Tony La Russa/Sandy Alderson/Billy Beane; A's to San Jose? Frank Gore/Jim Harbaugh; David Shaw/Tyler Gaffney/
by Glenn Dickey
Dec 10, 2013

10DECEMBER

TONY LA RUSSA, along with Joe Torre and Bobby Cox were named to the Baseball Hall of Fame yesterday by the veterans committee. Torre and Cox were honored because of their records. La Russa also had a great record with an added bonus: He changed the game. Baseball is what it is today largely because of the changes made by La Russa and then general manager Sandy Alderson.

It was La Russa and pitching coach Dave Duncan who created the role of closer with Dennis Eckersley. Before that, relief pitchers were brought in as early as the 7th inning, as Rollie Fingers was in a World Series game for the A’s in their three-Series run, 1972-74. La Russa and Duncan looked at Eckersley and saw a pitcher who had been a good starter but no longer had the stamina to do that. So, they used him strictly in the ninth inning, bringing him at the start of the inning. Eckersley was so effective in that role that he was later elected to the Hall of Fame, an honor he never would have achieved on his record as a starter alone.

Duncan later told me they had based their decision on the fact that Eckersley had often pitched into the ninth inning as a starter. “We knew he was used to handling that kind of pressure,” he said. Ironically, by creating the role of closer, La Russa and Duncan ensured that few starters in the future would have the experience of pitching in the ninth inning.

La Russa also had pitchers who were designated to pitch the seventh inning and the eighth inning. He wasn’t wedded to orthodoxy, though. Sometimes, with a runner on first and a right-handed hitter up, he would bring in the lefthanded Rick Honeycutt because Honeycutt had an excellent move to first and could be depended on to hold the runner close – or even pick him off.

At the same time, Alderson was applying the sabrematic philosophies advanced by Bill James in his ground-breaking books. Twenty years later, Michael Lewis in “Moneyball” gave Billy Beane credit for that but Beane never claimed that himself because he knew better; he had been an assistant to Alderson in the early ‘90s. As noted in an excellent article in “Baseball America by longtime baseball writer Casey Tefertiller, Grady Fuson, reviled as a baseball relic in the book, is now special assistant to Beane and a key element in the A’s recent success.
Tony was also more intense than any manager I’ve ever known. (Billy Martin wasn’t so much intense as crazy.) He was like a football coach, often sleeping in his office after a particularly tense game because he didn’t want to inflict his mood on his family.

But he had his soft side, too. Mark McGwire was like a son to him. When the injury-plagued McGwire was sitting at .201 in 1991, La Russa kept him out of the final game of the season so he wouldn’t slip below .200. McGwire, who had had a wonderful, sunny disposition when he first game up, turned into a real grouch in his final years with the A’s, no doubt because of his injuries. When I wrote that he was hardly better than Barry Bonds, La Russa – who had reunited with McGwire in St. Louis – called me at home to dispute that.

La Russa’s A’s were the best team in baseball for the 1988-90 period but they won only one World Series, in 1989, when the Bay Area was rocked by the Loma Prieta earthquake. There was a 10-day break between the second and third game, and the A’s completed a sweep. But the Series was an afterthought that year.

With the St. Louis Cardinals, though, La Russa won three World Series.

Last year, Tony made a moving speech in presenting the late Walter Haas Jr. for induction into the Bay Area Sports Hall of Fame. This year, he’s on the BASHOF ballot. I wrote the words for the Haas plaque, and if Tony is elected this year, I will volunteer to do the same for him.

MORE A’S: There was a flurry of excitement when a letter from baseball commissioner Bud Selig was made public that was written when San Jose brought a suit against MLB, claiming they’d never considered the city as a site for the A’s. Selig’s letter claimed that MLB had considered it and rejected San Jose as a site.

Now, San Jose city officials are claiming there’s still room for negotiation on the issue. No, there isn’t. Selig’s letter was only a legal move. His method of governing has always been to bring up issues only when he knows there’s an overwhelming majority in favor. He’s never brought this up because he knows going against the Giants territorial rights would never be approved by National League clubs. And, it shouldn’t be. The Giants made a deal: They’d get a new park built if they got territorial rights down the peninsula and into San Jose. They lived up to their part of the bargain and now, they rightfully expect MLB to live up to its end.

Meanwhile, once Oakland mayor Jean Quan’s fairy tale of “Coliseum City” collapses – it’s not a question of whether but when – Oakland can look seriously at a site for a new park near Jack London Square.

THE 49ERS scored a big win over the Seattle Seahawks on Sunday but there should be an asterisk attached: One team had much more motivation. Even now, the Seahawks have a two-game lead in the division with only three games left. There’s little doubt who will win the division.

There’s another point: If the Niners progress to the NFC championship game, they’ll have to face the Seahawks in Seattle. It’s an understatement to say the Niners don’t play well in Seattle. No visiting team does. The fans make so much noise, it registers on the earthquake scale, and no, that’s not hyperbole. Visiting teams can’t hear their own signals, so forget audibilizing. The 49ers have had special problems with that because quarterback Colin Kaepernick gets so flustered, he can’t function.

Kaepernick, in fact, usually struggles against the top teams. I’ve written on that in my column in the Examiner tomorrow, which you can read on-line. Suffice it to say, I think the flaws in his game are becoming more obvious against quality opponents. He still has big games against weaker opponents but beating up on them only fattens statistics. It doesn’t get the 49ers close to the biggest prize.

I was pleased to see Frank Gore break loose for that 51-yard gain that set up the winning touchdown. I didn’t think he had the ability to break a long run like that, which would be understandable, considering his age and injury history. But, Gore continues to defy the odds. Good for him.

I stayed home and watched the game on TV for a practical reason: I no longer drive at night, for my own safety and that of other drivers on the road, so I would have had to leave the game at the end of the third quarter to be certain of getting home before dark. That didn’t seem like a good idea to me.

And, with a 60-inch TV, I can see the game better than I can from the press box, and a game like this gets the first-string broadcasting crew, Joe Buck and Troy Aikman. It’s a pleasure to listen to them. Buck is always on top of the action and Aikman’s comments are especially valuable when he’s talking about quarterbacks.

Forty-Niner coach Jim Harbaugh likened this game to a root canal. Well, I’ve had a root canal. This was worse, 60 minutes of grinding by two teams with great defenses.

Meanwhile. Around the NFL, mediocrity abounds, typified by the Indianapolis Colts winning their division, even though they lost their last game by a lopsided margin. The New Orleans Saints established control of their division in a surprisingly lopsided win over the Carolina Panthers, who had been on a roll. The New England Patriots rallied again to win in the closing minutes but lost tight end Rob Gronkowski to a season-ending injury. I had never taken the Patriots seriously as a possible Super Bowl team but this seals the deal for them; they’ll make an early exit from the playoffs.

A game in Philadelphia was played in a snowstorm, a reminder that the Super Bowl will be played in an outdoor stadium in New Jersey in late February. Good luck with that. The only record likely to be set is most people suffering from frost bite.

John Madden used to say about games in terrible weather in late December that it was “football weather,” but in fact, when college football was started in the East, the season ended before Thanksgiving. Now, the NFL season just keeps expanding. I wonder how long it will be before we’ll have games in March.

THE RAIDERS season just keeps deteriorating. They managed to lose to the woeful New York Jets and make rookie quarterback Geno Smith look good. Good grief.

I’ve defended coach Dennis Allen but I don’t like what I’m seeing. The team seems to be retrogressing and Allen keeps saying in his postgame media sessions that he doesn’t know what to do about it. He’d better learn quickly or the Raiders will be looking for a new head coach.

Allen’s strategy was strange, too. He put in Terrelle Pryor at quarterback early and, though Pryor led a drive that got the Raiders a field goal, their first points, that’s all that he played.

Rich Gannon was irate about the decision to take out Matt McGloin that early, and he was right. Gannon likesMcGloin, and I’m not sure whether it’s because he thinks McGloin is a good quarterback or because he identifies with him because of the way he’s fought to overcome obstacles.

But after that one series, Allen kept Pryor on the bench the rest of the game. It seems that he’s decided Pryor is not part of the Raiders future. As I wrote in Friday’s Examiner, I don’t believe that’s the right decision.

The one thing I’ve liked about the Raiders this season has been the fact that they’ve played hard, but lately, they haven’t been doing that, either – and again, Allen has no answers.

If they don’t start to show some life, they could well wind up 4-12 again. If that happens, it will be hard for general manager Reggie McKenzie to keep Allen in place.

STANFORD STEPPED up big time on Saturday night, stomping Arizona State, 38-14, in Tempe to win the Pac-12 title and return to the Rose Bowl for the second straight year, the first since the 1971-72 run.

It’s past time to give coach David Shaw credit for this. Jim Harbaugh revived a moribund program but Shaw has taken it to greater heights, without snarling at the media. Imagine.

Many of the media “experts” expected the Sun Devils to win this game because, after a slow beginning, they had come on very strong, winning their last seven games. But Stanford dominated from the start with Tyler Gaffney sprinting 69 yards for the first of his three touchdowns. Quarterback Kevin Hogan also had a big game and the Stanford defense held the explosives Arizona State offense in check.

It’s going to be an interesting offseason for Gaffney, who left school last year to play minor league ball in the Pittsburgh Pirates system. At one time, baseball always got the call with multi-sports talents because it paid better. For instance, Jackie Jensen, who was a great runner (or so I’m told; I never saw him play) went to baseball, though he had to cut his career with the Boston Red Sox short because he didn’t want to fly.

Now, though, the decision is more difficult. The NFL can be very appealing because there is no riding the bus in the minors. I suspect Gaffney’s decision will be decided by how he fares in the NFL draft.

The comparisons with John Elway, by the way, are meaningless. Elway also played minor league ball but his eye was always on football. He threatened to go to baseball when the Baltimore Colts drafted him No. 1 only to force the trade to the Denver Broncos. I’m sure he has no regrets about that.

As a side note, Oregon running back De’Anthony Thomas had said the Ducks didn’t care whether they went to the Rose Bowl. Oregon players are becoming as arrogant as USC players, which is what happens when you recruit players who come only because of the football program.

Anyway, Thomas doesn’t have to worry because the Ducks got upset by Arizona, so they’ll probably be playing in something like the Alamo Bowl in San Antonio. Whoopee.

MEANWHILE, THE Cal program continues to be in disarray and thank you very much, Sandy Barbour. Don’t’ ask me why she keeps her job.

Next year, Cal will play Oregon at the 49ers new stadium in Santa Clara, apparently on Friday night, and I can hardly wait for that. Yeah.

The deal supposedly will bring Cal $1 million, but it’s hard to say how. Are the 49ers stupid enough to guarantee them that much money? I seriously doubt there will be many Cal fans at the game. There are relatively few Cal alums in the south Bay, with most of them clustered in Alameda/Contra Costa counties and north, and in San Francisco.

Driving to the game in drive-time traffic is a suicidal proposition, and there’s limited parking at the stadium. So, a Cal position paper suggested that Cal fans take BART to the Amtrak station in Jack London Square and then take the train down to Santa Clara. The station stop is right next to the stadium.

The problem with that would be that the trip probably will take about an hour and a half. The game probably won’t be over until 11:30 or later. How many fans are going to be eager to arrive in a BART station at 1 a.m. – and then have to drive home from a BART station?

A FURTHER NOTE on the demise of college football: Pac-12 teams are now required by a TV agreement to play two Thursday or Friday night games within three years. Aaargh! Aside from the lunacy of playing college games on weeknights, Cal has a special problem because of the lack of close-in parking. For day games, many people park 1-2 miles from the stadium and walk in, but they aren’t going to do that at night.

Oh, well, maybe this will just hasten the demise of college football and more sensible sports, rugby or soccer, will replace it.

OOPS: Arizona Stat e’s nickname is the Sun Devils, not Wildcats as I wrote last week. And the Cal baseball team got to the College World Series but didn’t win it. The only Cal team to win the CWS was the 1957 team. I covered that team for the Daily Cal but not in the tournament. I had to work for the Forest Service that summer to earn money to help pay for my senior year.

THE EXAMINER has decided to run my column on Tuesdays, so I’m going to return to a Wednesday schedule for my website column, starting next week.

What do YOU think? Let me know!

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