Bob Melvin, Curt Young, Billy Beane: Jeff Tedford and Cal History; Barry Zito; Raiders Problems
AMAZING A’S: Nobody saw this coming. After the A’s had unloaded their top pitchers, Trevor Cahill and Gio Gonzales, the experts concluded that they would probably lose at least 90 games. It seemed they’d be battling with the Seattle Mariners to stay out of last place in the AL West, an opinion with which I agreed.
Even when they had a great July, writers and broadcasters pointed to their second half schedule, topheavy with winning teams, and wrote them off. But, the A’s kept winning. In mid-September, it seemed the A’s closing schedule, all but three games on the road and playing on the road against both the Yankees and Texas Rangers, would surely sink them. But, the A’s just kept coming. As I write this, they have made up 13 games on the Rangers from their low point in June and could win the AL West by beating the Rangers this afternoon. Incredible.
The players have to do it on the field, of course, but three other men deserve great credit: manager Bob Melvin, pitching coach Curt Young and general manager Billy Beane.
Melvin should be Manager of the Year but probably won’t get it because of the usual East Coast bias. Writers along the Atlantic seaboard won’t be able to see beyond the job Buck Showalter has done with the Baltimore Orioles. Taking nothing away from Showalter, he hasn’t had to cope with the oft-changing roster that has challenged Melvin.
Just look at the regular lineup. All four infielders and catcher are different. Starting catcher Kurt Suzuki was traded early this season. At first base, Brandon Moss is a converted outfielder. Cliff Pennington started the season as the shortstop but is now splitting time at second with Adam Rosales. Shortstop Stephen Drew came in an August trade. Third baseman Josh Donaldson is a converted catcher, starting only because Brandon Inge was sidelined by injury.
Yet, somehow, Melvin has kept them all on the same page, even when the A’s lost three starters – Bartolo Colon because he failed a drug test and Brandon McCarthy and Brett Anderson because of injuries. McCarthy and Anderson are the A’s top two pitchers when healthy, but the A’s have survived those hits.
How? Because Young is the best pitching coach I’ve ever known in working with young pitchers. Dave Duncan was great working with veteran pitchers but he didn’t have a clue with young ones. Curt is very patient with young pitchers, identifying their strengths and getting them to concentrate on them. As a result, the A’s have gotten strong performances from unlikely sources. Travis Blackley, who beat the Rangers last night, was released by the Giants farm team in Fresno. Reliever Sean Doolittle was a first baseman as recently as last year.
The A’s winning formula has been simple: Very good pitching backed up by home runs. This A’s team has hit even more homers than the 1990 team with the “Bash Brothers”, Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire. They’ve hit more homers since the All-Star break than any other team, more even than the Rangers and Yankees, who play their home games in parks in which pop flies become home runs. In just 83 games, Moss has hit 21 home runs, more than any A’s first baseman since Jason Giambi in 2001.
The home runs are spread throughout the lineup, so opposing pitchers can never relax. The A’s are also setting strikeout records but they don’t care because their approach is also winning games.
This is all a blow to Lew Wolff’s master plan, because he can no longer claim that the A’s can’t win playing in the Oakland Coliseum – and with the lowest payroll in the league.
Beane, meanwhile, has maneuvered well within the restrictions of his budget. He got good value in the trades he made in the offseason, which is an indication that he has good scouts. He’s also done well with his in-season acquisitions. When Beane picks up a player with question marks, such as Moss or Blakely, he’ll send them to a minor league affiliate and have his scouts evaluate them. That process has worked very well this year.
In this morning’s Chronicle, Matier and Ross had an item saying that Oakland is negotiating with major league baseball for a five-year extension of the A’s contract with the Coliseum – and Wolff isn’t fighting it.
It seems even Wolff has come to realize that the only baseball team he’s going to see in San Jose in his lifetime is the Giants Class A minor league team. Now, if he and John Fisher will just sell the team to owners who can deal with Oakland on either building a new park or converting the Coliseum into a baseball-only facility once the Raiders move into the 49ers new stadium in Santa Clara in 2014, all will be well again in the A’s world.
THE CAL BEARS have started 1-4 and many supporters are very critical of coach Jeff Tedford, which shows that they have short memories when it comes to Cal football. Having written about Cal football since I came to the school as a junior transfer in the fall of 1956, I’ve seen more losing seasons than winning ones, and that goes far beyond individual coaches.
The teams which have consistently winning programs are those which have what I call the breathing test for athletes: If they can breathe, they’re admitted. And, don’t worry about having to study. We’ll put you in basket weaving classes to keep you eligible.
The leading example of that right now is the SEC, with one notable exception, Vanderbilt, which has stiff academic standards and, of course, losing teams.
Some top football schools are what are called “two track” schools. If an athlete truly wants an education, he can get it, but if he just wants to play football, there are those basket-weaving courses. USC has always been that kind of school. Students can get an excellent education, especially in the professional schools, but there have always been the soft courses for athletes and children of wealthy alumni donors – hence the nickname, University of Spoiled Children.
Cal is definitely not that kind of school. Educational surveys vary. Those that put a high priority on small class size rank private schools higher, but at the very least, Cal is considered the top public university in the country. One survey in London a couple of years ago rated it the best university in the world. I’m going with that.
A Cal coach who ignores that does so at his peril. Mike White was a successful coach but he brought in some junior college transfers that did not belong, and he was fired because of that. On Tom Holmoe’s watch, two players were given credit for a class they didn’t attend, which got Cal put on NCAA probation. Graduation rates for football players have slipped recently but I’m sure that’s temporary because Tedford has always been very cognizant of players’ classroom work and is even more so now that the new High Performance Center is in place, with a huge room where athletes can study, before and after practice.
The other reality is that college football is all about recruiting. No coach wins without good players, and a lot of them.
My first year at Cal was Pappy Waldorf’s last. Pappy’s former players revere him, as do alums who saw the teams that went to three straight Rose Bowls in the late ‘40s. But in the fall of 1956, some of my classmates hanged him in effigy at Sather Gate.
I never saw the great Cal teams of that era. We were living in northern California but far from Berkeley, in a small town in the foothills above Fresno; my dad was in the U.S. Forest Servicee and the forest headquarters were there. My dad and I listened to the Rose Bowl games on the radio, but there was no TV.
So, I have no personal experience with those teams, but observing West Coast football since then makes me believe that the reason Pappy had those great teams was that he came to Berkeley at one of those rare times when the USC program was down. The Trojans did get to the Rose Bowl in 1947 but lost to Michigan, 49-0,, so that obviously wasn’t one of the great USC teams.
In that absence, Cal recruited well. I remember stories at the time about how Pappy was “stockpiling” great players.
Again, recruiting is the key. The USC program revived in the early ‘50s, as the Trojans upset Cal in 1951 with Frank Gifford as the tailback in the old single wing. The USC revival coincided with the Cal slippage – Pappy never again had a winning season – except that it was no coincidence. In hindsight, I don’t believe Pappy’s coaching changed. He just couldn’t recruit successfully after the USC revival.
That’s relevant to what’s happening at Cal now. Tedford has been seriously handicapped in his recruiting efforts in recent years because of poor facilities, the tree-sitters and an old stadium.
Of the three, I think the most significant were the tree-sitters. Don’t forget that prospects often come to the campus with their parents. The players themselves may overlook some things but the parents don’t.
I first witnessed this in the ‘60s, when the “free speech” movement was in full bloom and the street scene on Telegraph Avenue was out of control. I think the “Free Speech” movement, though there were some excesses, was a good thing overall because it energized the students. My college generation was incredibly passive, not challenging anything.
There was nothing positive about the street scene, though, which was disgusting, a bunch of attention-seekers who had no connection with the university.
Parents of athletes who saw that display were not about to let their sons go to Cal. Check the football and basketball records for the ‘60s if you want to know the effect of that.
It was much the same with the tree-sitters, another disgusting group of attention-seekers who were allowed to overstay their welcome because of a spineless Cal administration and a Berkeley city government which is in a perpetual neverneverland.
This year, all the negatives seemed erased but a promising recruiting year was torpedoed when Washington hired away Tedford’s top recruiter, Tosh Lupoi. Recruits scattered because Lupoi had obviously sold himself, not the university.
Now, I hear alums say Tedford has “lost his mojo”, which seems to be the current hot phrase. But I’ve talked to Tedford and I know he was very excited about the program, with the new facilities and updated stadium. He hasn’t lost his enthusiasm, but no coach wins without the players.
Cal athletic director Sandy Barbour, who knows what’s happening, earlier gave Tedfor an extension through 2015.
I’d suggest that alumni who are unhappy about this season also take a more reasonable look at what’s happening. Cal will win again under Tedford, even if this season is lost.
BARRY ZITO: Because Zito has pitched well down the stretch, usually against weak NL West teams, there are some who think he should get a start in the postseason.
They should look at the last time Zito pitched in the postseason, in 2006 for the A’s. He had an excellent game against the Twins in his first start. In his second game, against Detroit, it was three-up and three-down for the first three innings, because the game started early and the sun was in the hitters’ eyes. Then, the sun went down and it was batting practice for the Tigers, who knocked Zito out.
Which Zito would the Giants get in the postseason? They’d really be rolling the dice if they trot him out there.
FOOTBALL SYSTEMS: I’m always amused by writers who talk about offensive and defensive systems, as if they were the reason a team won or lost.
That’s happening now with the Raiders. Their lopsided loss to Denver has writers again wondering if the “zone blocking” scheme is the right one for the Raiders offense.
Systems don’t win games, players do. It took Tom Landry six seasons before he had a team that even finished .500 in Dallas, but then he got the players and went on to be successful enough to make the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Bill Walsh went 2-14 and 6-10 in his first two seasons; when he got the players, he won three Super Bowls in eight seasons.
As I’ve written consistently, new Raiders general manager Reggie McKenzie had to clear out the worst of the Al Davis contracts, which meant the team is too thin to be competitive this year. But, he’s doing the right things to build a team which can be successful over a long period.
It’s not easy for Raiders fans to accept the tough losses, but it might help if writers covering the team quit talking about systems, as if that were the problem.
What do YOU think? Let me know!
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