SF Examiner: Bay Area in need of a new sports superstar

By: Art Spander
Special to The Examiner

Barry Bonds was in the stands. Manny Ramirez was on the field. Willie Mays and Willie McCovey were in the clubhouse. The buzz was back. And isn’t that what sports are all about?

We were spoiled around here, except not many understood. This was a place of superstars, of individuals who got headlines and grabbed our attention, athletes who were always a story, for better or worse.

Now the Bay Area is a wasteland. Or at best a wait-land. We keep looking for the next Joe Montana, the next Jose Canseco, the next Jerry Rice, the next Rick Barry, but where is he?

The issue is not merely talent. Tim Lincecum has a great deal of that. So seemingly does Kurt Suzuki of the A’s, hidden over there figuratively under the tarps of the Coliseum.

You don’t get to the big leagues or the NFL or the NBA or NHL without talent. What our teams need, what they once possessed, is pizzazz. What our teams need are superstars.

Whether the Niners and Raiders were successful in the NFL Draft — especially the Raiders with their picks so heavily criticized — won’t be known for a year or three. But what already is known is the New York Jets’ first selection, quarterback Mark Sanchez, would have been exactly what either local team could have used. If not necessarily to win games — and the prospect of that taking place is more than likely — but to get noticed — to have people talking and watching.

Sanchez is the next Joe Namath, already media savvy coming out of the Hollywood element at USC and about to compete for the back pages of the New York tabloids with A-Rod, Eli Manning and CC Sabathia.

McCovey was in his usual chair in the office of Giants equipment manager Mike Murphy at AT&T Park the other night, facing Mays a few feet away. “Hey, Willie,” someone suggested to Mac, but it could have been either, “there’s more star power in this room than the rest of the whole park.”

Of course, that was before Bonds showed up to sit next to managing general partner Bill Neukom.

“Yeah,” McCovey agreed. “That’s what’s needed.”

Down in L.A., there’s Kobe. Over in Boston, there’s Tom Brady — and Pedroia, Papi and Papelbon. Cleveland has LeBron. Does an evening go by when one of them, usually all of them, doesn’t get face time on ESPN?

Jim Plunkett was here. Steve Young was here. Baron Davis, practically a superstar, was here. Mark McGwire was here.

Mays, McCovey and Juan Marichal are honored with statues near AT&T. We need more athletes whose likenesses will be set in stone and bronze.

Maybe JaMarcus Russell fulfills the promise, although he seems reluctant to meet the obligation or the training regimen. Maybe Alex Smith, given a new chance, meets expectations, his and ours.

It isn’t if you win or lose, it’s how you play the media game. With a superstar, you’re playing it the best way possible.

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

- - - - - -
Copyright 2009 SF Newspaper Company 

Bonds back, Giants come back

SAN FRANCISCO – Empty seats, maybe 10,000 of them, a sign of the times. But one chair not empty was filled by the man who for the Giants was the sign – and the face – of better times.

Barry Bonds had come home.

He was a spectator, a guest of Bill Neukom, the guy in the bow tie who is the Giants’ managing general partner. It was Giants vs. Dodgers, on a chilly, windy Monday night. A rivalry renewed. And with Barry a hero/villain remembered.

In so many places, Barry was despised, even before the steroid stuff started. In this place, AT&T, the park that if Barry didn’t quite build he was in part responsible for, Bonds is idolized.

It’s the Dodgers who are despised.

“The Dodgers,’’ their manager, Joe Torre, conceded before the wildest of games Monday night, a Giants’ 5-4 win, “people either love them or hate them.’’

In 50 years, they’ve never been loved in the Bay Area. Not at Seals Stadium. Not at Candlestick. Not at AT&T.

Fans here rarely chant “Let’s go Giants.’’ Fans here always shout “Beat L.A.’’ Which Monday is what San Francisco was able to do, if not by the easiest of methods.

The Giants blew a 3-0 lead in the seventh and then came back with two in the eighth to win, 5-4, before a crowd announced at 31,091.

This indeed is a rivalry. “Not like it was in New York,’’ said Torre, who grew up back there cheering for the New York Giants against the Brooklyn Dodgers. “But it’s a rivalry. I think the younger players find that out quickly. I knew it before I came here.’’

Before that, Torre was with the Yankees, where the hatred is pitched at them by the Red Sox fans. Real venom. And when he managed the St. Louis Cardinals, he learned that across the Mississippi, downstate Illinois has more than enough Chicago Cubs partisans.

“The fans can get in a frenzy, which is OK,’’ said Torre. “That’s what sports are about. But it can wear you out.’’

The Giants wore out the Dodgers on Monday in the opener of a three-game series. Trailing 4-3, they scored twice in the eighth on a couple of line drives and a couple of dribblers.

It was a game the Giants needed. Not only because they were swept by the Dodgers in Los Angeles a couple of weeks back but because on Sunday, San Francisco couldn’t hold on to a 4-1 lead over the Diamondbacks and lost in 12.

It was a game closer Brian Wilson needed, since he was the man at fault on Sunday, giving up the game-tying homer. But Monday, in the ninth, Wilson struck out the side for the save.

Maybe it was a game Barry Bonds needed. This was his first one in San Francisco this season, and the time he didn’t spend waving at the fans when next to Neukom or in the row behind him he spent talking to Mike Krukow and Duane Kuiper on the Comcast telecast.

All of a sudden, Barry is the charmer. All of a sudden the Giants, after a 2-7 start, are 9-9.

All of a sudden, the other Barry, Zito, is the pitcher of old. He went seven shutout innings last Wednesday. He went 6 1/3 shutout innings Monday night before giving up a walk and a home run. Zito still doesn’t have a win in 2009, but he does have back-to-back impressive performances.

“He did a great job,’’ Giants manager Bruce Bochy said of Zito, “but he was getting it up and not where he wanted. That’s why the change was made.’’

After 109 pitches, Zito was replaced by Merkin Valdez who after a walk to Rafael Furcal and a single by Orlando Hudson challenged Mr. Dreadlocks himself, Manny Ramirez. Manny won, singling in the go-ahead run. Yet in the end, the Giants won it all.

“Exciting game,’’ affirmed Bochy. A rivalry game, a game that teased and irritated but, for Giants fans, finally satisfied.

“It was good to see Barry,’’ Bochy said of Bonds. “He came to the clubhouse. I know the guys were happy to see him. He was sitting there watching. It was an exciting win and a great win for us.’’

Against the Dodgers, a team people either love or hate. Except in the Bay Area. Where it’s only hate.


Cabrera's fortunes change quickly for the A's

OAKLAND – It’s a game of numbers. Baseball is a small island of activity in a great sea of statistics. Virtually nothing goes unrecorded. To the people who play it, however, much goes ignored.

They know what they are doing. Or what they are not doing. Orlando Cabrera was the new guy for the Athletics, although after 16 years in organized ball, he hardly is one of the new guys in the game.

That fact his average was a miserable .190, that he entered Sunday’s game against Tampa Bay with only three hits his previous 37 at bats, was balanced by Cabrera’s recognition of performance.

“I was happy with a lot of those 37 at bats,’’ Cabrera said, “even though I haven’t been getting hits. I was battling. A lot of things can happen. It’s just like playing poker. Fortunes change quickly.’’

They changed Sunday for Cabrera. And for the A’s.  He had a double and a single. The A’s had a second straight win over the Rays, who, it’s almost hard to remember, were in the World Series last fall.

Oakland played a dominant game, Dana Eveland -- whose locker is adjacent to Cabrera’s -- getting his first pitching victory as the A’s beat the Rays, 7-1.

“It was probably our best series of the year,’’ A’s manager Bob Geren was to assert. “Just the way we started it, down (Friday) night and the way we finished it.’’

We’re always impatient around baseball, where patience is of the essence. Ballplayers don’t string things together like the fans or media do. Any game might be a bad one. Or a brilliant one. Players judge over weeks and months.

Cabrera was hitting .190, Jason Giambi .211, Matt Holiday .238, Nomar Garciaparra .222.  Embarrassing and perplexing, but not fatal.

“It was just a matter of time,’’ said Geren, a man of equanimity. “We’ve got a lot of quality hitters with proven records. Orlando is a .290 hitter, an excellent hitter at the top of the lineup.

“He looked a little bit off, but just (Saturday) he told hitting coach Jim Skaalen, ‘Don’t worry about me. My hits are just about to start coming.’ So we have a guy that knows his game and his ability level and is confident enough to say something like that and then go out and do it.’’

These A’s have been disappointing. The addition of Holliday, a .319 hitter, Giambi, Cabrera and Garciaparra was supposed to make Oakland a contender. They need success. They need attention. The Giants can always rely on their park. The A’s can rely only on what their ad agency promotes as “100% baseball.’’

There are noticeable failings around the American League. The Angels have a losing record. The Rays, champions of ’08, have a losing record. The A’s have a losing record. The supposition is the Angels and Rays will recover. The hope is the A’s will recover.

And they might.

“You look back at the last couple of weeks,’’ Geren insisted, “and we had guys in position. We left a ton of people on base. We were one hit away here and there from winning a lot of games.’’

The hits came comfortably Sunday, 10 in all, at least one by everyone in the starting lineup and two from Cabrera, who said he had been seeing good pitches yet hadn’t been “lucky enough’’ to get the hits.

Asked if perhaps he were pressing to prove the A’s were correct in signing him in March, the 34-year-old Cabrera shrugged. “I’m too old for that. I can’t do anything about that stuff. I just play my game. Of course, you want to do good all the time. You try.

“You want to help the team win.  It’s nice to go 3-for-4 with five RBIs, but you can also do the little things if you’re not hitting, move a guy over, play defense.’’

The little things have been done. Now he needs the big thing. Now Orlando Cabrera needs to hit the way he did on Sunday against Tampa Bay.

RealClearSports: Did You Feel the Draft?

By Art Spander

You tell yourself not to turn it on. That you can’t take one more analysis by Mel Kiper Jr. Can’t listen to any of the 10,000 announcers – well, it seems that many – tell us someone has a “big upside.”

Can’t sit there while the player who dropped 10 places from the projections says, “I’m just grateful to be in the NFL.” And yet, the draft is like wet paint. The sign tells us “Don’t touch,” and we tap our index finger on the fence anyway and find, indeed, the paint is wet.

And so there I was, from the start, paint figuratively on my hands, beginning at the Oakland Raiders headquarters, then moving 40 miles down I-880 to the offices of the San Francisco 49ers.

Had to arrive early. Had to get in the proper setting. Had to learn if the Detroit Lions really were going to pick Matthew Stafford. Yes, they already had signed him, but just once wouldn’t it be a hoot if a team pulled a fast one and called another player’s name, while all those people at Radio City without a life gasped and shouted as Stafford did flips in the green room?

No such luck. No practical jokes. Just a $41 million contract (recession, what recession?) and the opportunity to be a star. Or a bust.

Why is the draft so important if Alex Smith, first selection in 2005, hasn’t done much except get injured and lose games for the 49ers, not in any particular order, while Tom Brady, a sixth-rounder in 2000, has been an MVP and won three Super Bowls for the New England Patriots?

Never take a quarterback with the first pick, the experts advise. Unless he’s John Elway. Or Drew Bledsoe. But the Lions seemingly had no choice except Stafford.

If you don’t consider Mark Sanchez.

He was selected four picks after Stafford. Some people say he will prove to be the better player. Going to the New York Jets, unquestionably he’s with the better team. The Cleveland Browns, trading the No. 5 selection to the Jets, gave this draft the jolt it needed. And we needed. And maybe the player the Jets needed.

Sanchez, from USC, already was a celeb, as is virtually every top athlete in the Los Angeles area. He’ll have no problem adjusting from Sunset Boulevard to Broadway. Or replacing Brett Favre, at least mentally.

Nobody can judge a draft pick for a year or three. Look us up in 2011 and we’ll have our judgments. Still, Sanchez, given time, place and the New York tabloids, would appear to have landed perfectly. He’ll be allowed to develop with a franchise that already has developed.

The draft is usually too full of linemen, the necessary worker-bees of football. That’s how you build a team, we’re told, with left tackles and defensive ends. The heavy lifters, the “who’s he’s?” the guys ESPN’s Kiper says can stand up or knock down the man opposite him, depending on the requirement.

This time we had the two quarterbacks and a lot of receivers, the flash and dash people, including Darrius Heyward-Bey, B.J. Raji and Michael Crabtree. who was supposed to be chosen before the other two but was picked after.

Heyward-Bey, from Maryland, is fast, which is why the Raiders took him with the seventh pick, much to Kiper’s dismay. Crabtree, from Texas Tech, is productive, which is why the 49ers selected him with the 10th pick.

Once more we are reminded not to judge the soufflé before it is cooked. Brady, for example, the 199th overall selection nine years ago; Jerry Rice, who was said to lack speed; or Ryan Leaf, No. 2 in the 1998 draft, who not only failed but also had a personality like Ivan the Terrible.

We don’t know about anyone. Yet. Even though Kiper said of the Raiders pick of Heyward-Bey, “I’ve got to give it an F. I don’t know how you can pass up Michael Crabtree or if you want Hayward-Bey trade down.”

Raiders coach Tom Cable, however, said of Heyward-Bey, “This is the guy we wanted. Our biggest need was to get someone to score points.”

Crabtree scored a great many on his 41 career touchdowns. He mumbled something about showing the Raiders they were wrong immediately after Oakland took Heyward-Bey but later, after he was called by the Niners, diplomatically sighed, “I just want to work hard and prove I can do the job.”

Stafford and Sanchez, Heyward-Bey and Crabtree. Without any of them asking, two rivalries were created. They will be watched. They will be compared.

The season doesn’t begin for months, but unfortunately already we’re involved. That's what happens with the draft. Do you think there’s an upside?
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.

- - - - - -

3:59PM Art chats with Gary Radnich and Tony Bruno


“Gary and Bruno enjoy Spander plugging himself and the thought of plugging Lindsay Soto.” From April 22, 2009.

Listen here