San Francisco 2012: Baseball Heaven

They say this used to be a football town.

They say that, at one time, nothing could elevate the heart rate of the San Francisco sports fan more than something called – and I hope I have this right – “Montana to Rice.” Hmm, sounds like some kind of cowboy diet plan.

That kind of talk has now been drowned in the roars coming from China Basin. San Francisco is now, fully and passionately, a baseball town.

From the press area in the nosebleeds in deep left field, the crowd at Thursday night’s World Series Game 2 at AT&T Park resembled a rippling orange carpet. Forty thousand tangerine-colored rally towels were handed out free to ticket holders streaming into Game 2 and, considering the San Francisco Giants are now playing in their second World Series in three years, you’ll have to excuse Bay Area baseball fans if they now consider orange to be the color of baseball royalty. These days, even in the bluest corners of Dodger myopia, it’s hard to argue otherwise.

The day after Pablo Sandoval blasted three home runs to give the Giants a victory against Justin Verlander, the stud ace of the Detroit Tigers, in Game 1, a poignantly beautiful fall afternoon reflects shards of sunlight off the far Berkeley Hills. In a glass showcase in the club level, the 2010 World Series trophy gleams, and another is there for the taking. As the game begins, there is but one conclusion – San Francisco in late October 2012 is one Iowa cornfield away from being baseball heaven.

What’s most astonishing about this amazing set of circumstances is how far this franchise has come. You don’t hear much about it, but this year marks a significant anniversary of the Giants’ darkest moment. Twenty years ago this month, a dispirited team finished a bleak season at dreary Candlestick Park, shortly after it was announced that the team would be sold and moved to Tampa. Fans came out to the Stick that fall certain the team would never play in San Francisco again.

Of course, we all know the miracle that followed – the white-knight ownership group fronted by Peter Magowan, the signing of Barry Bonds, the construction of the glorious new ballpark by the bay and, eventually, a World Series title. And, as the nation looks on this fall, San Francisco is taking its place alongside New York and Boston as one of the greatest baseball cities in America.

The thing about the World Series that makes it fundamentally different from any other ballgame is the presence of baseball’s one-percent, the media figures and grand old faces of the game that use the Series as old home week.

With a media pass that gave me the run of the ballpark, I got up close and personal with many of the game’s most famous names, from media showboats such as ESPN’s bombastic Chris Berman, Fox’s glamour queen Erin Andrews and the demigod of all baseball writers Peter Gammons, to the many of the ex-ballplayers and Hall of Famers that make often turn grown men into quivering children.

Will “The Thrill” Clark, the sweetheart of the Humm-Baby Giants of the late 1980s, appeared during batting practice in full uniform. After a back-slapping TV appearance, Clark jogged to the outfield to shag flies with the current Giants. Sometimes the universe sings.

Later, with the game still scoreless going into the late innings, I found myself in a hallway with two African-American gentlemen of advanced years, the tall one admonishing the shorter one not to forget his glasses. The former was Frank Robinson, the latter Joe Morgan, two of the greatest to ever play the game. I not only didn’t speak, I’m pretty sure I didn’t breathe.

But I spent most of my time out with the orange-and-black hordes who lustily chanted “MVP!” whenever Buster Posey came to the plate, and roared with every pitch thrown to Sandoval. To anyone showing a little gray, I attempted to reminisce about the bad old Candlestick days when parkas regularly came out in July.

For all the famous VIPs crowding the luxury suites, and the grousing about the price of World Series tickets, there was still a lunch-bucket vibe to the evening, if you knew where to look. Out on the concourse behind right field, outside the ballpark, Giants fans without tickets lined up for a chance to peer at the field through the right field fence for free. A local man named Chet was making the case that the thousands of Giants fans clogging the concourse do not know how good they have it.

A bit later, leaning against the railing hovering over McCovey Cove, where the kayakers and pleasure boats famously wait for home run balls that will probably never come, an old-timer named Rex can’t stop talking about the old days at Candlestick. Rex is possessed of the kind of mountain-man beard that’s apparently fashionable in the Giants bullpen; picture Brian Wilson 40 years from now. Rex never had any intention of going inside the ballpark and seeing the game. As World Series Giants’ caps are being sold for $50 nearby, Rex is wearing an old construction helmet that he painted himself orange and black. I told him if we could mass-produce those babies, we might make a fortune.

Rex is here not to see a game, but to feed off the energy of the crowd and the team. “I’m here every night,” he says. “I ain’t going nowhere.”

Later as the night ripened, in the middle of eighth on the way to a 2-0 Giants victory – and a 2-0 lead in the Series – the ballpark rose for what has become one of the most intoxicating of game rituals at this ballpark.
On the loudspeaker came the old Journey song “Lights” and 60,000 voices, giddy with baseball magic, sang lustily, “When the lights do down in the City …”

Take your Dodger Dogs and your Green Monsters and your ivy-covered outfield walls. This is where baseball lives today. This is where baseball has come back from near death to reign as the City of Champions.

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