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    Giants Baseball Experience

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    World Series 2014

    With the World Series upon us, and panic (as opposed to Panik) taking hold among Giants Nation, it’s worth reflecting upon the mere miracle of the Giants playing in the 2014 Fall Classic.

    If it was anyone other than the Giants, I would find it hard to believe. Could a team that at times seemed so flawed, so patched together with Scotch tape and twine, be going to the World Series?

    I can’t say that I called it, although I, like so many other Giants fans, did put some stock in the Even Numbered Year Theory of This Decade, that sees the Giants bringing home a trophy in 2010, 2012, 2014….

    But as an eternal optimist, I did often point out, through that long frustrating summer, that the summers of 2010 and 2012 didn’t always feel like destiny was smiling on the Giants. When they trailed the Padres through the summer of 2010, with Edgar Renteria at shortstop, and an outfield patched together with castoffs like Pat Burrell and Cody Ross, did we foresee a World Series trophy? When the Giants fell behind 2-0 to the Reds in 2012, and 3-1 to the Cardinals, did we think reclamation projects like Ryan Vogelsong and Barry Zito would lead them to glory?

    So now the Giants are down two games to one to the sudden juggernaut that is the Kansas City Royals, in a matchup of wild card teams (that probably was not supposed to happen so soon in the era of the Wild Card Play-In Game). With the Royals mounting an improbable comeback to beat the A’s, and then sweeping the heavily favored (Anaheim? Los Angeles? California?) Angels and Baltimore Orioles, I asked my son Harry, “Can anyone beat the Royals?”

    His answer: “Yes! Yes! Yes!

    World Series, baby!

    I almost did not recognize my San Francisco Giants when they started this postseason. And I’m not referring to the complete changeover in the starting eight from 2010 – with only Buster Posey remaining. (Pablo Sandoval rode the pine in that historic postseason.)

    Marco Scutaro drinking in raindrops in 2012 NLCS Game 7

    What I was wondering, less than one month ago: Where was the Torture? The Giants clinched the West so early, the world seemed upside-down.

    But through the National League Division Series against the Cincinnati Reds, and the National League Championship Series against the St. Louis Cardinals, the Giants have shown that even though they have so many new cast members, they all know the script: Torture.

    Having fallen behind two games to none against the Reds, the Giants managed to come all the way back. They proceeded to drop three of the first four games to the Cards, and once again won three straight to take the pennant.

    Memo to Bruce Bochy and the boys: Please just win this next series early!

    I had great fun the other day discussing this and other weighty matters on Michael Krasny‘s excellent program Forum on KQED. (Krasny graciously said that “Giants Past and Present” is “one of the best books about the Giants.”)  You can listen to the show here:

    The show opened with Giants’ President Larry Baer, and you could really hear how much fun he’s having. Larry is a lifelong Giants fan in his dream job, and you can’t help but smile every time you see him. Then Michael led a spirited discussion with me, KNBR’s awesome Marty Lurie, and San Jose Mercury News columnist Mark Purdy. I sure learned a lot listening to those guys – especially when Marty told us that, however bad Pete Kozma played shorstop for the Cardinals in the NLCS, he was not as bad as the Washington Senators’ Roger Peckinpaugh in the 1925 World Series, who made eight errors! (Another highlight: Marty let me try on his 2010 World Series ring – and it is a thing of beauty!)

    One thought I had that I did not get to share: As we discussed the Giants, and beautiful AT&T Park, I wanted to give props to General Manager Brian Sabean for building a team perfect for its ballpark. Instead of going out and signing home run hitters, who only get frustrated with the park’s wide open spaces, Sabean brought in gap hitters like Angel Pagan, Marco Scutaro and Gregor Blanco. You could put Melky Cabrera in there too (even though we don’t really like to talk about him any more), and it looks like it’ll be a good fit for the Brandons – Belt and Crawford. Need I say Buster Posey?

    And maybe, if Hunter Pence hits more line drives like his famed “triple double” from game 7 of the NLCS – the ball that hit the bat three times – instead of swinging for the fences, the Giants will have the ingredients necessary to foil those big bopping Tigers.

    After all, Marty Lurie viewed Pence’s lucky-breaking line drive as karmic payback for Willie McCovey’s smash that ended the 1962 World Series. No one could have hit that ball any harder, but it went straight to the Yankees’ Bobby Richardson. Pence’s ball curved away from Kozma, and the Giants were in business.

    It’s good to be good. But sometimes it’s better to be lucky.

    Even if it’s a little Torturous.

    Orange October

    Kruk and Kuip know Torture when they see it. (Thanks to the Facebook group, “Giants baseball… torture.”)

    Once again, the Giants are roaring into October, and the diehards are ready for another magical run. I sure am. But I can’t help but note that things feel different this time.

    For one thing: Where is the Torture?

    And for another: What happened to our lovable band of castoffs and misfits?

    The Giants of 2010 knew how to break a curse. They took all the Torture of the past half-century-plus in San Francisco — all the second place finishes of the 1960s, McCovey’s line drive, Jose Oquendo, Candy Maldonado, Dusty Baker and Russ Ortiz — and they owned it. When Duane Kuiper coined his slogan in May of that season, “Giants Baseball: It’s Torture!,” he gave the team a rallying cry that told the world, we don’t care how many times we bring it to the brink, we can win.

    No one personified Torture more than Brian Wilson. He became the face of the franchise, muscle-bound, and weird beyond words, stalking to the mound, throwing heat – and giving up the walks that would bring opponents tantalizingly close, only to slam the door on such Torture. And it all flowed from Wilson: His pal, Pat Burrell, donning the leather straps as the Machine; Burrell’s pal, Aubrey Huff, donning the satin thong that assured the postseason; and the rest of the castoffs, midseason acquisitions like Javier Lopez, Ramon Ramirez, and Cody Ross, who was claimed off waivers and went on to author some improbably insane postseason heroics.

    The Giants kept their team remarkably intact in 2011, and it got them nowhere. But they did learn something important that season: the importance of Buster. When Posey went down in May, the Giants were essentially done.

    I’ve often felt that Posey could be the Giants’ Derek Jeter. Like Jeter, he provided the missing ingredient to bring his team a championship in his rookie year. He is calm, poised beyond his years, confident and capable. I don’t think anyone would argue with the Giants naming Buster their captain.

    And that’s where the big difference between 2010 and 2012 comes in. Instead of Buster quietly fitting in among the Freak, the Beard and the rest of the castoffs, he is the undisputed leader of this year’s squad. The Giants have a much more understated, workmanlike approach, exemplified for me by three young, strong, silent Southerners – Posey, Matt Cain and Madison Bumgarner. I think (warning: armchair psychoanalysis ahead) this may be why Tim Lincecum is struggling; the free-spirited, pot-smoking, long-haired Freak is no longer at home in his own clubhouse.

    One of the interesting things about this switch in team personality hit me in August, when Carl Steward, a fine columnist for the Bay Area Newspaper Group (aka the San Jose Oakland Contra Costa Marin Mercury Times News Journal), took note of the Giants hitting a real low point in the season. They had been swept by the Dodgers at home. They looked like they couldn’t score runs. Steward wondered if Coors Field could prove a tonic (it did), and if Posey and Cain were too quiet to fire up the team the way Huff and Burrell did two years earlier. Steward wrote:

    Good teams need strong, occasionally outspoken leaders. Leadership can’t always be by setting a good example aka Cain/Posey. Sometimes you have to get in players’ ears. Sometimes you need to throw a fit or berate one of us media types after a loss. Sometimes you have to remind teammates that it’s baseball and it’s supposed to be fun as you set off a cherry bomb in the middle of the clubhouse, or hide a four-day-old chicken neck in somebody’s locker.

    It may be Cain’s team and Posey’s team, but they’re the strong, silent, stable types. The Giants need somebody right now to throw the cherry bomb. Make somebody laugh. Make somebody ticked off. Become the human defibrillator.

    Not only did the Giants start hitting at Coors, but they got their cherry bomb two weeks later, when Melky Cabrera was suspended.

    He was cast off. The Giants were misfits no more. And never mind Torture, they overtook the Dodgers and clinched the division with 10 games to spare.

    I can’t wait to see what they do in October.

    Torture, again

    My son and I in the stands at AT&T Park on May 6, 2012 - a "Torture" classic in which Giants closer Santiago Casilla coughed up a ninth inning lead to the Brewers, only to see the Giants win it in the 11th on a Hector Sanchez bases loaded single.

    Nearly two months into the 2012 season, I think we’re getting a pretty good sense of what we’ve got in this year’s Giants team. It both pains and pleases me to report that we are not yet ready to retire the label the Giants earned the past two seasons: Torture.

    Yes, Torture with a capital T and that rhymes with B and that stands for Bochy…. And Brandon…. And Bad Hitting and Bungled Baseballs. Yet another season of stellar pitching is at risk of fizzling in a .500 rathole because the offense and the defense don’t adequately support the aces on the hill. The Giants’ staff is the envy of baseball, and if you doubt that, think of it this way: What manager wouldn’t want his biggest pitching problem to be – Tim Lincecum?

    Plus, injuries keep threatening to sink the season before it even gets rolling, whether it’s Brian Wilson going down for his second Tommy John surgery, or Pablo Sandoval showing a new disadvantage to switch-hitting by breaking the same bone in his left hand that he broke in his right hand last year.

    So while so many of my fellow fans sink into that funk of watching our version of the Mudville Nine rally only to lose again, I see the potential for another glorious 2010-type season. In fact, think of how torturous 2010 really was. For starters, 2010 was the year Duane Kuiper hung his sputtering Torture moniker on the orange-and-black after an endless supply of nail-biters.

    That season’s opening day lineup included names like John Bowker, Mark DeRosa, Aaron Rowand and Bengie Molina. (Good guys, but do any fans miss them?) In 2010, the Giants trailed the Padres nearly all year (and the 2010 Pads were a better team than the 2012 Dodgers, in my opinion – much better pitching, fueled by a lights-out bullpen). Pablo Sandoval suffered not only a sophomore slump, but threatened to become the Kung Fu Hippo. And remember August? Just when you want your team to make a stretch run, the Giants’ pitching staff began to unravel. They led the league in walks. Lincecum went through the first prolonged struggle in his charmed career.

    And we never really came to love Edgar Renteria until his very last game in a Giants’ uniform.

    Happy endings like 2010’s enable us to forget all the struggles that comprise a baseball season. Before a game I went to last year, Giants’ coach Tim Flannery addressed a crowd of Little Leaguers, telling them that the secret to baseball success is “tricking your mind into staying positive.” In 2010, he pointed out, the world champion Giants lost 70 games.

    Maybe I’m just tricking my own mind here, but I find a lot to be positive about in 2012.

    • First, and foremost, Buster Posey is back and better than ever.
    • To our great relief as well, Buster at last has a backup, Hector Sanchez, who can really hit. It feels fine whenever Bochy wants to give Buster a rest, or a day at first base.
    • Melky Cabrera is a true major league superstar – and Pablo Sandoval is on his way there. Angel Pagan is solid, speedy, and a team leader. (I’m biased toward Angel, since I just wrote a story about him for the Giants magazine – look for it at the ballpark this summer.)
    • Melky and Angel aren’t the only great additions. Gregor Blanco is a revelation. Joaquin Arias fills the utility role nicely. Ryan Theriot is a great guy to have on the bench.
    • Bruce Bochy is getting comfortable trusting his young guys, and Brandons Belt and Crawford are starting to come around. (By-the-By, what is it with the Base-Ball Giants and the initials BB? From Bobby Bonds to Barry Bonds, from Bob Brenly and Brett Butler to Bruce Bochy and Brandon Belt, we love shooting BBs here in Baghdad by the Bay. Then again, Brian Bocock couldn’t carry the bat of old New York Giant Hall-of-Famer Beauty Bancroft.)

    I love Giants fans, but I do find it funny that they complained so long to “Free Belt,” yet they show as little patience with the miscues of youth as they used to accuse Bochy and Brian Sabean of having. You can’t have it both ways. We are spoiled by guys like Posey and Sandoval, who hit well right from the start, but instead we ought to consider the example of Melky Cabrera, who struggled and bounced around for years until he found his stroke last year in Kansas City.

    So don’t get down. If the 2010 Giants could rally from 7.5 games back on July 4 – to say nothing of forbears like the 1951 team, which was 13 back on Aug. 11 –this year’s model can certainly overcome a May deficit. It may take some more Sabean midseason magic. It may take some help in getting the Dodgers to fall to earth. It may require the folks at Dignity Health (cue Renel: formerly Catholic Healthcare West, the official health care provider of your San Francisco Giants) to restore both dignity and health to a team that needs both.

    Whatever it takes, though, remember this: With a second wild card this year, it’s easier than ever to make the playoffs. And once in the playoffs, pitching can carry you a long, long way.

    Right Timmy?

    RIP, 2011 baseball season

    The funny thing is, we thought 2010 was “Torture.”

    We could laugh about Torture when the Giants managed to win the World Series. But in 2011, we became re-acquainted with our old friend Torture when the Giants suddenly stopped winning all those walk-off, one-run ballgames. It seemed they just stopped scoring runs, period, and the challenge of stringing together three hits in a row became an insurmountable obstacle.

    And 2011 truly defined Torture, Giants-style, with a seemingly endless array of injuries. None hurt more than Buster Posey’s season-ending loss in that eminently avoidable crash at home plate back in May. But it was equally painful to see rock-solid Brian Wilson go down, and Pablo Sandoval’s fabulous comeback momentarily derailed. And of course it turned out Freddy Sanchez never did vacate his room in the Hotel Disabled, moving right back in on schedule. (Barry Zito and Jonathan Sanchez, those injuries I can forgive.)

    I admire the way the Giants never gave up. I like that Brian Sabean brought in Carlos Beltran and Jeff Keppinger. (Orlando Cabrera, I was not so crazy about. I understand why Brandon Crawford couldn’t stay – you don’t want a rookie falling into a double digit batting average and thinking he will never hit big league pitching – but if you have to hire a shortstop who can’t hit, couldn’t you at least bring back Omar Vizquel?) I liked that the team stayed in the race til the final week.

    Hey, I liked that the Atlanta Braves collapsed and the Diamondbacks never showed anything too dominant, enabling that race to linger.

    But it sure has been Torture watching a postseason without the Giants, especially one in which the starting pitchers all seem highly inferior to Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, Madison Bumgarner and Ryan Vogelsong. I have to feel our guys would be giving any team in the playoffs a good run once again, if they’d only gotten there.

    So now I’ve tossed this year’s Sporting Greens into the hot stove, and am ready to burnish my optimism for 2012. Re-sign Beltran. Get the Brandons – Belt and Crawford – into a big league boot camp all winter. Make Aubrey Huff and Brett Pill battle it out for first base in Spring Training. Sign Coco Crisp. (Let the A’s have San Jose in exchange for some Moneyball mojo.)

    The Giants are not too far from putting together another run at the title. I cannot wait until Spring!

     

    A modest proposal

    Now batting: Brian Wilson drives a Gatorade jug deep to the end of the Giants' dugout, as clubhouse manager Mike Murphy ponders the cleanup operation to follow. (Photo by John T. Greilick/The Detroit News)

    Under the rules of baseball, the statisticians the winning pitcher to be the guy who is in the game when the winning run scored. I would like to suggest, in this era of SABRmetrics, when the win has already been devalued (see Hernandez, Felix), that the rule be changed.

    The clearest example of why this should be is last night’s San Francisco Giants game. Madison Bumgarner pitched a beauty against a devastating Detroit Tigers lineup — 7.3 innings, 1 hit, 1 walk, 9 strikeouts, 1 earned run. But then in the eighth and ninth, Brian Wilson — and don’t get me wrong, for all the torture, I love the guy — gets two outs and surrenders 4 hits, 1 walk and 2 earned runs.

    Wilson gets the win, and goes berserk on a Gatorade cooler. What’s wrong with this picture?

    I would like to see baseball’s official scorers empowered to decide who is the winning pitcher based on merit. Lord knows Brian Wilson is not looking to pad his stats with wins thanks to all the Giants’ late inning rallies. When Bumgarner – and for that matter Matt Cain, Tim Lincecum and the rest of the Giants’ aces – pitch deep into games, giving up next to nothing, they deserve a win, instead of the mediocre win-loss records that they carry around with them.

    The Cy Young voters already know this. (See also Lincecum, Tim, and Greinke, Zack.) The fans know it. The players know it. When will Bud Selig and the big league statisticians figure it out?

    (Footnote: I actually had to edit Lincecum’s Wikipedia page to show his 18-5 record in his first Cy Young season of 2008.)

    Hallelujah, Giants!

    If there’s any doubt that going to a baseball game can be a near-religious experience, the Giants removed it this weekend.

    It felt like the Church of Baseball when we had a moment of silence at the home opener for the Giants who died in the past year, from Gino Cimoli (first batter on the West Coast) to Duke Snider (“Yes, Duke Snider was a Giant, although only briefly,” said Jon Miller, reverentially). It felt like it, too, when we had another moment for Brian Stowe, our fellow fan who lies comatose in a hospital after his beating at the hand of Dodger fans.

    And there were plenty of rapturous, euphoric moments, as the team was announced one by one on Opening Day, and the championship flag went up, and again the following day, as the players received their rings. The best line, of course, went to Duane Kuiper: “The rings, the tuxes – no, Mike (Krukow) and I are not here to renew our vows.”

    I have to say, the Giants did everything right in those ceremonies. I was not immune to the occasional lump in the throat. For some reason, it especially hits me each time Tim Lincecum is announced. He always gets the loudest cheers, and I guess it’s emotional because he is so small, yet so gutsy, and carries the whole team on his back at such critical times. I was at his 14-strikeout gem against the Braves in the NLDS, which gives me what I feel is an intimate connection to his greatness, and then the way he outpitched Cliff Lee in Game 5 of the World Series in Texas last year just elevated him to another plane. Freak, indeed.

    And then, of course, no planned or contrived moments of wonder and awe could compete with the Giants on the field themselves. Of course Brian Wilson blew the save, reminding us all of the Torture we endured in 2010. We joke about it now, but it is painful! And then, of course, the gutty gritty Giants never gave up, no matter how many rallies were squelched, ultimately prevailing, because they are not going to lose their first game at AT&T Park since the World Series, the game in which Wilson dramatically ran that championship flag across the field, through the stands, and up the pole.

    Nor were they going to lose the game after the ring ceremony. I’m reading “The Hobbit” with my son right now, and the Giants’ rings – won by magic – seem as mystical as the ring that Bilbo Baggins uses to get out of so many jams in that book. And so, just when it looked like Matt Cain was going to fall victim to a lack of run support again, of course the Giants came back and won, but only when down to their last strike.

    And how sweet was it that the newest Giants did it – that Miguel Tejada got the clutch hit, and Brandon Belt scored the winning run. That was their baptism into baseball, Giants’ style – castoffs, yes, but winning Dirty Dozen style nonetheless.

    Bring on the rest of the season.

    And pray.

    Talking baseball

    I was among the cheering throng at this game - Bonds' 756th. Photo by Brad Mangin, whose photos of the Giants' championship season can be seen in the new book, "Worth the Wait," written by Brian Murphy.

    On the eve of Opening Day, with the Barry Bonds trial in full swing, I spoke to Jeff Thurn, host of a great sports radio talk show on Nashville’s WNSR.

    On my long list of reasons why I love the 2010 World Champion Giants, I can now add: They make the Bonds trial completely irrelevant. All the sordid revelations, all the recriminations of Bonds and his teammates, his trainer, management, his wives, his girlfriend – it all felt like it mattered when we were rooting for him. I loved watching him bat in those years after he turned into Babe Ruth II. But I am also aware enough to see that his behavior was revolting.

    If the Giants hadn’t have won the World Series last year, Barry’s trial would be one more example of the Torture that we suffer. We’d be reliving 2002, the heartbreak, those years of trying to surround Barry with just enough talent to win – yet not anyone too talented, lest it threaten his massive yet fragile ego.

    But – we don’t have to go there. The Giants are world champs. They did it without getting that big Bondsian bat, either – without trading Lincecum or Cain for a Prince Fielder or Adrian Gonzalez.

    And I love them for that.

    You can listen to my conversation with Jeff Thurn here.

    World Champions!

    Harry waves his Giant rally rag as horns honk along the Embarcadero after the Giants' World Series clincher Nov. 1, 2010

    The San Francisco Giants’ whole improbable, ridiculous, joyful, torturous ride through the 2010 baseball season has ended in the most improbable, ridiculous, joyful but definitely not torturous fashion. The Giants are World Champions and San Francisco is celebrating like never before.

    The rings that the players will get are more than just symbols of this incredible season. They are pure redemption for all the incredible players who came through here before, all the close calls, near-misses, heartaches and yes, Torture, that the Giants and their fans have endured for more than a half-century in San Francisco.

    It’s redemption for Dusty Baker and Russ Ortiz and that exhausted, overworked bullpen of 2002. It’s redemption for Robb Nen who was so clutch yet couldn’t stop little Neifi Perez in 1998. It’s redemption for Saloman Torres and the 103-win team of 1993. It’s redemption for Candy Maldonado and the sliding-catch-that-wasn’t in 1987. It’s redemption for Juan Marichal, blowing his top in 1965 and blowing a pennant in the process. It’s redemption for Barry Bonds, who thrilled us on the field, but left us in the humiliating position of defending his behavior. It’s redemption for Horace Stoneham, who gave us frigid Candlestick Park, and for Bob Lurie, who tried and failed to get rid of it.

    These and so many other people have given Giant fans so many great memories, so many winning seasons, so many pennant races and playoffs that we have no right to complain. But like Chris “Mad Dog” Russo declared so plaintively after that punch to the gut from the Florida Marlins in 2003 — and yes, this is also redemption for Jose Cruz Jr., as hard as that is to write — we wanted to know what it would be like for the Giants to win just one time. Just one lousy goddamn time!

    Now we know.

    It’s amazing. Gratifying. Stupendous. Mind-boggling.

    I am soaking it all in. We screamed til we were hoarse. We leapt off chairs at Paragon, a block from the ballpark. We high-fived and hugged friends and strangers. We honked our horn all the way through the city, with every landmark – the Ferry Building, Coit Tower, City Hall – bathed in orange light.

    I heard Mike Krukow quoting J.T. Snow on the radio last night, saying this was closure for 2002.  Kruk clearly felt closure for 1987/1989, and he cited all those same players who were all pulling for this Giants team to finally exorcise those ghosts.

    I read where Buster Posey said:

    “It’s crazy to think with all the great baseball players who have come through San Francisco, there hasn’t been a World Series championship. The beautiful thing about the organization is, you’ve got guys like Will Clark here. You’ve got J.T. Snow here. You’ve got Shawon Dunston here. When we get back to San Francisco, we’ll have Willie Mays and Willie McCovey and Gaylord Perry. The list goes on and on. It’s so humbling to have won the first World Series in San Francisco. It’s unbelievable.”

    Thank you, Buster, for saying that. And thank you, Matt Cain, the longest serving Giant, who has known such hard luck and come through like such a pro. And thank you, Brian Wilson, who has defined this team and this city, from torture to the whole bearded freaky orange-and-black Halloween championship. (Neither Wilson nor Cain gave up an earned run in the playoffs!) And thank you, Bill Neukom, Brian Sabean, Bruce Bochy, Tim Lincecum, Madison Bumgarner, Edgar Renteria – what is redemption if not Renteria (and Bochy and Sabean), vilified by fans, turning heroic on the biggest stage of all? – thank you to all the Giants past and present for making this moment possible. Thank you Aubrey Huff, for the thong, the quotes, the home runs and most of all, the first sacrifice bunt of your career. What a sacrifice! Thank you, too, to Duane Kuiper, for giving us Torture, and to Mike Krukow, Jon Miller and Dave Flemming, for unparalleled insight and enthusiasm. Thank you to the great middle relievers, the incredible untold story of this team, and to Barry Zito, a class act and hard-luck, hard-working pitcher. Is there any Giant we don’t just love today?

    I can’t wait to see those Hall of Famers participating in the parade they long-deserved.  hope the great Willie Mays, who was in the parade that welcomed the Giants to San Francisco in 1958, will be well enough to ride in this one. I look forward to Willie McCovey, a fearsome slugger best remembered for his line drive out in 1962, getting that round of cheers from the fans who love him so much.

    Our Giant fandom has been torture at times. We reveled in the torture. How sweet it is to revel in victory instead.