If you want to understand how sweet and surreal this World Series is for the San Francisco Giants, you've got to appreciate the low points of this strange season, and there were lots of them. For me the nadir was June, during the exercise in tedium known as Interleague Play, as the Giants kicked off the first of two series with the Oakland A's. I was on the phone with local sports-talk host Larry Krueger, Giants manager Dusty Baker's No. 1 critic, and he was yelling in my ear about Baker's latest crime: continuing to start struggling Gold Glove first baseman J.T. Snow instead of rookie Damon Minor, who'd hit three home runs in three days against the Toronto Blue Jays.
"Watch!" Krueger bellowed at me. "He's gonna start Snow over Minor tomorrow night! He'll do what he always does! He never plays the hot hand!"
Krueger was wrong. Baker started Minor that series, and for the next month or so, until the unfortunately named rookie, the Titan of Triple-A, went consistently cold. Minor was hitless against the A's, the Giants dropped two out of three and fell four games behind the Arizona Diamondbacks, and the Baker-hating continued, unabated: Sure, he'd benched Snow, but he played another one of the critics' whipping boys, veteran Shawon Dunston, who fouled out with the tying run at third in the last game.
That led to my personal low moment of the season, watching Baker chew out reporters after the game. "I know you still have faith in Shawon Dunston," one began gently. But the short-fused manager, his energy and patience drained by prostate cancer surgery six months earlier, cut him off. "If I didn't, I wouldn't keep playing him! I hear people saying, 'Dusty's so loyal, Shawon's your boy.' I hear all that shit. But he can do it. If I didn't think so, I wouldn't keep running him out there." The post-game press conference broke up shortly thereafter, and so did the Giants, or so I thought. You saw it on TV, a week or so later, after the team dropped two out of three to the sad Baltimore Orioles: The Thrilla in San Diego, the Rumble in the Dugout. Barry Bonds had Jeff Kent by the throat, team trainer Stan Conte was holding back none other than Baker himself, and if you thought you'd tuned into the WWE instead of ESPN, you had company. This was a team in free fall.
Fast forward to the League Championship Series victory against the St. Louis Cardinals: Bonds and Kent are hugging, not hating. A resurgent J.T. Snow, batting .282 in the playoffs with several crucial hits, vied with catcher Benito Santiago (another has-been revived by Baker; more on him later) for Most Valuable Player. Shawon Dunston had a clutch hit during a ninth inning two-out rally in the final game, setting up the gritty game-winning single by Kenny Lofton, another Giants' retread. Baker outmanaged his mentor Tony La Russa, the only other guy to win three Manager of the Year awards, and the Giants were going to Disneyland for a World Series against the Anaheim Angels. While Baker, Snow and Dunston were drinking champagne, Krueger and their other critics had to eat some crow. "Look, managers have good and bad years, and Dusty's had a very good year," Krueger told me after the big win. There is a God.
But the doubters haven't disappeared entirely. In fact, while most baseball analysts say the Giants and Angels, both wild card winners, are amazingly evenly matched, most give the edge to the Angels anyway -- even though, in category after category, it's the Giants who have the statistical and psychological advantage. And I don't get it.
In other years, I'd have written that off as East Coast media bias. They're all in bed in Bristol, Conn. by the time many Giants games are over, so some team highlights don't even make it onto ESPN. But the Angels play three time zones away, too, so that won't explain it. And it's not that the Angels have fared better in postseason play, one of the so-called "intangibles" that can give one of two evenly matched teams the edge. While the Giants haven't won a World Series since 1954, they've been there twice since then, in 1962 and 1989, and five Giants players have World Series experience with other teams. This is the Angels' first trip in their 42-year history, and nobody on their roster has World Series experience.
Which is not to say the Angels aren't a great team. They're fantastic, a lot like the Giants, in fact. Both teams put themselves in holes during the first half of the season, and fought back like champions. Neither team could really afford to lose a single game in September, and when it counted most, neither did.
I think the Angels bandwagon, though, is mostly powered by two things: The historic sense that the Giants choke in the spotlight, and the media's lessened but still significant dislike for Barry Bonds. The Bonds factor alone should give the Giants the edge in any close matchup. He spooked La Russa and the Atlanta Braves' Bobby Cox, taking the two best managers in the National League behind Baker completely out of their games. But instead the Bonds factor seems to work the other way in the analysts' minds: it translates into their overestimating, and maybe subconsciously pulling for, their opponents.
That anti-Giants, anti-Bonds prejudice was not at all subconscious in a juvenile Jeff Pearlman column on CNNSI.com this week, which judged the Giants' victory over the Cardinals final proof that "There is no God." Pearlman's evidence? That Bonds and Lofton, whom he depicts as an arrogant asshole and a lowlife thug, respectively, are going to the World Series, and the team of Darryl Kile and Jack Buck are not.
There was nothing juvenile or even hostile to the Sporting News' Ken Rosenthal's column giving the nod to the Angels. There was nothing to it, period. He walked through all the reasons smart baseball folks think the Giants have the edge, and then picked the Angels anyway. Why? "My head tells me the Giants, but my heart tells me the Angels," he wrote.
No matter. The motto of Dusty Baker's team is, "We don't start nothin', but we don't take nothin' either." The disrespect will rile them up a little, while the natural advantages the analysts ignore make them the favorites on the field. My head tells me the Giants, and my heart tells me the Giants, too. Here's why.
First of all, the 2002 Giants aren't underdogs anymore. They've got some top dogs: three starting All-Stars from 2001 in Bonds (last year's MVP and certain to be this year's too), 2000 MVP Jeff Kent, who hit .317 with 37 HRs this year, and shortstop Rich Aurilia, whose 2002 season didn't match 2001 (.324, 37 HRs) because he was injured, but whose bat came alive against the Cardinals. This isn't the 1997 team, on which Kent hadn't proven himself, Aurilia was a green backup shortstop, Bonds was great but still a mere mortal, and the season hinged on the heroics of journeyman catcher Brian Johnson, a truly great guy who's not even in the major leagues anymore.
Still, beyond Bonds and Kent, every Giants hitter hovered around .250 this season -- but that's what makes the team easy, and dangerous, to underestimate. Key Giants hitters -- especially Snow, Aurilia and Santiago, who finished with a .280 average -- surged as the season ended. Even at the bottom of the order there's menace: third baseman David Bell, who hits eighth, clubbed 20 home runs with 73 RBIs and was clutch with men in scoring position. Right fielder Reggie Sanders, who hits seventh, was a disappointment after his great 2001 season with Arizona, but he still wound up with 23 home runs and 85 RBIs, and all I can say is he's due. (If he wakes up from his dismal postseason slump, it's Giants in five.) So while the Angels have the edge at a few posts in the starting eight -- clearly at right field with Tim Salmon, and maybe at center with Darin Erstad (over Lofton) and third with Troy Glaus (over Bell) -- the Bonds factor alone gives them the overall advantage. Walk him or pitch to him, he's on base most of the time either way.
Likewise in starting pitching, most people judge the Giants better equipped, with four guys who could be Baker's first starter in any given playoff. In fact, he's used three: Russ Ortiz against Atlanta, Kirk Rueter against St. Louis and now Jason Schmidt against the Angels. That leaves Livan Hernandez -- who looked dreadful many times during the regular season, but has come on and is unbeaten in eight postseason starts -- to start Games 3 and 7. The Angels probably have an edge in the bullpen, but I can't even roll over on that one, now that Felix Rodriguez and his 97 mph heat has returned to 2001 form. For the sake of argument, though, let's give the bullpen to the Angels -- and remember the Braves had the best bullpen in the National League, and it couldn't help them once their starters were clubbed by the Giants.
The only hands-down advantage the Angels have is at the designated hitter spot, though the Giants starting pitchers kick the butts of the Angels when they have to bat in San Francisco. Then there's the manager's spot, where inexplicably, lots of analysts are calling it a tossup, even though Baker has 10 years, three trips to the postseason and three Manager of the Year awards, to the talented Mike Scoscia's three years and zip in the awards and postseason category, until now. I've spent too much time singing Baker's praises over the years to bother with it here. He doesn't need me. Let's just say ESPN's Joe Morgan calls him the best manager in baseball, and gives the nod to the Giants. Enough said.
Then, of course, there are the intangibles. Everybody knows about Baker's cancer, but another thing that has held this fractious team together is the presence of two amazing old players. The first is Benito Santiago, the onetime Rookie of the Year who admits he squandered years of his prodigious talent on bad baseball decisions and some partying. In January 1998 Santiago had a catastrophic auto accident that seemed certain to end his baseball career, if not his life (the Web site Stiffs.com tracked him on its "sickticker" for days, waiting to add him to its database of the celebrity dead). Instead, Santiago jumped back onto a baseball roster, bouncing from the Blue Jays in 1998 to the Chicago Cubs in 1999 to the Cincinnati Reds in 2000, until he found himself without a team well into spring training 2001. That's when an old buddy of Baker's, Dodgers catcher turned Miami gym-owner Paul Casanova, phoned the Giants manager after watching Santiago train and told him, "Benny's ready." The Giants picked up the Carlos Santana lookalike, and he picked up the team, coming into his own in 2002 with trips to the All Star Game, a playoff MVP trophy and now his first World Series at age 37.
But my favorite story is Shawon Dunston. He was an All-Star shortstop with the Chicago Cubs who couldn't get over not playing every day once his body, inevitably, declined. He credits Baker for the tough love that taught him to adjust to being a role player, not a starter. "He took me aside and he told me, 'OK, you were an All-Star. But you ain't no Hall of Famer. You ain't God's gift to baseball." Years later Dunston still looks sucker-punched as he tells the story. But after sulking briefly, Dunston said, he came around. It still hurts that he's mostly on the bench -- when I talked to him midseason, he said it was painful hearing the calls for him to retire "when I still know I can play."
Yet Baker endured the heat for keeping him on the roster for a reason besides loyalty: Dunston's an unrivalled clubhouse leader, the only guy who can clown around as an equal with both Bonds and Kent, who still aren't buddies. He was the first guy to soak the aloof Bonds with champagne after the division series win. But my favorite Dunston memory, before the final championship game, came in April, when I watched him clowning around with Kent in the dugout while most teammates were still being frosty to him, after he broke his wrist doing wheelies on his motorcycle and lied about it, and started the season on the disabled list. Clowning with Dunston began Kent's slow rehabilitation with his teammates, which still isn't complete. (If Kent gets hot in the playoffs, it's Giants in four.) Now Dunston's going to the World Series for the first time, at 39, and his teammates will happily pay his World Series share even if he doesn't get another hit.
Yet the doubters still carp about Baker's tendency to stick with guys like Dunston. "Dusty likes to champion the underdog, which is an admirable trait, but it loses you games," says Larry Krueger. Clearly, Baker's well-documented affinity for the underdog (which hasn't been on display much this year anyway) hasn't kept him from winning plenty: The Giants are second in wins to only the Atlanta Braves during his 10 years at the helm; he has 7 stirring victories in 10 postseason games this October.
But I've thought some about this underdog issue, too. If you always identify with the underdog -- as Baker does, as I do -- can you ever be the top dog? Even beyond Baker, is there something about the Giants' long tradition of losing -- they haven't won a World Series since 1954, and before that it was 1933 -- that sets them up for more losing? Honestly, the only place I think the Angels might have an edge over the Giants is when it comes to fans. Sure, we pack Pac Bell Park. But we always expect the worst. Closer Robb Nen will blow the save! Dunston will strike out! Dusty yanked the starting pitcher too early/too late. Does anybody really believe this team can win its first World Series in San Francisco, their first in 48 years?
I do. And at long last, so do virtually all Giants fans. This is the year they throw it all off, and become the underdogs who play like top dogs. Just watch. It'll be Giants in six. (My head says seven, but my heart can't take the stress.)