The San Fran Fan

Yesterday was the San Francisco Giants 2018 home opener.  It was the eighth Giants home opener since I became a resident of the Bay Area back toward the end of 2010, and the contrast versus the first one I was in town for was dramatic.  To be fair, the 2011 home opener was following the first World Series win in San Francisco Giants history, as well as the franchise’s first World Series win since Leo Durocher, Willie Mays and Dusty Rhodes led the 1954 NEW YORK Giants past the 111-win Cleveland Indians.  So you might say there was a bit of pent up energy among the San Francisco fan base.  Fair enough.

But man was 2011 something to behold.  I’ve been going to New York Mets home openers since the early ’90’s and there is always a special feel to the day.  Hope springs eternal, optimism is in the air, and for one day anyway, everyone is in first place.  The city of San Francisco on Opening Day 2011 was over the top and beyond all of that–times ten.  It was the circus coming to town, the St. Patrick’s Day Parade in midtown Manhattan and Lollapalooza rolled into one.  Everyone, and I mean everyone (even the local cops methinks?) had the orange colors out and their cool SF insignia was adorned on everything from ties and cuff links to hats, scarfs, socks elevator banks and pants.  It seemed every third person was wearing one of those furry Panda hats (in honor of that repulsive, social deviant Pablo Sandoval) that in the years to come I would grow to despise (despite actually forking over $45 bucks one cold July night to buy one for my mother-in-law before a frigid, evening tilt against the hated Dodgers).  Bands were playing, and the sense of warmth as the entire Bay Area community came together in celebration of the Baseball Giants was actually pretty cool to experience for this transplanted New Yorker so used to blase, albeit hardcore and knowledgeable Mets and Yankees fans. (Can one be both blase and hardcore?  Yeah, that was us.)

Anyway, I can’t remember if the Giants won that day, but I know 2011 was one of their “off years” during that incredible run of even-year World Series titles of 2010, 2012 and 2014.  So now fast forward to yesterday, as 2018’s San Francisco home baseball season launched, and the differences were notable.  As far as contrasts go, I have to start with the fact that the Giants finished last in 2017.  “Dead-ass last” I believe is the technical term.  Everything that can go wrong for good franchises did.  All their core players seemed to grow old at the same time.  The bullpen sprung leaks everywhere and the ace, Madison Bumgarner, as beloved a face of the franchise, left-handed pitcher as you’ll find anywhere these days (with superhuman postseason stats to more than justify the reverence), missed almost all of the season after taking a header on a dirt bike on an off day early in the 2017 campaign.  However, like most opening day fans, the San Fran faithful were optimistic (if not a bit subdued) following an offseason of significant roster retooling (this skeptical New Yorker would point out that most of the new additions to the SF squad are has-beens currently being overpaid today for successful years in the past padding stats for other franchises — hello, Andrew McCutcheon —  but I digress), and rightly so.  Every baseball fan owns an inalienable right to optimism around the Home Opener.

The Giants lost to the Mariners (interleague matchup for a home opener, by the way, is pure trash — get rid of interleague play all together as far as I’m concerned and take the DH with it while you are at it), and it was a quiet, kinda sad fan base that boarded the Bart train home along with yours truly, heading back to the East Bay at the end of the day. If one wasn’t a baseball fan and aware that it had been the home opener, there was nothing noteworthy going on in the city to give away the occasion.  Dead-ass last will do that, and it seemed the locals had already begun to sink back into their 2017 funk. However, this stark contrast between 2011 and 2018 got me to thinking about how fans of different cities truly have their own collective personalities and styles.  Sometimes these fan bases mirror the attitudes of the cities or geographic regions themselves, but not always.

Since the Bart Train that represents my stream of consciousness is already heading down this track, let’s start with San Francisco fans.  To appropriately set the stage for my upcoming comments, let me reiterate that I’ve lived in the Bay Area for going on eight years now, and both consider myself and am totally considered by those around me to be  a “newcomer.”  I’m not certain when one converts to a local, but it must happen at some point in time, since basically everyone in San Francisco came from somewhere else. So with this caveat that I’m not “one of them,” but that I’m also not one of those bitter transplants we’ve all met that hates the local fans, here are some of my observations:

They aren’t shameless homers or front-runners, but boy do they like waving their pennants.  By and large the fans out here are solid in their knowledge.  The teams (Giants, A’s, Niners, Raiders, Warriors — leaving out Sharks here as there is an ongoing debate as to whether San Jose is officially part of the Bay Area — a topic that really doesn’t interest me that much, but will cause the Sharks to be excluded from this post) have rich histories with multiple championship banners (think Walsh 49ers, current Warriors, even-year Giants, Charlie Finley A’s in the ’70’s, Bash Brother A’s, Al Davis and the Silver Black, etc.), several near-misses (anyone else take pleasure in the fact that the polarizing, monstrous hat-sized Barry Bonds never won a World Series?) and the colorful characters that make up most of our fandom patchwork quilts of sporting memories.  During my time out here, the Bay Area has experienced an enormously successful run from all of their sports franchises.  The A’s had some surprisingly strong, low-budget teams make playoff runs, further cementing the genius of Billy Beane, the Giants had the aforementioned even-year dynasty, the Niners rode the Harbaugh wave (talk about polarizing) to a Super Bowl near-miss behind Colin Kaepernick (did someone say polarizing?), the Raiders almost got good a couple of years ago and now are shooting for one final good-bye run with Jon Gruden before departing for Vegas, and of course the Warriors.  The Dubs.  One dubious Draymond Green suspension (sure, the NBA was totally not playing favorites and didn’t want the TV ratings from extra finals games, not to mention the feel-good Cleveland Breaks the Title Drought headlines, yeah, right) from a sure three-peat in the NBA finals (and maybe a fourth this year, although it seems injuries and questionable bench signings of coach killers with nicknames like Swaggy P of all things, may cause them to fall just short this year), the Warriors have become Goliath in the NBA and the Bay Area fan bandwagon is so crowded right now that we should be able to hear the axle break at Oracle Arena all the way from out here in Walnut Creek.

So here’s my issue.  These fans just don’t win well.  At some point in time don’t you need to act like you’ve been there before?  I’ll give you an example.  For Christmas this year my Sportsattic family gave me four tickets to the Knicks annual sojourn west to play the Dubs in Oakland in January.  Forgetting for a minute that these may be the most obscenely overpriced sporting event tickets in the entire world right now (so bad that I sometimes border on rooting for a tech-wreck market decline a la 2000-2002 simply to bring ticket price levels back to the more acceptable overpriced level consistent with the rest of the league), I was excited to see the game.  Porzingis hadn’t blown up his knee yet (although the punk still sat out the game with a hangnail or something — poor 22-year-old needed a night off), so I thought it could be marginally competitive for a few quarters anyway.  Even without KP my Knicks led most of the first half before one of the Warriors’s patented third-quarter runs turned things into the romp the home crowd has come to expect as their nightly birthright.

As the Dubs lead expanded past 20 and a parade of Knicks I’d never heard of checked in and out of the game, the home crowd remained in a fever pitch on the edge of their collective seats.  At one point with a minute or so left in the third, Steph Curry (an eminently likable star, by the way) hit what felt like his 20th three-pointer of the game pushing the lead to what may as well have been 70 points agains the badly undermanned, not-very-talented, waving-the-white towel Knicks.  The crowd erupted like it had never before seen a three-pointer! And the celebration was genuine, with high fives all around, uncontrollable giggles of good fortune slobbered among bro-hugging young men — you would have thought someone had just announced to the crowd that world peace had been reached and that all concessions would be free for the remainder of the season based on their collective reaction.

And…it…is…always…that…way…

When good fortune hits the Bay Area home teams.  During the Giants runs to supremacy in 2010, 2012 and 2014 I was always shocked, not by the sellouts (lots of good teams pack them in when things are good), but by the fact that the stands remained packed for nine full innings at every home game.  No one leaves. And true to San Francisco lore, a lot of these were night games where it got damn cold (cue the fluffy Panda Hat purchases).  And if in the home half of some 8th inning a Giant jacked a two-run dinger, upping their lead from 6-1 to 8-1 off some no-name, number-76-on-the-uni, reliever just trying to get enough outs to get to the end of the game, the crowd would rise in unison and celebrate as though Bobby Thompson had just homered off Ralph Branca again, while simultaneously an announcement had been made that Joe Montana would be donning a fluffy Panda Hat and hanging out at the pub across the street buying beers and signing autographs for all interested (alas, many of the San Fran pennant wavers wouldn’t get that reference — the Thompson/Branca part, we ALL know and love Joe).  And God forbid the bedlam if the homer had been hit by Hunter Pence…smh…

So all in all, a good fan base.  Wouldn’t mind a little tempered enthusiasm when the rout is on, but that’s probably wishful thinking based on what I’ve seen these last eight years.  And despite my feelings on the matter, it definitely beats a disinterested fan base (hello Padres fans) or no fan base at all (didn’t we contract the Tampa Bay Rays twenty years ago?). Real fans make it fun, and let’s face it, winning makes everything taste a lot better.  For their sake, I hope the winning continues, because they ARE good fans (plus selfishly, happy locals make the Bay Area a better place to live and work for me), but just once, please skip the end zone celebration and just hand the ball to the ref.

 

 

Remembering Cleon

I’m a lifelong Mets fan.  Some may be exiting the blog based on that alone.  A diehard, long-suffering, pick an adjective fan of the other New York baseball club.  Two World Series titles since our inception into the league in 1962, as a poor man’s replacement for the beloved and recently departed Dodgers and Giants.

I was born in 1965 and my earliest memories are of games in 1970, so I missed the Miracle Mets season of ’69 and was still a couple years away from the Ya Gotta Believe year of ’73.  When I look back now, I realize I probably became a Mets fan because of that recent championship combined with the fact that the Yankees were in a prolonged period of irrelevance, that I would have enjoyed immensely if I had realized what was to follow in the ’90’s when my personal torture at the hands of the Evil Empire reached it’s pinnacle.

My favorite player was Tommie Agee.  Again, not sure why.  Tom Seaver was the star, and we all liked Seaver, but he was never my favorite.  Buddy Harrelson had his supporters, and young Nolan Ryan (yes, his trade will almost certainly be fodder for a future post) fascinated with the huge fastball and the occasional boxscore that included double-digit walks.  But Agee was my favorite.

And his running mate was Cleon Jones.  Agee in center, Cleon in left, and a rotation of Swoboda, Shamsky, Singleton and others rotating through right.  Much was spoken and written about how Agee and Jones were both from Mobile, Alabama.  Five- and six-year-old me envisioned them having walked to school together and in all likelihood sharing a bunkbed in their New York City apartment that must have been located right next door to Shea Stadium, as I understood the world back in the early-’70’s.  Agee hit home runs, had the famous World Series catches from ’69 that everyone talked about, stole bases and drank beer after the games in his undershirt as a guest on Kiners Korner.  He was easy to like and to this day his number 20 is my favorite in my Mets fan memory.

But what about Cleon? Other than the fact that I found it interesting that he threw left-handed and batted righty, I found him completely unremarkable.  I had read how he caught the final out of the ’69 series (a lazy fly to left hit by future all-time great manager Davey Johnson of the Orioles), and later in life learned that part of the remarkable Miracle Mets run of 1969 included Gil Hodges (Hodges is somehow beyond Davey in the pantheon of Mets managers — immortal?  Too much?  Nah, immortal is right.) pulling him mid-inning off the field after loafing after a fly ball, but beyond that only one thing now stands out about him as I look back on those days — and I blame the mustache.

First, though, to give credit where credit is due, the guy could hit.  He nearly led the league in ’69, hitting .340, which stood for a couple of decades as the best a Mets player had ever posted over a full season.  In ’71 he hit .319.  His home run and RBI totals were subpar for a middle of the order power guy, but always respectable given these were the Mets, who have spent my lifetime losing 3-2 games.  In the World Series of 1973 he led the Mets with 5 runs scored and hit .286 playing all seven games (and yes, Yogi gave the A’s that series by messing up his starting rotation, but we’ll save that for the future, too).  That .286 was second on the team only to Rusty Staub’s scorching .423 playing with basically one arm (another future post). Cleon came back in 1974 to hit .282 with 13 HR’s and 60 RBI’s as the primary starter in left field once again at the age of 32.

But back to the mustache.  The early-1970’s A’s were paid off by their eccentric owner, Charlie Finley, to grow mustaches to add a little old-time baseball panache to the once-moribund team.  When that team then went on their three-peat World Series run from 1972-1974 (beating us in 7 in 1973 — hello, Yogi), the whole mustache thing took on added significance.  It was the ’70’s, with bell bottoms, groovy swingers, Yankee pitchers swapping wives and apparently our Mets felt it, too.  If you take a look at the Topps 1975 baseball card series, previously clean shaven Mets like Gerry Grote, Bud Harrelson and Cleon all popped up with newly minted mustaches.  Cleon and his new mustache unfortunately took this whole embracing the Freedom ’70’s thing one step too far, and as 9-year-old me was pulling a stick of chewing gum off his new baseball card in May of that year, Cleon was getting arrested in St. Petersburg, FL for indecent exposure.  Turns out he had “fallen asleep” in a station wagon down there with a 21-year-old female acquaintance (with marijuana in her possession) when the police came upon him.  He was barefoot (the story he told cops was they met at a party and ran out of gas while driving her home — shocker that one didn’t fly), which triggered the indecent exposure charge, and boy did it make headlines.

The New York media was besides itself over it’s unexpected good fortune, and an unforgiving Mets ownership group (obviously warming up for their upcoming war with Tom Seaver that led to his banishment to Cincinnati — yes, another future post) fined Cleon $2000 (a lot of money, even for ballplayers, in 1975), humiliated him into a public apology and then tortured him by letting him rot on the bench until ultimately releasing him later that season after an altercation over playing time with Mets manager (and future Yoohoo pitchman) Yogi Berra.  He had a cup of coffee with the White Sox the following year, but he was done.

What happened?  Sure there’d been the red flag of the altercation with Hodges in ’69, but beyond that he was a model of consistency, with both his numbers and his just-below-interesting presence.  Had to be the mustache.  He was feeling it.  The sexual revolution of the ’70’s.  The near miss at a second World Series title in ’73.  The A’s were getting all the magazine covers and baseball Annie’s with their colorful unis and their mustaches and he had to get in the act.  And he did it so, so, so…poorly.  I mean, a station wagon?

So it really is a shame.  The guy was our first offensive “star.” One of a handful of guys that started on both of our first two World Series squads.  And when I think back all I remember is “indecent exposure.”  In a station wagon.  What a shame.

Cleon Jones Pic