Pregame: Location, Location, Location
“The Mission has always been the home of baseball,” wrote Anita Day Hubbard in 1924, “and from the days of the first games played on a sandlot, . . . into the days of more modern remembrance in the grounds of Fourteenth and Valencia, the Mission has always attracted the baseball players and the fans.”
Given the relative warmth, lack of wind and flat ground, where else in San Francisco would you want to play, or worse, watch, baseball? Candlestick Point? Tonight, on Mission Bay landfill, on the banks of Mission Creek (more or less) players and fans gather for the first of a three game series with the Padres from San Diego. The two teams stand atop the NL West, separated by only a half game. Should be entertaining at a minimum.
First Pitch: 7:15 p.m., 61°
Inning One: Hamlet by the Bay
Barry Zito throws the first pitch for the Giants. It’s a ball. Zito has been a Bay Area sports soap opera ever since his rookie year with the A’s more than a decade ago. A young pitching phenom with an intelligence and style, he turned old as soon as he signed with the Giants for $126 million and then tried to prove he was worth it. He failed. He tried again and failed again. Worse.
Baseball, like all competitive sports, is a head game, and for the past few years, Zito’s head has been elsewhere, focused on his own travails and miseries. Watching Zito pitch through them was like watching a man caught in an existential nightmare written by Samuel Beckett by way of Ring Lardner. His fastball took forever to get to the plate and his breaking ball broke the wrong way – if it broke at all.
This year Zito started pitching again. Going into tonight’s game, he’s got one of the best records in the league and throws with grace and purpose.
But he can’t seem to find home plate. Zito throws 28 pitches in the first inning and gives up two runs in the second.
Inning Three: 33-33
In the midst of an excruciating slump, Pablo Sandoval, the team’s best hitter and the league’s only Kung Fu Panda, hits a triple and the stands erupt. When Aubrey Huff singles, the Padres’ lead is cut in half.
The first game of organized baseball played in California was played near 16th and Harrison, between the state’s “pioneer ” team, the Eagles and the Mission Red Rovers. At the end of nine innings, the score was 33-33. Doubtful we will see that many runs tonight.
Inning Five: Wild Pitch
Zito has more trouble finding the plate. Padres hit a lot of foul balls, but Zito is putting them on base with a walk. Every batter seems like an eternity. Then a hit, another run scores, another walk and then a wild pitch, higher and wider than the president’s opening day heave. But no more runs scored. Zito walks off. He won’t be back.
Inning Seven: Melodrama and Drama
It’s a game so there is always more than a little theater. Although the players get the attention, some of the best actors are the umpires. They hesitate before calling strike three, or a stolen base. A wait. It seems interminable, then the gesture, the grand gesture, some with the body and the head, some with only the arms, some with only one hand, but when the sign is given ball or strike, out or safe, it is given like a divine judgment: sure, swift and sharp.
The game is getting ugly. The Giants score a run in the sixth and only trail by one. Yet, it seems they are stuck in quicksand. The Padres aren’t doing much better. They have had guys on base all game, yet they’ve scored only three runs.
Ugly games can be dramatic too. The confrontation between pitcher and hitter, even on an off night, provides a contest of talent, wit, guile and technology; and it often comes down to this: Giants one run down, two out, man on second, Juan Uribe at the plate, Padre reliever on the mound throwing junk. Uribe, who already has a triple tonight, takes the count to 3 balls 2 strikes.
What speed, what location, what spin? Where will he throw it? Where will he swing?
Uribe strikes out in the bottom of the seventh, but turns an incredible double-play in the eighth to prevent the Padres from scoring another run.
Inning Nine: Denouement
Sergio Romo, who gave up two late-game home runs in New York last week, is on the mound. After some shaky throws, he gets the Padres down in order. Bottom of the ninth, seagulls swirling around the outfield, many fans gone; the ones still here are on their feet. Sandoval reaches first on a walk.
There were seventeen walks in the game, and twenty-one men left on base. Pablo Sandoval, Kung Fu Panda, was number twenty-two. It’s 3-2 Padres after a painfully long night of walks.