Take a Bow, San Francisco Giants!
I tweeted the following last night: After the 2008 season, if you would have predicted that any Major League team would win two World Series by 2012, who would you have predicted? The Phillies? The Yankees? The Giants?
The Giants' rise is amazing for several reasons. First, they survived some disastrous signings. They inked CF Aaron Rowand to a long-term deal after some heroics in Philadelphia, only to have him prove that without Philadelphia's then-young studs in the lineup to protect him, he was just a journeyman (even at $12 million per year over 5 years). Then, they won the Barry Zito sweepstakes, spending a Croesus-like fortune and outbidding, among others, the Mets. And you have to remember that many fans lamented that their team couldn't land such prize as Zito. That said, had then-Mets GM Omar Minaya inked Zito, he would have lost his job a few years into the deal. Brian Sabean, the Giants' GM, didn't meet such a fate (and long-term deals are more and more proving to be bad for the teams who agree to them). This year, they lost their closer for the season, the NL's #2 hitter to a steroids suspension (and went further by telling him to hit the road, period) and saw the continued decline of a young pitcher inked to another long-term deal (only to see him resurrect himself marvelously in the post-season).
The Giants are a great combination of factors. Patient ownership, a persistent General Manager who keeps on finding gems among players who are much less than big names, pitching, pitching and more pitching, a few key hitters, good leadership and a great, yes, Hall of Fame, manager. While the cognoscenti offer the view that managers don't make that much of a difference, they very much do so when asked to cobble together a contending team with the likes of Gregor Blanco, Brendon Belt and your cousin Joey from Valdosta. It's relatively easy to win when you can sign the big-name free agents year after year with the money that your TV network generates. It's another when you're based in a Bohemian town more prone to attract 60,000 to a concert in Golden Gate Park than to your refrigerator of a ballpark (where people where scarves and drape fleeces over themselves in August) and tend to go to baseball's flea markets to find key cogs of the turbocharged pod racer of a team that would make Anakin Skywalker proud.
That's not to say though, that the Giants don't have stars. Matt Cain is one of the best pitchers in baseball. His catcher, Buster Posey, is one of the best position players. And the third baseman, Pablo Sandoval, demonstrated his vast ability by hitting three homer runs in Game 1 of the World Series and sending a message to Detroit that while it may be the Motor City, San Francisco is the Mojo City. I've sometimes thought that at the kids' league and high school levels, teams can win games in warm-ups by showing the opposition how disciplined they are. Well, the Giants might have won the Series in Game 1 through their great display, too. They just didn't care that the Tigers' have baseball's best starting pitcher, Justin Verlander, or the first Triple Crown winner in 45 years, Miguel Cabrera. In the post-season, the slates get wiped clean. A Verlander can turn into a Steve Blass, a Gregor Blanco into Frank Robinson. They also figured out that as MLB cracked down both on amphetamines and steroids, that pitching would matter more than it had in decades. And they've proved it.
As for the Phillies and the Yankees, both teams got old fast. The long-term deals that excited fans as recently as a year or two ago now seem like one hundred-pound Kettle bells duct-taped to the necks of their General Managers, who perennially are compelled to do a high-wire act. They have a lot of money at their disposal, they're expected to fill the seats, and they're expected to contend for a title, all the while not depleting the farm system. Yet, they do the latter, and they aren't winning titles. The Yankees have 6 years left on A-Rod's contract, at least four on Mark Teixera's, and the Phillies saw Roy Halladay get old and injured this season and Cliff Lee flounder at times. They are not young teams, they look weary in their dugouts, they look burdened by expectations, and, well, they don't look like they are having fun. The Phillies' crew in '08 looked like it was having the time of its life; ditto the Yankees' in '09.
Two titles in three years? From a San Francisco team that hadn't won a World Series from 1954 to 2010? From a San Francisco team without a Mays, McCovey, Marichal? From a San Francisco team after Barry Bonds retired?
Let's give credit where credit is due. Bruce Bochy might be the best manager baseball has seen in decades. He's won without the talent of an Earl Weaver, Dick Williams, Sparky Anderson, Tommy Lasorda, Joe Torre and Terry Francona (and, yes, also Tony LaRussa). Brian Sabean might not get the publicity of Theo Epstein, any disciple of Billy Beane or Brian Cashman, but he's fared better.
They play Moneyball in Oakland, right across the bay. Last time I checked, Moneyball hasn't gotten the A's to the World Series, let alone won them one.
They play a rich stew of Microball (finding pieces at MLB's version of yard sales, turning another's junk into their joy) and Mojoball (where chemistry really matters). And it works.
Moneyball is a great book and was a good movie.
But the money team is 11 miles to the west, on the water.
And for two of the past three seasons, they've walked on it.