The Tall Tale of Madison Bumgarner

If Madison Bumgarner didn’t exist, someone would have to invent him.

Trouble is, no one would believe it if they did, because Bumgarner’s rise to baseball stardom and celebrity seems more folk tale than unembellished biography.

In fact, Bumgarner himself is more folk hero than sports idol.

Folk

Sure, he can throw a baseball with the kind of velocity and deceptive geometry that makes him an elite-level Major League pitcher. But he also does it with a unique quirkiness and self-assurance.   And for sheer scale, the folk hero quality suits him.

He’s a big man – 6-foot-5, 250 pounds – who does big things in big moments.

Consider the first time he commanded a national audience.  In Game 4 of the 2010 World Series, Bumgarner – a 20 year old rookie – threw eight shutout innings, allowed only three hits, and gave his San Francisco Giants a commanding 3-1 World Series lead.

2010 WS

But that probably doesn’t provide the full flavor of how impressive it was for someone with so little pro experience to own that big a moment when it should have swallowed him whole and spit out the bones.

Put another way – in action movie terms – Bumgarner stuffed the big, bad Texas Rangers into a dark room, locked the door, and kicked the keys down the hallway.  Without breaking a sweat.  And whistling the James Bond theme as he walked away.

Bond

World meet Mr. Bumgarner.

It gets better, though.

Almost four years to the day after he throttled the Texas Rangers in the World Series, Bumgarner stepped back into the spotlight and did something even more remarkable.

In the 2014 playoffs, the Kansas City Royals were the hottest team in baseball – downright incendiary.  They beat Oakland in the Wild Card game and then swept the Angels and Orioles out the door in consecutive series.  And they did it with a certain ruthless efficiency.

The Royals got on base and then stole them.  In fact, Kansas City stole so much and so often that the ploy gave them a huge advantage, both strategically and emotionally.  All of that running was a psychological wrecking ball to the opposition, kind of like a cat burglar who keeps getting into the house no matter what kind of security system is put up.

Burglar

In the Wild Card game against the A’s alone, Kansas City stole seven bases.  Seven.  That’s 630 feet – over two football fields – worth of pilfered ground in the span of a single game.

Royal Steal

The Royals also won with great defense – particularly in the outfield – and a bulletproof bullpen.  So, the scarcity of runs to be had against Kansas City made all of those stolen bases the Royals took even more maddening, especially when they were cashed in for runs on otherwise harmless fly balls and grounders.

As it turned out, though, the Royals’ post season formula for winning had a fatal flaw.  It didn’t work if they didn’t score any runs.

Kansas City meet Mr. Bumgarner.

In the four years since he shut down the Rangers in the 2010 World Series, Bumgarner refined his already impressive pitching skills.  In 2014, he had career highs in wins, innings pitched, and strikeouts.  He’d also been selected to his second straight All-Star team.

There had been no let down after his outstanding World Series splash as a rookie.  If anything, the wakes he was creating just kept getting larger and larger.

So, when the irresistible force of the momentum-fueled Royals met immovable Madison Bumgarner to open the 2014 World Series, irresistible yielded.  Bumgarner gave up only three hits in seven innings, halting Kansas City’s lethal running game because, of all the bases to be stolen, first isn’t one of them.  The Giants won convincingly, 7-1.

Five days later, Bumgarner was even more immovable, throwing a four-hit shutout with eight strikeouts and no walks.  The Giants won again, 5-0.

Bum 2014WS

In his two World Series starts against the Royals, Bumgarner had only allowed eight baserunners and a single run in 16 innings.  More importantly, Kansas City had stolen precisely zero bases when he was on the mound.  And just like that, Bumgarner had managed to do what the entire American League could not – fold the Royals’ unblemished post season record into an airplane and sailed it into San Francisco Bay.

Plane

The problem, from the Giants’ perspective, was that Bumgarner couldn’t start every game in the series.  And when he didn’t start, the Royals mostly kicked the daylights out of San Francisco.  In the three games the Giants lost – with Bumgarner stored away safely in the dugout – Kansas City outscored them, 20-4.  Truly daylight kicking stuff.

World Series Giants Royals Baseball

When the Royals forced a decisive Game 7 – after clobbering the Giants 10-0 in Game 6 – they knew San Francisco couldn’t start Bumgarner in that big game, either.

Three days earlier, he had thrown 117 pitches during his masterful Game 5 shutout.  So, conventional thinking had Bumgarner right back in the San Francisco dugout for the entirety of Game 7, his pitching arm safely holstered.

After all, the modern manual for proper use of a Major League pitching staff clearly draws the line of demarcation for a starting pitcher at 100 pitches per start.  Anything over that number requires management to place the affected hurler’s arm on a velvet pillow for five days before he can take the mound again.  It’s right there in writing and bold type.

Except, how many folk heroes are conventional, instruction followers?

Given that, Bumgarner not only made himself available to pitch in Game 7, he placed no caveats on the role or length of his participation.  With a championship to be won, he knew he was the best chance for San Francisco to win it.  And so did the Royals.

However, Bumgarner sat undetonated in the Giants’ bullpen for four innings at the start of Game 7.  Everyone knew he was there – his teammates, the Royals, and a stadium full of nervous Kansas City fans – just a wave of his manager’s hand away from entering the game and turning the whole series on its ear.  But through the early part of the game, he was more threat than tangible obstacle, like a great, big storm cloud hovering overhead needing only the necessary change in conditions to bring its pent up fury.

In the fifth inning, with the Giants holding a 3-2 lead, those necessary conditions presented themselves.  San Francisco manager Bruce Bochy waved his hand toward the bullpen, tapping his left arm, and that was pretty much that.

Bullpen

Einstein once said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

So, expecting the Royals to somehow figure out how to beat Madison Bumgarner when all he’d done for the past week and a half was punch them in the mouth would have been kind of insane.  Most everyone watching the game – and probably a goodly number of those who were playing in it – must have realized it, too.

Of little surprise – except to the Einstein-defined insane – Bumgarner just kept doing what he’d been doing to the Kansas City lineup.  He shut them out for an inning, then two, and three.  By the time he had recorded his fourth scoreless inning, he’d somehow squeezed more than 50 pitches out his arm – which were 50 more pitches than any modern baseball god-fearing soul had a right to expect.

The real question was whether or not he could keep it going for one more inning to close the game out.  Any chance the Royals had to come back and win in the ninth stemmed mostly on how many more pitches Bumgarner had left.

USP MLB: WORLD SERIES-SAN FRANCISCO GIANTS AT KANS S BBO USA MO

That number, it turned out, was 16.  Unfortunately for Kansas City, that was also precisely the number of pitches it took for Bumgarner to retire the last four hitters of the game.  That number also included a play that nearly wrecked his heroic evening.

With two outs, Kansas City’s Alex Gordon hit a lazy, looping drive into shallow center field.  However, San Francisco outfielders Gregor Blanco and Juan Perez misplayed the ball so badly – even kicking it across the warning track at one point – that Gordon motored all the way to third base.

With the tying run at third – and was only there because Blanco and Perez had decided to step on banana peels at the worst possible time – Bumgarner calmly got the next hitter to hit a harmless infield popup to seal the win.

End Game7

When Bumgarner was named Most Valuable Player of the series, it was probably the least suspenseful announcement in the history of the award.  He’d commandeered the entire championship competition, single-handedly shaping the outcome like few others ever had, from the opening game to the very last pitch.

It was, in fact, a king making moment – the kind that only happens after total victory with the whole world watching.  However, a funny thing happened in that moment.

And maybe this gets directly to the heart of his folk hero quality.  He did something truly magnanimous when he didn’t need to, and he did it mostly on his personal instinct to be gracious in success.

With everyone expecting him to take a well-deserved bow and revel in all of the singular adulation, Bumgarner deflected the praise.  Instead, he thanked his teammates.

“I couldn’t be happier for my teammates. There were a lot of guys that couldn’t deserve it anymore (than) they do. Like I said, I’m thankful for them and (it’s) truly an honor to be part of this team and organization.”

Press Conference

Even though he’d been the one who kicked in every single door that needed kicking to win a championship, he couldn’t bring himself to take appropriate credit for it.  So, he thanked his team – thanked them for essentially allowing him the opportunity to save them.

But if anyone thought that seemingly misplaced gratitude was false humility, they really don’t understand what Madison Bumgarner is all about.

He can be a lot of things, a jumbled bag of dichotomy at times, but entirely genuine in his expression.  Maybe growing up in tiny Lenoir, North Carolina – a place where humility and honest intentions are part of the local harvest – had a lot to do with that.  He says what he means and believes in what he does.

So, thanking others for something he had accomplished wasn’t a dodge.  It was part of his truth.

However, the truth about Bumgarner is sometimes edgy and sophomoric and curious, too.

While he’s been a humble champion, he can also be brazenly cantankerous in competition.  On several occasions, he has stepped off the mound, loudly challenging opposing players whom he felt disrespected by.

The most famous iteration of this happened in 2014, when Los Angeles outfielder Yasiel Puig flipped his bat after hitting an enormous home run off of Bumgarner.  Before Puig reached home, Bumgarner confronted him halfway down the third base line and yelled at the outfielder for his showmanship.

Puig

A year later, he had three separate altercations with players who had thrown their bats in anger after failing to get hits against him.

Like any self-respecting Carolina farmer, Bumgarner would never back down from a fight, even if he’s the one who starts it.

However, it is strange that someone known for his calmness during high-pressure playoff baseball also has a reputation for anger issues during less intense regular season games.

Yet, it is easy to forget that for all Bumgarner has accomplished in his big league career he is still a very young man.  When he confronted Yasiel Puig in May of 2014, Bumgarner was still 24 years old.  Later that season, after the Giants won the National League pennant, he decided to celebrate the moment like any good twenty-something would.  He picked up five beers and chugged them all at once.

Division Series - Washington Nationals v San Francisco Giants - Game Four

After all, big men do big things in big moments.

For someone who mostly tries to deflect attention while in the spotlight, it is curious how much of a knack he has for creating spectacle.

He’s a pitcher who people want to see compete in the All-Star Home Run Derby.  When he hits, he swings as hard as he possibly can, like he’s channeling his inner Ted Kluszewski.

Ted Kluszewski

And it’s working, because he’s hit the most home runs by a pitcher since 2014 – nine – including two off of Dodger lefty Clayton Kershaw, widely considered the best pitcher in the big leagues.

Batting

During batting practice before a game in St. Louis this season, Bumgarner hit a ball that reached the highest deck in left field, traveling over 450 feet.

On the mound, he routinely blows his nose directly on to the ground.  These blasts, affectionately referred to as “snot rockets” by Giants fans, have become so commonplace that they almost look like part of Bumgarner’s pitch routine.

Rocket

Other quirky details about San Francisco’s reluctant pitching hero include his request to ride a horse in the victory parade after the 2014 World Series, the team’s refusal on the parade request but allowing him to ride a horse into the ballpark for the following Opening Day, and his purchase of cattle as a birthday gift to his wife in 2011.

He’s part rural pragmatist – with little patience for egocentric nonsense – part frat boy, part Southern gentleman, and part Bunyanesque sports hero with a healthy dose of humility.  He hits tape measure home runs and baffles hitters with a lethal pitching repertoire.  He’s a devoutly loyal teammate and post season badass who’s never been defeated in the World Series.

He’s also a devoted husband, with a penchant for unpretentious gifts, and mindful of his hometown roots.  He does commercials for Ford, because he drives a Ford pickup truck. After being named Sports Illustrated’s “Sportsman of the Year” in 2014, he had to buy a suit to attend the ceremony, marking not only the first suit he had ever purchased but also the first time he’d ever worn one.

Suit

Bumgarner is all of these things – all rolled up in one person.

So, the next time he does something that draws widespread attention, take a good look.  Otherwise, you might not believe it.  That’s how folk heroes work.

And Madison Bumgarner is most certainly one of those, too.

Folk2

Sources:

http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/b/bumgama01.shtml
http://m.mlb.com/news/article/100048920/oct-29-bochy-bumgarner-postgame-interviews
http://www.csnbayarea.com/giants/instant-replay-bumgarner-silences-dodgers-giants-win-3-1
http://mlb.nbcsports.com/2015/07/31/the-benches-cleared-in-fridays-giants-rangers-game/
http://ftw.usatoday.com/2014/10/madison-bumgarner-six-beers-nlcs-giants
http://www.cbssports.com/mlb/news/after-going-upper-deck-in-bp-bumgarner-says-he-wants-to-be-in-home-run-derby/
http://www.people.com/article/world-series-mvp-madison-bumgarner
http://m.mlb.com/cutfour/2014/12/09/103643608/madison-bumgarner-wears-a-suit-and-tie-for-the-first-time–in-his-life

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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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

Photos:

http://www.zimbio.com/pictures/VbwMBc7ocln/Arizona+Diamondbacks+v+San+Francisco+Giants/DR7au51xcLN/Sergio+Romo

http://graphics8.nytimes.com/images/2012/10/30/sports/YSCORE/YSCORE-articleLarge.jpg

http://thepinetree.net/images/announce/SergioRomo_ri0afg4s_hxuqbozc.jpg

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http://cmsimg.cincinnati.com/apps/pbcsi.dll/bilde?Site=AB&Date=20121011&Category=SPT04&ArtNo=310110247&Ref=AR&MaxW=640&Border=0&Buster-Posey-does-damage-against-Reds-Game-5

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http://media.cmgdigital.com/shared/img/photos/2012/10/31/41/03/World_Series_Giants_Parade_Baseball__KTVU_AP_2_1.jpg

Matt Cain’s Perfect Night

It was a long time coming, but Matt Cain’s timing – among other things – was perfect.

The San Francisco/New York Giants franchise is 130 years old – one of the cornerstone organizations in Major League Baseball.  So, there were few “firsts” left to be forged in team history.

From the mound, no fewer than eight Hall of Famers have pitched their way into the record books while wearing a Giants uniform.  However, there was one sterling achievement that eluded them all – the perfect game.

Among the great Christy Mathewson’s 373 career wins were two no-hitters, but neither was spotless – with walks or errors as blemishes on each.

During Juan Marichal’s extraordinary 14-year run in San Francisco, he made nine All-star teams and threw a no-hit gem in 1963.  However, like Mathewson, his brilliant performance was slightly tinged by a pair of walks.

Of course, perfection is rarely part of the human condition.  And in baseball, being perfect is an especially profound accomplishment.

Consider the basic structure of the game.

Batters typically succeed less than thirty percent of the time.  Most fielders commit double-digit errors over the course of a season.  And pitchers, on average, allow better than a hit or walk per inning.

On some level, baseball players are expected to fail – in varying increments – every time they take the field.

So, when Matt Cain took the mound for the Giants on June 13 in a game against the Houston Astros, perfection was likely the last thing on his mind.  He just wanted to pitch well and help his surging ball club continue to make upward progress in the standings.  However, what he and his teammates didn’t know – what they couldn’t know – was that they were all about to play the game of their lives.

On a flawlessly placid evening in San Francisco, timing – as they say – was everything.

Cain’s control was uncanny from the start.  He threw his fastball precisely where he wanted, and his curve had the kind of crisp break that maximized its deception.  His fearsome arsenal produced so many empty swings and baffled looks that there was legitimate wonder as to whether or not the visitors would even touch the ball, let alone produce a hit.  In all, Cain struck out 14 hitters.

On the rare occasions when Houston batters eventually made solid contact, the cool night air pulled would-be extra base drives back into outfielder’s gloves and the momentum of hard hit grounders pushed them just foul.

However, one play in the seventh inning typified the serendipity of the game.

Houston’s Jordan Schafer hit the one ball that Cain left too far in the strike zone – the one small mistake that seemed likely to smash everything to pieces – and sent an ominous, soaring drive deep into the right centerfield gap.  Out of nowhere, right fielder Gregor Blanco dashed into the area and made a headlong dive, plucking the ball out of the air just before it destroyed Cain’s masterpiece.

Later, Cain expressed amazement that Blanco was even in position to make the extraordinary play in the first place.  After the game, he jokingly asked the outfielder, “What were you doing there, anyway?”

On the mound, though, Blanco’s thrilling catch provided Cain with the boost he needed to finish his perfect night.  His demeanor settled into characteristic resolve.  Cool and – under the circumstances – inexplicably calm, he dispatched the remaining Astros hitters with the quiet efficiency of a cat burglar.

The moment was finally his.

He’d spent his entire Major League life covered by someone else’s shadow.  Perhaps, it was his quiet public persona – particularly on a team filled with flamboyant personalities – or his steady but understated playing style.  But others always leapfrogged him for media attention.

However, on that night – that beautifully flawless evening – he was rightfully, finally in the spotlight.  And he will now always be able to claim his place in Giants history – a place not even the franchise’s biggest legends reside.

Yes, it was a long time coming.  But because of the class and grace of the man who finally accomplished the feat, it was worth the wait.

Sources:

http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/m/maricju01.shtml

http://www.baseball-reference.com/boxes/SFN/SFN196306150.shtml

Photos:

http://l.yimg.com/j/assets/p/sp/getty/c7/fullj.55ac92c62a2911200591843888e498e0/55ac92c62a2911200591843888e498e0-getty-146308763.jpg

http://media.photobucket.com/image/christy%20mathewson/GKreindler/Christy_Mathewson_1911.jpg

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http://espn.go.com/photo/2012/0613/mlb_a_mattcain_cmg_400.jpg

http://mit.zenfs.com/121/2011/07/brian_wilson_ap.jpg

http://www.sportsgrid.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/06/Matt-Cain-Perfect-Game.jpg

Video:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zTNYsdQWAgc

A Hero’s Life – Baseball’s First Casualty of War, Eddie Grant

Battlefield cemeteries all have the same heartbreaking landscape.

Rows of clean, white headstones fan out like an endless string of piano keys, and each key has its own resonance – tapping out the story of an honorable life ended abruptly. Collectively, they echo with a tragic but noble hymn, filled with all of the things that happen in wartime – unthinkable carnage, remarkable heroism and loyalty, and the kind of horrible clarity that only comes when the fleeting nature of life and the hard permanence of death occupy the same razor-thin edge.

One such headstone marking one such honorable life sets on a perfectly placid bit of green just outside the small town of Romagne in Southern France. The present-day tranquility of the spot belies the chaotic, ear-splitting violence that took place there nearly a century before, just as the simple engraving on the stone fails to capture the extraordinary breadth of the life it is meant to honor – Edward L. Grant, Capt. 307 Inf. 77 Div, New York, Oct. 9, 1918.

There’s no mention of his rich tapestry with threads that ran from Harvard Law School to Major League Baseball to a storybook marriage marred by sadness and, finally, to one moment of profound bravery half a world away from everything he knew.

^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^

As a native New Englander, Eddie Grant had likely been inching his way toward Harvard since he was a child. When he matured into a young man with an appetite for education and the refinement necessary for Ivy League acceptance, he reached Cambridge and the exponentially widening opportunities that Harvard admission provided.

But he was an atypical Crimson student, because his professional blueprint not only included plans to become a lawyer – very Harvard-esque – but also to reach the big leagues as a professional baseball player – decidedly un-Harvard like. Simply put, Grant wanted his high-brow professional cake with a bit of decadence and whimsy as icing. Not only that, he wished to devour the entire thing, all at once.

On August 4, 1905, he got the chance to do so.

Playing for a semipro team in nearby Lynn during his summer break from Cambridge, he was – as they say in entertainment and athletic lexicons – discovered.

The Cleveland Naps were in Boston to play the Americans – the Red Sox moniker was still three years away – but were short a player due to a nasty spate of injuries. They needed a capable body, and they needed him quickly and cheaply.

So, they went on a hastily arranged talent search. Call it serendipity or plain old blind luck, but Eddie Grant just happened to be in the right place at the right time when the Naps arrived in Lynn with their collective hat out.

He played in two games for Cleveland and collected three hits in his Major League debut before the team’s regular second baseman, Hall of Famer Napoleon Lajoie, returned to the lineup. When the circus left town, Grant stayed behind and watched the colorful caravan of itchy wool uniforms, tobacco-stained bats, and profane characters fade into the distance.

That brief taste of decadent and whimsical frosting was not nearly enough. So, Grant returned to school with the full intent of collecting his degree as quickly as possible before running away to rejoin the circus.

^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^

By 1907, he had his Harvard diploma in hand and a big league jersey draped over his shoulders. In fact, Grant led a double life of sorts, spending his spring and summer with the Philadelphia Phillies and the fall and winter back in Cambridge working his way through Harvard’s rigorous but prestigious law school.

In an age when most Major Leaguers played to escape agrarian or industrial misery, he was an anomaly – a ballplayer with life options. While his fellow big league peers grimly held onto their jobs to keep from falling off the edge of the world, Grant played for sheer personal enrichment, knowing he would have a law practice waiting for him as soon as he was done with the game.

He played hard and, befitting his Ivy League pedigree, with intelligence. He just didn’t play with quite enough skill to distinguish himself. Still, he was good enough to be ordinary and – considering the milieu – that was an achievement in and of itself.

And there were scattered pockets when he shined. In one spectacular afternoon in New York, he had seven straight hits against Hall Fame pitchers Christy Mathewson and Rube Marquard. On other afternoons, he placed bunts down with such dexterity that it was as if he put them on the turf by hand. In fact, he was proficient enough at the task to be among the league leaders in sacrifices two of the three years he started for Philadelphia.

However, his greatest moment in the game had nothing to do with the sport itself.

^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^

Baseball brought him to Philadelphia. And because it did, he walked into a random drugstore on errands in 1910 and met a pretty Sunday school teacher named Irene Soest.

As it turned out, that meeting – bursting with serendipity – blossomed into the great love each hoped would find its way into their lives. In fact, the connection proved to be so deep that the courtship lasted less than a year.

On February 28, 1911, they were married in the same church where Irene taught.

Subsequently, Eddie immersed himself into married life. As part of their future plans, he decided to leave baseball after the 1911 season and concentrate on his legal career. After all, a ballplayer’s meager salary would not provide for the kind of life he thought his beautiful bride deserved. Besides, professional baseball required a nomadic lifestyle. Away games involved travel, not to mention the uprooting imposed by trades.

In fact, Grant had been traded from Philadelphia to Cincinnati that offseason, just as the courtship of his future wife transformed into an engagement. And his year with the Reds went poorly, as he hit just .223 and the team limped to sixth.

He had had enough of the baseball circus and now wanted to spend as much time with Irene as he could.

However, Irene’s physiology held a tragic secret. She had suffered a serious case of typhoid as a child but seemingly recovered fully. Outwardly, she looked fine – vivacious and healthy – but, internally, she wasn’t. Her heart had been significantly damaged by the disease.

And one morning in November, 1911, that dormant condition reached an awful conclusion. She felt severe chest pain and suddenly – shockingly – died in Eddie’s arms before he could get help.

The wondrous journey – their magnificent union – was supposed to last for decades. That it ended so abruptly and horribly devastated Grant. It was as if they had been on a beautiful train ride intended to glide along indefinitely. But he had stepped off – just for an instant – to stretch his legs, and the train had pulled away without him, taking Irene with it. So, he was left standing, dazed and heartbroken, on an abandoned platform with no hope of that train ever coming back.

Without Irene, he scrapped the plan to leave the game. A nomadic life would do until he could piece together an alternate future. It would also allow some time for his head to comprehend and his heart to heal. The former took an arduous path, but relief from the latter never happened.

After all, that train was gone forever.

^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^

After Irene’s death, Grant drifted. His baseball career stalled in Cincinnati. By June of the 1913 season, his batting average ebbed to a career-low .213.

He already had a foot out the door when John McGraw and the New York Giants – a perennial National League powerhouse – saved his baseball life. The Giants made a trade for him and provided a novel opportunity – a chance to play for a legitimate championship contender.

Although he rarely did play for his new team – utilized mostly as a pinch-hitter and a substitute on the bases, the real motive behind the trade became apparent. McGraw valued Grant’s knowledge of the game so much that the man they called “Harvard Eddie” acted as a de facto bench coach, providing the Giants’ legendary manager with strategic insight during games.

Grant’s time with McGraw and the New Yorkers seemed to steady his ship. Being around and contributing to a winning team restored some of his vitality and determination. So, when the time came for him to leave the game after the 1915 season, he walked away with few regrets.

His legal career beckoned and the blueprint for his post-baseball life unfurled with promise.

Then, war came for America, and everything changed.

^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^

Since 1914, the Great War had screamed through Europe at a terrifying rate.

However, the United States had clung doggedly to neutrality. The staggering conflict across the Atlantic was largely born of interlocking treaties and the military obligations that bound various forces in the region to flash its arms as protection for its allies.

Without such ironclad obligation, America was free to steer clear of the inferno burning everything in its path halfway across the globe.

However, in 1917, the flames finally reached across the ocean and the U.S. felt compelled to pick a side and start sending men and machines into the fray.

Although he was 33 and not subject to any mandatory enlistment, Grant volunteered immediately. Whatever part of him that died when he lost Irene had not touched his idealism. The grand, romantic notion of shouldering a gun and fighting for his country and the principle of democracy was ultimately irresistible to him.

So, he trained to be an officer and was dispatched to the front as a Captain in the 307th Infantry out of New York.

What he likely wasn’t ready for – what few of them were ready for – was the brutality of the conflict. This war was conducted in that appalling place where military strategy had not yet caught up to the destructive technology of the weapons. So, commanders insisted on deploying men and structuring plans of attack based on the way enemies used to fight rather than their present capacity for wholesale slaughter.

Still, soldiers kept summoning the courage to attempt the impossible. They charged directly at fortified machine gun nests. They held steady in muddy trenches as artillery shells rained all around them. And they climbed up rickety ladders to desolate fields of barbed wire, fallen men, and enemy snipers.

Mostly, they died – by the hundreds or the thousands on single bloody mornings and afternoons. But they somehow found the resolve – whether motivated by the greater cause or the unbreakable connection to their brothers in arms – to keep doing what they were told despite the dreadful odds.

Such was the case when Grant heard that a battalion led by one of his former law school classmates and a close friend, Major Charles Whittlesey, had been cornered behind enemy lines.

Whittlesey’s battalion made an advance into the Argonne Forest in Southern France against ferocious German fire.  Unfortunately, they advanced too far, too quickly and outdistanced their support on both flanks. The Germans pinched in around them – taking the high ground – and made a relentless assault. Cut off from support and trapped by enemy fire, Whittlesey and his men were picked off mercilessly as they scrambled for cover.

Grant, who was leading Company H after all of his senior officers were either wounded or killed in battle, received orders to find and free the trapped battalion. Although he was utterly exhausted from days of marching and fighting and could barely bring his morning coffee to his lips, he never wavered in readying himself and his men for the perilous rescue mission.

With lives to be saved, Eddie Grant willingly ran headlong into the abyss.

As he mounted a charge towards the German encirclement, an enemy artillery shell came whistling through the trees and exploded nearby. A fragment of shrapnel tore through his side, killing him instantly.

^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^

At the time of his death, there were many tributes paid and much fanfare made of his sacrifice. In 1921, the New York Giants honored Grant by placing a plaque in remembrance at the Polo Grounds, the team’s venerable home field. After the franchise left Gotham for California after the 1957 season, Grant’s plaque stayed behind. Just as it happened so many years before, Eddie Grant – or at least his bronze-plated surrogate – had to watch the circus leave town without him.

Although there were tales of theft and vandalism that persisted for decades after the Polo Grounds were demolished and its remnants scattered to the winds, the plaque eventually resurfaced in 1999 as part of a private collection – still separated from a Major League home.

Perhaps as recompense for years of neglect, Grant’s old team, the Giants, subsequently put up a replica plaque in the team’s new stadium in San Francisco in 2006. So, Eddie Grant was finally able to rejoin his beloved circus a final time.

However, as fans stream into the ballpark to watch multi-millionaires in rented uniforms cavort on a pristine field for a billion dollar industry, few likely notice or care about the modest wall-hanging honoring a player from long ago who fought and fell in a faraway war – a war now only vaguely referenced in yellowing books in the quietest aisles of the library.

Unfortunately, time has a way of dulling the edges of memory. Cobwebs form, shadows are cast, and ruminations are lost to time.

Still, when Americans take a moment to remember and honor those who have served and fallen for this country, it would be nice to know that Captain Edward Leslie Grant hasn’t been lost to the shadows of history and that heroism no matter how much it has aged is still worthy of our collective acknowledgement and respect.

After all, a hero’s memory shouldn’t have an expiration date.

Sources:

Coyne, Kevin, “Ultimate Sacrifice,” Smithsonian Magazine, October, 2004.
http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/g/granted01.shtml
http://www.longwood.k12.ny.us/history/upton/lost.htm
http://www.baseballreliquary.org/EddieGrantPlaque.htm

Photos:
http://static.guim.co.uk/sys-images/Guardian/Pix/pictures/2010/7/29/1280431494969/Arlington-close-to-Washin-006.jpg
http://www.thedeadballera.com/GravePhotos/GravePhotos_G/Grant.Eddie.Grave01.jpg
http://i.ebayimg.com/t/Cleveland-Naps-1905-8×10-B-W-Team-Photo-/00/s/MTIxOVgxNjAw/$(KGrHqF,!qEE9d9LigOPBPZIhJPqig~~60_57.JPG http://4.bp.blogspot.com/-0qKW3Fsfqzs/Td6B62ecNjI/AAAAAAAASMA/92Okv8JKE0c/s1600/eddie+grant+%25283%2529.jpg
http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/a/a8/Epiphany_church_1900.jpg
http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/4/46/T205_Edward_L._%22Eddie%22_Grant,_third_baseman,_Cincinnati_Reds,_1911.jpg/421px-T205_Edward_L._%22Eddie%22_Grant,_third_baseman,_Cincinnati_Reds,_1911.jpg
http://www.mearsonlineauctions.com/LotImages/29/6cb1361d-4764-4be2-a53f-021b012efa41_lg.jpeg
http://www.sfgate.com/blogs/images/sfgate/giants/2006/04/27/egrant3.jpg
http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/d/d5/Captain_Eddie_Grant.jpg
http://24.media.tumblr.com/tumblr_lrh52wqL9j1qib7wuo1_500.jpg
http://i377.photobucket.com/albums/oo219/mlalli01/wreath.jpg
http://www.worldwar1.com/tripwire/jpg/0208egrant.jpg

He Ain’t Heavy, He’s the Left Fielder

It’s hard to believe that Kent Tekulve and Omar Moreno came from the same family.

At least that’s what one winning baseball team, with a little help from the pop group, the Pointer Sisters, would have everyone believe.

As the Pittsburgh Pirates made an unlikely title run in 1979, the team adopted the song “We are Family” as their theme music.  Although none of the eventual World Champs was related, the song reinforced the notion of the closeness and camaraderie of teammates.  The Pirates even had a man lovingly referred to as “Pops” sitting at the head of the table, Hall of Fame first baseman Willie Stargell.

The 1963 San Francisco Giants had no such catchy team melody, nor a World Series trophy to punctuate their cohesion.  They did, however, have something that the 1979 Pirates did not – actual family.  And on one remarkable day that season, the Giants demonstrated the power of family as never before, or since, in Major League Baseball history.

Felipe Alou was the quintessential big brother – tall, strong, and handsome.  In fact, there was something regal about him.  On a baseball diamond, he carried himself with grace, confidence, and an extraordinary level of dignity.  However, his game was an intense blend of controlled fury and relentless competitive hunger.

Felipe Alou, the man, was a consummate sportsman.  Felipe Alou, the player, came after opponents with daggers and had enough power and athleticism in his arsenal to inspire fear.

He reached the big leagues in 1958 with the Giants, and in his most productive bookend years in San Francisco – 1962 and 1963 – he averaged 22 home runs, 90 RBI’s, and 10 steals a season.  And his arm was strong enough to record 16 outfield assists in that span as well.

Physically, Matty Alou was the antithesis of Felipe, two years his senior.  Diminutive and wiry, he had to tailor his game accordingly, utilizing slap hitting and speed to be effective.  While his style of play was less dynamic than his older brother’s, Matty carved out a niche of his own and joined Felipe in San Francisco, debuting with the Giants in 1960.

Once paired with his brother as a teammate, Matty proved a perfect complement.  He hit .310 in his rookie season, and his slashing style and quickness provided a nice contrast to Felipe’s booming bat – like intricate sketching amidst broad, vivid brush strokes.

However, the notion of a pair of brothers both making it to the big leagues, while impressive, wasn’t groundbreaking.  The Covelski brothers, Stan and Harry, had both pitched in the majors in the 1910’s, and Stan became a big enough star to eventually be inducted into the Hall of Fame.  The Deans, Dizzy and Paul, followed suit twenty years later, pitching the St. Louis Cardinals to a World Championship in 1934 as part of the famed “Gas House Gang.”

The renowned DiMaggio’s, though, raised the standard of sibling accomplishment in the majors to an entirely new level.

Joe DiMaggio became an icon for the famed New York Yankees of the 1930’s and 40’s. 

His bespectacled little brother Dom starred for the rival Boston Red Sox, eventually as well known for his heady, flawless play as for his surname. 

And oldest brother, Vince, reached the majors as well – albeit, in journeyman fashion, bouncing around to five different teams during an uneven playing career. However, even he had a flash of stardom, belting 21 homers and driving in 100 runs for Pittsburgh in 1941. 

Between them, the DiMaggio boys were selected to 22 All-star teams.  Joe ended up a first-ballot Hall of Famer, and Dom garnered support in many circles urging his induction, though it never came.

So, when Felipe and Matty Alou enjoyed big league success, they stepped into rather large footsteps in the lexicon of baseball playing brothers.  Not that it mattered.  Playing at the game’s highest level was reward enough, because the arduous journey from their humble beginnings in the Dominican Republic to the pristine fields of America was the culmination of a shared dream.

Still, the Alou family was primed to make history.  Because when a third Alou sibling debuted in the majors, it set the stage for something extraordinary to happen – something that even the three DiMaggio brothers had not accomplished.

Like Vince DiMaggio, Jesus Alou hadn’t the overall excellence of his brothers’ games.  However, he was skilled enough in his own right to attract Major League interest.  And Jesus had ability.  He just didn’t have quite as much of it as his older brothers.

As with most who chase successful older siblings, Jesus couldn’t catch up to Felipe and Matty, let alone surpass them.  And this perpetual deficit was made all the more difficult on the youngest Alou because it had to play out in the unrelenting spotlight of professional sports.

So, while Felipe and Matty were becoming big league stars – Felipe went to three All-star games and Matty went to a pair of them – Jesus trailed behind with modest playing totals, hitting .280 over 15 seasons with 32 career homers and 31 career stolen bases.  He had managed to follow his brothers all the way to the majors, an impressive achievement in its own right.

Even more remarkable was the landing spot for Jesus when he arrived in the big leagues – San Francisco.  In 1963, the three Alou brothers were reunited by fate – and the Giants’ progressive scouting in Latin America – as Major Leaguers and teammates.

Felipe, as always, was the leader.  Matty continued working diligently to establish his own identity.  And Jesus spent his days looking to his big brothers for guidance.  It was just as it had been back home in Santo Domingo, except now the familiar dynamic took place in the considerable shadows of San Francisco legends Willie Mays, Willie McCovey, and Juan Marichal.  And it was especially meaningful for them to not only play alongside each other but also with Marichal, the first Dominican superstar in the majors.

And the 1963 Giants were a fearsome ballclub.  They were the defending National League champions.  And they had chased the New York Yankees all the way to the final out of the 1962 World Series before McCovey’s ferocious liner was caught just as the Series-tying and winning runs were circling the bases.

Their roster included no fewer than five eventual Hall of Famers, and it was a scary blend of power hitting and power pitching.  However, in 1963, they couldn’t muscle their way past their hated rivals, the Los Angeles Dodgers, who rode the pitching brilliance of Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale to the pennant.

San Francisco’s disappointing season, though, was tempered by one historic day in mid-September.

On the 15th during a game in Pittsburgh, the Giants’ considerable offense took out its frustration on the hapless Pirates.  En route to a 13-5 blowout, San Francisco manager Alvin Dark juggled his lineup to produce one of the great moments in the game.

In the bottom of the sixth inning, he moved Felipe – who had started the game in right field – to left and brought Jesus in to play right.  Two innings later, Dark shifted Felipe again – moving him to center – and brought Matty in to play left.

As Pirate hitters stepped up to the plate and peered into the outfield, they saw the three Alou brothers – the pride of Santo Domingo in the Dominican – standing side-by-side, sharing the same exclusive expanse of turf at the highest level the game had to offer.  And for that one moment on that one Pennsylvania autumn afternoon, the cohesive concepts of teamwork and family melted into one another as had never been seen before – three Major League siblings playing defense together in the same outfield.  It was a remarkable snapshot, and one that hasn’t been captured again in big league history.

But it didn’t last.  Given the nomadic underpinnings of the game – particularly on the business side of things – players necessarily are subject to scattering winds, even brothers.  The Alou’s never took the field together as Major League teammates again.

Felipe was traded to Atlanta after the 1963 season.  Matty was dispatched to the Pirates before the 1966 season.  And Jesus drifted to the Houston Astros in 1969.

Individually, however, they continued to excel, especially in 1966. That season, Matty won the National League batting title in his first year in Pittsburgh, hitting .342. 

In Atlanta, Felipe hit .327 for the Braves, finishing as runner-up to Matty for the batting crown and punctuated his terrific season by launching a career-high 31 homers.

In the end, though, Jesus finally trumped his big brothers, winning consecutive World Series rings as a key reserve with the Oakland A’s in 1973 and 1974.

After their playing days were over, Felipe remained the most visible, spending decades more in the game serving as a batting instructor and bench coach for the Montreal Expos.  In 1992, he became the first Dominican-born manager in Major League history when he was hired to skipper the team.

To further cement the family’s indelible impact on the league, one of Felipe’s best players on that 1992 Montreal squad was his son, Moises.  So, as father managed son, the tandem was on the way to the pinnacle of the sport in 1994.

By August of that season, the Expos had the best record in baseball and started to take on the look of a champion.  Outfielder Marquis Grissom provided the speed, his outfield mates – Moises and Larry Walker – supplied the power, and Pedro Martinez and Ken Hill dominated from the pitcher’s mound.  With Felipe’s steady hand on the wheel, Montreal was poised for something great.

Only, it never happened.

As Major League players and owners squabbled over their riches, they managed to do something that hadn’t happened since 1904 – caused the cancellation of the World Series.  A devastating player’s strike wiped out the final month of the season.  And when the Commissioner’s Office pulled the plug on the entire post season, Montreal’s exhilarating title run came crashing down in irreparable fragments.

As it had been after the 1963 season, change separated the Alou’s.  Moises became a casualty of Montreal’s ever-diminishing payroll and left the Expos after the 1996 season as a free agent.  His father stayed in Quebec, managing the team despite the front office’s best efforts to strip the ball club of talent – either trading or failing to pay the team’s best players.

In 2001, ownership rewarded Felipe’s dutiful and honorable service to the franchise by firing the most successful manager in team history.

However, Felipe carried on with the grace and class that had been his trademark as a player.  And karma seemed to reward such dignified behavior.

In 2003, he returned to his big league roots as the manager of the San Francisco Giants.  To mark the occasion, the team honored its new skipper by inviting Matty and Jesus to join Felipe in throwing out the ceremonial first pitch at the home opener.

Two seasons later, the mercurial gusts of the game brought Moises to the Giants to reunite with his father.  The Alou lineage had come full circle.  Moises, who was a bona fide star by then, donned the same uniform worn by his father and two uncles forty years earlier. 

And he did so as the most accomplished player in his immensely talented family.  In a 17-year Major League career, Moises was a 6-time All-star, hit 332 home runs, and compiled a .303 lifetime batting average.

The story of the Alou’s and their impressive sporting journey underscores not only the reach and allure of the game but also the drive and kinship forged by brothers, fathers, and sons. Sadly, one of baseball’s most celebrated families recently suffered a tremendous loss.

On November 3, Matty Alou passed away from diabetes complications at the age of 72.

The middle brother of the illustrious Alou trio was gone.  However, diminutive Matty, who had scrapped his way to the big leagues with quick feet and quicker wrists, left his family with a lifetime of memories.  Perhaps, none more cherished and vivid as the moment he took the field with his two brothers and made baseball history.

The 1979 Pittsburgh Pirates may have claimed to be family in some symbolic, tangential way.  Felipe, Matty, Jesus, and Moises Alou demonstrated it for real.  And they did so with a grace and humility that brought honor to them all.

And there’s isn’t a pop song in the world that could do such a bond justice.

Sources:

http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/a/aloufe01.shtml

http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/a/alouma01.shtml

http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/a/alouje01.shtml

http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/d/dimagvi01.shtml

http://passion4baseball.blogspot.com/2011/11/did-all-three-alou-brothers-really.html

http://www.baseball-reference.com/boxes/PIT/PIT196309150.shtml

http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/a/aloumo01.shtml

Photos:

http://www.customauthenticjerseys.com/wp-content/uploads/2008/04/kent-tekulve-pirates.jpg

http://cnt.toppsmillion.com/img/cards/1978-BB-TS1-283-NA_F_285x412.jpg

http://cdn.bleacherreport.net/images_root/slideshows/272/slideshow_27236/display_image.jpg?x=533523

http://cdn.bleacherreport.net/images_root/slides/photos/000/388/998/BR-FelipeAlou_display_image.jpg?1284149459

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http://www.latimes.com/media/photo/2011-11/65856445.jpg

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