Antoine Bethea/Jonathan Martin/Blaine Gabbert; Jim Harbaugh/Trent Baalke; Barry Bonds/Billy Beane/Bud Selig; Stephen Curry
THE FIRST day of free agency was a productive one for the 49ers.
They signed Colts safety Antoine Bethea to replace Donte Whitner, who had left to play for the Browns in his home town of Cleveland, in what seems basically a like-for-like exchange, and signed kicker Phil Dawson to a two-year contract, an essential move for a team whose quarterback performs so poorly in the red zone. After releasing cornerback Carlos Rogers, they re-signed Eric Wright.
The good news is that the roster is deep enough to absorb losses. Tramaine Brock is scheduled to start at corner, and he’s been a real ball hawk in more limited playing time. Chris Culliver, who missed the entire 2014 season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament, is scheduled to return. Culliver made a virulent anti-gay remark after the 2013 season but he’s since apologized profusely, so that doesn’t seem to be an issue. Eric Reid, the No. 1 pick last year, had concussion problems but looked very good when he played.
The 49ers made two interesting trades, for offensive lineman Jonathan Martin and quarterback Blaine Gabbert. The 49ers gave up a conditional seventh round draft pick for Martin, a sixth-round pick for Gabbert.
Martin had quit the Miami Dolphins because of hazing in the locker room. In my Examiner column three weeks ago, I wrote that he’d be a perfect fit for the 49ers, and that wasn’t a tough call. He can play either guard or tackle – and he played for Jim Harbaugh at Stanford. The Dolphins have a lot of work to clean up their act but the 49ers locker room has none of those problems. Harbaugh sets the tone and it’s not the combative one he has with the media – and, sometimes, opposing coaches.
Gabbert was brought in to back up Colin Kaepernick – the Niners had no other experienced quarterback on the roster – and because general manage Trent Baalke remembered that he had been a top prospect when he was an early entrant into the 2011 draft. As with many top quarterbacks, Gabbert went to a bad team – the Jacksonville Jaguars – which probably impeded his progress. Last year, he started only three games because of injuries, so the Jaguars went to Chad Henne as their starting quarterback, which will probably give them more opportunities to draft high.
Gabbert will have an opportunity to develop with a winning team and with no pressure on him. Kaepernick has stayed healthy so far, but Gabbert at the very least gives the Niners more protection if he has to play than they had last year with Colt McCoy.
None of this means there won’t be continuing friction between Harbaugh and Baalke. That’s inevitable, because a coach wants to win now and the GM is trying to keep the roster young and maintain success. But, they’ve worked well together before and can do it again.
AS WE KNOW, everybody is giving advice these days, but little of it is reliable.
I found an unbelievable example of that in USA Today’s weekly sports edition last week, which had advice for all 32 teams approaching free agency. Their advice for the 49ers in seeking a speedy wide receiver – hold on to something for support here – was to sign Darrius Heyward-Bey. As one who has seen DHB in many games, which this writer clearly had not, I remember he was one of the most egregious mistakes of Al Davis’s last 10 years, when Davis seemed determined to tear down his reputation.
Davis had always valued the measurables, speed and size, which is fine if it comes accompanied by ability. But in his final years, he seemed more intent on putting together an Olympic-calibre relay team than an actual football team. DHB was the best example of that, a receiver with blinding speed who wasn’t a good pass catcher. Back in the ‘70s, Davis had wanted to sign Olympic sprint champion Jimmy Hines but, in the parlance of the day, Hines had nine-flat speed and 12-flat hands. His tryout was a short one.
Davis should have learned his lesson, but he kept signing sprinters who were not good football players. DHB, selected ahead of Michael Crabtree, had not been a reliable receiver in college. He wasn’t in the pros, either. The first time I saw him at practice, I predicted in print that he wouldn’t make it, which earned me a scolding e-mail from his mother.
He tried very hard to make it but he never trusted his hands, so most of his catches were balls he could cradle against his stomach. So, even if he got behind the defense, defenders could catch up to him.
Now, the Raiders current general manager, Reggie McKenzie, is trying to recover from all the excesses of Davis’s last years. He’s cleaned up the payroll and salary cap mess but lost some free agents he wanted to keep – offensive tackle Jared Veldheer, defensive end Lamarr Houston and running back Rashad Jennings. That’s what happens when your team is sunk so deep for so many years. McKenzie will have to rebuild the team with young players, either drafted or signed as free agents, and build a new history for the team.
BARRY BONDS made his return to the Giants this week and not even commissioner Bud Selig could stop this.
Selig certainly put out the word in 2007, after Bonds’ final season with the Giants. Bonds had become a defensive liability but he could have helped an American League team as a DH. I know from my conversations with Billy Beane that he was a great admirer of Bonds’ hitting ability but the A’s didn’t even talk to Bonds. Neither did any other AL team.
Selig’s disenchantment with Bonds came because Bonds broke the career record of Hank Aaron, who had been Selig’s hero in younger days. By 2007, Selig was campaigning against steroids use, but he was late coming to that party. It didn’t bother him in 1998 that Mark McGwire, whose use of a steroid had already been discovered in his locker, and the suddenly beefed up Sammy Sosa were shredding the season home run records, both for the National League and all of baseball. That was the biggest story in baseball, even though both the Cardinals and Cubs were out of the race, while the New York Yankees were setting an American League record with 114 wins.
Crowds flocked to the ball park to watch McGwire and Sosa, the final step in resurrecting baseball since Selig, as acting commissioner, had played chicken with the Players Association in 1994 and brought about the cancellation of the World Series.
It wasn’t until Bonds started setting home run records that Selig became dedicated to the eradication of steroids. Hasn’t happened, of course, not even close, but he’s pretended that drugs in baseball are under control. At least, until the next lab they find dispensing them.
The owners love Selig because he’s found extra revenue streams, but he’s a bad joke as commissioner. Still, he’s not the worst, even in the time I’ve been covering baseball. Bowie Kuhn, who didn’t even show when Aaron surpassed Babe Ruth’s career home run record, is the worst in that period. Kuhn was a lawyer but he never realized the “reserve clause”, which was supposed to bind a player to the team which first signed him, could not withstand a legal challenge. When it was overturned in 1978, Kuhn and the owners were totally unprepared.
In the negotiations that followed, Marvin Miller, head of the players union, outmaneuvered Kuhn and the owners. Miller’s fear was that the owners would adopt a system of one-year contracts, so every player would be a free agent at the end of the season. In that system, the best players would get the best contracts, lesser players would get lesser contracts.
Instead, Kuhn and the owners opted for Miller’s proposal: that players only become free agents after six years. That has led to a market in which a handful of free agents get far more than they’re worth because of their scarcity – and other players get far more than their value because teams don’t want them leaving. A rising tide benefits all boats.
Kuhn was only stupid. Kenesaw Mountain Landis was a vicious racist.
Landis has an entirely unwarranted reputation as a man who saved baseball in the wake of the Black Sox scandal. The one who actually saved baseball was Ruth, who started hitting home runs in unprecedented fashion. At the start of Ruth’s career, the season home run record was 29, the career home run record 118. He shattered the first one in his first full year as an outfielder, and first with the Yankees, when he hit 54 home runs. The second record fell the next year when he hit 59 home runs to run his career total to 169. He was just getting started, of course.
As a judge, Landis had the reputation of being an absolutist, and he was in his first action as commissioner when he banned White Sox players who had been implicated in the thrown Series, even Joe Jackson, who had hit .375 in the Series and clearly was not involved in throwing any games. Jackson also lost his chance for the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Fixed games were common in that era, but when Landis was presented written evidence that Ty Cobb and Tris Speaker had conspired to throw games, he did nothing. So much for his regard for the purity of the game.
His lowest moment, though, came in the 1940s when he blocked an attempt by Bill Veeck to buy the Philadelphia Phillies because he had heard that Veeck planned to sign players from the Negro League. There was no doubt that Veeck would have done that; he signed the first black to play in the American League, Larry Doby, and soon added the legendary Satchel Paige.
Compared to Landis, Selig is a saint.
BACK TO BONDS: I wrote earlier about the way Bonds studied pitchers and adapted to them, so I won’t repeat myself except to say that I think the one Giants hitter who can really benefit from his advice is Brandon Belt.
Belt is still young – 26 next month – and he’s still learning as a hitter. He has power, as he showed in the second half of last season, but he hasn’t yet learned the real secret of power: Looking for the right pitch to hit.
If Bonds can teach him just that one thing, his trip to spring training will be worth it. To be a consistent power hitter at AT&T, a hitter has to have the patience to wait for the pitch he can pull for power. Too often, Belt has swung at “pitcher’s pitches,” pitches which are in the strike zone but result in easy ground outs or harmless fly balls if hit. Belt is closing in on what should be the most productive part of his career, from ages 27-32, and it’s time for him to learn that discipline.
Meanwhile, the Giants can now get busy on a statue commemorating Bonds on the AT&T grounds. For legitimate reasons, they didn’t want to do that while he was in court but they know what he’s meant to the franchise.
MY SLIGHTING size-up of the Warriors last week didn’t take account of the excellent job general manager Bob Myers has done in strengthening the team, bringing in more players to make the Warriors a complete team.
They’re on their best runoff the season, but I still doubt that they’ll go deep into the playoffs. Historically, the best NBA teams have usually been built around a superstar. Think of Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls, Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar with the Lakers before that. Now, we had Lebron James, who some people regard as the best ever, Kevin Durant with the Oklahoma City Thunder, Blake Griffin with the L. A. Clippers.
The Warriors star is Stephen Curry, a very nice player, but does anybody think he’s in a class with the players I just mentioned?
The Warriors have a favorable schedule the rest of the way so I have no doubt they’ll make the playoffs but I don’t see they’ll do much beyond the first round.
Still, as a reader reminded me last week, that’s a lot better than that period in the ‘90s when the Warriors were just wasting high draft picks on the Todd Fullers of the basketball world.
MEANWHILE, THE Pac-12 remains stuck in a bed of mediocrity, after Arizona and UCLA. Even Arizona looks like something less than a super team, especially after losing to Stanford on its home court in Tucson.
Cal and Stanford were part of a four-team tie for third place. Oregon won the first tie-breaker, Cal the second, so both teams will have a first-round bye in the conference tournament.
If either Cal or Stanford wins the conference tournament, it would be an automatic entry into the NCAA tournament, but either team would be a low seed. That usually means a quick exit from the tournament. Certainly, I’ve seen very little from either team to expect more. Stanford has better players but, as a coach, Johnny Dawkins is still just a good player. Mike Montgomery has certainly proved he’s a good coach but he hasn’t been able to get through to his players this season.
A STORY this week about the SAT reminded me of the time I went to a Stanford basketball lunch in Montgomery’s early years there and was interviewing Todd Lichti.
I had asked Lichti how he’d done on the SAT, and he told me he’d gotten 800 on the math section, a perfect score. So, I asked him how he’d done on the English half. “I got 800,” he said.
Early in Montgomery’s career at Stanford, I asked him why he’d thought he could turn around a Stanford program that had been mired in mediocrity. He said he thought that, if the school could attract a player as good as Lichti, he could succeed there.
I haven’t followed Stanford basketball closely in recent years but, when I did, I thought Lichti was the best player I’d seen in a Cardinal uniform. I still remember how he could take a defensive rebound and then sweep upcourt, moving faster with the ball than defenders, and dunk at the other end.
His pro career never got off the ground because he was emotionally devastated by the death of his fiancé in an automobile accident, so we’ll never know how good he could have been in the NBA. My guess is that he’d be considered one of the all-time greats.
What do YOU think? Let me know!
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