Aubrey Huff

Why this Giants team seems to mean more

Granted, it’s sort of like a chef skipping around his kitchen exclaiming, “Wow, people just seem to love my crab bisque more than ever before!” Or, a blogger proclaiming that his most recent posts have really been impressive in terms of pageviews and user-engagement (not that I’m talking about anybody specific, mind you). But all the talk on KNBR and everywhere else is about how/why this Giants team seems to have captured the public’s imagination more than previous Giants squads that made the playoffs, namely the teams that were led by Barry Bonds.

This leads to a couple questions. First, is this true? The answer is yes. Ratings are up. People seem to genuinely love the vast majority of the players, as opposed to the early 2000’s when the only real love was saved for Kirk Reuter, J.T. Snow, and to a lesser extent Rich Aurilia and Robb Nen (Bonds got love in the form of respect and admiration, but it’s tough to love someone who clearly doesn’t give a damn whether you exist). Ticket prices, as many of you know, are sky-high. Around here they’re about double what they are for the games in Atlanta, almost to the point where if you want to go to a game, it almost makes fiscal sense to fly to Atlanta and go to Game 3 in that boring, personality-free stadium they built for that bush-league* Olympics they put on in 1996.

(*I’m just going on how Ralph Barbieri described the city one time, in one of the greatest rants I’d ever heard from the man that wasn’t about O.J. Simpson or Armando Benitez. It was at least 10 years ago, and for some reason that afternoon he was really upset about Atlanta. Something about how they don’t have good New York-style pizza, I think. I remember him getting so upset, yelling that Atlanta is a “bush-league city, that put on a bush-league Olympics.” I’ll always remember how much my friends and I laughed in the car, and wished that instead of just on road trips, we could listen to KNBR all day long. Now, we’re livin’ the dream. And paying the rent that goes along with that dream.)

That leads to the second question, which is: why? The Giants were a damn good team from 2000-03, and the core of the team was around quite a while. Why is this team so crazy-popular?

There isn’t just one answer for this, there are ten (that I can think of … the readers can probably think of many more):

1. High-definition television, with every game televised.

Remember how Bruce Jenkins used to complain that day games in the Eastern Time Zone were never televised? How this is a big-league town and every game should be on TV? Well, he finally got his wish a few years ago. Before, about 140-150 games were covered on SportsChannel/FSN/KTVU, and fewer than that during the 2000’s, fewer during the 1990’s, and so on…

And now that most people have access to HDTV and all the games are available in that format (some in higher quality than others, NBC…), it’s easier to see facial expressions, important plays like line drives called foul that clearly hit chalk lines and everything else that makes the experience more authentic for the viewer. The distance between players and the fans is taken away when fans can see the action more vividly, but that’s not the only way the distance has been lessened/removed…

2. Social Networks

Facebook, Twitter and blogs have led to growth in the popularity of all sports, because it’s another way that fans feel closer to the action (and in some cases, part of the action). Before the rise of the Internet, sports fans who were obsessive had to focus their attention on TV, radio, sports sections in newspapers, magazines (which rarely, if ever, mentioned West Coast teams like the Giants in a positive light) and baseball cards. Besides your friends, family and the occasional connection with someone sitting next to you at the game, being a Giants fan was kind of a solo endeavor.

Now, people can chat nonstop with like-minded fans all day and all night. And some people do. On Twitter, I can’t tell you how many fans have pictures of themselves with their favorite player as their avatar. Or how many Tweetups I hear mentioned, or updates from games. And while many old-school reporters worried about what social media (and the blogosphere) would do to their careers, in reality it’s only added to the excitement, especially now that they’ve embraced this new form of journalism as well. People still want to know what Mychael Urban, Andrew Baggarly, Henry Schulman and Chris Haft are reporting due to their skill as writers, experience and the access they’ve been granted. Then, fans want to talk about the info they just consumed nonstop. How can that not lead to bigger crowds, more money being spent and more a more excited fanbase?

3. The economy

You’d think the recession would have an opposite effect, but it hasn’t. When people got depressed about not finding work or getting their wages/benefits cut, they didn’t turn away from the Giants to take care of “important business,” they used sports as a diversion from their problems. They didn’t cut their cable plans, they watched sports on TV instead of going out to eat. And while there are teams that have seen lower attendance figures and empty luxury suites, the negatively affected teams are in almost every case the ones who are also losing more games than they win.

4. Desperation

Back in 2002, losing was a supreme gut punch. Terrible. But even though the Giants still hadn’t won a World Series title in San Francisco, it still was less than 50 years since the last one in 1954. Now, not only has it been 56 years since the franchise won a title, but since 2002 the Red Sox and White Sox broke through, meaning the only teams that have longer droughts than the Giants are the Cubs and Indians. And nobody wants to be grouped with the Cubs and Indians.

5. Marty Lurie

I knew he talked a good game about the A’s and had some interesting interview segments on Damon Bruce’s show, but could anybody have ever predicted the sheer force, determination and stamina of this former defense attorney on the weekends? Most shows on KNBR talk about the Giants, but they mostly stick to the talking point(s) of the day and mix in Giants talk with chatter about other teams, players and national sports news.

Lurie has spoken at such a length, so many times, about the “stories” this team possesses, that the amount of stories on the Giants has become part of the story. I know Gary Radnich and I aren’t the only ones who spent dozens of hours on Sunday evenings driving back to the Bay Area while listening to Lurie take call after call. He added a boost of goodwill about the team and the game as a whole, and helped feed the notion that baseball is a companion that never really has to go away.

6. Much better and intensive local coverage

CSN Bay Area doesn’t just provide us with good camera angles and Kruk and Kuip; they have all kinds of off-game programming related to the Giants, culminating with the memorable postgame shows during the last weeknight games of the season. The guys with microphones were Gary Radnich, F.P. Santangelo and Rich Aurilia, but the stars of the show were the fans behind them screaming their lungs out. The stereotype of apathetic San Francisco fans got broken apart pretty well there, unless you happen to write for Deadspin and don’t know the difference between AT&T and Petco.

7. Attention-whoring at its finest

The last Giants group to make a bunch of playoff appearances was (rightfully so) known as Barry Bonds and a bunch of guys trying to beat each other in a contest to show who had the least amount of personality. I’m pretty sure the Giants didn’t break one unwritten rule of baseball between 2000-03, unless you count Marvin Benard’s stankeye and Darren Baker’s attempted steal of home from the dugout. On this year’s team, emotion is encouraged.

And don’t forget Tim Lincecum’s hair, mohawks, Aubrey Huff’s rally thong, Brian Wilson’s orange spikes and beards, beards, beards. And this isn’t “I’m A.J. Pierzynski and I frost my tips to look even douchier than you thought I was” type attention-seeking. Every single one of these things the Giants have done to look strange have been done in the name of team unity. So while the youngsters are pleased to see people getting crazy, the older fans don’t gaze over their Reader’s Digest, raise an eyebrow and ask what’s wrong with kids these days. It’s all in fun, and while most of it’s ridiculous it does make the guys a little more interesting.

8. We gotta wear shades

People love to get on the ground floor of a good thing, whether it’s a startup company or a team or player with “upside” (thank you, Jay Bilas). The Giants are better than they thought they’d be at this point because the relatively cheap additions of Aubrey Huff, Pat Burrell and Juan Uribe worked out better than anyone had a right to expect (even though Uribe was pretty awesome last year, he IS a 275-lb shortstop).

The Giants, even if they don’t make it all the way this year, have a brighter future than any time since Orlando Cepeda and Willie McCovey won consecutive ROYs. Even if they get rid of Barry Zito, they have a core of four pitchers that could be excellent for anywhere from 5-10 years. The bullpen has great pitchers under 30 like Wilson, Sergio Romo and Santiago Casilla, and don’t forget Dan Runzler, who despite an injury-plagued year was one of their most exciting prospects. Pablo Sandoval’s too young to give up on, unless he’s even fatter going into next season. I still think Nate Schierholtz is a 20-hr, 15 SB, 15 OF assist guy waiting to happen. The minor league system looks like it boasts some decent prospects, and then there’s Buster Posey, the presumed future leader of this team. If Brandon Belt’s for real and they find a decent shortstop before next season, the non-pitching part of this team looks to be pretty good going into a season for the first time in years (and if they surprise us all and sign Carl Crawford, look out).

9. Torture

I thought the Kuiper slogan was overblown at first, but it’s really true: this team has played more crazy, nail-biting, torturous games in the last two years than any Giants squad I can remember. Now that in itself isn’t a reason to like a team. Kind of the opposite, really, since a lot of us are another bratwurst and Padres series away from a heart attack. But these games have forged a team that cannot be counted out at any time. I thought they were going to win on Friday after falling behind 6-0 to a team with a great bullpen that HAD to win. If these Giants had the same situation that happened to them in Game 6 of the 2002 World Series (sorry), I wouldn’t predict an automatic loss in Game 7 — which I did in 2002, along with all my friends. We knew they were done. The 2010 Giants, we’re all on the edge of our seats until the final out.

Also, it’s fun to see our announcers — who really put the rest of the nation’s announcing crews to shame — show the fans that they’re living and dying with this team like the fans.

10. We’re due

It’s not just the Giants who are hurting for a title, the entire region is. I don’t need to give you the records, the lack of playoff appearances or the amount of years since the last Bay Area championship team. You already know. Really, it seemed like this area would never see good baseball/football/basketball again. The word “curse” was starting to get whispered. How in an area with so much money, so many people, so many teams, was absolutely nothing good happening? And just like an area that gets spoiled after a great sporting run gets jaded (Boston in the late 2000’s, anyone?), a region that’s starved will be that much more excited when something (ANYTHING!) good finally happens. There was a huge void of sports love in the Bay Area, and the Giants just happened to be the team that stepped into it.

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