A's Problems, Dick Williams, Barry Zito, Yogi Berra
IT’S HARD to remember that just five years ago, the Oakland A’s were a force to be reckoned with in major league baseball. In the 2000-2006 period, they were in the postseason five times. They twice won more than 100 games in a season. They set an American League record with 20 straight wins.
Now, they’re a listless bunch, well out of contention in the AL West and threatening to battle Kansas City for the unwanted designation of the AL’s worst franchise.
What happened? We all know the answer to that: The slumlords, Lew Wolff and John Fisher, bought the team in 2005 and have driven both the team and attendance down.
Meanwhile, they’re making money from MLB’s revenue-sharing plan. They’re not putting money into the payroll or into the farm system which under the previous two ownerships, the Haas family and Steve Schott/Ken Hofmann, developed many star players, Mark McGwire, Jose Canseco, Jason Giambi and Miguel Tejada to name a few. Now, the best players from the farm system are Cliff Pennington, Jemile Weeks, Kurt Suzuki – good players but hardly in the category of stars.
I’m amused when Wolff is asked if he’s impatient with the lack of report on the A’s situation that was commissioned by MLB commissioner Bud Selig two years ago. He hasn’t criticized Selig or the committee because he knows the reality: Even if he got permission to move tomorrow, which isn’t going to happen, he couldn’t do anything. Both Oakland and San Jose were looking to urban renewal money to help build a new park, and that’s been taken away by Governor Jerry Brown. Anybody thinking that Wolff would put money iinto a new park should check on the new soccer stadium he was supposed to build in San Jose. It’s still just a hole in the ground.
Andy Dolich, an astute marketing man, suggested a solution for the A’s and Raiders: a new multi-purpose stadium on the site of the current Coliseum. Dolich pointed out that stadium building is much more advanced now and fields can be slid in and out of a stadium overnight.
Dolich didn’t address the main problem, though: That would have to have the approval of Raiders owner Al Davis, and nobody has ever been able to work with Davis. When the Raiders were in Los Angeles, Carmen Policy worked out a sweetheart deal for a stadium in the Hollywood Park area because he didn’t want the Raiders to move back to the Bay Area. Davis rejected it because it included a provision that, if Los Angeles got an expansion team, it would share the stadium. So, he moved his team back to Oakland and, of course,s there has never been an expansion team in Los Angeles.
A much better idea would be for the Raiders to join with the 49ers in a joint stadium in Santa Clara, which would be convenient for the fan bases of both teams, with the Coliseum remodeled into a baseball park, much as Anaheim did for the Angels when the Rams moved to St. Louis.
But, again, that would mean Davis would have to work with another team, so logic will not prevail.
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COULD THERE be anything more meaningless than
the Ohio State administration trying to forestall serious NCAA punishment by announcing they are forfeiting all their games last year and the Big Ten title.
Hmmm, let’s see? They’ve already played those games and won them. They’ve been to a BCS bowl game and won it? They’ve celebrated all those wins. Are their fans going to forget all that?
The one thing missing in that declaration: an announcement that they’d return all the money they got for the bowl game. Don’t hold your breath on that.
I’m cynical enough to believe that the Ohio State administration knew all along what was happening. These violations didn’t happen in a vacuum. College football has been riddled with hypocrisy since long before I started writing, but it’s gotten much worse in recent years. There is so much more money involved, much of it from TV, and that encourages cheating.
Meanwhile, many schools, especially in the SEC, hardly even make a pretense of educating athletes. Since only a very small percentage of collegiate athletes ever play professionally, that means that a large number of athletes end their college careers with no education and no job skills.
There is no easy solution to this but it would help if big-time schools would pay attention to what’s happening. Apologizing after the fact doesn’t cut it.
NFL RETIREES: One of the most distressing aspects of the NFL’s labor strife is the callous attitude of current players to the players who went before them. The owners were apparently willing to contribute more to the retired players but the current players have balked.
This is troublesome, to say the least. The NFL would not be where it is today if it were not for the players who went before, but most of them were poorly compensated and had terrible medical care. Even when I started covering pro football in 1967, there were many players who had to work in the offseason to provide for their families.
Now, players are well compensated, some of them extremely so, and they should pay some respect to those who went before them.
DICK WILLIAMS, who died last week at 82, was an original. He didn’t take guff from anybody, which made him a Hall of Fame manager but also meant he didn’t stay in one place very long.
Williams resurrected the Boston Red Sox in his first managerial stint, taking a team that had finished ninth in a 10-team league the year before, to the World Series in 1967. But the players didn’t like him, so owner Tom Yawkey, who spoiled his players, fired him.
He came to the A’s in 1971 and established his methods immediately in spring training. The A’s players at that time were notorious for talking to owner Charlie Finley if they didn’t like the manager, so Williams held up a piece of paper and told them, “Here’s Charlie’s phone number, if you want to call him. It won’t do you any good. I make the decisions, not Charlie.”
At the time, Finley was accustomed to calling his manager in the dugout but Williams had the phone taken out. He talked to Finley before and after games but he did what he wanted.
He tolerated physical mistakes but not mental ones. “He makes you very uncomfortable if you screw up,” Reggie Jackson told me one time, “so we don’t screw up.” And the A’s in that period played very good fundamental baseball, seldom making a mental error and capitalizing when other teams did.”
When Finley wanted to put a healthy Mike Andrews on the disabled list during the 1973 World Series, Williams told his players, “I’m quitting after the Series,” and he followed through, even after the A’s won their second straight.
Later on, when he was managing the San Diego Padres, times had changed. Players had free agency and they were much more independent. That didn’t change Williams. When I asked him how he handled the new breed, he said, “If they screw up, they sit. They get the message, no matter how much money they’re making.”
He was the toughest manager I’ve known and one of the best. I’m just glad he made it to the Hall of Fame while he was still alive and able to enjoy it.
BARRY ZITO’S successful return from the DL prompted The Chronicle’s Bruce Jenkins to apologize in print for a spring training column criticizing Zito for his work ethic; Jenkins had already apologized in person to Zito.
First, his original column was off base. Whatever you think of Zito, his work ethic is unquestioned. That’s never been the problem. Jenkins, who is pro-Giants to a disgusting degree for a writer, was upset by Zito’s poor performances, nothing more.
Second, these apologies are, well, so high school. The idea is to get it right the first time. If you’ve done your research and formed an opinion on what you’ve seen, there’s no reason to apologize.
My rule of thumb has always been to stay visible around athletes I’ve criticized. When I was a beat writer for the Raiders, I had some confrontations. Gene Upshaw and Art Shell once sat me down on a bench after practice and told me how wrong I’d been in my criticism of them in a game story because they hadn’t done a good job of pass protection. They were right, as it happened, because their blocking assignments were not what I thought they were. Of course, nobody ever gave me information about blocking schemes.. George Atkinson came at me in the dressing room because I had criticized him for fielding a punt, and fumbling it, inside the 5 at the game the previous week. His fumble was recovered by the Steelers and converted into their winning touchdown. I was right that time. When I see Atkinson now, we often laugh about that, but it wasn’t funny at the time. Fortunately, Willie Brown grabbed Atkinson before he could punch me.
As a columnist, I’m not as close to players on a specific team but I don’t hide. There were a couple of episodes in the ‘90s. Jerry Rice was enraged at a criticism I made and launched a profanity-laced tirade in the dressing room. (He later apologized.) Another time, I heard that Jason Schmidt was unhappy with my criticism, so I sought him out and we talked it over.
That’s the way a writer should handle it. I didn’t apologize, either personally or in print, in any of these instances. But I always have tried to have all the facts before I write, instead of going off on an emotional rant.
IT’S TIME for Brian Wilson to start concentrating on his pitching instead of being a character.
I’ve seldom seen a baseball player so dedicated to drawing attention to himself. Even his socalled rage when he was lit up in a recent game and came into the dugout to trash a water cooler seemed calculated.
With all this theatre, his effectiveness has declined. Maybe if you paid as much attention to your pitching as you do to your reputation as a “character,” Brian, you’d do better on the mound.
YOGI BERRA: It was the mi-‘80s before I met Yogi Berra, then managing the Yankees, for whom he had been such a great player. By that time, I had learned that most of the “Yogisms” were actually coined by others, particularly Joe Garagiola, his childhood friend in St. Louis. So, I wasn’t surprised when Berra had little to say to the media. He wasn’t being uncooperative; he just didn’t have much to say.
Because the Yankees were usually in the World Series when Berra was playing, and the Series was televised, I had a chance to at least get a glimpse of Berra, who was a notorious bad-ball hitter and a great clutch hitter. But, like most of the major league stars of that era, he was more a mythical figure than a reality to me.
In the “Where Are They Now?” issue of Sports Illustrated, Joe Posnanski had an excellent piece on Berra, fleshing out the reality of a man who had little education because he had to quit school at 14 and get a job to help with the family finances. In truth, Berra has always been a shy man who had to break through that barrier to speak to a pretty waitress, Carmen; they’ve been married 62 years now.
The article ended with a cute story about Berra and Derek Jeter, with whom he has a close relationship.
After Jerek struck out on an eye-high fast ball, Berra asked him, “Why would you swing at that pitch?”
“Well, you did,” said Jeter.
“I hit ‘em,” said Berra.
Indeed he did.
E-MAIL: My e-mail account was hacked, for the second time in about six months, so my son has set up a new account: firstname.lastname@example.org. I’m a bit behind on my e-mail because Nancy and I were out all day yesterday. We had to get her Jaguar in for servicing in San Francisco, then headed to Marin in a rental car to see the sun, which was not out in Oakland when we left and certainly not in San Francisco. We had a nice lunch at Scoma’s in Sausalito, looking out at the bay, then went driving around Belvedere Island to look for our next home. Too many choices, so we couldn’t make a decision. Maybe later.
In the future, if you can’t get through to me, check my website. It’s the only way I can communicate if I have problems. I posted two messages last week but got only two responses.
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