Tuesday, July 10, 2012

It's only entertainment … it's only entertainment …

In this long dark tea-time of the soul* — which you might know as the Major League All Star break — I must take a reality check.

With much chagrin, I confess to throwing my arms skyward in the last week — more than once — and shouting at the television, "You stinkin' Giants! Can't hit, as usual! And now you can't pitch!"

I might have used invectives that children shouldn't hear, let alone my dog.

I've let the Giants get to me, and I said I wouldn't. I would enjoy this, win or lose, I said.

Oy, it's hard.

The Giants limped into the All Star break just as the Pittsburgh Pirates pummeled them. Such a hard-luck low-rent team for so many years, the Pirates. Now they hit, and hit hard. Now their pitchers command the game. Now the Pirates put together wins against the big boys, and have become the big boys in the process. Heck, they've become the 2010 San Francisco Giants, who gathered steam and won the World Series.

Good for the Pirates. It's probably their time to succeed. Just not against the Giants, who have just finished a long series playing the leaders in the National League divisions. Promise turned to problems; the Giants swept the Los Angeles Dodgers, shutting them out each game! Not long after Matt Cain pitched the first perfect game in Giants history! And almost set a new team record for consecutive scoreless innings!

Then the team came loose at the seams with one crack of the bat, the first pitch Matt Cain threw, in his second return to the mound since his perfect game. Cain gave up a home run on that pitch to the Cincinnati Reds' leadoff hitter. The Giants split the series with the Reds, then got swept by the red-hot Washington Nationals, then barely salvaged one out of three against the Pirates.
Along the way batters lost their swing — the Giants' flagship station, KNBR, has a retired criminal defense attorney, Marty Lurie, who sometimes spends eight hours a day or more on the air before and after games talking about the Giants, and this weekend said the Giants simply don't hit the ball as hard as opponents.

Along the way the pitchers lost their way, shutting down rather than shutting out. The brightest burnout has been Tim Lincecum, the so-called Franchise, who embarrassed batters with his searing fastball and fool-suffering changeup and quirky delivery that propelled such fire from such a small frame.

Now he's just a guy with a goofy windup whom opponents like to hit. In one self-described lifelong Giants' fan's succinct appraisal, Tim Lincecum is a guaranteed loss. A two-time Cy Young award winner, he's won three and lost 10 this season, and has the highest earned run average among starting National League pitchers.

He's the fuel of sports talk around here, befuddled and even seething fans wanting him sent down to the minors, wanting the Giants to stick him with a phantom injury and put him on 30 days of rehabilitation, wanting him moved to the bullpen.

"We should make him our team's closer," one radio show's caller said. I love it when fans say, "We." I always wanna ask, "How many home runs did you hit for the Giants?"

Others call Lincecum a pothead and say that's the source of his trouble, or that he hasn't conditioned himself. Others say that even at 28, he's gotten old, that his body can't deliver the heat the way it used to just three years ago, and he has to reinvent himself as a wily pitcher who can throw a lot of junk — maybe even a knuckleball.

It's soap opera, and that's as it should be. Baseball is only entertainment. Though I feel bad for Tim Lincecum and the Giants and anyone who fails in full view of the public arena like these folks — they're getting a lot of money to entertain us. In the last two games, a couple of the Giants players looked like they were getting a lot of money to lollygag in the game for which they're paid to play hard.

Invectives shouted. Arms thrown skyward.

What do we get out of it? Nothing. Absolutely nothing. Audio-visual salve from the concerns of the day … something to talk about with others who follow the team. Others may gain: The Giants themselves, their licensees, advertisers, should you choose to give them your money. But you get nothing.

World Series champ? Nothing. Cellar dweller? Same thing. It's all entertainment.

All of which, ironically, comes to an end for me these dark days, marked by the All Star game today. For some reason, I've never been interested. Maybe in a sport that truly means nothing, the All Star game is anti-meaning. Popular players make their appearance, do their time, maybe play hard, maybe not. The National League or American League wins, whatever. It's supposed to mean something — lately Major League Baseball has tried to make it mean something by conferring home-field advantage to whichever winning league's team makes it to the World Series — but it doesn't. The home run derby, televised carny acts. Endless talk and meta-talk. Forget it.

Four Giants are starting today, and good for them, but I won't watch. Too much folderol; too many announcers whose inanity I can't stand; I prefer the Giants' own sometimes inane announcers; players I don't care about or care for.

The All Star game is something of a sham, which is evidence of the genius of sports marketing. Fans can vote multiple times — they could even when I was a kid, and even as a kid it felt wrong — and in their zeal, Giants' fans put four on the team. Some so gamed the system that Freddie Sanchez got the fourth highest votes among National League second baseman. Sanchez hasn't played since about this time last year, and he won't play this season either, if ever again, because of injury.

Talk radio buzzes about how much better a year David Wright of the New York Mets has had at third base than the Giants's Pablo "Panda" Sandoval, but the Panda is starting the All Star Game.  Mets General Manager Sandy Alderson said he was surprised Giants' fans didn't figure out a way to elect a "ball dude" — volunteers who snag foul balls before they reach the bullpen — to the All Star team. Giants fans responded viciously that they're tired of East Coast bias and that it's time the Giants got their due.That's the point: People watch, people buy, people talk, more people watch and buy, and so on.

Baseball goes silent for the next few days, then the second half begins. The Giants come home to host the poor Astros, and fans and analysts will blather about whether the Giants can come back strong. Most will wonder aloud and ad nauseam whether Tim Lincecum will pitch like the Tim of old Saturday night, and if he doesn't, what will the Giants do with him? Heck, what will the Giants do if Tim does pitch well?

Stay tuned. After the implosion of the last week, the Giants are still only one game out of first place in the National League West Division. It's only entertainment.

* Thanks, Douglas Adams.

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