Tony La Russ/Dave Duncan/Mark McGwire/Albert Pujols; Jim Harbaugh; Hue Jackson; Tim Tebow; Cal QBs; NBA Strike;
ONE OF Tony La Russa’s most admirable qualities is his loyalty, and nothing illustrates that more than his long-time relationship with pitching coach Dave Duncan.
La Russa and Duncan first joined up when Tony was the Chicago White Sox manager in 1983 and it continued with the A’s from 1985 through 1995, then on to the St. Louis Cardinals. Only La Russa’s retirement this week broke the chain; Duncan hopes to return as Cardinals’ pitching coach next season, but that will depend on the new manager.
As any smart manager does, La Russa let Duncan run his department as he wished, even to the point of the type of pitchers the A’s brought in. When the A’s got really good in the late ‘80s, their run was fueled by young players like Jose Canseco, Mark McGwire, Walt Weiss (all winners of the Rookie of the Year award) and Terry Steinbach. But the top pitchers were veterans, some of whom had been considered washed up: Dave Stewart, Dennis Eckersley, Bob Welch, Mike Moore, Rick Honeycutt.
There was a reason for that. Duncan was probably the best pitching coach I’ve ever known when working with veteran pitchers, especially those – like Stewart – who had lost their focus. He could change their delivery somewhat, advise them to use some pitches more and others less than they had been. But younger pitchers require much more help, and he didn’t have the patience for it. So, La Russa went with Duncan’s strength.
There was a telling moment in the last World Series, when the Cardinals brought in the wrong relief pitcher, who got bombed. After the game, La Russa made a stumbling mea culpa about how he made a mistake, it would never happen again, blah, blah, blah. Apparently, though, he was covering for his friend because, if you think about it, it is always the pitching coach who makes the call to the bullpen, not the manager. Almost certainly, it was Duncan who called for the wrong guy – not that it matters now.
Tony could be just as loyal to his players, and there is no better example than Mark McGwire. When an injury-plagued McGwire was struggling in 1991, La Russa kept him out of the final game, so his average wouldn’t slip below .200. McGwire, who had been Mr. Nice Guy with both the media and his teammates early in his career, turned sour near the end of his A’s career, possibly because of his many injuries. After he’d gone to the Cardinals, I wrote a column saying the A’s clubhouse atmosphere would be much better. That column had hardly gotten into the paper before I got a call from Tony at home defending McGwire and claiming that he was very popular with his new teammates in St. Louis.
And, of course, La Russa brought McGwire back to the Cardinals this year as a batting coach, which helped McGwire gets some favorable publicity after the slamming he’d gotten in the media for his lack of cooperation in televised hearings of a Congressional committee investigating steroids use in baseball. (A colossal waste of time, not incidentally). McGwire got a good reception from both fans and media and, judging from the way the Cardinals hit, he must have done a good job.
But loyalty is, understandably, a two-way street for La Russa, as Jose Canseco found out. La Russa was amused by Canseco’s off-field antics – Sandy Alderson, who had to clean up after Jose, was definitely not – but when Canseco stopped trying to be a very good all-round player, Tony was dismayed. The breaking point came in a game when the A’s had the potential winning run on third base with Canseco at bat. A single would have scored the run but Canseco took three mighty swings and struck out. When he was approached by a furious La Russa, he said, “The people would rather see Jose strike out trying to hit a home run than have him hit a single.”
La Russa went to Alderson’s office and, shortly after that, Jose was traded. The rest of his career was a bad joke as he completely wasted his talent.
In contrast, Albert Pujols has said he has really enjoyed playing for La Russa, as he has for his entire major league career, and La Russa has been equally delighted, because Pujols is a man who gives his best all the time – just as Tony always has.
AN INTERESTING thing happened after the 49ers predictable win over the Cleveland Browns: There was relatively little criticism of the 49ers for sleepwalking on offense through most of the second half. Nor was there much for Jim Harbaugh doing a Mike Singletary imitation by having Frank Gore run right up the middle on four straight downs inside the five in the first half, though the Niners’ failure to score kept the Browns in a game that should have been put away by halftime.
Harbaugh’s media critics, so vocal earlier, are realizing that wins are the most important factor, not style points. Yes, the 49ers should have beaten the Browns by a bigger margin but, so what? As it is, they’re on pace to win something like 11 games this season and could win more.
This has caught me by surprise. I expected Harbaugh to turn the team around, but I thought the results wouldn’t show before next year. When the 49ers lost to the Dallas Cowboys in overtime in the second game of the season, I thought that showed they weren’t quite in the class of teams like the Cowboys yet. In fact, the 49ers started to click right after that and now, it’s the Cowboys who might miss the playoffs. I can’t imagine a better scenario.
PLAY CALLING: Hue Jackson’s gambling approach was refreshing early in the season but it’s become a problem lately. He needs to realize there are times when it makes sense to go for a field goal instead of a touchdown – and also that, when a coach calls a gimmicky play in critical situations too often, that becomes predictable in itself for the other team.
This week will be a good time for Jackson and the Raiders to go back to fundamental football as they host the Denver Broncos, one of the truly bad teams in the NFL.
In fact, the only interesting aspect to the game is that Tim Tebow will again start at quarterback for the Broncos. The charismatic Tebow got rave reviews for rallying the Broncos for a fourth quarter win over the Miami Dolphins by media members who didn’t seem to understand that the Dolphins hadn’t won a game. Against a good team, the Detroit Lions, Tebow and the Broncos were crushed.
Tebow is apparently a very nice young man, though his dropping to his knees and publicly thanking God for the Miami win was a bit over the top. It reminded me of the God Squaders on the Giants in the ‘80s who attributed their success to God, which also gave them an out when they failed, which happened much more frequently. I’m old fashioned, I guess: I believe players should keep their religious beliefs private.
Meanwhile, Tebow seems to be proving that the overriding belief in the NFL when he came out, that he couldn’t play quarterback in the league, was correct. He’s a very good athlete and probably could be a very good running back in the league. He wants to play quarterback, but that should be the coach’s choice, not his.
CAL BLUES: After a dreadful performance against the UCLA Bruins, there was speculation that Cal coach Jeff Tedford would bench quarterback Zach Maynard, but Tedford ended that speculation by saying on Tuesday that Maynard would start on Saturday against Washington State.
That didn’t surprise me. Coaches hate to change quarterbacks in midseason, and Tedford is certainly no exception to that rule. There are other complicating factors, not the least of which that Maynard and star receiver Keenan Allen, his half-brother, were a package deal. Equally important: Maynard and backup quarterback Allen Bridgeford are very different quarterbacks. Maynard is a left-handed quarterback who is also a good runner. Bridgeford is a right-handed quarterback who is not much of a runner. The offense would have to undergo multiple changes if he were to start.
At the start of the season, I looked at the schedule and thought that 6-6 and a minor bowl were reasonable expectations for the Bears. Sadly, that appears to be the best case scenario now. The UCLA loss was a killer. The only good news about that was that it might keep Rick Neuheisel around a little longer.
IF THERE’S one constant in labor negotiations in sports it’s that the owners always want the players to save them from themselves. It’s happening once again in the NBA. The league is totally out of balance, with the teams in big cities raking in money while teams in smaller cities are losing money. Meanwhile, top players getting absurdly high salaries. So, the owners want the players to take much less money in a new Collective Bargaining Agreement.
As I’ve written before, the owners could do much to balance off team revenues simply by adopting the same 60-40 split other leagues have on the gate, the 60 going to the home team, of course. But that would mean a team like the New York Knicks, to take the outstanding example, would lose quite a bit of revenue because, under the existing rules, the home team keeps all the revenue. You can bet that the Knicks realize much, much more from their home games than, for instance, the Portland TrailBlazers do.
There’s another huge problem with the home team keeps all formula: It forces scheduling that bunches games on the road to minimize expenses for the traveling team. That’s cheating fans because they see a watered-down product. There’s no way an NBA team can function at a high level playing three games in four nights in three different cities. That’s why home teams win such a high percentage of their games in the NBA.
But, the issue of the gate split hasn’t even come up in negotiations, and it won’t. In fact, the owners could do that on their own without having it included in the CBA, but the richer clubs won’t even consider it.
The other problem in the NBA is that the salary cap can be expanded and teams that want to go after the superstars have only to worry about a relatively insignificant “luxury tax.” Getting a superstar which insures home sellouts (see previous point) is much more significant for the bottom line than the luxury tax. So, the owners are saying, in effect, to the players, “Please, please increase the luxury tax to save us from ourselves.”
Frankly, I don’t have a lot of sympathy for the players, whose average salary is much higher than in football and baseball, but I have none for the owners, except for the Warriors’ new owners, who stepped into a mess they didn’t help create.
As it stands now, it seems that the most optimistic prediction for the NBA is that it will return after the start of the year. It’s possible an entire season will be lost, as happened to the NHL one year. I wouldn’t care except that a lot of people who have no say in this will be hurt, those who supply game day services, for instance, the Comcast sports network (in this area). All because of the greed of already wealthy owners. Kind of a snapshot for what is happening to the country as a whole.
MOTOR MOUTH: At the Bay Area Radio Hall of Fame banquet, inductees were supposed to limit their acceptance speeches to three minutes. Ralph Barbieri spoke for 24. Surprise.
I’ve known Ralph since before he even started in radio, in the ‘70s when I helped him with a Bill Walton article for Sport magazine. I like Ralph, but he is wearing because it’s always about me-me-me. He’s like a newspaper friend of mine who has hardly said hello before he starts talking about everything he’s done since we last saw each other. Without ever asking what I’ve done, of course.
But you don’t have to know Barbieri to know what he’s like. It’s all there when he’s on the air, especially with his convoluted questions. One time when I was on his show, he took so long asking me a question that the station broke away for a commercial before I could answer. I’ve done many interviews like that but I’ve never had that experience, before or since.
His approach has obviously worked for Ralph. I don’t pretend to know why because I almost never listen to sports talk shows. Life is too short.
SLOW NEWS DAY? The 49ers are headed for a double-digit win season. The Raiders are in a three-way tie for first in the AFC West. Stanford is on track for a major bowl and, some think, even a shot at a national title. Cal is in the middle of a quarterback controversy. The Schwab Cup is being played this week in San Francisco, with local great Tom Watson in the field. So, what did The Chronicle devote by far the most coverage to on Tuesday and Wednesday: a surfing competition. Wow! Great news judgment there.
What do YOU think? Let me know!
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