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It's not that big

Nothing is on the line for Cal, and Stanford is merely trying to avoid its losingest season

December 01, 2006|Thomas Bonk | Times Staff Writer

SAN FRANCISCO — Joe McDonald has lived in Berkeley since 1965, so he has been part of the Bay Area landscape for a long time, although not nearly as long as the trees he's trying to save.

Better known as Country Joe McDonald of the legendary band Country Joe and the Fish, the 64-year-old singer-activist is raising his voice again in protest, this time joining the "Save the Oaks" campaign against the University of California's plan to remove 38 live oak trees that stand in the way of a proposed athletic training complex next to Memorial Stadium.

"Those trees are old fogies and deserve some respect from old folks," McDonald said.

Arbor politics aside, the trees beyond the walls of Memorial Stadium will share some of the spotlight Saturday when the 109th Big Game, Cal against Stanford, will be played. That's because this time it doesn't seem so big.

Big Game? Sorry, but you're barking up the wrong tree. In what seems to be an entire season packed full of big games, marked by showdowns such as Ohio State-Michigan, USC-Notre Dame and even Louisville-Rutgers, this Cal-Stanford contest qualifies in name only.

Stanford is 1-10 and on a quest to avoid the first 11-loss season in school history. Cal is 8-3, and winning or even losing won't halt it from booking hotel rooms in San Diego to play Texas A&M in the Holiday Bowl.

Despite its lack of buzz, the matchup didn't prevent nearly 800 Cal and Stanford football fans from spending $90 apiece for a midweek luncheon fundraiser at a Union Square hotel, sponsored for the 57th year by the Guardsmen service organization, to raise money for kids and to pump up interest in the game.

Comic Bob Sarlatte, who hosted the sold-out event, said it's probably a good thing that the game won't be played at Stanford's newly rebuilt stadium.

"Their new stadium has only made it easier for the fans to be closer to the inaction," Sarlatte said.

There is no way to cover up the fact that this year, the Cal-Stanford stakes are not so high, at least football-wise. Stanford is trying not to lose its way into the school record books and Cal -- well, Cal has its hands full with Treegate and a potential lawsuit, because the city of Berkeley plans to sue the school to halt construction of the athletic project outside Memorial Stadium on the issue of seismic safety, not trees.

In any event, McDonald said Cal ought to make like a tree and leave well enough alone.

"I'm against cutting down trees," he said. "I don't like the idea. I've watched more and more open space disappear. I'm not into density."

At the Guardsmen luncheon, not much was made of the oddity that the Big Game will be played in December for the second time since 1892, or that Stanford leads the series, 54-43-11, or that Cal has won the last four times by scores of 30-7, 28-16, 41-6 and 27-3, or that there are whispers that Stanford Coach Walt Harris is on a slippery slope despite having three years remaining on his five-year contract.

Not even the fate of the oak trees was brought up. Instead, it was a light-hearted gathering, around plates of grilled steak, mashed potatoes and broccolini.

Cal Coach Jeff Tedford, who received a standing ovation when he was introduced, delivered a line of his own, and with a straight face, declaring that "each and every one in the last four years have been very close" against Stanford.

Tedford apparently has enough on his mind, with starting quarterback Nate Longshore contemplating leaving school to embark on a Mormon mission.

"But Tedford is trying to convince him to stay," Sarlatte said. "He's telling him they'll count every extra point as a conversion."

Tedford did not smile. Neither did Harris, after Sarlatte listed some of the teams that had defeated the Cardinal this year.

"Stanford was beaten by the Ducks, Beavers, Cougars and 'Cats. Walt Harris is the only person to get a personal letter of apology from PETA."

Harris followed the tenure of Buddy Teevens, who was 10-25 in three seasons. Harris was 5-6 in his first year at Stanford, but this 1-10 campaign doesn't feel so good.

"We've had a tough road, as you can imagine," he said.

Tedford's mission is to make sure the mood at Cal is high after a disheartening loss to USC, and not much more to play for except finishing out the regular-season schedule and getting ready for the Holiday Bowl. With seven players on the All-Pacific 10 first team, Tedford knows his talent level should be high enough.

But that's the thing about rivalries, even ones that appear dead-ended: You just don't know.

Desmond Bishop, a Cal linebacker, said he's not worried about any sort of letdown.

"The tradition of the game is so rich, you can feel the rivalry in the air," he said.

Meanwhile, the fate of the oaks is also up in the air. If McDonald had his way, they would be safe and secure from chain saws. After all, at least five of the oaks in the grove are older than the 83-year-old stadium, and that ought to account for something, McDonald said.

"They have eminent domain," he said. "Tree rights."

And, for the record, Cal is about a four-touchdown favorite, so if you're picking the Golden Bears, you're not really going out on a limb.

thomas.bonk@latimes.com

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