Just passing through
Matt Holliday won't be an A for long. But he's gotta prove he's no mile-high mirage.
This article originally appeared in the April 20th issue of ESPN The Magazine.
On a warm spring morning at the Phoenix training facility of the A's, Matt Holliday hops on a stationary bike for the first of his two-a-day sessions. He sets a bottle of water and a sports drink atop the control panel and begins to tap away at the buttons. Then he takes a sip of water, puts on his headphones and starts to pedal, which causes the inside-out back pockets of his uniform pants to flop up and down like wind socks in a stiff breeze. With music blasting in his ears, he is lost to the world. "It's therapeutic for me," the leftfielder says of his riding routine.
Holliday logs so many miles that some of his new teammates like to call him Lance Armstrong. Bobby Crosby is thinking of buying him a yellow jersey, in a nod to the Tour de France. Jason Giambi jokes about getting him a spin bike so he can teach classes. It's this pedal-pushing that has integrated the quiet Holliday, who was acquired from the Rockies in November, into the rambunctious Oakland locker room. In this fun house, as soon as someone finds something to mock, you're in.
If only the Oakland Coliseum will be so welcoming. No other major leaguer has more riding on this season than the 29-year-old Holliday, who, during his free agent year, will either cement his status as one of baseball's best hitters or confirm the theory that he's a Coors Field creation. In his last three seasons with the Rockies, he averaged 32 home runs, 113 RBIs and a .400 OBP. But during that span, his OPS differential of .243 (1.098 at home, .855 on the road) was the largest among active players. That's why ESPN.com's fantasy gurus offered this predraft advice on Holliday: "Be careful not to pay too much."
But, in reality, how much is too much? Before last season, Holliday reportedly declined a four-year, $82 million extension from Colorado. He and agent Scott Boras thought that was the beginning of negotiations, but the club never made another offer. Holliday, a seventh-round pick in the 1998 draft, had become the face of the Rockies, and a bloody one when he scraped his chin and nearly knocked himself cold scoring the run that started the team's postseason dash to the 2007 World Series. His uncle, Dave Holliday, is an assistant to Colorado GM Dan O'Dowd. But none of that stopped the team from trading its star player to the A's for pitchers Greg Smith and Huston Street and outfielder Carlos González. Holliday's 5-year-old son, Jackson, cried that day. "Daddy, I thought you were good in Colorado," he said. "Why did they trade you?"
The hard truth is that Rockies management didn't think it could sign Holliday long-term. The A's know they can't either, but they're looking to take advantage of a weakened AL West and win now. Holliday is their highest-paid player ever, at $13.5 million this season. So it's pretty clear he's just passing through Oakland, where the team has been trying for years to get a new ballpark and increase revenues. "Given what he stands to possibly earn, the likelihood is that he will go somewhere else next year," says GM Billy Beane. "We're okay with that. We knew the deal when we got into it. We have our limitations, and I'm not sure there are limitations on what Matt can make."
That depends on the numbers Holliday puts up at sea level. Coors Field ranked as the most hitter-friendly ballpark in the majors over the past three years; the Coliseum ranked 29th, ahead of only cavernous Petco Park. In Oakland, the outfield is expansive, the foul ground immense, and a severe wind often blows in. "Matt's going to hit balls dead-on that aren't going to go out," says Eric Chavez. The veteran third baseman also estimates that A's hitters can lose up to 15 points off their batting average because of the large foul territory.
Holliday, a line-drive hitter who sprays the ball all over, brushes off the talk about park factors. "If I hit it on the barrel, I'll take my chances," he says. "The moment as a hitter that you begin to recognize outside variables, you get in trouble."
But here's another variable to consider: If he starts slowly and the A's drop out of contention, Holliday could move even earlier than expected, possibly in a midseason trade to a contender. As it is, he and his family (wife Leslee, Jackson and 2-year-old Ethan) are renting a house in the Bay Area while selling their home in Colorado."If something happens, we'll adjust," Holliday says.
And no matter what happens, he'll get on his bike and ride it out.