- Walking off a major league mound for the final time, Matt Cain could no longer maintain the stoic facade he spent a career putting up. His emotions overflowed on the field and in the dugout as he received a final ovation from Giants fans.
The Giants have been just about the worst team in baseball this year, so you can be forgiven if you didn’t tune in for their Game 161 matchup Saturday against the almost-as-bad Padres. But if you were doing something that sounded more interesting—collecting lint, counting ceiling tiles, watching paint dry—you missed one of the purest moments of the season.
The best part of sports is that athletes don’t pretend they don’t care about losses. They pretend they don’t care about wins all the time—just ask Mike Trout if he wants the MVP award. But they do not conceal that losing hurts them. They weep openly after defeats, even as TV cameras hungrily record every second of their pain. This is rare. Actors plaster smiles on their faces and applaud as someone else accepts the award they wanted. Politicians spend their concession speeches encouraging us to work with the person who just beat them. We fake indifference in our own, less public, lives, too. Get dumped, hit the bar. Miss out on a promotion, shake it off. We act cynical and detached as if that will make things hurt less.
Matt Cain pitched his last major league game on Saturday afternoon. It’s been a while since he was the perfect-game twirling twentysomething who led the Giants to two championships and missed the third after elbow surgery. He was the most important person in the organization for a while. He was just 17 when San Francisco took him with the 25th pick of the 2002 draft, and he helped carry the franchise out of the Barry Bonds era, through four straight losing seasons and to its first title on the West Coast. Cain’s 331 starts rank second in Giants history, after Hall of Famer Juan Marichal; he was a three-time All-Star; he threw that magical perfect game, still the only one in the team’s 135-year history.
He has not been the same pitcher since that elbow surgery, which Cain had in 2014 to remove bone chips. He’s been dogged by everything from a flexor strain to nerve pain to pulled hamstrings. The six-year, $127.5 million deal he signed in ’12—at the time the largest for a righty in history—is set to expire after this season. He didn’t reach the innings floor that would have triggered his ’18 option. Cain’s recent decline has also accompanied his team’s; it will pick first or second in next year’s draft and try to begin a new cycle of greatness.
Really, Cain has been done for months now. That’s not easy for any athlete to admit. He had a 5.66 ERA in 119 1/3 innings this year when he told reporters last week that this would be his last outing with the Giants or with anyone else. “I can’t see myself going somewhere else to play with another team,” he said. “I know I’m able to hang my hat at the end of the day and say that I put everything I could into this, and I’ve experienced it all, and enjoyed every bit of it.” He turns 33 on Sunday; he’s worn a San Francisco jersey for almost half his life.
Cain spent much of his career demurring; even as he took hard-luck losses so often that losing a 1–0 game became known in the Bay Area as getting Cain’d, he insisted that his focus was on the team rather than himself. But today was all about him, and he knew that.
The televisions in the clubhouse played his strikeouts on loop before the game. The crowd roared as he led his team onto the field and again every time he came to bat and occasionally for what seemed to be no reason at all. The broadcast team showed Cain highlights between innings. When he got into a little trouble—one on, one out—in the fifth inning and manager Bruce Bochy trotted out to the mound, boos rained down. The ovation resumed after Bochy left him in.
Finally, after five shutout innings—his first scoreless start since April—he strode to the dugout with his head down. Bochy was waiting for him at the steps. They shook hands and hugged, and then it began. Catcher Buster Posey, the backstop for nine of Cain’s 13 seasons, embraced him tightly. Cain, weeping quietly, waved to the crowd, then pulled off his hat and whirled it into the stands. AT&T Park appeared to shake under the weight of it all. Then he descended the stairs, where dozens of men in Giants uniforms waited patiently to honor what he had meant to them with the most touching gesture many men allow themselves, the handshake that turns into a lingering hug.
“I love you, man,” rightfielder Hunter Pence told him. Posey joined the line for another goodbye. Veterans, the prospects Cain has mentored—even the batboy got in on it. Cain’s imprint is on every one of them. Last came lefty Madison Bumgarner, Cain’s heir as ace. After Bochy again and third base coach Phil Nevin, Cain returned to the field for one more ovation. No one seemed especially eager to start the bottom of the fifth.
In the end San Francisco lost 3–2, which seemed fitting in some ways but also didn’t matter at all. The Giants will play their final game Sunday, and then Matt Cain will clean out his locker and start to figure out his place in the real world. When he gets there, he will find that people sometimes try to shield themselves from powerful emotions by acting indifferent. He may find that a rocky transition or he may welcome it. But first, on the day before his 33rd birthday, in the final moments of the only career he has ever known, he sat on the bench in the depth of his great loss but surrounded by his great victory, and he cried.