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Lament for Fallen Heroes
SABR UK Examiner - Examiner #4 - August 1994
Written by Martin Hoerchner   

I am a Giants fan. Ask me to specify why, and I can't. As John Leonard said, "Our passionate identifications are arbitrary. Because they are arbitrary, they refuse to die." Okay, I am from Northern California - I spent most of my young life in Sacramento, and the Giants were the closest major league team to me when I was growing up. When I think of the Giants I think of home, but deep down I believe I would have rooted for them if they had stayed in New York, which is where they truly belong.

The Giants have a fascinating history. They were probably the pre-eminent team in the first half-century of the National League and were managed by 30 years for the man I consider the best manager in history, John McGraw. Despite this, they are one of the great hard-luck teams in baseball history. They lost the pennant of 1908 because a rookie erred in base running. They lost the World Series of 1912 because an outfielder dropped a pop fly. They lost the World Series of 1917 because a runner scored from third when the plate was left unguarded. They lost the World Series of 1924 when an easy grounder took a bad hop over the head of a Hall-of-Fame third baseman not once, but twice - the second time in the bottom of the 12th inning. And they lost the World Series of 1962 when one of the leagues most feared hitters, with a runner on third in a 1-0 game, hit a pitch from the same pitcher who gave up the home run to Bill Mazeroski, straight into the glove of the shortstop, ending the game. These things can only endear you to a team.

This points up one key point in the Giants' recent history. The last time they won a World Championship was in 1954, when they were at New York. I've got a video of that series - it looks so old I'm surprised it wasn't silent. Only four teams have had a longer wait to win the whole kaboodle. The Giants have played 36 seasons in San Francisco without a championship. No one has yet uttered the words "World Champion San Francisco Giants" and been telling the truth. And the wait is getting a little too long.

In the 1960s, the Giants had one of the most powerful lineups in baseball history, with Mays and McCovey and Marichal and Perry and Cepeda and the Alous, and were rewarded with a string of second-place finishes. They were always so close, but this wasn't horseshoes. And were not only talking the sixties. 1978 was the Giants' best year between Willie and Will; they were in first place most of the year, but faded in September as the Dodgers came on strong.

In 1982 they lost in the final days of the season to the Braves. In 1987 they won the title but lost the pennant to the Cardinals due to a single mishap. In 1989 they won both the division and the pennant, and were hammered in one of the most lopsided World Series ever. They never even led once. They have only won a World Championship once in the last 60 years. So to say that the Giants are hungry is too simple a cliché. They are famished. They are ravenous. They are starving.

I really got interested in the Giants in 1976. The Giants were big news that year because Horace Stoneham, whose family had owned the team for 60 years, was selling the Giants. A deal was almost clinched to sell the team to Labatt's and move them to Toronto. Mayor Moscone of San Francisco stepped in and stonewalled into a local buyer could be found. And one was: Bob Lurie. Bob Lurie was the man who saved the Giants for San Francisco. The next year Toronto and Labatt's got their own team, and they've been very happy together. So this makes the opera bouffe of 1992 even more ironic. The man who saved the Giants had given up after sixteen years of financial losses and the failure four times for the area to build him a ballpark, and planned to sell the team to whoever wherever would buy it.

The debate raged back and forth for months; proposals were made and rejected. The unsettled nature of the team's future didn't improve the team's play, and they sank into fifth place. When the deal to move them to St. Petersburg was announced in August, a bit of every Giant fan died inside. Deep down we all had this sickening feeling that you would lose the team you had known all your life. I understood how New York fans felt in 1958. I wondered if I could root for the A's; the answer was no. Moving our team to Florida was ludicrous. As one SF paper said, "Florida is where people go to die". The idea of the Giants playing in a dome (ironically called the Suncoast Dome) was repugnant to me; the idea of our team moving to that place was like a bad dream. It just didn't seem true; I felt that, though deep down I didn't believe it, I would wake up and it would all be a bad dream.

Well, I did awake. In December the owners of major league teams vetoed the sale and a local consortium was put together to keep the team in town. Instead of criticising Candlestick Park, they made it more comfortable. The new owners put money into improving the team, most notably by making Barry Bonds the richest man in baseball. His father was hired as a coach and Dusty Baker was hired as a new manager. With a new owner, a new manager, a new star, and a new lease on life, the San Francisco Giants came into 1993 with a new attitude and a new hope.

So, lest you British readers are getting bored, I was fascinated when I found out that the Giants actually had a monument in London. In 1924 John McGraw took his Giants on a world tour. On February 26 they played in the presence of George V. A plaque commemorates the occasion at Stamford Bridge, the Chelsea Football Grounds. That name has always intrigued me - Stamford Bridge. What has that got to do with Chelsea? It's the name of a town near York - I've been there...

Then it occurs to me. Stamford Bridge was the scene of a great English military victory, when the last Saxon King, Harold, defended his throne from a massed invasion by the King of Norway, who also claimed the throne. The battle isn't really well remembered, but the year is - 1066. Two and a half weeks after the Battle of Stamford Bridge, King Harold fought another battle against another claimant to the throne - this time the claimant was named William, and the place was named Hastings. Towards sundown the Saxons were slowly gaining control of the battle. However, a ninth-inning rally by the Normans seized victory from the English, and the course of history was changed. As for King Harold, an amazing effort went for nought. He never made Manager of the Year. He ended up with an arrow in his eye, and the memory of the Saxons faded. Meanwhile the victor, William, became the Conqueror. King Harold missed it by that much, and it's the defeat we remember, not the triumph. History works that way. Stamford Bridge is a perfect symbol of futility. Like the 1066 Saxons, the 1993 Giants started the season full of hope. They didn't have a roaring start, but they soon took off. They finished April 10 games over .500, and on May 11 took over first place in the NL West. The Phillies were playing the best baseball in the majors, and were the talk of the town. The Braves, despite a team ERA of less than 1.00, had no offense and languished toward the bottom. In May the team that had been sitting in second place, the Astros, came to Candlestick for a four-game series and they were swept. About that time Giants fans were beginning to get excited. The Giants just got stronger and stronger. They played .625 in April, .667 in May, .672 in June. Road, home, day, night - they made the game their own. People starting comparing them with the 1962 team, heretofore the best San Francisco team. The Phillies faltered and the Giants edged toward them for the best record in the Majors. In July the Giants came into Philadelphia, and the results were decisive. They won the first game 15-7, the second 13-2. They took three of four, averaging more than ten runs a game for the series. The Giants seemed like an unstoppable juggernaut, and I started making my plans to fly to San Francisco for the World Series. I visited California shortly after the Philadelphia series, and the excitement was electric in the air. We were seeing amazing heroics - veterans were regenerated, bench jockeys were surprising, rookies were phenoms; it seemed that whenever a player was injured, someone would step in and be perfect. A team that wasn't supposed to have any pitching suddenly had two Cy Young candidates, a perfect setup man, and a near-invincible stopper. It was just that rare combination of occurences that make a surprise champion. Nearly every one of the starting eight was having a career year or near it. They were winning games in the late innings, they were scoring lots of runs with two out. And we seem to have the constant image of Barry Bonds winning it with a home run in the ninth. Even by July Giant fans were talking about the championship season - by July 18 they were ten games ahead of the second-place team. And then the oddest thing happened. I was on some Los Angeles beach listening to the radio, when the news came over that Fulton County Stadium, where the Atlanta Braves played, had caught fire and the game was delayed while the fire was raging. This was to be the debut of Fred McGriff, recently acquired from the San Diego fire sale. It turned out to be not as bad as it sounded; the game was resumed after a short delay. But something had happened. The Atlanta Braves had caught fire. They had started winning like nobody's business, and soon the Giants had started to look back, which Satchel Paige told us was a bad idea. The Braves were 6.5 games out when they came into Candlestick on August 23 for a four-game series. They swept the Giants, the first time that season that it had happened. The Giants seemed to fall apart - from that day until their 8-game losing streak that ended on September 15, they played with a 6-15 record, while the Braves continued to play at an incredible clip. I don't know how many games back they were from the Braves, because I had stopped following it. It just hurt too much. I finally couldn't bear the suspense any longer and bought USA Today. I fully expected to find the Giants five games back. But no, they were only 1.5 games. They had actually started winning again. After that horrible losing streak ended, they won four in a row. They lost one, and then they won seven in a row. Atlanta continued to play at its torrid second-half pace, but now the Giants had started creeping up on the Braves, and with more than a week to go, they were dead even. Like two armies locked in mortal combat, they paced each other game for game in one of the greatest finishes to a pennant race in history. If the Braves gained a game one day, they lost it the second day. But mostly both of them just won. After the slide the Giants posted a 14-3 record and played some of the most focused baseball this year. The two teams were tied when they began their final series: the Giants came to Dodger Stadium with Atlanta was hosting the Rockies. The Giants had had trouble with the Dodgers all year, but they took the first three games. The Giants and Braves were tied at 103-58 as play resumed on that last day. After all is written, the only thing that will matter is that the Giants lost the title in 1993 by one game. Only twice have teams won more games and finished second - the 1909 Cubs, the year after the Merkle affair, ended up at 104-49, 6.5 games behind the Pirates, and the 1942 Dodgers, the year after their first pennant in 21 years, were 104-50 and ended up two games behind the Cardinals. Only six times has a team won more than 100 and lost, including the 1954 Yanks (103), the 1962 Dodgers (102), and the 1961 Tigers (101). When you play so well and lose by only one game, analyses and recriminations multiply like bacteria. Each loss is put under the microscope; every player that has made a mistake feels like he lost the season. Certain games leap out at you, like the one vs. the Phillies where they were leading 8-0 and ended up losing 10-8. Or another one against the Phillies, lost in the 14th inning after a their main setup man was injured in a miscue. Questions...like what would happen if the Giant's hadn't slumped. Take out the three weeks, and they played at a 97-44 clip; extending that to a full season would have won them 111 games. But as some wit once said, if you lose at beginning of the season, it's a bad start, if you lose in the middle, it's a slump, and if you lose toward the end, it's a choke. Except the Giants didn't choke, and the Giants didn't fold. They had one of the most amazing revivals in baseball history, and came within a day of thwarting an amazing revival of its own. I suppose 1993 will go down into history like 1964, 1969, 1978 - Years of the Choke. But Giant fans know what year 1993 is most like. In 1914 the Giants were breezing through the year in first place. In mid-July, before they had All-Star breaks, the Braves were mired in the cellar. Then they started to move, slowly at first with increasing momentum. They ended up beating the Giants by ten games, and earned for themselves the legendary title "Miracle Braves". The shell-shocked Giants finished in the cellar next year, but they had the last laugh. They won five of the next ten pennants; it took the Braves 34 years to win their next. This kind of emotional overhang could ruin the fan of a more privileged team. But Giant fans are strong. They won't be down for long. If you could find one nearing 100, life for him would have been a long series of disappointments, when winning teams didn't win, when Hall of Famers failed at key moments, when all the cards were in your favor but you didn't come through when the chips were down. What can you do? You wait for the next deal. When the daffodils blossom and the geese start to fly north, the pain will have eased. The promise of new players, new experience, a new start will dim the memory of what happened in 1993. The first pitch will be thrown and it will be a whole new ballgame. The past will be forgotten; only thoughts of day, and tomorrow, and the day after... For me, it can't come soon enough.

Last Updated on Wednesday, 17 June 2009 18:33