Mark Kotsay Steps Up
by Glenn Dickey
May 02, 2005

LAST WEEK should have been designated Mark Kotsay Week, as the As center fielder got big hits, made plays in the field and, most important of all, showed he was ready to take over the leadership role that other As veterans either cant or wont.

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 As, 9-7, over the Chicago White Sox.

The Tuesday night win was a sloppy one, and the As 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 Konerkos 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, As manager Ken Macha said to me before Saturdays 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, lets get it going, weve got to go after it, but what he said was undoubtedly much stronger. After that outburst, the As put five runs up in the seventh and eighth to win the game.

When I said to Macha that I thought the As needed that kind of fiery leader, he disputed that, to a point. Just because a guy doesnt speak up, doesnt mean he isnt playing hard. Jason Kendall is a quiet guy but nobody plays harder. Nobodys more intense than Scott Hatteberg.

True enough, but I also think the As need somebody to speak up. Except for Eric Byrnes, its a quiet group, as it has been since Miguel Tejada left. The As miss Tejadas fiery competitiveness even more than they miss his on-field play. Kotsay doesnt have Tejadas personality, but in his way, he can be as important a leader.

THIS IS a difficult As team to categorize. Its easy to think of the As as a young team because of their pitching, but as Macha pointed out, theres 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 teams 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 hes going to get off to a slow start hitting each spring. If I were Macha, Id bat him eighth until he shows that hes 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 hes 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 wasnt 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 wont 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, As president Roy Eisenhardt brought Morgan to the As for his final season, hoping Morgan could provide leadership. By that time, though, Morgans skills had greatly diminished, and his reputation with the players suffered when an Oakland columnist wrote erroneously that Eisenhardt was meeting with Morgan at Joes home to plan for Morgan to take over as As 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 wasnt 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 As have had since coming to Oakland. Hes such a smart player, Macha said. Hes always in position to make a play. If you watch him during a game, youll 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 hes the most accurate thrower Ive 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 As being his third major league club.

As 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, whos signed through next season, is obviously blossoming as a player. Now, its time for him to assume the equally important role of team leader. The As need him.


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