At Long Last, A Baseball Game

Last night I went to a baseball game in person for the first time in several years. Honestly my baseball fandom has flagged in recent years, but I followed it closely for almost 20 years so I don’t feel too badly about it.


I’d actually been invited as part of a group to a luxury box at AT&T Park. I’d been to a Giants luxury box once before, and it’s very nice, but when I got there it wasn’t what I expected: Rather than one of the paneled boxes in the second deck, the “Corona Beach Club” appears to be where the news photographers used to set, so it’s in front of the first row along the first base line, about 3 feet below field level. The view from the box looked like this:

(click for larger image)
(click for larger image)

The folks hosting the box sprung for a fair amount of catered food, for instance this:

The food spread

It was all quite yummy. Well, the sausages were standard ballpark sausages with moist buns, so that wasn’t great, but I mostly stuck to the soft tacos.

It was a pretty exciting game. Admittedly, with only 4 games left the Giants weren’t playing for much, as all that was left to decide was whether they’d be hosting their wild card game or not, and they’d clinched their wild card spot earlier that day when the Brewers lost. Still, the Giants jumped out to a 6-0 lead, then watched it collapse in the 7th inning, backed by a grand slam, and then they retook the lead in the bottom of the 7th, helped in part by a successful suicide squeeze (I don’t think I’ve ever seen one in person before), and eventually won the game 9-8. It took three and a half hours – I think a third of it making up that seventh inning.

Looking towards home plate

The team was also celebrating the 60th anniversary of “The Catch” by Willie Mays (which actually happened on September 29, but there are no games scheduled for that day this year), and Mays (who is 83 years old) came out in a very spiffy car, and was driven around the field occasionally throwing baseballs into the crowd. I snapped a couple of good pictures of him, the second one being just as he tossed a ball into our box (no, I didn’t catch it):

Willie Mays in his car

Willie Mays tossing a baseball

Occasionally Major League Baseball is a little too wrapped up in celebrating itself, but it’s hard not to appreciate when a team does something like this for one of its greats.

The weather was great, the game was fun, I got some good pictures, and even enjoyed riding CalTrain to and from the park (and the walk home from the station at a little after midnight was kind of pleasant, too). I’m gonna have to go see another game or two next year.

Celebration of winning a playoff berth


Yes, we were watching the game last night when Barry Bonds broke the career home run record, hitting his 756th home run off of Mike Bacsik of the Washington Nationals! And a lot of fun it was!

As anyone who saw it knows, there was no doubt about it: As soon as he hit it, I thought, “That’s going a long way.” Bonds is one of the few hitters who can clear the center field wall at spacious Pacific Bell Park, and he knocked it a few rows deep, where it skimmed off some fans’ hands a few rows further back.

For those of us who have been following the Giants for years, the elation was accompanied with a great release: We’ve been waiting for this for a long time for him to pass Hank Aaron‘s 33-year-old record. It’s seemed inevitable since Bonds hit 73 home runs in 2001 (putting him at 567 at the age of 36), winning his first of four consecutive Most Valuable Player awards that year. When I moved out here in 1999, Bonds had only 411 home runs – a large total, and he was already a sure Hall-of-Famer – but at that point I don’t think anyone really expected that the 33-year-old would break the record. Ken Griffey Jr., who at age 29 had 350 home runs, was considered the best bet to break the record, but injuries derailed his career in his early 30s, and now the big question is whether he’ll pass Willie Mays‘ 660 for 4th on the all-time list (and whether he’ll do it before Alex Rodriguez – the youngest player to reach 500 home runs – catches him).

Regarding whether Bonds “cheated”: I think performance-enhancing drugs have been in widespread use in the Major Leagues since at least the 1950s, but they were not outside of baseball’s rules until very recently. (Many of them are illegal under US law, but until and unless Bonds is taken to court over their use, I think that’s a non-issue.) I also have yet to see evidence that anything Bonds might have taken gave him a leg up over other players, since muscle mass is only one of many components that go into a great home run hitter. Ultimately, I think we can attribute Bonds’ record primarily to his fanatic approach to conditioning, and his superhuman eyesight and hand-eye coordination. The fact that he’s still outperforming most current players (even the ones who are under 40) today, after PED testing has gone into effect, is evidence of this.

I was pleasantly surprised that Hank Aaron recorded a congratulating message to Bonds which was played on the big screen during the game’s intermission. I personally find Aaron to be a bit of a cipher – not unlike Bonds, really – but this was neat to see.

I was equally surprised and glad not to see Commissioner Bud Selig at the festivities. Selig has the uncanny ability to suck the joy out of the most momentous baseball event, as he did when Bonds tied the record over the weekend. I think Joe Sheehan had it exactly right when he said that Selig is “an old man determined to protect the interests of other old men, even if it means degrading the game of baseball.” Selig is the Ford Frick of his era.

Ultimately, the game’s 20-minute time out was terrific to watch: Bonds was as happy as I’ve ever seen him, hugging his family, friends, and his godfather Mays. He gave a short speech in which he thanked the Nationals for their understanding (I’m sure no National would have wanted to be anywhere else, since only two teams got to see this moment in person; even Bacisk was good-natured about it after the game), and choked up when he thanked his father Bobby, who passed away a few years ago.

Bonds came out for a curtain call in the top of the next inning, jogging to left field and waving to fans with his glove, before being given the rest of the night off.

But everyone got a show that was a long time coming, and the payoff was worth it.

Congratulations, Mr. Bonds!

At the Halfway Point

Time to check in with how everyone’s doing in the Major Leagues, much as I did after the first week of the season. Take a look at the All-Star Break standings, and read on:

The Good:

  • Can anyone catch the Red Sox? With a 10-game cushion, it seems unlikely, although it’s never wise to entirely count out the Yankees. The Sox have had their troubles – J.D. Drew has been awful, Curt Schilling is hurt – but they’re still in a comfortable place.
  • The Tigers, Indians, Angels and Mariners are within 2.5 games of each other, and only 3 of them can go to the playoffs. I expect the Mariners will get exposed as the season goes on, but the other three are genuinely good teams.
  • The class of the National League is, uhh… no one. The NL looks like a strong, balanced league this year. The Padres have the best record (also by a nose), but there are eight teams within 6 games of them, including 3 in their own division – that’s more than half the league within easy striking distance, and only four of them can make the playoffs. I figure the Brewers will still win the Central, and the other three teams will come from the Mets, Braves, Padres and Dodgers – I think I’d pick the Braves to be the odd-team-out at this point.

The Bad:

As I said before, I think it’s a lot harder to overcome a bad start than to lose a good one, and halfway through the season that means the bad teams are just about out of it now:

  • The Nationals are bad. We knew that. Let’s move on.
  • The Astros are on their way down, after a decade of success and a World Series appearance. It may be a few years before they return to contention, but their fans have to be pretty happy with what they’ve gotten in the recent past – except for the lack of a title.
  • I wonder if the Reds know what they’re doing? They threw away Felipe Lopez and Austin Kearns last year and now have a middling offense and bad pitching.
  • And then there are the Giants, which consist of 42-year-old Barry Bonds and his pursuit of the career home run record, and… uh… Barry Zito’s large contract, and… Matt Morris is having a pretty good year, and… geez… But seriously, like the Astros, the Giants are paying the price for years of excellence and a World Series appearance (which they, too, didn’t win), but the Giants’ flameout is going to be more dramatic and probably more prolonged. The Rockies don’t suck this year, so the Giants are going to finish last in their division, and despite the team signing GM Brian Sabean to a 2-year extension, it wouldn’t surprise me if he doesn’t survive the off-season.

The Rest:

  • The Phillies overcame their 1-5 start and are now at .500. They’re not a good team, though: Their offense is good and their pitching is bad, and they tossed Brett Myers into the bullpen for no good reason and then he got hurt. The Phils have been directionless for years, and I don’t see that changing anytime soon.
  • Up-and-coming teams? They’re already here: I think the Brewers are probably going to win their divison, the Diamondbacks are probably a year or two away, and the Indians need to figure out the rest of their rotation to have staying power. But all three are contending right now, and all of them could continue to do so into the fall.

I think the Wild Card sucks a lot of drama out of the season (even if it was partly responsible for the Red Sox winning it all in 2004), but there are enough good teams this year that there could still be some great races into September. Really, no one looks like a clear favorite to go to the World Series – even the Red Sox look great mainly by comparison with the rest of their division.

Offseason Roundup: Giants

A look at the San Francisco Giants’ off-season moves.

The baseball offseason has been pretty lively so far, with a number of huge free agent deals being signed, in part because of the new labor contract between the owners and the players’ union. (Labor peace leads to some cost certainty, and therefore to teams being more willing to throw money around, you see.)

I mainly follow three teams these days: The Red Sox (my favorite team), and the Athletics and Giants (the local teams here in the Bay Area). As 2006 draws to a close, enough has happened to warrant looking at what these teams have been doing, and what I think about it.

I chose the Giants as my first stop because, well, I think they’ve had a terrible off-season, and the reasons why are pretty easy to see. I’m certainly not alone in that opinion, as San Jose Mercury News columnist Ann Killion feels much the same way, and has plenty of cutting words for how Giants general manager Brian Sabean has approached a team which really ought to be rebuilding.

Now, I’m not a big proponent of the concept of the success cycle concept in baseball: I don’t think it’s true that teams should be either contending or rebuilding. I think it’s more true that teams should be either contending or not contending. Contending teams may have the luxury of also being able to build for the future while they contend, but non-contending teams should be focusing on working their way back into contention, and be honest with themselves when they don’t have any real chance of contending and not spend resources on that fool’s errand.

After a half-decade of success (including a World Series appearance, losing to the Angels in 2002), the Giants are now a non-contending team. In 2006 they went 76-85, 11-1/2 games back in a relatively weak division. In 2005 they finished 75-87, 7 games back in an even weaker division. With a roster of old players, more than half their quality players up for free agency, and not much help coming from the farm system, this is a team which should not be considering contending in 2007. That means they should be signing inexpensive warm bodies with upside to fill the Major League roster rather than spending big bucks on old free agents, giving what prospects they have a long, hard look, and restocking the farm system with young players. This is a hard road to take, and it requires discipline on the part of both the GM and the owner, because it implies a loss of revenue due to the public stance of not contending. The advantage is that it will help the team contend sooner, and build a team whose quality players will be around longer.

The Giants have one big problem, though: Barry Bonds is nearly at the end of his career, but in the next year or two he’s likely to pass Hank Aaron for the career home run record. Bonds is still a good player and can help a good team, and despite his, uh, controversies, he’s likely to be a draw at the gate while he pursues the record.

Here’s how the Giants’ off-season has progressed:


  • Felipe Alou, manager (retired)
  • Jason Schmidt, SP (free agent, to the Dodgers)
  • Moises Alou, RF (free agent, to the Mets)
  • Steve Finley, CF (free agent)
  • Shea Hillenbrand, 1B (free agent)
  • Jamey Wright, SP (free agent)
  • Todd Greene, C (free agent)
  • Mike Stanton, RP (free agent, to the Reds)


  • Bruce Bochy, manager (from the Padres)
  • Rich Aurilia, 3B (free agent, from the Reds)
  • Ryan Klesko, 1B (free agent, from the Padres)
  • Bengie Molina, C (free agent, from the Blue Jays)
  • Dave Roberts, CF (free agent, from the Padres)


  • Barry Bonds, LF (free agent, 1 year, $16M)
  • Ray Durham, 2B (free agent, 2 years, $14M)
  • Pedro Feliz, 3B (free agent, 1 year, $5.1M)
  • Steve Kline, RP (free agent, 2 years, $3.5M)

(Full free agent data can be found here, and recent Giants transactions here.)

The Bonds Factor aside, amidst all their free agents only Jason Schmidt seemed likely to reward a large contract, and even he was risky. Instead they brought back Bonds and Durham, re-signed OBP sinkhole Feliz, and brought in some other aging free agents. Their alternative was to let them all go, collect a bunch of draft picks in compensation, and re-stock the farm system. But instead they re-stocked for another run at, well, third place, I guess.

To be fair, the Giants have two unique problems: Bringing back Barry Bonds might well be worth at the gate the money they’ll be paying him – unless he gets hurt or collapses, that is. Moreover, had the Giants not shown an effort to contend in 2007, he might have signed elsewhere. The other is that they’re the one team in baseball paying off a privately-financed stadium, so they have bills to pay that other teams just don’t. But though throwing in the towel in December might clobber them financially, continuing to gray the team – metaphorically speaking – might merely delay that for a year or so.

Swapping Felipe Alou for Bruce Bochy as manager is probably a no-op. Both of them are in my mental “not bad, but not distinguished either” bucket as far as Major League managers go. Managers are rarely worth many games in the standings, though.

Realistically? The Giants will probably struggle to reach 75 wins in 2007, and that might cost Brian Sabean his job. Which might be a good thing for the franchise, although I think owner Peter Magowan bears some responsibility for the team’s current direction. The Giants probably should have said goodbye to Bonds (or at least shown a willingness to do so, and thus possibly signed him for a low price) and started rebuilding now, because this team is likely to be even worse in 2007 than it was in 2006.

In sum, the Giants are on the brink of a complete collapse, and soon they’ll need to look at themselves and make the moves that the Detroit Tigers made 4 years ago, rebuilding from scratch even if they don’t have much to rebuild with. While the Tigers seem an improbable success story, they’re preceded by the Indians and Braves of the late 80s/early 90s in adopting this philosophy, and are merely the latest example of the object lesson: If you’re not a contender, don’t try to contend. You’ll be better off in the long run.