NBA Playoffs, Ben Braun, Barry Bonds, Baseball in Japan
by Glenn Dickey
Mar 26, 2008

THE OVERWHELMING superiority of the NBA’s Western Conference this season has led to proposals that teams be seeded by records in the playoffs, so the best teams are in. Sounds tempting, but there are at least two reasons not to do this:

1) Relative strength of conferences and leagues varies from time to time. When I first started covering major league baseball in the ‘50s and ‘60s, the National League was the stronger league, because it had tapped into the black players’ market earlier and stronger. Now, the American League is definitely the stronger league, but five years from now, 10 years from now, who knows? The National League may have regained superiority.

I also started covering the Raiders in 1967, when the prevailing wisdom (which usually meant sportswriters opinions) was that the NFL was a much stronger league than the AFL.

Before the Raiders played the Green Bay Packers in the second Super Bowl, TexMaule, who was an extreme NFL loyalist, analyzed the teams position-by-position for Sports Illustrated. He rated the teams dead-even at the fullback position – Hewritt Dixon for the Raiders, Chuck Mercein for the Packers – but gave the Packers the edge at every one of the remaining 21 positions.

The Packers won their second Super Bowl and Maule then proposed that, instead of each league playing off to determine a representative for the Super Bowl, there should be inter-league playoffs from the start, with the two best teams meeting in the Super Bowl. Maule obviously felt those teams would both be from the NFL.

Then, the AFL won the next two Super Bowls. It turned out that NFL superiority was a myth; it was only the Packers, a great dynasty team, who made the NFL winners in the Super Bowl. That wouldn’t have been surprising if sportswriters had taken off their blinders, because football teams turn over quickly, due to the shortness of players’ careers.

Since then, one conference or the other has been dominant for extended periods. The AFC was dominant in the ‘70s, mostly because of the Pittsburgh Steelers, who won four out of six Super Bowls. The Raiders also won one in that stretch, so it was 5-of-6 for the AFC.

Then, the NFC dominated, starting in the mid-‘80s, and again it was because of dynasty teams, the 49ers and the Dallas Cowboys, along with a 1985 Chicago Bears team that can be ranked with the best of all time.

Now, it is the AFC which is dominant, though the NFC won the last Super Bowl. For the last six years, though, the best teams have been the New England Patriots and the Indianapolis Colts.

But nobody has revived Maule’s idea of an inter-league playoff system because there have been too many swings in conference domination.

In the NBA, the Eastern Conference has often been strong – I still remember the epic struggles between the Philadelphia 76ers, led by Wilt Chamberlain, and the Boston Celtics with Bill Russell. There’s no reason to believe that the Eastern Conference will not be strong again in a relatively short time.

2) It would completely obliterate the meaning of conference play and make it all about the playoffs.

The divisional idea has already broken down. Papers now list the conference standings in the run for the playoffs, with only a little letter marker to indicate who’s winning a division. If only the best teams advance to the playoffs, why even bother with conference designations? Just play a totally interlocking schedule and forget about conferences.

Baseball is still the most traditional sport. Teams play within their league for the most part, with only a relatively few interleague games. Still, it’s not difficult for fans and the media to figure out who the strongest teams are. How would you feel if your team was the third best in the National League but shut out of an eight-team playoff because six American League teams were considered better?

I sympathize with the Western Conference teams battling for the playoffs because a good team will miss out. Right now, for instance, the Dallas Mavericks, Warriors and Denver Nuggets are 7-8-9 in the West. If they were in the East, they’d be 4-5-6 and comfortably in the playoffs. As it is, one of them will be left out in the Western Conference playoffs. My guess is Dallas, but that would make an important point because the Mavericks were the best team in the West last season, which shows how fast basketball fortunes can change.

The format may not look good this year but it will correct itself in the near future. There’s no reason to change.

BEN BRAUN: The worst blow to Cal coach Ben Braun, who was fired Wednesday, was not the lopsided loss to Ohio State in the second round of the Losers Tournament, a.k.a. the NIT, but the incredibly low attendance of 1906 for the first round game against New Mexico, won by the Bears.

I’ve been watching Cal basketball since the 1956-57 season and I can’t recall an attendance that low. More than anything else this season, it showed how many Cal supporters were just fed up with Braun. It cost more to buy out Braun’s contract this year than if athletic director Sandy Barbour had waited another year, but it would also have been costly to keep Braun, because attendance next year would have fallen even further than this year’s, which was the lowest since Haas Pavilion opened.

The Bears have been falling behind competitively, too, as the Pacific-10 has been upgraded by better coaches and better players. Braun had been outrecruited and outcoached.

There was no reason to keep Braun, beyond the provisions in his contract. Once he claimed to care about his players’ education, but the graduation rate for his players in the last five years of NCAA studies has never reached 50 per cent. In part, that’s because players have transferred out, which counts as non-graduation even if they get a diploma from another school, but that only highlights another problem, the number of players who leave Braun’s program.

There’s no reason Cal can’t compete with the best in the conference – with the right coach. Jeff Tedford turned around what had been a hopeless football program in his first year. The right coach could do that at Cal, too.

GROUP THINK: Bay Area writers have a favorite story line, concocted without one-on-one conversations with the principals, that Brian Sabean has been handcuffed by Peter Magowan and Larry Baer.

The latest example of that came in Sunday’s Chronicle when a writer stated that the decision to re-sign Barry Bonds last year was a bad baseball decision that had been forced on Sabean by the “marketing people.”

Wrong on both counts.

If you remember, as the writer clearly did not, Sabean pursued Alfonso Soriano and Carlos Lee in free agency, underbidding both times. Desperate for another good hitter, he then re-signed Bonds. But, though Bonds had been a big gate attraction in previous years, the Giants did not need a boost last year because they had tickets to the All-Star game tied in to season tickets, virtually all of which had been sold before Bonds was signed.

A bad baseball decision? For the first five months of the season, before he wore down from playing in the field, Bonds was again a major offensive weapon, whether he was hitting home runs or being intentionally walked. Without him, the Giants offense would have been. . . well, what it will be this year when the Giants will lose many low-scoring – and boring – games because they can’t score enough runs.

BASEBALL IN JAPAN: I’m not a fan of regular season games played by American sports teams in other countries. The New York Giants-Miami Dolphins game in London last fall could have impacted the NFL season, if the Dolphins hadn’t been such sad sacks. Now, the A’s and Boston Red Sox have played two games in Tokyo for the start of the regular season, and it will take some time for their bodies to get back on an American time schedule. I speak from experience, having gone to Tokyo with the Cal football team in 1987 when the Bears played Washington State in the now defunct Coca Cola Bowl.

Of course, we know the real reason for these games: to sell more merchandise. That’s been true for NFL Europe, too. There have been some players who developed there, but the primary purpose has always been to sell merchandise. NFL Properties is a huge revenue stream for NFL teams.

The Red Sox-A’s trip to Japan has had an unpleasant side effect, as the Japanese have been introduced to the Red Sox fans, who are the baseball equivalent of the Raider Nation. The Japanese are very polite people and they’ve been horrified by the boorishness and bad manners of the Red Sox fans. Join the crowd. These louts were unpleasant when the Red Sox hadn’t won a championship. Now that their team has won the World Series twice in four years, they’re insufferable.

Ah, well, maybe it’s all worthwhile if this just gets the Japanese interested in baseball.

FIELD OF DREAMS: The public is invited to dedication ceremonies for the new baseball field which will serve the North Oakland youth community, including Oakland technical High, on April 1. Gates open at 3:45 p.m., and the ceremony starts at 4. The field is located on 45th St., between Telegraph Avenue and Webster.

E-MAILS: Once again I remind readers that if you have a system which blocks e-mails, put me on your safe list if you want a response. I do not fill out forms so my e-mail address will be recognized.

BASEBALL SEASON is almost here and tickets are available for all teams on the TICKETS! TICKETS! TICKETS link at the bottom of my Home Page. Tickets are also available for the All-Star game at Yankee Stadium, as fans prepare to say goodbye to the most fabled stadium of our time. Tickets are available for the NCAA tournament games, including the Final Four. In the entertainment world, Kenny Chesney’s tour will be at AT&T Park on June 8, Radiohead will hit the road in May. On Broadway, Rent will end a 12-year run in June. Jersey Boys and Wicked remain hot tickets. For tickets to these events and many others, just click at the local and national links and everything will come up.

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