As the A’s media mixer at Jack London Square was winding down last Friday, I saw starting pitcher Sean Manaea sitting with a couple of teammates and poring over the new coffee-table book celebrating the A’s 50th season in Oakland. They were into it. (“Converse cleats? They wore Converse cleats?”)
A few minutes later, Manaea was alone with the book. He was clearly interested in the history of the game, so I sat down and asked him about his earliest baseball memories. I learned a couple things. One: Sean Manaea is a really bright and engaging athlete. (I had talked to him only in group settings before this.) And two: For baseball players of a certain age, YouTube was like a magic portal.
Manaea grew up in northern Indiana, but he became a Phillies fan after randomly tuning in to one of their games on TV. As he recalled: “I thought, ‘Huh, those blue stars over the I’s…’ I think I paid a little more attention. I always wanted to just be different from everybody else.”
Manaea had a Little League coach who took his team to U.S. Cellular Field, home of the White Sox, for interleague Cubs-Sox games. The White Sox won the World Series in 2005, and Manaea slowly got hooked.
By the time he hit Andrean High School in Merrillville, Indiana, Manaea had found his favorite MLB player: Johan Santana, the two-time Cy Young winner who played for the Twins and Mets.
“Watching ‘Baseball Tonight,’ his name would always come up,” Manaea told me. “He was a lefty like me. From then on it was just hours and hours of watching YouTube videos of other pitchers.”
A lot of us watched our favorite baseball players when we were kids. But Manaea became sort of obsessive about it. If he were a decade older, he would have come of age at a time when the Internet was too prehistoric to provide much help. Five or 10 years older and he would have had endless Web-based viewing options. This was the mid- to late 2000s, though, and one site reigned.
“I’d just go on YouTube and type ‘Johan Santana’ in the search bar and watch all the videos I could of him,” Manaea said. “And then I just slowly started getting into, like, Tim Lincecum, Roy Halladay, guys around that time. I would literally be at the computer for hours just watching video and being so fascinated, how they could throw a ball and make it do all these different things.”
Manaea wouldn’t just watch passively. He’d wait until his parents were gone and mimic his heroes’ throwing motions, right there in the living room.
“Behind my couch, I would just start practicing dry work, and trying to throw like they did,” Manaea said. “I’d be watching video like, ‘OK, do that with my hand.’ Pause the video, go behind my couch and start practicing mechanics.”
Manaea said he still watches a lot of video of other MLB pitchers, guys like Justin Verlander and Clayton Kershaw. Something must be working. Manaea, who turns 25 tomorrow, is considered one of the best young arms in the American League.
But he’s never met Johan Santana.
“Obviously, he was my childhood legend, so if ever the opportunity arose, that would be definitely a cool moment,” Manaea said.
Just a week ago, Santana told MLB Network that he’d like to attempt one final comeback. He hasn’t pitched in the big leagues since 2012, so “long shot” doesn’t seem adequate to describe his chances. But who knows, maybe the old lefty will make a miracle comeback and Manaea will get a chance to duel with his YouTube hero.