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The Giants, A Breathless Look Back

The Giants have fixated my feeble attentions to the point of mesmerization. As a kid, I saw lots of Seal's ball games at the old Seals Stadium at 16th and Potrero. I remember the time Two Gun Allan Gettel threw both ends of a doubleheader for the Oakland Oaks across the bay in Emeryville for the Oakland Oaks in a dilapidated all-wood ballpark. By the time I was ten I could recite the starting line-ups of the entire Pacific Coast League, and the inspirational baseball novels of John R. Tunis gave me the only moral instruction that made any sense to me. A kid could get a bleacher seat at Seals Stadium for a nickel with the Knot Hole Gang. A nickel was about all the cash a kid had in 1949. I still remember Luke Easter, later a star with Cleveland, and among the first black ballplayers to play in the major leagues, pumping one batting practice ball after another clear over the right field wall, across 16th Street, and into the park. The park is still there, but the fine little ballpark is gone, replaced by a blasphemous strip mall. I was so astounded at the pure splendor of Luke Easter's serial long ball feat it has stayed with me all these years. When Tommy Wayne Kramer told me recently that Easter, in old age and working as a security guard at a Target store in Cleveland, had been shot and killed by a couple of hold-up punks, I damn near cried. Curt Flood, a great ballplayer out of Oakland who came along just after Easter, made ballplayers rich, not that any of them shared the money Flood had made possible with Flood and pioneers like Luke Easter. It seems like another lifetime, but my late brother and I played American Legion ball against Flood the year Bill Irwin Post of Oakland won the national championship. The few times I've mentioned this to sports fans I can see them thinking, "What bullshit. All these old jocks say stuff like this." But I've got the clippings. I pitched a 13-inning shutout myself in high school, and I played at Cal Poly six or seven years before Mike Krukow came along. I've got those clippings, too, so lighten up, skeptics. That Bill Irwin Post team out of Oakland consisted of Flood, Vada Pinson and Frank Robinson in the outfield, Jesse Gonder catching, Ernie Broglio pitching. The whole goddam team went on to the major leagues. It was probably the best collection of young ballplayers in the history of this country. We lost. Flood, a great hero of the game, was also a talented painter. He spent many years in exile in Spain and died broke in LA. I never saw the Giants play at Seals Stadium when they came west in '58. I saw them often at Candlestick, even saw Ukiah's Kelvin Chapman play a game at second place for the Mets one afternoon. And I was listening to Russ and Lon when Willie McCovey lined out to Bobby Richardson at Candlestick in the Giants-Yankees World Series of 1962, and the Giants still haven't won a World Series since coming to San Francisco in 1957, but 2010 just might be the year. In 1962 the first American troops had been dispatched to Vietnam, there were a few beatniks in North Beach, and I was living in a bathroom-down- the-hall hotel at 5th and Brannan. The entire four-story structure listed west like a sinking ship, and everyone who lived there, old guys and winos mostly, greeted each other on the street by leaning west. There were clean sheets once a week at the manager's desk. He was a shell-shocked veteran of World War Two. My girl friend burst into tears on her one and only visit. "This is the most depressing place I've ever seen. Do you like it here?" Yes, I did like it there. It was high-ceilinged, old-fixtured, and a Gypsy told fortunes and sold stolen transmissions on the ground floor. The same girl friend flipped out at the Geary Theater one night. We were making our precipitous way to the cheap seats when she suddenly screamed, "Vertigo! I'm falling!" She was a high-strung type, and exactly what I deserved for hanging out with the pseuds instead of taking the bus out to Candlestick for a ball game. I never worked on my game after high school. I wonder now with weight training and the good coaching how good I could have been. Not very probably, but I was still good enough to play for a couple of years in college, which got me a meal ticket and a noisy free room in the jock dorm with Fred Wittingham who went on to the NFL as a linebacker. Fred was described as "the meanest rookie" they had that year. I wrote term papers for him and, I must say, enjoyed his lively company, heavy as it was on physical humor. Years passed, a technicolor blur of improbable people and events. I followed the Giants but sat out the steroid years. I didn't care if these bloated weight lifters hit a million homeruns. They looked like robots out there in the green. The game was distorted, ruined for a while there, and anyway Russ and Lon had retired and I was having a hard time adjusting to the new radio guys. I started going to Giants games again in Bonds' last year. I might have been the only guy in the park who didn't stand up when he hit a homerun. I'd seen Mays and McCovey and Cepeda hit real homeruns. I was happy when Canseco brought all the juicers down. I'd started going to Giants games again at AT&T Park because my nephew gave me a free ticket. I like that place so much I'd probably pay my way in for no ball game, just to sit up top looking out at the setting sun burning in the windows of the Berkeley hills and the ships and sail boats against the blue of the bay. I got to like the Giants a lot with Pablo and The Little Stoner and Fear The Beard and the amazing Omar Visquel at short, and Molina behind the plate. There was something beguiling about them. Fat guys and little guys and old guys and guys who were supposed to be washed-up. If you saw them in their civvies walking down the street you might think they were a bunch of PG&E linemen on a lunch break. And they got more beguiling, led by a kid with a big fastball and 1975 long hair who looks like he just stepped out of a doublewide Willits crank lab. April of 2010, I was sitting in the rain watching an exhibition game when Mike Kalantarian and his daughter Annie, 10, of Navarro showed up. We continued sitting in the rain. The field was wet and slippery. The game was called in the fifth when there were, max, 10,000 diehards still looking on. We agreed that the Giants would probably be a lot like they were in 2009 — good pitching, good games, terrific entertainment, but not enough bats, and not enough wins to get to the playoffs. If I'd put a hundred bucks on the Giants back in April I could have retired to, uh, Boonville. By early August, the Giants were five games behind San Diego but coming on. Tickets were harder to get. The beautiful people were coming out, the frontrunners, with the Giants either winning or losing an unlikely number of one-run games. Kuip, of Kruk and Kuip, said the way the Giants played was like torture, which it may be to a fine, plump people like us in no danger of being waterboarded or having our families killed by a remote control bomb unleashed on us from two continents away. The Giants were certainly excruciating. And interesting. The players were often candid, witty even in non-corporate ways, especially Huff, the youngest players, Bumgarner and Posey being the most guarded but never for a moment overwhelmed into disorientation. And the game was never over until it was over. There was no quit in these guys, no dog. Then San Diego collapsed and suddenly everyone in NorCal wanted tickets. Even the cheap seats were selling out. When I didn't have a ticket I found myself standing in right field at the see-through holes in the wall staring wistfully in at the game, occasionally looking behind me where a huge "Free Johan Mehserle" banner flew from a sailboat mast in McCovey Cove. Johan's got to do at least ten years for "accidentally" plugging Oscar Grant, and what the hell's this, I thought, the whole point of baseball is that you get to tune out catastrophe for three hours, but here was this reminder flying in right-center. Last Wednesday afternoon, I had a ticket to Game Four with the Phillies. A kid was walking around with a sign that said, "I need ONE ticket." I asked him if he'd had any offers. "A guy said he'd sell me one for $700, but $400's my limit." I was lurking at the Cepeda statue. A petulant fatman was yelling into his cell phone, "You're at Willie Mays, I'm at Cepeda. If you think I'm going to walk all the way back to Willie Mays, you're crazy." From the Cepeda statue to the Mays statue is maybe 150 yards, if that. Thin girls with large breasts and short skirts and spiked heels walked around handing out poster-size ads. The mega-rich were lined up at the luxury box entrance, a kind of hog heaven with its own elevator and attendants who bring the negative food value stuff direct to your barco-lounger. In the big bucks line was an angry looking man said to be worth $2 billion, Gordon Getty. He was with Mrs. Getty. I've often seen their pictures in the Chronicle. The Gettys are always smiling, but Gordy wasn't smiling waiting to get to his thousand-dollar seat. People worth $2 billion aren't used to standing in line. Gordy probably hasn't stood in line since high school, and here he was midway in a long, slow moving queue of god knows who —musicians, actors, insurance brokers, magic money people of all sorts, not to mention the sea of undesirables swimming up against him from the sidewalk. The game was the best I've ever seen. Senor Uribe of the Dominican Republic won it with a sacrifice fly in the ninth, just after Oswalt had whistled three fastballs right under Uribe's chinny chin-chin to back him off the plate. Uribe had to reach clear over to the outside corner to get his bat on the ball, and here came Huff from third base with a triumphant, maestro-like pop-up slide at home and the Giants had won. The place went nuts, 43,000 people screaming and high-fiving. An hour later, on the 1 California, even the people who weren't at the game were talking about it, and out in the night all the way out to 8th Avenue there were shouts of pure joy. Then Saturday night, when Fear the Beard nailed that last strike and the Giants had won a trip to the World Series, it was like a Happy Bomb had exploded over the city, as a huge primal affirmative rang out and firecrackers exploded and strangers hugged each other on the street — the full jubilation works! There were the '75 Warriors, the Super Bowl 49ers of Joe Montana and Dwight Clark, but there's never been anything like the 2010 Giants.

I wanted to go to Manila again, because Manila, like San Francisco, is a place where interesting things can happen to a man. All you have to do is be there, just walking around. — Charles Willeford

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