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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 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.

     

    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.

    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.)

    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.