Lon, Kruk and the beautiful game

Three men taught me the game of baseball: my Dad, Russ Hodges and Lon Simmons. So it was  with great anticipation that I looked forward to today, when Comcast Bay Area, the Giants cable TV station, would air the premier of a special on the career of beloved broadcast legend Lon Simmons, who turned 91 on July 19.

I still so vividly recall hearing Russ and Lon broadcasting San Francisco Giants games starting in the club’s first year here in 1958. I particularly recall Sundays in the garage of the family home, where the game would be blasted out on the radio while my Dad was building things or fixing things in his workshop, while I stood by ready to help. Those were great times, and we’d freeze as soon as we heard Russ or Lon’s voice go up, signaling something good had happen to our team.

I was part of the transistor generation. No iPhone where I could dial up Game Day for a computerized detail on the game. No Twitter to clue me in on up to the second developments. Just me, my transistor radio glued to my ear, and the incredible play-by-play of Russ and Lon. I was only seven when the Giants arrived in 1958, and especially on school nights, had an early bedtime which means I’d miss the end of the games when they were played at night in San Francisco or Los Angeles. So my Dad purchased a reel to reel tape recorder, set it up next to the radio that was broadcasting the game on KSFO, and taped the rest of the game. In the morning he’d play it back for me so I rarely missed a broadcast.

This made me a true baseball radio junkie, an addiction I have never been able to shake. And through all these years, Lon was my enabler.

Lon’s dry wit and affection for puns was on par with his famous “Tell it Goodbye” home run call. I learned this in those early years. listening to a Giants-Indians spring training exhibition broadcast when the Giants brought in pitcher Randy Moffitt. Said Lon in his deadpan manner: “The question is not whether Moffitt can pitch, but can Moffitt Field? That was in reference to a Bay Area military base of the time called Moffet Field. Maybe you had to be there, but it was in part my introduction to laidback Lon. That humor has been one of the wonderful traits through the years. During a round table discussion, the moderator turned to the “aging” Simmons for his comment, and said “go ahead,” to which Lon replied with tongue in cheek, “Don’t call me goat head!” Lon’s other favorite is when someone around him in this high-tech era refers to a computer terminal, to which Lon responds, “don’t say ‘terminal’ around an old person.”

Lon Simmons broadcast the Giants from 1958 to 1973, the 49ers from 1958 to 1980, the Giants again from 1976-1979, the A’s from 1981 to 1995, and the Giants one more time from 1996 to 2002. In 2004, he became a Hall of Famer when he received the Ford C. Frick award. Lon humbly replied in an interview that he didn’t deserve such an honor, marking the only time in his career that he didn’t give his listeners a truthful description of an important event.

Lon so understood the pacing of a baseball game. He didn’t need to be constantly chattering between pitches, out of fear the listeners would become bored and seek other entertainment. But as soon as something happened, the incredible voice grew with emotion as he eloquently, accurately and powerfully described the play. I sometimes wonder what Lon would do these days between pitches on TV games, where producers are transfixed on showing kids eating cotton candy between every pitch, and require announcers to get all giddy about these distracting crowd shots. Perhaps, Lon could give these impatient producers of today some advice about letting the events on the field be enough to keep fans connected to this beautiful game.

While it was Lon’s baseball radio broadcasts that initially attracted me to him, his work on 49ers games made me realize how versatile a professional he was in his industry. It still drives me crazy when football radio announcers don’t clearly tell you where the ball is. Lon would announce a kickoff return, for example, by saying “he’s at the 5-10-15-20-25 …”

I still think Lon’s description of Minnesota’s Jim Marshall’s wrong-way run is one of the greatest calls in sports history, because the play was so unpredictable. Listen to it on the web. It rivals perhaps the greatest single sports broadcast performance ever, Dodger legend Vin Scully’s eloquent description of a Sandy Koufax perfect game in 1965.

Russ and Lon set the bar very high in the early years for subsequent Giants TV and radio announcers. But today’s Giants crew of fellow Hall of Famer John Miller, Dave Fleming, Duane Kuiper and Mike Krukow have clearly made Lon proud.

This morning, while looking forward to tonight’s Simmons TV special, we learned in a story in the San Francisco Chronicle that Krukow was suffering from a serious muscular disease that while not fatal, leads to unexpected falls, and reliance on canes, walkers and perhaps wheelchairs down the road. “Kruk,” as he fondly is known to his legions of Northern California fans, consented in part to the interview with the hope that others dealing with various physical conditions would be lifted by the way he is not letting it change his work and personal schedule. One Giants follower who read the story commented at the end, saying, “If you fall, your fans will catch you.”

It seems fitting that these two events — Lon’s TV tribute and “Kruk’s” physical issues — would occur on the same day. We baseball fans lock into our broadcasters, particularly the special ones. We live and we die with them as we follow our team’s ups and downs. They are our eyes. They are our ears. They bring the game home to us.

After my Mom passed away, I was alone one Sunday afternoon in 2000 going through the many family memories stored in the cabinets in the garage. I brought my radio, not much bigger than a transistor. I had it turned up as loud as it could go, and it was blasting the broadcast of the game, and the voice of Lon Simmons. I took a moment to soak it all in. Suddenly, it was the early 1960s, Lon at the mic, my Dad at the work bench, my Mom coming down the stairs with lunch, neighbors dropping by to say hello.

Then the moment passed, and all was silent again except for Lon on the radio: “Strike one, ball one, the count is one and one.” And for the first time in my period of mourning and loss, I smiled.

Thanks for the memories, Lon. And hang in there Kruk. There’s a game tonight, and a whole lot more memories coming up that we’re counting on you to bring to us.

 

 

 

 

where my Dad wi

BEAT L.A.! BEAT S.F.!

The Sunday finale prior to the All Star Game break already has media and fans (and the ball clubs too, though they won’t admit it) looking ahead to the July 25-27 three-game showdown series between the Dodgers and Giants at AT&T Park. The Dodgers looked like the pitching-rich teams of the Koufax-Drysdale era of the 1960s, winning 1-0 against the San Diego Padres for the second straight day to preserve a one-game lead over the Giants. The slumping Giants suddenly went from misdemeanor row to murderers row in one afternoon, as catcher Buster Posey and pitcher Madison Bumgarner slugged grand slams.

It’s not easy to predict what either team will do once play resumes on Friday. Everybody recalls the Dodgers’ off the charts 42-8 run that cemented their division crown a year ago. But that was a freak streak — those things just don’t easily repeat. Both teams have pitching with the potential of keeping them relevant deep into September. There will be no predictions here, but here are some things to consider as the Giants and Dodgers possibly prepare to launch one the rivalry’s great pennant races.

THE SCHEDULE: The three games the Dodgers and Giants play near the end of July will be great theater, but they won’t decide who wins the Tony. Starting Friday, and lasting through Aug. 24, the teams shift play away from the weak bottom-three of the NL West to an out-of- division schedule. The team that fares best against this challenge may be your NL West champion.

The Giants play 31 of 34 games during this period against out-of-division foes, with the three games against the Dodgers the only exception. The Dodgers play 29 of 35 games during this stretch against teams out of the division. The Giants might have a slight advantage in the matchups. The Dodgers have seven against NL East contender Atlanta, six against NL Central contender Milwaukee and four against the red-hot Angels in a home and away series. The Giants have seven against vulnerable Philadelphia, but also must face formidable opponents such as Washington, Pittsburgh, Kansas City and the White Sox. The Dodgers are home for 17 of these 35 games. The Giants are home for just 11 of the 34.

PENNANT RACES: The teams have had 10 strong head-to-head pennant races since coming to California in 1958. The Giants won titles in four of them (1962, 1971, 1997 and 2012). The Dodgers won titles in five of them (1959, 1965, 1966, 1978 and 2004). The teams eliminated each other in 1982.

STATS MATCHUP: The teams are fairly even in hitting and pitching statistics this year. Complicating that analysis is that the Giants built their numbers with a torrid start that led to a 9-1/2 game lead at one point, and have notably fallen since then. The Dodgers are batting .258 to the Giants .243, and have outscored them 403-365. The Giants have a slight lead in homers 84-76. A difference-maker for the Dodgers might be their speed. Dodgers second baseman Dee Gordon channels up memories of speedster Maury Wills of 1962, having stole 42 bases so far. The Giants team has 35, and 11 have come from Angel Pagan, who has missed significant time because of injury.

ATTENDANCE: Who will have the biggest support? It looks about even. The Dodgers lead the league in attendance this year with 2,230,760, while the Giants have drawn 2,163,097.

NO-HITTERS: The Dodgers have two this year tossed by Clayton Kershaw and Josh Beckett. The Giants have one thrown by Tim Lincecum. If there is one recorded in the nine games the teams have remaining against each other this year, history says it is unlikely to come from a Giant. The last five no-hitters in the rivalry have been thrown by Dodgers: Kevin Gross (1992), Jerry Reuss (1980), Sandy Koufax (1963), Carl Erskine (1956) and Rex Barney (1948). The last Giant to no-hit the Dodgers was Rube Marquard in 1915. The Giants Tom Lovett, a 23-game winner in 1891, was the first to throw a no-hitter in the rivalry, beating the Dodgers 4-1 that year. Amos Rusie, who was the losing pitcher in that game, countered a month later by no-hitting the Giants 6-0.  Rusie’s performance was no fluke. That season, he was 33-20, with 52 complete games and 337 strikeouts in 500 innings.

PUIG VS. POSEY: These are the offensive stars for the two teams. The success of each club may very well rest on which produces the best. So far, Puig has the upper statistical hand, leading Posey in average (.309 to .275), OBP (.393 to .331), RBI (52 to 46) and HR (14 to 12). Of course it’s hard to measure Posey’s value to his team as a catcher with baseball savvy against Puig’s raw play and his sometimes costly decisions in the field and on the bases. But ultimately, the story of the 2014 Giants-Dodgers season may be answered in who delivered the best when it mattered — Puig or Posey.

PITCHING MATCHUPS:  Based on each managers’ post-break rotations, it appears the pitching matchups for the July series will be Zack Grienke vs. Tim Lincecum, Clayton Kershaw vs. Ryan Vogelson, Matt Cain vs. Hyn-Jin Ryu. I was hoping for Kershaw vs. Lincecum, and maybe there will be some tweak in the starters that will make that possible. The combination of  Lincecum’s recent success, and his charismatic flair, against All-World Kershaw would give today’s younger fans a feeling of what it was like in the 1960s when Sandy Koufax dueled Juan Marichal. The Kershaw-Lincecum matchups in 2011 were classics. Kershaw was a rising star and Lincecum had quickly established himself as one of the best in the game. Kershaw showed greatness was in his future as he won all four matchups against Lincecum. The stats from the four games: Kershaw 30.1 IP, 2 R, 16 H, 36 SO, 5 BB. Lincecum: 29 IP, 5 R, 24 H, 23 SO, 12 BB. C’mon, Don Mattingly and Bruce Bochy, line up your rotation so we get this matchup.

So let’s get that Home Run Derby and All-star exhibition done and gone so we can get to some old country hardball over the next month that will shape the National League post-season picture. I can’t wait.

 

 

 

 

 

Father and Son: A Glove Story

My Dad wasn’t unfairly demanding, but often advised about using common sense and showing responsibility. On a Saturday in 1961, my summer league baseball team (10 year olds) was playing at Big Rec Park in San Francisco. After my game, I was sitting on the lawn to watch the next game when I decided to go to the hot dog stand. I tossed my glove on the ground and ran off with my friends. When I returned, I couldn’t figure out what happened to my glove. A man sitting nearby asked if I had left my glove there. He said a kid on a bike just picked it up as he rode by. He pointed way across the field, and there was the kid, too far away to even give chase. I was mortified, not just at having the glove stolen, but of knowing I would have to explain to my Dad what happen.

When my Dad got home from work that night, he asked how the game went. I stood there nearly in tears, and told him what happened. Even worse, I had a game the next afternoon, and didn’t even have a glove. I braced myself for a stern lecture about common sense and responsibility, which was well deserved. He sized up the situation, and only said, “Tomorrow morning after church, we’ll go to the sporting goods store and find another glove.” While I was happy about that, I still had trouble in my young mind of knowing that I had let him down.

We were at the store just after it opened at 10. My eyes locked on one glove, signed by Joe Cunningham. He wasn’t the most famous ballplayer of the time but he hit .345 in 1959, so I knew  of him. But the cool thing that made his glove stand out was the trapeze webbing, almost like a first-baseman’s glove. I thought I would never make another error if I could snag every ball in that trapeze webbing.

When we were driving home, I thanked my Dad over and over for the glove, and promised I would forever take care of it. He smiled and said, “I know you will, son.” I then thought a minute, and said that maybe that kid took my glove because his father wouldn’t buy him one. My Dad didn’t answer, but looked the other way. “Your eye Ok, Dad,?” I asked as I saw him go to rub it. “Yea,” he said, “it’s fine.”

. . .

My Dad was a star on the sandlots of San Francisco in the 1930s. He was an all-city pitcher for  Commerce High School who hit .385 in his senior year in 1935. He was a left-hander with a sweeping curve that left most batters paralyzed. The newspapers called him the “husky, bulldog hurler,” and his one-hit, 11 strike-out performance against Lowell High got much attention in the local press. He moved on to the very competitive semi-pro leagues of the Bay Area following graduation. In one game, he struck out 19 while allowing just three hits, which prompted a local newspaper headline to declare him as possibly “the next Lefty Gomez,” referring to the great Yankees Hall of Fame ace. His talent attracted professional scouts, who signed him to a minor league contract in 1938 with the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues. Unfortunately, one too many curve balls thrown without proper supervision resulted in a shoulder injury and the dream ended before it could get under way. He remained proud of his accomplishments, however, telling me the stories as I got older, and he kept his old worn and beaten up baseball glove in a prominent place in our garage through the years.

. . .

It has been 25 years since I received a late-night phone call telling me that my father had suffered a fatal heart attack. I never got to say goodbye, but that wasn’t needed. I often dropped by to have dinner with my Mom and Dad, and saw him just the week before, so there were no regrets of anything left unsaid. There were so many good memories over all the years, but for me, much of it came down to baseball. That was where we formed our father-son bond at a very early age, watching the games at the park or on TV, talking ball and playing catch.

It’s still hard not to think of that devastating phone call every time another Father’s Day draws near. But to fend off the sadness, I head over to my baseball memorabilia bookshelf, where two of my most precious possessions sit side by side — my Dad’s tattered glove, and that beautiful 53-year-old Joe Cunningham mitt with the trapeze webbing. In my own private moment, I smile, and say, “Yes, Dad, I really did take care of it.”

Happy Father’s Day to all Dads, but especially to those Dads who find a way to show understanding and compassion when their child is most in need of a lift.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dodgers get chewed out

“Basically, we’re bleep.”

Those were the words of motivational speaker Don Mattingly, faced with the challenge of trying to get his $240 million payroll to make up a sizable deficit in the NL West standings. With about 100 games remaining, Mattingly buzzed his squad with a high inside shot about the importance of team play. “I think that’s the one thing we’re missing at this point, a collective group fighting and pulling in one direction trying to win a game,” he said.

It’ll be interesting to see if he gets the ears of his players. Oh, wait, that’s sort of unfortunate phrasing after the recent incident on the club’s minor league team where a catcher bit off part of the ear of his teammate. Actually, Mattingly could have used that as an example of players pulling in different directions — one trying to free his ear, and the other trying to yank it off.

It’s all about that chemistry thing again.

The Giants swear by the chemistry thing, though it apparently only works every other year, as the team stumbled in 2011 and 2013 after championship seasons. I’m a bit confused about the Giants motto anyway of how they play for the name in front of their jerseys, not the name on the back. Sounds good, but when the Giants are home, their names aren’t even on the back of their jerseys. Oh, well.

The Dodgers at this point are 32-31, and trail the Giants by 9.5 games. Last year, they were down 9.5 games on June 22, and clearly appeared chemistry-less. Then they went 42-8. That didn’t happen because of team unity. It happened because of a torrid offense and clutch hitting, and drop-dead pitching. I don’t think team unity is formed by having all the players toss sunflower seeds into the air in unison or doing Yes-Yes chants. That’s a lot fun for players and fans, but it only works after success on the field. I believe that nothing builds team unity like a five-game winning streak, which the Dodgers are capable of pulling off. Some pundits, the same ones who coronated the Dodgers in March, are now conceding the division to the Giants. It’s hard to believe the Dodgers won’t make at least one good run at the Giants, and that the Giants will run into some obstacles, although right now, as Mattingly might say, San Francisco is basically hitting and pitching the bleep out of the baseball.

The uphill climb is made even steeper for the Dodgers because they only play the Giants three times until mid-September, when they meet six times in the closing weeks of the season.

So the Dodgers will need to respond immediately to their skipper’s inspiring call to arms, and win one for the Guggenheims. Not that there is any evidence that Mattingly’s message has gotten through yet. The other day, Matt Kemp smacked one that he assumed was gone, and even slowed down for a congratulatory handshake from first base coach Davey Lopes. Minor problem: the ball stayed in the park and Kemp had to break into a full sprint to reach second. He was called safe, but in a replay challenge, it was ruled that he had been tagged out when he over slid the bag.

Good luck, Don. You’ve really got a bleeping handful.

 

 

 

Giants: 7 defensive miscues on one play

If I go to a baseball game with someone who might not be very familiar with the sport, I try to widen their perspective of the game by comparing it to attending the symphony. If all you do is watch the conductor, you are not getting the full effect of how all the sections mesh together to create the visual and musical experience. In baseball, if all you do is follow the ball, you are not getting the full experience of the game.

For example, if runners are on first and second, and a ball is lined into the right-center field gap and you only follow the ball, you are not getting the full appreciation of the beauty of the game. At the crack of the bat, all nine players have a responsibility. The right fielder and center fielder converge on the ball. The second baseman goes out for a relay throw. The shortstop needs to stay around second in case there is a play there on the batter. The third baseman is at the bag in anticipation there could be a play there. The first baseman moves toward the pitcher’s mound in front of home plate to potentially cut off a throw home. The pitcher has to make a decision on whether to back up third or home in the event a throw gets through. Even the left fielder, who at first glance doesn’t seem to be part of the play, needs to come in toward the infield either as a backup should a throw get away or to join in a rundown should one occur. This movement of players is the symphony of baseball.

All of this came to mind in the Giants 2-1 loss to the Pittsburgh Pirates two nights ago in the first walk-off replay reversal since the new system was installed this year. Pirates outfielder Sterling Marte drilled a ball high off the right-field wall with two outs in the ninth against Tim Hudson with the score tied 1-1. Marte kept running as right fielder Hunter Pence threw the ball to second baseman Ehire Adrianza, whose throw to third got past third baseman Pablo Sandoval. Marte broke for home while Sandoval tracked down the ball and threw a strike to catcher Buster Posey. Posey reached down to make the tag, and plate umpire Quinn Wolcott called Marte out. Pirates manager Clint Hurdle protested that Marte beat the tag, and the umpires decided to ask the command center in New York to review the play.

The call was overturned, Marte was declared safe, and the Pirates celebrated while the Giants moaned. The focus since Tuesday has been on the replay system, such as what is the definition of “conclusive” or “inconclusive” evidence in determining safe or out. The Giants still think they got robbed, but before the team puts all the blame on the replay call, they might take time to review how they could have avoided putting themselves in a position where they had to rely on the New York center.

I counted defensive lapses by seven Giants on Marte’s smash.

Pence (1) never had a chance to catch the ball, yet he made a bad judgment in running all the way to the wall, allowing the ball to carom back toward the infield. If he plays it safe and takes the carom, Marte has no more than a double. At the crack of the bat, center fielder Angel Pagan (2) must automatically dash toward right field, especially when he sees Pence going to the wall so he could be in a position to pick up a carom. But there was no sign of Pagan in the video of the play I saw. leaving Pence on his own to have to chase the ball down. Adrianza, (3) the relay man who took Pence’s throw, should have surveyed where Marte was as Pence was fielding the ball and determined there was no chance to get him at third base. In addition, Adrianza was charged with the actual error for the throw that got past Sandoval. Two Giants should have signaled to Adrianza not to throw the ball to third. Sandoval (4) should have stood at third with his arms up, the international baseball sign to a fielder not to make the throw. Shortstop Brandon Crawford, (5) who was near Adrianza, crouched down to get out of the way of the throw to third. Instead, he should have alertly been playing the part of the traffic cop, yelling and signaling to Adrianza to hold the ball because there was no chance to get Marte. Hudson (6) ran over to back up the play, but was way out of position based on the direction of the throw, so when the ball skipped toward the stands, he was unable to grab it and keep Marte at third.

What happened at home plate was fascinating.

Sandoval made a good hustling play to retrieve the ball and throw a strike to Posey (7) that beat Marte, but the Giants catcher had himself out of position at home plate. Posey was standing in front of the plate before the ball arrived. His orders, long before baseball’s new collision rules were enacted this year, are to avoid contact with the runner at all costs. So Posey, even though he had Marte nailed, began to awkwardly back-pedal, and then had to lean in for the tag. Posey’s better play would have been to be situated right in back of the plate. where he could have taken the throw and then be the aggressor by going low which would make his legs less vulnerable. Instead, Posey’s retreat not only increased his chance of injury, but allowed Marte to be the aggressor, as he came hard with a head-first slide.

The Giants are in first place, playing good ball, and finding ways to win. But on Tuesday night, while fans, sportswriters and announcers were all watching the conductor, the symphony fell flat.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Learning baseball from Willie Mays

Going to a Giants baseball game as a kid with my Dad involved a lot more than hot dogs, sodas and souvenirs. I look around at AT&T Park, and youngsters are kept busy at the game with an ongoing supply of food treats, video games on a phone and time spent on the big Coke bottle slide in left field. Even at seven years old, the age when I saw my first game, I would have likely passed up the slide because I might miss something on the field. My Dad always kept score and I would assist him, so you couldn’t miss a play or the scorecard would have a big empty spot in it.

My Dad had played high-caliber ball in high school and in Bay Area semi-pro leagues in his younger days, and was eager to pass on the finer points of the game to me. He knew that there was no greater authority on playing baseball than Willie Mays, so he’d have me pay special attention to No. 24. One of great techniques of Mays was how he would draw a throw as a base runner as a way to give a batter a chance to take an extra base. For example, if Mays was on second and the batter singled to left field, Mays would run at half-speed to make the outfielder think he had a chance to get Mays at the plate. Just as the outfielder got ready to unleash the throw, Mays would put on the after-burners, and arrive at home ahead of the throw. The batter, then, was able to make it safely to second base.

I couldn’t wait to try this out when I played my first little league game for my fourth-grade team. I somehow got on second base, and then the batter singled to left. I took inventory of where the outfielder was and how far I had to go to reach home. Right around third base, I slowed up, causing my bench to erupt with cries of “Run! Run! Run!” The relay throw from the leftfielder came in to the third baseman, who then fired the ball to the catcher. As soon as I saw the defense had swallowed the bait, I dashed down the line at full speed and touched home plate as the ball skipped past the catcher, allowing the batter to go to second. The coach came up to me a few seconds after I took my seat at the end of the bench. While praising me for getting on base and scoring, he asked why I didn’t run hard all the way. I looked up at him in all innocent sincerity, and replied, “I was trying to draw the throw.” This was not a strategy he had taught the team, so he said. “OK, OK, That’s good. That’s good.” He started to walk away and then stopped, turned back to me and asked, “Where did you learn that from? I said “from watching Willie Mays.” He smiled and said that’s a good player to follow. My Dad, of course, knew exactly what happened as he watched from the grandstands, and when I told him about my conversation with the coach, well, I don’t think I ever saw my Dad with a wider smile than that moment.

I’ve been thinking about that story of so long ago upon the occurrence of Willie Mays turning 83 on May 6. I rate Mays as the greatest ballplayer in history. The only one who comes close is Babe Ruth, because his offensive numbers were so far ahead of his contemporaries. Great players are referred to as having five tools: Running speed, arm strength, hitting for average, hitting for power, fielding. But Mays had a sixth tool: baseball instincts. I’ve never seen another player who had a better grasp of all facets of the game like Mays.

In raw numbers, Mays finished with 660 home runs. He missed two years early in his career to military service. When he returned, in 1954, he hit 41 homers. He also played all his home games with the San Francisco Giants from 1958 to 1972 in Seals Stadium and Candlestick Park, where strong winds routinely kept long drives in the park. I don’t think its a reach to say that he lost 100 homers for those two reasons.

I saw my first Giants-Dodgers game on Sept. 1, 1958, and I still have the program from that game and the scorecard inside where my Dad kept score as we watched in Seals Stadium.  Mays went five-for-five, and I assumed that was what he always did. Giants fans of that time had reason to believe the same thing. In a four-game stretch against the Dodgers in May 1958, Mays led his club to four straight wins with a phenomenal slugging outburst. His totals for those four games: AB 17, RUNS 10, HITS 12, RBI 15, HR 7. Followers of Mays can recall his fascinating skills as a base runner. My favorite came against the Dodgers in 1966. In the 12th inning of a tied game at Dodger Stadium, Mays walked and Frank Johnson singled. Mays never stopped running and when the right fielder’s throw went to the second baseman, he came charging around third to home. Mays crashed into catcher John Roseboro, knocking the ball loose, and the Giants won 3-2. When asked later if the third base coach tried to stop him, Mays laughed, “Man, I wasn’t even paying attention to him.”

Despite such rough moments with the Dodgers, the hated Southern California rivals made an exception when it came to Mays. On the occasion of Mays’ 20th anniversary in baseball, the Dodgers held a pre-game ceremony to honor him in 1971. The scoreboard message board listed his accomplishments, and added, “We’ll always remember that there was never a more exciting player than Willie Mays.”

Such is the respect that sets Mays apart even beyond his extraordinary on-field feats. Mays still would receive that kind of warm reception today in any ballpark.

I saw my grandson play ball the other day for his pony-league team. He’s only five now, and still focused on the basics like which way to first base and which way to the post-game ice cream stand. But in a few years, I’ll sit him down and tell him about a man named Willie Mays, and maybe give him his first baseball strategy lesson on how to draw a throw.

All the best Mr. Mays, and Happy 83rd.

Giants vs. Dodgers: Feels like 1960s

Giants announcer Duane Kuiper is credited as coining the phrase “Giants baseball: Torture” during the dramatic 2010 championship season. In fact, the word torture was actually used three years earlier in an account of a Giants-Dodgers game in a story April 7, 2007, by San Francisco Chronicle Giants beat writer Henry Schulman. New Giants skipper Bruce Bochy was managing his first game, with the Dodgers as the foe. The last time Bochy managed against the Dodgers, while a San Diego Padre, Los Angeles whacked four solo homers in the 9th inning to tie the game, and one more in the 10th to win it. So when the Giants lost Bochy’s initial game to the Dodgers 2-1 while placing 15 runners on base with 12 hits, Schulman wrote: “Bochy led his new team against the Dodgers for the first time and experienced a different type baseball torture.”

Giants and Dodgers fans shared in the baseball torture these last three days April 15-17 at AT&T Park, with the Giants coming out on top two games to one. The cumulative score of the three games was Giants 6, Dodgers 5. The opener, on Tuesday night, lasted just six minutes short of five hours, eventually won by the Giants 3-2 in 12 innings. The Giants bullpen was just a bit better than the Dodgers bullpen in game two, as San Francisco squeezed out a 2-1 win. Dodgers starter Hyun-Jin Ryu kept the Giants batters off balance and confused in game three, and set-up man Brian Wilson and closer Kenley Jansen survived high-wire acts to prevent an embarrassing sweep in a 2-1 Los Angeles victory.

The three games were reminiscent of the great rivalry battles of the 1960s, where it seemed every at bat, every inning and every game was crucial. It’s still early, but this series had the feel of those memorable games of hardball. This is looking like a two-team race for the NL West division, and perhaps, another September to remember.

Other notes on the series:

* The first game, appropriately, occurred on Jackie Robinson Day, marking his major league debut in 1947. Giants announcer Jon Miller, in a pregame interview with Giants manager Bochy, said there was a plan to have Giants and Dodgers players shake hands before the game as a way to show solidarity for Robnson’s great achievement. Fortunately, that bad idea never materialized. Robinson played the game hard, and his on-the-field clashes with the Giants added to the lore of the rivalry. One such moment came in April of 1952. Robinson was upset at brushback pitches thrown by Giants pitcher Sal “The Barber” Maglie, so named for giving batters a close shave. Robinson bunted to the right side, and crashed into the Giants second baseman as he covered first base. Giants shortstop Alvin Dark charged across the diamond to express his outrage to the aggressive play. Dark got his revenge an inning later when he slid hard into Robinson at third. There was no mention of this in the stories and coverage of Robinson day during the Giants-Dodgers celebration, but it is worth noting that Robinson’s first major league homer came on April 18 against the Giants in the Polo Grounds. On Dec. 13, 1956, Robinson was traded to the Giants for pitcher Dick Littlefield and $35,000 cash. Some have tried to say that Robinson chose retirement rather than join the enemy, but the truth is that by then, Jackie had given all he had, and felt it was time to step down.

* The AT&T Park Boo-ometer had Dodger teammates Yasiel Puig and Brian Wilson in a dead heat. Wilson, once beloved for his heroics in San Francisco, burned the bridge with his bizarre, classless post-game stalking of Giants president Larry Baer last year in search of his World Series ring. Puig draws venom for his on-and-off-field adventures. He is fast becoming a cartoon character with his mix of brilliant talent and bozo execution. In the series windup, he got so nonchalant with a lazy popup to right, that the ball bounced off his glove. Yet, he used his powerful arm to force a helpless Brandon Belt at second. Later, he hit a high fly ball to medium-deep right. He barely ran, stopping well short of first base. This followed his being benched by manager Don Mattingly for not running out a ball in the first game. I’m growing weary of an attempt to explain all of Puig’s screw-ups on the experience of being a Cuban defector. Is that why he has decided that the speed limits and hustling somehow don’t apply to him? The Dodgers, no doubt frustrated, are stuck with putting up with Puig. And he provided an example of the Dogers’ dilemma right after botching the popup, making a remarkable running overhead catch of a deep twistng drive by Gregor Blanco

* I’m not sure why the boos for ex-Giant Juan Uribe (“Boo-Ribe”). The Giants didn’t want him anymore, so he found a job with the Dodgers, and didn’t trash his former employer. I loved  Uribe’s businesslike game that helped the Giants to the World Series, and good for him that he still has game.

* Baseball wants to speed up the game. Here are three ways: (1) Find batting gloves that fit so hitters don’t have to step out and adjust them even after not even swinging; (2) Put Dodgers pitcher Josh Beckett on the clock – he took so long between pitches in the first game, there was enough time for Wilson’s beard to actually grow some more; (3) Set a time limit on the New York Command Center for making a decision on a replay challenge. It took nearly five minutes to uphold the pickoff of Matt Kemp in the opener. Plus, the fans are being limited in the number of replays they are shown. Only two actual-speed replays of the disputed pickoff were shown on the AT&T Park screen. Viewers watching the game at home on the local Giants channel got six replays, including some in slow motion and closeups. Dear MLB: Show more respect to your customers who buy all your pricey MLB products, and show them everything. And, if MLB brass would sit in the stands instead of the suites, they would have heard the boos and the disgust I heard as the replay review dragged on.

* After the three games, the Giants and Dodgers are tied for first at 10-6. Yet, it stills feel a bit like David vs. Goliath. The heart of the Dodgers order is Puig, Ramirez, Kemp and Gonzalez. The bullpen is stingy. Once their ace returns from injury, the top three in the rotation are Clayton Kershaw, Zack Grienke and Ryu. And there is a bunch of cash in the vault to replenish the roster if necessary. The Giants rotation has settled in, and two hitters they are counting on heavily — Hunter Pence and Pablo Sandoval — are hitting below .200. The bullpen is phenomenal, but how long can that last with starters not going deep enough. But for at least three days in April, it was the 1960s all over again — the Giants and Dodgers in gut-wrenching battles, and first place on the line.

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About the book

book jacket

From New York to California

A celebration

Author Joe Konte celebrates the historic, 100-plus years of the Giants-Dodgers rivalry with a new book, “THE RIVALRY HEARD ’ROUND THE WORLD: The Giants-Dodgers Feud from Coast to Coast.” The book, which is scheduled for release Sept. 3, 2013, focuses heavily on the West Coast rivalry, starting with the arrival of the clubs in San Francisco and Los Angeles in 1958, and ending with an expanded look at the pivotal 2012 season. The book also reports on the East Coast rivalry, starting with the first official game played between the teams in 1889. The book will be available at Amazon.com and at Barnes Noble stores and online sites.

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