Best ballclub, best ballpark, say no more 

click to enlarge Giants management has kept a core of players who have contributed significantly to three World Series titles in five years. It has helped fill beautiful AT&T Park on a nightly basis. - JEFF CHIU/AP FILE PHOTO
  • Jeff Chiu/AP File Photo
  • Giants management has kept a core of players who have contributed significantly to three World Series titles in five years. It has helped fill beautiful AT&T Park on a nightly basis.
It isn’t my thing to shower a sports executive with gooey, drippy praise, particularly upon meeting him for the first time. Yet as I sit in a boardroom overlooking Third and King streets — inside the ballpark that invariably serves and showcases an aging game better than any on the continent, inside the palace that does the most exquisite job of all American stadia in embracing a city’s feel and aroma, ensconced somewhere between the Willie Mays statue and the monstrous four-fingered glove and the bridge-and-Bay panorama — I look at Larry Baer and cede the obvious.

“I’m not blowing smoke. I think you have the best baseball experience — anywhere,” I declare.

“Thank you,” says Baer, sincerely.

I hate garlic. But at AT&T Park, I love the garlic fries. That’s how precious it is to attend a game in China Basin, and when you couple that rush of baseball LSD with a little old addendum — the Giants have won three World Series over the last five years — there really isn’t anything to conclude now but this: What’s happening down there represents the gold standard of 21st-century sports in this country. Madison Bumgarner’s piece of superhuman folklore last fall marked the climactic point for a franchise that has a unique championship touch, emphasizing character and homegrown cornerstones in a fit-our-paradigm system while avoiding whopper-dollar free agents.

We hear about Big Three tandems. No Big Three has forged a more potent, symmetrical organizational force field than Baer, Brian Sabean and Bruce Bochy. You could make a case that Baer, as overseer of that ballpark experience and business leader of a franchise now worth $2 billion, is the most powerful guy in San Francisco. And it isn’t hard to envision both Sabean, as the general manager who deftly combines new-school thought with old-school birddoggery, and Bochy, as the manager who has his players’ backs and keeps an excruciating season simple with a drawl still audible through all the wine and cheese, delivering induction speeches one day in Cooperstown. There are a lot of bumbling assclowns in boardrooms and dugouts. The Giants are blessed with a hierarchy as regal as their stadium, rebounding from the awkward dramas of the Barry Bonds years to become the working template for baseball prosperity and doing everything the right way.

“We’ve been lucky,” Baer says.

No, the fans are lucky to have them. So fortunate, in fact, that I’m willing to push the pause button on a disappointing offseason until I’m absolutely sure they left themselves short in the talent department for 2015. I’m among those wondering why the Giants, who are printing absurd sums of money and now have annual revenues of almost $400 million, didn’t spend wildly and blow away your new National League favorites, the Washington Nationals, for the most dominant available pitcher, right-hander Max Scherzer. The Giants did offer around $150 million for Jon Lester, but when the lefty foolishly bought into the romantic farce that the Chicago Cubs will win a championship in any present or future lifetime, the Giants retreated and settled for familiar hands (Jake Peavy, Ryan Vogelsong, Sergio Romo) on the mound and advanced-metrics bargains (Casey McGehee, Nori Aoki) in the everyday lineup while hoping the human healing process will keep Matt Cain and Angel Pagan off the disabled list. When you have three freshly minted trophies and you’re packing the ballpark every day and night, why not splurge?

“We did go after Lester,” Baer says.

But not Scherzer, who gives the Nationals a magnificent rotation that might be good enough to win a pennant and coax the president of the United States to attend a home game. And not James Shields, who wound up in San Diego, where the long-sleepy Padres finally located the ATM and may have loaded up with enough talent to pass the Giants as the NL West’s No. 2 team. And not Yoan Moncada, the latest Cuban impact player, who could have been paid with some of the money rejected by Pablo Sandoval.

This is how Sabean, Bochy and assistant GM Bobby Evans have done business for years, of course, passing on megafree agents to piece together a ballclub in their proven, meticulous style. Frustrating as it is to know they might be looking at a fourth trophy in six years with another ace to pair with Bumgarner — instead of hoping Peavy and Tim Hudson aren’t too old, hoping the wisdom of Tim Lincecum’s father can help The Freak locate his mechanics and psyche and hoping Cain returns capably from elbow surgery — you’d be a fool to dismiss the Giants this season before first seeing evidence of a decline. Yes, it’s maddening to see them finishing second for big-ticket players, as if by design to show fans they’re willing to spend but not really trying hard enough. That would ignore one important factoid, as Evans pointed out about losing Lester:

“We finish first in the most important area.”

The players have learned to trust the front office. The rings on their fingers serve as testament. It also should be noted that the team payroll, around $160 million, still ranks in the sport’s upper fifth and includes the big-ticket contracts of Buster Posey, Hunter Pence and Cain. You can’t fairly rip any front office that wins three championships in five years and manages to stay under the tax threshold, which means the Giants don’t subsidize any team budgets but their own.

“I feel like we got a lot of flak for not doing anything this offseason,” shortstop Brandon Crawford told reporters in Arizona. “We got Aoki, we got McGehee. We have Cain coming back healthy that I think a lot of people forget. We’ve got Pagan coming back healthy. It’s almost like getting four new guys.”

But that is to ignore the loss of Pence, who won’t be back until May at the earliest with a broken left arm. And that is to assume Bumgarner, after throwing almost 300 innings in a season that still defies belief and description, will continue his mastery without any sort of breakdown. And that is to assume the Giants won’t miss Sandoval, though his weight troubles and recent mouth-lava issues suggest they were absolutely right to cut bait despite his postseason heroics and all the cute Panda paraphernalia.

The whole scene seems so fragile, tenuous, iffy.

Like another odd-numbered year, right?

And then I think back to an autumn night in Chavez Ravine, where I watched Clayton Kershaw and Yasiel Puig embarrass the Giants in clinching the division title. “The Giants aren’t going anywhere this postseason,” I told my ballpark companion.

Lesson learned: Never doubt this organization. Amazing to think it wasn’t too long ago when the Giants were on their way to St. Petersburg, Fla., before the golden idea was hatched to build a ballpark in a forgotten part of town. Now, firmly established among the better success stories in baseball history, these Giants seek larger imprints with teams that not only win but charm fans with characters named Buster and MadBum and, uh, Hits McGehee (from “Anchorman” infamy).

“We had a great year last year,” Bochy said. “We have to go about our business and get ready for a new year. We’ll still enjoy and savor those memories, but at the same time, it’s time for us to get ready. ... Your lock on success is as good as that last game, so we’ve got to get after it.

“We’ve got a great group here, and we don’t ever want to lose out on this opportunity.”

And if they do fall short? You still get to watch it all in baseball paradise. I can smell the garlic already.

About The Author

Jay Mariotti

Jay Mariotti

Bio:
Jay Mariotti is sports director and lead sports columnist at the San Francisco Examiner. He can be reached at jmariotti@sfexaminer.com. Read his website at jaymariotti.com.
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