A's relievers pitching in for the community

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A's relievers pitching in for the community

OAKLAND -- What better place to meet Oakland Athletics mascot Stomper than at the Oakland Zoo with his fellow pachyderms? On Friday, 230 fourth and fifth graders from the Achieve Academy in Oakland had that opportunity. As part of the event, the kids were fed free pizza, got to meet Santa Claus and A's pitchers Ryan Cook and Sean Doolittle. The event at the zoo was the most recent stop on the A's Holiday Caravan.

Though the A's Community Fund, the team and its employees make appearances and help raise money and awareness for community-based initiatives. For the two young relievers involved in this year's activity, it is an opportunity to use their new-found influence for good.

"It's really, really rewarding to be able to use what we do to help," Doolittle said while signing autograph cards for the kids at the zoo.

"We're in a position with what we do, being professional athletes, where we have the ability to draw attention to people in need, or deserving causes," Cook added.

Cook, 25, and Doolittle, 26, emerged as two of the top relievers in Major League Baseball in their rookie seasons with Oakland last year. Cook posted a 2.09 ERA in 71 games and was named an American League All-Star. Doolittle, who was drafted as a first baseman, worked his way up from the Instructional Leagues after converting back to a pitcher. He ripped through the Minor Leagues in just 16 appearances and posted a 3.04 ERA in 44 games with the Oakland, earning his first career win and save with the A's.

Suffice it to say, the two pitchers are a bit more recognizable amongst the kids in the East Bay. That makes it easier to pitch in.

"It's a great feeling," Cook said of interacting with the students at the zoo. "They start pointing and showing that they support us and know who we are. To be able to give back and acknowledge the hard work that they've done in the classroom, it speaks hugely to them as individuals that they are willing to put in that hard work to become something."

As part of their tour, Cook and Doolittle did appearances at the Comcast SportsNet studios and the home of 95.7 The Game. They also spent Thursday night in Walnut Creek collecting canned goods for the Food Bank of Contra Costa and Solano as part of a hunger relief effort with Feeding America and Bank of America. After a couple of days serving the community, the two pitchers were particularly touched by the outpouring support they got during the food drive.

"These people waited outside, and it was cold outside, for quite a bit," Doolittle said. "To be able to draw attention to the less fortunate or maybe someone in need and to have helped in that process was really cool and an example of why the A's fans are some of the best in baseball."

At the A's Community Fund event at the Zoo I was able to spend some time with both Cook and Doolittle and I asked them about their offseason, the losses of key veterans, and how they feel about the American League West in 2013. The full transcript is below.

Last year you were rookies, what's it like entering the season as established Major Leaguers?

Cook: It's the same in terms of how we go about our business. Obviously the situation is a little different that we are thrown into. I don't think that really effects anything in terms of the way I go about my business. We got a little taste of success this last year and we all saw how the season ended. And that taste of success as a team drives you individually to be a little bit better, do a little bit more to go to that next step and hopefully further into the playoffs and beyond.

Doolittle: It's not that much different. You still have the same hunger and the same drive when you are getting ready and hitting the weights and stuff. Last offseason it was because I was trying to resurrect my career as a pitcher and that was my motivating force behind everything. This year it's because of the success that we had and the way the season ended. Now knowing we are into next year with maybe a little bit of a target on our backs as the American League West champs. We want to continue to improve on that and continue to move forward. In a sense that's not good enough. We want to continue to improve on that. That drive and that hunger, and everything we do in the offseason is for maybe a little different of a reason this time.

It's tough to lose guys like Brandon McCarthy and Jonny Gomes but it has to be nice to see they got good deals, right?

Cook: Absolutely, individually speaking and from a family's point of view, both guys got what they deserved. They've proven that over the years and we're happy as all hell for them, but we're going to miss them because those guys played an integral role in what we did as a team and to our overall success. Both being veteran presences and not having many veterans on the team last year they both really helped. They both played big roles in my life and I'm sure Sean can attest to that as well.

Doolittle: They both did what was best for themselves and their families. They both got every bit of what they deserve. Jonny is going to have a field day in Boston with the Green Monster and the way the field plays, that media market is going to be eating out of his hand by the end of Spring Training. McCarthy has gone to a really first class organization in the Diamondbacks. At the same time we're happy for them yes, but you're sad in a way because things in the clubhouse are going to be a bit different. Those were two of our leaders. McCarthy was, for lack of a better term, one of the captains of the pitching staff. He helped us young guys in a lot of ways just by treating us not necessarily as rookies but as teammates. To be able to watch him go about his business even just the three months that I was there I learned a lot that I will continue to use throughout my career.

As a lefty reliever what do you think about Josh Hamilton joining the Angels?

Doolittle: If you look at it… He's in a very similar situation as he will be in the middle of another high-powered offense. He's in the middle of a lineup with dangerous guys in front of him and behind him. In Texas you had (Ian) Kinsler and (Elvis) Andrus before him and after him you had (Adrian) Beltre, (Nelson) Cruz, and Michael Young. With the Angels you have (Mike) Trout in front of him and behind him he's got (Albert) Pujols and (Mark)Trumbo, so it's a very similar thing so we're just going to have to not get caught up in the names and just attack them like we did last year.

You guys are the reigning AL West champions and there's still room to improve the team, but again you guys are going to be looked at as underdogs. Can you thrive on that role again?

Doolittle: Regardless of what any body else says, just talking to other guys this offseason there's a feeling that we want to prove that it wasn't a fluke. That it wasn't a one-time deal where everything fell into place and we caught every possible break. We want to prove to every body that we earned it, and that we deserve it, and we are looking to be a force in this division for a long period of time and I think we have the tools to do that with the young guys and the way that this front office is going to assembled this year's team and moving forward. We are the defending champs but we are out to prove that it wasn't an accident.

Cook: I think Sean hit it right on the head. We've just got to stick to our business. We didn't get any media attention last year and that's really fine. That's actually good. Last year we were young and dumb and not a lot of us had actually been there before. This year it's kind of the same thing. As you alluded to with the Angels signing Hamilton and the national media not real considering us as front runners even though we are the champions. We'll come out and look to do the same thing we did last year and keep going about our business and try to win ballgames.

Royals ace Yordano Ventura dies in car crash at 25 years old

Royals ace Yordano Ventura dies in car crash at 25 years old

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Royals pitcher Yordano Ventura, whose electric arm and confident demeanor helped lead his long-suffering team to the 2015 World Series title, died in a car crash in his native Dominican Republic early Sunday. He was 25.

With the fitting nickname of "Ace," Ventura burst onto the baseball scene with a 100 mph fastball and an explosive attitude to match. He was a fierce competitor always willing to challenge hitters inside, then deal with the ramifications when they decided to charge the mound.

Not surprisingly, he quickly became a fan favorite as Kansas City embraced baseball once again.

"Our prayers right now are with Yordano's family as we mourn this young man's passing," Royals general manager Dayton Moore said in a statement. "He was so young and so talented, full of youthful exuberance and always brought a smile to everyone he interacted with. We will get through this as an organization, but right now is a time to mourn and celebrate the life of Yordano."

Highway patrol spokesman Jacobo Mateo said Ventura died on a highway leading to the town of Juan Adrian, about 40 miles northwest of Santo Domingo. Mateo did not say whether Ventura was driving.

Also Sunday, former major league infielder Andy Marte died in a separate car accident in the Dominican Republic. Metropolitan traffic authorities said he died about 95 miles north of the capital.

"We are deeply saddened to learn of the tragic passing of Andy Marte and Yordano Ventura," players union executive Tony Clark said. "It's never easy to lose a member of our fraternity, and there are no words to describe the feeling of losing two young men in the prime of their lives. Our thoughts and prayers go out to their families, friends, teammates and fans throughout the United States and Latin America."

Ventura is the second young pitching star to die in past four months. Marlins ace Jose Fernandez was among three men killed in a boating accident in late September, when the 24-year-old pitcher's boat crashed into a jetty off Miami Beach in the early morning hours.

Ventura went 14-10 with a 3.20 ERA in 2014, his first full season in the big leagues, and helped the long-downtrodden Royals reach the World Series for the first time since 1985. He proceeded to dominate San Francisco in both of his starts, though the Royals would ultimately lose in seven games.

In an eerie coincidence, Ventura paid tribute to his friend and countryman, Cardinals outfielder Oscar Taveras, with a handwritten message on his cap during Game 6. Taveras also was killed in a car accident in the Dominican Republic, and his funeral occurred just hours before Ventura stepped on the mound.

The following year, now firmly entrenched in the rotation, Ventura helped lead Kansas City back to the World Series, pitching well in two starts against Toronto in the AL championship Series. The Royals went on to beat the New York Mets in five games to win their second championship.

Not surprisingly, the Royals moved quickly to sign their burgeoning young ace to a five-year contract through the 2019 season that included two more options that could have kept him in Kansas City.

He wound up pitching his entire career for the Royals, going 38-31 with a 3.89 ERA.

Born June 3, 1991, in Samana, Dominican Republic, Ventura represented a true rags-to-riches story. He quit school at 14 and was laboring on a construction crew to support his family when Ventura heard about a tryout, which led to a spot in the Royals' academy located on his picturesque island home.

Still, the odds were long that Ventura would ever make it to the big leagues. Very few players from the Dominican academies reached the pinnacle of the sport.

But over time, Ventura was able to harness one of the most electric fastballs that scouts had seen in years, and his headstrong and confident nature was essential in his rapid rise. He made his big league debut to great fanfare in 2013, allowing just one run again Cleveland in a sign of things to come.

He eventually became a cornerstone of a youth movement that included young stars such as first baseman Eric Hosmer and third baseman Mike Moustakas, one that carried the Royals first to respectability, then to the top of the American League — rare heights the organization had not experienced in decades.

Hosmer took to Twitter upon hearing the news of Ventura's death, saying: "I love you my brother. I'm in disbelief and don't know what to say. I love you ACE."

Moustakas also expressed disbelief, tweeting: "I love you Ace. I don't know what to say other than I'm going to miss you a lot. RIP ACE."

Reports: Ex-A's catcher Suzuki agrees to deal with NL East team

Reports: Ex-A's catcher Suzuki agrees to deal with NL East team

Kurt Suzuki is headed back to the National League.

After three seasons in the American League with the Twins, the former A's backstop has reportedly agreed to a one-year deal with the Braves.

News of the agreement was first reported by SB Nation.

Suzuki will reportedly make $1.5 million, according to Fox Sports. He has a chance to make an addition $2.5 million in incentives.

The 33-year-old Suzuki was drafted by the A's in the second round of 2004 MLB Draft. He made his debut with Oakland in 2007 and was the starting catcher until a 2012 trade to Washington. A year later, the Nationals traded Suzuki back to the A's for the final five weeks of the season.

Prior to the 2014 season, Suzuki signed with Twins. In three seasons with Minnesota, Suzuki hit .263/.316/.364 with 75 doubles, 16 home runs and 160 RBI.

Suzuki will likely serve as a back-up to catcher Tyler Flowers.