AUBREY HUFF DOES NOT SEEM TO MIND BEING KNOWN for the thong. Hey, everybody has to be known for something, right? The big point is that he's winning. He's finally winning. You hear ballplayers talk all the time about how much they just want to play for a winner, how in free agency they choose their teams so they can play for a winner, how the money's fine but the important thing is winning. They say the words. They might even mean the words. ¶ And then you watch Aubrey Huff in his first postseason. And you see what the words mean. Eleven years. Five different teams. Five different positions. Good seasons. Dreadful seasons. And now here he is in the World Series, having the time of his life, and if people want to know him for wearing a red thong—"the rally thong," as it has become known—well, hey, whatever. The thing works. ¶ "Is that what we're going to talk about right now?" he replied when asked about the thong after his first postseason game. And then he added, "I'm wearing it right now, if you're interested." ¶ He started wearing it—a red thong with PAPI written across the waistband (Papi being the company, not an homage to David Ortiz)—on Aug. 30, for a home game against Colorado because, well, that's just the kind of nutty thing ballplayers do to keep themselves going late in tough seasons. And make no mistake, this looked to be a tough late season for the Giants. They had lost eight of 13, they were five games behind the still solid-looking Padres (who had the best record in the National League), and Huff had hit .213 over the previous three weeks. ¶ Huff knew all about tough seasons. He spent his first five years with Tampa Bay, and the team lost 90-plus games in every one. He was traded in 2006 to the Astros, who were expected to be contenders. They were not. He signed a three-year deal with Baltimore, lost 90-plus games in each of his first two years and in '09 was traded again but this time to a good team, a first-place team, the Detroit Tigers. The Tigers promptly sputtered down the stretch and lost a one-game playoff for the division to Minnesota.
HE STARTED WEARING A THONG—A RHINESTONE-studded red one that had been an anniversary gift from his wife—at the end of August as a gag, paraded it around the clubhouse before the game, you know, to loosen up the guys. And voilà: San Francisco promptly lost 2-1. For reasons not especially clear Huff wore it the next couple of days, even though he went 0 for 8. But this time the Giants won both games. And the Padres lost both of theirs. At first the thong seemed to work better as a San Diego jinx than a San Francisco good luck charm. But, hey, whatever works. The Padres lost 10 in a row. The Giants got hot and won 19 of 27. San Francisco won the division. And Papi—the company, not the player—sent Huff a box.
"Well, I'm not going to go into the red thong," Giants manager Bruce Bochy said when questioned by a reporter during the NL Division Series against the Braves. "But he's a better all-around player than I even thought. He's been the stabilizer in our lineup but also in the clubhouse. He's very competitive but very loose, too."
Huff had a terrific season for San Francisco: He was by far the best offensive player on a team that struggled to score. He led the Giants in on-base percentage (.385), walks (83), runs (100), homers (26) and RBIs (86) and stole seven bases in as many attempts. He also played three positions—first base, leftfield and rightfield—this after spending much of his time in the American League as a designated hitter. In a season when the team's highest-paid everyday player (Aaron Rowand) and best offensive player in 2009 (Pablo Sandoval) were benched, Huff was the one consistent force.
He also was key in San Francisco's acquisition of outfielder Pat Burrell, Huff's college teammate at Miami. Tampa Bay had released Burrell, and, as Huff says, "I got right on the horn to the [front] office, let everyone know: Pick this guy up. We didn't have anything to lose. At the time, we weren't scoring any runs."
Burrell banged 18 home runs in the last 96 games of the season and changed the feel of the Giants' lineup. "He instantly started hitting homers," Huff says. San Francisco's scoring went up, not a lot (from 4.17 runs per game to 4.37), but with the Giants' terrific pitching, every bit of added offense was meaningful.
HUFF HAS WAITED HIS WHOLE CAREER TO BE PART OF something like this. He's had terrific years before, even if few noticed. In 2003 he hit 34 homers and was seventh in the American League in slugging, and in '08 he had a fabulous offensive season for Baltimore, finishing fifth in the league in OPS. But those years were lost in the general quagmire of losing seasons, and he was not as good in other years, and he built a reputation, probably undeserved, as a journeyman.
Huff hit .241 overall in 2009, his worst season, and had difficulty finding a job. As the off-season dragged on and no team called, he considered retirement. Finally the Giants called—but only after free-agent first baseman Adam LaRoche turned them down. "I knew there were still a bunch of first basemen out there," Huff says, "so just like that I said O.K. I knew a couple of things I wanted: I wanted to play for a team that was going to contend, and I had had enough of the Yankees and the Red Sox in the AL East. Whenever the playoffs were on, I would watch, but not if the Yankees or the Red Sox were playing. I saw enough of them."
In January, Huff signed for one year and $3 million with San Francisco, and this season was his first real chance to be a leader on a contender. He embraced it and turned out to be one of the biggest bang-for-the-buck signings of the season.
"I think it's pretty obvious what he means to this team," catcher Buster Posey says. "On the field and off. It seems like whenever we need a big hit, he's been there. We just look to him."