Baseball Defense, Cal Sports, Raiders Draft, Barry Zito, Jack Cust
by Glenn Dickey
Apr 14, 2010

THERE HAS been an increased emphasis on defense in baseball, with power numbers being down. Reader John Waterbury sent me an article from the Wall Street Journal discussing this trend and including the A’s as one of the teams trying it. (I had written about the A’s style, in an Examiner column last week.)

There are some points I’d like to make:

--The article referred continuously to “slow-footed sluggers” but speed and power are not mutually exclusive. Look at the top home run hitters in history: Barry Bonds stole 500 bases and didn’t slow down until he was in his 40s; Hank Aaron was an excellent outfielder and intelligent baserunner for most of his career; Babe Ruth was a fine outfielder and good baserunner until he put on so much weight in later years; and Willie Mays was a great outfielder and a great baserunner. Even now, you have the examples of Alex Rodriguez and Ken Griffey Jr. who have been excellent defensive players, though Griffey has declined because of his many injuries.

--The trend to power didn’t start in the ‘90s. It actually started with the ascendancy of Ruth in the ‘20s and the big inning theory, that teams often scored more runs in one inning than the losing team did in a game.

Because of its power hitters, the American League was superior for three decades until the National League passed it by tapping into the talent pool of black players, which AL teams – most notably, the Yankees and Red Sox – were reluctant to do.

Because attendance was lagging, the American League put in the DH in the early ‘70s to produce more offense. The AL owners realized that fans respond more often to offense, not defense and pitching, a point the WSJ article recognized by showing how poorly the best defensive teams draw. Two examples: No team which led in overall defense has finished higher than eighth in road attendance since 2003 and the Seattle Mariners, the best defensive team in baseball last year, had a lower home attendance than the previous season, despite winning 24 more games, and ranked 28th in road attendance. Why? Probably because they scored only 640 runs

There was another change in the ‘70s that made it imperative that teams have more offense: Free agency. Once that came in, salaries soared, so, teams had to draw more fans. When the Giants moved to San Francisco, a season attendance of one million was a real bonanza. Now, a team which draws under three million loses money (though revenue sharing closes the gap for teams like the A’s.)

That necessity for increased attendance forced teams to market beyond the baseball purists, who appreciate good defense and who comprised a significant part of the fan base in pre-free agency times. Now, casual fans are attracted by everything from video games to garlic fries. If you go to a game at AT&T Park, the game sometimes seems almost like a sideshow. That is not a criticism. The Giants do a great job of marketing themselves (the A’s are clueless) and it is great fun to go to a game at AT&T. Even for a writer.

The owners also did other things to boost the offense – and the attendance. They overexpanded, so there are more pitchers on major league rosters who should be in Triple A. They built parks in which any ball hit in the air has a chance to go out. And, after Bud Selig and the Players Association played chicken in 1994 and wiped out the World Series, they juiced the ball.

Of course, you read repeatedly that studies have shown there’s no difference in the baseballs from year to year. Those studies, of course, are done under the supervision of major league baseball, so it takes a real suspension of belief to think they’re going to have different results than the owners want.

Then, steroids came along to cloud the issue. Many fans and media completely overlooked the other factors to declare that the booming power figures were the result of steroids. Of course, pitchers were also on the juice, but you still hear very little mention of that.

Now, power numbers are down and the same group that was horrified by steroids in the game is certain that the new testing program has taken steroids out of the game.

Again, that takes a real suspension of belief because Human Growth Hormone (HGH), which was the drug of choice for so many top sluggers (apparently including Bonds), cannot be detected by urine tests – and blood tests are not allowed.

I think it more likely that the ball has been de-juiced, so owners can say they’ve cleaned up the game, knowing that many in the media will swallow that fallacy whole and pass it on to readers and viewers.

But home runs will remain a vital part of the game – and the most attractive feature to most fans.

JACK CUST: Though it was a surprise that Cust was designated for assignment by the A’s, I have had several conversations in the press box before and since about the need to let him go. And, of course, I had advocated that for two years.

One of those with whom I had conversations about Cust pointed out that it was misleading to call him a power hitter because he only had 41 extra-base hits last season, 25 homers and 16 doubles. “Don’t you think a true power hitter should give you 50-55 extra base hits,” he said. “Aside from his occasional hot streak, he wasn’t much help.”

My biggest objection to Cust was that he couldn’t be used in the middle of the order because he would short circuit so many rallies. And he was awful in the field. The A’s are building around pitching and defense, and he didn’t fit that mold at all.

Significantly, he cleared waivers and accepted his assignment to Sacramento, the only way he could get his $2.65 million salary. No other club would have picked him up. He had his run but, unless the A’s go brain dead and call him up before the rosters are expanded in September, I think his major league career is basically over.

BARRY ZITO: I was surprised that Zito started the second game of the season until I realized that meant he’d face the Astros and the Pirates in his first two starts and miss the Braves. Smart man, Bruce Bochy.

Zito shut out the hapless Astros for six innings, then gave up three runs in six innings but still won against the Pirates. (That brings up one of my pet peeves. Giving up three runs in six innings is called a “quality start” by MLB, but that translates to a 4.50 ERA, which is hardly quality. It’s also Zito’s ERA for his three-plus seasons with the Giants.)

Bochy can’t avoid all the tough spots for Zito, who will face the Dodgers in Los Angeles this weekend. Perhaps Zito will pitch well this season, but that doesn’t erase the fact that he’s done so little in his first three seasons.

I often hear from readers that athletes are overpaid, a feeling echoed by many writers. But, we have a market-based society. If a person does something which creates money, he’ll get rewarded. I wouldn’t walk across the street to see a Tom Cruise movie, but there are many movie-goers, probably most of them women, who love him, so Cruise gets a ton of money for his movies. The same applies to athletes. The only time I’m critical of their salaries is if they don’t earn that money. Zito is Exhibit A. He’s gotten the biggest contract ever for a pitcher, but he hasn’t even been a decent No. 4 starter. Meanwhile, his contract has had a huge impact on the Giants’ payroll, making it impossible for them to get the big-time power hitter that they need.

I think most Giants fans understand that but I have one reader who, looking through his orange-and-black glasses, praised Zito for his honesty for telling The Chronicle’s Henry Schulman that, in effect, he’d not really worked on his game since he’d been a Giant.

OOPS! The reason newspapers have copy editors to read out stories is that writers tend to see what they intended to write, not necessarily what is always there. Of course, I have no copy editor for this column. And, yes, I know Joe Montana was drafted on the third round and I thought I wrote that last week. Unfortunately, I actually wrote “first round”

ACADEMICS VS. ATHLETICS: Since I came to Cal in the fall of 1956, and no doubt for many years before that, there has been a conflict between some members of the school’s faculty and the athletic department. Those professors are irritated by the fact that football coaches, especially, make far more money than they do. That conflict flared up again recently when a group of professors said the university would be better off dropping intercollegiate athletics.

History is against them, of course. The University of Chicago, a highly-rated academic institution, is the only major university to drop football, and that was more than 70 years ago. The Ivy League de-emphasized it in the ‘50s, but their football programs since have been subsidized by generous contributions by alumni, who are probably the most prosperous such group in the country.

In other countries, there is no such thing as intercollegiate sports, only club sports to bridge the gap between high school and college. In this country, though, football is ingrained in the culture. That is even more true in the South, where many top football schools are in small cities where there is no pro competition, but it’s big in Berkeley, too. There are many alumni who live or die with the Bears. The older ones have often suffered because there are many stretches of dismal teams in Cal history, and they tend to be more supportive of the current program than younger alums.

But for all of us, football Saturdays are a binding experience which brings alumni and students together. I love to walk around campus before a game, occasionally stopping to see Don Kosovac (a fellow member of the class of ’58) and friends at a tailgate. As I walk around, I see a tremendous spread of ages, from toddlers brought by their parents to alumni in their 80s. I don’t see that at the Coliseum or Candlestick.

Football requires a tremendous amount of money, even more now at Cal, which is retrofitting Memorial Stadium and building a much-needed athletic sports center. Both projects are being funded by contributions from alumni, including the Cal version of personal seat licenses.

The intercollegiate athletics program is much more than football, including 26 sports at Cal, plus one club sport, rugby. but football and men’s basketball are the only ones which make money.

So, if you’re talking about dropping intercollegiate sports, you’re affecting the lives of many student athletes, the overwhelming majority of whom will never play professionally.

I think intercollegiate sports have an important place at the university, providing a genuine learning experience. Even if some unhappy professors don’t agree.

CAL QBS: Cal coach Jeff Tedford says there is an open competition for the starting quarterback slot but at this point, returning starter Kevin Riley still has the edge.

Riley certainly seemed to feel that as he talked with reporters after Saturday’s scrimmage, joking with them as he recalled the many errant snaps in plays from the Shotgun, one of them going over his head. Riley just grabbed the ball and threw a pass out of bounds. “In that situation, if you try to make something out of it, it’s almost always going to turn out bad,” he said.

“A lot of times, if that happens in a game, you never know what’s going to happen,” said Tedford. “It’s nice to know that Kevin knows what to do.”

Riley’s competition, Brock Mansion, last year’s backup, and redshirt sophomore Beau Sweeney, didn’t fare so well. Manion took a sack in the end zone and Sweeney threw an interception. “You can’t have that,” said Tedford. “That’s why we put them in these situations (backed up to their own red zone), so we can see what they’ll do. When you’re backed up like that, you have to make a first down so you’re not punting out of the end zone.”

Riley’s career has been a roller coaster from his first start, against Oregon State, when he led a great comeback but then went brain dead and let time run out instead of throwing the bal away and giving the Bears a chance to tie the game with a field goal.

He’s had flashes of greatness sincc then, but every time, something bad has followed. He has an added incentive this year: If he’s ever going to have an NFL career, he has to show a consistence this season.

DUH RAIDERS: Every year, there’s an NFL player who hasn’t been very productive but has a great performance at the Combine. This year, that player is Maryland offensive tackle Bruce Campbell. The draft projections have warned against selecting a player based on the Combine but at least two publications, Pro Football Weekly and The Sporting News have projected Campbell as the Raiders pick at No. 8.

PFW comments, “There is no tape to support Campbell being drafted anywhere near his early. But Al Davis has not relied on football playing evaluations for a long time. Instead, he drafts on numbers and perceived upside…”

Can we say, Darrius Heyward-Bey?

To rub salt into the wound, TSN in evaluating decision-makers listed Marcus Allen in 1982 as Davis’s best pick.

Is that the same Marcus Allen whom Davis ordered benched?

Ooooh, that smarts!

What do YOU think? Let me know!

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