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San Jose beats odds, historic rivalry to welcome A's

Giants, Athletics, affiliate come together on alternate training site
Excite Ballpark opened in the 1940s and has hosted a Giants affiliate continually since 1988. (Larry Rosa/MiLB.com)
@katiejwoo
August 19, 2020

Rivalries bring emotion, tension and drama, providing backdrops for some of the most memorable moments in sports. But in the shadow of a global pandemic, two ordinarily adversarial organizations have banded together to add a new dimension to their storied rivalry: partnership.

Rivalries bring emotion, tension and drama, providing backdrops for some of the most memorable moments in sports. But in the shadow of a global pandemic, two ordinarily adversarial organizations have banded together to add a new dimension to their storied rivalry: partnership.

The fevered conflict between the Oakland Athletics and San Francisco Giants reached its peak in 1989, when the A's swept the Giants en route to their fourth World Series title. Since then, San Francisco has tacked on three titles and Oakland has gone without another. The two clubs, home parks separated by about 10 miles of water or 16 miles of freeway, face off in an annual series dubbed the "Battle of the Bay" with regional bragging rights at stake.

When Major League Baseball announced the need for alternate training sites to host top prospects whose Minor League season had been canceled but who might help out in the condensed big league season, the A's found themselves in a pickle. Their initial plan of using Banner Island Ballpark -- home of their Class A Advanced affiliate in Stockton -- was scrapped when a sudden sharp rise in COVID-19 cases in San Joaquin County rendered the site unusable. The Giants had established their alternate site at Sutter Health Park in Sacramento, where their Triple-A affiliate, the River Cats, play. That left one Minor League ballpark within 100 miles -- Excite Ballpark in San Jose -- for possible use. The only issue? It's home to the Giants' California League club.

With only a few days to establish an alternate site, there was little time to waste. Although the A's would have preferred to use their own affiliate, the situation wasn't safe for players or staff. So members of the front offices of both the Giants and A's, along with the San Jose Giants -- led by president and CEO Dan Orum -- banded together in search of a solution.

Less than 48 hours later, the A's satellite roster was gearing up for the South Bay.

"It was one of those things where we pretty quickly sat down and had a conversation," said Ben Taylor, San Jose's chief operating officer. "We had the backing of the San Francisco Giants to see if this was something that made sense, and it was a pretty simple conversation from the standpoint of wanting to be a part of bringing baseball back for our local community and the game at large.

"I think from a base level, this really came to light because of a true collaboration between the A's, the San Jose Giants and the San Francisco Giants. Looking at the landscape of a changed baseball season and the requirements ... this was something that required all three parties to come together on, and it's exciting that it did."

Built in 1942 and long known as Municipal Stadium, Excite Ballpark is one of the oldest facilities in the Minor Leagues. What the stadium has in history, it lacks in space. Configuring how a satellite roster comprised mainly of Triple-A players and Major League players would fit -- while abiding by social distance protocols -- presented some complexities. The organizations elected to use both clubhouses to ensure the players were spread out and optimized all aspects of the stadium property for use, including having some A's personnel use the parking lot for various operations.

But there was another challenge.

"We didn't have any equipment," A's director of Minor League operations Zak Basch said. "It wasn't like going to an affiliate, where you maybe have left stuff from last year. We had a blank slate to work with."

Thankfully for the A's, manager of Minor League equipment Thomas Miller and Chad Yaconetti, who manages the organization's Arizona clubhouse, teamed with Minor League athletic trainers Justin Whitehouse and Shane Zdebiak to stock the San Jose facility. The quartet, along with Basch, had just a few days to figure out how to transport a wide range of equipment from different places, from Stockton to Mesa, Arizona.

"It was just this hodgepodge of getting this physical stuff here and finding a place to store it," Basch said. "There was a lot of logistics in general. You talk to anyone that works in logistics or operations and you'll see getting things to people to the right place isn't as simple as maybe ordering something on Amazon that shows up to your doorstep.

"Thirty guys doesn't sound like a lot, but it's more than a regular Minor League roster would have. With extra staff as well, you're now talking about 40-45 people. And it's not just about medical supplies but also equipment, training tables, things like that. It's easy to ship a box of tape, but it's hard to get another machine or treadmill."

Even something as simple as packing baseballs proved to be a not-so-easy undertaking.

"The amount of baseballs we go through ... there's game balls, but there's also batting practice balls, cage balls, infield balls," Basch said. "There's just boxes of boxes of baseballs and, you know, you can't just slip those in an envelope and send them."

Thanks to a joint effort between Oakland's Minor League staff and the San Jose front office, the A's were able to report for workouts a mere six days after getting site approval.

"I think with COVID-19, it's really easy to get stuck thinking about problems or obstacles in order to get something off the ground," Taylor said. "I have to really applaud the A's and our staff for instead of getting stuck, focusing on ways to make this the best possible secure and socially distanced site available. It's never been a conversation of, 'Oh, we can't do this because of 'X.' It's, 'We need to find a way to make this happen. How is the best way to do it?'"

Basch echoed those sentiments, praising Taylor and vice president of gameday operations Tara Tallman and San Jose's groundskeepers for keeping the facility in great shape.

"The grounds crew has been treating this like a full-on affiliate season," Basch said. "With an older ballpark, it's a little bit tough to keep those older fields in shape. They've been doing a great job. Definitely kudos to them as well."

With the loss of the Minor League season, San Jose is just happy to have some semblance of baseball taking place.

"Minor League Baseball is all about thinking creatively anyway, right?" Taylor said with a laugh. "This was kind of a mind-set that we're all used to in the business. It's obviously a completely new landscape, but at the same time, getting to put our creative skills toward making a baseball operation possible was new and fun."

As far as rivalries go, fans from both bases will continue to chirp. But what the two organizations have pulled off by working together is worthy of note.

"We have a great affiliation with the Giants, and certainly having a different team come into the ballpark was going to be a different experience for us," Taylor said. "I've been incredibly impressed by the A's staff and the players and coaches as well. It's been a great partnership."

And that will be remembered by both fan bases -- at least until the next Battle of the Bay series.

Katie Woo is an editorial producer for Minor League Baseball. Follow her on twitter at @katiejwoo.