Tim Lincecum, Reggie Jackson, Vida Blue; DeSean Jackson, Michael Crabtree; Dennis Allen, John Madden; Manny Ramirez
THERE WERE echoes of Charlie Finley when the Giants signed Tim Lincecum to a two-year contract for $40.5 million, thus averting an arbitration hearing.
In the early ‘70s, baseball players were pushing for free agency and the owners decided to offer arbitration in 1973 in an attempt to head it off. Finley screamed at that, partly because he thought the system was flawed but mostly because he thought it was aimed at him. Both were correct. Finley had a great team, which won three straight World Series, 1972-74, but his stars were woefully underpaid. By far the largest group of players from any team in arbitration that first year were A’s players, and Finley’s payroll took a significant bump the next season.
Finley’s stated objection to the arbitration process was that non-baseball people are involved, weighing statistics without any feel for what they mean. Just one example: A hitter playing half his games in Philadelphia will have much higher power numbers that he’d have playing half his games in San Francisco, a point the Giants should have realized before they signed Aaron Rowand to that ridiculous contract. Rowand hit 27 homers in his last season in Philadelphia, 28 in his first two seasons combined in San Francisco.
There are other problems with the process. In a normal arbitration, the arbitrator tries to find a middle ground. In baseball arbitrations, each side sets a number and one number is picked. So, even if the player “loses,” he’s probably going to get a significant amount. If he wins, it will obviously be far more than the team was willing to pay.
The other problem is that, if the arbitration proceedings take place, the team has to advance arguments against the player, which can have a negative impact on his play that season. For that reason, teams usually try to negotiate a deal with the player before the hearings actually start, which is what the Giants did with Lincecum.
Arbitration only delayed free agency, it didn’t stop it. In December, 19975, arbiter Peter Seitz ruled that the reserve clause, which owners had used to bind players to a team for the duration of their careers, actually should apply to only a year after the last contract was signed. That opened the floodgates and again, Finley was most impacted.
Five of the A’s top players – Reggie Jackson, Rollie Fingers, Sal Bando, Joe Rudi and Gene Tenace – signed with other teams. The only star to stay was Vida Blue, who signed a contract after being assured by Finley that he’d stay with the A’s. But as soon as the ink was dry, Finley traded him to the Yankees. Baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn nullified the trade, citing his powers for the “good of the game,” and returned Blue to the A’s. Finley then traded him to the Giants for a group of forgettable but cheaper players – possibly the only good trade Spec Richardson made for the Giants – so Blue was gone, too. By 1979, the A’s were so bad, they lost 108 games and drew just 306,000 fans. Some minor league teams drew more fans. Even Lew Wolff’s best/worst efforts won’t equal that.
Finley had the best solution to the free agent market: Before each new season, declare each player a free agent, establishing the true market value of each one. Marvin Miller, who was then executive director for the Players Association, later said that was the one thing he feared. The owners have never done that, of course. Operating in a market defined by scarcity, free agents often get far more than they’re worth – check out Prince Fielder’s contract with the Detroit Tigers – and the owners get whip-sawed between free agency and arbitration. Don’t shed any tears for them, though. They get their money back through TV and constantly rising ticket prices.
Meanwhile, the Giants are doing the sensible thing by signing Lincecum – I expect them to sign him to a longer contract before this one expires – and probably will soon sign Matt Cain to a long-term contract. Young pitching is still the backbone of the team.
Yes, they need more hitting, and the changes they’ve made in the offseason will only help marginally, although the return of Buster Posey will be a significant boost. They need to make a commitment to their young position players, especially Brandon Belt and Gary Brown, who will probably be at Fresno this year and is exactly what they need at the top of the lineup, a good hitter and base stealer; he also has the reputation of being an excellent centerfielder. They’re probably stuck with Aubrey Huff because Brian Sabean, the king of bad contract signings, foolishly committed to a two-year contract at $12 million a year. But manager Bruce Bochy should be told not to think about contracts, just what is best for the team.
RAIDERS COACH: The Raiders apparent hiring of Denver offensive coordinator Dennis Allen to be their head coach has been described as the first time they’ve hired a defensive assistant to be their head coach since John Madden was promoted from being linebackers coach to head coach in 1969. That’s accurate enough but there was more to the Madden hiring than that, as I remember because I was the beat writer on the Raiders for The Chronicle at the time.
Davis had had a very contentious relationship with John Rauch, second-guessing Rauch often; since AFL teams played mostly in baseball parks at the time, Davis had to sit in the press box, not an owner’s box, and we could hear his grousing.
So, Davis wanted a coach who would be compliant. Madden had only two years of pro coaching experience and he noted at the press conference announcing his promotion that he would be “leaning heavily” on Davis’s ideas. One writer labeled Madden “Pinocchio,” after that press conference.
For two years, Madden ran the team as Davis wanted, but then, he developed an independent streak, challenging Davis on players that were Davis favorites but not helping the team (sound familiar?). He also changed the offense, emphasizing the run game more than passing down the field. Davis was so irritated that he nearly fired Madden after the Raiders lost to Miami in the 1973 AFC Championship game. But Madden stayed until he left after the 1978 season, partly because he was tired of working under Davis but mostly because of his fear of flying. To my knowledge, John has never been on an airplane since.
Madden’s strength as a coach was his ability to relate to his players, and he has always had the same ability to work with everybody. He has never criticized Davis and, in fact, remained close to him, starting with the research he did for Davis on the move to Los Angeles. When he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, he chose Davis to give the presentation speech. And, of course, he was involved with Ron Wolf in helping Mark Davis and Amy Trask look for a general manager, Reggie McKenzie.
The new coach? I’ll have more to say about him in my Friday column in The San Francisco Examiner.
DE SEAN JACKSON: Bruce Jenkins put out a tantalizing thought this morning in The Chronicle, noting that Jackson is exactly the kind of wide receiver the 49ers badly need. Bruce also noted that DeSean is really into DeSean, which could be a problem if the 49ers sign him.
Sometimes, an athlete like that can come to a team that has a strong team ethic and blend in. That happened when Randy Moss, who had worn out his welcome in Minneapolis and Oakland, came to the New England Patriots and set a league record for touchdown passes in a season.
But even that situation soon turned sour. Most times, it doesn’t work. If a me-first athlete comes to a team, he can tear it apart. There’s already one example of what happens to that kind of athlete under Jim Harbaugh. Braylon Edwards was expected to be a big part of the offense but he was first slowed by injuries and then by his me-first attitude. When he got healthy, Harbaugh cut him.
That’s why I’d be very surprised to see the Niners sign Jackson as a free agent. One of the big reasons for their success this year was their strong team ethic. Having seen Jackson’s attitude at Cal, I just don’t see Harbaugh taking a chance on him, especially since they already have one problem child receiver, Michael Crabtree.
Crabtree first showed his problematical side when he held out for a higher contract as a rookie because he thought he should have been drafted higher. Of course, he was being advised by Deion Sanders, so what could you expect? Crabtree signed late, with the 49ers only “concession” being an extra year on his contract. That only aided the club because NFL contracts are always one-year contracts with club options for succeeding years. So, the 49ers have control of Crabtree for another year but they could still cut him by just giving him one year’s notice. Not the sharpest knife in the drawer, our Michael.
Crabtree seemed to be finally becoming the receiver the Niners thought they were getting in late season, when he was Alex Smith’s go-to receiver. But then, he went MIA in the postseason, dropping three passes in the New Orleans win and then catching just one pass for three yards in the five thrown to him in the NFC Championship game. After which he complained that the 49ers hadn’t given him a chance to make a play. Oh, my. And they didn’t give him his cookies and milk at halftime, either.
KYLE WILLIAMS: In stark contrast to Crabtree’s complaints, Williams fielded the criticism he got for his two fumbles in the NFC Championship game with admirable grace, not attempting to make any excuses, not even that he might have been suffering a concussion. Despite earlier reports, there was no medical evidence, just media speculation.
Meanwhile, some fans went totally out of control, even making death threats in e-mails. Who are these people, anyway? Get a life.
Williams was put in this situation because of the injury to Ted Ginn. I’ve heard from readers who thought the Niners should have had a backup kick returner but they had a backup. His name is Kyle Williams. He had done it before. The fact that he’s not as good as Ginn? Well, if he were, he’d be the main return man. As it was, he had one nice return, almost to midfield, right after his first fumble.
These things happen. As other writers have noted, Roger Craig had a critical fumble in the 1991 NFC Championship game, and Craig was not a fumbler. At least, nobody suggested at that time that the 49ers shouldn’t have had Craig in the lineup.
JOE PATERNO: Paterno’s death was reported prematurely by a website reporting on Penn State news – and CBS Sports went on air with it immediately, without checking. As I wrote last week, nobody checks any more, so if you see a report on the Internet, wait a day. Most times, those are just rumors.
I have mixed emotions about Paterno. I felt some sympathy at the shabby treatment he got from the Board of Trustees, who sent a note with a messenger to his home telling him he was fired. But he also failed to tell police about the report he got about his longtime assistant, Jerry Sandusky, and that is unforgiveable. He should be remembered for his long and distinguished career, but there’s a serious cloud over it – and he brought that on himself.
STANFORD BASKETBALL: A reader sent me an e-mail equating Stanford basketball coach Johnny Dawkins with former Cal coach Ben Braun, and I have to agree. Dawkins said all the right things when he came to Stanford and he’s recruited well, probably because of his reputation as a player, but his teams don’t play as well as their individual talent.
Meanwhile, Mike Montgomery is at Cal, reminding Stanford fans of what they lost. When Montgomery was at Stanford, I wrote that he was the best local coach I’d seen since Pete Newell. He’s doing the same kind of job at Cal.
MANNY: The A’s apparent interest in signing Manny Ramirez has surprised some people but not me. He’d be one player the fans could recognize, after all. Who else is there?
It really makes no difference whether they sign him. The A’s are irrelevant. They’ll fall out of contention in, oh, maybe the third game of the season. The only battle they’ll have is with the Seattle Mariners, to stay out of the AL West cellar. Boy, that’s going to be exciting!
LAST WEEK: I apologize for the problems some of you may have had with my column last week but everything was screwed up, probably because that was the day the big Internet providers shut down to protest the anti-piracy bill in Congress. I couldn’t get my column posted on the website until after dinner, with my computer-savvy wife figuring out what had to be done, and I had to use another form of sending e-mail columns. Everything should be back to normal today.
What do YOU think? Let me know!
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