Tim LincecumBarry Zito; 49ers vs. Giants; Jim Harbaugh/John Madden; Andrew Bogut
AN INTERESTING subtext for the Giants season will be the career paths of Tim Lincecum and Barry Zito.
Lincecum had his first bad season last year and ended it pitching, brilliantly, out of the bullpen. His physical ability is undeniable but his maturity level has not matched that and Matt Cain, his polar opposite in maturity, has now supplanted him as the No. 1 starter. It is Cain who, barring an unexpected injury in spring training, will be the Opening Day starter. Lincecum, who can be a free agent after this season, will be struggling to regain his spot in the starting rotation.
Last year was as much of a shock to Lincecum as it was to Giants fans. His career had been on an uphill climb since he was drafted by the Giants. It includes two Cy Young awards, a startling accomplishment for a young pitcher. Heís had bad periods where his complicated delivery has gotten out of sync, but heís always been able to bounce back from those periods and resume his mastery. Not last year, though, so the question mark over his head remains.
In retrospect, he wasnít training in the offseason as he should have been and his lack of conditioning led to a drop in velocity for his fast ball. Though heís not a power pitcher like Cain, his fast ball set up his other pitches Ė and also got him strikeouts at key times.
From his comments and behavior in the offseason, he seems to have learned his lesson. Apparently, heís gotten serious about his conditioning and heís even cut that straggly, unkempt hair, though his current hair cut is no bargain.
Ideally, Lincecum will return to his pre-2012 form and the Giants will sign him to a new, lucrative contract in midseason. And, he will have a good example nearby to see what happens to a pitcher when immaturity Ė and, probably, stupidity Ė take over. That would be Zito, of course.
Zito is now a fan favorite, after the way he pitched down the stretch and in the postseason, after manager Bruce Bochy shocked him by taking him out in the third inning of his start against the Reds, when he was already stinking out the joint.
Thereís never been any secret about what Zito needs to do to be a winner: throw strikes. He isnít a strikeout pitcher, with a fast ball that is mediocre at best, but he can be effective if he throws strikes and makes hitters swing at the pitches he wants them to. But, too many times he nibbles, nibbles, nibbles until he has to come in with a fat pitch and then watch it go over the wall.
The bar is no longer high for Zito. The Giants donít expect him to be any more than a competent fifth starter, so if he pitches smart for a season, he should get that new contract he says he wants from the Giants. Interestingly, he has a clause in his current contract that if he pitches 200 innings this year, another year clicks in automatically at $18 million. (Donít you wish you could have Brian Sabean negotiate a contract with you?) Unless manager Bruce Bochy thinks Zito can get him over the top in late September, Iíd advise him to sit Barry down when he reaches 199 innings. Then, the Giants could negotiate a contract expansion at much less than $18 million. Zito has been overpaid too long.
ARE THE Giants now more popular in the Bay Area than the 49ers? A Chronicle columnist theorized that they are, because the Giants television ratings for the World Series were much higher than the 49ers for the Super Bowl. But the TV ratings only measure the number of sets turned on to the game, and they donít account for the different ways fans watch these games.
My own sampling was personal, not scientific. I do the family shopping, and everywhere I went in the two weeks before the Super Bowl, I was greeted by strangers who wanted to know who I thought was going to win. (My face is very well known so I often get people, usually men, who just walk up to me and talk as if theyíve known me all their lives, without introducing themselves.) And, two days before the game, when I was shopping at the Montclair Lucky, the store was mobbed in a way it normally is only just before Thanksgiving and Christmas. The shoppers were loading up their carts big-time, too. It wasnít difficult to conclude that they were planning big Super Bowl parties. I hadnít seen the same pattern before either of the Giants World Series championships.
It makes sense. There arenít many parties thrown to watch the Series because it goes for at least four games. The Super Bowl is just one game. Also, when the Series doesnít match teams from the big population areas in the East, it doesnít do well in national viewership, so itís easier for cities which are represented to do well in the ratings. The Super Bowl is an event, with an overwhelming halftime show, so people watch it even if they donít have a direct connection to the teams.
The Giants have certainly been a great story in the Bay Area but since I first started writing column in the early Ď70s, the most response Iíve gotten has consistently been on 49ers columns. The volume of my e-mail is way down from my Chronicle days but the pattern hasnít changed. The 49ers are still No. 1.
BUD SELIGíS greatest folly, the World Baseball Classic, will be rolled out again this spring. There are multiple problems with this, chief among them the fact that major league players are called out of spring training and forced to play in all-out competition at a time when they should be gradually rounding into shape to play. Itís an especially hazardous time for pitchers, who always face the danger of breaking down if they try to do too much too early.
And, there is no reason for it. The purpose was supposed to be to spread baseball through the world but those countries competing are already ones where baseball is a big sport. There is really no way it is going to be spread beyond where it already is, but Selig is intrigued by the international possibilities for the game. Thatís what has led to another really bad idea, having games in Japan that count in the regular standings. For what purpose? The Japanese are already crazy about baseball. American press boxes overflow with Japanese media whenever a team which has a Japanese player is playing.
But, no matter how many bad ideas Selig has, heís in no danger of being replaced. Owners love him because heís brought in additional revenue streams. Thatís always their objective. Winning is not even a close second.
COLLEGE BASKETBALL: Just when it appeared that Calís basketball program was going down the tubes, coach Mike Montgomery came up with a different defensive scheme that allowed the Bears to upset Arizona Ė and on the Wildcatsí home court.
Thatís what Iíve always liked about Montgomery, his creativity. Most of his success at Stanford came with teams which had dominant post players, and he had his players pound the ball into the middle consistently, to the point where critics said he couldnít win with another kind of team. But, heís never had that kind of team at Cal and heís still won.
Montgomery always has a plan. When he calls a time out, the Bears come out with a play which usually results in a score. Thatís in stark contrast to his predecessor, Ben Braun. When the Braun--coached Bears came out of a time out, theyíd just resume the aimless passing the ball around on the perimeters which was the unfortunate trademark of Braunís teams.
Stanford, meanwhile, has Johnny Dawkins, who has been a great recruiter but still doesnít seem to realize that those players need to be coached. Sometimes, those players put together a winning effort, as they did against Arizona State. And, when they lose? ďWe didnít shoot the way we can,Ē is Dawkinsí inevitable comment.
This is a big week for both teams, because the L. A. schools are playing at Haas and Maples. If Cal can upset UCLA tomorrow night, it would greatly enhance their chances in the Pac-12. I donít think they can because this team doesnít have the depth it needs. If Montgomery had Dawkinsí team, heíd definitely be in contention for the conference title. Unfortunately for Stanford, their present coach canít get them there.
OOPS: I wrote last week that Ronnie Lott was called for pass interference on an uncatchable pass in the 1983 NFC Championship game. As an alert reader pointed out, it was actually Eric Wright. (I corrected that in the online version but my e-mailed columns had already gone out.) Lott was called for defensive holding in the fourth quarter but it was Wright who was the victim on the ridiculous pass interference call.
WHEN I wrote about Jim Harbaughís uptight approach to the Super Bowl, some readers thought I was referring to his volcanic eruptions on the sideline to officiating calls. Not at all. Thatís just letting off steam and has no effect on players. But if a coach lets the team feel his tightness before a game, as Harbaugh did before the Super Bowl, it is usually fatal to the teamís chances.
A KPIX staffer wrote me that he was listening to John Maddenís show when Jim Harbaugh called in to ask for advice. Madden told him that the more relaxed coach was usually the winner in these games. That was certainly true this year. John Harbaugh handled the extra media attention much better than his younger brother and the Ravens came out playing their best. The 49ers came out playing their worst.
Interestingly, Madden was one of those coaches who was most demonstrative on the sidelines but I know from personal experience that he was not uptight going into the game and his teams always played as if they expected to win. Usually, they did, because they paid no attention to Maddenís sideline antics, which they knew were mostly designed to intimidate officials.
There are certainly coaches who are very intense, though probably only a small percentage who equal Harbaugh, but the successful ones have learned how to keep their teams from getting tight on game day. Probably the best example is Bill Belichick. Early in his career as a head coach, it seemed that Belichick was an example of the Peter Principle, an outstanding defensive coordinator promoted beyond his capabilities. Then, he learned to retain that intensity while allowing his players to play their best.
Iíve been around several coaches who have learned this lesson. Bill Walsh for certain. Walsh was as intense as they get but his teams played their best in big games most of the times. Obviously, that 49-3 crushing by the New York Giants in a playoff game in 1986 was the exception. (That was also what gave Walshís offense a totally inappropriate name as Bill Parcells came off the field and said, ďWhat do you think of the ĎWest Coast offenseí now?Ē Lazy writers have since called any offense that uses short passes frequently as running a West Coast offense, though those teams bear little resemblance to Walshís.)
The rule that the more relaxed coach also wins the big games also applies to the back-to-back Stanford wins in the Rose Bowl, 1970-71. John Ralston was much more relaxed than Bo Schembechler and Woody Hayes. Itís probably no coincidence that Schembechler was a role model for Harbaugh when he played at Michigan.
Harbaughís anti-media attitude? I suspect that comes from his playing days when he was constantly ripped by the Chicago media, which has basically been the problem for every Bears quarterback since Sid Luckman. Even though they live there, the Chicago writers donít seem to understand the extreme difficulty of passing accurately when that biting wind is coming off Lake Michigan.
Harbaugh doesnít seem to understand how lucky he is, dealing with the Bay Area media members, who are not remotely as difficult as in Philadelphia or New York, for instance. Yet, his media sessions here seem to be constant battles. That was true at Stanford, too, where he faced even fewer tough questions.
Overall, I think Harbaugh has done a great job with the 49ers. The talent was there, assembled by Scot McCloughan and Trent Baalke, but that wasnít obvious until Harbaugh came along and, despite having a shortened practice period because of a lockout, got the 49ers to the NFC Championship game his first year. This year, of course, he got them to the Super Bowl.
But unless he gets a better perspective on himself, I think heís going to have a short coaching career in the NFL. Heíll just implode one of these days.
THE WARRIORS have gone into a tailspin recently, losing their last five games. After the last loss, to Houston last night, former coach and general manager Garry St. Jean had an interesting explanation: The other players havenít adjusted to the addition of Andrew Bogut. St. Jean had one defensive play broken down in slow motion to show how David Lee and Jarrett Jack had both failed to cover and the Rockets had scored an easy basket.
His explanation made sense. The Warriors were playing excellent team defense without Bogut. His addition should make them better but itís changed the dynamic. Coach Mark Jackson should use the time during the All-Star break to remind his players of what they have to do. The Warriors should be a playoff team Ė but only if they play as a team, not individuals.
LETTERS: A reader reminded me recently that it has been a long time since I updated this section, which has always been popular with readers. Unfortunately, it will be even longer because Iíve been involved with other writing. I have a book with my agent now with stories of my experiences with great athletes, coaches, managers and front office executives in the Bay Area, as well as one chapter on my experiences with Howard Cosell. I have my fingers crossed that Mike will find a publisher because the book business is even more problematical now than before. Meanwhile, I am working on a mystery novel that has nothing to do with sports and only tangentially with the Bay Area. It is primarily set in Europe and I have drawn from the knowledge Iíve gained on many trips there but this is in no sense autobiographical. It is a real challenge because itís totally unlike anything Iíve ever done before but Iíve always tried to challenge myself with my writing. This one I intend to self-publish on Amazon for their Kindle readers. Iíll keep you posted on any developments with either project.
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