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A Class Act

I regularly have these conversations with other sports fans.

“Whose your favorite baseball player?

“I don’t have favorite players.  I follow teams.”

“But Posey?  Pence?  Curry?  Lebron?”

“No.  I follow teams.  With all of the movement of players from team to team and all of the things you learn about their human weaknesses at some point, I don’t fall in love with the players.  I follow the teams.”

As long as I can recall being a fan of sports, when it comes to the team games in America, I have been a fan of the San Francisco Giants, the Golden State Warriors, and the Pittsburgh Steelers.  I’ve spent my life in Northern California. As a result, that last favorite team — the Steelers — frequently results in raised eyebrows.  The thing is, I grew up in the 70s.  The decade when the Steelers were winning four Super Bowls, the 49ers sucked, and the Raiders were the root of all evil. I’ve been a Steelers fan ever since.

The reality is, however, that my first, last, and only love when it comes to real and true sports fandom is the San Francisco Giants. I have struggled with remaining interested in the NBA as the game has grown more and more boring as the years go by. It’s only the recent success of the Warriors that has brought be back into the fold. And the NFL? Bah. I detest them. Their dominance. Their arrogance. The fact that as the baseball season turns its late summer attention to heated pennant races, the sports pages turn their attention to the NFL preseason — as in, practice and games that don’t count. I have hated that for years. If I had my way, although I follow the NFL because I am an inveterate sports fan, the league would cease to exist. Tomorrow.

But the Giants. The baseball San Francisco Giants. It’s been a love affair ever since I was a child. Listening to them on the radio on KNBR as I went to sleep. Reading the box scores in the paper every morning for years. Decades. Living through years and years and years of suffering.

Followed by a magical five year run with three World Series championships. I believe I can speak for many Giants fans when I say, I didn’t know how to act.

The thing is that their success didn’t change things for me. I remained a fan of the team. The players were another story. I never attached myself to any of them or considered the players to be my heroes or role models or anything like that.

As the 2017 season winds towards its hideous, horrible end for us Giants fans, however, I’m beginning to realize that I missed something in my being a fan of a team and trying to resist the significance of the individuals.

This will be the last season for Matt Cain. He first made an appearance for the San Francisco Giants in 2005, at the tender age of 20. From that point on, he became a mainstay in the Giants rotation for the next ten years. At the end of this season, he will have spent his entire professional career in the Giants organization.

Matt Cain was class.  For the first few years of his life as a pitcher for the San Francisco Giants, he pitched remarkably well, but recorded more losses than wins because the Giants offense absolutely sucked. He never complained.

Matt Cain was class. He went out and did his job. He pitched every five days. He gave his team a chance to win almost every one of those games. And when the offense failed, he never complained. He never whined. He just went out five days later and did it again.

Matt Cain was class. In 2010 and 2012, he was a fundamental piece of the San Francisco Giants first two World Series Championships. He was 4-2 in the postseason, with an ERA below 3.00. In the World Series, he pitched twice, with one victory to his credit and an ERA below 2.00. Things changed by 2014 and the third and final run to the World Series. He didn’t pitch an inning in the postseason. And he never complained. He never griped.

Matt Cain was class. He persevered. Did his job. Earned three World Series rings. He pitched a perfect game in 2012. He ends his career now with more losses than wins, but it wasn’t his fault. And he has never complained.

A few years ago, after a season of struggle, Matt Cain went under the surgeon’s knife to remove bone spurs from the elbow of his pitching arm. He has never been the same since. Imminently hittable and remarkably unsuccessful after almost ten years of incredible success.

The thing that always baffled me about Matt Cain was that he didn’t seem to have any awesome gifts as a pitcher. His fastball was routine — not up in the high 90’s, not a lot of movement. It always seemed so flat and hittable. He didn’t have a huge, sweeping curve. Or something else that would baffle batters. Except for the only thing that is left. Pinpoint location. When he threw a pitch, it went where he meant it to go. And he could mix things up just enough to keep batters off balance.

Maybe somebody else who knows more about pitching can explain it, but what was so great about Matt Cain was his success without any apparent strength.

A few years ago, Matt Cain signed a contract extension that paid him over $20 per year for a few years. The contract runs out this year. Unlike some athletes who try to hang on, convinced that they have one more year and if they could only get that one year, things could turn around and maybe they would have another year, and another, Matt Cain has announced his retirement at the end of the season.

Tomorrow he will have his last start as a Giants pitcher. As a major league pitcher. I plan on watching the game. I want to watch a baseball hero. A man who did his job. He never whined. He never complained. No drama. Absolutely nothing other than that he went out and pitched every time his manager gave him the ball. He achieved success beyond anybody’s wildest dreams. And he recognized when his time was over.

Matt Cain was … and is … class. He will be missed by this Giants fan and by many others as well.

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With Regret

On a glorious sunny day, I took my boys to a Giants game.  They were 11 and 8 at the time.  It was Sunday, May 28, 2006.  A lifelong Giants fan, I tried to go to at least one game a year and I wanted to bring my boys up right.  As Giants fans.

That afternoon Barry Bonds hit a home run that marked him as a great.  He hit number 715, surpassing Babe Ruth.

 

It’s one of those memories etched in my brain.  The boys and I sat in the upper deck somewhere between home plate and third base.  The ball arced out to the seats just to the right of center field.  And the celebration was on.  Along with 41,000 of our fellow Giants fans, I screamed my head off.  My boys did, too.  I explained the significance to them and we were happy.  It was a moment to revel in being a Giants fan.

Between Bonds and history stood only Hank Aaron’s magical number of 755.

This was a time when Giants fans didn’t have much else to cheer or dream about.  Sure, a few years earlier they made the World Series — a series they lost because Dusty Baker thought it was okay to give the game ball to a starting pitcher before the game was actually won.  And they made the playoffs every now and then.  But seriously, for years, most of what Giants fans had to cheer about revolved around Barry Bonds.

His every at-bat was an event.  Something could happen that would cause your jaw to drop. That short, compact, yet powerful swing just might produce another home run.  He gave us something to watch.  He provided meaning to every game.  He gave us something to cheer in an otherwise empty chapter of Giants history — just like all of the other chapters in Giants history that stretched back to my childhood.

In May 2006, I was 41 years old.  Being a Giants fan since I first became aware of baseball — because that’s what our family was — I was used to misery and not having anything to cheer about.  I rode the Bonds train just like most every other Giants fan.  What else did we have?

A little over a year later — in fact, ten years ago to the day — Barry Bonds broke Hank Aaron’s record with number 756.  I watched a video of the home run earlier today and still marvel at his swing.  At the sheer talent of what he could do.  But I wasn’t at that game and the reality is that the stink of his chase had finally sunk in for me.

Barry Bonds likely had one of the most beautiful, perfect swings of any hitter in the game of baseball.  He had an incredible eye and owned just about any mistake thrown by a pitcher.  He was pretty much a Hall of Fame player before any steroid taint entered the discussion.  He won three MVP awards in the early 1990s and put up numbers that were at the top of the game during that decade.

But it wasn’t enough.  In 1998, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa engaged in a home run duel for the ages, with both topping the long-standing single season record.  And, at the end of the day, it was all fueled by steroids.

What Bonds couldn’t stand apparently was all of the attention and accolades Sosa and McGwire received in 1998.  Shortly thereafter he began a run of performance unrivaled by any player in the history of the game.  A run that began when he was 35 years old, when most baseball players are winding down.

While I cheered and screamed wildly for all of his successes, just like the rest of us Giants fans, we knew.  We knew that what he was doing was toxic.  But what else did we have?

I look back now with ambivalence and with regret.  This article over at si.com describes better than I can the reasons for that.

The odd thing that happened while I thought about this tonight was that I compared it to what is going on in America today.  For almost a decade, the hundreds of thousands of us that call ourselves Giants fans overlooked Bonds toxicity, his cheating, his arrogance, all of it … because he was our guy.  Guess what all of those Trump supporters are saying today … it doesn’t matter what he does because he is our guy.

Yes, there is a huge degree of difference between something as ultimately meaningless as baseball (although baseball is life and art and poetry) and the honor and integrity of the Presidency, but I feel sick at the idea that I ignored his cheating because it felt good at the time and because he was a Giant.

What I am most grateful for is that it was only a couple of years after his last season with the Giants, after purging him from the organization and cleaning house, that the  Giants went on their first successful World Series run in more than 50 years. 2010 will always be the year the Giants wiped the slate clean.  2012 and 2014 were just icing and the cherry that none of us expected.  And each one of them put the tragedy of the Bonds years further behind.  For that I am thankful, but that success will never change how I will always feel about Bonds.

My hope is that he never makes the Hall of Fame, although I think he eventually will — likely in either his ninth or tenth year of eligibility.  I won’t care then and I won’t celebrate it.  He doesn’t deserve it.  He was the poster child of the poison that was Major League Baseball for about ten years.  He and several others, just like Pete Rose, should be forever banned from the Hall for what they did.

For Baseball Fans

For years, there have been a handful players playing baseball where the opposing team employes a defensive shift when those players come to the plate.  They are always lefthanded hitters and the shift involves moving the second baseman into shallow right field, the shortstop to the first base side of second base and the third baseman to around where the shortstop usually plays.  This shift used to happen rarely.

Suddenly this year, the use of this shift exploded, with every team using it regularly throughout the game for a lot of lefthanded hitters.  And invariably when teams used the shift, the batter hit weakly to the third baseman, now in the shortstop’s spot or to the second baseman playing in shallow right field.  It was amazing how frequently the shift worked and how little these hitters tried to adjust to the move.

So, now baseball has a new commissioner who has expressed support for outlawing the shift.  Apparently, the reason for doing so would be to help increase offense.

All I have to say is that if baseball outlaws the shift it will be the beginning of the end of civilization as we know it.  The linked article goes into a lot of the reasons why this is a horrible idea, but I’ll briefly summarize my reasons.  As the article describes it, the point of hitting is to try to “hit ’em where they aint,” and the point of defense is to try to play where they hit them.  There are all sorts of shifts that take place throughout baseball games.  Outfielders playing shallow, playing deep, shading towards right field or left field, corner infielders playing close to the lines to prevent hits down the line turning into extra base hits, playing in to avoid a runner at third from scoring on a ball that stays in the infield, infielders playing at double play depth.  There are all sorts of these things.

One of the biggest problems I have with football is how the rules change every year and they are almost always changed to increase offense at the expense of the defense.  What this means is that defenses have to constantly adjust to what offenses cook up, but offenses never have to learn to adjust to what defenses cook up.

And that’s the beauty of baseball.  The rules don’t change very often and with the rare exception of lowering the pitching mound at the end of the 1960s, those changes almost never have to do with taking away one side’s need to learn to adjust to improvements made by the other side.

What amazes me about the shifts is that there is a remarkably simple solution to the “problem” they create for offenses.  There was a time when baseball players knew how to hit the ball to the opposite field.  That seems to be more and more of a lost art these days.  All it would take for teams to stop employing the defensive shift is for those incredibly talented professional athletes who are making millions of dollars a year to re-learn the ability to the ball the opposite way and then do it every once in awhile to keep the defenses honest.  What would be even better is if those batters just dropped a bunt down the 3rd base line every once in awhile — they’d probably get a double every time.

That the new commissioner believes that outlawing something that has been a part of baseball throughout its history rather than forcing batters to adapt, which has also been a part of baseball for years, is not a good sign for the future of the game.  Or civilization as we know it.

 

The Arrival of a Curse

I’m sitting here watching the Giants game.  It’s a tense 2-2 tie entering the bottom of the 6th inning, when the wheels fall off the bus and the Royals score 5 runs.  What?  Huh? Something happened here.  The planets are out of alignment.  The trains have stopped running on time.  Children are crying.  Storm clouds are gathering.  In a small town in the middle of nowhere, a tear falls slowly down the dusty cheek of a migrant worker.  The President stops in mid-speech.  He doesn’t know why, but he does.  Cell phones disconnect.  Computer screens blink off and on, so quickly most don’t even see it.  Vladimir Putin gives back Crimea.  Life as we know it has stopped.  SOMETHING HAPPENED!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Multi-tasker that I am, I’m on my laptop at the same time.  I check in with WordPress as the inning of horror winds to a close and I find this comment:

2-2 bottom of the 6th in game 2… I have a feeling the Royals are going to get outclassed by the Giants. Just a feeling. I’m the last one to say that recent World Series experience is a key determinant (I think talent and to some extent, in a 7-game series, luck wins), but the Giants seem to be calmer at the plate and on the mound.

This is just not the type of thing one says at this point in a game.  In a World Series.  You just don’t say these kind of things.  Why?  Because when you do, bad things happen.  It really doesn’t matter, the opposite of what you say is what will happen.  So, yeah, Trent Lewin, I’m calling you out on this.  I’m blaming you.  For the sake of all that you hold dear, you better hope the end result of this series is good for the Giants.  Or I may just sick a bunch of furry-footed hobbits on you.

 

They Call Them Giants

There’s this thing called baseball.  It’s a sport.  Although snobby people suggest those who play it aren’t really athletes.  As though the ability to hit a baseball thrown at 95 mph is not an athletic skill.

It is a sport that has spanned much of America’s history.  Plenty of people consider it to be part of America’s backbone.  It is the one and only thing I have ever agree with George Will about.  And it is the sport that inspires more great short stories (see W.P. Kinsella) and poetry and art than any other major sport in this country.  There is something about baseball that is different, for those who love the game.  It is not bound by a clock.  It is timeless, both in each game that is played, and in its history.  It is leisurely.  There is no rushing in baseball.  One can sit back and relax, talk with friends, and enjoy the pleasures of the game.  There is a rhythm and flow to the game that can be appreciated and admired.

Unless, of course, your team makes the playoffs.  Born into a family that developed into fans of the San Francisco Giants, I have spent much of the last 45 years or so comfortably numb in the pleasure of a baseball team that had little success.  We could enjoy the game without fear of the stress of the playoffs, or heaven forbid, a World Series appearance.  Through the miserable 70’s and most of the 80s, the Giants were horrible.  Success was something other teams had.  We could just be baseball fans.

In 1989, the Giants got this close <> to the World Series.  Actually, they got real close.  They were in the thing and they promptly got swept by the cross-bay A’s.  It was a twinge.  A moment when we fans realized that maybe there was something more than just rooting for the home team and when October came we would say, “Maybe next year.”  Knowing full well that next year wasn’t going to be any better.  Hope.  We finally had it.

The 90’s came and there was a little more success.  A little more hope.  They made the World Series again in 2002.  Facing the cross-state Angels.  Sadly, they were again denied victory and the ultimate success.  A World Series.  A chance to claim the title of best team in baseball.  Something not accomplished since 1954, when the franchise was back in New York.

So imagine our surprise when, in 2010, the unimaginable happened.  A dream season.  It started with middling success, but then something happened in the dog days of summer.  Things began to click.  Games were won at a staggering pace and the team qualified for the post season.  The won their first playoff series, then the next, and the World Series arrived.  We didn’t know how to act.  It was new.  It was also old.  We knew how this would end.  Another defeat.  Wait until next year.

Yeah, wait until next year to see if they could repeat.  The Giants won the World Series.  The Giants won the World Series?!?!?!?!  After decades in the wilderness, we had a team.  We had success.  Our team had reached the pinnacle and we could now claim that we had seen it and lived it and it was a beautiful thing.

Then they did it again in 2012.  Are you kidding me?  The first time, in 2010, I was too numb with the idea to consider attending a game.  In 2012, things were different.  I was going to be a part of it and I went to several playoff games.  And then they did something unthinkable in their march to their second championship.  They lost the first two games of the first series and then won three games in a row to eliminate the Reds.  Then, they fell behind the Cardinals 3-1 and then rolled off three games in a row to eliminate the Cardinals.  In the World Series, they dominated the Tigers, sweeping them in four games.  The Giants had done something never done before on their way to their second championship in two years.  It was … unbelievable.

My brother told me this past weekend that all he wanted was one World Series championship from the Giants and he got in 2010.  Having two was more than he could have hoped for.  And we’re OK with more moderate success.

And now we have this.  They’ve made the postseason again and my brother and I agree.  We don’t need it.  And on some level, don’t want it either.  There is this thing that happens when your team — the one that you have lived and died by for all those years — makes the playoffs.  Your world changes, other things disappear.  The only thing that matters is … did they win today?  Every pitch hurts.  It squeezes you and forces the air out of you.  You can’t watch another inning.  But you must.  You can’t move.  It’s far too important.  The problem with having your team in the postseason is that you have to continue caring.  You have to devote time to watching the games.  You experience stress and tension unrelated to your actual involvement in the game itself.  It is hard work being a fan of a baseball team in the playoffs.

The Giants had to beat the Pittsburgh Pirates in a one game “play-in” game to make it to the first round of the playoffs.  They did so.  Then, they faced the Nationals — the team with the best record in the National League — in that first round.  Nobody gave them a chance.  Just as the pundits and prognosticators didn’t give them a chance in 2010 or 2012.  Four games later, they’re moving on to the National League Championship Series against the Cardinals, with the winner headed to the World Series.

What a series it was.  Game two went 18 innings, with the Giants scoring their first run in the 9th inning to tie the score 1-1 and then the two teams demonstrating offensive futility for far too many hours to count until Brandon Belt hit a monster home run to win the game in the 18th inning.  It was the longest game in postseason history.  I sat and watched the whole thing.  When the game was over and I went to bed that night, I was convinced that it was all a figment of my imagination.  That there was absolutely no way I had just watched what I had.  I was convinced that when I woke up in the morning I would open the paper to find that the Giants had lost 8-2.  It was that surreal.

On Tuesday, the Giants won 3-2, and won the series three games to one.  I’m convinced that I have never been as tense watching a sports event on TV as I was watching the final couple of innings on Tuesday.  It makes no sense.  They’ve got two World Series Championships in the last few years.  I can relax.  Anything they do now is gravy.  They made the playoffs.  That should be good enough.  It’s just not as important as it was in 2010 and 2012.  Only it is.  They’re there.  I want another one.  Nothing less will be a disappointment.

Go Giants!!!  I think.

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