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9:33AM

Giants new president believes in winning, not stars

By Art Spander

SAN FRANCISCO — He came on purposefully and quietly, which seems to be Farhan Zaidi’s way — if not the way Giants fans might wish the team’s new president to act.

The Giants have had consecutive losing seasons, interest declining along with attendance. You might then expect Zaidi, hired away from the dreaded Dodgers, to make a boast or two about how he is going to turn the Giants into the champions they used to be.

Maybe a mention of Bryce Harper or a suggestion about Madison Bumgarner’s future. A tease, a promise, a hint.

But Zaidi, a 41-year-old Canadian who studied at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and did graduate work at Cal, made no headlines. What he talked about on Tuesday at AT&T Park was making progress.

Zaidi never played baseball in the pros, but he’s played the front-office game, learning with Billy Beane in Oakland, then working as GM of the Dodgers, who were in the World Series a second straight year.

But again didn’t win. As opposed to the Giants, who did win the Series in 2010, '12 and '14, making us remember Beane’s sad words after the A’s were bounced in the early 2000s that the postseason is a crapshoot.

“Bittersweet,” Zaidi called the Dodgers’ everything-but-the-championship years. “Coming up short. But you’d like to get to the doorstep every year and take your chances.”

The Giants don’t seem to taking any chances with Zaidi. He knows the landscape. The Dodgers play the Giants 19 times a season. He knows what succeeds, attention to detail, rebuilding a depleted farm system. No move is too small, though the Giants' home run output was.

“The message," he said, "is to have maximum flexibility in the organization.”

Zaidi is new baseball, analytics — which you would expect from an MIT grad — but he is not opposed to old baseball, which is that the eyeball tells you about a player. So that makes him very accepting of longtime Giants manager Bruce Bochy, whom Zaidi calls “Boch.”

The front office (after discussions and advice) determines who will be on the roster. The manager, said Zaidi, determines who will be on the field.

“That new school-old school potential conflict is oversimplified,” he said. “It’s a convenient narrative to see a class of schools of thought. But I don’t see it that way. We had two managers of the year, Bob Melvin (A’s) and Dave Roberts.

“The game is hard. Managing is real hard. Fans wonder why a guy swung at a slider down and away. As somebody who doesn’t have the most illustrious playing career on his resume, I think it’s fair for me to always remember that.”

What Zaidi found out with the thrifty A’s was that "no move is too small not to be worth a certain level of detail.” Baseball is a sport by committee. The lineup counts more than the individual.

The Dodgers and Giants are big-budget teams, but the money must be spent wisely.

“I feel fans want to see a winning team, and winning drives up attendance,” said Zaidi. ”Just try to put together a good baseball team. Stars will come out of that. What kind of total team you develop is important. I don’t see targeting stars as important as trying to fill a team with good players.”

Zaidi said he owes his career to Beane, who in getting the A’s from the bottom to the playoffs in only a season deservedly was named major league baseball executive of the year. “To be in the same city as Billy is really exciting,” said Zaidi, ignoring the dividing waters of the bay. 

 

When he accompanied the Dodgers to San Francisco, he walked to the games from Union Square, savoring the opportunity to mix with pedestrians and as he neared AT&T the fans.

“My first major league game,” he recalled, “was in 1987, Candy Maldonado and Will Clark went back-to-back. I thought all games were that exciting.”

They may be again in San Francisco. In part, it’s up to Farhan Zaidi.

12:02AM

San Francisco was McCovey’s city

 SAN FRANCISCO—This was Willie McCovey’s city, where he was idolized and also criticized. Just like San Francisco itself,

   Willie Mays would become appreciated for what he is; one of the three or four greatest ballplayers in history, but early on, Mays was treated as an outsider, coming from New York with the Giants in 1958.

  McCovey arrived a year later, directly from the minors, on an historical day in the summer of ’59 and then added another single and two triples. Monumental.

 What a career, deserving of his place in the Baseball Hall of Fame. What a man. McCovey would befriend every kid who came to his door.

   Willie Mac, the guy we knew as “Stretch" died Wednesday. He was 80. As am I. “Superman, Willie McCovey and you were all born in 1938,” my wife would chide, and I would wait for the punch line.

  But this is not a time for laughs in Bay Area sports. A few days ago, the nonpareil of a sports announcer, Hank Greenwald, passed on. Now one of the athletes whose achievements Greenwald described.

  San Francisco, the entire Bay Area still was transitioning from minor league to major league, seeking an identity, seeking its own heroes.  Orlando Cepeda was one of the first, en route to the Hall of Fame, and then, boom there was McCovey, in effect chasing Cepeda from first base and to the St.Louis Cardinals.

   This was at Candlestick Park before it enclosed, when there were bleachers in right behind a chain-link fence. The wind was strong. McCovey was stronger. He tortured righthanded pitchers, especially the late Don Drysdale of the Dodgers.

     The Warriors coach, Steve Kerr, was a kid in Los Angeles. He remembers listening to the Dodgers announcer, Vin Scully, call some of McCovey’s shots, slashing line drives.

   Another basketball man, Dave Bollwinkel, the onetime coach at  St. Mary’s and now a scout, remembers the day McCovey broke in. “I was 9-years-old,” said Bollwinkel. “I was at Candlestick that day. I won’t forget.”

 We won’t forget McCovey, whose name now is attached to the body of water that links the bay to China Basin near AT&T Park, overseen by his statue, “McCovey Cove.”

   He had wonderful times, a three-time National League home run leader, who was Rookie of the Year in 1959 and an the MVP in 1969. He had difficult times, especially after several knee surgeries left him unable to walk without crutches and kept him from golf, a game he played well enough to be invited to the Pebble Beach AT&T Pro-Am.

   Back in the day, the 1960s, McCovey was big, and a big target of an acerbic non-sports, sports columnist in the San Francisco Chronicle, Charles McCabe, “The Fearless Spectator.”  Willie didn’t like the figurative pounding, but he kept his cool.

  As he did when people mocked him for no reason other than his response to another Giants announcer, Lon Simmons, on the post-game shows. Simmons would pose questions that were set up for quick, positive answers, to which McCovey would say, “That’s right, Lon.”

  Did we hear that from every aleck? “That’s right, Lon,” we did.

  McCovey deep down was a gentleman, old-fashioned in his ideas about sports journalism. The long time baseball writer for the Chronicle was Bob Stevens, who should we say, took a biased approach, as was normal for the era.

  So one year, when I subbed for Stevens on a road trip, McCovey was critical of the umpires calls in a tight game. I enthusiastically scribbled a few words, and the story papered. Willie Mac was disillusioned.

  “I didn’t know you were going to write that,” McCovey told me.

 “But, Willie, you saw me taking notes.”

 “Yes, but Bob Stevens wouldn’t have written it.”

  McCovey wrote into our memory books. His line drive, not that high despite embellishment over the years, was grabbed by the Yankees Bobby Richardson for the final out of the 1962 World Series. So tough, for Giants fans, for McCovey.

“I don’t think anybody could have felt as bad as I did,” he told Karen Crouse of the New York Times years later “Not only did I have a whole team on my shoulders in that at-bat, I had a whole city. At the time, I just knew I’d be up in that situation again in the future and that then I was going to come through.”

  He never had the chance. But we were fortunate. We had the chance to see McCovey perform. Thanks, Willie.

8:22PM

Pence on winning hit: ‘Like a kid on Christmas morning’

By Art Spander

SAN FRANCISCO — He’s 35, and from some of his swings of late, hopeless rips at balls around his shoulders, and that sub-.200 batting average, Hunter Pence looked like a man whose career was coming to an end.

Which his critics, pounding on him via social media, said would be a good idea.

Sure, he had some great times with the Giants, but you have to deal with the present, don’t you? And Pence is of the past, right? Why send down Mac Williamson and keep Pence and his big contract?

Because he’s a leader. And it you listen to his teammates in the clubhouse — or watched them bounce from the dugout to swarm around Pence in the bottom of the 11th on Sunday at AT&T Park — he’s also a winner.

There were the Giants, down a run with one out and nobody on. As Pence said, “It happens real quick in baseball. You’ve got to be ready for anything.” Especially an unsuspected Giants comeback for a 3-2 win over the San Diego Padres that could be called the biggest of this season.

Andrew McCutchen doubled. Buster Posey, naturally, was walked intentionally — he’d already had a single and double — and, whoa, Brandon Crawford was hit by a pitch. Bases loaded, yes, but Pence, with a groundout and two strikeouts coming to the plate against Brad Hand, one of the game’s better closers.

“Getting an opportunity like that, bases loaded, one out, down a run,” Pence would say afterward, “it’s being a kid on Christmas morning for me. There’s a lot of responsibility, but that’s what you dream of.”

He bounced one just inside the first base line, McCutchen and Posey scored, Pence would get a double and the Giants would get the series win, three games to one.

First we learn Johnny Cueto is progressing in rehab, then we watch the Pence and the Giants perform a mini-miracle.

Ballplayers with the experience and residual success of Hunter Pence view things differently than most of us. They don’t think so much about what they haven’t done, the .193 batting average after coming back from the disabled list, but what can be done.

“I don’t really harp on that,” he said about statistics that have to be called negative. “I play to go win the game. Since I came back (he was out with a sprained thumb, then had to rehab), I got a chance to start. I’ve had better days. My pinch hitting is not as good as I want it to be. But I just want to be as prepared as I can.

“By the end of the year, the numbers will be what they will be.”

The numbers Sunday for Giants starter Dereck Rodriguez were interesting. He gave up a homer on a 3-2 pitch to the first man to step into the batter’s box at AT&T, Manuel Margot. Yikes, 1-0 instantly.

But that was it for a long while. Rodriguez — yes, son of Hall of Fame catcher Pudge Rodriguez — went six innings.

“That was a lot of fun,” said Dereck. “My curve ball was the best it’s been. I’d rather have the leadoff guy hit a home run and shut them down the rest of the way than have a guy hit one in the sixth inning.”

The win kept the Giants above .500 in the standings, and while that’s not quite what will win a title, it’s a psychological barrier they must surpass. It makes them winners, in fact as well as in mind, and with a ton of home games coming up they might become a presence.

“We had to find a way to win that game,” said Giants manager Bruce Bochy. “You want to stay away from the strikeout. When you put a ball in play, good things happen.”

The Giants have a rare and necessary day off on Monday. Bochy probably will go fishing. 

Pence may just reflect.

“I’m not going to get super-down on myself,” said Pence. “It’s a team game. You want to do your best for the team and the city. I focus on being a good person, and the rest will take care of itself.”

It definitely did on Sunday.

11:05PM

The Panda gives Giants what they were lacking

By Art Spander

SAN FRANCISCO — Now and then, you see one of those black-and-white panda hats. Not in abundance, like the glory days for the Panda, Pablo Sandoval, and the Giants. But often enough to serve as a reminder of the way it was. And for the guys in the clubhouse, the way it is once more.

Yes, after that 2014 season, the last World Series season in San Francisco — and there was Sandoval grabbing a foul popup near third for the final out — the Panda wanted more loving or more money or something, and not only joined the Red Sox but departed the Bay Area by tossing a few insults at the Giants organization.

But Boston was no place for Sandoval. And when the Red Sox waived him, his weight too large, his batting average too low — and were responsible for a large hunk of the large contract ($90 million) he had signed — the Giants figured it made sense to see what the man can do.

The idea turned out to be brilliant. Not only because with Evan Longoria out for several weeks with a broken hand, Sandoval is starting at third — after also playing first and, glorioski, even second base.

Not only because Sandoval is hitting .281 with six homers.

Not only because Sandoval was intentionally walked in the sixth when the Giants broke loose for five runs in their 6-5 win over Miami on Wednesday.

But maybe most importantly because Sandoval provides the spirit and camaraderie that at times was lacking as the Giants in 2017 collapsed to a 98-loss season.

“Sometimes you can’t put a value on this,” said Brandon Belt. “He’s accepted his role with humility. He keeps everything loose. He keeps you in the right frame of mind.”

Belt, feeling strong again after that emergency appendectomy a couple weeks ago, had three hits including a double in that big sixth, which — and you’ve heard this before about games at AT&T Park, where this one was played — might have been a home run at many other parks.

“We won,” said Belt, cutting to the chase. That they did, winning another series at home (they haven’t dropped one here since early April) and once more creeping to within a game of a .500 record.

They won because with Brandon Crawford away on paternity leave (he returns Thursday), and after consecutive night games Monday and Tuesday following a long trip, both Andrew McCutchen and Buster Posey getting a day off, Belt, Nick Hundley, Gorkys Hernandez and, from out of the past, Hunter Pence had notable offensive games.

They won because starter Derek Holland allowed only three runs in six innings and, this is repetitive, pitching wins. Look, the Giants didn’t score until the sixth — the Marlins’ starter, Jose Urena, was sharp — but San Francisco still only trailed 1-0.

“What a job Holland did,” said Giants manager Bruce Bochy.

Bochy also was excited by Gorkys Hernandez’s extended and successful at bat in the sixth, which lasted 13 pitches and concluded with a single to center that scored San Francisco’s fourth and fifth runs.

These Giants may not be leading the standings, but they do know to work a count. Belt set a record by standing in for 21 pitches earlier this season. Now, Hernandez goes 13. That requires a good eye and plenty of patience.

“Gorkys’ at bat was huge for us,” said Belt. “We needed those runs.”

The Giants’ leadoff batter in the first, Alen Hanson, a switch hitter, took a big lefthanded swipe at a Urena pitch, fell and injured his left knee severely enough that he had to be replaced by Kelby Tomlinson.

Another injury, after broken hands on pitches for Longoria and Madison Bumgarner and then reliever Hunter Strickland stupidly punching a wall, busting his. Cursed? Not really, said Bochy. Hanson will be sore but available. Those things happen.

So, for the Giants, do situations like Monday’s game, when ahead 4-0 in the second, they wound up losing 5-4.

Easy then to get depressed, to carry the gloom to the next game — or even for weeks. But not with the Panda around. “You need guys like that,” said Belt.

And once again, the Giants have him.

 

6:40PM

Giants offense may be as good as they hoped

By Art Spander

SAN FRANCISCO — Only one game, but what a game. A game that might lead to a trend and, at the least, stopped a three-game losing streak. A game in which the offense that the Giants hoped they had, an offense the Giants needed, was alive and well.

This Giants lineup is supposed to be good, perhaps outstanding. Buster Posey, Brandon Belt and Brandon Crawford already were there. Then they added Andrew McCutchen and Evan Longoria, and the days of losing 2-1 or 3-2 — or, worse, 1-0 — were supposed to be over.

Technically, they were, but in the previous three games before Saturday the Giants scored, in order, three runs, three runs and one run, a total of seven. And they lost all three.

But finally, everything clicked. Balls were flying into the corners. Players were flying around the bases.

Brandon Crawford had a home run, double, single and four runs batted in. The other Brandon, Belt, had two hits and an RBI. McCutchen had two doubles and a single. Miguel Gomez, the fill-in second baseman (and in the ninth inning, an outfielder), had two hits and two runs scored.

And most importantly, the Giants had a 9-4 win over the Rockies at AT&T Park, where the wind was reminiscent of Candlestick Park and the victory reminiscent of those World Series years.

“It takes time,” said Giants manager Bruce Bochy of the team's hitting. “These guys are good, but this is what we were expecting. They’re good hitters.”

In the early part of this ’18 season, Belt has been an excellent hitter. He has 10 home runs. He’s hitting .308. He has 26 RBI.

“I thought this is where I could be,” said Belt, 30, in his eighth season with San Francisco. “But until now, it hasn’t been the case. I feel comfortable at bat.”

Belt worked on his swing during spring training. He’s always been a patient hitter, as that record 21-pitch at bat against the Angels showed recently. Now he’s more aggressive.

Surely having Buster Posey (.307 after two hits Saturday) ahead of him in the lineup and Even Longoria after him (although Longoria so far has to match what people were hoping) has aided Belt.

You look at the Dodgers, Joc Pederson, Yasmani Grandal, Cody Bellinger, Yasiel Puig and once again Justin Turner, and you find power and consistency, what seemingly the Giants lacked and a reason L.A. finished 40 games ahead of San Francisco a year ago.

But now, the Giants have some punch.

“We’re better this year,” said Bochy, “and we’re not there yet. We haven’t hit our stride.”

Crawford, the All-Star shortstop, is hitting his — and hitting the ball. He was 3-for-5 Saturday with a home run and four RBI.

Nothing is permanent in sport. A kicker may change his steps on field goals, a golfer the angle of his swing. Unintentionally, of course. Crawford said he got advice from teammates, including Pablo Sandoval, and raised his bat ever so slightly. His batting average has been raised more than slightly, to .302.

“And our bullpen has been really good,” said Bochy, knowing full well in the end that pitching wins games. On Saturday, Will Smith, back after a year following Tommy John surgery, Pierce Johnson, Sam Dyson and Tony Watson didn’t give up a run after they followed starter Chris Stratton, who went five innings and gained the victory.

After Sunday, the Giants go on the road. They’ll be around the .500 mark. Madison Bumgarner is throwing again. Jeff Samardzija appears to have regained his touch. 

Maybe there’s a summer of success on the horizon.