2010 Torture and Joy

The San Francisco Giants, a self-described collection of “misfits,” provide endless thrills and chills for championship-starved fans as they finally win it all over first-time entrant Texas.

The shackles of 52 years of frustration in San Francisco—and a 2010 season where the last out always seemed to be the hardest to earn—came flying off as closer Brian Wilson and the Giants finally celebrated baseball’s ultimate glory.

In baseball, as in life, nothing comes easy. Every ballplayer, from the benchwarmers to the All-Stars, usually must sweat level after level of minor league ball to prove their value at the top—and then they must fight every year to keep their place on the roster. The pitcher must contend with a strike zone that seems the size of a shoebox. The batter has to guess if the next 90-MPH pitch will break—and if so, which way. The fielder focuses hard, very hard, on the anticipation of where the ball will be hit. Through nine innings and sometimes more, nothing is a given, nothing is phoned in. In this great game, all that is guaranteed is that there are no guarantees.

For the San Francisco Giants—a tight, roughened mix of young and old, talented and common—the 2010 season reduced all of the above to simple prologue. It went beyond the mere premise that it wasn’t over until it was over; with the Giants, it wasn’t over until the rush of air held within jetted out, until the sweat dried off, until the heart rate spiraled back down to normal.

All along, the Giants—a team that, talent-wise, ranked middle-of-the-road with San Francisco rosters of the previous half-century—managed to fend and perhaps even feed off the torture with a dedication to winning that paid off in the franchise’s first world championship since its move from New York in 1958.

The thrill of torture, without joy, had dogged the Giants for over 50 years, as they often appeared to have a grip on the winning moment only to have it stripped away—by Bobby Richardson in 1962, the Rally Monkey in 2002 and all the second-place finishes and other postseason heartbreaks in between. The only pure satisfaction ever experienced by Giants fans seemed to come in the form of a consolation gift, watching their team drag the hated Los Angeles Dodgers down with them at season’s end.

The thrill of torture, good or bad, had been absent for the Giants in the five years since the peak of Barry Bonds’ career. As Bonds withered away to age, bad knees and steroid allegations, no Giants hitter came close to taking his place, as a parade of aging, over-the-hill veterans and young, over-their-head strugglers flunked in their attempts to bring the offense to life. But as free agency and the farm system failed the team at the plate, a different story was emerging on the mound with double-Cy Young Award winner Tim Lincecum, his tough, loyal sidekick Matt Cain, gifted but erratic southpaw Jonathan Sanchez (who threw a no-hitter in 2009) and wild, fearless closer Brian Wilson taking charge of the pitching staff.

Even with this promising call to arms, the Giants hardly appeared as world-beaters to start the 2010 season. Many predicted the first-rate pitching would carry the Giants as far as they could—a tad north of the .500 mark, at best—with the continuation of absentee hitting possibly improved with the addition of Aubrey Huff, a proven slugger whose up-and-down career was in down-spiral mode after a wretched finish with Detroit in 2009. Pundits looked to Colorado and Los Angeles, teams with more balanced rosters, as the favorites in the National League’s Western Division.

The .500-and-change scenario was playing out through the first half of the season, but even with Huff back on the upswing with a strong start, changes were still going to have to be made to pull the Giants over the top and into serious contention. Complicating the Giants’ tall order to winning the West was the emergence of an unforeseen challenger crashing the party: The San Diego Padres. Like the Giants, the Padres possessed good pitching and little offense, but were terribly handicapped by a shoestring budget; yet they started strong and maintained a hold of first place, defying the experts who predicted an imminent and overdue collapse.

The Giants’ attempts at upgrading the roster were chock-full of risks. They first sent snail-footed veteran catcher Bengie Molina, who frequently batted cleanup, to Texas to make room for 23-year-old rookie Buster Posey—a blue-chip batting talent who took on the burdening task of steering the gifted pitching rotation from behind the plate. Next came Pat Burrell, a veteran power bat thrilled to return to the NL after failing the gradeBurrell hit .218 with 16 homers in 146 games with the Rays, who placed him on waivers despite still owing him $7 million. as a designated hitter at Tampa Bay. Also off waivers and the other end of Florida came Cody Ross, a serviceable outfielder let go by the Marlins; and shoring up the back end of the rotation came another minor league hotshot in 20-year-old southpaw Madison Bumgarner who, like Posey, came off well matured for his age.

All of these moves, plus the late-summer strengthening of the bullpen and the development of speedy Andres TorresTorres took over the everyday center field job from veteran Aaron Rowand who, along with pitcher Barry Zito, accounted for the Giants’ two highest-priced flops. in center field, still could not bump the Giants high in the standings; worries intensified in August as Lincecum, the staff ace, lost all five of his starts with a 7.82 ERA—giving rise to rampant rumors that the Freak’s run at the top was suddenly hitting a dead end due to a dead arm. In need of an emotional slap in the face, the Giants got it from Huff, by now a leading voice in the clubhouse who one day stripped to nothing but a red thong—complete with rhinestones—and strutted through the locker room to break the tension and rally the troops.

Feeling loose with all the chips now in place, the Giants arose to life in September with pitching from both the rotation and bullpen that stifled opponents on a daily basis. Doubling the Giants’ good fortune, the Padres finally began to collapse—losing ten straight after leading the division by as many as 6.5 games to turn the NL West race into a dogfight. The additions of Posey and Burrell gave San Francisco much-needed offensive weight, and even though the wins came, they often did so with Giants fans sitting on the edge of their seats, tormented as razor-thin leads and continuous late-inning rallies by opponents made for heart-stopping entertainment. San Francisco play-by-play announcer Duane Kuiper, inadvertently giving birth to the buzzword of the year, said it best: “Giants baseball. Torture.”

The San Francisco Giants’ brilliant pitching to end the 2010 season placed them on the short list of best monthly team earned run averages (compiled by the Elias Sports Bureau) since the end of the deadball era in 1919.

Going into the regular season’s final weekend, it appeared the Giants would have no problem wrapping up the NL West, needing to win just one of three home games against the second-place Padres to clinch the division. But that would have been too easy for the cliff-hanging Giants—and sure enough, they stuck to a script of suspense, losing the first two games before grabbing the finale, 3-0, to win their first divisional title in seven years.

The NL playoffs provided more torture for the Giants—followed by satisfaction. They outlasted the wild card Atlanta Braves in the NLDS three games to one, winning each game by a run and spoiling a dream end for retiring Atlanta manager Bobby Cox. From there it was on to the NLCS and Philadelphia, where the Giants were pegged as decided underdogs against the powerful, two-time defending NL champion Phillies—anchored for the first time by Roy Halladay, who won 21 games, the NL Cy Young Award and followed up a perfect game in the regular season by throwing the postseason’s second-ever no-hitter (following Don Larsen in 1955) against NL Central titlist Cincinnati in the NLDS. No matter for the Giants; a sharp-again Lincecum outdueled Halladay in Game One, 4-3, thanks to two Cody RossAfter a slow start with the Giants, Ross became a postseason hero by hitting .294 with five doubles and five home runs in 15 playoff games. home runs—setting the momentum for a six-game triumph in which, once more, the Giants held on for dear life by winning three of their four games over the Phillies by a single run, with Brian Wilson closing the door on Ryan Howard for the series’ final out on a called strike three at the knees as two Phillies on base could only helplessly watch.

After failing in three previous World Series tries since their move to San Francisco, the Giants would hope the fourth time would be the charm against an unlikely AL opponent making its very first trip to the Fall Classic: The Texas Rangers.

Born nearly 50 years earlier as a new and no-so-improved version of the Washington Senators, the Rangers struggled to find any kind of success getting into October even after the franchise moved from Washington to the Dallas-Ft. Worth Metroplex in 1973. The Rangers were never stigmatized as a perennial loser, but they seldom skimmed the top, entering 2010 with only one playoff victory to vouch for in their entire history. Experts blamed Texas’ torturous summer heat and humidity, which wore down many Rangers players—especially the pitchers, who needed ice for more than just their throwing arms after every appearance.

In an attempt to tear down some of the franchise’s psychological barriers, former Ranger and current team president Nolan Ryan—a big-time ace in the time of 300-inning pitchers—laid down the law to his pitchers to shape up, forget the heat index, bandbox and pitch counts and be man enough to throw as hard and as long as he once did. And while few of the Texas starters could barely reach even 200 innings, under Ryan they at least began to show some effectiveness not seen for some time in Arlington.

After an upbeat 2009 campaign in which the Rangers finished above .500 (at 87-75) for the first time in five years, Ryan and other Texas personnel confidently predicted at least 90 wins for 2010. But as the season unfolded, a bigger challenge off the field began to loom: Financial solvency.

Earlier in the winter, Texas owner Tom Hicks—beset by debt and, in 2009, forced to borrow money from Major League Baseball to meet payroll—had struck a deal to sell the team to a new ownership group led by Pittsburgh lawyer Chuck Greenberg and Ryan, acting as a bridge between the two regimes. Although approved by MLB, the deal was overturned in court when unsecured creditorsAmong the creditors owed deferred money by Hicks: Former Rangers Alex Rodriguez, Kevin Millwood and Mickey Tettleton., worried they may never see their long-term wage payments fulfilled, successfully sued. With no other alternative, the Rangers declared bankruptcy; the Greenberg-Ryan group would ultimately purchase the team, but only after having to sweat through two additional months of litigation (to say nothing of agitation) and a court-mandated auction from which it emerged as the high bidder.

Focusing back on baseball, Ryan found his team in total charge of an AL West otherwise punctuated by disappointment in defending divisional winner Los Angeles of Anaheim (who would finish below .500) and the Seattle Mariners, aggressive offseason movers and shakers and forecasted contenders who instead crashed to 101 losses. As the Mariners hit bottom, they were happy to let the Rangers take ace pitcher Cliff Lee, due for free agency, off their hands for future prospects in a midseason deal.

Lee joined a rotation that seemed to be validating Ryan’s theory of conditioning and consumption, with former closer C.J. Wilson (15-8, 3.35 ERA) making an impressive transition to the rotation and current closer Neftali Feliz making an impressive debut on the mound, earning AL Rookie of the Year honors while breaking the first-year mark for saves with 40. Offensively, the always-potent Rangers were powered by AL MVP Josh Hamilton (32 home runs, 100 RBIs and an AL-best .359 average), lost and found after an early career non-existence delved deeply into drugs and alcohol; one-year Ranger Vladimir Guerrero (.300-29-115), still effective in spite of rotten knees that reduced him to a full-time designated hitter; and outfielder Nelson Cruz (.318-22-78 in 108 games), terrific when he wasn’t sidelined with numerous stints on the disabled list.

Winning the AL West with ease—and making preseason prophets out of Ryan and Company by registering exactly 90 wins—the Rangers appeared to have their work cut out for them in the postseason starting with the Tampa Bay Rays, the lower-middle class wonders who once again slew the beasts of the AL East to win their second divisional title in three years. But Lee, picking up his postseason brilliance from the year before while pitching for Philadelphia, completely shut down the Rays; he bookended the ALDS with two stellar efforts in which he struck out 21 Tampa Bay batters—and walked none. Texas conquered the Rays, three games to one, to win its first-ever postseason series.

Star Texas slugger Josh Hamilton tees off against the New York Yankees in the ALCS. Hamilton’s four homers in the series helped give the Rangers their first AL pennant in their 50th year of existence.

Revenge was the word for the Rangers against their next opponent, the New York Yankees—the AL wild card entry who had thoroughly denied Texas in its three previous postseason series during the late 1990s. But the Yankees, aging and sagging in the pitching department beyond 21-game winner CC Sabathia and ageless closer Mariano Rivera, had surprisingly little fight for the Rangers save for a 6-5, Game One comeback effort; Texas won four of the next five games by a combined score of 33-13 to win its first AL pennantThe Rangers were 5-1 on the road at Tampa Bay and New York during the postseason after losing all six regular season games in those two cities., capping the triumph in satisfying fashion when Feliz struck out Alex Rodriguez—the former Ranger whose bloated contract in the early 2000s was considered the negative spark for the team’s struggles throughout the decade.

The San Francisco Giants and their fans braced for more torture as the World Series commenced against the rampaging Rangers, but a funny thing happened on the way to the third act: The Giants’ bats broke out. In Game One, they beat up Lee—who had entered the series with a lifetime 1.26 postseason ERA in eight starts—by an 11-7 count, and followed that up with a 9-0 whitewashing in Game Two when the Rangers couldn’t find the strike zone (four straight walks in a seven-run eighth) while the Giants could, shutting Texas down on four hits. From there, San Francisco bats cooled, but not its pitching; after a 4-2 loss in Game Three back at Arlington, Madison Bumgarner blanked the Rangers for eight innings in a 4-0 Game Four victory, and Tim Lincecum wrapped it up—outdueling Lee for the second time in the series—in Game Five by throwing eight solid innings of his own while striking out ten; Brian Wilson closed out the 3-1 win and the series in the least suspenseful of fashions, pitching a 1-2-3 ninth.

The Giants snapped a 56-year championship drought—which, after the Chicago Cubs and Cleveland Indians, was the longest active run in the majors—thanks to a pitching staff that picked up its magnificence from the end of the regular season, producing a 2.46 postseason ERA. Against Texas, Giants pitchers clamped down on the Rangers’ three big boppers in Hamilton, Guerrero and Cruz, who combined to collect just seven hits in 54 at-bats. The successful quest for the World Series trophy also represented the finest hour for Giants manager Bruce Bochy, the low-key, blue-collar veteran pilot who constantly pushed the right buttons and seemingly outsmarted the opposition at every turn.

As San Francisco swelled in celebration with a million fans turning out to celebrate the World Series rally, one last bit of torture remained when Aubrey Huff, stepping to the podium, reached into his pants and pulled out his lucky red thong.

And the crowd loved it.

2011 baseball historyForward to 2011: What Wild Wednesday Wrought Surging September comebacks by the St. Louis Cardinals and Tampa Bay Rays fuel a memorable regular season finish.

2009 baseball historyBack to 2009: The Salvation of Alex Rodriguez Baseball's biggest star embarks on a long, tough road from injury and damning steroid evidence.

2010s baseball historyThe 2010s Page: A Call to Arms Stronger and faster than ever, major league pitchers restore the balance and then some—yet despite the decline in offense and rise in strikeouts, baseball continues to bring home the bacon through its lucrative online and regional network engagements.

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2010 Standings

National League East
Philadelphia Phillies
Atlanta Braves (w)
Florida Marlins
New York Mets
Washington Nationals
National League Central
Cincinnati Reds
St. Louis Cardinals
Milwaukee Brewers
Houston Astros
Chicago Cubs
Pittsburgh Pirates
National League West
San Francisco Giants
San Diego Padres
Colorado Rockies
Los Angeles Dodgers
Arizona Diamondbacks
American League East
Tamp Bay Rays
New York Yankees (w)
Boston Red Sox
Toronto Blue Jays
Baltimore Orioles
American League Central
Minnesota Twins
Chicago White Sox
Detroit Tigers
Cleveland Indians
Kansas City Royals
American League West
Texas Rangers
Oakland A's
L.A. Angels of Anaheim
Seattle Mariners

2010 Postseason Results
NLDS San Francisco defeated Atlanta, 3-1.
NLDS Philadelphia defeated Cincinnati, 3-0.
ALDS Texas defeated Tampa Bay, 3-2.
ALDS New York defeated Minnesota, 3-0.
NLCS San Francisco defeated Philadelphia, 4-2.
ALCS Texas defeated New York, 4-2.
World Series San Francisco (NL) defeated Texas (AL), 4-1.

It Happened in 2010

The Year of the Return of the Pitcher
In what is definitely a bounce-back year for pitchers in the wake of the Steroid Era, the overall batting average in the majors is at .257—a figure that’s the lowest since 1992 and extends a five-year trend in which both runs and home runs have decreased by 9%; more dramatically, there is a 9% rise in shutouts just over the previous year. Highlighted among the shutouts are six no-hitters, the most since 1991; two of those are perfect games, by Oakland’s Dallas Braden on May 9 and Philadelphia’s Roy Halladay just 20 days later. The other no-no’s are delivered by Arizona’s Edwin Jackson (who walks eight batters and hits another in the process), Tampa Bay’s Matt Garza, Colorado’s Ubaldo Jimenez—and Halladay again, throwing baseball’s second postseason no-hitter when he shuts down the Cincinnati Reds in Game One of the NLDS on October 5.

The Imperfect Game
Detroit pitcher Armando Galarraga might have made it seven no-hitters—and three perfect games—for the year had it not been for a blown call by umpire Jim Joyce on what should have been the final out on June 2 at Comerica Park against Cleveland. With two outs in the ninth inning, Galarraga gets the Indians’ Jason Donald to hit a grounder to the right side; Galarraga, covering at first, receives Miguel Cabrera’s throw at first to beat Donald by a half-step—but the only one in the ballpark who believes otherwise is Joyce, who calls Donald safe. Galarraga is at first stunned by the call, then smiles in jest toward Joyce—who is devastated and apologetic after looking at replays. The two embrace each other the next day as Galarraga, in a wonderful display of sportsmanship, goes out of his way to forgive Joyce.

I’m Here to Talk About the Past
Hired on as the hitting coach for the St. Louis Cardinals and therefore knowing that he’ll be exposed to the media on a daily basis, Mark McGwire decides that it’s a good time to come clean and finally talk about his past, which he refused to do five years earlier in front of Congress. The former slugger admits that he did indeed take steroids during his playing days, but refuses to believe that they were responsible for bumping up his career home run totals or breaking Roger Maris’ single-season record in 1998. His confession allows him to breathe within his new job but his denial over the power of steroids irks baseball pundits; instead of an anticipated spike in Hall-of-Fame polling in 2011, McGwire actually receives fewer votes than the year before.

Milestones of the Year
Two star players reach the number 600 through different means. Alex Rodriguez becomes the seventh player, the fourth in the last eight years alone and, at age 35, the youngest ever to hit his 600th career home run when he bangs a shot off Toronto’s Shaun Marcum on August 4 at New York, lifting the Yankees to a 5-1 win over the Blue Jays. A month later, Milwaukee’s Trevor Hoffman becomes the first player to earn 600 career saves when he closes out the St. Louis Cardinals on September 7. Hoffman’s historic save is just his ninth of an eventual ten for the season—one which started very badly for the 42-year-old reliever that led to an early demotion, before working his way back to share ninth-inning duties with John Axford late in the year.

George Steinbrenner, 1930-2010
One of baseball’s most-respected and reviled owners—and arguably the most remembered in big league history—passes away on July 13 when Yankees lord George Steinbrenner, “The Boss,” dies of a heart attack in Tampa. He bought the Yankees in 1973 for $10 million and turned the franchise into an empire that, at his death, is valued at an estimated $1.5 billion. In 2006, Steinbrenner turned over day-to-day leadership of the Yankees to his two sons, Hank and Hal, amid rumors of deteriorating health. Since then, the Yankees and the Steinbrenner family had taken great pains to keep him out of the public eye, only adding more fuel to the rumors. He had just turned 80 years of age.

Sleeping in Seattle
Ken Griffey Jr. retires on June 2, ending a stellar 22-year career in which he hit 630 home runs to rank, for the moment, fifth on the all-time list. But his final year is not without embarrassment; in his second year back with the Seattle Mariners, his original team, Griffey hits below .200 and experiences the longest stretch of at-bats without a home run in his career (he hits none in 98 at-bats during 2010), and in one game is reportedly called upon to pinch-hit—only to be discovered “sound asleep” in the clubhouse. Mariners players angrily blackball the Tacoma sportswriter who breaks the story, even though his sources are two “younger” Seattle players.

Griffey’s nap is but one of several dubious moments in a highly disappointing season for the Mariners, who come into the year with high expectations and instead finish it with their second 101-loss campaign in three years.

For only the seventh time in major league history—but the fourth time in just five years—home runs are hit in four consecutive at-bats. This time the feat is accomplished by the Arizona Diamondbacks during an 8-2 win on August 11 at Milwaukee, with Adam LaRoche, Miguel Montero, Mark Reynolds and Stephen Drew supplying the deep damage off Brewers starter Dave Bush. Drew’s brother J.D. Drew was involved in two of the other back-to-back-to-back-to-back achievements, in 2006 for Los Angeles and 2007 for Boston.

…Or Nothing
When the Diamondbacks aren’t connecting, they’re missing—a lot. They end the season shattering the record for most strikeouts, victimized 1,529 times throughout the year. Six different players strike out at least 100 times, with Mark Reynolds leading the pack with over 200 for the third straight season. The team record will hold until the Houston Astros reset it in 2013.

The Older He Gets, the Moyer He Shows Up in the Record Book
Philadelphia pitcher Jamie Moyer, the oldest active player in the majors at 47, sets numerous standards during the year—not all of them good. On May 7, Moyer becomes the oldest pitcher ever to throw a big league shutout when he blanks the Atlanta Braves on two hits; he later becomes only the third player to win 100 games after turning 40. However, he also sets a career mark on June 27 when he surrenders his 506th home run against Toronto, breaking the record previously held by former Phillies great Robin Roberts—who had just passed away seven weeks earlier. One month later, Moyer’s season comes to an early end with a career-threatening elbow injury, but he’ll return briefly in 2012.

The Cart-Off Home Run
On May 29 at Anaheim, the Angels’ Kendry Morales hits a game-ending grand slam in the tenth inning against the Mariners, and as celebrating teammates surround home plate, Morales jumps on home plate—and breaks his leg. Morales, who had a breakout campaign in 2009 and was following it up with another stellar effort in 2010, will miss the next year and a half of action as he recovers from the injury.

Feeling at Home as the Visitors
The Phillies are the official visitors to their own ballpark in late June against the Blue Jays due to a scheduling conflict that transferred the three-game series from Toronto, where the G-20 Summit—featuring many world leaders—is taking place just blocks from Rogers Centre. The move ruins a reunion in Toronto for former Blue Jays pitcher Roy Halladay, playing his first year in Philadelphia. The Phillies take two of the three games against the Jays before three sellout crowds that include a healthy minority of Toronto fans.

The Year in Sure-Gloved Perfection
Two defensive records are set for most consecutive games played without committing an error. Seattle first baseman Casey Kotchman resets the standard at first base by performing in 274 errorless games; veteran Cleveland back-up catcher Mike Redmond enters the record book at his position by putting together 254 games without an error, a streak that began six years earlier for a 13-year veteran who’s never played more than 89 games in one season. A day after setting the mark, Redmond throws wildly past second base on an attempt to nail a basestealer, ending the run.

Stairs to the Record Book
Matt Stairs, playing exclusively as a pinch-hitter for his 12th team at age 42, breaks Cliff Johnson’s all-time mark for home runs off the bench with his 21st on August 21 for the San Diego Padres at Milwaukee. He’ll finish his career a year later with Washington, by then having added two more to total 23.

New Ballparks

Target Field, Minneapolis After a decade of political struggle that nearly doomed the Twins’ future in Minnesota, Target Field opens in downtown Minneapolis and brings outdoor baseball back to the Twin Cities for the first time in nearly three decades. Built for $545 million—$195 million of which was donated by the Twins—the 39,000-seat ballpark is a mix of modern and retro styles, rising, receding and angling off in different dimensions through a large representation of locally quarried limestone.

The closest thing to an immediate icon within the ballpark is the large “Minnie and Paul” logo from the 1960s well behind the right-center field bleachers that goes into action when a Twin hits a home run—though players also complain of the glare the mostly white sign projects back onto the field during the day. On the field, 36,000 feet of heat tubing is installed below the grass to keep conditions from freezing over during wintry days early or late in the season; off the field, there’s a collection of bars and restaurants so numerous, it could create a nightlife of its own even if the Twins aren’t in town.

The ballpark is a hit with the locals, who all but sell out every game in its first season as the Twins take the AL Central title; it gets less praise from Minnesota hitters, who decry the long distances to the fences that results in Target Field becoming the fourth toughest place to hit a home run in 2010.

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