I’m an A’s fan. I always have been. I grew up in the Bay Area, a child of the ‘80s, and those A’s had it all: The doggedly aggressive pitching of Dave Stewart, the defensive finesse of Walt Weiss and Mike Gallego, the power of Mark McGwire and Jose Canseco, and the speed and flash of the one and only Rickey Henderson.
Everything they did, they did well; and while the only World Series they won is remembered mostly for an earthquake, those Oakland A’s will forever remain my team. What began as a childhood fascination blossomed into a professional career when the A’s chose me in the fourth round of the 2002 draft … soon to be immortalized by Michael Lewis as the "Moneyball draft."
Mark Mulder, Barry Zito and Tim Hudson were major parts of the 2002 A’s. The Big Three wove themselves into my baseball narrative and its firsts in important ways. So for this A’s fan, Saturday’s game in Oakland, reuniting The Big Three, will be emotional.
I had been in this room before, but this time was different. My heart was beating too fast. I couldn’t answer questions. I was having trouble focusing. Jesus, that’s Miguel Tejada. There’s Adam Piatt speaking with writers in front of his locker. And look at all those bats! Standing in a major-league locker room is intimidating when you’re a freshly-drafted kid. But when you’re from down the street, there to sign a contract and play pro ball for your hometown team, it’s horrifying.
Standing there, stupefied, the voice of Mark Mulder shook me back into the present: "What size shoe are you?" I understood the question, but I was so awed that I had trouble getting "12, 12-and-a-half, or 13" out of my mouth. Mark Mulder, the guy that was good at everything. His smile was professional. I looked down and realized that he was holding a shoebox, the bright orange top giving away the brand. He put the box in my hands. I thanked him and suddenly relaxed, asking him what he was going to do with Barry Bonds that day. He replied with a hint of a smirk, "I’m going to try and keep him at first base."
The lesson I learned that day from Mulder was simple, and it stuck with me throughout my career: Share. Players receive lots of perks, far more perks than we could possibly use. It is important to pass them on, if only to balance the selfishness required of a professional athlete.
Thank you, Mark Mulder. Thank you for the shoes, and for calming me down. Last year I gave Kyle Schwarber batting gloves. Because of you.
Every player remembers his first big-league spring training. I was more excited about the single-earflap helmet than anything else. One earflap — so much more pro than that massive double-eared bucket minor leaguers are forced to wear. I was immediately paired up with Barry Zito, in a way that still doesn’t make sense to me. I caught his bullpens, his live batting practice sessions; we even played long toss together. The strangest part of the experience was how Zito treated me, one of the lowest players on the totem pole: like an equal.
We had conversations about philosophy and Richard Linklater movies (at Barry’s behest, I watched "Waking Life"). We played guitar early before practice a few times, and Barry coached me through the tougher parts of Dave Matthews’ "#41." He sat and talked with me on the bench during spring training games and asked me questions as if he actually valued my lowly opinion. I’ll NEVER forget attending the owner’s banquet and Barry introducing to his date: Alyssa Milano. It was like a movie.
Barry Zito taught me that the best teammates treat everyone the same. He set an example that I tried to live up to: Real big leaguers don’t big-league anyone.
Thank you, Barry Zito. Thank you for treating me as an equal, and for showing me how real major leaguers act.
Every player has a "fan moment" in the beginning of his career. Matt Duffy described it well: "It’s hard to turn off being a fan." Standing in the batter’s box and seeing Tim Hudson in his Braves uniform is an image I’ll never forget. This was my second season in the majors, but it still felt more like fantasy camp. I had watched Hudson since the day the A’s called him up. So for me, facing Hudson signified my arrival in the major leagues. It wasn’t my first at-bat; I wasn’t still looking for my first hit. But I knew that being a fan of your opponent doesn’t usually lead to success. So I stepped out of the box to realign my thoughts. I had to humanize my foe, make him beatable. My "fan mind" had given him superpowers: an invisible change/split, a disappearing sinker. Tim Hudson forced me to see all opponents as that: opponents, flesh and bone, men who bleed like me, with losses on their records. If I could get a hit off of Hudson, I could get a hit off of anyone.
Competing against Hudson taught me how to humanize my opposition and believe in myself. Lessons like that are learned only on the field, and recognized only with experience.
Thank you, Tim Hudson. Thank you for teaching me that the obstacles we create in our mind are not actually obstacles; they’re opportunities.
September baseball is a fickle beast. Few teams remain in a competitive playoff race. Most teams are barely holding on, or already looking to the future. In this matchup, the sum of the parts is greater than the whole. Zito and Hudson one last time by the Bay. Mulder has already retired, taking his athletic prowess to the golf course. Zito and Hudson plan on retiring after 2015. My career as a player is over as well. I’m just a fan again, and I can’t think of a better way to celebrate than with Zito versus Hudson in one last game.