San Jose A's? Jerry Rice, Cal Bears, Willie Mays
by Glenn Dickey
Feb 17, 2010

NEW STADIUMS: The A’s are still trying to get to San Jose, the latest example being their statements in the last week about San Jose being the fastest growing city in California while Oakland was not growing at all. But San Jose is growing because their city limits are set so far south that there’s room to grow. Oakland is situated between Berkeley and San Leandro, with the bay and hills on the other sides. But, though Oakland is on the uniforms, the A’s draw from all the East Bay cities and out into Contra Costa County. The fan base is certainly there if the team were promoted well and a new park was built in Oakland; the city has presented possible sites to major league baseball. But, Lew Wolff isn’t interested.

The other myth is that the San Jose/Santa Clara area is a hotbed of sports interest. That flies in the face of what we know. The Giants twice tried to build a new park in the area in the early ‘90s, and they were turned down twice. The arena in San Jose was a hard sell, though urban renewal money paid for much of it and arenas are almost always very profitable. The 49ers stadium plan calls for a Santa Clara “contribution”, but none of it comes out of the city’s coffers. It would come in the form of urban renewal money and an increased tax on visitors to hotels in the area around the proposed stadium. Yet, the bid to put that on the ballot got a bare majority, 4-3, from the Santa Clara City Council.

Given that history, why should anybody think that San Jose will provide either money or land for the A’s to build a new park. That’s even supposing major league owners wlll try to change the provision in the Giants contract which forbids another team in Santa Clara County – and that won’t happen, either.

But meanwhile, the A’s continue in their determined effort to hold down attendance in Oakland. The upper deck is still closed, though that continues to be the biggest complaint fans have. The FanFest was canceled for the second straight year, though that’s always been very popular. The Giants, who are actually trying to sell tickets, drew about 20,000 to their FanFest. The A’s ownership – John Fisher is the money man though Wolff runs the operation – is content to make money by keeping the payroll low and getting revenue-sharing money from teams with higher revenues, including the Giants.

On the football front, the Raiders’ Amy Trask has said they want as new stadium, too, but wishing doesn’t make it so.

The 49ers have a good plan, but the question always has been how to finance it. But, if the 49ers continue to improve, they will have a much better chance of selling PSLs and of attracting investors. The Raiders have no chance to improve with Al Davis running the operation, which means PSLs are a dead issue and investors will shy away, too.

LINE OF THE WEEK: Asked by Dan Patrick for Sports Illustrated whether he is the best receiver of all time, Jerry Rice said, “I’m not the greatest receiver. Terrell Owens is the greatest receiver..I think he made a statement saying if he had Joe Montana, Steve Young, he probably would be breaking my records nos. So, Terrell is the greatest receiver.”

In his own mind, anyway.

SANDY KOUFAX: One final word about Koufax. I neglected to mention that he pitched for a team with a very weak offense. He threw one of his no-hitters when Don Drysdale was away from the team, for some reason. When Drysdale was told of Koufax’s no-hitter, he asked, “Did we win the game?”

MARCH MADNESS: The Pac-10 conference is regarded as weak overall, so there is no chance the conference will get as many teams into the NCAA tournament as they have in the recent past

“That was pretty much decided in November and December,” said Mike Montgomery at his weekly media conference yesterday. “The conference took some bad losses in those months and, once you get into January, you can’t change minds because we’re playing each other. We’ve been lucky to get as many as six teams into the tournament, but that certainly won’t be true this year.”

There may be only two teams from the conference that get in, assuming there is one conference champion and another winner of the tournament. That is quite likely because, for a team which wins the conference, there is no incentive to win the tournament. There is even a disincentive: Losing early could mean more rest. (One of several reasons I hate these conference tournaments.)

So, it behooves the Bears to win the conference and, with a 9-4 record, they’re in the driver’s seat. It won’t be easy, though. The Bears go on the road this week with games at Oregon State and Oregon.

Oregon State has been a very difficult opponent because of the Beavers’ style of play. “They’re big and they like to sit back in that 1-3-1 zone,” said Montgomery. “There are players open but it’s not easy to get the ball to them.”

The good news for the Bears is that they’re healthy and playing well. If they win the conference, it would be the first since 1960. Then, maybe they could start working on that Rose Bowl thing.

SOUTH AMERICA TRIP: My wife and I are going on a three-week trip to South America that we’ve planned for some time, our first visit to the Southern hemisphere.. This will be the last website column until we return. We’ll be back on Tuesday, March 16. I won’t be able to write my usual Wednesday column but I hope to have one by Friday or Saturday, so those of you reading it online should check for it then; e-mail readers will get it automatically. It is possible I might include something on our trip.

WILLIE MAYS: As with most west coasters, my first view of Mays came via television, in the 1954 World Series, when he made the famous over-the-shoulder catch of Vic Wertz’s drive. It wasn’t until 1958, when the Giants moved to San Francisco, that I saw him in person, but I saw him many times for the rest of his career in San Francisco.

When I came to The Chronicle in 1963, I did some dressing room stories, which were called sidebars then but pass as columns by lazy columnists now. Most of the time, though, I was stuck in the office doing work I hated, editing copy, writing headlines, because there was a strict seniority rule on writing assignments in those days.

My office assignments usually started around 3 p.m., so when the Giants were playing a day game, I could go to the ‘Stick and catch a few innings, which I did mostly in hopes of seeing Mays do something I had never seen before.

He seldom disappointed. One time against St. Louis, he was on first when the next batter singled to left. Cardinal outfielder Bob Skinner fielded it cleanly but was mesmerized as Mays rounded second and took sideways steps like a crab toward third. Not until Mays reached third safely did Skinner finally emerge from his trance and throw the ball in.

It goes without saying that any other baserunner would have stopped at second, but Mays never did the ordinary on the baseparths. He was the best base runner (as opposed to the best base stealer) any of us had ever seen, or have seen since. He always knew what he could do. He was only thrown out at third once, in a 1962 playoff game against the Dodgers, and he has always claimed the umpire blew the call, which he probably did. Mays even coached runners behind him as he was running, motioning them to either keep running or to stop.

The most memorable play I saw came against the New York Mets. Mays was on third base when a pitch hit in the dirt and spun maybe six feet away from catcher Choo Choo Coleman. When Coleman looked up, Mays was almost on top of the plate and scored standing up, before Coleman could retrieve the ball.

I was doing a dressing room story on that game and the usually irascible Giants manager, Herman Franks, was bubbling with good-humored amazement. “If I’d been coaching first base, I wouldn’t have sent a runner (to second) on that pitch,” he said.

Many years later, Mays explained that play to me. He said he could tell from the angle of the pitch that it would be in the dirt, so he just started running. That’s pure baseball genius.

So, watching Mays play was pure delight. Trying to interview him was an entirely different matter.

Mays had a definite priority system in those days. At the top of the ladder were the syndicated New York columnists who had invented the “Say Hey Kid” myth, which they probably believed. When they came to San Francisco, he would give them all the time they wanted. Next were the Bay Area columnists, none of whom would ask tough questions. Then came the beat writers. At the very bottom of the food chain were those of us doing sidebars. Every question I ever asked of Mays got one response: “Aw, sheeeit.”

From the time I first came to The Chronicle, I had thought in terms of being a columnist. I was determined to tell the truth (as I saw it, anyway), instead of the pablum that was the standard for Bay Area columnist. There was one exception to that, Charles McCabe, in the time he was writing a sports column. McCabe was a superb writer and always entertaining, but he knew little about sports. One time I was copy reading his column when he was making an argument that Ernie Banks was better than Mays. I pointed out to the assistant sports editor that McCabe was really talking about Hank Aaron, because all the statistics he was citing belonged to Aaron. So, Aaron’s name was substituted for Banks.

The column I especially wanted to write was about the real Willie Mays, instead of the myth. But when I got my chance to write a column, on an experimental basis, in April, 1971, I chickened out at first because I knew what the reaction would be.

Finally, in June, I wrote the column. (Interestingly, The Sporting News reported that The Chronicle had held the column for three weeks because Mays’ birthday was in May, a story repeated in James Hirsch’s excellent biography, “Willie Mays, the Life, the Legend.” There is no truth to that. As anybody who remembers The Chronicle at that time, the paper’s editors loved controversy. My column was published as soon as it was written.)

The response was exactly as I had feared. I got more than 500 letters. I quit counting at 300. Maybe half a dozen agreed with me. There was also a firestorm in the media. Some of it was honest: Lon Simmons, a close friend to Mays, blasted me on the air. (Lon and I long ago mended fences.) Some of it was not: Examiner columnists Wells Twombly and Prescott Sullivan, who agreed with my opinion of Mays, blasted me in print.

Mays was traded shortly after that, and we didn’t even meet again until 1996, when I was working on my 40-year history of the Giants. I knew better than to try to make an appointment with Mays, but Pat Gallagher arranged for me to meet with Mays at his home in Atherton.

We had a great time, and I was there for an hour and a half (the original plan was 30 minutes). Mays was delighted that I remembered so many specific plays from his career, including the one involving Choo Choo Coleman. He seems to remember anything he ever did on a baseball diamond, and he explained what he was thinking on every play I brought up.

I also learned some things I never knew. For instance, he told me he had modified his hitting at Candlestick; knowing it would be futile to try to drive the ball through the wind in left, he aimed for right center, reasoning that the wind would blow it to straightaway right and out of the park. (He also told me he thought Willie McCovey lost some home runs because balls he’d hit to straightaway right were blown foul.) He told me that, instead of breaking immediately for a fly ball, he would wait to see where the wind was taking the ball. He also told me that he thought playing quarterback in high school taught him to always look at the whole field, which helped him defensively and in his baserunning.

Fast forward to the ground-breakng for PacBell Park when he gave some advice to his godson, Barry Bonds, about dealing with the media. (Unfortunately, Bonds didn’t take it.) I wasn’t there but I heard that Mays talked about our early conflict and our meeting in 1996 and said we were now friends.

I have seen Mays several times since. I even mentioned a couple of times that I’d like to do a book with him, but he wasn’t interested. It took Hirsch seven years to convince Mays and, frankly, he’s done a much better book than I would have. He’s a professional author and I’m a journalist who also writes books. He did much more research than I would have.

But even after reading the Hirsch book, I still wonder who the real Willie Mays is. He’s certainly much more complex than either the “Say Hey Kid” image or my critical column in 1971 would tell you. All of us can only guess why he didn’t speak out on civil rights issues, for instance.

In the end, I think we just have to accept that we were fortunate to be able to watch the player who was, at the least, the best in the last 60 years – and possibly, the best in major league history.

What do YOU think? Let me know!

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