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Skip was hip in '99

When Ryan Ludwick arrived in Modesto, Bob Geren was ready.

It was midway through the 1999 season, and the manager of the Modesto A's wanted to welcome the slugging outfielder from UNLV in a way that would make him feel at home in the clubhouse.

The teeth. That was it.

Geren owned this set of stage-prop teeth — oversized hillbilly bucks that were discolored and chipped, as if they frequently were used to gnaw rusty rebar.

He sent the clubhouse manager to the airport with instructions to tell Ludwick not to stare at Geren's mouth because the manager was ultra-sensitive about his dental condition.

"It was a riot," Geren said. "Ludwick comes into my office and he wouldn't look up at all, and I had to keep a straight face when I told him to look at me when I was speaking to him."

Of course, the rest of the players were in on the stunt, which Ludwick realized shortly after stepping out into the clubhouse.

Just another minor-league baseball practical joke, of which there are many — some cleaner than others.

But in this case, there was a method to Geren's managerial madness. The former major-league catcher established an exceptionally positive atmosphere within that John Thurman Field clubhouse, one in which the players worked hard, developed and had a lot of fun.

"That was my first season with the Oakland organization, and my goal coming in was to create a positive environment where the players would want to come to the field," Geren said.

Don't expect the teeth to be displayed (at least on camera) this season, his first as manager of the Oakland Athletics. On the other hand, Geren said he'll take many of the same approaches he used in Modesto and apply them to the Oakland clubhouse.

"People commented about the spirit of our Modesto clubhouse and how good it was," said Geren, who opens spring training Friday in Phoenix. "Right now, I'm trying to figure out what to do at this level that would make them say the same thing.

"The one thing I learned in Modesto is that if you have an environment where the people want to be there and want to work hard, you're that much closer to being successful."

And those 1999 Modesto A's were a success, going 88-52 to sweep both halves of the California League season. But in the last 10 days of August, they lost third baseman Jacques Landry to a wrist injury and center fielder Gary Thomas to a broken bone in his upper back.

League batting champion Eric Byrnes was recalled from Double-A to rejoin the team for the playoffs, but the A's dropped a five-game series to San Jose in the North Division finals.

It was an exciting and high-scoring team, featuring an everyday lineup filled with future major-league talent, including Byrnes, Ludwick, Jason Hart, Esteban German and Miguel Olivo, and two more big-leaguers on the mound in Jesus Colome and Jon Adkins.

"It felt like we were ahead before the game started," Geren said. "It became a running joke. The national anthem would end, and on the way back to the dugout I would look at the guys and say, 'We haven't scored yet?'"

Some of the guys who didn't make it to the bigs were just as memorable. One, in particular, was outfielder Jesus Basabe — the only player to twice blast home runs over the scoreboard (415 feet away, 37 feet high), and he did it in back-to-back at bats.

"Basabe had some serious talent," Geren said. "We had a drill where the players would stand at home plate and hit the ball off a tee so we could see what kind of spin they could generate. Basabe would stand there and hit balls off the wall at 390 feet, without the momentum of the pitch coming in."

And his favorite Modesto player? He doesn't hesitate to answer.

"Byrnesy," Geren said. "I've never seen a guy who had so many highs and lows in one season. He was a work in progress in the outfield, but he made himself a major-league player through desire. Heck, he's the poster child for desire.

"After he got to the bigs, he'd just show up during instructional league, hang around and beg to play in games. After the games were over, we'd remind the young kids that Byrnes was a major-league player who still had that kind of work ethic."

Geren spent only one season in Modesto. In 2000, he was promoted two steps in the organization to become the first manager of the Sacramento River Cats. He jumped to Oakland as bullpen coach in 2003 and was Ken Macha's bench coach last season.

But that one year at Thurman Field will retain a place in Geren's heart, even as he gets into the teeth of the American League season.

"I've played and coached a lot of places," Geren said. "But I've never been involved with a community that had an involvement with the team like we had in Modesto. I haven't seen anywhere else where the fans take players and make them part of their families."

To comment, click on the link with this story at www.modbee.com. Bee staff writer Brian VanderBeek can be reached at 578-2300 or bvanderbeek@modbee.com.

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