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Elman Swings
by Peter Elman

It's Valentine's Day, and Hope Springs Eternal - 2/ 14/2002

Well, once again we’re at that magical time of year for sports. Football is mercifully behind us—thanks for the memories, Walt (that wasn’t a fumble) Coleman—basketball is, well, let’s just say that we have some fine college teams here in the Bay Area, and spring training starts today. As my role model Zippy would say, are we having fun yet?

I read the news today oh boy…and on page nine, for God’s sake, is the sad notice that the ageless Rickey Henderson has inked a minor-league deal with the Red Sox. I guess I should be grateful it wasn’t the Rangers, or the Brewers, or, heaven forbid, the Giants. But is there someone out there who can give me one good reason why one of the greatest players of all-time, the all-time leader in walks, stolen bases and runs scored, and a native son of Oaktown to boot, should not end his illustrious career here?

Oh, I know, don’t remind me. Was it when he held the 939th base aloft and proclaimed, “Lou Brock was great, but today I am the greatest,” as the dignified Brock stood next to him, embarrassed by Rickey’s incredible lack of humility? Or was it when he played cards with Bobby Bonilla in the Mets’ clubhouse as an epic extra-inning playoff game raged on the field? Pick your memory. We’ve all complained about Rickey dozens of times over the last 23 years. Excuse me, but did you say 23 years?

I prefer to conjure up the image of 79 leadoff homers, jaw-dropping plays in leftfield, and the 22-year old who stole 130--,that’s 130—bases for a mediocre 1981 A’s team. Or maybe I remember the player who returned to his hometown and brought with him a World Championship. Or again perhaps the impeccably conditioned athlete, who at the age of 43, still has the body of a 29-year old. What I see is a guy who has never been busted for DUI, never slugged his wife, never gone “Spree” on anyone, never refused an autograph, and has a pure love for the game rarely seen in today’s players. That’s who I see when I see Rickey. If Cal Ripken, that over-achieving (and overrated) paragon of selflessness, can have a “farewell tour” why can’t Rickey? Apart from “the streak”, comparing what Ripken did in his career with Henderson borders on the absurd—there is no comparison! Dammit, Billy, isn’t there room for him for just one season?

So, with that emotional rant out of the way, we must look forward, and think about the ones we love on this Valentine’s Day—those would be the current crop of Oakland Athletics, the young men who wear the green and gold. Have we recovered yet from Black Thursday—the day Jason donned the pinstripes—or will we wallow in our own self-pity, like Red Sox fans? 2002 is shaping up to be one of Boston’s biggest disappointments, especially after the ripoff the NFL orchestrated, I mean, the miracle the Patriots pulled off. (“Hey, it says right there in the rules, Raider fan, stop your whining!” The “rules”? Let me see, is that like the “rules” that elected George Bush?) With all those expectations the inevitable choke by the Bosox could be fatal. Who knows, maybe Rickey will make them better.

Closer to home, (Jesus, I have to stop ragging on my beloved New England) I’d rather look at the Athletics’ roster as half-full, not half-empty. Actually, about 7/8 full sounds more like it. Of the 25 guys who will be in the dugout on opening day, there are only three or four who make us potentially uneasy. Will Eric Byrnes continue his torrid winter hitting? Will Jeremy blossom now that big brother is a Yankee? Will Lidle and Hilgus perform like they did in 2001? Will Carlos Pena make us forget Jason? And will Billy Koch be the “bad Billy” he wants to be, or will he reprise last year’s sub-par effort? Like all teams, we have some major questions, and only time will tell who steps up and who gets sent down. Stay tuned for more in-depth observations as we get closer to Opening Day…

There are some good signs for A’s fans. This group of guys, for the first time, is MAD. They feel like they should have won it all last year—with justification, I may add—and now there’s a chip on their collective shoulder. Watch out for Miguel Tejada—this could be the year that he fulfills his awesome potential. And look for Chavez to crush the ball with regularity. If we can get solid years out of T. Long and Ramon, and if Justice stays healthy, we’ll be putting up lots of crooked numbers on the scoreboard. Our defense is solid, we have enough team speed (Tejada, Long, Velarde, Pena, Byrnes) and the staff is as good as any in the American League.

Yeah, as Bobby (Mr. New York) DeNiro would say, I’m talking to you, Yankee fans—this is the year that you get your comeuppence, this is the campaign that will end with you hoisted on your own petard—there is such a thing as too much money. You’re loaded beyond belief, but you had your glory—Giuliani time is over. It’s now Oakland time, baby, and if I can convince myself of that, well, any of us can…

But once again it will be probably be the intangibles that will get the A’s to the Promised Land. If ever a town was due for some good sports karma it is Oakland. Christ, after the way the last two seasons ended—and the Raiders debacle in the snow—and the pathetic Warriors (where have you gone, RUN TMC?) you’d think that God would notice that we’ve paid our dues, and that she would bestow a touch of good luck on our battered psyches.

What will get us to the victory circle is the same resilience and drive that Uncle Art squeezed from the players the last two seasons, combined with the maturity that accompanies experience, for which there is no substitute, in baseball and in life. The old cliché, “losing makes you stronger” is alive and well.

So enjoy the daily updates from that great American bastion of Enlightenment, Salt Lake City, and you can have your triple lutzes and your quadruple salchows and your “halfpipes” (exactly what are those halfpipes filled with—hash? crack?) and your ludicrous judging controversies. Because when that silliness is over and done with, it’s time to let the real games begin--the exhibition games, that is. Grapefruit League, I say! What a great day it is—my little girl is five today and my son’s little league season is in full swing. Can we now say, without any guilt—better hurry up, before Bud Selig looks this way—PLAY BALL!


by Peter Elman

 

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