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6:00AM

SF Examiner: The A’s are a franchise without an identity

The A’s ridiculous “we’re Houdini and you’re not” attempt at illusion in trying to make us believe the upper deck at the Coliseum doesn’t exist — the seats are covered with tarps — symbolizes what has happened to a franchise once the model of excellence.

The A’s, insisting they would build a ballpark in Fremont, then hinting they might move to Portland or Vegas (or was it Machu Picchu?), and concurrently failing to do what is most important, put a winner on the field, have become virtually invisible.

Who are the A’s? What are the A’s? Do they have a future? Is it destined every star player under contract will show up on the disabled list? Do they need a new stadium more than a new direction? What happened to the magic of “Moneyball,” the parsimonious philosophy of general manager Billy Beane?

And most importantly, does anybody but a loyal minority care about any of the questions?

Baseball is not a sport to be parsed out, but rather analyzed over what we’ve been told is the long season. Good players have bad weeks. Not-so-good players have great weeks. The same for teams.

Yet, the first month of 2009 has done nothing to reassure those wonderful, and very few, partisans who wave flags and toot horns out in the bleachers at home games that this season will be an improvement over the last two — in the standings or at the gate.

Lew Wolff is listed in the team’s media directory as the managing general partner, so in theory, he’s the one in charge. But aside from insulting, in no particular order, the city of Oakland and the A’s fans, exactly what has he done?

Across the Bay, the Giants are not going to be winning any championships, but they at least appear headed for respectability. Where are the A’s headed? They tried to add to the offense by signing Matt Holliday and bringing back Jason Giambi. But after Monday night, Holliday was hitting .223 and Giambi .218.

There’s a recession going on, and the weather is the worst at the beginning of May in modern memory. Maybe that’s why Monday night the A’s, opening a home stand, drew a crowd announced at only 10,397. By game’s end, maybe only 800 were still around.

Comcast has this advertising gimmick, in which on billboards it lists guys such as Holliday and Giambi without a key vowel — “J-son Gi-mbi” —  advising we can find the A’s on their network.

If not, maybe we can look in the upper deck.

A’s front office personnel said for the past year or so, at least until the idea went poof, that with the new ballpark in Fremont, the team would be able to sign and keep its best players. Then again, with Eric Chavez and numerous others on the DL, it might never be able to keep them on the field.

Will there ever be a new stadium? Will there ever be an A’s team able to stay healthy? Will there ever be a reason to think baseball will survive in the East Bay? Maybe we can find out by removing the tarps.

Art Spander has been covering Bay Area sports since 1965 and also writes on www.artspander.com and www.realclearsports.com. E-mail him at typoes@aol.com.
9:07AM

What’s happened to the A’s Matt Holliday?

OAKLAND --  And the Angels didn’t even have Vladimir Guerrero. The question is whether the Athletics have Matt Holliday.

Vlad is on the disabled list with a torn right pectoral muscle, on the well-known DL, made infamous almost hourly by the A’s.

Guerrero has been out for three weeks. He’s the Angels’ big gun, but if they miss him, you wouldn’t know it from what happened at the Mausoleum -– sorry, the Coliseum –- on Monday night.

That’s because the A’s miss Matt Holliday, who was supposed to be their main bat. Holliday was in the lineup, physically, but where is he mentally?

Everyone is entitled to a bad game or three. But this is two imperfectos in a row for Holliday, signed by Oakland a couple of months back with such great fervor and plenty of expectations.

Matt went 0-for-4 on Monday as the A’s were beaten by the Angels.  After going 0-for-7 on Sunday in that awful 15-inning, 8-7 loss at Seattle.

Meaning heading into Game 2 of the two-game series against the “We don’t want to be in Anaheim so we’ll defy geography and say we’re from Los Angeles’’ Angels, Holliday is a tidy 0-for-11.

Somebody associated with the Colorado Rockies, Holliday’s former team, intimated last weekend when the Rocks were across the Bay at AT&T that Holliday knows he’s going to traded by the A’s and doesn’t really care what’s happening at the moment.

What’s happening is a man with a .319 lifetime major league average is batting .223. Even for someone reputedly known to be a slow starter, that isn’t very good. In fact, it’s terrible.

“He had a long game (Sunday),’’ the A’s Bob Geren said of Holliday in the sort of expected defense the manager might make of a star who’s not showing much offense.

“(Monday) Saunders pitched him tough. He tied up a lot of our hitters.’’

Indeed, Joe Saunders, who allowed six hits and struck out seven, dominated the A’s. But at least catcher Kurt Suzuki, batting leadoff, homered and Orlando Cabrera delivered a couple of singles and a run. All Holliday had were a couple of foul pops, a fly to right and, in the eighth against Jose Arrendondo, a called third strike.

This game painfully recalled that awful era of the late 1970s A’s. The announced attendance was a pitiful 10,397. When a brief shower hit the area in the sixth, many in the –- dare we use the word “crowd”? -- moved back under the overhang of the second and third decks.

At the final out, 9:41 p.m., maybe 800 people remained, and every shout could be heard not only across the stadium but probably all the way to San Leandro.

Brett Anderson was the A’s starter, but if it wasn’t enough trouble facing Mike Napoli (two doubles and two singles) and Chone Figgins (three singles), Anderson had a blister on the index finger of his pitching hand, the left.

“It was worse when I threw the fastball or changeup,’’ said Anderson, who came out in the fifth after giving up all the Angels’ runs. “There wasn’t any pain. But the ball caught on the skin.’’

It’s always something with the A’s. Eric Chavez and Nomar Garciaparra on the DL. Jack Cust striking out in all four of his at bats. Anderson’s record falling to 0-3.

The A’s are last in AL West. The Angels, the favorites, next to last. “Standings are your report card,’’ conceded Angels manager Mike Scioscia, “but that’s not your focus. Each game is. If you’re getting a B in biology, are you going to try and fail your next next test?’’

The middle of the A’s lineup, Holliday included, has been failing its test. Jason Giambi, who did have a single, is batting .218; Holliday, as you know, .223; Cust, 266; Bobby Crosby, who also had two hits, .222, and Travis Buck, .182. Toss in everyone else, and the A’s are last in the American League with a combined .237 average.That means the A’s pitchers, with blisters or without, must keep the opponent virtually scoreless, a virtual impossibility.

“I don’t think that game Sunday had any effect,’’ Geren said of Monday’s loss. “We got home early enough. We bounced back. It’s just that Saunders was hitting his spots. He doesn’t seem to give away too many pitches.’’

That understood, you wonder if and when the A’s plan to give away Matt Holliday. His first month in Oakland has been less than success.
6:01PM

Cabrera's fortunes change quickly for the A's

OAKLAND – It’s a game of numbers. Baseball is a small island of activity in a great sea of statistics. Virtually nothing goes unrecorded. To the people who play it, however, much goes ignored.

They know what they are doing. Or what they are not doing. Orlando Cabrera was the new guy for the Athletics, although after 16 years in organized ball, he hardly is one of the new guys in the game.

That fact his average was a miserable .190, that he entered Sunday’s game against Tampa Bay with only three hits his previous 37 at bats, was balanced by Cabrera’s recognition of performance.

“I was happy with a lot of those 37 at bats,’’ Cabrera said, “even though I haven’t been getting hits. I was battling. A lot of things can happen. It’s just like playing poker. Fortunes change quickly.’’

They changed Sunday for Cabrera. And for the A’s.  He had a double and a single. The A’s had a second straight win over the Rays, who, it’s almost hard to remember, were in the World Series last fall.

Oakland played a dominant game, Dana Eveland -- whose locker is adjacent to Cabrera’s -- getting his first pitching victory as the A’s beat the Rays, 7-1.

“It was probably our best series of the year,’’ A’s manager Bob Geren was to assert. “Just the way we started it, down (Friday) night and the way we finished it.’’

We’re always impatient around baseball, where patience is of the essence. Ballplayers don’t string things together like the fans or media do. Any game might be a bad one. Or a brilliant one. Players judge over weeks and months.

Cabrera was hitting .190, Jason Giambi .211, Matt Holiday .238, Nomar Garciaparra .222.  Embarrassing and perplexing, but not fatal.

“It was just a matter of time,’’ said Geren, a man of equanimity. “We’ve got a lot of quality hitters with proven records. Orlando is a .290 hitter, an excellent hitter at the top of the lineup.

“He looked a little bit off, but just (Saturday) he told hitting coach Jim Skaalen, ‘Don’t worry about me. My hits are just about to start coming.’ So we have a guy that knows his game and his ability level and is confident enough to say something like that and then go out and do it.’’

These A’s have been disappointing. The addition of Holliday, a .319 hitter, Giambi, Cabrera and Garciaparra was supposed to make Oakland a contender. They need success. They need attention. The Giants can always rely on their park. The A’s can rely only on what their ad agency promotes as “100% baseball.’’

There are noticeable failings around the American League. The Angels have a losing record. The Rays, champions of ’08, have a losing record. The A’s have a losing record. The supposition is the Angels and Rays will recover. The hope is the A’s will recover.

And they might.

“You look back at the last couple of weeks,’’ Geren insisted, “and we had guys in position. We left a ton of people on base. We were one hit away here and there from winning a lot of games.’’

The hits came comfortably Sunday, 10 in all, at least one by everyone in the starting lineup and two from Cabrera, who said he had been seeing good pitches yet hadn’t been “lucky enough’’ to get the hits.

Asked if perhaps he were pressing to prove the A’s were correct in signing him in March, the 34-year-old Cabrera shrugged. “I’m too old for that. I can’t do anything about that stuff. I just play my game. Of course, you want to do good all the time. You try.

“You want to help the team win.  It’s nice to go 3-for-4 with five RBIs, but you can also do the little things if you’re not hitting, move a guy over, play defense.’’

The little things have been done. Now he needs the big thing. Now Orlando Cabrera needs to hit the way he did on Sunday against Tampa Bay.
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