Montana/Rice; Stabler/Biletnikoff; Mays/McCovey; Canseco/Henderson
In football, there’s no question it comes down to the dynasty periods, 1967-80 for the Raiders, before they moved to Los Angeles, and 1981-95 for the 49ers, a period in which they won five Super Bowls.
They were very different teams.
The Raiders were a colorful bunch because Al Davis welcomed players who had been considered malcontents by other teams, in what was otherwise a rigidly conservative NFL. There was no dress code for the Raiders nor any off-field restrictions. Though there was a curfew, players ignored it and coaches knew it.
The 49ers in their great era had great players but the tone was definitely set by Bill Walsh. Though he coached only the first three Super Bowl champions, he handpicked his successor, George Seifert, who continued the Walsh style and, for the fourth Super Bowl champ, with the players Walsh had brought to the team. Even the fifth Super Bowl winner had as its centerpiece Steve Young and Jerry Rice, both brought to the team in controversial moves by Walsh.
I have a great fondness for those Raider teams. I covered them for The Chronicle for the first five years of that run and wrote often about them later when I became a columnist. When I see players from that era, we talk like old friends. Recently, I was a guest (and interviewer) with Ken Stabler on the Comcast Chronicle Live show and we had a great time re-living those days, both on and off camera.
The Raiders won two Super Bowls in their Oakland stretch and a third in Los Angeles. Their totals would undoubtedly have been higher if they weren’t playing in the AFC/AFL during a stretch which may have been the best in NFL history. The New York Jets made history with a win in the third Super Bowl, the Kansas City Chiefs had stars on both sides of the ball and won the fourth Super Bowl. The Miami Dolphins were a perfect 17-0, counting playoff games, in 1972. The Pittsburgh Steelers won four Super Bowls in six years.
In 1976, the Raiders finally broke through with a 13-1 record. As Stabler told me before the Comcast show, once they’d made their way through the AFL that season they were confident they’d handle the Minnesota Vikings in the Super Bowl. They did, beating the Vikings easily, 32-14. Hall of Fame veterans Willie Brown and Fred Biletnikoff had great games and Art Shell, another HOF member, kept the Vikings’ best pass rusher, Jim Marshall, away from Stabler the whole game.
But as good as that Raiders team was, it wasn’t as good as two of the 49ers champions.
The first Super Bowl champion, after the 1981 season, was a shocker because the Niners had been 2-14 and 6-10 the previous two seasons. It was also by far the weakest of the five champions, because the offense was primarily Joe Montana throwing to Dwight Clark. An early season trade which brought in a great pass rusher, Fred Dean, solidified a defense that had three rookies – Ronnie Lott, Eric Wright and Carlton Williamson – in the defensive backfield.
By 1984, the rookies had matured into outstanding players, particularly Lott, and they had more help. Dwaine Board anchored a very deep defensive line. Jack Reynolds brought a strong veteran presence at linebacker and Keena Turner was a rising star. Offensively, the 49ers had a great pair of runners with Wendell Tyler and Roger Craig, who had more than 1000 yards both rushing and receiving, to complement Montana’s passing. That team lost only one game, by three points to Pittsburgh, and beat the Miami Dolphins easily, 38-16, in a game played at Stanford.
The one thing that team lacked was a great wide receiver, and Walsh picked Rice in next year’s draft. Rice went on to set all-time receiving marks and he, John Taylor and tight end Brent Jones made up an incredible receiving corps. By this time, Craig had become the primary running back, teamed with Tom Rathman. Montana was at the absolutely top of his game. Lott had moved to safety in the secondary and the 49ers had great talent everywhere defensively. They went 14-2 in the regular season and breezed through the postseason, capped by a 55-10 rout of Denver in the Super Bowl.
So, which team was better, 1984 or 1989? I’ve always leaned to the ’84 team which was dominant throughout and came within a couple of controversial officiating calls from being perfect. But looking at the players from those teams – especially a group of receivers which was clearly superior on the 1989 team – I’d have to change my mind and say that the 1989 team was the best.
The baseball decision is easier.
The 1962 Giants were very good, winning a club record 103 games (two in a playoff with the Dodgers) and coming so close to winning the World Series, losing the seventh game to the Yankees, 1-0. That team had five future Hall of Famers: Willie Mays, Willie McCovey, Orlando Cepeda, Juan Marichal and Gaylord Perry. But only Mays and Cepeda were at the top of their game that year. Perry was only a rookie and made a minimal contribution. Marichal won 18 games, but that was below the standard he would set after that, winning from 21 to 26 games six of the next seven seasons. McCovey was a platoon player because manager Alvin Dark thought he couldn't hit left-handed pitchers. Not the best decision Dark ever made.
The Giants of that era had the same type of problem the Raiders had in the ‘70s: The competition was unbelievably stiff. The National League had reaped the greatest benefit from the breaking of the color line in 1947, bringing in some great black players while the American League teams were reluctant, especially the Yankees and the Red Sox. The ‘50s and ‘60s may have been the best period ever in the National League. So, as good as the Giants were in the ‘60s, they only broke through in ’62.
And none of those teams was as good as the 1989 A’s, who are the best Bay Area team I’ve seen. Yes, even better than the 1972-74 A’s, who won three straight World Series. I have great admiration for those A’s champions, who played the game the way it should be played, with very few mental errors. Those teams had great pitching, played good defense and had just enough offense to win a ton of close games. But none of those three teams was as good as the ’89 A’s.
The A’s won three straight American League pennants, 1988-90, and the first and third teams won 104 and 103 games. The 1989 team won fewer, 99, but that was because Jose Canseco had been limited to 65 games by injury. By the time the A’s reached the postseason, Canseco was healthy and so was everybody else.
That team had some unusual stories. Dave Stewart was on the baseball trash heap but A’s pitching coach Dave Duncan resurrected his career. Stewart became the best big game pitcher in the game and had a stretch of four seasons in which he won 20 games or more, 21 in 1989. Dennis Eckersley was washed up as a starter but Duncan and manager Tony La Russa converted him to a closer and he became lights out, with 51 saves that year. Bob Welch was obtained in a three-way trade engineered by general manager Sandy Alderson and Mike Moore was signed as a free agent. Moore won 19 games in ’89, Welch 17.
And, Alderson had brought Rickey Henderson back in a trade with the Yankees, so the A’s had an unbeatable mix of power and speed.
That team was the only one of the three A’s pennant-winners to also win the World Series but what started out as the Bay Bridge World Series became the Earthquake Series when the Loma Prieta earthquake halted it after the first two games. When it was resumed, the A’s continued their sweep but they’ve never really gotten recognition for that accomplishment because the earthquake was the bigger story.
GOOD BUY: I don’t review books but I occasionally recommend one I’ve really liked. “Cooperstown Confidential” is in that category.
The book’s author, Zev Ohafets, has never been s sportswriter. He’s a former columnist for The New York Daily News and author of 11 previous books. He grew up as a baseball fan but his detachment from the sport as an adult gives him a perspective that is refreshing.
He has done an excellent job of researching the Hall and the problems that have arisen with the selection process over the years. He is very critical of both those running the hall and the baseball writers who vote for players, and I agree with him on both counts.
He proposes that the voting be broadened to lessen the influence of baseball writers, too many of whom are moralistic in their choices. (Anybody who’s been a member of Baseball Writers of America for at least 10 years – as I have - is an eligible voter). I don’t agree with some of his suggestions, such as including bloggers, but I would welcome a change in the voting procedures.
Frankly, I don’t read many sports books; I’m much more likely to read mystery novels or political/historical history. But I dipped into this book for what I expected to be a brief look and ended up reading it cover to cover one day. I recommend it highly.
SAVES RULE: When Brian Wilson nearly lost the game for Matt Cain Monday night but still received credit for a save, it once again showed that the saves rule needs to be drastically revised. To my mind, a closer should get credit for a save only if he comes in with a one-run lead and preserves it.
Wilson is one of the leading examples of how misleading the saves category can be. Last year, he had 41 saves, which sounds good, but in 62 1/3 innings, he gave up 62 hits and 28 walks, along with 32 earned runs. This year, he’s somewhat better – 34 hits, 15 walks and 16 earned runs in 38 innings. But I don’t consider that to be the stats of an All-Star closer.
What do YOU think? Let me know!
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