Imagine for a moment that it’s precisely a year ago and you are Brian Sabean, general manager of the San Francisco Giants. It’s that time of the year again when you assemble every last wretch on the staff who has so much as a clue -- coaches, scouts, minor league pedagogues, medics, money-guys, lawyers, keepers of stats, compilers of computer print-outs, even the P.R people -- to deal with that most fundamental of questions: “So, now what do we do?”
There’s hope, at least. You’re coming off a decent 88-win season. Your organization is deep in terrific young pitching albeit otherwise soft, old, and scrawny. Still more to the point, you have no more money to work with and you’ve been drifting languidly for the seven seasons that have passed since Barry Bonds clubbed your team into the World Series which, by the way, is an event the once proud and dominant Giants have graced only twice since they nestled into the charming old city by the Bay more than a half century ago.
Happily, ‘Frisco’s cool citizenry can live with that as an element of its legendary sophistication. You’ll never catch them terming the loss of a mere ballgame as something “tragic.”
Still you’re Brian Sabean, baseball lifer, raised in the New York Yankees organization where once upon a time George Steinbrenner regarded you as one of his best and brightest young Turks. In the end, you flamed out in the Bronx. No surprise there. But the mercurial George nonetheless loved you to the last and baseball people have always said you were one of the cagiest foxes in the dodge, even if you were a bit of a baseball Columbo; bearded, unassuming, and looking rather more like one of those poets who does readings in the coffee houses up on Knob Hill.
You have a plan, you tell your people, and it’s simple: Find a way to keep over-the-hill journeymen Juan Uribe and Edgar Renteria for short money. Then add some free agents nobody else wants, like Aubrey Huff and Andre Torres. Then pick up some table scraps from other teams on waivers, say Pat Burrell and Cody Ross. With luck, their old teams will pay most of their salaries. At the summer trade deadline, add relievers Javier Lopez and Ramon Ramirez, which will be easy because nobody else will go after them.
Stitch this grab-bag together with your sterling and home-grown pitching along with a 23-year-old rookie catcher who looks 13 and a couple of worthy vets (including Red Sox reject Freddie Sanchez) and hand the entire package over to a brilliant and classy manager, Bruce Bochy, easily the second-best kept secret in all of baseball.
Bingo! You have a glorious pennant winner. And you also have one of the best sports stories of recent years, one that’s sure to charm all who love sport the way it used to be back when knowing a game and how to play it and who can play it was greatly more important than having the most money.
In the end, which team won this year’s World Series was almost immaterial such was the significance of Texas and San Francisco just getting there. That the Giants should prevail with their sparkling pitching and merry band of cast-offs, ingeniously assembled by G.M Sabean, the Master Scavenger of Baseball, was downright exquisite.
The Giants did it with a payroll of $98 million but it’s noteworthy that roughly a third of that was tied up in only two players --pitcher Barry Zito and outfielder Aaron Rowland -- who commanded the brutal total of $31.8 million between them this season with neither being remotely a factor in the post-season. Indeed, Zito, with a salary of $18.5 million, wasn’t even on the Giants’ World Series roster. That may be the gravest insult ever handed a vastly overpaid underachiever in Baseball’s entire history.
Further noteworthy is the fact the free agent deals of both Zito and Rowland were dictated by the ex-owner over G.M Sabean’s strenuous objections. Even when certain owners have baseball advisers who know what they’re doing, they still screw it up, which explains why Baseball is a mess.
The Rangers -- a team in bankruptcy propped up by the Commissioner until early August -- did it with a payroll of $55 million. That’s comparable to what the Pirates are paying their wayward collection of sojourners for the privilege of finishing dead last every year for a generation. It’s an amazing achievement fully orchestrated by Ranger G.M Jon Daniels. An Ivy League whiz kid out of Cornell, Daniels is even younger and smarter than our own resident genius, Theo, the pride and joy of Yale.
If the much-ballyhooed acquisition of prized lefty Cliff Lee was crucial to the Rangers’ success, the fact that that he wasn’t the big-ticket luxury he’s about to become made it all the sweeter. In renting him from Seattle for half the season, the Rangers ended up paying Lee roughly what the Red Sox and Yankees waste on spare parts. Of course, after this season Lee will no longer be a bargain, which probably won’t concern the Rangers who’ve already reaped more than their money’s worth.
For that matter, pitcher Colby Lewis, valiant all season, was probably more important than Lee in realizing the Texas franchise’s finest hour. Lewis is a lovely story. He’d won only one big-league game since 2003. He’d been forced to repair to Japan for two years to re-discover his failed promise. He cost them only a plane trip home for his family and a $2.5 million deal. For what amounts these baseball days to chump change, the Rangers got the single most crucial element in their magical equation.
Obviously, there’s a hugely important message in this for all of Baseball. It’s not the first time small-market teams have risen out of the dust and made a huge statement. It’s happened enough over the past decade to maintain the game’s integrity. This is, however, the first time this millennium that both finalists were noteworthy for being conspicuously thrifty, smartly managed, tightly budgeted, and prudent to degrees of brilliance. It can be done. The Giants and Rangers just proved it.
But to do so you must have people in charge who really know this game and understand its people. And if you have them, you must trust them.
If Bruce Bochy had been their manager, might the Yankees have made it to the Series and again won the thing? Quite likely! If Brian Sabean had been their general manager, would the Yankees have muddled their precious chemistry with those awkward moves last winter? No way! After becoming punching bags in Boston, how can Brothers Lopez and Ramirez be lights out in San Francisco? I give up! The wonderful thing about Baseball is that, in the end, it’s simply inscrutable.
It was a whirlwind romance lasting only six days but getting to really know these Giants was a pleasure. Having a ragtag collection of wayward misfits come out of nowhere to steal a ring isn’t supposed to happen except in Hollywood. Yet this engaging variation of “The Bad News Bears” was thoroughly real; flesh and blood up and down the ranks, ragged and scruffy, too. They now become worthy descendants of Mathewson and McGraw, Ott and Hubbell, and, of course, Master Willie Mays. It took 53 years to redeem the Giants for abandoning the banks of the Harlem for Northern California’s soft breezes, but to such gruff mercenaries as Aubrey Huff and Pat Burrell, that will be a matter of indifference.
It was all about the pitching and a wonderful tribute to the inevitability of Great Pitching. Was even the immortal Matty better than Tim Lincecum? If the Yankees had Brian Wilson, would they demand he shave his beard? Pitching, when it’s profoundly great, always prevails.
No team since the 1963 Dodgers of Koufax, Drysdale & Podres has pitched as well as these Giants. Nor has any champion since the 1906 White Sox, known as The Hitless Wonders, been more identified with its pitching. How does Matt Cain compare with Big Ed Walsh? Only in Baseball do such questions get asked. That, in the end, is its glory.