Monthly Archives: October 2010

How I fell in love with the San Francisco Giants

Just because I live 5,371 miles away (thanks Google) from AT&T Park, don’t label me a bandwagon San Francisco Giants fan.

I know what writing this column looks like – professing love for a team that’s just reached the World Series is more than enough to set the ‘bandwagon fan’ siren squealing.

But you’ll just have to trust me on this one.

I wanted to write this column 18 months ago after taking in my first Giants game and falling hook, line and sinker for the charms of AT&T Park.

I should have written this column six months back when, thanks to a certain volcanic ash cloud, I ended up spending most of April in San Francisco and went to see four more Giants games.

I expected to write this column at the end of the regular season when I was certain the Giants’ 2010 run would end.

Two playoff series later, the team is still alive and kicking. It’s 11 hours since Brian Wilson struck out Ryan Howard and sent every Giants fan into celebratory orbit.

So I’m writing this column now. And if you think that makes me a bandwagon fan, I guess I’ll just have to live with it.

How it started

I’m an NBA guy at heart but I’ve flirted with baseball (and British TV’s paltry coverage of it) for 10 years or so. But two (inevitably east coast) games a week wasn’t enough to pique my interest fully. It also made it impossible to uncover a team whose character, players and style were right for me.

I had to go and see a live game. And when I eventually did so, everything changed.

In England, we don’t really have anything quite like a ball park. I guess a cricket ground would be closest. Like a ball park, they have individual characteristics and quirks.

But they don’t really lend themselves to the atmospheric, intimate cauldron of tension and, yes, torture that a stadium like AT&T Park provides.

So, yes, I fell in love with the ball park before I fell in love with the team.

From the plaques hailing the greatness of former players outside the park, the SRO arches in triples alley and the Ks that line the wall in right field to the vibe provided by the creatures in the bleachers and the huge scoreboard, glove and Coke bottle that loom above them, everything about the park felt right.

That’s why, when I went to my first Giants game in April 2009 and saw Tim Lincecum receive his first Cy Young award, Randy Johnson concede a home run to a pitcher (Yovani Gallardo) for the first time in his stellar career and an offensively-challenged Giants team fall limply to the Milwaukee Brewers, I knew I’d be coming back.

Consumating the affair

It took 12 months before I made good on that promise. In between my first and second game, I embraced baseball through MLB audio pass, ESPN’s Baseball Today podcast, some excellent SF Giants blogs (Bay Area Sports Guy, Golden Gate Giants) and the highs and lows of fans like @northbanknorman (an Englishman in SF) and @thedodgerhater on Twitter.

Second time around, I felt more like a proper fan. Again I saw Lincecum get a Cy Young as the Giants (with Todd Wellemeyer on the mound) fell to the Atlanta Braves.

Then, stranded in The City for an extra 14 days, I watched Lincecum easily beat Pittsburgh, work hard to overcome St Louis and have his hard work undone in an extra innings loss in an afternoon game against Philadelphia.

A team full of fight

The starting line-up in the early season didn’t bear much resemblance to the one that has served the Giants so well in the post-season. Mark DeRosa, Aaron Rowand and Bengie Molina occupied the spots now held by Cody Ross, Andres Torres and the awesome soon-to-be Rookie of the Year Buster Posey.

But what was apparent was that this Giants team was no stranger to doing things the hard way. Run support would always be an issue. Relief innings and saves would often mutate into full-on white knuckle rides. This team would have to fight for everything – and fight they would.

I had found a team with the attitude and style that the teams I follow in other sports possess.

In the English Premier League, West Ham United have always done things the hard way. Ditto for the England cricket team. And the less said about my New York Knicks the better (they always struggle, I keep my fingers crossed they’ll eventually work out how to fight).

When you get a fighting team whose sum is so much greater than its parts, it’s not a hardship to get up at 3am to listen or watch home games.

Watching players that have come through a club’s youth set-up/farm system enables you to enjoy their success that little bit more.

Watching veteran players like Aubrey Huff enjoying their first post-season successes and knowing they know how important that success is to the people that pay to come and watch (and live and die with this team on a daily basis) is the antithesis to the attitude that pervades the hubris of Premier League football in England.

Battle-hardened by one-run games and boasting impressive starting and relief pitching (once Barry Zito was left off the post-season roster), I always felt the Giants would be formidable playoff opponents for any National League team.

Someone always steps up

That said, I didn’t expect them to beat the Phillies, a team with greater strength in depth, bigger bats and loads more playoff experience.

The key to the Giants’ victory was that they didn’t just have to rely on their superstar players for game-changing performances.

Yes, superstars like Lincecum. Posey and Wilson performed. But they weren’t the only ones. The criminally underrated Matt Cain outpitched Cole Hamels in game three. Cody Ross guaranteed himself a 2011 payday with repeated clutch hitting. When challenged to get on base, Torres and Freddy Sanchez raised their games in the last two games of the series.

The list goes on. Reliever Javier Lopez scared the living daylights out of the Philly hitters. Pablo Sandoval and Juan Uribe, who have both struggled in the playoffs, provided vital hits at crucial times.

The point is this: whenever a performance was needed, a Giant was able to step up and, the ultimate measure of a great team, it really didn’t matter who it was.

The bullpen effort in game six was perhaps the best example. With Jonathan Sanchez struggling, the combination of the oft-maligned Jeremy Affeldt, Madison Bumgarner, Lopez, Lincecum and Wilson combined for seven scoreless innings that ultimately clinched the series.

World Series

How much do I love this team? I spent two hours today trying to find a last-minute flight to San Francisco in time for the opening games of the World Series.

Although I’ve reluctantly had to accept that I can’t afford to do something this impulsive, I am gutted that I won’t be making the trip.

I was certain that, in the likely event I couldn’t get a scalped ticket for a game, sitting in a pub with other fans close to the ball park was something I had to do.

As ludicrous as this sounds, travelling 5,000 miles to a city where I know nobody seemed like the most natural thing in the world.

As it stands, I’ll be watching the World Series unfold from London. I won’t be crossing my fingers for a Giants win.

When a team meets every challenge in its way despite being repeatedly told its players are cast-offs, rejects and freaks unable to hang with opponents with bigger reputations, luck doesn’t come into it.

The 2010 Giants are a team of destiny. Write them off at your peril.

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First thoughts on the new look New York Knicks

A new roster, a legitimate franchise player, a core of exciting young players and finally freedom from salary cap hell. On paper, there’s a hell of a lot to look forward to about the New York Knicks in the 2010/11 NBA season.

So, after a basketball-free summer, New York’s presence on the NBA Europe Live tour provided an ideal opportunity for a first look at the new look Knickerbockers as they took their first tentative steps in pre-season match-ups against Olimpia Milano and the Minnesota Timberwolves.

First things first, these two games were the first time the Knicks’ revamped roster had played together in front of a crowd. There was more sloppy play than cohesive play. There were a lot of turnovers. There’s no point dwelling on these things – they are to be expected. Besides, there was a lot more on show in these Knicks outings that provide clues as to what we can expect once the regular season starts.

There’s no better place to start than with Amare, the 100 million dollar man. Stoudemire was in dominant form in the Knicks 125-112 victory over Milano, pouring in 32 points in 28 minutes and getting to the line 13 times. He repeatedly got to the rim and finished after being fouled.

It was a different story against Minnesota. Against tougher opponents, Amare didn’t assert himself on the game. That said, he only played 20 minutes as Mike D’Antoni gave playing time to every member of his squad.

In both games, Stoudemire made some showy defensive plays, swiftly getting into passing lanes to make steals. He also made some telling passes from the high post to players cutting for easy hoops.

The only passive area of Amare’s game was his rebounding, something he was regularly criticised for during his career in Phoenix. How he only managed to pull down two rebounds in 20 minutes against the Timberwolves is a mystery – with his athleticism and strength he should be pulling down at least 10 boards a game.

While Amare’s presence on the roster will more than make up for the scoring lost in the departure of David Lee, the evidence from the Minnesota game suggests D’Antoni has no way of replacing D-Lee’s rebounding.

You’d think that the combined size and length of Stoudemire, Anthony Randolph, Rony Turiaf and Timofey Mozgov would be enough to fill that void. You’d think that, but you’d be wrong. The Knicks were outrebounded 66-37 by the Timberwolves and, at one point in the fourth quarter, were being outscored 24-2 in second chance points.

Simply put, the likes of Knicks reject Darko Milicic and the ever-improving Kevin Love abused Amare and co on the glass. On this evidence, these four guys can’t, or won’t, replicate D-Lee’s hustle, determination and instinct for the ball – his desire to do the dirty work.

However, one thing the Knicks new core of big men can definitely do is block shots. Last season, you’d have had to wait approximately five quarters of basketball to see the Knicks block five shots. Now with Turiaf, Mozgov and Randolph on board and Danilo Gallinari chipping in, you’re likely to see five blocks in any given quarter. There’ll be no shortage of block parties at Madison Square Garden this year.

On the other side of the ball, these big guys all show good passing ability, albeit somewhat inconsistently at this stage of proceedings. One of the best Knicks plays against Minnesota came when Randolph found a cutting Bill Walker on the baseline with a sweet bounce pass. Before they fell in love with the jumper in the third quarter of the Paris loss, the Knicks had 16 assists on 22 made field goals.

The final point to make about the Knicks new core of big men relates to Mozgov. This is slightly harsh criticism based on two meaningless games but the seven-foot Russian picks up fouls so easily that it appears he will struggle to stay on the floor in regular season play. Mozgov seems unable to avoid setting moving screens but can’t get his feet to move at more important times. In Paris, he fouled out in 15 minutes.

The performances of the Knicks’ other major free agent signing Raymond Felton in Europe were curiously understated. The former Bobcat looks solid, calm and tough defensively and, even if his stats against the T’Wolves certainly didn’t reflect it, he’s so, so, so much better than Chris Duhon.

I always felt Duhon struggled to think for himself on the court. At times it seemed like if he was told to distribute he would do that exclusively and not shoot. If he was told to score, he’d do that and his passing game would disappear. He couldn’t think for himself.

Felton appears to have an instinct for what to do and when to do it. I felt he played quietly within himself in this week’s games, bedding himself in with a new system and new teammates. However, when the Knicks struggled for a basket, he sensed this and barrelled into the lane to score at the rim. He’ll need to do this much more come the regular season.

Felton had a poor game against Minnesota and the effect of his sub-par performance on the team’s overall play was shown when Toney Douglas checked in. The team’s overall energy raised about 10 notches as the young guard drained a three then forced a turnover on the very next play.

Assuming Felton beds in, Douglas may end up as the “instant offence” bench guy this year. Having said that, rumours persist that Coach D’Antoni likes the defensive intensity of a Felton/Douglas backcourt partnership. We shall see.

Another facet of Donnie Walsh’s off-season moves was to load the roster with shooting. The idea was to back up Gallo’s three-point prowess with bench guys like Roger Mason, Andy Rautins and Landry Fields.

That’s fine in theory, but the downside of this is creating an environment where everyone falls in love with the outside shot. It happened over and over again last season. Against Minnesota, it happened again. The Knicks shot 9 for 31 from beyond the arc and on occasions in the third and fourth quarters, didn’t look like they knew where the next bucket was coming from.

Taking 30 threes in a pre-season game is nothing short of lazy, especially when you have a core of players able, if not willing, to take the ball to the rack. Although Amare and Randolph got to the line relatively frequently against Milano, they were unable to repeat this against Minnesota.

No-one needs to see Randolph jacking up long twos, let alone the air ball threes he launched when he first got on the court in Milan. Or, as @Coach_D_AntNOTi noted on Twitter, “Randolph’s shot selection reminds me of Lamar Odom’s chick selection. #terrible”.

The other Knicks offender in this area is Gallinari. Time after time we hear about how he’s concentrating on faking the three and driving to the hoop. Two hours later you look at the box score and he’s taken 80% of his shots from three-point land. Take it to the hoop, Gallo!

Neither of this week’s pre-season games provides clear answers to how the Knicks will go this season. As I’ve said, it’s far too early to judge this team. But we do know the 2010/11 Knicks are a younger, more athletic team with superior depth to any MSG roster in recent times.

D’Antoni is no longer handicapped by expiring contracts masquerading as basketball players. He has the players to implement his methods. Because of this, he also has no excuses. I like this Knicks roster and I think might end up loving it when they get used to playing with each other. The new season promises much. And it’s only 19 short days away.

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Filed under Basketball, nba, New York Knicks