Matt Cain/Tim Linceum; Lew Wolff/John Fisher/ Bud Selig; Dianne Feinstein/Gavin Newsom; Tony La Russa/Bill Walsh/Mike Nolan
ON SUNDAY, the Giants completed an 18-game stretch they had dreaded with 14 of the games on the road and against opponents with better records. They didn’t exactly sparkle, with a 7-11 record but in that stretch, they lost just 1 ˝ games to the top teams in the division.
That tells you all you want to know about the NL West. As I’ve written before, the top teams in the division are little better than .500 teams. Only one of the teams in the division, the Arizona Diamondbacks, has a winning record on the road, and that only by two games. There are two teams in the NL Central with winning records on the road, and a third, Pittsburgh, at .500. St. Louis is almost 2-1, at 25-13. Road records are often a measure in separating top teams from mediocre, an adjective that defines the four top teams in the NL West. After last night’s loss, the Giants have fallen behind the no-name Padres.
At this time, the Giants are down to two reliable starters, Matt Cain, who goes tonight at AT&T, and Madison Bumgarner. Chad Gaudin has helped but he’s been a journeyman throughout his well-traveled career. It would be best if the Giants could use him in the role manager Bruce Bochy envisioned, long relief, but he was desperately needed as a starter.
Barry Zito is normally decent at AT&T usually but he’s an absolute disaster on the road. Tim Lincecum, who is winless on the road, has had his moments but he usually has one bad inning that brings him down. A reader disputed my claim that Lincecum would do better in relief, pointing out that he is weak at holding runners on base, so when he walks a hitter, it’s as good as a double. The way around that problem is what I call the Dennis Eckersley approach: Don’t let them get on base.
It seems like ancient history now but Tony La Russa, as A’s manager in the ‘80s, revolutionized baseball by having relief pitchers for the seventh, eighth and ninth innings. Before that, the reliever who was supposed to close out the game often came in during the eighth inning, and usually with runners on base; Rollie Fingers once pitched the last three innings of a World Series game to record a save. Eckersley had been successful as a starting pitcher. He no longer had the stamina to do that, but La Russa and pitching coach Dave Duncan reasoned that he could be effective coming in at the start of the ninth inning, with nobody on base. The “closer” was invented, and that’s how all managers do it now.
If Lincecum were either the setup man or closer, he could be brought in at the start of an inning. His problem as a starter seems to be that his attention wanders at some point and he loses his focus. In a short telief appearance, he could focus, just as he did in the postseason last year. I’m more and more certain that that is in Lincecum’s future, quite possibly before the end of this season.
When Ryan Vogelsong returns, I think the Giants should once again bring up Michael Kickham from Fresno and have a starting rotation of Matt Cain, Madison Bumgarner, Vogelsong, Zito and Kickham, with Lincecum as the closer. It’s not ideal to have three lefties in the rotation, two back-to-back, but if that’s what you’ve got.
This would set them up for 2014, because they have to face reality: This isn’t their year. They can keep scuffling, and they will, and it will be an exciting race with no standout team. But even if the Giants do win the division, their chances of going further are nil.
MEANWHILE, THE A’s need for a new park became more apparent when raw sewage poured into the showers of both home and visiting clubhouses after the A’s Sunday win over the Mariners. All of which is a reminder of opportunities lost.
One of them was the result of Jerry Brown’s absolute opposition to any sports stadiums on his watch as Oakland mayor. Overall, Brown did a great job – especially in comparison to the awful mayoral performances since – and his program of building condos and apartments to bring residents downtown has paid off big time. Downtown Oakland is hopping at night, with the new restaurants and night clubs catering to the new residents. But former city manager Robert Bobb had a plan which would have included a new ball park within that developmentwhiich he showed to me. Brown not only refused to consider it, he essentially drove Bobb out of the Oakland government.
Then, Lew Wolff’s pretense that he would build a new park in Oakland made it worse. Wolff’s plan was always to move to San Jose, believing somehow that his collegiate frat buddy, baseball commissioner Bud Selig, would somehow find a way around the Giants’ territorial rights to the area. Selig hasn’t even tried. He knows the reality of the situation.
Because he wasn’t seriously trying to build a new park in Oakland – the “plan” to build across 66th Street from the Coliseum was a transparent ruse – Wolff ignored better opportunities. One was to build on a plot of land owned by the city just south of Jack London Square, adjacent to the freeway and with a BART stop on the other side. Wolff wouldn’t even consider that.
There are still sites available in Oakland. A park would have to be privately financed by Wolff and silent partner John Fisher are rolling in dough now, with the revenue-sharing money they’ve snared in recent years while keeping the payroll very low, and they got the A’s at a bargain rate from Steve Schott and Ken Hofmann. Also, the value of the club would go up dramatically, so they’d do fine when they finally sold the club. But realistically, the Wolff/Fisher duo isn’t going to spend a nickel beyond what’s absolutely necessary.
As a comparison, in the Giants final years at Candlestick, they spent money on the stadium to make the experience as pleasant as possible for their fans, losing money as they did. Wolff/Fisher haven’t put a cent iinto the Coliseum, unless you count tarping off seats.
Yet, both national and local writers have often portrayed the Giants as the bad guys for preventing the A’s move to San Jose. Somebody isn’t paying attention.
Meanwhile, A’s fans have been in a quandary. Many stay away from the park because they don’t want to support the Wolff/Fisher ownership. The Yankees series, which drew more than 50,000 a game in the Schott/Hofman era, didn’t even sell out in a park which now has only 36,000 seats available because of the notorious tarp. When I was at Thursday’s game, it seemed that there were more Yankee fans than A’s fans. Or, maybe they were just being more obnoxious, as Yankees fans can be.
There was an indication on Sunday, though, when there was a sellout for the Father’s Day game, that A’s fans might be coming back. I understand their reluctance to support the awful Wolff/Fisher ownership, but the team is exciting to watch – and a full house makes it even more exciting.
SIGN OF THE TIMES: I got to Thursday’s game about half an hour before it started and couldn’t get a seat in the writers section because of the many Japanese writers, many of them traveling with the Yankees. (I got a seat on the radio side.) I jokingly asked the A’s PR man, Bob Rose, if we’d reached the tipping point, with more Japanese writers than American. Turns out, that wasn’t a joke. Rose told me there were more Japanese writers who had applied for game credentials than American.
I wonder how many American writers there are in Japanese press boxes.
SCORING IS down in major league baseball this year and commissioner Selig, helped by his willing accomplices in the media, likes to credit that to a crackdown in enforcement on those using performance-enhancing drugs. That’s why the news about the new clinic in Florida was so embarrassing to MLB. Once again, we have evidence that it is impossible to stop athletes from taking substances that they think will aid their performance.
And, I think there’s another explanation for the decrease in scoring: MLB is tampering with the baseball again, making it less lively. It’s easy enough to do this, just by telling those making the baseballs to change the tightness of the wrapping around the core. Of course, the commissioner’s office always denies this.
I also think that the ball was tinkered with earlier in Selig’s regime, this time making it more lively. Baseball was in serious trouble after the World Series was canceled in 1994 because of an unresolved dispute between owners and players. Millions of fans said they’d never come back to the park. Those fans stayed away but millions of new fans flocked to the park because of the great Home Run Derby of 1998 by Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, with both obliterating the season home run record.
What happened? Steroids were the easy answer, except that pitchers were also taking them. So, if a hitter and pitcher are both taking performance-enhancing drugs, who’s the winner? And, if you watched many games, you also saw skinny middle infielders who showed no signs of taking anything that built muscles hitting home runs, too. The ball was juiced.
Selig had no trouble selling the steroids story to a gullible media, nor has he had any problem with his story line about cracking down on steroids use, despite considerable evidence that it isn’t working. Sportswriters like to pretend they’re cynical but in fact, they’re usually the true believers. I’ve never known a sportswriter who wasn’t crazy about sports as a youth, as I was. Some of us grow out of that but most don’t, so it’s easy to sell them on the “steroids are the root of all evil in baseball” story line. Even though it’s not true. Pretty pathetic.
NOTING THAT I have written about La Russa and Bill Walsh getting upset by general questions from writers, a reader wondered about my technique.
First rule: I’ve never asked questions at the large news conferences because I know that the responses will always be guarded. Whether it’s a coach, manager or executive, the person up on the dais can’t be sure of how what he says will be treated. So, I let the questions come from those who like to be recognized; a longtime colleague is certain to be the first or second to ask a question, just so everybody will know he’s there. I don’t need that kind of recognition.
In smaller meetings, such as a group of writers/broadcasters talking to a coach after practice, I will ask questions, but I always make them specific. None of these “What did you think of your team today, coach?” questions. Of course, when Mike Nolan was the 49ers coach, nobody had to ask questions because Nolan took notes at practice on what he could say to us. Better he should have concentrated on his coaching. Whether it’s football or baseball, though, I always have a specific idea that I want to explore. Coaches and managers almost always respond well to that, unless it’s a subject they’d rather not pursue.
Beyond that, I’ve gone into stadium/park issues much more exhaustively than any other sportswriter I’ve known, and my preparation for that has included one-on-one meetings with every San Francisco mayor from Dianne Feinstein to Gavin Newsom. When the 49ers first proposed building a stadium in Santa Clara, I was skeptical, but a meeting at team headquarters with all those working on the project assured me that their plan was sound – if they could get the financing. Jed York took care of that.
My curiosity about stadiums/parks was a direct result of my interests in politics. When I was at Cal, I took 27 units of upper division Political Science classes and got A’s in all but one of those courses. Many years later, people often wondered why my son, Scott, knew relatively little about sports. That was because Scott and I talked politics when he was growing up, not sports. It’s also probably why Scott is now a partner in Louise Renne’s public law firm, with City College of San Francisco being one of his clients.
My interest in political maneuvering has been a big help in analyzing political situations in sports. I wrote that the Giants could be saved for San Francisco in late 1992, though even my sports editor thought I was wrong, because I was talking to the right people. I’ve analyzed the ongoing question of whether the A’s will move to San Jose with the help of my background knowledge on the Giants deal with Major League Baseball and come up with a much different conclusion than the simplistic one preferred by other writers, local and national. I’m confident my opinion is correct.
All of life’s experiences go into what a writer produces. I’m happy my life experiences have been broader than those of most writers.
What do YOU think? Let me know!
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