SAN FRANCISCO, JAN. 11 -- Of course, parallels can be drawn between the 49ers football team and the city of San Francisco. But there's more to the 49ers than their shiny reflection of a paradise by a bay.
The city has its lavish Nob Hill, while perhaps no pro football team runs an offense as sophisticated as the one devised by brainy Bill Walsh, the former coach. When it comes to grace under pressure, no football player exceeds Joe Montana, who represents the city that still belongs to Joe DiMaggio, as graceful a baseball player as there ever was.
Breathtaking? Able to survive in crisis? Glamorous? That's the city and that's the team.
The 49ers in a way are part of the culture. The opera house had to ban transistor radios because too many in its audience kept reacting at the wrong times, listening as they were to 49ers games. Even a former 49ers tackle married the daughter of the director of the opera company.
"Compared with most other teams around the league," said a 49ers official, "we have a wine-and-cheese crowd."
But before passing the Grey Poupon, remember two things: the 49ers' rugged heritage and their 21st century efficiency. The 49ers come from a tradition of toughness (Leo Nomellini, Bruno Banducci) -- and even occasional fan rowdiness at old Kezar Stadium, when players from the home team were sometimes bombarded with beer cans, not all of them empty. Today they operate out of the Silicon Valley in an Orwellian fortress on barren land where the practice field gate is locked and visitors are watched by hidden security cameras.
If the 49ers appear to be a finesse team, it's the wild west of their history and the technical grand designs that have been worked out this week in a futuristic facility that should most concern the Washington Redskins before their playoff meeting here in the next few hours.
First, the here and now. When it comes to finesse, it's hard to improve on the artistry of Montana and favorite target Jerry Rice wide receiver John Taylor and running back Roger Craig, who doesn't shrink from a hit but can high-step out of a would-be tackler's grasp like few others. When 49ers' hard-hitters are mentioned, the list usually begins and incorrectly ends with Ronnie Lott. But what's often overlooked about this team are its bulwarks.
What impresses a visitor is the sheer size of some of them. Consider Bubba Paris. He is 6 feet 5, about 330 pounds. "Nobody is sure what he weighs," a team spokesman said. Except, of course, for head coach George Seifert and other interested parties. For May mini-camp he weighed in at 380; yes, Paris was something in the spring.
His stamina has always been a question, but he's the kind of obstacle Montana works miracles behind. As a group, the 49ers are poised to win their third straight Super Bowl. As individuals, players have their own goals, Paris's being: "To continue to get smaller."
The 49ers didn't get to be "team of the '80s" without solid construction. Eddie DeBartolo, a developer of shopping malls, bought the club in 1977, and the landscape changed quickly.
Walsh was hired in January 1979. Montana became the second player drafted by Walsh. Seifert was hired as defensive backfield coach in 1980. The '81 draft brought defensive backs Lott and Eric Wright. "The Catch" by Dwight Clark beat Dallas in the 1981 NFL title game and launched the 49ers to the first of their four '80s Super Bowl victories. Craig came in the 1983 draft, Rice out of little Mississippi Valley State in 1985. A model draft in 1986 included Larry Roberts, Tom Rathman, Tim McKyer, Taylor, Charles Haley, Steve Wallace, Kevin Fagan and Don Griffin, all of whom became starters.
As DeBartolo put it at his initial news conference, "We are here to be successful."
Now about the old 49ers who were the destroyers of images. It's true that before a home game these days at least a portion of the Candlestick Park parking lot looks like Charlottesville west with tailgate spreads complete with table settings and flowers. But the fact is that big Bob St. Clair (tackle, 1953-64) was well known for taking his meat raw.
The ancestors to these multi-millionaire, briefcase-toting 49ers were largely a rough-and-tumble group. They had to be to survive the antics of some of their fans who'd get tanked at neighborhood bars before walking over to Kezar, a majestic heap and haven of sea gulls in Golden Gate Park that was torn down in 1989. The 49ers go way back, to 1946-49 in the old All-America Conference before they joined the NFL in 1950. Back then, they were notable for twin images: black tie dandy and roadhouse warrior.
They were blessed with a certain magnificence. Hugh "The King" McElhenny was the most graceful, inventive runner seen in these parts in the '50s. Earlier, Buck Shaw was a silver-haired genius coach long before Walsh. And little southpaw Frankie Albert worked quarterback magic so deftly (was the ball on his hip or did he hand off?) no one imagined he could be surpassed.
But Nomellini doubled as a gigantic wrestler, and old Baltimore Colt Artie Donovan said Banducci was the toughest man he ever met, bar none. Old 49ers mayhem is part of the underbelly of Bay Area mythology.
"The 49ers used to be like the local college team -- Golden Gate Park was the campus and it was Forty-Niner U.," San Francisco Chronicle cityside columnist Herb Caen, fresh from his annual Paris vacation, recalled today. "Most of the players went to Stanford, and so were very erudite.
"Now they're so big-time we hardly recognize them. They're not really part of the city. But they're so impressive I guess Washington's only chance is if the game is 58 minutes because Joe always does win the last two."
The 49ers have consistently polished their image over the years. When those glistening helmets with the "SF" logos show up shortly on television screens as the 49ers line up against the Redskins, it may be remembered that the original 49ers trademark was a prospector clad in boots and a lumberjack shirt, firing a pair of pistols. One shot just missed the miner's head, the other missed his foot.
Certainly it can be said that the great pro football teams have fit their surroundings. The "Steel Curtain" defense dropped right in the middle of "Steel City" when Pittsburgh ruled the NFL. And surely the Packers of Lombardi (whose three straight world championships is the 49ers' target) reflected the work ethic and fair-mindedness expected in Green Bay and northern Wisconsin; as all-pro tackle Forrest Gregg told a slightly amazed rookie tackle Steve Wright when he reported: "There's only one thing that counts, and that's winning. If you can take my job away from me, if you're better than I am, then you deserve to be out there playing instead of me."
But only memory can conjure the 49ers of Albert, who operated by instinct and made plays up in the huddle, including one that kept the team loose -- tackle Nomellini would run from fullback in a play Albert called 31 Nomo. Even all the barbecuing on the Candlestick asphalt can't erase a realization that the current 49ers couldn't give a hoot about local divas and their arias.
A visitor to the training complex out in Santa Clara took a wrong turn and landed in a hallway maze. Along came Seifert, described out here as an affable fellow caught as head coach in a quest for perfection. His grim look was enough to make one stop short, as if feeling lost in the vicinity of the Pentagon War Room and frantically searching for the way out, the way back, any exit.
The Seifert visage will be coming up on television screens shortly. If the past was Albert's city sandlot game of fun and feel, the boardroom face on the 49ers' sideline should be sign enough that this is a different era and that its demands leave no time for slow, jerky rides on cable cars halfway to the stars.