Tuesday, July 28, 2009
Chargers training camp is officially underway, and the team is hoping to be a Super Bowl contender again this year. On the other hand, the Padres have one of the worst records in baseball, and are looking for silver-linings to an already gloomy season. We speak to Lee "Hacksaw" Hamilton about the top sports stories in San Diego.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. San Diego sports fans could sure use some good news. It’s been a dismal season for the Padres who are in last place in the NL West, and since June have been racking up the worst record in the majors. So what's the good news? Well, Charger training camp got started this week, and a lot of the players who were sidelined with injuries last year are back looking strong and healthy. And in local college football, there's a new coach waiting to take the helm at SDSU and turn around last years hideous 2-10 season for the Aztecs. With me to talk about San Diego sports is Lee “Hacksaw” Hamilton, longtime sports talk show host in San Diego and columnist for the San Diego News Network. And, Hacksaw, welcome.
LEE “HACKSAW” HAMILTON (Sports Commentator): Good morning, Maureen. You are correct. It’s like the movie, “The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly.”
CAVANAUGH: Well, let’s start with the possible good, the Chargers. Is this a do or die year, do you think, for the Chargers?
HAMILTON: I think it really is only because they have compiled an awful lot of age on that roster. They have some significant injury issues in the past and guys that have come off surgery, you know, normally have a short period of time to produce after their surgery is over. It’s a talented team. It’s gotten very, very close. I think their record is 54-30 over the last group of years but they’ve just never gotten to the Super Bowl. They have been in the upper echelon. I think the thing that’s different about Chargers football this year than a year ago this morning is that a year ago today they had seven guys coming off major surgeries who were huge question marks and not all those guys were ready to play at the start of the season. And then LaDainian Tomlinson, their star running back, got hurt very early in the season so they had a lot issues. Well, now virtually every one of those guys is a year removed from the surgery, they’re all healthy, the team finished on a fairly upbeat note. They played pretty well the backend of last season to get into the playoffs and I think it’s green light, go. I think that if they can keep their stars on the field, they’re as probably as good as anybody in the AFC and, you know, then – then we talk about post-season and maybe even get into the Super Bowl. But there are 16 games to be played, tough schedule, and, of course, the injury factor is still out there for every team in the league.
CAVANAUGH: Well, let’s talk specifically about some of those guys who were sidelined with injuries last year and how they’re doing now. Star linebacker Shawne Merriman is back. He missed the entire season with a knee injury. So how’s he looking and is he healthy during training camp?
HAMILTON: Well, he was in full – full uniform yesterday in terms of jersey, helmet and running. He says that he’s 65 to 75% back from the major reconstructive surgery. He had two torn knee ligaments and some frayed cartilage. He looks very good. He looks very fast. He’s doing all the things he needs to do right now in terms of cutting and running. But there – when you’re coming off that type of surgery, there are big issues. Can he practice every day? Will soreness return when he goes full out all the time? Will he have swelling? So far, he’s had no setbacks but that regimen and two-a-day workouts is very different than a regimen of just doing rehab four days a week in the off season. But I’d say right now it’s green light, go, for him until he proves that there’s a setback. And at this point, he does not think there will be anymore setbacks from the injury. He was the difference maker. Last year, that defense was poor and that’s because he was not there causing havoc on the defensive side of the football. When he is on the field, Maureen, he makes every other player, especially the pass rushers, much, much more dangerous.
CAVANAUGH: Do you think that blue Mohawk hairdo is going to help him any?
HAMILTON: Well, everybody needs some angle, either that or the tattoos. It was funny. He’s a really vibrant personality. I think he’s a tremendous individual talent, maybe a little bit of a free spirit, maybe a little bit quirky, maybe the organization doesn’t always buy into his stuff, but I will tell you, at the end of the day, he works hard and he plays hard. And he’s stayed out of trouble for the most part over the course of his career since that early career suspension for steroids in his system so this is a big year for him. He’s in the final year of his contract. It’s a big year for them. If he has a spectacular season and this team goes deep into the playoffs, then they’re going to have a decision to make because they’re going to have to shell out some significant money to keep him from becoming a free agent and – and that being said, that’s another big issue for the Chargers. They have a load of guys, marquee names, who all become free agents in the next year, year and a half so they’re going to have some hard decisions to make as it relates to signing bonuses, etcetera.
CAVANAUGH: Well, let’s move on to the Chargers star running back, LaDainian Tomlinson. How is LT’s health, that is, and how is his relationship with Chargers management following the contract restructuring?
HAMILTON: Well, it’s a good question. Two very distinctly – distinct issues here. He has been mocked by his own general manager, A.J. Smith, which really disappoints me. He’s been criticized by people nationwide as being a used up running back and not the guy he was before, and I think that’s all garbage. He’s a fine player. He’s a great citizen in this community. You know, he took a helmet on the knee. He suffered a deep bone bruise in his knee. It’s a football related injury. It’s got nothing to do with him being 29 years of age. He sprained his toe last year planting and cutting up the field. That’s got nothing to do with being a running back who’s got 17,000 yards, all purpose yards, in his career. It’s just a football related injury. And I really take exception to the network TV analysts saying this guy is done, this guy is washed up, this guy is not dedicated. I think that’s so grossly unfair. I think the other thing that’s hurt LT is that offense line in front of him has just been patchwork. They’ve had their own set of injuries the last two calendar years. And if there’s no holes to run through, then there’s no yardage to go get. But if that offensive front can be what it has been in the past—and they’re all healthy for the most part now—I think he has a big bounce back season. And as to your other question, the relationship with the organization, I think it was wrong for the general manager to publicly mock him in the off season. LT had written on his website he wanted to stay a Charger forever, he was – he wanted to negotiate a contract extension and then A.J. Smith came back and mocked him in an interview, saying, well, I want to stay a Charger forever ever. It’s just – There was no reason for that to happen. We’ll see what happens. He becomes – You know, he can become an unrestricted free agent if he opts out of his contract at the end of this coming season.
CAVANAUGH: Now for the last couple of seasons, the Chargers, even though they’ve gotten into post season play, they have looked terrible in the beginning part of the football season and I’m wondering what is the Chargers’ schedule like in the early part of this season?
HAMILTON: Well, there’s two angles to that. One is they really have problems defensively. Their defensive coordinator, who has since been fired, Ted Cottrell, never can figure it out how to properly use Merriman and all the other great athletes on the defense. They would waste half a season, quote, trying to figure out where to put these people. It was ludicrous. So he is gone. He’s been replaced by Ron Rivera, a very bright, young assistant coach who’s now the defensive coordinator. Very proactive, very aggressive. If Merriman can be what Merriman used to be, I think the whole attitude of the San Diego Charger defense is we’re coming to get your quarterback and what the heck are you going to do about it?
HAMILTON: I think it’s going to be fun to watch. This schedule is very hard. They play in a very weak division but outside the schedule, they’ve got very tough games. They play the Eagles, they play the Pittsburgh Steelers, they play the New York Giants, they play the Dallas Cowboys, they play Miami, all in non-division games. In fact, three of their first four games are really, really going to be challenging. But the thing is, you’re totally healthy at the start of the season. You know, cross your fingers and hope you are. And they should have all the bullets in the gun to go fight that fight right out of the gate but their road schedule might be one of the toughest road schedules in the league right now.
CAVANAUGH: I’m talking with Lee “Hacksaw” Hamilton about San Diego sports and, Hacksaw, we have to move on to the Padres now. It’s shaping up – It’s another horrible season for the Padres. We could be looking at one hundred losses. How did it get this way?
HAMILTON: Well, we’ve gone through ownership changes, we have gone through some very bad mistakes made in drafting, we’ve gone through some very bad business decisions. It – it sounds cruel to dump it all on John Moores, the outgoing owner, but at the end of the day he’s the one that dictates, in all honesty, player budget. And when he told their general manager and their scouting director I will not pay big signing bonus money when the Padres had high draft choices, they had to bypass on a lot of quality players and they took second tier players who did not pan out. The draft is really your – your lifeline in major league baseball. I went back and did a research piece for SDNN.com about the Padres draft and I was just shocked. Over the last 15 years of their first round picks, they have only one player out of the 15 years who made an impact on the team. That was Khalil Greene and, of course, he’s since been traded. One out of 15. That’s why they are where they are. I mean, they lost 99 last year; it is conceivable because they just don’t have enough major league players, that they could lose as many as 110, which is the worst record they ever had and that dates back to the first year when they were an expansion team. So I think all the mistakes in drafting have just crucified this team. And now they got a credibility problem in the community because the Padres are fast becoming the Pirates who trade away all their players when they get arbitration eligible. They’re fast becoming Kansas City, lots of losses and lots of empty seats. They’re fast becoming the lousy Washington Nationals. They’re just not competitive on the field. Just – I find it hard to believe that a team that was in the World Series and a team that won four division titles in the early years of John Moores has let this thing get away from him. And I will tell you, you go to Petco Park now, they put on a great show, it’s a beautiful place to be downtown in the Gaslamp Quarter. You go to Petco Park right now, the atmosphere is almost like a funeral parlor. There’s nobody there.
CAVANAUGH: Wow. You know, I’m wondering, how much this has to do with payroll. How does the Padres’ payroll compare to some of the top payroll teams in the majors?
HAMILTON: Well, we are small market America here, let’s be honest. There’s only 2.5 million people in San Diego County for them to really draw from. They’re not drawing out of Orange County; Orange County’s got the Angels. They’re surely not drawing, you know, from Los Angeles, which has the Dodgers. So they – I think they’re really restricted from a payroll standpoint as to how much they can operate with but, to me, it’s a disgrace to say we’re going to have a $40 million payroll and I’ll tell you why. Because the Padres, like all the other small market teams in baseball, get revenue sharing. They get anywhere from $15 to $18 million a year from all the big clubs in the revenue sharing pot. They get it, the Pirates get it, Kansas City gets it, Florida gets it, all the small market teams. Well, the big issue here is if you’re getting $18 million from revenue sharing and your payroll is only $40, that means you’re only putting $22 of your own money into the payroll. It’s disgraceful. And I’ve been a strong proponent that baseball needs to change its rules, that all that revenue sharing money has to be spent as an elevation on your payroll. But they are small market America but go back to my theory: If you screw up the draft as bad as they’ve screwed this draft up, you got no players. And that’s – That, to me, the payroll issue is one but the foul-ups in the draft, to me, is the biggest catastrophe that has hurt this franchise right now. And it’s going to be a long road back. The fans have just turned their back on them and Padres have emotionally lost this city right now.
CAVANAUGH: Well, I know you have better hopes for the SDSU Aztecs. They’re working to prepare for their upcoming season. They have a new coaching staff led by head coach Brady Hoke. What do you expect from Hoke and the Aztecs this year?
HAMILTON: He’s got a good track record and I think that’s hugely important. He has hired two tremendously valued coordinators to work underneath him, Al Borges, who was a star offensive coordinator at UCLA and Auburn, and Rocky Long, who’s just a really bright mind. He’s the former head coach at New Mexico and had a nice run as a defensive coordinator in the Pac 10. I think that that trifecta, those three musketeers, are going to make a huge difference. Now, Brady’s got to be able to recruit. That’s a big issue at San Diego State because it’s not been done on a very consistent mark. I think the other thing, the intangible thing, that helps turn this program is not only his track record—and understand that he took a team at the one point was 1 and 25 at Ball State in Indiana and made them 12-0. It took a couple of years to do it so he’s got a track record of success. The other intangible is they’ve really downgraded the schedule. They – For example, this year, although these are not sexy names on the schedule, they will play Southern Utah State, and they will play New Mexico State, they’ll play Idaho, the much more winnable, non-conference games which should help them from a confidence standpoint and get them ready for the start of the season. But at the end of the day, they still need to be able to recruit more players but he’s got a great track record and those – those two key coordinators may be as important as anybody that’s on that roster at San Diego State.
CAVANAUGH: Lee, thank you so much. We’ve got to go.
HAMILTON: Maureen, my pleasure. Thank you.
CAVANAUGH: I’ve been speaking with Lee “Hacksaw” Hamilton, longtime sports talk show host in San Diego on XM satellite radio and columnist for the sandiegonewsnetwork.com. You’re listening to These Days on KPBS.