Since 2010, the Giants have a regular season record of 520-452. The Dodgers are 526-445 during that span, 6.5 games better than their rivals. Yet, the Giants hold a 3-0 ring advantage. Why is that? Deep analysis is not needed. For the answer, we need to only review two plays that define why the Giants have soared while the Dodgers have stumbled in the postseason.
One of the plays was the stealth steal of third base by the Mets’ Daniel Murphy during the fourth inning of Thursday’s NL Division-deciding fifth game against the Dodgers. Murphy was on first base, with left-handed hitting Lucas Duda at the plate facing Zack Greinke, and the Dodgers leading 2-1. The Dodgers applied the shift defense, leaving only shortstop Corey Seager on the left side of the infield. When Duda walked, Murphy trotted to second. The alert Murphy saw that the non-attentive Dodgers hadn’t shifted back to have someone cover third, so he breezed into the bag without a throw. He then scored the key tying run on a sacrifice fly to right by Travis ‘Arnaud.
The Mets went on to a 3-2 win to advance to the NL Championship Series, and the absent-minded Dodgers ended up looking like part of an Abbott and Costello skit (who’s on third?). I put the blame on Dodgers manager Don Mattingly. The once-rare shifts have become common defensive strategy, but there is a risk because the players are out of their familiar positions. In this case, as soon as Duda walked, there should have been an automatic re-shift where Seager would break to third base. This isn’t on the rookie Seager. Mattingly should have this already drilled into his team so the positioning was natural. If nothing else, the Dodgers’ blunder has created a new sabermetric category, RAWS (Runs Allowed While Sleeping).
In Game 2 of the 2012 World Series between the Tigers and Giants, Detroit’s Prince Fielder was on first base in a scoreless game in the second inning when Delmon Young slashed a line drive off Madison Bumgarner down the left field line. While left fielder Gregor Blanco tried to track down the ball as it careened around in the corner, third base coach Gene Lamont waved Fielder around third. Blanco’s throw sailed over the head of shortstop Brandon Crawford, who was the cutoff man. At that moment it appeared the Tigers would take a 1-0 lead. However, second baseman Marco Scutaro had hustled all the way over to the third base line just in case, and was in position to grab the errant throw, wheel, and fire the ball to catcher Buster Posey as the 275-pound Fielder neared home. Posey made a classic catch and sweeping tag in one motion and Fielder was out. It was Detroit’s only scoring threat and the Giants won 2-0 on their way to a sweep.
While there are obviously other factors that affect postseason success and failure, those two plays speak a lot about focus, preparation and a baseball second sense to react to sudden developments on the field.
Other thoughts while watching the early phase of the postseason:
The Utley slide: If every baserunner slid into second base like the Dodgers’ Chase Utley did against Mets’ shortstop Ruben Tejada, we’d be out of shortstops after the first couple weeks of the season. Tejada suffered a broken leg when Utley ignored the base and crashed into his lower body in an attempt to break up a double play. This is not just about hard slides being part of the game. If Utley smashed into someone walking down the street in that manner, he’d be doing hard time. Baseball has looked the other way at legislating the danger around second base, so you have this gray area of “neighborhood plays” where a fielder doesn’t even have to touch the bag for a force, and no boundaries on how far a runner can go to prevent the infielder from throwing to first. Giants fans should be sensitive to this after the Cardinals’ hulking Matt Holliday tried to send second baseman Marco Scutaro to an early grave with his barrel-roll attack in the 2012 National League Championship Series. A ruling that says a slide needs to be started before reaching the base would be a good start.
Despite those feelings, I felt MLB executive Joe Torre was out of line in suspending Utley for two games. Taking out the infielder has been part of the game for 150 years. The player who does so is welcomed back to the dugout with high-fives and respect. So making Utley the sudden poster boy for baserunner bad boys wasn’t fair. Instead, Torre could have issued a warning that such activity would be subject to suspensions from that point on through the postseason. Even if his authority to do so would be in question until safety rules were agreed to by the players union, his threat might be sufficient to keep the MLB out of the ICU.
Catcher in the Why: Toronto catcher Russell Martin must have been wondering “why me” after his routine throw back to the pitcher in Game 5 deflected off the bat of the Rangers’ Shin-Soo Choo, and rolled away, allowing Rougned Odor to score from third. No one could ever remember this happening, but on further review, baseball should have seen this coming. Before the new rule this year that keeps players in the batter’s box, hitters used to practically wander to another zip code in between pitches while adjusting batting gloves, uniforms and other things. So catchers could toss the ball back with no one there. In this case, Choo stayed in the box, stretched his arms over the plate and Martin let the ball go. Baseball is going to have to look at this: Could you imagine the winning run scoring in the ninth inning of a World Series this way?
Flipped out: Blue Jays slugger Jose Bautista caused a stir when he pulled off a three-fer after his booming, game-changing home run in Toronto’s AL Division winning Game 5 against Texas. Bautista posed to admire his work, stared at the pitcher and then tossed his bat like it was a javelin. This showboating is becoming part of the show, and it’s probably fair given the fact that that pitchers pump their fists after strikeouts and look skyward to thank God for taking time out of his busy schedule to help them whiff the Devil-worshipping batter. So I’m Ok with all of it, but I’m going to draw the line if a hitter takes a selfie while doing his home run trot.
Man vs. cooler: My favorite moment of the postseason so far was the assault on a water cooler by Pirates’ reserve Sean Rodriquez. Rodriquez was ejected during a benches-clearing scrum after he said he was grabbed by the throat. When he got to the dugout he landed a number of unanswered punches on a water cooler. Brave man that Rodriguez. He had 25 guys on the opposing side he could have used his fists on if he views himself as a tough guy. There have been a few of these scrums in the early postseason games, but these baseball “fights’ are so silly. No one goes after another player until everyone shows up so he can be held back. The most ridiculous part is when the bullpen has to run in from the outfield to demonstrate solidarity. You just know that none of them have a clue about what happened, and I’m sure that as soon as they arrive at the crowd of players, they ask, “Who are we mad at?”
A Giant break: This every-other-year postseason run for the Giants is fine with me. The 2014 season was so amazing that it should keep Giants fans on a high at least until the 2016 spring training. So I’m enjoying watching baseball this postseason without emotions and without having a dog in the hunt. I’m also aware that even if the Giants had remained healthy enough this year to get into the postseason, this year’s version might not be championship caliber. The rotation just seems like it would not have been strong enough, and the bullpen, which has been so vital to the titles, was not at that level this year. So now that I can’t root for the home team, I’m shifting my allegiance for now to the Cubs. A World Series at Wrigley Field! Like the late, great Ernie Banks might say. “Let’s play seven.”
When the Giants first came out west in 1958, my Dad took me to San Francisco International Airport to greet the players as they got off their airplane following a road trip. The players, some carrying their own luggage, would actually walk right by the fans, separated by only a thin strand of rope. I would lean against the rope with other fans, and hope that some Giants would stop long enough to sign my baseball. Some did, some didn’t. When the last player had walked through, my Dad would check out the ball and we would examine it to see what signatures I got. I still have the ball today, and it’s still a treasure, not just because of the names, but because of the fun we had seeing the players up close. A number of players didn’t sign the ball, choosing to move quickly from the plane to their cars and go home. Me and my Dad never thought to hold it against them, and cheered just as hard for those whose names weren’t on my ball as those who stopped the next time I was at the ballpark. I was thinking about this experience the last couple days after reading a hit piece on beloved Giants catcher Buster Posey by a New York Times political reporter.
Usually the NYT reserves such distaste in its pages for those committing high crimes and misdemeanors. So what impeachable offense was Posey being accused of? Don’t laugh. Posey had made the error of his career: He didn’t sign an autograph for the kid of NYT reporter Eric Lichtblau. Lichtblau has a Pulitzer and a couple of books, one on George W. Bush. Posey has three World Series rings. Fair fight, except Lichtblau has a lot of ink and a worldwide web page to publish his ramblings. So I feel obliged to step in and sort this out.
The NYT vs Buster Posey saga began when Lichtblau chose to write about a five-city, eight-game trip he took with his sons. The itinerary included two Giants-Cubs games in Chicago. Lichtblau said his 12-year-old son Andrew loves Buster, and wore his Posey jersey, Giants cap and carried an orange sign reading “Posey for Prez.” (Fact check: Lichtblau admits that when they saw the Pirates, his son was proudly wearing a T-shirt of Pittsburgh star Andrew McCutchen, so this loyalty to Posey is suspicious.) The goal after the Cubs-Giants game was to get an autograph, and Lichtblau, being an investigative reporter with inside sources, was told of a “hideaway in the stadium where I heard visiting players sometimes emerged after showering to catch the bus.” The autograph ambush was set. Lichtblau said a few players, including Madison Bumgarner, stopped to sign, but that Posey kept walking despite pleas from Andrew. What Posey would have seen was Andrew standing there with his father right behind him holding up the sign over the kid’s head. To Posey, or anyone else, this wouldn’t have been a scene of a cute kid wanting a signing — it was of a goofball father orchestrating the whole thing. Lichtblau’s desperation to get a Posey autograph was now bordering on unhealthy obsession, as he brought his son back to try again the next night. Again, Posey, to his credit, kept walking. Andrew then stuffed the sign into the garbage. Wrote Lichtblau: “Somewhere amid the trash was a life lesson for a crushed 12-year-old about the way heroes can disappoint us.”
How about a get-real conversation with Andrew that the ability to hit a ball, catch a pass or make a basket doesn’t make someone a hero. Instead of a baseball trip, take him to see volunteers who feed the homeless and comfort the sick, visit a fire station to meet firefighters who risk all to save life and property, or attend a Memorial Day service to honor those who have given everything. My understanding is that Posey works closely on community causes, but he doesn’t carry a sign around publicizing it. So maybe Andrew can learn that Posey really is a hero in matters that truly count. And assuming Andrew plays little league, there can be no better example of how to play and honor the game correctly. Posey plays hard, but respects the opposition, runs out homers with head down, and doesn’t go through a variety of gestures like his peers after simply getting a base hit.
Lichtblau would be the last guy I’d want to go to a game with. Geez, he’s taking his kids to a bunch of ballgames, but the joy seems to be ruined by his downbeat attitude. He worries that the innocence of the game has been lost, and that his kids are jaded by the problems of the sport. Gee, I wonder where they got that from?
But why pick on Posey, I asked myself. Then I checked his bio and discovered that Lichtblau worked for the Los Angeles Times for 15 years. So is this a case of an LA guy, a possible Dodger fan, passing judgment on a star Giant? Are you kidding me? Lichtblau seems so stressed — over baseball for gawd sakes — that I am willing to take pity on him. Whatever ails him, I recommend there is no better cure than a Buster Hug.
Meanwhile, I would suggest that Lichtblau stick with his obvious high skills in writing about “43” and ease up on No. “28.”
The early morning clouds had given way to bright blue skies, providing a postcard day in San Francisco. It was a beautiful day for a ballgame. The date was March 12, 1999, and a baseball crowd was gathered, but there was no game that day. The occasion that drew me and the others to Washington Square Park in North Beach was the funeral of hometown hero and Yankees great Joe DiMaggio being held across the street at the historic Saints Peter and Paul Church. This was not a crowd of celebrity gawkers. This was the heart and soul of the city, native and longtime San Franciscans who were there to honor one of their own. But it was deeper than that. DiMaggio grew up on the sandlots of San Francisco, and his passing was a reminder of our youths where many a Saturday and Sunday and afternoons after school were spent on those sandlots playing this great game. Many of us followed in our fathers’ footsteps, for they played at some of the same sandlots, and then passed on the game to us. When driving through the city in recent times, I’ve passed some of the ballfields of my youth — Big Rec, Funston, McCoppin, Margaret Hayward and Sunset — and there weren’t any games going on. This is supposed to be a great baseball town. So, where are the baseball players? Why are the diamonds empty?
These were the feelings many of us had as we watched the DiMaggio hearse arrive at the church, because he had represented the glory days of baseball in the city. We stood in respectful silence as the casket was taken inside and the doors were closed for the private service. When the doors opened about an hour later, the crowd went quiet again and stood at attention as the casket was taken back to the hearse. As the procession of cars began to pull away for the cemetery, we all spontaneously erupted in applause. It was DiMaggio’s final standing ovation.
On Friday (August 7), I returned to Saints Peter and Paul to say farewell to another Yankee and another pride of the San Francisco sandlots. Rinaldo “Rugger” Ardizoia was the oldest living Yankee until his recent death at the age of 95. I felt a personal connection with Rugger though I never met him. He was two years behind my father at Commerce High School in San Francisco, and I’m told he looked up to him because my Dad was an all-city pitcher. When my Dad graduated, Rugger took over, threw a couple of no-hitters, and everyone including pro scouts started looking up at him. He joined the local Mission Reds of the Pacific Coast League, then moved to the Hollywood Stars, and in 1941 became part of the New York Yankees minor league system. He got his big league call-up in 1947, and on April 30, played in his one and only major league game, allowing two runs in two innings during a mop-up appearance in a blowout loss to the St. Louis Browns. Overall, Rugger won 123 games in 12 minor league seasons, and is still regarded today as one of the legends of the San Francisco sandlots.
A remembrance card distributed at the funeral contained quotes about Rugger instead of a traditional prayer, including one from Babe Ruth. Three days before his one-game debut, Rugger was in the dugout on April 27 on Babe Ruth Day at Yankee Stadium. It remains one of baseball’s most powerful moments, as a dying Ruth, his voice ravaged by throat cancer, gives his farewell speech. As Ruth got off the bench to slowly make his way up the dugout steps, Rugger jumped up and supported him so he could get up to the field. Said Ruth: “Jeez, thanks a lot, kid.”
Rugger’s buddies have seconded that since his passing, showing their thanks for his friendship over the years and their final tribute to him at the church continues to move me. Marino Pieretti was another hotshot North Beach baseball star. He grew up in the area and pitched in the majors from 1945 through 1950. When he was stricken with cancer in 1977, his friends — many of them former Bay Area ballplayers — formed “The Friends of Marino Pieretti” to lift his spirits, and the group held regular meetings with Pieretti until his death in 1981. But the group continued as a way to honor him, and members were presented with green athletic jackets. They were all there on Friday, and as Rugger’s urn was carried from the church by his grandson, the green-jacketed members lined both sides of the aisle as a final tribute to their pal.
I attended a reception afterward at the appropriately named Connecticut Yankee, a bar-restaurant filled with baseball memorabilia. The men in the green jackets were there, and they recalled stories of Rugger, DiMaggio and the sandlots of San Francisco.
I soaked it all up, said my goodbyes to them, and walked out into a sun-drenched San Francisco afternoon. It was a beautiful day for a ballgame.
Dodgers’ ace Clayton Kershaw not in the All-Star Game? That’s like having the Inaugural Ball and not inviting the president. It’s like going to the Vatican to watch the pope celebrate high Mass at Christmas only to learn the pontiff has been replaced by a parish priest. Thirty-three of the 34 players have been selected for the 2015 game, and so far the only way the top pitcher in baseball can see the game is if he tunes in Fox. The players who have been flailing away at Kershaw’s electric repertoire of pitches for the last four dominating years didn’t find him worthy for one of their 16 selections. But here’s the real good part. Giants manager Bruce Bochy could have righted the wrong by selecting him with three pitching openings he had. But Bochy pretty much delivered a broadside to Dodger Blue. He chose instead his own Madison Bumgarner, certainly deserving after his historic 2014 post season; a 17-year veteran nearing the end of his career with just one winning season in the last five years; and a third-year pitcher with 19 career wins. Kershaw swept the MLB’s pitching Oscars last year with the MVP and Cy Young awards, yet on one of baseball’s biggest stage, Bochy was Ok with sending Sacheen Littlefeather to the mound instead of Marlon Brando. Call it the Snub Heard Round the World.
What did Kershaw do to offend the baseball gods? Has he been caught betting on a game? Did he improve his velocity with steroids? Did he agree to be Donald Trump’s running mate? Kershaw still has one final shot at an All-Star berth as fans embark on an Internet-crazed vote the next couple of days, choosing from a list of five survivors. He should buy a fancy yacht with his millions, and sail away, leaving the other four waiting in this demeaning process to be voted off of the island.
Here are Kershaw’s numbers starting in 2011, with wins-losses, ERA and strikeouts. 2011: 21-5, 2.28, 248. 2012: 14-9, 2.53, 229. 2013: 16-9, 1.83, 232. 2014: 21-3, 1.77, 239. That’s approaching Sandy Koufax territory, recalling the legendary lefthander’s remarkable four-year run from 1963-1966. This year, Kershaw is 5-6, 3.08, 147, although the win-loss record is skewed because of dismal run support. Still, he is on pace to strike out around 290, the most of any Dodger since Koufax in 1966. Beyond that, others have noted that Kershaw ranks solidly in the new wave of statistics that measure players’ performances by evaluating other factors beyond the traditional ones I listed above.
What has happened to Kershaw is something baseball should address to make certain that the All-Star Game’s selection format doesn’t leave out, well, “stars.” In the 1960s era, for example, the game’s stars were pretty much assured of being selected, and then a few players were added who were having an exceptional season in that given year. So you could count on seeing Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Roberto Clemente, Mickey Mantle and other greats. The big difference now is that voting by fans, players and the manager is based too much on who got hot from April to June of that season. With the expansion of rosters to 34, and usually a few replacements for injured players who can’t make it to the game, there is less of a chance that the star with a mediocre first three months would be left out. Baseball needs to establish the Willie Mays rule: Mays played in 24 consecutive All-Star games. He wasn’t always the stat leader in the first half of the season, but it wouldn’t be an All-Star Game without him. Perhaps the commissioner’s office should have one or two special selections just to make sure its showcase game doesn’t leave out the show’s best.
MLB should at least be motivated to act on this if for no other reason than ratings, since that is the lifeblood of the gazillion-dollar TV contracts. With that in mind, why isn’t Alex Rodriguez on the American League roster? AL manager Ned Yost of the Royals said he didn’t pick the controversial Yankee because he needed more “flexibility” in his lineup and Rodriguez was just a DH. Flexibility? You’ve got 34 players! And Yost also reminds that the winner of this game gives their league champion home-field advantage in the World Series. Like that helped you out last year Ned. We all agree that Rodriguez has made a mess of his and baseball’s reputation, but the guy still has star power as well as 670 home runs. Let’s suppose it’s the top of the ninth in Cincinnati, NL leading 3-2, two on, two out, and Reds’ menacing closer Aroldis Chapman on the hill waiting to gun down the final batter with his frightening 100-mph heat. Look over the AL reserve roster. Do you really see anyone who would make this a magic, riveting moment? Thought not. Well, how about if Yost had the flexibility to pinch-hit Arod? MLB likes to call it the Mid-Summer Classic, and while that’s usually a stretch, that faceoff truly would be an All-Star classic.
My experience in watching the All-Star Game over the years is that the buildup is almost always much better than the game, and that barring some very unusual moment, everyone forgets about it quickly and turns their focus back to the second half of the season. I’ve been to two All-Star Games and they were dry. The NL won 3-1 at chilly Candlestick Park in 1984 in a game marred by 21 strikeouts. The other was in Oakland in 1987 won by the NL 2-0. I attended the Home Run Derby at AT&T Park in San Francisco in 2007, which was probably the most boring time I ever had at a ballpark. However, I’ll never forget an impromptu, unofficial home run derby that suddenly broke out during batting practice featuring Reggie Jackson and Eddie Murray at the 1984 game. I was sitting in the front row of the right-field stands as the pair of AL sluggers ripped shot after shot at us. Fans started yelling “Incoming”! after each rocket blast. A fan next to me had the unfortunate experience of trying to catch one with his bare hand. I can still hear the splat, and I do believe the commissioner’s signature is still embedded in his palm.
June never looked so good. This is the month the Giants are supposed to swoon, yet they are in a pitched battle with the Dodgers for the division lead. The Warriors haven’t had a chance to swoon in June for 40 years, but here they are in the NBA Finals for the first time since the 1975 season. I like the Bay Area in June, how about you? The A’s, you ask … well they already swooned in April and May, so who knows, maybe they’ll join the June Boom before the month runs out. The Giants and Warriors have more in common than just the fact they are playing very meaningful games this month. I see a lot of the 2010 Giants in the Warriors. You’ve got the igniter in young star Stephen Curry for the Warriors, similar to what Buster Posey was to the Giants in 2010. None of the players on either of these teams were even born the last time their franchises won a championship. Another similarity is how fans who largely ignored both teams jumped on the bandwagon as soon as it became evident that those bandwagons were headed for the promised land.
I have been a longtime Giants fan through thick, thin, and starvation, but I admit I am among those who have hitched a ride with the Warriors’ this season. But where I differ from those with the brand new Warriors jerseys and caps is that I was there at the start. I was an immediate huge Warriors’ fan as a kid when they arrived in San Francisco from Philadelphia in 1962. I’d read about the exploits of Wilt “The Stilt” Chamberlain in a book I had of great sports moments, and I knew that he once scored 100 points in one game. I couldn’t wait to see him, and never took my eyes off him when I got to go see the team play at the Cow Palace in Daly City. I loved those early Warriors’ teams. Wilt averaged 44.8 points per game that first year, and his supporting cast of nifty guards Guy Rodgers (825 assists) and Al Attles and rugged rebounder Tom Meschery. In the 1963-64 season, the Warriors reached the finals against the legendary Boston Celtics. Say what you want about Lebron James vs. Steph Curry. Chamberlain vs. Celtics center Bill Russell always will be to me the greatest one-on-one matchup in NBA history. The Warriors lost that series, as well as the finals against the Wilt-led 76ers in 1966-77, but they remained a mostly competitive team through 1974-75, when they won the title.
But through the years, the Warriors became irrelevant, missing the post season nine consecutive years from 1977/78 to 1985/86, and 12 years from 1994/95 to 2005/06. I drifted away as a fan.
Now I’m back, and who wouldn’t be? If the 49ers want their motto to be win with class, they should be watching the Warriors. They earn millions, but they play as if they are trying to survive paycheck to paycheck. Curry seems too good to be true. We have to be careful when we start going overboard about praising an athlete as a person, since we really don’t know them, but Curry seems genuine. He might be the best shooter ever, although I remember watching Lakers’ star Jerry West in his prime. Rick Barry, who led the Warriors to their 1974-75 championship, still might be the greatest San Francisco-Oakland Warrior ever. Barry averaged 25.6 points as a Warrior to Curry’s 20.9, shot 44% in two-point field goals to Curry’s 49%, and made 89% of free throws to Curry’s 90%. The unknown is what Barry might have done if the three-point shot was in effect in his era. Barry scored 64 points in a game in 1974. If the threes were good then, how high might he have gone?
ABOUT THAT SWOON: Is the June swoon urban legend? In 57 seasons in San Francisco, the Giants have been under .500 in the month 26 times and over 25 times with six .500 records. Their best June was in the 103-win 1993 season with 19 victories; the worst was 20 losses in the 100-loss 1985 season. The June records in the Giants’ five years they made it to the World Series: 1962, 16-13; 1989, 18-10; 2010, 13-14; 2012, 17-11; 2014, 10-16. Nothing definitive there, so maybe this month just gets bad press because swoon rhymes with June. Maybe if July Oh My or September to Dismember catch on, those months might take on more doomsday significance.
LIFE OF RILEY: A national debate broke out over whether Curry should have allowed his precocious and entertaining 2-year-old daughter Riley to take over a post-game news conference. Riley’s actions were a distraction, but I’ve rarely seen athletes provide any revealing tidbits about the game in those interviews anyway. So the question is, should Riley be booted? For the answer, I go to studio head Darryl Zanuck, who faced demands from the cast of “The Sun Also Rises” in 1957 to eject young male star Robert Evans. Replied Zanuck in his famous line: “The kid stays in the picture.” My suggestion: that Curry hire J.T. Snow as Riley’s bodyguard. I could see LeBron fiercely driving for a thundering dunk over Curry just as Riley breaks free and runs onto the court. J.T.’s save of three-year-old batboy Darren Baker, Dusty’s son, from a home plate collision in the 2002 World Series, makes him the best qualified to keep Riley from harm.
PRESIDENTIAL VISIT: With their June 4 third ceremonial trip in five years, the Giants have now officially visited the White House more in that period than the Republican leadership. Barack Obama has been the perfect host, since he is a big sports fan. I’ve looked over the list of the potential next occupants of the White House and am concerned. Assuming the Giants continue the trend of odd year crowns, their next scheduled D.C. visit will be June of 2017.
There’s not a whole lot of baseball people seeking to be commissioner in chief. The Cub-cap clad Democrat Hillary Clinton threw out the opening day first pitch at Wrigley Field as first lady in 1994, but her team lost the game and a few months later, baseball went on strike and the season was ruined. Not a good sign. Also, beware of a Hillary flip-flop on which team she really supports. As a seven-year-old, she went out on Halloween dressed as Yankees’ great Mickey Mantle.
On the Republican side, Mike Huckabee seems to be already warming up for a baseball ceremony, as he borrows from the game’s lingo. Huckabee, while scolding fellow contender Rand Paul for not wanting to answer tough questions, said, This is the big leagues … you’re going to have to expect you’re going to have a lot of fastballs aimed at your nose.”
I dunno. Maybe the Giants better win it in this even year, and get Obama one more time before the baseball imposters settle into the Oval Office.
YELLOW MELLOW: A USA Today columnist set off a firestorm by ripping Warriors’ fans who feel obliged to don the yellow shirts fixed to their chairs at Oracle. I’m not passionate about this, but I’m leaning in the columnist’s direction. When I go to a game, I wear what I wish. If I want to wear an orange shirt to the Giants game, great. If I choose to wear a green shirt, so be it. The word is fans at Oracle have no choice: they are the enemy if they don’t do the zombie-like thing and don their yellow. This is far different from AT&T, where they hand out rally towels for post-season games, but no one yells at you if you don’t wave it. Giants win on this one.
MILD MILESTONES: Unless you’re a Yankees’ fan, Alex Rodriguez’s quest for milestone numbers is a non-event. Arod passed Barry Bonds to be second on the official RBI list behind Hank Aaron, and no one cared. His next target is 3,000 hits. He recently passed Willie Mays for fourth on the all-time home run list. To his credit, he humbly said, in effect, that he is no Willie Mays after that milestone was achieved. Arod’s link to performance-enhancing drugs and his handling of the matter have ruined what otherwise would be a celebration of the great game. Instead, every milestone further tarnishes the sport that has made him so wealthy. He should have quit while he was behind.
PIE IN THE FACE: One of the most juvenile moments in baseball is the ritual among many teams where players slam a shaving cream pie or pour chocolate on the game’s hero during the post-game interview. The Giants don’t seem to participate in this silly practice, but as I watched game hero Nori Aoki interviewed recently through his interpreter, I wondered if the interpreter would get the pie too if this was one of those teams.
I 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.
The 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.