Monday, October 29, 2012

A New Reality

Full disclosure: I am a Giants fan. It's a lifetime deal; I have as much Johnnie LeMaster and Frank Linzy in my DNA as I do Pablo Sandoval and Sergio Romo. I have the ticket stubs, season-ticket invoices, blankets and Croix de Candlestick to prove my oft-misplaced loyalty.

There were some lean years. Very lean years. And then there was the epic release of 2010, the first-ever San Francisco Giants title.

And now, this. The beyond-improbable comebacks in the National League Division Series and National League Championship Series. The uproarious Game 1 spanking of Tigers ace Justin Verlander along with the utter, complete, and permanent redemption of Barry Zito. The sacking of the Motor City en route to the sweep none of the "experts" saw coming.

I certainly don't pretend to speak for every Giants fan, but I know this: many of us are on strange ground now. The reality we've known for all those years has shifted. No longer are the Giants a bunch of near-missers or lovable losers. When you win it all twice in a three-year span, you're doing something deeply and fundamentally right.

Of course, the Baseball Gods are fickle. So many things large and small can dictate the outcome of a game, a series, a season. There are no guarantees of future performance. Yet there it is: two titles in three years.

So the question is: how do we adjust to this new reality? Do we end up like Yankees fans, who simply expect a championship each year as a sort of birthright? How about those Red Sox fans, who wore the team's historic futility like a hair shirt for years, then seemed to reverse it so the scratchy side was out once the team had some success?

Or do we stay the course and maintain a healthy sense of amazement at whatever good fortune falls our way? I think you can see my mindset.  I hope I can maintain it.

Now, another championship next year might change things...

Friday, October 26, 2012

A Miracle Every Night

As I write, it's been less than a week since the Giants were washed up and left for dead on the banks of the Mississippi River. If you bleed orange and black, you're free to admit that last Friday morning, you were ready to let go of baseball. The Giants trailed the Cardinals 3 games to 1 and the oft-maligned Barry Zito had the ball for a game the Giants needed to win to stay alive.

No need to review the details of what's happened since then. The Giants have won five straight pressure-packed postseason games--three of them "do or die" matches in which a loss would have ended their season.

5 wins in 7 days; a gloriously crazy week that surely must rank among the most remarkable sports weeks anywhere, any time.

But it's not just the wins that make all this so stupendous. It's the way the Giants have been winning. In every one of these games, there's been a moment when you just knew the fates were on their side. You can call it luck or call it a balancing of the scales (does anyone really think the 2010 Word Series win completely makes up for all those years in the desert?), but it's proof that baseball is about more than just honest effort.

The Week That Was has delivered the glorious insanity of that NLCS Game 7 with its rain-soaked finish. It included the "where-did-THAT-come-from" undressing of Tigers ace Justin Verlander (and another Zito gem) in World Series Game 1.

And then there was the nail-biting tension of Game 2, a taut pitching battle that went to the bottom of the 7th in a scoreless tie. You could say the Baseball Gods had already interceded when Tigers first baseman Prince Fielder was thrown out at the plate in the second inning, but that was just an example of human frailty (what could Tigers third-base coach Gene Lamont have been thinking?).

No, the moment when everyone looked to the sky and laughed was in that bottom of the 7th, when the bunt everyone knew Gregor Blanco had to get down eased its way to a stop inches inside the third-base line. Hume plate umpire Dan Iassogna looked like a cat crouching over a mouse hole while he waited for the ball to stop, and his emphatic "fair" call blew the lid off the place. The play loaded the bases and set up the only run the Giants would need.

As Giants third-base coach and resident mystic Tim Flannery would later say, "You just go home and thank the higher power of whoever's in charge." Exactly. But what Flannery added may be equally important: "Try not to piss the other ones off."

No one's ever seen the Gods of Baseball. But few who follow the game doubt their existence. For now, they seem to be favoring the Boys of McCovey Cove.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Three Paths To Redemption

There's no point trying to explain the Giants' Game 1 win over the Tigers. It's just more of the same crazy juju that's carried the team and its fans for a fortnight. Plus, as I messaged a friend during the game, it's unbelievable how many times I've used the word "unbelievable" in the last few days.

So let's spend some time reflecting on the remarkable paths taken by the Giants' three Game 1 heroes: Sandoval, Zito and Lincecum.

There are moments in your life you never forget, and for me, one of them came on the morning of August 14, 2008. My carpool-mate and colleague Steve Bitker called me over to the sports desk in the KCBS newsroom, where his TV was showing the Giants play a day game in Houston. Over the course of the morning, a few others gathered whenever a rotund young Giants catcher came to the plate.

History records Pablo Sandoval went 0-for-3 in that game and drove in a run with a sacrifice fly. What I'll never forget was how it looked: a chubby guy with that approachable round face, just slashing at the ball. In those pre-Panda days, Sandoval was a curiosity, but anyone who saw him squaring up pitches in and out of the strike zone could see this guy could hit. A raw, native talent; a diamond in the rough.

Four days later, the Giants closed out that road trip in Atlanta. Sandoval again started at catcher and went 2-for-4 with an RBI, leaving him with a .417 Major League batting average before he ever played a game in San Francisco. But that Sunday game in Atlanta carries extra weight in our little narrative, for the starting pitcher that day was...Barry Zito.

Zito was in the second year of the mega-contract that has, for so many, defined him. He was 6-15 with an ERA well above 5.00 when he took the mound in Atlanta that day. And he went 7 shutout innings, the sort of brilliant performance he produced from time to time--but never often enough to offset all the bad days. Zito was on his way to leading the Major Leagues in losses that year.

2008 was not much of a year for the Giants. The team finished 18 games under .500 and 12 games out of first. But fans were thrilling to the exploits of a singular talent, a kid they called The Freak. Tim Lincecum won the Cy Young Award in his first full big-league season.

Two years later, the Giants won the World Series for the first time in the lifetime of anyone on the roster. Lincecum was a star, winning 4 games including 2 in the World Series. Sandoval was mostly a spectator, getting only 19 plate appearances and batting .176 as Giants management questioned his obesity. Zito? Not even on the postseason roster.

And now here we are, two years later. Sandoval is still heavy, and he's gone through two straight seasons where he missed time with wrist surgery, but he's locked-in at the plate like he was on that 2008 road trip and his Game 1 three-homer performance puts him in the company of The Babe, Reggie, and Pujols (try saying it out loud without giggling: "Babe Ruth, Reggie Jackson, Albert Pujols...Pablo Sandoval!").

Lincecum has gone from the most dominant pitcher in the game to a guy who led the league in losses this year and posted an ERA above 5.00, eerily similar to Zito's 2008 stats. Unlike Zito in '10, he's on the roster, but in a new role: super-reliever. He appears to be having fun again, and with an ERA under 3.00 and 17 strikeouts in 15 innings, he's dealing. Twice, he's answered the call in a Zito start: once to pick up a win in an NLCS comeback and then to get a "hold" in Zito's World Series win.

That brings us to Zito. Anyone who still wants to talk about "the contract" at this point is either stupid or petty or both. In two of the most pressure-packed moments in recent Giants history, Zito has come up big.  Very big. His Game 5 NLCS start in St. Louis saved the Giants' season. And to outduel Justin Verlander in a World Series game? Please. Zito sports a 1.69 postseason ERA this year, and let's not forget his two hits and two RBI's at the plate.

Three unique men. Three twisting paths, each traversing hill and dale, often in unexpected directions. Challenges thrown down--physically and mentally--and met. Their journeys have come together now, in the World Series.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

And Your New Villain Is...

Now that Matt Holliday has left town, the leather-lunged portion of the crowd at AT&T Park will need a new target.

They won't have to look far, and he's a hard guy to miss.

Tigers first baseman Prince Fielder is the one guy the Giants' Pablo Sandoval can stand next to and not be the "big guy" in the photo.  Fielder is listed at 275 pounds, and he's a big target in more ways than one.

Let's just say that Fielder's persona can be as outsized as his physique, and it doesn't always rub other baseball people the right way. Case in point: the infamous "bowling ball" stunt in a September, 2009 game in Milwaukee. Fielder hit a walk-off homer to beat the Giants, and when he arrived at home plate, he played the role of the bowling ball while his Brewers teammates played the pins. The choreographed stunt didn't please the Giants.

And they weren't alone. Angels outfielder Torii Hunter was quoted as saying, "If I was a pitcher, I'd be ticked off. You can't do that." It was, pure and simple, a violation of one of baseball's many unwritten rules: you can celebrate, but you can't show up your opponents. And if you need to ask whether you've crossed the line, you probably already have.

The Giants seethed, but not for long. While Fielder's stunt ended the last Giants-Brewers game of 2009, it was on a March 2010 afternoon in Arizona that the baseball gods got their offering. Fielder was plunked in the back by a pitch thrown in a Cactus League game. His reaction? "Let them hit me once, and if that makes them feel better, that's awesome."

And because storylines always work out this way, the guy who threw the pitch will watch Fielder dig in against him during Game 1 of the World Series. That's right, it was Barry Zito, who issued the typical "we were just trying to work inside" non-denial denial.

Case closed, as far as that goes. But it's worth noting that nine current Giants players (if you count disabled-but-very-present Freddy Sanchez and Brian Wilson) were at Miller Park for the Fielder stunt. Zito, of course, was one of them.

And so was a young phenom named Buster Posey, sitting in the Giants dugout during his first week in the big leagues. He saw it all, and catchers have long memories.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Bathing In Victory

Mesmerizing, isn't it? If there's any way to sum up the Giants' incredible, improbable, emotional, can't-really-believe-it's-true Game 7 NLCS win over the Cardinals, it's that broken-bat hit by Hunter Pence that turned a 2-0 Giants lead into a 5-0 rout.

I love to bash Fox and its intrusive, braying coverage of baseball. But credit where it's due: the remarkable replay you're seeing on this page is a window into the magic that seems to be crouched on the shoulders of the Giants.

Of course, the 43,000 of us who saw the game in person were unaware of Pence's magic act. We saw Cards shortstop Pete Kozma break the wrong way on Pence's bases-loaded grounder. We saw Cards center fielder Jon Jay botch the pickup, allowing Buster Posey to wheel all the way around from first to score. And we saw the game go from a nail-biting tension-fest to a backslapping, high-fiving party.

In all my years as a Giants fan, I don't think I've ever seen anything like it. More than just the roar of a crowd happy with a home-team win, it was the giddy outpouring of amazement from folks who could scarcely believe their good fortune. Let's not forget: a fortnight ago, the Giants slunk off to Cincinnati, a loss away from ending their season.

And then there was the Great American Comeback, punctuated by Buster Posey's epic grand slam off a cartoon villain named Mat Latos. Somehow, some way, the Giants came off the mat to win that series against the Reds and set up a showdown between the last two World Series champs for the right to go to this year's Series.

And then the script repeated itself. Down 3-to-1 in a best-of-seven series and facing elimination on the road, the Giants sent Barry Zito to the mound. And he pitched a game that will be spoken of in reverential tones as long as people gather to talk Giants baseball. 

In the last three games of this NLCS, the Giants outscored the Cards 20-1. The indelible moments included Zito's RBI bunt single, Pence's trick-show double, an endless barrage of hits by Marco Scutaro, Brandon Crawford's leaping catch of Kyle Lohse's scary line drive, a screeching homer and equally-loud triple off the bat of Brandon Belt, and a series of defensive boners by the Cards.

Oh, and the relentless grinding of Zito, Vogelsong, Cain and a host of bullpen heroes. When the indefatigable Sergio Romo got the call in Game 7, he bounded through the downpour, buoyed by a frenzied crowd. Romo's path is so improbable it would never pass muster in Hollywood, yet there he was, the man of the moment that seemed like it could never happen.

And of course, it had to end with newly-minted villain Matt Holliday popping up to Scutaro, the man he tried to shatter with his Game 2 "slide" at second base. Just before that play, Scutaro, a 36-year-old professional who has never been to the World Series, looked up into the rain and smiled broadly. Pure, unbridled, silly, giggly joy.

Meteorologists say it rained nearly a half-inch during the 8th and 9th innings of Game 7. During the regular season, the game would surely have been halted and then called, but Major League Baseball requires postseason games to go the full nine innings, no matter what it takes.

Few in the crowd cared. Few left, and few sought shelter. It was like a party no one wanted to see end, a party that was a party precisely because it was so unexpected. The best gifts are always like that.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

It's On

Matt Holliday's chop-block on Marco Scutaro may have done more than a Hunter Pence dugout sermon to build a fire under the San Francisco Giants and their fans. Here in the Bay Area, it was a dirty play. In the alternate universe beside the Mississippi River, it was good old country hardball.

Former Giants pitcher Mike Krukow called it "a bush play", which in baseball-talk, is about as vile an epithet as one can deliver. You can dismiss Krukow as a "homer", but it's way deeper than that. Krukow played on the Giants teams of the 80's, a time when a raging rivalry marked the relationship between the Giants and Cards.

Roger Craig managed the Giants; Whitey Herzog ran the Cardinals.  Neither had much use for the other. Actually, I'm pretty sure it was more like an intense mutual dislike. Their teams reflected it. Giants-Cardianls games were grinding affairs, punctuated on occasion by brawls.  And these weren't usually your basic baseball push-and-shove affairs. One memorable bout saw Giants catcher Bob Brenly and Cards icon Ozzie Smith brawling on the infield dirt after a takeout slide. Brenly punched Smith in the face, and if  memory serves, The Wizard of Oz later dismissively asked, "Who the f*** is Bob Brenly?"

The high (or low) point of all this was the memorable 1987 NL Championship Series between the two teams. 7 games, all played before crowds of 55,000 or more. Giants left fielder Jeffrey Leonard homered in each of the first four games and enraged St. Louisans with his "one flap down" home run trot (and I do mean trot, the Hac-Man took his sweet time). The good people of Missouri showered Leonard with invective and even some garbage, and rattled cowbells in his direction (though it was teammate Chili Davis who had slurred St. Louis as "a cow town").

Krukow had a complete-game win in Game 4 of that NLCS and after a Game 5 win at Candlestick Park, the Giants needed a split in St. Louis to achieve their first World Series berth in 25 years.  No go. The Cards won Games 6 and 7 before losing an epic 7-game World Series to the Twins.

So here we are, a quarter-century later. The NLCS moves to St. Louis all knotted at a game apiece and with Scutaro's status uncertain. Holliday's defense of his dastardly deed was far from full-throated: "I wish I had slid one step earlier," he said.  Well, yes.  Or maybe two steps earlier.

Meanwhile, Giants reliever Sergio Romo goofs off in the background during dugout live shots, and injured icon Brian Wilson sports a black-and-orange manicure while tapping out a rhythm on teammate Clay Hensley's head.  Giants fans are loving that stuff; no doubt, the Busch Stadium crowd was not amused.

Game on.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

A Tale Of Two Cities

Better read this posting in a hurry; the who-can-believe-they're-both-still-in-it Game 5 Division Series contests for the Giants and A's are just a few hours away as I write.

But last night's maelstrom at the Oakland Coliseum (I flat-out refuse to call it the "O.Co Coliseum") demands comment, especially when you compare it with the scene across the bay at AT&T Park.

The A's finished 27th of the 30 Major League teams in attendance this year; the Giants 4th. The Giants played to 99.5% of capacity for the season; the A's to 60.6% of capacity in their tarp-strangled home yard.

Advantage, San Francisco  right?  I don't think so.

I started ruminating on this during the regular season. As a longtime Giants season-ticket holder, I've watched the change in fan demeanor over the years. Yes, I know the Giants say they've sold out 10,000 consecutive games (or something like that), but I can tell you: in the section where I sit, plenty of those tickets go unused.  I can also tell you that I seldom see the same people twice in my section. That suggests a less-rabid fan base than the Giants once enjoyed.

This all came home last weekend, when the Giants lost twice to the Reds at the start of the NLDS. As I settled in for Game 1, I saw a fellow wearing a Reds cap heading for the seats next door. Not unusual: I often have out-of-town guests in my section (can you say, "Stubhub"?).

He and his wife were nice folks; Southern California residents who were thrilled to be able to see his boyhood home team in a postseason game.  They were sitting in $60 face value seats; they'd paid more than that on the secondary market.

And they were amazed by two things: the beauty of AT&T Park, and the general lack of energy in the stands.  "Is it always this quiet here?," he asked.  Before I answered, I looked around. There were two young women working their smartphones. Another couple busy snapping photos of each other. 4 or 5 empty seats. "Not always," I replied.  But the truth is, the San Francisco crowd that night was not an energetic one.

Contrast that with the start-to-finish madness at the Coliseum. It's a smaller crowd, in a ballpark that nobody is going to call "beautiful". But there's a kind of frantic energy that you can just feel. It's brash and gutsy and raw.

Maybe I'm straining here, and I hate to play into any longstanding stereotypes ("Oh, those white-wine sippers" vs. "Eew, motorcycle gang members"), but here's how it feels to me: going to a Giants game these days is like making a reservation at a nice restaurant. You'll be surrounded by the kind of people who do that sort of thing. The place will be nice, the ambiance enjoyable, and the potential for disruption low. When it's over, you'll head home, amiably dissecting the high points of the evening before checking your e-mail again.

By contrast, an A's game is like a visit to a dive bar.  The place looks sort of grimy, there's a kind of noisy bonhomie, and the evening will probably end with you making a new BFF (that tattooed guy wearing the Tony Armas jersey).

Two teams, two ballparks, two vibes.  No value judgments here.

Let's just hope there's another week or two of fun at both joints.