It ain't no tomahawk chop. And you probably won't see it on ESPN's Baseball Tonight: They go to bed too early.
It starts in the ninth inning of every San Francisco Giants win at home these days: A funereal bell tolls, for the sad, dead opposing team, and then you'll hear it: the bark.
First a few, then dozens and finally thousands of fans start barking, getting an early jump on the team's new anthem, "Who let the dogs out?" a Caribbean-soul hit by the Baha Men. The song itself won't play until the last out is recorded, but the barks keep getting louder. Then it's out No. 3, the Baha Men sing, and the Giants file out for their victory high-fives, some of them singing and barking with the crowd, too. And now the barking in the stands is deafening. You know those cellphone talking, cosmo-swilling dot-com yuppies who supposedly took over the team's new Pac Bell Park? They're barking like dogs, alongside gnarly old Candlestick fans, and it's frikking scary and weird and wonderful.
They're the dogs all right, the underdogs turned Top Dogs; the team nobody ever picks to finish first in the National League West who clinched the division Thursday night; the team with the best record in the major leagues this year (who knew?) and, basically, the best-kept secret in baseball. The team that for four straight years has been in the hunt late into September, winning the division twice, getting into a one-game wild-card playoff with the Chicago Cubs in 1998, and coming in a disappointing second to the Arizona Diamondbacks last year. The Giants have the fourth best cumulative record in the major leagues since 1997, behind the Atlanta Braves, New York Yankees and a few percentage points behind the New York Mets -- and they'll pass the Mets by the end of the season.
This year alone, they've already been pronounced dead twice: Once at the start of the season, when nobody picked the Giants to win the division -- even the dysfunctional Los Angeles Dodgers got more respect, as they always do until they start playing -- and then again at the July trading deadline, when Arizona acquired Curt Schilling from Philadelphia and suddenly its Schilling-Randy Johnson combination was more deadly than any duo since Koufax and Drysdale. They've been deadly, alright -- to the D'backs' playoff hopes, losing game after game since Schilling came over, although there's much more wrong in Phoenix than a pair of great pitchers could ever hope to right.
Now the 2000 Giants have clinched the division, and are headed for the post-season, but outside of the Bay Area, nobody knows them. So here's a crash course on the best team in baseball, the story the national media can't tell, because they mostly haven't been paying attention.
If I had to pick a highlight and make it a microcosm of the season it would be the bottom of the seventh in a Sept. 6 game against the Phillies. The game was tied 4-4, one out, one on, with Giants superstar Barry Bonds at the plate. He draws an intentional walk, but the sellout crowd gives a collective shrug: Whatever. Walk Bonds. Batting behind him is All Star second baseman Jeff Kent, hitting .335, who walks this time, to load the bases. And batting behind Kent is fearsome right-fielder Ellis Burks, he of the hobbled knees, the Boston Red Sox star the team gave up on years ago (that old curse of the Bambino again), who's batting .355 for the Giants and is the team leader.
Burks smashes what seems like an inning-ending double-play grounder to Phillies Gold Glove third baseman Scott Rolen -- who boots it, letting Marvin Benard (note to Baseball Tonight again: It's Benard, not Bernard -- work on that for October, OK?) score the game-winning run from third. It's scored an infield hit, Burks gets another RBI, the Giants win 5-4, and the game proves manager Dusty Baker's maxim: When teams are playing well, they get the lucky breaks, too.
You'll be hearing a lot about the wit and wisdom of Baker as we head into October. Although the national media ignores the Giants as a team year after year, it makes an exception for the brilliant Baker. He only has to fly over New York for the Times' great Murray Chass to write about him (often to make an unflattering comparison with the Mets' Bobby Valentine, a fairly nasty old-school baseball guy who is indeed the un-Baker.) Twice voted National League manager of the year, he's a shoo-in to do it a third time.
Now, nobody loves Baker more than I do (outside of his family, I'll allow) but the national media's infatuation with the Giants skipper, while at the same time disrespecting his team, has always struck me as a little condescending. It annoys Baker no end. Year after year, nobody picks the Giants to do much, and when they perform it's all laid at Baker's feet. His team is dismissed as a bunch of talent-challenged overachievers, Dusty's Kids. (In 1997, to be honest, I did it myself.)
And, not to get racial when race is irrelevant, but there's something a little patronizing about all the marveling at what Baker's done with a mediocre team -- as if the Giants are the baseball equivalent of soul food, ingredients nobody else would know how to work with, but Uncle Dusty whips up a savory meal every time. There's something wrong with the disrespect.
So here's the story: The Giants are a great team, period. Their talent is deep and wide. They've got stars -- the best player in baseball, Barry Bonds, now joined by Jeff Kent, who was finally voted to the All Star team this year on the strength of Internet balloting, and closer Robb Nen, who's being mentioned for the Cy Young award. But the heart and soul of the Giants are its role players, guys nobody's ever heard of who hit the hell out of the ball and pitch like crazy and have the league's second best batting average and fielding percentage (after Colorado) as well as earned run average (after Atlanta, and not by much) -- and don't make a big deal about themselves. This is a real team, where the whole is bigger than the sum of its parts.
First, the stars. Even Barry doesn't get the credit he deserves because, well, Barry often isn't very nice, except to kids, and he can be especially not-nice to reporters. (He's very nice to reporters' kids, though, giving my daughter a high-five or a big smile when he sees her.) A writer for a local weekly did a truly funny piece about wanting to love Barry Bonds, because Barry's the best player in baseball, and deciding to get to know the inner Barry. In the end he gave up, and decided baseball was reason enough to love Barry. He was right, but he wasted a lot of time getting there. I've turned down assignments to write about Barry because I do love Barry Bonds, best player in baseball, and I don't want to be distracted by the inner Barry -- the outer Barry is more than enough for me. Look at the guy.
This year may be Bonds' best ever, and it's poignant: At 36, it's almost visible that he knows there won't be many more seasons like this. There might not be any. He's putting extra vigor and all of his considerable and underestimated intelligence into every aspect of his game -- routinely robbing other teams of home runs, making spectacular diving catches, breaking his personal home run record, with 48 so far this year. The rap on Barry has been that he always gets his numbers, but not always in the clutch, but this year he's carried the team when it needed him to. His slugging percentage is a league-leading .709. All of this bodes well for October, where Bonds' record has also lagged behind his talent. Right now he's the favorite for National League MVP.
Jeff Kent, too, is belatedly getting the props that befit the greatest second baseman since Rogers Hornsby. Kent's never gotten the national attention he deserves due to a double whammy of New York media arrogance. When he was with the Mets, he failed to understand how brown-nosing the reporters was crucial to his reputation, and his prickly mien got him anointed a clubhouse cancer and a bad apple. Now he's with the Giants, who nobody in New York cares about, so it's taken four years for him to get the national spotlight. He's had an MVP year, too, batting a consistent .335, with 33 home runs and 124 RBIs as of Friday. And while he's just your average infielder, reliable but not terribly speedy, he's second on the club in steals, one behind Benard, with 12. He just runs hard.
Star No. 3 is Ellis Burks. I stay out of the fight over whether Bonds or Kent is National League MVP, because to me, it's Burks. On a team of stellar players, he is demonstrably the most valuable. His bad knees make everyday play impossible, especially when the team is on turf, but Baker and GM Brian Sabean say a part-time Burks is worth it. In the games he's played, the Giants are 68-34 this year; without him they're 23-36. Any questions? And where Bonds and Kent can both be prickly and unapproachable, Burks is a gentle, charismatic leader, smart, funny and polite.
Thursday night he was awarded the coveted Willie Mac award, named after legendary first baseman Willie McCovey (who also had bad knees) and given to the player who exhibits the most hustle. It was no contest. He went on to own the division-clinching game, hitting a game-tying two-run home run, an RBI single and scoring the winning run.
But to dwell on the Giants' so-called stars is to miss the point. Last year five Giants had more than 20 home runs -- a record they're on pace to match this year -- and nine Giants already have more than 10 homers. Each of the team's five starting pitchers has more than 10 wins; Livan Hernandez and Shawn Estes are still battling it out for staff ace, with 16 and 15 wins respectively, and after struggling, Russ Ortiz was pitcher of the month with six wins in August.
Rich Aurilia leads the NL in home runs (19 to date) and RBIs (76) for a shortstop; J.T. Snow's headed for another Gold Glove at first; Bill Mueller may well win one at third; platooning catchers Bobby Estalella and Doug Mirabelli have more combined home runs (20) than any starting catcher in the NL besides the Mets' Mike Piazza. Virtually every player off the bench has contributed game-winning hits. Armando Rios, Felipe Crespo, Russ Davis, Calvin Murray: Remember their names, because all have been September heroes, and at least one of them will be an October hero.
Even Giant-haters have to grant me one thing: They have the best park in the world. Pac Bell Park is a dream come true, with its back porch on McCovey Cove and all those fine palm trees waving in the breeze. It took politics and finesse and community spirit to get it built. Now it's a gift to the neighborhood, and the city, from the team's stellar management. They even have the best training team in baseball, who've reduced days on the disabled list from over 700 in the years from 1989 to 1996 to just over 300 in 1997-2000. And so far this season Giants have spent under 100 days on the DL; the lowest number in baseball. Burks wasn't kidding when he thanked trainer Stan Conte after he won the coveted Willie Mac award.
Finally, the national baseball writers are right about one thing. Dusty Baker is a god among men, and we're blessed to have him. In the end much of the Giants' success has to come back to Baker. He's the one who makes this a team, with a group ethic and identity you don't see anywhere else, except maybe Joe Torre's Yankees. He's got his key starters, but he rotates a considerable number of players -- Estalella and Mirabelli as catcher, Benard shares some time with Rios and Murray in the outfield; Bill Mueller makes way for Russ Davis when the team needs power at third base. This can be hell on a team; Baker makes it (comparatively) easy, playing no favorites, rewarding and disappointing players fairly.
Plus, nobody talks about it, but the Spanish-speaking Baker's multiracial ease is crucial. It sets the tone for clubhouse relationships and friendships. The Giants have the best chemistry in baseball, with black, white and Latin stars, bench players and coaches. In other clubhouses -- think Dodgers -- the mix has been toxic over the years. In the Giants' it mostly means you hear all kinds of music and don't see the clustered ethnic cliques that divide other teams.
The only shadow over the Giants party is the fact that Baker doesn't have a contract extension signed -- yet -- which all involved parties hate talking about, and I won't belabor it here. I'm confident he'll be back next year. Both sides say they want that; they'll work out the details. I predict he'll be well paid, but he'll turn down higher offers to stay with a mid-payroll team he loves. (He probably already has.) On Tuesday night Tony Bennett dropped by and sang "I left my heart in San Francisco" a capella before the game, and when he clasped Baker's hand after he finished, the glint in the manager's eye and the smile on his face told me he's not going anywhere they don't play that song after ballgames (after "Who let the dogs out?" that is).
There is probably a not-so-subtle psychological advantage to the splendor of Pac Bell Park: Somehow, having the best park in baseball helped the Giants play like the best. For years their self-image was tied inextricably to Candlestick: They were a gritty blue-collar team, pegged as underdogs and overachievers, tough-playing warriors who made the best of one of the worst parks in the major leagues.
But in their first season in a park fit for champions, the Giants are playing like champions. San Francisco and the entire country are learning something crucial about Pac Bell Park at the same time: This place was built for October baseball, and we should expect to see a lot of it in the years to come.