Buster Posey/Willie Mays/Willie McCovey; Giants Chances; A's Future; Duh Raiders
IF BUSTER POSEY wins the NL Rookie of the Year award, as he should, he’ll be the third Giant to win the award though playing less than a full season.
The first was Willie Mays, when the Giants were still in New York. Mays came up in May, 1951, just a few days past his 20th birthday. In 121 games, he hit 20 homers, batted .274 and, of course, played an unbelievable center field.
I didn’t see Mays until the Giants came to San Francisco and, as impressed as I was then, I was told by the late Leonard Koppett that I had missed Mays’ best defensive moments. In the Polo Grounds, with its enormous center field area, Mays was free to run seemingly forever to make catches. In San Francisco, especially in Seals Stadium, he would sometimes tell his first manager, Bill Rigney, that when a ball went into the centerfield seats, “I could have caught it Skip but I ran out of room.”
But, no mind. Even in less cavernous outfields, Mays was something to see, easily the best all-round baseball player I’ve ever seen.
The next was Willie McCovey, who won the award despite playing only 52 games, in which he hit .354 with 13 home runs and 38 RBIs.
McCovey broke in with a 4-for-4 day against Robin Roberts, an eventual Hall of Fame choice. I was lucky enough to see that game. I was working in Watsonville and came up with some friends, totally unaware that we were about to see history in the making.
When I did a history book on the Giants’ first 40 seasons in San Francisco, McCovey told me he should have been up at the start of the season but the Giants already had a first baseman – Orlando Cepeda, a Rookie of the Year choice himself the previous season.
McCovey was hitting .372 with the Phoenix Giants of the Pacific Coast League when he was called up, and he wound up leading the PCL with the 29 home runs he had hit in less than two-thirds of the season.
“I was on a hot streak when I came up,” McCovey told me, “and I just stayed hot al year.”
At that time, McCovey hit the ball to all fields, but the Giants, knowing they were moving into Candlestick Park, which had a strong wind blowing to right field, hired Lefty O’Doul to teach him how to pull the ball. That totally screwed up McCovey the next year and he had to be sent back down to the minors. But he soon got the hang of it.
He had the obvious problem of Cepeda blocking his way at first. The Giants tried McCovey in left field, though he had never played there, even in high school. Mays told him, “Just guard the foul line. I’ll take the rest.” They also tried Cepeda at third, but Orlando almost got killed. Finally, they decided to keep McCovey at first and trade Cepeda to St. Louis for Ray Sadecki, a trade which worked much better for the Cardinals than the Giants.
McCovey was platooned the year the Giants won the first pennant in San Francisco, 1962, because Alvin Dark thought he couldn’t hit lefthanders. When he hit 20 homers in only 229 at-bats, he was made a full-time player in 1963 and hit 44 homers, on his way to 521 for his career.
Like Mays, Posey came up in May, though he wasn’t put behind the plate until Bengie Molina was traded. I still wonder what took so long. I wasn’t at spring training but when I saw the Giants early in the season, it was obvious to me that Molina wasn’t throwing well and his bat speed was really down. Couldn’t the Giants have seen that in Arizona?
Posey made an immediate impact as a hitter, and when he finally went behind the plate, he turned out to be a good catcher with an outstanding arm.
Mays loves Posey. He keeps making comparisons to himself as a rookie, both as a hitter and defensively. And the Giants won the pennant in Mays’ first year and they’re in the playoffs this year.
Posey is a more polished hitter than Mays as a rookie,, and he’s shown more power than I expected, with 18 home runs. Over a full season, he’d probably have hit about 25. He’d shown power in college but I disregard that because the aluminum bats inflate hitting statistics. His power numbers had declined as he moved up the ladder in the minor leagues; he had only six homers in 172 at-bats with Fresno in the Pacific Coast League. But, he turned on the power button again when he got to the Giants.
There is an important difference between Mays and Posey: Mays was three years younger when he came up. To see how much difference that makes, consider that by the time Mays reached Posey’s current age – 23 – he hit 41 home runs in the 1954 season. The next year, he hit 51.
Posey will also hit more home runs as he matures, but his ceiling is probably more around the mid-‘30s. Nonetheless, he should have a great career. I’m a little more hesitant to make HOF predictions than I was in he mid’80s, when I was sure both Will Clark and Jose Canseco would make the Hall, but it certainly seems that Posey will be a candidate, barring a career-shortening injury.
BARRY ZITO, the gift that just keeps on giving.
Given a chance to clinch the NL West division title on Saturday, Zito collapsed, allowing four runs, three earned in three-plus innings. When he walked the pitcher leading off the fourth, Giants manager Bruce Bochy took him out, but the damage was already done.
Was anybody surprised? This guy has been a four-year disaster after signing the largest free agent contract to that point for a pitcher. He has yet to have a winning season for the Giants, or a season ERA below 4. I haven’t bothered to do the numbers, but his four-year average ERA is probably around 4.5.
The Giants should have contributed that money to charity, so it would do some good. They could have picked up a pitcher or two off the waiver list who would have done as well as Zito.
Zito isn’t alone in the woefully overpaid category. Giants GM Brian Sabean has been praised, and rightfully so, for his work this year in picking up veterans like Aubray Huff in the offseason and Pat Burrell during the season, but the highest-paid players on the roster are Zito, Aaron Rowand ($13.5 million a year) and Edgar Renteria ($10 million). I don’t know if the Giants will have the nerve to do it, but all three should be left off the postseason roster. Renteria’s contract is up so he’ll be gone next year but Zito and Rowand will still be around as huge free agent mistakes.
GIANTS CHANCES: There is one reason to worry about the Giants in the NL Division Series: The Braves’ two best pitchers, Tim Hudson and Derek Lowe, are sinkerball specialists who induce ground balls. As anybody who has watched the Giants this year knows, the Giants are notorious for grounding into double plays – which is the way the Saturday loss to thed Pirates ended.
On the other hand, the Braves are an old team, even more than the Giants, and they faded down the stretch. After leading the NL East for a good part of the year, they were overwhelmed by the Philadelphia Phillies and had to win on the last day of the season to get in as a wild card.
And, if it goes to five games, the last one will be played at AT&T Park, where the Giants play much better than on the road.
With the caveat that baseball predictions in the postseason are especially unpredictable, I like the Giants chances in the division series. But I expect the Phillies to beat the Reds and then the Giants and quite possibly win the World Series again. They have three top starters and a good bullpen and a solid hitting team. The Giants are feast-or-famine with their hitting, and the feast usually comes against mediocre pitchers, which they won’t face in the postseason. Thes Phillies hitters can hit even the best pitchers.
A’S FUTURE: The A’s have put together a good, young pitching staff, which not only gives them an important building block but, because their salaries are mostly low, gives them a chance to go after a free agent slugger.
If they get rid of Jack Cust, they can go after a real power hitter as the DH. Cust is not the guy. The pitchers have figured him out. Only a late surge got him to 13 homers (in 349 at-bats). When the A’s put him on assignment before last season, nobody claimed him, which tells you what other teams think of him.
There is a possibility that they have the hitter they need already in Chris Carter, but he has to play more to prove himself. Carter had a dismal start – 0-for-33 – when he first came up but then hit well over .300 the rest of the way with power.
It only took a couple of at-bats for me to see exactly what kind of hitter he is. He blasted a pitch into the left field seats in his first at-bat but then looked helpless in his next at-bat, against a breaking pitch, low and outside. He’ll see a ton of those pitches early next season. If he learns to hit them, he’ll have a productive career. If he doesn’t, he’ll soon be out of the majors. One point in his favor: He’s had a history of starting slow at every level but then figuring out the pitchers and being a very good hitter.
The A’s also need to do something about their medical staff. I have no idea what the problem is but they had 23 trips to the disabled list this past season, a pattern that has existed for four years now. That is simply ridiculous, especially for what is basically a young team.
The A’s ownership also needs to quit dreaming of San Jose and start working on plans for a new park in Oakland. San Jose politicians keep talking about a park in their city, but baseball commissioner Bud Selig has never even scheduled a vote on the Giants’ exclusive rights in Santa Clara County. Nor will he.
I’m hoping Don Perata will be the next maor of Oakland because, as I know from conversations with him over the years, he’s very pro-sports. Jerry Brown was actively anti-sports and it hasn’t mattered what the empty suit that has occupied the mayor’s office the last four years has thought because he’s been totally ineffectual.
Any park built will have to be largely privately-financed, as the Giants did with AT&T, but there are Oakland sites which would qualify for urban renewal funds to help pay for it.
Oakland, which is in the middle of a huge East Bay population sprawl along the Bay and close to the fast-growing Contra Costa communities, is a better location than San Jose, which has a bigger population because of its widespread city limits but little to draw from south of the city.
DUH RAIDERS: The more things change, the more they stay the same. In the offseason, the talk was about an improved run defense but the Houston Texans ran at will against the Raiders last Sunday. The 31-24 score was misleading; the Texans were up, 31-14, at the end of the third quarter but then started playing soft on defense, allowing the Raiders to close the gap. I have seen this over and over and over but coaches are slow learners, I guess. If an aggressive defense is working, as it was for the Texans, you should stay with it.
After the game, Raiders defensive end Richard Seymour made the logical suggestion that they should change their defensive scheme. But Tom Cable, the head puppet, said no, after getting the word from Al Davis. Cable is the dumbest coach I’ve ever known but he knows how to save his job, even if it’s at the expense of the team.
The Raiders are more interesting to watch this year, since they made the switch to Bruce Gradkowski at quarterback. Gradkowski is much more mobile than Jason Campbell, so he can get away from at least of the pressure. But the combination of a porous offensive line and Gradkowski’s fearless approach when he’s running with the ball probably means he won’t last the season.
Meanwhile, the constant losing has eroded what there was of the Raiders fan base. Against the competition from the Giants’ televised showdown against the San Diego Padres, they drew only about half the capacity of the Coliseum against the Texans. Maybe they should take a page from the A’s book and tarp off the upper deck to create the illusion of a good crowd.
My relationship with the Raiders fans has improved. Apparently, they’ve realized I’m telling them the truth, but they’re no longer throwing things at me as I walk though the parking lot or pouring beer on my car. I even got a request to have my picture taken with one fan, who had half of his face painted black, the other half painted white. A real highlight for me.
PHILOSOPHY: I got an e-mail last week from a reader who was disappointed that I didn’t have comments on the Giants or 49ers on my website column. “You didn’t get out of the East Bay,” he charged.
I have two writing outlets now, my Tuesday and Friday columns in the Examiner and my website column. I always have to think first of the Examiner columns because they pay a lot of bills. My wife calls the website column my hobby, which is accurate enough. The money I get from that doesn’t approach what I get from the Examiner.
So, I wrote both Examiner columns last week on the 49ers. I had written extensively on the Giants earlier. I didn’t have anything fresh to write about them last week, either for the Examiner or on my website. Most of what’s been written by others lately has been cheerleading, which isn’t my style. I did write on the Giants in Tuesday’s Examiner and extensively in this column. If the NL Division Series goes to a fourth game on Monday, I’ll write on that for Tuiesday.
Despite the difference in income, I really enjoy the website columns, because I can more fully explain my ideas and talk of my experiences with players from the past. Last week’s main topics were the Warriors, who play in Oakland but draw from all over the area, and George Blanda. I certainly don’t apologize for that.
What do YOU think? Let me know!
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