COMMENTARY : Davis Gets His Way Once Again


The story is legend, and I’ve told it before, about Charger Coach Harland Svare, after a game played in Oakland in 1972, shaking his fist at the ceiling fixture in the visitors’ locker room and bellowing, “Damn you, Al Davis!"--on the assumption that the Raiders boss had the place bugged.

It is not an apocryphal story. Dr. Arnold Mandell, the Chargers’ team psychiatrist, was a witness and wrote of it in his book, “The Nightmare Season.” And it was not necessarily a crazy assumption, although few teams need psychotherapy badly enough to employ their own shrink. It just speaks to the impact Davis had on opponents.

When asked, some years later, Davis merely smiled his mysterious smile. “The thing wasn’t in the light fixture” is all he’d admit.


Davis is cunning, and tough, and occasionally devious. Former Charger owner Gene Klein, who by way of incredible coincidence died on Monday, once sued him, claiming that Davis’ little intrigues had contributed to an earlier heart attack.

Jack Murphy, the San Diego sports writer for whom the town named its stadium, once wrote of Davis:

“He is often portrayed as a sinister figure . . . a paranoid genius who shields the Raiders’ practice field with 20-foot walls, guard towers and Doberman pinschers straining and barking at the end of their leashes; who flies U-2 sorties to spy on the enemy, a white scarf trailing from his neck; who hires bartenders to eavesdrop on the conversations of his athletes; who floods the playing surface in Oakland because the Raiders, with their mastery of the forward pass, have an edge on a muddy field.” Murphy wrote this in one of his books. He entitled it “Damn You, Al Davis!”

It is reasonable to assume that Al found this in no way offensive.

When Jack died, it was Al who stood up in the church and delivered the eulogy.

Monday, Al Davis came home. Eight years after whisking the Raiders away to Los Angeles, he delivered them back. Everyone should have expected it, I suppose.

Of his three choices--staying, or moving to Sacramento, or to Oakland--it seemed the least likely choice.

That’s our Al.

He fought a lengthy court battle with the National Football League to establish it was his right to move his team where he wanted . . . and that club owners own teams, not the townsfolk . . . and that NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle was not, contrary to popular assumption, God.

Some called this crusade of his noble (I was one), and others called it mercenary, and now everyone will sit down and wonder what it all proved, since he appears to be back where he started.

Sure, he has come out ahead dollar-wise. The city of Oakland has deeded over the town. The 15-year deal city officials proposed should be worth $600 million. Officials there, in the wake of the October earthquake, see landing the Raiders as the start of a renaissance.

People here argue that Al would have done better in the North Natomas area of Sacramento, with a piece of the stadium. And maybe it would have been different if this city’s stadium were something more than a hole in the ground, two years shy of reality. We never will know now. Al will never know, either.

Unless, of course, the fans in Oakland have long enough memories and, in the long run, reject Al and his team.

He will be 75 when the lease there runs out. Who can say if he will have outlived his wanderlust?

Has all this diminished the Al Davis aura? Todd Christensen, the old Raider tight end-turned-announcer, said on ESPN Monday that “no doubt his mystique has been broken.”

Maybe so, maybe not.

In Los Angeles, the Raiders won one Super Bowl and three division titles in their first four years there. Yet it wasn’t enough to build much of a fan base.

In Year Five, the club slipped to 8-8, and the next year 5-10, and attendance plunged by 17,000 a game. In six of those seasons, Raiders attendance averaged 50,000-odd, not two-thirds of capacity.

Who was it that failed, then? Al? Or Los Angeles?

It seems to me L.A. is the poorer for all this, and Al sure as hell isn’t. The last thing anyone could accuse Al of being these days is poor.

As for Sacramento, where people are paying a sales tax that was supposed to help rebuild Oakland, it’s hard understanding how that city can turn around and spend all the dough to steal the team out from under us.

Angelenos can make the same gripe, only they didn’t hike their hotel tax and agree to an entertainment tax to raise dough for a team--dough that now will be spent at the politicos’ whim.

Beyond that, Davis’ move to Oakland probably kills any chance of Sacramento getting an NFL team for as long as he’s there.

Sacramento took its best shot, and got it right in the chops.

Still, it’s one more team within driving distance for capital residents. And the focus now is on getting a baseball team, where it probably should have been all along. There’s that on the plus side . . . and yet the question persists: did Al use us? Was Sacramento a bargaining chip, nothing more?

Did he have all our ceiling lights bugged?

Do you really have any doubts now?

Lift your eyes, Sacramento.

Raise your fists.

And repeat after me, at the top of your lungs, those immortal words of Harland Svare . . .