Pablo Sandoval/Hunter Pence; Yoenis Cespedes/Jed Lowrie/Eric Sogard; Bud Selig/Mark McGwire/Barry Bonds; Jim Harbaugh/Bill Walsh
LAST FRIDAY, I wrote in The Examiner that the Giants should trade Pablo Sandoval while he still had some trade value, before he ate his way out of baseball. Another writer, who has more faith in human nature than I have, wrote that Sandoval would diet in the offseason because he’s going into the last year of his contract. My opinion: Pablo would have to have his jaws stapled shut to diet.
The Giants are in a strange position. They certainly weren’t as good as they looked last year, when they won their second World Series in three years. Now, they’re not as bad as they’ve appeared, with the worst record in baseball the last two months. General manager Brian Sabean has usually been a buyer, not a seller, in midseason, but I hope he realizes that would be foolish this year.
Two years ago, the A’s Billy Beane traded two quality pitchers, All-Star closer Andrew Bailey and a top starting pitcher, Gio Gonzalez, to get topnotch prospects from the minor leagues. He not only rebuilt his farm system but, with a very low payroll, put together a team that won the AL West last year and is atop it again this year. But that was Billy Beane. Sabean isn’t in his class.
Sabean did make that kind of trade once, the first of his career. He was desperate because, as he had told me three months before he was promoted, he felt the Giants had only four position players who were legitimate major leaguers. He was also concerned that so much of the Giants budget was concentrated on two players, Barry Bonds and Matt Williams. So, ne traded Williams for several players, and he was criticized by other writers because of Williams’ popularity. The trade did fill some holes for the Giants, who made the postseason that year, and Jeff Kent, who was one of the players, played so well in his Giants career that he is now a legitimate candidate for the Hall of Fame.
Sabean never made another trade like that. His MO lately has been to sign free agents to large contracts, including the monstrous mistake with Barry Zito and a lesser one with Aaron Rowands.
It’s clear that the farm system is drying up and needs to be strengthened somehow. When the Giants needed pitching help, the only ones available were Michael Kickham and Eric Surkamp, who is recovering from Tommy John surgery. Kickham may become a decent starter with time, but he’s no Madison Bumgarner. Surkamp does not seem like a great prospect.
The big lack in the minors, though, is somebody with power. The Giants only power is supplied by Buster Posey and Hunter Pence, who should be re-signed, and they’re only mid-20s home run hitters. And please, let’s not blame the park. Opposing hitters never complain about it. Neither did Kent or Rich Aurilia, who both had seasons of 30 plus home runs. In Sunday’s game, the wind was blowing hard out to left and the Cubs hit two home runs. The Giants, of course, hit none.
MEANWHIE, THE A’s continue to win, now with as many wins as any team in baseball, because they know how to win. If they’re not hitting, they get great pitching. If their pitchers have a rare bad day, the hitters step up.
The weekend series against the Angels was especially indicative. In the Saturday game, to which I arrived late because I went down to the 49ers camp in the morning, the A’s were trailing, 1-0, in the sixth inning and had looked helpless at the plate. Then, Derek Norris pinch-hit with a runner on base, came up looking for a fast ball and, when he got it, hit a home run that put the A’s ahead. They later added another run that inning and the 3-1 lead held up.
Sunday’s game was quite different. The Angels got off to a 5-0 lead early but the A’s hitters kept pounding away and the A’s won the game, 10-6. That loss put the Angels 13 back (it went to 14 the next day) and, going into August, they are dead and buried. To emphasize that, Albert Pujols has a torn plantar fascia in his foot, which will sideline him for the rest of the season, I’m sure. Even if he could come back in the last couple of weeks, what would be the point? He should make certain it’s healed.
The A’s chief rival remains the Texas Rangers, whom they swept in the final week last season to win the AL West dramatically. Now, they’re six games ahead of the Rangers, who have not played well lately. I still expect this race to be tight at the end, though.
Because of the A’s record, there has been speculation that Beane will be in a buying mood. Owner Lew Wolff, spendthrift that he is, said the A’s will spend whatever is necessary. But, there are no obvious trouble spots. Jed Lowrie doesn’t have great range at shortstop but he’s surehanded and makes the plays he should. He’s also a good hitter for a shortstop, which is a plus. Second baseman Eric Sogard is unheralded but I’ve seen him make some outstanding defensive plays, and lately, he’s been a timely hitter. There’s some talk that the Phillies are shopping Chase Utley, and he would obviously be a big upgrade, but he also comes with a big salary. Despite what Wolff said, I can’t see him agreeing to take on Utley’s salary.
There’s another point to consider: The A’s have been successful without Yoenis Cespedes coming close to the kind of season that was expected of him. This week, Cespedes seems to have finally hit his stride, and he’s the kind of hitter who can carry a team. So, with the help of a favorable second half schedule, it looks good for the A’s.
NOTHING AMUSES me more than a baseball player talking of a “level ground” for players who are presumably going to be free of PEDs (performance enhancing drugs) in the near future.
In the ‘70s, I wrote a series of history books on both leagues and the World Series, and the overwhelming theme in my research was cheating. Pitchers were doctoring the ball (Gaylord Perry wasn’t alone, by any means), batters were using corked bats, managers had observers with binoculars in bleachers to steal catcher’s signals, groundskeepers were slanting the baselines so that bunts would roll foul or stay fair, depending on what kind of hitters the home team had. In 1962, when Alvin Dark was managing the Giants and Maury Wills was running wild on the bases for the Dodgers, Dark ordered his groundskeeper to water the base path between first and second so heavily that it looked like a swamp. The umpires ordered sand to be brought in to restore the base path to its normal condition.
Knowing all this, how could any rational being think that athletes and managers would ever want a situation where they couldn’t cheat?
Frankly, I prefer this situation to what existed in the ‘70s when athletes in all sports ruined their lives and careers with cocaine. I still remember arriving late to a Warriors game and seeing John Lucas wandering around, stoned. To his credit, Lucas turned his life around when he finally shook his cocaine habit. Delvin Williams did the same, even counseling athletes who had problems after his career was finished.
The PEDs at least improve the athletes’ performance and, let’s not kid ourselves, the fans at the games love it. In 1998, fans were far more interested in the home run race between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, both playing for teams well out of the pennant race, than the fact that the New York Yankees set an American League record for most wins in a season. The McGwire/Sosa competition brought fans back to the ball park, and commissioner Bud Selig pretended he didn’t know that McGwire and Sosa were on PEDs.
A Chronicle article last week said that Giants fans were split on Barry Bonds, half hating him, half loving him. I can guarantee you that very few, if any, of those in the first category were at AT&T when Bonds played for the Giants. The fans at the park loved him, very few leaving until they were sure he’d had his final at-bat. On the road, he was booed in pre-game introductions, but cheered wildly when he hit one of his towering home runs.
A reader sent me a link to stories in “The Economist” about the drug issue, pointing out that there were some sports where those in charge didn’t want to test because they knew everybody would be caught – I think we all know a sport like that – but otherwise, they walk a tight line, wanting to catch a few while letting most of the offenders go unpunished.
I believe baseball is in that category now. Even the latest episode, with the clinic in Florida, was discovered by the media, not through the testing process that Selig hails. So, he’s got one headliner – Ryan Braun – and a bunch of lesser fish. When it comes to hypocrisy, nobody plays the role better than Bud Selig.
CHANGING SPORTS: I sometimes hear from older fans who say that baseball isn’t as good as it used to be. Well, when I first started writing about major league sports in the ‘60s, baseball was unquestionably the No. 1 sport in the country, and my favorite as well. There were only 16 teams and the National League was very strong because it had signed most of the top black players in the aftermath of Jackie Robinson
Now, there are 32 teams and baseball no longer gets all the best American athletes, with many of them now going to football or basketball. But, there are also many Latinos in the game – only a handful in the ‘60s, and most on the Giants – and there are also a lot of Japanese players. (The Giants were also pioneers in that area, with Masanori Murakami.) So, the player pool has expanded and, knowing that athletes get much better training early than they did before, I’m not going to say that baseball was better when I was younger.
I’m old enough to remember when football was still limited substitution, which meant quarterbacks had to play on defense. Some of them were very good. Johnny Lujack made a game-saving tackle in the 1946 Army-Notre Dame scoreless tie, and Bob Waterfield was a good defensive back, quarterback and place kicker for the Los Angeles Rams. But I think we can all agree that we wouldn’t have wanted Joe Montana playing defensive back, although Steve Young would probably have relished playing outside linebacker. Overall, I think without question that football is a better game.
Everything seems better when you’re young (I make one exception: I never tasted an ice cream as good as gelato). That doesn’t mean it is. Hang on to those memories but enjoy what you’re seeing now.
COACHES AND THE MEDIA: When Jim Harbaugh was named coach of the 49ers, I expected his biggest problem would be having to deal with the media on almost a daily basis. I had seen Harbaugh challenge writers at the once-a-week gatherings at Stanford, though he seldom got any tough questioning. An earlier Stanford coach, Tyrone Willingham, had gone from that environment to Notre Dame, and I had predicted the media pressure at Notre Dame would crush him. In an ESPN interview, the woman interviewing me told me I was the only one she knew who thought that. So? Willingham won his first eight games at Notre Dame but it was all downhill after that and he was eventually fired.
Harbaugh’s path has been much different, and it has been the writers who have suffered, not him. He challenges them on virtually everything they ask and never volunteers information. He obviously regards the media as an enemy. Never forget, he still idolizes his college coach, Bo Schembechler.
This is really unnecessary. It would be better to follow the example of Bill Walsh, who always seemed cooperative but was able to use the media to get his message across.
Two examples come to mind. The first was early in the 1981 season when Walsh castigated Howard Cosell and ABC-TV for not ever having the 49ers on Monday Night Football, which was a very big thing then. He wasn’t actually angry at either Cosell or ABC because he realized that the 49ers weren’t on because they had been so dreadful in the recent past. But, he was sending a message to his players that he believed in them. Very soon, everybody in the football world would.
The second example was when the 49ers played an exhibition game in London before the 1988 season and Walsh said, “We may have a quarterback controversy.” He later said he had misspoken, but that was nonsense. He knew exactly what he was saying. He was preparing fans and media for the possibility that Young would be replacing Montana at quarterback. It very nearly happened, as Young started two games early because Montana was sick one week and had a bad back the other. But when he came back, Montana had probably the best run any quarterback ever had for the next 2 ½ seasons.
If Harbaugh really wanted a model for dealing with the media, Walsh would be a good one. But nobody can tell Harbaugh anything. Schembechler didn’t listen, either.
STADIUMS: As I went to the 49ers practice on Saturday, I got my first glimpse of the new stadium. Glimpse is the wrong word. It comes right up to the street and looms over you as you’re driving along. Quite impressive.
There’s also a parking garage, and there’s apparently no space for a lot where fans could set up for normal tailgates. But, football fans are resourceful. When I go to the Cal games, I park in the Underhill garage, and I see people setting up their tailgates there. I’m sure they’ll do the same at the new stadium in Santa Clara.
As for Candlestick, well, Lon Simmons was in San Francisco, celebrating his 90th birthday and, because Lon broadcast so many games at Candlestick, both baseball and football, he was asked if he’d miss it. His answer was the same as mine will be: Not at all. He talked about all the problems with the stadium, including the wretched access, and said he’ll be happy to see it gone. I have to think that those who are nostalgic about Candlestick haven’t spent much time there.
WRETCHED EXCESS: Cowboys’ owner Jerry Jones, in announcing the change in name of his stadium, said he wanted his stadium to become better known than the White House. Even by Texas standards, Jones has an outsized ego. Makes it easy to root against the Cowboys.
What do YOU think? Let me know!
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