Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Jed York's Real Problem

Speculation about the future of the San Francisco 49ers misses an important point. The team's hopes of hiring a new GM and head coach may well be hamstrung by an impending NFL lockout of players.

While no one can say definitely that the league will lock its players out when the current collective bargaining agreement expires in March, it's looking awfully likely. If the lockout happens, the league essentially goes dark. The NFL Draft would still happen, but teams would be unable to negotiate with their draft choices (or veteran free agents, for that matter). Off-season minicamps would vanish. Training camps would be empty.

In other words, the National Football League would be football-free. And no less a sage than Pro Football Hall of Famer John Madden doubts any top-notch coach would have any interest in taking a job under those circumstances. In Madden's thinking, the Grudens, Harbaughs, and Cowhers mentioned in so many speculative reports will wait things out.

That would leave York and the 49ers scrambling to hire a second-tier coach (something they've already done twice; nobody was trying to outbid them for Mike Nolan or Mike Singletary). And it gets worse: York doesn't have much football history, so he lacks the deep list of contacts you'd want in a situation like this.

York has revealed that he'll lean on his uncle, Eddie DeBartolo, for advice and suggestions. Good idea. Eddie D has been here before. He was 31 (to York's 29) when he took control of the 49ers in 1977. He hired Joe Thomas as GM. That didn't work out so well. Thomas fired popular coach Monte Clark and traded away the team's #1 draft choice for a worn-out O. J. Simpson as the team became a laughingstock. Out of the wreckage, DeBartolo and team president Carmen Policy made the big move that made history: they hired Bill Walsh.

So if I was Jed York, I'd do more than ask Uncle Eddie for advice. I'd bring him in every day, have him sit in on every phone call and interview, and listen to everything he says. One more screwup in the front office or on the sidelines is not an option for York.

Oh, and he might also want to see what he can do with his fellow owners about getting that labor situation straightened out, too.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

The Time Tunnel

In the midst of the debate over Fox Sports' pathetic addition of a musical score to a live NFL broadcast, we all got a chance to take a 50-year trip back up the TV sports time tunnel. And guess what? It was pretty cool.

I'm talking about the MLB Network broadcast of the 7th game of the 1960 World Series (if you missed it, you'll be able to buy a DVD). This was the game won by the Pirates on Bill Mazeroski's walk-off home run. Though it was broadcast (in living color!) on NBC, it was not recorded and thus existed only in the minds of those who saw it on October 12, 1960.

Until a few months ago, when films of the broadcast surfaced in a vault at the late entertainer Bing Crosby's Bay Area estate. The backstory of the "lost broadcast" is interesting enough, but the thing itself is an absolute treasure. It took considerable work to spiff up the film and its audio track, producing a piece of television that rivals the series "Mad Men" for its ability to take you to a different time.

You quickly notice the things that aren't there: instant replay, on-screen statistics, artificial strike zones, and even batting gloves (they weren't wearing those back in 1960). You're struck by the fact that you're watching some of baseball's all-time greats, not in a highlight clip, but in a full ballgame. There's Yogi Berra joking with Pirates catcher Smoky Burgess before digging in. Roger Maris, a year away from his epic 61-in-'61 season, turning a potential double into a single with a nice play in right field. Mickey Mantle, that mythical "7" on his broad back, delivering 3 hits.

You know, of course, how it'll end. Mazeroski's blast remains the most remarkable World Series finish ever. But you're in no hurry to get there. Hall of Fame announcer Bob Prince is perfect for this game: knowledgeable, succinct, and absolutely in sync with the medium. Unlike many of today's TV broadcasters, he's watching the monitor, so he's talking about what the viewer sees. Another Hall of Famer, Yankees voice Mel Allen, occasionally drops in to provide background on lesser-known New York players like pitcher Bill Stafford (who is identified on the broadcast as "wearing his age on his back"--number 22), but was actually only 21 at the time.

The broadcast is simple, but far from primitive. There are enough cameras to allow for a rapid series of shots showing each team's outfielders or infielders. The center-field camera shot that is a staple of every pitch in a telecast is there, with a good long lens that lets you make the ball-strike calls without the annoyance of a graphical overlay. Cutaway shots of the crowd and the dugouts provide ample evidence of the tension and drama. No need to tart this up--it's the seventh game of the World Series!

On the other hand, certain elements of the broadcast are straight from the time capsule. Graphics are primitive; the best the producers can go is slap a player's name on the screen when he steps to the plate (and the technology of the era limited the number of characters, so Roberto Clemente is seen as R. Clemente). The only way to show the score is to actually show the scoreboard, which the producers do at the end of each half-inning.

Today's broadcasters could learn plenty by watching this gem. I'm certainly not advocating a return to an era without instant replay or on-screen graphics. But sometimes, less is more. Sometimes, the game really is the thing--in fact, it always is. In particular, whoever's promoting the "music soundtrack" idea at Fox Sports should be forced to watch this game, over and over again, until he figures it out.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Nice Moves By Billy Beane

While the Oakland A's flounder around in their search for a new ballpark, the front office is putting together what might be a very interesting 2011 edition of the ballclub.

Of course, the signing of Japanese superstar Hideki Matsui tops the headlines. In exchanging erstwhile DH Jack Cust for Matsui, the A's have probably added some zip to their offense--but certainly added some leadership and excitement to their clubhouse. Plus, while a few folks in New Jersey cared about Cust's exploits, a whole nation follows Godzilla.

But there have been several other moves, many of them in the "low-risk/high potential reward" category. The pitching-rich A's picked up solid lefthanded-hitting outfielder David DeJesus by trading pitcher Vin Mazzaro. DeJesus is a career .289 hitter who batted .318 for KC last year.

They welcomed Rich Harden back. Harden started his career with the A's and when he's been healthy, he's been effective. At $1.5 million for the single year deal, Harden will be a screaming bargain if he's effective. If not, the contract won't break the bank. Beane and Company are hoping Harden's nightmarish 2010 numbers with Texas are behind him.

Another low-risk signing (also of a former Texas pitcher): Brandon McCarthy. He's a 6'7" righthander who was effective before running into shoulder problems that kept him either on the DL and in the minors for the 2010 season.

These deals represent the way the low-budget A's have to operate: short-term contracts, scurrying for other teams' castoffs, hoping to catch lightning in a bottle from time to time. But with a nucleus of good young pitchers, the 2011 A's might be able to scrap their way into contention. Remember: 92 wins is almost a guarantee of a postseason berth. The A's won 81 last year, so they're within shouting distance of that "magic number".

And as that other team across the Bay proved in 2010, a team with good pitching that can fight its way into the postseason can really do some damage.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

A Spectacularly Bad Idea

In case you were still wondering, dear sports fans: the people who run pro sports really don't give a damn about you. They say they do, and sometimes, they act like they do, but then the Lords of Sport do something like this: they fiddle with the 2011 baseball schedule so they can make TV happy.

The San Francisco Chronicle's fine baseball writer John Shea reports ESPN and its puppets at Major League Baseball want to change the Giants 2011 home opener from a 1:35 PM start on Friday, April 8th to a 5 PM start on Thursday, March 31st. To do this, they'd "borrow" a game from the Giants' first homestand of the season--and then send the Giants and Dodgers hustling to the airport after the game so they could play what was supposed to be both team's season-opener in LA the afternoon of Friday, April 1st (full Giants schedule here, so you can see how all this looks).

Net result: Giants fans are deprived of the long-standing San Francisco tradition of a midday home opener, Dodgers fans see their team shuffled off on a bizarre one-game roadtrip (and their own season-opener diluted by the one-night stand in San Francisco), and everyone is treated to a game played in the difficult 5 PM lighting conditions. There's also the not-so-trivial reality of how the thousands of people who share season-ticket plans deal with a home opener that's now just another game--and a Monday night ticket that's suddenly a ducat to the season-opener.

All of this so ESPN can stage-manage its season-opening coverage on March 31st and cap it with a championship-banner ceremony in San Francisco. In other words, Opening Day is just an editable piece of ESPN's storyline.

Of course, MLB should say "no", and of course, it won't. The fans' only hope is that the MLB Players Association will veto the move, as it wisely trashed another boneheaded concept: having the Giants open the 2011 season in Taiwan.

Next time you run into one of the World Series champs on the street, ask for your autograph--and then ask your favorite Giant to oppose this madness.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

The NFL's Free Ride

The Keith Fitzhugh story got me thinking. In case you haven't heard, Fitzhugh is the 24-year-old who told the New York Jets "thanks, but no thanks" when they offered him a practice squad slot after two defensive backs were injured this week.

What kind of fool says "no" to the NFL? Well, Fitzhugh has a real job and real-life responsibilities. His father's disabled and the family needs a steady paycheck, which Fitzhugh is earning working on the Norfolk and Southern Railroad.

Still, couldn't he bank some big money just spending a few weeks in the NFL? After all, you read about those massive contracts in pro sports. The truth is this: the NFL pays its practice-squad players $5,200 a week. There are no fringe benefits and the work is week-to-week. Even if a player spends the whole season on the practice squad, he's made $88,400 and may well be back on the street when it's over.

Remember, the NFL is a $7 billion a year business. Unlike the other major North American sports leagues, it spends nothing on minor leagues to develop players. In fact, the NFL relies on the NCAA to provide its raw material, without compensation.

In fact, it's worse than that. Who pays for the scholarships which attract star athletes to college programs which groom them for the NFL? Why, it's (to a degree) you and me. Our tax dollars, the tuition checks we write for our kids, and our contributions to dear old Alma Mater end up supporting college athletics.

The wealthy-beyond-belief NFL should step up and fund a true developmental league so players like Keith Fitzhugh can make a living playing football.

Oddly, the NFL might wind up having to do this for a different reason: it's having a harder and harder time finding pro-ready quarterbacks. As the college game moves toward spread offenses and Cam Newton-style QB's, the NFL is finding fewer quarterbacks trained for the pro-style game. John Madden told me during our on-air segment the other day that he thinks the answer is a minor league.

If you do see an NFL D-league, you can bet it won't be so the Keith Fitzhughs of the world are treated more decently. But that might be the net effect, and it would be a good thing.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Beneath Their Dignity

Ottawa is Canada's capital city. It's a pretty place with an interesting history.

But the way the locals reacted to the arrival of the San Jose Sharks' Dany Heatley, you'd think Ottawa had changed its name to Podunkville.

Heatley was traded from Ottawa to San Jose before the 2009-10 NHL season. Far be it from me to explain the whole situation, but suffice it to say Heatley wanted out of Ottawa (and away from coach Cory Clouston). He managed to enrage not only the fans in Ottawa for demanding a trade, but also the folks in Edmonton for refusing to be traded to the Oilers.

Last night's game between the Sharks and Senators marked Heatley's first visit to Ottawa since the ugly breakup. It happened to be the same night that LeBron James came back to Cleveland for the first time since jilting the Cavaliers, and King James of the Miami Heat didn't take any more heat than the Heater took in Ottawa.

Heatley got not only the ritual booing whenever he touched the puck (a common NHL fan behavior), but an earful of chanting and an eyeful of angry posters. Among the clever chants: "Heatley Sucks!", "Trai--tor!", and "F-U Heatley!" The posters weren't any better, and one enterprising group of Ottawans disrupted the game by heaving a bunch of Senators jerseys bearing Heatley's name and number onto the ice.

I guess I expected this sort of thing from Cleveland, a city with an inferiority complex wider than the formerly-flaming Cuyahoga River. But Ottawa? I thought you were a little above that sort of thing.

Oh, by the way: Heatley had an assist, drew two penalties leading to Sharks power-play goals, and had the last laugh in a 4-0 Sharks win. By the end of the game, the booing was not for Heatley, but for the home team. A perusal of the fan comments on Internet bulletin boards suggests the real anger in Ottawa is with the Senators, who are limping along, closer to last place in the conference standings than first.