Saturday, February 2, 2019

My brush with greatness with the Goffs

For years, months and especially this Super Bowl week, I have read and seen countless stories about all of Jared Goff’s accomplishments.
Now it’s time for my Jared Goff story. I saw him in his first house before he learned to crawl, much less walk. I suspect I was among dozens privileged to first see Jared. I would imagine billions have seen him since.
The story begins with his father, Jerry, who I love, admire and greatly respect. I was sports columnist for the Marin Independent Journal and was covering Jerry’s brief, yet unforgettable, major league baseball career. A San Rafael High School star, Jerry was drafted three times – first by the Oakland A’s in 1983 as a third baseman from College of Marin then in 1984 by the New York Yankees before deciding instead to play at Cal. In 1986, two months before I moved from Rockford, Illinois to Novato, California, Jerry was drafted again – as a catcher -- by the Seattle Mariners. Little known fact: He was drafted in the third round ahead of a fourth-round pick named Bo Jackson, a football player at Auburn.
Jerry ultimately was traded to the Montreal Expos and signed as a free agent with the Pittsburgh Pirates. He was between his first and second year with the Pirates when I interviewed him at his home. He and his wife, Nancy, had recently moved into and renovated his parent’s old house in San Rafael, just west of Highway 101.
Jared was about three months old and lying on the living room floor. Who knew then that he would one day become the No. 1 pick overall in the NFL Draft and lead his team to the Super Bowl.
When Jared was the No. 1 pick three years ago I received a phone call from a friend and former Marin IJ colleague Jarrett Bell from USA Today. Jarrett knew Jared was from Marin County and asked if I knew anyone locally he could interview about Jared. I put him in touch with Goff longtime family friends, Keith and Susan Conroy, who used to live in my neighborhood before moving to Novato, and, of course, I encouraged Jarrett to contact Jerry. I told Jarrett I had done several stories on Jerry and then told him the best one.
Jerry owns a Major League Baseball record. One few remember and I’m sure Jerry would like to forget. However, it is symbolic of the resolve, character, and class that Jerry obviously passed onto his son.
Jerry was a back-up catcher for the Houston Astros in 1996. He was behind the plate for the final game of a series against the Montreal Expos in Olympic Stadium on a Sunday afternoon when he tied a MLB record for most passed balls in a game – six – and none of the Astros’ pitchers were knuckleballers. Jerry simply had a bad day, as did the game’s official scorer in the press box who probably should have ruled wild pitches on two of the passed balls.
It didn’t seem to matter that Jerry went 2-for-4 with two RBIs in the game and hit a home run in the second inning to deep left-centerfield.
The Astros flew to Chicago where the next day Jerry was in the bullpen in Wrigley Field down the right field line. Knowledgeable Cubs fans were giving it to him, razzing him. They were shouting PB and they didn’t mean Pass the Beer.
That night, after the game, Jerry hooked up with some of his buddies from San Rafael who had flown into Chicago to see him. Jerry just wanted to get out, have some fun, relax and, most of all, put all the embarrassment and insults from the previous 24 hours behind him, like too many Astros pitches the day before.
They went to a bar and Jerry relished the anonymity among friends. He was drinking beer and forgetting that he possessed a dubious MLB record. He then excused himself to go to the men’s room. He was standing in front of a urinal when one of his friends next to him suddenly begged him, `Don’t look up.’ Naturally Jerry looked up. Right in front of him, above the urinal, was the front page of the sports section of that morning’s newspaper with a big, bold headline that began “Goff’s gaffes …”
It’s a good thing Jerry didn’t take aim at the sports page. He wasn’t really pissed.
Jerry recounted that story to me by phone the very next day when I tracked him down at the Astros’ team hotel in Chicago. He didn’t have to take my call, but he did. He didn’t have to take a call from ESPN Radio the day before, but he did. Jerry was not one to hide. He handled adversity with aplomb.
“Unfortunately I'm going to be remembered forever about this, but it's not something I'm going to let live with me,” Jerry told me. “It's not like I lost a family member. It's not the end of the world.”
Four days later, the Astros demoted him. Jerry never played in another major league game though he is one of few major leaguers to hit a home run in his last one.
Fortunately, some 22 years later, Jerry is now being remembered again for all the right reasons. He is a fireman in California where so many are needed and the father of a Super Bowl quarterback who possesses the same character as his dad.
It’s not the end of the world indeed.

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

My Baseball Hall of Fame vote has new perspective

How’s this for a lead for a story on Baseball Hall of Fame voting: My wife was diagnosed with Triple Negative Breast Cancer. Google it.
For most of the 21 years that I have proudly participated as a Baseball Writers Association of America (BBWAA) voter for player induction into Cooperstown. I have agonized like our government over a shutdown when filling out my HOF ballot every December, more so this year than ever. It’s not easy. Frankly it IS rocket science.
I literally lose sleep over it. I feel privileged and honored to have a vote and I do not take it lightly and simply slip my ballot in the mail like it’s a rebate. I still read and listen to what other voters – and non voters – say about each viable candidate and re-examine my stance and adjust my launch angle before checking boxes.
But this past year my perspective about baseball, about the world – about everything – changed having been at my wife’s side from the minute she learned she had cancer and the months and moments and memories of surgery, chemotherapy, radiation that followed. Seeing her cry when they discovered “something unusual.” Watching the painful cringe grow on her face during chemo sessions when she wore a head-freezing DigniCap in an attempt to keep all her hair from falling out. Hearing her moan and ache in the middle of the night from the bone-aching Zarxio shots she gave herself.  Listening to her wince and recoil when the accumulation of radiation treatments burned her skin to the point the weight of a bed sheet on her torso was torture.
And me feeling helpless to help her as much as I wish I could. Cancer changes people and not just the ones who get it.
Voting for the Baseball Hall of Fame seems a little trivial now compared to praying for your wife to have the strength to fight on.
My wife has courageously managed to get through this process of healing, but we both know cancer is a perpetual extra inning game. Your eyes widen and your priorities change.
That is why I looked differently at my Hall of Fame ballot this year. That and the views of the 16-person Today’s Game Era Committee, which made me realize my commitment of time and energy into Hall of Fame voting is perhaps not warranted or valued.
Formerly known as the Veterans Committee, that committee is comprised of former MLB general managers, managers and players (including Hall of Famers) and I am not naïve to know they know more about baseball than I. We have the same statistical and analytical information available, yet the voting process is much more personal to them.
Hence, in the last two years, Today’s Game Era Committee has voted Jack Morris, Alan Trammell, Lee Smith, and, wait for it, Harold Baines into the Hall of Fame. Morris, Trammell and Smith never received 75 percent of the vote necessary for induction by eligible Baseball Writers Association of America (BBWAA) Hall of Fame voters in the 10 plus years they were on the ballot, yet they were always considered viable candidates. Baines, however, never received more than 6.1 percent from BBWAA HOF voters before falling off the ballot after five years. He was deemed, at least in the consensus of BBWAA writers, to be an also ran.
Today’s Game Era Committee this past year had a much different opinion of Baines. He received 75 percent of the votes cast by that 16-member group. I would imagine Barry Bonds is rolling his eyes that Baines is being inducted into the Hall of Fame before him.
By voting Morris, Trammell, and Smith to Cooperstown, Today’s Game Era Committee widened the doors to the Hall of Fame. By voting for Baines, that entry is now the size of a garage door.
This is not to say Harold Baines was not an outstanding player and he certainly is a humble and admirable person who quietly and effectively went about his job for 22 years. There is no disputing that.
What concerns me is this committee’s approach to voting for the Hall of Fame seems to be that of high school kids voting for the Homecoming Game King where popularity takes precedence over merit. Look out for your buddies.
Still, if I am to look at this deeper from a positive perspective, Today’s Game Era Committee in its criteria for voting appears to be rewarding reliability, accountability, loyalty, and – most of all – longevity. There is nothing wrong with that.
Where does that leave me? Tired, confused, and losing patience and faith in the process. It’s become easier to make a case for anyone being in the Hall of Fame, and it’s becoming more a personal crusade – “Blanketity blank should be in the Hall of Fame. What are the writers thinking???!!! -- than a mathematical and moral process. If that were the case I would have voted for Kevin Youkilis for Hall of Fame because he is Tom Brady’s brother-in-law, owns a brewery in Los Gatos and once took a selfie with my son, Drake. Youkilis, by the way, was a three-time All-Star, twice finished in the top 10 in MVP voting and won a Gold Glove. His JAWS number is better than Hall of Famer High Pockets Kelly and his WAR number is better than a DiMaggio.
These days that’s enough to make a case for Hall of Fame, but it’s not logical. I’ve always believed a smaller Hall of Fame is a better Hall of Fame where only the elite of the elite get in. Voting for a Hall of Famer should be more of a gut feeling than an exercise in analytics and debate.
But the game has changed and so have I.
For the first time, Mariano Rivera and the late Roy Halladay were on the HOF ballot and I voted for them without reservation. Rivera is without question the best relief pitcher of all-time, but let’s not forget that he had three of the worst blown saves of all-time: Game 7 of the 2001 World Series and Games 4-5 of 2004 ALCS. Halladay is a more accomplished version of Jack Morris who accomplished a lot in a Koufax-like span.
For the first time I voted for Fred McGriff and Larry Walker simply because they have better Hall of Fame credentials than Harold Baines. And I voted for the first time for Omar Vizquel, an 11-time Gold Glove winning shortstop who had more career hits than Baines and certainly saved more runs and games with his fielding.
For the first time I checked nine names on my ballot. I always have voted for Jeff Kent and last year – influenced by Today’s Game Era Committee -- came around and voted for Edgar Martinez, Mike Mussina and Curt Schilling, Donald Trump’s latest endorsement for an election. I came close to making Scott Rolen, Billy Wagner, and Todd Helton (who played 17 years with the same team) my 10th and final choice this year, but like most voters, I have to draw a line somewhere. Otherwise, we’d be inducting a dozen Hall of Famers this year and every year.
And, though tempted again, I can’t yet bring myself to vote for Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens and I take absolutely no joy in that. I fall in the camp of Sports Illustrated’s Tom Verducci on this and, after this year, I am now inclined to let Today’s Game Era Committee handle their Hall of Fame fate.
One HOF voter recently wrote that Bonds and Roger Clemens “are waiting for the older Baseball Writers’ Association of America voters to die off” so they can be inducted into the Hall of Fame. How comforting to hear that induction into the Hall of Fame is a life or death matter.
If there is one thing I have learned this past year is there is more to life than being an old baseball writer. Much more.

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Indy Car leaves Sonona Raceway feeling like Raiders

SONOMA -- Like Oakland losing the Raiders to Los Angeles, Sonoma Raceway on Sunday bid adieu to the powerful and sleek sounds and sights of the Indy Car Racing Series, which after a 14-year run at Sears Point is moving next year to Monterey and Laguna Seca Raceway.
There was little sentimentality evident, other than "Cheers to 14 Years!" mini bottles of champagne handed out by the outstanding Sonoma Raceway media relations crew afterward in the press box.  Otherwise, there were no “Please Stay,” “Rooted In Sonoma,” or “Take The Grapes But Leave Indy To Us” protest signs or banners. No crying in overpriced craft draft beers or Bloody Mary’s. No tearful farewell kisses in Victory Lane for points champion Scott Dixon, Indy’s first five-time series winner in 56 years.
History, however, may be in the best interest of Sonoma Raceway. Sometimes best intentions turn into nightmare decisions.
The last time Sears Point lost such a big event was in December 1969 when Filmway Inc., then owners of the raceway, broke an agreement to host a free concert – dubbed the West Coast Woodstock – featuring the Rolling Stones.
Are you kidding me? The Stones, not to mention Santana, Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, playing at Sears Point! Then not?
The planned concert was moved to Altamont Speedway for safety concerns and let’s just say it didn’t turn out well. It was more Helter Skelter than Woodstock West. Some Hells Angels served as security and a gun-wielding fan was stabbed to death in front of the stage where Mick Jagger was performing “Under My Thumb.” It was one of the darkest days in rock music history, yet, for Sears Point, is may have been the big one that got away and that was good.
Indy Car Racing moving from the Wine Country to the Monterey Peninsula doesn’t seem to have such dire life-or-death consequences, but Laguna Seca may be inheriting a headache. This move may make business sense for the City and County of Monterey who, in the name of tourism dollars, are banking on it and willing to take on any potential debt which Sonoma Raceway endured.
The season-ending Indy Car Series race goes bumper-to-bumper with the beginning of NFL and college football seasons and the end of the Major League Baseball season in the San Francisco Bay Area. Plus, it lands during the peak harvest season for grapes in the region, hence there are just as many people passing Highway 121 at Sears Point to wine taste than turning into Sonoma Raceway to watch a bunch of power rangers go zoom zoom.
That said, Sonoma Raceway, with some concessions, would love to have Indy Car back. Laguna Seca only has a three-year contract with Indy Car, plenty of time for reality to set in.
Remember the Raiders did in fact return from LA to Oakland. OK, now they are moving to Las Vegas but I digress.
Sonoma Raceway remains hopeful and that was obvious in its choice to be the Grand Marshall of the grand finale n Sunday. It was M.C. Hammer who in 1991 released the hit song …. wait for it … Too Legit to Quit!
Get it? Sonoma Raceway? Too Legit to Quit?
 Hammer may be a hip hop legend, but his car knowledge is legit. He once sponsored a Top Fuel dragster team named Hammertime and has a fondness for Porsche.
“I’m building cars from the ground up,” Hammer said at a pre-race press conference on Sunday. “Not with these hands but with my check book.”
Hammer, who is wealthy enough to wear a wrist watch the size of a wall clock, is also a huge Raiders fan and is part of a group led by Ronnie Lott that sought to keep the team in Oakland … the second time. He knows it’s possible for a wrong move to be made right.

Indy Car drivers see an opening, too.

"I'm definitely going to miss this place. Everyone loves to come here. This is our Indy 500 outside the Indy 500," said Sunday's race winner Ryan Hunter-Reay. "I hope there is enough room on the schedule for both."

That may not be feasible. It may come to one or the other.

At some point, Sonoma Raceway will welcome Indy Car back to Sears Point. If and when it does Sonoma Raceway can proclaim, in the words of M.C. Hammer, U Can’t Touch This.