Mark Kotsay Steps Up
His best game was Saturday, when he got five hits, including the 10th inning single that knocked in the winning run, but his leadership came to the front in the Tuesday night game that was won by the A’s, 9-7, over the Chicago White Sox.
The Tuesday night win was a sloppy one, and the A’s looked especially bad in the field in the eighth inning, when the White Sox scored four runs. Kotsay was enraged by their poor play, and he finally ended the inning himself, motioning right fielder Nick Swisher away from Paul Konerko’s fly ball, catching it and then unleashing a perfect throw to nail Tadahit Iguichi at the plate for a double play. “All his adrenaline went into that throw,” A’s manager Ken Macha said to me before Saturday’s game.
As Kotsay came off the field, he was screaming at his teammates. The sanitized version of his comments, which he offered after the game, was “Hey, let’s get it going, we’ve got to go after it,” but what he said was undoubtedly much stronger. After that outburst, the A’s put five runs up in the seventh and eighth to win the game.
When I said to Macha that I thought the A’s needed that kind of fiery leader, he disputed that, to a point. “Just because a guy doesn’t speak up, doesn’t mean he isn’t playing hard. Jason Kendall is a quiet guy but nobody plays harder. Nobody’s more intense than Scott Hatteberg.”
True enough, but I also think the A’s need somebody to speak up. Except for Eric Byrnes, it’s a quiet group, as it has been since Miguel Tejada left. The A’s miss Tejada’s fiery competitiveness even more than they miss his on-field play. Kotsay doesn’t have Tejada’s personality, but in his way, he can be as important a leader.
THIS IS a difficult A’s team to categorize. It’s easy to think of the A’s as a young team because of their pitching, but as Macha pointed out, there’s plenty of age and experience among the position players. Hatteberg is 35, Kendall and Erubiel Durazo are 30. Byrnes, who seems eternally youthful, is 29, as is Marco Scutaro, though he was a rookie last year. Eric Chavez and Mark Ellis are 27.
Chavez is the team’s best player, a third baseman who compares defensively with the best I've seen, Brooks Robinson. He has yet to develop his full potential as a hitter, though, because of his strangely passive approach. He seems, for instance, to just accept the fact that he’s going to get off to a slow start hitting each spring. If I were Macha, I’d bat him eighth until he shows that he’s willing to accept responsibility for his poor starts, instead of just accepting them as if he had no control over his fate.
That passivity disqualifies Chavez as a vocal leader, just as the quiet demeanor of Kendall and Hatteberg makes it unlikely either one of them could step up. Byrnes has plenty of fire, but he’s too erratic a player to be a leader.
Which leaves Kotsay. Last year, coming over from the National League, Kotsay battled to make the individual adjustment. Though he did it brilliantly, eventually hitting a personal high .314, he wasn’t ready to take over a leadership role. Now, he is.
IT ISN'T ENOUGH for a player to just speak up. He must also be a very good player, or his teammates won’t listen. I saw that with Joe Morgan at the end of his career.
Morgan was a great player, who is now in the Hall of Fame, and he was the indisputed leader of the great Cincinnati teams in the ‘70s. Even in 1982, when he was with the Giants, he was a leader, and provided liaison between the players and manager Frank Robinson, who had many players (and some writers, too) cowed by his strong personality.
In 1984, A’s president Roy Eisenhardt brought Morgan to the A’s for his final season, hoping Morgan could provide leadership. By that time, though, Morgan’s skills had greatly diminished, and his reputation with the players suffered when an Oakland columnist wrote erroneously that Eisenhardt was meeting with Morgan at Joe’s home to plan for Morgan to take over as A’s manager for the embattled Steve Boros. What they were actually doing was playing tennis. Morgan had said repeatedly that he had no desire to ever manage; he went into broadcasting after his playing career.
Morgan had been a great leader, but as a declining player who hit just .244 that season, he wasn’t going to be followed by any of his teammates.
Kotsay, though, is in his prime, at 29, a solid hitter and the best overall centerfielder the A’s have had since coming to Oakland. “He’s such a smart player,” Macha said. “He’s always in position to make a play. If you watch him during a game, you’ll see him move slightly when a hitter has two strikes, for instance (because a hitter will shorten up and be less likely to pull the ball). And he’s the most accurate thrower I’ve ever seen.” (Kotsay leads all major league outfielders in assists since 1998, with 98 going into this year.)
OTHERS HAVE been slow to recognize his talents, with the A’s being his third major league club.
A’s general manager Billy Beane had had his eye on Kotsay since he was a college player, and he traded catcher Ramon Hernande and outfielder Terrence Long to San Diego for Kotsay before last season. The trade was criticized at the time, because Hernandez had just come off a career year, but it looks awfully good right now.
Kotsay, who’s signed through next season, is obviously blossoming as a player. Now, it’s time for him to assume the equally important role of team leader. The A’s need him.
What do YOU think? Let me know!
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