Character Issues, Giants Pitchers. . . and More
by Glenn Dickey
May 30, 2007

CHARACTER IS becoming more and more of an issue in professional sports, and teams that ignore that are asking for trouble. Leagues, too. The NFL has had to adopt a stricter policy toward off-field behavior, with the suspension of Tennessee cornerback PacMan Jones the highlight so far, because of so many problems with players being charged with criminal behavior.

But a player can be fine off the field but cause problems on it, as the Raiders discovered with Randy Moss. When the Raiders traded for Moss two seasons ago, they thought he would fit perfectly into their offensive scheme, with its emphasis on deep passes. But in his two seasons, the Raiders won only six games, fewest of any NFL team.

There were many reasons for the Raiders’ failures, but Moss was a big contributor with his attitude. He admitted publicly that he wasn’t always mentally in the game, and he proved it by short-arming passes and not running out his patterns. Not to mention going on the radio and repeatedly saying he wanted to be somewhere else.

Football is the ultimate team game, and a player like Moss is poison to the team ethic, no matter what his talent. When the Green Bay Packers were trying to trade for him, I got a call from the ESPN station in Milwaukee, and the talk show host was trying to get me to name the terms for a favorable deal for Moss. “There are none,” I said. “The Packers shouldn’t take him even if the Raiders ask nothing for him.”

The Packers did pass on a deal for Moss, but the New England Patriots eventually gave the Raiders a fourth round draft pick for him. Perhaps Moss will play up to his ability with the Patriots, because that gives him the best chance he’ll ever have to get to the Super Bowl. But New England coach Bill Belichick is a no-nonsense type of guy. My guess is that Moss won’t last the season without getting cut.

The 49ers also got burned when they took a chance on wide receiver Antonio Bryant, an excellent receiver who had had clashes with coaches in Dallas and Cleveland.

Bryant started strong with the 49ers but also started acting out on the field and arguing with coaches on the sideline. Nothing as bad as Terrell Owens, who is the poster child for this type of behavior, but disturbing. Then, he was arrested for speeding and refused to take a test to determine his blood alcohol level. He was suspended for four games by the NFL, the last two of the 2006 season and the first two this season.

That was enough for Mike Nolan, who cut his losses by releasing Bryant, despite the 49ers’ continued need for wide receivers.

And when the 49ers went into the free agent market this year, character was a prime concern. Their top signing, cornerback Nate Clement, is a player of impeccable character, a hard worker at practice and in the games. Clement gives everything he has on every play. “That was a big consideration for us,” said 49ers personnel chief Scot McCloughan.

It’s always tempting to jump at a player’s talent but it doesn’t work if the player doesn’t have corresponding character. That’s not just true of football. When the Sacramento Kings traded for Ron Artest, they were applauded for their willingness to take the gamble, but I doubt that many people would see it that way now. Artest weighs down the whole franchise.

All sports have changed with free agency. Players no longer feel a strong bond to the club for which they’re playing because they know that, if they’re unhappy, they can move on. Moss, for instance, is with his third team, despite his great talent.

The 49ers are a classic example. When their glory years started in the ‘80s, Bill Walsh built a strong nucleus with players who were not only great athletically but terrific role models for their teammates. Roger Craig and Jerry Rice had punishing offseason workout regimes that kept them in top condition (Craig is still running marathons, as I learned when I talked to him before the recent Bay Area Sports Hall of Fame banquet) and they went full out on the practice field. So did Joe Montana and Steve Young. When stars like that are giving everything they have, younger and lesser players follow their example.

Now, though, the constant turnover make it difficult to establish that pattern. The 49ers have a plaque in their Santa Clara facility with the names of players who have been with the team for at least 10 years, but Bryant Young will probably be the last to be so honored.

So, that makes it more important than ever that players new to the team, whether free agents or rookies, have the right attitude. Character does count.

THE BOSS: I seldom sympathize with Yankee owner George Steinbrenner but he was on target when he said general manager Brian Cashman is on the hot seat. Cashman has access to the largest payroll, by far, in major league baseball. And, as they proved recently, the Yankees have so much money they can afford to pay Roger Clemens many millions just to drop by every fifth day. Cashman should be able to produce a winner with those financial resources behind him, but the Yankees are currently sitting 14 ½ games behind the division-leading Red Sox.

And, I’m loving it. Any day the Yankees lose is a good day. If the Dallas Cowboys also lose, it’s a holiday.

GIANTS PITCHERS: After I took a historical perspective in my Tuesday Examiner column on top Giants pitchers, several readers told me I left out some good one-season wonders. The ones most frequently mentioned: Sam Jones, who would have put the Giants in their first San Francisco World Series in 1959 if owner Horace Stoneham hadn’t thought Andre Rodgers was a shortstop; Ron Bryant, who won 24 games and finished second in the Cy Young voting to Tom Seaver in 1973; and John Burkett, who won 20 games for the 1993 Giants.

Bryant was a special favorite of mine. In June, 1972, when I was writing three columns a week for The Chronicle but still covering other events as well, I was assigned to cover the Giants on a two-week road trip through Pittsburgh, Chicago, St. Louis and San Diego.

The young players were fed up with manager Charlie Fox, but their complaints were ignored by the older beat writers. Several of them came up to me with their complaints but none wanted to go on the record, so I didn’t write anything. (A writer has to be careful with that type of story. As an example, last summer some younger A’s players came to a sympathetic writer and told him, off the record, what they thought of Milton Bradley. The writer wrote a column saying players were souring on Bradley. But several veteran players publicly defended Bradley, who went on a very productive streak. The younger players never talked, and the writer is still wiping egg off his face.)

When the Giants got to St. Louis on that trip, Bryant pitched a Saturday game, got beaten and ripped Fox after the game. I wasn’t at the game because The Examiner was in charge of the Sunday sports section, under the joint operating agreement between The Thronicle and Examiner, so I had no story to write. But when Bryant got back to the hotel, he called my room and came up, to repeat the diatribe he’d unleashed in the dressing room. And he very much wanted to go public with it.

The writers for the Oakland Tribune, Examiner and San Jose Mercury who were covering the Giants on the trip didn’t write a word about Bryant’s blowup, so my story on Monday was the first Bay Area readers knew about it. The story got tremendous attention, featured on TV newscasts that Monday night. In less than a month, The Chronicle publisher decided to make me a full-time columnist, writing five times a week. That decision had probably been in the works for some time, but the Bryant story didn’t hurt.

STATISTICS CAN LIE: Baseball fans often evaluate players on their statistics without considering two other important factors: the lineup around them and the home park they play in.

The latest example is Rich Aurilia, who seemed to have resurrected his career in Cincinnati last season when he hit .300 with 23 home runs in just 440 at-bats.

But Aurilia was in a lineup with several good hitters and playing home games in a park which has been one of the three easiest in which to hit home runs since it opened. This year, playing in a lineup with only one legitimate power threat and in a home park which does not yield cheap home runs, he is hitting .224 with two home runs in 161 at-bats.

A short resurrection.

ARMANDO BENITEZ: Do I need to say anything?


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