Aaron, Walsh, Costas and Whining Players
I was a teenager in California, which did not have major league baseball yet and had no television of the games, except the World Series, so I avidly read what was written about baseball. The articles always praised Aaron’s natural physical gifts, and even at my young age, I realized they were implying that he wasn’t very bright. We have since learned that they mistook the reticence of a black raised in the segregated South for a lack of intelligence and that Aaron, in fact, is quite intelligent.
But Aaron persevered. He was not as flashy as Willie Mays, nor quite as good an all-round player or even a power hitter; he never hit more than 47 home runs in a season, though playing in a park called “The Launching Pad,” while Mays hit 52 one year playing half his games at Candlestick, a very difficult park for righthanded power hitters.
Aaron, though, was very consistent, churning out good year after good year, and eventually he passed the 700 career home run mark, threatening Babe Ruth’s record. Many fans and even those in the power structure were horrified at the thought that a black man could surpass Ruth. Aaron received death threats and commissioner Bowie Kuhn was absent when he hit No. 715 to pass Ruth; Kuhn had a pressing engagement with a Cleveland Indians fan club. Aaron added 40 more homers for a mark which stood more than three decades.
In the last couple of years, Aaron has been raised to sainthood by anti-Bonds writers who loved to use his statements that he would not be present when his record was broken to lash out at Bonds.
I suspect that galled Aaron, a proud man who had endured his harsh treatment in silence and now saw another black man being pilloried.
So, after Bonds hit his historic home run Tuesday night, the scoreboard showed a tribute from Aaron, graciously passing the torch to Bonds.
It was a classy act, but no surprise. Henry Aaron has always defined class.
BASEBALL PLAYERS have never had it so good, with salaries reaching into the stratosphere, but that hasn’t stopped them from complaining. A couple of the biggest whiners have very recently played for Bay Area clubs.
Last week, Milton Bradley lashed out at A’s general manager Billy Beane, saying he’d been “used up” by Beane last season. Used up? What’s that all about? When he was healthy in the second half of the season last year, he was a big factor in the A’s success? Does he regret that?
Bradley was also unhappy about his release from the A’s in midseason this year. He even hinted at racism, which was ridiculous. Though some tried to make more of it, Bradley was released because the A’s had a glut of outfielders and Bradley’s injury history made it impossible to rely on him. At the time he was released, Bradley had only 65 at-bats, with two homers and seven RBIs.
You’d think he’d be happy that he landed in a good spot, with the San Diego Padres, who are contending for the NL West lead while the A’s are well out of playoff contention. But happy and Milton Bradley seldom appear in the same sentence.
Matt Morris seemed like a much different person, a 33-year-old whose first full season in the majors was in 1997 and who had been a solid pitcher since, except for the 1999 season, when he was sidelined by injuries.
But Morris was whining when he was with the Giants, complaining that the emphasis was on Barry Bonds’ drive for a career home run mark, not on whether the Giants won the game. Well, there’s a shocker. Could that be because the Giants have been at or near the bottom of the NL West all season? Even avid Giants fans haven’t been eagerly checking the scoreboard each day to see if their team has won.
Morris pitched himself out of a trade to a contender when his once-promising season turned sour. He wound up in Pittsburgh where he told writers that Bruce Bochy was too laid-back as a manager. Morris preferred the intense style of Tony La Russa, his manager with the Cardinals. As it happens, I love La Russa, but for Morris to blame Bochy for his problems is ridiculous. A pitcher who has been in the majors for 10 years should be able to motivate himself. Look in the mirror, Matt.
I’m not one who claims that “the good old days” were better. In fact, I think today’s game is probably better than at any time in the past.
But there are certainly times when I long for the days when players did their job and kept their mouths shut.
WALSH’S FIRST CHANCE: Bill Walsh could actually have become the 49ers coach earlier, in 1976. Lou Spadia, then the club president, was looking for a replacement for the fired Dick Nolan, and he asked Paul Brown about Walsh, who had been the chief offensive assistant for Brown in Cincinnati. Brown’s assessment: Walsh isn’t tough enough to be a head coach. So, Spadia hired Monte Clark instead, and Walsh moved from Cincinnati to San Diego for one year, then to Stanford as head coach in 1977. You know the rest of the story.
Brown was a brilliant football man but a petty, small-minded individual, who was concerned about his legacy. In retrospect, it seems he didn’t want Walsh to succeed as a head coach because people might start wondering how much of Brown’s success in Cincinnati was due to Walsh’s imaginative offensive schemes. He especially didn’t want Walsh to follow him in Cincinnati – so he hired Bill Johnson, who was no threat, as his successor.
In the end, Brown did a favor to Walsh because after the 1976 season, Joe Thomas became general manager of the 49ers. Clark, who knew Thomas from the time both had been with the Miami Dolphins, immediately resigned. He knew he couldn’t work with Thomas, and Walsh would never have been able to, either.
Thomas left the franchise in ruins in just two years. Walsh inherited a terrible team, but he also had some breathing room because everybody knew how bad the situation was. When I interviewed Gene Washington for my 50-year history of the 49ers, he compared it to the lotus flower growing out of the mud. “If Thomas hadn’t done what he did, Walsh may not have come here, and who knows what would have happened,” Washington said. “Bill is clearly the reason for the 49ers’ success. If you were to ask me if I would go through what I went through to get to where this team is now, I'd say yes."
Walsh’s professorial demeanor led people other than Brown to think he might not be tough enough but his 49er players never thought that. He was very demanding on the field and unerring in his assessment of when veteran players should retire.
When he retired from coaching, Walsh was shocked to learn how many of his former players disliked and even feared him, so he put a lot of time and effort into mending fences. As a result, he and his former players became friends in the ‘90s. He golfed and had lunch with many of the players and, in the case of Steve Young, counseled him in the early ‘90s when Young was criticized by the fans who hated to see him replace Joe Montana. A couple of weeks before Walsh’s death, Montana and Dwight Clark had visited him. Montana and Young will both speak at the private memorial tomorrow.
TRADE TALK: When I wrote in The Examiner last month that the Giants had no real trade bait except Morris, one reader took exception and said they could get Mark Texeira for Tim Lincecum, Randy Winn and Jonathan Sanchez.
Yes, I’m sure they could have. And now we know who advised Brian Sabean to trade Joe Nathan, Francisco Liriano and Boof Bonser for A. J. Pierzynski.
BOB COSTAS: Since he blasted Bonds, I've been asked what I think of Bob Costas. Actually, the Bonds stuff hasn’t changed my opinion: For years I’ve thought Costas was a sanctimonious twerp who has appointed himself the guardian of the sanctity of sports. Give it a rest, Bob. It's just entertainment.
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