Giants, Cal Basketball, Announcers. . . and More
by Glenn Dickey
Apr 11, 2007

THE GIANTS slow start has surprised nobody but the team’s management. After the dismal 1-5 home stand, general manager Brian Sabean said he certainly hadn’t expected that.

Why not? The Giants limped home last season, losing 14 of their last 16 games. Going into the season, this looked like a weaker team than the 2006 version. They were playing two NL West rivals, the Dodgers and Padres, who were ranked considerably higher in every pre-season evaluation. There’s hope and then there’s blind hope, and Giants management seems stuck with the latter.

The Giants plan when they moved into PacBell in the 2000 season was modeled on that of the Cleveland Indians, who put together a strong team as they moved into their new park and saw attendance soar. So did the Giants, who keep setting franchise records; the Friday night game against the Dodgers was the highest regular season attendance at their frequently re-named park.

But Giants ownership and management has always been fearful that attendance would falter if the Giants fall out of attention, as it has for the Seattle Mariners in their beautiful new park. So, their resolve has been to put a contending team on the field every year.
Basically, that has meant building a team around Barry Bonds, a strategy that worked very well through the 2003 season, when the Giants won 100 games.

But, important pieces have been slipping away. One of the most important, Jeff Kent, was in a Dodgers uniform this last weekend. And Bonds, though still a dangerous hitter, has slipped some, and he missed virtually the entire 2005 season with three knee surgeries.

The Giants have not been to the playoffs since 2003, and they’re certainly going to extend that negative streak this season. They’re headed toward their third straight losing season. This one will probably be the worst since 1996, when they lost 94 games. It may even be the worst since 1985, when they lost 100 games. This is an old team with little upside, except for young pitcher Matt Cain.

Yet, they operated in the offseason as if the formula were still working. What’s that definition of insanity? Oh, yes, doing the same thing and expecting different results.

The one good move they made in the offseason was in not trying to re-sign Jason Schmidt. They got the best out of Schmidt, who was no more than an average pitcher after he had that 16-strikeout game last season. There isn’t much left in his tank. The Dodgers signed him to a three-year, $47 million contract, but he lasted only five innings in his first start and came out after four on Monday with a weakened hamstring.

Elsewhere, the Giants mostly signed veterans whose best years are behind them or re-signed their own free agents, Bonds, Ray Durham and Pedro Feliz.

And then, they signed Barry Zito to a seven-year, $126 million contract, which could go to $137 million if he pitches an eighth year for the team.

The Zito signing highlighted the Giants’ main problem in evaluating pitchers: They put too much emphasis on durability, not enough on productivity.

Remember when they talked about Brent Tomko being an “inning eater”? Well, yes, Tomko did pitch a lot of innings, but there were too many bad ones in there. After two mediocre years with the Giants, they finally let him go.

With Zito, the emphasis was on the fact that he hadn’t missed a start in his major league career. But some of those starts, you wish he had missed, like the A’s season opener against the Yankees last year, or his start against Detroit in the ALCS. Or, his second start with the Giants, in which he gave up eight earned runs in six innings to the Dodgers.

It was interesting to watch the reaction of media and fans to the Zito signing. The Giants beat writers and their fans, who see only National League games, were enthusiastic. Those of us in the media who watch both the Giants and A’s – as well as the A’s fans – thought the Giants had overpaid enormously.

The fact is, Zito’s numbers have been trending down since his Cy Young season of 2002. His fast ball, always marginal, has fallen off. In the two games I’ve watched him pitch for the Giants, he has only once gone higher than 86 on the ballpark gun. Most of his “fast balls” are in the 83-85 range. I thought he might do reasonably well in early season for the Giants, because National League hitters didn’t know him. But in both of his first two starts, hitters figured out what the American League hitters had: You can lay off his curve and sit on his fast ball, which doesn’t have a lot of movement.

Signing Zito to a seven-year contract with that kind of money will limit what the Giants can do for that time. The same was true for the two contracts Bonds signed before this year, but Bonds was well worth it. That’s not going to be true for Zito. His deal may, in fact, be regarded as the worst free agent signing of all time.

BAD NEWS BEARS: The exodus continues from the Cal basketball team. I had been told weeks ago by a source that Omar Wilkes would not return because he was so unhappy playing for Ben Braun, and Wilkes made that official last week.

Players don’t like Braun, and assistants have problems, too. Dennis Gates played for Braun and then became an assistant, but he quit. Now, he’s taken a job as an assistant at Northern Illinois, hardly a plum job but apparently preferable to working under Braun. Devon Hardin has declared for the NBA draft. He’ll probably be back because he hasn’t signed with an agent and is unlikely to hear from any team that he’ll be a first-round pick, but he wants to leave.

Cal athletic director Sandy Barbour needs to look closer at what’s happening. The revolving door policy with players in recent years is a clear indication that something is very wrong with the program. And it starts with the coach.

LIBEL SUITS: In my Tuesday column in the Examiner, I mentioned that Willie Brown was George Atkinson’s attorney when Atkinson filed suit against Pittsburgh Steelers coach Chuck Noll. What I didn’t write was that Brown later threatened to sue The Chronicle when I wrote that it had been Brown’s idea to bring the suit because he wanted the publicity.

Brown was one of three celebrities who threatened to sue because of my columns in the pre-Hearst days of The Chronicle, A’s owner Charlie Finley and then Stanford provost Condolezza Rice being the other two. The Chronicle ran retractions for all three, but only my Finley column was wrong.

When Finley gave a Cadillac to Vida Blue in the 1971 season, I heard from Blue’s roommate that the car was still in the club’s name, and I wrote that. In fact, Vida thought that because the registration slip had the A’s address on it, but he was the registered owner.

In Brown’s case, The Chronicle’s managing editor, Gordon Pates, agreed with my premise but said that, because attorneys will work pro bono for other attorneys, the paper’s attorney had advised him to run a correction rather than spend money fighting it in court.

The Rice case was more complicated. I had written that she had told the Stanford athletic department she wanted them to look for a minority candidate for football coach (Tyrone Willingham was later hired) and had said that in talking to the media. She called me to deny that and also called The Chronicle. I couldn’t find the story in searching Chronicle stories on line, so the paper ran a retraction. My son finally found the quote. It was in Dwight Chapin’s story in the Sunday Examiner.

My relationship with Brown and Rice was much better after these cases. When Brown was in Sacramento, he steered me to the right man to clear up an error in my state tax return. When he was San Francisco mayor, I had a couple of one-on-one interviews with him and talked to him often when we met at other venues.

After the air cleared over the Willingham hiring, I had two one-on-one meetings with Rice which were enjoyable and informative. She had a lively – and knowledgeable – interest in the Intercollegiate sports program while she was at Stanford.

Finley? We never got along. But that was like being on Nixon’s enemies list. I considered it an honor.

OH, THOSE ANNOUNCERS: When Lance Niekro pinch-hit in Saturday’s game, Josh Lewin talked of how Niekro had played himself onto the roster in the spring. “He was the starter here several years back,” said Lewin. Several? Way to do your homework, guy. . . On the radio, Mike Krukow talked of reliever Kevin Correia having “electric stuff.” Funny, but when Correia first came up to the Giants in 2003, pitching coach Dave Righetti praised his competitiveness but told me Correia had been below the radar because he didn’t have great stuff. I guess he’s improved.

DIFFERENT GAME: I thought it was a great example of National League baseball when the Giants loaded the bases with nobody out in the second inning on Sunday and came up empty because Zito struck out and Omar Vizquel grounded into a double play. That kind of thing often happens in the National League, where rallies fizzle out in the bottom of the order because the pitcher is coming up. But heaven forbid that the National League should adopt the Designated Hitter rule so they could have an actual hitter in that spot. Of course, it would take away the strategy they love, and Giants manager Bruce Bochy did use the double switch twice in that game. Be still, my beating heart.


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LETTERS: I updated this section on Monday.

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