Bay Area baseball.
When that phrase comes to mind, many fans with personal allegiances will no doubt conjure up an image of their team, with all of the allure and history and storybook moments that they’ve had the joy to experience during their lifetime.
Personally, when I think of Bay Area baseball, I like to think of both the A’s and the Giants, and take pride in how rich their respective histories are. I realize the vast majority of the debate between Giants and A’s fans centers around why one is better than the other, but in my mind – and I say this as someone who was unequivocally raised as an Oakland A’s fan from as early as I can remember – the only time I have to root against the Giants is when the two teams play each other twice a year in Interleague matchups. For the rest of the season, I can support them without issue and get a little dose of National League baseball, which serves as a nice reminder that things like bunting and the absence of the designated hitter still exist.
After moving to San Francisco in the summer of 2010, I got to feel the jolt of electricity that surged through San Francisco when the Giants embarked on that long, strange trip and won the World Series.
The A’s were in the middle of a transition phase, although at the time it sure felt like underachieving, and they’d finish the season 81-81 with a lot to be desired if you’re into entertaining baseball.
And let’s be honest, baseball is much more entertaining when there’s actually something at stake, and when the G-Men found themselves in the thick of a pennant race with the Padres in the NL West, it was impossible not to be captivated. They rode the rotation of Lincecum-Cain-Bumgarner-Sanchez down the stretch and got some clutch performances on offense and defense from veterans whose better years were certainly behind them (Aaron Rowand, Edgar Renteria) and journeyman players (Cody Ross, Aubrey Huff, Freddy Sanchez) en route to a 4-1 drubbing of the Texas Rangers in the World Series.
It was a great thing to witness as a baseball fan, and after heading to Game 2 to check it out in person I can attest to the special nature of that run. The game was quite possibly the turning point of the series for San Francisco, as Matt Cain shutout the vaunted Rangers lineup over 7.2 innings, allowing only four hits in the process. The highlight was a seven-run eighth inning, and after going up 2-0 in the series after the win, everyone in the stands (Texas fans aside) was giddy at the thought of the Giants bringing home their first championship of the franchise’s San Francisco era. They captured the title five days later.
The Giants brought several members of that roster back in 2011 as a nice “thank you” for what they achieved the year before. After Buster Posey went down with a broken leg in late May that year, fans expectations for a repeat championship were realistically tempered, and all things considered the team did well to finish the year at 86-76.
The short term prognosis for the team was still good, as they still had one of the best pitching staffs in the league with some young projects like Brandon Belt, Brandon Crawford and Brett Pill making appearances later in the season. What’s more, they added the reliable, middle-of-the-lineup presence they had lacked since Barry Bonds’ departure in Carlos Beltran, who came over in a midseason trade with the Mets that saw the franchise lose top pitching prospect Zack Wheeler.
He wouldn’t stick around long however, leaving for St. Louis after the season, but the Giants did well to replace him with Melky Cabrera. The 27-year-old had a career-best first half of the season that would later be revealed to be aided by PEDs, but the Giants still took advantage of his contributions, and even with the suspension he ended the season with the fourth-best WAR (4.7) in all of baseball.
It was hardly a one-man show. The offseason addition of Angel Pagan also paid above average dividends, as the 31-year-old center fielder hit .288 and led the National League in triples with 15 by season’s end, and Buster Posey’s return to form earned him his first regular season MVP award.
These factors propelled San Francisco to the top of the NL West by the break. After an All-Star Game where Pablo Sandoval hit a three-run triple and Cabrera a tw0-run homer, with Matt Cain as the starting pitcher and Posey catching, Giants fans were feeling as good as they had since…well, since they won it all in 2010. Cabrera winning the game’s MVP award was the icing on the cake, and suddenly San Francisco was talking about the possibility of hosting the Fall Classic if the Giants kept up their winning ways.
The other shoe dropped when he was suspended 112 games into the season, but GM Brian Sabean did well to supplement the lineup when he traded Nate Schierholtz Hunter Pence at the end of July as the Giants headed into August just one game up on the rival Dodgers in the division standings. That pickup, along with a deadline deal for Marco Scutaro, would end up being crucial moves for a team that had major questions in the outfield and at second base as they headed into the home stretch of the season.
We all know how that turned out. It certainly wasn’t easy, but the season ended with the Giants winning their second championship in three years over the Detroit Tigers. Perhaps even more impressive was how they did it.
Coming back from an 0-2 hole in the Divisional Round against the Reds.
Barry Zito shutting down St. Louis’ hitters in an elimination game in the NLCS.
Enduring a massive downpour in front of a raucous home crowd and coming out of it as 9-0 winners in Game 7 to earn a trip to the World Series.
The embattled Sandoval going 8-for-16 with three home runs in Game 1, putting the hammer down early as San Francisco swept the Detroit Tigers, who actually came into the series as favorites.
It was a special thing to watch, and the aside from earning the title of “Best Team in Baseball”, the group’s win affirmed the success the franchise already had two years earlier and put to rest any notion that his wasn’t one of the top franchises in all of baseball.
All of this brings us to this season, and the reason I wanted to recall the franchise’s recent success is mainly to give fans reading this a reprieve from the reality that is the debacle of 2013. After reaching the pinnacle of success for a baseball team twice in three years in mythical fashion, the Giants and their fans are experiencing the other side of the coin.
Season-long hangovers after championship seasons are now the norm in San Francisco, and after such a precipitous downfall, some might be tempted to take a blow torch to some parts of the lineup to burn it down like a Muni buss and see what rises out of the ashes.
After Thursday night’s loss to the Pirates at AT&T Park, the Giants are 19 games back of the Dodgers with a firm grasp on last place. You wouldn’t say they’re doing anything particularly well at the moment, and overall the players look physically and mentally exhausted. Even the beat writers are getting worn down.
So with a little more than a month to go in a utterly forgettable season, what’s an A’s fan going to say that’s going to make you feel better?
Well, for starters, look to the recent past to cheer yourself up. Other than that, put your faith in one of the best management teams in all of sports. Larry Baer, Brian Sabean and Bruce Bochy have one of the relationships in all of baseball in terms of communication between the front office and the clubhouse management, and after what they’ve achieved I wouldn’t be worried about long-term problems.
The pitching staff can still be great, and Madison Bumgarner is emerging as a force, posting and at 23 years old he could have a long career ahead of him on the mound in China Basin. Matt Cain may not be doing so hot this year, but I’d chalk that up to fatigue more than anything.
With that said, there’s some tinkering that needs to be done if this team is going to compete with what’s looking like a formidable presence in Los Angeles. After each championship, the Giants handed out some handsome contracts to older players that seemed to overachieve in comparison to the rest of their careers. Sabean could learn a little bit from Billy Beane about letting a player walk, even though that strategy is employed in Oakland only for monetary reasons.
Speaking of money, the Giants sort of have a lot of it. One thing I’ve always appreciated about San Francisco as a fan of a team with one of the lowest payrolls in the game is how they’ve spent their money and when. Sabean has shown the ability to add necessary pieces through trades, and he’s spent wisely on veterans to add into the mix.
They’d do well to look for a starting pitcher this offseason, maybe Bay Area native Bud Norris. It will also be interesting to see if they bring back Lincecum, and if so, for how much and in what role?
The outfield is another question mark going into the offseason. Other than Pagan, who’s locked in to another three years of his contract, there’s a good deal of uncertainty about who’s going to be roaming right and left field. Pence is a free agent after the season, and left field is such a problem spot that there’s talk of Brandon Belt taking over.
Overall there’s some work that needs to be done. Since they’re so far back in the standings, they’ll get a good look at some prospects and experiment with the roster to see if anything sticks before they shut it down for next year. You’d like to see some of those young players get into the mix, but right now the Giants just don’t have any talent in the lower leagues that is Major League-ready.
We all know what the Giants are capable of, so don’t get too dismayed about their current plight. If nothing else, you don’t have to worry about A’s fans bringing up 1989 as much. I for one will be rooting for them to make a return to greatness, because baseball is just better when there’s two Bay Area teams at the top of the standings.