Pablo Sandoval, Matt Cain, Hunter Pence, Buster Posey, Tim Lincecum; Vladimir Putin; Colin Kaepernick/Andrew Luck/Joe Montana/Steve Young/Willie Mays; Michael Sam
PABLO SANDOVAL has proven me wrong and, partly because of that, the Giants are in much better position to contend for the playoffs, more likely as a wild card team than as the division champion.
When Sandoval went home for the offseason to Venezuela, I thought he would be going back to his mother for those home-cooked meals that put on pounds. Instead, he took it to heart when teammates Matt Cain, Buster Posey and Hunter Pence told him he had to take control of his eating habits and go on an exercise program to lose weight.
Manager Bruce Bochy had told him that often but his messages went over the top of Pabloís head. This time, he listened. There have been reports that he lost 40 pounds, and a picture of him and Chronicle beat reporter Henry Schulman in the dugout at spring training bears that out. Pablo is hardly recognizable.
This is very good news. Sandoval was a revelation in his early career, an excellent athlete who was ambidextrous, a nimble fielder and a good hitter who seemed destined to get even better. But last year, when he put on so much weight, he became a defensive liability and a hitter who couldnít get around on a pitch because of his protruding stomach. That Sandoval seemed on his way out of baseball, but now, he seems ready for a rebirth.
The Giants sorely need that. Pence led the team last year with 27 home runs. Sandovalís best has been 25 but in the 2012 World Series, he hit three home runs in one game, two off Justin Verlander, that yearís American League MVP. Sandoval is 27 now, and historically, a hitterís best years are 27-32. He seems to be the one hitter on the roster with the potential to hit 40 homers. With Pence, Sandoval, Posey and Brandon Belt, who came into his own in the second half of the season, the Giants would have a respectable middle-of-the-order group.
Of course, none of this means anything if their pitching isnít much improved, too. Many of their problems last season seemed to come from fatigue, after an extended season ending in a World Series. Itís not just the innings but the fact that they had been pitching under great stress. The arms should be rested for this season. Cain is especially critical because he should be the leader of the staff. Tim Lincecum appears to have finally matured, so heís preparing for what he can do now, not what he did four years ago.
This is one time I wish I were going to spring training, to see how all this plays out. On the other hand, like many writers, I always got bewitched by the optimistic atmosphere and wrote some columns Iíd like to have back. So, maybe itís just as well.
THE BEST thing about the Vladimir Putin Olympics: He and the Syrian leaders canít foment another war until theyíre over.
DID ANY of you watch the NBA All-Star game last weekend? Congratulations if you skipped it. You didnít miss a thing.
The fact is, there are no good All-Star games any more. Years ago, the baseball Al-Star game was great because it was truly an all-star game. The best players stayed in the game until it was decided.
No longer. Itís like spring training as managers try to get every player in the game. The starters are showered and dressed before the fifth inning is over, free to do whatever they want for the rest of the day.
The NFL Pro Bowl has always been a joke, simply a reward for players and a nice paid vacation in Hawaii. This year, the NFL tried to spice it up by having Jerry Rice and Deion Sanders pick players for ďtheirĒ teams. It was still not worth watching. I donít begrudge the players their vacation because theyíve earned it with the pounding theyíve taken. But donít ever think this is real football.
When the NBA All-Star game was held in Oakland in 2000, I attended, the first time Iíd seen an NBA All-Star game since 1973 in Chicago, right after a Warriors road trip on which The Chronicle sports editor, Art Rosenbaum, had decided I should go. It was worth it for me. On a personal level, I saw San Antonio for the first and only time and had a pleasant walk along the river at midnight, when it was still warm. On a professional level, I had probably my best interview with Rick Barry. Later, I enjoyed talking to Dave Cowens as he rode with writers on the press bus to the All-Star game. Cowens was perhaps the least pretentious of any star basketball player Iíve ever met. That probably hurt him in his later stint as Warriors coach because he expected his players to be true professionals, which they were not.
Cowens was also the MVP of that game, which was a good one. So, I was shocked to see the 2000 game in Oakland, which was nothing more than a layup drill. Defense was a nasty word. I didnít bother to watch the latest one but, with a score of East 165, West 157, it was obviously more of the same. The teams set a record for most combined points in an All-Star game. The score of the 1973 game, not incidentally, was 103-84. It was a real game.
COLIN KAEPERNICK acted in a truly professional manner when he was asked about Michael Sam and said heíd be welcomed into the 49ers dressing room if the team drafted him.
Otherwise, though, heís been as immature as ever, showing up for an awards ceremony (Iím told by a reader) wearing a cap with the bill turned backward. Not a good look, though it goes well with the tattoos he loves so much he went with a short-sleeved shirt in the cold at Green Bay. Not exactly the maturity youíd hope for in a quarterback who will be 27 in the next football season.
Readers who like Kaepernick tell me that heís smart, sometimes citing his supposed results on the Wonderlik test given potential draftees. Thereís something you should know about that test: The NFL never releases results, so when you read something, itís come from the playerís agent. Would agents lie to boost their clientís chances in the draft? No, of course not.
At any rate, for those who have told me that Kaepernick had a higher score than Andrew Luck, I have a question: Could you envision Luck challenging Richard Sherman on the climactic play of a conference championship game? Another question: Could you envision Luck throwing three straight incomplete passes to a receiver who was getting triple coverage on the final plays of a Super Bowl?
Thereís another point: There can be a difference between intelligence on a test and intelligence on a playing field. We saw that with the 49ers with Joe Montana and Steve Young. By any measurable test, Young was more intelligent but Montana grasped the Bill Walsh offense very quickly and Young struggled to learn it.
Bill James, with whom I had lunch one time in the Ď80s when he was writing ground-breaking books about baseball, told me he thought there was such a thing as baseball intelligence, citing Willie Mays as a specific example.
I really found out what James meant when I interviewed Mays in 1996 for my 40-year history of the San Francisco Giants. Mays is of average intelligence off the field but on the field, he had a great vision of what was happening Ė and what he had to do. When the Giants moved to Candlestick, he knew he had to change his swing because he couldnít fight the wind coming from left field, so he swung inside out, hitting the ball toward right center. He also changed his fielding approach, waiting a couple of seconds to see where the wind was taking the ball.
Most of all, he was a great baserunner, one who was thrown out at third only once in his career, in a 1962 playoff game against the Dodgers. (He claimed it was a bad call and, having seen it, I agreed.) He not only knew where he was but coached runners behind him. Once, when he was at third base, he started running with the pitch and scored standing up when the pitch bounced and rolled a few feet from Mets catcher Choo Choo Coleman. He explained to me that he could tell from the way the pitch left the pitcherís hand that it would be in the dirt!
The willingness to change that Mays showed when the Giants moved to Candlestick is what Iíve been looking for with Kaepernick, but I havenít seen it. Heís obviously very stubborn and confident he can get the job done, even to the point of challenging Sherman.
Thatís just stupid but Iíve seen no evidence that Kaepernick realizes that. He has a gunslingerís mentality and wants to continually challenge a defense, even one as great as Seattleís. Meanwhile, defensive coordinators are studying his tendencies and will be coming up with more challenging defenses. Heíll always make some exciting plays but, if he doesnít change his style, the 49ers wonít be playing in the Super Bowl any time soon Ė and he wonít have a long career.
THE NFL DRAFT isnít until May this year, giving the NFL an extra month for its propaganda machine. Mike Mayock had a conference call yesterday to give general information. As usual, I was most interested in the local clubs.
Mayock felt the Raiders had to get a quarterback they can build on with their first pick, No. 5. Iíve felt that general manager Reggie McKenzie would prefer to trade that pick to get an extra selection Ė and Iíve thought that was the best strategy. But after hearing Mayock, Iím no longer convinced thatís the way to go. For sure, building a team starts with a quarterback but picking one is often difficult. The most obvious example is when Peyton Manning and Ryan Leaf came out. Many observers thought Leaf had the most potential, but you know how that turned out. Al Davis drafted JaMarcus Russell No. 1 but he didnít do his homework. A cursory examination should have revealed Russellís lack of discipline.
Asked about the 49ersí problem with wide receivers theyíve drafted (except for Crabtree), Mayock noted that there are few college cornerbacks who play the tight defense good NFL quarterbacks do. His theory on 49ersí draftees: When they encountered tight coverage, they played slow. Of course, it hasnít helped that Kaepernick never looked their way.
Michael Sam? Mayock repeated the prevailing ďwisdomĒ in the NFL: That heís too small to play defensive end and not limber enough to play linebacker. There have been defensive ends who were good pass rushers but no bigger than Sam who have had good NFL careers. Dwight Feeney is the latest example. Feeney ran a very fast 40 in the Combine, which Sam is not expected to do, but how often have you seen defensive lineman run 40 yards in a game? Quickness, not speed, is the most important factor. Mayock said what other analysts have: Sam will go somewhere in the round 3-5 range. If he goes undrafted, weíll know why.
MEANWHILE, THE ugly side of the NFL has been revealed in the findings of NFL investigator Ted Wells into the Miami Dolphins bullying of Jonathan Martin and others.
One of the problems in the NFL is that players taunting other players often use the pejorative terms they have for women, which also gives away their misogynistic feelings about women. There are other NFL locker rooms with the same problem. Theyíre usually the ones at the bottom of the standings, wondering what happened.
The ringleader in the Dolphinsí bullying, Richie Incognito, is a free agent. Donít waste your time sitting by the telephone waiting for other teams to call, Richie.
A READER (and Cal alum) living in southern California and who has watched every Cal basketball game on TV had six specific questions for me in an e-mail last week. I had to tell him that he knew much more about Cal basketball than I do.
At this point in my career Ė I had my 78th birthday three days ago Ė I have a real problem sustaining interest in a sport I canít see in person. Thatís not an issue with NFL and MLB games. Most of the 49ers games next season will be played in the afternoon, though their opener in their new stadium will be a Sunday night game against the Seahawks, and Iím confident all the Raiders home games will be in the afternoon. Both the Giants and the Aís play enough day games for me to see them with enough frequency to keep up, and Iíll sometimes watch a bit of games on television to get a better look at pitchers.
Itís a much different story with basketball. At best, the Warriors play one day game a season, on Martin Luther King Day, and they havenít even done that the last two seasons.
Cal plays an occasional day game, usually against an opponent they figure to beat by 30 points, so seeing that wouldnít do me much good. My limited exposure to the Bears this season has told me that there have been games when theyíve hardly showed up. I know Mike Montgomery well and I think heís decided lecturing doesnít do any good with this team so heís going to let them figure it out for themselves. I hope they do soon enough to qualify for the NCAA tournament.
The Warriors are equally baffling, and I have a strong hunch that I wouldnít have the answer to their problems if I saw 50 games. Maybe a psychiatrist would.
I do not go to night games. My wife is retired and I much prefer to have dinner with her, with a glass or two or three of a nice wine, and then watch entertainment shows on TV. We both have longevity in our family trees and expect to live for several more years yet, so weíre going to do it on our own terms.
What do YOU think? Let me know!
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