Truck day signals ‘official start’ for A’s

OAKLAND — Some two hours before the 53-foot Peterbilt 18-wheeler begins its 752-mile journey into the desert, a large white SUV pulls into the E Lot, wedged between the Coliseum and Oracle Arena.

A tall man wearing thin-rimmed glasses and a dark track suit hops out of the driver’s side seat and beckons to an Oakland Athletics’ clubhouse staffer for help.

Billy Beane, the A’s executive vice president of baseball operations and minority owner, is bringing his guitar to spring training — never mind that his arm is affixed to his side in a sling as he recovers from shoulder surgery.

Equipment manager Steve Vucinich, who’s responsible for orchestrating the truck-day operations and who’s been with the A’s since the franchise arrived in Oakland back in 1968, won’t have any trouble finding space for the boss’ guitar.

Vucinich has moved far stranger — and more cumbersome — cargo than that.

When asked what tops the list, Vucinich doesn’t hesitate, recalling the time he had to deliver Dave Kingman’s hot tub to Arizona. The first baseman and designated hitter spent the 1984, 1985 and 1986 seasons in Oakland, the final three years of his career.

“That was very unusual and it was like a one-time only [thing] because it was such a problem to put on [the truck],” Vucinich said by phone, as he stood along the fairway at the Tournament Player’s Club in Scottsdale while watching the Phoenix Open.

“But fortunately that was back in the day when we didn’t need that much equipment,” Vucinich added.

With Vucinich already in Arizona where he makes his offseason home, Mike Thalblum, the A’s visiting clubhouse manager, is the top deputy on the ground. Thalblum and the clubhouse staff spent the first week after the season and the final week of January preparing for the move and clearing out whatever was left in the clubhouse.

Now, they’re helping ensure that all that stuff — from spin bikes to palettes of Gatorade to weight machines to lockers and even Stomper’s costume — makes it up the narrow metal ramp that leads into the back of the truck.

Thalblum, who’s entering his 37th spring with the organization, isn’t in the cab when the rig finally departs. That part of the job is left to John Mander, who’s been driving the A’s gear to spring training for the past 20 years for Alexander’s Mobility Services.

The truck, which will arrive at Hohokam Stadium — the club’s spring HQ in Mesa — on Monday, will be carrying about 30,000 pounds of baseball essentials.

While describing the annual haul as far from a typical day at the office, he insists there’s really nothing to it.

Vucinich, who has been overseeing truck day since 1974, has been around long enough to remember some less than typical drives.

“The one year we were training in Mesa in 1978, we were rumored to be sold at the last minute and we were going to open the season in Denver,” Vucinich said, referring to the tenure of owner Charlie Finley, who finally did sell the team after the 1980 season. “So, I had to have the truck driver go to [Las] Vegas and call me from Vegas whether to go northeast or northwest to Oakland or to Denver.”

As is the case for baseball fans around the nation, Vucinich said the day that the 18-wheelers roll out to camp signals the arrival of spring training, and soon enough, Opening Day.

“It’s really, to me, almost the official start of, ‘Hey, let’s get to spring training. Let’s get the season going,’” Vucinich said.

For Thalblum, the day is not just a reminder that the Cactus League is calling but also a reminder that it’s time for a six-week business trip.

“There’s some anxiety,” Thalblum admitted, noting the challenge of leaving behind his kids.

The visiting clubhouse chief was a 13-year-old kid himself when he got his start with the A’s. Growing up in Arizona, Thalblum would ride his bike to the A’s spring digs when the team was training in Scottsdale where the San Francisco Giants now play.

Thalblum worked as a bat boy and would help pass out laundry in the locker room after games. He got his break in the spring of 1985 when Tim Birtsas — a 6-foot-7 lefty — cracked the roster on the final day of camp. Birtsas needed to get his car to the Bay Area and Thalblum was his guy.

“I drove it up here and that was my first time here in Oakland,” Thalblum said. “And then they just kind of haven’t been able to get rid of me.”

For Thalblum, truck day means he’s about to spend a significant amount of time with what he calls his “second family.” He listed Torii Hunter and the late Kirby Puckett as two of his all-time favorites and still exchanges texts with David Ortiz, the gregarious ex-DH of the Boston Red Sox.

“You do get excited because the players are a second family — the whole clubhouse is a second family,” Thalblum said. “So you do get excited to spend time with them too.”

Now, it’s time to pack up that clubhouse and send it off to Arizona.

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