Tuesday, November 02, 2010

 


Edgar Renteria gets the pitch he wanted

In 1954, the last time the Giants won a World Series, I was eight years old. I remember the series as one of the first that I watched on TV with my grandfather, gradually becoming a baseball fan but not yet with an allegiance to any team. In ’54, the teams local to the Bay Area were the Oakland Oaks & San Francisco Seals, both minor league franchises in the Pacific Coast League. The Oaks folded after 1955, and I never saw a Seals game in person. But what I remember most about that 1954 series is that TV showed Willie Mays’ catch of a long drive off the bat of Vic Wertz over and over. I may not even have known what a replay was before that series. Although Cleveland had won 111 games that year and was seemingly invincible, the rather motley crew of the Giants, whose heroes included a pinch-hitter by the name of Dusty Rhodes, swept them in 4 games.

Four years later, when I was 12, the Giants moved to San Francisco, led that season by Mays & Johnny Antonelli, one of the pitching heroes of the ’54 series. That first west coast team had a number of young players, most notably rookie first baseman Orlando Cepeda, who would go on to the Hall of Fame, rookie third-baseman Jim Davenport & a slew of good young outfielders that included Willie Kirkland, Felipe Alou, Bill White, Leon Wagner and Jackie Brandt, and I was instantly a die-hard Giants fan. I can tell pretty much everything about the first game I ever attended at Seals Stadium on 16th Street. Ruben Gomez started for the Giants but walked the first four batters & was pulled instantly by manager Bill Rigney, who sent in Paul Giel (a one-time Jack Spicer student!) who shut down the Reds the rest of the way, allowing the home team to beat Bob Purkey. Before they moved to Candlestick Park in 1960, I saw Leon Wagner hit a ball that cleared the stadium walls & crossed 16th Street to land in a park – that is still the longest home run I’ve ever seen, even if it gets a little longer every year.

Once the Giants added Willie McCovey (another Hall of Famer) in 1959 & Juan Marichal (ditto) in ’60, the team became a regular contender in the pre-playoffs era of baseball. In 1962, the Giants came within a hit of besting the New York Yankees in a seven-game series. Game 4 of that series proved to be the only World Series game Juan Marichal would ever play in. Although the Giants won that particular contest, the victory in relief went to Don Larsen, whom everyone remembers for his perfect game with the Yankees in 1956.

I can recall exactly where I was sitting when McCovey’s ninth-inning line drive found its way into Bobby Richardson’s mitt to end the 1962 series, where my grandfather was sitting, and where my brother was pounding on the screen door to be let into the house. But the game and series were already over before either of us rose to get the latch. That was the only World Series the Giants played in as locals while my grandfather was still alive. By the time the Giants got back to the series in 1989, Arthur Collins Tansley been dead already for 18 years. Not one of the 1958 players was still competing. The nation had gone from JFK to George Herbert Walker Bush as president between appearances in baseball’s greatest show.

The 1989 series was marked both by competition from right across the bay, the Oakland A’s, a team that had relocated from Kansas City in 1968, and by the Loma Prieta earthquake that put a huge damper on everything. The upstart American League franchise was in the second of its three-year-run in the series that year, having lost to Los Angeles the year before, and losing again in 1990 to the Cincinnati Reds. I managed to attend Series games in both 1988 and ’90, watching the A’s win in extra innings on a home run by Mark Maguire in ’88 and watching with Kit Robinson as the Reds finished their sweep of the local team in 1990. Jose Rijo, the winning pitcher of that final game was the then-son-in-law of Juan Marichal. Life’s little ironies.

I had thought I would be seeing the Giants in the 1987 series. That was the only year I was ever able to swing post-season tickets for the Giants, led in that era by manager Roger Craig, whose good-ol’-boy persona often strikes me as the template for current Phillies manager Charlie Manuel. The Giants won the Western Division and took the lead in the playoff series two games to one over the Cardinals when they left to play the final two games in St. Louis. But the Cardinals won both games & I still have a photocopy of my World Series tickets somewhere. The originals went back for a refund.

In 2002, the Giants came within six outs of winning the series over the California Angels, only to have the bullpen blow game six and then to lose game seven. By then, I no longer lived in the Bay Area and tho my allegiance was slowly moving over to the Phils, I had no trouble rooting for Barry Bonds-led Giants. Even then, however, Bonds was the lone player left from my days in the Bay Area seven years earlier.

When the Giants made it to the World Series this year, I was rooting in fact for the Phils. The current Giants, the 2010 World Champion Giants, look nothing like that team in 2002, nor any of their previous division-winning teams. With one of the hardest baseball stadiums to hit for power in in the game, the team has been largely designed for the peculiarities of that ball park, and designed on the cheap. As I wrote on October 6, the Giants were the one team that gave me pause in hoping that the Phils would take their second world title in three years, precisely because of the Giants’ pitching. If anything, I underestimated their pitchers. Their number three starter, Jonathan Sanchez, had a case of the yips and went from being their strongest starting pitcher at the season’s end to being a non-factor in the post-season. But Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain & Madison Bumgarner were masterful. Closer Brian Wilson was perfect. And the rest of the staff was good enough.

The Giants also had the weakest starting players of any team in the playoffs, possibly ever. Not one of their starting outfielders began the season as regulars with the team. The left side of the infield was a patchwork, and they traded their starting catcher to make room for a 23-year-old phenom. The phenom, Buster Posey, first baseman Aubrey Huff (signed in January as a free agent), and second-baseman Freddy Sanchez (a former batting champ with worst-team-in-baseball, Pittsburgh, a few years back) were really the only solid starters the team had most of the season. Another way of looking at this is that five of the starting eight positions were being held by back-up style ballplayers, mostly older ballplayers who could no longer play as regulars elsewhere. I still think that Buster Posey is the only position player on the Giants who could compete for a starting job on the Phils. A lot of good that did the Phils.

Because, with good enough pitching, that turns out to be good enough. In three of the games the Giants won, the Rangers scored one run or less. The World Series MVP is a good-hands, no-hit shortstop who is on the cusp of retirement. His obvious replacement, Juan Uribe, is, shall we say, stocky for an infielder, tho not by comparison to the gargantuan Pablo Sandoval, who had starred for the 2009 Giants only to lose his job this year.

One other phenomenon should be mentioned here, tho, which is momentum. The Phillies had the best record in the National League, but only once in the past decade has the National League team with the best regular season record even gone to the World Series – the 2004 Cardinals who were then swept by the Red Sox. The Giants instead executed a more common narrative by being the team that had to work hardest in September to get into the play-offs, and then going on to win it all. Usually that’s the wild card team, but the Braves had that wrapped up a week before the season ended. The Giants, by contrast, hustled to take the Western Division crown on the final day of the season. Of the eight teams in the playoffs, they were the one that spent the fewest days in first place, just 37 days from six months of competition. But once in the playoffs, they never stopped hustling. In the National League Championship Series, you could tell in at least the first four games that the Phils were trying hard not to lose the series, while the Giants were instead trying to win, taking greater chances and getting good results. Playing the team with the best record in the American League in the series, the Giants even made it look easy. Once it became clear that Lincecum had better stuff than Cliff Lee in Game One, the championship never seemed in doubt. To somebody who has been watching the Giants for over 50 years, that sentence just sounds odd, but it’s true. Watching them cruise to the title took me back a long ways, to my childhood really. I wish my grandfather could have seen this team.

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