Big Game, 49ers Future, NFL Violence, JaMarcus Russell, BCS Lawsuit
THIS IS THE most unusual week of the football season, the week of the Big Game, which not only divides fans in the Bay Area but also mystifies those who aren’t supporters of either school.
For years, I’ve heard people say, “Why is it called the Big Game when it doesn’t mean anything?” One Chronicle writer, who was from the East, used to resolutely call it the “Cal-Stanford game,” though nobody else did. Another columnist always sneered at the game, perhaps resentful because he had gone to San Francisco State.
It’s called the “Big Game” because it’s a rivalry game and has always been called that. Harvard and Yale call their rivalry game “The Game,” for the same reason, though it has been many years now since Ivy League football had any national relevance.
This year, the Big Game has more national relevance because Stanford is striving for a major bowl game; Cal is only trying to get to the six-win level to qualify for a lesser bowl.
But, even in those years when neither team is in line for a bowl – and we’ve seen plenty of those – it’s still the Big Game because of the rivalry. Part of that is proximity because the schools are only about 50 miles apart. They’re both highly-rated academically, but very different. Stanford is a small private university with an international student body. Cal is a large public school with a mostly California student body.
An even bigger part of the rivalry is that alumni so often work together and, in many cases, marry.
The rivalry is a civilized one, which is unfortunately not typical of most of these rivalries. To the north of us, Oregon and Oregon State call their rivalry game the “Civil War”, which is very appropriate.
The Big Game is always best when it’s played at Cal. Of course, you’d expect me to say that but it’s true because Memorial Stadium is an integral part of the campus. Fraternity and sorority houses line the streets approaching the stadium and decorate festively for the game. At Stanford, the stadium is well apart from the campus. That means much more parking, but it also means nobody going to the game can walk around the campus before or after the game.
And, of course, there are all the activities leading up to the game. A longtime favorite of mine has been the Guardsmen’s luncheon, which I’ll be attending tomorrow. I can’t disappointment Bob Sarlotte, who always makes me the butt of an age-related joke. Well, I can’t pretend I’m 21.
FOOTBALL INJURIES: There’s been a concentration in the NFL this year on trying to avoid head injuries, with officials calling personal fouls on what used to be considered routine hits.
Yet, they continue to ignore the elephant in the room: Steroids.
It’s been amusing to me that steroids have become such a big issue in baseball when they shouldn’t be. For one thing, pitchers and hitters have both been taking them, so who has the advantage? For another, baseball is a skill sport. Drug tests have turned up a number of players who didn’t benefit because they don’t have the skills; Marvin Benard, to name one close to home, didn’t suddenly start hitting home runs – or doing anything else that could keep him in the game.
But football is a strength game. There’s a reason they call quarterbacks, receivers and running backs “skill position players” because most of the other positions depend more on strength and speed, both of which can be increased by steroids use.
The NFL has a system for testing drugs but it has been ridiculously easy to circumvent. Any time a player gets caught, I think, “Boy, he must really be stupid.”
So, the result is that you have linebackers who might have weight 210 pounds a decade ago now weighing 260 – and running even faster. So, when they collide with a quarterback, they do even more damage.
Meanwhile, the TV promos for games advertise the violence. Before yesterday’s Big Game media lunch, I was looking at a TV program which was re-running Sunday games and they were showing, yes, helmet-to-helmet hits.
Connect the dots, people.
49ERS FUTURE: Last Friday, I wrote in the Examiner that Alex Smith would be gone after the season. He had to prove he could be consistent and he hadn’t, and even if Troy Smith had failed, Alex wouldn’t have enough time left.
Yesterday, I had an interesting conversation with Mike Shumann, who was a wide receiver on the first 49ers Super Bowl team and is now a sports anchor for Channel 7. Like me, Mike had thought Alex could make it but had decided he wouldn’t.
“Alex has the ability but he waits until a receiver gets open,” he said. “Troy just throws the ball and lets the receiver go for it. As a receiver, you love that. You want to have a chance to get the ball.”
So, the 49ers have to ride Troy Smith for the rest of the season and hope he can get them there. The NFC West is as weak as we all though it would be so, even at 3-6, the Niners are only two games back.
I still doubt they can make it, though. Their offensive line still can’t pass protect, and it won’t get better with Joe Staley out, possibly for the rest of the season.
Troy Smith showed more than I expected from him against the Rams, but he was still sacked five times, which speaks to the poor pass protection – even when Staley is out of there.
It will be interesting to see how defensive coordinators work against Troy Smith. I suspect they’ll use a tactic that’s been used in the past against really mobile quarterbacks: Using a “spy”, usually a defensive back, to go for the quarterback on every play.
PLAYOFF SYSTEM: I got an e-mail last week offering me an interview with the Utah attorney general who is threatening a lawsuit against the BCS. Good grief. Do we really need government involvement with still another sports issue? Isn’t it enough that the Feds have wasted SEVEN YEARS and uncounted federal funds – our tax money, of course – trying to find Barry Bonds guilty of perjury?
I declined the interview opportunity, BTW.
Meanwhile, Gary Cavalli, executive director of the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl (which has usurped the Weedeater Bowl for the most awkward name) was amused by a magazine story which talked about the “fat cats” involved in the BCS.
Cavalli noted that he would be going over the Pacheco Pass Saturday in his Saab, which has 122,000 miles on it, to see a game in Fresno, staying at the Picadilly Inn and eating a stale sandwich in the press box.
Yesterday, I saw Gary at the Big Game media lunch. “I’d like to correct one thing,” he said. “I didn’t have a stale sandwich in the press box. There was no food at all.”
Such is life in the fast lane.
JAMARCUS RUSSELL: I got an e-mail today advertising a “JaMarcus Russell Academic and Athletic Foundation.” At first, I thought it was a hoax, but apparently not.
Well, the lesson plan should be simple: Don’t do what I did.
MANAGERS: The recent death of Sparky Anderson and the news that Billy Martin is one of those being considered for the baseball Hall of Fame by a special committee got me thinking about managers.
I can’t really evaluate managers from a distance but, based on results, Anderson and the just-retired Bobby Cox were both outstanding managers. They had the players, of course, because no manager wins with bad players. Casey Stengel was regarded as a clown in his early managerial career with bad teams and Joe Torre was unsuccessful with bad teams early. They both became geniuses when they went to the Yankees, who had great players. No mystery there.
But I can evaluate managers I’ve seen. This week, I’ll start with the Giants. I saw only a little of Bill Rigney and Tom Sheehan was a clown, so Alvin Dark was the first Gians manager I saw on a regular basis.
Alvin was as good tactically as any manager I’ve seen on a regular basis, Dark was projected as a future manager when he was a player. He and Philadelphia manager Gene Mauch used to get into chess-like maneuvering that was simultaneously maddening and entertaining. One of their favorite tricks: They’d start a righthanded pitcher to get the other one to start a heavy lefthanded hitting lineup, then switch to a lefthander after the first batter.
Dark was from the South (Louisiana) and had the beliefs of that region. He got into trouble one time on a road trip in the East when Stan Isaacs quoted him as making uncomplimentary remarks about black players intelligence. He also had problems with the growing Latino group on the Giants, trying to get them to speak English and assimilate He also had a rating system that tended to downgrade blacks and Latinos. Orlando Cepeda had 46 home runs and 142 RBIs in 1961, but under Dark’s system, few of the RBIs counted.
Despite that, I never saw Dark let his personal beliefs lead him to bad decisions. (He did have the strange idea in 1962 that Willie McCovey couldn’t hit lefthanded pitching but he abandoned that in ’63 and McCovey hit 44 homers as a full-time player.)
Dark turned more and more to the Bible and became annoying with his preachiness as an A’s manager. When he compared owner Charlie Finley to the devil, that was the end of him as an A’s manager, though that depiction seemed quite accurate.
The Giants managers after Dark were average except for Joe Altobelli, who was probably the dumbest manager I’ve known. Altobelli, though, went on to win a World Series with the Baltimore Orioles, further proof that it’s players who make the manager, not vice versa.
Frank Robinson was entirely different, as tough as a manager as he was as a player. Robinson was not particularly fond of writers and if he could discourage them, so much the better. I had campaigned (alone) for his hiring but when I requested an interview in spring training, he kept me waiting 45 minutes in the dugout before he finally came in. Once he sat down, though, it was a very good interview.
I enjoyed Robinson because I could add to my knowledge by asking him what he was thinking in specific situations as a player.
He was very tough with the players. He always said he had an open door but few players came through that door. When the Giants traded for Joe Morgan, he became a bridge between players and manager – and Robinson became more effective.
The next good manager for the Giants was Roger Craig. As a pitching coach for the Detroit Tigers, Craig had taught the split finger fastball, and he brought that technique with him to the Giants. Now, it’s very common throughout baseball.
Roger and Al Rosen, as general manager, brought the Giants back from their only 100-loss season to the World Series in 1989. I got much more from Rosen, though, and as I had with Robinson, often questioned him about his playing career.
It was frustrating to deal with Craig because he hid his intelligence behind the “Humm, Baby” exterior and talked in clichés. One time he complained to me, “I give you one-on-one interviews but I never see what I’ve said in your column.” I told him that was because he never said anything worth quoting.
Nonetheless, Craig was as good a manager as the Giants have had for his first five years. Then, he seemed to get bored. Everybody in the stands knew when the suicide squeeze was coming. I started campaigning for the Giants to replace Craig with Dusty Baker, then the hitting coach, in midseason in 1992.
In Dusty’s first season, the Giants won 103 games, tying the San Francisco record of the ’62 Giants. But unlike that team, they didn’t make it to the postseason because Atlanta won 104 games and there were no wild cards then.
Dusty was and is the ultimate players manager. He’s always gotten the most out of his players because of that, though he’s certainly not the strategic equal of Dark or Craig in his early years.
When Dusty left and Felipe Alou was hired, it brought back one of the players who had been a hero for me as a player so many years before. But Felipe tuned out to be a real disappointment. Despite his success elsewhere, he was not a good manager for the Giants. Perhaps he’d just gotten too old. He was very distant with the players. For sure, nobody was upset when he left. (He still is part of the Giants administration.)
Alou was replaced by Bruce Bochy, who has been a better manager than he’s given credit for. Perhaps now that he’s won a World Series, he’ll be regarded more favorably.
Bochy is like Dusty Baker, a real players manager. He’s always thinking of how he can get the best out of his players. He doesn’t make great copy for writers because he’ll never be critical of players but he’s successful at keeping individuals and the team on an even keel.
For the postseason, he made the decision to keep Barry Zito off the roster, though that just highlighted the fact that the Giants made a horrible mistake with the Zito signing. He seemed to make the right moves at the right time. He may not be spectacular, but he was the perfect fit for this Giants team.
Next week, I’ll take a look at the A’s managers I’ve covered.
PRE-THANKSGIVING: I’ll be doing my website column on Tuesday next week as well, trying to shove up my writing schedule a day because my brother and woman friend are coming up from Santa Barbara to have Thanksgiving with us.
What do YOU think? Let me know!
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