Monday, July 18, 2011
My 50 All-Time Favorite Oakland A's
On June 30, my Oakland Athletics traded away longtime second baseman Mark Ellis to the Colorado Rockies. Ellis wasn't flashy, but since 2002 he was a steady presence in the lineup and on defense. The trade led one of my favorite A's-related follows on Twitter to write up his top 25 all-time favorite Athletics position players.
Now, I liked Ellis just fine. One of my favorite memories of Ellis ties to the time he almost killed me.* But, his placement at #2 on Ken's list seemed…oh, I don't know. What's a good judgmental and objective adjective for someone else's subjective list?
* -- I was driving back to San Diego on the day after my bachelor party in Los Angeles and reasonably hung over. The A's were playing the Twins in the deciding game of the 2002 ALDS. Down four runs in the bottom of the ninth, Ellis hit a three-run home run to bring Oakland within one. Listening on my car's radio, I nearly sideswiped another car at 80 mph when I took my hands off the steering wheel during my slightly too-exuberant driver's side celebration.
Ken did, however, clearly explain his criteria (in the comments section). This got me thinking about my own list of all-time favorite Oakland A's – and my own criteria for qualifying.
I've been an A's fan since 1981 despite being born in Southern California and never having lived in the Bay Area. (I covered that conundrum in this TBG post.) In my 30th year of root, root, rooting for the home cough team, there's a certain type of player who's nearer and dearer to my heart than others.
(1) The Athletics teams of the late 1980s/early 1990s were the ones that made baseball my favorite sport. As you'll see, I can't be bothered to hide my bias.
(2) Charisma wins out. While I can appreciate the productive, lead-by-example types; I prefer the compelling personalities who are fun to watch – regardless of the result.
(3) My seven-year-old son has received autographs from more than a dozen A's players. Watching how these guys interacted with Jalen carried more weight than I thought it would.
Initially, I wanted to limit my list to the top 25, but my first draft -- scrawled on a legal notepad during my lunch hour -- totaled a nice, tidy 50. I briefly considered shaving that down, before opting to keep them all. It took another two days to rank every player.
You'd rather I write about the Athletics' 2011 season? Start us off, Geronimo.
50 - Geronimo Berroa (1994-97) OF, DH: Hit .293/.361/.499 during his four-year run on some terrible A's teams. He acknowledged the cheers of me and my friend Smitty with a wave and tip of the cap after hitting a home run against the Angels.
49 - Dan Haren (2005-07) SP: Averaged 14 wins with a 3.64 ERA in Oakland. Starting pitcher for the 2007 All Star Game. Could grow a full beard between innings.
48 - John Jaha (1999-2001) DH: Crushed 35 home runs with a .970 OPS in 1999. Injuries ruined the last two years of his career, but he can be seen in the American League dugout whenever MLB Network re-airs the 1999 All Star Game starring Pedro Martinez.
47 - Coco Crisp (2010-current) OF: He meets my "charismatic" and "signed a ball for my son" criteria. I'd have him higher if his 2011 season didn't resemble Willie Mays Hayes' character development during the first act of Major League II.
46 - Frank Menechino (1999-2004) 2B: I went to a game at Qualcomm Stadium with my wife's corporate tickets in 2001 and sat next to the on-deck circle. Up close, Menechino might be the most muscularly solid man I've ever seen. And, I have no idea how he got that way.
45 - Carlos Peña (2002) 1B: One of baseball's top prospects, he was acquired in a trade with the Rangers and penciled in to replace Jason Giambi at first base. Fell out of favor with the A's faster than any player I can remember -- partially due to a genuinely fascinating online diary he wrote for mlb.com.
44- Steve Ontiveros (1985-88, 1994-95) SP, RP: A perfectly acceptable swingman for Oakland in the 1980s, he returned in the mid-1990s, won an ERA title and was an American League All Star.
43 - Willie Randolph (1990) 2B: Struggled with the A's after he was acquired midseason from the Dodgers, but I still remember how excited I was when one of my favorite players from the 1980s landed on my favorite team.
42 - Joe Blanton (2004-08) SP: Averaged 14 wins/season from 2005-07. Always seemed to get the most out of his so-so stuff. Never capitalized on obvious "Fat Joe" nickname, even after the crossover success of Lean Back in 2004.
41 - Brent Gates (1993-96) 2B: My friend JP and I were so high on Gates that we bought 100 of his 1992 Topps Stadium Club rookie card and split 'em between us. Thrilled when he was called up in 1993, a wrist injury in 1994 pretty much scuttled his career. I still have the cards, if anyone's interested.
40 - Gil Heredia (1998-2001) SP: 15-game winner in 2000 and I was in attendance to watch him win the first game of the ALDS (vs. New York) that year. Still trying to repress his game five start, though.
39 - Ben Grieve (1997-2000) OF, DH: With vivid memories of the baseball card industry's speculative zenith, I've always had a soft spot for relentlessly hyped rookies. Grieve was the top prospect in all of baseball at one point and took home the 1998 AL Rookie of the Year award. He also grounded into three double plays in the time took you to read this entry.
38 - Justin Duchscherer (2003-10) RP, SP: One of the game's most efficient, consistent middle relievers during the last decade. Relocated into the starting rotation in 2008 and won 10 of his 22 starts. Two-time All Star whose bouts with chronic hip injuries -- and more famously, depression -- made it impossible to root against.
37 - Mike Gallego (1985-91, 1995) 2B: Started more than 100 games at a single position in a single season just once with Oakland (1991), but capably filled in all around the infield. He was also the last New York Yankee (1992-94) to wear #2 before Derek Jeter. I thought you should know.
36 - Ruben Sierra (1992-95) OF: I know I'm in the minority among my fellow A's fans, but I liked the guy. He contracted chicken pox right after he was acquired from Texas in August 1992 (for Jose Canseco) and then Oakland signed him to a prohibitive long-term deal (5 years, $28 million) after that season. In 1993, Sierra came to camp noticeably more muscle-y. With his new video game physique, his once respectable on-base skills disappeared as he swung for the fences at everything. He even feuded with then-manager Tony LaRussa and was hung with a derisive nickname that followed him the rest of his career. By the standard of today's entertaining train wrecks, he was ahead of his time.
35 - Terrence Long (2000-03) OF: He might've been more reviled than Sierra by A's fans. After a promising rookie season (.288/.336/.452) he eroded almost overnight. Long bristled at a reduced role and was shipped off to San Diego after the 2003 season. I loved his left-handed swing when I first saw him – combining the Hriniak one-handed follow-through with a little hop at the end. He hit two home runs in the first game of the 2001 ALDS at Yankee Stadium. Long even offered up some unintentional comedy, wearing braids for a few seasons despite a hairline that resembled Hulk Hogan's. What's not to love?! Well, besides, how he struck out looking to end the 2003 ALDS. But, if we're fitting goat horns from that series, Long would've only been fifth or sixth in line.
34 - Felix Jose (1988-90) OF: In the late 1980s, when the A's were minting Rookies of the Year on an annual basis, my friends and I got behind Jose in a big way. He was a colossally raw talent who went from mediocre minor leaguer to power-hitting prospect after a curious breakout at AAA-Tacoma in 1988. Showed infrequent flashes of what could've been, before being traded for Willie McGee in August 1990.
33 - Rick Honeycutt (1987-93, 1995) RP: Depending on your perspective, he was either the most valuable left-handed middle reliever on one of the best teams in baseball or he was one of the accomplices in Tony LaRussa's plot to ruin baseball through bullpen micromanagement.
32 - Gene Nelson (1987-92) RP: Depending on your perspective, he was either the most valuable right-handed middle reliever on one of the best teams in baseball or he was one of the accomplices in Tony LaRussa's plot to ruin baseball through bullpen micromanagement.
31 - Andrew Bailey (2009-current) RP: Not since Dennis Eckersley's feathered locks stalked the mound have I been as confident when an A's closer enters the game with a one-run lead. He's due for a raise in arbitration after this season and there are whispers that other teams have already inquired as to his availability. There's a reason only three of the players on this list are currently playing for the A's.
30 - Jerry Browne (1992-93) UT: One of the unsung heroes of Oakland's 1992 division-winning team. Played six different positions, always seemed to be on base and hit .400 in the ALCS that year. During batting practice at a game in Anaheim, I screamed down to the field, "I voted for you Governor!" He responded with a wave, a smile and a "thank you!" You're welcome!
29 - Luis Polonia (1987-89) RP: The A's handed him the keys to the leadoff spot as a rookie and for 2 1/2 years Polonia was an electrifying -- albeit unpolished -- offensive presence. His overall numbers in Oakland (.288/.332/.385) were roughly league average, but his speed (20 triples, 66 stolen bases) made for a refreshing contrast to the mashers in the middle of the order. Also, owned an all star jheri curl.
28 - Olmedo Saenz (1999-2002) 1B, 3B: In a reserve role, he hit .313/.401/.514 -- with several clutch hits -- on the 2000 A's team that brought me back to baseball for good after the 1994 strike and those 1993-1998 Oakland teams threatened to kill my soul.
27 - Willie McGee (1990) OF: Only 123 of his career 8,188 plate appearances were collected in Oakland. But, when the best team in baseball traded for McGee and Harold Baines on the same day, it made the 1990 World Series a formality -- in MY mind. At the time. In one of his first games with the A's, McGee scored from first base on an errant pickoff throw. For a naive teenage fan, McGee was symbolic of the win-at-all-costs dominance that would never be absent in Oakland! Never!
26 - Ramon Hernandez (1999-2003) C: The A.J. Hinch era (1998-99) was as beloved among Athletics fans as it would be ten years later with fans of the Arizona Diamondbacks. Hernandez supplanted Hinch as the starting catcher just before the 1999 All Star Break. Over 4 1/2 seasons in Oakland, Hernandez caught one of the best starting rotations in recent memory, introduced walk-off bunt into my vernacular and was a trailblazer in the field of Venezuelans with frosted tips.
25 - Scott Hatteberg (2002-2005) 1B: One of the faces of those polarizing "Moneyball" era A's teams. He did this. He knows where he stands with me.
24 - Billy Taylor (1994, 1996-99) RP: I am an unapologetic sucker for the "minor league lifer FINALLY makes the big leagues" storyline. Taylor debuted professionally in 1980. I first heard about him in the USA Today: Baseball Weekly publication sometime in the early 1990s. He was racking up saves for the Braves' Triple-A team, but never got the call to the show. Taylor pitched effectively as a 32-year-old rookie middle reliever for the A's in 1994. After Dennis Eckersley's departure, Taylor became the A's closer, recording 100 career saves with Oakland.
23 - Mike Moore (1989-1992) SP: Won 66 games over four seasons in Oakland, but his first year was the most memorable for me. Moore made the All Star team, he started (and won) in front of the largest regular season crowd ever involving the Athletics -- and I was there! He even swung the bat in game four of the 1989 World Series, driving in two runs with a double to centerfield. Don't sleep on the thun-dahh, Brett Butler.
22 - Terry Steinbach (1986-96) C: A three-time All Star, he was still -- on a national level -- one of the more anonymous players on those late 1980s/early 1990s A's teams. Steady and dependable both at the plate and behind it, he averaged 11 home runs per season from 1987 through 1995 -- and then hit 35 in 1996, his free agent walk year. "Why does no one ever mention THAT?!", exclaimed 1996 Brady Anderson.
21 - Walt Weiss (1987-92) SS: Won the 1988 AL Rookie of the Year award -- admittedly over a more deserving Jody Reed -- and hit a World Series home run in 1989 that led to this terrific call by ABC's Al Michaels ("And, of all people...Walt Weiss!") His defense was breathtaking -- as was the amount of chaw in his mouth at any given time.
20 - Kevin Kouzmanoff (2010-current) 3B: He developed a reputation as one of the game's nicest guys while playing here in San Diego. Kouz proved it to me on two occasions with my young son, Jalen. He signed a ball for Jalen in May 2010 up in Anaheim, insisting he come to the front of the crowd, ahead of all the pushing and shoving adults. This past March at Spring Training, Kouz signed again for Jalen while asking him about Little League, his favorite position and where he was from. Kouz has struggled mightily in his time with the A's -- in fact, he's currently in the minor leagues -- but, he's got three fans for life in my household. (I can't speak for my wife, but I assume she's on board, too.)
19 - Lance Blankenship (1988-93) 2B/UT: During the baseball card crazy late 1980s, Blankenship generated a bit of Rookie of the Year buzz going into 1989. He couldn't beat out the decayed remains of Glenn Hubbard for the Opening Day second base job, but was a serviceable supersub on several A's teams that always seemed to need an injury fill-in. Posted a .393 OBP in his only season as an (almost) everyday player in 1992 and -- to my eternal gratitude -- ended the longest, coldest game I've ever witnessed live.**
** -- And, before you scroll to the bottom of that link, trust me on these two points: (1) 61 degrees during a night game in Oakland isn't like 61 degrees anywhere else on earth. (2) It wasn't 61 degrees when the game ended at 12:42 AM.
18 - Frank Thomas (2006, 2008) DH: Left for dead by the White Sox, the future Hall of Famer signed with the A's for a relative pittance just two weeks before the start of Spring Training in 2006. Through May 20, he hit just .178/.300/.373. For the remainder of the season, he hit .302/.408/.603 and finished with 39 home runs on a division winning team. He even mentored documented lunatic/then-A's OF Milton Bradley.
17 - Miguel Tejada (1997-2003) SS: His two walk-off moments during the A's 20-game winning streak earned him an awful lot of career leeway from me. He might've finished in my top 10 if not for his terrible baserunning (and ignorance of the "obstruction" rule) during the 2003 ALDS. Anecdotally, I sure seem to remember him being the kind of player who'd show outward frustration if he struck out with the A's up by five or six runs.
16 - Carney Lansford (1983-92) 3B: I can't help but think that Lansford would get slaughtered by sabermetricians if he played today. A third baseman with uninspiring power numbers and a defensive reputation that might've been exaggerated. I'm glad I could enjoy him in the context of his era. His "shaky bat" stance is one of my favorite memories of those A's teams from 25 years ago.
15 - Gio Gonzalez (2008-current) SP: It's fun to watch an obviously talented young player figure it out before your eyes. During his first two Major League seasons, Gonzalez was a tightly-wound, overly emotional pitcher who'd fall apart at the first sign of any in-game adversity. Today, he's a 2011 All Star who's learned to roll with the punches and finally trust his stuff. His love for the A's god-awful yellow alternate jerseys is actually endearing.
14 - Jack Cust (2007-2010) DH: Yup. I had nothing but love for the big lug. It was easy to focus on his numerous shortcomings (terrible on defense, strikeouts, slow, strikeouts, struggled in the clutch, strikeouts) but he was the A's best hitter during his four-year tenure. According to the stathead site Fangraphs, Cust was worth more than $32 million in cumulative value with Oakland. He was worth slightly more to this little boy.
13 - Mike Norris (1975-83, 1990) SP, RP: The ace of the Billy Martin-managed "BillyBall" teams of the early 1980s, Norris was my first favorite pitcher. Arm problems and illicit drugs truncated his peak, but he made an inspiring comeback after six years away from Major League Baseball in 1990. My friend Smitty and I were in attendance for his one and only win that season -- the last of his career.
12 - Mark McGwire (1986-97) 1B: I wish I could've had him higher, but his monstrous 1987 rookie season kept my expectations unrealistically raised for the rest of his Athletics career. From 1988 through 1991, he hit just .233 (Hey, batting average was really all we knew back then). He was hurt for most of 1993-1994 after signing a big money contract after his terrific 1992 season. And, then he forced the A's hand into a terrible trade with St. Louis in 1997. Eric Ludwick? T.J. Matthews? Blake Stein? Come ON!
11 - Harold Baines (1990-1992) DH: August 29, 1990 was one of my favorite days as an A's fan. Baines' acquisition from Texas was one of those "rich get richer" deals that don't happen in Oakland, anymore. On the same day, the team traded for All Star OF Willie McGee. Baines was a machine who just went out and hit every day. His class and professionalism fit right in -- usually as batting order protection for Jose Canseco. Contrast!
10 - Matt Stairs (1996-2000) OF: Averaged 28 home runs and 90 RBI from 1997 through 2000, but those are only my second favorite pair of stats involving Stairs. My favorite: 5'9", 200 lbs. To this day, he and my friend Smitty have never been seen in the same place at the same time.
9 - Eric Chavez (1998-2010) 3B: For a five year stretch -- 2000 through 2004 -- he was arguably the best all-around third baseman in the game (.280/.357/.513, averaged 30 home runs per season, won four of his six consecutive Gold Glove awards). He signed a six year, $66 million contract extension prior to the 2004 season, but a cascade of injuries -- starting in 2007 -- limited him to 154 combined games played over the last four years of the deal. He was a very, very good player during his peak. He was a pretty good person, too.
8 - Tim Hudson (1999-2004) SP: He owned a smoldering mound presence that belied his relatively slight frame. Reminded me a lot of Dave Stewart in make-up, but with a shorter, more confrontational fuse. In August of his rookie year, Hudson outdueled Boston's Pedro Martinez -- 1999 Pedro Martinez! In 2000, he won his 20th game on the final day of the season -- a win that earned the A's the division title. He was 92-39 in Oakland and somehow escaped unscathed from rumors that he was involved in a bar fight the night before his game four start in the 2003 ALDS -- a start he'd eventually leave after just one inning due to an injury. I wish we'd seen the other guy.
7 - Jason Giambi (1995-2001, 2009) 1B: I can't ever remember an A's team that was so clearly carried by one player, but that was Giambi during the 2000 season. Yes, they had great pitching and a productive offense, but Giambi put that team on his back down the stretch and the A's rallied around his leadership in a way I hadn't seen before or since in Oakland. I'll forgive him for signing with the Yankees after the 2001 season, if he agrees that his 2009 return never happened. Cool?
6 - Dave Parker (1988-89) DH: Ten years before he came to Oakland, Parker was a cocky, five-tool threat and the best all-around player in the game. Other than some still-respectable power, there wasn't much left in the toolbox during his two years with the A's. To compensate, he increased his arrogance tenfold. His circuitous home run trots enraged opponents and Parker gloriously didn't give a damn.
5 - Dennis Eckersley (1987-95) RP: When he came into the game, I knew the A's were going to win. Kirk Gibson. Roberto Alomar. Acknowledged. Neither moment diminished Eck's aura.
4 - Jose Canseco (1985-92, 1997) OF: He was the first and only super duper star to ever play for my A's. Canseco's jaw-dropping power (I know, I know) made his at-bats in an 11-0 blowout must-see television.
3 - Dave Henderson (1988-93) CF: No A's player conveyed his love for the game more openly than Hendu. His broad, gap-toothed smile is one my warmest memories from those late '80s/early '90s teams.
2 - Dave Stewart (1986-92, 1995) SP: A four-time 20-game winner and MVP of the 1989 World Series, my favorite moment from my all-time favorite pitcher occurred in game five of the 1992 ALCS. Down 3-1 against the eventual world champion Blue Jays, Stewart, 35, turned back the clock and pitched a complete game -- 139 pitches! -- seven-hitter in defeating Toronto, 6-2.
1 - Rickey Henderson (1979-84, 1989-1995, 1998) LF: I think we've covered this before.