After splitting two games in Philadelphia, the San Francisco Giants come home today to renew the NCLS against the Phillies. The game will be played at Willie Mays Field at the mouth of Mission Creek. But that’s not home for baseball in San Francisco; home is across the street, at 16th and Bryant, what we now call “Potrero Center.”
That’s the location — or close to it — where the first organized baseball game on the West Coast was played in 1860. The Giants played their first San Francisco game there in a ballpark called Seals Stadium. Built on a plot of land originally deeded to the “Home Plate Mine,” the stadium gained nationwide prominence for its architecture, ambiance and high-quality baseball.
I’m at the Double Play Bar and Grill, a watering hole for San Francisco baseball players and fans since 1909.
Two: Rock of Ages
Matt Cain starts today for San Francisco. With the exception of an occasional bad game, Cain has been the rock on which the Giants have relied all year. While Tim Lincecum starred in his own coming-of-age soap opera and Barry Zito continued to work on his music career, Matt Cain has been solid. Stolid.
They call him a bulldog. Today, he’s a rottweiler with curls.
Ask Placido Polanco or Jayson Werth what they think as Cain’s fastball freezes their swing. Are they stunned by the artistry of Cain’s accuracy? Shane Victorino is merely stunned when Cain’s fastball hits him in the gut. Did someone say accuracy?
“If you’re going to hit him,” yells one of the Double Play’s regulars at Cain’s image on TV, “put him out of the game.”
Three: Good Timing
Not that the Giants are doing any better against Phillie pitcher Cole Hamels, who is of course terrific, though one version of the 2010 Giants was able to score some runs off him.
Not today. Hamels continues to mow down Giants as Roy Oswalt did on Sunday. TV makes it look like the Giants’ bats are made of some vaporous substance that the ball goes right through. But it’s probably an issue of timing, as in Warren Spahn’s old aphorism: “Hitting is timing. Pitching is upsetting timing.”
Manager Bruce Bochy shifts players around the lineup like a poet who moves words up and down a line trying to maximize their synergy. He looks for an inspiration, a spark, a trigger — a run. Nothing works. He needs something more, something excessive.
Four: Ghost Stories
Strange noises, papers unaccountably moved or missing; doors that suddenly close, then reopen just as suddenly, a shadow, an inexplicable light, someone who is there, something that’s not there. These are some of the stories from workers at Ross Dress for Less in the Potrero Center, collected by Mickey Bradley and Dan Gordon in “Field of Screams,” a sequel to “Haunted Baseball.”
I wonder why no one ever talked to these ghosts, interrogated them as to identity and purpose.
“Do you believe the baseball ghosts can help the Giants?” I ask my friend Joaquin the Red, who wears a Giants jersey still stained from the two different kinds of mustard. He looks up at me from his Double Play burger like I’m nuts.
Five: Giants Play Mini-Ball
Like the rest of us, Joaquin the Red wants no more than Giant bats to make contact with a little ball zipping past them at 90 mph while it dances right, left, down, down and away.
Fourth inning; Hamels pitching to Edgar Renteria. Two quick strikes. Edgar takes a high fastball. Hamels says, OK, how about this one?
How about that single Renteria slaps into right! Freddy Sanchez moves him to second with a sacrifice. With two outs, Renteria on second, Pat Burrell on first with a walk, up to the plate steps Cody Ross.
Six: His Fifteen Minutes of Divinity
The guys (mostly guys) at the Double Play come from all over: Nicaragua, Puerto Rico, Cuba, England . . . England? Nationality, race, age, gender — none of it matters — now we are all Cody Ross fans, chanting his name in the ballpark or in the bar. A wave of human noise breaks over the city loud enough to wake the dead: ann incantation, a conjuration, a prayer to a little bald god from New Mexico nobody had heard of two months ago.
Does Cody acknowledge his disciples? He does better than that. He singles Renteria home for the first run of the game. Wait, it gets better. Aubrey Huff, last seen taking an ugly swing at a beautiful pitch, shoots a screamer into right field, scorching the grass just off the glove of Chase Utley. 2-0 Giants.
Can it possibly get better? It can. Forgotten outfielder Aaron Rowand leads off the sixth with his second hit in the last two decades, a sharp line drive past third baseman Placido Polanco for a double. Are the Giants going to leave him stranded? It sure looks that way. Especially after Freddy Sanchez hits the ball right at Utley.
Seven: Waiting to Exhale
Utley is a good fielder, and arguably it only looks like an easy play on TV, but in reality, very tricky. Either way, the ball caroms off Utley into the outfield and the third run scores. A lucky break?
A ghostly intervention?
Matt Cain has worked effectively and efficiently. For example, six pitches into the seventh inning, he’s already got two outs. So why does he hit the next guy and walk the one after? Bruce Bochy jogs out to the mound to ask. Matt says “I’m cool.” Bochy relents, then reaches for the Maalox as he watches Cain throw two balls to Victorino
Eight: In the Balance
This is dangerous. Victorino wants revenge for getting hit earlier by Cain. A foul, another ball, another mean foul, a full count.
In bars all over Philadelphia a wave of human noise surges, urging on their Victorino. He responds with a hit — right at Freddy Sanchez, in a weird reversal of what just happened to Utley.
Only Freddy doesn’t fumble.
Nine: Will They Tell If You Ask?
It’s playoff time: a time for funny bounces, unlikely heroes, great pitching — and maybe some local ghosts.
If you want to know more about the ghosts, ask them.