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Open Their Golden Gate? Not for This

The San Francisco 49ers are not so much a team as a state of mind.

You get the feeling they’re slightly embarrassed to find themselves involved in something as crass as a Super Bowl. It’s like dropping in at a servants’ wedding or showing up at the opera in brown shoes. They feel as if they’re slumming.

Super Bowls are for Pittsburgh Steelers, Green Bay Packers, Minnesota Vikings. It’s for people who show up in hats with horns, or their faces painted blue, not for people from San Francisco.

The 49ers are supposed to be, like, the team from Disneyland. The team mascot should be Tinker Bell.

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The 49ers would have to unbend a little even to be called effete. They seem to be looking at the world through a monocle.

The English have a saying, “No gentleman plays a game too well,” and this approach fits the 49er philosophy well. They keep getting into Super Bowls, somewhat to their chagrin, and it’s kind of embarrassing. Like Harvard beating Penn State. Hard to explain at the club.

For years, they were to the league what the fight game calls “an opponent.” This was to signify a guy who was good but not too, who looked good on the record but could be counted on to lose with dignity.

The 49ers were good at that. They played the game like tennis on Long Island. They got good at jumping the net and pumping the hand of the winner with “Nice backhand, Grizzy!” sort of bonhomie and off to dress for dinner. At a 49er game, the highlight of the afternoon was when the announcement would come over the loudspeaker as to where the postgame cocktail party was to be held. This was the only team that took the field with an olive.

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The 49ers cared more about form than substance. If football were Olympic diving, they would have all been 10s. They were football’s figure skaters.

At first, Bill Walsh seemed absolutely perfect as a coach for this team. No one ever looked better losing than Walsh. At Stanford, where they prize that sort of thing even more than the 49ers, Walsh fielded these dazzling losers. Stanford hardly ever played in a game that didn’t end up 49-28, one way or the other. It didn’t matter which to Stanford.

Walsh’s teams never bored you. Nobody ever fell on the ball, sat on a lead, cut its losses. Walsh’s teams had flair. What they didn’t have, usually, was the ball. Of course, they didn’t need it much. It was said Bill Walsh could take the statue of Beethoven in the quadrangle and turn it into an all-league quarterback.

The 49ers figured this guy would be perfect for their cocktail-party team. The team had a 2-14 record when he arrived and even for San Francisco, this was overdoing the good loser a bit.

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At first, Walsh wasn’t any better. But his first-season 2-14 had a lot of games lost by 24-27, 24-35, 27-28, 20-26.

When he improved to 6-10, no one got uneasy. San Francisco could live with that. Walsh even looked the part. With his white hair, white sweaters and white shoes, he looked on the sidelines like a parish priest giving a benediction.

Most football coaches have this grizzled, rumpled look of a guy who just left the pool hall or came into town off a freight. They yell a lot. Walsh never raises his voice.

Most coaches drink beer from a bottle, Coke from a can. Walsh wants to know what year the Chardonnay is before he opens it. Most coaches watch game films. Walsh watches “Masterpiece Theater.” Walsh may be the only coach in the league who knows that Puccini didn’t play for Notre Dame.

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It was a match made in heaven. San Francisco couldn’t have been happier if Emperor Norton had come back, that dotty old character on Market Street they used to let think was the ruler of the city.

And, then, Walsh began to misunderstand the whole thing. He began to field a team that was good on both sides of the ball. The natives were scandalized. A San Francisco team that blocked and tackled! Good Lord! Next, he’d be making noise eating soup. I mean, what did he think this was--Los Angeles?

It was a crisis of sorts. San Franciscans didn’t want to call this kind of vulgar attention to itself. They were mortified. San Francisco, almost the most over-civilized city in the world, likes to think of itself as a western Paris or a new Athens and here it was looking more like Tuscaloosa--a community noted for its football team.

The 49ers were no longer a complicated ballet company, they were ruffians. First thing you knew, they whomped everybody, went 15-3 for the season. And then they won the Super Bowl.

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Back home, they didn’t know whether to give Walsh the keys to the city or a piece of their minds.

The 49ers settled down then to a couple of so-so seasons. And the town was relieved. One was a strike year, but the other was one in which the 49ers managed to win some 45-35 games and lose some, 24-28. This was more like it.

Then Walsh proceeded to misunderstand the situation again. He went 17-1 and trashed Miami in another Super Bowl, 38-16. San Francisco hardly dared show its face. Whatever would Sausalito think!

When Walsh got bombed by the New York Giants in the 1986 playoff game, 49-3, the town could hold its head high again. Then, last year, after going 13-2, the team fell on its haircuts against Minnesota, 24-36. This was 49er heritage. Eccentricity San Francisco could live with.

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This year, they may run Bill Walsh out of town. He has done the unthinkable. By going to his third Super Bowl in this decade, he has turned San Francisco’s eccentric hobby into the worst kind of municipal embarrassment--a sports dynasty.

Herb Caen will be moving to Orange County. Tony Bennett will have to get a whole new set of lyrics. Little cable cars, my foot. Giant linebackers.

There is hope, of course. San Francisco could lose humiliatingly to Cincinnati on Super Sunday. After all, Cincinnati doesn’t have little cable cars climbing halfway to the stars or a Golden Gate Bridge, fog or Nob Hill. No one ever wrote about losing his heart in Cincinnati.

They’d probably be overjoyed to be known as the “home of the Super Bowl champions.” San Francisco would feel as if somebody had just called it Frisco.

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If Bill Walsh quits the 49ers after this season, you might hear about how it’s due to his differences with the owner. Don’t believe it. It’ll be his differences with the community.

The people of San Francisco can put up with anything but a winning streak. They are not going to let that team make a laughingstock of them. A town that can call an earthquake a fire is not going to let a bunch of roughnecks in football suits ruin its image all over the world.


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