Those Wondrous, Wacky Giants!
by Steve Talbot, November 4, 2010
Last Tuesday in San Francisco was one of those days that make you glad to be alive. Sunny, clear skies, low 70s with just a hint of chill in the evening to remind you it's late October.
Today started out beautifully too, but it's cooler, the skies are darkening and you can feel the rain coming. The first big rain of the season hit last weekend and another one is on the way, starting Thursday, threatening to delay or postpone Game 2 of the World Series.
So, first things first, a plea to Major League Baseball: Shorten the season.
Baseball should never be played this late in October, let alone November. You know that's just not right. Baseball belongs to the spring and the summer. The World Series should be an early Fall Classic. And while I'm at it: Play more day games and don't allow TV commercials to delay the game — it's pathetic for players to stand around on the field waiting for a commercial to end.
(And an aside to the NBA. Basketball? Now? Before the World Series starts? In the middle of the college and professional football seasons? Really? We need this? Shorten your overlong season, too. I don't want to hear a word about basketball until the winter. It's meant to be played indoors during foul weather in smelly gyms with squeaky floors. The same goes for you ice hockey pros: Wait until the damn pond freezes over. That's your signal to suit up.)
The only seasonal coincidence I like is Halloween and the Giants' colors: Orange & Black. That works. Fear the (Dyed Black) Beard. It's time to put on your costumes and scare people.
As for this improbable World Series, I am a mere amateur spectator. I defer to true Giants fans like my son, Dash, and his friends, who really understand what's going on. I'm merely a fair weather fan. Fair warning. Real baseball addicts need read no further.
Don't get me wrong, I like the Giants, especially this scrappy, makeshift team with the phenomenal pitchers. But deep down, when it comes to baseball, I am stuck in time: A childhood Dodgers fan, circa 1959-1966, when they abandoned Brooklyn and moved to my hometown LA and won three World Series, pausing just long enough to let the Beatles play Chavez Ravine on an unforgettable night. Maybe there's something inherently nostalgic about baseball, but I am certainly a captive of those memories. Sandy Koufax, the best pitcher I've ever seen. Don Drysdale, as intimidating as anyone. The speedy Maury Wills, stealing 103 bases one season. Some wonderful old New York characters: Duke Snider, Gil Hodges, “Junior” Gilliam. The Giants in those days had perhaps the greatest baseball player of all time, Willie Mays, and other heroes like Willie McCovey, but the Dodgers always beat them when it mattered most.
When I moved to San Francisco — after a decade of studiously ignoring sports in Berkeley — I was swept up in the glory of the 49ers, who were breathtakingly magnificent for a 15-year-run with Bill Walsh, Joe Montana, Dwight Clark, Ronnie Lott, Roger Craig, Jerry Rice and Steve Young. I was a born again football fan. San Francisco and the 49ers were inseparable. My town, my team. I barely acknowledged the mediocre Giants, except for an occasional nod of appreciation to Will Clark or Matt Williams.
And then there was Barry Bonds. Steroids and his odd personality aside, you've got to admit he was a great baseball player, one of the best home run hitters the game has ever seen. Those towering blasts into McCovey Cove were thrilling. But there was always that cloud. Hard to really warm up to that team.
Now my once beloved 49ers are absolutely unwatchable. (At least I have three hours on Sundays now to do something more worthwhile than suffer through their televised collapse.) Their coach, Mike Singletary, was a legendary linebacker with the Chicago Bears, but he's a failure as a coach — already the ongoing butt of Letterman jokes. The team is dreadful, especially the leadfooted quarterback.
So, just as the entire Bay Area was sinking in the mire of sports mediocrity and the muck of abysmal failure, the Giants come up with a brilliant young pitcher, Tim Lincecum, to capture our hearts and win two Cy Young Awards in a row. In his own way, he's a sports hero like Montana. Cool, independent, slight of build, quirky, unbelievably good. Perfect for San Francisco.
Plus — and I can't overstate the importance of this — the Giants owners were smart enough to build a gorgeous, fan-friendly stadium in the sunniest corner of foggy San Francisco. (Note to knee jerk opponents of urban redevelopment: Sometimes it's just what a City needs.) No more Candlestick winters in that grim, crumbling concrete in the middle of nowhere. Here was a beautiful, reasonably-sized park where it was a pleasure just to sit, drink a beer, eat some peanuts and soak up the atmosphere. (The only annoyance is that the name of the AT&T park kept changing every time the phone company changed ownership. I still like to call it Pac-Bell Park.) And the baseball? Well, the Giants won often enough, at least at home, to keep it interesting on the field, too.
But once Bonds and his electrifying homeruns vanished, the only reason to go to a game was to savor the stadium, the garlic fries and the revived waterfront neighborhood.
Until, Timmy arrived. The Kid. The Freak. The Hero. Of course, there were disappointments, too. Zen master Barry Zito's failure to live up to his reputation and his oversized salary. But with Lincecum and the stoic Matt Cain and the lights-out wildcard reliever Brian Wilson and the affable Panda (the tubby but sweet-swinging Pablo Sandoval), the Giants were, at the very least, diverting.
Yet the season was, as they say, “torture.” You know that already. A hot start in April followed by a slow downhill slide. By the All-Star break they looked like a .539 team destined for 3rd place in the West. Then they got hot (despite Lincecum's August wilt) — swept the arch rival Dodgers in a three-game series and ended August in 2nd place.
But the Padres looked like they had a season-long lock on first place, and they owned the Giants. A prudent gambler would never have bet on San Francisco to dislodge San Diego. And yet, that's exactly what happened. The Padres suffered an epic ten-game collapse, the season went down to a final three-game series in San Francisco, and the Giants (after two agonizing losses) pulled it out on the final day, 3-0. Brian Wilson tied Rod Beck's season record of 48 saves. The City went crazy.
But no one, except the Giants Faithful, believed San Francisco could win the playoff series against the historically formidable Atlanta Braves. It was tense and nerve-wracking — all the games were decided by just one run — but Lincecum was brilliant in a 1-0 opener, and the Giants shook up the baseball world by taking down the Braves, 3 games to 1, silencing those supremely annoying tomahawk chants. It's the kind of moment when you believe, just for a flash, that there is a moral universe.
OK, this had been wonderful, and San Francisco was by now positively giddy — one toke over the line, like Timmy? — but absolutely no one outside the Bay Area predicted that the Giants had a chance against the mighty Phillies — the National League Champs for two years in a row. And yet, once again, magic.
I still can't believe it happened. The “misfit” Giants sauntered into Game 6, in the howling maelstrom of a hostile Philadelphia stadium, with all those rabid Philly fans, survived a wrenching first inning when the Phillies scored 2 runs, overcame the meltdown and wild pitching of their starter Jonathan Sanchez, and pulled out a series-winning victory on some stalwart relief pitching (my MVP of the game: Jeremy Affeldt) and a Juan Uribe home run that just made it over the fence.
I listened to the final innings in my car parked in the redwoods in the driving rain, while I was supposed to be inside the Gualala Arts Center watching a Rupa and the April Fishes concert with Pippa. Suffice it to say, I'm hooked. I've got the fever.
To Philadelphia, I leave you with two words: Cody Ross. He and his 3 homeruns will haunt you forever. That's Cody Ross, the beatifically smiling bald guy with the huge swathes of black polish under his eyes. Cody Ross, who came out of nowhere, allowed the Giants to win the first game in Philadelphia and just kept on truckin' until they won the pennant.
Also, a suggestion to you knuckle-dragging Philly fans: When one of the best players on your team, Jayson Werth, looks like a Civil War re-enactor with his long, stringy dirty blond hair, maybe it makes you look just a little silly to wolf-whistle the long-haired Tim Lincecum, especially when he's smoking your team (for recreational use only).
So, now the World Series. The Giants have never won. Texas has never been there. But the Rangers have an outstanding pitcher, Cliff Lee, and some heavy hitters, and once again, the Giants' are the underdogs. It's a familiar pattern.
May we avoid another '89 with the earthquake and the bad aftershock of a quick, embarrassing loss to our cross Bay rival Oakland Athletics. And I'd prefer not to have my heart broken again, as it was in 2002 in Game 6, when the Giants let the Series slip through their fingers.
This year, the surprisingly tenacious Giants clawed their way past the Dodgers (who, let's be honest, were ruined by their owners' ridiculously messy divorce), held off a late surge by the Rockies and knocked off the Padres at the last possible minute. And now they've won two heart-pounding, nail-biting playoff series. The East Coast-centric baseball world, especially the press, is still baffled and annoyed. Who are these guys?
I'd be happy to introduce you to a few of them and their back stories: the speedy and mostly clutch-hitting Andres Torres who somehow managed to get back on the field soon after an emergency appendectomy — ouch! — and all the “castoff” veterans — Pat Burrell, Aubrey Huff, Edgar Renteria and Cody Ross — who are playing like they are having the time of their lives. Not to mention the cagey manager Bruce Bochy, who is French!
But get used to it, my perplexed friends. The scrappy team won this time. National League Champions. I have no idea if they can beat the Rangers. There's a part of me expecting the Giants to break down, at any moment, and fold, as they did too often during their streaky season. And yet, when it really counted, they won.
Someone on the radio yesterday described the Giants season as a soap opera. True enough. In fact, you can say baseball is soap opera for men (and the women who love them!). Like TV soaps, the baseball season is endless. There's a main, recurring cast, but characters come and go. Personalities develop. There are dramatic story arcs. There's tragedy, comedy, heartbreak, ecstasy. And a lot of bad acting. Villains and heroes. And it's on every day. The Days of Our Lives.
The thing that distinguishes baseball from soap operas is that there is no disgusting spitting in soap operas, and on that score I'm partial to the soaps. On the other hand, there is less bad acting in baseball. You'll find more of that on the soccer field.
With the Giants this year, there was a virtual team makeover. GM Brian Sabean — despite the braying on sports radio — successfully rebuilt his team along the way. He harangued them just when they needed a prod. His very best move was bringing up Buster Posey from the minors. First, you gotta love the name. Even though he's a kid, he's like an incarnation of the perfect baseball player. An old soul, as they say, in a young man's body. A great defensive player and the Giants best hitter. Handles some of the finest pitchers in baseball and bats clean-up. Already, players have voted him Rookie of the Year.
Of course, Posey's much-debated call-up from the Giants farm system meant letting go of the admired, veteran catcher, Bengie Molina, who, among others things, nurtured the sensational rise of the young Tim Lincecum. And now, as the baseball fates have decided, Molina plays for the Rangers, and in fact, has been a big factor in their success this year. How's that for a plot twist?
So, as far as I'm concerned, this World Series, at least to begin with, is The Tale of Two Catchers. Bengie Molina vs. Buster Posey. And hey, I like both of them. Molina got the Giants off to a great start this year, then faded at the plate. Posey is the future. But maybe the veteran wins the Series? Hey, since he started the season with San Francisco, Molina gets a World Series ring no matter who wins. I hope you settle for the consolation prize, Bengie.
I have a friend in New York — a hardcore Mets fan, bless his long-suffering heart — who predicts that the Giants will win it in six games. He called it right in Philly. I hope he's on it one more time.
A final word: As much as I like watching the pure game, I love to invest sports with Greater Meaning, to look at it from a broader perspective. And in that sense, you can't help but see a Giants-Rangers series as a rematch of the old 49ers-Cowboys rivalry (back when the 49ers and Cowboys could play football), and as a Blue state/Red state, San Francisco/Dallas culture war. Especially in the midst of this off-year election.
I can never forgive the Rangers for once being partly owned by El Stupido, George Bush! Though if Shrub (little Bush) had remained in baseball — the one place he seems to have ever felt comfortable, slumped in the stands with a beer — we and the rest of the planet would all be a lot better off. (I still curse Laura Bush for forcing her husband to give up drinking. He could have been a perfectly happy — or miserable — alcoholic baseball team owner or hell, even commissioner, and left us all alone in peace and prosperity.)
I once produced part of a “Frontline” in Arlington, Texas at a GM factory there for a documentary I did in '93 about GM's troubles. I found Arlington a very depressing place, sort of a nowhere land halfway between Dallas and Fort Worth. Bush was the affable boozer and glad-hander with a famous family name who the Rangers management brought in to sell voters on building a new stadium. And Bush's campaign to get the stadium is what got him noticed by Karl Rove, who convinced him to run for governor, and then for president. So, I am quite serious in saying that we can blame Texas and specifically the Texas Rangers for much of our current misery. Note: You will not hear much about all this on Fox (whose broadcasters know even less about the Giants team).
When I heard that someone in Rangers management had a cocaine problem, I thought they were talking about Bush. Turns out it's their coach, Ron Washington. But hey, any team that can survive a drug scandal and bankruptcy (!) and make it to the World Series deserves a round of applause. Talk about a soap opera.
And for comic relief, let's recall the moment when Jose Canseco — then in exile as a Ranger — blew out his elbow trying to pitch (that was entertaining) and allowed a ball to bounce off his head into the bleachers for a home run. Really! May 1993. You can look it up.
So, you Rangers, welcome to San Francisco. Your barbecue is superior to ours, I'll give you that. But your state, aside from Austin, is kind of a wasteland, I'm afraid, despite all your bravado about its size. You may execute more people than we Californians do (whether or not they are guilty, apparently), and you may even have the favored team in this World Series, but I expect you'll have your hands full with these pesky Giants.
Meanwhile, thank you, Giants, for an exciting if excruciating season. May you keep this wondrous, wacky thing going.