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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!

    Farewell to 2013

    The Giants (and I) ended the 2013 season in fine fashion and high spirits, and I don’t think either of us wants to wait too long for 2014.

    In the case of the Giants, according to Mercury News beat writer Alex Pavlovic, “they went 20-14 after August 24 and finished with wins in 10 of the final 15 games.”

    Joe Konte's new book, "The Rivalry Heard Round the World: The Giants-Dodgers Feud From Coast to Coast."

    Joe Konte’s new book, “The Rivalry Heard Round the World: The Giants-Dodgers Feud From Coast to Coast.”

    In my case, I attended three games in the last week of the season. In my first, the Giants lost to the Dodgers, but they kept it close, they won the next two, and we were treated to the spectacle of Brian Wilson‘s ignominious return to San Francisco. I had the extra pleasure of attending with my friend Joe Konte, who is not only the man who has organized my season ticket group since Pac Bell Park opened in 2000, but is now also the author of the fabulous new book on the Giants and Dodgers and their long enmity for one another, “The Rivalry Heard Round the World.”

    With Rivalry Day approaching – wait, didn’t you know that Oct. 3 was Giants-Dodgers Rivalry Day? On this date in 1951, Bobby Thomson hit his famed home run; in 1962, the Giants again won the capper of a three-game playoff against the Dodgers, this time when Stan Williams walked Jim Davenport with the bases loaded; and in 1993, the Dodgers beat the Giants on the last day of the season in what we know as the Salomon Torres game, and the Giants lost the division championship to the Braves. And on Oct. 3, 2013 – as in, tomorrow – Joe Konte will appear at Books Inc. in San Francisco’s Marina neighborhood to regale the crowd with even more tales of the rivalry. (It will help put the latest sordid episode into context as well.) I saw Joe’s event at Book Passage in Corte Madera, and he was a wonderful storyteller. (Buy his book!)

    My next two games were Friday, Sept. 27, and Sunday, Sept. 29. The Giants beat the Padres in both. Friday night, Hunter Pence won the Willie Mac Award as the team’s most inspirational player. Last season’s winner, Ryan Vogelsong, turned in a strong effort. I hope he makes it back next year.

    Then, after the Giants rewarded Pence with a big contract – yay! – he showed what he’s capable of, turning in his first walk-off hit as a Giant as the team came from behind to beat the Padres on Fan Appreciation Day on Sunday. It was a glorious afternoon at the ballpark, highlighted by two moving displays: An ovation for Giants fan Bryan Stow, who came out to the ballpark, and an overdue ovation for Barry Zito, who shared his love of the fans. Three years ago, such mutual affection seemed impossible; fans chafed at Zito’s poor performance under his massive contract. But Zito proved himself a class act, first accepting a sideline role in the 2010 playoffs, and then rebounding with a strong 2012 season and some series-saving performances in the postseason. Redemption is sweet, and Zito, with all his struggles, seemed less like a glamorous millionaire athlete and more like one of us as he doffed his cap and touched his heart.

    I can’t say enough about how optimistic I am for 2014. I love a pitching staff anchored by Matt Cain and Madison Bumgarner. (Do I have to say it? Bring back Tim Lincecum!) I love that Buster Posey is locked up for years – he is our Derek Jeter. I love that Brandon Belt and Brandon Crawford emerged as bona fide big leaguers, and will continue to improve. I love that Pablo Sandoval showed, if only briefly, that he can lose weight and regain his stroke. I love that Sergio Romo can go a whole season as a closer. (Do I have to say it? Bring back Javier Lopez!) I love little things – the return of Angel Pagan, the emergence of Yusmeiro Petit (the next Vogelsong), the clutch hitting of Hector Sanchez, the willingness to spend big on Pence and possibly other free agents. And I love that the Giants never quit, and managed to escape the cellar and finish in third place, after all their struggles. Thank you, Bruce Bochy!

    The Giants’ failure to defend their World Series championship probably means the end of the line for my incredible run as the author of Giants Past and Present. I still have some of the 2012 World Championship editions to sell (email me for a signed copy!), but there won’t be a fourth edition.

    I have, however, put the finishing touches on a new Giants’ book, the Giants Experience, which will be out in the spring. It will be a big, beautiful coffee table book that will sell for $35. I’ll set up a new Web site for that! (You can get a sense of what it will be like by checking out Tyler Kepner‘s Phillies Experience.)

    Thanks to the Giants, who in yet another season of Torture have reminded us how sweet those world championships really were, and to all of you, for reading and supporting me on this wonderful ride.

    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.

    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.