Give me a minute, and I’ll let Brandon Moss talk. He will talk and talk and talk — talk so much that he occasionally will wear out his teammates, who love him all the same.
Moss, 30, talks not in sentences or paragraphs, but in chapters. Some are fascinating, astonishing even. Yes, Moss’s story is that good — so good that once he starts, there will be no stopping him. So first, here’s Josh Donaldson.
It’s April 2012. Donaldson has just been demoted to Triple-A Sacramento, where he joins Moss, a newcomer. Sacramento is playing in Tucson’s notoriously hitter-friendly park. And Moss hits a ball that amazes Donaldson to this day, a ball that Donaldson is still talking about now that he and Moss are the leading sluggers for the best team in the American League, the Oakland A’s (who sit just one game behind the neighboring Giants for best record in baseball).
“It’s a day game,” Donaldson recalls. “The ball carries a little bit. And the wind was blowing a little bit out that day as well. But it’s like 400-plus to the right-center gap.
“They had one of those playpens for kids. It was like 100 feet past the fence. You were not going to hit it that far away. But he hit a ball over it during a game. I was like, ‘That’s ridiculous.’ I don’t care where you are. You couldn’t be playing on the moon and hit it that far. It was a joke.”
True or false, Brandon?
“It was the best ball I’ve ever hit,” Moss acknowledges, sheepishly. “But it was the perfect storm of events. A) It’s Tucson, which is like playing on the moon; and B) the wind was blowing out, probably 35-40 mph in the daytime.
“It could not have been a more perfect situation. And I absolutely got into one. I hit it high, also. It was a really good one. It was easily the furthest ball I’ve ever hit.”
Funny, because Donaldson recalls that when he met Moss that spring, he thought that his new teammate might be a “5 o’clock hitter,” someone who excelled only in batting practice.
The home run in Tucson convinced Donaldson otherwise. So did Moss’ performance in Oakland later that season, when he had more extra-base hits (39) than singles (38).
Moss is at it again this season, with 28 extra-base hits and 26 singles. He is batting .280 with 15 home runs and 49 RBI, and his .960 OPS ranks fifth in the American League.
Not bad for a guy who chose free agency rather than minor league assignments with the Pirates in 2010 and Phillies and ‘11. A guy who nearly quit the game to become a fireman in his native Georgia, and who signed a minor league deal with the A’s before the ‘12 season mostly because he thought it might help get a contract in Japan.
That guy since has hit 66 home runs in 904 at-bats for the A’s.
That guy, if there is any justice, will be an All-Star.
OK, time to give Moss the floor.
* * * * * * * *
My tape recorder is on. Moss is talking about the end of the 2011 season.
“Philly had kind of showed me what they thought of me when they were looking for a left-handed bench bat late in the year,” Moss recalls. “I had been having a pretty good year at Triple A for them. And they went outside the organization and got another guy. Things like that are when you see what teams think of you. You see where you stand. I read the writing on the wall.”
The player whom the Phillies acquired, John Bowker, went 0 for 13 the rest of the season and never played in the majors again.
At the time, Moss had 678 major league at-bats — including a grand total of six with the Phillies. He was a .236 career hitter with a .682 OPS, and had hit a total of 15 home runs.
That off-season, as a minor league free agent, Moss’ choice came down to the Phillies and Athletics. He was still upset with the Phillies, mind you. But he nearly re-signed with them, anyway.
“I knew they knew who I was, knew how I played,” Moss says. “It’s always good to be in a place that at least knows what you’re capable of doing. But at the same time, when I found out Oakland had interest, I just felt like it was a good fit.
“The things I do as a hitter are things that they valued. Batting average was not the end-all, be-all of things. They look at numbers outside of that, numbers that usually are in line with what I do well. I thought if I could go show what I was capable of doing, there might be an opportunity to earn some sort of spot. And if not, at least I knew I would be in the PCL (Pacific Coast League).
“In the PCL, numbers are inflated big-time, especially for power hitters. I knew that if I did well there, there would probably be an opportunity to go to Japan. That was my whole goal. I thought if it doesn’t work out in Oakland, I knew that my power numbers would be there and there would be a good opportunity to go overseas and play.”
Was he ever close to quitting?
“Yeah,” Moss says. “Heck, yeah. After I (left) the Pirates (in Nov. 2010), before I signed with Philly, I thought about it. But me and my wife (Allie) talked about it. She was like, ‘You never know. You’re still only 26. You’re starting to get it.’
“She grew up in a sports family. She could understand that I was starting not to stress so much about baseball and understand what kind of player I was. She said, ‘Things can really turn around.’ I was like, ‘Yeah.’ But just in case, I had talked to a buddy of mine who was a fireman in Georgia. I just wanted to know what I needed to do to be a fireman in case baseball didn’t work out.”
* * * * * * * *
Baseball did eventually work out, but only after Athletics assistant GM David Forst signed Moss on Dec. 1, 2011.
The A’s liked Moss’ left-handed bat against right-handed pitching. At the time, Moss was almost exclusively an outfielder. But with the A’s, only a few players are “exclusively” anything.
The Red Sox had selected Moss as an infielder in the eighth round of the 2002 draft, tried him at first for 41 games in the minors in ’07 and ’08. Moss, in a conversation with the Athletics’ then-Triple-A manager, Darren Bush, suggested a return to first as almost as a last gasp for his career.
“He asked, ‘What can we do for you to help you get back to the big leagues?’” Moss recalls. “I said, ‘Well, Bushie, obviously I want to get back to the big leagues. Everybody does. But I think that ship may have sailed. Honestly, the only thing I think could make me more valuable for a team is to be a little bit more versatile. If you could hit me some groundballs at first base, maybe plug me in there every now and then to at least let teams see that I can play first base, I would really appreciate it.’”
Bush responded, “Let’s do it.”
Moss was taken aback.
“He kind of looked at me like, ‘Really?’” says Bush, who is now the Athletics’ bullpen coach. “I said, ‘Let’s go, right now.’ We went on the field that day. I had him to do some work with our hitting coach then, Greg Sparks, who was a first baseman.
“We hit him grounders. He looked good. He looked athletic. I asked ‘Sparky’ what he thought. He said, ‘I think he looks good.’ We got off the field, I went in and called Keith Lieppman, our farm director. I guess they already had talked about it a little bit.”
Yes, they had.
Farhan Zaidi, a statistical analyst who was then the team’s director of baseball operations, had written an e-mail to GM Billy Beane, urging that the A’s play Moss at first. Beane jokingly refers to Zaidi’s E-mail as “The Moss Manifesto.” But Zaidi, now an assistant GM, was onto something.
Manager Bob Melvin says he was initially skeptical about Moss changing positions — “I had never seen him play first base,” Melvin says. “To me, he was just an outfielder.” To this day, Moss says he is more comfortable as a corner outfielder than a first baseman. But first has been his most frequent position with the A’s.
Of Zaidi’s support, Moss says, “I didn’t know about that until after the (2012) season. Someone sent my wife something that Farhan had said. She showed it to me. I thought it was pretty cool.
“At the time, he wasn’t the assistant GM. He was an analytics guy. Usually those guys are sticking their necks out for the prospects — the guys who haven’t had 600 at-bats in the big leagues and struggled. I was pretty impressed and thankful that the guy would stick his neck out for a 28-year-old minor league free agent. You don’t see that very often.”
* * * * * * * *
Melvin, sitting in his office at Yankee Stadium on Wednesday, says that Moss grew more confident as the A’s stuck with him in the majors, explaining that, “he needed to be able to fail and still be in there.”
“I know that I don’t have out go out and go 2 for 4 every night and make my batting average look good,” he says. “My name’s going to be in the lineup. I know if I don’t have a good game, if I go 0 for 3 but turn an at-bat into a walk and get on base for a guy and score a run, that’s a valuable thing.
“I’ve been places before where you 0 for 3 with a walk, and you felt like it was a scuffle. The next day you come in, and you’ve got a hitting coach breathing down your neck talking about adjustments you need to make in your swing.
“I feel like that is one reason it’s so easy to relax here. You don’t have to force anything. They know what kind of player you are. Their stats, their analytics, people don’t like that. But the stats tell most of your story.
“They don’t think I’m going to come in and suddenly hit .330 and strike out 50 times and walk 100. They know I’m going to hit for a moderate average, strike out some, walk an average amount. But when I get it, there’s power behind it. I can drive the ball.”
That’s who Moss is now, an outright slugger, one capable of such damage, Melvin no longer can keep him out of the lineup regularly against left-handed pitching.
Moss made only 88 plate appearances against lefties last season, and batted .200 with a .649 OPS. This season, in 40 plate appearances against them, he’s hitting .343 with a 1.082 OPS.
Melvin values Moss’ versatility, his team-first approach, his ability to hit two home runs even as a designated hitter Tuesday night at Yankee Stadium. This is Melvin’s third managerial stint; he previously was with Seattle and Arizona. Moss, he says, is “one of the great clubhouse guys I’ve ever been around . . . one of the best guys I’ve ever had.”
But is he an All-Star?
The A’s nominated Moss as a designated hitter; their choice at first base was Daric Barton, whom they outrighted to the minors on May 18. At either position, the odds against Moss are considerable.
Miguel Cabrera and Jose Abreu currently lead the fan balloting at first. Nelson Cruz, David Ortiz, Victor Martinez, Edwin Encarnacion and Alfonso Soriano all are ahead of Moss at DH.
Perhaps Moss will be a players’ selection or manager’s selection, but when I mentioned the possibility to him Wednesday, he practically laughed out loud. He said he had discussed an All-Star appearance with A’s catcher Derek Norris. But to Moss, the idea still seems far-fetched.
“When you talk about just being considered for an All-Star Game, that means a lot,” he said. “It validates things that you’ve accomplished in this game. It’s a longshot just to get here, and then let alone succeed, and then let alone succeed on that kind of level.”
True enough, but now it’s time for Moss to stop talking, and for me to have the last word.
Here’s to Moss’ All-Star chances. Here’s to the longshot who came in.