Playoffs, A's Trades, Bonds, Williams, Tedford
American college sports occupy a spot which, to the best of my knowledge, is unique in the world. In other countries, after high school, athletes usualy compete for clubs, rather than colleges.
It’s quite different in this country. Intercollegiate sports programs are very important, and on much the same level as the NFL and the NBA in football and basketball. In women’s basketball, the college game probably eclipses the WNBA.
There is merit to these programs, one of them being that they are virtually the only activity that can somewhat bridge the gap between alumni and students. They can also be a comforting isle of stability among the many changes. Before Cal home football games, I often walk around the campus and note the many changes since I graduated in 1958, but Memorial Stadium remains the same - too much so, because many changes are overdue.
The games also involve more than the players. The marching bands are an important part of the pageantry, and the halftime show is 20 minutes, instead of the NFL. There are cheerleaders and pompon girls, who are all students at the colleges. In contrast, the tacky girlie routines put on by professional teams are a sideshow.
But the college games have been riddled with excess for many years. There have always been scandals, at first because alumni paid star players. Now, it’s the agents, and the payoffs have gotten higher. Just ask Reggie Bush.
Greed is rampant. What was once a 10-game college football season has been expanded to 12, and sometimes even to 13, with no regard for the physical damage done to the athletes, few of whom ever cash in on their ability at the professional level. To get television money, teams play games at whatever time the particular network demands. The Big Game was played in the first weekend in December, with a 4 p.m. start. Brrrr!
Once, the colleges had a bowl system with traditional inter-conference rivalries for the Rose, Sugar, Orange and Cotton. That wasn’t good enough for those who just can’t sleep if they don’t know who’s No. 1 in the country, so they’ve been hammering for a national playoff.
The university presidents and chancellors have resisted that pressure, but they put in the BCS system as a solution. The flaws in that system were never more apparent than this year, with the continual upheaval in the polls. Nobody can say who's the best team in the country, but it almost certainly isn’t Ohio State, which is now in that position. The Buckeyes had their usual patsy non-conference schedule and beat only one team, Wisconsin, in the top 25. But they benefited from what is called GIGO in the computer world: Garbage In, Garbage Out. The computers greatly overrate the Big 10, so Ohio State got much more credit for its conference wins than it deserved. Sportswriters were also complicit in this, not learning anything from the way Ohio State and Michigan got obliterated in bowl games after last season.
Does this mean that we’ll see a playoff system soon? Not a chance. The university presidents and chancellors, realizing there is already far too much importance given to intercollegiate sports, will not bow to pressure, and good for them.
STANFORD ATTENDANCE: When Stanford built its new 50,000-seat stadium, there were many who thought that was too small. Certainly doesn’t seem that way now. Even the Big Game wasn’t quite a sellout, and other games have fallen far short. Season ticket sales have been healthy, but many ticket holders stay home. For instance, I was at the Stanford-Notre Dame game, where the ticket sale was 48,000-plus but the actual attendance was probably below 40,000.
Bad teams are only part of the problem. The shifting of game times that I alluded to earlier has been especially damaging at Stanford, which may have been the first school nationally to promote tailgating before games.
But the biggest problem is the change in the Stanford fan base. Stanford used to draw many non-alums from the South Bay, but those fans now identify with the 49ers, even as miserable as they’ve been for most of the last 10 years. Stanford has a much smaller student body than Cal, less than 20 per cent of the total at Berkeley. Cal graduates, most of whom come from the state, tend to stay in the Bay Area after graduation. The Stanford student body has become increasingly national and international, and those graduates often go back to their home areas.
When I was going to Stanford games in the ‘60s, an attendance of 60,000 was pretty much the base level, and for the more attractive games, the attendance would swell to 70 and 80,000. Those days are gone forever. With a better team, Stanford will draw better, but the current capacity will only be tested for the Big Game and Notre Dame games.
HALL OF FAME: Dick Williams changed the Red Sox from losers to a pennant winner and went on to win two World Series with the A’s, but I’m not sure either accomplishment was as impressive as the fact that he lasted three years as manager under Charlie Finley.
Before Williams came to the A’s, players often brought their complaints about managers directly to Finley. In spring training that first year, Williams told his players that, if they wanted to talk to Finley, he’d give them Finley’s direct line – but it wouldn’t change his approach. He firmly established himself as the man in charge with that comment, and he stayed that way.
Williams could accept physical errors as part of the game, but he absolutely abhorred mental mistakes. Players feared what he would say if they screwed up mentally, which was probably the main reason the A’s played such smart baseball.
So, kudos to the Veterans Committee for the much-delayed honor for Williams, but the committee screwed up big time by passing over Marvin Miller and voting in Bowie Kuhn. As head of the Players Association, Miller profoundly changed the way baseball did its business. Kuhn was a bumbler as commissioner, not seeing that the reserve clause wouldn’t hold up to a challenge, though he’d been a lawyer, and not even showing up when Hank Aaron broke Babe Ruth’s career home run record.
A’S TRADES? When I talked to Billy Beane two weeks ago, I asked him specifically about Joe Blanton. Beane said that, though any player is theoretically available in a trade, “sometimes, teams will put such a high price on what they want for a player, that it’s a way of saying ‘We aren’t going to trade this player.’”
That’s what Beane has done with both Blanton and Dan Haren. Despite all the media speculation, especially regarding Haren, it’s extremely unlikely either will be traded. Beane knows how difficult it is to replace starters like that and, unlike the Giants, the A’s have some young position players with good upsides; Daric Barton, who will probably be the first baseman in the upcoming season, is the latest.
The A’s main problem is still the same: low revenues. Many in the media hated Steve Schott and rejoiced when he sold the club. One radio guy said, when Frank Thomas became a free agent, that he was confident that Thomas would return to the A’s because Schott was no longer the owner. Thomas, of course, went to the Blue Jays. The truth is that, when Lew Wolff took over as managing partner of the A’s, he praised Schott’s business model, and that’s what he’s followed.
BARRY BONDS DEPARTURE: A local columnist made one of the most ridiculous claims I’ve ever seen when he wrote that the Giants are automatically five games better because Bonds is gone – because now they’re a team.
Two things wrong with that:
1) Bonds has always made the hitters around him better because he was such a huge factor – remember Rich Aurilia hitting 37 home runs off all those fast balls he saw while hitting in front of Bonds? – and it was still true last season, even though he wasn’t the dominating hitter he was earlier. Who do you like on the current roster for the cleanup hitter? Or No. 3? Or No. 5? Benjie Molina might be a fit for No. 5, but only if he can repeat last year, a career offensive year, which isn’t likely.
2) As so many people have noted, baseball is an individual sport within a team framework, and we’ve seen many examples in the Bay Area of star players who hated each other but played well together. The three-time A’s World Champions of the ‘70s had fights in the clubhouse. Will Clark hated Jeffrey Leonard and Kevin Mitchell, but they worked together well enough to win a division title in ’87 and get to the World Series in ’89. Bonds and Jeff Kent hated each other, and their teammates didn’t like either one, but they played well enough to nearly win the World Series in 2002.
Give me strong individual players over a team of banjo hitters every time.
TEDFORD’S QB: Nothing has gotten Jeff Tedford more criticism this year than his sticking with quarterback Nate Longshore. Though I wrote in the Examiner before the USC game that Tedford was in denial about his quarterback and should at least play Kevin Riley in the second half, some readers have been upset because I haven’t been more critical of Tedford. There are reasons for that.
I put coaches in three categories. By far the most are those in the middle, muddling their way through, making some good decisions, some bad. Then, there are the buffoons; I had no trouble writing before they even coached a game that Tom Holmoe and Bill Callahan would be disasters. Finally, there are the really good ones. Not every decision Bill Walsh made was great, but he made so many right ones that it seemed pointless to criticize him for mistakes. After talking to Jon Gruden after he was hired by the Raiders, I wrote that this was the best decision Al Davis had made in years – and, unfortunately, it’s turned out to be just about the last one. I put Tedford in that class, too. He’s the best football coach I’ve seen at Cal in the 51 years I’ve been watching the Bears. Cal is very lucky to have him, and I hope he stays for a very long time. It’s pointless to throw him under the bus for picking the wrong quarterback.
And, he may not even have made the wrong decision. I thought Riley showed signs of being potentially a great quarterback in his one start – but potentially is the operative word here. He’s a redshirt quarterback with one start behind him. There is absolutely no guarantee that he could have done a better job than Longshore.
This spring, I hope Tedford gives Riley a legitimate shot at the starting position, and I think he has a good chance to win the job. But in the meantime, I suggest all Cal fans take a deep breath and get some perspective. It’s been sorely lacking among all too many this fall.
WANT TO WATCH some football? Tickets for big NFL matchups like the Dallas Cowboys and Washington Redskins on d Dec. 30 are available on the TICKETS! TICKETS! TICKETS! link at the bottom of my Home Page, as are tickets to Raiders and 49ers games. Tickets are also available for college bowl games.. It’s not too early to think basketball, and tickets are available for the Warriors and all NBA games. In the entertainment world, hot tickets for the legendary group Bruce Springsteen, the Hannah Montana tour and the E Street Band are available, along with those for Van Halen, Kelly Clarkson and Jimmy Buffet. Tickets for Broadway shows like Wicked, Jersey Boys and The Color Purple are also available. Just click on either the Bay Area or national link and everything will come up.
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