A new Oakland Athletics commercial emphasizes how a pitcher must trust his catcher, and shows how the team has been working toward building that relationship. We see pitchers Sonny Gray and Sean Doolittle each fall backward suddenly while saying "Trust fall!,'' a call that prompts catcher Josh Phegley and then fellow backstop Stephen Vogt to rush over, catch Gray or Doolittle in their arms and protect them from dropping to the floor in pain.
When A's infielder Mark Canha tries a "trust fall" of his own, however, Vogt simply sits on the bench and watches him smack down on the dugout floor.
"Dude,'' Canha says after picking himself up. "What was that?''
Vogt shrugs. "Sorry, babe," he quips. "Pitchers only.''
It's just one of several clever and amusing commercials the Athletics will air this season. The commercials were conceived and scripted by Doolittle and Vogt, along with Doolittle's girlfriend, comedy writer Eireann Dolan.
"The director said, 'Hey, let's get the three of us together and brainstorm,'' Vogt says. "We had a blast. We had a couple scheming sessions and came up with six or seven ideas for commercials with the pitcher-catcher relationship, and just had a lot of fun with it.''
Doolittle says he really enjoyed the process because he likes doing things that aren't typical. "It gets me out of my bubble a little bit," he says.
His bubble is so expansive -- and Doolittle is so intriguing -- that perhaps the Athletics should film a series of Dos Equis-like commercials starring Doolittle as "The Most Interesting Man in the World ... of Baseball.''
"Sean is a goofball. He's very intelligent. His sense of humor is different. He's probably one of the biggest-hearted people around. He's a giver. He's just one of the best people in baseball, period." Diamondbacks bullpen coach Garvin AlstonBecause he just might be. Consider:
Last November, Doolittle and Dolan sponsored a Thanksgiving Day meal for Syrian refugees in Chicago. Last summer, they held a fundraiser for Oakland's LGBT Pride Night. And they frequently support American military veterans through charities.
Doolittle has carefully styled, closely cut blonde hair that makes him resemble rapper Macklemore. Or at least, he resembles him above the eyes. A much different look is his long, bushy, ginger beard. Or, as Dolan describes it, "From the ears up, he is JFK. From the nose down, he is someone from ZZ Top. But it works.''
He is an enormous Star Wars fan who wore a Chewbacca costume to the opening of "The Force Awakens.'' (He also bought Dolan a Darth Vader costume to wear. She was less than thrilled.) "I don't know if those are costumes,'' Doolittle says. "I think they're technically pajamas.''
An enthusiastic reader, Doolittle has written columns for ESPN.com, the Players Tribune (in which he says he would like to ride Marty McFly's hoverboard to the mound) and the heavy metal magazine Decibel (he is a metalhead whose entrance music is Metallica's "For Whom the Bell Tolls").
He wears toe socks.
And, perhaps most notably, Doolittle began his professional career as a first baseman, only to miss three consecutive seasons because of injuries and then somehow transform himself from an infielder wearing a cast to a pitcher who rose from Class A to the major leagues ... in less than a year.
Hmmm. Perhaps brief commercials wouldn't be adequate to fully capture Doolittle. Maybe a J.J. Abrams movie would be in order.
"He's a goofball. He's very intelligent. His sense of humor is different,'' says Arizona Diamondbacks bullpen coach and former Oakland minor league coach Garvin Alston. "He's probably one of the biggest-hearted persons around. He's a giver. He's just one of the best people in baseball, period.''
He's social media savvy -- and socially conscious
In another humorous Athletics commercial from last year, Doolittle instructs the older coaching staff about social media:
MANAGER BOB MELVIN: "How do I make a duck face?''
DOOLITTLE: "You should never make a duck face.''
COACH MIKE ALDRETE: "Even if I'm sending a selfer?''
DOOLITTLE: "I think you mean selfie.''
"On the mound, Sean is very focused and very aware of what his strengths and weaknesses are,'' the non-commercial Melvin says. "Off the field, he's all over social media. And he's very good at it. From what I understand.''
Indeed he is. In fact, Doolittle met Dolan through Twitter, in which his handle is @whatwouldDOOdo. He tweets funny things, such as his "scientific method'' for filling out his NCAA bracket -- which is flipping a coin.
He and Dolan got a lesson in just how sharply the rest of the world can react on social media when the couple sponsored the Thanksgiving dinner for 17 Syrian families. They did so because Chicago is Dolan's hometown, while Illinois was among several states that had vowed to bar Syrian refugees. But mostly because they thought it was simply a good thing to do for suffering immigrants who were new to America.
They received many positive responses. And many nasty ones.
"It was a hot-button issue at the time -- we were getting stuff from both angles on social media, both really good and really bad,'' Doolittle says. "We weren't trying to make a political statement. These were really needy people who had come over here with nothing but the clothes on their back and were about to go through a Chicago winter.
"We just wanted to welcome them to our country and show them how we do Thanksgiving.''
Dolan says a recurring message was questioning whether they were going to feed 17 homeless veterans, too. "That was funny,'' she says, "because we built homes for veterans.''
Inspired by his father's military background and involvement in veteran charities, Doolittle also works with Operation Finally Home, which builds houses for wounded vets and their families. He and Dolan also helped furnish two such homes through a registry that provided Athletics memorabilia in exchange for donations. They make annual Christmas donations to the charity as well.
"They're trying to carry on with their lives and start this new chapter. And providing a place for their family to live is probably the top thing on the list and it can be really difficult,'' Doolittle says of the wounded veterans Operation Finally Home serves. "To take that off their plate so they become part of this community -- it's amazing to see the growth. They get involved. Their kids start playing sports. They go to PTA. They're doing things that we all normally would want to do to become part of the community.
"It helps in their transition to the community and new life.''
When the Athletics announced plans to host an LGBT Pride Night last season, Dolan saw some online backlash from fans who said they would sell their tickets to the game. Dolan's biological mother, Kathy, and her partner, Elise -- Dolan considers her a "bonus mom" -- are both diehard A's fans. So Dolan offered to purchase all unwanted tickets and give them to a local charity. She and Doolittle started a fundraiser to buy up previously purchased tickets from any fans and distribute them to the Bay Area Youth Center's Our Space community for LGBT youth. As it turned out, no one requested a ticket buyback while their campaign raised $40,000, allowing them to bring 900 LGBT at-risk youth and family to the game.
Doolittle and Dolan also raised funds for the family of a Bay Area police officer who had been shot and killed on duty. They set up a booth at the Coliseum as well, where thousands of fans stopped and wrote letters of support to the family.
The punchline of their commercials also applies in real life: You need to catch people who are falling.
He can pitch, hit -- and rake the infield
Doolittle gets lots of jokes about Dr. Dolittle, the fictional character who talks to animals. He understands why, but wishes more people would connect him with the World War II Doolittle Raid commanded by a distant relative, General James Doolittle.
The military is an important part of Doolittle's life. He is the son of retired Air Force navigator Robert "Rory" Doolittle, who was awarded a bronze star after missions in the Balkans, Afghanistan and the Persian Gulf. Discipline was a way of life in the Doolittle's New Jersey household. If you started something, it had to be completed, whether that was piano lessons or a football season. "Everything had to be a certain way, the right way,'' Sean says. "In high school, if you were told you had to be home by 9, and if you came home at 9:01, you were grounded. There was no in between.''
Rory coached Sean and younger son Ryan in baseball, but had such a strict regimen that the boys often had to show up early to games to prepare the field as if they were the grounds crew. They would clear it of weeds, leaves and even cut the grass with a push-mower.
"I believed it was important for them,'' Rory says. "That they should have a little skin in the game.''
As many do, Doolittle played multiple positions in his youth. As few do, he pitched and played first base in college at the University of Virginia. As even fewer do, he has pitched and played first base and the outfield in pro baseball.
Originally drafted out of high school as a pitcher by Atlanta in 2004, Doolittle was Oakland's first-round pick in 2007 as a first baseman/right fielder. Within two years, he was batting and fielding well enough -- he hit .305 with 18 home runs at Triple-A Stockton in 2008 -- that a callup to the majors was likely in 2009.
And then he tore a tendon in his knee and missed the rest of the 2009 season. When the knee didn't improve, he underwent surgery and missed the entire 2010 season as well.
After working out, playing well and feeling good during extended spring training in 2011, Doolittle was told that he would move to Triple-A in a few days. After missing two years because of injuries, he was as excited to be returning to play as Han Solo was when he rediscovered the Millennium Falcon.
And then Doolittle swung and missed at a pitch and suffered a subluxation in his right wrist. He would miss yet another season.
You don't always have to fall to get hurt.
"So now I'm sitting there thinking, I just missed 2009, all of 2010 and now I'm going to miss all [of] 2011,'' Doolittle says. "I'm in a cast from my knuckles up to my elbow. I can't bend my arm. It was miserable, itchy, terrible. The first week after that injury, I was mentally a mess.''
Doolittle considered returning to college or searching for another job, but he was determined not to give up on baseball yet. As his parents had taught, you must complete what you start. You should not give in before you navigate every avenue.
"In the military, we call it self-elimination,'' Rory says. "If you self-eliminate, you will never know what possibilities you had.''
He's so good, sometimes he needs TWO catchers
Another of Doolittle and Vogt's commercials opens with Melvin talking about how "the shift'' is changing the game. Among those shifts are Sonny Gray shifting to being a leadoff hitter, Vogt shifting to selling concessions in the stands and Doolittle shifting to become Oakland's elephant mascot, Stomper.
Doolittle is used to shifting baseball roles, though it usually hasn't involved donning an elephant costume. In his case, it was shifting from first base to the pitcher's mound, which he started at the suggestion of minor league director Keith Lippman when his wrist was still injured.
While Doolittle's left arm was fine to throw, his right wrist was in no condition to catch. Meanwhile, brother Ryan, a pitcher in the Oakland organization, had recently undergone Tommy John surgery on his left arm. Ryan could catch with his right hand but not throw. So to play catch, the brothers would stand next to each other. Sean would throw the ball to someone, who would throw it back to Ryan, who would catch it, then flip it to his brother. "Combined, we made one healthy pitcher,'' Sean says.
"It was a sight to see,'' Ryan says. "He just wanted to play. He wanted to get back out there. He was tired of rehabbing, tired of sitting in the training room. And we started slowly playing catch and working on the mechanics. He never really said 'Hey, should I do this.' He just kind of decided, 'I'm going to give this a shot.'''
For a while, Doolittle still hoped to return as a first baseman, but his wrist simply wasn't healing enough to swing a bat properly. A doctor told him he could undergo surgery but that it would take eight months for recovery. Worried that could mean missing a fourth season, Doolittle decided to switch completely to pitching.
"There were never moments where I thought, 'This could be my ticket, this is it,'" Doolittle says. "I thought I could compete and I could at least pitch in affiliated baseball again. I could play. I could wear a uniform. I could get out of the trainer's room. That was all I was focused on. I didn't want my career to end in the trainer's room.''
Doolittle worked daily with Alston, who was immediately impressed with his throwing. While Doolittle had averaged around 91-92 miles per hour in college, after working with Alston, he seldom threw under 95. Alston said that Doolittle not only had the speed, his pitches and delivery were incredibly smooth. He also saw his determination.
"When things get rough with Sean, he just goes further and harder,'' Alston says.
"Garvin will never allow me to give him enough credit, but he was with me every step of the way,'' Doolittle says. "He was as much mental therapist as my pitching coach.''
When Doolittle went to spring training in 2012, Melvin said he looked all right, but that "I would never have thought there was any way he would pitch for us that year.'' And yet Doolittle did. He began the season at Class-A Stockton. A couple of weeks later, Oakland promoted him to Double-A Midland. A couple of weeks after that, the A's promoted him to Triple-A Sacramento. Six appearances later, they called him up to the majors. By that October, he was pitching in the postseason.
By 2014, he was Oakland's closer and an All-Star with a $10.5 million contract.
"Sean's been told he's done with baseball more times than anybody else,'' Dolan says. "When somebody says he's fragile, I say, 'No, he's stronger than anyone I know.' ... He missed three full minor league seasons with injuries and he came back from that. When his wrist finally went, he decided, 'I'll switch to pitching.' Who else would do that?
"He wants to live a life. He tries every avenue, every option. That is important to him.''
Shift. Do more, not little.
Even Yoda might ask him for advice
Another amusing Doolittle video is one he tweeted when "The Force Awakens'' opened. It shows him wearing his Chewbacca costume/pajamas while driving to the movie theater and listening to the "Star Wars'' theme song with Dolan in the passenger seat rolling her eyes.
"We showed up to the movie theater and we were the only ones in costume. We were mortified,'' Dolan says, laughing. "I was like, 'Oh my God, I can't leave the house again.' ''
Doolittle loves "The Force Awakens'' -- "It reminded me of the original trilogy, and I guess that's the highest compliment you can get,'' he says -- and is eager for the movie to be released digitally so he can watch it on his iPad during road trips. And he hopefully won't have to watch it in the trainers room.
The injuries, you see, did not end for Doolittle after he converted to pitching. Following his success in 2013 and 2014, he began last season on the disabled list because of a slight rotator cuff tear in his shoulder. He pitched in only one game until late August and just 12 overall. He was slowed this spring by a slight triceps strain.
"Sean's been told he's done with baseball more times than anybody else. When somebody says he's fragile, I say, 'No, he's stronger than anyone I know.' . . . He missed three full minor league seasons with injuries and he came back from that. When his wrist finally went, he decided, 'I'll switch to pitching.' Who else would do that?" Eireann Dolan on boyfriend Sean DoolittleHe pitched well at the end of spring, though, and is back in his closer role. The Athletics even have a promotion this month in which they will give away Doolittle Metallica gnomes. In addition to social media, he is an important presence on the mound, in the bullpen and in the clubhouse. Especially when he isn't falling over backward.
"Sean is friendly with everyone and gets along with everyone. He's a great person, a great teammate,'' Vogt says. "His heart is his best quality -- he loves everyone and just has great compassion for a lot of people. Now that I know him, the perseverance he's shown over his career doesn't surprise me. That he fought through all that.
"He's worked hard for it and he's earned every bit of it.''
What will Doo do when his pitching career ends? Maybe he'll return to first base. Maybe he'll write more commercials. Maybe he will become a groundskeeper. Maybe he will manage more charities. Or maybe he will manage a team and teach young players to never give up, to try every possible route to the majors and most importantly, to never, ever take a selfie of a duck face.
Don't rule anything out for the most interesting man in baseball.
"The biggest thing I would want to share from that with a younger player or my younger self is not to have any regrets,'' Doolittle says. "Not having any regrets is ultimately what led to my decision to switch and try pitching instead of hitting. ... I didn't want that 'What if?'''
It's sound advice. Hey, Luke Skywalker didn't retire from the Jedi life after Darth Vader sliced off his right hand. You have to trust the force. You have to trust yourself to overcome whatever adversity comes your way.
And you should also be someone others can trust -- whether they be pitchers or infielders, refugees or veterans -- so that if they fall in life, there will always be someone to catch them.