Hack Wilson/Bill Terry/Barry Bonds; Steve Kerr/Mark Jackson/Kevin Love; Vince Lombardi/Bill Walsh/George Allen;Sandy Koufax; Sean Doolittle/Michael Morse
THE NFL is certainly good news for defense attorneys. The league’s latest problem: Eight former players have filed a suit that alleges teams gave them painkillers and opiates to mask serious injuries and keep them on the field. Now, they allege, they have serious injuries because of those practices.
This suit, which is attempting to get class action status to cover a much larger group, is in addition to another lawsuit filed earlier concerning brain damage to retired players.
None of this surprises me. The NFL has a long history of treating players as disposable parts. I saw this first hand when I covered the Raiders, 1967-71. Kent McCloughan and Dan Birdwell both ended their careers prematurely by playing despite serious knee injuries because they knew that, if they didn’t, they’d just be replaced. Trainers put large plastic containers of pills out in the dressing room so they could say they didn’t prescribe them. Players would come by and grab handfuls. I never knew what was in those pills but I think it’s safe to say that it wasn’t aspirin.
Frightened by all this, the NFL is finally taking serious action on steroids, suspending players for as long as a year. Before, it was just four games. Many players are on the disabled list that long or longer.
It has amused me that so many in the media, as well as fans, have given the NFL a pass on steroids, while confining their ire to baseball. They believe that steroids are ruining the statistical balance, which only proves that they know little of baseball’s history. If you want a true statistical imbalance, look at the ‘30s.
The owners, desperate to get people to come to games during the Depression, ordered the ball to be livened up, which can be done easily by wrapping it tighter, to boost offensive statistics. Hitting went through the roof. Bill Terry was the last National Leaguer to hit over .400. Hack Wilson hit 56 homers with 191 RBIs; the league home run record lasted for 37 years and nobody has ever touched his major league RBI record.
\ As a result of all this, there are several players in the Hall of Fame – my particular favorite in this category is Lloyd Waner – who simply don’t belong. Yet, my colleagues have kept out Barry Bonds, earlier named the Player of the Decade in the ‘90s, because he “cheated.” Oh, my.
In the NFL, meanwhile, players have added many pounds of muscle, so you see 350-pound players who are rock-hard and running preposterously fast. Tip: They didn’t get that way from eating Wheaties.
Unlike baseball, football is what Duffy Daugherty famously called a “collision” sport. And, when players built up by steroids collide, bad things happen, to both their bodies and mind.
That’s the real steroids scandal, not the phony one in baseball.
THE WARRIORS appear to have made an excellent choice with Steve Kerr, and once again, this shows how different the NBA is from the NFL and MLB.
In the other two sports, experience is valued highly. That’s especially true in football, which is a much more complicated sport than fans realize. Coaches are assistants, often for a long time, before becoming head coaches. Vince Lombardi was 46, Bill Walsh 47 before they became head coaches – and both are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
It’s much the same in baseball. Although there are examples of star players becoming managers right after their playing careers end – Alvin Dark, who managed both the Giants and A’s – is one, most managers spend time as an assistant to a manager on the major league level or as a minor league manager before they became major league managers.
It is never a surprise in the NBA, though, when players go directly to being head coaches, as Jason Kidd did this year with the Brooklyn Nets. With few exceptions, successful head coaches in the NBA are former NBA players because they understand the culture.
Now, the Warriors have carried it another step by having consecutive coaches, Mark Jackson and Steve Kerr, who have gone directly from the broadcast booth.
Some of my Examiner readers seem perplexed by this, and I’ve gotten e-mails wondering why the Warriors weren’t more interested in getting an “X’s-and-O’s” guy.
One reason is that strategy is much overrated in the NBA. Every successful team has one or two players who get most of the shots, especially in late game. Phil Jackson got a lot of attention for his “Triangle” offense, but he also had Michael Jordan in Chicago and Kobe Bryant with the Lakers. It wasn’t Jackson’s offense that was the most important.
It’s always been this way in the NBA. One time when Red Auerbach was coaching an All-Star team and he started to explain his plays, Oscar Robertson told him, “We already know them.” It wasn’t the plays, it was the players – and Auerbach’s teams won nothing significant until he got the missing piece, Bill Russell.
The Knicks also coveted Kerr and it took a special effort, spelled $$$$, for the Warriors to get him. He’s very smart, very competitive and highly-regarded by everybody who has known him over the years. He was always a leader on his teams, in college and the NBA. And unlike his predecessor, Mark Jackson, he won’t be giving fundamentalist sermons on Sundays.
None of this means Kerr will get the team any further than Jackson did, which means an early exit in the playoffs. It would help if Andrew Bogut were healthy when they get there, but the chances of that happening are not high. Teams which go far in the playoffs usually have two superstars, and at least one of them is a big man. The Warriors have one superstar, Stephen Curry, and a number of good players who are not.
There has been talk that they could get that second superstar by trading for Kevin Love, who has said he won’t re-sign with Minnesota when his contract expires after next season. But making a trade for an NBA superstar is extremely difficult, because of a system which seems to have been designed by Lewis Carroll, so I’m not holding my breath.
Those actually attending Warriors games, which does not include me, can look forward to another exciting season, even if it doesn’t go beyond the first round of the playoffs. And those who have been going to Warriors games for an extended period certainly have known dismal seasons in that period, so they’re happy with what they’re seeing now.
IT’S AMUSING to see how the social media is taking its toll on those in sports who can’t resist it. There was that Miami Dolphins defensive back who just couldn’t resist tweeting “OMG. Horrible” when Michael Sam got drafted. He got fined and suspended.
Then, after linebacker Aaron Lynch was drafted, the strength coach at the University of South Florida tweeted that “You’d think an organization with five Super Bowl titles would have stricter guidelines. Clearly, integrity and character are not a priority.”
The coach was suspended and then resigned three days later.
I’m sure players and coaches in earlier eras had similar opinions but they didn’t have the opportunity to shoot themselves in the foot this way. As one who has no use for Twitter, I’m delighted that it can backfire this way.
HIGH SCHOOL FOOTBALL: The State Assembly last week passed a bill which would limit high school football drills, responding to parents’ concerns about concussions.
Supposedly, coaches already have limitations built in but, from my long experience with coaches, I know there are some, on any level, who will do anything they think will help them win.
On the pro level, George Allen comes to mind. He wouldn’t even let players drink water at practice.
On the high school level, when my wife and I were in Tennessee visiting her family four years ago, I was watching a sports report on Jackson television when the high school coach said he had called off practice that day because the temperature was 104 – and the humidity was near 100 per cent. A real humanitarian, except that he had practiced them the day before when it was 103.
So, I’d feel better about California high school football if this legislation were approved by the State Senate.
BASEBALL INJURIES: The number of injuries to major league players, especially pitchers, is alarming. Despite the almost religious attention to pitch counts, there seem to be more injuries to pitchers than ever before. The qualification is important because pitchers in previous eras often didn’t report injuries because they feared losing their jobs. When he was managing the Giants, Roger Craig once told me that he had pitched through a serious injury one year because of that – and doing that ended his career.
Nonetheless, it does seem that there are more pitchers’ injuries than ever, and the “Tommy John” surgery has become a cliché. Some pitchers have had that surgery more than once.
I think teams need to take a long look at how they’re preparing pitchers. No. 1: Why all the strength exercises? In earlier times, pitchers didn’t ever do these because they served no purpose. They don’t now, either. In any era, there have always been pitchers who threw faster than others. Sandy Koufax had only two pitches, a fast ball and a curve, and when his curve wasn’t working in a World Series game, he just went with his fast ball and won.
I’d seriously dispute anybody who says that all this strength conditioning has produced more pitchers who throw faster. That’s an illusion, fostered by two changes; 1) More relief pitchers who can throw nothing but fast balls for a brief time; and 2) Starters who know they’ll come out early so they don’t pace themselves, as earlier pitchers did.
I’m waiting for a major league club which is smart enough to drop all these strength exercises for pitchers. The Oakland A’s would be a logical candidate, with their two top starters from last year undergoing – yes – Tommy John surgery.
SPEAKING OF the A’s, the good news is that Daric Barton has been optioned to Sacramento. The bad news is that he’s only an injury away from being brought back. Say it isn’t so.
When Barton and his .158 average were put on the “designated for assignment” list, no club claimed him. Surprise, surprise. The A’s have become known for platooning players but having a first baseman who was there only for defensive purposes is really stretching it. First base is traditionally a position where you expect offensive production.
Otherwise, the A’s appear to be in good shape. They’re once again hitting for power and their starting pitching is shaping up well, though they’ve had some unexpected glitches in the bullpen. Manager Bob Melvin now has decided to use Sean Doolittle as his closer, after disappointing outings by Jim Johnson.
The A’s have an interesting blend of pitching and power, which has been their recipe for success in earlier eras. The ball park is a big part of that. The huge foul areas impact play more than most people realize because foul balls that are in the stands elsewhere are caught – which is the reason the Coliseum is much more of a pitcher’s park than AT&T, which has that undeserved reputation. So, the idea of sustaining rallies with a lot of hits doesn’t work. Bombs away does.
And, the competition in their division doesn’t seem as potent as it’s been in recent years. The Angels have the hitting but their starting pitching is not deep. The Rangers are not the team they’ve been and the Mariners, despite the addition of Robinson Cano, don’t look like serious contenders.
The Giants, too, are following the power philosophy more than in recent years, mostly because of the addition of Michael Morse, whose strength has produced some awesome homers. His defense in left field has been better than expected and now, he’s at first base until Brandon Belt returns.
The pitching has been uneven, with only Tim Hudson, who missed a start because of an injury, consistently good as a starter. Ryan Vogelsong has pitched well lately, though I’m not convinced he can continue that.
Most of all, though, the Giants have been helped by the inability of the Dodgers to come together. The Rockies have become contenders, though the difference between playing at home and on the road may be insurmountable. The Diamondbacks have enlisted the help of Tony La Russa, who has too much energy to stay retired, but I don’t see them contending after their wretched start.
The bottom line is that both the Giants and the A’s should be in the postseason, so they’ll be worth watching all season long.
LAST WEEK: After rushing my column out on Tuesday so I could go to the Giants game the next day, I stayed home when the prediction was for a 92 high in San Francisco. It didn’t get quite that high, 88, but I realized I made the right decision when I read that three times as many fans needed treatment at AT&T than usual.
What do YOU think? Let me know!
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