Lon Simmons: A broadcast legend

Obit SimmonsI learned my baseball from three men: my Dad, Russ Hodges and Lon Simmons. My Dad had done a pretty good job in introducing me to the game by the time the Giants arrived in San Francisco in 1958. He then turned me over to Russ and Lon, the radio voices of the Giants, for further schooling. The combination of their baseball knowledge, precise descriptions of the action and exciting calls increased my passion for the game. I remembered how sad I felt when I heard that Russ had died in 1971, shortly after retiring. The sadness returned today when I heard that Lon had passed away in Daly City at the age of 91.

Radio is how those in my generation followed the game in our early years, since there was very little televised baseball. On Sundays, the Giants game was always blaring down in the garage where my Dad would work fixing or building things while kids and neighbors popped in and out. On school nights, my bedtime meant I could only listen to about the first six innings. My Dad worked out a solution, setting the radio next to his reel-to-reel tape recorder. If the game had a good ending, he’d play it back in the morning and I’d go off to school with Russ and Lon’s colorful accounts making my day before it even began.

I had a baseball board game called APBA, and when the Giants were one of the teams playing, I’d announce the game to myself, imitating either Russ or Lon. I’d have to keep track of who was doing the play-by-play since Russ usually did innings one through three and seven through nine, and Lon did the middle three. This was important because if a Giant hit a homer, I had to make sure I delivered the right call (“Bye-bye-baby” if it was Russ, and “Tell it goodbye” if it was Lon).

Lon Simmons is a broadcasting legend. He was given the Ford C. Frick Award in 2004. Named after the former baseball commissioner, it is granted to broadcasters for “major contributions to baseball.”

Simmons announced for the Giants from 1958 to 1973, from 1976 to 1978 and from 1996 to 2002. He worked A’s games from 1981 to 1995, partnering with another broadcast legend, Bill King. One thing that might separate Simmons from some other “team” broadcasters is that he wouldn’t hesitate to criticize the home team if it was deserved. He took some heat for this from former Giants owner Horace Stoneham, but he strongly defended his words: “I just went to him, and said, ‘Look, Horace, I wasn’t hired to be your P.R. agent. My first responsibility is to the station that pays my salary. Then it’s to the people listening and sponsors. Only then comes the team. … If we’re getting our brains beat out, that’s when I’m going to start having a good time, tell jokes, do anything to keep the people listening.’ ”

Those familiar with Lon understand the joke part. I recall getting a taste of his dry wit, and embracing of puns during a Giants-Indians exhibition broadcast in the early 1970s when he sized up young pitcher Randy Moffett: “They know he can pitch, but the question is can Moffett field?” (referring to a Bay Area military airfield). Dumb? Yes, but he knew that. Same way when he was visiting the Giants broadcast booth in later years, and when someone mentioned a computer terminal, he’d quickly respond, “Don’t say ‘terminal’ to an old person.” Or when a fellow broadcaster would say to him “go ahead,” and Lon, feigning confused old person, would respond, “Don’t call me goat head.”

While so much of my memories of Lon are about baseball, I have equal admiration for his football play-by-play with the 49ers. Listen to football on the radio these days, and try to figure out where the ball is and other important details as a play unfolds. Lon provided all the details. I still think Vin Scully’s ninth-inning call of Sandy Koufax’s perfect game in 1965 is the best ever baseball broadcast moment in how he so eloquently set the stage, built up the drama and then delivered the exclamation point after the final strike. Lon had an equally brilliant call when he described the zany 66-yard wrong-way run by Minnesota Vikings defensive lineman Jim Marshall on Oct. 25, 1964. An announcer could never prepare for such a play, but go find it on the Internet. He uses just 86 words, each one perfectly chosen, and then builds the play to a crescendo when Marshall crosses the 49ers goal still oblivious to his blunder.

In the year 2000, while I was all alone looking through old belongings in the garage of my parents’ home after they had both passed away, I turned on the radio. The Giants were playing, and Lon was at the mic. His booming baritone was soothing music to me. Forty years had passed since those busy, wonderful days in that garage on a Sunday afternoon, but for a few innings, all those sweet memories had returned.

Thanks for that moment Lon, and thanks for helping a kid develop a love for a game that still burns on today.

Can Giants Beat the Odds in 2015?

Giants Dodgers Spring BaseballThe Giants’ magic number for 2015 is 88. That’s the minimum win total they are likely to need to earn a spot in the wild-card playoff game. And is there anybody out there who would bet against the Giants in post season? Now, there are probably about 88 reasons why the Giants might not join the post-season party this year. A few that come to mind are questions about every starting pitcher not named Madison Bumgarner, the loss of power from the Pablo Sandoval and Michael Morse departures, Angel Pagan’s unreliable back, and a month without injured Hunter Pence. So let’s not even break a sweat worrying about whether the Giants can win the NL West crown, which will probably require more than 90 wins. This year, it’s wild card or bust. In fact, the Giants shouldn’t even care if the Dodgers clinch the division title at AT&T in the last week of the season, and celebrate by jumping into McCovey Cove in a repeat of their uncool victory plunge at the Diamondbacks swimming hole in 2013.

The Giants won a third ring in five years with only 88 regular season wins in 2014. The fifth-best win totals in the previous four years were 90 in 2010 (Padres), 89 in 2011 (Braves), 88 in 2012 (Cardinals) and 90 in 2013 (Reds). So 88 looks like the bare minimum needed to qualify for that wild-card play-in game. Working against the Giants is a horrendous schedule period where they play 27 of 39 games on the road from July 31 through Sept. 9. Many might concede that a 20-19 record during that stretch would be considered a success. That would mean, however, that to reach 88 wins, the Giants would have to go 68-55 in all other games. This makes April and early May critical, and something for Giants fans to watch carefully. The Giants play 20 of 26 games at home from April 13 to Mother’s Day on May 10. The club needs to take advantage of AT&T’s friendly confines to be around five games above .500 (19-14) by that date, and then maybe moving to at least seven games above .500 before facing the Mother of All Road Schedules. This would put them on pace for 88 wins, and at least have them in the running for a wild-card berth in the final three weeks of the season. Wise men have said that a team doesn’t win a title in April, but the Giants could deal their repeat hopes a serious blow if they don’t get off to a decent start.

Other thoughts about 2015:

EVEN VS. ODD: The Giants’ three recent even-year championships have raised the question of whether the club can win in an odd year. So here is analysis you’ll find nowhere else. Since arriving in San Francisco in 1958, the Giants have a .516 regular season winning mark in even years. They have a .521 winning percentage in the odd years. The New York Giants won the first two franchise World Series titles in the odd years of 1905 and 1921. But five of the last six Giants championships came in even years, starting with a repeat in 1922. They finished 96-56 in 1906 after winning the title in 1905, but were dethroned when the Cubs won 116 games that year. They were 93-60 in 1934 after winning it all in 1933, but finished two games out. Of course, there was no wild card then, so who knows whether those formidable squads might have accomplished more repeat titles if they had a shot at post season.

SPRING BACKWARD: During spring training of 1977, the Giants Randy Elliott — with just 27 major league games under his belt — made the big squad with sky-high hopes by batting .547 and driving in 16 runs. He went on to hit just .240 in 73 regular season games before being released. He would only play 39 big league games after that in 1980 when he hit .128 for Oakland. So the story of Randy Elliott adds some perspective to the statistical insignificance of spring training. This is a relevant issue because the Giants (11-20 in the Cactus League) are having their worst spring training since going 9-23 in 2008.

Does this poor spring training record mean the Giants don’t have a chance to get off to the good start that is vital to their season? No. The club is coming back with basically the same strong bullpen, and Ryan Vogelsong and Yusmeiro Petit provide extra support for the uncertain rotation. The Giants aren’t going to outslug anyone, as usual, but the offense might be enough if the staff depth can keep the games low scoring. Still, the starters are going to have to go deeper than five innings consistently to keep the bullpen from tiring out or the season will eventually slip away.

GIANTS VS. A’S: Here are some fascinating numbers. In the last five years, the Giants are only three games better than the A’s in the regular season (SF 436-374, Oak 433-377), yet they hold a 3-0 lead in championships. The A’s have a 14-12 record against the Giants during this time.

MORE PABLO: Panda hats are now available for as low as $3.99 on Amazon. One Bay Area couple felt obliged to explained their purchase: “We gave this as a gift to our son who lives in Boston.” Giants fans who already own Panda hats but have nowhere to wear them should mark down May 11-13 on their calendar when Pablo Sandoval and the Red Sox come to Oakland. It’s guaranteed that Sandoval will be asked about his rocky breakup with the Giants during that visit. He’ll need to either say nothing or find some calming words to neutralize the controversy. Carrying this grudge around is really becoming a sad story and it threatens to diminish all the grand memories from his days with the Giants. It’s also not going to help his chances for a place on the Wall of Fame at AT&T, where he should end up at some point. There is still time, just ask Jeff Kent. The former Giant great, who ended up a Dodger, burned some bridges himself with shots at the Giants. Kent has since mellowed, and when he shows up at the park now, he gets a rousing ovation. The Giants won’t hold a grudge, Panda. The ball is in your court.

PUIG AS MVP: Dodgers star Yasiel Puig might be turning the corner from his well-earned reputation for gaffes and irritating displays that have made him a villain at AT&T and just about every other ballpark. Here’s what I saw: During a game early in the spring, Puig stepped out of the box after every pitch for a glove and uniform adjustment, a bat examination, and a little stretching as if the new speed-up rule didn’t apply to him. I saw him a couple of weeks later, and after the first pitch went by, he instinctively started to step out. When he realized what he had done, he almost sheepishly hopped back into the box ready for the next pitch. One small step for Puig, one giant leap for Dodger-kind. Veteran additions such as infielders Jimmy Rollins and Howie Kendrick, coupled with returning vet teammates Adrian Gonzalez and Juan Uribe might be getting Puig to exchange flamboyance for focus. I’m Ok with his dramatics to a degree — this is a game after all — but the scary part for opponents is that a more focused Puig could raise his game to a new level. Puig’s offensive and defensive skills put him among baseball’s elite, and make him a potential MVP candidate in 2015. If that were to happen, the Dodgers could be playing ball very deep into October.

STICK’S FINAL DAYS: I haven’t been caught up like others who have been weeping over the slow piece-by-piece demolition of Candlestick Park. I attended the first baseball game there in 1960, saw hundreds of games over the years, and was there in 1999 for the Giants-Dodgers finale. I stayed for the closing ceremony and gave my final goodbye at that time. I had a chance to go to some 49ers games since then, but I never wanted to return. Fifteen years later, my memories of The Stick are not about a structure, but about the names and the games that I saw there.

TIP FOR THE COMMISH: New baseball commissioner Rob Manfred seems open to making changes, even floating a trial balloon about banning defensive shifts. But here is one change he should make right now. The end-of-the season awards, such as the MVP and Cy Young, should include what happens in the post season. Does anybody think that Clayton Kershaw was more valuable than Madison Bumgarner last year when you consider what happened after the regular season?

DON’T BET ON IT: Manfred is not going to be putting Pete Rose into the Hall of Fame anytime soon, despite the hit king’s request. Manfred would be slapping former boss Bud Selig in the face if he suddenly opened the doors for Rose, who was banned for betting on baseball as a manager. In fact, I think that Will Ferrell has a better shot at making the Hall of Fame than Pete.

BOOM! By the way, what got into football coaching legend John Madden bellowing over how Will Ferrell’s day when he played all nine positions showed disrespect for baseball? I was a bit skeptical at first, but the comic actor didn’t make a mockery of it. His clever deadpan humor and decent baseball skills provided entertainment on what would have been just another day of routine exhibition baseball. If Madden wants to get incensed about something, how about asking Roger Goodell why the NFL can’t resolve Deflate-gate by opening day of baseball. C’mon, commissioner, you’re on the clock.

The Big Rush To Speed Up Baseball

Ruth Bader GinsburgThere are a lot of things in life I’d like to see someone try to speed up. I’d like time shaved off the morning commute. I’d like the local grocer to have enough checkers on duty so they can open the express line. I’d like to have the web page I call up appear right away without waiting for all the gizmos to pop up before my content finally appears. I’d like the “No right turn on red” traffic light to turn green faster, especially when I seem to be the only vehicle in that particular zip code. I’d like to reach the department I’m calling immediately in any business call instead of having to wait through multiple prompts and bad “please hold” music.

I’d like a shorter State of the Union address. Maybe a trap door behind the podium. After a half hour, it opens and the president disappears. Call it the Ruth Bader Ginsburg rule, named after the Supreme Court justice who fell asleep during the last one, though the nap was later determined to be wine related.

I’m all for finding ways to make these irritating, time-consuming things speed up. What I’m not as jazzed about is this new national obsession to speed up baseball games.

There is no arguing that the games have gotten longer. The first game of the first World Series in 1903 between the Boston Pilgrims and Pittsburgh Pirates took 1:55. There were no relievers, and Fox didn’t carry the game, so I assume not much time was spent on commercial breaks or panning the crowd for celebrities from upcoming Fox shows. The Giants played 17 post-season games in 2014, and only came in under three hours once. In 1920, Brooklyn and Boston played to a 26-inning 1-1 tie, called on account of darkness. The game lasted 3:50. The Giants defeated the Nationals 2-1  in an epic 18-inning game in the NLDS, which lasted 6:23. Of course, that game involved 17  pitchers. Both starters went all 26 innings in the 1920 marathon, and some time was likely saved because I doubt the weary hurlers threw eight practice pitches before every inning.

The Baseball Brass was a little phony in forming a committee to study how to shorten the games since nobody is talking about trimming the time between innings. That’s where they make the Big Bucks.

What I’m still not clear about is why anybody who goes to a baseball game wants it over quickly. To me, going to the ballpark is a break from the daily grind. For whatever time you are there, you can put the troubles and complexities of one’s life and the world on hold. All that matters for that one period is to root, root, root for the home team, and you shouldn’t care if you never get back.

So for those fans who are so caught up in the rush of life that they actually want their visit to a ballgame to go as fast as the express lane, here are some tips on how to really appreciate and enjoy the grand old game.

Arrive early: I mean just before the park opens. The game is two hours away, but there is already an excitement building in anticipation of the security guy opening the gates so you can get to the ticket-takers. Some fans stroll, but others quicken their pace, eager to get their first glimpse of the green grass.

Batting practice: A ballpark in its pre-game state is special. The stands are quiet and empty, and you can imagine how they will be transformed into cheering throngs in a short time. In many parks, you can walk down to the rail to see the players up close. Early arrivals bring gloves, and station themselves behind the left and right field fences to get a chance at catching a BP home run. Whether you join the mob hoping to get a souvenir or just watch, it’s an entertaining show.

Getting ready: A video of a grounds crew getting the field ready won’t go viral, but you have to admire the artful way they go about their jobs. Late-arriving fans might never have witnessed this pre-game ritual. The field is a canvas to these folks, and I still find myself watching how precisely they apply the chalk to form the batters box and catcher’s box, knowing that the lines will be nearly erased within one inning as batters and the catchers immediately kick the dirt around. It reminds me of the Buddhist sand mandalas, which are so meticulously assembled, and then immediately dismantled to represent the transitory nature of life.

Keeping score: There’s an App for monitoring every aspect of the game you are watching, of course, but nothing compares to following the action by keeping score with a low-tech scorebook and pen. You can be as detailed as you want with how you chart the game, and it will keep you so occupied you won’t even notice the game’s length.

Stay till it’s over: If the home team is down by 10 runs in the ninth, I guess I understand if you want to leave early to beat the traffic. I’m sure that’s how fans saw it on May 5, 1958, when the Pirates led the Giants 11-1 in the ninth, only to survive a nine-run Giants rally. So consider yourself warned.

Despite my appreciation for a non-rushed day at the ballpark, I’m not opposed to these new attempts by Major League Baseball to speed the game up a bit. I have been a longtime critic of how today’s batters take a stroll after every pitch, and I support the rule that will try to keep them in the box. Reducing the time between pitches will have one other positive: it will trim those tiresome TV cutaways of  kids eating cotton candy.

I’m also fine with the rule that will get the game going immediately after the commercial break ends. The ad time is 2:25. With 40 seconds to go, the batter is announced and his walkup music must end with 25 seconds remaining. The batter has to be in the box with 20 seconds to go and the pitcher ready to throw as soon as the umpire directs him.

However, MLB has overlooked one very important point. The time for “Don’t Stop Believin” has just been gutted. The original song was about four minutes. It already has been edited down so they can get to the “Don’t stop believin” part  just before the batter steps in. Now the song will have to be shortened even more, and end 40 seconds before the first pitch, losing the momentum of the fan sing-a-long. A friend suggested the Chipmunks be hired to sing the song, figuring they could provide a speedier version.

I also wonder if this is the death of curtain calls. After a late-inning dramatic homer, the next batter by tradition takes extra time walking up to the plate to give the hero a chance to step out of the dugout for another round of cheers. Umpires are not likely to stand for that anymore.

I have two other suggestions for moving things along. One is to outlaw “around the horn,” where players toss the ball around the infield before giving it to the pitcher. Not necessary. The second one is to ban slow home-run trots. MLB should figure a reasonable time for the four-base journey, then use a stopwatch. If a player only makes it to third when time runs out, it’s a triple.

So, speed things up? Sure, as long as you don’t drastically alter the flow and rhythm and the strategies of the beautiful game. But I’ll still show up early and stay late. Maybe I’ll bring Justice Ginsburg with me. And I bet she won’t nod off in the middle of my State of the Giants address.

Are You Ready For Some Giants Baseball?

TROPHY

With another Super Bowl in the books, the nation can now turn its attention to the investigation into  Deflate-gate and why Marshawn Lynch wasn’t given the ball at the one yard line. But not me. Pitchers and catchers report to the Giants camp in just 18 days, and before you know it, the whole squad will be there.

So before then, here are a few random thoughts about the Giants and the season ahead.

WELCOME MATT: As the Winter Meetings got underway, Giants fans fantasized about which free agent pitcher the club would add to the rotation to offset concerns about every potential starter except for Madison Bumgarner. As Spring Training nears, however, the Giants appear ready to open the season with the same crew. That has left fans fantasizing about Matt Cain, who was Bumgarner-like before ailments dramatically affected his performance and eventually sidelined him for removal of bone chips in his elbow, and a bone spur in his ankle. How good was the pre-breakdown Cain? He threw 200-plus innings six straight years, he posted ERAs under 3.00 two years and he went 4-2 with a 2.10 ERA in 51 innings in post-season play. In the World Series, his ERA is 1.84 in 14.2 innings. Sound familiar, MadBum fans?  If Cain — signed through 2017 — can get even close to those numbers, the Giants would have one of the best one-two starter combinations in the league. So barring some other acquisition, Cain might be the key to 2015. Without a strong Cain comeback, it’s difficult to imagine the Giants can survive with the Peavy-Hudson-Lincecum-Vogelsong foursome.

PROSPECTS POISED: One reason why the Giants might not have pulled the trigger on a big-money pitcher is that they have some young arms in the minors who are getting near showtime. It’s possible that at some time this season fans will get a look at pitchers who the club would like to see become integral parts of the 2016 staff. These include right-handers Kyle Crick and Chris Stratton, and left-handers Ty Black, Clayton Blackburn and Steve Okert. The other reason is that the class of 2016 potential free-agent pitchers looks promising. Even if Cain does return to form, the Giants might be needing to fill three spots in the rotation next year.

PLAY BALL: The NL West looks like it could be more competitive this year. The Giants should get a quick early test as all 23 games in April are against division foes. Six of those dates are against the Dodgers. One hopes that the rotations fall so that we can have two Bumgarner-Clayton Kershaw matchups. The biggest challenge of the schedule for the Giants will come in a period from July 31 through Sept. 9 when they will be on the road longer than Lewis and Clark. They play a stretch where 27 of 39 games will be away. If they survive that grind, the Giants will only need suitcases for one three-game trip to San Diego from Sept. 11 through the final game of the season Oct. 3. Their only other “road” series during that time is in Oakland.

HERO RETURNS: Mark down the May 7-10 series against the Marlins, since it should involve the appearance of Michael Morse. Morse’s enthusiasm and his  game-tying homer against the Cardinals in Game 5 of the NLCS made him a fan favorite, and he should receive a thunderous welcome at AT&T. Morse’s departure was mutual, because first base is his only real position  these days and the Giants are packed there. A suggestion: present Morse his ring in a pre-game home plate ceremony, and show the blast one more time on the scoreboard. It would be a magic moment. This gets me to thinking how Giants fans would react if the Boston Red Sox and Pablo Sandoval were playing at AT&T this year. Sandoval’s departure was messy. The Giants offered what turned out to be an extremely low-priced contract that apparently offended him, and Sandoval later said that he left money on the table because he wanted to go elsewhere. The Panda hat stuff doesn’t seem as cute as it once did. So Giants fans, if Sandoval was playing at AT&T this year, and came up to bat for the first time, would you boo or cheer? The Giants will probably get a ring to Sandoval when the Red Sox visit Oakland. Or maybe Pablo can send Brian Wilson to the ballpark as a courier to get his ring from Larry Baer. It’s not like Brian is real busy right now.

DYNASTY DEBATE: My case in an earlier post that the Giants’ incredible run of three World Series championships wasn’t a dynasty stirred some lively response. The best was from a fellow who inquired, “Are you a Dodger fan?” I’m not looking to revive the debate, but the Giants won just 88 games last year, and only qualified for the post season because of the wild-card format. In World Series history, only five teams with 88 or fewer wins have won the championship with the exception of the strike-shortened 1981 season and the World War I abbreviated 1918 season. The Giants won 88 or more games from 1962 through 1969, but only got to the post season once. Imagine if they had a wild card opportunity. The Giants of that era, with all that power and a Juan Marichal-led pitching staff would have gotten enough cracks at post season to have been considered a dynasty. But while the Giants might not have looked like a dynasty team in the 2014 regular season, they match up with legendary dynasty teams with their incredible post-season performances. The Yankees won the World Series five straight years from 1949-1954, winning at a 70% clip with a dominating 20-8 record. The 2010-2012-2014 Giants won at the same impressive rate in post season with a 34-14 mark. So while the dynasty debate is an entertaining exercise, there is no question that the Giants are one of the best ever post-season powerhouses.

BATTING ORDER: My 2015 Giants opening day batting order. Aoki, Panik, Pagan, Posey, Pence, Belt, McGehee, Crawford. This probably differs from manager Bruce Bochy’s lineup card in one significant way — he would keep Pagan in the leadoff spot and have Aoki hit seventh. My order puts speed at the top for the big run producers. The Giants only have three power hitters, and this puts them in the middle of the lineup. If you put the Posey-Pence-Belt trio in the three-four-five spots, the lineup will be void of any real scary power threats from sixth through ninth. Now, Bochy has a better shot at the Hall of Fame than I do, but Bruce, this is really the way to go!

FAME IS FLEETING: Former sparring partners Barry Bonds and Jeff Kent are getting no closer to a place in the Hall of Fame based on recent voting. Having a baseball shrine that doesn’t include the home run king and the all-time second baseman home run leader is hard to comprehend. I’ll accept the writers’ opposition to Bonds, though I disagree with them. But I won’t accept the failure to honor Kent. He could have been a star in any era. He played the game hard and with immense talent. Vote him in.

HALL OF FAME OPTION: I’m sure one of the reasons tainted stars like Bonds, Mark McGwire, Roger Clemens and Pete Rose might never get in is that MLB doesn’t want to celebrate them with a big ceremony and speeches. So here is an idea: Put them in because the Hall seems statistically tainted without them, but don’t have a ceremony. Just hang their plaques up in the appropriate wing after closing hours with no fanfare. The big names are in, and baseball survives.

DODGERS UPDATE: The Giants have hardly done anything this winter while the Dodgers had a Hollywood makeover on the field and in the front office. Still, I’m not sure if the Dodgers are any better. They won 94 games last year, and could repeat that as long as they have their Big Three starters and a dominant closer. But have they taken the steps to get deep into the post-season? One of the keys to that — reliable middle relief and a shutdown set-up corps — is still not resolved. Another curious move: A mix of speed and power is a nice combination, but the Dodgers moved out fleet-footed Dee Gordon and slugger Matt Kemp. Maybe the biggest key for the Dodgers will be minor league sensation Doc Pederson, who could step into Kemp’s shoes in center field. Pederson has hit 73 homers and drove in 206 in the last three years, and batted .302 over the last five years in the minors.

MR. CUB, RIP: I don’t recall seeing the Cubs play the Giants at Seals Stadium in my first two years of watching baseball as a kid. But I knew all about their superstar shortstop Ernie Banks. A prized bubblegum baseball card of mine at the time was a Banks one produced by Sport Magazine in 1958. On the back, it noted that Banks hit a record five grand slams in 1955, and added, “When he comes to bat with the sacks loaded, pitchers shudder.”

I looked forward to seeing Banks for the first time when my Dad took me to Candlestick Park on April 14, 1960. We were sitting in the lower reserve on the third base side and watched as Banks came to the plate with two out and the bases filled in the third inning. Banks turned those powerful hands on a pitch from Jack Sanford and I watched as the ball rocketed off his bat and easily cleared the left field fence. The Giants lost that game, but it was OK. I went to the game that night excited about seeing the great Ernie Banks, and he delivered greatness. They called him Mr. Cub because he played his entire career with the team. But his legend had a far greater impact on the game than just one team. So thanks for the memories, Mr. Baseball.

IN SABES WE TRUST: What a difference three championships in five years can make. Giants GM Brian Sabean was the target of bitter criticism on sports talk radio in the frustrating post-Bonds era. Today, those questioning the Giants’ quiet winter do so while usually expressing patience and the belief that Sabean and crew will address all the needs. Not so in Dodgerville. An article on MLB.com about the Dodgers new front office wanting to change the organization’s culture and stressing reliability and communication and such was met with a resounding thud in the fan comments section that followed. The questions surrounding both teams should make for an interesting spring, so lets get those pitchers and catchers to camp and get started. Only 78 days until Giants and Dodgers meet.

1958 Giants Will Live Forever

MILLERI got to thinking about the 1958 Giants upon the news that a special pitcher from that inaugural San Francisco team, Stu Miller, had died at the age of 87. Miller was a memorable Giant. His pitch was a slow ball. They call it a changeup nowadays, but back then it was a slow ball. He’d throw the slow ball at various speeds: slow, slower and slowest. The most patient batter of those days would wait and wait and wait, and still had difficulty timing the swing against Miller. In 1958, Miller, whose real fame would come later as a full-time  reliever, started 20 games and had a league-leading ERA of 2.47.

In 1998, I was at Candlestick Park when the Giants held a pregame ceremony to celebrate the 40th anniversary of that 1958 season. As players from that time were driven around the field in convertibles, I remembered them the way they were when I saw my first major league game at Seals Stadium.

San Francisco was party central as it welcomed the team with a parade that rivaled the recent trio of World Series parades in enthusiasm. The Giants, who had been playing in New York since 1883, became an instant San Francisco treasure. They drew an impressive 1.2 million in their tiny ballpark in the first year in the city. I recall walking into Seals Stadium, a minor league park seating just over 23,000 that had just underwent an extravagant $75,000 makeover to make it major league ready. On the field were Giants’ veteran Willie Mays and rookie Orlando Cepeda. The world champion Milwaukee Braves duo of Hank Aaron and Eddie Mathews was supposed to be the 1-2 slugging punch of the National League, but in 1958, they met their match. Mays hit .347 with 96 RBI and 29 homers, along with 33 doubles and 11 triples. Cepeda batted .312 with 96 RBI and 25 homers, and added 38 doubles. Aaron hit .326 with 95 RBI and 30 homers, with 34 doubles. Mathews batted .257 with 77 RBI and 31 homers. The Giants put on an offensive show for their fans in 1958, leading the league in runs scored as nine players reached double figures in home runs.

The Giants were in first place as late as July 29, but they lost 13 games in a brutal 18-game road trip, and never could make up the ground on the Braves.

There were so many wonderful names on that 1958 team: infielder Daryl Spencer, who hit the first home run in San Francisco; power-hitting Willie “Boom-Boom” Kirkland, who earned the terrific nickname by slugging 40 homers in one year in the minors; pitcher Ramon Monzant, who got involved in the first Giants-Dodgers beanball battle on the West Coast six games into the season as he went brushback-for-brushback with the intimidating Don Drysdale; pitcher Ruben Gomez and catcher Valmy Thomas, the battery for the first ever game in San Francisco; starter Johnny Antonelli, a fiery competitor who ripped the winds at Seals Stadium, a weather pattern that would follow the club to Candlestick Point in 1960; and outfielder Felipe Alou, the first of a trio of brothers to grace the Giants lineups in coming years.

The 1958 Giants were a mix of young and old. Outfielder Hank Sauer, whose major league career began in 1941, was 41. Reliever Marv Grissom was 40. Pitcher Mike McCormick was 19, Cepeda was 20. Giants manager Bill Rigney liked to say that Grissom reminded him of a bottle of fine wine. “He gets better with age.”

Of the 39 who played for the Giants at some point in 1958, 21 had played for the New York Giants in 1957. Bobby Thomson, who hit baseball’s most famous home run to beat the Dodgers in the 1951 playoff, was traded by the Giants to the Chicago Cubs just 12 days before the West Coast opener, so San Francisco fans were denied the chance to root for the legendary Giant. Five players from that historic 1951 Giants team were part of the 1958 organization. Mays, and outfielders Whitey Lockman and Don Mueller were on the squad, Wes Westrum was now a coach and Rigney was the manager.

Jackie Robinson could have been with the Giants at the twilight of his career in San Francisco, but he rejected a trade to the Giants after the 1956 season and chose to retire instead.

Stu Miller played for 16 seasons and five teams. He led the National League in saves in 1961 as a Giant, and the American League in saves in 1963 as a Baltimore Oriole. He posted a 105-103 record and 3.24 ERA for his career.

Yet  for all his accomplishments, Miller will be forever known for the moment when the strong Candlestick Park winds caused him to balk in the 1961 All-Star Game. Miller did rock slightly as the gust hit him, and the balk helped the American League tie the game. The stories that followed exaggerated the incident as sounding like the wind blew the 5-11, 165-pound pitcher over the right-field fence, landing him somewhere in the waters off the shore of Candlestick Point.

I’m sure that will be on the minds of some when the Giants honor Miller at the home opener in April during their usual solemn moment to remember those in the Giants family who have passed away over the last year.

I’ll think about a lot more than that when they show his picture on the jumbo screen. I’ll remember Stu, but it also will be a time to remember the 1958 Giants. That team should have a place of distinction among Giants fans, not only because they were the city’s first major league team, but for how they dominated the Dodgers. The Dodgers won 14 of the 18 previous head-to-head season series against the Giants from 1940 to 1957. In 1958, the Giants went 16-6 against the Dodgers. It was the most victories the club had amassed against their historic rivals since they won 19 games against them in 1904.

Miller’s passing marks the 16th player we have lost from those 39 who wore a Giants uniform in 1958. We know that some who are still with us are not in the best of health. But for those of us who were there, the 1958 San Francisco Giants are a team that will live forever. Time will go on, but the excitement and thrills they provided will always make it a golden year in Giants history.

Panda: Breaking Up Is Hard To Do

Pablo Sandoval, Ben CheringtonI’m over it, and you should be too. I admit, it wasn’t easy at first to read about the Panda being courted by the bean counters in Beantown. An outsider might look curiously at how young and old, male and female Giants Nation came to embrace a rotund man in his twenties, turning him into a warm, cuddly and lovable creature they called the Panda. But I think I can explain that.

Pablo Sandoval was one of us, a lunch pail worker, even if sometimes he needed two lunch pails to fill the frame. In a sport with wheelers and dealers, he was a portrait of innocence. He reminded us of why we fell in love with baseball in our youths. He hopped, skipped and jumped into the batter’s box with that one-of-a-kind ritual that would look idiotic if tried by 99 percent of the players, yet was accepted because he was the Panda. He blew bubbles with his bubble gum while fielding the ball. His policy as a batter was no pitch would be left behind as he swung at everything but intentional walks, and rapped a number of hits that were not only well off the plate but barely in the same zip code. While some of the game’s combatants played with a sneer, he operated with a smile. He was a big leaguer with a passion for the game of a little leaguer. He wasn’t a superstar, but did you ever ignore him when he was at bat?

Of course, all that would be meaningless and silly except for one thing: the Panda produced.

The Giants and Dodgers were locked in a classic pennant race in August 2012, and entered a three-game series at Dodger Stadium with first-place Los Angeles leading San Francisco by a half game. The Dodgers were coming off a three-game sweep of the Giants in July, and looked to get a jump on the Giants with ace Clayton Kershaw on the mound. Kershaw was a Giant killer, having beaten them five times in 2011. The Giants needed someone to step up.

Madison Bumgarner did his part, battling pitch for pitch with Kershaw. But could anyone provide the offense? Sandoval took on the challenge, driving in both Giants runs with a sacrifice fly and a single off Kershaw for a crucial 2-1 victory. Fans will point to Sandoval’s record-tying, three-homer explosion in game one of the 2012 World Series as his most memorable moment as a Giant. But without those season-changing clutch at-bats against Kershaw, which propelled the Giants to a series sweep of the Dodgers, there might never have been a World Series that year to showcase Sandoval’s magic.

Sandoval cemented his legend as a Giant with that World Series big fly binge. I’ve seen a lot of baseball. I’ve never seen or felt anything like what happened that day.

Based on the press reports, there was doubt the Giants would even show up for the series opener as they faced the dominant Detroit Tigers and their all-world pitcher Justin Verlander, who had won the MVP and Cy Young the previous season. Poor physical conditioning and a big offensive drop off had made Sandoval a spectator in the Giants post-season championship run of 2010. But Sandoval had gotten himself in shape, and was lighting up the 2012 post season. His first-inning homer triggered a burst of cheers and applause. His second off Verlander in the third set off a wild celebration in the stands. But it was his third blast, off reliever Al Albuquerque in the fifth, that provided the incredible chilling moment. The shock was such that there was a split second of silence where raucous cheers would usually take over, as the crowd came to grips with what they just saw. Around my section, people stared silently at each other, before erupting into screams, hugs, high fives and maybe even some tears. It was the most powerful moment in the 15 years at the Giants downtown ballpark.

Sandoval played a key role in the Giants 2014 post season and eventual championship. He was a free agent, but the Giants boasted that they never lost a free agent they really wanted.

But they apparently didn’t know that the Panda wanted to run free.

The press conference in Boston to officially introduce Sandoval as a new member of the Red Sox was weird. It was one thing for Giants fans to know their Panda was being courted. Now they were watching the wedding, with Sandoval wearing a Red Sox cap and shirt. The Red Sox brass seemed so proud they pulled this off, but I kept wondering that if they were so smart, why did they have Sandoval sitting in front of a wall filled with logos for Dunkin Donuts? Couldn’t they have found a sponsor who sold low-calorie salads?

When the officials quit droning on and let reporters ask Sandoval questions, he was superb. He was classy, and said all the right things. I really believe that Sandoval simply had a seven-year itch after his seven-year career with the Giants. Maybe there were some issues with the Giants that will eventually surface, but he seemed truly excited to become part of the Three Amigos, as a Boston website called them, to be joining Red Sox godfather David Ortiz and former Dodger Hanley Ramirez. Sandoval saw the challenge of taking on a new job, and is that wrong? If you’re truly looking for something to be irritated about, it is how the American League has an advantage over the National League in signing players such as Sandoval because they can entice the player as a potential designated hitter toward the end of the contract.

Yes Virginia, baseball is a business, and that is not breaking news. There’s nothing new about that. The Giants gave the boot to Willie Mays, Willie McCovey, Orlando Cepeda and Juan Marichal. But baseball also is a fascinating game, and Sandoval as a member of the Red Sox will be one of the most interesting stories of 2015. So will the moves the champion Giants will consider now, as we assume the nearly $100 million being reserved for Sandoval is now available to buy a top-flight pitcher or leftfielder.

If your little Virginia also wants to know what to do with her treasured Panda hat, refer her to this comment about the hats from a woman who reviewed one on Amazon.com, and tell her to wear it proudly. “Since it doesn’t have a team logo, if you’re more of a Panda fan than a Giants fan, you can take it with you if he happens to go somewhere else.”

So let the Panda move on, cherish the thrills he provided, and welcome him back when the Giants hold some big World Series reunion in future years. Or better yet, pull for a Giants-Red Sox World Series in 2015: MadBum vs the Panda: Could baseball get any better than that?

Remembering Giants Manager Alvin Dark (1922-2014)

Alvin DarkThe Giants, heading into just their fourth season  in San Francisco in 1961, had quite a shopping list as they searched for their third manager since moving West. The names included legends such as Leo Durocher, Casey Stengel and Yogi Berra. They eventually passed up on the legends and other notable names, and turned to the scrappy Alvin Dark, a tough, hardball-playing shortstop who toiled for the New York Giants from 1950-56. Dark would get the Giants to the World Series one year later.

The news today that Alvin Dark had died at the age of 92 in Easley, S.C., jolted me. My exposure to baseball began in 1958 when the Giants arrived, and I remember following just about every at bat, every game, every series of the epic 1962 season. A remarkable pennant race between the Giants and Dodgers went down to the last day of the regular season, when the Giants tied the Dodgers for first place to force a three-game playoff. The Dark-led Giants took two-of-three to win the pennant. And just like that, Alvin Dark was a San Francisco baseball hero for beating the hated Dodgers. That was no fluke. In the third game of the 1951 playoff against the Dodgers, Dark’s single in the bottom of the ninth started the Giants shocking comeback from a 4-1 deficit that ended with Bobby Thomson’s pennant-winning home run.

Dark’s success should not have been a surprise. He was an exceptional athlete, a star football player at LSU who was talented enough to be drafted by the Philadelphia Eagles in 1945. He chose baseball and was rookie of the year with the Boston Braves in 1948 when he hit .328. He was traded to the Giants in 1950. He hit .417 in the Giants loss to the Yankees in the 1951 World Series. He hit .412 in the Giants World Series sweep of Cleveland in 1954. He played with four other teams after leaving the Giants, and finished with a .289 batting average and three All-Star appearances. The Giants let Dark go after 1964, and he went on to manage four teams, including the World Series champion Athletics in 1974. Dark the manager had 994 wins with a winning percentage of .526.

But Dark’s measure as a ballplayer wasn’t about stats. He was all-out competitive, and that football mentality he carried from his college days was never more on display than the day he went one-on-one against Jackie Robinson.

Early in the 1955 season, the Dodgers were upset that menacing Giants pitcher Sal “The Barber” Maglie had given some of the batters a close shave. Robinson responded with a bunt to the right side, and he delivered a punishing blow to Giants second baseman Davey Williams, who was covering first base. Dark charged from his shortstop position to confront Robinson but was restrained. In the next inning, Dark crashed into Robinson while advancing to third base, jarring the ball loose.

That fiery attitude on the diamond marked his time with the Giants.

After losing the first two of a four-game series against the Dodgers in September 1961, Dark revealed that he had fined seven players a total of $1,000 for missing a curfew in St. Louis two weeks earlier. Dark also revealed he had a sense of humor, and told the players to stay out as long as they want to see if that might change their luck against the Dodgers. It didn’t, as the Dodgers swept.

Dark tried another way to shake up his team in 1961, which seems startling in today’s era of pitch counts and specialty relievers. Dark was frustrated at the inability of his top starter trio of Juan Marichal, Jack Sanford and Mike McCormick to throw complete games, so he instituted a no-bullpen rule. The starters were told they had to go the distance. Sanford and McCormick delivered complete games, and Marichal, pitching with a sore finger and bruised foot, managed to throw two shutouts. Finally, Dark called off the experiment.

During the tense Giants-Dodgers 1962 battle, the Dodgers were aghast to discover a huge pile of sand had been placed at first base at Candlestick Park  as a means of slowing the Dodgers running game. An upset Dodgers manager Walter Alston referred all questions to Dark, “the guy who put it there.” In a denial that would have made Richard Nixon envious, Dark theorized that the strong Candlestick winds had picked up this mound of sand and delivered it right there at first base.

Remembering these colorful moments brings joy to me, but in deciding to write this piece, I also knew I would have to address the painful part. Dark was quoted in a 1964 interview as saying “the Negro and Spanish-speaking players on this team” didn’t have the same ‘mental alertness” as white players. Latin players from that time said he asked them not to speak Spanish in the clubhouse out of some belief it would hurt team unity.

Time has a way of healing, and Giants slugger Orlando Cepeda, one of the Latin players of that time, said upon learning of Dark’s death that his former manager apologized for his words and ignorance of Latin players everytime their paths would cross. Even Jackie Robinson would express respect for Dark in later years, saying of his clash in that 1955 incident, “I admired Al for what he did after I had run down Williams.” Willie Mays, who played for Dark, called him a ‘mentor” and “a very nice man” as news of his death spread. Dark had Mays’ safety in mind in 1962, when he talked his star into wearing a batting helmet for the first time instead of the protective liner he always wore under his baseball cap. The move worked immediately as Mays homered in his first at bat in 1962. Still, Dark acknowledged in later years that the episode of those unfortunate comments would be part of his obituary.

So much time has passed now.

The words of Cepeda and Mays are good enough for me to toss those unfortunate comments into the waste bin of the times when many others of that era were saying the same thing with much more venom.

So I’m going back to where I was when I first heard word today of Alvin Dark’s passing. We lost a good Giant. We lost a good baseball man. And I hope Giants fans everywhere take a few moments today to appreciate that.

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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