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ON ANY CRISP NIGHT HARD BY McCovey Cove, to watch the Giants and those who follow them is to be reminded of what Mencken said attracted him to San Francisco: "the subtle but unmistakable sense of escape from the United States." Or, as rocker Paul Kantner defined his home city: "49 square miles surrounded by reality."
Giants baseball at AT&T Park is Comic-Con, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Mardi Gras and Halloween mashed into one. It is performance art not just on the field but also in the stands and the surrounding waters, where simply watching the doughty, dauntless Giants try to win their third title in four years is not an adequate enough experience. The audience participates in the show.
The home schedule is 81 party invitations, each one an opportunity to dress up (or down) to celebrate the diversity and personality that are as evident on the Giants' roster as on Market Street. Starting with Panda hats in 2010 to honor cuddly, corpulent third baseman Pablo (Kung Fu Panda) Sandoval, if not the red rally thong of first baseman Aubrey Huff, Giants fans joyfully have played upon the nicknames and characteristics of their colorful lads: the shoe-polish black beards of closers Brian Wilson and Sergio Romo, the (formerly) long locks of Tim (the Freak) Lincecum, the sobriquets of Brandon (Baby Giraffe) Belt and Angel (Crazy Horse) Pagan, the yin and yang of Zen-inspired Barry Zito and the Jack Torrance intensity of wild-eyed Hunter Pence. Not since The Usual Suspects has an ensemble cast of such quirky characters assembled to such critical praise.
For all the costumes, the hats, the watercraft and the characters, however, it is a humble, self-confessed homebody from Turkey Farm Road in Leesburg, Ga.—an idyll even further removed from the maddening San Francisco crowd than its Carson McCullers--like name implies—who is the Giants' best and most popular player. He's also the one most responsible for making this crazy quilt of a team more than just fun. Buster Posey makes it a winner, a worthy contender for a third trip to the World Series in four years, its miserable July be damned.
Gerald Dempsey Posey III may have a nickname (passed down from his dad), but nothing about it, his manner or his freshly scrubbed looks inspires the least bit of whimsy from the AT&T Park thespians, excepting the teenage girls who shout "Bust-a-pose!" when he comes to bat. Like, whatever. "The juxtaposition of Buster with those guys enhances him," Giants CEO Larry Baer says. "Buster is cut out of all-America land. What we find is the fans like all of them, but Buster is the glue."
So homespun stable is Posey that he graduated fourth in his high school class of 302 with a 3.938 GPA, aced AP calculus despite missing two weeks of his senior year to play for the USA Junior Olympic team in Taiwan, was named homecoming king, was a dean's list pre-med student in college, first asked out his future wife while taking the SAT and to this day prefers watching The Bachelorette at home with his wife over trolling San Francisco's many fine dining and drinking establishments. "I don't really get into the city much—just for the games," says Posey, who lives in the East Bay during the season, content with a neighborhood home and a backyard and grill. For the off-season, he has a home 20 minutes from Turkey Farm Road. "I think that's the way I like it, the way my wife likes it and hopefully my kids grow up liking it," he says.
The names of Frank Merriwell, Jack Armstrong and Chip Hilton mean nothing to a young sports fan today. The archetype of the clean-cut fictional athlete has disappeared, along with the attendant genre of American literature, radio and film that once flourished in the 20th century. So when Posey comes along, like something out of antiquity, the genuine earnestness of the guy becomes striking. It's as if we have entered such a Great Recession of humility that we are surprised when we encounter a hunk of it.
"Buster has the ability to understand what's truly important, and he's always had it," Zito says. "Gratitude is an amazingly valuable quality. The opposite is entitlement, and it can become very common with young players. But once you think this game owes you anything, it will kick your ass in two seconds. Buster has too much gratitude to think like that."
Posey, 26, has played in the four previous big league seasons, but in only one full one—last year. His first season of regular duty, 2010, didn't begin until he was summoned from the minors in late May, and the next one ended in late May because of a broken leg and torn ankle ligaments suffered in a gruesome collision at home plate. And yet he is the only player in history to win the Rookie of the Year Award, the Most Valuable Player Award and two World Series titles by the age of 25.
This year he is his usual dependable self, hitting .325 with 13 home runs and 56 RBIs for a Giants team that, thanks to uncharacteristically wobbly pitching, went into the All-Star break 6½ games back in the NL West race. Over the past four seasons, the Giants are a .561 team when Posey is in the starting lineup and a .510 team when he's not—the difference between 91 and 83 wins over 162 games. This year brings more proof that he is among the most indispensable players in baseball, which explains why in March, San Francisco signed him to a groundbreaking nine-year extension worth $167 million. It is the longest contract ever given a catcher and the most money ever given a player with three years or less of service time.