Commentary

Two down, two to go

San Francisco Giants are halfway to an elusive championship

Updated: October 29, 2010, 7:21 PM ET
By Howard Bryant | ESPN.com

SAN FRANCISCO -- Halfway to a championship 52 years in the making, the roars spiraled from the streets of China Basin toward the Embarcadero and beyond, curiously incongruous to the largely common feat of winning two home games. But the welling noise signified something deeper and more elusive: it was the clarity of a collective voice of a city, one tired of being first in beauty and second in everything else.

In many ways, the city of San Francisco and its baseball team share important personality traits, traits which are being forced to the surface by a ballclub making a sudden and unexpected championship charge. Each is a fragile coalition of disparate constituencies, possessors of unparalleled history yet fraught with conditioned, learned insecurity; international yet prone to a curious parochialism.

The Giants need not defend their bona fides as baseball royalty (at .538, the club still owns the highest winning percentage in National League history), but the feeling of being second still remains: Second to its previous, five World Series championship life in New York. Second in the twin land deals (Walter O'Malley got the gold mine in Chavez Ravine, Horace Stoneham got an igloo at Candlestick Point) that brought baseball west in the first place. Second for the entire decade of the 1960s, when the Giants won more games than everyone in the league but it was everyone else -- the Cardinals and Dodgers, the Pirates and even the Giants' New York replacements, the Mets -- who won the championships.

[+] EnlargeGiants fan
Cary Edmondson/US PresswireIs this baseball heaven? Not quite. But you're on your way, Giants fans.

The sounds from the first two games of the World Series were more than elation from whipping on the Texas Rangers for the second straight game, more even than a thirst to put to rest their last memory of the Series (the dreaded ending to 2002). They were a defense of honor. For the better part of 50 years, until the team moved into its jewel of a stadium in 2000 -- a park that was never expected to be built because of the city's disparate political constituencies, which might cheer for the team but would never vote to allocate public monies for a new stadium -- Giants fans felt compelled to defend San Francisco as a baseball town. They froze to death for 40 years and for their trouble were ridiculed nationally for the small weeknight crowds at Candlestick Park, ridiculed by outsiders who refused to grasp that being bundled under five blankets to watch the Giants play the Padres on a Wednesday night in 42-degree weather showed far more dedication than watching Red Sox-Yankees in tank tops. There may not have been 40,000 of them, but the 10,000 who committed to baseball year after year -- the only team in baseball that asked its fans to watch the summer game in winter conditions -- not only did not need their loyalty challenged but did not need the big league suits on Park Avenue to move their baseball club on them, as the suits tried to do in 1977 (to Toronto) and 1992 (to St. Petersburg, Fla.).

These historical grievances combined explained at least in part why, hours after Matt Cain bested the Rangers 9-0 in Game 2, people were still banging on street signs on Market Street, chanting "Let's go Giants." It was why the grip man on the California Street cable car line was painting an orange-and-black Giants logo on his cable car window during his lunch break following the Giants' raucous, 11-7 win in Game 1.

The real reason is that the Giants are following a steadfast championship narrative, and it wasn't until the Rangers wilted in a painful eighth inning, when the Giants turned a 2-0 lead into a rout with seven two-out runs, that anyone started paying attention.

Sex sells. In a baseball sense, the sex in this case is offense. Every year for a century, baseball wisdom has imparted that "Good pitching beats good hitting." During the season, the Giants were ranked first in the National League in ERA, saves, innings, fewest hits allowed, earned runs and strikeouts. They ranked second or third in runs and home runs allowed.

And yet when the sexy aroma of swinging the bat permeated the ballpark -- when Ryan Howard and Chase Utley and Jayson Werth took their cuts, followed by Nelson Cruz and Vladimir Guerrero and Michael Young -- it became easy to fall in love with the bats.

In this case, sex has been an illusion that's claimed many victims this postseason -- including in the first two games of the Fall Classic. The Giants held the Phillies to a .216 batting average in five games, when the Giants' glut of left-handers stifled the two-time defending NL champions. The Rangers entered the Series hitting .281 for the postseason, but are now hitting .227, which explains why, in the words of Giants reserve infielder Mark DeRosa, "We're still standing."

"You've got to have it," DeRosa said of pitching. "Look at Matt Cain. He's got to be the most under-the-radar top pitcher in the league. He just doesn't get that mass appeal.

"I remember I was in the playoffs with the Braves and we had one of the best offenses ever -- the best offense I ever was part of. Then we faced the Cubs in the playoffs. We faced Kerry Wood and Mark Prior and those guys. If the pitchers are throwing bullets, you're going home. And we did."

When the Cardinals stunned Detroit in the 2006 World Series, a key reason was the constant pressure St. Louis had faced to perform or be eliminated. In the National League Championship Series, while the Tigers swept the A's in the American League, the Cardinals were tested every inning, every game in a seven-game classic with the Mets.

The Giants faced a similar grind this season and it has only increased their will. On Aug. 25, the Giants were tied with Philadelphia for a playoff spot but were 6½ games behind San Diego in the NL West standings. What followed was a club playing for its playoff life for the next 30 days. Each day could have propelled the Giants to the postseason or sent them home for the winter. The Giants have played pressure baseball for two full months.

They needed to win on the final day of the season, escaped a grinding, difficult division series with Atlanta, and faced down a Phillies team that was deservedly considered a powerhouse. But the Giants continued their surge, not only pitching, but banging 13 hits in the finale in Philadelphia and scoring 20 runs in the first two games of the World Series after having scored just 30 in their previous 10 postseason games.

Over the past several weeks, as each successive test has been passed, as the team that wasn't supposed to hit enough laid waste to Roy Halladay and then Cliff Lee and as the Giants have neared a World Series championship that has never been theirs, the sounds at the ballpark, in the clubhouse and in the street have changed. They represent a growing vindication and a weariness of being second, of being unnecessarily underestimated -- the Giants were second in wins in the NL, and finished with a better record and run differential than the Rangers -- of being viewed for what the franchise in San Francisco hasn't been instead of what it has. And perhaps most damningly, the people of San Francisco still chafe at being judged nationally for not turning on their greatest player locally, Barry Bonds. That perceived persecution for their refusal to turn on Bonds has emotions simmering and bubbling, waiting and swelling, demanding a release that can only be granted by finally winning the final game of a baseball season.

The Giants hadn't won anything and yet the fans were sending the same unheard message that the least-heralded World Series team in San Francisco Giants history had been sending on the field for the better part of a month: They belonged.

"I think that's probably the best part about this," said Will Clark, the star Giants first baseman who was part of the 1987, 1989 and 1993 near-misses. "Every day, there's a new star. When you come to the ballpark, someone is going to do something that is going to be just enough. This team is so pitching-dominant, someone just has to find a way to score runs."

Tortured talk

[+] EnlargeCody Ross
Ezra Shaw/Getty ImagesAn entire city has wrapped its arms around Cody Ross and the Giants this postseason.

In April, longtime broadcaster Duane Kuiper referred to the Giants' plight as torture, a wrenching odyssey of hope and despair, a comment that crystallized the new narrative of San Francisco baseball. The narrative of the Giants as the new team that churns the guts of its fans was reinforced last month by filmmaker Ken Burns, whose depiction of the Giants resembled an acceptance of the baton of sorrow from the Boston Red Sox, who no longer needed it after they won the World Series for the first time in 86 years six years ago and then won again in 2007 for extra measure. The Giants were now the long-suffering heartbroken kids: star-crossed, snakebit and so on.

But if there's no crying in baseball, these Giants over the month of October have also shown there's no self-pity, either. And as the leaves changed, the Giants rejected torture, left the self-pity to the fans and then told a revived fan base that with this team -- one devoid of a player with the star power of Mays, McCovey, Kevin Mitchell, Clark or Bonds -- it was all right to believe. Through three weeks of stirring, ebullient play, the Giants told their hungry base it was safe to care.

"Destiny is a tricky word to throw out there," said Giants closer Brian Wilson. "Briefly, we're going well as a team and everyone in here had a contribution at one point or another -- and that's why we're still playing."

And yet … torture or triumph could be right around the corner. The Rangers -- a proud, tough team in their own right -- have three home games. Should the Rangers win the next two, the series goes back to even and expectations change. But a split of the first two games, with the Giants up 3-1, means only one thing: a championship or more torture.

"You can't predict this game," Clark said. "Look at 1993. That was a powerhouse team, a real powerhouse team. The only thing we did wrong was be in the same division as the Braves. We won 103 games and ended up with nothing because you had to win outright. Today, we would have made the playoffs and who knows what could have happened? The minute you start predicting, you might was well pack up, leave the ballpark and never come back. But I'll say this: Winning this thing would be huge. Everyone's been waiting for a long time."

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