PHOENIX – It's a perfect afternoon, the sort Rockwell lived for. The sun bounces off the red buttes in Papago Park, which overlook a miniature baseball field adjacent to the Oakland Athletics' spring training complex. And there's a baseball game going on, two boys and their dad frolicking around with such innocence that even the cacophony of a metal bat can be forgiven.
Every day Matt Holliday tries to steal a few minutes away from work to spend with Jackson, 5, and Ethan, who turns 2 this week. The boys swing left-handed, and perhaps with more grace than their father, whose punishing right-handed swat is revered more for its results than aesthetics. He's tossing them underhanded pitches, and they're spraying the ball everywhere, and Holliday's wife, Leslee, is watching on the third-base line, and if it could just be like this all the time.
It can't, of course. Holliday is savoring every moment he can because this year will be the most uneasy and anxious of his life. Never mind that in November, Oakland pulled the rabbit-out-of-a-hat deal to land Holliday from the Colorado Rockies – "I'd heard St. Louis and Philadelphia, but Oakland?" he says, still incredulous – or that he moved his family to California over the winter. That's nothing.
First comes actually surviving the season with the A's, who acquired Holliday to help contend but would trade him for prospects at the first sniff of trouble in the American League West. And then, in November, the true event of Holliday's year – or career – a foray into free agency as the best player available, with agent Scott Boras running point on the negotiations.
"There are so many good things about this job, you hate to focus on all the stressful parts," Holliday says. "It's just part of the business – the crappy part – but there's so much more that's good.
"I guess it's exciting. This is a challenge. I need that. And I think we're going to have a pretty good team."
An ulcer or two in exchange for a contract guaranteeing $100 million-plus is a fair trade, certainly, though the feelings are unfamiliar to Holliday. He turned down a football scholarship, signed with the Rockies, spent 11 seasons in the organization, helped them to a World Series two years ago and said he wanted to stay. The Rockies offered Holliday a four-year, $72 million contract he rejected, hoping to maximize his value. The divorce wasn't exactly amicable.
So at 29, Holliday, a few months into his yearlong voyage, is away from everything he knows. His house and his friends and his routine are all new. He's renting out a condo near Tempe, Ariz., where his brother Josh is the hitting coach at Arizona State, and he's taking teammates out to lunch to ingratiate himself as the player making $13.5 million who doesn't mind picking up a check, and …
"Dad!" Ethan yells.
Ethan chugs around the bases, and that's another thing, Holliday notes – the running the A's demand. It's brutal. A dozen 70-yard sprints, with 20 seconds between each one. And then, later in the week, two sets of 10.
Just part of a new chapter, Holliday figures. He spent the offseason at Boras' Sports Training Institute, the arm of the agent's corporation that exists solely to turn clients into the same sort of single-minded machines physically as they will be when free-agency beckons. Holliday worked his core, stretched, tried to limber up. At 6-foot-4 and 230 pounds, he already was a specimen. This was like calling 93/7 ground beef too fatty and insisting on 96/4.
All of it bottlenecks into Holliday's ascent from a marginal power prospect into a feared hitter. The concerns that he's a Coors Field creation fester – it's tough to ignore the significant statistical splits, including a .357 career batting average at home and .280 on the road – even though his road numbers improved in 2008. A's management remained convinced Holliday's power would translate anywhere, even the cavernous McAfree Coliseum.
"He has some line drives, and you kind of look in the outfield where you expect them to land," Oakland manager Bob Geren said. "They just keep going. He gets through the ball. His swing – it's a little different than most. In a good way."
Earlier in the week, when the majority of A's position players showed up, they introduced themselves to Holliday in an almost reverential manner, like when Neo arrived aboard the Nebuchadnezzar.
Ah. So you're the one. It's an honor to have you here.
Between Holliday's arrival and the return of Jason Giambi – not just in the flesh, but in spirit too, as all those years of pent-up immaturity in New York are liable to boil over in an amalgamation of mullets, mustaches and fart jokes – the A's lineup is no longer a one-through-nine pushover. After trotting out last year's kiddie corps, general manager Billy Beane invested in two veteran complements he hopes can teach the kids how to win.
Among other things.
"Billy saw a window of opportunity as far as the West is concerned," said third baseman Eric Chavez, the longest-tenured Athletic. "Matt's obviously going to fill a big hole in the middle of our lineup and be a force. With the Angels losing a few of their key components, the window was open a little bit.
"We definitely have the pieces to contend, and that's all that you really ask for: a chance to win. A realistic chance. Not optimistic."
Optimism is evident at A's camp. Holliday admires the day, well sure he hadn't seen anything similar in his decade of spring training in Tucson. He could get used to this, even if he knows his time with Oakland surely won't stretch into 2010. So he might as well do what he can now.
"You know," Holliday said, "I do handle change well."
Though right now, he doesn't want to change a thing. Holliday jogs back onto the field. His boys ask him to throw a few more pitches, and he obliges. For a moment, as a crazy year looms, everything is just right.