Tuesday, October 1, 2013

And just like that, the inning is over

Artist's rendering of banners to be displayed along the Embarcadero near AT&T™© Park.
Memo to the San Francisco Giants' marketing folks: You're fired.

No, keep your jobs, I don't mean it. Just take the winter off, will ya? The point is, we won't need your services next year.

You do good work, no doubt. This year's slogan, "Together We're Giant"? Brilliant. Soaring and poetic, the loftiest of the soaring, poetic slogans over the years, going all the way back to "Humm Baby!" and including the guerrilla slogan for the 2010 World Series season, "Giants Baseball: Torture!"

Your slogans make us feel we're all in this together, and I almost wanted to climb onto the Internet  and buy the six-pack of season tickets, so I could quaff $8.75 Anchor Steams at the ballpark to help pay for, say, Hunter Pence's $90 million contract extension. Almost.

But we fans are done with soaring poetry for a while. We've become a pragmatic people. That which did not kill us — namely the 2013 season that ended Sunday in a glorious, hopeful fit — only made us stronger.

Thus the new slogan (above), free of charge, down to earth, plainly stated. What the Giants radio and TV broadcasters were wont to say multiple times per game, for many, many games: The Giants need baserunners.

Alternate slogans for the 2014 season will include:
  • See the ball, hit the ball
  • Get 'em on, get 'em over, get 'em in
  • Take a pitch, why doncha?!
  • Hit the cutoff!
  • That ball bounced a foot in front of the plate! Why're you swingin', for gawdsake!
We're smart, we Giants fans. We recognize a class organization, all the good the Giants do for various communities. You're wonderful with the ceremonies (the anthems are always over the top, but we love that it's fatuous and excessive, the whole "eat, drink and be merry" ethic) and the small careful touches you make to honor fallen fans or bygone players. The players all seem to say how well you treat them.

We don't have to be told that in high-minded mantras. We're focused entirely on the game itself, and we know the rest will follow.

Most of us fans — me included! — followed right along with the managerial strategy of keeping the 2012 team intact. It won once, we agreed, and most of the players were in a position to stick around: Let's watch 'em do it again.

We even blanched at the horror of losing key players. Tim Lincecum?! He can't go! He rose from the ashes of his terrible starts the middle of last season to emerge from the bullpen a dastardly magician. Marco Scutaro?! Where did this guy come from? He hits everything, whacking his way into the playoffs with the rest of the team on his back. Gotta keep him! Swing-at-anything Pablo Sandoval?! More like hit-everything Pablo, including three homers in a World Series Game 1. He's the essence of the free-wheeling love Giants fans shared.

The Giants, fortified with fan favorite Andres Torres taken back from the New York Mets, opened the season with abandon, giving credence to the keep-'em-all strategy. Then centerfielder Angel Pagan damaged his hamstring on a walkoff inside-the-park home run in late June, and the team seemed to feel the pain.

The Giants showed how difficult it is to repeat success.
(Though not impossible: The St. Louis Cardinals, who lost to the Giants last year in San Francisco's come-from-behind National League Pennant win, are back again. They've won their division seven times in the last 14 years. The Oakland A's are back, to take on the Detroit Tigers this week in the playoffs. The Tigers picked off the A's last year before losing four straight to the Giants in the World Series. Atlanta's in again, and the Boston Red Sox recovered from a horrible 2012 to take the American League East. The Rangers, in the playoffs the last three years, lost to Tampa Bay in a one-game wild card playoff last night.) 
Suddenly the Giants couldn't hold a lead for more than a half inning. Suddenly the Giants couldn't answer the other teams' offense. For the longest stretch of the season, when champions are made, Giants players got hurt, hitters couldn't hit and pitchers couldn't pitch.

San Francisco beat writer Henry Schulman said it best in late August after the Red Sox trounced the Giants:
"The difference in basic fundamentals was startling. The Red Sox can execute while the Giants continue to embarrass themselves with lapses that no team, least of all the defending World Series champs, should make."
In a typical Giants game this season:
  • The Giants scored early, often even in the first inning. Then that'd be it for the rest of the game, giving opponents most the game to win eventually.
  • Rallies started only after the team got two quick outs, then burned out on easy grounders to the infield.
  • A Giants hitter, when he did hit, would loft a long line drive that bounced on the warning track over the outfield fence, resulting in a rally-killing ground-rule double. Some fans have been clamoring to bring in AT&T™© Park's fences, and I'm inclined to support them now.
  • The starter pitched beautifully, but his team gave him no runs. The reliever would come in and ruin the fragile hold the Giants had on the otherguys. Or the starter just flat-out sucked.
  • An otherwise sure-handed Giant infielder bobbled the ball to let a run score.
  • Some Giants slugger, with rhythm in his favor, a rally in motion, a new pitcher in relief and the crowd shaking the rivets loose, swung at the first pitch for a popup to second base to end the rally/inning/game.
  • (And in the last month or so) even stoic, noncommittal MVP Buster Posey gave away through subtle body language that he wanted the season to be over.
"And just like that, the inning is over," said Giants broadcaster Jon Miller, way too many times.

Empty seats began revealing their dark green sheen on the telecasts. TV watchers could hear individual cheers and jeers now, not the solid wall of sound from the undying faithful. We showed our limits.

Now we're not nearly as romantic about keeping the team together. It didn't work this season. We fans can accept change.

Starter Barry Zito is likely to go. Though miraculously crafty in the playoffs and World Series last year, the former Cy Young winner, criticized for his huge contract during his Giants tenure, struggled this year. Manager Bruce Bochy had him pitch in the final game Sunday; he struck out the Padres' Mark Kotsay, who had announced his retirement and took his last at-bat as a Major Leaguer. The crowd roared for Barry as he returned to the dugout.
(I'd make a terrible general manager, trying to field a team out of good guys and locally-grown players. Zito's one of the good guys, giving up a great deal of time and money to Strikeouts for Troops aiding wounded warriors.)
No one's sure if Lincecum, the two-time Cy Young winner who threw his first no-hitter this year, will return. The sports gossip holds that the Giants want to keep him. They already secured rightfielder Hunter Pence in a long-term contract that he allegedly negotiated with the team president in front of his locker the night he was given the Willie Mac award as the team's most inspirational player.

As for the rest, who knows? Giants fans have a shopping list ready. The team needs:
  • A left fielder who can hit for power. During the last week of the season, streaky Gregor Blanco and rookie Juan Perez matched hit for big hit indicating they'd like to get that consideration. Blanco shared left field with streaky Andres Torres for a large chunk of the season. But the Giants' minor-league rosters are largely thin or unready for the Major League.
  • At least one more starter. Journeymen Yusmeiro Petit got within one pitch of a perfect game this season against the Arizona Diamondbacks. Maybe he's got a chance in the starting rotation if Lincecum goes.
  • Different pitchers in middle relief. Usually reliable bullpen operators blew up too many fragile leads this year.
The last game gave hope. Down 6-3 after Padres' Jedd Gyorko hit a grand slam, the Giants looked like they'd limp off along the dreary arc of the season. But Pence, who had just announced his new contract, singled in two runs in the seventh to make the game 6-5.

Then in the ninth, rookie Francisco Peguero, unlikely to hit a home run, did just that to tie the game. Padres closer Huston Street came apart, loading the bases with no outs and Pence up at the plate. He worked Street to a 3-2 count. The Padres line up six players along the infield and just two outfielders, daring Pence to hit the ball between them. The next moments could have gone many ways:
  • Pence could have walked and forced in the winning run, which would have been nice but unsatisfying.
  • He could have struck out or flied out, which would have symbolized the season, especially if the next Giants got out or hit into a double play to end the inning.
Instead, Pence swung at a very high pitch, clearly ball four, for a line drive to centerfield, over and between everyone, to drive in the winning run before a crowd renewed in number and spirit.

The Giants finished in third place, sharing it with the Padres, 16 games out of first place behind the hated Los Angeles Dodgers. They finish much closer to last place (the Colorado Rockies, 18 games out of first) than to first. But they didn't go from first to worst, at least. At least.

I may catch a few innings of postseason baseball, but not many. I'm a Giants fan, not a baseball fan. I'll stew during these bleak months, hoping for next year, hoping the Giants keep their eye on the ball and play the game right, at once sustained and deflated by former Baseball Commissioner A. Bartlett Giamatti's true and timeless words:
"(Baseball) breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart. The game begins in the spring, when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you to face the fall all alone. You count on it, rely on it to buffer the passage of time, to keep the memory of sunshine and high skies alive, and then just when the days are all twilight, when you need it most, it stops."

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