Willie Mays, Juan Marichal, Joe Montana, Donald Fehr
by Glenn Dickey
Jun 24, 2009

WHILE GUESTING on a national radio show last week, I was asked who I would identify as the best Bay Area athletes I’ve personally watched. Unfortunately, looking back is more enjoyable for Bay Area teams than watching the often miserable products put on the field.

I always offer a caveat with my appraisals: Athletes from my youth, when the games were still new to me, loom larger than present-day athletes because I had nobody with whom to compare them. As I often have to remind readers of my generation who insist that the games were better in the past, everything from the past seems better because we were better. (I make an exception for ice cream. I never tasted anything as good as the gelato in Italy when I was a kid.)

Even with that caveat, my baseball candidates still have to be from the ‘60s Giants.

I have never seen the equal of Willie Mays as an all-round player. He hit for power and average, and he was a smart hitter. When the Giants moved to Candlestick Park, he quickly realized that there would not be many home runs hit to left field, with the wind blowing in, so he adjusted his swing to hit more to right field – and he hit as many as 52 home runs in one season, at a time when few hitters ever managed more than 50. Hank Aaron never hit more than 47 in any one season. One time I researched Mays’ home run totals and found that he had hit exactly as many at Candlestick as he had on the road,. If he’d tried to hit home runs into the wind at Candlestick, I’m sure his home run total there would have been much lower.

Mays was also a marvelous fielder with a strong throwing arm, until his later years. Leonard Koppett told me that I didn’t see Mays at his fielding best because there wasn’t as much room for him to make spectacular plays as there had been in the Polo Grounds. And, in fact, there were times when Mays told his first manager in San Francisco, Bill Rigney after an opponents’ home run, “Skip, I could have caught that ball but I ran out of room.”

But it was Mays’ baserunning that I most enjoyed. He had a great sense of where he was on the field – even coaching runners behind him at times while he was running – so he didn’t get thrown out when he took an extra base. The only time he was thrown out going to third came in a 1962 playoff game against the Dodgers. He insisted the umpire blew the call, and he was probably right.

One time, he scored from third on a wild pitch that went no more than six feet away from Mets catcher Choo Choo Coleman. When I interviewed Mays for my 1997 history book on the Giants, he told me that he had seen from the trajectory of the pitch that it would be in the dirt, so he just started running. Pure baseball genius. Coleman was so startled when he saw Mays coming in, he just froze and didn’t go for the ball.

Barry Bonds is the best hitter I’ve seen; few ever gave Barry credit for the way he refined his hitting style in his big power years, so he never swung at a pitch even slightly outside the strike zone. But, though Barry was an excellent all-round player in the ‘90s, he was never Mays’ equal as a fielder nor as a baserunner. He stole more bases because stolen bases were not something sluggers were suppposed to do in Mays’ era but he did not have Mays’ sense of where he was at all times on the bases.

My nomination for best pitcher also comes from that era, Juan Marichal. There are two career baseball statistics that I regard with awe: 1) Joe DiMaggio having more home runs than strikeouts; and 2) Marichal having one more complete game than wins.

Marichal could throw so many complete games – as many as 30 in one season – because he knew how to conserve his arms. He had a very good fastball, but he saved it for those times when he really needed it, such as with a runner on third and less than two outs. The rest of the time he relied on his bewildering array of pitches, which looked different because he would change the angle of his arm, and let hitters hit the ball to one of his fielders. That enabled him to stay in a historic 16-inning game against Warren Spahn when he threw 227 pitches. I regard that as possibly the best baseball game ever played because all of the important plays were made by future Hall of Famers – Marichal, Spahn and Mays, whose homer in the bottom of the 15th was the only run in the game.

There may be a time in the future when I put Tim Lincecum on the same level with Marichal. Lincecum has had a spectacular start to his career, winning the Cy Young Award in just his second season. He is more of a strikeout pitcher than Marichal, but he also has a variety of pitches. He won’t have the string of seasons with 20-plus wins that Marichal had because of the change in the game, with five-man rotations and more attention to pitch counts. But, barring serious injury, he’s certainly on a path to join Marichal in the Hall of Fame.

The Raiders from 1967-80 and the 49ers in the 1981-95 period had a number of great players and teams. Had the Raiders not moved to Los Angeles (thanks again, Al Davis!), the Bay Area would have had the Super Bowl champions in four of the five years in the 1980-84 period.

From their first Oakland era, the Raiders have several Hall of Fame members: Jim Otto, Willie Brown, Gene Upshaw, Art Shell, Fred Biletikoff and Dave Casper. George Blanda, Ted Hendricks and Bob Brown, all of whom played much of their careers elsewhere, are also in the Hall, as are Marcus Allen, Howie Long and Mike Hanyes, who played their careers in Los Angeles.

From the 49ers dynasty, Joe Montana, Ronnie Lott, Steve Young and Fred Dean are already in, and Jerry Rice will be a first ballot entry when he’s eligible.

Many football observers call Rice the best player of all time, but my nomination for the best player I’ve seen would be Montana, who was the quarterback for the first four Super Bowl champions, the first two before Rice joined the team.

Everything starts with the quarterback, and on that first Super Bowl team, Montana and Dwight Clark were just about the entire 49er offense. Fittingly, they teamed for the dramatic “The Catch” to beat the Dallas Cowboys to get to the Super Bowl.

In 1984, Montana – still without Rice – led what I regard as the best of the 49er champions to a 15-1 record, the best in 49er history.

But what truly made him the best was what he did in the 1988 season. Midway through the season, I thought he was through and wrote that, as 49er fans still remind me. He was never a robust physical specimen and he seemed to be breaking down. He’d already missed a good part of the 1986 season with back surgery, and he’d missed two straight games with more back problems and the flu.

But from that point, he played the next 2 ˝ years at the highest level of his career, winning two more Super Bowls and taking the 49ers to the brink of a third before a devastating loss to the Giants in the NFC championship game. That stretch is what got Montana into the Hall of Fame and what gets him my vote as the best Bay Area football player I’ve seen.

ALL-STAR GAME: The approach of the All-Star game is a reminder of one of the most telling aspects of baseball commissioner Bud Selig’s tenure: His tendency to over react when something goes wrong. Because the 2002 game had to be called when it was a 7-7 tie because managers had run out of pitchers, Selig decided that, to make both teams try to win the game, the league that won would host the first two and last two games (if needed) of the World Series.

Silly is too polite a word for that decision. In an earlier time, the All-Star game was more competitive – when he was National League president, Chub Feeney used to give the NL team a pep talk before every game – but that’s not going to happen today. Players bond with each other almost more than with their teams because there’s so much player movement through free agency, and the league designation has very little significance to them.

Nothing wrong with that. What the All-Star game should be is an exhibition of the best players in the game, for the enjoyment of the fans. Inter-league games have exposed more fans to the stars of the league that does not usually play games in their cities but fans in one-team cities – as is St. Louis, site of this year’s game – don’t get to see all the stars every year. This is their chance.

Instead of making the All-Star game a decider for the World Series schedule, Selig should simply have expanded the rosters for each team, so managers would have more players – and pitchers – available when needed. You’d have thought that a simple solution like that would appeal to somebody as simple-minded as Selig, but apparently not.

DONALD FEHR: Praising retiring Players Association head Donald Fehr for his work, the A’s Brad Ziegler noted that “with today’s media, that (steroids) is all everyone’s going to remember.”

And, of course, Bob Costas was quick to say “When it came to steroids, he and the union were 100 per cent wrong.” 100 per cent wrong? Look in the mirror, Dondi.

Also predictably, The Chronicle’s Gwen Knapp blamed Fehr for “failing” the players on the steroids issue. There have been some sensible comments lately on the steroids issue by Chronicle columnists Bruce Jenkins and Ray Ratto, but Ms. Knapp faithfully hues to the company line laid down by Phil Bronstein. Never mind that Bronstein has been banished to an office in the basement of the building and that most of the Hearst editors who, unfortunately, succeeded in their aim to turn the Chronicle into the old Examiner have been sacked. Ah, well, when your mind is frozen….

A’S ‘MARKETING’: Carney Lansford, a player on the 1989 A’s who beat the Giants in the 1989 World Series but now a hitting coach for the Giants, said, “I don’t want to be critical of the A’s but the Giants did such a nice job with their’89 guys. It was almost like, ‘Which team really won that Series?’”

In fact, the Giants have done a terrific job of marketing for several years now. They’ve marketed their past wonderfully with the statues of Willie Mays, Juan Marichal and Willie McCovey. Last Saturday, they had a nice promotion for Randy Johnson’s 300th win, bringing in 300-game winners Tom Seaver, Nolan Ryan and Gaylord Perry, who started his career with the Giants. They have former greats Mays, McCovey and Orlando Cepeda working for them.

The Giants started working on their 1989 celebration a year ago. The A’s probably started two months ago, so last night’s celebration was more noteworthy for who wasn’t there than who was. It’s always this way. The Giants planned their 50th anniversary for last year and the A’s suddenly thought, “Oh, that’s right, we’ve been here 40 years,” so they belatedly put something together.

The Giants are truly major league with their marketing. The A’s? Maybe Single A. If that.

CORRECTION: I gave credit to the wrong reader for noting the parallel between Lew Wolff’s actions and the movie, “Major League.” The idea actually came from Scott Pacult.

What do YOU think? Let me know!

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