The Rose and Thorns of Josh Hamilton’s Baseball Life

The whispers must be the worst part.

Of course, an addict experiences far more troubling and damaging things than the nasty buzz of disapproving tongues. Lives are often jeopardized, essential relationships ruined, and prison a possibility. However, no matter what an addict does to move past the addiction, to finally understand that the only choice left is to fight to separate from the drugs or follow the addiction to the grave; no matter how much an addict repairs the damage the addiction has caused or how much time has passed since the worst of it, the whispers remain – an unshakeable legacy of past sins.

More difficult still is to be a public figure carrying such a legacy.

Just ask Josh Hamiltion.

Hamilton, a five-time All Star and 2010 American League MVP, is one of Major League Baseball’s biggest stars. He is also a recovering alcoholic and drug addict. And the whispers have followed him every step of the way throughout his big league career.

Of course, the hard truth is that it is impossible to separate Hamilton’s tumultuous battle with addiction from his similarly dizzying baseball career. The two have become intertwined over the years like a great big rose atop a gnarled stem studded with thorns jagged enough to rip most anything to pieces.

But before that bittersweet dichotomy controlled his universe, he was an unwrinkled sheet of athletic potential – crisp, clean, and awaiting definition.

In 1999, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays made Hamilton, an 18-year-old high school outfielder from North Carolina, the first overall selection in that year’s Major League amateur draft. Nicknamed “Hammer,” he could throw a ball nearly 100 miles per hour but swung the bat with such natural fury that his future as a hitter easily trumped his considerable pitching promise.

A year later, he confirmed the choice by displaying such enviable power and speed at Tampa’s minor league affiliate in Charleston that USA Today named him The Minor League Player of the Year for 2000.

In 2001, Hamilton was primed to become the game’s next big thing, a 20-year-old phenom who hit prodigious home runs with as much ease as he tore around the bases. However, fate and Hamilton’s own demons intervened, sweeping his considerable promise wildly off-course.

On the way to their Spring Training home in Sarasota, Hamilton and his parents were blindsided by a dump truck that sped through a red light and roared into the their SUV. Although Hamilton escaped major injury, he hurt his back seriously enough to limit his playing time that season to just 43 games.

As it turned out, being away from the baseball diamond was the one of the worst things that could have happened to him that year. Still flush with the bonus money he received from his lofty draft status and untethered from the discipline of the game while he nursed his injured back, Hamilton was seduced – slowly, at first – by the thin, dark fingers of illicit indulgence.

He chased the very first drink of alcohol he’d ever had in his life with a line of cocaine. The ensuing dalliance led to guilt, which in turn, led to a stint in rehab – the first of eight such attempts he would eventually try. But the more playing time he missed the easier it was for him to retreat into the haze of cocaine and booze.

By 2003, he had surrendered his baseball future for the bottle and the baggy. His drinking and coke binging had grown to such opulence that there was little room for much else, let alone the painstaking training regimen of a professional athlete. So, after failing a drug test given by Major League Baseball, he simply refused to take any more of them and was suspended from the league indefinitely.

By most measures, his story – at least his story as a public figure – should have ended there, a failed phenom who allowed the visceral temptation of the shadows to hasten his self-destruction.

But it didn’t.

Instead, he fell even further – disintegrating into rampant crack cocaine abuse – before he was saved, by his grandmother and his faith. Late in 2005, Hamilton showed up at his grandmother Mary’s house, financially broke and spiritually broken. And she took him in, demanding only that he not break her heart anymore.

With a newfound respect for religion and the tough love of family, Hamilton slowly made his way back from the edge of the abyss. Although baseball was hardly on his immediate radar, his natural ability for the game had survived his recklessness. While he tried to repair the more important and personal things he’d managed to disassemble, he still dreamt of a return to the sport one day because he knew he still had the instincts and reflexes of a ballplayer. The drugs hadn’t taken that.

After more than a year of sobriety, endless hours of retraining his body to play again, and a successful trial in the low minors, he was reinstated by Major League Baseball in 2007. Tampa understandably no longer had the stomach to take any more chances on him and traded him to the Cincinnati Reds.

At the age of 26, eight years after he was chosen as the first pick in all of baseball, Josh Hamilton finally made his big league debut and quickly showed why so many had such buoyant hopes for him years before. In 90 games with the Reds, he hit .292 with 19 home runs and played defensive with the easy, loping strides that had impressed all of those scouts before his life went haywire.

Hamilton was finally back on the baseball map, but the whispers of his drug-addicted past lingered. Perhaps wanting to take advantage of his newfound value and not wanting to risk losing him to a relapse, Cincinnati traded Hamilton to the Texas Rangers for a pair of promising young pitchers – without any baggage from their pasts.

With the Rangers, Hamilton was spectacular. In 2008, his first year with the club, he made the All-Star team. And as part of the All-Star Game festivities at New York’s Yankee Stadium – one of the great cathedrals of the game – Hamilton launched 35 home runs in the Home Run Derby contest, a record for the event. For the year, he hit .304 and led the American League in RBI’s with 139.

However, he missed 62 games in 2009 with an assortment of injuries. Worse still, it was revealed that he had briefly relapsed with alcohol earlier in the year, publicly binging at an Arizona bar one night. There were anonymous rumblings that another descent could be waiting to happen. After all, addicts are forever just a bad moment or two away from giving away all of the progress they have made.

Instead, Hamilton thrived in 2010. He led the league in batting with a .359 average, hit 32 homers, won the American League MVP, and carried the Rangers to their first World Series appearance in franchise history. The rumors of his demise, it turned out, were greatly exaggerated.

The following season, he again played a key role in leading Texas back into the World Series but missed another 41 games during the regular season due to injury. This time, the whispers hinted at his fragility. Perhaps, the past drug and alcohol abuse had taken such a physical toll that he would always be vulnerable to his body breaking down during the long season.

However, he seemed to answer his murmuring critics again by playing in 148 games in 2012 and swatting 43 home runs for the Rangers, who made the post season for the third year in a row. Yet, Hamilton’s thorny past haunted him when news of another alcohol-related evening of relapse during the season went public.

So, despite, a batting crown, a league MVP award, five straight All-Star appearances, and key roles on three playoff teams, Hamilton became a free agent after the 2012 season and is not expected to receive an offer from the Rangers.

Ordinarily, a player of Hamilton’s ability, accomplishments, and age – he turned 31 in May – would be welcomed back by his current team, in the form of a long-term, big money contract. However, Hamilton and his baseball journey are not in the least bit ordinary.

So, as speculation swirls as to where Josh Hamilton will wind up for the upcoming season, discrete mention of his “off the field” issues invariably play a significant part in the discussion.

Those whispers do, indeed, remain – no matter how long or how far an addict has come from a troubled past.

Sources:

http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/h/hamiljo03.shtml

http://espn.go.com/dallas/mlb/story/_/id/7537732/texas-rangers-outfielder-josh-hamilton-relapse-alcohol

http://www.baseball-almanac.com/awards/minor_league_player_of_the_year_award_USA.shtml

http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2010-01-11/sports/1001100576_1_katie-hamilton-addiction-texas-rangers

http://articles.nydailynews.com/2010-10-28/sports/27079542_1_hamilton-points-josh-hamilton-rays

Photos:

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Most Valuable

His teammates already knew how valuable he was.

So, when San Francisco Giants catcher Buster Posey was named National League Most Valuable Player for 2012, it just confirmed how special the rest of the baseball world saw him.

At 25, Posey has already accomplished more than most players will achieve in their entire baseball lives and had to overcome a devastating injury to do so.  In that context, his resume is even more remarkable.

In 2008, he won the Golden Spikes Award, honoring the country’s best amateur player, for his extraordinary junior season at Florida State University.  Not only did the young catcher lead the nation in batting with a .472 average, he also led his team in saves.

And he established himself as a premier defender with the leadership and game savvy to handle a talented pitching staff.  Perhaps, that rare duality – the co-mingled experience on the mound and behind the plate in the same season – gave him such remarkable insight into calling pitches, because he not only knew firsthand how good hitters approached their craft but also what he would throw them to get them out.  That summer, the Giants selected him in the first round of the amateur draft as the fifth overall pick.

In 2010, after just over a year in the minors, he reached the big leagues and immediately faced the heat and pressure of a pennant race.  In fact, the first-place Giants had so much faith in their catching prodigy that they traded a 13-year veteran, Bengie Molina, and handed Posey his starting job behind the plate. 

Posey wasted little time in proving his major league worth.  He hit .305 with 18 homers, and – more importantly – guided a pitching staff that was historically brilliant in September and into the playoffs.  In the World Series, he hit an even .300 and caught a pair of shutouts as the Giants brushed aside the Texas Rangers for the first title the franchise had won since moving to San Francisco in 1958.  On baseball’s biggest stage and in its most unforgiving spotlight, the prodigy had fearlessly taken a bow.

As if to remind everyone that he had done all of this as a rookie, Posey won the National League Rookie of the Year Award to pair with his World Series ring.

Despite just a single season in the majors, he had the unmistakable scent of stardom.  Although his success and impact were instantaneous – having been the offensive and defensive centerpiece of a World Championship team in his big league debut, he also handled the sudden notoriety with humility and soft spoken ease.  That formidable combination of talent, cool, and character hinted not only at a stellar career but even generational greatness – a player of impending legend.

In 2011, he was on his way to adding another successful chapter to his remarkable professional story when something went horribly wrong.  In a game against the Florida Marlins at the end of May, Posey took a throw from the outfield just as the runner, Scott Cousins, reached the plate.  Instead of veering to the back edge of the base that Posey had left open, Cousins barreled directly into San Francisco’s star catcher.  In what could best be described as a two-man train wreck, the force of the collision pinned Posey’s left ankle beneath him and the devastating torque shredded ligaments and snapped his fibula.  It was, in fact, the kind of horrific injury that could end an athletic career.

To underscore the magnitude of Posey’s injury to the team, the Giants were leading the National League West by 2 ½ games the day he got hurt and finished the season eight full games behind the Arizona Diamondbacks as San Francisco played the rest of the season without him.

With his future on the diamond in jeopardy and his shattered leg held together with an amalgam of surgical fasteners, Posey demonstrated his most admirable quality – undeniable resolve.

He not only had to retrain and re-strengthen his body to handle the physical toll of catching, he also had to conquer the doubt fueled by the severity of the injury and trust that his repaired leg could do everything it used to do.  After all, hesitancy in athletics dooms performance.

After eleven brutal months of physical rehab and psyche building, Posey was back behind the plate in time for the start of the 2012 season.  Most outsiders had no idea what to expect from him and how long – if ever – it would take for Posey to regain the career arc that appeared unlimited just a season earlier.  The conventional expectation was for him to take some time to re-acclimate to the game.  The layoff practically guaranteed rust.  All the while, there was also the uneasiness that Posey’s patched up ankle could give way at any time

However, generational greatness often defies convention.  In Posey’s case, he played so well so quickly that he was named starting catcher for the National League All-Star team – without a speck of rust on him. In the second half of the season – precisely when the fatigue from the long layoff should have been the greatest and pulling at his game the hardest – he was even better.

In the 71 games he played after the All-Star break, Posey hit .385 with 14 home runs and 60 RBI’s.  Greater still, he caught nearly every day, enduring the punishment of foul balls and blocked pitches without ever having it effect his offense.

When Melky Cabrera, the team’s talented left fielder, was suspended by the league in August for testing positive for a performance enhancing substance, it was Posey who carried the team offensively and set the tone in the locker room by quickly shifting the focus away from the player who wasn’t there to the ones who were.

In fact, Posey’s understated leadership had such a profound effect on his teammates and organization that they all voted him the recipient of the Willie Mac Award, an honor given to the team’s most inspirational player each season.

On the field, the Giants rallied around their resurgent superstar and roared down the stretch, winning the National League West by eight games.  Posey finished the year – a year many expected him to struggle through, post-injury – with 24 homers, 103 RBI’s, and a .336 batting average, the highest mark in the majors in 2012.  That productive aggregation earned him the National League MVP Award as well, the first catcher since the legendary Johnny Bench to win it.

In the playoffs, his dramatic grand slam in Game Five of the NLDS against Cincinnati capped the Giants’ improbable comeback from two games down and facing three straight elimination contests, all on the road.

In the World Series against Detroit, Posey’s two-run homer in Game Four helped San Francisco complete a sweep for the championship.

While there are a myriad of factors that contribute to a team’s success, there’s an interesting dynamic to consider when looking at Buster Posey’s short but stellar career so far.  In the two seasons he played to completion, his team won the World Series.  In the one year he was injured and did not play after May, the Giants failed to reach the playoffs.  Mere coincidence?  Perhaps.

However, there is no denying his value.

His Willie Mac Award, National League MVP trophy, and second World Series ring in three years certainly provide proof that his teammates, the Baseball Writers of America, and his peers understand his considerable baseball worth.

Sources:

http://www.sfgate.com/giants/ostler/article/Coach-s-bright-idea-helped-turn-Posey-into-star-3173219.php

http://mlb.mlb.com/news/article.jsp?ymd=20080716&content_id=3142837&vkey=news_mlb&fext=.jsp&c_id=mlb

http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/p/poseybu01.shtml

http://www.contracostatimes.com/news/ci_21611850/tim-kawakami-theres-no-room-melky-cabrera-giants

http://www.sfgate.com/giants/article/Buster-Posey-wins-Willie-Mac-Award-3885151.php

Photos:

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Miami Meltdown

Jeffrey Loria is a sleaze.

Loria, owner of Major League Baseball’s Miami Marlins, recently dismantled his team by trading its five best – and most expensive – players to Toronto for a handful of cheaper prospects, the balance sheet trumping the scorecard with unabashed clarity. Worse still, the demolition – which actually began in July when disgruntled All-Star third baseman Hanley Ramirez was shipped off to the Los Angeles Dodgers – comes less than a year after Miami’s brand new stadium, Marlins Park, was christened.

The ballpark, a $515 million dollar state-of-the-art athletic palace – complete with aquariums behind home plate and an immense retractable roof, was supposed to usher in a new era of style and success to South Florida. Instead, thanks to Loria, it is now home to little more than the echoes of broken promises and a hollowed out player roster. Rather than a sparkling home for a dynamic team on the rise, Marlins Park is more like a ghost ship, an eerie shell of what was supposed to be.

And the sadistic punch line? Miami taxpayers are on the hook for $300 million of the stadium’s gaudy price tag while Loria laughs all the way to the bank. According to Forbes Magazine, the franchise is now worth $450 million, which includes a 25% equity increase the moment the ribbon was cut on the new stadium. And without the pesky impact of a high payroll on operating expenses, the bottom line for Miami’s penurious owner looks rosier and rosier – the wreckage of a livid and heartbroken fan base notwithstanding.

Despite calls for Major League Baseball to intervene, there’s little chance of mediation of any consequence, because Loria has done this before without so much as a strongly worded reprimand as punishment. In fact, the last time he eviscerated a big league franchise Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig saw fit to not only give Loria an escape from the team he destroyed but also approved a loan for him to purchase a new club.

Selig, it should be noted, was a former owner of the Milwaukee Brewers before assuming the role of acting commissioner in 1992 – a position designed to be the impartial arbiter between labor and management. So, as Selig brimmed with conflict of interest, it was of little surprise that he dealt Loria the most favorable hand possible after the latter wrecked his first team and will likely do nothing after Loria decimated his second team.

And that first team, the Montreal Expos, was utterly and irrevocably wrecked – with Loria manning the bulldozer that leveled every last trace of them.

The Expos had been in Montreal since 1969 and had built an uneven but colorful history in Quebec. Outfielder Rusty Staub, affectionately nicknamed “Le Grand Orange” for his bright carroty hair, was the team’s first star.

Future Hall of Famers Andre Dawson and Gary Carter headlined contending ball clubs in the 1980’s, which also featured speedy outfield star Tim Raines and pitching stalwart Steve Rogers.

In 1994, the Expos had the best record in baseball with Canadian-born slugger Larry Walker leading the way. Unfortunately, a players’ strike interrupted the season and dragged on long enough to force the cancellation of the entire post season. So, the year Montreal was most suited to win a championship there was no championship to be won.

Behind the scenes, Loria had parlayed his initial $30 million investment in the franchise into a managing partner role with the team in 1999. As a sign of things to come, he failed to secure English television and radio deals for the 2000 season, meaning the only way fans could follow the Expos when they played on the road was to listen to French radio broadcasts. The unprecedented media invisibility hinged largely on Loria’s insistence on uncompetitive fees for the broadcast rights.

Even then, it was clear that he was in it for the money and couldn’t care less about much else.

However, professional sports teams have a symbiotic relationship with the cities in which they play. These teams necessarily become part of the cultural fabric of the area. While they provide excitement, jobs, and fractional identity to cities, they also need support and revenue from residents in return. And the tacit agreement that holds it all together is that the team willingly fields an entertaining and, hopefully, winning product.

When profit supersedes that equation, though, the relationship with the public can deteriorate quickly. In Montreal, Loria’s disdain for anything that would curtail his personal stake in the club doomed the team.

On the heels of the radio/TV debacle, Loria also demanded a publicly financed new ballpark – largely to increase the equity of the franchise – for a team that lost at least 90 games for three straight seasons. And the city of Montreal was in economic hardship already and simply did not have the ethical indifference to prioritize a baseball stadium over schools and hospitals.

So, Loria turned to Major League Baseball to bail him out.

Had Bud Selig a less gelatinous spine, he might have made sure Jeffrey Loria stayed at least 250 yards from a Major League Baseball franchise for the rest of his days. Instead, Selig took the unprecedented step of having the rest of the league purchase and own the Expos in 2002, run them despite competing against them for two full seasons, and shuttled them off to Puerto Rico for 22 “home” games as a way to “internationalize” the sport (and garner a tidy sum for holding such games abroad).

The Expos staggered through the 2004 season before being sold to Ted Lerner and moved to Washington, D.C., leaving a trail of betrayed fans in Quebec – a funny way to promote internationalization of the game, indeed.

As for Loria, Selig not only absolved him from the mess in Quebec he arranged for a $38,5 million loan, enabling Loria to become the majority stake holder in the then-Florida Marlins. The inmate had not only run one asylum and left it in ruins he had been given money to escape the wreckage and run another one.

Just as he had in Montreal, Loria again pushed for a publicly financed stadium for his new team. However, this time, he got it.

In an apparent sign of good faith, Loria spent the 2011 off season signing some of the biggest free agents in the game as a much ballyhooed run up to the grand opening of the new ballpark.

Shortstop Jose Reyes signed a six-year, $106 million deal. Three days later, veteran left-handed pitcher Mark Buehrle signed a four-year, $58 million contract. Closer Heath Bell was also added to the roster for three years and $27 million. In less than a week, the Marlins added three marquee players and $191 million to their payroll. Flamboyant manager Ozzie Guillen, whose fiery antics were the stuff of reporter’s dreams but had also gotten him run out of Chicago, was brought in to lead the team – and the publicity machine.

It seemed like Loria finally understood the responsibility of a franchise to its community. But like much else in his baseball life, he hadn’t the stomach for much of anything other than his own interests. When the team got off to a slow start and struggled to climb in the standings, he began to disassemble his expensive creation.

Starting pitcher Anibal Sanchez and third baseman Ramirez were jettisoned at the trade deadline in July. After a miserable last place finish, Guillen was fired and Bell was traded to Arizona. In the coup de grace, Reyes, Buehrle, star pitcher Josh Johnson, catcher John Buck, and outfielder Emilio Bonfacio were sent to Toronto.

In the end, Loria’s good faith with the city of Miami had lasted all of ten months.

As for what lies ahead for the Marlins, perhaps outfielder Giancarlo Stanton – the team’s lone remaining standout – put it best. After the Toronto trade was announced, Stanton, a 23-year-old slugger who hit 37 homers in 2012, tweeted, “Alright, I’m pissed off!!! Plain & Simple.”

A lot of fans in Miami echo the thought, and many more in Montreal sympathize.

Not that any of it makes a difference to Jeffrey Loria. He’s a sleaze – Plain & Simple. It’s just too bad he has a friend in such a high place in the game.

Sources:

http://www.nbcmiami.com/news/local/Marlins-Park-Cost-Taxpayers-a-Lot-But-It-Brings-Economic-Benefits-Too-146032985.html

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A10599-2004Jun27.html

http://content.usatoday.com/communities/dailypitch/post/2011/12/jose-reyes-on-the-verge-of-jumping-to-miami-marlins/1#.UKV8_Yc73a4

http://www.usatoday.com/story/gameon/2012/11/13/marlins-giancarlo-stanton-pissed-off-about-trade-blue-jays/1703393/

Photos:

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Big Enough

For weeks, Sergio Romo told anyone who would listen that he wasn’t sure if he was big enough for the moment.

Turns out, the moment wasn’t nearly big enough for him.

With the 2012 World Series on the line, the exuberant, eyelash of a relief pitcher for the San Francisco Giants needed one more strike to bring a championship title to his team. However, he needed to push that final pitch past the most intimidating hitter on the planet, Detroit’s Miguel Cabrera – the first player in 45 years to win a Triple Crown.

After teasing Cabrera with a procession of sliders bending like elbows of macaroni, Romo summoned his resolve – and all 170 pounds of his lean body mass – and threw a fastball on the inner half of the plate. It was a pitch that barreled into the most dangerous part of a right-handed power hitter’s swing – precisely the kind of pitch an accomplished slugger like Cabrera routinely turned into loud headlines.

Under the circumstances, though, it may have been the last thing in the world Cabrera expected to see from his whipcord-thin adversary. So, Romo threw it – threw it with the cool of a safecracker and the conviction of a drill sergeant.

The most vulnerable pitch in the game went directly into the teeth of the most dangerous swing in the sport…and went completely untouched. Cabrera’s bat never moved – as if rusted to his beefy shoulder – and Romo’s iron nerves were rewarded with a happy mob of teammates racing each other to reach their self-effacing savior.

In the end, the moments – and there were plenty of them during an inexplicably magical season – were never too big for any of them. The 2012 San Francisco Giants answered every critic, cleared every hurdle, and conquered every doubt on their way to a second World Series triumph in three years. And they did so with the kind of unshakeable resolve and affable unity representing the truest qualities of the team concept.

A Major League roster contains twenty-five players, and the Giants used every last one of them to find ways to win often enough and timely enough to push past every other team in the sport. Each player left a distinct set of fingerprints on the championship season – twenty-five pairs of hands helping to lift the World Series trophy and carry it back to San Francisco.

And they came from everywhere, landing on the Giants’ roster as if carried by a serendipitous tide.

They came from Dotham, Alabama – like Matt Cain, the sturdy starting pitcher who opened the All-Star Game less than a month after throwing the first perfect game in franchise history. In the playoffs, the Giants relied on him to propel them forward in the deciding game of each round, which he did dutifully and doggedly, somehow squashing the pressure of the moment to answer the call every time.

They came from San Felipe, Venezuela – like Marco Scutaro, who started the year with the Colorado Rockies, his fifth team in eleven big league seasons, and drifted to the Giants at the trade deadline in a deal that barely registered amidst higher profile swaps. But the veteran second baseman wasted little time in being noticed. For a player who spent his entire career doing everything well but nothing great, Scutaro was spectacular from the moment he put on a San Francisco uniform. In 61 games with the Giants, he hit .362. And he carried his torrid hitting into the playoffs, peppering St. Louis with 14 hits over seven games of the National League Championship Series – a journeyman who finally found purpose in the journey.

They also came from nearby Carabobo, Venezuela – like Pablo Sandoval, San Francisco’s cherubic third baseman, whose unlikely agility earned him the affectionate nickname, “King Fu Panda.” Moreover, Sandoval’s endearing naiveté and buoyant personality brought smiles to fans and teammates all season.

But he was more than just a source of cheerfulness. His slashing, unpredictable approach at the plate produced moments of wonder – none bigger than the three thunderous home runs he hit in the opening game of the World Series en route to being named MVP of the Fall Classic.

They came from Atglen, Pennsylvania – llike Ryan Vogelsong, who pitched across three continents and through major arm surgery to get one last shot in the big leagues. At 35, he didn’t waste it, either. Starting three of the biggest games of his life for the Giants in the playoffs, Vogelsong was superb in each. And San Francisco won them all – in Cincinnati with elimination looming, in San Francisco against the Cardinals with the season again on the line, and in Detroit with a title inching closer. Through it all, Vogelsong allowed just three runs in over 24 innings of work.

They came from Leesburg, Georgia – like Buster Posey, the team’s phenomenal young catcher who missed nearly all of the 2011 season with a horrific ankle injury but came thundering back with a likely MVP year in 2012. Despite having less than three years of big league experience, Posey’s remarkable poise and knowledge of the game commanded respect in the locker room and on the field. Behind the plate, his extraordinary insight into pitch selection earned the unwavering confidence of a pitching staff that excelled when the stakes were greatest. He was also the anchor on offense, the hitter opposing teams justifiably feared the most in the Giants’ lineup. His grand slam off of Mat Latos in the deciding game against Cincinnati provided San Francisco’s final margin of victory in that playoff round and was one of the biggest swings of the bat in the entire postseason.

They came from Las Vegas, Nevada – like Barry Zito, who signed one of baseball’s biggest contracts in 2007 but had delivered a litany of disappointment and misery from the mound ever since. In fact, Zito’s San Francisco legacy deteriorated to such low ebb that his name alone prompted derision and bitterness from fans.

So, when he took the mound against the Cardinals in the league championship series and with the Giants needing to win yet again to stay alive, few believed Zito could save them. But he did. He pitched brilliantly, shutting St. Louis out for almost eight innings – nearly restoring his reputation in one magical night. As if to finish the restoration job, Zito outpitched Detroit’s fire-breathing ace Justin Verlander in Game One of the World Series, an 8-3 San Francisco victory.

They came from Fort Worth, Texas – like Hunter Pence, a gangly but powerful outfielder who, like Marco Scutaro, arrived in San Francisco at the trade deadline. But unlike Scutaro, Pence came to the team with sizeable expectations and initially struggled to meet any of them. Although he did produce enough timely hits to drive in 45 runs in 59 regular season games for the Giants, his true impact came right before a playoff game in Cincinnati. After losing two important games to the Reds, Pence tried to rally his deflated teammates. With evangelical zeal, he implored that “no matter what happens we must not give in. We owe it to each other, play for each other. I need one more day with you guys.” His fiery plea turned out to be the rallying point they needed to push past Cincinnati and keep tomorrows appearing on their postseason calendar all the way through the World Series.

They came from Renton, Washington – like Tim Lincecum, the Giants’ unorthodox star pitcher who parlayed his unusual throwing motion and outstanding ability into consecutive Cy Young awards in 2008 and 2009.

However, in 2012, his remarkable pitching prowess vanished, his struggles magnified by the unexpected nature of the erosion. His velocity dipped, he gave up the most earned runs in the league, and no one could figure out what had gone wrong so quickly. By the time the playoffs rolled around, Lincecum had offered little evidence that his fortunes would improve in the postseason. So, he was sent to the bullpen – baseball Siberia for any starting pitcher, let alone one with his sparkling resume. Rather than complain or sulk, the former trophy-winning starter accepted his demotion as a challenge. Fittingly, he had spent his entire baseball life overcoming them. At 5’11” and 175 pounds, he wasn’t supposed to be a power pitcher. But he was. His unconventional delivery wasn’t supposed to work. But it did. And, now, his postseason banishment to the bullpen was supposed to confirm a slide into mediocrity. But it didn’t. With his shoulder-length hair snapping and his diminutive frame contorting furiously, Lincecum regained his extraordinary pitching form when it mattered most and annihilated hitters in his new role. In 13 postseason innings from the bullpen, he gave up just three hits and struck out 17. Baseball’s biggest rock star was back and had the renewed swagger to prove it.

There were so many key contributors to the Giants’ extraordinary season that the heroics seemed to come in waves, with different players showcasing specific skills just as the team needed them.

Brandon Crawford grew up just a few miles from San Francisco, likely never imagining that he would become the starting shortstop for the team he grew up idolizing. But when he did, his spectacular defense and timely hitting proved to be the necessary anchor for the infield. Pitcher Madison Bumgarner won 16 games – tied with Cain for the team lead – and played with such poise and tenacity that it was easy to forget he had just celebrated his 23rd birthday. Although reliever Jeremy Affeldt recorded so many important outs throughout the year, none were bigger than the five he registered in Game Four of the World Series – cutting right through the heart of Detroit’s fearsome lineup, striking out four of them – including Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder. Outfielder Angel Pagan provided much needed speed – leading the team in steals with 29 – at the top of the order and energized the team with his terrific defense and passion for the game.

Collectively, the 2012 Giants came back – again and again and again. In fact, they pulled themselves from the edge of oblivion so many times it defied all baseball logic.

In April, the club lost its flamboyant All-Star closer, Brian Wilson, to a season-ending elbow injury but used the remaining relief pitchers in enough variations to finish games until Sergio Romo claimed the job for good late in the season.

In August, one of the team’s best hitters, outfielder Melky Cabrera, was suspended 50 games for violating Major League Baseball’s rule against performance-enhancing drugs. Rather than explaining what he had done and why he had done it, Cabrera simply fled the scene, leaving his teammates to sort through the betrayal on their own.

The best way to deal with the duplicity, they decided, was to play even better without him. In the 45 regular season games after Cabrera’s suspension, the Giants won 30 of them.

Ten days after Cabrera abandoned the club, the rival Los Angeles Dodgers acquired perennial slugger Adrian Gonzalez from Boston in a stunning trade that most experts believed would propel the Dodgers to the division title.

Instead, San Francisco rallied to increase its hold on first place from two games to eight, clinching the National League West with over a week to spare.

And in the postseason, their restorative powers were taken to an entirely different realm.

In the first round of the playoffs, the Giants lost the first two games of the best-of-five series to Cincinnati at home. The second defeat, a demoralizing 9-0 blowout, seemed an emphatic stamp by the Reds on their way to a dominant series win. After all, Cincinnati needed only to win one more game in the next three opportunities – all in their own ballpark – to eliminate San Francisco. However, Pence preached, Posey slammed, and Cain was able. The Giants won all three elimination games – all on the road, the first time a playoff team survived such a stretch while living out of suitcases.

In the best-of-seven National League Championship Series, the Giants once again lost early ground, dropping three of the first four games to St. Louis. Although San Francisco faced the familiar scenario of having to win three straight to advance, the team at least knew if they could win one more game on the road the final two games would take place at home in front of 45,000 of the loudest fans in the sport. Once Zito pitched his way back into the hearts of San Franciscans everywhere, Vogelsong and Cain made sure it mattered by shutting down the Cardinals in front of packed Bay Area houses.

Perhaps, as fitting punctuation, Scutaro caught the final out off the bat of St. Louis outfielder Matt Holliday, the very same player who – earlier in the series – barreled viciously into him nearly mangling the much smaller infielder’s left knee. Moments before the final clinching catch, Scutaro extended his arms out from his sides as far as they would go and tilted his head back as a sudden downpour drenched the field. Literally and figuratively, he soaked in the moment as an impending National League champion and series MVP.

In the end, the Giants had played six games in less than two weeks facing the immediate end of their season – and had won them all.

In a way, the World Series was anti-climatic. Sandoval’s three-homer haymaker and Romo’s gutsy gamesmanship served as bookends to a lopsided Giants’ sweep over the Detroit Tigers. The team that thrived on tension and adversity all season long encountered little of it in the final series of the year.

Of course, San Francisco manager Bruce Bochy probably welcomed the change – his personality better suited for calm and steady. However, whenever the pressure surged or the amalgam of hardship threatened to swallow the team, it was Bochy who soothed them. His even-tempered nature set the tone in the clubhouse and dugout and out on the field, his deep Southern drawl a soundtrack for thoughtful, committed play.

Behind the placid persona, the Giants’ skipper was relentless in preparing and executing his game strategy. When Wilson was injured, Bochy simply rearranged his bullpen until he found a workable combination, all the while getting his veteran relief pitchers to willingly accept new roles.

After Cabrera vanished and the Dodgers fortified, Bochy motivated his team to rely on each other rather than allow others to push them apart. In the playoffs, he trusted Zito and happily accepted the dividends. In the World Series, he used Gregor Blanco in left field primarily for his defense and watched as Blanco made three spectacular catches in crucial situations.

More to the point, the Giants played relentlessly and confidently amidst near-historic pressure, and the manager of the team deserved a goodly portion of praise for the effort.

Perhaps, few embodied that relentless spirit better than the newly-minted closer Romo. Growing up in Brawley, California – a desolate farming town 20 miles from the Mexican border – the Giants’ undersized bullpen lion probably knew better than most how difficult but rewarding defying the odds could be. After all, he rose all the way to the big leagues as a 28th round draft pick largely relying on one pitch – a knee-buckling, gravity-rebelling slider.

Yet, there he was, staring down big, bad Miguel Cabrera in the World Series and then decided to throw him something other than the pitch responsible for getting him to the majors. That kind of extraordinary belief was an utterly perfect way for San Francisco to crown its title run.

The familiar mantra the team had used to stave off elimination in all of those pressure- packed games was that they wanted one more day together, because they simply weren’t ready to go home.

Well, the 2012 San Francisco Giants finally went home – as World Champions.

Sources:

http://www.usatoday.com/story/gameon/2012/10/10/hunter-pence-inspirational-speech/1624633/

http://www.latimes.com/sports/la-sp-1027-sergio-romo-giants-20121027,0,6411058.story?page=1

http://www.tampabay.com/sports/baseball/ml/world-series-shows-san-francisco-giants-bruce-bochy-is-one-of-baseballs/1258999

http://www.sfgate.com/giants/article/When-Cabrera-left-SF-Giants-thrived-3890499.php

http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/s/scutama01.shtml

http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/v/vogelry01.shtml

http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/p/pencehu01.shtml

http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/l/linceti01.shtml

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