The Chronicles of Reddick: How Josh Reddick reinvented himself with A's
Josh Reddick might be the only player in major league history ever to have hit 30 home runs in a season and, in some measure, regretted it. When the Athletics acquired the then-24-year-old outfielder in December of 2011 as one of three players the Red Sox sent west in exchange for All-Star closer Andrew Bailey, they couldn’t have imagined they had traded for a slugger. The wiry Reddick didn’t clear a fence for the first time until he was 17, and after the Red Sox drafted him in the 17th round out of Middle Georgia College in 2006, the most homers he had hit in a season was 23.
A slugger, though, was what the A’s got. During his first season in Oakland, and despite the fact that his new home was the power-sapping Coliseum, Reddick blasted 20 homers by the All-Star break and finished with 32, to go with 85 RBIs. In most regards, he was thrilled. He had found a full-time big league job—and won a Gold Glove, too—for a club that stormed back from a 13-game deficit in the AL West to win the division. In one way, though, he was miserable.
When Reddick entered the draft, scouts had him fill out questionnaires on which they asked him to identify the major leaguer to which he felt he was most comparable. He always answered with Ichiro Suzuki, the athletic contact hitter who was virtually impossible to retire. “I hate striking out,” Reddick says. “Hate it, with a passion.” In 2012, though, he had turned into a very different type of hitter. “I’d want to get up there and hit the ball over the fence no matter what, if we were up 10 or down 10,” he says. “It was all or nothing. The player I was? It wasn’t me.”
Reddick had never before whiffed more than 92 times in a professional season, but that year, he did it 151 times. All those homers came with a .242 batting average and a .305 on-base percentage. After a year that to most seemed a stunning breakout, Reddick made a promise to himself: “I’ll be happy if I never hit 32 again, unless I do it with a .280 average.”
Reddick’s next two seasons were compromised by nagging injuries, first a strained wrist and then a hyper-extended knee. He hit just 12 homers in each of them, but he still showed signs that he was becoming a more complete player, as he had resolved that he would. His on-base percentage crept up to .316 in 2013, and in 223 games over two seasons, he struck out fewer times—149—than he had in 2012 alone.
Last year, finally, Reddick was healthy again. “It was my best year yet, I think,” he says. He reached 20 homers and drove in 77 runs, but he also hit .272 with a .333 OBP and just 65 whiffs in 149 games. His OPS of .781 exceeded that of 2012; so did his offensive WAR, which reached 3.4. He had done something that would be beyond most players who had experienced a breakout season like he had, with its addictive home runs and highlight reel appearances. He had forced himself to become a less flashy player, but a better all-around one, and he had done it by being true to himself.
For someone like Josh Reddick, though, being unorthodox was nothing new.
* * *
The Oakland Coliseum, a decaying concrete ring that is about to enter its sixth decade of existence, is a strange ballpark in which to play. It is now the only stadium that is home to both a pro baseball and a pro football team—the Raiders, who tear up its turf. “When September rolls around, the outfield gets hectic because of it,” Reddick says. It lacks most modern amenities, and its clubhouses are prone to being flooded with sewage. As a result, it doesn’t tend to draw many baseball fans. “They need a new ballpark, and everybody knows it,” Reddick says.
Still, when Reddick arrived in 2012 to play rightfield, he couldn’t help but notice that a group of fans in the bleachers behind him, in section 149, were almost always there. They chanted and banged drums even during Wednesday matinees, when the rest of the park was nearly empty. “I thought they either have no job or a lot of money,” Reddick says. “Or their bosses are really lenient.”
During that first year, Reddick’s relationship with those fans followed a predictable script: tips of the cap, warm passing words. The next season, though, it developed into something more. As the A’s rallied to win the AL West in 2012, they adopted a theme song, “Moving Like Berney,” and an accompanying dance inspired by the 1990s comedy Weekend at Bernie’s II that involved mimicking that film’s titular animated corpse. At the beginning of the following season, the rapper behind the song, ISA, performed at the Coliseum. After a public after-party with ISA was canceled, Reddick announced, via Twitter, a new location for a post-game meet-up. The drum beaters from section 149 arrived.
Even as Reddick tasted stardom in 2012, he had felt a little lonely in the Bay Area. He grew up in Effingham County, Ga.—just outside Savannah—on 20 acres of land. “I don’t like big cities at all,” he says. “I don’t want to walk outside and see buildings.” He is single and lives with his two bulldogs. That night with the denizens of section 149, he got social. “[We] just started drinking, got to know each other. They never asked for a picture or an autograph.” It was the beginning of a relationship that has far exceeded the normal parameters of a ballplayer and his fans. “We’ve probably hung out over 20 times, easily,” he says. “They’ve become pretty decent friends to have out there.”
The bleacher dwellers are now as devoted to Reddick as they are antagonistic to opposing rightfielders. “They heckle them like crazy,” Reddick says. “I know [the Blue Jays'] Jose Bautista is not liked by them—a lot. He just doesn’t react to them, never turns around to acknowledge them. It makes them get on him even more. Kole Calhoun, with the Angels, does pretty good with them. They’ll rag him and he’ll turn around and interact. But Jose doesn’t.”
Reddick’s friendship with his fans is not the only unusual thing about him. He is a devout follower of the WWE, and he has the personal phone numbers of longtime star wrestlers Triple H and Big Show. The first time he met Triple H, “I started getting that childish feeling,” he says, but now he is a backstage regular. “I’ll go back there and Dolph Ziggler, a bunch of people, will be like, ‘Hey, Josh, how are you doing, enjoy the show, have a great season.’ They follow me. ‘I saw that home run you hit in Baltimore the other day.’ I’m like, what the hell are you watching me for?” Reddick is to the wrestlers as the guys in section 149 are to him.
His current at-bat music is Ziggler’s theme song, but that is the successor to another walkup selection he made in 2014 that, aside from his 32 homers in '12, earned him his most national attention: George Michael’s "Careless Whisper." Its sultry saxophone intro seems like it would make a hitter want to seduce a 90-mph fastball instead of hit one, but it worked for Reddick, for a long time.
“I heard it in the locker room one day,” he says. “I was like, ‘You know what? The heck with it. I’m hitting .200. Let’s see if this’ll switch something around.’ I went 3 for 4 that night with a home run. I can’t get rid of it now. Never thought it’d blow up like it did. Fans loved it. Rolling Stone called.”
Reddick’s sense of humor has displayed itself in other ways. He wears a full Spider-Man compression suit under his uniform. “I don’t care if it’s 110 out,” he says. He long ago embraced his last name, which fellow students, in the sixth grade, discovered could be split into two—between the ‘Ds’—to humorous effect. In the dugout, he’ll often stand next to Billy Burns, the Athletics' centerfielder, so that their combined nameplates give mischievous fans a thrill. Sometimes he’ll lasso in Oakland’s similarly surname-afflicted shortstop, Marcus Semien, to heighten the venereal effect. “I wonder if anyone’s gotten a picture of it,” he says. The season can be long, even for someone who is doing all he ever wanted to do and has transformed himself into the type of player he always wanted to be.
One morning in January of 1988, when Reddick was 11 months old, his father, Kenny, was called in to work an overtime shift for Savannah Power. While Kenny was at lunch, his supervisor turned the electricity back on. Kenny got back in the bucket and reached for the lines.
Some 7,620 volts shot through Kenny’s hands and through his heart. Doctors would tell him that they’d brought him back to life twice, and Kenny would say that he had seen the white light once, and had also found himself floating above his own body. When he awoke, he found that his left hand had essentially exploded, and that his right now had only two gnarled fingers and a thumb. “I don’t even know what my dad looked like with hands,” Reddick says, “except for in pictures.”
For Kenny, years of depression followed. As Josh and his older brother, Bradford—who is now a railroad engineer—became obsessed with baseball, they couldn’t understand why their father preferred to stay inside, in darkened rooms, instead of playing with them. When Josh was five, his father decided that enough was enough.
“He just made himself to learn how to play again,” Reddick says. Kenny forced the ball between his remaining fingers and thumb and taught himself to throw it to his sons that way. He would wedge the bat under his elbow to hit it to them. Though he was only in kindergarten, Josh could sense baseball’s power and how it had saved his father and his family. “Ever since that day, I decided I was going to be a major leaguer,” he says. “Every kid says that at five years old, but I meant it.” If you want to know why playing the game in a way that felt true to himself meant so much to Reddick that he resolved to sacrifice his 30-homer potential, this is a good place to start.
Reddick has adapted in other ways that are unique to Oakland. Though he is in his second month of his fifth year with the low-budget, continually reinventing A’s, he is already the club’s third longest-tenured player, behind outfielder Coco Crisp and utility man Eric Sogard. “Every team gets new players every year,” he says. “This team gets 10.”
In the past, Reddick also had to acclimate to manager Bob Melvin’s embracing of platoons, another strategy by which the A’s hope to compete with richer clubs. “They’re going to play their matchups whether you like it or not,” he says. “I hate it. I hate platooning. I want to be in there and helping my team every day.” This season, though, Reddick has started 27 of 29 games, all of them batting third. “Finally this year, it’s been, ‘You’re the three-hole hitter no matter who is on the mound.’ I realized that when I was starting on opening night, hitting third against Chris Sale.” Sale is the White Sox' punishing southpaw; Reddick would normally have spent such an evening on the bench.
It’s an opportune time for Reddick to showcase his matured style every night, as he will reach free agency after the season. “I’m pretty good about not thinking about that kind of stuff,” he says. “Everybody’s like, ‘Oh, it’s a free-agent year, you've got to have a big year if you want to make the money.’ But I don’t want to go up to the plate with guys on second or third with one out and go, ‘Oh man, I've got to get these runs in, because if I don’t, it’s going to affect my contract.’ I don’t think about that.”
If national audiences don’t pay much attention to Reddick—because he plays in Oakland and because he no longer hits a home run every few nights—his potential suitors certainly do. Despite his injury-marred 2013 and '14, over the past five seasons, Reddick’s all-around game has translated to a cumulative WAR of 15.0. That ranks ahead of bigger names like Jose Altuve, Nelson Cruz, Matt Kemp and Albert Pujols. Having just turned 29 in February, Reddick's agency, ACES Baseball, can credibly argue that he will be no worse than the fourth-best free agent on next winter’s market, after Stephen Strasburg, Yoenis Cespedes and Bautista.
Even if Oakland doesn’t trade him before the July deadline, this is likely Reddick’s last year with the A’s, as they are not a club with the wherewithal to afford the fourth-best player available in a given winter. He’ll leave behind many friends, both in the clubhouse and in the stands; the continuing reverberations of George Michael’s saxophone; and the memory of what, to most, seemed like one magical season, but to him represented the motivation to rediscover who he really is.