San Francisco Giants manager Bruce Bochy holds the Commissioner’s Trophy during the 2014 World Series victory parade in San Francisco. (Mike Koozmin / S.F. Examiner)

Kolsky: Championships are fleeting, not a birthright

Bay Area fans seem to think that championships are their manifest destiny

Championships are not a birthright. Ultimate success at the major professional level is both incredibly difficult to achieve and remarkably fragile.

The Bay Area has seen an awful lot of winning in our collective lifetimes, and it seems to have distorted the mechanism for expectation-setting in local fans.

Sure, every franchise in the Bay has gone through some tough times, but they’ve also filled trophy cases to the point that folks take a manifest destiny approach to titles.

There’s nothing wrong with demanding greatness (or at least a sound process in the pursuit of it) but truly expecting it to happen constantly and in perpetuity is pure madness. Just look at the droughts in cities like San Diego, Phoenix and Seattle, or until recently Cleveland, Chicago and Toronto — proud cities with proud franchises, but decades of sporting misery between them. The struggle to reach that greatness is the rule, sustained success the exception. The Bay Area franchises provide a perfect case study of the fragility of that success — in just the last few years, each of them have swung between tremendous boons and crushing blows.

The Golden State Warriors

Fresh off of their fifth straight NBA Finals, yet somehow in a state where some are calling for a full rebuild, the Warriors make the most obvious example of the most obvious aspect of sports’ fickle nature: Injuries change everything.

The Warriors went from a four-plus-year run of pretty good health to a triage unit in the course of a couple of weeks. They may rebound from this without collapsing or making major changes, but the edge of the cliff is more visible than it has been during this run.

They went from feeling like they could compete even if Kevin Durant leaves in free agency to knowing they’ll have to play without him next season either way. A significant injury to Klay Thompson was arguably even more debilitating from an emotional perspective.

Suddenly a team ticketed for a three-peat is being accused of medical malfeasance and pundits are tossing out tear-down trades that send Draymond Green or Andre Iguodala to “contenders” and help the W’s start fresh.

The distance between presumptive champs and possible rebuild is one Achilles tendon and one ACL.

The San Francisco Giants

The Giants’ story has had some injury, but their true downfall was another classic sports villain — the undefeated Father Time.

Like many multiple-time champs before, San Francisco allowed itself to atrophy. The fans’ (and the front office’s) love and respect for players who brought home hardware was admirable, but their confidence in continued success turned out to be misplaced.

It was 2016 that did it. The Giants blasted out of the gates, looking ready for some more even year magic. They entered the All-Star break at 57-33; then everything fell apart. They went 30-42 the rest of the way and have basically stunk since.

The critical error was imagining the 2016 team was closer to 2014 than what we’ve seen since — that, moving forward, they were really the team we saw in the first half rather than the mess of the second. Wrong.

Virtually all of the title team holdovers have declined consistently over the past few seasons. Now, the Giants are not just bad, but also staggeringly short on young talent in their system, the result of assets mortgaged in a vain effort to prolong their championship window. That quickly, three titles in five years is on its way to becoming three last place finishes in four years.

The Oakland Athletics

The A’s are the most properly downtrodden of the Bay Area’s franchises. There’s plenty of winning in their past, and some of it not so far back — but repeatedly trading away exciting players in or approaching their prime has done immeasurable harm.

Hope sprung from last year’s AL Wild Card run, and the bevy of young talent had everyone believing that this could be a big year. That’s still on the table, but the lack of pitching depth combined with some injuries has them off the playoff pace.

The A’s look a lot like last year’s success story — halfway through the season, six players have double-digit home runs with two more sitting at nine. The pitching hasn’t been great, but it has hung tough enough to keep them in most games.

Things keep going wrong, though. Matt Olson missed time with an injury; Frankie Montas’ breakout season was soured with a PED suspension; Lou Trivino and Joakim Soria are suffering through uncharacteristic struggles in the bullpen.

Even with all that, the A’s win expectancy based on their stats is 43-36 — two games better than their actual record and enough to jump them into a Wild Card spot. The difference between continued success and perceived failure is a couple pieces of bad luck.

Bay Area Football

The 49ers and Raiders are easily grouped together — both franchises were sources of great optimism after 2017, yet both went from 6-10 to 4-12. Both organizations entered last year with shiny new toys and crawled out the other end covered in mud.

In San Francisco, the handsome and handsomely-paid Jimmy Garoppolo went from undefeated savior to mediocre to injured; offensive wunderkind Kyle Shanahan couldn’t coach his team to red zone success; persistent off-field issues led to the release of a potential defensive stalwart.

Meanwhile, Jon Gruden was hailed as the medicine for what ailed the Silver and Black, but he almost immediately engaged in a wholly disrespectful dismantling, virtually assuring their last couple years in Oakland would be a disappointment. The Raiders jettisoned their two most talented players while injuries and ineptitude turned them into a complete laughingstock.

On both sides of the Bay, a mountain of hope became a molehill of mediocrity in a matter of months.

Let’s not ignore hockey, where the Sharks had quietly reshuffled the deck to great effect on the heels of their Stanley Cup Finals loss in 2016. It seemed like everything was coming together when they made the improbable comeback from down 3-1 in their first-round series, beating the Las Vegas Golden Knights with back-to-back OT wins in Games 6 and 7.

They pushed through the Avalanche in Round 2 and took a 2-1 lead in the Western Conference Finals, enough to tantalize any fin fan. Then the wheels came off, and they were outscored 12-2 in their final three games of the postseason.

In many ways it is just another in a line of sad stories for San Jose, but it could also be the end of an era. The Sharks are at a crossroads with their roster — to hang on to an emerging star in Timo Meier, they may very well have to say goodbye to captain Joe Pavelski. They’ve already put big money into relative newcomer Erik Karlsson and waived goodbye to longtime defenseman Justin Braun.

San Jose’s inability to get over the hump has defined this otherwise successful era, and before you know it they’ll have moved on from almost all the guys you cheered through perennial playoff disappointments.

*****

This is the capricious nature of sporting success — what was once gold quickly becomes brass; the run that felt eternal inevitably ends; process does not always dictate results; success is never certain.

Greatness is the goal, but it’s an incredibly lofty one, and we presume its arrival at our own peril.

Remember where Golden State was before their magnificent run: 12 years of losing. Championships are not a birthright. They’re a rare and valuable gift.

Matt Kolsky is a sports media professional (or something like that) and lives with an aging Shih Tzu/Schnauser mix in Berkeley. You can hear him on the Bay Area sports radio station 95.7 the Game, 3p-7p every weekday evening alongside Damon Bruce and Ray Ratto. You can listen to his podcast, The Toy Department, on iTunes or wherever else fine podcasts are free. You can find him on Twitter @thekolsky to share your personal feelings about this article or any other topic, he will respond to most tweets that do not contain racial slurs.

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