Giants, 49ers Best; Cal Home for 2011; Ron Fimrite, Barry Zito
by Glenn Dickey
May 05, 2010

LET’S GET this out of the way first: The San Jose Sharks are by far the best run major league franchise in the Bay Area.

But, who cares? Hockey is huge in Canada. Soccer is a major sport in many countries in the world. Neither is more than an afterthought for most Bay Area sports fans.

How do the sports which Bay Area fans actually care about rank? I’d put the Giants first, considering all aspects of the operation.

The Giants do a great job of marketing their product, which includes a radio-TV broadcasting group which is beloved by their fans. They have a beautiful park and a dizzying array of food available. I often walk around the park in the middle innings and it seems there are more people eating in the area behind center field than are in the seats. Whatever, a day at AT&T Park is a joy.

Competitively, the Giants hit a glitch after their last playoff appearance in 2003 but they are on the way back. They fell short of the playoffs again last season but they are geared for a strong run this year.

The 49ers also appear to be on the way back. Mike Singletary is a strong, motivational figure as head coach. Please, can we stop talking about “smash mouth” football? That’s a term used by unimaginative writers. Singletary wants a tough, hard-hitting team. Who doesn’t? While writers used the term “finesse” to describe Bill Walsh’s teams, Walsh continually told the players they had to out-hit their opponents. Would you have called Ronnie Lott a finesse player?

If anything, Singletary’s team threw the ball too often last year. He wants a balanced attack between run and pass, which we’ll see this year.

Meanwhile, Jed York has been a marked improvement over his father as the head of the franchise. Unlike his father, Jed doesn’t poke his nose in where he’s not qualified; he sits in on draft meetings but doesn’t give advice. He’s working tirelessly on the push for a new stadium in Santa Clara, which is probably dependent on the 49ers improving enough on the field to attract outside investors to help fund the stadium. That improvement should come because they’re making good moves, both in the draft and in a trade like the one which brought in Ted Ginn Jr.

The good news stops with the San Francisco teams. The Oakland-based teams are so dismal that it’s hard to say which is worse. Call it a flat-footed tie for last place.

I think A’s general manager Billy Beane has done a good job of bringing in young talent, especially pitchers, and the A’s were looking like the surprise team in the American League until they were again hit by an inexplicable run of injuries.

Elsewhere, though, they’re a mess. The marketing has been so bad that, even when they do something good, like cutting ticket and beer prices, it somehow remains almost a secret. They’ve tarped off the upper deck, except for a small section behind home plate, dropped the “Fan Fest” celebration that attracted 20,000 fans and generally insulted A’s fans.

Last week, the A’s forced fans to leave the park after they brought in a sign saying “Lew Wolff hates Oakland”, I thought of the former 49ers general manager who had fans evicted when they had anti-Joe Thomas messages.

Thought control doesn’t work. Thomas was soon fired by Eddie De Bartolo, after Thomas had gutted the team. Fortunately, Eddie hired Walsh and the 49ers golden era soon began.

The irony in the A’s situation is that Wolff has been saying publicly for the last two years that the A’s can’t make it in Oakland, and then doing everything he can to make sure his prophecy comes true. So, the fans are just echoing Wolff.

Unfortunately, it’s not possible to fire an owner. Since Wolff seems to be in this venture mainly to get another real estate deal, I’m hoping he’ll just concede and sell the club.

Meanwhile, the Raiders continued to show their deft touch with public relations when they had an assistant coach monitor a media interview of JaMarcus Russell, ruling question after question out of bounds. Only the Raiders.

So, the question remains: Why is Russell still around? Jason Campbell was clearly obtained to be the starting quarterback, and Russell is due another $6.45 million unless he’s cut before training camp. If he gets hurt in mini-camp workouts, he’d get the money, too. The consensus is that, having already invested so much in him, Al Davis can’t let go. The old saying about throwing good money after bad applies here.

The only good news about the Warriors is that owner Chris Cohan has put the team up for sale, the only good decision Cohan has made since he bought the team from Jim Fitzgerald and Dan Finnane. Cohan’s heart has been in the right place but he’s continually rewarded his friends with positions they can’t handle; Robert Rowell is the latest example as club president.

The Warriors fans have remained loyal, with close to sellout crowds though the team has made the playoffs only one time since the 1993-94 seeason. They deserve much better but that won’t happen until the new owner makes a sweeping change, from coaching staff to front office.

CAL STADIUM: The Bears will play at Memorial Stadium this season but have to have a different venue in 2011, when the stadium retrofitting will be finalized.

They have three choices, all of which have serious drawbacks. The Oakland Coliseum has the A’s as well as the Raiders so it would be hard to schedule Cal games in late August and September. AT&T Park also has baseball and it is limited to about 40,000 for football, far less than the Bears are now drawing. It’s not a great park for football, either. Candlestick would seem to be the best choice because there is no baseball team and 70,000 seats. There is also good parking, though access is terrible. Candlestick has no BART connection, either. The Coliseum has a direct BART connection and AT&T has a Cal Train connection and a BART/Muni Metro connection.

Meanwhile, work continues on the football facilities structure on the stadium’s west side, with a completion date set for July, 2011. Coach Jeff Tedford has been able to look out his office window to see the progress of the construction, but no longer. Coaches offices are being transferred this month to trailers on the east rim of the stadium.

BARRY ZITO: Zito is pitching as he hasn’t since his 2002 Cy Young year; even better statistically at this time of year. What’s happened?

One popular theory is that his huge contract, the biggest ever for a free agent pitcher at the time, put tremendous pressure on him and he tried too hard to justify it.

Frankly, I think that’s a simplistic explanation which does not take into account Zito’s personality or his performance with the A’s. He has long been off in his own private universe. One example among many: In a crucial late season game against the Angels in his final season, he pitched well for six innings but then had to come out of the game because he was fatigued. He told reporters after the game that he had forgotten to eat that day!

After 2002, Zito’s career with the A’s trended down. It went off the cliff for his first 2 ˝ seasons with the Giants but that’s less of an aberration than what is happening now.

Two things happened to Zito after 2002. The first was that umpires stopped calling his 12-to-6 curve ball a strike, so hitters laid off it. The second was that he often lost confidence in his fast ball and tried to be too cute. He walked 99 batters, his highest total with the A’s, in 221 innings in his last season with the A’s.

The second trend accentuated when he came to the Giants. Against weak-hitting teams, Zito would use his fast ball effectively because the hitters didn’t worry him. But against good-hitting teams, he would nibble, nibble, nibble – and the walks piled up. Frequently, he would start innings by walking the first two batters and then giving up a big hit.

In the second half last year and the first month this year, he’s challenging hitters, getting ahead of them in the count and pitching very well.

Can he continue this? After watching Zito all these years, I’m skeptical. But if he can, it immeasurably improves the Giants chances of making the postseason.

RON FIMRITE: It shocked and saddened me to hear of Fimrite’s death. My wife and I had talked to Ron at the Bay Area Sports Hall of Fame banquet in March and he seemed in good health. Obviously he wasn’t, but he put up a good front and not just for us. Art Spander also talked to him that night and had the same impression as I did..

Ron was a cityside reporter for The Chronicle when I joined the sports staff in 1963. At the time, Charles McCabe was a featured sports columnist, quite a feat for a man who knew little about sports. I once was copyreading a column in which McCabe was making the point that Ernie Banks was better than Willie Mays. It didn’t take long for me to realize that he was actually writing about Hank Aaron, not Banks. I told the assistant sports editor who called McCabe, who agreed to make the change to Aaron. McCabe was still wrong but at least the Aaron vs. Mays comparison was debatable. Banks was a very good player but not in that grouping.

McCabe succeeded because he was a great essayist (he was much better later when he wrote a general column on topics he knew). Scott Newhall, then the editor of the Chron, was an innovative man, but he made the mistake of thinking his formula of picking a non-sports writer to do that column was the reason for its success. He picked Bill Chapin, a cityside writer who was good but not provocative, and his column was quickly dropped. Then, he picked Fimrite, whom he dubbed “The Sporting Tiger.” But Fimrite was as much a sports fan as any of us working in the department. He had been sports editor of The Daily Californian (as had I, six years later) and was a cityside reporter only because that position was open when he applied to The Chronicle. He even had season tickets to the 49ers, and from the time he got the sports column, he was strictly a sportswriter.

He didn’t spend a lot of time on his column because he had other pursuits that were more important. One of them was drinking with his buddies, who included Chub Feeney, then the Giants general manager and later president of the National League, at either the Washbag (as it was nicknamed by Herb Caen) or the Templebar.

Another was chasing women. Ron was married three times and only the third, when his hormones had calmed down, stuck.

We roomed together before the second Super Bowl, staying with the Raiders at a motel in Boca Raton, and I was reminded of Ping Bodie’s famous line about Babe Ruth: “I didn’t room with the Babe. I roomed with his suitcase.”

Fimrite was always out at night, and I had to answer frequent phone calls for him. One time, exasperated, I said, “I wish you’d stop calling.” There was a stunned silence on the other end. “This is the first time I’ve called,” she said. It was his wife. Oh.

In 1970, The Chronicle’s publisher, Charles Thieriot, decided to take Fimrite’s column off the front page of sports and move him to the fourth page, then called the Arena Page, which had features and sports editor Art Rosenbaum’s column. Fimrite started looking around and landed a job with Sports Illustrated. Shortly after that, I started writing columns on an experimental basis. You know how that worked out.

In his retrospective piece in Sports Illustrated recently, Frank Deford wrote that, though newspaper sports columnist were the stars when he started his career, he felt that his talents were best suited to the long magazine pieces. Fimrite was like that. He was a terrific magazine writer. When he was assigned to do a feature on an athlete, coach or manager, he got every significant detail of his subject’s life – and he did it with a humorous style that was engrossing.

That was a golden era for SI, under managing editor Andre Laguerre, who had a great eye for writing talent. Deford was there, of course. So was Dan Jenkins, who did a superb job of covering golf from the 19th hole. Fimrite fit right in with those great talents.

He also won an important concession. In those days, the magazine’s writers were supposed to live in New York and write stories in the office there, unless they were on the road. But, after 3 ˝ years, Fimrite was allowed to move back to his beloved San Francisco, where he lived until his death.

His third wife, Linda, was the love of his life. Her death last year, after 24 years of marriage, was a crushing blow to Ron. Nancy and I went to a memorial service for her which was held, fittingly, at the Washbag, which was dear to both of them. Ron had even written a book about it, “The Square,” which was what he and his buddies called it, while the rest of us went with Caen’s nickname.

Retired from SI, Ron had kept busy writing lengthy books, first on the Olympic Club and then on the history of Cal football, a subject which had been close to him since his youth in Berkeley, when he watched the Pappy Waldorf Rose Bowl teams.

He was an important part of the Bay Area sports scene for many years. He’ll be missed.

49ERS PICKS: I wrote on the 49ers video session on their draft picks in yesterday’s Examiner, but Trent Baalke also had comments on two other players that I found interesting but couldn’t fit in.

--Wide receiver/kick returner Kyle Williams, one of three sixth-round picks. “Usually a slot receiver is quick, able to get open in the middle, but Williams is also very fast, which gives him an extra dimension.” At this point, Baalke showed a video of a play on which Williams caught a pass, slowed to juke a defender and get free and then accelerated to score a touchdown. “You’ll see,” said Baalke, “that even after he had to slow down after catching the pass, he was able to run away from the defense.”

Williams will get a shot at both receiving and kick returning. With Ginn., he gives the 49ers two options for returning kicks, which is two more than they had at the end of last season.

--Running back Anthony Dixon, another sixth round pick. At 6-0, 233-lbs, Dixon is a big back who can run away from defenders. That is a mixed blessing. “He needs to understand that there are times when he just has to lower his pads and get a yard or two, rather than trying to break a bigger gain and lose yardage. Second-and-eight is much better than second-and-12.”

The 49er coaches were already working on this with Dixon in mini-camp last week. If he can change his technique, he’ll be serious competition for Glen Coffee as backup to Frank Gore..

What do YOU think? Let me know!

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