Say goodbye to baseball, 2010-style
The Giants can celebrate a long-awaited title all winter, but change is coming to MLB
Look at the ball of string. Pull on it. Watch it carefully as it straightens and untangles, as it curls up in a mass around your feet. Look at it closely, for it is your life. For as long as most of you have been here, so have they, and summer after summer, they've provided the soundtrack and backdrop to your life. On the radio while you painted the deck or watched the kids. In the box score while you stabbed at your morning eggs. On the desktop widget as inspiration before another pointless meeting.
The more you watched them, the more you saw yourself, the lifetimes piling up. Willie McCovey, so lithe and supple they once called him "Stretch," now needed a walker to get to the mound to throw out the first pitch before Game 1 of the World Series. You remember the night of June 25, 1968, Candlestick Park, Bobby Bonds hitting a grand slam in his debut against the Dodgers, and you pause at the sobering thought that Bonds, who once represented youth and the future, is now seven years dead.
You see the lines in your own face, each one a summer past, and you do not believe that Willie Mays is 79 years old or that during the final week of spring training in 1987, when Roger Craig's Humm-Baby Giants were about to step toward their first playoff spot since 1971 and you were just starting college, Buster Posey was born.
And because of the daily nature of the game, every day, every summer, for all those years, your years, there's the part of you that realizes this has always been more than watching grown men hit a ball with a stick, and that you've lost count of the number of times you've had to explain the business of caring to the condescending and uninitiated elements of your life -- the ones who don't understand why the name Salomon Torres means so much.
For nearly two weeks now, the 2010 baseball season has been over. Two weeks for the disbelieving throngs who closed off Market and Van Ness streets to absorb that the San Francisco Giants, their Giants, are still champions. Two weeks to savor each moment of a season that transformed them from a decent team with potentially great pitching to a team that did not trail in games in any postseason series and that, by the end, had steamrolled through the postseason.
If the trade winds indeed represent a harbinger, the 2010 season also will be remembered wistfully as historic, for the game quite likely will never be the same. Often to the dismay of television executives who crave the sexiest demographic (as well as to that of a 24/7 Internet/cable, event-driven culture in so much of a hurry that taking a breath is considered a crime), baseball looks forward and backward better than any other sport. That is a virtue in an environment in which the game is constantly pressured by the forces of revenue and ratings.
Commissioner Bud Selig, for example, spent much of the season vexed by the frustration of the major networks that only baseball's Cadillac franchises -- the Yankees, the Red Sox, the Cubs and the Dodgers -- move the TV ratings needle significantly. And in the inevitable tractor beam of technology, it became apparent that the game's umpiring was at times so horrific -- from a perfect game being denied a pitcher during the regular season to a postseason marked by egregious stubbornness and blown calls -- that it won't be long before managers are tossing the red replay flag from the dugouts.
Yes, the Giants won the World Series forcefully and easily, but baseball likely will punctuate their title with a period rather than an exclamation point. The matchup between San Francisco and the valiant but suddenly overmatched Texas Rangers was the lowest-rated World Series in history, and baseball executives likely will respond by ending the wild-card era that began in 1995 and reformatting the playoffs, most likely with the addition of another wild-card team. That would be an irony; the 1993 Giants were the last team to win 100 games (103, actually) without making the playoffs, victimized by being two years too early to the wild-card party. This current edition of unlikely San Francisco champagne toasters will in all likelihood be the last champions of the single-wild-card years.
Forward and back. Off the field, the year seemed to contain a certain momentum toward yesterday. Brawny biographies of Old Hoss Radbourn, Willie Mays, Henry Aaron, Roger Maris, Stan Musial, Reggie Jackson and Mickey Mantle were all published this season, an almost cosmic, subconscious acknowledgement that the beginning of something new cannot commence without recognition of the glorious past.
In victory in 2010, the Giants created the kind of new history that forever alters the narrative of future generations. San Francisco baseball, at least, will never be the same. A city grandfather saw big league baseball arrive in 1958 with a parade to City Hall along the same route the 2010 heroes -- Series MVP Edgar Renteria in full Series afterglow -- took on their celebratory tribute after they conquered Texas. Today, that grandfather can walk along the parking lot of the Safeway on 16th and Potrero -- the site of old Seals Stadium -- and remember his time. Others might be walking through the frozen foods section, but he is not. He is standing on second base.
The city father demanded respect (and a parka) for Candlestick Park for his team, accepting his Croix de Candlestick pins for sitting through extra innings win or lose in 40-degree weather. San Francisco baseball for the father consisted of anti-victories; between 1963 and 2001, the Giants won not a single World Series game. Their one triumphant appearance, 1989, was ruined by nature -- the last devastating earthquake to date -- and the indignity of the Oakland A's crushing them.
Before Game 5 of the 2010 Series, on the precipice of a championship, Giants president Larry Baer recalled being stung by the snickers from their little American League brothers across the bay in Oakland, who had less standing in the region but far more success. That nerve is so raw that Baer remembered an A's promotional dig -- a billboard at the foot of the westbound Bay Bridge reminding anyone driving into San Francisco that the baseball "hardware" all resided in the East Bay. (In truth, the A's haven't used the campaign for years, but Baer clearly has not forgotten.)
The father owned the wonderful, big-name, big-deed 1960s of Mays, McCovey and Juan Marichal; and the 1987 run; and the crushing of the Cubs in 1989. And of course 1993, perhaps the greatest and easily the most historically significant San Francisco team, when Barry Bonds was untainted, producing one of the great seasons in history. And when John Patterson and Robby Thompson and Mike Benjamin were daily heroes, and San Francisco and its hard-core fans fought off losing stadium votes in San Jose, general indifference about a publicly financed stadium in their own city, and the trucks intended to move the franchise to Toronto in 1976 and to Tampa in 1992. In lieu of a playoff berth, these moments had to be enough.
Now, the son of the city, as new generations should, benefits from these previous sacrifices, validated by big attendance in a gorgeous ballpark surrounded not by the black ghetto of Hunters Point (a diminishing, uncomfortable waltz for both fans and residents) but by hot, trendy restaurants and luxury condominiums. For what seemed like forever, only their bitter rivals in Los Angeles and Oakland got to polish the trophy. Now, San Francisco gets to do that, too.
The championship run did not begin in September, when the Giants fought off a final charge from the checkered, faded Padres, who held the lead in the National League West for three quarters of the season before a 10-game losing streak plucked them from the sky. Instead, according to general manager Brian Sabean, it began immediately following the All-Star break, when the Giants opened the second half four games out of first place and with huge road series against the Dodgers, Diamondbacks and Rockies. The team, sustained by Matt Cain, Jonathan Sanchez and a tough, underestimated offense, stayed afloat while Tim Lincecum, the two-time Cy Young winner, lost five starts in a row in August before he turned into an ace again in September, losing only twice for the rest of the year and playoffs.
"We were essentially playing do-or-die baseball for two months," Sabean said. "That will change you, make you grow up faster. Everything was accelerated because we didn't have any margin for error since July. It was win -- and then win again tomorrow. That toughens you, gets you sharp and keeps you sharp."
Still, the Giants' emergence as a legitimate pitching power to be feared as the calendar moved forward, their offense finding new ways and new heroes as it overcame the final insufficient charge from San Diego, apparently isn't enough for baseball's tomorrows. Nor is the surprising and wonderful growth of the Texas Rangers and the redemption of their manager, Ron Washington, from tragic figure to folk hero. ("That's how baseball go" became a rallying cry for his resilient club.)
The problem, Selig has acknowledged, is an over-reliance on the East Coast money generated by the Yankees and Red Sox and a belief by the television world that the baseball nation, Ken Burns-style, cares only about Boston and New York. It is money -- short money, really -- that the networks want, even at the cost of overlooking Lincecum and Cain and Posey, Elvis Andrus and Nelson Cruz and the rest of the game west of Interstate 95.
While the Giants neared the peak, the talk on the field was not about the future of San Francisco as a validated baseball town, but about the future of baseball. Expanded playoffs are coming in the form of a seven-game division series and more wild-card teams -- without a shortened season. Before Game 4 in Arlington, the owners informed the players, Selig said following a presentation with the great Henry Aaron, that they will not consider returning the regular season to 154 games.
Forward and backward, once again. Michael Weiner, the astute new head of the MLB Players Association, would not characterize what is being discussed as "proposals." Rather, they're ideas.
"There really is no consensus amongst the players about a new playoff format," he said. "The current system has been in place for awhile, and it's positive to look at changes. Some players want to do nothing. Others want limited changes, and some want to blow it up completely so that the playoffs look like other sports, a lot of teams in."
The most promising "idea" discussed at the Series is the addition of one wild-card team per league, with the two wild cards playing in a death-defying, winner-take-all "play-in game."
Proponents love the idea because they say it will legitimize the regular season, forcing potential playoff teams from the same division to actually compete instead of coasting in September when at least a wild-card berth looks secure, for no one will want his season to come down to a play-in. Far better to win the division and get into a longer series.
The TV people would be happy, too, for it would allow for: (1) a guaranteed must-win game the networks could promote for weeks, and (2) even greater opportunities for the Red Sox and Yankees to make the playoffs, every year. It is important to remember that the original wild-card concept was the brainchild of former Red Sox CEO John Harrington, and that without it, Boston would have qualified for the playoffs only twice in the past 16 years.
The negatives are obvious. A 162-game season should be sufficient time to make a case to earn a playoff spot. Had the new "idea" been adopted for the 2010 season, the Padres, who blew a chance to win the NL West outright and then lost a chance for a playoff game on the last day of the season, would be given another opportunity in the play-in game against Atlanta as the second wild card.
In the AL, the Yankees, who finished a game behind Tampa Bay in the AL East, would have been in a one-game play-in against the Red Sox. The suits in New York and Los Angeles would love this, of course, but the Red Sox finished third in the division, six games behind the Yankees -- undeserving of the postseason.
This new, proposed system would have created these outlandish scenarios in other years past: In 1997, the Yankees finished 12 games better than the Angels but would have had to meet them in the play-in game. In 2001, the 102-win A's would have had to beat the Twins, even after finishing 17 games better.
Seven times since 1995, two teams would have played one another having been separated by only a game. But 10 times in the past 16 years, the gap between the fourth- and fifth-best teams was greater than five games. And that doesn't take into consideration the difference in the standings between the second wild-card team and the division winners.
Baseball isn't other sports. The regular season is too long to have 16 of 21 teams make the playoffs, as the NHL did in the early '80s. Even now, 16 of 30 teams advance in both the NBA and the NHL. Tony Phillips, the former utility grinder, once famously said, "In baseball, after 162 [expletive] games, that what you are. You don't need more games."
This World Series was considered a dud in some corners. An unfair assessment, yes, but in the end, the games belong in the corners of the people who wore the black and orange colors of the last team standing. The rest of the world might have moved on at warp speed to free agency and Cliff Lee and Carl Crawford, but events without context, without breathing, ultimately are reduced to meaninglessness. In San Francisco, as in Boston in 2004 and Chicago in 2005, time was allowed to stop, and baseball is better for it.
"This is for all of them," Baer said during the wild clubhouse scene after the Giants won. "For everyone who stuck with us and froze with us and stayed with us. The business parts can wait. This is all that matters."
Howard Bryant is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He is the author of "The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron," "Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston," and "Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball." He can be reached at Howard.Bryant@espn.com. He can be followed on Twitter at www.twitter.com/hbryant42
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