Holliday embraces leadership role
Slugger excited to mentor Oakland's younger players
PHOENIX -- As his new A's teammates started to filter out of the club's Spring Training facility Monday afternoon, Matt Holliday and his family frolicked on the miniature diamond that sits next to the parking lot at Papago Park.
As Holliday stood about 15 feet away from home plate, flipping balls and dispensing tips to his bat-wielding toddler son, the irony was inescapable.
As Oakland's premier offseason acquisition, Holliday, a five-year veteran who turned 29 last month, immediately embraced a leadership role on what remains a largely young and inexperienced team.
"I don't know if I'm ready to consider myself an older guy," Holliday said with a laugh, "but I would want to lead by example. I work hard, I have a passion for baseball, and I come to the field every day excited to be there -- excited to work and get in the cage and hit off the tee and work on the craft that is baseball."
To that end, Holliday was one of the first position players to show up this spring. He spends his offseasons in Southern California, but he was hitting on the field in Phoenix on Saturday, a full five days before his presence was required.
"Young guys notice that kind of thing," A's manager Bob Geren said. "It's great as a manager to see your best players show up early, especially when they're established guys like Matt. You can already tell how much everyone looks up to him."
Much has been made of the leadership that Jason Giambi will bring in his second tour of duty with Oakland, and rightfully so. Giambi ruled the A's clubhouse with an effectively soft touch in the late 1990s and early 2000s, setting a cohesive tone that remained for years after he signed as a free agent with the Yankees following the 2001 season.
And make no mistake: Holliday is no Giambi. In fact, he's the anti-Giambi in many ways.
Whereas Giambi is bold and boisterous, with a reputation as the fun-loving life of the party on and off the field, Holliday is quiet and unassuming, preferring to spend most of his time away from the field with his wife, Leslee, and their boys, Jackson and Ethan, who turns 2 next week.
"I pretty much go to my workouts, come home and hang out with my family," Holliday said. "I don't really get out much ... I try to spend as much time with my boys and my wife as I can."
But Holliday and Giambi have a few things in common, too. In addition to being legitimate middle-of-the-order threats and having appeared in multiple All-Star Games and won numerous awards, they share a desire to pass down to young players the lessons they once learned from influential veterans.
Giambi said former A's infielder and current A's infield instructor Mike Gallego was the first to take him under his wing, and he's long credited Mark McGwire for helping shape him professionally.
Holliday, who came to the A's in a November trade with the Rockies and also counts Gallego and McGwire among his friends, said he benefitted greatly from the guidance of veterans such as Todd Helton and Larry Walker early in his career with Colorado.
"I had a chance to watch both of those guys, and some others who maybe weren't superstar players," Holliday said. "And all of them taught me a lot about how to play the game, how to behave, how to be professional and how to treat people and treat players."
On Monday, Holliday treated his teammates to a catered lunch from a nearby Mexican restaurant.
"I figure if I buy them lunch," he said, "I might make some more friends."
Making friends shouldn't be a problem for Holliday, who made quite a first impression on shortstop Bobby Crosby.
Crosby's future with the A's grew severely clouded during the offseason as the A's openly tried to replace him, going as far as placing him on unrestricted waivers. Crosby did his best to ignore the publicly played out-drama, insisting that he wasn't letting the business side of the game bring him down, but even someone with the best compartmentalization skills would be a little bummed by such a saga.
If Crosby was bumming at all, though, it ended with an out-of-the-blue text from Holliday in early January, inviting Crosby to join a group of players taking batting practice under the watchful eye of McGwire.
Crosby took Holliday up on it, and the ensuing work with McGwire resulted in swing changes that gave Crosby a big boost of confidence heading into camp.
That Holliday reached out to him, Crosby said, speaks volumes about him as a person and as a teammate.
"He obviously didn't have to do something like that, especially for a guy who might not even be on his team this year," Crosby said. "But that's Matt. He's just a great guy. I came back home after hitting with him the first time and told my wife, 'I'll definitely get along with this guy.'"
Already, Crosby has plenty of company. Oakland's first full-squad workout is Thursday, but most of the position players were at camp early in the week, and Holliday appears well on his way to being one of the E.F. Huttons of the clubhouse.
"When a guy like Holliday talks, you listen," outfielder Travis Buck said. "And when he's not talking, you watch him, because you know that to be as good as he is, he goes about his business the right way."
That's in keeping with Holliday's general philosophy on leadership: Actions speak louder than words.
"That's kind of what I've learned: You work hard, you treat people the right way, you invest in relationships with your teammates," he said. "That's my plan, and if other guys take notice, then great.
"I'm not gonna come in and try to take over the clubhouse or anything. I'm just going to be myself."
Mychael Urban is a national writer for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.