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.
There 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.
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.