Thursday, October 28, 2010

Orange and Black Glue

I don't know these people. Oh, I spent 4 hours with them last night at AT&T Park and we really hit it off, in the way that thousands upon thousands of people are hitting it off in the Bay Area right now.

Tell me you don't feel it. Even if you're one of those cranky "I hate the bandwagon-jumper" types, you have to admit there's something going on.

I have to admit: it's caught me a bit by surprise. I imagine it's caught everyone a bit by surprise, which is both the cause and effect of all this giddiness. The Giants aren't supposed to be here, yet they're three wins away from a World Series championship.

Sure, it's San Francisco. Any excuse for a party or a little self-conscious madness. I was blown away by the sheer number of people who jammed the area around AT&T Park hours before Game 1 started. They mobbed the Giants Dugout stores to grab any merchandise (at the usual obscene prices) bearing evidence of the Giants' World Series status.

And while they waited in crazy-long lines to buy the souvenirs, they chatted. Old folks, youngsters, well-off, not-so-well-off. Men, women, kids. The whole darned United Nations of us, united in baseball. My foray into merchandise-land revealed that few of these people actually had tickets to the games; they just wanted to be part of the whole happy mess.

San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom talked about this the other day. Sure, you can discount anything Newsom says these days because he's in the middle of a statewide campaign, but he's a native San Franciscan, a former college baseball player, a serious fan, and a guy with
a pretty good ear on the street. Essentially, Newsom says a winning team can make a whole
community feel better about itself. Even if you can't tell Javier Lopez from Santiago Casilla or don't know that Nate Schierholtz went to San Ramon Valley High, the Giants story is putting a spring in your step. Heck, you're even saying "hello" to strangers on the street.

It's a very strong kind of social glue. Part of what makes it so intoxicating is that we all know, deep down inside, that it can't last. For now, we're on a collective high, pinching ourselves to see if we're dreaming, laughing giddily when the Giants improbably score 7 runs off big bad Cliff Lee.

We know this will all end at some point and we'll go back to worrying about the kids or the mortgage or the car repairs or the job or the job search or...well, you know. That's the real world. For now, we're all bound together in this unreal place by orange and black glue.

Monday, October 25, 2010

What a Long Strange Trip It's Been

The sheer giddiness surrounding the Giants these days has so much to do with the absolute craziness of the whole thing. The World Series? Are you kidding?

Let's review. Just for fun, please have a look at the Opening Day lineup:
  • Aaron Rowand, CF
  • Edgar Renteria, SS
  • Pablo Sandoval, 3B
  • Aubrey Huff, 1B
  • Mark DeRosa, LF
  • Bengie Molina, C
  • John Bowker, RF
  • Juan Uribe, 2B
  • Tim Lincecum, P
The lineup that closed out the Phillies in Game 6 of the NL Championship Series included only 3 of the same 8 position players--and not one of them in the same slot in the batting order! The road from that Opening Day win (over Roy Oswalt, just to add to the strangeness of this fable) to the World Series is almost too twisted to believe.

Let's recall, briefly, the conversations of April: Could newcomer Aubrey Huff play defense? When would wunderkind Buster Posey be called up (and was he really ready to replace veteran Bengie Molina)? Could NorCal homeboy John Bowker keep hitting like he did in Arizona? Did Pablo Sandoval really lose any weight? Would Tim Lincecum win a 3rd straight Cy Young award?

Remember: Todd Wellemeyer was the fifth starter. Pat Burrell was Tampa Bay's DH. Cody Ross went 0-for-4 as Florida's Opening Day rightfielder. Mike Fontenot took an 0-for-3 as the Cubs' Opening Day second baseman. Relief pitchers Javier Lopez and Ramon Ramirez were sitting in the bullpens of Pittsburgh and Boston, respectively. And a guy named Jeremy Affeldt, who would put out a raging inferno in Game 6 of the NLCS, was getting rave reviews for his Comcast SportsNet spring training segment.

As it turns out, perhaps the only April "fact" about the 2010 Giants that proved to be true was this: they had some damned good pitching. Despite the horrific August roadbump, the staff ended up leading the major leagues in ERA (3.36) and strikeouts (1331, or 8.2 per 9 innings).

Huff turned out to be more than just an adequate first baseman. He also played 63 games in the outfield and acquitted himself ably. The Burrell, Ross, Fontenot, Lopez and Ramirez acquisitions so discouraged the Giants' opposition that frustrated San Diego pitcher Mat Latos took to calling them "mercenaries". Timmy didn't win his 3rd Cy but his awful August may have helped him become an even better pitcher than ever.

DeRosa went down with a season-ending injury. Freddy Sanchez returned from health limbo. Edgar Renteria came and went from the DL. Sandoval vanished for long stretches but had an at-bat for the ages in Game 4 of the NLCS. Andres Torres went from interesting spare part to key cog. And it turned out Bowker couldn't keep it up, leading to his trade to the Pirates.

And two babies arrived in time to let everyone light their victory cigars. Buster Posey is the National League Rookie of the Year, even if the prize ends up going to Atlanta's Jason Heyward. Madison Bumgarner, who turned 21 during the summer, was a stone-cold assassin on the mound.

Then there was Juan Uribe. Perhaps the least-likely shortstop physique you've ever seen. Dyed his beard a very weird orange for a while. And invokes the ghost of his late uncle, Giants shortstop Jose Uribe, whenever the fans chant "OO-reebay". Genuinely funny, a better player than most casual fans realize, and the man who broke the back of the favored Phillies with that Game 6 homer. Remember: Uribe was only back with the Giants this year on a one-year contract because he couldn't find any other offers.

It's been a tense, magical, maddening, exhilarating October. But the road from April to October shouldn't be forgotten. It's what makes this story so spectacular.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

The Triumph Of Joy

If you look carefully, you'll see a rainbow in that spray of water from San Francisco's fireboat outside AT&T Park. The pot of gold is inside the park.

There is a creeping sense of inevitability about the way the NLCS between the Giants and Phillies will end. You won't catch me making any bold predictions here, but is there anyone who's been watching this series who doesn't know the ending already? I didn't think so.

What makes this all so remarkable is the unlikeliness of it all. Sure, everyone knew the Giants had some good young pitchers, led by the wunderkind Tim Lincecum. Matt Cain, Jonathan Sanchez: lots of talent and promise. The poetically-named Madison Bumgarner: hey, he's young and maybe he'll amount to something someday. That was in April. Now, these guys are the most feared rotation in the game.

It's a collection of characters. Juan Uribe, the nephew of a beloved Giant, wore a bad orange dye job on his beard at midseason--and he's not even close to the zaniest guy in this bunch. Aubrey Huff shows up off baseball's scrapheap and makes the Rally Thong his talisman. Cody Ross arrives wearing eyeblack like something out of "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" and becomes a storyline for the playoffs. There's Buster Posey--is this guy real? Add in Brian Wilson, Andres "Appendectomy" Torres, and of course, The Panda.

These guys play baseball--that is, their joy is evident. The team is a mix of young guys who might not know enough failure to realize how good they have it, and veterans who've seen more than enough hard times to know exactly how good they have it. Pablo Sandoval's unbridled reaction after his Game 4 double put the team ahead said everything about the peaks and valleys of his young career.

The Giants last reached the World Series in 2002. That was during the Barry Bonds years. Sure, it was exciting then, but it didn't have the off-the-chart sense of joy that prevails this year. There are plenty of good baseball teams on the planet. But I'll take the joyous one every time.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The NFL's Head Game

That is not a pretty picture. But it's prettier than what happened moments earlier, when Eagles wide receiver DeSean Jackson was knocked unconscious by Falcons cornerback Dunta Robinson.

Jackson won't be playing anytime soon. Neither will several other players who suffered concussions in recent NFL games. Now, the league has announced a new approach that could suspend players who "lead with their heads" when tackling.

It's about time.

People who've been around the game for years, like Hall of Fame coach John Madden, realize what's happened to the game. The helmet and facemask, introduced as safety devices, have become weapons. Tackling techniques once taught to young players have been abandoned by defensive players searching for the knockout blow.

The most dangerous plays are passing plays. Receivers (and quarterbacks) are vulnerable as they attempt to throw or catch. And defenders no longer seek to tackle the other player or simply knock the pass away. Instead, they try to "blow up" the other guy.

Football already has rules against headhunting. The problem is, they don't work because the practice has become so embedded in the game. Quick: how many times a game do you see a cornerback cover his receiver by trying to slap the pass away? More likely, his defensive move will be to "separate" the man from the ball (a euphemism for drilling the guy so hard he coughs up the ball).

Football is a violent, physical game. But somewhere along the way, it changed from a game of running, passing, catching, blocking, and tackling into a game of hitting. Think about it: that's a significant change. If the NFL now means to penalize players for their intent to lead with their helmeted heads, I believe it'll merely open a new Pandora's box of problems.

What pro football needs to do instead is at once simple and complex: it needs to return the game to a game of tackling. It might be a less-violent game (and it might harm the NFL's soaring TV ratings). Rules promoting tackling (as opposed to hitting) need to be written and enforced. Hard questions need to be asked about whether helmets and facemasks have become more of a problem than a solution. And the culture that celebrates a violent, potentially life-changing collision needs to be changed.

Good luck with all that.

Monday, October 18, 2010

More Blather From Fox

My dad called the other night. He's 82 and a former high school baseball coach. He and my mom are pretty serious Giants fans. And he's ticked off.

He had just endured another painful Fox Sports production--Game 1 of the NLCS between the Giant and the Phillies. He wanted to know how he could delay the Giants' hometown radio broadcast so it would "sync" up with the Fox TV broadcast, which is delayed by several seconds.

And Dad hadn't even seen Fox's Game 2 effort yet.

Just a few of the moments that made me want to scream and throw something at my plasma panel during Game 2:
  • The length of time it took Fox to notice that Placido Polanco was struck by a thrown ball while running inside the first-base line in the 1st inning. Despite multiple replays, Fox's longtime team of Joe Buck and Tim McCarver never spotted the obvious: Polanco could have been called out for violating Rule 6.05 (k).
  • The clumsy decision to play a taped dugout interview with Phils' hitting coach Greg Gross just as Giants outfielder Cody Ross was stepping in to hit. Ross, of course, homered while the audience heard Gross talk about something else.
  • Buck's inexcusable rant at Giants' third baseman Mike Fontenot after an infield popup dropped between four Giants. "It's five feet in front of you. Just catch it!," said Buck. If he'd bothered to watch his own broadcast, he'd have seen Fontenot repeatedly calling for the ball before backing away--begging the (unasked by Fox) question--who called him off and why?
  • McCarver's analysis of the 7th inning play in which Roy Oswalt overran a stop sign at third base to score when Giants first baseman Aubrey Huff cut off the throw. McCarver told us that Huff made the right play because the throw was going to hit the mound and be deflected. Huh? This is a former major league catcher speaking, folks. The rest of us saw a throw that would have beaten Oswalt to the plate by 15 feet.

I could go on, but what's the point? Fox has never shown much regard for the details of the game. In fact, it was bizarrely refreshing to hear Buck admit during Game 1 that he "wasn't watching" a play, asking McCarver (and I guess the rest of us, too), "What happened?".

I wish I had an answer for my dad. If I did, I'd set up the same thing at my house and listen to broadcasters who know what they're doing.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

So Long, Bobby Cox

In a world of free agency and ever-changing rosters, there aren't a lot of guys who become career employees of a pro sports organization.

That's why so much is being made of Bobby Cox' retirement. The Giants send him off as a loser, beating the Braves in Atlanta to close out their National League Division Series in a fourth consecutive one-run game.

Cox played the series a few cards short of a full deck. The injury-decimated Braves were their own worst enemies, playing shoddy defense and failing repeatedly at key moments. A youthful bullpen that entered the postseason with sterling numbers became pretty ordinary when push came to shove.

The Braves were overmatched and still forced the Giants into a nail-biter of a series. But it must be pointed out that Cox essentially deserted his team in Game 2, getting ejected early in the game, and then let fiery pitcher Derek Lowe talk him into staying in Game 4 one batter too long: Lowe walked Pat Burrell to load the bases during the Giants' game-winning rally.

Cox leaves with the 4th-highest managerial win total in history (he'll probably drop to 5th if Joe Torre sticks around for two or three more years). But he also leaves with a dubious record: nobody's ever been tossed out of more games.

I've never really understood the yin-yang aspect of Cox. Players love him. Journalists have always found him accessible and accommodating. His sportsmanlike gesture after the last out of his career was touching: he stepped out of the Braves dugout and made a point of saluting the celebrating Giants, who returned the favor.

Yet this is a guy who managed to get tossed from 158 games during his career and who often started dropping F-bombs on umpires after ball/strike calls in meaningless game situations. My son and I used to marvel at how heated Cox would get so early in a game, and I sometimes think the boy picked up a bit of a potty-mouth just by watching Cox curse.

The Braves produced some great teams and players under Cox' watch. Let's hope his legacy of longevity (nearly 30 years as manager or GM of the Braves) and success outlasts the memory of all those heave-hos from the umps.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Magic Number: 92

Want to know how to make sure your team makes the baseball playoffs? Don't get too caught up in how many runs they score or how strong the bullpen is or how many double plays they turn.

Just make sure they win 92 games. Especially in the National League.

Over the last 10 years, just about every team that's won 92 games has made the playoffs. We're talking about a total of 80 playoff teams over that span (4 in each league each year). Only 5 teams have won 92 games and failed to make the playoffs, and only one of those was a National League team (the 2002 Dodgers).

2002 was a bad year for the "Rule of 92". Not only did the Dodgers get left out, but in the American League, both the Yankees and Mariners sat out the playoffs despite 93-win regular seasons. By the way--Seattle is the only team over the last 10 years to be denied twice with 92 or more wins--they also missed the playoffs in 2003 with 93 wins. The other exception to the rule is the 93-win 2005 Cleveland Indians.

Getting to 92 requires winning about 57% of your games. You don't even need to win every series. Split the 4-gamers, win most of the 3-gamers and you're in.

Just like the 2010 Giants, who made it into the playoffs on the season's final day with their...wait for it...92nd win.