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Baseball celebrates torture, and the tortured. It isn't really like that in other sports. Those long-suffering fans in football, basketball, hockey—Detroit Lions fans, Los Angeles Clippers fans, Toronto Maple Leafs fans—well, bluntly, nobody cares. Your team can't win? Tough luck, pal. Everybody's got problems.
But baseball is different. Baseball turns the Cubs fans' 102-year World Series drought into a symbol of the enduring human spirit. Baseball glorifies Red Sox fans' finally breaking free from their demons and curses and applauds Cleveland fans who continue to hope after 62 years of unrelenting heartbreak. There's a special place in baseball's heart for the "Wait till next year"
Brooklyn Dodgers fans, and the hard-luck Phillies fans, and all those White Sox fans who paid an 85-year penance for the sins of the 1919 Black Sox.
But for some reason the national group hug never seems open for the Giants, who haven't won a championship since 1954, when the franchise still called New York City's Polo Grounds home. Until now, maybe, because the rag-tag group that split the first two games of the National League Championship Series with the two-time league champion Phillies is nothing if not a huggable lot. (Game 3 was to be played on Tuesday at San Francisco's AT&T Park.) It is a team being led in the postseason by a two-time Cy Young Award winner who wears his hair long enough to inspire mocking catcalls in Philadelphia (Tim Lincecum), a waiver-wire pickup who once longed to be a rodeo clown (outfielder Cody Ross), a former No. 1 overall pick who found he needed to play in the field in order to hit (outfielder Pat Burrell) and a closer who dyes his beard shoe-polish black, as if he's planning to go sailing in search of treasure after the game (Brian Wilson). It's a team that last Saturday ambushed Phillies ace Roy Halladay, who followed his Division Series no-hitter against the Reds by giving up two home runs to Ross, getting outpitched by Lincecum and losing Game 1.
It is also a team trying desperately to win its first World Series in San Francisco. Not that America cares to dwell on that drought. San Francisco's baseball suffering does not quite qualify for poetry. Even play-by-play announcer Duane Kuiper, a former Giants second baseman who has been with the franchise for every season but one since 1982, says, "I don't think the Giants have lost for quite long enough to be in that group like the Cubs. I mean the Cubs, the Indians, the Red Sox, before they finally won ... those guys lost for a long time."
He pauses as if something has just hit him: "Well, wait a minute. The Giants came to San Francisco in 1958. So it has been more than 50 years."
How long does it take for a baseball city to become fully vested in anguish? Make no mistake: Giants fans have pristine credentials when it comes to baseball torture, even though the team has featured some of the more magical baseball names of the last half century—Mays, McCovey, Marichal, Cepeda, the young Bobby Bonds, the old Barry Bonds. San Francisco lost Game 7 of the 1962 World Series when Yankees second baseman Bobby Richardson, standing where nobody expected him to stand, snagged Willie McCovey's ninth-inning line drive to preserve a 1--0 New York victory. The Giants were eight outs away from tasting champagne in 2002 when they had a 5--0 lead in Game 6 against the Angels; they coughed up that lead and lost the Series the next night. The Giants had their 1989 World Series party demolished by the tragedy of a devastating earthquake and the indignity of a four-game sweep by those bashers from the other side of the bridge, the Oakland A's.
There's more. The Giants in 1993 won 103 games and, in the last year of the pre-wild-card era, did not even make the playoffs, losing the NL West title to the Braves on the season's final day. The expansion Marlins have won two unlikely World Series since '97, and both times they took out the Giants in the playoffs along the way. San Francisco was derailed in the NLCS in '87 by a home run from Cardinals notable nonslugger Jose Oquendo (one of two homers he hit that year) and in '71 by an unexpected home run flurry from a Pirates hitter named Bob Robertson. (He hit three in one game, four in the Series.)
And more than once the Giants came close to leaving San Francisco, hearts and all. They almost moved to Toronto in 1976 before a new owner, Bob Lurie, stepped in to keep the team in the Bay Area. The Giants actually signed a deal to move to St. Petersburg in 1993—the team was close enough to leaving that Kuiper was told to get a new job. (He broadcast Rockies games for a year.) Lifelong Giants fan and Sacramento Bee columnist Marcos Breton even wrote a story headlined BOTTOM OF THE 9TH FOR SAD FANS. A local ownership group led by Peter Magowan emerged at the 11th hour, and the team was saved once more.
So there has been plenty of baseball anguish in San Francisco ... and nobody expected this Giants team to serve as an antidote to it all. On July 4 the Giants' record was 41--40. Its pitching was good, but the lineup was not, and that meant night after night of close games, many of which the Giants lost. After one particularly painful loss in April—San Diego's David Eckstein hit a 10th-inning game-winning home run (his only homer of the year)—Kuiper summed things up for his audience. "Giants baseball," he said. "Torture."