They don't suffer in infamy the way the Cubs and the Indians do and the Red Sox once did, but the Giants do suffer. In a season full of nail-biters, however, San Francisco has mixed plenty of pleasure with the pain
This is an article from the Oct. 25, 2010 issue
Baseball celebrates torture, and the tortured. It isn't really like that in other sports. Those long-suffering fans in football, basketball, hockey—Detroit Lions fans, Los Angeles Clippers fans, Toronto Maple Leafs fans—well, bluntly, nobody cares. Your team can't win? Tough luck, pal. Everybody's got problems.
But baseball is different. Baseball turns the Cubs fans' 102-year World Series drought into a symbol of the enduring human spirit. Baseball glorifies Red Sox fans' finally breaking free from their demons and curses and applauds Cleveland fans who continue to hope after 62 years of unrelenting heartbreak. There's a special place in baseball's heart for the "Wait till next year"
Brooklyn Dodgers fans, and the hard-luck Phillies fans, and all those White Sox fans who paid an 85-year penance for the sins of the 1919 Black Sox.
But for some reason the national group hug never seems open for the Giants, who haven't won a championship since 1954, when the franchise still called New York City's Polo Grounds home. Until now, maybe, because the rag-tag group that split the first two games of the National League Championship Series with the two-time league champion Phillies is nothing if not a huggable lot. (Game 3 was to be played on Tuesday at San Francisco's AT&T Park.) It is a team being led in the postseason by a two-time Cy Young Award winner who wears his hair long enough to inspire mocking catcalls in Philadelphia (Tim Lincecum), a waiver-wire pickup who once longed to be a rodeo clown (outfielder Cody Ross), a former No. 1 overall pick who found he needed to play in the field in order to hit (outfielder Pat Burrell) and a closer who dyes his beard shoe-polish black, as if he's planning to go sailing in search of treasure after the game (Brian Wilson). It's a team that last Saturday ambushed Phillies ace Roy Halladay, who followed his Division Series no-hitter against the Reds by giving up two home runs to Ross, getting outpitched by Lincecum and losing Game 1.
It is also a team trying desperately to win its first World Series in San Francisco. Not that America cares to dwell on that drought. San Francisco's baseball suffering does not quite qualify for poetry. Even play-by-play announcer Duane Kuiper, a former Giants second baseman who has been with the franchise for every season but one since 1982, says, "I don't think the Giants have lost for quite long enough to be in that group like the Cubs. I mean the Cubs, the Indians, the Red Sox, before they finally won ... those guys lost for a long time."
He pauses as if something has just hit him: "Well, wait a minute. The Giants came to San Francisco in 1958. So it has been more than 50 years."
How long does it take for a baseball city to become fully vested in anguish? Make no mistake: Giants fans have pristine credentials when it comes to baseball torture, even though the team has featured some of the more magical baseball names of the last half century—Mays, McCovey, Marichal, Cepeda, the young Bobby Bonds, the old Barry Bonds. San Francisco lost Game 7 of the 1962 World Series when Yankees second baseman Bobby Richardson, standing where nobody expected him to stand, snagged Willie McCovey's ninth-inning line drive to preserve a 1--0 New York victory. The Giants were eight outs away from tasting champagne in 2002 when they had a 5--0 lead in Game 6 against the Angels; they coughed up that lead and lost the Series the next night. The Giants had their 1989 World Series party demolished by the tragedy of a devastating earthquake and the indignity of a four-game sweep by those bashers from the other side of the bridge, the Oakland A's.
There's more. The Giants in 1993 won 103 games and, in the last year of the pre-wild-card era, did not even make the playoffs, losing the NL West title to the Braves on the season's final day. The expansion Marlins have won two unlikely World Series since '97, and both times they took out the Giants in the playoffs along the way. San Francisco was derailed in the NLCS in '87 by a home run from Cardinals notable nonslugger Jose Oquendo (one of two homers he hit that year) and in '71 by an unexpected home run flurry from a Pirates hitter named Bob Robertson. (He hit three in one game, four in the Series.)
And more than once the Giants came close to leaving San Francisco, hearts and all. They almost moved to Toronto in 1976 before a new owner, Bob Lurie, stepped in to keep the team in the Bay Area. The Giants actually signed a deal to move to St. Petersburg in 1993—the team was close enough to leaving that Kuiper was told to get a new job. (He broadcast Rockies games for a year.) Lifelong Giants fan and Sacramento Bee columnist Marcos Breton even wrote a story headlined BOTTOM OF THE 9TH FOR SAD FANS. A local ownership group led by Peter Magowan emerged at the 11th hour, and the team was saved once more.
So there has been plenty of baseball anguish in San Francisco ... and nobody expected this Giants team to serve as an antidote to it all. On July 4 the Giants' record was 41--40. Its pitching was good, but the lineup was not, and that meant night after night of close games, many of which the Giants lost. After one particularly painful loss in April—San Diego's David Eckstein hit a 10th-inning game-winning home run (his only homer of the year)—Kuiper summed things up for his audience. "Giants baseball," he said. "Torture."
That kind of torture lasted all season. The Giants always played close games—115 of their 162 regular-season games were decided by three runs or fewer, the highest total for any team in five years. "At times it felt like this season lasted five years with all the close games," reliever Jeremy Affeldt said.
San Francisco fans have never particularly embraced torture—perhaps another reason why the tenor of the Giants' losing through the years has been so different from, say, all those decades of heartbreak in Boston. "In Boston, Chicago, places like that, there's this almost Calvinistic self-loathing among fans," Breton says. "They can celebrate losing in literature. They can talk about curses. San Francisco is not like that. To be honest, there's a little bit of arrogance in San Francisco. People see themselves as winners. The only thing Giants fans know about losing is they don't want it. They can't see anything romantic about it."
Plus, this isn't a typical San Francisco team. "People in San Francisco love stars," Kuiper says. And in the past the most beloved San Francisco teams—the Rick Barry Warriors, the Joe Montana and Steve Young 49ers, the Mays and McCovey Giants, the Barry Bonds Giants—were built around the biggest names in sports. Not these Giants. Other than Lincecum, this team is devoid of recognizable stars. The two highest-paid players are pitcher Barry Zito ($18.5 million this year) and outfielder Aaron Rowand ($13.6 million). Zito, after struggling to go 9--14 with a 4.15 ERA during the regular season, did not even make the postseason roster. Rowand has hardly played in the postseason, making only two plate appearances through the first two games of the NLCS. Third baseman Pablo Sandoval, who broke out last year as a lovable, roly-poly slugger nicknamed Kung Fu Panda, lost his starting job and had made just eight trips to the plate in the postseason.
Still, even without big stars, even with every night being an ordeal, the City by the Bay has fallen for these Giants. "It's funny, the one thing always said about San Francisco is that people were too sophisticated for baseball," team president Larry Baer says. "And here we have people coming to the ballpark, going crazy on every pitch, dressing up in all orange, dressing up like Pandas."
Why? Well, there was something irresistible about the Giants. After July 4 they played at a .630 pace. (Their improvement coincided with the emergence of their rookie sensation, catcher Buster Posey; on July 5 he hit a home run, two days later two more, the next day another, and two days later one more.) They chased down the Padres to win the NL West title on the final day. They were a team filled with comeback stories: First baseman Aubrey Huff, for example, at age 33 and on his fifth team, had a career year that might earn him some MVP votes. They pitched well, they played hard, they hustled for runs. They beat the Braves in four games in the NLDS—all four games decided by one run.
And then they stunned the Phillies and Halladay in Game 1 of the NLCS in Philadelphia. The biggest hero was that onetime rodeo-clown prospect, Ross. He was waived by the Marlins in late August, and the Giants claimed him, mostly to keep him away from their offense-strapped rivals in San Diego. Ross grew up in New Mexico, where his dad wrestled and roped steer, and he was drawn to rodeo clowns because of their fearlessness. In his first at bat against Halladay—who had thrown 11 hitless innings in the postseason to that point—Ross homered to left. His next at bat, he homered to almost the exact same spot. Lincecum battled through seven tough innings, and another waiver-wire pickup, Burrell, a former Phillies mainstay who was released in May by Tampa Bay after proving to be hopeless as a designated hitter, hit a key RBI double. The Giants won 4--3. Another one-run victory. "To be honest," Ross said afterward, "I got lucky."
Ross has been lucky all month. He homered to break up Derek Lowe's no-hitter in the sixth inning of the Giants' Game 4 victory over Atlanta in the NLDS. And the night after he burned Halladay, Ross broke up a no-hitter by Philadelphia's Roy Oswalt in the fifth with yet another homer to the same spot in the leftfield stands. ("Stupid pitch," Oswalt said. "You can't throw him fastballs on the inside part of the plate; we know that.")
That homer was not enough, though. The Phillies—sparked by a three-run double from the previously slumping Jimmy Rollins and by Oswalt's dominant performance—breezed to a 6--1 victory to tie the series. The Phillies looked confident and in charge again. But nobody in San Francisco expected that the Giants would win this series easily. Not this team.
"You know, this is the most likable Giants team of my lifetime," Breton says. "Those teams with Mays and McCovey, they were great, but they weren't exactly cuddly. The Will Clark, Jeffrey Leonard Giants, they definitely had a little bit of an edge. The Barry Bonds, Jeff Kent Giants, well, it goes without saying....
"I never could quite go all in with those Barry Bonds Giants. I know a lot of people who did.... I just couldn't. It was amazing to watch him, but there was something missing for me. And then this team comes along, and there are no stars, and they're good guys, and they're all pulling the same rope. It's really a very different Giants team."
Breton can't help but think—hope—that because these Giants are different, their October results may be different. Maybe this is the kind of Giants team that finally wins the World Series. Many fans have found themselves thinking about finally ending 52 years of frustration. But perhaps they should take the lead from manager Bruce Bochy, who, when asked about fate, shook his head and said, "You know, the way we play, we really kind of need to just try real hard to win the next game. That's tough enough, winning one game."
As for Kuiper, whose April proclamation has become something of a rallying cry for the Giants (fans show up at AT&T Park with end the torture signs), he is just enjoying it all. "Oh, every game is still torture," he says. "Who knows how this whole thing will turn out? But that's what's great about baseball, right? Who knew torture could be so much fun?"
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Tom Verducci, Joe Posnanski and Jon Heyman cover the postseason at SI.com/mlb