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    Giants Past and Present

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    Here comes 2014!

    Giants Baseball Experience coverI love the arrival of spring, and all the hope it brings that a new year — even-numbered! — will cleanse the pain of the last one. (I also hope a good rainfall will come along for the cleansing, to end California’s drought.) While 2013 was decidedly painful for the Giants, I see plenty of signs for a turnaround in 2014.

    Pablo Sandoval is lean and motivated.

    Tim Lincecum is ready to complete his reinvention as a crafty pitcher, instead of a fastball chucker.

    Tim Hudson is here to help Lincecum — and he can still deal.

    And those are the three and four starters, behind the horses Matt Cain and Madison Bumgarner.

    Brandon Belt and Brandon Crawford keep improving; Angel Pagan and Marco Scutaro are healthy; Buster Posey and Hunter Pence anchor the meat of the order; and Michael Morse has arrived to make sure there are no weak spots. The bullpen is deep (love Sergio Romo!); the bench is capable (lurve Hector Sanchez!); Bruce Bochy is the best in the business.

    And best of all: I have a new Giants book coming out!

    The Giants Baseball Experience: A Year-By-Year Chronicle From New York To San Francisco will be published by MVP Books and will be available April 3. I’ll set up a new Web site, and start planning events. The last time I had a new Giants book out — with Willie Mays on the cover, naturally — was 2010, and we all know what happened then!

    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.

    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!

     

    Damon Bruce loves the book!

    I had a great conversation with Damon Bruce last Friday on his show. We talked about Giants Past and Present. It was a great interview and a great treat for fathers day. Damon said, “It is a 1st class product all the way through – a well written, well crafted book.”

     

    Dan Fost on the Damon Bruce Show

    Bruce Bochy Looks Like the Best in the Business

    Big hat, big brain: Bruce Bochy (Photo by George Gojkovich/Getty Images)

    Today’s guest post is from Bleacher Report Contributor Simon Cherin-Gordon, a Berkeley High Senior who has been helping me on projects large and small on this site and elsewhere for the past year.

    After Bruce Bochy led the Giants on a second half surge that netted them an unexpected division title, many Giants’ fans were calling for Bochy to win the Manager of the Year award. While Bochy was deserving, so were others, including Padres’ skipper Bud Black, who won 90 games with a roster that most expected to struggle all year. The award went to him, and rightfully so.

    Bochy, meanwhile, went on to win the World Series, strengthening his position as one of the game’s best.

    However, it is only now, two months into the 2011 season, that we are seeing Bochy’s finest work. After an uneventful offseason, the Giants looked like they’d be caught in another fierce battle with better offensive teams out west, and would need heroic career years out of guys who already delivered their heroic career years in 2010. While Pat Burrell’s resurrection and Cody Ross’ hot streak could be attributed to Bochy, that may be giving him more credit than he deserves.

    In fact, the 2010 Giants may have underperformed in multiple, albeit subtle, ways. The 2010 team was 6th in the NL in total bases, batting average, and home runs, yet finished only 9th in runs scored, indicating an inefficient offense. On the defensive side, they led the league in fielding percentage as well as ERA, a seemingly fool-proof formula for allowing the fewest runs. However, Bud Black’s Padres allowed less runs than the Giants in 2010. And even when taking the end result of runs allowed and runs scored for San Francisco, their 92-70 record was slightly worse than their Pythagorean projection (a simple Bill Jamesian stat that projects W-L record based on run differential), which had them at 94-68.

    As anyone should have seen coming, the offense has taken a step back so far in 2011, and, to the surprise of many, the defense has gotten a whole lot worse. Mark DeRosa may eventually help some, and Aubrey Huff will likely pick his numbers up. Other than that, not many hitters are underperforming, and the lack of pop may be here to stay. The pitching staff is still excellent, but the defense has hurt them. Bochy doesn’t have the benefit of this being “the Giants’ year,” and needs to squeeze as much as he can out of this deep but flawed roster.

    He’s done so miraculously, using his depth to its full capacity and, in doing so, covering up the flaws. His game management, use of certain players in certain roles, and steady presence has the Giants winning way more than they should be. Despite the league’s 3rd best ERA and 13th best defense, San Francisco is 3rd best in the league in runs allowed. And while the Pythagorean projection says the team should be 23-24, Bochy has them at 27-20, solely atop the NL West.

    The toughest thing about managing the defending champs is the heightened desire around the league to defeat you, especially early in the season. Every other team out there circles the Giants on their calenders, and plays with an added intensity when they meet. Facing teams that are playing with an extra edge every single day can, and often does, prove to be too much for a defending champ. This leads to a scrambling manager, a belief in the players that they aren’t good as they were last year, and a downward spiral. Bochy and his 2011 club has been the antithesis of this. The Giants are playing more intensely than their opponents. Bochy has his player’s roles figured out and never panics when a decision backfires.

    Although no team has won back-to-back World Series titles since 2000, no manager of a defending champ has done as good a job as Bruce Bochy in a long time. And regardless of what happens this October, a return to the playoffs for this team should net Bochy the Manager of the Year award in a landslide.

    Read more of Simon Cherin-Gordon’s sportswriting here

    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.

    New Edition Almost Here!

    With the 2011 season rapidly approaching, so approaches the release of a revised “Giants Past and Present.” Among other things, the updated edition will have a new cover, featuring the Giants World Series celebration. I just got a glimpse of it for the first time, so here it is:

    The new edition will also feature praises from Giants Hall of Fame pitcher Gaylord Perry, Sports Illustrated’s Peter King and KNBR’s Brian Murphy. There will also be some updates in the World Series chapter, obviously.

    Although the 2010 season will be hard to top, the Giants are looking strong and hungry to defend their title. Hopefully 2011 will bring a new chapter to Giants history, and a call for much more Giants literature!

    Bring on the books!

    Last month, I finished up the revisions to “Giants Past and Present,” polishing up the tidbits about that magical 2010 season that now takes its rightful place at the forefront of Giants’ history. The plan is to have books ready for sale by Opening Day.

    It should be great. MVP Books is putting a new cover on it, featuring the Giants’ World Series celebration, and the book will have blurbs from Giants Hall of Famer Gaylord Perry, Sports Illustrated’s Peter King and KNBR’s Brian Murphy.

    Murphy, a former Chronicle colleague of mine, had already written a fantastic book for the Giants, on their 2008 golden anniversary in San Francisco, and now he’s got another one coming out. He teamed with photographer Brad Mangin on “Worth the Wait,” which is the Giants’ official book honoring the championship.

    The championship is certainly spawning a literary tidal wave. In addition to the updated “Giants Past and Present” and Murph’s book, Triumph Books had a quickie look at the Giants’ title out in time for Christmas 2010, “Giant Surprise,” and they’ve got another one on the way, which should be of higher quality, as it’s by Bay Area News Group beat writer Andrew Baggarly (one of my favorites), “A Band of Misfits.” My old pals at the San Francisco Chronicle also put out a book, “San Francisco Giants: Torture to Rapture, 2010 World Series Champions,” but it seems to be out of print already. I looked for it on eBay and only found a special Sports Illustrated commemorative issue on the Giants (which is excellent) and something called “SanFranTastic!

    My own publisher, MVP Books, also has a book coming out that should be of interest to Giant fans past and present: “Juan Marichal: My Journey From the Dominican Republic to Cooperstown,” in which the Dominican Dandy and writer Lew Freedman set down Marichal’s own story for the first time.

    I just went to my eye doctor and ordered a new prescription of glasses, so I’m ready to read.

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