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A's focused on finishing the job
By Peter Gammons
Special to ESPN.com
PHOENIX -- On the first day of each spring training, Oakland pitching coach Rick Peterson gathers his pitchers around him for what he calls their state of the union address.
"The first topic annually," says Peterson, "is complacency. This year, it wasn't necessary. It is clear that the last thing these guys are are complacent."
"We are on a mission," says A's pitcher Tim Hudson. "We all know that we have a great team with great players that has accomplished a lot during the regular season. Ten years from now, it would be a shame to look back and realize we never won a World Series. So to accomplish anything less will be a disappointment."
"I have lost two Game 5's," says fellow pitcher Mark Mulder. "So it's time for me and everyone to take the responsibility for getting off to a better start and finishing the season the way we have, and it starts with me."
If you remember, Mulder gave up one run in seven innings in Game 5 of the Division Series last season against Minnesota. Most athletes would refer to his positive outing in some "I-did-my-job" way. Not Mulder. He accepts the responsibility for losing.
Hudson never referenced the hip problem that bothered him so badly in his two starts against the Twins, which kept him from getting the ball down in the strike zone. Hip rotation is a vital part of the 162-pound Hudson's delivery, but he didn't mention the hip problem at the time, didn't mention it in talking about the team's disappointments; Mulder and others brought it up. It wasn't until after Christmas that Hudson's hip was back to normal, but, even now, he says,"that is no excuse. You win or you lose, and we lost."
Since the day Barry Zito arrived in the majors -- July 22, 2000 -- he has 47 victories, Mulder has 44 and Hudson has 43. They are the three winningest pitchers in the American League during that time.
"That is remarkable in of itself," says Peterson. "But when I heard Mark and Tim say what they said, I knew I didn't have to even bring up complacency. What they said is why they are special. They shoulder responsibility, as does Barry. They are special, rare athletes."
"There not only are a lot of very talented players on this team, but they do accept the responsibility that goes along with success," says new A's manager Ken Macha, who has seamlessly moved into his new job. "The best thing is that there are so many of the stars who are on a mission to get that World Series ring."
One is Jermaine Dye, who after breaking his leg in the 2001 playoffs had what for him was a below-average (.252-24-86) season.
"Last year, the leg never was right, and I couldn't really put any pressure on my front leg, which meant I really couldn't drive through my swing," says Dye. "This spring, it's back to normal. I feel fantastic, and I really want to have that big year and help get us get a World Series ring."
The addition of Erubiel Durazo gives Oakland a powerful two-through-six in the batting order with Scott Hatteberg, Miguel Tejada, Dye, Eric Chavez and Durazo. Adam Piatt, who seemed on the brink of contributing in 2000 (.299 batting average, .882 OPS) but was slowed by a bad back last season, is healthier and stronger. They will miss the retired David Justice, on and off the field, although Justice is coming into camp this coming week to be around the team. How Chris Singleton (.296 OBP), Terrence Long (.298 OBP) and Ramon Hernandez (.313 OBP) bounce back will be watched carefully, as general manager Billy Beane will make a trade if need be as he is the master of the trade-deadline deal.
Ted Lilly is the fourth starter, and has strengthened his lower half and lengthened his stride to smooth his delivery and take pressure off his shoulder. John Halama or Aaron Harang wll be the fifth starter.
Peterson thinks Keith Foulke will be an upgrade at closer, and looking at what Foulke did the last two months (26 1/3 IP 1 ER, 1 BB and 17 K) there is every reason to believe he's right again.
"We may do something different," says Peterson. "Ricardo Rincon and Chad Bradford can always pitch the ninth inning, as well, and we have some very interesting other arms (Rule V pick Buddy Hernandez and Chad Harville for two) that may give us more depth."
One thing that Macha addressed at the opening of camp is the fact that the A's have started very slowly each of the last two years.
"Rick and I have talked about some things the pitchers may do differently," says Macha."We just need to be more aware that the first month against our division -- which happens to be the best division in the game -- requires some urgency.
"But I do think that the way these players came here on a mission bodes well."
"We cannot let our legacy be losing fifth games," says Zito.
That said, with what Mulder and Hudson not only say but believe, if they remain healthy, they will head to Japan on March 20 as the favorite to go to the last weekend in October.
Angels not missing a beat
"I hear people say we had a lot of players have career years," says Angels GM Bill Stoneman. "But that's not really so. A lot of our good players can have better years."
Troy Glaus, for one. His homers have gone from 47 to 41 to 30 the last three seasons, his batting average from .284 to .250. But in the postseason, when his OPS was 1.266, .960 and 1.313 in the three series, he seemed to figure it out and could be on the verge of a monster season.
"I did stay up the middle and learned to better dictate where the ball would go," says Glaus. "I think a lot clicked in."
Think back to his at-bats against Jason Schmidt, then off Rob Nen in Game 6 of the World Series.
With Aaron Sele unable to begin the season, there will be attention paid to the fifth spot (it'll likely be Mickey Callaway, unless Scott Schoeneweis comes out of the bullpen to start). But Saturday, when players were being cheered by fans as they had their pictures taken on picture day, Scioscia said, "in the past, if we had two birds in the stadium at this point in spring training, we were lucky. Now we've got players being cheered."
Stoneman says that the advanced ticket sales have been tremendous. The carryover is important, because from September on the audience was the most diverse in either league, heavily Hispanic and Asian.
"Our area is heavily Hispanic," says Stoneman. "So we have worked hard in those communities. Of course, winning helps."
Has Erstad changed? Impossible. He has the scar from the operation for the broken right hand he suffered in Game 4 of the World Series in San Francisco, but didn't aknowledge the injury until he was playing golf two weeks after the Series.
"Think about how hard he hit that homer off (the Giants) Tim Worrell in Game 6," says Scioscia. "And realize he had a broken hand."
Will Erstad modify his proclivity to running into walls and diving? "No," he says. "It's part of the job."
Then there's Eckstein. He went to Japan after the World Series as part of the major league All-Star team that toured the country, where he became buddies with Barry Bonds.
"He might be my favorite player," says Bonds of Eckstein. "I watch how he does what he does, with all that energy, and I'm amazed. One day watching him, I got a tear in my eye for what he achieves considering the natural ability he was given."
Said Eckstein: "I learned a lot hanging around with Barry. The biggest thing was to respect the game and respect all opponents, to go into each day believing it's a huge challenge. He's very smart, he's interesting and I found him to be very nice."
Eckstein went to dinner at the White House, where President George W. Bush told him he was a fan of his. Pretty good for a kid who couldn't get a college scholarship and who was written off by the Red Sox.
Baseball needs to wise up
One problem is that this winter, instead of trying to create a working partnership to take the game forward, owners went backwards and recreated mistrust, not to mention serious questions about vision, or the lack of it. To jump on the Ban ephedrine bangwagon is a shallow public relations stunt similar to the owners steroids rage, which only came about because two guys now in jail talked publically about steroids.
The ephedra and steroids outcry were reactions. What baseball needs is vision and creative action.
Around the majors
"It's what he wants to do. But there's no turning back. He's not going back to the bullpen, because he would have trouble doing that because he believes that he should start. So if something happens to Matt (Mantei), we'll do what Boston is doing, which I believe can work. One good thing -- as a starter, maybe we can get Byung-Hyun into a regular throwing program. As long as he was in the bullpen, he might throw 50-100 pitches about five or six times a day, in left field, in a cage, anywhere."
"I said that healthy, I think Junior will go back to being a Hall of Fame player. I talked to Junior and told him exactly what I said and what I meant."
"He asked me, 'when they put the shift on against (Barry) Bonds, why is it that the best infielder, the shortstop, ends up in the position on the right side of the bag where he covers the least ground,' " says Yost. "I had no answer, except that when we put the shift on against Bonds, our shortstop will be the one guy on the left side."