Wednesday, March 20, 2013

March 20- Australia World Baseball Classic

My story starts in New York City on August 22nd in front of the New Era Flagship Store, smoking the last bit of a cigarette. It had been two and a half months since I had been let go from the MLB Fan Cave, yet I was standing across the street from it tapping into their Wi-Fi network as the password was still locked into my phone. It was a little after 10 AM EST and it was the first chance I had to look at what was going on in the social media world; very little from what I can remember. At the moment when I threw my cigarette out Antoine, the store manager, happened to be walking up to pay a visit to the store. We said our hellos, asked how each of us was doing, as it turned out he was just promoted within the company to start to more social media based work. I congratulated him and he told me to keep things positive, that something would come along soon for my future. He then asked if I had seen the new World Baseball Classic hats to which I asked if hey had them in the store. He said yes and I immediately followed him in to take a peek.

They had all of them there, as they had just been released about a day or two prior to my visit. My purpose for my visit actually relied more heavily on a particular Texas Rangers hat that had been discontinued, but which they still had a few left in stock. Needless to say, my 3000 miles journey back was met with equal disappointment on account of them not having my size. However, I did walk out of there with two new hats, but for the life of me I can’t remember which ones I picked up. What I can tell you is that this Australian National Team cap was starring me down the second I walked through the door. I mean, look at it. It’s green and gold and has a big “A” with stars for the logo. Clearly it was fate, and I needed to own that hat… but for some reason, that too also didn’t leave in a nicely packaged New Era bag. That one would have to wait.

Between that day and August 27th I made my way to Boston, Massachusetts for a third time before moving on to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania for the next leg of my trip. I got into Pittsburgh on the 25th and rented a car for the next couple of days. I had been in correspondence with a few good people from the New Era head office in Buffalo, New York about taking a tour and they agreed to let me come by on the 28th. Buffalo was only three and half hours away from Pittsburgh to the northeast so I figured it was no big deal. Unfortunately, Cleveland, Ohio was also three and a half hours away from Pittsburgh to the northwest and I had to be there on the 27th for when the Oakland Athletics took on the Cleveland Indians. So in essence Pittsburgh, Cleveland and Buffalo made this very nice equilateral triangle. Feeling good, and very well rested, I didn’t see any foreseeable problems with this plan of going from one place to the other. Yaaaaaaahhhhh…

On the morning of the 27th I left Pittsburgh around 10 o’clock in the morning. The game wasn’t until 7 PM so I figured I would kill time by checking out the sites and the Rock and Roll Museum about a mile away from the stadium. I got into Cleveland around 2 PM in the midst of a vicious storm. For a moment I remember being really angry that the game would be rained out, but I hadn’t gotten any reports to prove this. Starving, I went and got a sandwich at Subway before heading over and killing time at the Rock and Roll Museum. It was pretty awesome. They don’t let you take photos inside, but it was pretty rad nonetheless. Around 3:45 PM the clouds starting moving out and the rain had stopped. A wave of relief washed over me as I headed back to the car to get a spot closer to The Jake (yes, I realize it’s called Progressive Field now). Around 4 PM they opened the gates and let whomever come through. I think I was one of about 20 total people to be there that early. My excuse was that this was going to be the only game I would attend so I had to get in and take as many photos as possible before the game started. After about 30 minutes of walking around, snapping photos I headed down to the right field wall to take a few more. It’s at the time I realized that the A’s were not going to be taking batting practice, but the pitchers were all out on the field doing warm-ups. About halfway down the steps I heard someone yell my name. I looked around and figured there was someone else also named Ben in the area. Nope! Jerry Blevins had spotted me from a solid 60 yards away at which I realized that about 75% of the pitching staff was now waving at me as if they were my parent who had just dropped me off to school. I of course waved back, some greetings were yelled and that was all I really thought of it. About 20 minutes later Blevins, Ryan Cook, Travis Blackley and Sean Doolittle all came over to the bullpen and called me over. One-by-one each of them shook my hand and told me it was a pleasure to meet me. It was kind of an odd feeling at first as it had been quite some time, excluding the Fan Cave, since anyone within the professional sports realm had opened up and talked to me like a normal person. For years I had been on the journalistic side; always asking questions about their job, not really getting to know them on a normal plane as I always smart enough to discern between one atmosphere and the other. But today… today was the day when jobs and titles didn’t matter. Today was the day when grown men forgot about the barrier and took time to be kind, thoughtful to one another.

Flashback: Travis had been following me on Twitter since the day after I Got kicked out of the Fan Cave. Eddie Mata and I were at Chase Field about to catch the New York Mets versus the Philadelphia Phillies when I checked my Twitter account while we were in line for a pastrami sandwich. Several executives and employees of Major League Baseball that day, and every one of them came up to Eddie and me asking why we were there. It was an interesting lesson in how news does not travel well within the confines of the offices of MLB despite the fact that the entire internet knew we had been given the axe. Anyway, I was checking my Twitter activity when I noticed that Travis had started following me on Twitter. I remember thinking, “Bullshiiiiiiiit, this is probably a fake account.” When I saw the little blue checkmark next his name I was honestly taken aback. Not necessarily because he was following me, but mostly because I felt like a jerk for not following him in the first place. Oops!

Back to Reality: So Travis came over and introduced himself to me and thanked me for everything I had done to support the team. I thanked him back to the tune of I think, “thanks for being an all-around badass yourself,” which is totally something that I would say. A few kids came over and asked for autographs and we continued our conversation. I don’t think we talked about baseball at all beyond those first two sentences, which is a habit of mine I developed from all of my time working with the Bakersfield Blaze: if a player wants to talk about their job, or if you’re job is to talk about baseball with said players, do it; if not, talk about something else. This is a philosophy I have maintained for the better part of the last 13 years (damn, has it really been that long?) as well as during my time in the Fan Cave. (Even though it was our “job” to talk about baseball with the players we met, I never did. There are way more important things to talk about than work, and with that, all of the guys opened up to me, and confided in me. I will never violate that trust.) So, we kept our conversation about tattoos. Shocker, right? We chatted for about five minutes and parted ways on a solid note. After all, he actually did have a job to do.

The A’s won the game that night 3-0 behind a marvelous pitching performance from Brett Anderson and a save from Grant Balfour. One thing of note is that this game was certainly not the first, nor the last time I did Balfour Rage on the road, and especially without the accompaniment of music. It was weird to say the least. 

After the game I went out for a few drinks with some of the guys, but that part of the story will have to wait until later. The only part that you need to know is that I had a three and a half hour journey ahead of me back to Pittsburgh, only to have to do the same trip in the morning to Buffalo to be there by 1 PM for my New Era tour. Not the one to drive drunk, I decided to sleep it off in my car until I was good enough to drive back. I still can’t remember why I drove back to Pittsburgh, but I did incredibly fast and early in the morning. I got to the hotel around 9 AM, laid down for 20 minutes, got up, showered and got out the door by 9:30. Somehow I made it to New Era headquarters with 15 minutes to spare. I’m still baffled by that.

Now, back on January 5th I had actually written about my visit to New Era HQ when I wrote about my Tucson Padres hat. There will come a time when I write about my visit in more detail, but that, and my nights in Cleveland will have to wait until I write about the A’s road hat. This hat, like the Padres hat, was starring me down even harder than when I ran across it at the Flagship Store. Not being the kind of guy who makes the same mistake twice, I of course picked it up without much of a struggle. When I walked out of the shop I checked my phone for the time: 2:45 PM. Jonny Gomes had left me tickets for that night’s game and I had yet another three and a half hour trip ahead of me. While that story will have to wait, what I can tell you is that I immediately marked this guy up and took an immediate photo to post before I headed west back to Cleveland. This one…

I think there will be little to no argument on my markings of choice.

#54- Travis is hands down one of the coolest guys I’ve ever met, and more importantly, one of the greatest guys I can consider a confidant throughout this whole life changing experience from 2012. I remember watching his early days with the Seattle Mariners back in 2004 at Safeco Field. Unfortunately both games I happened to attend were both games against the A’s. All I’ll say is that neither of them ended well, but I could tell by the amount of games he was getting, as well as how far apart they were, that he definitely had the stuff for a decent career. The biggest problem was that the Mariners didn’t know how to utilize him. A shoulder injury kept him out for the 2005 season, as well as the World Baseball Classic that season in 2006. Travis again resurfaced for two games in 2007 with the San Francisco Giants before bouncing around over the next four years including his 2009 WBC campaign in which he earned a no decision against Cuba, as well as spending the Australian summer of 2010 (December-March) playing for the Melbourne Aces and 2011 with the KIA Tigers in the Korean League. On February 16, 2012 Travis was signed to a Minor League deal by the San Francisco Giants which was picked up and allowed him to make four appearances after May 1. I remember his first outing well because Ashley Chavez and I talked about how much of a badass he is throughout his first game back. On May 13th he was designated for assignment… only to have the A’s claim him off of waivers two days later.

This was the moment when I knew that all the great things he was capable of as pitcher would come to light. I realize it’s kind of BS to just say that now, but you should go back and look at my tweets from then if you don’t believe me. As expected, Travis zoned in. During his time with the Giants he had pitched five innings and gave up five earned runs giving him a 9.00 ERA. During his time with the A’s, Travis went 102 2/3 innings in 24 games earning 44 runs to give him a 3.86 ERA. For a guy who most critics left for dead, that’s beyond incredible. The two games I will remember most from Travis came one week apart, both of which were against the Texas Rangers.

The A’s had been slowly chipping away at the AL West division lead for the last two months and this was the time when the A’s were ready to swoop in a steal it out from underneath them. On September 27th Travis got tagged for five runs in the first inning and the A’s lost the game 9-7. I’ll never forget walking back to the hotel and seeing the apology letter that Travis had posted on his Twitter account after the guy. I DMed him some words of encouragement and he thanked me, but in all seriousness, what the hell did I know about being in that position? I was supposed to fly back to Oregon and drive down for the game on September 1, but was too sick to make the drive. Instead, I watched the A’s clinch a playoff spot from home, crying like a little girl. Not one to wimp out, I rested, woke up early the next morning and bought a few boxes of Voodoo Doughnuts before I raced down to Oakland for the that night’s game. I knew in advance that Travis was pitching that night and my main priority was to get him one of the actual voodoo doll doughnuts to him before he took the field. I got to Oakland a little bit after the gates had opened and bolted down to the field. Lucky for me, AJ Griffin was walking around talking on his phone on the field. I flagged him down and handed both of the boxes I had in my hands. His response was, “of course you give the fat kid the doughnuts.”

I didn’t see Travis before the game, but all I could think was that if he was lights out tonight, he definitely crushed the doughnut. Sure enough, he dominated; to the tune of six innings with one earned run, two walks, three hits and five strikeouts. The A’s won the game and Travis received the W. It wasn’t until the next day when the A’s won their final game that I was able to talk to Travis about the doughnut. When we came out of the clubhouse and into the parking lot he gave me a big hug. His first words were, “I crushed that doughnut 15 minutes before I took the mound.”

That moment meant a lot, mostly for a random bit of kindness he had given me in the middle of September. After my tour of the Midwest I had gotten back to Oregon feeling more exhausted than usual. I was supposed to drive to Anaheim the next morning to catch the A’s play the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim the following day, but I was way too sick to make it, so I tweeted to let everyone know. Travis was the first person to hit me up and offered to feed me Thera-Flu if I made it down. Sadly I didn’t, but it was a gesture that went a long way.

#50- I remember sitting in a chair in the Fan Cave, watching a game versus the Kansas City Royals on April 9 when I was first introduced to Balfour Rage. I was completely mesmerized, but laughing my ass off at the same time as the Right Field Bleacher Crew was going absolutely berserk with “One” by Metallica playing the background. It was at that moment, and Bacon Tuesday the following day, that I knew I wanted to be at the Coliseum as soon as I possibly could. Balfour had done well for the A’s in 2011, but served primarily as a late innings relief pitcher that season. Prior to his time in the green and gold he had modest success with the Minnesota Twins from 2001-2004, but didn’t get a lot of innings. In 2005 he was sidelined due to injury, but came back with the Milwaukee Brewers in 2007 before getting DFAed in July, only to then be dealt to the Tampa Bay Rays in exchange for Seth McClung. He would finish the season out in the bullpen. In 2008 he was DFAed by the Rays after Spring Training, but was called up in May during a series against the Chicago White Sox. He earned a save on 31 May against the White Sox, retiring Brian Anderson to end the game in a Rays 2-0 win. In a series sweep against the Chicago Cubs at Tropicana Field, he was credited with two of the three wins - the first on 16 June, relieving Scott Kazmir with the score 1–1 and bases loaded, pitching 1 1/3 perfect innings in a 3–2 win; the second on 18 June, entering the game trailing 1–2, and pitching 1 2/3 innings, recording three strikeouts, in a game the Rays won 8–3. For the rest of season, Balfour was lights out going 6-2 with a 1.54 ERA and as he and the Rays made the World Series for the first time the franchise’s history.

Balfour hung with the Rays until the end of the 2010 season. In 2011 he signed with the A’s and pitched well his first season going 5-2 with a 2.47 ERA. One thing that needs to be pointed out, that very few people know outside of the Coliseum, is that Balfour Rage made its first appearance during that season by Will MacNeil (@RFWill149). Here’s the proof…  While it is true that a little bit of it was to do with Balfour’s behavior on the mound to psyche himself up, almost all of it has to do with randomness off the top of Will’s head. And look what it’s become. Glorious!!!

As I mentioned above my Balfour Rage moment was not the first such incident, nor was it the last. I did many of times in the Fan Cave, as well as on the road in Seattle, but the best night came on September 25 against the Rangers in Arlington. Like a lot of road games I had attended I went with someone I had been in regular correspondence with on Twitter. For this game I went with Mike Gonzalez (@TheTxGonzo). 

We hit it off pretty well, smack talking in person and on Twitter the whole game, even made it on CSN Bay Area late in the game…

Like all the road games I had gone to I broke out the Bernie Lean to massive confusion from the crowd. For Balfour Rage, most people had thought I was insane. I gave Mike my phone to take pictures while every starred on.

The first few moments were in absolute silence, but then, for some reason, the guy running the music at the Ballpark in Arlington kicked on “Welcome to the Jungle” by Guns n’ Roses. I looked like less of a weirdo, but barely. Balfour closed it out and Mike and I went out for beers. What we didn’t know is that the bar we were invited to was also the bar the players went to after the game. Coincidentally, the only member of the A’s to roll in was Balfour. Not to drink, but to hang out with a few of his friends who had come in from Sydney, Australia. Mike and I on the other hand, knock a few mugs back. At the end of the night Balfour spotted me and yelled across the bar, “What do you want mate!?” At first I shook him off, having all ready had too much, but then I came to my senses and yelled whiskey. Unfortunately, my request was too late as the bar tender had stopped serving. Nonetheless, Balfour came over and chatted it up with us for a bit at which I showed him the photos from the night. He got a good laugh out of it and thanked me for being there to support him and the guys.

Balfour never got an opportunity to play for Team Australia in the WBC in 2009 because of his contract with the Rays nor this season due to injury, but he still deserves the credit for being one hell of a badass for his country.

The last thing I need to comment on is how big Balfour Rage became throughout the season. It came up at #37 on the MLB Network's Best Fan Moments of 2012. I'm just happy that I could have been a part of it throughout the year. Tip of the cap to you Will!


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