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Disaster by the Bay

Is the sorry state of San Francisco sports some kind of cosmic payback?

12:00 AM, Jun 3, 2005 • By BILL WHALEN
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IN EARLY MAY, San Francisco was chosen as the headquarters city for California's new stem-cell research endeavor (officially: the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine). The winning bid included 10 years' worth of free office space across the street from SBC Park, home of the San Francisco Giants.

Unfortunately, it didn't come with a promise to help cure for what ails the Giants--and the chronic misery that is the Bay Area's assorted professional sports franchises.

Sports talk has dominated the Bay Area this week, in the wake of the airing of a San Francisco 49ers players' orientation videotape that contained racist jokes, lesbian soft porn, and topless blondes. There's the question of who leaked the offending piece to the San Francisco Chronicle (the team's former PR honcho, Kirk Reynolds, who both produced and stars in the video, claims that the Niners' former general manager, Terry Donahue, is this scandal's Deep Throat, something Donahue adamantly denies). Watching the film itself, it's hard to decide which is more disturbing: Reynolds' eerie resemblance to White House reporter/male escort Jeff Gannon; or the fact that the Niners, headquartered in Santa Clara, which is deep in the heart of Silicon Valley, haven't made the switch from low-end VHS to DVD.

Granted, most every major-sports city in the United States can complain about at least one sad-sack team (I consider a "major" city to include the big four of football, baseball, basketball, and--eventually--hockey). However, Bay Area residents, unlike other athletic supporters, are batting a perfect four-for-four in the complaint department--with little relief in sight. In that regard, the 49ers' video is more like a trailer to a much bigger horror picture.

To wit:

NFL: The 49ers, once among the NFL's elite, are coming off a league-worst 2-14 record. The Niners' big off-season news, in addition to the aforementioned video: the first pick in the NFL draft (as yet unsigned); and new coach Mike Nolan's attempt to buck the league by wearing a coat and tie on the sidelines (the NFL has a 10-year, $250 million deal with Reebok that prevents coaches from going old-school like Vince Lombardi or Tom Landry). Jerry Rice, the great wide receiver who should play one last year with the 49ers before retiring, instead suffered through the humiliation of having to blast-fax his résumé to the entire league before finding a taker in Denver.

As for the Oakland Raiders, also a non-playoff team, the big news is their trade for disgruntled wide receiver Randy Moss--a nice balance to the Niners parting ways with that other gifted malcontent, Terrell Owens. Which guarantees two things: (1) Sports Illustrated writing the inevitable "happy-at-last story" the first time Moss has a big game; and (2) the no-one-understands-me Moss complaining about a lack of support as the season winds down. The team's owner, Al Davis, likes to talk about "the greatness of the Raiders." Like an aged Warren Beatty looking to run for governor of California, it's a Nora Desmond view of the world.

MLB: The Giants last won a World Series in 1954, which is why some locals call their home field "Sans Baseball Championships" Park. Minus their one superstar, Barry Bonds, the Giants are a sub-.500 outfit (think of the California Republican Party, minus the Governator). Not that Bonds seems to care; he's rarely a presence at home games, rehabilitating his injured knee in Los Angeles and issuing medical updates in al-Zarqawi fashion, via the slugger's personal website. Meanwhile, the Oakland Athletics have gone from perennial playoff contender to dead-last in the American League West. Moneyball Oakland GM Billy Beane's low-budget philosophy of blending cheap young players with inexpensive veteran cast-offs seems bankrupt; now the A's are finally paying the price for letting go of home-grown talent like shortstop Miguel Tejada and pitchers Tim Hudson and Mark Mulder). In Oakland, it's what happens in the stands that makes headlines: this year a fan tossing a beer at Jason Giambi; last season, a Texas Rangers' pitcher tossing a chair at a heckler.

NBA: The Golden State Warriors have taken part in the league's last five draft lotteries--to see which of the 14 non-playoff teams gets the top draft-pick. Only the Los Angeles Clippers are on a longer streak. Such is the sorry state of The Team That Passed On Kobe that this year's 34-48 record (the same as the Los Angeles Lakers; three games behind the Clips) is considered cause for hope. And they're owed a thank-you note from Washingtonians: Gilbert Arenas, Larry Hughes, and Antawn Jamison--the backbone of a resurgent Wizards' franchise--are all Golden State cast-offs.