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Fall of Leaf Elicits Joy in San Diego

March 02, 2001|TONY PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN DIEGO — As news spread Thursday that the San Diego Chargers had released bad-boy quarterback Ryan Leaf, the rain and dark clouds of the last week were replaced with a sunny sky. There were those who saw a connection.

"I looked out the window and realized, Ryan Leaf is gone and the bright sunshine is back," said political consultant and football fan Bob Glaser. "San Diego may have a future after all."

Indeed, the departure of Leaf prompted civic expressions of joy unmatched by the leave-taking of any other sports figure.

The talk shows were ablaze with good-riddance comments. Leaf-bashing was in full flower.

"He was a bum," parking lot attendant Nathan Wilbur said. "I haven't been this happy since my mother-in-law moved out."

Rotary Club members at their weekly luncheon meeting broke into sustained applause when it was mentioned by the emcee that Leaf is no longer a Charger. Notice was taken even in the rarefied atmosphere of a university faculty club.

"I think everyone is just feeling enormous relief that we're not going to have to hear about that clown anymore," said Frank Baber, political science professor at the University of San Diego.

Tim McClain, editor of the San Diego Metropolitan magazine, said the public mood verged on glee.

"To the San Diego public, he personified the greedy young athlete who doesn't care about the fans, the team or anybody," McClain said.

One sporting journalist summarized the Leaf mini-era as "insults, injuries and interceptions." Much of the news coverage seemed to have an undercurrent of our-long-nightmare-is-finally-over.

"When I opened the front page, I thought it was the end of World War II," said George Mitrovich, founder of the City Club of San Diego, the city's leading public affairs forum. "Who would figure that one young, misguided, confused athlete would be the subject of such enormous coverage?"

Television ran--and reran--clips of some of Leaf's infamous tantrums against a sportswriter, a mouthy fan and former general manager Bobby Beathard. There were also clips of Leaf playing flag football with his buddies while on the injured list.

"Leaf had become an embarrassment for the city," said Gary Schons, senior assistant state attorney general in charge of the San Diego office. "The team has become so lousy and he came to epitomize its failure. That's why people are so giddy about him leaving."

Talk of Leaf being waived by the Chargers extended from the desert to the mountains and even to the water.

"He was a bad ambassador for professional football," Lt. Cmdr. Jack Hanzlik said from aboard the Coronado, flagship of the San Diego-based Third Fleet. "Leadership starts with attitude and Ryan Leaf's was almost entirely negative."

As a military town, San Diego holds dear the idea that rank has its privileges--but also its responsibilities. Leaf, who received an $11.25-million signing bonus in 1998, enjoyed the former but never delivered on the latter.

Add a 1-15 record last season and if there are any unreconstructed Leaf supporters remaining in San Diego, they are in a fan-relocation program under assumed names.

"A quarterback is like a CEO of a company," said publicist and political insider Kate Seiber. "You can either empower people or run them down when you're in that position."

When the FBI and U.S. attorney's office recently broke up a multimillion-dollar ring centered in San Diego County to produce phony sports cards and other memorabilia, it was noted that the ring saw no profit in producing phony Ryan Leaf materials.

"No market," one official said.

As an object of derision, the only San Diego sports figure in Leaf's category is Donald Sterling, who moved his Clippers to Los Angeles in 1984. George Hendrick made waves by refusing to talk to reporters during his San Diego Padre years, 1976-78, but he was a sidebar, not a lead story.

If there is a downside to Leaf's leaving, it could be that it upsets the psychic balance set up for the community by Leaf and the Padres' Tony Gwynn.

In Gwynn, San Diego has one of the true role models in sports: generous, modest, team-spirited, in short, possessed of all the qualities lacking in Leaf.

In one San Diego home, the father has been known to encourage his sports-minded son by making references to the outfielder as an example to be emulated. And when the need has arisen for scolding, dad has referred to the lad as "acting like Ryan Leaf."

Just ask my son Michael, 10.

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