Lefty O'Doul, Marco Scutaro/Madison Bumgarner; Reggie McKenzie/Matt Schaub/Justin Tuck; Roger Goodell/Dan Snyder
THE BASEBALL season has already begun, with a series between the Arizona Diamondbacks and Los Angeles – in Australia. Good grief.
This is not the first time there’s been a baseball opener in another country: The A’s and Mariners started the 2012 season in Japan. But, the Japanese have a baseball history that goes back to the 1920s, when Lefty O’Doul introduced the sport to them. In 1949, O’Doul returned to rekindle interest in baseball. Now, the Japanese are crazy about the sport. There are several Japanese players in the majors and Japanese journalists fill up the press box wherever those players are. From my own experience, I can tell you the Japanese journalists are very quiet and unobtrusive.
Baseball fervor is unknown in Australia, though. The Dodgers-Diamondbacks games had to be played on a cricket field! And, any interest in the sport has probably already dissipated.
Outside the U.S. and Japan, baseball is big only in the countries in the Caribbean and bordering it on the north rim of South America. When you get further south in that continent, the fervor is for what we call soccer and the rest of the world calls football, by far the most popular sport in the world.
The only American sport which has been successfully transplanted in many countries is basketball, perhaps because of its relative simplicity. The NBA is now full of players from other countries.
An attempt to transplant American football to Europe was successful only as a marketing gimmick. In England, they prefer rugby, a comparable sport with far fewer injuries.
Yet, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell wants to put an NFL team in London. Right now, the longest road trip for an NFL team is six hours or slightly less, as west coast teams travel to the east coast, and vice versa. For a team in London, that would be the shortest trip. If that team played, a west coast team, they’d be traveling nine hours. My wife and I have made frequent trips to Europe and I know how hard they are on the body. Football players would be traveling in more comfortable circumstances and they are younger – but I didn’t have to play football at the end of my journeys.
Alongside that idea, three baseball games in Australia seems almost reasonable.
THE FACT that they only have to travel to Arizona to start their season, not out of the country, is one of the few bits of good news for the Giants. Otherwise, there have been some very bad omens.
Marco Scutaro seems destined to start the season on the DL and, though he could be eligible to come off after just five games because the Giants won’t play him in games against major league teams in what’s left of spring training, he’s 39 and has a bad back. It’s highly unlikely he’ll stay healthy for a significant part of the season. In fact, I think that his career is basically over.
His skills cannot be replaced by any of the other candidates for the job. He is a very smart hitter, adept with the hit-and-run because he’ll always get his bat on the ball. He’s been a superb clutch hitter throughout his career, often muscling up to hit home runs when that was what was needed. In the field, he’s been a master at positioning himself – which means he’s studied opposing hitters so he knows where they’re most likely to hit the ball.
There’s nobody on the roster who comes close to what Scutaro brings to the table. Ironically, he’s been undervalued by other teams – including the A’s, who let him get away – until he came to the Giants, who fully recognize what he can do. Unfortunately, they got him at the end of his career.
Meanwhile, the only starting pitcher who has looked good so far has been Madison Bumgarner, who will start the opener in Arizona, and even he got bombed in his last start yesterday. Bumgarner was the only starter who pitched well all last season and he seems still on an upward climb.
Others in the starting rotation have not fared well. Tim Lincecum had a couple of good starts early but has been bombed of late. Matt Cain has had bad outings. So has Ryan Vogelsong. Tim Hudson, the former A’s and Atlanta starter, is coming back from an injury which prematurely ended his 2013 season in July.
It’s often difficult to judge pitchers in spring training in Arizona because breaking pitches often don’t break as they’re supposed to and the ball has a tendency to carry further when it gets in the air. Conversely, there are often hitters who look good in the spring but not in the regular season.
Clint Hartung was the first, heralded as a “phenom” by the Giants Garry Schumacher, the first public relations director for a baseball team, because he seemed to be both a great hitter and great pitcher. He was…in spring training. In the regular season, he was a flop as a pitcher and then as an outfielder.
My first experience was the spring training phenom was 1977 with Randy Elliott. First drafted by the San Diego Padres, Elliott had had two seasons in which his left shoulder was injured and he couldn’t stay in the lineup. He sat out two years but with his shoulder healthy again, signed a minor league contract with the Giants and lit up pitchers in spring training with a .547 average, making the team. But in the regular season, he again had problems with his shoulder and hit only .240 in 73 games.
So, it’s often difficult to accurately analyze players in the spring. Still, it’s troubling that, with the season starting next week, the Giants are still so unsettled.
THE A’S appear to be in better shape, mainly because the front office has done such a good job of stockpiling pitchers. When they lost their first two starters to season-ending injuries, Sonny Gray was pushed up to be the Opening Night starter – and he may turn out to be their best starter, anyway.
The A’s have developed an unusual team, taking platooning to a different level. The players have bought into the idea that many of them will be platooned, unless they’re switch hitters like Jed Lowrie and Coco Crisp. Manager Bob Melvin handles that scheme beautifully.
One A’s move I question: sending the right-handed hitting Nate Freiman to Sacramento – because he had an option left – and using 5-9 Albert Callaspo as their right-handed hitting option at first. I don’t even like this guy as a third baseman, his natural position, and reports on his fielding at first have been alarming. Hopefully, they’ll trade Callaspo to somebody for a dirty wash cloth and bring Freiman back.
The A’s were in the news again this week for another “setting the record straight” e-mail after an inaccurate report by a Sacramento writer that a new contract for the A’s at the Coliseum would chase the Raiders out of town. That was ridiculous, of course, but so is this desire to put out e-mails to state the A’s case. This certainly isn’t the idea of the A’s PR director Bob Rose, a highly competent PR man who has also worked for the Giants and Cal after starting at Stanford in the ‘80s (when I first met him.) Nor is it Billy Beane’s idea; he’s much too smart for that. It has to come from the owners, either Lew Wolff or John Fisher. It’s silly, and I hope they stop it before they embarrass themselves further.
To the A’s credit, they have been quietly spending money for much-needed upgrades to the Coliseum, including washing the windows in the press box. Now, we won’t have to open windows just to be able to see. Why is this necessary? Because, when the construction was done to add seats for the Raiders return in 1995, the contract allowed the construction company to keep money that was left over – which meant there was no incentive for preventative maintenance. Great thinking.
Once again, the A’s have been hugely outspent by the Anaheim Angels and the Texas Rangers; the A’s are 25th among major league clubs. Maybe this time, wretched excess will get the Angels or Rangers over the top, but it hasn’t worked the last two years.
AS I WAS on my walk last week, a car screeched to a halt and the driver called out to me, adding that he had just watched two tournament games.
I knew what that meant, so I asked him if he were in an office pool. The answer was yes. “I’m in a pool where you get knocked out if any of your teams lose,” he said. “Ohio State’s loss knocked out three guys!”
As I was saying about the Office Pool tournament….
Meanwhile, Stanford has been making a surprisingly strong showing, advancing to the Sweet Sixteen. Does this mean Johnny Dawkins has finally learned how to coach? Probably not, but he got a vote of confidence even before the Cardinal’s last win when athletic director Bernard Muir said Dawkins would get a contract extension and that he hoped Dawkins would have a long coaching career at Stanford.
The Pac-12 has three teams in the Sweet Sixteen, with Arizona and UCLA also in. Arizona is playing back to its early season form, when it was ranked No. 1 in the country, The Wildcats seem to be a strong candidate to win the tournament but this tournament is often upset city, right to the end.
My favorite story has been Mercer, which scored two big upsets before finally losing. Hardly anybody even knew where Mercer College is (Georgia) before this run started. Great story, especially beating Duke in a game in North Carolina. Not on Duke’s home court but you can bet the crowd was predominantly Duke fans.
Meanwhile, the Cal Bears are only one game away from going to New York for the NIT finals. Yawn.
THE RAIDERS quarterback scramble took an interesting twist when the Silver and Black acquired veteran Matt Schaub for a sixth round draft pick.
I like that move. Schaub had been a successful quarterback until he hit a bad run last year with four consecutive games in which interceptions were returned for touchdowns. After that stretch, he was through in Houston but there’s no reason to believe he can’t be an effective quarterback again in a different situation.
The Raiders have made it clear that they regard Matt McGloin as a good backup but not a starter, an opinion I share. They will probably also draft a quarterback but the signals being sent out are that they don’t think the quarterbacks who will be available at their No. 5 draft slot are ones they want with that pick. It’s expected that there will be a run on quarterbacks at the top of the draft. I’m interested to see what happens to Johnny Manziel, a.k.a. Johnny Football. He has the talent but there’s a huge question whether he will be disciplined enough to be a successful NFL quarterback. He doesn’t like to stay in the pocket and roams all over looking for receivers.
The Raiders already have a quarterback like that, Terrelle Pryor, and they’re trying to trade him. At one point, I thought Pryor could become a good quarterback but he showed little progress when he got the chance. He’s a superb athlete and probably could make a great running back but he still wants to prove he can be a quarterback. So, the Raiders want to give him that opportunity – with a different team.
Amazingly enough, Tim Tebow’s name keeps showing up in The Chronicle’s list of quarterback possibilities. That ship has sailed. Even the Canadian Football League doesn’t want Tebow as a quarterback. He’s a good athlete but his passes sometimes aren’t even in the same area code with his receivers. If he were willing to shift to running back, he’d have a future in the NFL but he still thinks he can play quarterback.
General manager Reggie McKenzie has made many moves in the free agency period, after being criticized early for not moving fast enough, and they seem to be sound ones. (Interestingly, free agent Justin Tuck chose Oakland because he was impressed by the moves McKenzie was making. Obviously, he wasn’t reading Bay Area newspapers.)
McKenzie is putting together what should be a respectable team with players he doesn’t expect to be around for more than two years while building a more lasting team through the draft. That’s the sensible way to operate. The Raiders are still probably a year away from serious contention but they should be much more fun to watch in the upcoming season.
And, maybe they’ll make enough money to pay the Raiderettes decent salaries.
N HIS Sunday Chronicle column, Bruce Jenkins posed an interesting question: Whatever happened to the white stars who once were an important part of the NBA? One of them, Jerry West, is currently working with the Warriors management.
The answer is probably that there is more urgency for blacks to succeed in sports because many young blacks don’t see another avenue for success. That’s a societal problem, of course, and too complex to discuss here.
The sports situation is simpler. Young black athletes see sports as their only avenue out of the ghetto, though the numbers are overwhelmingly against them there.
American blacks have given up on baseball. There aren’t many baseball college scholarships given, and even if a player gets one, he has to stay at least three years. After he turns pro, he has so spend more years in a minor league system, riding buses and getting very low salaries. Not much of a lure.
Players often jump from college to the NFL and that league has more black players now than ever, but basketball remains the simplest. The only restriction is that a player must be at least 19, so we have the current phenomenon of the one-and-out college players, those who have no interest in academics and leave when they’ve reached their 19th birthday.
So, basketball becomes a huge lure for young blacks, less so for white players who, realistically, have many more options in the business world.
I’m not comfortable with this situation, not because I want to see more white players in the NBA but because I think there needs to be much more emphasis in the black community on academics, instead of athletes. There are already many who have overcome this bias for athletics. When he’s talking to his fellow blacks, Dr. Harry Edwards reminds them that there are more black lawyers than professional athletes. He’s a personal example of a black man rising above his background. But that doesn’t seem to resonate in the black community.
Fifty years ago, I thought there were solutions to these problems. Now, I can only despair.
WRETCHED EXCESS: Trying to divert attention from his refusal to drop a nickname which is as demeaning to Native Americans as the n-word is to blacks, Washington owner Dan Snyder is setting up an organization that is supposed to aid American Indians.
It’s past time for NFL commissioner Goodell to step in and order Snyder to make a change in his team’s nickname.
MY APOLOGIES for the late column. Nancy and I had to see our tax man in San Francisco earlier today. I’ll be back on the regular time schedule next week.
What do YOU think? Let me know!
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