THE YEARLY READER
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. (Associated Press)
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 2003 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 Giants’ .500-and-change scenario played 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 grade as a designated hitter at Tampa Bay. Also taken 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.
BTW: Burrell hit .218 with 16 homers in 146 games with the Rays, who placed him on waivers despite still owing him $7 million.
All of these moves, plus the late-summer strengthening of the bullpen and the development of speedy Andres Torres 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.
BTW: Torres 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.
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 10 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.”
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 Deadball Lives
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.
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 Ross 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. The tension extended to the series’ very last pitch, as Brian Wilson closed the door on Ryan Howard with a called strike three at the knees while two Phillies on base could only helplessly watch.
BTW: After 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.
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 not-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 Rangers 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, the latter name acting as a bridge between the two regimes. Although approved by MLB, the deal was overturned in court when unsecured creditors, worried they would 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.
BTW: Among the creditors owed deferred money by Hicks: Former Rangers Alex Rodriguez, Kevin Millwood and Mickey Tettleton.
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.
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. (Associated Press)
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.
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 pennant, 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.
BTW: The 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.
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 the team’s 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 10; 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.
Forward to 2011: What Wild Wednesday Wrought Surging September comebacks by the St. Louis Cardinals and Tampa Bay Rays fuel a memorable regular season finish.
Back to 2009: The Salvation of Alex Rodriguez Baseball’s biggest star embarks on a long, tough road from injury and damning steroid evidence.
The 2010s: 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.