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7:51PM

For Austin Jackson, a new team and old values

By Art Spander

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — He was out there for the first time this spring training, and Austin Jackson, whose career includes a World Series — against the Giants, no less — and a catch so spectacular it’s a YouTube staple, went about it as the major leaguer that he is.

A new team, a new season, but old values. Only an exhibition game, but in effect a way of life. You’re always on display.

In his final season, 1951, Joe DiMaggio was asked why he played so hard when at his age, 36, and with a bad leg he could have eased up a bit. “There may be some kid who never saw me play before,” supposedly was DiMaggio’s answer.

Austin Jackson understands. His teams, a half dozen of them — the Giants, with whom he signed in January, are his sixth — have been winners. “I take a lot of pride in that,” he said. “Anytime you’re on the field, you want to win. You’ve got to have passion and respect for the game. It’s ingrained in us.”

In Jackson’s first Cactus League game of 2018, the Giants were not winners. They were beaten by the Angels, 11-4, in a game that was 0-0 in the fifth. Jackson, starting in center field, went 0-for-2.

“It’s kind of funny,” he said in the postgame clubhouse, “me signing with the team that beat us in the World Series.” That "us" was Kansas City in 2012. “But that’s how it goes. Every game, I think about getting back to the Series.”

Jackson turned 31 in January. He’s young, but at same time in experience and attention he’s old. Back in 1999, Baseball America named Jackson the best 12-year-old player in the country. Three years later, he was the best 15-year-old. At Ryan High in his hometown of Denton, Texas, he also played basketball and was ranked by Athlon Sports the No. 10 prep point guard in the nation.

Then, after being offered a basketball scholarship to Georgia Tech, he signed with the Yankees. A journey that took many by surprise has not changed his attitude. He’s doing what he wants to do.

“The first game,” he said of his play on Thursday, “is exciting, like the first day of school. It was difficult. My legs got heavy, because I hadn’t played for so long. But it felt good.”

Life, we’re told, is about timing, about being in the right place and then making the best of where you are. Jackson undeniably did that last August when, playing for the Cleveland Indians, he chased Hanley Ramirez's deep shot to the right-center bullpen wall at Fenway Park. He reached up with his gloved left hand for the ball, reached out with his right hand for the barrier and then flipped upside down into the bullpen.

He traveled a reported 97 feet, probably got as much TV time in replays as imaginable and became a part of what Major League Baseball declared “the play of the year.” It was one of those plays that no matter how many times you view it — and Jackson said he has seen it maybe 100 times — seems impossible.

“Most people talk about the catch,” Jackson said, “but my friend noticed I was hanging on to the wall for dear life. I just kind of flipped over and landed on the ground, my arm still on the wall.”

He won’t be able to do that at AT&T Park, where the fences are higher, but what he can do is bring the skills that help a team.

“I’ve learned a lot being with great players,” he said. ”When I’m out there, I want to trust the guy beside me.”

The way teams have put their trust in Austin Jackson.

 

4:24PM

Of Samardzija, Mays and strawberries in the wintertime

By Art Spander

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Baseball still gets down to one person throwing a ball — pitching — and another trying to hit it. As it has been for 150 years. Before analytics and metrics.

When scouts saw a kid who could do it all and told management, “Sign him.”

A kid like Joe DiMaggio. Or Stan Musial. Or the man who was holding court in the Giants spring clubhouse, Willie Mays.

In an hour or so, Jeff Samardzija would make his first start of the exhibition season, work what he thought was effectively, at least to a point of self-satisfaction, an inning and third, allowing four runs Tuesday in a game that San Francisco would win, 14-12, over the Diamondbacks.

Then Samardzija would head to his locker, at the opposite end of the clubhouse from the table where Mays sits anytime he chooses, and Samardzija would lament the trend to replacing pitchers by the book, not on how they were performing, and the obsession in the sport on items such as launch angle and spin rate.

Whatever angle Mays launched balls at during a Hall of Fame career never will be known. But he hit 660 home runs, and missed two full seasons, 1952 and ’53, when he was in the Army — “I probably would have hit 40 each year,” he said unpretentiously. He also played home games for 23-plus seasons at cold, windy Candlestick Park.    

Oh, was he special. From the start. “We got to take care of this kid,” Garry Schumacher, the publicist of the New York Giants, said in the 1950s. “We got to make sure he gets in no trouble because this is the guy — well, I'm not saying he's gonna win pennants by himself, but he's the guy who'll have us all eating strawberries in the wintertime.”

At this moment, at his table, the top autographed by Mays — “They sell it for charity,” he pointed out — Willie was eating a taco and, between bites, asking for a Coke.

“No Cokes,” he was told. “They want the players to cut down on sugar.” So Mays settled for water.

Willie will be 87 in May. His vision is limited. “I’m not supposed to drive at night,” he said to a journalist who also has eye problems. “But I feel good.”

It has been said one of the joys of baseball is that it enables different generations to talk to each other. A grandfather and his grandson, separated by 50 or so years, may have little in common. Except baseball. The game is timeless.   

Three strikes and Mays was out. Three strikes and Buster Posey’s out. Batters still are thrown out by a step. “Ninety feet between bases is the closest man has come to perfection,” wrote the great journalist Red Smith.

The closest any ballplayer has come to perfection is Mays. We know he could hit. He could run, steal any time wanted, third base as well as second. Defense? The late San Francisco Chronicle baseball writer Bob Stevens said of a Mays triple, “The only man who could have caught it, hit it.”

On Tuesday, writers were hitting it off with Mays when rookie pitcher Tyler Beede, the Giants’ first pick in the 2014 draft, sat down next to Mays. They were separated by some 62 years — Beede is 24 — but instantly they began a conversation.

“Where you from?” Mays asked Beede, a star at Vanderbilt, who is from Chattanooga.

“You play golf? Mays asked. Beede said he did. “Twelve handicap,” he added.

Mays laughed. “Got to watch you 12-handicap guys. Pitchers, they’re always playing golf. They have the time between starts.”

Willie was a golfer until he no longer could see where his shots landed. He started the game at San Francisco’s Lake Merced Golf Club, struggled for a while — “I can’t believe I can’t hit a ball that’s just sitting there, not moving,” he said when learning — but became accomplished.

Then Pablo Sandoval dropped by, almost literally, practically sitting in Mays' lap and wrapping Willie in a bear hug. “I need some money, I’m broke,” said Pablo. The two laughed.

Willie is rich. In memories and friends.

9:30PM

Giants’ Cactus League opener: Good pitch, no field

By Art Spander

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Once again, you’re reminded that exhibition baseball games don’t mean a thing. Except to the people playing them. Or, in the case of the Giants in the Cactus League opener of 2018, misplaying them.

As you know, and other teams — heh, heh — are gleefully aware, the Giants may not be able to hit, but as indicated Friday, they can pitch. The assumption was that they also could field. Sorry.

Which is a perfect description of San Francisco’s imperfection at times when the Milwaukee Brewers were at the plate. “I thought the pitching was good,” said manager Bruce Bochy, “but we got a little sloppy there in the middle of the game.”

Sloppy as in six errors. Sloppy as in, can’t anyone catch and throw? Final scores don’t mean much in exhibition games — the Brewers won this one, 6-5. Individual performances mean a great deal. Oops.

“We shot ourselves in the foot,” was the Bochy description.

It was cartoon ball, movie comic ball. It was the kind of ball that destroys the sort of pitching produced by the Giants, particularly Ty Blach, who didn’t allow a run the first two innings and Andrew Suarez, who didn’t allow a run the next two.

“Blach, Suarez, I thought they threw great,” said Bochy. He was in the dugout after the game, bundled but wearing Maui Jim sunglasses, maybe wishing he was somewhere else, like the Gulf Coast, where it was sunny and bright and 81 degrees, In greater Phoenix, it was dark and gloomy and, ahem, 60 degrees.

“They were sweating bullets in Florida,” he said wistfully after watching a few minutes of Tiger Woods at the Honda Classic long before the baseball game.

“When Blach missed,” said Bochy returning to the subject at hand, “he just missed. He was right on, a very impressive outing for Ty and for Suarez.

Pitching invariably is ahead of hitting early in spring training — or that’s what we’ve been taught over the decades. Yet, the theory didn’t seem to have an effect on Nick Hundley or our old pal, Pablo Sandoval. In the second, Hundley hit a homer to left, the Giants' first run, and in the sixth Sandoval, swinging left-handed, hit one to right that nearly cleared the fence behind the fence. In other words, it was way out there, maybe 450 feet.

“I was focused,” said Sandoval. “I worked in the winter.”

Pablo is a link to the Giants’ three World Series titles. He caught the ball that was the ultimate out against Kansas City in 2014. Someone wondered if the new kids, the rookies, the hopefuls, asked him about those good not-so-old days.

“Yeah,” said Sandoval. “I tell them that we are better when we have fun, when we play together and not try to do everything individually but play as a team. We had great communication.

“We have an opportunity. The pitching here is great. We have to stick to our game, focus on the little things and get better every day.”

The monster home run in the first game of the spring was reassurance. “You can face your teammates,” said Sandoval. “Otherwise they’re going to be on you all spring.”

Bochy said again Sandoval will be used as a backup at first (where he played Friday) and third and as a pinch hitter. “That was a pretty good swing by Pablo, wasn’t it?” said Bochy. “A lot of good things happened.”

Excluding the errors, certainly, inexcusable for any major league team and especially one that last season was outscored by 137 runs. When you’re scraping for runs, you better scrape up ground balls or you’ll be the worst team in the division.

Oh, right. That’s what the Giants were.

8:24PM

A chill in the Giants camp

By Art Spander

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — “Frost,” the sign read. “Stay off grass.” No one-liners, please, even if the warning is so very Nor Cal. Besides, this was after the Giants had worked out Wednesday in weather chilly enough to keep observers bundled, but not chilly enough to keep young ballplayers from working out.

There’s a new field at the Giants' complex, with two infields. Not exactly as impressive as, say, the White Sox and Dodgers' facility 15 miles west at Glendale, where each team has a dozen diamonds apiece. But the Giants have civilization, which counts for something.

Not as much as some power hitting and relief pitching, of course. This spring training of 2018 is one of problems and questions. For the first time in years, San Francisco enters — let’s say it — as an also-ran, a team theoretically without hope.

The Giants bottomed out in 2017. A chill. A fall from the heights. Three World Series championships in five years, certainly. But that was then. Now is a muddle.

Will Evan Longoria and Andrew McCutcheon make that much of a difference? The Dodgers and Diamondbacks are locks, aren’t they, and the Rockies should make the postseason. The Padres were seven games in front of San Francisco and just signed Eric Hosmer for millions.

It is a sobering reminder that last season the Giants not only didn’t win four out of every 10 games, they finished 40 games behind the dreaded Dodgers. That seems impossible. It wasn’t.

Maybe it’s the temperature, the high down here just 61 degrees. Maybe it’s the reality. But for the Giants, the usual optimism of spring training seems absent. How do you pick up 20 games on the Dodgers, never mind 40? And how do you feel good wearing parkas in Arizona?

Giants manager Bruce Bochy spent a good part of Wednesday on that new back field, watching prospects such as Andres Blanco and Chase D’Arnaud. “I need to put the face with the name,” said Bochy, ”although I know them all. They have it a little tougher.”

He meant tougher than the veterans, who are not to be rushed. The Giants’ exhibition season opens Friday, split squad against Milwaukee, and Buster Posey will be watching, not playing, and probably a game or two after that. Posey is approaching 31. Catchers wear down.

Pablo Sandoval already is 31 and, at times, being dropped by Boston and then returning to the Giants in July 2017, already looked worn down. He hit .225 with five home runs in 47 games with San Francisco.

Bochy said Sandoval, with a history of being overweight, is in good shape. He’ll be used at third base and first base, backing up, and at times as a bullpen catcher. Where the Panda will not be used is in the outfield.

“We were playing one of those postseason games in Taiwan, a lot of major leaguers,” said Bochy. “I put Pablo in left field. There’s a line drive in the gap. He looks to his left at the center fielder, a speed guy (it was Curtis Granderson), as if, ‘That’s your ball.’

“But everything that’s happened to Pablo over the years hasn’t fazed him.”

What happened last season certainly fazed the Giants and their fans. The AT&T Park sellout streak ended at 530 games. Madison Bumgarner fell off a dirt bike and missed a couple of months. It was as if the baseball gods were making San Francisco pay for the glory of earlier years.

When Bumgarner went down, Ty Blach stepped up. And Blach will start the Cactus League opener on Friday. The usual contention is that exhibition games don’t mean anything, that pitchers are working to get in shape.

But for a team built on pitching, a team coming off a rotten year, these exhibition games over the next month could mean a great deal. They could make everyone, players and fans, believe.

“My job,” said Bochy, “is to get these guys ready for opening day.” Being ready does count. Being successful counts much more.

 

9:03PM

Bochy on 2017: 'This isn’t who we are'

By Art Spander

SAN FRANCISCO — That was a Giants flag, a black SF on a circle of orange, almost like the Great Pumpkin, flapping in the freshening breeze and incoming fog atop the right field foul pole at AT&T Park on Wednesday afternoon.

A rare sight after a rare victory, a tease of what should have been this season, decent pitching, timely hitting, a good break — Jarrett Parker’s excuse-me double in the seventh that scored two runs — a 4-2 win over Milwaukee and a rare series victory.

A little more than a month remaining in the Great Lost Season, when the players stopped performing — for the most part — and the fans stopped coming, and given the farm system and budget restrictions, no one is quite certain how corrections can be made.

Unless, perchance, they don’t need to be made. Unless, as Giants manager Bruce Bochy said when the talk drifted from failure to frustration to potential, this season of 2017 was an aberration, a rare set of misfortunes that now and then strike teams in baseball.

“We don’t think we’re the team that had this rough a year,” said Bochy. ”We’ve been there the last six, seven years. These are really good ballplayers, really good pitchers. This year is different, injuries, off years. This isn’t who we are.”

So, instead of talking about 2018, Bochy's idea is to play well the rest of 2017, to regain lost confidence, find new belief.

No small issue, but with baseball's reliance on home runs, the Giants ought to find some new power. San Francisco’s cleanup hitter, Buster Posey, while batting .317, has only 12 home runs. The Brewers’ cleanup batter, Travis Shaw, has 27.

The cliché is good pitching will beat good hitting, but for the most part — yes, Madison Bumgarner was out weeks — the pitching hasn’t been that good. Which is why Matt Moore’s third straight quality start had Bochy enthusiastic and explanatory.

Moore went six innings and allowed only a run. He left when the game was tied 1-1. Hunter Strickland got the win, Mark Melancon the save — just as it was planned in March, before Strickland was inconsistent and Melancon was injured.

Still, Moore has a 4-12 record and a 5.54 ERA. And as we know, the Giants were eliminated from postseason play in mid-August, something unimaginable in spring training.

“It’s how you finish,” said Bochy. ”You’re going to have your struggles, your hiccups, bumps in the road. Matt had some good starts now. For him, less is more. He’s backed off his pitches a little bit.”

And some would say a little late.

The reflection of this season is as much in the bleachers and grandstands at AT&T as on the field. This is the 18th season for the park, but the first when there were huge areas of empty seats. 

The announced attendance Wednesday, meaning tickets sold, was 40,015, some 2,000 below capacity. Even in that streak of sellouts, which ended earlier this year, were unfilled seats. Now there are hundreds, probably thousands.

Giants fans, Bay Area fans, cannot accept losing. Interest in the Giants and Athletics has tumbled. No longer are BART trains packed with fans wearing orange and black.

The Wednesday game was joyful for those in attendance, a reminder of the way it was. A Giants win and that black-and-orange flag.