Bill Walsh/George Seifert/Trent Baalke/Jed York/Jim Harbaugh; Brian Sabean/John Barr/Bobby Evans; Lew Wolff/Charlie Finley; Bay Bridge Lights
SPORTS FRANCHISES get a tremendous amount of publicity which makes people think that they’re big businesses. They’re not. An NFL franchise, for instance, employs about as many people as your neighborhood grocery store. But store clerks aren’t in the headlines or on ESPN.
Because they’re not very big, sports franchises need only a few really good people to succeed. At the same time, not having those people can doom a team. We’ve seen examples of both with the Giants and the 49ers, and it’s been especially true of the Niners.
In the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, the 49ers had a nice run under Dick Nolan, getting into the postseason three straight years and as far as the NFC Championship game the first season. Unfortunately, they ran into the Dallas Cowboys each time. After that, when John Brodie retired, they fell into a down period, with quarterbacks best forgotten. Monte Clark brought about a partial revival in 1976, with an 8-6 team that missed the playoffs only because of a very unreliable kicker, Steve Mick-Mayer, known to 49ers fans as “Steve Miss-a-Mile.”
Then, the DeBartolos bought the team and named Joe Thomas the general manager. Thomas had a bigger ego than anybody I’ve known well in sports – and don’t forget that group includes Al Davis and Charlie Finley. He was determined to remake the team totally. What he did was to wreck it, both on the playing field and in the front office. When he became convinced that he would be assassinated at a Monday night game, Eddie had no choice but to fire him and hire Bill Walsh, for whom I had been campaigning in my Chronicle column.
Walsh, of course, not only revived the 49ers but turned them into a dynasty team that eventually won five Super Bowls. He didn’t do it alone. John McVay was by his side in the front office all the way; John knew everybody in the NFL and made the moves Walsh wanted. On the field, George Seifert was as imaginative with his defensive schemes as Walsh was on offense. And, they had good scouts, with Tony Razzano as the scouting director. It was a simpler time and they didn’t need as many people as it takes now.
The good times came crashing down at the start of this century. When Ira Miller and I were still at The Chronicle, we wrote that the Niners needed fewer computer geeks and more sound football people in the front office. Jed York realized that when he took over and started making changes. Scot McCloughan, who was already in place, and Trent Baalke, who replaced him, were making good player decisions but that wasn’t obvious because the 49ers had a succession of dreadful coaches, Dennis Erickson, Mike Nolan and Mike Singletary, each choice worse than the one which had preceded it.
York and Baalke realized that they needed the right coach to utilize the good players and they made the perfect choice in Jim Harbaugh.
Now, the 49ers are in a good position for long term success. That may not include another Super Bowl triumph, though I think it probably will, but they should be at least knocking on the door for some time.
The Giants, too, are in a good position to contend, though both their World Series championships were a surprise. That happens in baseball much more frequently than in either the NFL or the NBA because the outcome of any single game or series, during the season or the postseason, is so difficult to predict. Anybody who bets on baseball games fits my definition of insane.
The Giants had a nice early run in San Francisco, getting to the World Series in 1962 and coming thisclose to winning it. They were serious contenders for most of their first 15 seasons, despite the fact that they were playing in a National League which may have been at its strongest point ever.
Then, a series of bad trades, coupled with Spec Richardson’s idiotic decision to shut down a great scouting network, led to a serious decline, climaxing in the only 100-loss season in Giants history in 1984. With Al Rosen as general manager and Roger Craig as manager, the Giants revived and reached the World Series in 1989, the one in which the earth shook – and the A’s swept the Series in four games.
It’s been since the new ownership bought the team from Bob Lurie, to keep it from what would have been an awful destination in St. Petersburg, that the San Francisco Giants have had their greatest success. In his first year as general manager, Brian Sabean got the team jump-started with the trade that sent away Matt Williams but brought in four position players, including Jeff Kent. One columnist denounced Sabean as the “village idiot.” The same columnist now thinks Sabean walks on water. The truth is somewhere in between.
Sabean has made good decisions and he’s also made some bad ones, usually with overly generous contracts. The front office has been greatly strengthened, though, by the subtraction of Ned Colletti and the addition of John Barr and Bobby Evans. The farm system is producing position players as well as pitchers, and that’s enabled Sabean to make good trades for Angel Pagan and Hunter Pence that helped the Giants win their second Series.
It’s more difficult to predict that the Giants will have continued success than it is with the 49ers because there’s no limit on spending in baseball, without the salary cap. The Dodgers payroll will probably be about $80 million higher this year than the salary cap limit for NFL teams, though NFL teams have nearly twice as many players.
For certain, though, the Giants will continue to be a very entertaining team to watch, especially in AT&T Park, which is a marvel.
SPEAKING OF the 49ers, a pet peeve of mine is lazy sportswriters who refer to any offense that uses short and mid-range passes as a “West Coast offense.”
First, that’s a nickname for Bill Walsh’s offense but none of these resemble his. One example: He always used split backs who could run, block or go out for passes. Nobody uses that kind of scheme. In 1999, I asked Walsh if any NFL team used anything like his offense. He said only Seattle, which was coached by one of his former assistants, Mike Holmgren, who is no longer coaching.
Second, the nickname was derogatory. It stems from Bill Parcells coming off the field after his Giants had demolished the 49ers, 49-3, in a 1987 playoff game, and saying, “What do you think of the West Coast offense now?” In fact, Walsh had used many of his offensive schemes when he was running the offense for the Cincinnati Bengals, who are nowhere near the West Coast.
AS IF to prove that San Jose politicians can be as silly as those on the boards/councils of San Francisco, Berkeley and Oakland, San Jose City Councilman Sam Luccardo floated an idea this week that the city should sue the Giants for stopping the A’s from moving there. Even A’s owner Lew Wolff disavowed that idea, putting out a statement that the A’s were part of major league baseball and would abide by any decision by fellow owners.
But Luccardo’s idea was no more ridiculous than all these stories about “new” developments in the A’s futile attempts to move to San Jose, the most recent coming last week with reports of purported guidelines for an A’s move.
News flash: There are no guidelines. Moreover, the anguish over the supposed failure of commissioner Bud Selig’s committee to report on the issue is misplaced. The report was made more than two years ago, according to my source. Selig hasn’t reported to owners because he knows it changes nothing. In the ‘90s, when then A’s owner Steve Schott wanted to build a new park in Santa Clara, near his business interests, Selig told him that area belonged to the Giants. Nothing has changed.
And please, let’s put to rest that urban legend that Walter Haas gave Bob Lurie territorial rights to the area. Neither owner had any territorial rights beyond the cities in which their teams played.
Sports writers (and TV commentators, as well) seldom look beyond the playing sites, but politics are always an important part of sports. In this case, as I’ve written before, the current Giants ownership negotiated a contract with major league baseball in late 1992. MLB demanded that the Giants have a new ballpark within 10 years; the Giants beat that deadline by building a privately-financed park that opened in 2000. In exchange, the Giants were to get territorial rights to the counties on the Peninsula and San Jose. That agreement remains in force until the Giants agree to give it up, which they never will.
The Giants were eyeing Silicon Valley at the time, and contributions from companies in that area were a substantial part of the cost of the park. Also, many of the “charter seats” (the Giants name for Personal Seat Licenses) were bought by Silicon Valley people. They’re not going to give up that market.
Of course, Wolff also had his eye on Silicon Valley but since then, the 49ers have hit that area hard for investors in their new stadium, set to open in 2014. There may not be enough money left to build a baseball park in San Jose by now. We’ll never know because it isn’t going to happen. Despite all those articles in the San Jose Mercury that it is going to happen any time now, Selig has never put the issue on the agenda for owners meeting. He never will.
THE A’S will be getting a new park, but it will be in Mesa, Arizona, for spring training. Starting in 2015, they’ll move to a totally remodeled HoHoKam Park.
I remember when the A’s first trained there, in the ‘70s. A’s owner Charlie Finley for a time used orange balls, one of his innovative ideas. In one game, George Hendrick, who had been traded by the A’s to the Cleveland Indians, hit three homers, to all three fields. After the game, he was asked what he thought of the orange balls. He said he didn’t like them because it was hard to pick up pitches!
Spring training then was much different than now, with relatively few fans. Scottsdale was separated from Phoenix by miles of desert. I remember having dinner in Scottsdale with Reggie Jackson, when I was working on a magazine article on him, and then having to drive back to my Phoenix hotel in the black night, not really sure I was even going in the right direction. Now, it’s one unbroken urban area.
The Giants park in Scottsdale, which opened in 1992, is a beauty, with a press box that is even closer to home plate than at AT&T. I was sitting in the second row one day, working on a column, when I heard a loud thunk below me. A foul ball had hit just below me. I paid more attention to what was happening on the field after that.
I enjoyed Scottsdale, especially when my wife came down with me, because it has several very nice restaurants. The legendary baseball hangout, the Pink Pony, was not one of them. It was a favorite for many players, but I saw enough of them during the day so there was no reason to go, and I avoided it like the plague. I made one exception: A longtime reader was visiting with his 10-year-old son and wanted the three of us to have dinner there. He and his son enjoyed the experience but it would be charitable to describe the food as mediocre.
I haven’t been to spring training since the Hearst Corporation bought The Chronicle and the old Examiner editors came over to run the paper. When I asked about going to spring training, the sports editor told me there were several people ahead of me. Surprise – they were all former Examiner staffers. So, spring training became simply another of the pleasant memories I have.
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LAST SATURDAY NIGHT, Nancy and I celebrated our February anniversary and birthdays with our son, Scott, and daughter-in-law, Sarah, at Acquerello’s. On our way, we saw the practice run of the lights on the new Bay Bridge, and it was a spectacular show, as we drove along the Embarcadero.
It was also still another reminder of what a terrible mistake it would be to erect that monstrosity that Warriors owner Joe Lacob wants to build there as a monument to his ego. There are other spots in the city where this could be erected without cutting off a great view.
The politicians behind this are looking only at the financial boost the city would get from the construction but again, they’d get the same benefits if it were built elsewhere. And Lacob clearly wants an arena in San Francisco so he’d still build it if he had to go to another location.
Certainly, something needs to be done with those rotting piers but messing with the waterfront is not the right way to do it. The Bay is a great treasure, preserved by the efforts of a group of well-connected women 50 years ago when developers, in the name of progress, wanted to fill in the bay, from the Bay Bridge south. The politicians of that era thought that was a good idea, too. San Francisco mayor Ed Lee needs to look at the history of his city and learn from it.
TV: For those of you in the area, I’ll be on “Chronicle Live” tomorrow afternoon at 5 p.m., re-broadcast at 10 p.m.
What do YOU think? Let me know!
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