I grew up in the 1970’s with a family curse. To be a Giants fan. San Francisco Giants. Not the New York Giants of the NFL.
Those 70’s were horrible, but I didn’t realize it. I was just happy to get to go to games every now and then and listen to them on my little radio at night as I drifted off to sleep. I think, all these years later, that there is something about listening to those games on the radio in the darkened space of my room is a memory so far up on the list of things that it is on it’s own list. Those memories stand alone.
Then the 80’s came and there wasn’t much more to hope for until the latter part of he decade. There were these players … Will Clark and Robby Thompson and Mike Krukow and Jeffrey Leonard and Chili Davis … and the Giants made the World Series. The fricking World Series. In 1989. Against the cross-bay Oakland A’s. And then an earthquake struck and the Giants lost that World Series, quickly and quietly.
The 90’s rolled around. There was a blip here, a blip there. But years rolled by and Giants fans continued to accept the futility of the thing. Shivering in Candlestick. Rooting, rooting for the home team.
There were times when the team almost left town. To Tampa Bay at one moment — rescued at the last minute by Peter Magowan and a group of owners committed to keeping the team in San Francisco.
2000 rolled around. The team built a beautiful stadium on the San Francisco Bay. Financed privately. No public funds. If you ever want to see a baseball game in a shrine to the national pastime, AT & T Park at 24 Willie Mays Plaza is a must. (I heard that the team recently made its final payment on the stadium — so, yeah, no public funds and paid off in 17 years.)
Anyway, a couple of years later they made the World Series again. Against the Angels. Up three games to two, they had the lead late in game six, when their manager came out to take the starting pitcher out of the game. Russ Ortiz stood on the mount and Dusty Baker gave him the ball. The game ball, as though the deed was done. The game was won. The Giants would be crowned World Series champions. It was just a matter of getting a few more outs.
The curse of Dusty Baker.
They didn’t get those outs. The Angels won. And won the next night and the Giants were denied again.
We Giants fans began to accept … wait, began? … no, we had always known. We were cursed. Somehow, somewhere, something had happened and we would never experience the ultimate thrill.
A few years later, Barry Bonds, who had been the backbone of the team’s success in the late 90’s and early 00’s, started breaking home run records left and right. I was there, with my boys, when he hit 715, passing Babe Ruth in his quest for Aaron and beyond. This was what we were left with. A steroid bloated, egomaniac breaking records. We cheered and screamed as the ball cleared the fence. But it all seemed so empty and meaningless.
The game changed in the years that followed. Steroids disappeared. At least we think so. There’s still some, but it’s nothing like it was. Shortstops and second basemen stopped hitting 40 home runs a year. A bit of normalcy returned.
In the post-steroid, post-Bonds era, the Giants did something right. They put together a light-hitting, pitching dominant team. Sure, there were some offensive gems — rookie of the year Posey, followed by MVP Posey. Aubrey Huff for one glorious season. Pat Burrell for a few glorious moments. Edgar Renteria. Ishikawa’s home run. Bumgarner, Cain, and Lincecum. Oh my fuckin’ god. The Beard. And so much more.
2010. The magical season when everything went right. A moment came somewhere around the beginning of August when the team gelled. It felt like they would win every game. And the postseason arrived and they just kept doing it. It’s all so fuzzy now. It seems unreal. It seems like it couldn’t have possibly happened. I went to the parade that followed their championship. I took my older son. We got there late and were stuck in the middle of the massive crowd and couldn’t see a thing. But we were there. And I was sure it would neve rhappen again.
2011. Injuries. Posey busted up at the plate in a play that would result in a change in the rules. And no postseason.
2012. And Bumgarner and Cain and Zito. Oh my. A washed up $20 million a year pitcher who pitched the game of his life. The Giants got behind in every post season series and had to win six elimination games to keep going. And then the Kung Fu Panda’s three home runs in the opening World Series game against the Tigers and the rout was on. Another World Series championship. I missed the parade, but I went to two post season games. One in the opening round against the Reds and another in the next round against the Cardinals. They lost the first game and I remember how quiet it was as we exited the stadium. They won the second game I went to and I remember how raucous and joyous the crowd was as we left the stadium.
2013. Another down year. Nothing worked. They didn’t get there.
2014. One word. Bumgarner. Enough said.
In five years, three World Series victories after almost 40 years of wandering the wilderness.
2015 and 2016 didn’t end well.
And now we have begun the 2017 campaign. It seems the Giants have some solid starting pitching. Bumgarner dominates. Cueto baffles. Moore and Samardzija seem more than competent. The offense can score runs.
What I don’t think any of us appreciated, truly appreciated in those years. Even in the down years. For five years, the Giants had the best bullpen in baseball. Sergio Romo, Jeremy Affeldt, Javier Lopez, Brian Wilson (in the early part of that string), Santiago Casilla (in the latter part) combined to present a virtual lock on the last two or three innings of a game. Get a lead and the Giants won. Far more often than they didn’t.
They’re all gone now. Last year, the Giants had one of the best offense in the game. Their starting pitching was more than adequate. But their bullpen blew far too many games. They couldn’t hold a lead when it mattered. And the even year of World Series championships came to an end.
It’s early now, but it appears the bullpen is still a problem. They went out and committed tens of millions of dollars to Mark Melancon to serve as closer. He has pitched in one game and couldn’t hold the lead. He hasn’t pitched since that game because the bullpen simply can’t deliver a lead to him to protect.
If only I had known. Just as much as the Bumgarners and the Poseys and the Pences and the random home runs hit at critical moments by the Ishikawas and the Renterias and the beautiful plays in the field made by the Crawfords and the Pagans and on and on we can go … just as much as all of those things, the Giants success was built around three or four pitchers who came in and threw a few pitches, maybe even an inning, and they held the other team down. They preserved leads, saved games. No amount of home runs, great plays, good starting pitching will matter unless you have a bullpen that can do that.
Javier Lopez, Jeremy Affeldt, Sergio Romo, Brian Wilson, Santiago Casilla, and a few others — they are the unsung heroes, the un-named MVPs of the Giants World Series seasons.
If only I had known.