San Francisco was McCovey’s city

 SAN FRANCISCO—This was Willie McCovey’s city, where he was idolized and also criticized. Just like San Francisco itself,

   Willie Mays would become appreciated for what he is; one of the three or four greatest ballplayers in history, but early on, Mays was treated as an outsider, coming from New York with the Giants in 1958.

  McCovey arrived a year later, directly from the minors, on an historical day in the summer of ’59 and then added another single and two triples. Monumental.

 What a career, deserving of his place in the Baseball Hall of Fame. What a man. McCovey would befriend every kid who came to his door.

   Willie Mac, the guy we knew as “Stretch" died Wednesday. He was 80. As am I. “Superman, Willie McCovey and you were all born in 1938,” my wife would chide, and I would wait for the punch line.

  But this is not a time for laughs in Bay Area sports. A few days ago, the nonpareil of a sports announcer, Hank Greenwald, passed on. Now one of the athletes whose achievements Greenwald described.

  San Francisco, the entire Bay Area still was transitioning from minor league to major league, seeking an identity, seeking its own heroes.  Orlando Cepeda was one of the first, en route to the Hall of Fame, and then, boom there was McCovey, in effect chasing Cepeda from first base and to the St.Louis Cardinals.

   This was at Candlestick Park before it enclosed, when there were bleachers in right behind a chain-link fence. The wind was strong. McCovey was stronger. He tortured righthanded pitchers, especially the late Don Drysdale of the Dodgers.

     The Warriors coach, Steve Kerr, was a kid in Los Angeles. He remembers listening to the Dodgers announcer, Vin Scully, call some of McCovey’s shots, slashing line drives.

   Another basketball man, Dave Bollwinkel, the onetime coach at  St. Mary’s and now a scout, remembers the day McCovey broke in. “I was 9-years-old,” said Bollwinkel. “I was at Candlestick that day. I won’t forget.”

 We won’t forget McCovey, whose name now is attached to the body of water that links the bay to China Basin near AT&T Park, overseen by his statue, “McCovey Cove.”

   He had wonderful times, a three-time National League home run leader, who was Rookie of the Year in 1959 and an the MVP in 1969. He had difficult times, especially after several knee surgeries left him unable to walk without crutches and kept him from golf, a game he played well enough to be invited to the Pebble Beach AT&T Pro-Am.

   Back in the day, the 1960s, McCovey was big, and a big target of an acerbic non-sports, sports columnist in the San Francisco Chronicle, Charles McCabe, “The Fearless Spectator.”  Willie didn’t like the figurative pounding, but he kept his cool.

  As he did when people mocked him for no reason other than his response to another Giants announcer, Lon Simmons, on the post-game shows. Simmons would pose questions that were set up for quick, positive answers, to which McCovey would say, “That’s right, Lon.”

  Did we hear that from every aleck? “That’s right, Lon,” we did.

  McCovey deep down was a gentleman, old-fashioned in his ideas about sports journalism. The long time baseball writer for the Chronicle was Bob Stevens, who should we say, took a biased approach, as was normal for the era.

  So one year, when I subbed for Stevens on a road trip, McCovey was critical of the umpires calls in a tight game. I enthusiastically scribbled a few words, and the story papered. Willie Mac was disillusioned.

  “I didn’t know you were going to write that,” McCovey told me.

 “But, Willie, you saw me taking notes.”

 “Yes, but Bob Stevens wouldn’t have written it.”

  McCovey wrote into our memory books. His line drive, not that high despite embellishment over the years, was grabbed by the Yankees Bobby Richardson for the final out of the 1962 World Series. So tough, for Giants fans, for McCovey.

“I don’t think anybody could have felt as bad as I did,” he told Karen Crouse of the New York Times years later “Not only did I have a whole team on my shoulders in that at-bat, I had a whole city. At the time, I just knew I’d be up in that situation again in the future and that then I was going to come through.”

  He never had the chance. But we were fortunate. We had the chance to see McCovey perform. Thanks, Willie.


A’s Beane: Analytics have turned baseball into a chess match

By Art Spander

OAKLAND, Calif. — Billy Beane is an early-to-bed guy. He was asleep at 11:10 on Friday night, which of course meant the Oakland Athletics exec missed the last few innings of the marathon, the longest World Series game ever, 18 innings, 7 hours and 20 minutes — or 12:30 a.m. PDT, more than an hour after Beane dozed off.

But the man is wide awake when it counts. He knew the Dodgers won that game 3-2, on Max Muncy’s home run. OK, there are videos, the Internet, newspapers. But he also knows why games are running so long, if not quite as long as that one. And how to build a winning team.

“No doubt analytics really contributed to the length,” said Beane. “It’s turned baseball into a chess match. Offenses are built to see a lot of pitches. They don’t swing at the first pitch. They’re built to wear out pitching staffs.”

And, one might surmise, wear out fans. Hey, it was 3:30 a.m. in Boston when that game ended Friday night/Saturday morning with the only Dodgers win in the Series.

Beane, the executive of baseball operations; general manager David Forst; and manager Bob Melvin were brought together at the Coliseum on Monday to discuss both their recently announced contract extensions and the great season of 2018, when Oakland won 97 games.

If that was 11 games and one World Series championship fewer than the Red Sox, well, as Beane affirmed, “Boston had a great team.”

A team that not only was dominant from opening day but also made it successfully through the postseason, which Oakland over the years, with its roster including Miguel Tejada, Barry Zito, Jason Giambi and other stars, couldn’t do against the Yankees.

That’s when Beane, properly downhearted, referred to the playoffs as a crapshoot, which in a sense they are because teams built for 162 games can be eliminated in five games. And even though the Red Sox were a deserving winner this year, Beane has not altered his opinion.

In the 2001 best-of-five American League Division Series, Oakland won the first two games. In New York. But in Game 3, the Yankees won 1-0, when New York shortstop Derek Jeter, who shouldn’t have been there, went to right field to relay a throw to home plate that cut down Jeremy Giambi.

The train couldn’t be stopped. The Yankees won the next in Oakland and the last in New York. The A’s were out.

Just as this year, in the American League division and championship series, defending champions Houston, New York and Cleveland were out.

“The Dodgers,” said Beane, “could make a quantitative augment they were the best team in the National League. In the American League, there really were four good teams. Cleveland gets booted out by Houston, which is a really good team. The Yankees get beat by Boston. And we won 97 games.”

Enough to get into the wild card against the Yankees — and lose the one game.

“But Boston was the best team,” Beane restated. “I was glad Mookie Betts hit a home run the last game. This guy’s as great a player there is. He was 0-for 13.”

Beane reminded that Barry Bonds hit .292 in the regular season with Pittsburgh in 1991 and .148, 4 for 27, in the playoffs that year, which, naturally the Pirates lost. The crapshoot.

“But it was a fun World Series," said Beane, taking the broad view. “Baseball has been turned into a science, but it’s still an art, too.”

What the A’s turned it into the past season was a joyful blend of hitting and pitching. And defense. Four A's, Matt Chapman, Matt Olson, Jed Lowrie and Marcus Semien, were Gold Glove finalists. Some of the names were different two years ago, when the balls the A’s didn’t bobble they threw away.

“These guys, especially Marcus, put in a lot of work,” said Melvin. “It feels pretty good based on where the defense was previous to that. We completely turned the page.”

The A’s knew they were good when they finished two series against Houston, the Yankees and the Blue Jays at .500.

“And we won the season series from the Red Sox,” said Melvin, “That certainly makes us think that going forward we can be there. We have confidence.”

And a GM who doesn’t like to stay up late.


Gruden on the Raiders: ‘I know it gets ugly at times’

   OAKLAND, Calif.—This wasn’t in the script for Jon Gruden. He was supposed to return to Oakland, and with his smile and style, make his team wow us on the field as he did for years in the ESPN booth.

  Did you hear or read anything negative when he took the head coaching job last winter?

  Things have not gone well at all. In fact they’ve gone terribly. The Raiders are 1-6 after their, 42-38, defeat by the Indianapolis Colts at the Coliseum on Sunday and nit-picking fills the room, which is understandable.

   Another TV broadcaster who also was a Raider coach John Madden, would tell us “Winning is a great deodorant.”  But when you don’t win the odor, real or imagined, is very prevalent.

   The smallest items grow enormously, in proportion to the losses.

 First there was trade before the season of arguably Oakland’s best player, defensive end Khalil Mack. Then last week, the Raiders saw off another star, Amari Cooper, the receiver.  After that the story, or rumor, quarterback Derek Carr had lost the respect of the team.

  If the Raiders were any good, that stuff would be trivial. But they’re not any good.  So the trivial becomes monumental, and the head coach and the quarterback become the focus. And controversial.

  “I don’t know where the controversy is coming from,” said Gruden, whose defense against the media was probably a bit more effective than his team’s against the Colts. Indy rolled up 461 yards, compared to Oakland’s 347.

  “The reality is we made a trade,” said Gruden alluding to the deal that sent Cooper, the receiver, to Dallas for a first-round draft pick. “I don’t think it hurt the offense, and I hope Amari Cooper does great. We need to address this roster, and we’re doing the best we can, but I’m not going to keep talking about the critics because we’ve got to get better in a lot of areas.”

  Indeed. Carr played maybe his best game of the year—was it in response to the knocks and questions?—but the defense, as almost every game, was a disaster.  The first quarter, the Colts got the ball and kept it and kept it, 14 minutes 4 seconds out of the total 15.

    “I know it gets ugly at times,” said Gruden, “but in a lot of ways I’m excited about the future.”

  It was George Allen coaching the Washington Redskins who insisted, “The future is now.” True, you need plan for the coming seasons, but with the Raiders moving to Las Vegas in two years it’s doubtful the fans in Oakland—and they awoke for a few loud sessions Sunday—are concerned with 2020 and beyond.

  To the Raiders credit, after trailing 10-0 almost instantly, they worked their way to a 28-21 third quarter lead. But there’s that problem with the defense, especially against a quarterback named Andrew Luck, the overall No. 1 pick, out of Stanford, in the 2011draft. He was 22 of 31 for 339 yards and three touchdowns.

  And there were those agonizing mistakes, rookie punter Johnny Townsend kicking one only 25 yards in the fourth quarter, with the score tied 28-28, and running back  Doug Martin, subbing for the injured Marshawn Lynch,  losing a fumble the first scrimmage play after the Colts went in front, 35-28.

  That’s what happens to bad teams and the reason they are bad teams.

  Carr, throwing for three touchdowns and sneaking a yard for a fourth, was asked if he had been particularly motivated because of the stories about him during the week.

  “No,” said Carr, “I’m the same every day. “I had to answer  some funny questions this week, but I know you guys have to do your jobs. It’s nothing personal. It I’m being honest, as a human, it’s hard.

 “There was nothing that was different in my mindset. I’m already a pretty fiery guy . . . My goodness, enough is enough. The best part of my day Wednesday, media day, was to get back on the field and play football. “

  He was back again Sunday, doing well enough, but the Raiders also were back losing again.

  “It’s tough,” said Jon Gruden.  Tougher than anyone believed it would be.


Good old Warriors had speed, quickness — like good new Warriors

By Art Spander

OAKLAND, Calif. — They came to remember and to inspire, champions of another era returning to hear cheers, and also to be heard.

They are men whose collective success more than 40 years ago is displayed on a banner hanging high in Oracle Arena — adjacent to banners earned by others in recent years,

The old Warriors, men now in their 60s and 70s. Cliff Ray, Rick Barry and others were back, telling tales and taking stock. And to his credit, Steve Kerr, coach of the current Warriors, invited Ray to practice, where Cliff spoke not so much of the good old days but the good new days.

“It was great to have those guys at shoot-around,” said Kerr. “They came in and talked to our players.”

Barry, Ray, Butch Beard, Jamal Wilkes, George Johnson. Charles Dudley and assistant coach Joe Roberts then watched the current Warriors, behind Steph Curry’s 51 points, beat the Washington Wizards, who were the Washington Bullets when the Warriors swept them in the 1975 NBA finals.

It was a time for nostalgia, and for acknowledgment. The old Warriors — Barry now is 74, Beard 71, Ray 69 — enjoy the new Warriors, Steph and Kevin et al, as much as the loyal crowd at the Oracle does.

“We were built on speed and quickness,” said Dudley, the guard nicknamed Hopper, “and they’re doing the same thing. One thing different is we used 10 and 11 men.”

The main man was the 6-foot-7 Barry, a Hall of Famer who could pass, shoot, run and maybe most importantly talk. He had an opinion on everything. Still does.

Those ’75 Warriors staggered out of the semis against the Bulls in seven games — similar to the way the ‘18 Warriors made it past the Rockets in seven games.

Barry had been benched. “I think I was 3 for 14,” he said. “But with George and Cliff Ray in the middle, we held them scoreless for seven and a half minutes. I wanted to go back in, but to Al Attles' credit, he kept me on the bench. Why break up what’s working for you?”

Attles, the head coach, was not in attendance Wednesday night, a bit of irony perhaps.  

After defeating the Bulls in ’75, the Warriors had to play the Bullets. One East Coast paper called the Dubs the worst team ever to reach the finals.

After losing the first three games, the Bullets attempted to instigate a fight between Barry and the less-talented Mike Riordan. Attles, known affectionately as “The Destroyer,” bulled out to save his star and was ejected. Roberts took over, with an iron hand.

“Everybody on our bench was saying something,” Barry recalled. “Joe shut them up. He was coaching.”

The Bullets had won three of four from the Warriors during the regular season.

“But one game I had a sore knee,” said Barry. “Another I just had a lousy game. They said Riordan could guard me. He was shorter than me, and I was faster than him. We matched up well with the Bullets. Cliff Ray could bang Wes Unseld around, and Jamal played great defense on Elvin Hayes.”

Though Attles, 82 and not feeling well, was unable to attend, his son, Alvin, was there, announcing the Al Attles Center for Excellence, an academic program.

Coach Attles believed in using all his players. “That was one of our advantages,” said Dudley. “Our bench was always stronger. Other teams would get tired.”

Now they might get tired of hearing how the Warriors won the title.

“The most valuable player was Clifford Ray, not me,” said Barry, who was chosen for that award in the finals. “The leadership Cliff showed was the difference. He called a players-only meeting.

“We were like family. I love all these guys. We had so much fun. It was such a great experience.”

Winning usually is.


Another win for the Warriors, “the best team in the world”

By Art Spander

OAKLAND, Calif. — The other coach called them the best team in the world. Before the game.

Then the Warriors made Igor Kokoskov look very good by making themselves look like, well, if not the best team in the world then at least the best team in Oakland, which certainly is where the world of basketball has been located the past few years.

You know what the Warriors can do. So does Kokoskov. And Monday night, for the first time in the four games they’ve played in a season that has months and miles to go, they played that way.

Like the best team in the world, crushing Kokoskov’s Phoenix Suns.

The final score was only 123-103, but at one time the Dubs were up 88-58, by 30 points, with 5:23 to play — in the third quarter.

“That looked like our team,” said Warriors coach Steve Kerr. “They had a purpose with each possession. They tried to get the guys better shots, and they got the threes together. It was a good night.”

A night the rest of the NBA knew was possible — and probable.

You’ve got these back-to-back champions, as the Warriors' slogan goes, and then you add this ever-improving 7-foot, 245-pounder, Damian Jones, who’s not only tall but wide — and well, thoughts of a three-peat, Pat Riley’s copyrighted term, seem quite realistic.

In effect, the Warriors, now 3-1 — if that matters, and it doesn’t — stopped fouling and started shooting.

“When you foul,” reminded Kerr, “you can’t get out in transition and run, so they go hand in hand. For the most part, we did a good job defending without fouling.”

It was Kokoskov, born a Serbian, now a naturalized U.S. citizen, in his first year as the Suns' head coach, who before tipoff said, “We are playing the best team in the world. We think about them, but we focus on ourselves. We know what we have to do to compete with these guys.”

But they couldn’t. Steph Curry had 29 points, after scoring 30 or more in the other three games. Kevin Durant had 22 and Klay Thompson, a bit off the other three games, scored 16, if hitting only 1-of-6 on threes. Jones, who has spent most of his previous two NBA seasons in the G-League (nee D-League), scored 13 in 20 minutes.

“This is why we have to have Damian,” said Kerr, who has been questioned as to why he starts Jones at center ahead of Jordan Bell. “We’ve gone against Steven Adams. Rudy Gobert, (Nikola) Jokic and tonight Deandre Jordan. Damian passed this week’s test with flying colors.”

Even though Jones’ game-tying attempt against Denver on Sunday night was blocked at the final buzzer.

“There’s a lot of enthusiasm from the other guys trying to set up Damian,” said Kerr. “He’s fun to play with. He takes up that vertical space and makes it tough to guard him. He was better tonight, and he still can get better. He’s so physically imposing. He makes people shoot over him.”

Jones understands his role and also understands he’s in a lineup with four All-Stars, which can be humbling if not intimidating. But the teammates have embraced him, and DeMarcus Cousins, the other 7-footer, who continues to rehab his torn Achilles, has been coaching Jones.

“Little tidbits,” said Jones of the advice. “Scouting reports. Reminding me to attack the boards. I have to stay within myself. I have confidence in my abilities.”

Why wouldn’t he, teaming with Curry, Durant, Thompson and Draymond Green? Like the lyric about New York, if you can make it on the Warriors you can make it anywhere.

The words about Jones help balance all the speculation about what will happen to the Warriors. Whether indeed they can take a third straight championship and fourth in five years. Whether Durant, a free agent at the end of the season, will stay or depart.

Now the talk has been replaced by action.

Asked about playing on consecutive nights in different cities (Denver on Sunday and Oakland on Monday), Curry said, “In the NBA everybody has back-to-backs. We’ve been around the block enough to prepare ourselves. We didn’t like the way we played (Sunday) night. We were going to try not to lose two in a row.”

They succeeded like world-beaters.

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