Vernon Davis/Marshawn Lynch; Bill Russell; Tim Hudson/Tim Lincecum/Matt Cain; Yu Darvish; Tony Gwynn/Chris Speier/Jack Clark/Will Clark/Steve Young
THE MADNESS which is the World Cup has engulfed most of the world, though the sport of football (as itís known to the rest of the world) or soccer is still well down the list of American favorites, which brings up the question: How does a sport become popular?
Sometimes, itís easy to see. Basketball is the one American sport which has been adopted by many countries because itís relatively easy to play Ė if youíre tall enough.
Itís also easy to see how a sport sustains its popularity. Baseball is popular in this country because itís passed on through the generations. Iím one example among many: I became interested in baseball listening with my father to the 1945 World Series on the radio. In the many countries that love soccer/football, youngsters play it from an early age. On one visit to Paris, we even saw pre-school kids kicking rolled-up socks because they had no ball.
But, how do you explain the fact that baseball is wildly popular in Japan and in the countries around the Caribbean but nowhere else in the world? And, who can explain cricket?
I wrote often about soccer in the Ď70s and early Ď80s because it is a much safer sport to play than football. But it has not made serious inroads into American sports because (1) Fathers are still more interested in having their sons lay high school football; and (2) Soccer has to be played at a high level to be really exciting. It isnít the lack of scoring but the fact that players arenít skilled enough to get into position to make good shots on goal. A 1-0 game between top international teams can be exciting, just as a 1-0 major league game can be here. In fact, Brazil and Mexico played a 0-0 game yesterday that was very exciting because the Mexican goalie made several incredible stops.
But, American football canít be sustained the way itís being conducted now. There are far too many injuries, especially concussions, in the NFL, with resulting lawsuits. College football is an absolute mess and high schools are now requiring parents to pay substantial amounts for their sons to play football. I think high school football will be the first to die out, then the colleges, then the NFL.
At that point, soccer will have a shot at being a truly important sport.
Of course, in Texas, theyíll still have high school football. Thatís a different world, as evident by their governor. Like fruit, he doesnít travel well.
HOLDOUTS: Itís becoming more common for star NFL players to skip the non-mandatory workouts in the spring. Vernon Davis skipped even the mandatory one. Marshawn Lynch came to only the mandatory workout and did very little, because the coaches are trying to give him the rest he needs to be at his best in the regular season.
Davis, of course, is holding out because he wants a better contract. I canít blame him. Heís only third among NFL tight ends but nobody else came close to his production last year. He caught 13 of the 21 touchdown passes Colin Kaepernick threw last year and his combination of speed and strength makes him almost impossible to defend.
For the 49ers, the problem is fitting a new contract for Davis into their overall budget and salary cap needs. General manager Trent Baalke has been very creative so far, so it will be interesting to see how he handles this.
The question of offseason workouts, though, is bigger than two individual players. Frankly, I think the NFL is overdoing this and contributing to its own injury problems during the season. This isnít basketball, where players can go year-round shooting baskets. Football is a very taxing sport physically and mentally, and players need a break.
I think there should be one workout with draft picks, so the team could see what it has, but veterans should be left alone until training camp. This isnít like the old days, when players would show up out of shape and have to work themselves into condition in trainng camp. Theyíre doing offseason work on their own. Give them a rest Ė and the coaches, too.
THE FAILURE of the Miami Heat to win its third straight NBA title is still another example of a fundamental change in American sports.
Once, it was common for teams to dominate over a long period; the Boston Celtics, with Bill Russell manning the middle, won 11 NBA championships in 13 years. In baseball, the New York Yankees won five straight World Series, 1949-53. The Pittsburgh Steelers won four Super Bowls in six years in the late Ď70s.
Many things have changed since then. The salary cap affects both football and basketball, making it more difficult to keep championship teams together. Baseball has no salary cap but thereís much more money in the sport now, which deprives the Yankees of their one-time advantage.
Overall, thereís much more competition for championships. To me, thatís much better than having one team dominate for a long period, as the Yankees did. As Jim Murray once wrote, ďRooting for the Yankees is like rooting for U.S. Steel.Ē
Of course, if your team is winning, you hate to see it get broken up because of its success.
ITíS AMUSING to see how the local media is overreacting to the Giants. A week ago, they were comparing them to the 1962 Giants, which was ridiculous. Now, they worry that theyíre collapsing.
Neither scenario is realistic. A baseball season is 162 games for a reason: Every team has its highs and lows and it takes a full season for everything to even out. The Giants are neither as good as they were looking nor as bad as they looked last week, losing three of four to the Nationals and three straight to the Rockies, or even in their loss to the White Sox in Chicago last night. As I wrote in the Examiner yesterday, a Bay Bridge World Series is still a possibility.
The question about the Giants is whether their pitching will hold up. Tim Hudson has been remarkable but at his age and with his injury history, you have to wonder if he can last a season. Tim Lincecum looked good in his last outing and certainly is much more mature at 30 but I think itís still a question whether he should be starting or relieving. Matt Cain continues to struggle, as he did last year.
The Dodgers are the only real competition for the NL West, which is under .500 for the division. Itís hard to take the Rockies seriously because they have a tendency to nose dive when they go on the road. Playing in that mile-high atmosphere fattens batting averages and power totals but itís also hard on the body. Players on teams coming in on a road trip often comment on that, so imagine playing 81 games there.
The Dodgers have almost too much talent in some areas, particularly the outfield, and the ones who sit are going to be unhappy. Hanley Ramirez still thinks heís a premier shortstop but the Dodgers think of him as somebody who needs to be playing third base. I donít have much respect for Don Mattingly as a manager but thereís probably no manager who could handle this bunch.
And, even if the Dodgers should get hot again, with the playoff structure, the Giants could still grab a wild card spot.
The Aís are in much the same position. The Angels appear to be their only serious rival, with the Rangers and Mariners scuffling in the middle of the pack. The surprising Astros may get into that mid-pack battle, too.
Itís been something of a bumpy road for the Aís lately, too, though they beat the Yankees two out of three at the Coliseum over the weekend. The Aís have now won 14 of the last 19 from the Yankees. How the mighty have fallen. The Aís lost the opener of their home series to the Texas Rangers on Monday night but then hammered Yu Darvish on Tuesday. Darvish is lights-out against everybody else but the Aís routinely treat him like a batting practice pitcher. Baseball is indeed a strange game.
And, BTW, that columnist who wrote that the Aís should have included the famous play on which he threw out Jeremy Giambi at the plate in their tribute to them was so far off in that assessment that he might as well have been sitting in the bay. There was no reason to cause their fans any agony by replaying that when there were so many other plays to recall. Jeter understood that, and he was pleased by the tribute. Thatís typical of him. Heís not only been a superb player, a cinch for the Hall of Fame, but has conducted himself with class throughout his career. I still hate the Yankees but I make an exception for Jeter.
FAVORITES: John Shea wrote a moving piece on Tony Gwynn, after Gwynnís death at just 54 from oral cancer, apparently a result of years of chewing tobacco, a terrible habit that was widespread in an earlier era. It isnít often that a player is so strongly identified with one city Ė Stan Musial and St. Louis were like that Ė but Gwynn was San Diego all the way. He went to college there, played for the Padres and loved the city.
I didnít know Gwynn well because I seldom got close to athletes from different cities, not because I disliked them but because I simply didnít have much interaction with them.
There were some local athletes I particularly liked. Iíve talked earlier about how close I was to some of the Raiders I covered, particularly Tom Keating and Ben Davidson. It wasnít as easy when I became a columnist because I wasnít around players that much.
Still, there were some I got close to. In baseball, I was close to Chris Speier early because I was the only writer willing to criticize Giants manager Charlie Fox. Later, two of my favorites were the unrelated Clarks, Will and Jack. Will was a favorite because of his upfront personality, which often meant the kind of rough kidding that is common in baseball clubhouses. In 1993, when I was on crutches because of an operation on an infected toe, when I came into the Giantsí clubhouse, Will yelled out, ďDonít expect any sympathy from us!Ē And then, he came over to ask me what had happened. With Jack, we formed a kinship because we were both critical of Giants management and, of course, I was the only writer who was. We even talked at one point of doing a book together, which didnít materialize.
My overall favorite, though, was Steve Young, who was gracious to everybody. Equally important to me, he was able to explain what he was doing on the field. Most athletes are either unable or unwilling It was no surprise to me that Steve was able to become very successful in TV once his career was over.
OOPS: In my rush to get last weekís column out, I confused Bob Welch and Mike Moore. It was Welch who won 27 games, of course, and Moore who started two World Series games in 1989.
What do YOU think? Let me know!
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