SF Examiner: Despite success, Sharks still get lost in Bay Area sports scene

By Art Spander
Special to The Examiner

This has always been the problem with hockey in California: A kid can’t go onto the playground, into the street or out in his backyard and play.

It is no exaggeration to point out around here that a surfing competition, Mavericks, receives more attention than a skating competition, the Stanley Cup.

One then is caught between fear and favor when even mentioning these words: San Jose Sharks.

The Sharks clearly are the best-run sports franchise in the Bay Area, a region where unfortunately front-office dysfunction is practically universal with perhaps another exception, the Giants.

The Sharks, indeed, are the only team in the last year in any sport with a winning record. This season they even had the most victories in the NHL, gaining something known as the Presidents’ Cup.

Yet the Sharks remain a virtual rumor except to the hockey cognoscenti, an intense, but miniscule group.

When the KNBR (680 AM) guy, Gary Radnich, is advised a caller to the program is “a hockey fan,” his immediate testing response is: “Name five players on the Sharks.”

If that is a sad commentary on our lack of sporting insight, well, we’re still musing about Joe Montana a decade and a half after his departure, but we remain clueless about another Joe — Joe Thornton — arguably the Sharks’ best player.

The Sharks sell out every game, or near enough to it, so nobody can be accused of distorting the truth when saying HP Pavilion is filled. But is anybody interested beyond the same 17,000-plus that attend?

And are the Sharks hurt as much by their locale as by their sport?

This is not a knock against San Jose, the most populous city north of Los Angeles. But what if the Sharks played in San Francisco, where they began? Would there be greater cachet? Undeniably there would be greater access for those in The City or Oakland or Marin.

The hockey crowd is wonderfully fanatical. The noise created when the Sharks score a goal will vibrate your eyeballs. It outdoes the roads from Warriors fans in the short-lived playoff of two years past or Giants rooters when Barry Bonds was driving balls into the stands.

Still, north of San Carlos, the team and the game seem more afterthought than necessity.

You hear people arguing about the Niners and Raiders draft picks, complaining because the Giants can’t get a big bat. But you don’t hear anyone, on air at least, discussing the Sharks.

The antidote surely would be for the Sharks to reach the Stanley Cup finals for once. Nobody jumps on bandwagons with the alacrity displayed by the fickle folk in this region who haven’t had a championship in any sport for years.

No playoffs recently for the Giants, A’s, Niners, Raiders or Warriors? Hey, Martha, what do they call that little black rubber thing people hit with sticks, and what is icing anyway?

The Sharks, however, lost the first two games of their current best-of-seven playoff series against Anaheim. Instead of becoming saviors for their sport in this land of milk, honey and growing unemployment, they seemed destined to be part of continuing parade of failures.

Just like the other teams in the Bay Area, except with less recognition.

Art Spander has been covering Bay Area sports since 1965 and also writes on and E-mail him at

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Copyright 2009 SF Newspaper Company

RealClearSports: Washington Baseball: A 'Natinal' Disgrace

By Art Spander

Thirty years ago the great Frank Deford wrote of our Nation’s Capital: (1) Until recently Washington was a sleepy Southern Town. (2) It is recession-proof. (3) Nobody ever goes home.

To Mr. Deford’s three truths we add a fourth: Whatever the name of the baseball team and no matter who is on the roster, it has always been terrible.

But we’re only going back as far as the 19th century.

The newest entry, the Nationals – or as their name was misspelled on the front of some uniforms the other night, the “Natinals” – finally won another game. Its second in 12 attempts. And because of rain delays and a constant drizzle, the attendance at Nationals Park was 12,473. The smallest in its history.

But hang around. The old Senators used to have a pitcher, Walter Johnson, known as “The Big Train.” Now they’ve got a seamstress who’s “The Big Typo.”

These Nationals only have been in town five seasons. They used to be called the Expos and played in Montreal, another city that embraced baseball with, well, if that was passion, you’d hate to attempt to describe apathy.

Some would suggest five years isn’t long enough to judge the sport’s viability in a particular location. Let us then rummage through history.

We start with the Washington Senators, also called the Nationals, who were dropped from the National League in 1900 and accepted in the new American League in 1901. There used to be a maxim about Washington – General George, not the town on the Potomac. He was “First in War, first in peace and first in the hearts of his countrymen.” Corny, but there was no Comedy Central or YouTube in those days.

The Senators went to the World Series in1933, and after that had only two winning seasons in the next 25. The adage was revised to “Washington, First in war, first in peace and last in the American League.”

Novelist Douglas Wallop (now is that a baseball name or not?) in 1954 expressed the frustrations of Senators partisans with the book “The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant.” An aging fan sells his soul to the devil to help the Nats beat the hated New Yorkers. America loved it more when it was transformed into the musical “Damn Yankees.”

“Ya gotta have heart,” the actor-ballplayers sang, which they had. And with “Shoeless” Joe Hardy, they also had a superstar before the creation of the word itself. Shoeless Joe from Hannibal, Mo., a combination of DiMaggio, Ted Williams, Barry Bonds and Albert Pujols, with a little A-Rod for good measure.

In 1960 those Senators, the real ones, not the stage version, were shifted to Minneapolis to become the Twins and recession-proof Washington was awarded an expansion franchise to be named, lo, the Senators. Confusing, but no one said the people in charge of baseball ever made a lot of sense.

Senators II lasted only a decade, until 1971, when they were moved to Texas and labeled the Rangers. So Washington was without our national pastime (if you ignore lobbying) another 25 years until the Expos crossed the border at the end of 2004.

Maybe instead of the Nationals, the ball club should have been called the Generals, who are the Harlem Globetrotters’ nightly foils. The Generals dropped something like 13,000 games from the 1950s to the 1990s. The Nats have a ways to go, but nothing’s out of reach. Including the skimming of signing bonuses from the Nationals’ Dominican prospects. Not enough the franchise is awful, some of the people involved apparently are unethical.

Jim Bowden, then the Nationals general manager – and a splendid job he had done – resigned at the beginning of March in the wake of investigations of whether baseball scouts and executives accepted kickbacks from the bonuses. As he departed, Bowden, reading a statement, denied “false allegations, insinuations and innuendoes by the press. There have been no charges made, and there has been no indication that parties have found any wrongdoing on my part.”

Not a lot of right-doing either, if you study the Nats’ record. But Washington, the city, not the general nor the Generals, seemingly has become immune to losing. It’s in the District of Columbia’s baseball DNA. For a hundred years Washington has lost either lost games or teams.

Now it has a relatively new team that’s a reject from Montreal, a team that opened the season with seven straight defeats and is so star-crossed it can’t even have the nickname spelled correctly on the home uniforms of Adam Dunn and Ryan Zimmerman.

Obviously in any new version of “Damn Yankees,” the old guy sells his soul for a tailor who can pass a spelling bee.
As a reporter since 1960, Art Spander is a living treasure of sports history. A recipient of the Dick McCann Memorial Award -- given for his long and distinguished career covering professional football -- he has earned himself a spot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. And he has recently been honored with the Lifetime Achievement Award by the PGA of America for 2009.

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© RealClearSports 2009


Sharks in denial and in a hole after another loss

SAN JOSE – This is Sharks Territory. That’s what the signs tell us.

That’s what these playoffs tell us. Down here in San Jose, life and hockey would be so much better if there weren’t any postseason. Which, if the Sharks don’t begin to get some results, there won’t be in a short while.

Remember the way the Warriors stunned the Dallas Mavericks in the first round of the NBA playoffs a couple of years ago? What’s happened to the Sharks is the reverse. They have become the stunees.

Ask them,’’ San Jose coach Todd McLellan said of his group, “and I think they’ll tell you they’re the better team. It’s not like we’ve been spanked.’’

No, but they’ve been beaten. Twice. At home in front of sellout crowds whose anticipation turned to dismay, whose shouts turned into boos.

The Sharks finally scored Sunday night. After 85 minutes and 35 seconds of not scoring. This time they were beaten by the Anaheim Ducks, 3-2, which aesthetically may be more acceptable than losing 2-0, as happened Thursday night.

San Jose had the best regular-season record in the NHL. And at the moment a tie for the worst current postseason record. It’s a recurring nightmare for the Sharks, who lure everyone into thinking this may be the year and then go out and trip over their own intentions.

The Sharks are 0-for-12 on the power play, equally dividing their failings with six each game. Twelve different times they’ve had a man advantage, and 12 different times they’ve been unable to score. You don’t have to have been born in Canada to understand that’s not very good.

They’re beating us to the puck,’’ said the Sharks captain, Patty Marleau. The result is that Anaheim, known for physical play rather than success, has a 2-0 lead in the best-of-seven Western Conference quarterfinals.

And so San Jose players are firing clichés faster and harder than apparently they have the puck.

“Again,’’ said San Jose’s Joe Thornton, “I thought we controlled the game.’’

If he means hitting the puck, indeed. San Jose had 44 shots on goal, compared to 26 for Anaheim. If he means getting the puck past the goalie, absolutely not. You can persuade yourself that you’re doing a great job, but in sports the only thing that matters is who wins.

And in two games, the Sharks haven’t won any.

They shook up their lines. They were more aggressive. The first game the Sharks’ Jeremy Roenick described as a chess match.

This one was a hockey match, with plenty of banging and shoving. It was great theater. But it wasn’t satisfying for the 17,496 fans whose noise level ebbed in the final minutes. Except for the boos.

“Sometimes,’’ said Randy Carlyle, the Ducks coach, “it is more important to prevent a goal than score a goal in these tight games.’’ That’s the quintessential philosophy in the four major team sports. Defense beats offense. Keep the other guy from getting goals, baskets, runs or touchdowns.

The Giants won a couple of games over the weekend from the Arizona Diamondbacks because in those games the D-backs were shutout. In these games, the Sharks were shut down.

“The penalty kill is what they do,’’ said McLellen of Anaheim. “It’s very effective. We got to find a way to score, and that’s our biggest concern.’’

Anaheim’s young Swiss goalie, Jonas Hiller, has been brilliant. He stopped all 35 Sharks shots on Thursday night and 42 of the 44 Sunday night.

“There’s no magic to all this,’’ said the Sharks veteran Claude Lemieux. “You just have to get the puck into the net.’’

They understand the problem. Now they must go about correcting it.


EXCLUSIVE: Lincecum is back. Giants already are far back

SAN FRANCISCO – The curious contradiction of the Giants was never more in evidence than on a Saturday in April. The reassurance of Tim Lincecum’s beautiful pitching, now that he once again is healthy, was countered by the unnerving reality of another San Francisco defeat.

Tim Lincecum is back. All the way. He tied a career high with 13 strikeouts. He didn’t allow a run in eight innings against the Arizona Diamondbacks. The Giants also are back, in another definition of the word.

They are far back, 5 ½ games behind the Los Angeles Dodgers, and the second week of the season is not yet completed.

It’s axiomatic if the other team doesn’t score you can’t lose. Conversely, if your team doesn’t score you can’t win.

The Giants, with the Diamondbacks taking advantage of Lincecum’s departure and some incessantly depressing relief pitching, got a couple in the ninth and beat San Francisco, 2-0.

Ballplayers are quick to remind us not to dwell on one game. This one game, however, seemingly was indicative of the future. One game, in which the Giants acknowledged strength, pitching, proved ineffective because of the Giants acknowledged weakness, a lack of hitting.

In both the first and third innings the Giants couldn’t get a runner home from third with one out, not that for some inexplicable reason in the first Emmanuel Burriss didn’t try by ridiculously attempting to steal home only to be thrown out by 20 feet.

Of the four Giants infielders who started Saturday’s game -- including first baseman Travis Ishikawa (.172), shortstop Edgar Renteria (.189) and third baseman Pablo Sandoval (.195) -- only Burriss, the second baseman (.220), is hitting above the dreaded Mendoza Line of .200.

San Francisco now has lost seven of eight. It is not a reach to suggest the Giants may be out of contention by May. Starting Friday evening, the Giants shut out the Diamondbacks for 17 consecutive innings and lost one of two games.

“You’ve got to execute,’’ said Bruce Bochy, the Giants manager. Or to turn that around a bit, we steal from the late Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach John McKay who, after yet another defeat, was asked about his team’s execution and replied, “I think it would be a very good idea.’’

But what if the Giants are executing as well as they can? There’s no Albert Pujols or Manny Ramirez in the lineup. There’s no punch. There’s no pizazz. Every game is like walking atop slippery rocks through a stream, a lot of deep breaths and invariably a misstep.

It doesn’t get any better than Lincecum, the ’08 Cy Young Award winner, after being weakened by what was called lingering bronchitis. He was brilliant. It doesn’t get any worse than not being able to get a run and posting a team batting average of .239 for the season.

“He is so big for this ball club,’’ said Bochy. “That is no question. It is going to make us a better club having him healthy. With that being said, we have got to get some runs on the board. We are sputtering offensively. We had our opportunities the first three innings, and we couldn’t get a big hit.

“This is not a case where there is no hope.’’

One wonders. The Giants haven’t had a winning season since 2004. They are in a supposed process of rebuilding, advising that the organization’s minor league teams all are strong. Who cares? These are the major leagues.

A few weeks ago, the media was brought to AT&T Park to be told of the team’s environmental awareness. One garlic fries concession stand recycles its cooking oil. “We’re conscious of being very green,’’ said team president Larry Baer.

The rest of us are conscious of the ball club. It’s also quite green. Also not very good and offering no indication it will improve without large changes of the roster, and that is not going to happen.

“Sandoval is not going to hit what he’s hitting,’’ was Bochy’s contention. “Ishikawa... There are a lot of guys in the league that haven’t gotten going yet.’’

Too many of them are on the Giants, a team that needed to begin well both for its own confidence and in this year of the recession to keep the fans coming to games.

The hole in which the Giants can be located grows deeper. The forecast for the season grows all the more depressing.

“It’s tough for the team to take a loss like that,’’ said Lincecum of what transpired, “after a game like that. I was throwing strikes, and good ones.’’

And the Giants still couldn’t win.

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