Ben Davidson/Al Davis; Melky Cabrera/Buster Posey/Pablo Sandoval; Joe Lacob/Harrison Barnes
by Glenn Dickey
Jul 04, 2012

4JULY

I’VE BEEN skeptical of the Giants’ chances this year because I’ve seen their flaws, but I’ve forgotten one important element: They don’t have much to beat.

The National League is definitely in a down cycle, emphasized by the fact that they lost the inter-league battle for the ninth straight year, as American League teams won at a .563 percentage.

There seem to be two super teams in MLB this year, and they’re both in the American League – the Texas Rangers and the New York Yankees. There’s nobody in the National League that seems close to them, especially since the Dodgers have turned into an ordinary team since they’ve lost Matt Kemp. The Washington Nationals, who are beating the Giants for the second straight day as I write this, have the best winning percentage but their dependence on young players makes it unlikely they’ll survive the pressure-filled days in late season.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that the Rangers or Yankees will win the World Series. Once, it was simple: The champions of both leagues met in the Series, which was the only postseason competition. But MLB has added more teams as wild cards, with another this year, to give the fans of more teams a feeling that September games count. That’s an understandable plan – the NFL has done the same – but the addition of more teams and games into the postseason make it less likely that the best team will win. Example No. 1: The St. Louis Cardinals’ win last year. I was happy to see Tony La Russa go out a winner, but the Cardinals as the best team in baseball? Give me a break.

BEN DAVIDSON was more than just a player I covered. He was a friend, and his death yesterday came as a huge shock, especially since I’d just been to the event celebrating R. C. Owens life, after his death earlier. Too many reminders of my own mortality, though
I’m doing fine now.

I first knew Ben when I covered the Raiders, 1967-71, and he and Tom Keating quickly became real favorites of mine, mainly because of their intelligence. As I’ve written before, writers were very close to players at that time. We traveled with them, sitting beside them on planes. We had total access to them, with personal phone numbers, which I used only as a last resort. In training camp, we could interview them in their rooms. Keating had a large corner room where players would gather after lunch and talk over what was happening. I’d often sit in on those sessions, with the understanding that I’d never write on what I heard. If I heard something I wanted to write, I’d approach the player later and ask him if he wanted to go on the record. In the meantime, I got a great football education.

Ben was more of a loner and kept to himself, except for his friendship with Keating. Even that friendship had its limits because Ben was married, a marriage which lasted until his death, and Tom had resolved to stay single while he was playing. But in the offseason, they’d often get together for long motorcycle rides. I’ve written in an Examiner column for Thursday on the most adventurous of these rides, down into the rural areas of Mexico.

Unlike most athletes, Ben was very careful with his money. He told me one time that he had saved money every year of his career, though salaries were modest in those days, not much more than writers were making – except for quarterbacks, f course. When he retired, he had enough money saved to buy apartment houses in San Diego, and he also used his image to do commercials and travel world-wide on somebody else’s dime. Did I mention that he was intelligent?

Along the way, he also took time to do many charitable events, starting with his Raiders days. Though he was living in San Diego, he still had a great affection for the Bay Area and returned as often as he could. For years, he was a participant in the Alta Bates Celebrity Tennis Tournament at the Berkeley Tennis Club, as I was, too. The Alta Bates people always had special events planned for the participants – one of them was a dinner cruise on San Francisco Bay in FDR’s old yacht – and Ben and I would catch up at those events.

I wrote in the Examiner that Ben was an original, but that’s because I got a chance to know him so well. There may be players like him today but no writer can get to know them as well as I knew Ben, and Tom Keating, as well. I was the fortunate one.

ALL-STAR VOTING: Giants fans succeeded in voting three of their team’s players onto the starting lineup for the All-Star game next Tuesday: Melky Cabrera, Buster Posey and Pablo Sandoval. Cabrera is the only one who deserves to start.

This is not the worst example of ballot-box stuffing, though. In 1957, Cincinnati fans voted in seven of their players, with the Cardinals’ Stan Musial, playing first base by then, was the only non-Red to start. The Reds had a good hitting team that year but not that good; they did not win the pennant. But the Cincinnati Enquirer had made it easy for fans in that pre-Internet day by printing up ballots that had already been filled in and distributing them with their Sunday paper.

Baseball commissioner Ford Frick substituted Willie Mays and Hank Aaron for Reds’ outfielders Gus Bell and Wally Post, good players but nowhere near the stature of Mays and Aaron, who were building Hall of Fame careers. Frick also stopped fans voting for players and left it up to players, managers and coaches. That scheme last until 1969 when voting was returned to the fans.

Baseball wants fans to be involved, for obvious reasons, and the Internet allows another way for the system to be abused. Many going to Giants fans are relatively young and in tune with modern communication methods. In addition, the Giants put on a big advertising campaign and really got out the votes. The most astounding result was that Brandon Belt finished second in the first base voting which even amazed him. Belt has been in and out of the lineup and is just starting to hit the way a first baseman should.

This is by no means the only problem with the All-Star game. Once, it was truly an All-Star game, with the biggest names in the game playing all the way. As I’ve mentioned before, the first All-Star game I saw in person, at Candlestick in 1961, was won by the National League in a 10th inning rally which featured Mays, Aaron and Roberto Clemente, another Hall of Fame player.

That wouldn’t happen today because the All-Star game is more like a spring training game, with starters coming out early so managers can get everybody in the game. When that zeal for playing everybody meant that managers didn’t have any pitchers left, the 2002 game had to be called after the 11th inning when it was tied. That led commissioner Bud Selig and the Players Association to decide that the league which won the All-Star game would get the more favorable schedule for the World Series, with the first two and last two games. I can’t think of a more ridiculous idea. Managers have also agreed to hold back some position players and pitchers, in case a game goes into extra innings, which is another bad solution. Why not just call it a tie game and leave it at that? The 1961 game in Boston (there were two games that year) also ended in a tie because of rain and nobody was bothered by that.

The All-Star game has also suffered because of inter-league games. Don’t get me wrong: I like the inter-league games because they give fans in areas where there is only one league represented a chance to see the stars of the other league. But at one time, the All-Star game was the only time fans could see the stars of the other league. The increased player movement since free agency and the increased televising of regular season games has also lessened the appeal of the All-Star game.

The baseball All-Star game is still the best but only because both the Pro Bowl and NBA All-Star game are ridiculous. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell threatened to call off the Pro Bowl after the last all-offense, no-defense game was played. The NBA All-Star game is little more than a layup drill. The baseball All-Star game is marginally better but, IMO, no longer worth watching.

OAKLAND TEAMS: A lengthy piece in The Chronicle today, describing the tenuous state of Oakland teams, repeated the canard that Al Davis moved the team to Los Angeles because he couldn’t get luxury boxes in Oakland. In fact, there was an offer on the table to build those boxes at the Oakland Coliseum but those negotiating with Davis wanted him to sign a 15-year contract, so they could amortize the costs. Davis wouldn’t go beyond five, which he knew would kill the deal. When the Haas family bought the A’s, they agreed to the 15-year deal and had the boxes built. And, BTW, Davis never got his luxury boxes in L.A.

Davis decided to move the Raiders to Los Angeles as soon as Carroll Rosenbloom moved the Rams to Anaheim. I knew from my days on the Raiders beat, that Davis considered two cities where he’d like to have a team, New York and Los Angeles. New York already had two teams but with the Rams gone from L.A., that city was open. At that time, the Raiders only had three-year contracts in Oakland, so Davis made his plans to move as soon as the current one expired.

In the meantime, he played the local media like a fish. Most famously, he held a news conference in which he blamed the Coliseum authorities for stonewalling him. Because I had been following the negotiations closely, I knew that wasn’t true, and I wrote that in my column the next day. An Oakland columnist who hadn’t been following the issue, blasted the Coliseum officials. After Davis had moved the Raiders, this same columnist declared himself an implacable foe of Davis. But, not when it counted.

Now, there’s talk again that the Raiders will move when their current contract expires after the 2013 season. I think they will, but not to Los Angeles. When the 49ers open their new stadium in Santa Clara, the Raiders will move in with them. That stadium has always been designed to fit two teams, and Goodell has stated his preference for teams sharing stadiums, whenever possible.

I believe the other two Oakland teams will stay put. Lew Wolff can dream all he wants but baseball commissioner Bud Selig doesn’t want to challenge the Giants territorial rights. I don’t think Warriors owner Joe Lacob has a prayer of getting permission from the State Lands Committee to build his dream stadium on the San Francisco Embarcadero, which would cut off a substantial amount of the view that was opened up by the tearing down of the Embarcadero freeway after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. He could build elsewhere in the city but it wouldn’t be the obvious monument to his ego that he craves. So, he’ll stay at Oracle Arena, in the center of the team’s fan base, which has remained loyal – 10th of the NBA’s 30 teams in attendance – despite a conspicuous lack of success. With a good team, they’d sell out every night.

ANOTHER GREAT sports event, the Olympics, will start in London on July 27, which reminded me of the one time I went to the Olympics.

When the Olympics were held in Los Angeles in 1984, I knew I had to write something about it but my focus had always been on team sports and the Olympics focus is on individual events.

So, I decided to do something much different. I went to the Olympics, but without a media credential. Instead, I got tickets to different events, some from The Chronicle and more from my uncle, Monty McKinney, who was very big in advertising in Los Angeles and got tickets to everything.

I stayed downtown, at the Hyatt Regency, instead of the out-of-town media hotel. I went to the events I wanted to, men’s and women’s gymnastics, women’s volleyball in Long Beach, swimming at USC, with my aunt, Ginny, and thoroughly enjoyed them all. This was the year the Soviets boycotted the Games, so many tickets were turned back and re-sold to locals at Hollywood Park, at the pari-mutel windows. I interviewed people who bought those tickets and wrote their stories.

After a week, I came home and watched on TV with my wife and son. Afterwards, I talked to writers who had covered the events in a normal fashion – and hated it. They were crammed into media buses, herded to mass news conferences, covering events which were spread out all over the area.

My way was much better.

THE WARRIORS draft is looking even better now that we can see that the top three choices seem to be quality people as well as players.

No. 1 pitck Harrison Barnes was at the Giants-Reds game Sunday and had seen the Earthquakes in San Jose the night before, trying to soak up “the Bay Area culture”, as he told Amy Guitterez of Comcast during the game. That might not help him on the court but it will certainly boost his acceptance by fans.

On a personal note, I liked it when Barnes wore a coat and tie when he and his fellow draftees showed up at a news conference. A. J. Jenkins, the 49ers’ top pick, did the same. I hate the “dumbing down” of the dress code, and it’s especially prevalent in the press box, where many writers dress like homeless people. Ugh!

OH, AND by the way, Happy Fourth of July! My wife put up our flag on our third floor balcony yesterday, so we’re prepared.

What do YOU think? Let me know!

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