Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Wolf, Right Here and Now

By Scott O'Malley

Entering last weekend’s three-game series, the San Francisco Giants were five wins “better” than the visiting Padres. Playing on the same field, however, the margin looked to be much greater. While both teams will lose more than ninety games this season, the Padres will do so listlessly. The Giants will cross the threshold with something that, well, on most days resembles enthusiasm.

I’m not naïve. That Giants fans can be placated by a .439 winning-percentage only speaks to the futility of recent campaigns. The recent optimism surrounding such a punchless team is owed to resoundingly low expectations. The Giants will succeed this year, if only for not fulfilling the potential for colossal failure. At long last, homegrown players are being given the opportunity to succeed or fail, and enough are succeeding to generate a measure of excitement. In the off-season, the departure of Barry Bonds was both frightening and promising – the results thus far have held true for both. His absence has left a hole in an already anemic offense, while lifting a piano off the backs of those who remain. In short, his absence has afforded them the privilege to suck quietly.

I made my first visit to AT&T Park last weekend – on a trip where I discovered that my dad, forgetful of security checkpoints, hides Swiss Army knives in potted plants throughout San Diego International Airport. Getting my first look at the eight year-old stadium, the series also gave me a deeper perspective into the state of both franchises. Both find it hard to shake the image of their respective fans – fair or otherwise. Padre fans will never escape the lassiez-faire stigma; Giants fans meanwhile, are forced to confront charges of ill-fitting elitism. That said, the atmospheres of their home ballparks couldn’t be more different. At AT&T, I was pleasantly surprised by the excitement – and rancor – inspired by the home team. Equipped with an appropriate frame of reference, however, one might encounter more noise in the L.A. Public Library than in Petco Park.

Understand that I’m mindful of jinxes. After all, it was me who proclaimed Barry Bonds’ legacy to be untouchable after Sammy Sosa’s corking incident – provided only that he never decapitate his wife and a helpful waiter. So I don’t mean to imply that all is cake and ice cream in Giantland. I’m not mistaking them for a good team (as we speak, they are being hammered again by the cut-rate Rockies), and problems are many. The efforts of young, talented pitchers are being squandered. Dead weight and bad contracts still clog the roster. Because of a depleted, mismanaged farm system, players are considered “kids” at the age of twenty-seven. As of this writing, the next Giant to hit thirty homeruns is likely a twelve year-old Dominican. And if it’s any consolation, Padre fans, the Giant faithful are just as angry and perplexed by Bruce Bochy’s managerial foibles as you were.

What the Giants do have – what the Padres never seem to possess as they perpetually fluctuate between futility and mediocrity – is the semblance of a plan. I’ve made no secret of my disdain for the Padre organization over the years, but I do feel for their few loyal supporters. I no longer accuse them of not caring, rather, I just recognize that they’ve been hammered into detachment. The Padre infrastructure at least owes them a lie - at least the illusion of a plan that isn’t just content with winning a bad division. The Giants, this season, have begun to extend this courtesy.

As Barry Zito meandered towards his eighth win on Saturday, I listened to an eighty year-old season-ticket holder rail against the maligned pitcher and the vacant manager. I shared his criticism, if not his fervor. Why get worked up over the fifth-worst team in baseball?, I wondered. Only then did I realize what a self-absorbed question this was. The sting of 2002 still lingers for San Francisco, as I’m sure 1998 does for San Diego. But I have time, so for me it’s only a matter of patience, a matter of how much frustration I can stomach before the ship rights itself. For others it’s a matter of urgent despair.

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