January 26, 2008

Oakland A's Fanfest 2008 Brings Baseball to January

As partial season ticket holders to the Oakland A's, each year my wife and I get a perk which includes passes to the team's annual FanFest, where as a small group, we got to tour the team's clubhouse and enjoy question and answer sessions with some of the team's favorite players. For the second year out of three (See our 2006 report), we got to go, and while weather was expected to be rainy and downright miserable, we were pleasantly surprised to get calm skies.

It's been a long, cold, dark off-season as an A's fan. Since the team missed the playoffs and finished with a losing record, just one game out of last place, we've seen the team's ace pitcher, Dan Haren, dispatched to the Arizona Diamondbacks, the team's best all-around player, Nick Swisher, traded to the Chicago White Sox, and one of the team's veterans, Mark Kotsay sent to the Atlanta Braves. The trades, all done in exchange for young prospects, have had some thinking the team's already given up on 2008. But even if we don't expect Oakland to run away with the division, I believe they'll surprise some people, and today, it was great to enjoy being a baseball fan again.

Arriving at the Coliseum around 11:00 this morning, with my wife and two friends from church, as well as their one-year-old, we made a beeline for the clubhouse tour, seeing the team's locker room and the coaches' offices, lined with memorabilia from yesteryear, seeing magazine covers and bobbleheads galore. Some of the lockers were still adorned with the names of players now elsewhere, as if frozen in time from the end of last season.

Then, the real fun started. We sat in on an 11:45 Q&A session featuring Hall of Famer Rollie Fingers, current A's pitchers Huston Street and Alan Embree, and pitching coach Curt Young. Between the jokes about Alan Embree being old and Street being young, fans got to ask Fingers about pitching in the World Series in 1972 against Johnny Bench and the Cincinnati Reds, and Young about the 1989 World Championship team that featured Mark McGwire and Jose Canseco.

I ask a question and try not to butcher itAt 1:00 p.m. there was another Q&A session, this time with A's hitters Daric Barton, Kurt Suzuki, Jack Cust and Mark Ellis. Of the four, only Ellis was starting with the team at the beginning of 2007. Cust was a journeyman minor leaguer, while Barton and Suzuki were working their way up the food chain to Oakland. This time, rather than sitting idly by, my wife asked Ellis about life away from the family (and his pug) and how he handled that, while I asked Cust how it felt to be in an organization who believed in him and whose fans were supportive of him, compared to others where he always seemed one strikeout away from the minors or one homer away from the majors, but never in a role where he belonged.

Cust seemed extremely pleased with his new surroundings, and while the sports world isn't giving much thought to the A's chances this year, we are excited about thinking about baseball again. We're excited about seeing Barton, Suzuki, Cust, Travis Buck and others for a full year. We're looking forward to spending a lot of time on I-880 going up and back to the A's games starting in April, and catching Spring Training in between. There's just something about baseball that makes the world right, even when not every game goes the right way. The 2007 season ended weakly for the A's last year, and Fanfest reminded us we start 2008 with a brand new schedule and brand new record, that of zero and zero.

The A's have already made full video of each of the Q&A sessions available on their Web site (including my cameo and that of my wife). You can find all that at OaklandAthletics.com. Additional commentary on this year's Fanfest can be found at Athletics Nation. (Fanfest: The Reports, The Gossip, The Aftermath)