Thursday, November 4, 2010

A Chapter Worth Highlighting

It was a long time coming (53 years, to be exact), but the Giants have finally brought a championship to their fans in the Bay Area. Even though I was slightly rooting for the Rangers (and remain disappointed that the Series didn't go at least six games), this is a grand moment for the game of baseball, one that should never be forgotten. Unlike last year, I don't have to write a lament about a predictable, anti-climactic ending. Instead, 2010 proved to be a season worthy of celebration. Legacies have been written and rewritten, and posterity will view several franchises and figures in a different light than we did before Opening Day.

The San Francisco Giants, while not always a marquee franchise, have always been one of the most noted. As descendants of the New York Giants, they headed west in 1957 surely expecting to continue the proud winning tradition they built in the Big Apple. Instead, the San Francisco legacy became one of great players, a miserable ballpark and a frustrating inability to capture that elusive World Series title. While they don't quite have a national following, their pessimistic-yet-loyal fans are an abundant group.

On Monday everything changed. No longer are fans tormented by years of failure, the type that weighs on the mind until it feels like cosmic destiny. Just as the Giants' miserable old ballpark has been out of the picture for eleven years, so now is the monkey on the backs of Giant fans. 2010 represents the beginning of a new era, one where the fans believe, because they once saw it with their own eyes. Boston Red Sox fans were in the same boat six years ago, and they went from pessimistic to empowered almost overnight. Not only does this win reshape the franchise's image, the halo effect may trickle down to the individuals within the organization.

Bruce Bochy has long been viewed as a good manager, but you'd have a hard time finding anyone who rates him among the best in the game. He's now a member of the select "pennants with two franchises" club and has a World Series title to his name. While he's not (yet) a Tony LaRussa-like superstar, he may have reached the level of a Lou Piniella-like star.

Brian Sabean has developed a reputation among baseball's intelligentsia as one of the worst general managers in the game, mainly due to his poor spending decisions. In spite of it all, he's now the big name in a championship-winning front office, which is what he'll be associated with from now on. That Barry Zito signing? Yep, a big mistake. That World Series title? Hey, he must be doing something right!

Tim Lincecum's career is only four years old, and with two Cy Young Awards on his mantel no one would deny that he's one of baseball's best young pitchers. The only thing is, before this year he was most famous for being "The Freak," that long-haired guy with the quirky mechanics and a free-spirited personality. For all his greatness, he still seemed more like a fun character than a potential Hall of Famer. Yes, it was partly due to his youth and relative newness, but I imagine if he were a more conventional guy he'd have inspired a greater sense of awe. With a World Series-clinching win on his resume at the age of 26, he's finally acquired that air of a legend. We can be sure that wherever his career goes from here, whether he flames out or ends up in the Hall of Fame, his memory will be spoken of with reverence by Giant fans. Mere greatness is one thing; using it to lead your team to a title is another.

Then you have the Texas Rangers, perhaps baseball's most overlooked franchise. Before this season they'd made only three postseason appearances, all quick first-round exits. With no postseason accomplishments to speak of, they were a franchise without much of a legacy past their traditional homer-bashing and a long list of steroid suspects. If your rooting interest was in the American League, the Rangers were a team you played a few series with during the regular season and then forgot about. No longer is that the case. The Rangers won their first two playoff series in the same year, and they did it not just with home run power, but with pitching and speed. Nope, these aren't your father's Rangers; these guys have a year of glory in the books, and the tapestry of baseball is only woven with a brighter thread for it.

Texas' season was also special for many individual players. Michael Young, "Mr. Ranger" himself, got to be part of the franchise's first pennant. Vladimir Guerrero, whose Hall of Fame career is nearing the end, won't have to go down in history as one of those greats who never got to play in the World Series. Josh Hamilton, the inspirational story of 2008, suffered through injuries and poor production last year, only to bounce back as the favorite for AL MVP. None of this would've been possible without the acclaimed Texas front office, which is the talk of baseball for the first time I can remember. Whenever the Rangers finally do win a World Series, this season may be the turning point they trace it back to.

The great stories, however, go beyond our World Series participants.

The San Diego Padres were a nearly-unanimous pick for last place in the NL West during Spring Training. To the surprise of just about everyone, they spent most of the season in first place behind a pitching-defense-speed roster construction. Their luck ran out in September, but they still finished with 90 wins and just barely missed the playoffs, nothing to be ashamed of. If San Diego fans aren't too disappointed about the way it ended, this year will be fondly remembered as one where they defied all odds.

Cito Gaston managed the Blue Jays to their only two pennants (and World Series titles) in the early '90s, but that tenure ended with him being fired during the last week of the 1997 season. He never found another managerial job until the Jays brought him back in 2008, and while he didn't reinstitute an era of postseason glory, it gave Gaston the chance to go out on his own terms. He announced at the end of last season that 2010 would be his final year in the dugout, and he was able to walk away to a standing ovation in the Rogers Centre. The fans in Toronto can now remember their only championship manager leaving with dignity, not with an unceremonious dumping.

Scott Rolen, widely considered to be a future Hall of Fame snub, is one of those guys you always think is going to be done soon. I mean, you know he's coming off another good season, but with age and durability issues creeping up on him, you figure the guy can't do it forever, right? This year, at the age of 35, he not only proved the naysayers wrong yet again, he made his first All-Star team in four years while helping the Reds to a playoff appearance. Will Hall of Fame voters take note?

Though his spot in the Hall of Fame seems more secure, Jim Thome was a similar story. After two straight down years that suggested he was nearing the end, Thome managed to put up a 178 OPS+ as a part-time DH for the Twins in a season where he turned 40. It may have been a last hurrah, or it may have been a sign that he's got a few more useful seasons left in the tank. Either way, you couldn't help but feel happy for the guy, even when he was beating your team with home runs.

Roy Halladay has been one of the most respected aces in baseball for some time now, but he was buried in Toronto, away from the daily consciousness of the American media. With his move to the spotlight of Philadelphia, he's more famous now than he ever was. This year he added a perfect game to his legend, and then, if you can believe it possible, found a way to top that performance: In the first playoff start of his career he threw a no-hitter against a heavy-hitting Reds lineup, allowing only one baserunner in the process. He's a near lock to win the Cy Young Award, and if there were ever any doubt about his future in Cooperstown, it's probably gone now.

All in all, 2010 has been a season of redemption for MLB. For me personally, 2009 will be filed under "Forgettable," while 2010 will be a season of cherished memories. I can only hope 2011 will follow in the footsteps of its immediate predecessor.

In other news, baseball season may be over, but it's something of a busy season for Baseball Junk Drawer. First of all, I plan to put up part two of my most popular post to date on November 16, so be on the lookout for that. We also have award winners being announced later this month. I won't offer any predictions, but I do have some lists that can be updated once the winners are released, and I'll be sure to let you know when they are. Will this year give us the third instance of both leagues' Rookies of the Year facing off in the World Series? I know I'm hoping so. I also haven't posted a World Series winner profile in over a month, and I plan to resume production on them soon.

1 comment:

  1. Nice to have you back and posting often! It feels like a long time since you've been this active, but as a reader, I really appreciate it.