Commentary

Giants could change everything

San Francisco looking to end suffering of a city waiting for a baseball title

Updated: October 27, 2010, 12:39 PM ET
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

SAN FRANCISCO -- It was well after midnight in the locker room of the brand-new National League champions. And it was here we found the closer for those champs, Mr. Brian Wilson -- a fellow much wiser than his inimitable madman-closer persona might indicate -- ruminating on the meaning of this amazing moment in time.

Somehow, on this unforgettable Saturday night turned Sunday morning, he was even able to wipe the champagne out of his eyeballs to see far, far beyond these clubhouse walls in South Philadelphia.

"What a sweet feeling," Wilson said, as the 2010 Giants basked in their championship moment. "I can't imagine the streets of San Francisco."

Then, for a brief second, his eyes spun, and his head nodded, and his mouth formed into a knowing smile, almost as if he'd just blinked and viewed the euphoric scene unfolding 2,500 miles from this spot.

Come to think of it, he laughed: "I CAN imagine the streets of San Francisco."

On those streets of San Francisco, they've waited more than half a century for this.

Their wait extends back to a time before color TV, before the Beatles, before humans traveled through space -- or cyberspace. Their wait extends back to 1958, the year Major League Baseball discovered the Pacific time zone, the year the San Francisco Giants were born.

That's when The Wait began. And through all these decades since, while the ever-patient citizens of San Francisco waited, 19 other teams won at least one World Series. The Royals won. The Diamondbacks won. The Marlins won twice. The team that haunts the Giants from the other side of the San Francisco Bay, the A's, won four times.

But the Giants? Not once.

Willie Mays played 15 seasons in San Francisco. Barry Bonds played 15 there himself. Willie McCovey played 19. Juan Marichal played 14. This team has employed players great enough to collect nine MVP awards, three Cy Youngs and four rookie of the year trophies.

[+] EnlargeGiants Fans
Cary Edmondson/US PresswireGiants fans have waited a long time for a World Series. Is the wait almost over?

But through it all, no Giants team ever found a way to do for this town what this Giants team has a chance to do:

End the third-longest title drought of any franchise in baseball (behind only the Cubs and Indians).

And all these guys have to do to end it is win the World Series that starts Wednesday, against those equally title-starved Texas Rangers. That's all.

So what would it mean to these people if THIS were the team, if THIS were the year? Unless you're dining on pot stickers in Chinatown as you read this, we bet you have no idea.

"It would be the same effect we saw with the White Sox in 2005 and the Red Sox in 2004," said always-eloquent Giants broadcaster-philosopher Mike Krukow. "It would be the same type of release. It would be closure. It would be validation for all these years these people gave their hearts to this club and their souls to this club."

Now wait, you're no doubt thinking, assuming you can't see the shores of the Pacific or the Santa Cruz Mountains from your living room. How can this man possibly say that? How can this be Boston, cursed for 85 years between titles? How can this be Chicago, title-free (though hardly scandal-free) for 86 years?

How, you're thinking, can one of these newfangled Western towns possibly stake a claim to any level of meaningful suffering?

Because this town is different. That's how.

"People on the East Coast think of the West Coast as this new place, but San Francisco is a really old American city," said Brian Murphy, the dulcet morning drive-time sports voice on KNBR radio. "This city has a thriving history that goes all the way back to 1860. … So whereas L.A., and Seattle, and Portland, and Phoenix are all sort of post-World War II towns, this town's history runs way deeper than most of America realizes."

So the attachment to this team -- and the pain associated with it -- really does trace back generations, much the way it does in New England and Chicago. Not as many generations, obviously. And not with all these fans, clearly. Definitely not the techies who showed up with their iPads 20 minutes ago. But there are many, many people in San Francisco whose bond with the Giants goes back a lot farther than, say, Game 1 of the NLDS. Trust us.

"So it's a connection," Murphy said. "It links to their pride -- their civic pride, and almost their family pride, too. And I know this really sounds kind of sappy and sort of out there, but the same way the '04 Red Sox brought all of New England to its knees, that's happening here, too.

"Now, we're not them. I'm not saying the Giants are the '04 Red Sox, nor is the fan base like that. But it's in the same area of relativity, of how a fan base relates to its team. So when you combine that generations-deep San Francisco pride with this particular team … so unexpected and '69 Mets-ish … it's more like Philadelphia, more like New York, more like Boston. It really is. And people who don't live here don't understand that. So that's what makes this whole thing so incredibly emotional for all of us."

There's a feeling in AT&T Park these days -- a passion, a buzz, a decibel level -- that's hard to describe. And it's not just because the World Series is coming to town.

Every once in a while in sports, the right team shows up in the right metropolis at exactly the right place in time. And it has happened here, with this eclectic collection of no-name scrapmeisters. For whatever reason, this group has locked heartbeats with this fan base in a way that Barry Bonds, Jeff Kent and their surrounding cast never did.

"I've never seen anything like this," said F.P. Santangelo, who once played with Bonds and Kent, and now does pregame and postgame broadcast gigs. "And you're talking to a kid who grew up a Giants fan as an 8-year-old. Went to Candlestick Park as a kid and sat in the bleachers. Played for the team. Has coached in the minor leagues for the team. Is a broadcaster for the team. I've never seen anything like what's going on.

"We've been doing pregame shows outside the ballpark, and it's bedlam. I didn't know that Giants fans had this in them. This place has been so loud, so energetic, so passionate, I just feel like this is years of frustration all coming out."

The World Series Giants of eight years ago were a very different group -- all Barry all the time. Back then, Barry Bonds was more than just a centerpiece of the 2002 Giants. He was like a human eclipse, blocking all sunlight from shining on anyone or anything around him.

So no wonder these folks find this team so much more lovable. Barry at his greatest may have been mesmerizing viewing -- but "lovable" wouldn't be in the top 8,000 words you'd use to describe him.

[+] EnlargeBarry Bonds
AP Photo/Amy SancettaRecent Giants playoff teams haven't been very likable. That isn't a problem with this year's group.

This team, on the other hand, is like one of those schlocky Hollywood stories about a pickup team, full of guys nobody else wanted, that somehow gets on one of those crazy rolls and beats the state champs. These Giants have been impossible for this town NOT to embrace.

"You know how in Little League," said Giants president Larry Baer, "everybody always says, it's about the team, it's about the team? With this group, it really is about the team. But this is professional sports. It doesn't usually work out that way. In professional sports, you've got Kobe. You've got LeBron. You've got Brett Favre or whomever. It just doesn't turn out that way. Well, this, if you just look at our position players, is turning out that way. They really are the essence of 'team.'"

And that's a concept any fan would be happy to wrap his arms around. So all of a sudden, the lovefest wells up out of the seats of AT&T Park every night, the way it never has before.

"These last two months have been so intoxicating that if you get here and you're tired, by the time you leave for home you're jacked up again," Krukow said. "There's an energy. I live across the street. So I'll come over here sometimes and walk the dog at 11:30, 12 o'clock at night, when there's no one here. And I'll go back up on the mound, and I can still feel the crowd. I can still feel the energy. And I'm not making that up. You want to come tonight? You're more than welcome to come with me."

Just so you know, we didn't take him up on that. But thousands and thousands of San Franciscans ARE coming along with him, one way or another, every night these days.

Murphy tells stories about the Giants fans who call his show from far-flung places like Italy and Ireland, because they need to share the joyous experience of falling in love with this team. Santangelo hears the sounds of everyone around him talking baseball round the clock, and it reminds him of his days playing winter ball in Latin America, where life was one big obsession with baseball.

"You might as well be in Maracaibo or San Pedro de Macoris," he said, "because that's how much this city loves baseball right now."

But this story isn't only about the "right now" part of this experience. As any Red Sox fan could tell you, to truly savor the taste of winning, you need to wear the scars of all those years that ended with Ace bandages instead of fairy tales. So if that's a requirement at times like this, don't underestimate the suffering of Giants fans.

Don't forget McCovey's line drive landing in Bobby Richardson's glove for the final, deflating out of Game 7 of the 1962 World Series. Don't forget the Giants' disastrous one-game-away NLCS collapse of 1987, or the painful sight of a 100-win team getting shocked by the Marlins in 2003.

Don't forget the earthquake that rattled Candlestick Park minutes before Game 3 of the 1989 World Series. And just as Red Sox fans will always have Bucky Bleeping Dent and Aaron Bleeping Boone, the Giants may never get over Scott Bleeping Spiezio and the nightmare of 2002.

"You know what? You go through something like that and it takes time to get over," said Ron Wotus, the Giants' bench coach then and now. "I mean, you have to move on in this business. But when you want something so bad, and you work so long for it and so hard, and you're so close, it takes time. You go home and there's an empty feeling. … It stays with you. It stays with you as you go forward. There are just moments in time in this game that don't ever really fade away."

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Malcolm Emmons/US PresswireThe 1981 49ers, with Joe Montana and the late Bill Walsh, are the gold standard in San Francisco.

But what those moments do, ultimately, is bring a perspective and an appreciation for THESE moments -- the beautiful baseball moments almost nobody saw coming. And in a time when the economy stinks and politics divide and the local football team has forgotten how to win, what better time for this unlikely baseball team to come along and bond so many people in a way nothing else in life can?

Now these folks know the team they're playing isn't exactly the Yankees, too, of course. They know no one has ever seen "World Series" and "Arlington, Texas," in the same sentence, either. So it probably isn't fair for San Franciscans to get into a big debate over which team and which fan base "deserves" to win more.

But naturally, they're plowing into that debate, anyway -- with their vocal cords in flames.

"I don't mean to denigrate the Texas Rangers," said Murphy. "And I love Ron Washington. And I hope Bengie Molina gets the standing ovation he deserves. … But I'm going to be brutally honest here. Let's just say it: Texans do not truly value baseball. Texans value football. And it's as simple as that.

"I understand there will be some happy people there. But Texas is a football state all the way -- 3,000 percent. So I would humbly submit to Rangers fans that they will be just as interested in the Cowboys score as the Rangers score, whereas right now, the 49ers don't even exist."

Well, maybe the 2010 edition of the 49ers is just background noise for this World Series. But another 49ers team has shot into this conversation in a whole different way. That team would be the 1981 49ers -- the first San Francisco professional sports team to win anything -- and still, "the gold standard of sports euphoria in San Francisco," Murphy said.

So the question dangling from every cable car this week is this: If the Giants were to win this World Series, could it possibly top the '81 Niners on the list of most powerful San Francisco sports experiences in the history of this particular universe?

The honest answer is probably no -- if only, Murphy said, "because [that 49ers title] was first, and it made people in San Francisco feel like they'd never felt before."

But -- and you knew there was a "but" coming, right? -- "the Giants carry with them their own romance," Murphy went on. "Baseball carries with it its own romance. There's nothing that can beat the journey of a baseball season. And this would be THEIR first. And they are deeply loved.

"So which would be bigger? I really can't tell you 'til we get there. The '81 Niners, for sheer euphoria, would probably top the Giants. But I don't know. If the Giants win it, we could be talking about a dead heat here. You know what I mean? So I don't want to diminish anything I'm feeling by even thinking about the '81 Niners. Can't we just say we love our teams like we love our children? You love each one for his or her own qualities."

Far be it from us to make that call. It's their love affair. It's their team. It's their town. But we recognize something special when we see it. And this is the real deal.

This baseball team has carried these people halfway to the stars. Now it's up to the whacked-out, spliced-together, who-ARE-these-guys 2010 edition of the San Francisco Giants to finish the journey -- and life in their golden-gated city will never, ever be the same.

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His latest book, "Worth The Wait: Tales of the 2008 Phillies," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores and online. Click here to order a copy.

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com