Golden Bears Making a Mark on Oakland

MESA, Ariz. -- Mark Canha and Marcus Semien once played together at Evans Diamond -- just under 12 miles away from the Oakland Coliseum. On Monday, they'll play together again, not as California Golden Bears, but as Oakland Athletics.



MESA, Ariz. -- The last time that Marcus Semien stood on the Coliseum floor, he was coming off the field and into the visitor’s dugout after an 0-or-4 performance in his hometown debut.

The last time Mark Canha was at the Oakland Coliseum was as a fan.

When the Oakland Athletics open the 2015 season on Monday against the Texas Rangers, there’s a a good chance that the two former California Golden Bears – two of the 55 former Cal players who have signed professional contracts since David Esquer became head coach 15 years ago -- will be in the same lineup for the first time since 2010, when both were playing 11.6 miles away at Evans Diamond. It also just so happens that the Bears are having their best season under Esquer, and were as recently as two weeks ago in a tie for first place in the uber-competitive Pac-12, just four years after the program was slated for elimination.

“It’s pretty cool. It’s a crazy coincidence,” says Canha, who was acquired by the Athletics via trade with the Colorado Rockies, who acquired him in the Rule 5 draft from the Miami Marlins. He and Semien were acquired within two days of one another. “It’s funny how things work out. It’s just really cool for me to play with Marcus. He’s a good friend of mine, and that’s a special thing.”

The two will not only play with one another for the first time since they were both in blue and gold, but they’ll also be playing under former Cal catcher Bob Melvin, who played in Berkeley from 1980-1981, himself going to Omaha as a freshman, hitting .269 in 29 games for the third-place finishers at the College World Series.

Melvin has been a regular at Cal basketball games ever since he became the Oakland skipper, but since the college baseball season so often begins just as pitchers and catchers are reporting to big league camp, he’s rarely ever been back to Evans Diamond to watch the current crop of Bears. It just so happened that, during the opening series of this college season, he came to watch his alma mater face one of the top picks in next year’s draft – Duke’s Mike Matuella -- on Feb. 13.

It just so happened that, down the foul line, so was Canha.

“You know what, I probably wouldn’t have recognized him at that point,” says Melvin. “I would now. I went to quite a few Cal events this year, and I know that he and Marcus were working out over there with the guys, during the offseason, but I did not know that he was there.”

•••••

Melvin had better recognize Canha, now. He’s set to fill a vital role for the A’s this season. In his second spring appearance, he crushed a solo home run off the light standard in left in the top of the fifth against the San Francisco Giants to put the A’s up, 9-2.

This spring, he slugged six home runs and seven doubles, driving in 13 with a slugging percentage of .588 and an OPS of .918.

“He’s here for a reason, and as you saw with [Nate] Freiman a couple of years ago, when we bring in players like him, Rule 5 guys, our intent is to keep them. We feel like he’s not only a guy that is good enough to keep, but a guy that’s going to get enough at-bats to earn his keep,” Melvin said before the A’s first spring game.

And that, he did. Canha got 74 at-bats this spring, far more than his 10 in nine games with the Marlins last spring.

“I didn’t get a single start last year in big league camp. Not one,” Canha says. “I got 10 at-bats in the three or so weeks that I was up there. I would come in the last three innings, play defense and maybe get one at-bat. That was tough. I wasn’t, and I knew last year, going into camp, that I wasn’t in consideration to make the team. I wasn’t trying out. I was there more as a courtesy.

“I think the Marlins – don’t get me wrong, I think the Marlins respected me as a player, and knew I could play a little bit – but I wasn’t even in consideration. They’d just signed Garret Jones, and all these new guys – Jeff Baker, guys that played my position – and they’re playing Garret Jones that kind of money, he’s going to be at first base.”

After last season – one in which Canha did not get an expected September call-up, he had a decision to make. He had just gotten married. He was 25. He’d never had a single Major League at-bat, despite hitting .303 with a .505 slugging percentage, a .889 OPS, 20 home runs, 82 RBIs and 28 doubles in 127 games. Would he continue to play baseball, to live his dream, or would he hang up his spikes?

“Not everybody can play in the big leagues, and there’s only 25 spots. I wasn’t one of those guys,” says Canha. “In my opinion, I was never one of those guys that was even in consideration for a spot on the 25-man roster, and that’s the way it is in this game. I think I just really needed the change of scenery, and my wife and I, when it happened, it was at a point in my career where I was at a crossroads, and something happened for me. Not everybody can say that.

“It was difficult. It was a difficult situation, I think, for any player. I’m 26 this year, and you don’t make a lot of money in the minor leagues, especially when you’re not on a 40-man roster. I’m married now, and you have to think about your life and taking care of your family. It’s extremely hard to do that in the minor leagues.”

Then, Canha got the news he didn’t even know he’d been waiting for. One door had ostensibly been closed in his face. Then, baseball opened a window.

“It was hard times there. I had some decisions to make over the next couple months, and then Rule 5 happened, and I went from getting picked by the Rockies, which, I would have been over the moon to be anywhere else, and then, 10 minutes later, it’s even better when the A’s call me,” says Canha. “One, because of the hometown thing – it’s right by home for me – and also, I’ve always thought it would be cool to play for the A’s. I always pictured myself fitting in great there, and it was just unbelievable. I’ve always wanted to play for the A’s.”

•••••

Marcus Semien didn’t always want to play for the A’s. He was a Giants fan, growing up. He was in the stands when Barry Bonds hit his 700th home run. That’s not to say that the El Cerrito native was a regular at AT&T Park, or Candlestick, before it. Instead, it was the halls of the Coliseum he haunted.

“There was a lot. I don’t have any specific memories,” he says. “I’ve sat all over that stadium, the bleachers, good seats, bad seats. I’ve been to a lot. I was just there watching baseball, how the pros did it, because that’s what I wanted to be one day.”

He watched Eric Chavez and Miguel Tejada. He saw Barry Zito and Mark Mulder and Tim Hudson. When time came for college, Semien – the son of former Cal wide receiver Damien Semien -- chose to go to Berkeley.

As a sophomore, Semien was all but a sieve at shortstop, making 27 errors while Canha manned first base. He worked with quiet determination to fix that for his junior year – 2011 – and not only proved to be the anchor of one of the Pac-12’s best defenses, but was the heart of a lineup that led the Bears to Omaha, as Cal made its first College World Series since 1988 in the face of elimination as a program.

With one out and the bases loaded, Cal down 8-7, Semien – who stepped to the plate sitting on a 4-for-4 night -- looked at strike three. As he strode back to the dugout, to a pacing David Esquer and a rally cape-wearing cadre of teammates, he looked at Devon Rodriguez and said, simply, “Pick me up.” Rodriguez’s reply? “I got you.”

Rodriguez then lined a 1-2 pitch from Baylor ace Logan Verrett into right field, plating current A’s farmhand Austin Booker and current Washington Nationals farmhamd Tony Renda, setting off one of the most unbridled, collective expressions of joy in Golden Bears sporting history.

In Hagerstown, Md., a professional ballplayer got up on his hotel bed and jumped for joy. Canha – playing for the Greensboro Grasshoppers at the time – reveled in pure happiness.

“I mean, when they won that Regional at Rice, I was listening to the final game against Baylor in my hotel room, and I was jumping up and down on the bed. I was screaming,” Canha says. “It was a crazy game. It was pure joy, because all of those guys were all great friends of mine, and I was so happy for them. I was just elated, given the situation that the program was in, and it was just so awesome for me to watch my boys accomplish what they accomplished.”

Esquer attributed his team’s culture, it’s hard-nosed, iron-willed refusal to die, to the influence of Canha, who texted head coach David Esquer after the game: “You made my year.”

“I’m not going to lie: Part of me, there was a part of me at that point that wished,” he had returned for his senior season, says Canha, who took 10 days to accept the Marlins’ contract offer because, as Esquer says, he knew that the 2011 team was a team worth coming back to. “This was a great experience that a lot of those guys will remember for the rest of their lives, and I feel like I was there, in spirit. I kind of wish I could have been a part of it, not to say that my decision to go to pro ball was a bad decision – it was probably a good decision, professionally.”

Little did they know that they would get a chance to play with one another, on the same field, at the professional level.

•••••

Two days before Canha learned that he was Oakland-bound, Semien was part of a megadeal that sent All-Star Jeff Samardzija to the Chicago White Sox that brought him back home. As soon as he heard, he called his father and his mother, Tracy White. Semien – who was born while both his parents were still at Cal – was coming back to the East Bay.

“They’re comfortable coming to a new organization. When you have someone that you know, it makes you a little bit more comfortable, whether you have a throwing partner, or just someone that you can talk to, early on,” says Melvin. “We’re past that, now that we’ve been here for a while and they’re comfortable with everybody, but it’s nice to have that resource of a guy that you know, early in camp.”

Canha and Semien trained with one another at Cal during the offseason, which was made easier by Canha’s move to San Francisco.

“We worked out together at Cal. We hit together, we worked out together, just last year. He moved out to the city, so it wasn’t San Jose to Berkeley anymore. He called me and he knew I went to Cal every day, so he called me to link up there,” says Semien.

Canha’s move also helped him link up with former Cal catcher – and current Los Angeles Angels farmhand Charlie Cutler -- who lives in the city with his longtime girlfriend, also a Cal alum. Canha and Cutler were teammates in the 2008 team that saw a total of 21 players drafted.

“I saw Charlie Cutler one time this year, working out, and I work out with Marcus every day, and [Colorado Rockies minor leaguer] Matt Flemer, I was working out with him a lot at Cal. We were all there,” says Canha.

“I’m up there every day,” says Semien, who grew up 15 minutes from the Coliseum. “There’s a lot of good people around me back home, that want to come out, work with me, flip to me, throw to me. I’m fortunate to live right there, and have access to all that.”

There was doubt surrounding how Semien and Canha would replace some of the pieces that the Athletics lost last season, but when the hit camp, it certainly helped that both Semien and Canha went to the right school. “Probably doesn’t hurt,” smiles Melvin, who had three Stanford alums on last year’s team.

One of those Cardinal alums -- Sam Fuld -- was placed at the locker stall next to Canha at Hohokam Park this spring.

“Bob likes to talk about basketball, which I didn’t realize. He’s a big basketball fan. Every time he brings up Cal, I think he’s talking about the baseball team, just because I’m not really a big college basketball guy in the first place. It’s cool to have the connection, anyway,” says Canha.

Shortly before Canha sat down to talk with Scout, the Bears lost to Stanford, 72-61, on the hardwood. Did Canha and Fuld talk about it?

“Where do you think I got this from?” Fuld smirks, as he points to a cut across his left eyebrow.

“Sam’s a great guy,” Canha grins. “I couldn’t ask for a better locker mate, than this Stanford guy right here.”

Kidding aside, the two didn’t talk basketball much. The topic of what happens at Evans Diamond and Sunken Diamond takes precedence, as Cal has raced out to a 21-9 start, and sits in fourth place in the Pac-12 at 8-4.

“I’m going to wait and see how the season’s going. I’ll pick and choose the right moment,” says Fuld.

“It’ll be more interesting when the baseball series comes around,” says Canha. “We already beat them once this year, 11-2.”

Fuld morsely interjects: “11-1.”

“There’s that,” says Canha, as Fuld shrugs.

“I remember back when I played, we won 19 in a row,” Fuld says.

“We have fun, we have fun,” Canha smiles.

Appropriately enough, the No. 12 Bears and Cardinal will square off in their conference series this coming weekend at Evans Diamond, with Stanford floundering since that 11-1 loss, sitting at 0-9 in Pac-12 play, and 11-17 overall after entering the season ranked No. 33. •••••

While Canha’s introduction to A’s fans came with that pinch-hit home run, Semien didn’t waste any time at all getting into the good graces of the Oakland faithful, hammering a first-inning two-run home run against World Series hero Madison Bumgarner in his first spring appearance.

“When you watch them in drills,” Melvin says of the players acquired for Samardzija, “certainly, Marcus is very athletic, has some power for a shortstop, seems like he’s fit in very well.”

Semien showed that power this spring, hitting .288 with a .507 slugging percentage, with three home runs and five doubles in 24 games, and though he’s only had four starts at shortstop in the majors out of his 85 career games, he’ll almost certainly take the field on Opening Day in the same stadium he attended as a boy.

“I’d never met Bob until I got to Fan Fest, but he called me right when the trade went down, and was very welcoming. It was nice because he’s a Cal guy. That’s awesome. It’s nice to have him in your corner. He communicates well with us, and so far, I like it,” says the normally-unflappable Semien, who describes the first time he went to the Coliseum as an Athletic “pretty cool.” Just like “pick me up” four years before, Semien is nothing if not laconic.

“I was a little nervous, just because I hadn’t met anybody yet,” Semien says. “Besides, Canha, I hadn’t met any of the guys, so it was more about meeting the guys first, and then enjoying the festivities after that.”

The home run off Bumgarner helped to alleviate those nerves.

“I feel like I was anxious a little bit, coming out there, first start for the home team, and you go and hit in the first inning, you try and let your nerves calm you down,” he says. “That was a good way to start … It was nice to battle from an 0-2 count, first of all, and the result was even better than you want, there. I’d never faced Madison, but when you get up there and you see who you’re facing, you kind of realize what’s going on there, and I paid attention last year.”

Semien and Canha will have plenty of folks paying attention to them, this year, especially after an offseason that saw nine trades involving 27 players made by general manager Billy Beane.

“Younger players, I think, have the expectation here that they’re going to get an opportunity, and that’s the way it’s been here,” says Melvin. “We embrace younger players here. We give them opportunities.”


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