Brandon Belt

San Francisco Giants: modern organization, old school GM

This afternoon I and presumably many of you out there received an email from the desk of Bruce Bochy. Now I always assumed Bochy’s desk was only used as a place to write Orlando Cabrera’s name on a lineup card before games and to set postgame beers and/or glasses of wine on after games. But according to Bochy’s email, one can send correspondence from this versatile piece of furniture.

The letter was to all San Francisco Giants fans, thanking them for the support over the past year as they get ready to break their all-time attendance record tonight, surpassing 3,300,000 tickets sold. It would seem unlikely to the more cynical among us that this letter was penned by Bochy himself, particularly this passage (emphasis mine):

I look up at that sea of orange-and-black — at the Panda and Baby Giraffe hats, the beards, the Timmy wigs, the scarves and towels, the poster board signs that say “Believe!” – and feel as if no one can beat us. The incredible energy generated from 41,000 stomping, cheering, passionate Giants fans is like having a tenth man on the field.

I’m sure Bochy and the Giants love the support from fans — as well they should. But I can’t imagine Bochy’s a huge fan of “Baby Giraffe hats,” seeing as he was hesitant to play Belt regularly until the Giants were officially out of contention. But it doesn’t matter if Bochy wrote the letter or not. Giants fans mourning the end of the 2011 season, and with it the World Series afterglow, love reading any document from the team saying they matter.

That’s the thing about the Giants on nearly every level: they are the epitome what it means to be a professional sports franchise in the United States in 2011. They get social media. They’re constantly giving away goodies that fans want. Everything about the AT&T Park experience, from the “Kiss Cam,” to all the special days that promote tolerance and ethnic diversity, to Tony Bennett’s famous song echoing through the stands after each victory, cause fans to feel connected — even when the team’s bats don’t connect with fastballs, sliders, changeups, curveballs…

The list of Giants marketing successes goes on and on. They were the first (and still the only, I believe) team to have a female public address announcer. The food options at AT&T are endless. They give a nod to the past every chance they get, both in how they decorate the place and how often they acknowledge former players, announcers, whomever. And little touches like today’s letter from Bochy help guarantee the fans will still fill the place next year, even though there’s nothing new to celebrate besides (hopefully) the healthy returns of Buster Posey and Freddy Sanchez.

But not everything is modern at 24 Willie Mays Plaza

The Giants look every bit the 21st-century franchise, but they’re still decidedly in the past when it comes to player evaluation. And that’s because the man in charge of said function is Brian Sabean — the longest-tenured general manager in baseball. One forgets that in 1997 Billy Beane started as GM with the A’s only one year after Sabean began in that role for the Giants. But in the way that things are done in terms of building a ballclub (and what three words besides “kicking the tires” sounds more like Sabeanese than “building a ballclub”?), the Giants are steadfastly rooted in an era before Moneyball, WAR, BABIP, FIP and mustaches grown for the purpose of irony instead of masculinity.

One of the many reasons the blogosphere and fans on Twitter and elsewhere complained so loudly about Bill Neukom’s ouster was this paragraph written by Henry Schulman.

After he took the helm of the Giants, Neukom wrote a credo called “The Giants Way,” which demanded professionalism across the organization, from the players up to the front office. He also took a keen interest in the new wave of complex statistics known in baseball as Sabermetrics.

Many were shocked that anyone in the organization even knew what Sabermetrics is.

In defense of Sabes

While many are understandably waiting for a new era of Giants baseball, one where the evaluation and usage of players catches up with the marketing and PR sides, something about the Sabean era is fun to me, and not something I’m in such a hurry to give up. And not just because Sabean drove past me in an old convertible on Market Street 11 months ago with his index fingers in the air, drinking in the adulation that comes with a World Series title.

With Sabean, like all GMs really, one has to take the good (which in this case would be four division titles, two National League pennants and one World Series victory) with the bad.

Trades like the one for Orlando Cabrera are reactionary, shortsighted and doomed to failure. However, I’ll also remember walking out of the clubhouse after an especially painful loss, when I looked to my right into Bochy’s office and I saw Sabean in there with him, smoking a gigantic cigar. It made me think of Chub Feeney back in the 1950’s, burning the midnight oil with Leo Durocher. I don’t know if Feeney smoked cigars or even had a good working relationship with Durocher, but details aren’t going to stop me from waxing nostalgic about historic moments I choose to make up in my head.

Hey, if you’re going to make decisions rooted in the past, you might as well be a caricature. It’s only fair.

Sabean had quite a hot streak in the 1990s, and is credited by many with sourcing the core of those great Yankees teams. He came to town and made his debut with a controversial trade, and in the process of explaining himself shined the spotlight on a phrase that will never leave San Francisco’s baseball lexicon: “lunatic fringe.” “I am not an idiot.” That trade worked out wonderfully. Others, not so much.

Emotion, loyalty and outbursts

While many teams throughout baseball tossed aside vets and team ideas like yesterday’s paper, Sabean (who I like to imagine still gets most/all of his information from the newspaper) has mostly liked the idea of keeping teams together. Sabean held the Bonds/Kent/Snow/Aurilia/Schmidt/Reuter Giants together for quite some time, so it only made sense that after rewarding him with a title he brought back as many of the 2010 San Francisco Giants as possible.

In this day where the most respected GMs are in some ways robotic in their approach, Sabean sticks out because of how often his emotions are visible to all, not just those behind the scenes. The outburst on KNBR about Scott Cousins was shocking to everybody except those who’ve followed Sabean closely over the last 15 years. Unlike almost everyone in this heavily-scripted age, Sabean often says what he thinks. Not always, but whether it’s an interview with Ralph or a quotes seen in the beat writers’ articles, you can generally tell when Sabean is pissed. While you might not agree with what he says, you can’t deny Sabean’s many quirks are entertaining to follow (and provide sites like mine with tons of material).

Many will probably read this and scold me for being a Sabean apologist. I understand the frustrations people have, and 99.9% of the time I share them. Sabean’s penchant for prizing experience and traditional stats over potential and advanced metrics is well known, and maddening. But Sabean comes from an era where if you’re looking for something to give the benefit of the doubt to, a veteran’s resume is the best place to start.

It can seem unfair at times, and this year there were several decisions where Sabean’s (and Bochy’s too, since when it comes to the Giants philosophies trickle down far more efficiently than income ever did under Ronald Reagan) stubbornness led not just to a slow, on-base-phobic baseball team, but to boring lineups (and baseball) near the end.

But sometime in the next 15-25 years, Sabean will be replaced. And the Giants’ next GM will probably be someone whose processes seem more aligned with the times — like the rest of the organization. Many fans will celebrate, and while I’ll be very interested to see what the Giants would look like with a GM who’s more digital than analog, I don’t think I’ll be alone in that I’ll enjoy reminiscing over the Sabean era. While I won’t miss the old shortstops, it will be fun to remember the Giants’ old school GM.


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