All-Star Game, Alex Smith, Terrell Owens, JackCust/Eric Chavez, NBA Playoffs
by Glenn Dickey
May 19, 2010

BASEBALL COMMISSIONER Bud Selig has made some good changes to the All-Star game but he still obviously regards it as a meaningless exhibition, valuable only because it raises money for owners.

The first beneficial change is to prohibit starting pitchers who have pitched on Sunday from being used. That means managers won’t have to mess with their rotations if a star pitcher is scheduled to start that Sunday game.

An even better way of handling this was suggested years ago by the late Leonard Koppett: Extend the All-Star break to perhaps five days and have the game in the middle of that. If the game were played on Wednesday, a star pitcher could start on two days rest and be fine, because he wouldn’t go more than three innings and probably less.

The other beneficial change that was made was to use the designated hitter, no matter whether the game is played in a National or American League park.

Since the AL adopted the DH, it has spread to almost every area of baseball. It’s used in high school and college ball, and in the minor leagues. The only holdout is the National League, which is one of the reasons the AL’s superiority is growing..

I had to laugh one day recently when a media guy told me that he opposed the DH because baseball had remained the same game as it had always been except for the DH. Really? Are they still using a ball so dead it’s almost impossible to hit it more than 250 feet, or fielder’s gloves no bigger than drivers gloves? Are they still allowing pitchers to legally apply all kinds of foreign substances to the ball to make it curve unexpectedly, or to allow them to rub the ball with an emory board? I must have missed all that.

Baseball hasn’t changed as much as football. The NFL changes rules every year, and they’re all designed to provide more offense. Not coincidentally, the NFL has surpassed baseball in popularity, and its edge is growing every year.

Basketball made a dramatic change in the ‘30s when it dropped the center jump after every basket, but overall, the change has been in bigger, faster, and more athletic players. The basket remains at 10 feet, as Dr. James Naismith proposed, and the size of the court remains the same.

Baseball has probably changed more than basketball. The basic parts of the game remain the same – three strikes, four balls, 90 feet between bases – but in addition to the changes mentioned above, there’s been a lot of tinkering. The mound was lowered after the 1968 season, when there were such events as back-to-back no-hitters at Candlestick Park and Carl Yastrzemski winning the AL batting title with a .301 average, the only plus .300 average in the league.

Though owners always claim that the baseball has remained the same, citing tests run under the supervision of MLB, there have been obvious changes. During the Depression years, the ball was juiced to provide more offense to try to get people to come to the park. It’s no coincidence that in 1930, Bill Terry was the last National Leaguer to hit .400 (.401) or that Hack Wilson set a National League home run record with 56 that stood for 68 years and a major league RBI record of 191 that still stands. That same year, the Philadelphia Phillies hit .315 as a team – and finished dead last in the National League.

After the World Series was canceled in 1994 as a result of Selig and the Players Association playing chicken, the ball was juiced again, a big factor in the jump in power numbers. Now, power numbers are down because Selig and the owners want to say their new drug policy is working. I doubt that because the top sluggers’ drug of choice, Human Growth Hormone (HGH) cannot be traced in an urine test. I believe the ball has just been de-juiced.

Meanwhile, parks have changed greatly. Because the original parks had to be fit into a parcel of land in the cities, there were some distinct differences; the Polo Grounds, for instance, was almost 500 feet to dead center but little more than half that down the foul lines. Bobby Thomson’s famous home run in he 1951 playoffs probably didn’t go 300 feet.

Now, distances are more uniform. The Giants had to get permission to have a just over 300 feet distance down the right field line (because the park is shoehorned into 12 ½ acres instead of the usual 13 or more, but otherwise, parks are supposed to be at least 335 feet down the line.

An unchanged game? Hardly.

The All-Star game has also undergone drastic changes, and not for the better.

The original idea was to showcase the very best players in the game – and for leagues to try to win the game. The first All-Star game I saw, at Candlestick in 1961, was won in extra innings by the National League, and Willie Mays, Hank Aaron and Roberto Clemente produced the winning run.

Today, they’d all have been taken out of the game by the sixth inning. What should be a showcase for the best has been an opportunity for average players to brag that they’ve been in an All-Star game. It’s no more meaningful now than a game in spring training, and it will be even worse this year because the rosters have been expanded.

It was a far more interesting game when the stars stayed in, but Selig and the owners don’t care. It’s all about money now, not the game.

ALEX SMITH: If you want to know why I don’t pay much attention to sports fans evaluations, The Chronicle on Sunday had the readers opinion of the all-time draft busts and Alex Smith was No. 4.

Give me a break This young man was drafted by a team which had a weak offensive line and mediocre – or worse – receivers. He had a head coach who was more interested in looking good than actually coaching. He was put into a system that was totally different than whet he was in during his two college seasons.

Subsequently, he had two shoulder operations. This is the first year with the same offensive coordinator he had the previous year. Yet, he’s battled his way through all this and is the 49ers starting quarterback.

I hear from fans constantly who don’t want Smith. Some insist that Smith will have a short trial, perhaps six games, and that’s it. Well, no. The 49ers are committed to him this season. He’s taking the majority of the reps in practice and David Carr was told when he signed that he would not be competing for the starting job. He’s there in case Smith gets injured, noting more.

Of course, the national media isn’t much better than the fans. There was a pretty much unanimous opinion among the draft mavens that the 49ers would draft a quarterback because they had no confidence in Smith. Guess what? They did not draft a quarterback. Nor did they inquire about Donovan McNabb when the Eagles were shopping him. They’re committed to Smith.

Readers often ask me what I see in Smith. Part of it is what I see physically, and I have the advantage of having talked so often to coaches who knew quarterbacks, particularly Bill Walsh and Sid Gillman, so I know what to look for. Part of it is talking to him and seeing his intelligence and determination. Another part is from talking to two offensive coordinators I respect, Norv Turner and Mike Martz, both of whom thought highly of Smith. (Shaun Hill was not in the equation when Turner was here but Martz dismissed him as a quarterback who would fail when teams realized what he couldn’t do, which is exactly what happened.)

Fans have none of these advantages but they still think that, from their stadium seats or their position on the couch watching TV, they can make accurate evaluations. Sorry, folks, but you can’t.

BAD IDEA: A reader suggested to me that the 49ers should sign Terrell Owens because he’s still productive. That’s such a bad idea, I hardly know where to start.

A baseball team can bring in a good player and just plug him in without worrying about his personality. The Giants did that with Barry Bonds and, though there were some writers who thought his attitude brought down the team, that was ridiculous. Until his last two months, when playing in the field destroyed his legs, Bonds was the best weapon the Giants had. Conversely, all the tak about Aaron Rowand being the “heart and soul” of the Giants is equally ridiculous. The fact is, Rowand is an average player who is being paid like a star by the Giants and his rah-rah attitude makes no difference in the win column.

Putting together a football team is much different because it’s the ultimate team sport. Good chemistry is vital because players have to work together so closely.

The best example of how not to do it is Randy Moss. When the Raiders brought in Moss, with his me-me-me attitude, it was a disaster. A little earlier, it would have worked, when Rich Gannon and Bill Romanski were there, because they had set the tone for the team and they’d have made Moss shape up. But the Raiders had no veteran leaders like that and Moss was a failure as, not incidentally, I predicted in my first website column in February, 2005.

From the Raiders, Moss went to New England, which had a no-nonsense coach in Bill Belichick and veteran leadership. He knew he’d be gone if he displayed the behavior he had with the Raiders. He shaped up and set individual records which helped the Patriots win.

TO is much like Moss, very talented, very selfish. He wouldn’t fit with the current 49ers at all. Coach Mike Singletary is trying to build a strong team attitude which should translate into winning. The last thing he needs is for Owens to come in with his attitude.

JACK CUST: The freak show has returned to the A’s, and manager Bob Geren says he’ll mostly be playing in the field. Hide your eyes.

I have to believe that the A’s are ready to pull the plug on the Eric Chavez as DH experiment. His many injuries and surgeries have turned Chavez into a shadow of his former self. I thought he’d get until midseason but the A’s are desperate for power, which he isn’t providing, and think they have a chance to compete in what is turning out to be a mediocre division. I think they’ll soon have a big sendoff for Chavez, who will get his full salary for the year, and make Cust the lefthanded DH.

The real future of the team is in young players like Chris Carter and Michael Taylor, both at Sacramento. The A’s had hoped their running game would generate offense but Coco Crisp has yet to play because of a broken pinkie and Rajai Davis, who hit well last season, has reverted to the ineffectual hitting of his earlier career. Speed doesn’t help if you can’t get on base.

NBA PLAYOFFS: Peter King wrote an interesting piece in Sports Illustrated last month, pointing out that the NFL had shown it was more popular not playing than other sports were when playing. Specifically, King noted that the NFL draft had higher TV ratings than the NBA and NHL playoff games.

When I mentioned this to a colleague who likes pro basketball, he said, “Nobody cares about the NBA playoffs until the Celtics and Lakers meet in the Finals.”

That’s a terrible commentary on the NBA. It used to be that people thought of the regular season as just a warmup for the playoffs. Now, it’s only the final round that most fans care about?

Once, I was quite excited about the NBA. I no longer am, and I’ve thought of the reasons for that.

One is that my emphasis has always been on Bay Area sports, and it’s been so long since the Warriors have been much of a factor in the NBA, with only one playoff appearance in 16 seasons. For a long time, my philosophy was to delay writing on the Warriors until the football season was over, but for a long time now, when the football season is over, so is the Warriors season.

Another important reason for my lack of interest is simply age. Basketball is a game played at high speed, and it’s best enjoyed, I think, by fans who are playing their own lives at a higher speed than I am now. Once in my early years at The Chronicle, I was talking to Russ Hodges after a Giants game and he complained that, on Warriors broadcasts, “Bill King talks faster than I can listen.” I can appreciate that sentiment more now.

But, it isn’t just age, because I still appreciate college basketball. Coaches have much more control in the college game and, as a result, there is much more strategy. In the Pac-10 last season, Cal played an up tempo style and had fits with a less talented Oregon State team which slowed the pace way down. (Ironically, Pete Newell’s great teams frustrated the fast breaking John Wooden UCLA teams the same way.)

You don’t see that kind of contrast in the NBA., which is a players game. Even Don Nelson limits his innovations to his lineups. His teams probably play more up tempo than anybody – except the Denver Nuggets – but the difference is not extreme. Strategy is only a word in the dictionary to most NBA players and coaches.

There’s also a hippodrome atmosphere about NBA games that I find distasteful. When I go to a Warriors game and they have player inroductions with flashing lights and spotlights it reminds me of when I was doing color on telecasts of indoor soccer games in the early ‘80s. But indoor soccer was always more of a gimmick than a sport, an attempt to make the game more attractive because of its high scoring to American fans who knew little of soccer. Tthe NBA has been around for more than 60 years. It should be well past the gimmick stage.

NBA players have great skills and amazing body control for such large men. I’d say they are better athletes than either NFL or major league baseball players. But I find football and baseball much more compelling to watch and infinitely easier to write about.

PARTING SHOT: Last Thursday, I almost saw a perfect game when the Giants got only one infield hit against Padres pitcher Mat Latos.

But then I thought, should it count if a pitcher throws a perfect game against the Giants?

What do YOU think? Let me know!

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