I know I'm not the only one enjoying the suffering of KNBR's Larry Krueger, the talk-show loudmouth who last week blamed the San Francisco Giants' grim season on what he apparently sees as the team's not-too-smart Latin contingent -- specifically, its "brain-dead Caribbean hitters" and its 70-year-old "Cream of Wheat"-brained manager Felipe Alou. Krueger's troubles couldn't happen to a more deserving guy. The radio host has a history of finding coded ways to call nonwhite sports stars dumb. This time he slipped and got caught. After defending Krueger, KNBR management fired him and two station executives late Tuesday night.
ESPN coverage of Krueger's comments, and the Giants' reaction to them, made a local story national. Alou's been blasting Krueger to everyone who asks, and promising to broadcast Krueger's comments in the baseball-crucial Dominican Republic, where he was born; over the weekend Alou even quit KNBR's traditional manager's show that runs before every game. Until KNBR fired Krueger, that was causing headaches for Giants management: KNBR owns a small stake in the team and carries its regular broadcasts, and Krueger has been a booster of team president Peter Magowan, but Alou and many Latin players wanted more punishment for Krueger (though Alou told ESPN Monday night he doesn't want to see the talk-show host kicked off the air).
I have to admit I enjoyed seeing Giants management suffer a little, too. I watched as Krueger spent the entire 2002 season savaging former Giants manager Dusty Baker -- when Baker led the team to the brink of a World Series victory but lost his job anyway -- without a word of disapproval or concern from top Giants management. When I profiled Baker's falling-out with team owner Peter Magowan that year, I had at least two long talks with Krueger, one of them quite unpleasant, because I felt that his beef with Baker skirted the edges of racism. His rap on the three-time Manager of the Year award winner, for the record, was that Baker was overrated -- a charismatic players' manager who relied on hunches, not baseball smarts, to run his game, was too loyal to his favorites, and got away with all of it because writers were reluctant to criticize a minority manager.
I couldn't help but see a kind of 21st century racism in the crude anti-Baker caricature: He was superstitious, emotional, charismatic but not too smart, a guy getting by at least partly by using the race card. To be fair, I should acknowledge that Krueger affably denied there was racial bias in his views. He just had the courage to criticize the hallowed Baker, he insisted, boasting that much of the Giants' top brass privately shared his doubts about the manager's skills. And given the fact that Baker was essentially fired after that glorious if ultimately disappointing season, he was probably right on that score. In fact, when I told Magowan that his complaints about Baker -- mainly that he received too much credit for the Giants' success from the media -- sounded a lot like Krueger's shrill rant against the manager, he told me, "There's a lot to be said for that point of view." Of course, nobody connected with the Giants would admit "there's a lot to be said" for Krueger's views now.
I'm enjoying Krueger's karma and Magowan's latest headache partly because I'm a Dusty Baker fan, but mostly because I think Krueger represents one of the ickiest elements in sports fandom and sports journalism -- angry loudmouths who don't love their sports gods but instead love to hate them. It's the brotherhood of resentful folks who pay outrageous prices for game tickets and authentic jerseys and all the trappings of fandom, blaming greedy stars for the excess and never looking at team management, allied with the brotherhood of certain ink-stained, microphone-hoarse wretches who have to grovel to sports stars to get stories and who exact payment for the humiliation with what they write and broadcast.
Together, they make themselves sick resenting the overpaid, under-mannered, spoiled jocks who have everything -- money, women, fame -- while they themselves have to sit in offices or trucks or cramped radio booths, or hunched over laptops, in order to feed their families ... yada, yada, yada.
The best sports journalists and commentators -- Roger Angell, Buster Olney, the Chronicle's Bruce Jenkins; broadcasters like the Dodgers' Vin Scully or the Giants' Jon Miller -- bring knowledge and understanding, real love, and even art to their work. That's why the Baseball Hall of Fame honors writers and broadcasters.
But too many others like Krueger bring mainly spite. They're sports shock-jocks, and they attract a loyal, rabid following while driving most listeners away. Some Giants fans think what Krueger did was a calculated stunt, to become a sports-talk populist hero and earn a slot on "The Best Damn Sports Show" or some entry-level ESPN job. We'll see. One thing is clear: Strangely, to me at least, the Kruegers of the world rarely turn their full rage on the folks in the front offices who put the disappointing teams together (though fairness requires me to note that in his rant last Wednesday, Krueger also blasted Giants general manager Brian Sabean and suggested that Magowan "fumigate" the team's executive suite as well). But that's mostly an exception.
I watched Krueger plant too many sloppy wet ones on Magowan during the Baker fiasco to think that the sports populist fights any way but down. If you've listened to KNBR over the years, you know you haven't heard nearly enough commentary or questions about what the Giants top brass, as opposed to the players or the manager, has done wrong: why the team can't compete for the best free agents in baseball although they've got one of the most popular and well-filled parks in the majors; why they assembled the oldest lineup in baseball history (a roster Krueger praised in the preseason); why they adopted a fill-the-seats business model of building the team around the aging Bonds as well as anybody named Alou, a legacy strategy that serves the fans constant reminders of the glory days of the 1960s -- Bring out Willie Mays! Where's Willie McCovey! Let's honor Juan Marichal! It's Gaylord Perry day! Has anybody seen Willie Mays? -- to distract them from the uninspiring product on the field; or, of course, why they drove away a great and popular manager like Baker in the first place. It's a lot more fun to blame brain-dead Caribbeans and dumb old Latin managers, and that charismatic, hunch-following, hothead manager of color who came before him.
The final juicy irony is that Alou was supposed to be Magowan's anti-Baker, a minority manager, yes, but without that troublesome feisty edge (or the loyal, loving fan following, which was always resented in the corner office at Third and King). But where Baker went out of his way to deny that race played a role in his troubles (he insisted his problem was class, not race, with Magowan), Alou has never shied away from it -- back when he managed the Montreal Expos, he once blasted Baker for allegedly stealing signs, insisting that minority managers should stick together. And Baker never quit his KNBR pregame show, no matter how personal and unfair Krueger's ragging on him got.
Now Alou's made a heap of trouble for KNBR and the Giants, and both deserve it. I wish him all the best. I also wish him a 2006 roster that lives up to the Giants' status as one of the most fiscally successful teams in baseball. But I'm not holding my breath.