One: The Game
An e-mail from the Editor last May: she’s offering a press pass to the Giants’ game if I write a game report. Hey, free baseball. Why not the whole series? The Padres are in town, tied with the Giants for first in the West. This will be an early test of strength.
A couple of months earlier, Burrito Justice posted two fascinating stories about baseball in the Mission (here and here). The Editor was intrigued to learn that when the Giants came from New York, they landed on 16th and Bryant. There was history and geography (the ballpark on the banks of Mission Creek). But is there any interest?
I’m a skeptic. Hardcore Giants fans have more information than they need. Bandwagon Giants fans probably won’t pay much attention unless the team make the playoffs, which they’ve got a shot at if their pitching is as good as advertised.
Two: The Team
If I want to write Giants stories in the hypothetical playoffs, says the Editor, I have to write game reports in the real season. I should write a game report for every remaining home game, she advises, so by playoff time I will have learned how to tell a good baseball story. That’s more than 60 games!
At the time, I’m working on a play about failure. The spring of 2010 seemed to be all about failure — the oil, the banks, the war(s), the schools — yet I was getting nowhere. Maybe spending time with baseball, a game where success means failing better, would help.
The Giants have an epic history of failure, etched into the franchise DNA as deeply as their unfair labor practices.
Three: The Literature
Writing baseball means reading baseball. There’s affinity between baseball and the written word and I’ve got less than 60 games to find it. I buy print books through Modern Times, download digital books from Amazon. I’m constantly flipping between David Halberstam, Donald Hall and Roger Kahn. My friends can’t stop laughing when I pull out “The Science of Hitting” by Ted Williams.
Baseball buries my summer in a blizzard of print: Lapham’s Quarterly on Sports and Games; Willie Mays’ new book; Mark Kurlansky’s book on the Dominican Republic, “The Eastern Stars”; Matt McCarthy’s quirky “Odd Man Out”; “Homo Ludens” by Johan Huizinga; Tom Clark’s poems; and “The Iowa Baseball Confederacy” by W.P. Kinsella. My boss at my real job spends more time at the ballpark than at the office (key to the firm’s success), and he introduces me to the thoroughly bizarre world of statistics known as sabremetrics, PECOTA and the Davenport Translations.
Four: The Players
The clubhouse feels like being inside a church. People speak in hushed tones under soft light; sportswriters stand in a knot, looking at their notebooks, shuffling their feet, waiting for the day’s heroes or goats to emerge from the training room. I see Barry Zito sitting in a corner staring at his cell phone and start to go over to him, but a Giants’ PR guy stops me. Zito is available only after he pitches, or by special appointment.
The pack of sportswriters goes from one to another. I listen to their questions. Sometimes I ask a follow-up. Like when Brian Wilson says he prepares himself mentally before going out in a tough situation, I ask him what he does to prepare. He looks at me as if I am a hitter and he wants to throw a fastball at my head. He paces.
Pablo Sandoval can’t explain striking out or his bonehead base-running. Who can? I read that his mother wanted him to go to college after high school but Pablo signed with the Giants. I wonder if on days like this he doesn’t think that maybe his mother had a point. He either has no idea what I’m talking about or he can’t understand my Spanish.
Jonathan Sanchez loses a 1-0 game to San Diego Padre Mat Latos. After the game he tells the pack that “Mat had good stuff.” I take this down. A week later I ask him if there is a Spanish word for “stuff.” What’s “stuff”? he asks Andres Torres.
I’m sitting on a couch with Tim Lincecum and his dog, watching a baseball game (what else?) on TV. What do you ask a kid in the middle of the biggest crisis of his professional career? “How’s it going?” He grunts.
They’re Giants, my boss tells me, they’re gods. Pretending they’re human may help sell tickets, but in the long run, it only demeans the game. I agree. It’s no tragedy when humans fail, but when the gods fail, that’s baseball’s greatest tale.
Five: The Writers
Invariably, game reports boil down to talking box scores: game highlights underscored by quotes such as “Mat had good stuff.” Sportswriters report, they don’t replay. Maybe that’s why they all look wasted, except for the Comcast crew, who are too young or too clueless to be wasted before the sixth inning.
During my first three months in the press box, no one talks to me except the AP reporter. That happens when I pump my fist after Andres Torres hits a home run. Such gestures are prohibited, she (one of a few) tells me. Sportswriters must be objective. Who knew?
Six: The Grind
Deep into the season, I’m spending 10 to 12 hours with each game, often not getting to sleep until three or four the following morning. And it shows. Yesterday I brought home an armful of Giants paraphernalia that I bought after the game. My wife is shocked. I never buy anything but books.
“Shouldn’t you see a doctor?”
It’s that slave-driving Editor. She hinted that if I kept “improving,” I might get paid for the playoffs.
Ha ha, says the wife.
Seven: The Turning Point
After a miserable road trip, the team opens a nine-game homestand in the midst of the summer’s worst heat spells. Home runs bloom off bats like cactus flowers. First Giant bats, but then Cincinnati and Arizona bats.
Out of the sturm and drang of that homestand, the pitching staff, excoriated by fans, players and bosses alike, decides it’s time to play ball. The writing takes on an unexpected urgency: suddenly these are stories that have to be told.
Eight: The Playoffs
Miraculous? Surreal? Dreamlike? I lose the press pass because of my bureaucratic sloth, but it doesn’t matter. This isn’t the regular season; it’s playoff time and place is unimportant. Plus, I can finally wear all that Giants paraphernalia and pump my fist when Torres hits a homer.
In the playoffs, the game’s the thing. It’s the game that tells the story, as it should. I’m just along for the ride.
A season in one scene? Brian Wilson strikes out Ryan Howard in Philadelphia with two on and two out for the National League pennant.
Nine: The Win
“Casey at the Bat,” baseball’s greatest tale, is the perfect note on which to end every baseball season but one. This year the Giants were the exception; they won.
I thought by writing the Giants I would pick up some insights into the nature of failure. Instead, I’ve chronicled ultimate triumph. Maybe that’s it. As Roger Bannister, the first person to run a mile under four minutes, put it: “Failure is as exciting to watch as success, provided the effort is absolutely genuine and complete.”
Win or lose, the Giants put on a great show almost every game this year because their effort could not have been more genuine, more complete.
What more can we wish from our gods?