Brian Sabean, Barry Zito, Aaron Rowand, Aubrey Huff; Larry Baer; Rick Neuheisel/Andrew Luck/ College Football Downfall
by Glenn Dickey
Sep 21, 2011

21SEPT

BRIAN SABEAN was justifiably praised for his work in putting together the Giants team that won the first World Championship last year since the team was in New York, but there is another side to Sabean – his propensity for awarding long-term contracts for too much money.

The Giants had to eat another of those contracts this year when Aaron Rowand was released. Significantly, no team picked him up, though a team signing him would only have had to pay the major league minimum salary for the remainder of the season, with the Giants paying the rest of the contract. That tells you what the rest of baseball thinks of the $60 million man. As I wrote at the time Rowand signed the contract, it was far too generous for a player who was then only slightly above average. Other writers praised Rowand because of his hustle. I like hustle, too, but I’d rather see it accompanied by more talent.

Of course, we all know about the Barry Zito contract. Writers friendly to Sabean have tried to float the idea that Peter Magowan was responsible for that, but Magowan got forced out because other owners were unhappy that he just automatically signed off on Sabean’s moves, especially this one. The only player decision Magowan made was to sign Barry Bonds as a free agent in late 1992, before the deal to buy the team from Bob Lurie was even complete. (The deal required Lurie’s approval.) Maybe Magowan realized he could never top that. At any rate, he let his general managers, first Bob Quinn, then Brian Sabean, make the deals the rest of the time.

Magowan’s replacement, Bill Neukom, limited Sabean to making two-year deals, but even within that framework, Sabean is overly generous.

The current example is Aubrey Huff, signed to a two-year contract for $11 million a year because of his big contribution to last year’s triumph. I would have understood a one-year contract with a club option for a second (again, as I wrote at the time) but Sabean has hamstrung his manager, Bruce Bochy, with this two-year deal. Bochy gets blamed for continuing to play Huff when he was obviously a one-year wonder for the Giants but he knows the reality: It’s hard to sit a player who’s going to make $11 million again next year, when the Giants will still be paying for Rowand and Zito.

Sabean should have learned his lesson from an earlier deal. In 2006, Sabean traded with Seattle for Randy Winn, who hit 14 home runs in just 58 games for the Giants, as many as he’d hit in a full season. As soon was proven, that was a result of Winn switching leagues and pitchers not knowing him well, but Sabean signed him to an overly generous (of course) long-term contract. Winn was a good player but he never hit for the power you want from a corner outfielder – a combined 37 home runs in four seasons for the Giants - and he was untradeable because of that contract.

Huff was also playing his first season in the National League last year. Pitchers have obviously figured him out and he’s been a drag on the team offense all year. The Giants have played better this month with Brett Pill at first base (against lefthanded pitchers) but we’re stuck with Huff for another season.

The Good Sabean has done a very good job of bringing in young pitchers through the draft but it wasn’t until the Giants hired John Barr that they started drafting hitters, too. Maybe they need to bring in somebody to stop Sabean from signing free agents to these crippling contracts.

LARRY BAER: My first meeting with Larry Baer is a humorous footnote to his career. One year in the early ‘70s, A’s owner Charles Finley couldn’t reach an agreement with a radio station so the only broadcast of the first few A’s home games was on the Cal radio station – and Larry was the announcer. Considering that Finley hired announcers like Monte Moore and Red Rush, he was an improvement.

The next time we talked was much more serious. Larry was part of the group that was working to keep the Giants in San Francisco; he bought into the group when it purchased the club from Bob Lurie. He was working for CBS in New York but he was eager to return to San Francisco.

Larry was only one of the people I talked to. I also talked to Walter Shorenstein, the leader of the group (I was the only media person he talked to), then San Francisco mayor Frank Jordan, Leigh Steinberg, an agent with many sports ties and a friend for 20 years at that point. That gave me the confidence to predict that the Giants could be saved for San Francisco. When I wrote that, the Chronicle sports editor, John Curley, called me a Pollyanna, the first and last time I’ve been called that, but Curley had come from the Hearst Examiner so he didn’t understand how a real newspaper worked.

The deal the ownership group struck with MLB was that no other major league team could come into the peninsula or San Jose – the deal that Lew Wolff has been trying to overturn. Apparently, Wolff enjoys tilting at windmills because it isn’t going to happen. The other condition of the deal was that the Giants get a new ball park.

Magowan, who became CEO when the new investors group took over, quickly decided the park would have to be privately financed – and Baer was the man who had to make it go, by lining up the financing. He and I talked frequently because I was well acquainted with the new park process, having written on several previous attempts by the Giants. I wrote frequently on the progress of the park, which was completed in 2000 and has been a huge success.

Before and after the park was opened, Larry and I also had talks about the team. They were all off the record, which didn’t bother me. I’d done the same thing with others, like Carmen Policy and Bill Walsh, before. I’m always looking for information, not necessarily for a quote, and I knew Larry’s information would be accurate. One example: In midseason, 1996, Larry told me that Quinn would retire as general manager at the end of the season and Sabean would be promoted. I wrote that, and I also sat with Sabean in his box at Candlestick one day. Again, it was agreed that I wouldn’t quote anything he said but I learned that he thought there were a lot of players who needed to be replaced – Sabean said at one point, “We’ve only got four legitimate major leaguers out there,” – so I knew what he was trying to do when he made the big trade which involved Matt Williams and Jeff Kent. I had no idea that Kent would become the player he was with the Giants but I still praised the trade because it filled holes for the Giants.

Other writers don’t have the same feeling about off-the-record conversations, mostly because their editors demand that they attribute information directly. That’s why Baer has often been the target of sniping by other columnists. You can disregard those negative comments. Baer is an excellent choice, intelligent and well grounded in all aspects of the operation.

I don’t expect the direction of the team to change much. Baer has always worked closely with Sabean and the rest of the baseball people. Overall, the organization is doing fine – and there is that World Championship pennant flying over the park.

CAL FOOTBALL: I went to one half of the titanic against Presbyterian last Saturday and once again realized that AT&T is not the right venue for the Bears’ games this fall. It didn’t feel like a college game at all because the students weren’t involved as they are big time for Cal games in Berkeley. That would no doubt be true wherever the games were played this year, but if they’d been played at Candlestick, at least they’d be in a football stadium, with ample parking and enough seats.

I’m wondering about the USC game, and whether that will have to be transferred to Candlestick. There’s going to be tremendous interest in the game – and there will only be 42,000 seats. There’s another point that hasn’t been considered: All those who have bought “charter seats” (the Giants cute term for what everybody else calls PSLs) has exclusive right to those seats for other events, if they buy a ticket. So, there may be even fewer seats available. Prepare for some real outrage from those who can’t buy tickets.

Ah, but as one columnist noted, Cal fans discovered some drinking places near AT&T before Saturday’s game that they didn’t know existed. That makes it all worthwhile.

NFL KICKOFFS: As expected, the new rule, which has kickoffs from the 35 instead of the 30, has increased the number of touchbacks, from 21 per cent last year to nearly 50 this year. But, there have still been returns for touchdowns, including Ted Ginn Jr’s 102-yard return in the 49ers opener against Seattle. When the weather turns cooler and even rainy, the number of touchbacks will probably decrease, too.

The rule was changed because of the risk of injury on kickoffs, with players – who are bigger and faster than ever, thanks to steroids – colliding while going full speed. There have even been discussions in the past to eliminate kickoffs entirely and just put the ball on, say, the 30-yard line. So, this is a compromise. To my mind, it’s a good one because there is nothing more exciting than a kickoff return for a touchdown, as Ginn’s run reminded me.
COLLEGE QBS: I had expected Rick Neuheisel to get UCLA put on NCAA probation but, according to a story in Sports Illustrated last week, it’s likely he’ll get fired before that can happen. Couldn’t happen to a nicer guy.

There was one amusing line in the short piece. The author noted that Neuheisel’s problem is that he hasn’t developed a quarterback (very true), while Jim Harbaugh was developing Andrew Luck at Stanford. I’m sorry, but Harbaugh did not develop Luck. Andrew Luck developed Andrew Luck, with help from his father, Oliver, who is a former NFL player. Harbaugh refined him but Luck is a remarkable player, smart as well as physically talented. He wouldn’t have advanced as far under one of the wretched coaches who preceded Harbaugh at Stanford, but he would still have been an outstanding quarterback.

LIVING IN THE PAST? A reader scolded me recently for living in the past when I said I’d love to see a re-organization which would result in a return to the old Pac-8 configuration. He told me that isn’t going to happen, and vinyl records aren’t returning, either.

Well, I’m nostalgic about some things in the past, but vinyl records are certainly not among them. I do confess to preferring the Frank Sinatra/Ella Fitzgerald era of music (which Diana Krall also sings) to today’s. I also loved the piano mastery of Oscar Peterson and Errol Garner (though Benny Green is also a master today) and I make no apologies for that. I was a contemporary of Elvis Presley – and my wife even went to his parties in her single years in Memphis – and I much prefer what he did to the current hip/hop and rap. I make no apologies for that, either.

On the other hand, I started working on a manual typewriter and have been perfectly happy to graduate to the computer. I’m hardly a whiz – my wife, who was briefly a computer programmer in the 1980s, and my son help me out when I’m baffled – but I enjoy being able to scan so much information, often with the help of readers, who send me links to specific information.

And in the sports world, I’m mostly happy with the changes that have been made, especially the integration of sports. In baseball, it was first the blacks, now the Latinos and, though former players like Joe Morgan lament the falling off of American blacks in baseball, they need to get over it. Jackie Robinson’s debut opened doors for blacks in other sports, and now, many of them are finding better opportunities in basketball and football.

The changes in sports over the years have mostly favored the offense, which I think makes the games more exciting. Basketball may be the sport which has changed much because it once had a center jump ball after every basket. When blacks came into the game, it got much faster and better.

Baseball has also changed for the better, I believe. The DH rule, which everybody in organized baseball but the National League uses, simply replaces on specialist (a pitcher) for another (a hitter). It has less effect, though, than you might think. One reader told me he much preferred the pitchers’ duels in the National League to the 15-10 games in the American League, but when I looked up the average runs scored, the NL teams actually had a very slight edge.

Older fans and writers tend to dislike the emphasis on pitch counts but, as nostalgic I may be for Juan Marichal pitching as many as 30 complete games in a season, I think this is a much better way of saving pitchers’ arms. The new baseball statistics only enhance the game, to my mind, though again, older fans and writers often disagree.

Football made a huge change when it went to unlimited substitution, and it would be very difficult to argue that it was a better game when players had to go both ways. Would you have wanted Joe Montana to also play defensive back, as Bob Waterfield and Johnny Lujack did?

The emphasis on opening up the passing game has also made football more exciting, and the defensive coordinators have countered with many more blitzes and changing defenses. All for the better.

The one place I think change has been bad is in college football, which has completely given over control of its game to television.

College football should be about much more than the game. When it’s played on campus in the afternoon, it’s an opportunity for alumni and students to have a shared experience.

But, that has become more and more difficult. Now, schedules come out with most games marked “TBA”, which means, “whenever television wants.” Supporters of a team cannot plan more than a week in advance because they don’t know when the game will be played.

I was unfairly critical of new Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott, when he took over with his plan to expand the former Pac-10. He was simply doing his job and he did it very well, bringing in a ton of money to the conference and setting up a new television network.

But, this is just the latest example of how college football has lost its way, losing its soul in an everlasting pursuit of the almighty dollar. It has become nothing more than a watered-down version of the NFL. I’m sorry, but this is not an improvement, and you shouldn’t have to be my age to see that.

What do YOU think? Let me know!

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