As the 2015 regular season of baseball tumbles to a close, the 2015 San Francisco Giants, held together with duct tape and zip ties, refuse to die. They are a near-impossible number of games back (5) from the Dodgers in the division, and they are mathematically-eliminated from the wild card, but…BUT. But tonight they clinched: they clinched being an above-500 team, which, in the zero-sum game of baseball standings, is the sacrosanct dividing line between good and forgettable teams. No matter what, the 2015 Giants were a good team.
Through an unfathomable number of weird injuries this year, including multiple concussions and many strained oblique abdominal muscles, the Giants have fielded a lineup that has won more often than it has lost. Won against organizations paying many millions of dollars to not have that happen. In fact, in the closing half-inning of tonight’s 12-inning walk-off win against the Dodgers, the three Giants batsmen that cooperated to secure the victory and the over-500 season were nowhere close to the roster that was posted on this season’s opening day. Marlon Byrd (started the season with the Reds) hit a single, after which he advanced to third when Kelby Tomlinson (played most of this year in the minors) won an oh-and-two duel with an opposite-field crack, leading to a stand-up score on a tag-up from a just-far-enough left-field pop fly by Alejandro De Aza (Orioles->Red Sox->Giants, this year alone). Amazing. And nothing anybody could have predicted last March.
The current Giants are injured, ragtag, and motley. Baseball, being a game of metaphors that you read more deeply as you age, provides within itself a million lenses to understand and savor this. This team is like a bunt with no runners on, rolling slowly up the third-base line, pitcher, catcher, and third-baseman hunched over it, crab-stepping with eyes wide and hands ready. The batter is long since at first, having hit the ball into the no man’s land of the infield, and the opposition has only to wait for the devil hit to roll foul. It almost certainly will. It almost certainly will roll foul, because that’s what the majority of such hits do, with only perfect bunts putting their creator aboard. But if it doesn’t, it ends abruptly in fair territory with an enraging outcome for the defense and a cheer from the offensive dugout, like 40 roulette players who bet on a number and hit it. Baseball loves only two things: inexorable statistics and mold-breaking aberrations, and the ongoing duet of these two is the enticing slot machine that keeps fans and players returning every year. All outcomes now have a likelihood, but none has a certainty.
This reality, tonight, is the 2015 Giants in a nutshell: their likelihood is imminent elimination, but their certainty is nothing. The longer I am alive, the more I feel that teams like this represent many years of a normal life. In this game, against the possible Cy Young pitcher Zack Greinke, a patchwork bouillabaisse of odd-year veterans and repurposed minor leaguers secured a result that is, by definition, above the field average. And they prevented, yet again, the Dodgers from tying up the division. Whether you choose to say “forestalled” or “prevented” is a matter of perspective and disposition, another character-illuminating facet of baseball, but I prefer the latter, because the game has continued to show me that there is always hope as long as there is another pitch to be thrown. In any event, this game was a masterpiece of survivalist chess by manager Bruce Bochy et al, combined with a few lucky spins of the Rota Fortunae, and if you have ever experienced that feeling of escaping the hangman’s noose by a thread, then you will have found that same bursting frisson tonight in the microcosm of a dirt diamond ringed by beautiful grass.
Baseball can be guarded, though. It saves its best rewards for those who know more deeply about it, who follow its tiny machinations. That beautiful grass alone, sitting so unlikely from city to city in otherwise-harsh urban areas, often has stories of its own. This year, you could tell when the Giants’ idyllic bayside park had been trod by concert equipment on several occasions, with Billy Idol and AC/DC making appearances and leaving dead geometrical lines and dents heavier than any cleated foot could ever manage, scars unfixable before the next game day. Without knowing this, it would seem as if the players were running across a series of uninventive crop circles, or possibly across the work of a soon-to-be-fired groundskeeper. Instead, the scene takes on a tiny but interesting dimension, reminding you of the profiteering impulse that has underlied the professional baseball leagues since they first organized, the same mercenary attitude that more than once has pitted owners against players, in itself a repeating shadow of the American struggle of labor versus management. This battle has played out many times in baseball, with the current unified major league now immune to antitrust law on a federal level, as decided almost 100 years ago by our Supreme Court. This is a pivotal fact that influences millions of dollars in commerce and thousands of American lives each year, yet it is entirely forgotten at this point. Its story lives on in the grass, though, if you know how to see it.
Many more-likable stories also exist a shade below the surface of the day’s box score. A bespectacled youngster (Tomlinson) answers the call of the majors, rising from an unimpressive farm system career to bat 300 and spear backhanded second-base grabs when his all-star predecessor (Panik), himself a late-season homespun call-up, is benched with injuries. His first major league at-bat is a hit that eventually sees him home to give the team the lead in extra innings, a feat he would follow with two more hits in a row, breathing down the neck of the venerated rookie performance of McCovey himself. A twentieth-in-line catcher, Trevor Brown, finds his, presumably, cell phone ringing a week or two into the minor league off-season with the strangest news he’s ever gotten, and now he hits safely several times in a game with the team’s season literally on the line. A new rookie outfielder, Jarrett Parker, hits three home runs in a different game, yielding seven RBIs, and approaching, Icarus style, the club record of four home runs and eight RBIs set by none other than Willie Mays. Brett Bochy, the son of the inevitably-hall-of-fame Giants manager, Bruce Bochy, is tapped from the minors and closes a home game for the win, amidst the deafening two-count chant of “Bo-Chy Bo-Chy Bo-Chy,” shaking off nerves, a hit batter, and an ominous and loudly-booed visit on the mound from his father that looked like a pitching change. These things all happened in the death-knell days of this 2015 season, all from events that were both unlikely and undesirable. Baseball rewards its introspective faithful with one phoenix after another, if you are willing to look and to keep looking, well after most others have thrown in the towel and gone home.
Baseball is long. Its existence is long, as a sport, on the American timeline. Its season is a bizarre and cruelly-long number of games (162) over a long number of months (6 or so). Its series may be up to seven games apiece, and its individual games have no time limit. The best teams win two-thirds of their games, and the worst, one-third. The middle third is the disputed land, left to the tit-for-tat trench warfare that plays out across this continent during our summer months, observed from hills with beers and hot dogs, statistics slowly accumulating. In its final grand metaphor, baseball is the ideal symbol of battles composing the war but the war almost never dependent upon any specific battle. Yet when you are invested in a specific battle, a specific game, there is a defined narrative arc that can be all-consuming, making the event worthwhile just by itself: will they win today, all other days be damned. And when they do, it is so sweet. In good seasons, those moments accumulate imperceptibly until a playoff spot becomes an emergent property of the season, something that nobody can link to any specific player or moment, but, yet, there it is, undeniable. In bad seasons, those moments are enough to sustain the faith.
This length, driven by the huge number of games each year, provides baseball something very important: a near-infinite number of moments. The sport is criticized occasionally for being slow or boring, with detractors keying in on periods where little physical action is occurring, regardless of the mental game, yet the timeline is ultimately on the side of the fans. There are so many events in any one baseball game, let alone baseball season, that you are guaranteed to see something statistically-magical if you lie in wait and look for it: a Bumgarner pitching a complete game (8/11/15), a Pagan grabbing a would-be home run over the center field wall for an out (9/11/15), a rookie Parker hitting a shot in the Oakland Coliseum farther than anybody ever has before (9/25/15). In fact, a game with absolutely no notable event would in itself constitute a notable event.
So this is life to me: a near-infinite series of moments played out along a schedule of long days and short years, with most time points appearing meaningless and without motion but yet with an integrative whole that exposes an underlying truth, a final verdict that is not final until it really is, and a chaos-theory script that vacillates unpredictably along paths of fortune and loss throughout which control is mostly an illusion. All you can control, fundamentally, is your reaction to the vicissitudes imposed upon you, and in baseball, this is called “sportsmanship.” Being the only thing defensibly within a human’s power, this is the unique criterion by which anybody can rightly be judged: how you play the game.
Or maybe not. Maybe the choice to be a good sport is also an illusion, and we should be judged by statistics like WAR, OPS, WHIP, and ERA plus. That’s probably equally likely, but I hope not. It would be more baseball-like to have it be sportsmanship, so that’s what I’m going with. In any case, the 2015 Giants preserved their championship bid for another day tonight, and they did it in a very baseball way, with a sacrifice fly. Commentators call this type of play “small ball,” but it’s my favorite type. Most of life is “small ball,” and I don’t think there’s actually anything small about it. Go Giants.
If you want seriously excellent sports writing that happens to be about the San Francisco Giants, you owe it to yourself to read Grant Brisbee of McCovey Chronicles. Grant is a rare writing talent and baseball insight, and he makes the experience of being a fan far better. Definitely check him out, if you even think you might have interest. He comments on, I think, every game, and I’m pretty sure that I read most of them (happily) this season.