Sunday, June 23, 2019

NASCAR race and Sears Point now a lovefest

When NASCAR stock car drivers came to Sears Point for the first time 30 years ago this past week, I don’t remember Ricky Rudd for being the winner, but recall pretty much everyone around him being whiners in the Wine Country.

These Bud-loving, red meat-eating, no right-turning Oval Track Wonders were asked to make a severe pit stop and haul their trailors and asses 2,500 miles across the country to compete on a road course most had never driven before on a track that had an antiquated eye-sore double deck wooden press box stuffed to the rafters. They encountered an elevated 12-turn track featuring something called the Carousal, which was far from a merry-go-round given drivers in practice were slipping and sliding and going off course like ping pong balls in a hurricane.

Most of the drivers were cursing and complaining. There would have been plenty of mean tweets had there been Twitter in that age. Sears Point was hell on wheels.

“For some guys it was just a pain in the ass,” Rusty Wallace said.

I know for a fact that the legendary Dale Earnhardt wasn’t enamored with having to come to the San Francisco Bay Area to race. It was NASCAR’s first time racing here and they held a big press junket to promote it, meaning Dale was required to attend a press conference at PIER 39. It was held in a private room in the Nepture's Restaurant (now the Chart House) and Dale was sitting at a table leaning against a floor to ceiling plate window that overlooked the iconic PIER 39 sea lions docked below.

A bunch of reporters sat at Dale’s table. Mind you, Dale enjoyed talking to the media about as much as anyone in the Trump cabinet. Well, Dale answered questions at that inaugural press conference, but I don’t remember him having eye contact with any reporters. He eyes were fixated on the sea lions below the whole time. My guess is he was counting sea lions like we count sheep trying to go to sleep. Dale was ready to move on and the sea lions were merely a tourist distraction for him.

In fact, Dale was always in a hurry to leave Sears Point. I recall being in the garage area as soon as the race finished and I swear no sooner than Dale parked his race car that he stripped out of his race uniform and jumped into a waiting car to beat post-race traffic. It was his fastest pit stop of the day. On more than one occasion I spotted him passing me in the garage area as a passenger in the front seat before the race winner had even made it into Victory Lane.

I chuckled in 1995 when Dale actually won the NASCAR race at Sears Point and had to stick around.  He was in a great mood with media, having finally won the road course version of the Daytona 500.

“Well I won a road course. Maybe I’ll break the ice and win Daytona next year,” said Earnhardt, who had to wait three years to win his first Daytona 500 in 1998.

Sears Point has changed dramatically in 30 years. NASCAR then raced for the Winston Cup and handed out free cigarettes. In 1989 Rudd won in a Buick and there were 10 Pontiacs yet not a single Toyota in the race field.

On Sunday, Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Busch finished 1-2 in Toyotas, the NASCAR race was once again co-sponsored by Toyota and the race’s Grand Marshall was David Wilson, president of Toyota Racing Development.

The double-deck wooden press box was destroyed and replaced by an air-conditioned Media Center. Where the wooden press box once stood now stands a humongous 47,000-seat metal grandstand with individual seats and suites, built in 2001 as part of a $50 million modernization plan.

Once a dread, the NASCAR race at Sears Point has become almost like a vacation destination. The sponsors love it and the drivers tolerate it.

“Through the years you’ve seen guys figure things out,” Truex said after winning at Sears Point for the third time in a race that didn’t have a single on track caution.

Sounds like when it comes to NASCAR and Sears Point, no one’s whining now.

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Baseball fans prefer freedom over free parking

It was Free Parking Tuesday for the Oakland A’s game and thousands of baseball fans instead opted to park their cars – and behinds – elsewhere to watch, I don’t know … Ellen’s Game of Games instead?
A paid crowd of only 14,310 showed up in a more than half empty stadium to watch the A’s belt six home runs in 16-2 win that took only 2 ½ hours to play. That’s getting big bang for your buck, people, but why did not more A’s fans take advantage of it and flock to the Coliseum like those nose-diving sea gulls?
What’s their excuse? The fans, not the sea gulls.
Well, the A’s opponents were the last-place Baltimore Orioles, who have morphed into the American League’s version the Washington Generals. Watching Chris Davis being fooled by yet another curve ball and striking out again is akin to the Meadowlark Lemon’s string-in-the-ball trick at the free throw line. It’s comical, but it gets old.
It was also Team Swim Night, a promotion that perhaps left A’s fans feeling awkward and slightly uncomfortable, knowing they might risk sitting next to someone in a Speedo whose idea of a seventh-inning stretch is to slap and snap their own muscles.
Or maybe A’s fans wanted the team to spring for free tickets, too. Well, on StubHub a few hours before first pitch, there were tickets available as low as $10 and, for just $30 apiece, there were two tickets next to the A’s dugout for sale. Thirty dollars?! Next to the home team’s dugout!? You can’t get standing room only tickets at Fenway Park for that price.
In all fairness the crowd of 14,000 plus on Free Parking Tuesday looked closer to 24,000 plus because it was so spread out line confetti on a windy day. But, for whatever reason, A’s fans in particular and baseball fans in general are finding something else to spend their time this summer and I doubt it’s staying up to watch the Match Game.
This not unusual in the San Francisco Bay Area where the so-called distractions – wineries, concerts, parks, museums, festivals, restaurants, protests in the streets, romantic walks on the beach, sightseeing sightseers on the Golden Gate Bridge  – overwhelm reasons to attract baseball fans to a ballpark.
The A’s however are not the only team struggling at the turnstiles. Their Bay Area neighbor, the San Francisco Giants, this season have dropped from fourth to 11th in Major League Baseball attendance and they may need a parachute soon. In fact, there is an outside chance that neither the Giants or A’s will both draw at least two millions fans to their home parks this year. That hasn’t happened since 1996 even when the Giants had Barry Bonds and the A’s had Mark McGwire and still couldn’t attract big crowds.
Of course, in 1996, the Giants were still playing in fan unfriendly Candlestick Park but Bonds that season had a 40 home run/40 stolen base year. The Giants, though, went 68-94, finished 23 games of first place and drew only 1,413,922 fans. The big splash the Giants made that year was introducing Lou Seal, its new mascot.
Meanwhile, in Oakland in 1996, McGuire led the majors with 52 home runs yet only 1,148,380 fans paid to see him and his teammates in the Coliseum. The A’s went 78-84 and finished 12 games out of first in their division.
The A’s, this season, have a winning record and they are talented enough to win a wild card playoff berth so long as the Rays come back to reality and the Red Sox don’t get hot. Still, the A’s have no superstars that radiate on a national scale. For example, when the A’s played the Orioles on April 8 in Baltimore, only 6,585 people showed up in beautiful Camden Yards. That `O’ fronting Orioles is now a 0. As in zero.
The assumption is A’s fans will gaggle – or gondola -- to their new ballpark, but they have been talking about building a new one for two decades and they haven’t even broken ground on the latest site. The Atlanta Braves have played in three different ballparks in the time the A’s have taken to build a new one and that might happen in 2023 when Oprah Winfrey is president.
A new ballpark did wonders for the Giants’ franchise, drawing more than three million fans in the 17 of the past 19 seasons. The Giants, currently in last place, still have mainstays and star attractions in Buster Posey and Madison Bumgarner (or Bum-goner assuming he is traded next month) to lure fans to their ballpark-by-the-sea. But both fan bases are not showing up regularly, witness the lack of All-Star Game ballot box stuffing. Not one A’s or Giants player was listed in the Top 5 at any position in the latest MLB All-Star Game voting.
A true test of the Bay Area baseball barometer will come on August 13-14 when the A’s cross the Bay Bridge to play the Giants at newly renamed Oracle Park. Both fan bases will have something to gain and glean from each other then. Giants fans will see what the A’s have done to contend for a playoff spot building through the draft, homegrown talent, and some smart trades. A’s fans ought to find plenty of affordable and available seats at Oracle Park and see what a new ballpark can do for a franchise -- when Parking Free Tuesdays become a thing of the past.

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

My best memory of Bill Buckner

My first memory of Bill Buckner is NOT a ground ball through the five hole.
It’s of him granting me a one-on-one interview in the Cubs dugout in HoHoKam Park in Mesa during spring training of 1983. Billy Buck, as he was known then, already was in a foul mood with Cubs general manager Dallas Green and manager Lee Elia and at odds with the Chicago media which I did know when I made my interview request.
He paused.
“What paper are you from?” he asked through that bushy mustache.
“Rockford Register Star,” I replied.
He paused again. His bushy eyebrows raised.  “OK,” he said, “Sit down.”
I can’t recall what questions I asked him and if he gave me any profound or even interesting answers. It was a spring training puff piece looking ahead to the 1983 season, and I was just delighted that Billy Buck was giving me the time of day.
As it turned out, the Cubs’ 1983 season set into motion Buckner’s move to Boston and his infamous moment with the Red Sox. In April of 1983 Lee Elia, who got into a fist fight with Buckner in the dugout in June of the previous season, went ballistic in a post-game press conference laced with F bombs, MFs, and crude references to fellatio following another Cubs loss at Wrigley Field. Basically, Elia accused all Cubs fans who were booing the team of being clueless and jobless. Less than four months later, Elia was clueless and jobless, too. The Cubs fired him.
In the meantime, Dallas Green was continuing to look to trade Billy Buck and move slugging leftfielder Leon Durham to first base. It wasn’t until May of 1984 that Green unloaded Buckner to the Red Sox for Dennis Eckersley. Eck helped the Cubs win their first title of any kind since the 1945 and Durham, well, he made a crucial error in the fifth and final game of the NLCS that allowed the San Diego Padres to score the game-tying run en route to the World Series.
Only Cubs fans talk about Durham’s error. Everyone talks about Buckner’s error.
You know the sob story. Mookie Wilson’s ground ball with two outs in the bottom of the 10th inning rolled between Buckner’s legs to score the winning run in Game Six of the 1986 World Series that the Mets won in seven games. It’s an error that has lived in infamy ever since. A Boston Sports “Great 80s” highlight film put music to Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon” to the play accompanying the sound of Vin Scully saying … "So, the winning run is at second base... with two out... 3 and 2 to Mookie Wilson. Little roller up along first... BEHIND THE BAG! IT GETS THROUGH BUCKNER! HERE COMES KNIGHT, AND THE METS WIN IT!"
It was an error that never should have happened and never should have defined Buckner’s otherwise illustrious 22-year major league career.
Here is the real story. First, Buckner should not have been playing first in that situation. Red Sox manager John McNamara had inserted Dave Stapleton as a late-inning defensive replacement at first base for Buckner when the Red Sox led in Games 1, 2, and 5 because Buckner was hobbled by bad ankles. McNamara years later asserted Buckner was a better first baseman than Stapleton yet still felt comfortable enough to play Stapleton at first with the Red Sox ahead in their three previous World Series wins in the ’86 World Series.
Next the tying run should have been at third base and given Buckner and Boston a second chance. Ray Knight was at second base after Red Sox reliever Bob Stanley uncorked a wild pitch that got past catcher Rich Gedman, allowing Knight to get from first into scoring position. I fault Stanley more than any other player that night for the meltdown and it is the wild pitch that I remember more than the error. It was a potential third strike pitch that wound up at the backstop.
Years later, when I first met Red Sox pitcher Bill Lee for the first time, the first thing out of his mouth when I told him I was a Red Sox fan was, “Where were you at the Buckner game?”
Red Sox fans can recall the exact place they were when the Buckner error occurred. It is our “Where Were You When JFK Was Assassinated” like moment.
I was at a burger-and-beer joint in Milwaukee called the SafeHouse. You need a password to get in. I was in Milwaukee covering the San Francisco 49ers-Green Bay Packers game when the Packers used to play two games a year at County Stadium. The 49ers won starting their third-string quarterback, Mike Moroski out of Novato, who replaced Joe Montana and back-up Jeff Kemp, both injured coming into the game.
The night before in SafeHouse I was watching in horror as the Red Sox’ 5-3 lead was evaporating. Calvin Schiraldi retired the first two Mets batters. The Red Sox were one out from their first World Series championship since 1918. The Curse of the Bambino was about to get 86ed in 86!
Then three straight hits and a run off Schiraldi and I remember my legs literally buckling when McNamara came to the mound and signaled to the bullpen for the righthander and that meant Stanley. I had about as much faith in Bob Stanley in 1986 as the air in Chernobyl.
My worst fears came true. Mookie Wilson fouled off three potential third strike pitches before Stanley’s next pitch went so far inside that Gedman couldn’t move his body to stop it. Game tied. With Knight now getting a big lead off second base, two more potential third-strike pitches were fouled off. Then Wilson hit the little roller along first …
Pause … I need a moment …
The Red Sox blew a 3-0 lead and lost Game Seven and that kept Buckner on the hook as perhaps the greatest scapegoat of all-time even though they were many scapegoats surrounding him in Game Six.
“I can’t remember the last time I missed a ball like that, but I’ll remember that one,” Buckner said after the game.
So has everyone else. Buckner became the punchline for a sporting nation. He was the starting first baseman on Opening Day for the Red Sox the next year and few remember that Red Sox fans gave him a standing ovation on that day during pre-game introductions.  Yet it wasn’t until Opening Day 22 years later – ironically Buckner’s jersey number was 22 with the Cubs – that Buckner and Boston forgave each other. He received a four-minute standing ovation before wiping tears from his eyes to make the ceremonial first pitch.
I hope that is the lasting memory of Bill Buckner. That sight of forgiveness and not the sight of bitterness. Unfortunately, baseball historians will forever remember one error and not his 2,715 career hits, more than Red Sox legends Ted Williams, Jimmie Foxx, and David Ortiz accumulated in their playing days.
Me? The one-on-one interview with Billy Buck means more than the one error. I was just happy to have met the man and have him talk to me.