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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.

    Kansas City, here we come

    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 seem to be underdogs 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.

    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!

     

    What, me worry?

    The champs, continued

    Here we are, a month into the season, and the question keeps coming up: How do we feel about the Giants? They are not exactly sweeping through the National League the way they swept through the playoffs last year. Should we worry?

    No. And yes. The Giants are doing everything just the way we remember, if not better. Nothing came easy to them last year. Remember torture? This season opened with more of that Torture (with a capital T and that rhymes with G and that stands for Giants). Losses in L.A., blown saves against St. Louis, narrow, late inning victories (and losses) and then a sweep at home by the hated Braves brought all of those memories back.

    Of course, we have many reasons to feel this year would be better. The great young pitchers have another year experience under their belt, and keep improving. The lineup, in flux all of last season, appears settled – Brian Sabean won’t have to scramble to add every warm bat he can find, as he did last year with Messrs. Burrell, Guillen and Ross. Ditto the bullpen. Buster Posey should also get better with experience, and if unloading Bengie Molina last year to make room for Posey was addition by subtraction, the Giants took the concept even farther this year, with Pablo Sandoval shedding what, 50 pounds, and going from a sure first-pitch double-play to one of the most feared hitters in the league. And Brandon Belt could be the next Posey.

    Then again, we’re Giants fans. We have many reasons to feel this year will be worse, too. The pitchers never had to work as hard as they did last year – could they be burned out? Miguel Tejada looks to be a serious liability at shortstop. Injuries are rearing their ugly head, striking Brian Wilson, Barry Zito, Cody Ross, Andres Torres.

    And yet, so far this year as last, the misfits keep fitting in. Down goes Torres, up comes Rowand. Wilson isn’t laid low for long. Ross’s absence makes room for Belt, and Mark DeRosa makes the most of his at-bats. Even Tejada surprises with some heroics reminiscent of his Oakland days.

    It’s a long season. It’s a great ride. Go ahead, torture me. I know I can take it.

    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.

    That sweet sweet Torture!

    I have just attended two of the greatest, most torturous Giants games of my life. To see these amazing ceremonies beforehand, with the flag going up and the rings going out, and then to see the Giants battle and grind, and take it to the last at-bat, night after night, just reminds me of all the things I love about baseball.

    It’s a team without superstars. A team that’s never out of it. Pick it up when one guy struggles.

    And keep the drama high, the fans on the edge of their seat, and never do anything the easy way.

    I hope to write something more reflective, but I just needed to get that thought out now. I don’t know if I can take 154 more games like that!

    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!

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