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    Giants Baseball Experience

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    Talkin’ baseball with Jon Miller

    I always love talking Giants baseball, but it was a special treat for me Monday, when I got to do so with Michael Krasny, host of KQED-FM’s “Forum,” and fellow guests San Francisco Chronicle columnist Ann Killion, CSN Bay Area columnist (and seeming king of all Bay Area sports media), my former Chronicle colleague Ray Ratto, and, with no disrespect to the others, best of all, the voice of the Giants, Hall of Famer Jon Miller.

    You can listen to the audio here.

    Highlights included:

    * Jon Miller telling the story of Travis Ishikawa in tears earlier this year when he was cut by the Pirates and signed to a minor league deal by the Giants, calling his high school coach in Seattle and asking, “Should he move on? Retire? Or persevere in the face of adversity?” He persevered, and Giants Nation is forever grateful.

    * Miller also sharing the story of Joe Panik, after struggling to hit Adam Wainwright‘s cutter earlier this year, studying footage of former Giant and Red Sox player Bill Mueller hitting a home run off the great Mariano Rivera‘s cutter — and then Panik hitting one of Wainwright’s cutters out of the ballpark.

    * Miller said Ishikawa would likely have been NLCS MVP, but the voting was tabulated in the eighth inning of game 5, before his historic home run, and therefore Madison Bumgarner got the trophy.

    * A listener gave this tidbit, which I had not heard: Apparently Brandon Crawford hid Brandon Belt‘s glove behind his back in the ninth inning of a tight game against the Cardinals, showing how loose the Giants were.

    * Miller showed his amazing candor when he gave this description of Buster Posey, comparing him to the Yankees’ Derek Jeter: “He’s not a great interview. He’s not likely to say anything other than platitudes and boring comments.”

    I’ll note one more thing: Krasny referred to my son Harry wearing a lucky hat, and I told the story. In 2008, an old New York Giants fan, Bob Leinweaver, gave me and Harry a hat from 1954, the last year the Giants had won the Series. Harry wore the hat faithfully, including the first two World Series wins in 2010. He took it off when we got to a friend’s house to watch Game 3, when they gave us NL championship hats. But when the Giants lost Game 3, we all agreed Harry had better wear the cap – and they never lost again!

    Harry showed off the hat when we were on the evening news during the 2010 Series.

    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 Champions – again!

    It is almost as hard to believe it now as it was in 2010. Did the San Francisco Giants really win the World Series? You’d better believe it.

    If it’s on the cover of Sports Illustrated, it’s got to be true!

    If 2010 was a team of castoffs and misfits, at least it was a veteran club, and one with dominant pitching. The 2012 Giants seemed like a bunch of kids, and the arms all seemed to fade as the season lurched to a close. The word I heard the most from the Giants this year was “grind.”

    Even as the playoffs started, the Giants did not carry any air of inevitability, or invincibility. Falling behind the Reds, and then the Cardinals, the season could have ended at any moment.

    Until, suddenly – dramatically – for the second time in the post-season, the Giants got their wake-up call. It was an unlikely time. Barry Zito, who had not looked good against the Reds, got the call as the stopper in St. Louis. He gave up three hits before the Giants had one.

    And then Marco Scutaro and Pablo Sandoval singled, and with one out, Hunter Pence hit a weak dribbler back to pitcher Lance Lynn, and the Giants got the sort of lucky break that defined this entire post-season – and, I suppose if you believe in these things, defined the Giants as a Team of Destiny. Lynn threw to second base, and there was no one there. He tried to hold up his throw, and it hit the bag. Scutaro scored. Another out, another couple of singles – one on a beautifully planned bunt by Zito – and the Giants were on their way to a 5-0 victory. They would never lose again in 2012.

    About those lucky breaks the Giants caught, whether it was Johnny Cueto leaving Game 1 of the Cincinnati series, or Angel Pagan‘s grounder hitting third base against Detroit (again with the base!), or Gregor Blanco‘s exquisite bunt, stopping incredibly inside the chalk. Include in those the sloppy defense by the opponents in every series, and then consider: the Giants made no such blunders.

    And that’s by design. The Giants are built around pitching and defense. It makes sense, when you think that pitching wins games, and defense is a big part of pitching. Manager Bruce Bochy could have played Xavier Nady or Hector Sanchez in a quest for more offense, but he knew the formula. If you keep the other team from scoring, you don’t have to score too much yourself.

    In building that type of team, General Manager Brian Sabean also built just the right lineup for AT&T Park. The best defenders are not necessarily sluggers in the Barry Bonds mold. Instead, Sabean acquired and promoted contact hitters, who can spray the ball into the gaps. Players like Melky Cabrera, Pagan, Blanco, and even Pence, Buster Posey, Scutaro, Brandon Belt and Sandoval all fit this model. With Scutaro in particular showing the virtue of taking pitches, and not striking out, the Giants were built for the modern post-season.

    The Giants had one more ingredient: Heart. It sounds like a cliche. It is said of nearly every team. (Well, maybe not the 2009 Yankees.) But consider some of the stories on these Giants – and not just overcoming the Brian Wilson injury or the Cabrera suspension. Instead: Ryan Vogelsong, wandering baseball’s wilderness for years before he came home to San Francisco and became a bona fide star. Scutaro, the very definition of a journeyman infielder, earning the nickname Blockbuster as he turned into Ty Cobb when he arrived on the Giants in July. Zito, never living up to his massive contract, but suddenly becoming a consistent winner. Tim Lincecum, losing his magic touch, but happily accepting a role as a middle reliever, and becoming unhittable once again. Posey, coming back from the most devastating (and unnecessary) injury this side of Joe Theisman to become National League MVP. And plenty of other players – Matt Cain, Madison Bumgarner, Sergio Romo, Brandon Crawford, Pence, Sandoval – putting plenty of other struggles behind them for the sake of the team. I have to believe even having guys like Nady, Aubrey Huff and Ryan Theriot just in the dugout cheering (never mind scoring the winning run in the clincher, as Theriot did) had to help.

    Without these guys, there’s no parade in San Francisco on Halloween.

    Nicely done. And thank you. Every one of you.

     

    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.

    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.