Kevin Slowey, Jim Plunkett/John Elway, Kevin Riley, Bobby Thomson/Russ Hodges/Gordon McLendon
by Glenn Dickey
Aug 18, 2010

PITCH COUNTS: I was in the press box at AT&T on Sunday when another writer told everyone around him that the Twins’ Kevin Slowey had been taken out though he’d pitched seven innings of no-hit ball against the A’s.

At least two writers said immediately, “Wait ‘til Bruce Jenkins hears about this!”

One of Jenkins’ pet peeves is managers who take out pitchers when their pitch count gets over 100. Jenkins longs for the days when pitchers went the distance – as he longs for anything that happened before he started writing professionally.

This despite the fact that he covered the A’s in 1980, when Billy Martin ruined the careers of his four starters by leaving them in for complete games.

The four starters were just coming into what should have been their prime: Mike Norris was only 25, as was Brian Kingman. Steve McCatty was 26, Rick Langford 28.

In 1980, Norris was 22-9, Langford 19-12 and McCatty 14-14. Kingman was 8-20 but mostly because he got the kind of run support that current A’s starters get; he had an ERA of 3.83. Langford had 28 complete games, Norris 24, McCatty 11 – and 16 the next seaon.

But those efforts ruined them. Langford was the only one of the four who pitched beyond 30 (Norris made a cameo appearance for the Giants in a futile comeback attempt in 1990) and he won only 23 games combined in those two years before his career sputtered to an end..

Yet, Jenkins still scoffs at the idea that these pitchers were ruined by Martin, because Martin remains one of his idols. In fact, Martin was probably the best manager I’ve ever seen – for one season. Long-term? Forget it. He always self-destructed so,, knowing his weaknesses, he geared everything to winning that season. I doubt that he ever had any regrets about ruining his starters.

In truth, we have no idea how many pitchers have been ruined over the years because they were overpitched by managers and pitching coaches who had little idea of how fragile their pitchers were. When he was managing the Giants, Roger Craig told me that he had suffered what would now be diagnosed as a rotator cuff injury early in his own pitching career. Like other pitchers of that era, he kept pitching because he knew that, if he didn’t, he might never have another chance.

Even today, there are occasionally pitchers who are overworked, including one close to home – Jason Schmidt. In 2004, Schmidt came into his own with an 18-win season. The next year, he was 17-5 with a 2.34 ERA and set what was than a San Francisco Giants season record with 251 strikeouts (Tim Lincecum has surpassed that in each of the last two seasons). But, he also had two games in which he was allowed to throw more than 140 pitches to get a complete game, and that was the end of Schmidt as a premier pitcher. He tailed off badly the next two seasons and the Giants wisely let him go in free agency. The Dodgers signed him, and he has spent most of the ensuing time on the DL.

In the old days, there were pitchers who knew how to preserve their arms. Juan Marichal has always been my prime example. Marichal threw pitches from every angle and tried to get hitters to hit them, knowing it was unlikely they could do much damage. Only when he got into a situation where he really needed a strikeout did he throw his best fast ball. That was why he could throw a reputed 227 pitches in an historic 15-inning duel with Warren Spahn that he won when Willie Mays hit a solo home run. Marichal never had a sore arm, though his back problems shortened his career and stopped him from winning 300 games, which seemed early in his career to be an easily attainable goal.

But even in those days, there were few pitchers like Marichal. There are even fewer now as pitchers are monitored closely to preserve their arms. In Slowey’s case, he’d had problems with elbow tendinitis earlier and had thrown 106 pitches in those seven innings. If he’d continued at that pace, he would have thrown around 140 pitches in a no-hitter, which would have been insane. Even Slowey acknowledged that after the game.

So, pitch counts will continue to be closely monitored by teams, as they should be. Even if those like Jenkins who are living in the past don’t like it.

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CAL YOUTH: Bears coach Jeff Tedford thinks as many as eight freshmen will be competing for starting positions this fall, but not at quarterback. Kevin Riley is the starter, barring injury.

Brock Mansion was supposed to push Riley in the spring but he was injured and lost his shot. Though Tedford likes the potential of Beau Sweeney, he’s not ready to turn over the controls to him.

“Kevin has been through it all, the ups and downs,” Tedford said after yesterday’s afternoon practice. “Whatever comes up, he’s already seen it. Did you know that he has more starts, more touchdown passes, more wins than any other starting quarterback in the conference?”

As a matter of fact, no, I didn’t.

There has never been any question of Riley’s ability but his performances have been all over the map – though, he should be cut some slack for last season when he was throwing to so many inexperienced receivers.

“He’s been much more consistent in practice, both in the spring and so far in summer camp,” Tedford said. “No quarterback is perfect, but I’m confident he’ll give us the consistency we need this season.”

Because of the inexperience of the team, the sessions in the spring and so far this summer, including a light practice yesterday, have been mostly learning experiences. But Tedford planned to turn everybody loose today in a simulated game practice. “We’ve been stopping after every play and telling them what to do,” he said, “but in this practice, they’ll have to make their own decisions.”

While the Bears are practicing, construction work on the stadium is going on around them. The entire west side of the stadium is closed. It’s going to be an interesting fall for those going to the games, although the end result should be a much better and safer stadium. It will also be a much more costly experience because of the necessity of tying the financing to the dreaded PSLs. Many longtime fans aren’t happy about that and I understand their feelings, but I also don’t see how this project could be financed otherwise.

STANFORD QUARTERBACKS: I made an egregious error last week when I overlooked Jim Plunkett, who ranks just behind John Elway among Stanford quarterbacks I’ve seen. (I didn’t see Frankie Albert, even as a 49er, or Bob Garrett.)

That’s especially bad because Plunkett has also been overlooked by those voting for the Pro Football Hall of Fame – I’ve never been a voter – apparently because he didn’t have a long career as a top quarterback.

That wasn’t Plunkett’s fault. He was beaten up after being drafted No. 1 by the New England Patriots, because the Pats had a terrible offensive line. He was just starting to recover when he was traded to the 49ers but Joe Thomas got rid of him after a year, one of Thomas’s many stupid moves.

Picked up by the Raiders, Plunkett sat until he replaced an injured Dan Pastorini but he then led the Raiders to two Super Bowl victories, the first as a wild card team. He definitely deserves to be in the Hall of Fame.

He was unquestionably a great collegiate quarterback, winning the Heisman Trophy and the Rose Bowl for Stanford.

The reason I rate him below Elway is that he had much better coaching, John Ralston as a head coach and Mike White, who was hired as head coach at Cal the next season, as offensive coordinator. (Ralston was particularly good at grooming assistant coaches. His 1963 staff included Bill Walsh, White and Rod Rust, all future NFL head coaches.) He also had a stronger supporting cast. Stanford has always been known as a school which had great quarterbacks but not strong overall teams but the 1970-71 teams were an exception. Stanford also won the Rose Bowl the next season, with Don Bunce at quarterback.

Elway was a freshman under Rod Dowhower, who resigned after that year. Paul Wiggin coached Elway his last three years and had a losing record. Without Elway, Wigging was 1-10 the next season. I had written that year that Wiggin should be fired. At the Guardsmen luncheon before the Big Game, Wiggin said he blamed The Chronicle, not me. “If you give Al Capone a gun, he’s going to shoot somebody.” I was no Al Capone, of course. I have always paid my income taxes

Ironically, Walsh had recruited Elway for Stanford, but he left for the 49ers before Elway arrived. Can you imagine what Elway could have done with Walsh as his coach?

Many events have blurred in my mind, but I’ve never forgotten the first time I saw Elway on the practice field. Before and since, I’ve never seen a quarterback like him. He could throw any kind of pass with deadly accuracy, and so hard that defenders couldn’t react. Receivers, too; the “Elway cross” label was coined for receivers who had bruises on their chests because they didn’t get their hands up in time to make the catch.

Many of us thought, and I wrote, that Elway should start as a freshman. Dowhower instead went with Turk Schonert, who became an NCAA passing champion using what was essentially the system developed by Walsh, for whom Dowhower had been an assistant. But I still think Elway could have been better.

BOBBY THOMSON: When the news came that Thomson had died, there were immediate mentions of Russ Hodges’ call of Thomson’s homer that won the third game of the 1951 playoff. But in fact, relatively few people ever heard that call – only those listening to the Giants broadcast in the New York area (Red Barber was doing the Dodgers broadcast).\\

The rest of the country, including those of us living in California, heard the call by Gordon McLendon on the Liberty network.

McLendon was an enterprising young man who had started his network after World War II and called himself “The Old Scotchman,” though he was only 27! Since he didn’t make his true age known, he often got fan mail from older women.

McLendon did recreations of games, a common practice in those days when live coverage of road games was not common, especially for minor league games. Announcers would take the information off the Western Union tape. The actual information was usually limited to bits like “Jones grounded out to second base on a 3-1 count” but McLendon would expand gloriously on it. There were seldom routine plays in a McLendon broadcast. Outfielders made leaping catches, base runners barely eluded a tag. I grew up thinking major league games were much more exciting than the minor league games (Pacific Coast League, California League) that I actually saw!

For this climactic game, McLendon actually was broadcasting live. I found out why many years later when we had lunch in San Francisco, right after he’d sold his network.

In 1951, he had a contract to recreate regular season games. There was nothing in it about playoffs. So, he applied for an extension to do the playoffs live – and then, he shut down his Dallas studio so he couldn’t get a telephone call or telegram telling him he couldn’t do it. He showed up at the ballparks and talked his way into the radio booths to do the broadcasts.

That’s how most of the country heard McLendon’s call of the game. I was living in a small town in the foothill area around Fresno and listening to the game with my paternal grandfather, who was visiting us. When Thomson came to bat, my grandfather, a terrible hypochondriac who lived to 85 while thinking every day was going to be his last, told me the excitement was too much for his heart, so he took a walk outside. It was only a short time later he heard my shout and came back saying, “What happened, what happened!” He was mortified to learn he’d missed such a dramatic ending.

Hodges’ call was recorded and replayed later, so many who hadn’t heard it at the time became familiar with that. He came with the team to San Francisco but I never thought he was much of an announcer. Maybe he’d have been better if he hadn’t so often had food in his mouth while he was talking. Of course, he made the broadcasters wing of the Baseball Hall of Fame, but you know what I think of that. Lon Simmons, his partner then, Hank Greenwald and Al Michaels, in a cameo appearance, were all much superior Giants announcers.

I met Thomson, too, 50 years after the fact. In 2001, he and Ralph Branca, off whom he’d hit the home run, were touring the country, probably making more money than they’d made in their careers. One obvious stop was at what was then called Pacific Bell Park, so the Giants had a nice celebration of that. It was mildly interesting to me as a commemoration of one of the great moments in baseball history, but by then, I was much more concerned with the feats I had actually witnessed.

GIANTS SEASON: Brian Sabean has strengthened the Giants lineup with pickups like Pat Burrell and Jose Guillen but the starting pitching has gone south, which counter balances that. Still, old perceptions die hard. Just last week, a Sports Illustrated writer said the Giants were the best team in the NL West because of their improved hitting and the deepest rotation in baseball. Doesn’t quite look that way now.

A potential problem I anticipated – the age of the team – hasn’t materialized because additions to the team have minimized the damage. In the case of Buster Posey, he’s a big improvement over Bengie Molina. Edgar Renteria has spent a good part of the year on the DL, but that’s no loss. The one veteran who’s important to the team, Freddy Sanchez, is struggling. He’s still making the plays in the field but he’s looking pathetic at bat.

RADIO: I’ll be on Ken Dito’s “Press Box” on XTRA SPORTS, 860 AM, at 9 a.m. tomorrow. I mistakenly wrote last week that I’d be on that Thursday. The sun in Tennessee on our recent trip must have fried my brain.

What do YOU think? Let me know!

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