Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Pinch Me

I cannot stop being surprised that the San Francisco Giants are the focus of national attention at this time of year. At a time when the sporting world, and its eastern seaboard media base, routinely turns its attention to the New York Yankees, it blows me away that our local team, usually ignored nationally, is the lead story for all baseball coverage.

The Giants have been to the World Series three times in my lifetime. The first time in 1989, the series was not only limited to the two Bay Area teams, killing national interest, but the series itself was interrupted by a catastrophic earthquake.
And, in 2002, the Giants were at the height of their (evil) powers with Barry Bonds, the player everyone, including his own teammates, loved to hate. That team got within two innings and a five-run lead of winning the World Series, but lost it anyway.

I did not live in the Bay Area when the Giants went to the World Series the last two times, and could only agonize from afar. This year is different. Not only have I relived my childhood by living and breathing Giants baseball all summer, but I have infected my son with the same virus as well. There is no way for these national media folks to know more about this team than I do. Even Michael could give you their lineup, their pitching rotation, and a good imitation of each hitter's batting stance. Astonishingly, in an era when only the most prominent teams are expected to reach for the biggest prize, our crew (who have been lazily pigeonholed by national media as a ragtag bunch of castoffs) is four games away from the title, beginning with the first game tonight.

We won't be going to any games, I don't expect, which is just as well. I watch Giants playoff games the way a teenage girl watches horror films -- through my fingers, often followed by dashing out of the room. I was so worked up during the Giants pennant-clinching win in Philadelphia on Saturday that it took me most of Sunday to bleed off attention.

During the latter stages of that game, I left the TV in the family room and listened to the game on the radio with our hometown announcers. I absently scrubbed surfaces in the kitchen that may or may not have needed scrubbing while I listened to the game, just to keep the tension at bay. Because the television is on about a 10 second delay, anytime anything interesting happened I would dash down the hallway to see on TV what I had just heard on the radio. Just before the game ended, Michael joined me in the kitchen, but decided he really needed to watch the game on television. He made me promise not to yell or come down the hallway, no matter what happened, so that the result would be a surprise to him as he watched it on TV. I agreed to this wholly reasonable request. When Brian Wilson struck out Ryan Howard on the last pitch of the game, I jumped exultantly but silently around the kitchen in joy and disbelief. Ten seconds later, a great whoop emanated from the family room as what I had just heard was shown on TV, and then Michael sprinted down the hallway to give me a great leaping hug.

We all have our ways of celebrating success. Being one of 50,000 people screaming in the stadium could not have been better than that.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Talkin' Baseball

The Niners, doing their best to tarnish the image of a great franchise, are off to an 0-5 start, the Warriors have not yet started their latest losing season, and the Sharks – well, that’s hockey, so nobody cares. This could have been another dismal October for Bay Area sports fans, but not this time. After seven years, filled with Barry Bonds drama and bad, no-name teams, the San Francisco Giants have returned to the playoffs.

Sometimes the experts are right. Even as the Giants fell into the massive hole left behind by Bonds, his ego, and his roster-draining contract, most knowledgeable baseball pundits looked ahead from the miserable 2007 and 2008 seasons toward a successful future for the Giants. The conventional wisdom was that once management shed itself of Bonds’ declining skills on the field, his dour presence in the clubhouse, and its own compulsion to surround him with veteran players (i.e., old, cheap and deferential), the franchise would be able to devote itself to finding and nurturing good young talent. The first fruits of this were already in place in 2008, as Tim Lincecum came from nowhere to win the first of two consecutive Cy Young awards. Lincecum joined a staff already anchored by youngster Matt Cain, as well as bad-old-days holdover (but former Cy Young winner) Barry Zito. Over the next two seasons, the Giants drafted and brought to the majors stars in the making such as Pablo Sandoval, Madison Bumgarner, Jonathan Sanchez, Brian Wilson and likely rookie of the year Buster Posey.

Adding to this outstanding core of youngsters capable veterans such as Aubrey Huff, Freddy Sanchez and local boy Pat Burrell, the Giants now field the most energetic and likable team they have put on the field since their last Will Clark playoff team in 1989. The team is loose, happy, and skilled. The rebirth of the franchise came to fruition this season, after the team played meaningful games into September last season. This year, the Giants chased down the San Diego Padres, finally surpassing them in late September by taking three of four games in a series in San Diego. The Giants won the games they had to win, including the very last game of the season at home to finally eliminate the Padres and win the National League West title.

There’s something unique about to hold a baseball team has on the region. The Sharks have been one of the best teams in hockey over the last several years, going deep into the playoffs every season. You would only know it, however, if you pay close attention to the evening news. The Warriors can capture the area’s attention if they make it to the playoffs, but that happens so rarely that it is truly a unique and exciting event. Plus, nobody pays attention to the Warriors during the regular season. The Niners, thanks to their history, bring attention to themselves once a week each fall, but the season is too short to hold the attention and capture the imagination of the area for long. The Giants, on the other hand, have a way of riding momentum from the spring through the summer and right into the fall.

On the day of the last game of the season, we were at one of Michael’s baseball games. The parents in the stands are paying as much attention to reports coming out of San Francisco on the Giants game (on our mobile phones – someone should have brought a transistor radio for old times’ sake) as we were to the game in front of us. Soccer moms were knowledgeably debating the relative strengths of the Padres speedy lineup, and grandmothers were sagely opining on the remarkable maturation of Giants pitcher Jonathan Sanchez as he looked to pitch the Giants into the postseason.

We got home for the last couple of innings of that game. Predictably, it was a close game, but there was true joy in the stadium and at our house when Wilson struck out the last Padre batter. I watched every minute of the clubhouse celebration that the local cable network broadcast. Ever since then, the whole area has been abuzz with excitement over the Giants making the playoffs for the first time in seven years, and for only the sixth time since the franchise came to San Francisco.

The Giants dispatched the Atlanta Braves in for extremely tense games in the first round of the playoffs. Thanks to a historically great pitching staff and a still-anemic offense, each of the games was decided by a single run, and the Giants scored a total of only 11 runs in the four games. They now draw a matchup against the Philadelphia Phillies, which can boast a pitching rotation equal to the Giants, and a much more formidable offense.

None of the national baseball experts, who foresaw the eventual rebirth of the Giants, have picked the Giants to beat the Phillies. Well, what do they know?

This season has been tremendous fun for me, and reconnects me with how excited I was in the late 80s when the Giants made the playoffs twice in three years after many years of mediocrity I’m probably no fun to be around in the late stages of a close game, but it is nice to be rewarded for all of that worry with little success for once.

I suspect that my strong emotional ties to the Giants just might rub off on the kids (even Kelly, who gleefully remains loyal to the Dodgers, her own team for most of her life). Michael still enjoys playing baseball; we have marked out the distance in the backyard for the regulation mound-to-plate distance so that he can practice pitching to me. He probably will not have too many more opportunities to pitch during the fall baseball season, as the coach has said he wants to give the majority of the innings to the older kids who will be depended upon by their spring teams. However, Michael wants the ball to prove what he can do. Batting against other kids and their erratic picthes has been the biggest challenge this fall, but he enjoys the challenge and pressure of being the pitcher, and he still plays every other aspect of the game well. We love watching him do it.