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Super Bowl XXXVI | COMMENTARY / MARK HEISLER

Covering You, Al, Was Tough Write of Passage

January 26, 2003|MARK HEISLER

Al Davis

Managing General Poobah

Oakland nee Los Angeles nee Oakland Raiders

Dear Al,

Speaking for the many Angelenos who can never forget you, however much they try, congratulations on making the Super Bowl. I know it's no surprise, at least to you.

After what we went through together in your 13 seasons here, you'll always be ours in a way. Apparently, we'll always be yours too, at least according to your ongoing lawsuit asserting your rights to the Los Angeles territory, even after leaving.

This would mean you control two territories, rather than the usual one. Of course, I know how formidable you are in a legal battle, so in case the courts decide there's any merit in your argument, I just want to say one thing:

I've got dibs on Tokyo!

Of course, you'll always be special to me after our five years together. Not that I was surprised to encounter a problem or two. You weren't known for your sunny disposition in the best of times and these weren't them.

I started in 1985, two seasons after you won Super Bowl XVIII and proclaimed "the greatness of the Raiders is in their future." In the ensuing five years, you made the playoffs once, ran off coach Tom Flores, who was supposed to be your surrogate son, hired Mike Shanahan from the outside "to bring in that little bit of freshness," fired him within 20 games and replaced him with Art Shell, who was supposedly another surrogate son, even if he would later get it in the neck too.

I don't want to say you were more like the Keystone Kops than the winningest organization in the history of sports, or whatever you claim to be. But how about after the '88 season, when Shanahan started weeding out the assistants you made him take, who he thought were more loyal to you than him, and you rehired them as fast as he fired them?

Then there was the Irwindale Era, when you put that city on the map, took it off again and turned your eyes longingly back toward Oakland, signaling your intentions by playing an exhibition there before the '89 season.

I left after that season and you split in '95, with the usual blast at the local politicians, which always played well, with the feckless Coliseum Commission involved.

I understand you've since had more problems with the politicians up there, (who are, of course, a generation removed from the first set of politicians you had trouble with up there). There's even speculation you're coming back here, even if it would be hard on your fans in Oakland, who have so much invested in that rubberized death-head regalia.

However, at this point, I think you should give up on politicians, in general. You know how they are, always worrying about their school systems, etc.

As I understand it, your team did even worse after you went back until you hired Jon Gruden, who hauled your chestnuts out of the fire before you fell out with him too.

Not that everyone couldn't see this coming. Like Shanahan, Gruden came in swearing to stay his own man, which isn't the preferred orientation in Raiderdom. If you're tough on your surrogate sons, it's nothing next to people who don't kiss the silver-and-black, diamond-encrusted, Super Bowl XVIII ring.

Comers being hard to replace, this should have finished off your dominating days for good, but here you are. Well, I never thought you were dumb. Eccentric perhaps, on the scale of Gen. George Custer, but not dumb.

It wasn't even personal, even if it felt as if it were.

I never interviewed you, not that that made me special. Of course, I asked, but your replies ranged from "I never would with you, I think you're a ... " to noting that you had talked to my bosses but hadn't said anything about me, to complaining to my bosses about me.

Once Shell's buddy, Gene Upshaw, who ran the players' union, called the paper to complain I was out to get Art. In the end, you got Art, so maybe Upshaw called the wrong office.

Word got around. One day I walked up to Howie Long, the world's greatest quote, and he made the cross sign with his fingers, as if I were a vampire.

Another day, Sean Jones asked me, "Why does everyone here hate you?"

"Coincidence," I said.

Then there was the day in '88 when I was supposed to get thrown out of the practice site, another hallowed Raider tradition. The problem was, your fiery promotions guy, Mike Ornstein, whom you ordered to do it, was trying to live down the foam-at-the-mouth rep he got for throwing CBS' Irv Cross, who was on the air, off the Raider sideline at Super Bowl XVIII.

Ornstein was so torn, he confided in Diane Shah of the Herald-Examiner, who said not to do it. Diane told me all about it later.

I never did get thrown off the lot, although, if it makes you feel any better, I did go home talking to myself a lot.

There was always one designated beat guy/pariah. Before me, it was Alan Greenberg of this paper and afterward, there were Bob Keisser of the Long Beach Press-Telegraph, Eric Noland of the Daily News and Bob Cox of the Daily Breeze.

This is for you, guys. Those were the days, weren't they?

Amazingly, you and I ended on a nice note. About five years ago, I was sitting in a hotel lobby in the Marina, where you still have a place, when I looked up and guess who was there. You smiled so I came over. We shook hands and chatted like old friends. You lamented your team's problems. I pretended to care.

It never was personal, at all. I was just an actor in a play you wrote a long time ago, as were all those coaches, politicians, league officials and press guys.

Congratulations. I really mean it. You passed enough grief around, but I know how much you suffered for this one.

I just went on one of your fans' Web sites, Blacksundayy2K.com, to look up some history and found, listed under "Games," one named "Insult Shanahan."

It's like in "Hook" where Dustin Hoffman says, "What would the world be without Capt. Hook?"

Not as much fun, indeed. Take care, you little prince of darkness, you.

Go Bucs,

Mark Heisler,

Raider correspondent, 1985-89 (ret.)

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