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.
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.