Dan Otero is excelling out of the bullpen for the Oakland Athletics. The 29-year-old righthander has a 1.90 ERA in 56 games since hopping across the bay prior to last season. It was a hop with a twist, and the second time he changed venues in a roundabout way.
Otero is a graduate of Duke University, but the San Francisco Giants took him in the 21st round of the 2007 draft out of the University of South Florida.
“My transfer was basically about baseball,” explained Otero. “I had a disagreement with the coach and decided to take my senior year elsewhere. I went to Duke in the fall and got my degree – I was able to graduate in three and a half years – then played [at South Florida] in the spring. I was the Friday night starter at Duke and did well there – I loved it – but needed a change of scenery.”
The Miami native saw his role change when he got to pro ball.
“When I started out in short-season, I had no idea what plans they had for me,” said Otero. “I was just happy to get a chance. My first game, I was thrown into the ninth inning in a closer-type situation. After that I was used as a closer in the minor leagues.”
Otero saved 72 games in his first three seasons on the farm. He did so as a fastball-slider pitcher, setting aside the curveball and changeup he used as a starter. The latter two are back in his arsenal now that he’s a big-leaguer.
More than his repertoire has changed. According to the philosophical righty, so has the talent level – sort of.
“There’s a huge difference between the big leagues and the minor leagues, yet it’s only a very small difference,” mused Otero. “The hitters are just a little better, but that makes them much better. Consistency is the biggest aspect of that. In the minor leagues, you can get away with a mistake more often. If you miss your pitch up here, more than likely they’re going to hurt it. The hitters are good and the scouting reports are very good. They know us as well as we know them.”
Fourteen months ago, Otero wasn’t sure what was going on. How he went from San Francisco to Oakland is an interesting story.
“I was designated for assignment by the Giants at the end of spring training last year,” explained Otero. “I was then claimed by the Yankees but never actually got there. It was basically a paper move. I was claimed, then DFA’d while I was on my flight to Tampa. I got off the plane to voice mails and texts telling me that. All of a sudden it was, ‘What do I do now?’ I waited there a few days, until the waiver period ended, then Oakland claimed me and I flew back to the Bay Area. The Yankees never did communicate to me what happened.”
Otero, whose father was born in Cuba, is bilingual. That has proven to be both a blessing and a curse in pro ball.
“In the low minors there were always five or six Latin guys and I was used as a translator,” said Otero. “I also drove them around, helped them find apartments, took them to the grocery store. If they had a question about what the coach was saying, they’d come to me.
“The most uncomfortable position I was ever put in was getting called into the manager’s office to translate for a pitcher who was getting reamed out. Another time I had to tell someone he was being fined for not having his hair cut properly.”
While at Duke, the self-professed baseball history buff wrote a 24-page independent studies thesis on minorities in baseball.
“I needed a credit and the Dean of the history department said to pitch him an idea,” said Otero. “I wrote about how the Dodgers and the O’Malley family were basically at the forefront of the integration aspects of baseball. That’s from Jackie Robinson, to building a camp in the Dominican Republic, to bringing in Hideo Nomo from Japan. They also had the Mexican influence of Fernando Valenzuela. Another thing I looked at was the percentage of black players now compared to in the 1950s and 1960s.”
What era would he most like to have played in?
Fredi Gonzalez is one of an increasing number of bilingual managers. The Atlanta Braves skipper once helped translate for Spanish-speaking players as a coach under Bobby Cox. At the helm, he can handle everything on his own.
Four years ago, while managing the Marlins, Gonzalez handled a disciplinary issue with Hanley Ramirez in their native language.
“With Hanley it was a performance issue – a lack of performance issue – and I took him out of the game,” explained Gonzalez. “I talked to him in Spanish. His English was pretty good by then, but it was still his second language. It’s easier to speak to someone in their native tongue. That way none of the message can get lost in translation.”
Gonzalez speaks a third language, one that is foreign to the vast majority of his players – sabermetrics.
“I’ve never had a conversation with a player about advanced stats,” said Gonzalez. “I’ve never gone into WAR or even OPS. I usually stick with things like left-right splits. We’ll talk about shifting – we’ll tell them our reports say we should shift David Ortiz – but they never ask what someone’s ground-ball percentages are. They don’t ask for reasons, they just trust us.”
Players can trust Gonzalez to tell them the truth, but they also need to keep their tongue-in-cheek detectors sharp. Evan Gattis found that out firsthand last spring.
“We called him into the office,” said Gonzalez. “All of the coaches were there, as well as our general manager. Gattis is looking around and wondering ‘What’s going on?’ I asked him, ‘Where were you last night?’ He said, ‘I was in my room.’ I said, ‘We have a police report saying you weren’t in the room. Where were you?’ He said, ‘I was in my room, I promise you I was in my room.’ I said, ‘Just kidding. We wanted to tell you that you made the club.’ Sometimes players kind of tear up a little bit when they hear that. It’s a fun part of my job.”
There are tongue-in-cheek detectors and there are bullshit detectors. Many of the latter started flashing this past week when Manny Ramirez visited Fenway Park and proclaimed himself a new Manny. The former slugger – and newly-named Cubs minor-league player-coach – told reporters he’s found religion. He apologized for past transgressions and said his life will now be spent spreading of the word of God.
Tabloids and talk radio reacted with doubt and derision. That came as no surprise, as Boston fans are often as cynical as they are passionate. No judgment will be passed here – I feel everyone deserves a chance to put their house in order – but the skepticism is easy to understand. Ramirez was asked why he should be taken at his word:
“I could say whatever I want,” responded Ramirez. “I could say that I could read the Bible. I could say that I’m going to preach. But if I don’t live it, I’d be a hypocrite. You have to live it. A lot of people are going to say whatever they want to say, but I only worry about what God says. How am I going to work and how am I going to talk? How am I going to treat my wife? You could tell me, ‘Oh no, Manny do this, do that.’ But maybe you, outside, maybe you drink, maybe you use drugs, and that’s the same. That’s the way I look at it.”
Ramirez, who has 555 home runs and 66.7 WAR, was asked if he believes he’ll one day be elected to the Hall of Fame.
“I’m leaving that decision to God,” said Ramirez. “If it happens I’m happy, but where I want to be is in the book of life. The Bible says you have focus on the things you cannot see. The things you see right now – everything is going to pass. So why am I going to worry about that?”
Manny Ramirez was the MVP of the 2004 World Series. In order for that to be possible, the Red Sox had to rally from three games down to beat the Yankees in the ALCS. They did so behind the heroics of David Ortiz, Curt Schilling, Derek Lowe and Dave Roberts.
Mostly forgotten is that Curt Leskanic helped save the season.
In Game 4 of the ALCS, Leskanic entered in the 11th inning of a tie game with two out and the bases loaded. He retired Bernie Williams on a fly ball, then pitched a scoreless 12th inning. He was credited with the win when Ortiz homered in the bottom half. It was the final appearance of his career.
Leskanic was a workhorse reliever for 11 big-league seasons. Pitching primarily for the Rockies and the Brewers, he saw action in 603 games. By the time he took the mound in the early-morning hours of October 18, 2004 his arm was toast. The Red Sox were one bad pitch away from yet another devastating defeat and he had to get outs on guts and guile.
“I was simply hurt,” said Leskanic. “When I was on top of my game, I was anywhere from the mid- to high-90s. In Boston, I was down to 92-93. If were to draw up a scenario where I was pitching in a crucial game like that, it would have been with my A stuff. It wouldn’t have been needing cortisone shot after cortisone shot just to be able to go out there and pitch. I knew I was close to the end.”
With the specter of 1918 hovering overhead, the righhander came out of the bullpen one last time. Catcher Jason Varitek was there with a question.
“When I came to the mound, Tek asked me how my slider was in the bullpen,” said Leskanic. “As long as it was changing planes it was still a competitive pitch, so I told him it was working well. We went with that.
“My first pitch to Williams was a strike and on the second we got a pop-up. Walking off the mound, I was like, ‘Man, Lord, please let’s score a run right now so we can win this game and go home.’ At that point, I was just in pain.”
The recent brouhahas between the Red Sox and Rays have come as no surprise. The teams have a history of scrapping when they play each other, sometimes for silly reasons. Lines of propriety have been straddled, if not crossed. Jonny Gomes has been on both sides.
I asked Joe Maddon his opinion of Gomes running in from left field to escalate the Yunel-Escobar-versus-the-Red-Sox-bench episode last weekend. Was it acceptable for a player to leave his position to insert himself into a situation?
“It depends on what team you’re on,” responded Maddon. “That’s a situation where a guy sticks up for his teammates, so it’s all about interpretation. If it’s your teammate, you love it. If it happens from the other side, you’d argue against it. It happened here in 2008. Jonny came running in [from the Rays] bench. Another time he came from right field against the Yankees. Again, it depends on which side you’re on.”
The 2008 incident culminated in a bench-clearing brawl that saw Gomes throwing punches at a Red Sox player at the bottom of a pile. A person involved in the game remembers the precipitating events this way:
“A few years back we had the James Shields–Coco Crisp thing. Everybody in the stands knew he was going to throw at him on the first pitch. The night before, Coco was yelling at Joe Maddon and the whole team. Things happen that upset people, and bad blood carries over.”
I asked a contact with another team for his take on pitchers intentionally hitting hitters. He didn’t want his name used, but he did share this anecdote:
“There was an incident last year at our place versus,” he said. “We had everything set up for [Pitcher X] to come into the game and go inside on [Hitter X]. He was their top hitter and our guy wasn’t going to be scared if he decided to charge the mound. He wasn’t someone you’d necessarily want to charge the mound against. But there really aren’t phone calls to the bullpen saying to hit a guy. Even so, every pitcher has his own way of thinking. Some guys feel it’s justified to drill someone, so they’re going to do it.”
Joba Chamberlain isn’t afraid to answer questions, and he’s had plenty of opportunity to do so. The Detroit Tigers righthander was a much-ballyhooed prospect with the Yankees and was introduced to the New York media almost immediately. He made it to the Bronx in his first professional season  after stops in Tampa, Trenton, and Scranton Wilkes-Barre.
Adapting was a whirlwind in more ways than one. Moving through a system quickly is any player’s goal, but it isn’t without its obstacles.
“By the time I would get set up at one place I’d be moving to another,” said Chamberlain. “That was something I’d never done before, so I never really felt settled. It was a weird feeling to get called into the office and told I’m moving up a level and am pitching the next day. I’d get in my car and drive, and the next thing I knew I was throwing in a game for a different team.
“What made it especially tough is that every time I moved up it was around the time I was suppose to see my son. It’s not like the big leagues where you know which city you’ll be in.”
Chamberlain received media attention at every stop along the way. He became used to having reporters at his locker every day, and no longer finds it disruptive – at least not that he’ll admit.
“I’m fine with it,” said Chamberlain. “There are people whose job it is to ask you questions, and part of your job is to answer them. You want to give them the time and respect they deserve, and answer their questions honestly and up front. When you blow the game you blow the game. You don’t want to make it a bigger deal than it is, you just answer the questions.”