The term “chemistry” can mean just about anything when it comes to sports, depending on whom you ask. To some, it’s about a group of teammates who get along extraordinarily well, to the point where guys regularly hang out on road trips and play pranks on one another. To others, it’s a certain undefinable feeling that comes from knowing someone’s tendencies — a catcher sensing what pitch his guy wants to throw, a second baseman placing the ball exactly where the shortstop prefers when starting a double play.
Or, you could be Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane, who said this after his 2014 season ended with a thud: “I think production ultimately creates chemistry.”
The San Francisco Giants have won three championships in five years, and chemistry is often cited as a major reason why. Since chemistry is so difficult to define and quantify, and the Giants were never thought of as the best “on paper” team by the public at large, chemistry fills in the blanks when it’s time to create those trusty narratives … along with the “even year” theory and Madison Bumgarner.
The Giants are a fun-loving bunch, to be sure. It seems like half the roster rides scooters built by the team chef, the pitchers buy cowboy boots for each other, and the team celebrates walk-off wins in April and May as passionately as any group in the majors.
While the Giants believe there’s something chemical going on within their clubhouse, it’s not exactly fun and frivolous. And it’s not anything that can be summarized with a catchy slogan, like “champion blood” or “Buster hug.” Because the Giants’ brand of chemistry, at least for their most recent championship run, took root when the team lost more games than it won.
From 76-86 to Game 7 of the World Series
“I always go back to 2013 as a defining moment for our team,” said Buster Posey.
“Even for the 2014 season, because Boch and Sabes really made us focus down the stretch. Even though we knew we were out of the running in 2013, to try to win. Win as many games as you can and keep that focus. Don’t lose sight of that focus. That’s your job to go out and win baseball games. And I think that kept us in that right mindset and in turn, that is part of the chemistry is that winning feeling and atmosphere that you try to create.”
So, what causes some to question whether the Giants are a true dynasty (missing the postseason between World Series wins) is something that actually propelled them to their third title. In this scenario, chemistry is about being consistent. Don’t let bad results diminish your confidence, or change your daily outlook, or sour all that good that existed before the losses.
“You need to create a culture and atmosphere where people are coming to work prepared and ready to play the game every day. Now, that’s easier said than done,” said Brian Sabean, who was probably thinking about players like Posey as he continued. “But sometimes you need key individuals that people use by example or kind of carry the flag for you in that regard and push everybody else.”
It’s those key individuals (and the ones tasked with coaching them) who possess ultimate control of the solutions, beakers and Bunsen burners. Not a master chemist who creates the roster and tinkers until achieving the perfect balance.
“I think what we’ve learned here is you try to empower the players. You make it their clubhouse. You make it about them,” said Sabean. “You make it where they decide the season, really. Are you going to help them along the way? Sure. But by and large, if you have the right group and they have the right focus, they’re going to do good things.”
Even Year Devil Magic?
It seems like the Giants and Cardinals face off in the postseason every other year, to the point where fans of every other team are sick to death of those clubs ruling the National League come October. Maybe this phenomenon is based on more than just luck, however.
“It’s much easier to be competitive as a team in a baseball game when guys can do the three things needed: hit, field their position and run the bases. And then if they’re competitive to a fault, individually and collectively, that kind of breeds (success),” said Sabean.
“If you follow (Tony) La Russa’s career, really the St. Louis organization, that’s basically what your charge is. It’s to try to be as competitive as you can, day in and day out. Now the artform in that is that you’re going to have guys banged up, you’re going to have guys on the DL, you’re going to forever have to reinvent yourself with the lineup or how and when you give people time off, or how you extend your starters or use your bullpen. And that’s where the manager comes in.”
All teams — but especially in Major League Baseball where off days are so rare — spend an awful lot of time together. That’s where getting along with guys can come into play, and that’s widely thought of as a reason why the Dodgers made some of their offseason moves to remake a 94-win team. But for the Giants, getting along seems to be more of a given than a concern. Big personalities leave (like Pablo Sandoval and Michael Morse), and the players look forward to meeting, getting to know, and potentially even wrestling with their replacements.
For the Giants, chemistry materializes with tough conversations, and teammates and coaches steering each other in the right direction.
“We do believe chemistry’s important, because with that, you got confidence of your teammates. You can talk to them about maybe doing some things a little bit different, let’s all be on the same page,” said Gregor Blanco.
“I always say to the guys that have not played here, if you guys want to go somewhere else, you should go to the Giants because this is a great organization. I think our coaches are really good with us, they really take care of us. They are like our parents here.”
Turning chemistry into rings
Chemistry, however it’s defined, doesn’t explain everything. Individual matchups must be won, and luck in the form of a bad hop, a defensive misplay, an umpire’s strike zone, or even a gust of wind can alter a team’s fortunes. No matter what’s going on in the clubhouse or the team plane, you’ve still got to hit, pitch, field and run.
“I think we’ve seen that in three World Series they’ve won: it’s not how good you are, it’s how well you play. Baseball’s a tough game to play,” Sabean said. “If you go back and ask the players what the defining moment was to get us to the World Series or win the World Series was getting through Washington. Once they beat Washington, a team that won 98 games. I hate to use the word empower again, but you build on that.”
I’ll admit, even after witnessing Hunter Pence’s booming speech and realizing in the back of my mind that there was probably no way they were going to fly to Pittsburgh and lay an egg in the Wild Card game, I had my doubts about how long the Giants would survive their next series. The Nationals were stacked, and no amount of topflight red and white blood cells could counteract a buzzsaw like that. Then the Giants powered through the longest postseason game of all time, and everything — the chemistry, confidence, belief, whatever you want to call it — grew until it peaked nearly a month later with Madison Bumgarner’s save in Game 7.
“You like to think you create a culture, but then teams change from year to year,” said Sabean. “But having said that, I think we have a core that understands the greater good.”