It has been different this year, watching the Giants in the World Series, than it was in 2010 and 2012. Nothing will match the first time, so 2010 always stands alone. Fifty-two years of waiting are hard to get rid of, so 2012 was almost as surprising as the first championship. In 2014, though, it’s the other team that fills the role the Giants played in the past. The Kansas City Royals hadn’t played post-season baseball since 1985, and they are the sentimental favorite for those who like plucky underdogs (although the Royals weren’t necessarily underdogs in the Series, they, like the Giants, were underdogs to actually get to the Series). Narratives are easy to come by with a team like the 2014 Royals. They are lauded for their heart, which is always the case when a team, in any sport, seems to outperform expectations. There are simple things to say about the team that can lodge in the brains of the more casual fans … by now, everyone knows that the Royals have the Best Outfield Defense in Baseball, and that their unhittable three-headed bullpen stud machine of Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis, and Greg Holland are called “HDH” (everyone remembers acronyms). That the Royals began their first post-season in 29 years by winning eight games in a row, the first three in extra-innings, led to the rather remarkable feeling that the Kansas City Royals could not be stopped.
The Giants have narratives of their own, but … and this is as remarkable to long-time Giants fans as the unstoppable nature of the Royals … people are a bit tired of the Giants’ narratives. They’ve been told a bit too often … they’ve won two World Series in recent years, been there done that, let’s go Royals. So yes, everyone loves The Panda, and the ballpark is beautiful, and hey, what’s up with Madison Bumgarner’s snotrockets? But those are old stories by now.
There is one Giant who has reached the level of a cult figure: Hunter Pence. He is one of the ugliest good baseball players you’ll ever see, and I’m not referring to his good looks. He throws funny, he runs funny, he bats funny, and, well, that pretty much covers everything he does on the field. He’s funny-looking. It turns out he throws funny because he has something called Scheuermann’s disease … it’s something you normally get as an adolescent, but Pence was first diagnosed just last year. So he throws funny because he has a funny-sounding disease, and he seems a bit like a space alien because despite the disease and the subsequent funny throwing motion, Hunter Pence actually has a pretty decent arm. I don’t think it has ever been explained why he runs funny, but ask anyone who has watched him play, and they’ll agree. Perhaps its his goofy running style that throws the other team off … Pence is actually faster than people realize, he regularly beats out throws to deny a double-play, and smartly knows when to use his speed to take an extra base. As for his batting … well, even if you ignore the way he wears his pants, his stance is definitely in the “don’t try this at home, kids” genre. Plus, he’s so antsy, he’s constantly moving as he waits for a pitch.
And I haven’t said anything about his paleo diet (which he apparently has given up on … his body fat was so low the diet wasn’t necessary, if it ever was). I haven’t mentioned the funny faces he makes when he is making a spectacular play in the field. I haven’t mentioned the inspirational clubhouse speeches he gives, or the scooter he rides to work for home games. He’s got all bases covered:
Pence’s cult status was confirmed this season, when one of the more odd baseball memes arrived. In this case, I’ll just suggest you Google “hunter pence signs” … you’ll get plenty of pictures and plenty of stories. Or, if you are on Twitter, search for #hunterpencesigns … I just checked, there have been thirteen more tweets with the hashtag since I started this sentence, so it’s still alive and kicking. It’s worth noting that Pence himself has posted a few, as well.
I’ll end the Hunter Pence section of this post by quoting from an interview he gave that a lot of my friends liked especially well. Asked how he comes up with those inspirational speeches, Pence replied:
I don’t have a great answer for that. I’ve read a ton of books. Not one in particular, but I consciously try to find the good in everything in every situation that happens. Was it Voltaire who said, “I choose to be happy because it’s good for my health”? Why not? Even through some of the toughest things that’ll ever happen to you, there’s something that makes you stronger, something you can reframe to make it good. It’s what I believe. I don’t know if it’s true or not, but it makes me feel better.
As usual, the Series has provided us with plenty of excellent writing. Joe Sheehan’s Newsletter is always good, but he really rises to the occasion in October. Just a Bit Outside is also good, featuring a lot of Rob Neyer. Twitter is a great resource … Sheehan is there, and Royals fan Rany Jazayerli, and Keith Law and Old Hoss Radbourn, and Kate Scott provides running commentary from a Giants fan point of view.
But Rany deserves special mention. First, there’s his blog, Rany on the Royals, which sometimes is about non-Royals things (and he’s very good then, as well). Jazayerli and Sheehan were part of the original Baseball Prospectus team. Rany is a life-long Royals fan the way I am a life-long Giants fan. He was born in 1975, just as the Royals had become one of baseball’s best franchises. When I think of the Royals, I know they fell on hard times, but I still have the memory of how good they used to be, and it wouldn’t occur to me that a Royals fan, upset that it took the Royals 29 years to return to the post-season, could come close to the misery of a Giants fan who waited 52 years for a World Series championship. But Rany was very young during the Royals’ good years … for most of his life, for all of his adult life, the Royals have stunk. In other words, the truth is that Rany and his fellow Royals fans of a certain age are exactly like old Giants fans, waiting year after year for a championship. The 1985 Royals matter to Rany kind of like the 1954 New York Giants matter to me: before my time.
What Rany is doing for me right now is putting a human face on Royals fans. I don’t have any reason to dislike the Royals or their fans, but right at the moment, that team is standing between the Giants and a World Series title. So I don’t want to know about the trials and tribulations of the Royals fan … I’ve got my own stuff to worry about. But I can’t do that with Rany in the room. His writing is so good, his passion so infectious, that I find myself thinking sacrilegious thoughts like “well, it wouldn’t be so bad if the Giants lost, because Rany’s dream could come true.” And those are hard thoughts for me to process … I certainly never felt that way in 2010 or 2012. All of which points to the painful pleasures of following Rany Jazayerli during this World Series.
Here’s a quote from Grant Brisbee, one of the best Giants-based writers.
The cynicism of Giants fans isn't something that makes sense to other fans. The Giants have had an awful lot go right for them in recent years, and other people want to punch you when you complain about anything. But it's hard-baked into the collective consciousness, something that can't be scraped off with a little success. It's Charlie Brown sitting on the curb, Candy Maldonado turning a catch into a triple, Russ Ortiz getting the game ball. Don't bother explaining it. Don't bother apologizing for it. Just laugh at yourself when you're so danged wrong.
I won’t apologize. But Grant is exactly right: you can’t forget about 52 years of bad times just because of 5 years of good times. It’s like my wife said: no matter how much money her father made, he never forgot what it was like to grow up during the Depression.
I can’t finish without saying something about the terrible news regarding Oscar Taveras and Edilia Arvelo. I don’t resist the narratives that grow up around something like baseball … I am an active participant. But narratives are often after-the-fact rearrangements of events in order to create a good story. You shouldn’t do things because your hoped-for outcome would make a good story … you should do what is right, and let the story take care of itself.
Having said that, there are Giants who are playing with a narrative imprinted in their minds, unshakeable. One of them is Brandon Crawford, the shortstop who understands what Grant Brisbee was talking about. There is a famous picture around these parts of a 5-year-old Crawford in 1993, when the Giants were going to move to Florida. Crawford’s family were big Giants fans, and the proverbial picture worth a thousand words tells a story:
That young boy is now the shortstop for the Giants. But that’s not where the narrative ends. As the team goes to Kansas City, needing to only win one of two games to become champions, Brandon Crawford is remembering 2002, when the Giants were in the exact same position against the Angels. That one didn’t work out too well for the Giants, or their fans, who included Brandon Crawford. For Crawford, there’s a narrative he can’t get out of his mind, and he wants to change that narrative this time around.
And then there’s Juan Perez. Perez is on the roster for one reason: the Giants don’t have enough outfielders to go around, so they end up playing weak defensive left-fielders, or even non-left-fielders. Perez is there to play defense in the late innings in place of the guys who are bad at that job. Of course, he also bats on occasion, but his .170 average meant the team ended up playing Travis Ishikawa in LF, even though he’s a 1B. The point is, we fans love all our Giants, but that doesn’t mean we like to see Perez in the batter’s box. Especially against one of those three-headed studs.
By now all fans know the story. Perez was friends with Oscar Taveras. The news of Taveras’ death came during the middle of last night’s game. When Perez heard the news, he began to cry. His teammates rallied around him, sensitive to the situation, reminding him what Perez already knew: if he was called upon, Perez would have to play. Sure enough, he came in as a defensive replacement, leading to his at-bat against Wade Davis, a mismatch if ever there was one.
So, of course, Perez blasted one a foot or two from the top of the outfield wall, two runs scored, the Giants would go on to win.
Afterwards, Perez went to Twitter. He posted twice: “That Double was 4 U Oscar! I'll remember the Good Times. God Bless U Bro. I'll miss U man. My condolences!” and “Ese doble fue para ti hermano! Te extraño con el Alma. Ve con Dios! Te Quiero. Mis condolencias a la familia Taveras”.
The bio for Perez on Twitter closes with this line: “Do what is Right Not What You Should.”