[In Honor of Dusty Baker’s book Kiss The Sky, to be released on November 10th, 2015, and this fine little New Yorker article, as well as the Cubs losing the NLCS yesterday to the Mets (on “Back to The Future Day”, no less), we re-post this article from August 11th of last year.]
“Longing on a large scale is what makes history.”
-Don DeLillo; Pafko at the Wall
“God’s on both sides; he ain’t just on my side. If he was, I would’ve won a long time ago.”
Dusty Baker; Esquire, 2004
There were only eight outs left.
When your starting pitcher has already made 19 outs through seven innings of two-hit shutout ball, and you have a healthy five run lead, eight outs seems like a mere handful. The last few stones in the path that have finally led you home out of the dark and terrible woods, the warm light of the hearth glowing in the distant windows. It seems like the giddiness you feel being so close to the first World Series Championship in your city since the club moved there 45 years ago can safely start to supercede the tension and anxiety you’ve had to wade through in the last weeks and months to get here. It seems that even though that same starter just gave up back to back hits, and the Manager decided to pull him so that the bullpen could knock off those last eight outs, that he is deserving of the game ball. Game 6 of the 2002 World Series, your team up 3 games to 2, ready to close it out on enemy turf. Your visiting locker room draped in plastic, the champagne on ice, a whole city 400 miles to the north on the edge of their seats, barely able to contain themselves.
So when Russ Ortiz comes off the mound in the seventh inning, and you’re the Giants’ Manager, you do just that. You give him the “game ball.”
And then, inevitably, horribly, all hell breaks loose.
I was watching the game at Lefty O’ Douls on Powell Street, just off Union Square in San Francisco, surrounded by hundreds of Giants fans, all of us jostling, laughing, cheering, ready for the biggest celebration in that city since my birthday in 1995, when the 49ers had last won the Super Bowl (Yeah, that was a pretty awesome day.) But within minutes of Ortiz’s departure, those cheers were replaced by groans of disbelief. His bullpen replacement, Felix Rodriguez, gave up a 3-run homer to the very next batter, Scott Spiezio, cutting a cushy 5-0 lead to a suddenly very precarious 5-3.
With only a two-run cushion, eight outs now seemed like a massive number to get through.
And it was. Monumentally so.
By the middle of the next inning, the entire bar, packed wall to wall in orange and black, stood in stunned silence. Beer going flat, our mouths agape, air running out of the tires, the sound of dreams slowly expiring. Our bullpen had been decimated. Bonds, who had absolutely dominated at the plate for the entire series (and the season), had bobbled two balls in left field, letting runs score each time. And the Angels lineup, like a relentless army of gnats, had racked up hit after hit after motherfucking hit, suddenly unstoppable.
We were now behind 6-5.
Oh the gut-churning nausea, brains turned to mush, our spirits broken, limp and lifeless as if our spines had been snapped by some careless, lumbering giant. Shattered. Irreparable. It was a feeling like no other. I’d been through various highs and lows with my teams over the years, both ecstatic victories and heartbreaking losses, but nothing had ever seemed so close, so foregone, and then suddenly slipped away so quickly. It had happened so fast, like a car accident. Before we knew what was happening, we were all lying on the side of the road in a million bloody pieces, paralyzed for life.
For me, 2002 had already been a rough and rocky year. The wounds of 9/11 were still raw for the entire country. I’d been through pretty sizable romantic heartbreak and some serious health struggles. I was 29, single, trying to find a way to start over, and it wasn’t easy. Somehow baseball, a lifelong love of mine, had reemerged ever stronger in my life as a place of solace– its deep American-ness, its history and nostalgia and community and romance and miracles, all the kinds of story I needed to hear and to tell. San Francisco had built a gorgeous new ballpark on the waterfront, and I had moved back to California after several years away in the Northwest. In 2001, Bonds had hit 73 home runs, setting the single season record, and this year we’d gone from Wild Card winners to one game away from winning the World Series. I saw in it a magic and an innocence that was missing elsewhere in my life and in the culture, somewhat ironic given the monumental scandal that was churning and brewing around steroids at the time, the eye of that particular storm being Bonds himself. As well, much to my chagrin, this soul-crushing, ripped-from-your-fingers kind of loss was an innocence-killer that had a much deeper psyche-scarring impact than I was ready for at the time.
Big-time backfire. Oh well. Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stranger, right?
“It breaks your heart,” wrote A. Bartlett Giamatti, in the beautiful and classic 1977 essay The Green Fields of the Mind. “It is designed to break your heart. The game begins in the spring, when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you to face the fall alone… [H]ow slight and fragile are the circumstances that exalt one group of human beings over another. It breaks my heart because it was meant to, because it was meant to foster in me again the illusion that there was something abiding, some pattern and some impulse that could come together to make a reality that would resist the corrosion; and because, after it had fostered again that most hungered-for illusion, the game was meant to stop, and betray precisely what it promised.”
* * *
When we finally escaped from that horrid eighth inning, we went into the top of the ninth to face flame-hurling closer Troy Percival, whose fastball regularly clocked over 100 mph. In a series known for its explosive offensive bursts, both teams having already combined for 69 runs and 18 home runs in the first five games, the fireworks were suddenly and fatally silent. The Giants went down 1-2-3, and the team trudged back to the empty locker room, where the plastic had already been pulled down and the champagne rolled away. Everyone on our side was battered and confused, ears ringing, unable to fathom what had just hit them, as the massive evil swarm of red continued pounding, chanting, and rocking the full stadium well into the night. The Giants now had to return the next day to play a game 7 in Anaheim that not a single person, fan, player, commentator or adversary now believed they would win. There were 27 whole outs left, and it was clear that the series was already over.
And it was. The bloodless, broken Giants lost the next day 4-1, fading like a forgotten whisper into the October twilight.
That goddamn Rally Monkey. I will forever until the end of time despise that insidious creature. (The Rally Thong has so much more character anyway. Fucking amateurs.) Our city had once again sent its storied franchise to the World Series, and it had come back empty-handed for the third time in nearly five decades. Our world-class city, our great center of history and culture, our legacy of championship sports teams and Hall of Fame talent, had lost the championship to Toon Town — to another apple-cheeked, squeaky clean, G-rated (G is for God, natch), Stepford-esque spawn of the Disney Corp, located in that shiny plastic sprawl of a city, erected in the heart of the most appallingly conservative and culturally backwards county in California. It was too fucking much.
The last team to have come back from that large a deficit to win a World Series game had been the 1981 Dodgers (Boooo! Hissss.) Coincidentally, who had been on that Dodger team, a team that eventually won the Series 4 games to 2 over The Yankees? In fact, who had scored the winning run of the comeback game on a sacrifice fly? Why, Dusty Baker, the Giants Manager, who had now infamously given the (losing) game ball to pitcher Russ Ortiz long before the game was concluded and had clearly invited the wrath of the fickle and cruel baseball gods.
We couldn’t see it at the time, but something was afoot. This was not over. It was just the beginning.
* * *
I just finished watching Catching Hell, ESPN’s 2011 documentary about Steve Bartman and Bill Buckner, and the phenomenon of scapegoating in sports. It’s a fascinating study of mob mentality, superstition, failure, and how history is both made and written. It gets downright Zapruder on the Bartman incident, clocking those fateful microseconds from every angle, with every digital effect at the filmmaker’s disposal. They interview surrounding fans, security guards, and even Moises Alou, trying to piece together the truth of a single pivotal moment in sports history. They manage to prove that no matter how compelling and even definitive certain evidence may be, it is impossible to reconstruct any single moment beyond a doubt. Any history is colored, shaded and textured by a variety of interweaving stories, perceptions, opinions, memories, and the like, while the molecular makeup of a single moment remains as elusive and invisible as the atoms themselves.
The plight of the fan is often a helpless one. They lay their hearts and souls in the cauldron of chaos that is the field, and have little or no control over which way it is pulled and ripped and kicked and hurled, getting it back bruised and battered and sometimes barely intact. When things go awry, especially as spectacularly as they did for The Cubs in the catastrophic 8th inning of Game 6 in the 2003 NLCS, the need to assign some sort of definitive blame becomes too painful to let go. As with any sort of heartbreak, it usually comes down to some combination of human folly, a series of poor decisions, and the nebulous, unquantifiable forces of luck and fate. In this case, The Cubs themselves managed to mostly sidestep fans’ ire, even though it was them and only them who allowed eight runs to score in a single inning, after having held The Marlins scoreless for the previous seven. The bulk of the animosity was directed squarely at Bartman for interfering with a ball in play that was indeed very catchable by Alou. Alou’s tantrum immediately following the botched play fired up the crowd, and within minutes, angry chants started, people began throwing food and garbage at Bartman, threatening him with all manners of violence, while on the field the Cubs were rapidly falling to pieces, the long-coveted World Series berth crumbling before everyone’s eyes.
I was watching the game on television in California, and both my Dad and I were part of the greater global mob calling for Bartman’s head. Not just because we were rooting for The Cubs. I’ve always had a soft spot for loveable losers and underdogs, and the Cubs’ 95-year Championship drought was enough by itself to put me in their camp. Not to mention their manager was Dusty Baker, who had left The Giants directly after the ignominious World Series loss the year before. There had been some controversy and bad blood over his departure, but there were certainly no hard feelings on my part. Also, The Marlins were an expansion team. I’m crotchety old coot when it comes to things like that. Expansion teams are the green-ass rookies who have to spend a lot of time and energy proving their worth and growing into my good graces. Besides, they’d already won a goddamn World Series in 1997, 4 years into their existence. And they were the team that had just knocked The Giants out of the playoffs in the NLDS. And lastly and most importantly, they were from Florida, a state I still despised for having stolen the election for George Bush in 2000. (Yeah, I’m not afraid of mixing my politics with my sports. I always root against Texas too.)
When Bartman knocked that ball away, I was angry because it would have meant there were two outs in the inning rather than one, and because the energy shift was so immediately palpable. But more so, it was the principle. Reaching for a ball that could still be in play is careless and selfish. It was amateurish and idiotic. And it violated the grand rule of the Fourth Wall. A fan had crossed the barrier and physically altered the outcome of the game, and the umpires, to their discredit, had not reversed the play. Acceptable fan participation is supposed to be limited to cheering and sign-waving (I’m a bit dubious about The Seahawks’ so-called “Twelfth Man,” but that’s another story, and probably too personal for me to have an objective opinion.) Any other kind of interference is universally considered to be the gravest kind of injustice.
My beloved 49ers had been on the victim end of the infamous “Snowball Game” in 1985, when a gutless Broncos fan at Mile High Stadium hurled a snowball at our kicker, just as he was about to kick a 19-yard field goal. The snowball landed right in front of the placeholder, who was startled enough to bobble the ball, and the kick was blown. Considering we lost that game 17-16, 3 more points would have given us the victory. While it wasn’t a playoff game, I still have never forgiven The Broncos for that incident, and though I definitely despise the current Seahawks even more, I was not sad to see Peyton’s Horsies utterly humiliated in The Super Bowl this last February.
So while Bartman’s gaffe1 was the careless act of a regretful fan, and not an explicit attempt at interference, in everyone’s mind, the caliber of injustice was equal. The mood in “The Friendly Confines” was decidedly sour, and the energy spread quickly, stoked by the snarky recriminations of the broadcasters, Bartman’s pained stoicism, and the relentless circling of the bases by Marlins players. Momentum is an undeniable factor in sports, as well as the strength of one’s faith that he can win. And given how much weight is placed on home field advantage, the energy of the crowd is also clearly a highly influential factor. In this case, with the crowd turning on its own and eating itself alive, I have to believe that it was somehow contributing to the mess on the field.
Superstition is a meager weapon, but it’s all the average sports fan has with which to protect their fragile heart. The iterations are endless and often ridiculous, though as the (annoying but true) ad campaign for Bud Light states: “It’s only weird if it doesn’t work.” We have little recourse beyond trying to curry favor however we can with the gods, but superstition has long been entwined with sports, from the players on down. The energy at Wrigley turned nasty more quickly than it might have elsewhere, because after nearly a century of heartbreak and loss, much of it attributed to “The Curse of the Billy Goat,” this was a crowd that was conditioned to believe that they were only destined for disappointment2. It seemed impossible that a team could even exist for that long and not win a championship– not without some grand explanation that could encompass such cosmic unreasonableness. Cubs fans believed their destiny was to forever be losers, and that hope itself was a futile mirage. So as soon as it was clear that the tide was beginning to turn that way, they fed it with everything they had– every superstition, every broken dream, every scrap of shattered self-worth.
And it all came true. Self-fulfilling or not, the prophecy went just as expected. Like the Giants’ loss in the Series the year before, this was also only Game 6. But after such a monumental collapse and shift of momentum, Game 7 seemed already firmly in the possession of the tenacious upstart Marlins, regardless of the fact that Cubs ace Kerry Wood, who hadn’t lost at Wrigley Field in six weeks, would be on the mound. Wood even walloped a two-run homer to give himself some support, but ultimately The Marlins offensive onslaught couldn’t be stopped. The Cubs lost 9-6, and history was was sealed.
* * *
So, two years in a row, a team that Dusty Baker is managing gives up what seems like a commanding lead, just as they are on the verge of winning a crucial playoff series, and yet no one seems to give it more than a passing mention. The ensuing media avalanche was all Steve Bartman boulders and tumbling shards of The Curse.
Some might have said that 2002 was not the first time Dusty had presided over a team’s self-destruction. In 1993, his first year as The Giants’ manager (as well as NL MVP Barry Bonds’ first year in Orange and Black), The Giants gave up a 9 1/2 game lead in the NL West, which they’d held as late as the second week in August, losing the pennant to the Braves by one game, and capping off the implosion by being clobbered in the final game of the season 12-1. I think it’s unfair to say that a team that won 103 games had truly “self-destructed,” but it certainly seemed that way to a lot of fans at the time. This was the pre-Wild Card era, so you either won the division outright or you sat out the playoffs, regardless of how many games you had won.
As a player, Dusty was a solid contributor, a 2 time All Star, batting .278 lifetime and racking up 242 home runs. While sporting Dodger Blue, he earned two NL Pennants and a World Series ring. And he’s apparently considered co-inventor of the high five, for which you are entitled to either love him or hate him (I, for the record, am pro-high five, regardless of the fact that it came from two Dodgers.) As a manager, he never won a World Series, but accrued a more than respectable winning record of 1671-1504 (#16 on the all-time list), winning three Manager of the Year awards, one pennant, 5 division titles, and 2 Wild Card spots along the way. He was known as a “players manager,” the guy who could earn their trust, pull the best out of them, and foster young talent. He was famously personable, asking after a players’ sick mother, or sending flowers after a wife had given birth. Often, however, he was accused of being too easy-going, too casual, too much “one of the guys,” and not enough of a leader. Even now, well into his 60s, he regularly peppers his speech with “dude” and “bro.”
One thing I do know, and perhaps it was a by-product of the superstar mentality of the steroid era, but the chemistry in the 2002 Giants clubhouse was as dysfunctional as any that I’ve ever heard of. The outright animosity between Kent and Bonds, whose fights went to the verge of blows more than once, was merely the tip of the ugliness iceberg. I personally believe that team chemistry is one of the major factors that wins championships, and one of the reasons we lost is that The Angels just had more of it. The same as The Marlins in 2003. Not everyone agrees with this, of course. They say clubhouse chemistry is overrated, and it’s certainly true that plenty of teams comprised of superstars who didn’t get along have won championships. “Take a team with 25 jerks,” said Bill Lee, “and I’ll show you a pennant. I’ll show you the New York Yankees.” Well, guess who lost to those 2003 Marlins in the World Series? The New York fucking Yankees, that’s who.
So perhaps Dusty had a hard time getting the individuals on his teams to cohere, but players played for him. He had a knack for turning teams into winners overnight. Two out of the three teams he took over went from losing to winning records in the first year he was skipper, and The Reds only took two years to climb atop the always scrappy and hard-fought NL Central. In 2012, those same Reds clinched the division again while Dusty was in the hospital, recovering from a stroke, and he was sorely missed by the players. Dusty Baker was loved and admired by many.
But he was no stranger to controversy, either. For a guy who claimed to hate oldies, unless it was Public Enemy or Too $hort (he loves rap), he was defiantly “old-school” in his approach to baseball. He was an outspoken skeptic of sabermetrics, having infamously dismissed the importance of on-base percentage, claiming that if “a guy walks and can’t run,” he’s just “clogging up the bases.” He let his starters regularly throw over 110 pitches a game, sometimes into the 130-range, and was accused, unfairly or not, of ruining many young pitchers’ arms, including Kerry Wood, Mark Prior and (closer) Robb Nen, earning the nickname “The Widowmaker.” He made loose-lipped comments about how “blacks and Latins” can play better in the heat than whites, which I always took to be more ill-advised than ill-intended. And he was one of the most second-guessed managers of his era, taking flak for everything from his often baffling lineups to questionable pitching changes (pulling starters too early as well as leaving them in too long) to haphazard play-calling, such as oddly-timed bunts and steals. Dusty answered these criticisms frequently, and the following is a fairly typical response:
“Everybody can tell you how to do it, but very few have ever done it…. I’m at the point where I don’t care. I really don’t care. That’s the last thing on my mind. I’m doing what I think is right every day. There’s a good chance with my background and experience that I know better than most.”
And he probably did. The man had some 45 years in Major League Baseball, playing along side and overseeing some of the greatest to ever play the game, from Hank Aaron to Barry Bonds. But the champion is the one who has the most runs on the board at the end of the last inning of the last game. Yes, heart and knowledge are essential. They are the breath and life of baseball. But results speak for themselves. Results are what they post in the history books. Results are what gets you into The Hall of Fame. How can a man have such a winning spirit and such great talent to work with and come so close so many times and never manage to follow all the way through? Is there some inherent flaw in his style that accounts for this inability to close out the win? Is it a lack of the real burning, unrelenting desire for victory? A lack of the unmerciful killer instinct? Or is there actually some deeper curse at work?
* * *
“You’re not comfortable at all until it’s over. We’ve been there before. It’s hard to take the last breath out of anything, and that is their last breath and they’re trying to get a hole, win Game 3, then Game 4, and it’s back to even so we’re trying to stop it from getting back to even, you know, any kind of momentum.”
-Dusty Baker; Interview Before Game 3 of the 2012 NLDS
The Giants finally got their redemption. They more than made up for the 2002 debacle, and in the process they hammered the final nails in the coffin of the Dusty Baker legacy. In 2010, they stormed through the playoffs, beating the highly-favored Phillies and Rangers, and brought home a World Series trophy for the first time in San Francisco history, adding more proof to my theory that chemistry wins championships. That was a tight bunch of characters – The Freak, The Beard, Huff Daddy, The Rookie. They were all excellent players, but more importantly, it was clear they were having fun, and they enjoyed playing with one another.
Well, one championship was great, but two was even better. What better way to wipe away decades of futility and disappointment? In 2012, the same year that Giants ace Matt Cain pitched a perfect game, the Giants won the NL West, but immediately dropped the first two games of the NLDS to Dusty’s Reds. Game 2 was particularly brutal, a 9-0 drubbing that crushed spirits and left most Giants fans, myself included, convinced that our run at a second trophy was over almost before it had begun. But not Hunter Pence. Pence, the right-fielder acquired at the end of July from the Phillies, may have been a relatively new addition to the team, but nevertheless, he took it upon himself to call his teammates together before Game 3 and rally them to fight for one more day:
“Get in here,” he implored them, “everyone get in here … look into each other eyes..now! Look into each others eyes, I want one more day with you, it’s the most fun, the best team I have ever been on, and no matter what happens we must not give in, we owe it to each other, play for each other, I need one more day with you guys, I need to see what [Ryan] Theriot will wear tomorrow, I want to play defense behind [Ryan] Vogelsong because he’s never been to the playoffs..play for each other not yourself, win each moment, win each inning, it’s all we have left.”
Third Base Coach Tim Flannery later dubbed Pence “The Reverend.” Divinely sanctioned or not, the speech worked. The Giants fought a tense pitching duel that they finally won in the 10th inning, 2-1. During the game, Pence himself made a spectacular diving catch in right field, snatching a scoring opportunity away from the Reds, as well as toughing out a single in the 10th on a hobbled calf that put Posey in place to score the winning run. Pence gave a similar speech the next day and this time the offense broke the game open, winning 8-3. The series was even again, and the massive momentum shift was enough to turn the tide. The Giants won Game 5, 6-4, winning three elimination games in a row on the road. They went on to a similar feat in the NLCS against the Cardinals, winning another 3 elimination games in a row to go on to make it to the World Series, where they abandoned their comeback approach and instead pummeled the poor, bewildered Tigers four games to zero, bringing home the second trophy in three years.
But what the hell had happened to The Reds? Once again, Dusty’s team had given their opponents the beating of their life, and just as they were about to choke the final breath out of them, they let go. Now, Bochy is clearly the savvier manager. He’s smart, fearless, and willing to be unconventional– and he no doubt out-managed his opponent. But it’s hard to point to any obvious managerial gaffes on Dusty’s part beyond a few dubious calls. Certainly these were significant, but nothing that could seem to account for yet another catastrophic collapse.
“Managers are never 100 percent in control,” said Baker. “You’re at the mercy of the players. When you’re a player, you’re driving. I’m the navigator.” Well, regardless of who was steering, who was swabbing the decks, and who was reading the map, a few too many boats with Dusty Magellan at the helm ran right onto the rocks just as they were in sight of land. I can’t definitively answer the question of why he suffered all these horrible comeback losses, or why he had seven playoff appearances and no ring to show for it. It could be his style, it could be his shitty luck, it could be his lack of killer instinct, or it could be his very own curse. Probably it is a combination of all of the above.
I did love him when he was our manager, and I wish he’d had more success with The Cubs and The Reds (except in 2012). He’s in suspended animation now, a semi-forced retirement, ever since being fired from The Reds last year. He hasn’t officially thrown in the towel, but there aren’t any job offers either. Because, really, who wants to touch that? All I can say is, and I mean this in the nicest way possible– Please Dusty, stay far, far away from The San Francisco Giants. Forever and then some, thanks. If you’re jonesing, don’t worry, we’ll have the garlic fries sent to your house in Sacramento– special delivery by Lou Seal. Sure, ATT Park misses you, and your wristbands and your toothpicks and your unguarded tongue.
But it don’t miss your juju. Believe me, the Cha Cha Bowl tastes just fine without it.
1It should be noted here, that I along with most of the people in the
film Catching Hell, have long since forgiven Bartman.
We all acknowledge that we overreacted, that we were swept up
in the bad energy, and that he wasn’t the only fool careless
enough to go for the ball. Up to eight people were angling for
that ball, but Bartman was the one unlucky enough to have
actually touched it. He has been repeatedly invited back to
Wrigley as an honorable guest, in order to make amends, but
he has declined, preferring his eternal privacy.
2Remember, at this time the Red Sox had yet to win any of their recent
3 World Series titles, so they were in a similar boat, their
drought having lasted since 1918. Now while their wait was
not quite as long, it was just as painful, given the near
misses they’d suffered, including the infamous Buckner episode.
Naturally, this situation was also assigned its own curse, the
“Curse of The Bambino.”