Baseball Changes, John Bowker, Nelson vs. Davis
by Glenn Dickey
Apr 16, 2008

WATCHING THE April 15 anniversary of the first major league baseball game played on the West Coast reminded me how much baseball and the country have changed since then.

One obvious change is the interest. Younger fans can’t truly appreciate how big an event it was when the Giants and Dodgers moved west. Baseball was the undoubted No. 1 sport in the country, truly the “National Pastime”.

Baseball has since been surpassed by the NFL, especially in the Bay Area, where the 49ers are easily the best story, but in 1958,
San Franciscans truly felt that getting major league baseball made San Francisco a major league city. Mayor George Christopher had worked tirelessly, often in New York meetings which had to be kept secret, to make the deal. Years later, I talked to Christopher frequently and he explained his motivation. “When I travel around the country, I can pick up papers that have Giants games in them with the dateline, San Francisco.”

Now, San Francisco’s reputation is well-established, through the country and through the world. It ranks with New York and Washington, D.C. as the most popular destinations for foreign visitors – and they don’t come to see the Giants.

Opening Day was especially important in those days, bringing out people who came to no other games. When the Giants moved into Candlestick, the socialites came out on Opening Day, both men and women dressed almost as if they were going to the opera.

There is much less pomp and ceremony surrounding Opening Day and, though the Giants played up the April 15 game, only those fans who were around 50 years ago really cared. For the others – the crowd was announced as slightly over 30,000 but there were probably even fewer fans there – it was just another game, and not a particularly thrilling one.

Even by 1958, the dress code was less formal than in the ‘30s, when men wore coats and ties and even hats to games, but today, there is no dress code at all. Fans wear whatever they like. Some appear in what seem to be gardening clothes, mirroring some of my colleagues in the press box, who apparently live in houses without mirrors.

The games, usually played in the afternoon – at both Seals Stadium and Candlestick, the pattern was for night games only on Tuesday and Friday – and started about 1:30. Games were usually over in about two hours, and fans came early to see batting and even infield practice. Now, there is no infield practice and relatively few fans come early; there probably weren’t more than 10,000 fans in their seats before Tuesday’s game. There was no television of games, only radio – the new transistor radios had ear plugs which enabled fans to listen to games as they walked down the street.

Though baseball prides itself as being an unchanging game, it has in fact changed a great deal in 50 years. The American League has especially changed, with the DH, but the National League game has, too.

A younger writer kiddingly asked me if Ruben Gomez, who was the winning pitcher in that first game, was on a pitch count. In fact, nobody ever talked about a pitch count at that time. Pitchers strived for complete games. Juan Marichal pitched 30 of them in one season, and in the famous 16-inning 1-0 duel with Warren Spahn, apparently threw more than 220 pitches, as figured through radio tapes of the game. There was no count announced at the time. Teams had four-man starting rotations and one pitcher designated for late inning relief. Pitchers who weren’t good enough to be starters were used for middle inning relief if starters faltered.

Now, starters are usually limited to between 100-120 pitches – even less in the early season – and the staff is loaded with relief specialists who are brought in for an inning or less. A starter is considered successful if he pitches strongly into the seventh inning.

April 15 marked another anniversary, that of Jackie Robinson breaking the color line in major league baseball. That brought a revolution to the game, but in recent years , the percentage of American blacks in major league baseball has declined. More young blacks are going to basketball and football, which not only offer the possibility of lucrative pro contracts but also college scholarships. There are relatively few baseball scholarships offered, so college baseball has become largely a white sport.

On the major league level, the Latinos have filled in the gap left by American blacks. Joe Morgan has advocated the kind of baseball academies for black players that exist for the Latinos in the Caribbean and South America, to get more American blacks into baseball, but so far, only one has been started.

Is the game better or worse than it was 50 years ago? Many readers of my generation insist that it was better in the past, and I tell them, that’s because you were better. Nothing is quite so exciting later as your first experience. I will never forget the first time I saw my hero, Ted Williams, in live action, in an exhibition game at Seals Stadium in 1957, and I will also treasure my memories of the great all-round play of Willie Mays and the pitching wizardry of Marichal.

But, players today are bigger, stronger, faster than ever before. The Latinos bring a special energy and enthusiasm to the game. The game is certainly different than it was, but it’s hard to argue seriously that it’s not as good as it was.

For all of the Giants 50 years in San Francisco, I’ve been watching, and since 1968, I’ve been able to see both leagues, in San Francisco and Oakland. I consider myself very lucky, not only for that experience but because I still have the energy, enthusiasm and opportunity to get out to the park.

Play ball!

VIDEO GAMES: Speaking of changes in baseball, I was reminded of another one when I asked John Bowker before Tuesday’s game how he’d adjusted to pitchers he hadn’t seen before. “We have a lot of video, so I watched that to see how they worked,” he said. “And, during the game, when hitters came back to the bench, I’d ask them how the pitcher worked on them.”

Talking to other hitters has always been part of the game, but the video component is relatively new. A substantial part of every manager’s day is spent looking at videos of the other teams. Pitching and hitting coaches also do that, as well as using it to evaluate their own players. When I talked to A’s manager Bob Geren last year about the differences in managing at the major and minor league levels, he said that the biggest one was all the information available on the major league level, most of it through the videos.

Bowker is one of the younger players the Giants are looking at this season and, though the team is not likely to finish with even as good a record as last season, there is some excitement in watching these players develop.

Amazingly enough, considering the Giants long history and great stars, Bowker is the first Giant ever to homer in each of his first two games. He almost made it 3-for-3 on Tuesday with a drive which hit off the wall in right-center, the deepest part of the park, a home run in almost any other park in the majors. (San Diego’s Petco Park would be the only exception). As it was, he got a triple.

Bowker is used to that because he played in a similar park at Norwich last year, where his 22 homers were a franchise record. “I just tried to hit line drives,” he said, “because high flies get knocked down by the wind there.” As they do at AT&T, too.

At 24, Bowker should also have a chance to improve, which is not true of Fred Lewis, Eugenio Velez and Daniel Ortmeier, who are all either 27 or close to it. Still, I’d like to see them all get a chance to show what they can do. It won’t happen unless Giants management tells Bruce Bochy he’ll be judged on how these players develop, not on the won-lost record. Like most managers, Bochy prefers to play veterans because they’re more predictable. In this case, though, predictability only means not good enough.

The A’s philosophy is quite different; because of their payroll concerns, they’re always willing to play the younger players and pitchers. I haven’t seen enough of the A’s to comment on them, but I plan to remedy that this week and write on them next week, either in the Examiner or on this website.

WARRIORS WOES: The manner in which the Warriors lost to the Phoenix Suns, with Baron Davis sitting on the bench for the second half, has led to much speculation about Don Nelson’s motives.

But sometimes, a cigar is just a cigar. Nelson has always been pretty straightword with the media – except for overplaying the underdog role in the playoffs last season – and I tend to believe his next-day explanation, that he thought the Warriors had no realistic chance to make the playoffs, anyway, and Davis was having a terrible game.

The truth is, the Warriors simply ran out of gas down the stretch. They needed to beat Denver last week and, when they couldn’t do that, they were dead in the water. The seven-game suspension served by Stephen Jackson at the start of the season, during which they went 1-6, came back to haunt them. If they’d gone even 3-4 in that stretch, they’d be in.

So, the questions now are:

1) Will Davis return? I believe he will. He can opt out of his last year, but he’s owed more than $17 million and it’s unlikely he could get more on the open market. I don’t believe the Warriors will sign him and then trade him, either. They have no replacement. Nelson wanted to make Monta Ellis into a point guard but Ellis has shown that he’s a very good shooting guard with some point guard skills, not a full-time point guard.

2) Will Nelson return? Again, I think he will. It’s a demanding job, especially at his age (67), and he’ll need the rest he’ll get now. But I believe he thinks he has some unfinished business here. Next year, I expect Brandon Wright to move into the starting lineup and give Andris Biedrins some rebounding and defensive help – and Wright is a good enough athlete to be part of the running game. That by itself should strengthen the Warriors enough to get them back into the playoffs, with a chance to go further.

THE NBA playoffs are near and NHL playoffs are already here, and tickets are available through the TICKETS! TICKETS! TICKETS! link on my Home Page.Tickets are also available for major league baseball games and for the All-Star game at Yankee Stadium. In the entertainment world, Kenny Chesney’s tour will be at AT&T Park on June 8,. Pearl Jam, Kanye West, Metallica, Jack Johnson, Robert Plant and My Morning Jacket are among the more than 100 performers in the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival in June. 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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