One more win

Last year, I was covering the San Francisco Giants for a photo wire service. I’d never covered a minor league game before, but there were two highly touted prospects playing for the Giants’ A-ball team in San Jose.  After checking the pitching match-ups for an early season homestand that coincided with the big club playing on the road, I asked my editor to get me a credential for the game.

The minor league club, filled with 18- and 19-year-old kids playing in their first year of pro ball, clearly didn’t get much coverage as the team’s head of media relations met me at the gate and gave me a tour of the park.  It was a beautiful day and the rookies dominated the game.  I sold one of my photos of the catcher to Sports Illustrated, but nobody was interested in the pitcher or the shot of the two of them on the mound.

It was an effortless win and the two obviously had great chemistry.  After the game, I told everyone with any interest that I just saw the future of the Giants and it looked awfully promising. I never would have believed, however, that it’d be so soon and on such a big stage.

Madison Bumgarner and Buster Posey just led the Giants to the brink of the team’s first World Series championship in 56 years.  Bumgarner shut out the most potent offense in the American League, scattering three hits over eight innings. Posey homered, threw out the only attempted stolen base, and called a perfect game behind the plate.

A long way from San Jose.

San Jose Giants catcher Buster Posey (7) talks things over with starting pitcher Madison Bumgarner (17) during the Giants' 8-1 win over the Lake Elsinore Storm minor league baseball game at Municipal Stadium in San Jose, CA.
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What a week-end

Baseball has been a part of my life for 35 years. More particularly, San Francisco Giants baseball.

My first memory of walking into San Francisco’s Candlestick Park is intertwined with my first memory of independence. In contrast to this age of over-protective helicopter parents, my best friend and I took in our first Giants game when we were 10 years old. Nobody to drive us there or pick us up. No pre-purchased tickets. Just two fifth graders taking the Greyhound bus from the suburbs an hour north to the big city, buying a couple cheap bleacher seats, and cheering on a forgettable, woefully mediocre team.

I remained a die hard fan despite not seeing a finish higher than third in the division for my first dozen seasons. As a kid, I’d end every spring and summer day by faithfully recording the day’s game score on a wall calendar. Days broke down into three categories, in descending order: wins, losses, and days when the team traveled and didn’t play. Willie “Stretch” McCovey, Jack “the Ripper” Clark, Jeff “Hack Man” Leonard, Will “the Thrill” Clark, John “the Count” Montefusco, and even Johnny “Disaster” Lemaster were my heroes growing up.

My family never went. My mom would get free tickets once a year through work, but otherwise, it was just my thing. An obsession fed by the radio and the greyhound bus.

As a young adult, I was lucky enough to find a “gamer” for a spouse. We’ve celebrated countless birthdays, mother’s days, and father’s days at the ballpark. Four years ago, the scoreboard read during the seventh inning “Happy 20th Anniversary, E. I’m the luckiest man in the world. She’s beautiful and a GIANTS fan. I love you.  D.”

It’s no surprise that my kids came to know and love baseball and the Giants. I coached little league teams for years and throughout their formative years, we went to games as a family and in pairs. With the new PacBell (now AT&T) ballpark opening in 2000, we bought into our first season tickets. Two seats for 15-20 games a year. The kids and E alternated who went with me, each with their own set of game day traditions.

What we’d eat, whether we’d go two hours early for batting practice, and what we’d wear all depended on my seat mate.  No matter which of our three kids came with, or if it was me and E, some things never changed: we tried to be in our seats for the first pitch, we sang “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” with gusto during the seventh inning stretch, we NEVER left early, and we always booed the Dodgers, former Dodgers, and Dodger fans.

Over the years, the Giants have given us a lifetime of memories. Not always good, but lasting memories. More game-winning homers than I can count.  More soul-crushing losses than I care to contemplate. Making the post-season, unfortunately, has been rare.

There was the run in 1987 when we lost in the National League Championship Series to St. Louis after being up three games to two. We made it to the World Series for the first time in my lifetime in 1989, only to lose a four-game sweep to the Oakland A’s after the Loma Prieta earthquake. In 2002, the Giants were six outs away from their first World Series Championship since 1954. 5-0 heading into the 8th inning, up three games to two over the Angels, only to watch it fall apart spectacularly.

My son, Z, and I attended game 5 of that Series. It was a miraculous night during which the Giants prevailed 16-4 over the Angels and first baseman JT Snow saved the Manager’s son from certain injury. Three-year-old Darren Baker, trying to fulfill his bat boy duties a little early, wandered to home plate just has JT and David Bell were heading home to score on a triple. Snow managed to both score the run and scoop up little Darren by the scruff of his XXXXXXS jersey right before Bell scored.  That was the last time the Giants won a post-season game.

 

JT Snow Saves Darren Baker in Game 5 of the 2002 World Series

 

My two seasons as a photographer covering the Giants was a dream come true. Walking into the park through the players’ entrance. Hanging out on field and in the dugout before the games. Chatting with legends McCovey and Mays in the press room elevator. Having my Giants photos tell stories in Sports Illustrated, ESPN the Magazine, and The Sporting News.  Amazing experience, but no post-season birth for the team.

It’s been eight years since that World Series game against the Angels and the Giants haven’t made a playoff run since. Until now.

Although I’ve been posted to Ottawa this whole season, we’ve maintained our season tickets. The kids and E were all home for various parts of the summer and they all took in a few games, each calling or texting me during or after the game. I continued to watch and listen to games through the internet.

After blowing two prior chances, the team clinched the division title on the last game of the regular season. The Giants, fueled by the best pitching staff in baseball, have no star hitter. Instead, we have a team of underdog cast offs and journeymen. Two of our starters, Pat Burrell and Cody Ross, came to the team only after their old teams cut them.  Just like the teams I followed as a kid.

We don’t score many runs, winning more games by a one-run margin than any other team in baseball. The team motto for 2010 has been “Giants baseball: Torture”.  They lived up to the motto during the playoffs’ first round, winning three games out of four against Atlanta, all by one run.

With Z going to school in Philadelphia, and the Phillies looking unbeatable after sweeping Cincinnati, I couldn’t resist making the trip out for Game 1 of the National League Championship Series. Within minutes of the final out in Atlanta, I had our tickets for Game 1 secured.

It didn’t matter that I’d have to drive 8 hours each way in a week-end. It didn’t matter that the Giants were huge underdogs to win a game against the two-time defending National League champs. It didn’t matter that we were looking at having to face Roy Halladay, the game’s most dominant pitcher coming off only the second post-season no hitter in baseball history. I was going to watch my Giants in a post-season game with my son.

From the start, the baseball gods rewarded my loyalty. The absurd last-minute $1500 airfare from Ottawa to Philly dropped to $350 a day before I was going to drive. Although most hotels were sold out, Priceline came through the day before departure with an amazing deal on two nights at a brand new four star place downtown.  The Nor’easter storm that delayed my flight cleared just in time for a sunny Saturday and clear game night.

Meeting up with Z Friday night for dinner, it was such a pleasure to share a meal as adults, splitting a bottle of wine, and talking the night away about school, work, the future, and, of course, Giants baseball. The next day, both decked out in Giants jackets and caps, we shared the day as kids.

Now, I’ve been to baseball games in a lot of places. New York, Boston, San Diego, Minneapolis, Toronto, Arizona. Nothing comes close to what we experienced in Philadelphia. We were booed. All day. Sometimes with a smile. Most of the time with a sneer.  Old women, young children, LOTS of overweight guys, and even a homeless guy after we gave him some spare change.

The guy at the burger joint initially wouldn’t let us in to be served. The doorman and valet to my hotel wouldn’t open the door and, instead, jeered. The entire lobby bar of the hotel, watching college football, booed as we headed out. As we walked down the street, one guy ran out of a store for the sole purpose of screaming at us before returning to finish his afternoon shopping.

The nice fans wished us luck. At least a half dozen in the exact same way. “Oh, don’t misunderstand. NOT for your team. I mean good luck for your safety.” We had many tell us we had chutzpah/balls/guts to even be walking around with a Giants cap on game day.

We ran into a handful of compatriot Giants fans along the journey. The closest experience I had to this was traveling for an extended period in Eastern Europe in ’84 during which I ran into one American. It didn’t matter that we had little in common otherwise — we shared the same identity. The same was true for those few wearing orange and black in a sea of red and white.

We took the subway to the ballpark, packed to the gills with rabid locals sneering at us for eight stops. We experienced the typical trash-talking from fans as we filed in to the front gate. We politely declined the white and red rally towel offered to every entrant. I asked if they had any in orange and black. I received a blank stare. No smile or ‘good luck’, just a menacing blank stare.

Out of 46,000 people packed into that stadium, I’d estimate there at most a few hundred Giants fans.  Most of us hung out by the visitors’ dugout watching batting practice. There’s safety in numbers.

As game time approached, we found our seats on the aisle, about 30 rows from the field. Some good-natured trash talking with our neighbors, but nothing too menacing. Yet.

Just before the first pitch, three guys staggered down the aisle and took the three seats right behind us. The guy behind me, whether intentionally or not, elbowed me in the head as he found his seat. It turned out that he was, by far, the most drunk of the lot.

He started by waving his white towel in my face. I probably didn’t help by suggesting it was too early for them to be surrendering. They then started in on the chanting and clapping. No problem — happy to have everyone screaming and cheering on their team.

It then got a little too personal and a little too close. When the clapping and chanting didn’t get a rise out us, my new friend started slapping the back of my chair. When that got no response, he started reaching over to clap next to my right ear.

That got my attention. I wheeled on him and got my finger in his face quickly. Cheer, clap, whatever, but back off, I not-so-subtlety plead. I realized I may have been a tad aggressive when Z reminded me that he didn’t have enough money to bail me out if I got arrested.

Things seemed to calm down a bit as the game unfolded. Halladay continued his no-hit streak. One of our neighbors was counting the number of hitters in the streak starting with the 27 straight outs recorded in Halladay’s last start. 28, 29, 30.  31, 32, 33, 34.  Cody Ross put a stop to this poor man’s Sesame Street lesson by depositing the next pitch into the left field bleachers. 1-0 Giants and the crowd got much quieter.

Unfortunately, it only lasted a 1/2 inning. A solo homer by the Phillies and it was a tie game. Welcome to Giants baseball: torture. With the tension rising, so too did the drunk voices behind us. We never did see who reported them or why, but security showed up to warn them to tone it down.

By the fourth inning, they were gone. As the security guard argued with them, and called in the police to help physically remove the drunks, two other guys started pointing at me and demanding that I be removed. I was honestly mystified what they were accusing me of having done. Perhaps they saw me react to drunk #3. Perhaps they saw me point at a small group of Giants fans behind us after Ross’s homer and misconstrued.

A conference amongst the security guys ensued. One was saying he knew one of my accusers and believed that I had “instigated” things. The other, more senior guard, overruled him and talked to me one-on-one. He said he knew what was happening — that the provocation was the fact that we had the temerity to root for our team.

Although I would never wish anyone to be kicked out of a game, it did make the rest of the night a bit more relaxed. We still had the two guys who wanted me booted, but they were not close to us and avoiding eye contact with them resolved that conflict (at least as far as I was concerned).

In the meantime, the Giants pushed ahead 4-1. We can’t seem to win unless it is a one-run game, however, so the score promptly shifted to 4-3.  Halladay left the game after seven innings, on the hook for the loss. Our ace, Tim Lincecum, held the lead through seven despite several tense moments.

The home crowd were heckling Timmy with catcalls. The guy next to me explained their collective thought process. You see, because Timmy has long hair, he “looks like a girl so we’ll treat him like a girl.” Apparently, everyone in the ballpark waving a white towel works at a construction site. In the 1950s. Others apparently live in the mid- 1960s and think anyone with long hair is “hippy trash”.

As the ninth inning approached, the security guard came down again. He said there were two of them on our aisle, but that there may be a LOT of unhappy fans around us. He asked if we had a plan. A plan? Really?

Our plan was to watch the final three outs from the top of aisle and then take off for the subway. When we got to the top of the stairs, however, we couldn’t see the field. Have to see the final three outs, so back to our seats we went. Each hitter was a tight-rope, but with two outs, and two strikes on Shane Victorino, our closer finished the Phillies off with a 95 MPH fastball.  As the umpire called strike three, we took off.

We hit the top of the aisle before the shock of the game’s end hit the crowd.  As 46,000 groped with their disappointment, we ran.

Not quite like the Warriors in this scene (and nobody speaking Italian), but it felt a bit like that when we were sprinting four blocks to the subway.  We heard more then once, “hey, Giants fans, get ’em”.  Once we made it to the subway, we were fine, although we did take off our jackets and caps — no reason to tempt fate.

We texted each other when we got behind our respective doors, satisfied with witnessing a monumental win unscathed. More memories. If we win the National League pennant and meet the Yankees in the World Series, I might have to make the pilgrimage to New York, once again proudly wearing my orange and black.

35 years is a long time to wait… I never stop believing.

Sad Day for Giants Fans

With parts of my family in town for the last 6 weeks, I’ve been neglecting my blog posting duties.  I’ll be back to Canada and foreign service topics this week, but I wanted to note the passing of Bobby Thompson, the legendary member of the New York (baseball) Giants.  Thompson will be forever linked to the greatest comeback in sports history.

In August 1951, the Brooklyn Dodgers held a seemingly insurmountable 13-1/2 game lead over the second-place cross-town rival Giants.  The Dodgers mailed it in down the stretch winning 26 and losing 22 over the last 48 games.  The Giants did what they had to do.  They closed stronger than any team.  Ever.  Starting with 16 wins in a row, the Giants won 37 of their last 44 games, including the last seven in a row to force a best of three playoff with the Dodgers.

Willie Mays and the Giants prevailed 3-1 in game 1.  Jackie Robinson and the Dodgers rebounded 10-0 in game 2.  Despite the miraculous comeback, the Giants once again faced elimination as the Dodgers looked to close out a 4-1 victory in the bottom of the 9th in the decisive game 3.  The Giants pushed across one run, making it 4-2.  After a couple of base hits, Thompson came to the plate with one out.  Legendary Giants broadcaster Russ Hodges describes the last confrontation:

I’ve heard Hodges’ call more times than I can count and it still gives me a chill.  We’ll miss you, Bobby.

Wrapping up photo assignments

It’s hard to believe that I’m less than six weeks away from leaving for DC.  Given all there is to do, I’m trying to scale back the number of photo assignments.     The sporting gods, however, are conspiring against me.  The Giants are playing meaningful baseball games in September for the first time since cutting ties with Barry Bonds.  The college football season just started.  And Tiger Woods is coming to San Francisco to lead the best U.S. golfers against the best of the rest in the President’s Cup.  Right now, the ramp-down schedule looks like this:

9/11:  Giants v. Dodgers baseball

9/12:  Utah (#17) v. San Jose St. football

9/14:  Giants v. Rockies baseball

9/19:  San Jose St. v. Stanford football

9/26:  Washington v. Stanford football

10/6-10/11:  President’s Cup golf during the day and, fingers crossed, Giants in the National League Divisional Series

I’ve enjoyed shooting an incredible variety of sporting events and have been lucky enough not only to see my work appear online and in print, but also to get paid for it.  There is something about baseball, perhaps because it was the first sport I truly loved as a kid.  Every once in awhile, routine becomes ballet and a combination of an educated guess, timing, and blind luck results in an image that’s fun for me to look at more than once.  Here are a couple of pics from Monday’s game:

07 September 2009:  San Francisco Giants first baseman Pablo Sandoval (48) makes a leaping throw during the Giants' 9-4 win over the San Diego Padres at AT&T Park in San Francisco, CA.

07 September 2009:  San Francisco Giants center fielder Aaron Rowand (33) dives head first into second base after a second inning double during the Giants' 9-4 win over the San Diego Padres at AT&T Park in San Francisco, CA.

As much as I’m looking forward to the foreign service and the challenges it will bring, I’m going to miss the dugouts and sidelines.