Thursday, August 19, 2010

Gotham to Golden Gate, Generation to Generation

In 1954, the great WWII General Dwight Eishenhower was President (and Nixon his Vice), a young man named Elvis Presley made his first recording: “That’s All Right,” the Supreme Court made the monumentally important decision on Brown v. Board of Education, Oprah was born, and minimum wage was 75 cents, a gallon of gasoline 29, a stamp just 3. This was also the last time the Giants won the World Series. That’s a lot of waiting for a franchise, but a lot longer for the fans. Owners, players, coaches and GM’s come and go, but the true fans remain through thick and thin.
The love for the game and for a team is passed down like genetics – like the passing along of your physical features: a sharp nose, long eyelashes and hairless head. How did my dad catch the craze? With his dad, my grandpa Bert, my nine year old father (Rocci) watched the Giants in the playoffs in 1971 versus the Pirates and the “amazing” (my fathers quote) Roberto Clemente. That’s his first memory of baseball. A year later Bert asked him if he wanted to play in a league and a lifelong passion was born. Before long, my grandpa was (literally) punching out umpire’s midgame even though he was the President of said league. This baseball is serious business.

And how, you might be wondering, did Bert catch the craze? I suppose that’s a bit more complicated. Bert was not always just Bert. He was actually born Gijsbertus Wilhelmus around 1922 in Holland. He was a Dutch Merchant Marine and jumped ship to become a mechanic in the U.S. Navy around 1939. Unfortunately, his brother was not so lucky and was killed by the Nazis. He later married my grandmother Betty from Oklahoma – by way of the Dust Bowl – and a family was born. We incessantly asked as kids if he was a seaman during the war – he confirmed he was with increasing annoyance but never got the joke. How his love for baseball actually came about is up for debate. I think it may have spawned from his wish to immerse himself in American culture. After all, the man learned to speak English by reading comic books. His thick accent prevented my dad from knowing what, “Are you star-thes-fied?” meant until he was 17. He meant satisfied. My dad believes it may have spurred from the amount of time he spent at home and at games because of his leg injury. His knee was so severely injured that it was surgically repaired (depending on your definition of repaired) to stay completely straight – making it quite a chore (and a comical one) to put his 6’2” frame into a Corvette, which we later learned. You’ve never heard so many expletives come out an old man standing next to his grandchildren. But then you’ve probably never seen a 7 year old at the theater to see Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven with his grandpa either. I miss his endless and unforgettable quotes – “they don’t make them like they used to…” as we exited RoboCop 3, or when referring to a woman’s you know whats, “more than a mouth full is a waste…” I’m also so very thankful of him for many things, one of which is of course baseball.

This is all very important because neither my late grandfather nor my father have ever seen the San Francisco Giants win it all. That’s because the Giants have the eight (8th) longest drought in World Series history behind: the Cubs (101 seasons and soon to be 102), the White Sox (87 seasons), the Red Sox (85 seasons), the Phillies (77 seasons), the St. Louis Browns/ Orioles (63 seasons), the Washington Senators/ Minnesota Twins (62 seasons), the Cleveland Indians (61 seasons), and the New York/ San Francisco Giants (55 seasons). Fifty-five and counting.

They also have the third (3rd) longest current drought behind the Cubs (obviously) and the Cleveland Indians. This, sadly, for the franchise with more Hall of Famers than any team in history, even more than the Yankees and their 27 crowns. And while the Giants have managed to win five World Series’ – all in New York – they’ve also managed to lose twelve of them. They won two titles in 1888 and 1889 which predated the World Series. They likely would have 6 World Series (8 titles) were it not for NL President John T. Bush. He refused to play the AL (Boston Americans) in the 1904 World Series because he felt the AL was “inferior.” That might seem a strange stance considering that the previous World Series lasted the full 8 games (the format of course has since been changed to a best-of-seven). Bush came to regret the decision and I imagine he might have played it had he known then just how hard these suckers can be to come by. Just ask the Cubs who won four years later in 1908 but not once since. But forget the Cubs for now because we’ve been waiting 55 years which is also a heck of a long time.

It might be nice to revisit the Giants’ entire history but frankly I haven’t the time. Instead, I’ll do my best starting in 1951. This seems a fitting place to start given the Monday passing of the hero of ’51, Bobby Thomson.

1951 – 1957 The Giants Win the Pennant!

With Willie Mays on deck, Thomson’s “Shot Heard ‘Round the World” capped an unfathomable comeback to defeat the Dodgers, which included a 13 game deficit on August 11th and a three game playoff to determine the pennant. The call by Hall of Fame broadcaster, Russ Hodges:

“Bobby Thomson…up there swingin’… He’s had two out of three, a single and a double, and Billy Cox is playing him right on the third-base line… One out, last of the ninth… Branca pitches... Bobby Thomson takes a strike called on the inside corner… Bobby hitting at .292… He’s had a single and a double and he drove in the Giants’ first run with a long fly to center… Brooklyn leads it 4-2… Hartung down the line at third not taking any chances… Lockman with not too big of a lead at second, but he’ll be runnin’ like the wind if Thomson hits one… Branca throws…“ [CRACK]

“There’s a long drive… it’s gonna be, I believe… THE GIANTS WIN THE PENNANT! THE GIANTS WIN THE PENNANT! THE GIANTS WIN THE PENNANT! THE GIANTS WIN THE PENNANT! Bobby Thomson hits into the lower deck of the left-field stands! The Giants win the pennant and they’re goin’ crazy, they’re goin’ crazy!”

That swing of the bat ended perhaps the greatest pennant race in history. It’s without a doubt the greatest homerun call in Giants history and arguably in the history of baseball. 30 years and 101 days would pass after Russ’ famous call, but that call – in writing even – still gives me chills. The Giants would go on to lose the World Series in six games to the Yankees, but it almost didn’t seem to matter.

As I mentioned earlier, the Giants’ last World Series win came 3 seasons later in 1954. They finished 2nd in the NL in 1952 and 5th in 1953 before taking it in 1954. They would go on to win the World Series, sweeping the Cleveland Indians behind Willie Mays, Monte Irvin and Dusty Rhodes who hit two HR in the series.

They regressed the following season, 1955, and wouldn’t make it to another World Series for eight seasons. From 1955-’57 they averaged a meager 72 wins.

1958 –1968 The 3,000 Mile Trek

In 1958, they left their beloved home in Manhattan, the Polo Grounds, for San Francisco. In tandem, their bitter cross-town rivals, the Brooklyn Dodgers of Ebbits Field, left for California as well and headed to Los Angeles. This was a calculated move by both the Dodgers’ owner Walter O’Malley and Giants’ owner Horace Stoneham, because ironically they needed one another to survive on the West Coast. And survive they did. The rivalry to date has survived more than a century and a 3,000 mile trek.

The Giants would play their first two seasons in Seals Stadium before moving into the shiny new Candlestick Park in 1960. Shiny and new are rarely written into the same sentence as Candlestick. And warm and cozy would never be – not even if uttered by a Polar Bear. President Richard Nixon threw out the first pitch of the very first game, perhaps an omen.

The Giants would make it back to the World Series in 1962, but to do so, they had to get past the Dodgers. It was in this year that MLB expanded the regular season from 154 games to a 162 game schedule (which is still used today), and yet, it still wasn’t quite enough games to determine the National League pennant. After 162 games, the Giants and Dodgers were still at a stalemate. The Giants took two of three from the hated Dodgers and went on to lose the World Series in seven games to the Yankees. The Yankees had standout performers in Roger Maris (a year after he broke Ruth’s record) and Whitey Ford. The Giants’ roster was filled with future Hall of Famers: Willie Mays, Willie McCovey, Orlando Cepeda, Juan Marichal, and also included future Giants manager Felipe Alou. The Giants nearly came back to win in the 9th inning of the decisive game seven. Matty Alou led off with a bunt single before the next two batters were struck out. Mays then hit a double into the right field corner but Alou was unable to score from first on the play because of Maris’ strong arm and sensational play off the carom. That brought up the young Willie “Stretch” McCovey, just twenty-four years old. McCovey hit a shot line drive on an inside fastball to the Yankees’ second baseman, Richardson, which he caught. That ended the game 1-0 and gave the Yankees their 20th World Series title.

After that disheartening game seven, the Giants would experience a twenty-seven year World Series drought which would deprive McCovey from ever returning to the biggest stage in a Giants uniform.

From 1963 until 1968, the Giants would average nearly 91 wins per season but would never win the pennant. They would very unfortunately come in second place for four consecutive seasons ending in 1968 before divisional play and the wild card were even conceived, but help was on the way. Perhaps most notably during this time, the Beatles played their final live commercial concert on August 29, 1966 at “The Stick.”

1969 –1971 A Passion is Born

’69 marked Woodstock, and the beginning of Divisional play in Major League Baseball. The Giants would again end up in second and out of the playoffs despite the leagues now being split up into divisions and McCovey earning NL MVP honors. In 1970, they dropped to third.

But in 1971 the Giants got their first taste of the new postseason format. They would feature Gaylord Perry’s famous spitball and the twisting Juan Marichal. Hitter wise, they had Chris Speir, McCovey, the powerful Dave Kingman, Willie Mays and Bobby Bonds, but their future Hall of Famers were showing their age. They lost the National League Championship Series to the Pirates in just 4 games despite having home field advantage. Clemente’s Pirates took down the Giants, but as you will likely recall, it was within this series that my dad first found baseball, the game he would grow to love.

My dad’s passion for one team would be tested immediately, because as soon as the 1971 NLCS ended in defeat, one of the drabbest periods in Giants history had begun.

1972 –1986 Bleh, Better Forgotten

The 1972 season opened with the first strike in Major League Baseball history but lasted just 13 days. The biggest concession to come from it was that the owners agreed to add salary arbitration to the Collective Bargaining Agreement. This would prove to have huge ramifications on the game. From 1972 until 1986, the Giants would average a paltry 76 wins (not including the 1981 strike-shortened season). The 1981 season was played in a split-season format starting August 10th but the Giants didn’t qualify for postseason play. The Giants would never even place second in their division, instead placing 3rd five times, 4th four times, 5th four times and 6th twice. Their combined run differential (runs scored minus runs allowed) was -475 (or ~ -32 per season). They were quite remarkably (and consistently) dreadful for more or less a span of 15 seasons.

In 1976, Bob Lurie saved the Giants from moving to Toronto (Toronto was awarded the expansion Blue Jays the next season).

They showed promise in 1978 with John Montefusco and Jack Clark, but eventually were overwhelmed by the Dodgers who would go on to win the pennant. That would be their best season of this pseudo era.

In 1985 the Giants lost 100 games for the first time in their entire history of over one-hundred seasons. But believe it or not, this was a turning point for the better for the Giants which they’d been waiting for since the early ‘70’s. Roger Craig became the skipper in ‘85, a man the fans and players would grow to adore. They rebounded in 1986 to amass a winning record, good for a 21 game positive turn around.
1987 – 1992 The “Thrill” of Baseball Returns

The Giants finally emerged into the light from the dark with a new manager and young players Robby Thompson and Will “the Thrill” Clark. They also adopted the motto, “Humm Baby,” which was coined by Roger Craig. They finally returned to the postseason by winning the division in 1987 before losing in the NLCS to the Cardinals in seven outstanding games.

In 1989, they did even better. The Giants had some heavy hitters in their lineup with Kevin Mitchell and NL MVP Will Clark which propelled them to the division crown. They easily defeated the Cubs in five games to win the pennant. Perhaps most exciting was Will Clark’s grand slam in game 1 of that series versus future first ballot Hall of Famer, Greg Maddux. While Maddux was on the mound having a conference with catcher Rick Wrona, he mentioned that he was going to throw a fastball on the outside corner. Clark read his lips, was looking for it, and crushed it way beyond the right field wall. And guess what? This is exactly why Pitchers cover their mouths with their gloves, to this day. The Giants would go on to be swept in the first ever “Bay Bridge Series” versus the Oakland Athletics. More crushing than the four game sweep, however, was the massive 6.9 magnitude, 10-15 second Loma Prieta earthquake that rocked the stadium and the entire Bay Area before the start of game 3. After a 10 day hiatus the A’s swiftly finished the Giants off. It took the Giants so long to return to the Series, but despite the length of time it took to complete it with the 10 day delay, and because of the commotion and sadness it brought, it felt as if it were over before it ever even began.

The Giants didn’t know it, but that quake perhaps pummeled them into yet another painful and somewhat lengthy postseason drought. In 1990 they dropped to 3rd in the division, then 4th the next season and 5th the season after.

Craig would finish as manager in 1992 after having a winning record in each of his first five full seasons, but in years six and seven the Giants did not do nearly as well, averaging just 73.5 wins a season.

What’s worse, the 1989 new stadium initiative that failed resulted in owner Lurie (the same that’d saved the team from Toronto) putting the team up for sale in 1992. A group of investors from the St. Petersburg, Florida had a deal in place to purchase the franchise and move it to Tampa Bay before NL owners voted down the acquisition. In stepped the Giants’ second savior, former Safeway CEO Peter Magowan, along with Harmon and Sue Burns.

1993 – 1999 A Legend Comes Home

The year 1993 marked final goodbyes, new beginnings and optimism. Now that the franchise was safe from moving to Florida with a plan in place to build a stadium downtown, management’s first order of business was to sign none other than Barry Bonds. He was Bay Area homegrown, Willie Mays’ god son, and the NL star and two-time MVP recipient of the Pittsburg Pirates. 1993 also marked what is considered baseballs final “pure pennant race.”

Bonds immediately earned his paycheck and then some. He won his third MVP award while putting up absolutely phenomenal numbers (46 HR, 129 runs, .336 AVG, .458 OBP, .677 SLG, 1.135 OPS). Matt Williams also had a great year and Thompson and Clark hung around while providing solid efforts. This would be Dusty Baker’s first year as manager and the Giants would win 103 games, their most W’s since 1912. There was only one problem. The Atlanta Braves won 104 games and knocked the Giants out of the postseason after being down as many as 10 games. And the Dodgers dealt the stake in the heart with a 12-1 win over the Giants on the final game of the season, negating the need for a 1 game playoff versus the Braves. After the season, MLB decided that such an outcome was apparently unjust. They broke each league into 3 divisions and added a “Wild Card” to the postseason. From ’94 on, the three division winners and the team with the best record otherwise would head to the postseason, 1 year too late to help the Giants’ cause.

The following three seasons weren’t any good at all for the Giants. Williams and Bonds continued to dominate but they were alone. Williams had the chance to make history with 47 HR through the first 115 games of the season in 1994, but the strike-shortened season prevented any possibility of that. The 1994 World Series was cancelled in unprecedented fashion and the Giants followed with stinker seasons in ’95 and ’96 but at least Bonds joined the prestigious 40-40 club in the latter.
Luckily, 1997 was a dream season in a lot of ways, complete with heartbreaking blows to the Dodgers. New GM Brian Sabean started his tenure with a splash Giants fans would love and then grow to hate, as it provided the momentum to carry him through dismal seasons, trades and acquisitions for a number of years to come. Sabean moved fan favorite Matt Williams to Cleveland for what was consider “spare parts” at the time. But one of those spare parts would end being Jeff Kent who would go on to win an NL MVP award with the Giants and help pack a monster middle of the order with Bonds for years to come. He’ll likely make the Hall of Fame and don a Giants uni when he does. The Giants made a huge comeback during the regular season to take the division, which included the famous Brian Johnson walkoff homerun. But the Giants would be swept by the Wild Card Marlins in their first ever divisional series in three games, and those Marlins would go on to win the World Series behind future Giants shortstop Edgar Renteria’s 11th inning, game winning walkoff single. Their squad was ruthlessly dismantled shortly thereafter.

The ’98 Giants’ season ended in crushing defeat at the hands of the Cubs. They tied for the Wild Card with the Cubbies but were beaten in the one game takes all.
The Giants played well enough in ’99 but missed the playoffs and finished second in the division. You could hardly have blamed them for looking ahead.

2000 – 2007 A New Home and the Villain

During this span, the Giants unleashed “Who let the dogs out?!” and Barry Bonds hit homeruns 500, 600, 660, 715 and 755. He was adored by Giants fans and hated by everyone else. He was the greatest hitter the game ever saw – and yes, a Frankenstein.

The Giants opened up quite honestly the most beautiful park in the Major Leagues in 2000. They also opened it up in fashion, although initially very inauspiciously. They were swept by the Dodgers in the park opening series and lost their first 7 games. But the Giants would go on to easily win the division by 11 games behind Bonds, Jeff Kent, J.T. Snow, Rob Nen, and Ellis Burks. They would score 925 runs – enough to make onlookers of our current Giants team heads spin – that season. Unfortunately, they would end up losing the divisional series to the New York Mets – whom replaced them and the Dodgers in New York and thus garner their colors – in 4 games. Though I must admit, the series did have possibly the most thrilling HR I’ve personally witnessed in my somewhat short life as a Giants fan. With the Giants trailing 4-1 in the bottom of the 9th, J.T. Snow hit a pinch-hit 3-run homerun off of Armando Benitez that landed on the top of the right field brick wall. He ran down the first base line holding his left arm out as if he were trying to keep it fair, making it somewhat similar to Yazstremski’s blast. The euphoria didn’t last long when Edgar Alfonso, a player most Giants fans would grow to despise as a teammate and opponent, hit a game winning single an inning later.

In 2001, the Giants didn’t win the division but Barry Bonds put on the greatest HR hitting display in baseball history. He broke the single season record which stood for only a few years after McGwire broke Maris’ record with 73 big flies. Maybe we didn’t know it then – I didn’t – but there was a “reason” why he was swatting so many clouts. He put gobs of balls into the water, and as I recall, it was as if not one pitcher’s mistake went unpunished in the entire season. It was batting practice.

2002 was supposed to be the year, could have been the year (I’m talking to you, Dusty), should have been the year. None of us should have to, or are yet ready to revisit what was the colossally disappointing 2002 World Series. I’ll say this: I hate Spezio, monkeys and K-Rod. Moving on…

The Giants let Jeff Kent go after 2002 and failed to replace him, i.e. Bonds’ protection. The Giants would nevertheless score nearly as many runs and once again made the postseason in 2003 and were actually favorites to this time take home the ultimate prize. Instead? They were knocked out once again by the Wild Card Florida Marlins. The Marlins, you guessed it, once again went on to win the World Series behind Juan Pierre, baby Miguel Cabrera, and Josh Becket with a little help from Steve Bartman. I hate those fish. They’ve been around for what seems like 3 seasons and have 2 rings.

In ’04, Barry Bonds watched his final chance at a ring slip away on the last day of regular season despite the Giants having scored 850 runs behind Bonds’ video game numbers (45 HR, .362 AVG, .609 OBP, 232 walks, .812 SLG, 1.422 OPS). On that last day, they needed a win and some help, i.e. a loss to the team they were chasing. Instead, when the scoreboard showed a final and the help never came, they were eliminated before the conclusion of their own game. Bonds was lifted and as he grabbed his lumber and headed towards the tunnel, he had the look of absolute surrender and defeat. It wasn’t a look you’d expect after losing a battle, but rather it was a look only seen after losing the war. We knew it. He knew it. It was the elephant in the room. It hurts to think what could have been if the Giants were willing to pay Vladimir Guerrero.

The next three seasons were ones to remember, and also to forget. Bonds lost virtually all of 2005 after having multiple knee surgeries. He came back the last few weeks and played extremely well, but it was too little, too late. This was of course the season my brother decided to purchase season tickets. What luck? ’06 and ’07 were a lot less about winning, and a lot more about Bonds’ pursuit of the legends he was chasing. Bonds would eventually surpass Henry Aaron and get a congratulations from the very same via the jumbotron. It wasn’t until just recently that we learned just how reluctantly Aaron recorded that congratulatory statement – and how persistently Bonds had been seeking his approval throughout the chase. He would never truly get it. They finished third in 2006 and signed Zito in the offseason to the largest pitchers contract in history, $126 million, a deal they would regret

In 2007, Bonds’ final season, he finished the season with a 1.045 OPS, which at this moment in 2010, would be second best behind Miguel Cabrera’s 1.077 and phenomenal season. Management also had made it very clear that he would not be resigned but had. The Giants finished fifth amidst the homerun kings farewell tour. Despite the fact that Bonds was still putting up OPS’ over 1.000, no team would touch him in the offseason. It was a blackballing for sure, considering that he could have conceivably been the best hitter in baseball for one or two more seasons as a DH in the American League. His legal proceedings ensued which are still raging today – which of course revolve around the “reason” Bonds was so superhuman. But, let me be clear. The juice didn’t make Bonds the player he was, they only improved upon his immense talent. After it was all over, Bonds had become the biggest villain in the game since Ty Cobb. The new face of the franchise emerged before Bonds had even officially departed, in May of 2007. Tim Lincecum, nicknamed literally, “the Franchise,” was promoted to replace Russ Ortiz and he would never return to the minor leagues. His ascension through the minor leagues after being picked 10th overall in the 2006 Rule V draft was almost meteoric. He was a sign of hope.

2008 – Present A New “Franchise” Emerges

With Bonds gone Lincecum immediately infiltrated the hearts and minds of Giants fans by winning back-to-back Cy Young awards in his first two full seasons in 2008 and 2009, a feat that had never been accomplished in history. His efforts were largely wasted because of the complete and utter ineptitude of the lineup supporting him. Bill Neukom took over for Peter Magowan as the new Managing General Partner, and Sue Burns sadly passed which further fueled the passing of the torch. The Giants continued to run out their slow, out making catcher as the cleanup hitter before mercifully trading him to the Rangers this season and replacing him with another refreshing addition to the new look Giants, Buster Posey. They were of course terrible in 2008 but started to show life in 2009 while making a pretty strong push for the Wild Card as young free-swingin’ Pablo Sandoval emerged as one of the best young hitters in the game. Unfortunately, all this good fortune with prospects resulted in yet another extension for Brian Sabean.

And here we are today. My passion for the game is put on display as often as I pour my thoughts into a blog (or a novel like this one). Our 2010 Giants have looked like a contender at times and an absolute embarrassment at others. Which are they? Only time will tell but there are clouds on the horizon. Our Timmy “the Freak” Lincecum’s 96 his MPH fastball is gone. It debuted in 2007, starred in 2008, cameoed in 2009 and vanished in 2010. His spirit is ostensibly broken and the fear he once instilled in hitters nowhere to be found. Our chubby Kung-Fu Panda has quite possibly eaten himself out of the hot corner and the heart of the order, instead opting for hot pockets. And the team that was built on pitching has dropped from 2.5 back in the standings to 6.0 back in just four days while the starting pitching his gone over two weeks without a single win. But irrespective of how they finish and what lay ahead in the years to come, I’ll continue to watch them with the intense passion that’s been passed down from generation to generation, a trend I don’t intend to sever. Lurie and Magowan both saved the Giants from leaving us, and we’re now all hoping that Neukom will save this storied franchise by ripping them from irrelevancy and restoring the luster of the Giants, returning them to their rightful place as a franchise to be revered in Major League Baseball.

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