Andrew Luck, Zach Maynard, Jeff Tedford, Willie Mays, Pablo Sandoval, Brandon Allen/Brandon Belt/ Pac-16?
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OPENING GAME JITTERS: Because colleges don’t play practice games like the pros, the first game of the season can be a misleading barometer for the rest of the year. Still, with Stanford and Cal both opening on the same side of the bay Saturday, I viewed it as a great chance to get a glimpse of both teams, though only for a half of each game.
Stanford-San Jose State, with a tipoff at 2 p.m. , two hours earlier than Cal-Fresno State at Candlestick, was my first stop. It was a beautiful day, as it almost always is at Stanford. The same elevator serves both the press box and private boxes,, and I rode up with a group that included former Secretary of State George Schultz. During Bill Walsh’s last coaching stint at Stanford, Schultz walked the sidelines but at 90, he’s not able to do that any more.
The game itself was lopsided, as everybody expected. I don’t think Jim Harbaugh’s departure will slow Stanford down, at least this year. It’s easy to forget now, but when Harbaugh came to Stanford, there were some (including me) who doubted that Stanford cold continue at the top level of college football because of its high entrance requirements. Harbaugh changed that thinking, and he left the team in good hands with David Shaw.
The coaches who have done well at Stanford have been ones who have understood the “culture” there, which is quite different than almost any others in the top division of college football. Having played there and been an assistant under Harbaugh, Shaw certainly understands it. He’s also inherited the best quarterback in college football by far, Andrew Luck, who could have been the No. 1 draft pick this year but chose to stay in school, knowing that decision would cost him a lot of money. I talked briefly to Luck at a preseason media gathering and asked him if he regretted his decision. “Not at all,” he said. “I’d make the same decision today.” I believed him. I never thought he would turn pro after last season because I knew he valued his education and his collegiate experience. Money is not the chief thing that drives Andrew Luck.
He is a great quarterback, able to make any throw, and a great decision-maker. He’s not hesitant to take the ball down and run if his receivers are covered, as he did early against the Spartans.
By the end of this season, Luck may be regarded as the best quarterback in Stanford history, which would be a great accomplishment because there have been so many good ones. I’ve seen most of the best, starting with John Brodie. John Elway was the most athletic – and maybe the most athletic of any quarterback, pro or college, that I’ve ever seen – but he didn’t accomplish much because Paul Wiggin was his coach. It boggles the mind to think what he could have accomplished if Bill Walsh, who had recruited him, had stayed at Stanford instead of going to the 49ers. Jim Plunkett had the biggest accomplishments, a Heisman Trophy and a Rose Bowl win, but Luck has one big bowl win – the Orange Bowl – and he’ll probably have another bowl win this year and, quite possibly, the Heisman. And, like Plunkett, he’ll be the No. 1 pick in the draft. Not incidentally, I don’t think the 49ers will be in the race for that pick. I think that, considering the weak division in which they play, they can scratch out 6-8 wins.
After watching Luck carve up the Spartans for a half, I drove north to Candlestick, where the howling winds created a quite different weather pattern. It was a strange feeling to see a college game at Candlestick, and it was made stranger because the ticket-selling company which put on the game used different workers at the stadium. When I passed through the media gate, the man in charge asked me if I needed diections to the press box. I assured him I could find it on my own.
When I talked to Cal coach Jeff Tedford as summer practices wound down, he seemed more relaxed than he had in years.
A good part of that was the fact that the problems of the past, like the tree sitters, were disappearing, and the athletic performance center is nearing completion.
“I could see the tree sitters from my office,” he remembered, “and when you passed by them, there’d be this stench because they’d just dropped a bucket..” He didn’t complete the sentence but I understood what that bucket contained.
“Athletes would come here after visiting other schools where they had great facilities and all I could do was tell them we were working on ours. Then, they’d look up at the stadium and say, ‘It looks like you could use a coat or two of paint there.’”
The stadium, originally built in 1923, needed far more than that. The setting was picturesque but inside, the restroom facilities were ancient, the mostly-bench seats were uncomfortable, there were no railings for older people to grasp as they walked down to their seats – and it was sitting on an earthquake fault line without proyection.
Now, a massive and very costly rebuild will preserve the location and feel of the old stadium while presenting modern facilities and seating inside. Tickets will be much more expensive and I sympathize with those who feel they can no longer afford them, but there was no choice but to have this massive rebuilding program.
An even more pressing problem for Tedford was on the field, specifically, at the quarterback position. Since Aaron Rodgers left, quarterbacks Joe Ayoob, Nate Longshore and Kevin Riley had all disappointed, and Brock Mansion was a disaster when he took over last year for the injured Riley.
This year, transfer Zach Maynard is in charge, and he gives the Bears an added dimension with his feet. Tedford has some plays designed for him to run, and even on pass plays, if nobody is open, he can take it down and run for yardage. He has a strong arm and you can expect him to hit his half-brother, Keenan Allen, and Marvin Jones for long touchdowns.
The Bears made a ton of mistakes against Fresno State but still won fairly easily. Coaches always say they are happy to have the first game behind them, especially if it’s a win, and this was a good example why.
At this point, I have no idea how good the Bears can be this year. We should get more of an idea when they play Colorado in Boulder on Saturday.
A BETTER PLAN: As you know, I haven’t been happy with the expansion of the Pac-10 this season, but now, there’s talk that next season, four Texas and Oklahoma schools will joint the conference which will then split into East and West divisions, with those schools combining with Utah, Colorado and the Arizona schools for the East division and the old Pac-8 configuration with California, Oregon and Washington schools being the West division.
Since I originally disapproved of the addition of the Arizona schools, this new alignment would suit me just fine.
. PLEASE, NOT AGAIN: With the Giants continual failure to produce runs for their beleaguered pitchers, fans and even broadcasters are calling for manager Bruce Bochy to play more “little ball.” Most recently, he was criticized for not having Brandon Belt bunt with a runner on second and nobody out in the final loss to Arizona. There were a couple of problems with that. The first is that, in his professional career, Belt had been asked to bunt…well, never. The most likely result would have been a failure, so he would have started out at 0-1. The second problem was that you would have taken the bat away from a left-handed power hitter who was capable of getting an extra-base hit and possibly a home run. Neither happened, of course. Belt struck out, and the following two hitters also couldn’t get the runner in. That’s the way the Giants season has gone.
In fact, Bochy has probably played more little ball than he should have. I’ve said the stolen base is the most overrated play in baseball, but the bunt is right up there, too. There are special instances when it should be employed: When a pitcher is at bat with a runner on base, for instance, or in the eighth or ninth inning of a tie game. Otherwise, the bunt should be forgotten. What managers call “crooked innings”, when teams score more than one run, should always be the goal, and it’s much more difficult to get them if you give up one of the three outs in the inning.
Ever since Babe Ruth started hitting home runs in bunches, the “big inning” theory has flourished in baseball, meaning that in many games, the winning team scores more in one inning than the losing team scores in the game. Hint: The winners don’t do that by bunting.
Yet, the bunt still seems to be sancrosanct among some Giants fans. I first saw this in the ‘60s, and I thought it was strange then because the Giants had power hitters like Willie Mays, Willie McCovey, Orlando Cepeda, Jim Ray Hart. If ever a team was built for the big inning, it was the ‘60s Giants.
Probably, there were Giants fans of that era who had started watching baseball when the bunt was used more frequently. But in the years since, it has been used less and less – partly because bats are thinner and more difficult to use for bunting – so it’s hard to see why today’s fans are so sold on the idea of “little ball.”
I’ve got news for them. The Giants scoring problems are a result of putting together a lineup of “mistake” hitters. They can look good against mediocre pitchers who can’t hit their spots. Those pitchers who can hit their spots tie the Giants hitters in knots. Pablo Sandoval is really the only hitter who can hit good pitchers. (Carlos Beltran may be, too, but he’s a rental and has been injured for a good part of the time he’s been a Giants.) It’s possible Belt can be that kind of hitter, too, if Bochy would ever leave him in the lineup for a long stretch.
But please, don’t blame their problems on not bunting enough.
A’S TRYOUTS: This is tryout month for the A’s, who haven’t been in contention at any time this year. They’re looking at some young players and making decisions on older ones.
One of the young players is first baseman Brandon Allen, obtained from Arizona in the trade for reliever Brad Ziegler. Allen had a hot start, followed by a terrible slump, which is not unusual for a young hitter making his major league debut. The A’s stuck with him and he’s rebounded nicely since bottoming out. I think he’s the first baseman they’ve been looking for since Jason Giambi left, a corner infielder who can hit for power – and he’s also a good fielder. If the Giants had been able to play Brandon Belt in the same way, he’d probably be settled in as their first baseman for the foreseeable future, but they weren’t able to play him every day when they were in contention and seem reluctant to do it even now that their postseason hopes are going down the drain.
Michael Taylor, for whom the A’s have had high hopes, is up after a season in which injuries limited him to 96 games at Sacramento. Taylor is the complete package, with speed and power, and he would be a great addition to the A’s outfield next year, if he’s ready.
Expectations have been high for Chris Carter but in brief appearances with the major league club, he has struggled. He is below average defensively, whether playing left field or first base. With Allen at first, Carter’s future would seem to be as a DH, if Hideki Matsui is not re-signed.
In the first half of the season, Matsui struggled and I thought he might even be released just after the All-Star break, but in the second half, he has looked like the hitter the A’s thought they were getting. Manager Bob Melvin has said he’d like to see Matsui return, so he may.
I think the A’s should definitely try to re-sign Josh Willingham, who has said he’d like to return. Willingham is only about a .250 hitter, but he is the only A’s player who has hit for consistent power, when he’s been healthy. Even if Allen has a good year and Taylor plays himself into the lineup, the A’s can’t afford to lose Willingham
Coco Crisp will also be a free agent, and the A’s should let him go. Crisp is a good player but he can’t stay healthy.The last time he played anything approaching a full season was 2007, when he played 145 games for Boston. The next year, it was 118 for the Red Sox, 49 for the Kansas City Royals, 75 for the A’s last season. This year has been his healthiest since 2007, but he’s still missed about 1/7th of their games.
The A’s traded another good player who can’t stay healthy, Conor Jackson, to the Red Sox. Jackson had hardly landed in Boston before he got hurt again.
TV BONANZA: Last year’s World Series was wildly popular in the Bay Area, of course, but the national ratings were low because the Giants and Texas Rangers were largely unknown to the rest of the country.
It’s ironic that baseball, which once advertised itself as “The National Pastime,” is much less of a national sport than pro football – strictly because of the television policies of the two sports.
The NFL has many national telecasts of its games, so fans can select a favorite team that is not close to their geographical area. I have readers who grew up in the Bay Area and still follow those teams even though they’ve moved, but I also have some who have just adopted teams from out of their area. The Raiders have always had those fans, because the further away you are from the team, the better it looks. The 49ers picked up a lot of non-area fans when they won five Super Bowls. One time, I got e-mails from a 49ers fan who lived in New York and knew so much about the 49ers and their history, I assumed he had once lived in the Bay Area. But, when I e-mailed him, he told me he had lived his entire life in New York and had not even visited San Francisco!
In contrast, baseball has only one national telecast a week, and that’s often involving either the Yankees or the Red Sox. So, fans from other areas seldom know much about teams like the Giants and Rangers, and their interest level is low.
That could change dramatically this postseason because the most likely World Series matchup will be the Philadelphia Phillies against either the Yankees or the Red Sox. It’s easy to make another prediction: Television ratings will hit an all-time high.
This East Coast bias is often irritating to those of us who live in California. One time in the ‘90s, I pitched a book proposal on Bill Walsh which would have discussed his influence on the NFL aside from just his coaching success. One New York publisher dismissed my proposal, saying Walsh was “a regional figure.”
But, in the Bay Area, we have the consolation of knowing we live in the best area in the country. Living well is the best revenge.
What do YOU think? Let me know!
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