Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Grand Slam

Two weeks ago, a work friend gave me two tickets for the Giants-Rockies game. It turned out to be an important late season game, the first in many years in San Francisco. After blowing a three run lead in the fourteenth inning last Monday to fall four games behind in the wild card race to the Rockies, the Giants had gotten within a game by going 4-1 at home. I invited a friend who got me to my last major league game three years ago to see the A’s and we were all set to watch Matt Cain, arguably the best pitcher in the league this year, put away the Rockies.

We got to our seats in the deep right field bleachers midway through the Star Spangled Banner and I found myself next to a seven or eight year old boy, his older sister, and their dad who was keeping score with an old-fashioned scorebook. Virtually everyone around us had some sort of Stanford paraphernalia on. The current Giants management is very good at family promotions. They have little kids announce the hitters. They let little kids ride in the golf cart with a mascot who circles the stadium and throws t-shirts into the crowd. They show little kids cheering on the Jumbotron. They have a t-ball park near the Coke bottle that’s a replica of ATT park, so really little kids can pretend to play baseball. It’s a simple idea, get the kids addicted. On the other hand, it’s about forty bucks a ticket or more. If you go with the family to a Giants game, you’re looking at a three hundred dollar outing.

For many years, I’ve mostly noticed how any children near me at baseball games are mostly interested in the vendors and hardly look at the game. About ten years ago, we went with a friend and his son who made it through maybe six innings, whined every time someone was selling soda or ice cream, and who may or may not have known the score of the game at any given point. I’m just not that on sitting next to kids at baseball games. I did take my daughter once a few years ago, but she’s my kid so there really wasn’t anything she could have done wrong and unlike me she didn’t turn into a baseball fan.

Anyway, this kid had the garlic fries, the licorice, etc. and I was all set to be annoyed particularly since the game started badly. Cain went 0-2 on the first hitter then walked him. The guy stole second base, went to third on a ground ball, then Tulowitzki doubled off the centerfield fence. In turn, the Giants spent the next three innings popping up the first pitch. I think the Rockies starter went 3 scoreless innings on 22 pitches. Cain steadied some and the Giants got a sacrifice fly from Schierholz to tie the game in the fourth. The kid next to me stands up and cheers the fly ball. In the meantime, his dad is quietly marking things in the scorebook and his older sister, who looks like Lyndsay Lohan when Lyndsay Lohan was a cute kid, is explaining things to him like how hit and runs work and why you’d intentionally walk a number 8 hitter. More impressive, the boy is listening the whole time and hasn’t gotten up to go to the bathroom repeatedly.

It occurs to me that I was his age when I saw my first baseball game at Candlestick Park in 1963, the day after Marichal and Spahn went 16 innings in a 1-0 night game there won on a Willie Mays home run. My dad used to tell me that the moment I saw the big green field, my face lit up and that he knew right then that I’d always be a baseball fan. Of course, I stayed up the entire night before to listen to the Marichal-Spahn duel at age 7, so it was already sort of a no-brainer. We didn’t have video games then or the internet, so listening to baseball on the radio was one of the few kid friendly media of the time. Btw, my wife and I love Mad Men, but how is it that none of those people are baseball fans? I get that Don Draper wouldn’t care, but no one in that office even makes Mets jokes.

I look at the boy next to me and realize that he’s just like me only he wasn’t nerdy enough to bring a baseball glove to the park just in case he got found by a really-really long home run. Also forty plus years ago, I don’t know that he’d have had an older sister explaining the nuances of the game to him though my mother did sometimes take me to Giants games without my dad. One time I had a 102 temperature and she took me to a night game at Candlestick just because Sandy Koufax (my favorite player- I know that’s treason) was pitching. Koufax was left-handed like me and he was Jewish which back then was as close as any star athletes got to being Chinese until Masanori Murakami got signed by the Giants the next year. Anyway, when Koufax pitched against the Giants, I’d secretly root for the Dodgers, something that ended a couple years later when Koufax and Marichal faced off and Marichal hit Roseboro with the bat. My parents and I were far up the left field line that day. Dad and I went to the stadium the night before to get tickets.

So the Giants tied the game 1-1 in the fourth and I’m happy that the kids around me are actually into the game. Cain then comes out for the fifth and gives up 800 feet worth of back to back homers to Helton and Tulowitzki, 3-1 Rockies. A couple innings later it’s 5-2 Rockies. Giants get men on second and third with no outs and somehow don’t score a run. They’re best pitcher didn’t have it and everyone knows this year’s Giants can’t hit.

Somehow, the Giants get a double, a walk, and a hit by pitch to load the bases, but then somehow make two outs. Somewhat disappointing free agent, Edgar Renteria, comes up and I turn to my friend and say “He’s actually one of the best hitters with men on base in the majors.” It’s just one of those weird things that stuck in my head a few months ago.
Edgar Renteria actually has been one of the better hitting shortstops in baseball for many years, but he’s not exactly a household name. Besides, once you sign with the Giants you lose thirty points off your batting average. In this case he came here as a .288 hitter and has been at .259.

The guy takes a pitch from Rafael Betancort, there’s that sound of wood on ball, and the whole park is standing and screaming except the fat guy in the Tulowitzki jersey a couple rows away from us. Renteria’s ball climbs into the lower part of the left field bleachers just inside the foul line. A disappointing game suddenly turns into the most exciting sports event I’ve seen in years. Franklin Morales went from being the reliever who got two strikeouts with two on in the last inning to the bum who loaded the bases and set up the grand slam. Renteria went from sort of disappointing free agent to indelible Giants memory a la Rob Pruitt ( Iwas there) and Brian Johnson and the Giants suddenly became serious playoff contenders going into September. I figure if this can happen this suddenly at ATT park, maybe the same thing can happen with the economy and universal affordable health care.

An inning later, the Giants load the bases but still have just a one run lead and a bunch of their own relievers not looking terribly effective. The manager sends Ryan Rollinger, a shortstop who has never had a hit in the majors, to pinch hit. He doubles and the crowd goes almost as wild as they did for Renteria. The little boy next to me is jumping around and screaming his head off.

The week started with the Giants losing to the Rockies on a grand slam in the 14th. It ends with the Giants winning on a grand slam in the 7th. I got to go to a baseball game with an old friend. You know those people you don’t see for three years and you do and you just start talking again like no time has passed. I see this little boy who makes me remember how I became a baseball fan, his very cool sister, and the dad with the pen and the paper scorebook. Even bigger, I got to see hope pulse through forty thousand people all at the same moment. It’s a trivial thing, but it’s not. Hope’s been in short supply lately and baseball was one of those things that held America together the last time things were this scary.

Funny thing to suddenly remember what it’s like to be a fan.


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