The San Francisco Freak Show


On Sports

Dear Will,

The Texas Rangers made a strong bid for my allegiance too, and not just because Neftali Feliz roped A-Rod with that curve to clinch the American League championship. There’s something ebullient and, yes, winning about the Rangers. They’re slightly cocky, sweet, and sly, smiling like they’ve gotten away with something—which, as you point out, several of them have. (And don’t forget catcher Bengie Molina, traded by the Giants to the Rangers over the summer; he’ll get a ring regardless of who wins.) I love to watch Josh Hamilton’s swing, injured ribs or not—the long extension and the letting go. And I love to watch Elvis Andrus dash around the base paths—so foolish, so daring. Still, there’s something a little too Manifest Destiny about the team. I can’t help but think of the Rangers’ former owner, George W. Bush, not to mention James K. Polk.

So I’ll take San Francisco, thanks. The Giants call their style of baseball “torture,” their star “the Freak,” their NLCS MVP “Cody” (I don’t care if that’s his real name). I’m smitten with a kid named Buster Posey. Willie Mays, the “Say Hey Kid,” would fit right in. The Giants hit home runs, or not at all. And their pitching! This team plays baseball like it’s a great game of catch with diverting interruptions. The whole team is weird and improbable. After Juan Uribe homered in the eighth to break a tie in game 6 of the NLCS, Phillies Manager Charlie Manuel said, “The big blow was by what’s his name? The shortstop.” Never mind that Uribe was playing third base. Plus, when the game was over, I got to do my best imitation of Russ Hodges hollering, “The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant!” (My grandfather was at the game where Bobby Thomson hit his famous shot and swore he’d never attend another game—baseball couldn’t get any better.)

When do you know a game is over? When the story is over. When the suspense turns into celebration and postmortem, and you can see the losing team members mentally practicing their lines: not our game, not our year. A dumb answer, but there’s something to it. The Yankees, their stars especially, were passive from the start, but once Hamilton homered and Cliff Lee took the mound to start game 3, the ALCS was effectively over. The Yankees payroll was a $207 million ticket to somebody else’s drama. (Rangers payroll: $55 million, doled out by stat-head wunderkind Jon Daniels, the youngest general manager in baseball.)

Between Sabermetrics and steroids, it seems to me—at least from a distance—that baseball has been experiencing a scientific age. Forget the burden of history, forget the curse of the past: With the right GM and some smart statisticians, even the Red Sox can win! I have a friend who sometimes forwards me e-mail exchanges from a group of particularly knowledgeable baseball fans. They and their ilk throw around terms like WAR, WHIP, and something called the Ultimate Zone Rating. It is all very impressive, but also somewhat alarming, don’t you think? These stats-obsessed fans are like a group of geneticists examining a man’s genome to predict the exact course of his love life.

I don’t mean to suggest that statistics aren’t important or revealing; they’re half the fun of following the game. Nor do I want to suggest that an interest in them precludes storytelling. (Just read Moneyball for proof of that.) Part of the beauty of baseball has always been that the narrative arc of a game can be gleaned from little columns of agate type. Still, sometimes the numbers don’t add up. Sometimes Gary Cooper doesn’t get the girl.

Play ball!