Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Deal or No Deal?


With the trade deadline looming just a few hours ahead of us and everyone's mind on who's-staying-who's-going-and-will-anyone-be-arriving, a beloved family member and die-hard Giants fan took time to put an unusual spin on Madison Bumgarner's much-discussed no-trade-list of eight teams.

"Look at the list," he said. "Notice anything all these teams have in common?"

"Let's see... Yankees, Red Sox-- no surprise there, what lefty wants to pitch in Fenway?-- Cardinals-- that's kind of a surprise, isn't it?-- Astros, Phillies, Brewers, Cubs, Braves-- now, that's a surprise--  ummm, that's it, isn't it?"

"Yep. So, what do these teams have in common?"

"Well, let's see... well...well-- why, they're all contenders!"

"Exactly," he said. "What do you think it means?"

"Well, it's strange, isn't it? You'd think-- I mean, Bum is a good regular-season pitcher, an ace on some teams, probably a #2 on the best teams, but in the postseason-- well, everyone knows he's a monster. He's the best."
 
"Right. And those eight teams know that. They know what it would mean to have Bumgarner in the playoffs. And he knows they know it. He updates that list every offseason, and he chooses..."

"...the teams that he thinks are most likely to go deep in the postseason next year. Of course he won't choose LA, he knows the Giants will never trade him within the division.  But--"

"But these are the teams that need him most. And he knows it. Why, then?"

"To get more money out of the Giants, to make them pay him to waive the clause if they make a tentative deal?"

"Maybe. But I think it's a signal to management. That he..."

"... that he doesn't want to go anywhere! That he wants to stay with the Giants, and has all along! Why else would his no-trade clause be made up exclusively of contenders?"

"It's a cry for help! It's a coded signal to management! It's a sly, back-door hint that he doesn't want to be sold off to the highest bidder, the most desperate, the most World Series-starved contender!"

"Well, we all know who that is."

"Of course." And we both responded, in chorus, "LA."

"And they don't need to be on the list."

"Right."

"Gee, do you really believe this? I mean, Washington could use him, and they're not on the list. And nobody saw Minnesota coming." 

"True. But I still think I'm right. He wants to stay. I know it. And this is his way of saying it without saying it."

"I hope you're right."

"Me too. See you at four o'clock?"

"You know it."

Thursday, July 4, 2019

The Glorious Fourth



No, it's not a reference to the Giants' fourth straight win last night, which is certainly welcome if not exactly glorious. If you're an American, please make sure you take time today to consider what was at stake 243 years ago, and what is at stake today.  God bless America.

Four straight wins and five out of six have brought the Giants within fighting distance of fourth place (they trail the just-swept-'em-in-their-home-park Padres by only three) and within consideration of a chance to finish the season at .500, which would have been a not-very-funny joke a month ago. Of course, the St Louis Cardinals, who arrive for a three-game set tomorrow night and are themselves fighting both for relevancy and to at least preserve their own .500 record, could knock this recent success right into a cocked hat.

Speaking of which--  has any team in recent memory had a day off on both Memorial Day and the Fourth of July in the same season?

Since we last looked at team stats in late May, the Giants have vaulted from last in the league in walks to tenth. That's an astonishing turnaround. The Giants are also 17-13 since June 1, and while they're still next-to-last in runs scored, they have closed the gap to a degree. They have scored 148 runs in those 30 games, 4.9 per game, while they scored only 208 in their first 56 games (3.7). An extra run a game is a pretty major deal, especially when you're a last-place team with an unremarkable pitching staff.

And we have no problem concluding:

  • The big difference is that Giants hitters are taking walks now, where they were not before, and
  • Batting Brandon Belt at the top of the order has especially energized this offense over the last week. 

Brandon Belt has always been willing to take a walk; he gets a bad rap because people expect their first baseman to be an RBI man, while Belt is and always has been a table-setter. Thankfully Bruce Bochy was clever enough, or desperate enough, to try this. A guy who forces the pitcher to throw a lot of pitches so his teammates can see what he's got, who goes deep in the count, and who GETS ON BASE-- that's a leadoff man, whether he's the Roadrunner or a three-toed sloth. The Giants are scoring runs, and seeing better pitches, and hitting more home runs, because the top of their order is now getting on base. Belt first batted leadoff on June 28, he's been either first or second since, and the Giants have scored 49 runs in those six games. Sure, half of that was against the Padres-- the same Padres who held the Giants to 28 runs total in their previous 9 games.

Last night Belt was 3-for-4 with a walk; that's an .800 OBP. He's fourth in the league with 56 walks; he's 19th in OBP because his average is about 30 points lower than normal. Then again, his average has gained almost 20 points of late, as has Evan Longoria's. "Longo," who walked a frightful 22 times in 512 AB last year, already has 27 in 265 AB this year. Joe Panik has 31 in 280 and even slumping Brandon Crawford has 25 in 266. A month ago Belt was the only guy whose walks equaled or surpassed 10% of his at-bats, which we've always held as the minimum standard for good hitters, and an essential standard for guys who hit in the .250-.270 range. 

Not all the Giants are following suit-- Kevin Pillar has more homers (12) than walks (10) in 301 at-bats, and Pablo Sandoval 9 in 171 while averaging a robust .287. Buster Posey needs to walk more (19 in 208 AB leaves him with a tepid .314 OBP), but Stephen Vogt is at .330 with a .800 OPS and 10 walks in 100 at-bats. Austin Slater, whom we're awfully glad to see back in the majors, has walked twice in 10 at-bats (.583) and everybody's new favorite, Alex Dickerson, has 5 in 38 for a .419 to go with his .737 SLG.

With a resolutely average pitching staff (9th in the NL in ERA), can the Giants now "walk their way" to respectability in July? Stay tuned. 




Congratulations to Will Smith, the Giants' one truly deserving All-Star, in his first career selection to the big game. Smith, even if he's destined to be traded away within the month, has been a great pitcher for the Giants. He's 22-for-22 in save opportunities this year; nobody else in the league has a perfect record, and he's third overall in saves. He has saved 60% of his team's wins.

Smith was also 14-of-18 a year ago in half a season after a successful recovery from Tommy John surgery. Even accounting for his having arrived late in 2016, missing all of 2017, and part of 2018, he has made that 2016 trade with Milwaukee the best of Bobby Evans' short tenure as Giants GM. Word is the Minnesota Twins are showing a lot of interest; it's with sincere regret we opine that the best thing Will Smith can do for the Giants now is to bring a top-100 prospect in trade.

Monday, May 27, 2019

In Memoriam



No, these are not flags flying at half-staff over the hopes and dreams of 2019 Giants fans. A little respect, please, for those who have fallen in the service of our country.

Noted curmudgeons that we are, we remember, and prefer, when Memorial Day was observed (not celebrated) on May 30, regardless of what day of the week it fell upon. Midweek days off from school, even when those days included the obligatory trip to the graveyard with parents, were a special delight far beyond the dubious benefits of today's manufactured three-day weekends. We believe if our nation went back to the old way, we'd hear a lot less preaching and posturing about how Memorial Day means more than just beach trips and barbecue.   

Memorial Day also usually means baseball, but perhaps with a prophetic sense of mercy, the MLB schedule-makers chose this as a day off for our beloved, benighted San Francisco Giants. Surely they need it. No one who's been watching lately feels especially sanguine about this upcoming road trip to Miami, Baltimore, and New York, even though those three teams have a combined record worse than the Giants' own. The team we just saw get swept on their home field by a resolutely ordinary Arizona ballclub couldn't beat anybody.

It's unusual regardless. We've gone back as far as we care to in baseball history, and we still can't come up with a date for the last time the Giants weren't even scheduled to play on Memorial Day. Well, that's enough of that.

Speaking of dates, two stand out amid the rubble of this season so far. First was April 24, when the Giants concluded a tough 4-4 road trip with two wins in Toronto, the first on a four-homer game (yes, it happened) and the second on a two-hit shutout by Drew Pomeranz. (To call both those incidents 'anomalies' is understatement of the first order.) The second date is May 3 in Cincinnati. The Giants had just shaken off a brutal three-game sweep at home by the Yankees by taking two out of three from the Dodgers, with fine pitching from Madison Bumgarner and Jeff Samardzija. At that point they were 13-18, still battling Colorado for last place, but certainly not locked out of possible wild-card contention.  But in the 21 games since, Giants pitchers have given up 9 or more runs 7 times, including 44 in the last three games.  They've endured 5 starts in that time with Game Scores less than 20, and that doesn't include the blew-up-in-your-face "opener" experiment of May 14.  Alone against the tide of awfulness, Bumgarner has posted 4 quality starts in that period. The other guys-- there've been seven of them-- have managed three, but even those are misleading. It's been a disconcerting Giants habit for their starter to be roughed up immediately in the first inning, putting this light-hitting team in a deep hole, and then to pitch respectably the rest of the way, saving his "Game Score" but losing his "Game." An example would be Samardzija's most recent debacle against the Braves, with that nightmare second inning of the six unearned runs, after which he settled down-- yes, settled down like a mugging victim dozing off in a chair at the police station.

Sure, this is a light-hitting team, though they've done better in May than in April. But the bullpen has generally been solid, and with good starting pitching, this team could contend for a wild-card spot. But without it, these guys are sunk. And what's with all the errors, for Pete's sake?  Few teams go through a season committing more errors than they turn double plays, but the Giants already have 40 errors in 51 games-- in the NL, only the Cubs have more, with 41-- and only 37 DPs. It's primarily the right side of the infield-- Brandon Crawford, Evan Longoria, and Pablo Sandoval have combined for 15 errors, Brandon Belt and Joe Panik only 4. Crawford's exceptional range has more than made up for his errors in the past, but not this year-- he is below average in range and FPCT.  Longoria and Sandoval are, however, the worst defensive third basemen in the league, by far. Does all this affect the pitching? You bet it does-- the Giants have given up 32 unearned runs, by a considerable margin the worst in the league. Add that to a 4.62 ERA, fourth-worst in the NL, and it's time to bugle the cavalry. Or surrender. There ain't much in the way of cavalry.

Following the 2016 near-miss the Giants front office made a conscious decision, a gamble, to try and get one more championship run from "The Core."  They misjudged badly during that offseason, and are still paying for it today. We now know conclusively that they have lost that gamble big-time, and so the rebuilding must begin right away. What faint hope there was for a playoff chase in Bruce Bochy's last season is gone. At 21-31, barely over .400, and on a downward spiral, it's extremely unlikely this team can reach .500 by August 31, as they did a year ago.

So Farhan Zaidi's real job begins now, and early returns will start coming in about two months from now. We expect everyone but Buster Posey will be on the market. 

Speculation, a great deal of speculation, awaits. But not today. The Giants are idle. Take a walk to a nearby cemetery and visit the grave of one who died that we may live free.

Thursday, March 28, 2019

The San Francisco Giants Open the 2019 Season!

Madison Bumgarner, L, 29
The most visible Giant, for his contract status and his pitching

Dereck Rodriguez, R, 27
Last year's breakout rookie is no kid no longer; it's time to shine

Derek Holland, L, 32
The Giants' unheralded pitching ace in 2018 earned this spot

Jeff Samardzija, R, 34
Has looked strong this spring: keep your fingers crossed

Drew Pomeranz, L, 30
A fine pitcher from 2014-2017; was last year just a fluke?

Will Smith, L, 29
Inning-for-inning, the team's most effective pitcher last year

Tony Watson, L, 34
Took over the "Affeldt role" and played it exceptionally well

Reyes Moronta, R, 26
Cut down on the walks and we could have a closer here

Mark Melancon, R, 34
Seems to have settled into a late-inning, possible setup role

Nick Vincent, R, 32
A career 1.11 WHIP, 9 K/IP, 4/1 K/BB, with bad teams. Why not?

Sam Dyson, R, 31
Was the closer two years ago, now one of five righty relievers

Travis Bergen, L, 25
Third lefty in the 'pen is a rookie making his MLB debut

Trevor Gott, R, 25
Appeared in 19 forgettable innings for Washington last year

Johnny Cueto, R (DL), 33
If the TJS was successful, presume he'll be back in 2020



Buster Posey, c, 32
Can a repaired hip return this HOFer to the MVP level?

Brandon Belt, 1b, 31
Everyone's watching Buster, but a healthy Belt's the key to this lineup

Evan Longoria, 3b, 33
It's simple, really; he has to re-learn how to go deep in the count

Brandon Crawford, ss, 32
The one 2018 regular who did not spend significant time on the DL

Joe Panik, 2b, 28
Looking good in the spring; how will he look in the summer?

Steven Duggar, cf, 25
Opens season as starter, may eventually platoon

Gerardo Parra, rf, 32
No power, but brings a reputation for good defense

Michael Reed, lf, 26
He's young and he had a .453 OBP in 97 AAA games last year

Yangervis Solarte, ut, 31
He's averaged 15 homers a year, so he'll play if he can do that here

Pablo Sandoval, ut, 32
Can't explain, but the team does better when he's on it

Connor Joe, ut, 26
Giants must like him 'cause he beat out popular Alen Hanson

Erik Kratz, c, 38
Veteran trade pickup did well with Milwaukee in 2018 postseason



Well, if nothing else, it's nice seeing three lefties in the starting rotation. It's been awhile.

The cognoscenti  consensus has tabbed the Giants to lose 90 games this year, which could consign them to dead last in the NL West if San Diego gets a boost from mighty Manny Machado and Arizona isn't ready to roll over dead. On paper the upgrades from Farhan Zaidi's first winter at the helm aren't much-- Drew Pomeranz is the biggest-name addition and that's primarily because he was so awful for the world champion Red Sox last year. It's hard to see how guys like Gerardo Parra and the tongue-twisting Yangervis Solarte are measurably different from guys like Gorkys Hernandez and Alen Hanson. An awful lot seems to be riding on the notion that, having been bit by the DL viper at multiple positions all at once last year, the Giants are due for a full season of health from their infield veterans-- and that, with an outfield-by-committee, will be enough to score the 700 or so runs they'll need to contend if they get a strong year from the pitchers.

A successful Giants team this year will be a lot like an iceberg-- unimpressive above the surface, but strong and wide down below the waterline. So we'll start with the bullpen. The "Big Three"-- Smith, Watson, Moronta-- were as effective as any group in baseball last year. Newcomer Vincent brings an impressive resume. And Melancon, at full health, free from "closer" pressure, and well-rested after two years of light duty, has a real chance to start paying off that contract. Sam Dyson and the two rooks provide depth, maybe too much depth-- no one really needs 13 pitchers, even with the shift toward daily planned use of relievers, which we'll discuss in a bit.

The entertaining Will Leitch on mlb.com predicts Madison Bumgarner will not be traded, but will instead be re-signed by the Giants. We've been beating this drum for a year or so, so it's nice to have company. "Bum" is another one who's had lighter-than-usual duty for two years-- 241 innings total, which is a normal single-season's workload for him. Fatigue will not be an issue for the big guy. But everyone else in the starting rotation is a question mark. Can Dereck Rodriguez adjust, now that the league has adjusted to him? (Back in the day they called this the "sophomore jinx.") Derek Holland, after his first year in the NL, will be in a similar situation. Samardzija and Pomeranz both are in the "show me" category after disastrous seasons.

The overall trend is toward more relief pitching per game, and at the same time a slower but definite shift away from one-batter specialist relievers (there's a rule change coming, by the way). The concept of the "opener" underscores the idea that perhaps once through the lineup is best for most--that a team may be best served by planning for three to five pitchers per game, regardless of how well one of those may be doing at any given point during the game.  There will be exceptions, of course, for the Cy Young-level aces such as "Bum," Chris Sale, and Max Scherzer. But, especially at the back end of the rotation, managers may increasingly look for five innings, max. How can this help the Giants? With a strong bullpen behind them, the team's starters may find they are a whole lot more effective over five, even four in some cases, than they would be over seven. Does anyone doubt Bruce Bochy has the aptitude and experience to maximize the effectiveness of this situation? The iceberg drifts, unseen, across the bow.

With Posey, it's power. If he can drive the ball again, he's back. With Belt, it's health-- if he's well enough to play, he'll hit. With Longoria, it's walks. He needs to average one base on balls per ten AB. Minimum. If he does, watch his numbers jump. With Panik, it's left-handers. He couldn't hit them last year. With Crawford, it's still defense first. Since he won't go on the DL, he plays hurt, and when he can't make the acrobatic plays in the field you know you won't see any power at the plate. And what about that outfield? No one knows. Steven Duggar can play the position, no question, but can he wait for a good pitch to hit, and take a walk if none come his way? Will Brandon Belt move to left field when Posey moves to first base? Gerardo Parra is no Andrew McCutchen, though he's a good player. Reed, the rookie, brings good minor-league comps. Behind them are-- well, the other newcomers, Joe and Solarte, are primarily backup infielders, not outfielders, so we've generously listed them as utilitymen. It feels like sink-or-swim time for a lot of unproven talent. Is this group even as good as the outfield that was an aggregate 4 wins below average a year ago? 

It says here the National League overall, and the West in particular, will not be as strong as it was in 2018. Colorado and LA are obviously superior to the Giants as the season starts, but it's doubtful  both are 20 wins better. One is likely to win the West, and our money's on the Rockies. The question is whether a .500 Giants team this summer will be fighting for second place, or for third. The Central has Milwaukee, who jumped forward, Chicago, who fell back, and St Louis, who are likely to improve, with Pittsburgh about where the Giants are and Cincinnati a year or so away. In the East, Atlanta could easily have a fallback/consolidation year. Philadelphia, if Bryce Harper delivers a 8+ WAR MVP season, could approach 90 wins. More realistically, we see one of those two and Washington converging at about 85 wins, with two of the Central powers a few wins ahead.  And if the division leaders get way out in front, it will tend to drop the rest of the pack below .500.

Where does that leave the Giants, if they can play .500 ball into August? About where they were at that time a year ago, except the wild-card contenders will likely be fewer in number and easier to catch. And, if they can't play .500 ball past the All-Star break... well, Mr Zaidi will be asked to start earning his money.

This is Bruce Bochy's last season. No Giants manager has ever gone out a winner. Dusty Baker came close, but his final year saw so much second-guessing it almost obscured his legacy for a time. The beloved Roger Craig finished with two losing years. Herman Franks and Alvin Dark never had losing seasons in their four-year terms, but neither won a championship.  If nothing else, a strong 2019 campaign in which the Giants contend, win or lose, would avoid the last few months of the season being devoted to morbid speculation over Bochy's successor. The greatest manager in San Francisco history, retiring after a record 13 years, deserves a better farewell.


  

Friday, March 1, 2019

Snow Way This is Spring

"The Giants have spent every year of essentially the last five trying to rally the troops and squeeze one more title out of the Bumgarner/Posey/manager Bruce Bochy crew. Well, this is Bochy’s final season, and with Bumgarner a free agent after this year and a new sheriff in the front office, this is all there probably is left. Zaidi didn’t dismantle the team in the offseason, so he’s giving them one last chance. If the Giants get off to a slow start, the dismantling might begin early. But if they can hang around the postseason chase, maybe Zaidi decides to add rather than subtract. It’d sure be nice to send Bochy out a winner."

-- Will Leitch, " 20 questions that will define the NL West", 2/27/2019, at  https://www.mlb.com/giants/news/2019-nl-west-preview


It's always nice to find agreement out there. This is the same message we've been sending out since the disastrous 2017 campaign. The Giants have, for the last two years and this one, committed themselves to one more shot at the brass ring with the "core"-- essentially Buster, Bum, and Crawford-- before any serious rebuild will be considered. 

Team ownership and management know that getting to the postseason is the key-- that, as Billy Beane has long maintained, the playoffs are a crapshoot and any team can get hot and win. The Giants are proof positive, especially the 2014 team. The 2010 team, such a great outfit in retrospect, only got to the postseason because San Diego collapsed down the stretch and the Giants took advantage. The 2012 team was the best of the three, and the only one of them that could legitimately claim to be the best in baseball that year. The difference between the 2014 team, which went all the way, and the 2016 team, which didn't, was one game: 88-74 versus 87-75. And until the ninth inning of Game 4 of the NLDS, it sure seemed like the 2016 Giants had every chance of doing what the 2014 team had done.   

A lot of the weeping and wailing that has accompanied this chilly offseason has been overly influenced by September of last year, when the Giants essentially took the month off, trading or inactivating every effective position player and fielding a Triple-A team for 30 days, which went 5-21.  We forget the Giants, with Gorkys Hernandez, Steven Duggar, Austin Slater, and a declining Hunter Pence at two of the three outfield positions, were 68-68 on August 31. That's a 15-game improvement over the pestilential 2017 team, which was 53-83 at the same point and lost 98 games.

By comparison, take a look at the 2013 Giants. They were 60-75 on August 31, 2013, eight games worse than last year's team. They finished 76-86, just three games ahead of last year's team. They won the world championship the next season. And they got older, not younger. That's what Farhan Zaidi and Larry Baer and Brian Sabean are looking at right now. It's a thin line when five teams qualify for the postseason and a .500 record in July means you're a contender. They don't just know this intellectually; they've seen it played out, with this team.

Contrary to revisionist claims, the Giants did not get younger each year they won the World Series. In fact, they generally got a little older. In 2010 the big contributions were from veterans-- Aubrey Huff, Pat Burrell, Cody Ross, Juan Uribe-- plus the Rookie of the Year, Buster Posey.

In 2012, Marco Scutaro, Hunter Pence, and the healthy Angel Pagan, veterans all, balanced out against the youth of the Brandons, Belt and Crawford, and MVP Posey. 

In 2014, Joe Panik was the lone youngster added to a veteran group with a bunch of part-timers-- Mike Morse, Gregor Blanco, Juan Perez, Travis Ishikawa-- at two of the outfield positions. Sound familiar?

And while the Giants' best pitchers in 2010 were younger than the overall team age, it was the same crew in 2012, except they were two years older and 34-year-old Ryan Vogelsong had replaced then-29-year-old Jonathan Sanchez. And the whole pitching staff, starters and "Core Four", added veterans and was much older in 2014. 

So there is no recent precedent for an "influx of youth" transforming the San Francisco Giants from losers to winners overnight. There is ample precedent for an influx of veterans doing it, though.

An influx of youth means a rebuild. Houston, Atlanta, Boston, and Philadelphia know all about it. And in San Francisco, the rebuild is coming, but not yet. A year ago we had figured on 2021, but with Zaidi's arrival the timetable has moved up. It will be next year, no matter what happens this year. Except for Buster Posey, probably Brandon Crawford, and perhaps Madison Bumgarner, every position player, and every pitcher over 29 years of age, will be tradeable next winter. And the selling will begin this summer if the Giants are below .500 the last week of July.

So don't give up the ship just yet. She's getting one more chance to circle the globe.

  


Friday, February 15, 2019

Robby



It’s no knock on Frank Robinson, who passed away last week at the age of 83, to note that from a San Francisco perspective he probably hurt the Giants a lot more as a player from 1956 to 1965 then he ever helped them as the team’s manager from 1981 to 1984.  Sure, he was a pretty good manager. He was a great, great baseball player. And, to paraphrase Muddy Waters, he was a man—spelled M-A-N. There’s never been anyone else quite like him.

In just about any other era, Frank Robinson would have been hands-down regarded as the best of his generation at his position. But it was his lot to play right field alongside three other magnificent Hall of Famers—Henry Aaron, Al Kaline, and Roberto Clemente—all of whom were active at the same time at the same position. Inevitably, at times Frank Robinson, great as he was, may have gotten lost in the mix during his nine years in Cincinnati. Even today, his career totals are phenomenal, but they are also short of Henry Aaron’s.  What sets Frank Robinson apart from everyone else are two things—his epochal MVP and world championship season in 1966 after one if the most controversial trades of all time, and  his pioneering career as the first black man to manage a major league baseball team.

Frank Robinson is still the only player in history to win the MVP award in both leagues. That he followed the big trade by leading his new team to their first world championship while winning that MVP award and the Triple Crown— well, that’s never been done by anybody else. Baltimore won 316 games in three seasons from 1969 through 1971, and so for a few years there Frank Robinson, a towering presence, an on-field leader of that great team, was not only respected by everyone in the game, but right in the middle of any discussion regarding baseball’s best player.

Then came Aaron again, beginning his heroic pursuit of Babe Ruth’s home run record in earnest in 1969, and ultimately taking the spotlight back. While the two were similar ballplayers in many respects, they were different in others. Aaron was quietly intimidating, studious, focused.  In Cincinnati “Robby” had a fearsome reputation at the plate and on the basepaths; he was a challenging, intimidating opponent, standing in against “brushback” pitchers—his battles with Don Drysdale, whom he hit like a “cousin” despite frequent spills in the dirt, are legendary—and barreling into bases like the second coming of Ty Cobb. Due to this he lost some time to injury while with the Reds, and that may have led the team’s management to conclude he’d have a shortened career, and hence the trade that changed everything.

His hiring as the Cleveland Indians’ manager in 1975 was historic-- and, as he himself said at the time, so was his firing in 1977. Any hint of tokenism was banished at that moment; he was subject to the same merciless expectations as any other manager.  And then, so too with his second hiring, by the Giants three years later. If baseball teams in general have been known, and often criticized, for regularly hiring “retread” managers, Frank Robinson’s re-hiring sent a pointed message across every ballpark in the land. As a black man fully aware of his situation in a country that had, until recently, embraced legal racial segregation, the lesson could not be more plain, or blunt: don’t look at my color, look at my achievements—and my failures—as you would any other manager.    

There was a Miller Lite television commercial from the late 1970s featuring Frank and his longtime teammate Brooks Robinson, the “bookends,” if you will, of one of the greatest baseball teams ever assembled. Since retired, the two took turns making the usual pitch for the product; then Brooks, commenting on how much he and Frank had in common, felt obliged to remind the audience that they were not, in fact, identical twins. “Naw,” Frank agreed, with a snort of laughter, “I’m at least two inches taller than he is!“

Would such a silly, yet thoroughly humanizing and, yes, brotherly example such as this be well-received in today’s hostile, race-obsessed climate? I think we all know the answer. What, exactly, has happened to us since the 1970s—for that matter, since the 2000s?

Robinson’s hiring as manager of the Giants was met with great fanfare locally. After two dismal seasons the team needed a jolt, and his fierce, demanding attitude provided it. The ballclub “broke even”— an improvement by itself-- during the strike season, then exceeded all expectations by launching themselves into a pennant race in 1982. Robinson told young players such as Chili Davis and Jeffrey Leonard and Al Holland and Fred Breining he believed in them, and he expected them to perform, and they did. He batted the erratic, error-prone Johnnie LeMaster, a career .222 hitter, leadoff-- not a brilliant tactical move at all, but a way of telling his starting shortstop he believed in him, too. He took a completely remade starting rotation—all four starting pitchers from 1981 were swapped out for new ones—and made it work, backed up by the game’s deepest bullpen. The Giants took on the perennial Dodgers and the rich, free-agent-fattened Braves, and played them dead even up until the final weekend.   

It didn’t last. In 1983, Robinson may have felt he was being undercut by the front office; several players on whom he depended, such as Joe Morgan and Reggie Smith, were traded or released. Darrell Evans was moved off third base.  LeMaster regressed back to unreliable form. Reports of alleged conflict between Robby and GM Tom Haller surfaced, and local newspapers, one hack sportswriter in particular, fanned the flames of discontent with cynical, leading, innuendo-based articles. It got ugly. His players knew Robinson was not the villain, and when he was fired a year or so later-- yep, just like any other manager whose team is on a downhill slide—several remained outspokenly loyal to him. Jeffrey Leonard adopted his number 20. In the aftermath it’s worth remembering that some of those young players Robinson believed in—Leonard, Davis, Bob Brenly—were key figures in the Giants’ 1986 resurgence and gave that team much of its confrontational, in-your-face spirit.

He went on to manage his beloved Orioles for four years, winning AL Manager of the Year for a dramatic if short-lived 1989 turnaround. At age 67 he took over the thankless job of managing the Montreal Expos in their final years. He got two winning seasons out of that team before moving with them to Washington and becoming the Nationals in 2005. A decade later his old friend Dusty Baker took the same job; by then nobody was looking at the color of a manager’s skin, just the number of games he won.

Frank Robinson, by the way, won 1065.

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Peter Magowan



Peter Magowan, who passed away earlier this week at the age of 76, saved the Giants for San Francisco not once, but twice. Yes, we know other men were involved, and it was, especially from a financial perspective, a group effort throughout. But from the start Magowan was the man. He was Ayn Rand's "prime mover," the pioneer who had the vision and was willing to risk his money and his name and his reputation to champion two game- and City-transforming projects, neither of which seemed like anything but a sure thing when he started them. And he delivered.

Oracle Park (or The Ballpark Formerly Known as the 'Bell) stands as a visible monument of that vision and accomplishment, and soon Magowan's likeness will adorn the Wall of Fame alongside such worthies as Mays, McCovey, and Marichal.  It's a most fitting tribute and memorial to the man who, like the team he loved, started out in New York and made the move to San Francisco and fell in love with it-- and then did something about it when that team and that city needed him. In the pantheon of Giants ownership, only Jim Mutrie, who named the team in a moment of exuberance in the 1880s, and Charles Stoneham, whose family name was synonymous with the club for 50 years, loom as large. But if you're talkin' San Francisco, Peter Magowan is your man.

It's one of life's many delightful eccentricities that we, as politically conservative as it is possible to be these days, swear, and have sworn for 54 years, our allegiance to the team representing perhaps the most leftward city in America. Rarely has this been a concern of ours, but in 1992 it came bubbling to the surface as the City, which then was only a few miles away instead of today's 2700, seemed utterly indifferent to the impending loss of its major-league baseball team. It's not simply that "voters refused to spend their money on a plaything for the rich" (or however the boilerplate is etched); many of those voters had good reason for their refusal. It went deeper than that, to a pervasive attitude of "who cares, anyway?"  (And many of those voters had, whether they knew it or not, spent their money to upgrade Candlestick Park for the football 49ers.)

The thought of the "St Petersburg Giants" taking the field on Opening Day 1993 was so galling, so unacceptable, so-- so wrong, on every level, that it prompted our last use of the "F-Bomb" in print (and as we recall, we also referred to then-Senator Connie Mack II, who threatened to revoke baseball's antitrust exemption if the Giants didn't move, as a "two-legged disgrace to his family name"). National League president Bill White, the former Giants first baseman who went on to a great career in Philadelphia and St Louis because the team already had Cepeda and McCovey, convinced 9 of 13 NL owners to-- temporarily, mind you-- reject the St Petersburg sale. He then made the call: "Who among you in San Francisco will stand up?"

"Nobody," we groused.  "Nobody's coming. It's over."

Peter Magowan stood up. The San Francisco Giants took the field on Opening Day 1993.

Seven years later, Peter Magowan and his group of investors opened Pacific Bell Park, the stadium everyone-- and we do mean "everyone"--said couldn't and wouldn't be built. The 'Bell wasn't just the most beautiful ballpark in the land, it was also the lifeline that kept, and, God willing, will keep, the Giants in San Francisco for as long as the game is played.  Peter Magowan knew that his and his investors' money, which prevented the Giants from leaving San Francisco, would not be enough to save the Giants for San Francisco unless this ballpark could be built, and built within a decade. He, and they, did it.

Seventy-six is not old these days. Peter Magowan's family's loss is our loss, too. He was blessed, as we have been blessed, to see the team he'd loved since childhood-- his team, now-- win three world championships after decades of disappointment. He had his mountaintop moment. But he still left us too soon.

Goodbye and Godspeed to a true Giant among men.  Peter Magowan, your legacy is secure.