I have been a San Francisco Giants fan since the mid-60’s. Growing up in south-central Indiana, this was a very odd thing for me to be. Most of my friends were baseball fans, to be sure–we tended to like baseball third best among the major team sports, after basketball and basketball. Almost all my friends were fans of the Cincinatti Reds, since they were closest to Indiana, or the Chicago Cubs, second-closest. (You just didn’t root for the White Sox. You just didn’t.) But San Francisco? Seriously?
But playing Little League baseball, our coach took us to a game in Cincinatti, where the Reds were playing the Giants, and we got to shag flies during batting practice. Some of my friends and I wanted to get Pete Rose’s autograph–he turned us down, rudely and profanely. Fighting tears, I wandered away, and this huge black guy came over and said “what’s the matter, kid?” It was the Giants brilliant first baseman, Willie McCovey. He took me over to the Giants’ dugout, and I got my glove signed by five eventual Hall-of-Famers: Willie Mays, McCovey, Juan Marichal, Gaylord Perry and Orlando Cepeda, as well as other Giants’ greats–Tom Haller, Jim Ray Hart, Jose Pagan, Hal Lanier. My Mom threw that glove away when I went on my mission. I expect someday to be able to forgive her.
Later in life, I began dating a girl from San Jose, went to visit, and thought I’d ingratiate myself with her family by offering to take her little brother with us to a baseball game. We went to Candlestick Park in San Francisco. Willie McCovey, close to the end of his splendid career, played his next to last game that day. He hit a single, hit it so hard to right field, he was nearly thrown out at first. The Giants lost. They lost a lot, those years.
It’s nice when the team you root for wins. In 2010, for the first time in my life, the Giants won–won the World Series. I glowed, for days I glowed. But you grow to truly love a team when they lose, especially when they lose valiantly, bravely, after a great struggle. From 1962-1969, the years I became a baseball fan, the Giants had the best record in baseball–that’s the most wins, cumulatively, for that 8 year period. They never won any single year. Made the playoffs in ’69, lost the World Series in ’62. But year after year, Mays and McCovey and Marichal would finish barely second.
Willie Mays was as close to baseball perfection as anyone I ever saw play–fielding, hitting, baserunning, he was great at all of it. But his lifetime batting average was .302–he got hits 30% of the time. And yet, in baseball, perfection is possible. A pitcher can throw a perfect game. He can face 27 batters, and get all of them out. It’s rare–only happened 22 times in the 130 years of major league baseball. And no one on the Giants has ever done it–not Christie Mathewson, not Carl Hubbell, not Marichal or Perry or Timmeh. (Giants’ fan refer to Tim Lincecum as Timmeh).
Until tonight. Matt Cain pitched a perfect game tonight. Finished it ten minutes ago.
Matt Cain is either the second or third best pitcher on the current edition of the Giants. I think that’s about right–he’s not quite as good as Timmeh, and he may not quite be as dominant as Madison Bumgarner. Such is the brilliance of the Giants’ pitching staff–he’d be the best pitcher on the team for almost anyone else. He’s twenty seven, a big kid from Tennessee, drafted out of high school, in the majors since 2005. Heading into this season, we had a lot of concern about him–his contract was about to expire, leaving him a free agent at the end of the season. We had horrible nightmares of Matt pitching for the Yankees. But this spring, the Giants’ organization signed him for 127 million over six years. He’s a Giant; he’ll pitch for us until he retires. I was amazed that he signed, honestly. Up to tonight, his defining characteristic as a pitcher has been bad luck. Giants’ media calls it ‘getting Cained’, pitching brilliantly while your team doesn’t score, losing games 1-0. (That wasn’t going to happen tonight–we scored 10 runs, our season high, he wasn’t getting Cained tonight.) He’s a good guy–he and his wife bought a house in the Bay Area, he gives a lot to charity. He’s a team leader–the team’s union rep.
And now he’s perfect.
We never get to be perfect, we human beings. And perfection, even in baseball, is equivocal, human, limited. Baseball perfection, I suppose, would be a game in which the pitcher struck out every hitter on three pitches. Nobody does that. There was one foul ball in this game that was barely foul, so close that the replays were inconclusive–that could have been called fair, and ruled a hit. A long smash to right center looked like a sure hit, but Greger Blanco, our rightfielder, ran and ran and dived in the warning track and barely came up with it–an amazing catch.
Still, it’s something to contemplate. That perfect mixture of stuff and command, a superb pitcher in full control of his craft, exquisite pitch after exquisite pitch carving up the Astros’ hitters. The camera kept cutting to Chelsea, his wife, in the stands. She was crying, couldn’t watch, couldn’t not watch. My right hand still hurts, I was clutching the remote so hard. Cain looked–indomitable, fearless. A final groundball to Joaquin Arias, playing third. He looked terrified, moved to his left, fielded it, stumbled a little. It looked like he was going to fall down. Then he threw, a bad throw, off his back foot, not a strong confident throw. But enough, in time. Brandon Belt caught it, and went nuts. 125 pitches. 14 strikeouts.
Perfection. And perfect jubilation.