“People ask me what I do in winter when there’s no baseball. I’ll tell you what I do. I stare out the window and wait for spring.” — Roger Hornsby
For my birthday last October my brother gave me the coolest warmest San Francisco Giants jacket, a stylish melding of orange and black fabric with a smallish team insignia on the chest directly over my heart, and a grandiose insignia on the back, centered under the word GIANTS writ in large white capital letters outlined in orange. Little did I suspect that this jacket would prove to be a magical loosener of the tongues of countless men and women who had previously looked upon me with suspicion or indifference.
I have never owned or worn anything that so many people, strangers and friends, have praised me for, as if I had designed and sewed the marvelous thing myself. Men, women, boy, girls, homeless people, rich people, old people, teenagers, black, brown, and white people, Russians and Pakistanis and Germans and French and Jews and Muslims and atheists and Americans see my Giants jacket and exclaim, “Great coat! Great jacket! Nice jacket, man. Love your jacket! Go Giants! Right on, Brother!” And when I smile in thanks for their approval of my coat of three colors, they gaze at me with admiration and understanding and, dare I say it, love?
True, the occasional Oakland Athletics fan will glare at my Giants jacket and snort, but even these misguided folk seem disarmed by my cloak because, well, it’s magical.
“One of the beautiful things about baseball is that every once in a while you come into a situation where you want to, and where you have to, reach down and prove something.” — Nolan Ryan
I have been a devout San Francisco Giants fan since the team came to San Francisco in 1958. And as an avid baseball player from age six until my late teens, my choice to play in the outfield, and preferably center field, was entirely attributable to my adoration of the ultimate Giant, Willie Mays, the greatest center fielder in the history of the game, which also explained my penchant for attempting basket catches, a Willie Mays trademark, much to the dismay of my coaches along the way.
When I attended La Entrada junior high school in Menlo Park in the mid 1960’s, I played centerfield on the school softball team and my best friend Colin Vogel, another diehard Giants fan, played left field. We were good players, Colin and I, both of us quick to react to the ball off the bat and both of us decent hitters, though we lacked the power of our star shortstop Don Bunce, who would one day quarterback the Stanford University football team to a Rose Bowl victory. Gene Dark, son of the Giants manager Alvin Dark, pitched for our junior high team, and though Gene was an average player at best, we considered him a minor god because of his association with our major gods.
Fast-forward fifty-three years, Colin now a psychotherapist living in Los Angeles, I a Mendocino scribbler and piano player. And because we have never ceased to be diehard Giants fans, Colin and I are still in touch—Colin braving the slings and arrows of publicly rooting for the Giants in the very lair of the hated Dodgers. Several times a season we exchange emails sharing our hopes and fears for our team, and if our boys make the playoffs, we talk on the phone. When the Giants won the World Series in 2010, Colin called, and we hooted and shouted and wept together.
“Baseball was, is and always will be to me the best game in the world.” — Babe Ruth
Today, walking through the village wearing my magical Giants jacket, I passed in front of a truck piled high with firewood, the grizzled guy in the driver’s seat wearing a faded orange Giants cap with white insignia. He glared at me, so I looked away, but then he said, “Vogelsang goes tonight.”
Vogelsang is one of our starting pitchers, and so despite the grizzled guy’s glare, I looked at him and said, “Yeah, he’s been iffy this year, but…”
“They’ve all been iffy,” he said, launching into a diatribe that identified him as a serious student of the game and a bona fide member of my tribe, and therefore worthy of my attention.
“Lincecum was better last night, but he only gave us five. All his mistakes this year have been up and it only takes a couple jacks to put us in a hole. Cain, too. They’re both still trying to transition from power pitchers to finesse and only time will tell if they can master the shift. Fortunately our middle relievers have been stellar, but we’ve got to get more innings from the starters or the pen will be in shreds by mid-season.”
“Hudson…” I ventured to say, before the grizzled guy cut me off.
“So far. Hasn’t walked anybody in twenty-three innings. Amazing. Keeps the ball down. Still has some gas when he needs it. You can hope the young guns learn from him, but they’re stubborn, which is part of what makes them great so…” He looked at his watch. “Gotta go.”
“It’s fun—baseball’s fun.” — Yogi Berra
Weighing a package for me in the village post office, the admirable Robin, wearing orange and black Giants earrings, waxes euphoric about our new left fielder Michael Morse who has hit two home runs so far this year, each a monster shot. “He’s a man,” says Robin, nodding appreciatively. “A real man.”
“Baseball is 90 per cent mental and the other half is physical.” — Yogi Berra
And speaking of baseball and the tribe of Giants, here is a pertinent excerpt from my novel Under The Table Books in which ten-year-old Derek learns a valuable lesson about tribalism.
Derek and Lord Bellmaster are sitting twelve rows behind first base at Willy Mays Park watching the Giants clobber the Dodgers. This is the first professional baseball game Derek has ever attended and he is so deeply thrilled by the experience, he keeps forgetting to breathe. Their highly prized tickets were acquired in exchange for a battered first edition (1938) of Larousse Gastronomique. Jenny made the trade, but finding baseball baffling and boring she gave the tickets to Lord. He, in turn, offered them to Carl Klein who actually played outfield in the Giants minor league system for three years in the 1950’s and would almost certainly have made it to the majors but for his tendency to strike out and misjudge line drives. Carl stared at the tickets for a long time—untold memories flooding the forefront of his consciousness—and finally declared, “Take the kid. He’s never seen the real thing.”
Derek had heard of Willy Mays, but until Lord gave him a brief history of baseball on the train ride to the ballpark, he had no idea that Willy Mays was a baseball player. Now, having memorized Lord’s every word about the game, Derek knows that Willy Mays was the greatest baseball player of all time, and “anyone who says otherwise is an idiot.”
Everything about the day has been a thrill for Derek: the train ride, the majestic ballpark on the shores of San Francisco Bay, the brilliant green field beneath a cerulean sky, the bold and graceful players, the fabulous electricity of the gathering crowd, and best of all—getting to spend a whole day with Lord, just the two of them.
In the fifth inning, the Giants leading nine to nothing, the Dodger shortstop dives to snag the hurtling orb, leaps to his feet from full sprawl, and throws out the hustling Giant by a hair. Derek is so moved by the sheer beauty of the play, he leaps to his feet and shouts, “Wow!”
In response to Derek’s enthusiasm, a grizzled man sitting in front of them turns around and says, “You should be ashamed to wear those hats.” He is referring to the Giants caps Lord and Derek are sporting—vintage black and orange ones from the 1950’s loaned to them by Carl Klein for the day, one of the caps autographed by Willy McCovey, the other by Felipe Alou.
Derek feels the man’s rebuke as a physical blow—tears of hurt and confusion springing to his eyes.
Lord puts his arm around Derek and whispers in his ear, “It was a marvelous play. Very possibly one of the most astonishing plays I’ve ever seen. The impossible made plausible. Physical genius of the highest order. Blue-collar ballet. But see, kiddo, most die-hard Giants fans, I among them, hate the Dodgers with such a burning irrational cave man stupidity we are incapable of appreciating them even when they do something transcendent of mere rivalry. So don’t take it personally, okay?”
Derek sniffles back his tears and says to the man in front of them, “I’m sorry, sir. I’m only just now for the first time in my life learning about this game. I didn’t know you weren’t supposed to cheer the other guys when they did something incredible.”
The man turns around again, his scowl changing to a smile. “It was an excellent grab, I must admit. Reminds me of what Omar Vizquel used to do routinely three or four times a game way back when. Hey, where’d you get those cool old hats?”
[Todd Walton’s website is UnderTheTableBooks.com]