Paradise Regained in San Francisco
The late A. Bartlett Giamatti, Yale President, Baseball Commissioner, scholar, and incurable romantic, wrote passionately and often about his lifelong love of baseball. He compared the very object of the game, to go out and come home again, with literary romance, which he asserted derives from Homer’s Odyssey. In its rhythms, governed by events (most of them in mystical sets of three) rather than by a clock, he saw the expression of our desire to make ideal moments stand still. He felt that the baseball field, enclosing its marriage of geometric and pastoral perfection and held apart from daily life as a place for play, is as close as humankind is ever likely to come to recreating Paradise.
In large measure the appeal of baseball lies in its ability to evoke an earlier, simpler age, one for which we yearn, even though it probably never existed. Baseball lends itself to a very long-dated, historical viewpoint. We remember Tinker-to-Evers-to-Chance, even though they played for the Cubs a century ago. We teach our children about
Babe Ruth, who made the transition from pitcher to everyday outfielder around the end of World War I. Major League Baseball still supports research seeking a cure for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, “ Lou Gehrig’s Disease,” even though the Iron Horse himself succumbed to the malady long before most of us were born. Even baseball fiction is long-dated. When Brian Wilson struck out Ryan Howard to end the National League Championship Series and send the Giants to the World Series, Howard joined a long line of avatars of Mighty Casey.
There’s good reason for baseball fans’ remembrance of things long past. When we compare
Matt Cain’s postseason pitching record for the Giants to that of the great Christy Mathewson, we place Cain’s achievement in the rarefied context in which it belongs. But we today can also watch the 26-year-old Cain, and in him imagine a youthful Mathewson pitching equally well, and at the same age — in 1906. Edgar Renteria’s decisive Game 5 home run for the Giants in 2010 recalls his own walk-off hit in the final game in 1997, or Bill Mazeroski’s famous home run in 1960. It stands in counterpoint to Willie McCovey’s line drive smash — caught — to end the Series in 1962.
Our remembrance of such small events, so long ago, validates Dr. Giamatti’s claim that in baseball we will the ideal moment to linger; we want time to stand still. Those memories don’t demonstrate that baseball is a perfect type of our lost, paradisaical past. But they show that we wish it were one. Dr. Giamatti had it just right. Baseball satisfies us in part because it reminds us of the Paradise we have lost.
Baseball, of course, has always also had the power to remind us too directly of our fallen nature. The Black Sox scandal of 1919, in which members the
Chicago White Sox threw the World Series for a payoff from gamblers; the steroid era of our own time; and the annual winter chase for free agent talent in return for a share in the commercial potential of the game all serve to disabuse us of our fantasy of Elysian perfection in baseball. Yet in spite of it all, we still yearn, still hope, for that perfect season in which some ineffable purity of excellence transcends the hype, the money — even the hyper-professionalism — and a team of ballplayers triumph purely by playing baseball better than anyone else. This year’s San Francisco Giants have approached that ideal as closely as any team in recent memory. For a moment, at least, this year’s Giants have regained Paradise.
San Francisco appropriately celebrated the Giants’ victory, the
team’s first World Championship since they moved to San Francisco from New York in 1958, with a parade through the Financial District and a rally at City Hall. Estimates of the crowd ranged as high as 1.5 million (a preposterous exaggeration), but whatever the number, the crowd was big, it was boisterous, it was joyous, and it was peaceful. They cheered, they laughed, they sang, they wept, they waved, they had a great time — and they respected the barriers during the event and dispersed happily when it was over.
As always, the Giants, recognizing baseball’s power to evoke the past, integrated the
team’s distinguished history into the event beautifully. The parade retraced the route of the 1958 parade welcoming the team when they moved to San Francisco. As in 1958, the great Willie Mays featured prominently, and the Giants welcomed many past players to join an alumni float.
For all the historical context, though, the tone of the Giants’ celebration was one of youthful exuberance. The players themselves shot as many pictures and as much video as anybody. They came dressed in jeans (some torn) and T-shirts. Most wore the official championship shirt, and a couple, like
Pat Burrell, had their T-shirts on over the shirts and ties they had assumed they were supposed to wear. But Eli Whiteside wore an old fan favorite, the Grateful Dead-themed Giants shirt, and Dave Righetti, the veteran pitching coach, wore an orange Brian Wilson “Fear the Beard” T-shirt. The only false note was Tim Lincecum’s Red Bull hat.
The players’ suspension of professionalism fed the success of the event. At City Hall, the crowd listened politely to Giants’ managing partner Bill Neukom. Mayor Gavin Newsom and Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger read their audience correctly and cut their remarks short. The crowd didn’t care about the dignitaries — they wanted the players. Andres Torres and
Juan Uribe won us over by speaking briefly in both Spanish and English. Brian Wilson showed the sly wit that was his best-kept secret until about a month ago. Matt Cain charmed by looking more nervous speaking for thirty seconds than he has ever looked facing a tough hitter with the bases loaded and nobody out. When Aubrey Huff reached into his jeans and produced his “Rally Thong,” it was a little off-color, but then his teammates went wild, laughing and snapping more pictures. If the rest of the country watching at that moment said, “Only in San Francisco,” for once they may have been right.
Such a celebration may only have been possible in San Francisco, but it was a gift just the same. The Giants looked and acted like a bunch of overgrown kids, and their fans and their city loved them for it. San Francisco has embraced this
team, and the players have returned the embrace. Many of the players are newcomers, but San Francisco has always loved newcomers who are willing to love it back. It’s part of the magic of the city that it places its stamp on each of us, even as it invites each of us to remain entirely ourselves. The Giants weren’t just the guys that happened to wear our town’s uniform. As a team and as individuals they reflected back to us our Californian ideal of a cohesive community that nevertheless values each member’s individual personality and gifts. The Giants, on the field, in post-game interviews during the season, and on the stage at the celebration this week, always seemed entirely themselves — even Pat Burrell in his tie — and that’s how we wanted them.
These Giants defeated the Padres, the Braves, the Phillies, and the Rangers. They won with great pitching, with timely hitting, with outstanding defense. The record books will preserve all that. They won with competitive intensity and an unwavering
team spirit. The newspaper archives will preserve that. But for those of us that watched them this season, memory will preserve the inspired grace of their play, the goofy antics that enlivened the season, and the genuine enjoyment this team took in the privilege of playing baseball for a living.
These Giants defeated more than the other teams. They defeated, for a season, the forces of darkness that ever try to usurp and debase our most
sublime pleasures. They overcame the grim inevitability of the most successful Yankees teams. They swept away the steroid era; the dominance of pampered, overpaid superstars; the dreary banality of the typical post-game interview; the dull uniformity of MLB-approved ballpark pep elements. They even defeated the Designated Hitter rule. They played; their coaches coached; and we cheered. It’s hard enough to achieve that in Little League. To deliver that synthesis in the public arena of Major League Baseball is a wonder. The Giants gave themselves and their fans the rarest of gifts: Through these young men’s unrestrained joy in the most perfect of games they gave us a glimpse of Paradise.
November 5, 2010
JT and I agreed to retitle this piece. It is now known as "How the Giants Saved Western Civilization".
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