A's heart beats up the middle

PHOENIX -- Nothing brings a double-play combination together like six weeks of shared tedium in Florida or Arizona.

You arrive at the ballpark early and work on flips, feeds and pivots. Then you bake for a month in seven-inning increments. Then you sit around the clubhouse with a cold beer and dissect what went right and wrong. Then you wake up the next morning and do it all over again.

The bonding process played out quite nicely in Oakland's camp two springs ago, right until the moment Bobby Crosby's right quadriceps met Mark Ellis' right shoulder. The A's shortstop and second baseman were pursuing a Sammy Sosa groundball when a two-car NASCAR pileup broke out. The next thing Crosby knew, his double-play partner was being helped off the field, and he felt an overwhelming sense of guilt.

"I was crushed," Crosby says in hindsight. "It was completely an accident. But when you hurt somebody and possibly end their career, nothing can compare to it. It was the worst feeling I ever had on a field."

Ellis eventually survived some dicey moments -- most notably nerve damage, which prompted doctors to wonder whether he would ever play again. Now Crosby is the one with health issues. Last year, he played only 84 games because of rib and ankle injuries. When he arrived at camp this spring complaining of shoulder soreness, alarm bells rang in manager Ken Macha's office. But Oakland's medical staff says it's just a case of mild tendinitis, and that Crosby should be fine.

That's good news for Crosby, who doesn't much care for this injury-prone tag.

"I don't want to sit on my butt anymore," he said.

It would be overstating the case to label Bobby Crosby and Mark Ellis the best all-around double play combination in baseball. There's no way to make that claim when Miguel Tejada and Brian Roberts are both All-Stars in Baltimore, and Jimmy Rollins and Chase Utley are doing some special things in Philadelphia.

Crosby and Ellis don't even rank among the most compelling stories in Oakland's camp. How could they, when Frank Thomas is sparring long-distance with White Sox GM Kenny Williams, Milton Bradley is limiting the topics he will discuss, Barry Zito is entering his free-agent walk year and Dominican pitcher Jairo Garcia will show up one of these days two years older and bearing a new name -- Santiago Casilla?

Still, a healthy and productive middle infield will go a long way toward helping the A's fulfill their promise as a trendy AL pennant threat in 2006. The heartbeat of this Oakland team beats the loudest and most profoundly up the middle.

No one knows that better than Athletics third-base coach Ron Washington, who raps out so many of those practice groundballs that Crosby and Ellis gobble up like sunflower seeds.

"They're about as fundamentally sound as any baseball players I've ever seen," Washington said. "Routine groundballs, hand positioning. Feet positioning. Feeds. Throws. All of that. They've got an awesome work ethic, and they're so focused and concentrated. They're very special kids."

The Oakland PR staff has a stat that jumps out at you: When Crosby was in the lineup last year, the A's posted a record of 55-29. When he was out of commission, they slid to 33-45. As assistant general manager David Forst points out, some of it was pure coincidence. When Crosby came off the disabled list in late May, young starters Joe Blanton and Dan Haren had begun to pitch much better, and Eric Chavez was in the process of heating up.

But the A's use the word "presence" an awful lot with Crosby. He has pop for a middle infielder, and he projects an air of confidence that energizes everybody else.

"Even as a young guy, he takes control," Ellis said. "That's his infield out there, and that's the way it should be."

Ellis, who came to Oakland from Kansas City with Johnny Damon by trade five years ago, elevated his game offensively and defensively in 2005. His .344 average after the All-Star break was third best in the league behind Cleveland's Victor Martinez and Detroit's Placido Polanco, and he hit 12 of his 13 home runs after the break.

He also registered prominently in the new-fangled defensive measures that define excellence. Regardless of whether you're partial to ultimate zone rating or the findings laid out in John Dewan's "The Fielding Bible," Ellis ranks among the best in baseball at his position. Now that Orlando Hudson has departed for the National League, Ellis, Roberts and the Angels' Adam Kennedy are left to duke it out for the Gold Glove.

Oakland's middle-infield partnership is a collaboration of baseball soul mates from different backgrounds. Crosby, a Southern California kid, grew up playing the game on the dawn-to-dusk plan. His father, Ed, spent six years in the majors as an infielder with Cleveland, Cincinnati and St. Louis, and later worked as a scout for several clubs.

Although Ed Crosby retired as a player before his son was born, he maintained a circle of friends who ensured that young Bobby would be properly grounded for life.

"I grew up around scouts, so I know what they look for," Crosby said. "They want talent, but they also look for makeup and the way a guy handles himself. It's more than just, 'Can he play?' It's personality as well."

At a rangy 6-foot-3, 195 pounds, Crosby elicits the typical Cal Ripken Jr. comparisons. That's only fitting; even as a 5-9 runt in high school, Crosby tacked a Ripken poster to his bedroom wall for inspiration.

The A's were sufficiently impressed to select Crosby out of Long Beach State with the 25th pick in 2001 draft. Less than three years later, Crosby rose to the challenge of replacing Tejada and was named AL Rookie of the Year.

"All I've ever wanted to do was not let the team slide," Crosby said. "We were a winning team then, and I just wanted to make sure we stayed winning."

Ellis, Oakland's second baseman, grew up in Rapid City, S.D., where there was no high school baseball program and American Legion ball ran from mid-May through the start of August. His coach, Dave Ploof, was a stickler for doing things the right way, and Ellis continued his baseball education at the University of Florida. He turned double plays for the Gators with everybody's favorite overachiever, David Eckstein.

Off the field, Crosby and Ellis like to socialize -- even though their interests diverge. Ellis is married, and Crosby is single. Ellis is quiet, while Crosby loves to talk. Former A's coach Thad Bosley once compared Ellis in demeanor to Ryne Sandberg, the ultimate even-keeled player.

Then again, how flashy could a guy from the Mount Rushmore State really be?

"I know nothing about South Dakota," Crosby said. "Any time I want to give him a hard time I'll say, 'South Dakota? Who's from South Dakota and plays baseball?' "

Mark Ellis, for starters. Last year he passed Terry Francona (16 major-league longballs) on the all-time South Dakota home run list. He needs five more to reach 33, which will vault him past fellow Rapid City native Dave Collins into the top spot.

At this rate, Ellis' birthplace will soon surpass The Ghosts of Deadwood Gulch Wax Museum on the list of prominent South Dakota landmarks. But the A's have nothing special planned for the occasion.

"We haven't really thought about it," Forst said, smiling. "I'll get the marketing department right on it."

Ellis, the modest sort, will settle for a few handshakes and some job security. When the Athletics signed him to a two-year, $6 million contract in January, Crosby learned about it during the team's winter Fanfest. He was so caught up in the moment, he wrapped Ellis in a bear hug.

They've come a long way since the spring of 2004, when Ellis' playing career was in jeopardy and his friend and teammate felt responsible.

"I know Bobby felt bad, because he came over to my house for dinner a couple of nights later and we talked about it," Ellis said. "But there's nothing you can do about it. We were trying to get the same ball, and it could just as easily have been the other way around.

"Bobby jokes about it now. He says I ran into a brick wall."

Mark Ellis laughs right along with Crosby. It's the shared satisfaction of teammates who have been through the rough times, and sense the best is yet to come.

Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN Insider. His book "License To Deal" has been published by Rodale. Click here to order a copy. Jerry can be reached via e-mail.