Whenever I think of my first Giants game in 1988, I almost always instinctively rub my left deltoid and wince.
I was four years old, and on a typically brisk spring afternoon at Candlestick Park, my father took my little hand as we made our way up the escalator toward our destination, four seats in the nosebleed Upper Reserved section. Minutes later, my uncle and older cousin filled the two vacant spots to my left.
Before the days of interleague baseball, the annual preseason series with Oakland was the only opportunity for Bay Area fans to vie for bragging rights, but as a relative novice to the game back then, I couldn’t tell you anything about that. My knowledge of baseball didn’t extend past my Fisher Price T-Ball set in the backyard.
All I knew was that in the middle of the game, a vendor strolled down our aisle selling hats that were split down the middle to represent both teams; one side was black and had an orange interlocking S and F, while the other half was green and had the A’s logo (not quite like the one here, but the concept was similar).
I found them amusing, so I tugged at my dad’s sweater. I handed him the $5.25 I had saved, and asked if he would cover the difference so I could buy one.
Almost on cue, the first thing I learned about baseball is that it’s anything but amusing.
Out of nowhere, the knuckles of my cousin’s right fist collided with my left arm.
“Ow!” I exclaimed, my face in bewilderment as I massaged the soon-to-be bruised area. “What’d you do that for?”
“You can’t like both teams,” my cousin barked, his expression as stern as I’ve ever seen.
“Really?” I shot back. “Why not?”
He explained his stance. “That’s not how it works. If you want to be a real baseball fan, you have to pick one team and stick with it through good times and bad. I’ll buy you a hat, but you have to pick a team.”
The prospect of saving my $5.25 was too tempting to pass up, so I took him up on his offer. But which team would it be?
On one hand, the A’s sported a star-studded lineup featuring the greatest leadoff hitter of all-time in Rickey Henderson, a pre-Mitchell Report Bash Brother duo of Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire, and one of the best closers ever in Dennis Eckersley. But as a baseball newbie at the time, I was just fascinated with how ridiculous white cleats looked on pro ballplayers.
As far as the Giants were concerned, I didn’t know the difference between Candy’s Slide and Candy Land. The image of Jeffrey “HacMan” Leonard infamously trotting around the bases with “one flap down” was nonexistent in my memory bank. Any fleeting knowledge I had of Will “The Thrill” Clark was solely a product of hearing his name on the local six o’clock news and thinking how cool it was that his moniker rhymed.
If anything, my choice came down to geography. Being originally from the Peninsula, San Francisco was a lot closer to my house than Oakland.
And so, I told my cousin to get me a black hat. After he crowned me with it and smiled, I was officially a Giants fan.
What would transpire over the next two decades is something Duane Kuiper didn’t need to remind me earlier this season.
Giants Baseball: Torture!
Sure enough, during my time as a rabid supporter of the Men in Black, there has been no shortage of pain pills to swallow.
A DEVASTATINGLY PROPHETIC HISTORY LESSON
The next day, I used my $5.25 to acquire a Panini Baseball Album (Remember those?) and packs of stickers when I made an ominous discovery. Only one year prior, the Giants had been one game away from reaching the World Series until Candy Maldonado’s misjudgment of a Tony Peña fly ball resulted in a 1-0 loss and a subsequent surrender of the National League pennant in seven games to St. Louis.
My ensuing trip to the library to immerse myself in Giants history proved just as disappointing.
While John McGraw, Bill Terry, and Leo Durocher steered the franchise to world titles, all five championship banners were raised during their stint in New York. In fact, The Shot Heard ‘Round the World, The Catch, and even Merkle’s Boner occurred in the Polo Grounds, not Candlestick Park.
In comparison with their exploits in New York, the Giants had been relatively unspectacular after moving to San Francisco in 1958. The team’s greatest postseason achievement before the 1987 meltdown was a 1-0 defeat in Game 7 of the 1962 World Series. With two outs in the bottom of the ninth, Willie McCovey’s screamer of a line drive met an unfortunate end in the mitt of the Yankees’ Bobby Richardson.
I still remember the grimace that stretched from ear to ear when I found out that Willie Mays was on second and Matty Alou was on third.
Meanwhile, the hated Dodgers had made a similar transition from Brooklyn to Los Angeles, yet the Giants’ archrival enjoyed success in the form of four world titles in their second home.
As I exited the library, I shrugged off my newfound information, telling myself that the past would have no bearing on the present. I was still enchanted in the reverie of having a team to call my own.
I was in for a rude awakening.
WHAT COULD GO WRONG, WENT INCREDIBLY WRONG
In addition to winning the first game I attended in 1988, the Athletics would go on to capture three straight American League pennants starting that very year.
To add insult to injury, out of all the teams, the Dodgers would beat the A’s in the World Series that season for their fifth championship trophy in the confines of Southern California.
Even worse, Oakland’s second playoff run the following year culminated in a four-game World Series sweep—against my Giants. (I actually penned my first “article” chronicling the series for a writing assignment. How excruciating it was!)
After the debris from the Loma Prieta earthquake settled, it was all downhill for a few years.
In 1990, recently discarded ex-Giant Terry Mulholland hurled a no-hitter against his former club as a member of the Phillies. Over the course of the next four years, the James Brown-inspired “Humm Baby” teams of Roger Craig gradually tumbled from first in the division to fifth.
Barehanded-catching former NL MVP Kevin Mitchell was shipped to Seattle. Like B.B. King once crooned, “The Thrill” was gone, and Clark’s injuries took a toll on his once sweet swing.
After Peter Magowan’s ownership team saved the Giants from a proposed move to Tampa Bay in the 1992-93 offseason, the franchise received a shot in the arm with the acquisition of native son Barry Bonds from Pittsburgh.
And still, the next 18 years wouldn’t be without their share of heart-rending catastrophes that could only be perceived as adding to San Francisco’s legacy of coming up just short of the national pastime’s mountaintop.
Only the Giants could win 103 games in 1993 and blow a ten-game lead over Atlanta to lose the division title on the final game of the year. Who can forget Manager of the Year Dusty Baker’s dubious decision to entrust rookie starter Salomon Torres with the game ball? (The Dodgers shellacked S.F. 12-1.)
I truly believe that no other franchise could overachieve in 1997 by winning the NL West, yet follow that up by eating a sweep in the first round at the hands of a wild card team. Sitting in the left field bleachers of an 80 percent full Candlestick, my father and I could only shake our heads when Florida center fielder Devon White smashed a grand slam off Wilson Alvarez that ended up being the margin of victory in a 6-2 series-clincher.
(Sure enough, it was the only homer White would hit the entire postseason, as he batted a dismal .215 overall.)
Or how about the very next season? Needing to win the season finale to avoid a one-game playoff against the Cubs, the G-Men blew a seven-run lead at Colorado, capped by Neifi Perez’s solo shot off Robb Nen to end it. The team lost in Chicago the following day, denying the Giants a spot in the NLDS.
(Five years later, Perez would sign a $4.25 million contract with San Francisco, where he proceeded to hit a whopping three homeruns in two years as a Giant.)
And then there was Game 6 of the 2002 World Series.
Nine outs away, and five runs ahead, this article was that close to never having been typed. But as Giants fans know all too often, no lead is ever safe.
Without getting into it too deeply, I still have nightmares of Rally Monkeys and Thunderstix terrorizing my recollections of that year. (Most of all, I would prefer to suppress Baker’s choice to leave ace Jason Schmidt in the bullpen in favor of the fading Nen into the depths of my psyche.)
And it don’t stop. The next year, Felipe Alou, a member of the ’62 Giants that came one basehit short of a championship, took the reins from Baker. After becoming only the ninth team in 134 seasons of major league baseball to spend every day in first place, the Giants’ playoff fate was nothing but a formality; they would lose to the wild-card Marlins in a manner befitting franchise history.
Jose Cruz, Jr., who broke Willie Mays’ team record with 19 outfield assists, uncharacteristically muffed a routine fly ball that led to an eventual eleventh inning loss in Game 3. (Cruz would be awarded a Gold Glove just days later.) In the deciding Game 4, J.T. Snow was gunned down at the plate by Jeff Conine to end the series. (Conine was 37 years old and in the twilight of his career.)
That second postseason loss to Florida was sandwiched between Bonds’ herculean 73-homer season and his 762nd career round-tripper, both of which were record-shattering. Unfortunately, a cloud hovers over those statistics today in light of allegations he took performance-enhancing drugs to reach those feats.
All of which brings us to today, where after four straight losing seasons from 2004-08, the Giants climbed out of the doldrums of the division last year, and now find themselves back in the NLDS in 2010.
(By the way, any long-suffering Giants fan would know that the aforementioned series of unfortunate events was a Cliffs Notes version of the story. After a while, however, it’s easy to lose count.)
There were many times I wondered aloud if I made a mistake in judgment 22 years ago. But in an arguably sadistic way, I’ve learned to embrace the disappointments. I proudly wear my 2002 NL Champs pullover on cold occasions—a painful reminder of that World Series loss—like a badge of honor.
My collection of Croix de Candlestick pins is stored neatly in a box in my room, reminiscent of the days when four digits worth of diehard Giant fans would persevere through extra-inning games at the frigid, less-than-accommodating Candlestick (I’m not calling it 3-Com!) Park.
In retrospect, not everything ended in tragedy; there have been more than enough moments for Giants fans to cheer about.
Clark’s memorable 1989 NLCS where he hit a ludicrous .650 is forever etched in baseball history. Brian Johnson’s dramatic walk-off homer against the Dodgers was the highlight in a gritty 1997 NL West race that is still discussed today in reverent tones.
From 2000 through 2004, the Giants enjoyed a monopoly on the NL MVP Award (Jeff Kent once followed by Bonds four times). Last season, Tim Lincecum became the first Giant in the 53-year existence of the Cy Young Award to win them back-to-back.
But most of all, I remember the drives to and from the ‘Stick with my dad, and the renewal of high hopes every spring. I look fondly upon the times I would come home from school to hear “The Boys are Back” on KTVU, or the delicious tune of “Bye Bye Baby” accompanying replays of Giants homeruns between innings.
Lon Simmons. Hank Greenwald. Jon Miller. Kruk & Kuip. Whether in the car, on my Walkman (Remember those, too?), or on the television, the familiar sounds of their voices have welcomed me into the ballpark and made me wish I were there instead.
In fact, I remember the time I woke my parents up after Roberto Hernandez saved a crucial 2-1 game against L.A. in 1997. They thought I was asleep, but my alarm clock/radio was on minimal volume, with my impromptu outburst undoubtedly not a result of bedbugs biting.
And the fact that a total stranger can share my sentiments only gives credence to the uncanny nature of a sports franchise’s ability to capture a community’s imagination and bring it closer together.
So whether tonight is your first playoff game as a Giants fan, or in my case, 38th, brace yourself.
In order to truly appreciate the highest of highs, one must endure the lowest of lows. Faithful fans of the Boston Red Sox waited 86 years between world title celebrations. The Chicago Cubs have stood up their fans at the championship altar for over a century and counting.
I don’t know what the future holds this October, but if you’re courageous enough to stick around, you will realize that win or lose, the love affair between the Giants and their fans is a unique experience that one can only describe as something that hurts so good.
Ask my left shoulder.
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