Billy Beane, Jackie Robinson, Tiger Woods, Jerry Rice/Don Hutson; Barry Zito/Carl Hubbell/ Christy Mathewson/Juan Marichal
BILLY BEANE’S reputation took a terrific beating when the book “Moneyball” came out, followed by the movie adaptation. Rival general managers seemed to think that he was responsible for the book and that he was saying that a statistical system he was using was superior to the scouting system that other clubs were using.
Both accusations were wrong. Beane cooperated with author Michael Lewis but had nothing to do with the planning of the book. Over a 15-year period, I had many one-on-one conversations with Beane and he freely acknowledged that the mathematical system the A’s were using had been largely in place since the mid-‘80s and that scouting was still a very important tool. The keys to the 2002 team that is celebrated in the book were all signed because of scouting reports – pitchers Mark Mulder, Tim Hudson and Barry Zito and shortstop Miguel Tejada. They are minor figures in the book, hardly there in the movie, I’m told (I’ve never seen it because I know it’s nonsense.)
The A’s did go through a fallow period in the immediate aftermath of the book, not coincidentally because they were bought by Lew Wolff and John Fisher. Wolff has spent most of his time in a futile attempt to move the team to San Jose, driving down fan interest while he was doing that, and keeping the payroll as low as possible.
In the last two years, though, the A’s have gone through a renaissance period, winning the AL West last year over the free-spending Texas Rangers and Anaheim Angels. This year, the Angels have done even more spending but it is the A’s who have gotten off to the best start in the American League.
It’s not because the A’s have started spending money. In fact, their payroll is the third lowest in baseball, behind only Houston and Miami, whose owners have been dumping players with sizeable contracts as fast as they can. Both have fallen to the bottom of the standings and there are some baseball people who think Houston could set a record for most losses since the start of the 20th century.
Meanwhile, Beane has strengthened the A’s scouting and is doing a masterful job of trading, adding depth which has been especially important because of a rash of early season injuries. He also has extended the contract of manager Bob Melvin, probably the A’s best since Tony La Russa. Melvin is especially adroit at juggling lineups, getting the hot hand in at just the right time. He’s helped greatly by Curt Young, the best pitching coach I’ve known at working with young pitchers, which is mostly what the A’s have.
They’ve been a lot of fun to watch, with an enthusiasm that gives them great confidence they can prevail. It’s hard to believe they can once again overcome the free-spending Angels, but they swept the first series in Anaheim. I just hope they can keep it going.
WHEN BASEBALL commissioner Bud Selig and his staff were planning a celebration to honor Jackie Robinson, they had two guide lines: 1) The Dodgers had to be the home team because that was the team Robinson broke in with, as he broke the color line in baseball. The other team had to have at least one black player, which rules out the current Giants. That’s an ironic note because, in the late 1940s, the Giants quickly followed the Dodgers with key signings of black players, starting with Monte Irvin and including Willie Mays, the greatest of them all.
The lack of black players on the current Giants is not a team policy but a reflection of the fact that there are few American blacks in major league baseball these days. If you see a black face, it’s more likely a Latino from one of the countries in or around the Caribbean.
Sports are always a reflection of society and there have been some important changes which have brought this about. One is that there are no longer school playgrounds which stay open after school for baseball. There are, however, basketball courts everywhere, and that’s the primary sport to which blacks have gone.
There are also very few full scholarships for collegiate baseball, so college baseball has become a primarily white game. I covered the 1999 College World Series and there was not one black player in the tournament. There are plenty of football and basketball scholarships, though, and that’s where black players have gone, which is why there is a majority of black players in both sports.
MLB has made some effort to counteract this trend with baseball academies, similar to those set up earlier in Caribbean and South American countries along the northern rim. (In the majority of South America, all the countries below the northern rim, soccer is the only major sport.) These academies have been long championed by Joe Morgan but I doubt that they’ll make a significant difference.
Nonetheless, Robinson’s accomplishment is a terrific one, and it’s right for MLB to be acknowledging it.
Personally, I didn’t realize at the time what a change that was, for several reasons. I was living in San Diego at the time, far removed from major league baseball, and in the late fall of 1946 had seen games between the barnstorming teams of Bob Feller and Satchel Paige, so without the benefit of television, I had no way of knowing that blacks and whites were not both represented in the major leagues.
More importantly, I was raised in a family that never even mentioned discrimination. My first 10 years were spent among the Scandinavians of northern Minnesota; the darkest face I saw was the one that stared back at me from the mirror. When we moved to San Diego, there were relatively few blacks but many Mexicans who had come across the border from Tijuana, to work in the fields, of course. My parents never commented on that. My best friend was the son of Japanese parents; he was at our house for dinner and I went to his, reciprocally. My parents never said anything about that, though the country had just finished a brutal war against Japan the year before. When I was in seventh grade, we moved to a mountain community in the foothills above Fresno, in a community which had an Indian (now called Native Americans) mission. My best friend was from that community. Again, my parents said nothing about that.
I couldn’t know that at the time but that became an important background for me when I started covering professional sports, which have become a polyglot of nationalities and races. All I’ve ever considered was whether they were good athletes.
ON A “Chronicle Live” program last Thursday, I predicted that Tiger Woods would win the Masters. I was wrong, of course, but it took an improbable series of events to derail him.
At one time, Tiger was the unquestioned leader of the pack in the world of golf. I was at the 2000 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach when he was probably at his peak, and he spread-eagled the field. I didn’t follow Tiger around the course because I didn’t want to get trampled by his fans, but The Chronicle had rented out a building just above the approach to the sixth green, and I could watch Tiger and his entourage, including Nike CEO Phil Knight, who was carefully guiding Tiger’s mother along, followed by what seemed like half of the Western world.
Then, in 2008, Tiger’s world fell apart when the whole world discovered his series of sexual liaisons with women who pursued him. His wife also found out about him, divorced him – getting a very lucrative settlement – and took their kids with her. Tiger lost his concentration and became just another golfer. He was still in that frame of mind before the U. S. Open at the Olympic Club last June when he went into a rant blaming the media for his problems. Please. Look in the mirror. His problems continued in that Open, of course, and he was never a factor.
One of the things I’ve learned from dealing with athletes over the years is the importance of their mental attitude. Probably the best positive example is Jerry Rice, who had undeniable ability and, even more, an unquenchable desire to be the best. He had an offseason workout schedule, first developed by Roger Craig, and he and Roger were the only ones who could stay with it. Year after year in the 49ers training camp, he would tell me of something he was working on to improve.
At the other end of the spectrum is Randy Moss, who declared himself the best receiver in NFL history at last year’s Super Bowl. A legend in his own mind. Moss’s physical talent is unbelievable and he had some of the greatest seasons in NFL history. But, too much of the time, he loafed through his patterns and short-armed passes, a pattern which became all too familiar to Raiders fans in his two-year career in Oakland. The best ever? Not even close.
Tiger had the Jerry Rice attitude early in his career, but he completely lost it with his family problems. When I saw him last June, I was certain that he’d never win another major, and I wrote that. But, observing Tiger’s play this year and his new romantic relationship with four time World Cup alpine ski champions Lindsey Vonn, I concluded that he was back on track.
So, I think his setback in the Masters was only a temporary one. He’s unlikely to win the U.S. Open at Merion because of its tight fairways but he will win more majors. Truthfully, I hope he doesn’t equal Jack Nicklaus’s total because I admire Nicklaus much more, but if he does, more power to him.
IF THE WARRIORS win tonight, they’ll have the sixth playoff berth in the NBA’s Western Conference, which gives them a chance to advance past the third round. But, as Warriors general manager Bob Myers acknowledged on that “Chronicle Live” show last week, there is still a lot of work to do to make the Warriors into a championship level team.
As has been true for some time, the Warriors have a strong offense, and Stephen Curry has a good chance to set an NBA season record for three-point goals tonight against Portland. He only needs two, which should be easy for him.
But defense is still a problematical area. Andrew Bogut makes a big difference when he plays because he blocks shots and alters others, but Bogut has been injured again and who knows how much he can play in the playoffs.
It’simportant for the future of the Warriors that they develop their young players, like Festus Ezeli, and do well with their future draft choices.
The good news is that Myers, with help from Jerry West, is trying to build a strong structure, not just looking for the one-season success the Warriors had in Don Nelson’s last coaching gig. The 2007 team was very exciting but that team never had the look of a consistent winner. As soon as Baron Davis went down, so did the Warriors.
Myers and his assistants are trying to avoid that kind of meltdown. For the first time in many years, I feel that the Warriors have a bright future.
PET PEEVE: Sportswriters who don’t consider the difference in eras when they make comparisons with athletes. My favorite example has always been Don Hutson. Because he played in an era when the forward pass was not an important part of the offense, he never seems to get in the discussion about the greatest ever receivers. The only footage I’ve ever seen of Hutson showed him grabbing the goalpost with one hand, swinging around it and catching a pass with his other hands. That was something to see but what really convinced me about Hutson was that his receiving stats were so far above others of his day that it seemed he was playing a different game. So, yes, he belongs in the conversation.
An example of another kind showed up recently when sportswriters noted that the streak of consecutive wins by the Giants during Barry Zito’s starts equaled Carl Hubbell’s in 1933. Please. Without having the stats at hand, I’m assuming that Hubbell completed all of his starts, because that’s what top pitchers did in that era. There were very few relief pitchers. Now, starters like Zito seldom go beyond seven innings so there are other pitchers involved, as well as unusual run support for a Giants pitcher. Even when Zito gave up nine earned runs yesterday in less than three innings, the Giants almost rallied to win the game.
There are three pitchers who are generally considered the best in Giants history: Christy Mathewson, Hubbell and Juan Marichal. In his early career, Tim Lincecum seemed as if he might become part of that group but not now. Matt Cain is a possibility because of his consistency. Zito? Look at the first five years of his Giants career.
RECENTLY, I wrote briefly about sportswriters keeping the same attitude toward sports that they had when they were youngsters. Many fans like that because they have the same attitude but writers like that fail readers on two counts: (1) They can’t accurately evaluate home town teams because they’re often rooting for them; and (2) They absolutely reject changes in games, especially baseball.
Like every other sportswriter, I was a fan when I got into the business but my attitude changed greatly when I started doing Giants clubhouse reports for The Chronicle. I could still admire their talents but I certainly couldn’t hero worship players who treated me so shabbily when I was trying to do my job. There were some obvious exceptions. Orlando Cepeda was always a prince and Bobby Bonds, when he came along later, was the opposite of his more famous son, always cooperative with the media. But Willie Mays simply answered every question I asked him with, “Aaaah, shee-it.” On a “Chronicle Live” program last year, Gaylord Perry said, “Glenn and I always had a good relationship.” Not the way I remembered it. At best, he was uncooperative; at worst, he cursed me.
That was probably a good learning experience for me, though, because I was able to treat athletes as real people, not demi-gods. The hero of my youth, as I’ve remarked before, was Ted Williams. When I was 12-13, my bedroom walls were papered with pictures of Williams. I didn’t have a chance to meet Williams until he was a manager but when I did, it was as two professionals, though he was the teacher, lecturing me on hitting skills. I could only wish I’d had him as a tutor when I was younger!
Similarly, I’ve looked at changes, especially in baseball, objectively. When the American League added the DH for instance, I thought it was an interesting change and I watched to see how it worked out. One thing that has always pleased me: Pitchers didn’t have to come out of games because their team needed a better hitter. On balance, I prefer the game with the DH because so many times in National League games, a rally is aborted because it’s a pitcher’s turn to hit – or he’s taken out when he’s pitching well because the team needs more hitting.
Another change that’s rankled the immature writers: Monitoring the pitch count. I had a hard time with it at the beginning because I preferred games where a starter went all the way, especially since I’d been lucky enough to watch Juan Marichal. But Marichal was a master who knew how to preserve his arm, only throwing his best fast ball in key moments. On the other hand, when Roger Craig was managing the Giants, he told me he had to pitch through a serious injury because he knew he’d be cut if he went on the DL. More and more we’re hearing about pitchers from earlier eras whose careers were cut short because they pitched too many innings, and there have been reports lately about younger pitchers who have had arm problems when the number of innings they’ve pitched – and the pitches they’ve thrown – have gone up dramatically from season to season.
So, on balance, I think pitch counts are a good thing.
NO LATE COLUMN: The 49ers pre-draft meeting was at 10 a.m. today. Driving in rush hour traffic, that would take me 1 ½ hours. I’ve done that before but not now, thank you.
What do YOU think? Let me know!
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