An unlikely story, San Francisco finally has a World Series champion
ARLINGTON, Texas -- This team, this magical team, was never about the Giants' franchise. People seemed to miss that point. Again and again, you would hear about how the Giants had not won a World Series since 1954 -- since 1954, since 1954, since 1954 -- since Willie Mays turned and ran back on Vic Wertz's fly ball, since Dusty Rhodes crushed every pitch he saw, since Hank Thompson squeezed that last foul pop and gave those New York fans living their lives between Brooklyn and the Bronx their greatest thrill.
No. This Giants team wasn't about 1954. Who cared about '54? This team wasn't about Leo Durocher or Bobby Thomson or Carl Hubbell or Mugsy McGraw or Christy Mathewson or any of that ancient Giants baseball history. This team wasn't about another time or another place.
No. This team was about San Francisco. And San Francisco had NEVER won the World Series.
Well, the San Francisco Giants won their first World Series on Monday. They beat the Texas Rangers 3-1 to take the Series four games to one. They won it the way they won throughout the postseason, with remarkable pitching and with an unlikely hitting hero. They won it with a lineup that, just a few months ago, would have looked like something you might see for a spring training game. They won it with their town, San Francisco -- that strange, literary, edgy place that the great sportswriter Jim Murray called a "no-host cocktail party" -- seeing baseball like they never had before.
To San Francisco, baseball had always been about stars and heartbreak and a howling wind at Candlestick Park. To San Francisco, baseball had meant the aging Willie Mays, now turning on fastballs and hitting long home runs. It meant Willie McCovey, Stretch, standing in the box, as menacing a hitter as the game had known. It meant the high leg kick of Juan Marichal, the hustle of Gaylord Perry, the sweet swing of Will Clark, the brilliant blend of power and speed of the young Bobby Bonds. Baseball meant miserable nights at Candlestick Park with hot dog wrappers blowing in the outfield and underdressed fans wondering where summer went.
And, of course, San Francisco baseball meant Barry Bonds, always Barry, inescapable Barry, the sullen Barry who played ball like no one else but could not get his respect ... the bulked-up Barry who was so cartoonishly good at hitting baseballs over walls that, after a while, teams simply walked him rather than deal with him ... the record-chasing Barry who passed Hank Aaron's home-run totals while the nation booed both him AND the city that loved him.
This was San Francisco baseball. The Giants lost the World Series in seven games in '62. They lost the World Series of '89 that was better known for the earthquake. They lost the World Series in 2002 though they had a five-run lead with eight outs to go. But there was never the same angst in San Francisco about the losing that they feel in Cleveland or Boston or Chicago. There was, instead, a sense of anger and wonder. How could a team keep losing with all those great stars?
And then ... this Giants team came along. Lovable? No, not at first. They drove the city mad. "Giants baseball ... torture," radio announcer Duane Kuiper pronounced after one of a dozen soul-crushing losses. Yes. Torture. They couldn't score runs. The so-called star players who had been brought in at big expense -- Barry Zito, Aaron Rowand, Edgar Renteria -- were injured or dreadful or both. Last year's breakout star, Pablo Sandoval, the Kung Fu Panda, was no longer chopping them up or chopping them down. On July 2nd, the Giants had lost their seventh game in a row, they were one game over .500, they were in fourth place. This season looked as lost as all the rest of them.
How they got from that lost moment to Monday's champagne celebration is a story you've already heard, a story of a million breaks and stubborn pride and good timing and great pitching. The movie should be coming to a theater near you. What was startling to watch was how San Francisco fell in love with them. They had never seen a team quite like this one. This was a team without high-priced stars, without bigger-than-life characters, without anyone great enough to distract attention.
"We're just a bunch of guys," said outfielder Cody Ross, who was one of those guys, who had been released by the Florida Marlins.
He wasn't the only one. Outfielder Pat Burrell had been released by the Tampa Bay Rays. First baseman Aubrey Huff had been stuck at home waiting for the phone to ring. Shortstop Juan Uribe had signed a minor-league deal because it was the best deal he had gotten. Center fielder Andres Torres had been signed and let go by six clubs before the Giants gave him the leadoff spot in the lineup.
San Francisco has never really done well in the underdog role. The city had always connected best with the Bill Walsh 49ers, those unstoppable 49ers who won five Super Bowls and obliterated teams with Joe Montana and Jerry Rice and Steve Young and Ronnie Lott. This Giants team was a whole new experience, rooting for a team that seemed certain to fail but somehow, some way, kept NOT failing. It was intoxicating.
There seemed no reason to think the Giants could win Monday night either. They were on the road, playing Texas in their home-run-happy ballpark. The Rangers had won 51 of 81 games at home (they had a losing record on the road). They had crushed the ball at home, averaging more than five runs per game. On top of that, the Rangers were throwing the irrepressible soon-to-be multi-multi-multi-millionaire Cliff Lee, their ace, the guy who had entered the World Series with one of the more remarkable postseason records in baseball history. The Giants had beaten him in Game 1 (Lee's first postseason loss) but everything about that game felt fluky and unrepeatable.
And when the Giants announced their lineup -- with Cody Ross hitting cleanup (has there ever been a more unlikely cleanup hitter in the World Series?), with both Pat Burrell (who came into the game 0-for-9 with 8 strikeouts) and Aaron Rowand (who was starting only his third game since Sept. 16) stuck at the end -- well, it seemed even to many San Francisco fans that the Giants would have to wrap this thing up at home.
But ... there's a reason this Giants team has been able to pull miracles this year. The reason is pitching. The Giants led the National League in ERA. In the postseason, they had thrown four shutouts in 14 games. Matt Cain had not allowed an earned run the whole postseason. Twenty-one-year-old lefty Madison Bumgarner had wrecked the Rangers Sunday night. And on this night, the Giants had their ace going -- two time Cy Young winner Tim Lincecum -- and he was about as good as he had ever been.
"You could tell from the very first inning," his rookie catcher Buster Posey would say. "The ball was really moving."
Lincecum didn't just shut down the Rangers batters. He humiliated them. He had them missing pitches by a foot or more. He had them taking ludicrous swings, awkward swings, frustrated swings, hopeless swings. Lincecum no longer has the high-90s fastball that made him all-but unhittable in 2008, but he now has an absurd change-up that breaks one way and an absurd slider that breaks the other, and when he has command of them, the hitters tend to be mere props. That's how it was Monday. The Rangers did not get their first hit until the fourth inning.
Cliff Lee was about as good, though, and the game was scoreless through six innings -- a wonderful, every-pitch-matters pitching duel. In the bottom of the sixth, the Rangers got their leadoff hitter, Mitch Moreland, on base. The crowd, which had been numbed by Lincecum's genius, started to stir. They just wanted something, anything, to cheer. But before they could get wound up, the inning was over. Four pitches. Elvis Andrus flew out. Michael Young flew out. Josh Hamilton grounded out. Four pitches. Threat over.
That's when the Giants unlikely hitting hero du jour stepped up. Lee had been so masterful, but the Giants pecked away at him in the seventh. Ross singled. Uribe singled. Then Huff sacrifice bunted, which wouldn't be a big deal except it was the first sacrifice bunt of his entire career. That pretty much describes these Giants ("Whatever we have to do," Huff would say). But it still looked like Lee would get out of it. He whiffed Burrell -- Burrell's 11th strikeout in 13 miserable World Series at-bats -- and then was facing Renteria with first base open.
Edgar Renteria. What a strange career. He already was a World Series hero. He had the game-winning hit for Florida in Game 7 of the 1997 World Series (that would be 1997, when Giants Game 4 hero Madison Bumgarner was 8 years old). Renteria had cracked more than 2,200 hits in the big leagues for six teams. This was his 66th postseason game.
And, to be blunt about it, he looked absolutely done. He was on the disabled list three times in 2010. He thought numerous times that his career was over. He did not start a game in the Division Series. He did start four games in the Championship Series -- and he hit .063 and looked three times his age of 35. He inexplicably had been hitting in this World Series, though, and Lee had first base open, and he had the struggling Aaron Rowand on deck. There seemed no reason to give Renteria anything good to hit. But Lee had no intention of walking Renteria. With the count 2-0, he threw Renteria a cutter that cut over the heart of the plate.
"I was only looking for one pitch," Renteria said. And that was the one.
Renteria turned on it, hit it high and far. In San Francisco the ball might have been caught. In Texas, it landed in the first row of the left-field bleachers. This team in this postseason has had Cody Ross for a hero, Juan Uribe for a hero, Pat Burrell for a hero, Aubrey Huff for a hero and, yes, Edgar Renteria for a hero back in Game 2. His turn came up again.
"He told me he was going to hit a home run," said his teammate Torres. "He told me!"
"I was just joking," Renteria explained. "I said, 'I hit one out here.'"
Lincecum and closer Brian Wilson finished off the game, and the celebration roared back in the Bay. There has never been a more unlikely San Francisco sports story. It's like one longtime San Francisco baseball fan told me: "I thought I loved baseball before. But with this team, I don't know, it's something else." That longtime San Francisco baseball fan was Larry Baer, the Giants president.
"This is for San Francisco," Giants manager Bruce Bochy said, and it was.
A team called the Giants played in New York before 1958. But that's for the history books. The San Francisco Giants won their first ever World Series Monday night with pitching and good timing and this crazy belief that they were actually good enough to win the whole thing. It was enough to make San Francisco fall in love with baseball like it was the first time.