THE RAIDERS: BACK TO OAKLAND : COMMENTARY : He Doesn't Have to Leave, He Wants to Leave L. A.


Like Olivier doing Hamlet, or Picasso painting Guernica, this has been genius on parade before our eyes. Pavarotti sings. Al Davis leaves.

Whoever said, "What goes around, comes around," must have been a Raider fan. Are we surprised? If we are, we must be waking from a coma. Check his track record: Lie down with Al Davis, wake up alone.

With Monday's announcement, Davis prepares to return his franchise to Oakland, insisting all the while he didn't want to do it. I'm sure he even believes it, just as he believed it for eight years, when he said over and over in that Dixie-Brooklyn accent he picked up in his year coaching in the South, "Ah nevah wanted to leave Oakland."

He is evah, er, ever the victim. He believes that, too. Far from the swashbuckler the public imagines, Davis is an obsessive, tormented soul who always feels he is being pushed and has to defend himself.

As long as he can summon his pained expression and find a bureaucrat to blame, someone will listen, but it isn't true.

He could have stayed. He had a market here. The Raiders had their top three attendance seasons in Los Angeles and their top 15 home crowds in the Los Angeles Coliseum. If polls suggest no one cared, they're coming after four bad seasons and a year of hints about pulling out.

"Just what we need," said a friend who once called himself a Raider fan. "A bad team with an attitude."

To see what remained of their following, check the 87,560 people who came out last Dec. 3 to watch the Bronco game, the eighth largest home crowd in Raider history.

Davis had only to accept the lesser of two sweetheart deals to stay. What exactly is wrong with a $15-million bonus for just staying where you are, other than someone else is offering you $50 million to move?

He'd have had to overlook some slights, forget some disagreements, extend some good faith and do another deal with the Los Angeles Coliseum Commission. This is the way things are done in the real world, where compromise is often a technique for bridging differences between competing interests.

Oops, did they have the wrong boy.

This is a man who won't stand for being crossed, who won't be held accountable. In five years covering his team, I never interviewed him once, despite repeated requests. His replies ranged from insincere modesty ("Nobody cares what Ah think"), to mentions that he knew my publisher personally but hadn't complained to him about me yet, to profanity.

Four years into our impasse, I wrote him a letter regretting our state of affairs and renewing the request. He had one of his henchmen call me to say he'd liked it and we might sit down in a month or so. The next time I saw him, he cursed at me again.

I was beginning to suspect he didn't like me. However, it put me at little competitive disadvantage. He rarely allowed himself to be interviewed by any beat writer, preferring instead long confidences with columnists and out-of-town writers who were directed never to use his name, or quote a Raider source, or even, apparently, to use the word source. When A.D. was your source, you were out there alone.

His organization was as gothic as the inside of his skull. Fortunately, players were allowed to be perfectly outrageous (Davis honestly admires athletes, although that evaporates too, if they get in his face, a la Marcus Allen).

However, assistant coaches were never to say anything remotely controversial and often begged off interviews altogether. All Raider pronouncements were expected to come from the head coach, who was expected to be ultra-bland and to reveal nothing.

There was no publicity director, Davis' posture being that the media wasn't of enough consequence to tie up one man all the time. Some junior staffer could call the wire services when necessary with a statement that should include the phrase "greatness of the Raiders." I'm not making this up.

The result was a Kremlin-like atmosphere where little was announced, little was acknowledged and fear ruled. Writers were obliged to cover routine developments with unnamed sources and speculation.

At least writers went home at night. The ones you felt for were the front-office people, who worshipped Davis to a man, but whom he rarely acknowledged. Their reward was that they could consider themselves Raiders, to put on a game face as if they were coaches, to jump up and down in the press box like Davis, himself, who was usually down at the end of the row.

Promotions director Mike Ornstein, second in devotion only to the charter devotee Al LoCasale, used to watch practices each afternoon religiously, just as Davis did. Ornstein would cheer for the players, clap his hands, get intense. Late in games, when the press-box crew went down to the sidelines, he might berate the officials. In Cleveland once, a referee told him to shut up.

Davis might or might not act as if he appreciated such fervor. Once Ornstein complained, "Just one time, I wish he wouldn't give me that 'Who the . . . are you?' look."

Being a Raider became scant reward when the team slumped. The front-office drain began, tolerated by Davis, who was indifferent to what his underlings did and didn't mind lightening himself of their salaries.

This is the gloomy world that Davis will return to its ancestral home.

It must be admitted, that's where it belongs. If there was a crime in this, it was what Davis did to his arch-loyal fans in Oakland eight years ago. Anyone who saw the Raiders' return for last summer's exhibition and the outpouring of love that greeted them, had to think, "He pulled them out of this ? There must have been some deal he could have made."

It is to be hoped, for Oakland's fiscal future, the Raiders will go back to winning. Losing teams have minimal appeal, even there.

Al, ye hardly knew us and we hardly knew ye. The former was by inclination, the latter by design.

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