Madison Bumgarner/Tim Hudson/Tim Lincecum/Matt Cain; Babe Ruth/Barry Bonds/Willie Mays/ Klay Thompson; Vernon Davis/Lebron James
THE BIGGEST obstacle to a Bay Area World Series now appears to be the Giants. The Aís are playing in a stronger division with Seattle a potential contender along with the Anaheim Angels while the Giants are almost assured a playoff berth because the NL West is so weak. The only other strong team in the division is the Dodgers, who are once again making a move that will probably enable them to win the division. The Aís are still leading their division, with the best record in baseball but fissures are showing up with the Giants that may derail them in the postseason.
As always, pitching will determine the fate of the Giants, which is not good news. Madison Bumgarner, perhaps the best NL pitcher not named Clayton Kershaw, is having a consistently good year. Tim Hudson has pitched well but heís had two straight bad outings. More to the point, at 38 and with his injury history, thereís a real question of whether he can last the season. Matt Cain can look very good for a time and then just inexplicably throw up ďhit-meĒ fast balls. Tim Lincecum is a six-inning pitcher who is trying to adjust to his reduced capacity. Ryan Vogelsong was a great feel-good story but heís now nothing more than a journeyman.
Forget about making a trade for a pitcher. Parity, otherwise known as mediocrity, has struck baseball. As I look at the National League standings, I see only four teams that Iíd say have no chance for the playoffs. Three of them are in the NL West Ė the Rockies, Padres and Diamondbacks. The fourth is that perennial, the Cubs. Perhaps we should just declare Wrigley Field a national monument and concede that weíll never again see a contending team there.
One bit of good news for the Giants: They seem to have a long-term solution for their second base problem in Joe Panik, who is both a good fielder and good hitter. Brandon Hicks did a good job in the field but wasnít hitting for anything like a decent average. Marco Scutaro insists heís coming back from multiple injuries and surgeries and I wish him well because heís always been a favorite of mine, first with the Aís and now with the Giants. But when a veteran player develops a back problem and has surgeryÖ.well, have we forgotten Freddy Sanchez so soon?
Michael Morse also hurt his back against the Diamondbacks, taking one of those all-or-nothing swings at a low fast ball Ė which he admitted was a mistake. And, Angel Pagan has often been troubled by minor injuries. The Giants learned last year what a difference Pagan makes Ė when he was injured and out of the lineup.
One bit of good news: Brandon Beltís return is imminent; heís targeting July 4. Belt had demonstrated much more power in early season, mainly because he had learned to look for pitches he could drive, and heís a superb fielding first baseman.
Another bit of good news: There will be no more comparisons to the 1962 Giants.
WORLD CUP: A Chronicle reader sent in a long e-mail last week about how confusing soccer is. Iím sure he thought he was being amusing but he was only being big time stupid. When a sport is the most popular internationally, itís hard to sound intelligent saying everybody else is out of step.
As I wrote last week, the problem Americans have with soccer is that they so seldom see it at its best. I had two moments when I realized how good soccer could be. The second of those was the World Cup Regionals at Stanford in 1994. The other came earlier, in the early 1980s when I was doing radio/TV work for the San Jose Earthquakes and they signed Georgie Best, the infamous bad boy of English soccer.
Best was far beyond his prime at that point and fighting alcoholism, not successfully. But even in his diminished state, he put on an exhibition in a ĎQuakes game (against an opponent whose name Iíve forgotten) when he moved around his opponents, all of whom took an unsuccessful attempt at stopping him and some of whom made two attempts, to score the winning goal. It was such a spectacular play that the next week, when the Earthquakes were playing in Los Angeles, the TV crew was replaying it in the truck for their own enjoyment. They invited me in, so I enjoyed it again with them. Quite amazing.
Americans donít get a chance to see soccer played on that level until the World Cup. Youth soccer is very popular but thereís a disconnect when the youngsters go to high school and fathers want their sons to play football. With high schools now demanding a payment to cover possible lawsuits, it wouldnít surprise me if we saw high schools dropping football. Canít come too soon.
SPEAKING OF WHICH, the retired players suing the NFL for the damages they suffered have won a victory, with the NFL no longer putting a cap on payments to injured players, or their families if the player has died. Thatís a step in the right direction.
BEST EVER: Somebody on one of those weird Internet sites attempted to name the best ever baseball players. This is always difficult because baseball Ė though it bills itself as an unchanging game Ė has indeed changed enormously over the years.
My criterion has always been how a player ranked with his contemporaries so, by that measure, I agreed with the choice of Babe Ruth as the No. 1 of all time. When Ruth started hitting home runs, he was in another universe; in 1920, he hit 54 home runs and the second-most total was 19 by George Sisler. No team in the American League hit as many home runs as Ruth. The career record for home runs was only 136; Ruth passed that in his second year as an outfielder, setting records with each ensuing homer until he reached 714. In his early years, he was also an excellent outfielder and base runner.
And, BTW, before becoming a full-time outfielder, he had been a very good pitcher, winning 65 games in three seasons, with a 1.75 ERA in the middle of those seasons. In two World Series, he was 3-0.
So, yes, Iíd agree that Ruth was No. l, but I really disagree when the writer put Barry Bonds ahead of Willie Mays. I saw Bonds throughout his Giants career and think itís ridiculous that sanctimonious writers refuse to put him in the Hall of Fame. But Mays was a much superior base runner (as opposed to base stealing which they both did well in their youth). He was unparalleled as an outfielder with a strong and accurate arm. Bonds was a good left fielder but with a weak arm.
In the 50-plus years Iíve been watching major league baseball, Mays is easily the best Iíve seen.
My personal relationship with Mays is complicated, though. Iíve written about it before but that was some years back. For those of you who have read it before, I ask for your indulgence.
It began for me as pure hero worship. I recognized early what many writers had already discovered: Mays was doing things no other player could. He was hitting for both average and power. He couldnít make the spectacular plays he made in the huge outfield of the Polo Grounds but he successfully battled the winds of Candlestick and caught many fly balls that were normally the responsibility of left fielders when Leon Wagner or Willie McCovey had to play out there.
But what really captivated me was his base running, the way he knew absolutely how far he could go, often while directing runners behind him.
In my early days at The Chronicle, I was usually assigned to the sports copy desk, reading out stories and writing headlines. The hours were roughly 3 to midnight. So, I would go out to Candlestick and catch a few innings before I went to work, in hopes of seeing Mays do something nobody else could do. I was seldom disappointed.
It was a much different story when I started being assigned to do clubhouse stories, called ďsidebarsí in those days but often used for columns by lazy writers today. Mays had a strict rating system for writers. At the top were New York writers, when they came out; he would talk to them as long as they wanted. Next were local columnists, one of whom would come out once a year and write a column about how wonderful Mays was. Beat writers were down the list. Those doing sidebars, like me, werenít even on it. Any question I ever asked Mays in that period got the same answer: Sheeeit.
When I first started writing a column for The Chronicle on an experimental basis, I wrote one about the unpleasant side of the legend. It got the response I expected: Mail poured in and everything I read was critical of my column. Other writers condemned me, even a couple who agreed with me. Lon Simmons went on his KSFO program and said he was canceling his subscription to The Chronicle (he didnít). I felt besieged but that column also told readers that, if I were willing to criticize a beloved hero that way, I wouldnít pull punches on other subjects. Iím quite sure that my columns were the best read sports columns in the Bay Area from that point until the desperate Hearst editor took it away in 2005 because I was overshadowing his favorites.
Mays was traded soon after that and we had no further contact until 1997, when the Giants commissioned me to write a history of the San Francisco Giants. I arranged player interviews myself but let Pat Gallagher set up the one for Mays. I went to his home in Atherton, where he had a room with all his trophies, arranged haphazardly around the room. We were both apprehensive until I started asking him about specific plays from the Ď60s that had impressed me. He was tickled by that. Of course, he remembered them, too, and told me why he had done specific things. I got a picture of an athlete who was much more cerebral in his preparations than anybody ever knew, not just a great natural athlete. Thatís how I wrote about him in my book.
Mays was obviously pleased. When he spoke at the ground-breaking for the new Giants park, he gave advice to Bonds, noting our one-time animosity but how we broke through that to become friends. He counseled Barry to treat writers with respect, a bit of advice Barry unfortunately never took.
THE WARRIORS have been trying to trade for Minnesota power forward Kevin Love and, as much as Iíd love to see them get Love, who would be just what they need in the front court, theyíd have to give up Klay Thompson, and I think that would be a mistake. Thompson is a terrific outside shooter and a strong defender against the oppositionís off-guard. He would be a huge loss.
BTW, the trade would also have the Warriors taking a Minnesota guard they donít want just so the contracts would even out, a requirement under the NBAís salary cap. They really do need to re-do that salary cap so mere mortals can understand it.
The Warriors have done a good job of building a strong roster but they have no first round pick this year so their chances of getting help there are slim. Andrew Bogut, who is such a key for them, was injured again going into the playoffs. Bogut has played with pain but his big body canít take the rigors of a full schedule and heís in his Ď30s, so that situation will only get worse, not better.
New NBA commissioner Nate Silver wants to change the playoff format to reflect the fact that the Western Conference is much stronger than the Eastern but it wonít be enough to help the Warriors go deep into the fight.
But Iím sure the regular season games will continue to be sellouts at the Oracle Arena, though that isnít good enough for Joe Lacob, who wants to be a big shot in San Francisco.
CONTRACTS: When Vernon Davis skipped 49ers workouts over a contract dispute, I wrote that he was justified because he was by far the most productive tight end in the league but only the third highest paid. I was chided by a reader who said athletes should live up to their contracts. Iíd agree if Davis, and other NFL stars, really had contracts, but they donít.
In baseball and basketball, if a star player is cut by a team with years left on his contract, he gets paid for those years. Thatís not true in football, where contracts are written to give teams the chance to cut players at any time Ė without paying them for the rest of the contract. If, for instance, Davis had had a bad season and the Niners wanted to cut him, they could do it without paying him another cent. Thatís why agents fight for signing bonuses in contracts because thatís money in the playerís hands.
In all pro sports, player salaries have gone through the roof, as have ownersí profits and ticket prices. None of it makes sense to me but Iím not going to be foolish enough to say that, in this NFL, Vernon Davis doesnít deserve the best contract for a tight end.
And, BTW, Lebron James has opted out of his huge contract in Miami. Whether he goes back to Miami or to another team, heíll get an even larger contract Ė and heíll deserve it. Thatís the point. The players are making franchise owners richer and they deserve to share in the largesse.
What do YOU think? Let me know!
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