final season, 1951, Joe DiMaggio was asked why he played so hard when at his age, 36, and with a bad leg he could have eased up a bit. “There may be some kid who never saw me play before,” supposedly was DiMaggio’s answer.

Austin Jackson understands. His teams, a half dozen of them — the Giants, with whom he signed in January, are his sixth — have been winners. “I take a lot of pride in that,” he said. “Anytime you’re on the field, you want to win. You’ve got to have passion and respect for the game. It’s ingrained in us.”

In Jackson’s first Cactus League game of 2018, the Giants were not winners. They were beaten by the Angels, 11-4, in a game that was 0-0 in the fifth. Jackson, starting in center field, went 0-for-2.

“It’s kind of funny,” he said in the postgame clubhouse, “me signing with the team that beat us in the World Series.” That "us" was Kansas City in 2012. “But that’s how it goes. Every game, I think about getting back to the Series.”

Jackson turned 31 in January. He’s young, but at same time in experience and attention he’s old. Back in 1999, Baseball America named Jackson the best 12-year-old player in the country. Three years later, he was the best 15-year-old. At Ryan High in his hometown of Denton, Texas, he also played basketball and was ranked by Athlon Sports the No. 10 prep point guard in the nation.

Then, after being offered a basketball scholarship to Georgia Tech, he signed with the Yankees. A journey that took many by surprise has not changed his attitude. He’s doing what he wants to do.

“The first game,” he said of his play on Thursday, “is exciting, like the first day of school. It was difficult. My legs got heavy, because I hadn’t played for so long. But it felt good.”

Life, we’re told, is about timing, about being in the right place and then making the best of where you are. Jackson undeniably did that last August when, playing for the Cleveland Indians, he chased Hanley Ramirez's deep shot to the right-center bullpen wall at Fenway Park. He reached up with his gloved left hand for the ball, reached out with his right hand for the barrier and then flipped upside down into the bullpen.

He traveled a reported 97 feet, probably got as much TV time in replays as imaginable and became a part of what Major League Baseball declared “the play of the year.” It was one of those plays that no matter how many times you view it — and Jackson said he has seen it maybe 100 times — seems impossible.

“Most people talk about the catch,” Jackson said, “but my friend noticed I was hanging on to the wall for dear life. I just kind of flipped over and landed on the ground, my arm still on the wall.”

He won’t be able to do that at AT&T Park, where the fences are higher, but what he can do is bring the skills that help a team.

“I’ve learned a lot being with great players,” he said. ”When I’m out there, I want to trust the guy beside me.”

The way teams have put their trust in Austin Jackson.



Of Samardzija, Mays and strawberries in the wintertime

By Art Spander

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Baseball still gets down to one person throwing a ball — pitching — and another trying to hit it. As it has been for 150 years. Before analytics and metrics.

When scouts saw a kid who could do it all and told management, “Sign him.”

A kid like Joe DiMaggio. Or Stan Musial. Or the man who was holding court in the Giants spring clubhouse, Willie Mays.

In an hour or so, Jeff Samardzija would make his first start of the exhibition season, work what he thought was effectively, at least to a point of self-satisfaction, an inning and third, allowing four runs Tuesday in a game that San Francisco would win, 14-12, over the Diamondbacks.

Then Samardzija would head to his locker, at the opposite end of the clubhouse from the table where Mays sits anytime he chooses, and Samardzija would lament the trend to replacing pitchers by the book, not on how they were performing, and the obsession in the sport on items such as launch angle and spin rate.

Whatever angle Mays launched balls at during a Hall of Fame career never will be known. But he hit 660 home runs, and missed two full seasons, 1952 and ’53, when he was in the Army — “I probably would have hit 40 each year,” he said unpretentiously. He also played home games for 23-plus seasons at cold, windy Candlestick Park.    

Oh, was he special. From the start. “We got to take care of this kid,” Garry Schumacher, the publicist of the New York Giants, said in the 1950s. “We got to make sure he gets in no trouble because this is the guy — well, I'm not saying he's gonna win pennants by himself, but he's the guy who'll have us all eating strawberries in the wintertime.”

At this moment, at his table, the top autographed by Mays — “They sell it for charity,” he pointed out — Willie was eating a taco and, between bites, asking for a Coke.

“No Cokes,” he was told. “They want the players to cut down on sugar.” So Mays settled for water.

Willie will be 87 in May. His vision is limited. “I’m not supposed to drive at night,” he said to a journalist who also has eye problems. “But I feel good.”

It has been said one of the joys of baseball is that it enables different generations to talk to each other. A grandfather and his grandson, separated by 50 or so years, may have little in common. Except baseball. The game is timeless.   

Three strikes and Mays was out. Three strikes and Buster Posey’s out. Batters still are thrown out by a step. “Ninety feet between bases is the closest man has come to perfection,” wrote the great journalist Red Smith.

The closest any ballplayer has come to perfection is Mays. We know he could hit. He could run, steal any time wanted, third base as well as second. Defense? The late San Francisco Chronicle baseball writer Bob Stevens said of a Mays triple, “The only man who could have caught it, hit it.”

On Tuesday, writers were hitting it off with Mays when rookie pitcher Tyler Beede, the Giants’ first pick in the 2014 draft, sat down next to Mays. They were separated by some 62 years — Beede is 24 — but instantly they began a conversation.

“Where you from?” Mays asked Beede, a star at Vanderbilt, who is from Chattanooga.

“You play golf? Mays asked. Beede said he did. “Twelve handicap,” he added.

Mays laughed. “Got to watch you 12-handicap guys. Pitchers, they’re always playing golf. They have the time between starts.”

Willie was a golfer until he no longer could see where his shots landed. He started the game at San Francisco’s Lake Merced Golf Club, struggled for a while — “I can’t believe I can’t hit a ball that’s just sitting there, not moving,” he said when learning — but became accomplished.

Then Pablo Sandoval dropped by, almost literally, practically sitting in Mays' lap and wrapping Willie in a bear hug. “I need some money, I’m broke,” said Pablo. The two laughed.

Willie is rich. In memories and friends.


A’s Melvin: ‘We feel like it’s trending back up’

By Art Spander

MESA, Ariz. — The wall where players enter the clubhouse is lined with history, at least with posters of those who made history for the Oakland Athletics — Rickey Henderson, Dennis Eckersley, Catfish, Reggie, Rollie, and with those players who really who needs last names?

Oh, the glory days when the A’s were on top, not just on top of the Giants but all of baseball.

These, however, are the frustrating days, the days when every good player on the A’s — and they’ve had a ton — leaves, when Josh Donaldson, Yoenis Cespedes, Josh Reddick and Sonny Gray go to another team because Oakland cannot afford to keep them.

Bob Melvin has been through this from top to bottom as the A’s manager since June 2011, six and two-thirds seasons heading into 2018. Time flies, until the roster flies apart.

“The first three (seasons) went a lot quicker than the last three; we were, much more successful then,” said Melvin, confirming the obvious. “For us it’s difficult to trend up all the time when we have to get rid of some players.

“So the trend line went down. We feel like it’s trending back up. We like the younger group we have here right now. We’re excited about it. So after three difficult years, I’m looking forward to being with this group for a while — and hopefully it’s longer than one more year.”

Melvin, “Bo Mel” as we came to know him, the Menlo-Atherton High kid, the Cal guy, was sitting Sunday in the dugout at Hohokam Stadium, the Athletics’ spring home, a few minutes after Oakland and Kansas City played to one of those exhibition anomalies, a tie, 4-4 in this case. Hey, the Royals had to motor 45 miles west to Surprise, and the game already was only four minutes short of three hours. So, adios.

Which too often is what the A’s have said, figuratively, of course, to their stars. Now they have another group with potential to make it big, to make the A’s very good. One of those players, 6-foot-7 lefthander, A.J. Puk, pitched the first two innings. Didn’t allow anyone to reach base. Did allow Melvin to dream.

“What we saw last year,” said Melvin of Puk in spring 2017, the pitcher’s second season of pro ball, “today was even a better mix of pitches.”

Puk has added a two-seam fastball. Of the six batters he faced, four grounded out and one struck out. He threw only 20 pitches.

"Great command, great poise, throwing strikes, easy innings,” said Melvin, a former catcher. "I told (pitching coach Scott Emerson), 'Why are you taking him out?' He was only going to pitch two regardless, so off to a really good start.”

Puk is 22, from Iowa (yes, so was Bob Feller, but please, no comparisons) and went to the University of Florida. He’s learning. He’s improving. The A’s very well also might be improving. But then a key player is dispatched. Whoosh, gone.

“That’s one of the chief complaints,” Melvin conceded of the turnover of personnel. “Hopefully that all changes with the new ballpark. I know we’re still counting on that but just haven’t found a site yet.”

This is 50 years for the A’s in Oakland, and for almost the entire half-century, since they moved here from Kansas City before the 1968 season, since they won three World Series in a row in 1972-74, since they had their decent stadium, the Oakland Coliseum, horribly transformed for a football team now preparing to desert, there hung the question whether the team would belong to Oakland.

They were going to move to Portland. To Sacramento. To Las Vegas. To San Jose. They were as restless as a willow in a windstorm, to steal from Oscar Hammerstein.

Tarps covered seats, and in some years, such as 2016 when almost nobody in the infield could play defense properly, fans covered their eyes.

Spring training is for optimists. Every team is undefeated. Bob Melvin and the A’s have gone through good times and bad times. Maybe this time won’t be better, but the suspicion is it won’t be worse.