Colin Kaepernick, Jim Harbaugh, Trent Baalke; Bob Welch/Jose Canseco/Rickey Handerson/Dennis Eckersley/Mark McGwire; Willie May/Willie McCovey/ Juan Marichal/Orlando Cepeda/Gaylored Perry; Jack Nicklaus/Arnold Palmer
WHEN THE Colin Kaepernick contract was first announced, it was heralded as the highest contract in NFL history. Subsequently, though, the details of the contract showed that it really protected the 49ers in case Kaepernick fails. It could well be described as a compromise in the ongoing battle between coach Jim Harbaugh and general manager Trent Baalke.
There is no doubt that Harbaugh is thoroughly in Kaepernick’s corner. He pushed for Baalke to make a trade to move up in the second round to get Kaepernick in the draft and called him the best athlete in the draft, which he may well have been. When Alex Smith had to miss a game because of a concussion he also lost his job to Kaepernick, which goes against the usual NFL code that a starter doesn’t lose his job because of an injury. Smith swallowed his disappointment and, as Kaepernick has acknowledged, tutored him on the sidelines during games. After the season, he was traded to Kansas City and led the Chiefs to the AFC championship game.
Baalke’s mission was to try to keep Kaepernick’s contract from expanding the 49ers commitments so much that they wouldn’t be able to keep enough top players to make another run at the Super Bowl. So, the contract is heavily-weighted toward accomplishment, to which Kaepernick readily agreed. If he fails to meet goals, he can be released at any point, with the rest of the contract voided. It’s unlike any contract I’ve known for top quarterbacks in recent years.
Kaepernick is obviously confident he can meet all the goals, and he certainly has the physical tools, whether passing or running. But, there have also been significant holes in his game, which have shown up especially in the red zone.
He has a gunfighter’s mentality, always certain he can complete a pass even when his receiver is covered. Brett Favre was like that, too, but it’s significant that Favre’s success came primarily when he cut back a bit on his aggressiveness.
Kaepernick has also struggled in the biggest games the 49ers have played. In the Super Bowl two years ago, he was totally lost in the first half and the Baltimore Ravens were on their way to a lopsided win until that strange power outage halted play early in the second half. The older Ravens players tightened up and played poorly down the stretch. But with the game on the line in the final minute of play and the Niners trying for the touchdown which would win the game, they triple-covered Michael Crabtree in the end zone. Still, Kaepernick tried three times to hit Crabtree and failed. Game to the Ravens.
Last season, in the NFC Championship game, he challenged Richard Sherman, the best cornerback in the league, on a pass to Crabtree. Sherman knocked the ball into the air and it was intercepted by a Seahawk linebacker. Game over.
To truly maximize his skills, Kaepernick has to ditch this “gunfight at the OK Corral” attitude. He also has to learn to use all his receivers and at least occasionally to look for a secondary receiver to shake up the defense.
All this is part of a need to mature, which is why the incident in Miami in the offseason was so troubling. He insisted repeatedly that he did nothing wrong but he certainly organized the party with teammate Quinton Patton and Seattle receiver Ricardo Lockette, a former member of the 49ers’ practice squad, and one woman, with whom he’d had sex before. One woman, who was apparently stoking up with marijuana and liquor, and three football players. Do I have to draw anybody a picture here? It ended with Lockette calling the police and the woman apparently totally dazed.
If Kaepernick was as mature as he seems to think he was, he would never have organized this little party. Yet, he still doesn’t seem to understand that.
The 49ers seem to have filled holes with smart drafting and trades, but they have a potential problem on defense: Aldon Smith could still be forced to serve jail time and, if that doesn’t happen, will almost certainly be suspended for part of the season by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell. That makes it imperative for Kaepernick to step up his game.
BOB WELCH’S death at just 57 was sad but probably inevitable. He had damaged his body with his earlier alcohol addiction, which he detailed in a book, and that probably caught up with him.
Even so, he was the key to the A’s three-year run as American League champions, when A’s general manager Sandy Alderson made a complicated three-way trade. Moore won 27 games in 1990, also winning the Cy Young Award. It’s highly unlikely a pitcher will ever again win that many games because managers seldom allow them to finish a game once they’ve gone over 100 pitches.
Welch was a quiet man and I can’t say I knew him very well. The A’s of that time had Jose Canseco and Rickey Henderson, who were always talking (although understanding Henderson was a challenge), as well as Dennis Eckersley, who had his own colorful vocabulary. There was no need to talk to Welch for a story.
In addition, for a time, I had a special relationship with Mark McGwire. I was assigned to do a magazine piece on him after his rookie season, in which he hit 49 home runs. He was living in an apartment in Orange County in the offseason, so I went there to interview him. For newspaper columns, I never took notes or used a tape recorder, relying on my memory. For magazine pieces, though, I usually used a tape recorder. This time, though, I hit the wrong button so nothing recorded and I had to use my memory, after all. That worked out. The next time I saw McGwire was at spring training in 1989 and he came up to me and thanked me profusely for the article. Our relationship deteriorated after that, probably because he was in pain from his leg injuries.
As for Moore, despite his outstanding work for the A’s, he did not pitch in the one World Series they won, in 1989, when an earthquake stopped it after two games. When it was re-started after 10 days, A’s manager Tony La Russa simply went back to his starters for the first two games, Dave Stewart and Mike Moore, as the A’s completed their sweep.
WHEN THE Giants were 42-21 after a Sunday win, articles on their record pointed out that the last time they had that good a record at that point was 1962.
But, at the risk of being considered an old fogy, these Giants are not the equivalent of the 1962 Giants who had five future Hall of Famers: Willie Mays, Juan Marichal, Willie McCovey, Orlando Cepeda and Gaylord Perry (who was not a factor that year). That decade was probably the best in history for the National League, whose teams capitalized on the talent pool made available when the color line was broken, as most American League teams dithered. Mays is considered the best player of his era and the best of all time by many. Marichal remains the best starter the Giants have ever had, and he would have won 300 games if he hadn’t had so many back problems. McCovey hit more than 500 home runs, though Alvin Dark played him only against right-handed pitching in 1962. (There was even talk at the time that the Giants would trade McCovey for Yankee catcher John Blanchard, a defensive liability but a good left-handed hitter. His major league career ended after 1965. Can you imagine the reaction of Giants fans if McCovey had been traded to the Yankees? With that short right field in Yankee Stadium, he might have hit 600 career home runs.
The reality is that the Giants have looked good primarily because there are so few good teams in MLB now. Parity has struck with a vengeance. In their own division, the Dodgers are talented but seem to be rudderless. The Rockies are sinking fast, the Padres are the Padres and the Diamondbacks only goal is to avoid being the worst team in baseball, a race the Tampa Bay Rays are currently leading.
When the Giants finally played a good team on a roll, the Washington Nationals, they lost the first two games of the series.
The A’s have also lost two in a row to their chief (and only) rivals in the AL West, the Anaheim Angels. The second one went 14 innings, and now, they have to face Jared Weaver. But even if they lose again tonight, I still have confidence that they’ll win the AL West – and I’m still holding out hope for the Bay Bridge World Series.
THE CLOSERS: Last season, Grant Balfour and Jim Johnson were top closers. This year, they’re both dead meat.
Balfour’s fate isn’t totally surprising. With the A’s, there were many games when opposing batters would bash a ball that seemed destined to be a home run, only to have the dead Coliseum area keep it in the field of play. He doesn’t get that help from his home field in St. Petersburg, Florida this year.
Johnson’s struggles are mind-boggling, though, because he had great success despite pitching half the time in a hitter’s park. It would seem that he’d do even better at the Coliseum but he’s been just awful in home games. So, Sean Doolittle is now the closer and
doing quite well.
THE PROBLEMS for California Chrome in his unsuccessful attempt to win the Belmont Stakes reminded me of my problem with covering horse racing: You can’t talk to the horses.
There was a time when I wrote quite a bit about horse racing, and I tried to get as close to the sport as I could. I spent quite a bit of time on the backstretch, so I certainly saw the unglamorous part of the sport. I talked to trainers, who were the best source of information. I talked to jockeys and especially the amazing Russell Baze. But, obviously, I could never talk to the horses. Not that talking to athletes is always a treat, but at least, you get some idea of what’s happening with them. With horses, you don’t have a clue.
Last Saturday, for instance, video shots showed California Chrome’s hind leg kicking his front coming out of that gate, which handicapped him throughout the race. But, what caused that? Was it an unfamiliar gate? Did he get positioned poorly? We’ll never know.
In the buildup before the race, a couple of “experts” analyzing the race insisted that Wicked Strong would win. The horse tied with California Chrome for fourth. That’s why betting on horse racing is for suckers.
U.S. OPEN: As the tournament is ready to begin at the Pinehurst course in North Carolina, Ron Kroichick of The Chronicle posted his top 10. Jack Nicklaus led the list, and it’s impossible to argue with that. He won 73 tournaments, a record 18 majors and was runnerup in another 19.
If Ron had been putting together another list, of the most influential, he’d have had to put Arnold Palmer at the top. Palmer gave golf a tremendous jolt because he was such a charismatic figure, always going for the pin, never playing a safe shot.
I got my first taste of Palmer in person at the 1966 U. S. Open at the Olympic Club in San Francisco and I was as blown away as everybody else. What none of us knew at the time was that we were witnessing the end of Palmer’s dominance of the sport. He went from a potentially record-setting performance to falling into a tie with Billy Casper. When he lost the next day, he also lost his last real chance to win a major, but he remains the most popular golfer in my lifetime.
THE WONDERS of the Internet: I got an inbox full of e-mails objecting to my Tuesday column in the Examiner about the problems facing the NCAA, but almost all of them were angry about my comments about Joe Paterno and Penn State. I found out why soon: My column was posted on a Penn State website.
At least, I admitted the problems at my alma mater, Cal, none of which rose to the awfulness of the Jerry Sandusky scandal at Penn State, for which Sandusky was found guilty when it was uncovered. Apparently, many Penn State alumni cannot admit that their college or Joe Paterno did anything wrong. I had greatly admired Paterno as one coach who really wanted his players to get an education, and I had an excellent interview with him when he was in San Francisco one time. But from all accounts, he was warned by a young assistant coach who saw Sandusky in the showers with a young boy and still allowed his longtime friend access to college facilities for his programs after Sandusky had been fired. Paterno stopped being a hero to me at that point.
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