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WINTER HAS COME

When Giants closer Brian Wilson on November 1, 2010 struck out Rangers slugger Nelson Cruz on a 3-2 inside fastball that just “ate him up,” as the cliche goes, winter officially came to those of us who live and breathe baseball.

I’ve said it many times and will say it again (and don’t know where it came from so you can quote me): “The only reason to play baseball is to keep winter away.” So what we mourning baseball nuts must cling to is the vision of February 13 when the first “pitchers and catchers report to spring training.” That’s another great phrase in the baseball language. It is barely 100 days away.

It was not a great World Series or particularly memorable overall post-season but there were some great moments. The Phillies’ Roy Halladay throwing a no-hitter
against the Cincinnati Reds in his first post-season appearance certainly ranks high up there. Forgive me for using the adjective (or noun) “post-season” because it is so overdone by writers and broadcasters, but let’s face it – once the two major leagues split into two divisions each in 1969 the halcyon days of a World Series between two pennant winners in one climactic series were gone forever.

I only hope that the intensity of the extended playoff season doesn’t result in lingering injuries to pitchers. Halladay pitched courageously through a sore groin for six innings to keep the Phillies hopes alive briefly against the suddenly invincible Giants. And there were reports that the Giants brilliant Cy Young-award winner Tim Lincecum suffered a velocity outage in the playoffs. Don’t tell the Rangers though whom he just blew away for 8 innings in the World Series-deciding Game 6.

What a delightful character Lincecum seems with that mop of unruly hair and youthful looks that shouldn’t fool anyone that a fierce competitor doesn't reside underneath. I noticed he was amicably sharing the last inning of the last game alongside Barry Zito, the $126 million free agent signing of a few years ago who didn’t even make the post-season roster. “Let the buyer beware,” remains a vital counsel in baseball and all markets and to the Giants’ credit they held on to their young home-grown pitching that brought them to their first World Series crown in San Francisco and their first visit since the 1954 sweep of the Cleveland Indians.

I was a New York Giant fan growing up in NYC but they left when I was 15 and was not yet a visceral fan as I became in the early 1970s with the Orioles. So
I didn’t have a horse in this World Series. I was extremely glad that the Rangers demolished the Yankees and the Giants outpitched and outhit the Phillies to make it at least one new team in the World Series.

In the wonderful 20-20 hindsight of the days after, it was clear that the Giants were on a roll of unbeatable proportions. Imagine a team with only sporadic productive hitting beating Halladay, Roy Oswalt and Cole Hamels to make the World Series and then beating the supposedly invincible Cliff Lee TWICE.

I didn’t hear the old adage very often, “Anything can happen in a short series,” but it sure came true and warmed the heart of this longtime Joaquin Andujarist: “The only word you need to understand baseball is youneverknow, youneverknow.” Imagine the unlikelihood of the following events before the playoffs started:

**Waiver pickup Cody Ross, who was signed partly to keep him away from the then-AL West-leading Padres, hits five crucial post-season HRs and scores the deciding run in the final game on Edgar Renteria’s 3-run blast off Cliff Lee. Ross does a 360 turn in the air as he runs home and later apologizes for showboating, a true but unnecessary act of menschiness.

**During one of the Series games second baseman Freddie Sanchez, cast off by the Red Sox and Pirates as a defensive liability, makes three outstanding plays in the field and is a timely hitter throughout (less surprising because he is a former NL batting champion.)

**Though Pat Burrell strikes out in virtually all of his World Series ABs, he makes an outstanding run-saving catch in left field and contributed big hits in the September run that enabled Giants to make the playoffs on the last day of the regular season.

**Righty Ramon Ramirez and lefty Javier Lopez, cast off by the Red Sox, are reunited to add great depth to the Giant bullpen anchored by closer Brian Wilson.

**Aubrey Huff, not signed until January as a last recourse for first base, lays down the first sacrifice bunt OF HIS CAREER in the climactic 7th inning of the last game, setting up Renteria’s ultimate game-winning 3-run HR. Huff toiled for years for non-contending Tampa Bay and Oriole teams and he truly became a leader sensing the pot of gold and The Ring at the end of the rainbow. "I'm not ready to retire but I could," Huff reportedly said in the delirium after the Series triumph.

**Buster Posey the baby-faced rookie catcher who handled the staff like a veteran and whose bat was dangerous.

**How about the menacingly bearded closer Brian Wilson? The “Fear The Beard” slogan Giants fans including San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom utilized to great effect. Yet off the field Wilson was pretty thoughtful for a player in the limelight. He is a crossword puzzle buff and dreams of one day being in a New York Times puzzle. “As a Down clue because they are the harder ones,” he says.

One last word on the Giants that has not been noted widely. Three ex-Yankees were part of manager Bruce Bochy’s staff: Pitching coach Dave Righetti who was a Yankee icon as no-hit starter and durable closer; first base coach Roberto Kelly (whose trade for Paul O’Neill enabled Bernie Williams to take over in center); and perhaps most surprisingly Hensley “Bam Bam” Meulens as batting coach. Meulens never made it for long as a Yankee third baseman but he certainly knew the game well enough to become a member of Bochy’s staff.

Bochy himself has proven his mettle now, taking two teams to the World Series. Obviously the 2010 triumph removes much of the sting from his San Diego Padres being swept by the Yankees in 1998.

The hot stove league is on in earnest and I’ll be back to you before too long. Maybe Cliff Lee and even Jayson Werth will be Yankees. Maybe not. There are other bargains out there and most important I hope your team, including My Orioles, has some core players developing and ripening on the farm. And remember: . . . Feb. 13 is not that far away!! Take it easy but take it and Ciao for now!

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