Young-at-heart veteran strengthens A’s bullpen

Photo by Dan Johanson

To Alan Embree, the years have been kind. Nearly two decades of professional baseball have made the friendly Athletic a well-traveled veteran, an October star and a World Series champion.

Just don’t call him old.

When Nick Swisher made that mistake during Oakland’s spring training last year, the prankster wasted little time showing his younger teammate the error of his ways.

“I just had to teach him a little respect,” says the 38-year-old Embree. “You don’t call a veteran, older guy ‘old.’ If you do that, something bad is going to happen.”

Swisher’s punishment? Embree stole his pickup truck, installed new tires painted green and gold, secured them with locking lug nuts the outfielder couldn’t remove, and made him drive the gaudy sight around Arizona for the whole preseason.

That wasn’t the first prank Embree unleashed on a teammate. When the A’s decided that rookie Travis Buck’s flowing locks needed to be shorn last season, Embree made an appearance as a bullpen barber.

“I’ve had a lot of time in the bullpen, I’ve got resources, I’ve been in the league for a while, and I’ve got a great imagination,” explains a laughing Embree.

While his acts of mischief have endeared him to his team, the Athletics have come to appreciate Embree for more than his light-hearted personality. The same relief pitcher who brings maturity and experience to the bullpen also stepped up to save 17 games in 2007 when regular closer Huston Street became injured and missed two months of play.

“Alan did a great job filling in for Huston. He led our team in saves last year,” says manager Bob Geren.

While the fireman still throws a mid-90s fastball and a slider that he thinks he’s improved every year, it may be Embree’s approach and outlook that best explain his success and value to his club, Geren says.

“He has a great attitude about the game,” says the skipper.  “He’s competitive pitching at any time, and he’s very tough mentally and physically. The whole attitude in the bullpen is better when he’s there. Plus, he’s a funny guy, he’s extremely friendly, and he’s a good person to be around.”

Photo by Dan Johanson

Perhaps that’s why so many teams have pursued the southpaw. Oakland is the ninth big league city Embree has called home, and the hurler has made great memories along the way.

A native of Vancouver, Washington, Embree played basketball, football and volleyball at Prairie High School. In baseball, he became an All-Conference pitcher and first baseman.

“I was a typical kid,” Embree modestly says. “I played seasonal sports and didn’t specialize in anything. I liked to play them all. I was taught that you play one sport to get in shape for the next sport. It kept me busy and out of trouble.”

Cleveland drafted Embree in 1989, and he made his first big league appearance with the Indians in 1992. A torn elbow ligament requiring surgery was a major setback, but Embree reached the majors again in 1995 and helped Cleveland win the American League pennant. He stayed with the club through 1996.

“That was an awfully rewarding thing to look back on,” he says, “not only to come back from the injury but to get to pitch on the big stage of the World Series.”

A two-year stint with the Braves followed. “Atlanta was a great experience,” Embree says. “That was the first real full season I spent in the big leagues. I had a bunch of Cy Young Award winners around me – Greg Maddux, John Smoltz and Tom Glavine – and I learned a lot from them. It was fun watching those guys play, coming in after them and helping them win games.”

During a brief stop in Arizona at the end of 1998, Embree played for the Diamondbacks in their inaugural year and enjoyed teaming up with All-Stars

Matt Williams and Jay Bell. He also got to play a role in the great home run chase, giving up two bombs to Slammin’ Sammy Sosa.

Joining the Giants from 1999-2001, “I liked getting the chance to play in Candlestick before they went to the new ballpark, and getting a chance to play with Barry Bonds after hearing so much about him,” he recalled. “He was a very gifted athlete and it was fun to see him play on a daily basis.”

With San Francisco, Embree set a new career high in appearances and helped the orange and black win the National League West in 2000. He also proved he could bounce back from adversity following the rock-bottom experience of his career, a dreadful outing in 2001 when four Braves rocked him with homers in a single inning. Due to a short-handed bullpen, Embree had to finish the frame and even tough out another, earning the lasting respect of San Francisco’s pitching coach Dave Righetti.

“He’s able to take the bad stuff that he’s had happen in his career, which all pitchers go through, turn the page and go back out the next day,” Righetti says. “Just watch him now and look at all he’s done over the years. He’s still throwing great.”

After the Giants traded him, Embree finished 2001 with the Chicago White Sox, who arrived in New York to play the Yankees hours before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. “New York as a ghost town” was an ominous sight and a lasting memory.

Embree donned the colors of the San Diego Padres in 2002 and again in 2006. “That was phenomenal. I had some very good success there,” he says. “We had a great group of guys, and I got to pitch with Trevor Hoffman, who’s not only a good pitcher but a good person. I probably learned more in the two seasons there than I did anywhere else.”

Topping the hurler’s career highlights are his years with Boston, where he helped the Red Sox win the World Series in 2004. “From the time I got traded over there, it was a magical feeling,” Embree says. “You saw something was about to happen. We came a game short in ’03, and lost Game 7 (of the American League Championship Series) when we thought we had it. That left a bitter taste.”

A year later, the Red Sox played the Yankees again in an ALCS rematch, and New York jumped out to a 3-0 series lead. In an unprecedented comeback, Boston rallied to win four straight games. Inducing Ruben Sierra to ground out to second, Embree recorded the pennant-clinching out, setting off a delirious celebration by his teammates and the Red Sox Nation. In comparison, Boston’s four-game sweep of the World Series was anti-climactic.

“We climbed the mountain,” says a smiling Embree. “It was euphoric. Walking away as a champion, there’s no better feeling.”

The Red Sox owe no small part of the curse-breaking championship, their first in 86 years, to the fireman who pitched brilliantly in 11 playoff games. In fact, Embree boasts an incredible career record in October: a win and no losses, an ERA of 1.66 and 31 appearances. He’s reached the postseason seven times in six different uniforms.

What’s his secret? “Consistency,” shares teammate Keith Foulke, who also played with Embree in Boston. “He’s been in a lot of big situations in his career. Consistency makes him good and makes anybody good. The whole thing is about not being overwhelmed by the pressure of a ballgame, no matter if it’s the preseason, regular season, or the World Series. He has the ability to be the same guy out there and rise to the occasion.”

Embree puts it more succinctly: “I don’t get caught up in the hoopla,” he says.

Oakland attracted the easy-going reliever for several reasons. “The A’s are a perennial contender, which is very appealing,” Embree says. “And when I pitched against them, I liked the way they went about their job. They’re professional. You could have them beat and they’re still playing nine hard innings of baseball. They didn’t quit. I respected that. Plus, this is close to home.” During the offseason, Embree still resides in Vancouver with his family.

While General Manager Billy Beane traded away some of Oakland’s stars in the offseason, Embree likes what he sees from the A’s young roster.

“I’m still trying to get to know some of the faces, but you can tell Billy put a lot of thought into the moves he made,” he says. “He got some kids who’ve got talent. Their attitude is great, they hustle and they work hard.”

Geren sees the formidable bullpen trio of Embree, Foulke and Street as an asset to the 2008 Athletics. “It’s good for a manager to know he has that kind of experience and talent late in the game,” the skipper says. “Alan’s going to be a late-inning guy, and he’s going to have a huge impact on the end of the game.”

As Embree says, “I’ll probably be doing eighth-inning work. My job is to get the ball from my starter to Huston. That’s what I’m here for.”

What’s left for this Athletic to achieve? “Health and success,” he says. “I want to go out on a high note. I don’t want to go out with people saying, ‘He can’t do it anymore.’ I want to go out while I can still do it but when I don’t want to do it anymore.”

That day hasn’t come yet. Oakland’s oldest – but not old – player still seems to enjoy coming to the ballpark as much as any rookie. Teammates are affording the elder southpaw the appropriate respect; there have been no geriatrics jokes since the Swisher truck heist. “Nobody has crossed the line this year,” Embree laughs. “I think that initial stunt pretty much paved the way for how I was going to be talked to.” He also likes taking his son into the outfield with him during practice to shag fly balls. Embree and his wife Melanie have Alan, 10, and a seven-year-old daughter, Andie.

The Embrees enjoy fishing, hunting and skiing together, and though the family stays in the Bay Area while school is out, baseball’s long road trips are tough on parents and kids alike. “You miss the noise,” the father says. “In the hotel room it’s silent and you want to hear what’s going on in the house. Sometimes I call home and say, ‘Honey, just put the phone down and walk away.’”

But ironically, the young-at-heart veteran has become living proof that age has its benefits. While many players’ children never get to see their dads in action, the young Alan and Andie Embree already share years of their father’s major league memories.

“My kids getting a chance to watch their daddy play has been the most rewarding thing,” he says. “I was fortunate enough to play long enough that my kids can look and see why daddy was gone. They can see me still play at a high level and be proud of their daddy.”

Athletics Magazine, 2008