My Sportsman: The San Francisco Giants
Baseball seasons never truly end as much as they leave us wanting for what comes next. They are our bigger versions of the Dickensian 19th century newspaper serial, a story in continuum.
So it was that when San Francisco closer Brian Wilson, at 7:30 p.m. PDT on the first of November, threw a fastball past Nelson Cruz of the Texas Rangers, the Giants didn't just win the World Series. They rebuilt Seals Stadium, made the wind cease at Candlestick Park, gave McCovey another chance, scored a run against the '87 Cardinals, took Salomon Torres off the hook, rallied against the Rally Monkey and gave every San Francisco Giants fan, whether young or old, the gift of true satisfaction. It all was worth it.
"We buried the bones," said Giants GM Brian Sabean.
Shortstop Edgar Renteria may have been the World Series MVP, having joined Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio and Yogi Berra as the only players to drive home the clinching run for a second time. Ace Tim Lincecum may have posted four of the Giants' 11 postseason wins while outdueling Derek Lowe, the only man to win three clinchers in one postseason, and Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee, who combined had been unbeatable in the postseason (8-0, 1.11) before they ran into Lincecum.
The 2010 Giants were bigger than one player, bigger than one season. They are my Sportsmen of the Year because they represent sport at its best: when it transcends mere wins and losses to become the mortar that joins generations, families, communities and cultures. Sport is nothing more than televised middle school gym class unless there is societal meaning. And with a championship so long and lovingly in the making, the 2010 Giants did for San Francisco what the 1955 Dodgers did for Brooklyn, the 2004 Red Sox did for Boston and the 2005 White Sox did for Chicago.
"What I'm most proud of," Sabean said moments after the final out, "is that we've become a baseball town."
They have been playing major league baseball in San Francisco since 1958, when the Giants left New York to play across the street from Stempel's Bakery at Seals Stadium, where there was no roof and no second deck. In 1960 they moved to Candlestick Park, with such deleterious windswept chill and fog that the club once handed out buttons in the spirit of combat medals ("Croix de Candlestick") to fans that made it through an extra-inning game. It was in 2000 that they opened luminous PacBell Park, a sparkling gem of a ballpark, the first one west of the Mississippi with the sine qua non personality that makes a ballpark, when done right, the progeny of the colonial town hall.
In three homes over 52 seasons did San Francisco follow this serial in wait for a championship. The Giants lacked the historical and literary embellishments of Brooklyn, Boston and Chicago, and so their suffering went underplayed, though much suffering did they know. Five times in those years they played a Game 6 or Game 7 with a chance to win the series, and lost every one of those games, getting shut out in three of those five potential clinchers.
The agony began with a 1-0 loss to the Yankees in Game 7 of the 1962 World Series, which ended when Willie McCovey lined out to second base with the tying and winning runs in scoring position. In the 1987 NLCS, up three games to two, they were shut out in back-to-back losses to St. Louis. And in the 2002 World Series, up 5-0 on the Angels with one out and nobody on in the seventh, they managed the biggest collapse in a potential clincher in series history, followed by a 4-1 whimper of an elimination in Game 7.
This is all you need to know about the cruelty of Giants culture: Charlie Brown is a Giants fan. Two months after McCovey's lineout, Peanuts cartoonist Charles Schulz, from Santa Rosa, drew a strip in which Charlie and Linus sit brooding silently for three panels, only to have Charlie wail in the fourth, "Why couldn't McCovey have hit the ball just three feet higher?"
The Giants were Charlie Brown and the World Series was the football Lucy kept telling him to go ahead and kick. And they kept giving you reasons why this time would be different. Indeed, the Giants have one of the robust histories in baseball, especially including their New York years. The Giants have more Hall of Famers, 66, than any other franchise.
Even if you consider only the San Francisco history, the Giants are flush with lore, if however unrequited. Their 1965 team included more future Hall of Fame players -- six: Willie Mays, McCovey, Juan Marichal, Gaylord Perry, Orlando Cepeda and Warren Spahn -- than any team in baseball history -- and, naturally, they missed the World Series by the eyelash of two games. Indeed, in the 40 completed seasons from 1964 through 2004, the Giants missed the playoffs by three or fewer games eight times.
Since 1958 and until this year, the Giants had won more games with a greater winning percentage (.517) without winning the World Series than any other franchise. In 1993, with a San Francisco-record 103 wins, the Giants became the winningest team in the past 56 years not to make the playoffs, losing on the last day behind an overwhelmed Torres. And in 2003 they became the ninth team in history to spend every day of the season in first place, only to lose the NLDS to Florida, dropping the final two games in the Marlins' last at-bat. The Giants made an art of being good enough to lose when it counted.
San Francisco has been a lush, diverse city, worldly in its ways and image, ever since gold was discovered in its environs. International orange is more than the paint chip of its iconic Golden Gate Bridge; it works well to define its global profile as well. The city did not need a baseball championship to be world class -- but it did to know what it means to be truly major league.
Not only did the Giants give their fans a winner, they also gave them an unforgettable one, one with a Playbill's worth of characters who exuded joy and thankfulness about what was happening. They are now characters, and not unlike the misfits and urchins Dickens himself gave us, who are established eternally.
Wilson and that frightfully awful beard. Aubrey Huff and the red thong. Lincecum and the hair. Cody Ross, the greatest in-season claim in the history of waivers. The prenaturally cool Buster Posey. The unflappable Matt Cain. The very roundness of Pablo Sandoval and Juan Uribe. The redemption of prodigal Bay Area son Pat Burrell. Watching these Giants, you half expected Jean Valjean to pop up in the on-deck circle at any moment.
These are the men and these are the moments that forever will mark time in the oral history of the Giants, those that root for them and those still to come. Stories will be told around the dinner table, on long car rides, in the bleak days of midwinter and especially come the autumns, when the Giants' championship is an anniversary to be recalled each year like one in the family.
The celebratory parade provided a snapshot of the synergy between a town and its team, with more than a million people wanting a glimpse at those they call their own, the players riding in vehicles that looked like cable cars.
"Man, it gave you butterflies and goosebumps," Lincecum said. "To hear the crowd cheer, from one car to the next. You'd turn into a big street and hear the roar, see all the signs . . . the whole experience of it was amazing."
There never will be another parade quite like that one. In Boston, 2007 was nothing like 2004. This year was the start of something -- a real, true baseball town -- but it also was the end of something -- the yearning for a first time. And by that measure, there never will be a team quite like this one in San Francisco.
When Wilson, fittingly, as the bearded one, the failed starter, the 24th-round draft pick (though he may far enough out there to be beyond what Dickens might have conjured), took care of the final out, the Giants were world champions for the first time since Mays would glide on 23-year-old legs across the wide pasture that was the Polo Grounds centerfield in New York. It was 1954.
It was, for too many, a lifetime ago, as folks in the Giants family such as Bobby Thomson, Bill Rigney, Rod Beck, Charles Schulz and countless fans did not live to see the day of Nov. 1 2010 -- that is, 11/01/10, or, in binary code, 110110, which equates to . . . 54. Baseball, in ways big and small, connects.