Big Game Move; Terrelle Pryor/Matt Flynn; Colt McCoy;Alex Rodriguez/Willie Mays/Hank Aaron; Daric Barton/Brandon Moss/Bartolo Colon =====
by Glenn Dickey
Aug 27, 2013

Big 27AUGUST

JUST WHEN I thought the news on college football couldn’t get worse, Cal announced plans last week to play the Big Game next season at the 49ers new stadium in Santa Clara.

Ohmigawd. Cal just finished renovations on Memorial Stadium – and did a very nice job on them – and they’re going to move the Big Game. It’s bad enough that the Big Game is often not played in the afternoon, as it absolutely should be. Now, it won’t even be in the new Memorial Stadium?

There were reasons given – scheduling for Stanford, for instance – but the bottom line as always is money. Cal would get a big payment from the 49ers, who are eager to get more paydays for their stadium.

But, this may be counterproductive. Cal is having problems paying for the stadium improvements, which were necessary because it’s right on the fault line. It’s only fortunate that an earthquake hadn’t already hit the stadium on game day. Even now, there are announcements before each game on what spectators should do in the event of an earthquake.

The wealthy alumni Cal is trying to get more money from are steeped in the tradition of the Big Game, which has been played at the stadiums of Cal and Stanford in modern times. (The first game was played on the field of a San Francisco high school.)

So, they may be tempted to hold back on contributions if the 2014 game is played in Santa Clara.

Older fans have already been insulted by the TBA schedules, which means “whenever TV wants us to play the game.” There has been a further insult since Larry Scott, the wonderful fellow who is now the Pac-12 commissioner, has installed a Pac-12 network which cannot be viewed by many Cal fans.

Scott was working in Florida, where college football is king, when he was hired to be commissioner of the new league. He didn’t understand – and apparently still doesn’t – that the pro game is much bigger in the big cities along the Pacific Coast. That’s true even in Los Angeles, where the USC Trojans are very big, and very true in the Bay Area.

Those subscribing to Direct TV cannot get the Pac=12 network, but they do get the NFL “Red Zone,” which is a very popular innovation that shows the portion of games where teams are in the red zone. Those playing Fantasy Football – an enormous group – can see how the players on their teams are doing. They have no special interest in the games, but as long as this feature is available on Direct TV, fans will subscribe to it, even if it means getting shut out on Pac-12 games.

The Pac-12 is a big hit in small cities like Eugene, Oregon, which has no NFL team. Whoopee. If you were running a television network, would you prefer to have viewers from the Los Angeles basin, the Bay Area or Eugene? Doesn’t take a lot of thought to answer that.

Meanwhile, the scheduling insult to older fans continues with more and more night games. Cal’s opener against Northwestern on Saturday is an interesting matchup because they haven’t played since the 1950 Rose Bowl, won by Northwestern on a controversial touchdown. But, it’s at 7:30. That one is on ESPN so it will be easier for Cal fans to see it, and I’m betting there will be many empty seats in the stadium. There will also be at least one in the press box. Mine.

Years ago, I often wrote that college football was the one event that brought alums and students together. When I’d walk through the Cal campus before games, I’d see the students with alumni of all ages. The younger alumni often had their children with them.

But, that was when games were played at 12:30. Now, with all these night games, it’s a different story. I wrote earlier about the extreme difficulty of finding close-in parking in Berkeley. That’s a great incentive to stay home and watch the game on TV.

Oops, I forgot. Not many Bay Area fans can get these games on TV.

Stanford has its own set of problems. Finances are not one of them because John Arrillaga financed its new stadium, as well as supervising the entire project. The athletic department also has a substantial reserve from stock investments in the prosperous ‘90s.

The stadium has only 50,000 seats (another few thousand can be added for big games) but seldom fills even those. Alumni will buy season tickets to support their school but many go only to important games, such as the Big Game or games against USC, Notre Dame and, recently, Oregon.

Stanford is a relatively small school and it gets many out-of-state students, including some from foreign countries. When they graduate, many go back to their original homes. So, the Stanford alumni base in the Bay Area is small. Once, Stanford drew many middle class fans from Palo Alto, but with skyrocketing home prices, there is no longer a substantial middle class in Palo Alto.

Tailgating once was very big at Stanford games. I remember fondly doing that after I came to The Chronicle in 1963, and for years, I tailgated frequently with Stanford friends.

No longer. Tailgating before night games is nowhere near as pleasant, especially late in the season. And, because fans don’t even know what time games will be played, they can’t make seasonal plans.

Sports attendance is often a problem for Bay Area teams because there are so many other activities here and relatively close by, like Lake Tahoe.

Now, Cal wants to further torpedo attendance by moving the Big Game to Santa Clara. I imagine Cal athletic director Sandy Barbour is getting an earful from alumni about that. She should.

TERRELLE PRYOR will start for the Raiders in their fourth exhibition game this week, lending some interest to a game that is usually a real yawner because coaches mostly rest their starters to avoid injuries.

Pryor is an interesting story. He’s a very good athlete and was a multi-purpose quarterback at Ohio State. He’s had an adjustment to make in the pros because with Carson Palmer at quarterback, the Raiders had a more traditional approach, with the quarterback dropping back and running only in desperation.

It appeared they’d take the same approach this season when they obtained Matt Flynn to replace the traded Palmer. But Flynn has looked terrible so far, and now, he has a sore arm and is being held out of this game to rest it. If Pryor has a good game, Flynn may get a long rest.

The current vogue in the NFL is for dual purpose quarterbacks. One of them, Russell Wilson, forced the benching of Flynn in Seattle last season. And, of course, there’s an excellent example of that kind of quarterback across the bay with the 49ers, Colin Kaepernick. Pryor could give the Raiders the same kind of quarterback.

I’ve seen a lot of offensive styles come and go, in college and pro. The split-T, which emphasized a quarterback’s running ability, was in vogue when Cal last went to the Rose Bowl after the 1959 season, with Joe Kapp as the quarterback. There were other run-first offenses in the next couple of decades in college football, especially in the Southwest.

While that was happening, the NFL was going in a much different direction, emphasizing the long passing game brought in by Sid Gillman, first with the Rams, then the Chargers. Bill Walsh changed all that with his offense, but though writers refer to teams running a “west coast offense,” which is supposed to be what Walsh ran, there’s very little comparison.

Now, with the versatile quarterbacks coming out of college, there’s been more emphasis on running. But, quarterbacks still have to be accurate passers. That’s why Kaepernick is successful and Tim Tebow was just a fluke. If Tebow is to have a good NFL career, he’ll have to shift to running back.

So, Pryor has to prove he can throw with accuracy if he wants to be a factor in the NFL. From what I’ve seen of him, he’s capable of making strong, accurate throws when he sets himself. Too many times, though, he’s fallen back on his college style, throwing off balance on the run. If he can stay in the pocket to pass, running only when necessary, I’d look for him to start in the Raiders season opener.

The 49ers, meanwhile, had been auditioning backups to Kaepernick, in case he’s injured. They had traded for Colt McCoy to fill that role but McCoy had been unimpressive in the first two pretend games and in practice. He finally showed something in the third game, so he’s back to the backup role. As often happens to quarterbacks who change teams, McCoy struggled to learn a new offense and his mental uncertainties led to sloppy physical play. Last week, he finally got a grasp of the 49ers offense.

In the interim, the Niners had signed Seneca Wallace, who has considerable NFL experience, but that seemed a desperation move because of McCoy’s failure to step up. Now, I think it’s only a matter of time before Wallace is either released or put on the modern equivalent of the old “taxi squad.”

Meanwhile, the Niners released Scott Tolzien, who had been the third string quarterback the last two years. Tolzien was active for only three regular season games in the last two years and never took a snap. Tolzien was the starting quarterback for the Wisconsin Badgers when they were co-champions of the Big Ten in 2010 but was not drafted. The San Diego Chargers signed him, then released him and the 49ers picked him up, but they’ve decided he’s just another quarterback who was successful in college but lacks the physical skills to succeed in the NFL.

DARIC BARTON made a successful return to the A’s on Monday, getting two RBI singles, but he remains a vivid example of why the A’s went bad for a time.

Barton was a good minor league hitter and seemed to be on his way to a successful major league career when Billy Beane traded for him, but he was a major disappointment. He had some positives, which included superior defensive ability, but he was an extreme example of the A’s hitting approach, often seeming to look more to walk than hit. And, of course, he never had the power teams look for in a first baseman.

Lately, the A’s approach has changed. They’re looking for hitters who hit home runs, even if their average is low. Brandon Moss is a striking example. A converted outfielder, he will never hit for a high average but he hits home runs. The A’s formula for success over the last two seasons has been good pitching combined with timely home runs.

The pitching has faltered lately but is fundamentally sound. Bartolo Colon may return on Thursday, and he will probably benefit from the rest he got while being on the DL. Though the team has struggled lately, I expect the A’s to make a strong run for the postseason, either as NL West champions or as a wild card. It won’t be easy because the American League is once again the better league, even after commissioner Bud Selig dumped the Houston Astros, the worst team in baseball, into the AL West.

THERE HAVE been many people who have been bothered by the fact that, if he continues to play, Alex Rodriguez will hit more home runs than Willie Mays 660.

So, I was glad to see that Willie McCovey, a teammate of Mays’, and Chili Davis, now a hitting coach for the A’s had sensible comments about the controversy in an interview with John Shea of The Chronicle.

McCovey pointed out that 660 was just a number. “When Hank Aaron passed Babe Ruth’s record (714), a lot of people were unhappy about that.”

Davis said, “I don’t care what you’re taking, to be able to square up and hit a baseball is very difficult.”

I’m no fan of Rodriguez, but I agree. And, if you have any perspective, you don’t get caught up thinking numbers define a player or even an era. As I’ve pointed out before, many hitters in the ‘30s had great numbers because the ball was juiced to promote offense.

Certainly, numbers don’t define Mays. Though Aaron hit more home runs in his career, that was mainly because of two factors: 1) He didn’t lose time to military service, as Willie did, losing most of the 1952 season and all of 1953; and 2) He played in a real home run park in Atlanta in his last few years, while Mays’ home parks were the Polo Grounds and Candlestick Park (except for two seasons at Seals Stadium). The Polo Grounds was great for dead pull hitters, which Mays wasn’t, but had huge areas of field elsewhere. Candlestick was a killer for right-handed hitters, so Mays had to alter his swing to hit balls to right.

More important, Mays was the best outfielder and the best base runner in the game for most of his career, in addition to being an outstanding hitter, both for average and power. That’s what defines him, not statistics.

His most famous catch was of a Vic Wertz blast in the 1954 World Series, when he caught the ball with his back to the infield and quickly turned to throw the ball in, so the runner on first couldn’t advance. Bill Rigney always thought Mays’ best came against the Pirates in old Forbes Field when he ran and ran and ran until he finally put out his hand and caught the ball barehanded. Branch Rickey also called that the best catch of all time.

Often, I saw Mays make plays I had never seen – and have never seen since. One day, I saw him score from third base on a pitch that went into the dirt. Mets catcher Choo Choo Coleman was so mesmerized by the sight of Mays coming down the line that he never even moved for the ball, which was no more than six feet away. Mays scored standing up. I was assigned to do a dressing room story that day and Giants manager Herman Franks dropped his usual tactic of swearing at reporters to tell me that, if he’d been coaching first base, he wouldn’t have sent a runner to second. In 1997, when I was working on a book on the Giants first 40 years in San Francisco, Mays told me that he could tell from the pitcher’s release that the ball would be in the dirt, so he just started running.

That’s the kind of thing that defines Mays for me, not mere statistics.

As for Rodriguez, it tickles me that he’s challenged the lengthy suspension, which I suspect was engineered by the Yankees owners, the Steinbrenner brothers, who don’t want to pay off the contract George made. So, Rodriguez will play the rest of the season and, if the ban is upheld, serve it in retirement next year.

Whatever his final statistics are, though, I don’t think it will be difficult to realize he wasn’t Mays’ equal. Not even close.

PET PEEVES: (1 – shared by reader Dave McDonald) The sideline announcers who grab coaches at halftime as they’re going to the locker room and ask them what their team needs to do in the second half. The reply, of course, is always banal, something on the order of “We’ve got to block and tackle better.” (2) Writers who constantly refer to the quarterback ratings to tell you how a quarterback is doing. Those ratings are only part of the equation and a good reporter shouldn’t have to rely on them for a proper evaluation. But, at games, the PR people give a quarterback’s rating after every quarter! Talk about wretched excess.

What do YOU think? Let me know!

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