Gene Upshaw, Olympics, Pitch Count, Giants Dreams
by Glenn Dickey
Aug 27, 2008

GENE UPSHAW REMEMBERED:

Tom Keating practiced against Gene Upshaw for several years when both were playing for the Raiders, and he remembers that fondly. “Gene never struck a blow in anger,” Tom told me when we were talking in the immediate aftermath of Upshaw’s death last week. “He never took a cheap shot or tried to hurt me. Believe me, I appreciated that.”

There are players who will take cheap shots at teammates; Bill Romanowski was notorious for that. Bob Brown, though he never took cheap shots, was a load in practice because he was so strong. Defensive linemen who had to line up opposite him took a beating.

Upshaw was able to protect his quarterback against the best defensive lineman – he was drafted to block Kansas City’s Buck Buchanan, among others – but he was also a finesse player. Early on, he was sometimes criticized because he didn’t knock defenders down when he was leading the sweep, but he always got the first defender out of the way and, staying on his feet, was often able to block a second man.

Gene and I joined the Raiders the same year, 1967, he as the No. 1 draft pick, me as the beat writer for The Chronicle, so we had a long history.

Most of it was amiable but there was one exception. In a 1971 game with Kansas City, the Chiefs harassed Raider quarterback Daryle Lamonica, and my story was critical about the pass protection, especially by Upshaw and tackle Art Shell. After the next practice, Upshaw and Shell marched me to a bench on the sideline and sat me down between them. Upshaw told me I didn’t know the blocking schemes, which was correct – they didn’t pass them out in the press box – and that he and Shell were often not responsible for what had happened.

I told him, “I can understand Art being upset because I’ve written very little about him and I’m sure it hurts to have the first important mention of him be a critical one. But I’ve written a ton of favorable articles about you.”

“This one article cancels out all the others,” Upshaw declared. The Athletes Creed.

That incident was a big departure from the norm. Almost all the time, Upshaw enjoyed a very good relationship with all the writers. He was articulate and cooperative, and a large group of writers could always be found around his locker. Shell, at the next locker, was very shy and seldom even said hello.

Upshaw’s accommodating manner served him well later when he became executive director of the Players Association and worked out an agreement with NFL executives and owners for a salary cap. “Bob Moore and I were talking about this,” said Keating, “and we agreed that Gene basically didn’t want to hurt anybody’s feeling. We’d be talking about Al (Davis) and he’d say, ‘That’s just Al. He’s never going to change.’”

He was certainly right there.

Upshaw was often criticized by players with short memories, who didn’t seem to understand how difficult it was to negotiate the path to a salary cap. I do, because I remember how bitter the strife was between owners and the Players Association before Upshaw.

So does Keating. “I’ve spent a lot of time defending Gene,” he said, “but tell me, what business do you know where your pension gets upgraded every time there’s a new contract?”

In the 31 years I knew Gene Upshaw, I saw him as a star player, a successful leader and a gentleman throughout. He’ll be missed.

OLYMPICS SHAME:

While others marvel at the athletic feats and pageantry of the Olympics, I am once again bothered by the way the International Olympic Committee continues to give totalitarian governments a chance to propagandize on the world’s largest stage.

The worst example is still 1936, when then IOC head Avery Brundage allowed the Games to be held in Hitler’s Germany. Americans like to think of that Olympics as the one where Jesse Owens showed up Hitler, but what the rest of the world saw was a marvelous spectacle which presented a squeaky-clean image of Nazi Germany. The dark secrets of the Third Reich were hidden from public view.

At the height of the Cold War, the IOC scheduled successive Olympics in the Soviet Union and the United States, the two main superpowers. U.S. President Jimmy Carter pulled the American contingent out of the 1980 Moscow Olympics and, though I sympathized with the American Olympians, Carter’s action was correct in the broader picture. Otherwise, American athletes would have been helping to promote the Soviet fantasy.

This year, the IOC got assurances from the Chinese government that they would permit protesters to do their thing and lessen the stranglehold they have on their citizenry. Were the IOC bureaucrats really that naďve? I doubt it. The bureaucrats don’t care about anything other than the fact that they get a marvelous paid vacation in the host city.

Of course, the Chinese did not honor their promise. Protestors had to fill out a long form – and none were given permission to protest, though the site designated for protests was not close to any of the competition sites. A Sports Illustrated writer who visited the sites found no protestors or even anybody who realized it was a protest site.

So, once again, a brutal regime is allowed to propagandize to the world: See, we’re not so bad. I’d like to think the IOC bureaucrats are embarrassed, but I know better.

PITCH COUNTS:

Nothing seems to get old-timers, whether fans or media, more worked up than the pitch counts which are so prevalent in the game today.

I’m ambivalent on the issue. I preferred the days when top starting pitchers went the distance, but I also realize that there was a downside, Reader Tom Ryugo points out that on Billy Martin-managed teams were often overused and damaged: Ferguson Jenkins won 25 games in 1974 but was never the same again; Catfish Hunter went 23-14 in 1975 and won another 17 games the next year but was out of baseball by 1979 when he was only 34.

We had perhaps the most significant example of the Martin effect with the 1980 A’s, who led the league with 60 complete games. None of the starters from that team pitched well again. Matt Keough lasted the longest, five seasons, but was a cumulative 26-36. Steve McCatty pitched four more years and was 24-30. Mike Norris lasted three years, but was only 12-16, Brian Kingman was 7-18 in two seasons.

They might have wished they were on pitch counts.

LETTERS:

This is a popular section with readers, but I’ve had a hard time keeping up with it lately because I’ve been working on a proposal to do a book on the great/interesting people I’ve met in my 34 years of covering Bay Area sports. I should be able to finish the proposal and get it off to my agent this week, so I’ll have more time to attend to my e-mails.

WHAT ARE THEY SMOKING?

When the Giants ran off a modest five-game winning streak, the last three against the hapless Padres, manager Bruce Bochy suggested they still had a chance to get to the top of the NL West because they’d be playing almost entirely within the division for the rest of the season.

There was an obvious flaw in that argument: Three of the teams they’ll be playing are better teams. Only the Padres are worse, and they have just four games left with them. The Giants have been able to beat teams worse than them – they’re 17-4 against the Padres and Washington Nationals – but they struggle against better teams.

And, sure enough, they’ve lost the first two games of their current series against the Colorado Rockies.

Meanwhile, the $126 million mistake, Barry Zito was encouraged by two strong showings against the Padres. Zito’s next start is in Cincinnati. I can predict his postgame comments now: “I’ve got to stop nibbling and start attacking the strike zone again.


COLLEGE FOOTBALL is coming and tickets are available for hot matchups like USC-Ohio State, Michigan-Notre Dame and Arkansas-Texas on TICKETS! TICKETS! TICKETS!: Tickets for Cal home games - Michigan State, Aug. 30; Colorado State, Sept. 27; Arizona State, Oct. 4; UCLA, October 25; Oregon, Nov. 1; Stanford, Nov. 22; and Washington, Dec. 6 – are also available. New York will host the top tennis stars – Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and the Williams sisters – for the U.S. Open. On the concert state, Radiohead will be in San Francisco on August 22 and then at the Hollywood Bowl, August 24-25. Neal Diamond plays Fenway Park on August 23, Jimmy Buffett is at Boston’s Comcast Center on Sept. 6 and Tony Bennett will be at the San Francisco Symphony on Sept. 14. And, Madonna is back in the spotlight with her October tour. Just click on the local or national links and everything will come up.

What do YOU think? Let me know!

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