Gabby Douglas/Usain Bolt; Gordy Soltau; Colin Kaepernick; Brett Pill; Bobby Valentine
THIS OLYMPICS was the most enjoyable for me that I can remember, possibly because it was in London, one of our favorite cities. The Brits did an excellent job, starting with the Opening Ceremonies, which included a marvelous James Bond spoof with Queen Elizabeth and Daniel Craig and concluded with Paul McCartney. It doesn’t get better than that. Throughout the Games, there were shots of London. Nobody does grandeur like the Brits, with their monarchy and classical buildings. Only the closing ceremonies fell short, partly because NBC botched it with its cuts, while permitting Bob Costas to babble on. Despite considerable evidence to the contrary, Costas obviously thinks he’s God’s gift to the universe.
My wife and I watched selectively, with most of our choices women’s events. That’s only fair since I dragged Nancy to many sports events when we were courting, including Cal football games. I was a fun date.
We particularly enjoyed Gabby Douglas in the gymnastics, as she coolly faced the pressure and didn’t blink. The Chinese divers in the team effort were amazing, combining gymnastic skills and absolute fearlessness. Usain Bolt was equally incredible in his repeat wins in the sprints. At one time, I watched a lot of track and field meets at Edwards Stadiums, and I remember marveling at Tommie Smith’s efforts. But I’ve never seen a sprinter win so decisively as Bolt, and he seems to do it effortlessly.
This is what the Olympics should be all about, in my opinion, young athletes who have devoted their lives to their efforts for one shot at glory. I have some experience with that because our son, Scott, was in a gymnastics program when he was young. The star of the program didn’t even go to high school, taking classes at home, so she could spend more time on gymnastics. She was expected to have a shot at a gold medal – but then, she was injured in the Trials and didn’t make the team. I’m sure that story is not unique in gymnastics, nor in the other individual sports.
I didn’t watch the men’s basketball final, though it was a thrilling one between the U.S. and Spain. I was turned off by the lopsided win earlier over Nigeria, and I continue to believe that basketball should not be an Olympics sport.
I’ve heard that the NBA is exploring some kind of World Cup for basketball, which makes sense. There are many countries playing basketball now, so it could be similar to the World Cup for soccer, which is much more important to the soccer-playing countries around the world than the Olympics. For that reason, I don’t think men’s soccer should be an Olympic sport, though women’s soccer should have a place. This year, the schedule was so crowded, a women’s soccer match had to be played before the actual start of the Games. Obviously, there needs to be some pruning of the schedule, and taking out team sports that have meaningful international competitions is one way to do it.
There have been many excesses in history that have threatened the future of the Games, most of them by the fat cats in charge. Hello there, Avery Brundage! Holding the 1936 Olympics in Berlin continues to be the largest black mark on the Games’ history. Americans fondly remember Jesse Owens victories but what the rest of the world saw was the efficiency of the Nazi state – and they were impressed.
But, when you see the enthusiasm of the athletes at the events and at the opening and closing ceremonies when they’re all together, you can understand the meaning of the Olympics and how it has survived all the bureaucratic excesses.
Next on the agenda: Rio de Janerio. We were there a couple of years ago and it was obvious they had a lot of work to do, especially on cleaning up the pollution in the water, but I wish them luck.
GORDY SOLTAU will be inducted into the Edward J. DeBartolo Hall of Fame on Oct. 13, with a ceremony to follow at halftime of the 49ers game against the Detroit Lions the next day. It’s a well-deserved honor for Soltau, who was a star player for years for the Niners and then segued into the broadcasting booth.
When I talked to Soltau for my 49ers history book, published in 1995, he told me that he was an interesting part of television history. When the NFL started telecasts of games in 1959, they did it the same way they’d been doing radio broadcasts, with sets of announcers for both games. Soltau and Bob Fouts did the telecasts of 49ers games. Later, of course, the NFL went to national announcers for the televised games, local ones remaining on radio. Soltau continued to do the color as Lon Simmons replaced Fouts as the play-by-play announcer.
I had one unforgettable experience with Gordy as an announcer. In 1974, I had published my first book, “The Jock Empire,” and he agreed to interview me at halftime of a 49ers game in Chicago against the Bears. This was late November and the arctic wind was sweeping in from Lake Michigan. I left the press box, probably heated to about 95 degrees, and had to walk around the top rim of the stadium to the radio booth on the other side. I can’t remember ever being so cold, though I was born in northern Minnesota, where sub-zero temperatures were the norm in winter. But, we left Minnesota when I was 10 and I can’t summon physical memories of the extreme cold, as I can of that day in Chicago. I hope it helped book sales.
Before that, Soltau had been an important player for the Niners, not only as a receiver but as a place kicker. He played for some explosive offensive teams in the ‘50s, including the “Million Dollar backfield” of Y. A. Tittle, Hugh McElhenny, Joe Perry and John Henry Johnson, all now in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He had some great stories about those days – though not quite as colorful as those from Tittle.
At 87, he’s an inspiration to us all. I saw him recently, at the memorial service for R. C. Owens, and he was as vibrant and full of life as ever. Gordy had played with R. C. and, like everybody who knew him, had only fond memories of him.
49ERS QUARTERBACKS: We don’t have a phony quarterback controversy, as we did in the wretched Mike Singletary years, but there is an interesting debate about the ranking of the quarterbacks behind Alex Smith. As usual, this is more likely to be decided in training camp sessions than in the actual exhibition games.
The problem with these pretend games is that they’re glorified tryouts for young players, many of whom will not be on the roster, and coaches don’t game plan as they do in the regular season. Instead, they call the plays they want to work on.
Consequently, every year there is a young quarterback who shines in the fourth quarter of a game, throwing against defensive backs who will probably not survive the cuts. In the 49ers’ first game this year, it was Scott Tolzien who sparkled as the third quarterback in the game. Tolzien, who had a good career at Wisconsin but went undrafted, is in his second training camp with the Niners. He is certainly good enough to play in the NFL. The question now is whether it will be with the Niners.
Colin Kaepernick had a sensational 78-yard run for a touchdown but his teammates have noted that he is often reluctant to pass, choosing instead to take the ball down and run. Steve Young was like that when he first came to the Niners because he didn’t fully grasp Bill Walsh’s offense. Kaerpernick is making an even bigger adjustment, coming from the “Pistol” offense at Nevada that is much like the old single wing. At this point, I don’t believe even coach Jim Harbaugh is certain he can make the adjustment – or whether it would be better to shift him to running back eventually. Not this year, obviously, because the 49ers have a surfeit of running backs.
The other question is Josh Johnson. When Johnson came to the 49ers, some of the media who still don’t believe in Smith thought he’d be competition for the starting job, given his previous collegiate background with Harbaugh. That was ridiculous, but it did seem that he’d fit as a backup. In camp, though, he’s struggled with learning the offense. The question now is whether he’ll even make the team.
This will be Harbaugh’s decision, of course, and I can guarantee you this: He won’t announce it until the very last cuts are made.
RAIDERS: Even by the low standards of these pretend games, the Raiders’ opener was a stinker, a 3-0 loss. When I saw that score, I thought it was a Giants game.
The Raiders are a work in progress. The good news was that the defense played well. New head coach Dennis Allen has a defensive background and he’s determined that the Raiders will not play the sloppy, undisciplined defense that has crippled them in the recent past.
The offense has some weapons, too, and it was a good move to pick up Matt Leinart as a backup quarterback and even starter if Carson Palmer is injured.
There will be more moves. New general manager Reggie McKenzie was known in Green Bay for his ability to find talent among low draft picks and even undrafted players, and it wouldn’t surprise me if he finds some help among cuts by teams higher in the food chain.
GIANTS: When Brett Pill came up last year and swung a hot bat for a time, some Giants fans thought he might be the answer to the continuing first base problem. But pitchers soon figured him out and his average tumbled. He was up for awhile this year, then sent back down, back up briefly last week, then down again.
That really shouldn’t come as a surprise. Pill was already 27 when he came up last year, and it’s very rare that a player making his major league debut goes on to have a good career. When that happens, it’s usually a player who started with another sport and changed to baseball in his 20s. That was not the case with Pill.
Baseball people pay a lot of attention to the ages of young players, which is why blacks, in the immediate aftermath of Jackie Robinson’s breaking of the color line – and Larry Doby shortly after with the Cleveland Indians – often lied about their ages. I mentioned the Luke Easter example earlier, but there were others who “discovered” another 5-10 years after retirement. They knew they wouldn’t have had a chance if their true ages had been known. The same is true of Latinos today, some of whom come in on passports/birth certificates of other men. When a Latino player fades in his early 30s, I often suspect that he’s really older than his supposed birth certificate.
In normal cases, the age at which a player proves he belongs in the majors is an important indicator of his chances for his career. The latest example is Mike Trout with the Angels, who is both a hitting and fielding sensation at age 20. That’s when players like Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Al Kaline, Ted Williams (just hitting in his case) and Mickey Mantle proved they belonged. All are in the Hall of Fame, of course.
Conversely, if a player doesn’t reach the majors until 27, when he’s already in the period which should be his most successful, he has little chance of having a fruitful career. In this regard, Pill seems to be the norm, not the exception.
GIANTS FANS: When I was on Comcast’s “Chronicle Live” last Friday night, host Jim Kozimor was interviewing Ray Ratto at AT&T. Asked about the fans, Ratto made his customary smart-ass comment that, if the Giants lost, “They’ll fall on them like jackals.” Cosimo, to his credit, didn’t let that stand, commenting that he thought the Giants fans were very loyal.
Jim and I talked about that off the air, as I told him I agreed with him. The Giants fans are more loyal than any I’ve seen in the Bay Area in the 50 years I’ve been writing for San Francisco papers. They just love the players.
Conversely, I don’t think they give players from other teams the respect they deserve. I remember last season when the Cardinals came to town and Albert Pujols was only hitting about .188. The fans shouted his average at him when he came to bat. Good grief! This guy had proven himself to be the best hitter in baseball. Show him a little respect.
TIGER WOODS: Now, Tiger is saying he was “too relaxed” for the third round of the PGA, when he took himself out of the tournament with three bogies on the first seven holes. This may well be the first of many bizarre explantions as Tiger tries to explain away his collapses in the final two rounds of major tournaments (see the Masters, U.S. Open and British Open this year.)
In the meantime, I’m going to enjoy watching Rory McElroy pile up the majors. If Jack Nicklaus is ever going to be challenged for most majors,it will be McElroy or somebody like him. Tiger has taken himself out of that competition.
BOBBY VALENTINE: Boston Red Sox owner John Henry has given Valentine a vote of confidence, which is usually the forerunner to getting fired. Not in this case, though. Nobody else wants the job. The Red Sox, a model organization in the recent past, have fallen apart.
Valentine is no longer a good manager, if he ever was. When he started telling his veteran players that they had to stick around in spring training after they’d been taken out of the game, I thought, how high school. He lost his team right there. Reportedly, Henry’s announcement came after star players had reportedly complained to him about their manager.
Anyway, it will be amusing to see him try to explain how none of this is his fault. After all, he invented baseball. . . or so he seems to think.
What do YOU think? Let me know!
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