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Street Shows No Fear As Rookie Closer
By Casey Tefertiller
2004 Draft Class Update:
• Progress Report On All 30 Picks
• Rice Trio Finds Path To Pros Plagued With Injuries
• Bush Looks To Shed Premature "Bust" Label
OAKLAND--It was one of those spring-training moments so strange that the old hands around Oakland A's camp could not stop laughing.
Huston Street, a callow rookie just a few months of the campus of the University of Texas, stood on the mound shaking off Jason Kendall, the jut-jawed catcher who has spent more than a thousand major league games behind the plate. Just how brash can this kid be?
Not brash at all, it turns out.
In a prolonged at-bat against Moises Alou of the Giants, Kendall wanted Street to throw a changeup, a pitch the youngster had barely begun tinkering with and had no confidence in his ability to execute. Street preferred a slider. Kendall demanded a changeup. Finally, Kendall got his way and Alou was retired.
“That was one of those profound moments when it really stuck with me,” Street said. “He trusted my stuff. He told me to trust the catcher's call and to trust my stuff. 'Don't be afraid of your pitches.' It gave me the confidence that I can get people out with all my pitches, not just my go-to pitch.”
At the age of 22, Street has taken over as the closer of the Oakland Athletics, a team in the middle of a pennant race. He still relies mostly on his fastball and go-to slider, but when Kendall puts down the sign for a change, Street follows orders. As a closer in a heated race, he owns one of the most high-pressure jobs in all of baseball. He has yet to flinch.
“He has no fear,” said manager Ken Macha.
“His poise is as good as in any young player I've seen,” said A's broadcaster and former all-star Ray Fosse, who has been catching or calling major league games since 1967.
“He gets better and better every time he goes out there. He wants to learn and find ways to keep improving,” Kendall said.
Opportunities, Not Obstacles
There is something very special about this slender Texan from the suburbs of Austin. He has physical tools, but they were not dazzling enough for any major league team to call his name with the first 39 picks of the draft last June, when the A's took him 40th overall in the supplemental first round. What makes Street so different is his refusal to be intimidated: not by situations, challenges, other players or the most intense forms of pressure. Street simply thrives on pressure.
The roots of Street's unusual poise go far back in his life. His mother Janie and father James, a two-sport college star at Texas during the late 1960s, were dedicated to raising children who would be both confident and respectful. There is no reason to fear a big challenge, they taught; rather, come to enjoy it.
“I just learned it from my parents,” Huston said. “Both of them always preached to look at things as an opportunity, then you see it from a totally different perspective and you're not nervous or apprehensive about going into certain situations. I think it came from my parents, growing up. Never be timid when you go into these situations because everything is an opportunity. It's just what you think of it.”
Simple as it sounds, this approach to athletics has carried Street to remarkable highs through college and his brief professional career. Back at Texas, Street helped the Longhorns to three consecutive College World Series appearances, winning the CWS Most Outstanding Player award as a freshman in 2002 when he recorded four saves, including the championship game over South Carolina.
At 18, he showed no fear on the greatest stage in college baseball, and he has only continued to build on that success. After signing with the A's last July, he debuted at low Class A Kane County, moved up to Double-A Midland and advanced to Triple-A Sacramento, where he had two postseason saves to help the River Cats to the Pacific Coast League championship. He followed that with an excursion to the Arizona Fall League, where he was again on the mound when his Phoenix Desert Dogs won that league's title. In his first 38 appearances as a professional, he had a 1.09 ERA and 17 saves.
“I saw the fall league as a golden opportunity to prove to myself that I could compete with some of the best prospects in the minor leagues,” Street said. “For me, it was trying to take as much advantage of the opportunity as possible. When you go in and have success, it slowly builds your confidence, one day at a time.”
Street has always treated every stop as a learning experience on the way to higher goals. At Texas, he worked with pitching coach Frank Anderson to perfect a three-quarters arm action that would bring more movement to his pitches. He was not afraid to change from the overhand style he used in high school because Anderson bred confidence that the new delivery would make him more effective. He was not afraid to move into the closer role when coach Augie Garrido needed someone to finish games back in '02, and now he loves the bullpen with passion. Anderson and UT prepared him mechanically to make the move to the pros. Janie and James gave him the other tools.
What makes Street different from the hundreds of other 22-year-olds laboring through the minor leagues, slowly learning both the mental and physical demands of a professional, is the mindset to overcome challenges: the poise to perform. Street and the A's are a perfect match. There is an organization-wide philosophy that baseball aptitude is a tool, just as much as hitting or throwing; that knowing how to play the game is an underrated skill that makes for major league success. Street is aptitude in action.
Where that aptitude leads will be something for the A's to savor over the next few years. This is the organization that originated the concept of the closer with Rollie Fingers in the late '60s, then perfected it with Dennis Eckersley two decades later. Both Hall of Famers have their retired jersey numbers hanging on the outfield wall in Oakland.
“There's (Fingers') 34 on the left-field wall, and Eck in right. There's plenty of room to put (Street's) 20 up there, too,” Fosse said. “And that's not putting pressure on him.”
Doesn't matter. Street seems to handle pressure quite well. It's all an opportunity, after all, just as Janie and James told him so many years ago.