Ben Sheets, Pac-10 Hoops, Brettt Favre, Eric Chavez
by Glenn Dickey
Jan 27, 2010

A’S MOVE: The signing of Ben Sheets was a gamble by the A’s, but one well worth taking. Sheets was available only because elbow surgery sidelined him last season, but the A’s watched a throwing session in January and also had him undergo an extensive physical examination before they signed him. If he’s healthy, he’s a legitimate ace, and the A’s can afford him. Despite their low attendance, they’ve been making money because of the major league revenue-sharing program and a very favorable lease at the Coliseum.

Nevertheless, a Giants fan among my readers wondered how I could criticize Giants GM Brian Sabean on the trade for injury-prone Freddy Sanchez and not criticize A’s GM Billy Beane for signing Sheets, with his injury history. So, here are some points to consider:

--Beane signed a free agent, so he doesn’t have to give up the second best pitching prospect in his system.

--Beane has payroll flexibility. Sabean has none because of the multiple bad signings he’s made.

--Beane wasn’t making a move because of need. The A’s have several good young pitchers. If Sheets fails, the A’s still have enough pitching. Sabean made a move from desperation because the Giants needed a second baseman badly. They still do. Sanchez has been injured for most of his brief Giants career and another surgery will probably cause him to miss the opener this season. Surprise. When players over 30 start getting injured, the process only accelerates. See the Eric Chavez item at the bottom of this column.

--Beane signed Sheets for one year; if he doesn’t work out, it will be sayonara at the end of the season. Sanchez was only signed through the end of the 2009 season but Sabean had to re-up him because otherwise, he would have paid a high price for 21 games of Sanchez. He’ll be paying him now for two more seasons.

Any more questions?

WHEN I WAS at Cal in the late ‘50s, west coast basketball in general and the Bay Area specifically was at his peak.

The ’55-56 USF Dons won a then record 60 straight games and two national championships. The Cal Bears were national champions in 1959 and runnerup the next year.

The Pacific Coast Conference was strong from top to bottom. The Bears and UCLA, under John Wooden, had some memorable battles, with Cal winning the last eight during Pete Newell’s time. After Newell retired in 1960, UCLA dominated, both in conference play and nationally.

But it wasn’t just the PCC that was strong. The WCAC, as I believe it was called then (the change in conference names is confusing; the PCC may even have been the AAWU at that point) was also strong. USF remained in national contention even with a falloff from the championship years. Santa Clara had some very good teams, and Ken Sears went on to a respectable NBA career. St. Mary’s was very good, and Tom Meschery became a star for the Warriors.

Consider this year the flip side of that period. Gonzaga dominates in the WCAC and is the only national power on the coast. The Pac-10 is the weakest in years.

At this point, there isn’t a team in the Pac-10 without at least two losses nor a team without at least two wins. That speaks to balance but it’s also an indication that there’s no standout team.

The results show that, too. Oregon shocked everybody by beating Washington State and Washington, the defending conference champions, on their own courts in the first weekend of play. Then, the Ducks lost three straight on their home court and two more by lopsided margins to Cal and Stanford on the road last weekend. Notwithstanding their remarkable first weekend, the Ducks look like the weakest team in the conference.

The Huskies dominated Cal in their matchup in Seattle a couple of weeks ago but otherwise have been quite ordinary. Arizona State looked strong until losing to Arizona – in Tempe – last weekend.

Cal was named by the media as the favorite to win the conference title but the Bears were blown out in Seattle and lost to UCLA, after Bruins coach Ben Howland had realistically called his team not very good. And the Bears barely escaped with a win over Oregon State at home last Saturday. (In another total turnaround, the Bears under Newell used to kill fast-breaking teams like UCLA with their defense and deliberate offense. Now, Cal is a running team and has been bedeviled by the Beavers with their slowdown game; this was their first win over Oregon State in three years.)

This much is clear about the Bears: They are only as good as Jerome Randle. Against UCLA, Randle had the flu. He played but not well, and the Bears lost. In the win over Washington State, he injured his right knee and was obviously bothered by it, though he didn’t use that as an excuse, and played poorly. Again, the Bears lost. Randle still did not appear to be anything like 100 per cent the last weekend, and the Bears were not impressive in either win.

Assuming Randle is healthy, the Bears should still be the favorite to win the conference. Aside from Oregon State, other conference teams do not have the defenses to stop the Bears when Randle is handling the offense well. The return of Jorge Gutierrez, a high-energy player who provides strong defense, also helps. The Bears have strong perimeter shooting from Patrick Christoper, Theo Robertson and Randle, and they do a good job of rebounding, despite a relative lack of size.

The good news is that it will be an interesting season in the Pac-10 because of the balance of the conference. The bad news is that, even if Cal wins the conference, the Bears are unlikely to make much of a splash in the NCAA tournament. Maybe a first-round win but little else.

The one west coast team with a chance to go anywhere is Gonzaga, which probably isn’t a Final Four candidate, either.

It’s a far cry from the ‘50s.

BRETT FAVRE: Now, Vikings fans get to sweat out the drama queen’s will-he-or-won’t-he routine for the next few months.

It’s an impossible one to predict. I believe that, if Favre had gotten to the Super Bowl and, especially, won it, he would have been like John Elway and retired on top. But he ruined his chance to do that by throwing that terrible interception just before the end of regulation time in the NFC championship game. It was a reminder that Favre, though he’s a cinch for the Hall of Fame when he’s eligible, has made a surprising number of bad choices in big games. He’s confident that, because of his strong arm, he can complete a pass even when his receiver seems covered. Often, he’s done that, but there are too many times when he hasn’t.

SUPER BOWL MATCHUP: The NFL playoff structure rewards teams who play the best in regular season play, as it should, so it’s a shock to realize that this will be the first matchup of the top teams in each conference since 1993.

I was especially glad to see the Indianapolis Colts beat the New York Jets in the AFC championship game because I was so tired of hearing from the Jets’ loud mouth coach, Rex Ryan. When the playoffs began, Ryan proclaimed that his team should be the favorite to win the Super Bowl. In fact, they wouldn’t even have been in the playoffs if the Colts and Cincinnati Bengals hadn’t both pulled star players in their final two games against the Jets because they had already clinched playoff positions. The comparisons to Joe Namath’s “guarantee” before the third Super Bowl were not valid. Namath was just responding to taunts by Baltimore Colts players. Ryan was spouting off on his own.

For a time, it seemed the Jets might pull off the upset, especially when Colts coach Jim Caldwell wouldn’t go for a touchdown on fourth-and-goal from the New York 1. I’ve been opposed to that kind of strategy ever since I saw John Madden go for the field goal against the Kansas City Chiefs in 1971. That game ended in a tie and wound up knocking the Raiders out of the playoffs. If you go for the touchdown, the worst that can happen is that you turn the ball over on the one, giving your defense a chance at a safety or forcing the other team to punt from its end zone – which gives you good field position and another chance for a touchdown.

But NFL coaches still coach defensively; we saw Mike Nolan do that type of thing with the 49ers before they finally got smart and fired him.

My reasoning before that game was that the Jets would have to hold the Colts to 20 points or less to win because their own offense couldn’t score more than that. That logic didn’t seem to apply in the first half when the Jets scored 17 points, but from the time Peyton Manning took the Colts to an 80-yard touchdown drive in just 58 seconds just before halftime, it was all Colts. The Jets never scored again – and Ryan had to admit he had no solution to stop Manning.

I was also pleased to see the Saints win the NFC championship game, more because of the city than the team. New Orleans has suffered so much because of Katrina, and their fans have suffered through some very bad years; remember “The Aints.” New Orleans has hosted Super Bowls; the 49ers’ fourth championship came there. But this will be the first time the Saints have played in it.

It should be an excellent game. Both teams have strong offenses so it should be a relatively high-scoring game, though nothing like the track meet between the Arizona Cardinals and Green Bay Packers in the NFC wild card game because both of these teams also have good defenses.

Oh, and BTW, good luck to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell in trying to get teams who have clinched playoff positions to continue to playing their stars. Both the Colts and Saints gave up a chance to go undefeated because their eyes were on the Super Bowl, and that paid off.

COIN FLIP: The one blemish on an otherwise great game was that the NFC championship game was essentially decided by a coin flip. When the Saints won the coin flip before overtime, they just marched down the field and kicked the winning field goal.

That kind of thing happens too frequently but for some unexplained reason, the NFL hasn’t yet changed the rule. That’s bad enough in the regular season but truly unforgiveable in the postseason.

I personally love the college rule which gives each team equal chances, starting at the other team’s 25. That provides fans with great excitement and also often forces the team which has the ball first to make an agonizing decision if they don’t get at least a first down on their first three plays. If they go for a first down on fourth down and fail, they’ve virtually handed the game to the other team, which then only has to kick a field goal to win. But if they kick a field goal, the other team can win with a touchdown.

I don’t expect the NFL to adopt a college rule, though. So, the rules makers could give each team equal opportunities. If the team which wins the coin flip kicks a field goal, the other team would then have a chance to either kick a field goal to tie or a touchdown to win.

ERIC CHAVEZ: One time last year, when broadcaster Marty Lurie and I were discussing Chipper Jones, Marty said, “He’s had the kind of career Eric Chavez should have had.”

Very true, and the main reason Chavez hasn’t had that kind of career is his injury history. He’s had operations on both shoulders and his back, a total of five. Though he said at a media event at the Coliseum last week he felt good, he also said, “I’m resigned to the fact that I’ll have trouble with my back for the rest of my life.” His doctor has advised him that he can take up to three epidural shots of cortisone a year without damage, but how would you like to do that?

When Chavez came up, I predicted a bright future for him, based on his performance at an early age and baseball history. When he came up in September, 1998 and hit .311 in 16 games, he was only6 20. When players show an ability to hit big league pitching at such an early age, you’re talking Ted Williams/Frank Robinson/Al Kaline/Ken Griffey Jr. The first three are in the Hall of Fame and Griffey, though he’s been slowed by injuries, probably will be.

In Chavez’s first full season, manager Art Howe said that nobody on the team (which included Jason Giambi) had more power than Chavez. He never approached the 40-homer level I thought he would reach, but in his second full season, he hit 26 homers and followed with seasons of 34, 32, 29 and 29. He was only 26 at the end of the last season in that stretch.He had also become an outstanding defensive third baseman and eventually won six Gold Gloves.

Then, the injuries started. Because he felt it was important for the team for him to be in the lineup, he often played hurt. I think he might have prolonged his career if he had taken time off to recuperate instead of playing and, probably, making his injuries worse. But when I asked him about that specifically last week, he said he wouldn’t second guess his decision to keep playing. “Who can ever say what might have happened,” he said.

As late as last year, the A’s were still hoping Chavez could play. When he was hurt in spring training, they had no backup, though Adam Kennedy eventually moved there from his natural second base and played well for most of the season, before hitting a defensive slump late in the season.

This year, the A’s are realistic going into the season. Billy Beane traded for Kevin Kouzmanoff, who will be the full-time third baseman.

Chavez will have a shot at playing a super-utility role at third, first and even shortstop. Interestingly, manager Bob Geren saw Chavez play shortstop in high school, where he broke Beane’s offensive records at the same school. Geren was living in San Diego and had been tipped off that Chavez would be a high draft pick, so he went to see him. Not long after that, Chavez was drafted by the A’s.

To test his back, Chavez is doing baseball activity, including swinging a bat, starting this week, so he will know before spring training whether he can come back.

Frankly, I doubt that he can do it – and I think Chavez has serious doubts, too. He said emphatically he would not have another operation if it’s just to get back on the field and said he was open to the idea of being a coach when he can’t play any more.

I don’t know Eric Chavez outside the baseball environment, but my sense is that he’s happy with being a husband and father and has a healthy outlook on his life. His career may be ending prematurely at 32, but he appears better able to handle life after baseball than many athletes I’ve known. Good for him.

TV: I’ll be a guest on “Chronicle Live” on Comcast tomorrow night at 5 p.m., re-broadcast at 11 p.m.

What do YOU think? Let me know!

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