The question was short and direct, and Matt Cain didn’t wait to hear the end of it.
“Who cares?” said Cain, interrupting a reporter who referenced his home run-ruined first half last season on a night the Dodgers parked three off him in a 6-2 victory Sunday.
“I don’t care. No. Don’t care.”
It’s clarion clear. When you attempt to introduce this certain idea to Cain, he will retract his hand and run from the cocktail party. It’s the last thing the Giants’ stalwart right-hander needed to ponder after losing grip on the balloon string while giving up two home runs to Matt Kemp, one to Hanley Ramirez and coming within a Farmer John footlong of another on Andre Ethier’s sacrifice fly.
Last season, Cain so uncharacteristically gave up 13 home runs in his first nine starts. He allowed three homers in three of those outings. He spent the rest of the season trying to downsize his ERA and he did correct course – he didn’t have another three-homer start after May 16 — but the damage had been done. The Giants were racing for pride.
Cain does not want to fall into that pattern again and the Giants, for all the giddiness over their 5-2 start on this season-opening road trip, cannot afford it. Along with their major league best 11 home runs, they have just two quality starts out of seven as they return home to AT&T Park, where the games take on a different tone and tenor. If the rotation is not firm enough to win 3-2 and 2-1 in the brisk air off McCovey Cove, it’s going to be hard to keep up with the Dodgers.
“They’re good,” Cain said. “You know they’ll be good. It’ll be tough every time we face them. Both teams I think will be able to swing the bat against each other.
“We’ve still got some stuff to clean up as a staff, but all in all, this is definitely how we wanted to start the first week of the season.”
Players are supposed to be optimistic. Scouts are supposed to be objective. And no fewer than three of them approached me with the same question after seeing Cain’s debut last week at Arizona: “What’s the matter with him?”
He was pitching backwards. He was throwing first-pitch curves. He pumped 93 mph as late as the fourth inning, but he pitched as if he didn’t have confidence in his fastball. That was a huge change for Cain, who spent years shaking off so he could throw heater after heater.
I asked Cain about that a few days ago and he said he was just sticking to the game plan and trying to throw what he thought would get those Diamondbacks hitters out. At lively Chase Field, he came out of his delivery a bunch of times and he had more non-competitive misses than I can ever remember seeing in one of his starts. But he also kept the ball in the park.
This time, in his second start at Dodger Stadium, the reverse was true. His fastball crackled with life. In the first inning, he threw three first-pitch strikes – all heaters – and he was operating from ahead in the count. It was more brush strokes than paint splatters.
“He looked as sharp as I’ve seen him,” catcher Buster Posey said. “His direction was really good and his ball had good life on it. Unfortunately it was just a couple mistakes and they squared them up.”
The ball was carrying better than usual. And those three homers slipped over the fence.
I asked Bruce Bochy: Could this become a “thing” with Cain, after what happened last season?
“Well, that’s a good point and I hope it doesn’t,” Bochy said. “I like the way he attacked the zone. He pitched very efficiently. He didn’t get away with some mistakes, and sure, it (also) happened in the early part of last season.
“But I don’t want that sitting in his head. If he goes out with that stuff, he’ll be just fine. You guys ask is this going to be a pattern? I know it won’t, but I don’t want him thinking about it.”
Whether it’s a thing or not, Cain absolutely must have confidence in his fastball. He cannot pitch from his heels. To that point, he said the right things Sunday.
“I don’t want to nibble and I don’t want to go away from the strike zone,” Cain said. “I want to attack these guys and obviously, yeah, you want to keep it in the park. But I’m a guy who will elevate the ball and when you elevate to certain guys in certain areas, it’s got the potential to go out.
“You’ve got to make adjustments and throw to the corners, keep the ball out of the middle.”
Cain might have given some insight to his inner thoughts in the sixth, when he cleanly caught Kemp’s one-hopper – the first time he retired him after those two homers – and lollipopped a throw to first base before Brandon Belt was near the bag. The slo-pitch softball arrived when Belt did, and Cain walked off the mound.
It was a good result. But his body language told the story. It was too little, too late.
For this night, anyway.
–Andrew Baggarly, CSNBayArea.com
This weekend, in Nashville and Arlington, Texas, two groups of college athletes will be undertaking identical assignments:
Travel far from campus. Perform in stressful, demanding situations. Commit countless hours to the assignment. Publicly represent their universities. Follow very specific, often confusing rules. Try to win games. Juggle class work if required. Risk injury.
One group is made up of female basketball players, the other of male players. Aside from gender, the only other differences are exterior ones. The group in Texas at the men’s Final Four will generate far more attention and revenue than the group at the women’s Final Four in Tennessee. A handful of the men’s players will go on to earn big money in the NBA.
And that brings us to one of the most interesting issues in the recent ruling by the Chicago regional National Labor Relations Board that Northwestern football players have the right to form a union.
If the ruling is upheld and the union movement extends across college athletics, how exactly will that fit with Title IX, the federal law that prohibits gender discrimination?
And it’s not just a question of gender. How will a move toward unionization impact athletes, both male and female, in non-revenue sports? Athletes in water polo, baseball, softball, soccer, crew? All have similar “working” conditions – including time demands, scheduling issues and injury risk – as those that revenue-generating athletes face.
“I don’t think collective bargaining can proceed without a comprehensive review of all athletics, independent of revenues,” said William Gould, a labor law expert and Stanford law professor emeritus.
Gould is on leave from the university after being appointed to lead California’s Agricultural Labor Relations Board by Gov. Jerry Brown last month. Gould served as chairman of theNLRB, has a long and impressive resume in labor relations and has expertise on sports labor issues.
He believes that the recent NLRB ruling fits into existing labor law precedent and will ultimately end up in the courts. The entire process may not be resolved for several years, but in the meantime universities must figure out how to brace for the coming sea change in college athletics.
Title IX, enacted in 1972 yet still not fully implemented, will certainly be part of the consideration.
“If players in revenue-producing sports gain in revenues, it will exacerbate the inequity that already exists,” Gould said. “The collective bargaining process will have to focus on the entire universe of athletes. A failure to do so may squeeze other sports out.”
Many college administrators agree that Title IX will play a significant role in how these issues are sorted out. However, most are not willing to speak on the record about the controversial issue that could be the undoing of the NCAA, by addressing what Gould calls “the glaring gap” between university profits and restrictions on athletes.
There are other forces at work attacking the institutional profit centers. Those include the lawsuit against the NCAA named for Ed O’Bannon that argues that athletes should be entitled to financial compensation for the use of their images. Another recently filed lawsuit is challenging restrictions on scholarship compensation. And the issue of whether athletes like Cal swimmer and gold medalist Missy Franklin must forgo prize money and endorsements to retain their amateur status continues to percolate.
If college sports evolve into a world where star college athletes can obtain their market value, then male athletes would disproportionately benefit, creating a further imbalance in gender equity in college sports. And, many would argue, that would lead to a further disconnect between the stated mission of institutions of higher learning and the hard, cold financial reality of college athletics.
The amount of money involved in football and men’s basketball continues to escalate to obscene proportions. However, despite the perception that those revenue-generating programs fund the rest of the athletic department, studies show differently. A 2010 NCAA study showed that more than 40 percent of the top football and men’s basketball programs don’t support even themselves, let alone other sports programs.
There is a concern that Title IX could be used as a scapegoat for college administrators, who could claim reform is impossible because it violates the federal law, one that not many of them choose to fully enforce anyway. That would be in keeping with the long history of Title IX, which is frequently blamed for athletic department choices, such as decisions to drop men’s non-revenue sports rather than scale back slightly on football expenses.
“Title IX has always been the scapegoat,” Gould said. “It gets blamed for everything.”
–Ann Killion, San Francisco Chronicle
The man in the middle of the storm smiled, joked and arched his eyebrows at the thorniest questions Sunday.
No, Mark Jackson wasn’t about to lose his cool.
Especially not now, not after two of his assistants have lost their jobs within the last few weeks, not with the NBA universe openly curious about Jackson’s job security.
That’s his great strength — the Warriors’ self-assured coach never melts under the spotlight, and his players take their cues from him.
It can also be one of his trouble spots — Jackson is such a big personality that he skips over problems he wants to ignore and explains away issues that maybe need closer inspection.
But this is who Jackson is, it has worked well for the Warriors so far, and he’s not changing now.
In fact, as the questions piled up Sunday, Jackson all but yawned.
“My job will be determined on winning,” Jackson said before an easy victory over Utah. “I’m fine with that …
“The talk about what these two (ex-assistants) have done, that has nothing to do with me.”
Actually, the dispatching last month of Brian Scalabrine after a philosophical dispute with Jackson followed by the mysterious firing last week of Darren Erman for a team violation has something to do with the head coach.
Jackson is responsible for everybody in that locker room, and if there are problems and failures, he is at some point accountable.
He also has been rightfully credited for re-establishing a sense of unity and defensive purpose on this team and for getting the Warriors into the second round of the playoffs last season.
But there has been grumbling about the team’s occasional lack of urgency and Jackson’s offensive system, which often bogs down in isolation sets with little movement.
Some of that grumbling has come from people in the Warriors front office, by the way.
At times, Jackson has reacted to the chatter indirectly by declaring that this franchise has a history of losing, is winning now and should act like it knows the difference.
On Sunday, when I asked how he’d describe his relationship with co-owner Joe Lacob, Jackson said there are no problems between them.
“You know it’s interesting, I’m reading ‘the dysfunction’ or whatever the term is for my relationship with this front office,” Jackson said. “That’s brand-new to me. And I’d be the first tell you if it wasn’t.”
Jackson then added that he and Lacob talked to each other for 15 minutes on the recent road trip.
Lacob told me in February that he was generally happy with Jackson’s performance but that he was disappointed by some of the home losses.
I also believe that Lacob would view a first-round loss as a sign that the team isn’t moving forward, which is death in the venture-capitalist universe.
“That’s not my call,” Jackson said when I asked him if a first-round loss this season should be considered a step backward.
Jackson then pointed to the depth of the Western Conference and said that there will be many good teams with good coaches who won’t make it past the first round this year.
Meanwhile, team sources salute the locker-room attitude, but they point to some problems with Jackson’s game management.
There is also some concern that Jackson and his staff haven’t been able to halt Harrison Barnes’ struggles this season.
But really, it will all be answered by the results in April and May, and everybody knows it.
By the way, Jackson said he feels no tension with Warriors management.
“There is no friction at all,” Jackson said. “If it’s friction, maybe it’s friction when I leave the body and I’m departed and other stuff is being said …
“I humbly submit to you, if you’ve got a problem with me as a person, then it’s your problem. I’m low-maintenance …
“I have no issues with anybody in this organization, and it’s been that way from Day 1 … And unnamed sources, I say come on out, please. Pretty please with sugar on top.”
Whatever the coach’s maintenance level, and Lacob’s maintenance level, the honeymoon between the two is over, which is natural and the normal state of play between strong-willed coaches and stronger-willed executives.
How do coaches survive when things get a little bumpy? They win. They win big.
–Tim Kawakami, San Jose Mercury News