Willie Mays, Willie McCovey, Orlando Cepeda, Aubrey Huff, Brandon Belt, Deion Sanders, Josh Willingham, Hideki Matsui
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GIANTS HITTING: When the Giants first came to San Francisco, they had great hitters. In the first 10 years, we saw Willie Mays, Orlando Cepeda, Willie McCovey, the Alou brothers – Felipe, Matty, Jesus – Jim Ray Hart. They had catchers like Tom Haller and Ed Bailey who didn’t hit for average but were home run threats. They had so many good hitters that McCovey was platooned in 1962, when the Giants came so close to winning the World Series.
Now…well, you know what it’s like now. Giants pitchers take the mound thinking they may lose the game if they give up a run.
So, what’s happened? There are multiple factors.
The first: The American League largely ignored the fact that the color line had been broken by Jackie Robinson with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. Bill Veeck signed the second black player, Larry Doby, for the Cleveland Indians (Veeck had wanted to buy the Philadelphia Phillies in the early ‘40s and stock them with the best black players, but when Commissioner Kenesaw Landis heard of that plan, he vetoed the deal) but Veeck was soon forced out of baseball and his fellow AL owners didn’t follow his example.
The New York Yankees didn’t sign a black player until Elston Howard. Earlier, Vic Power had seemed to be a candidate to be the first black on the Yankees but they thought he was too “uppity”, so they traded him to Kansas City.
Shortly after the Robinson debut, the Red Sox gave Mays a tryout and deemed him not worthy. Don’t blame the talent evaluators. The Red Sox were owned by Tom Yawkey, a South Carolina native, and Yawkey didn’t want any “coloreds” playing for his team. When the Red Sox finally signed a black player in the late ‘50s, it was Elijah (Pumpsie) Green of El Cerrito..
With American League clubs largely abstaining, the National League signed the top
black players and became much the stronger league for an extended period. The Dodgers jumped into the market first with Robinson, followed quickly by Roy Campanella and Don Newcombe, but the Giants did very well, too, with Mays, Monte Irvin and Hank Thompson on their 1951 World Series team. Irvin was already 30 when he signed with the Giants in 1949, his best years behind him, but at 32, he had enough left to lead the NL in RBIs. There is little doubt he’d be in the Hall of Fame if the color line had been broken earlier. Now 92, he has no publicly-voiced complaints. He was on a Comcast “Chronicle Live” program earlier this year and I got a chance to talk to him off-camera. (His segment was an interview which had been recorded earlier). He had been a mentor to Mays when Willie came up in 1951, and he was effusive in his praise of Mays. He was also quite lucid, despite his age.
The Giants also mined a market that nobody else even knew existed: the Caribbean. Now, Latinos are about 30 per cent of the players in MLB but only a handful had played in the majors at that time. The Giants scouts in the Caribbean uncovered gems like Cepeda and the Alou brothers -= and later, Juan Marichal, whom I still regard as the best pitcher the San Francisco Giants have ever had.
The Giants had other great scouts at the time, too – it was Eddie Montague who recommended Mays – and they were especially good at finding outfielders: George Foster, Bobby Bonds, Garry Maddox, Gary Mathews, Willie Kirkland, Leon Wagner (a terrible outfielder but very good hitter), Ken Henderson, Jackie Brandt. All except the last two were black and they all were eventually traded, almost given away in the case of Foster and Bonds. “We supplied the whole league with outfielders,” one-time Giants manager Bill Rigney used to say.
Poor trades after Chub Feeney left to become National League president caused the Giants decline and Spec Richardson, the first general manager for Bob Lurie after he bought the Giants, completed the process by getting rid of the Giants scouts because he thought the major league scouting bureau reports were enough. Do you wonder why I thought Spec’s tenure with the Giants was a disaster?
There are not many American blacks in the major leagues now, as blacks have gone increasingly to the NBA and NFL. It is easier for inner-city blacks to find a playground with two hoops than a baseball diamond (and easier to put together teams). It is pretty much a requirement that football players have at least a couple of years of college ball behind them before having a shot at the NFL; there are many football scholarships and few baseball ones.
The Giants have also lost their Latino advantage as other clubs have jumped into that market with both feet. Many teams even sponsor “baseball academies” in the northern tier of South American countries (in the southern half of the continent, they know only one sport: soccer). Those academies are very popular because the youths who come there get solid meals, many for the first time in their lives, as well as a baseball education.
There has also been a change in emphasis for the Giants because general manager Brian Sabean has emphasized pitching in the draft. By so doing, he has built a pitching staff which may be the best in the majors because Sabean has also done a great job of building a bullpen to augment the outstanding starters.
Only recently have the Giants looked for hitters in the draft. Buster Posey was an obvious pick, the best hitter in collegiate baseball, and Brandon Belt a steal in round 5. Since John Barr has come into the organization, there has been more attempt to get good hitters.
For a time, the Giants also had good luck in picking up top veteran hitters. Barry Bonds was the big prize, signed by Peter Magowan in late 1992, before the deal to buy the club from Bob Lurie was even finalized; Lurie had to first give his approval. Later, Sabean brought in Jeff Kent, Ellis Burks, and Benito Santiago. But they all left – and J. T. Snow’s power numbers declined precipitously in AT&T Park. Pitchers could walk Bonds, knowing the other hitters wouldn’t make them pay.
Now, the Giants have a lineup of hitter who are known best for their propensity for hitting into double plays. There’s nobody in the lineup who warrants an intentional walk. Well, maybe Pablo Sandoval, but how do you walk a hitter who swings at pitches in the dirt?
Sabean has tried to fill in with relatively inexpensive veteran hitters, and it worked last year with Juan Uribe, Aubrey Huff and Pat Burrell. But Uribe is gone and Burrell has been on the DL for weeks. I thought it was a phony injury at first but this week he was sent to a foot specialist, so apparently it’s a real problem.
When I talked to manager Bruce Bochy before Saturday’s game, he said he’d decided to send Belt out and play Huff because of his experience. Maybe that will work, but I’m skeptical. Huff had a big game in Tuesday night’s win over the Pirates but he hasn’t really swung the bat well all season. Huff was new to the National League last year but I think NL pitchers have figured him out. He’s looking like a one-season wonder.
The Giants hitters have been getting a lot of advice in the media. Bruce Jenkins disdains the idea of working the count and loves the approach of Jeff Keppinger, who comes out of the dugout swinging. Keppinger is a good singles hitter with little power who seldom walks. He has only seven walks this year and he has never hit more than seven homers in a season, though he’s played most of the last four years in two real home run parks, in Cincinnati and Houston. The fact that the Giants are his fifth team and they got him cheaply is an indication that he’s not highly valued.
The anti-Jenkins view was expressed by Damon Bruce on KNBR who said the Giants should fine any hitter who doesn’t take two strikes. That makes no sense at all because there aren’t many hitters who are good two-strike hitters.
My view, expressed in my Tuesday Examiner column, was that the Giants should work the count more, take more walks and get the pitch counts high enough to get starting pitchers out of the game. Significantly, two of the Phillies starters, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamel pitched complete games in the weekend series.
But good luck in convincing the Giants hitters of that. Carney Lansford tried to teach that approach and he was so frustrated, he almost put his fist through the dugout wall. Lansford was fired after the 2009 season and Hensley Meulens has replaced him. It’s made no difference. The last 18 homers the Giants have hit have been solo homers, one short of the major league record.
Last year was a miracle year, when everything went right for the Giants in the final two weeks of the season and in the postseason. This year is a different story, and so is the future. The Giants need to work harder to find hitters to complement their pitchers and to give them a real shot when they get them, instead of jerking them around, as they’ve done with Belt this year. They can’t look for a miracle every year.
PERSONAL: I know the “Letters” section is very popular and I apologize for not doing it lately. There have been a succession of events: a bad cold after we came back from our European trip, followed by my e-mail hacking problem. Lately, I’ve had to spend a lot of time working on a Jed York piece for Gentry magazine, a Menlo Park publication. I’m not promising I’ll get back to “Letters” this week, either, because I’m trying to get out to football practices and baseball games. This is the busiest time of year for me. I’m not complaining because I love it.
Also, when I’ve talked about my departure from The Chronicle, I’ve probably sounded bitter. I’m not. It bothers me what the Hearst editors did to me and the paper, but I’m in a very good spot now. I’m still doing the writing I enjoy but I’m in control of it. Occasionally, The Examiner sports editor will suggest a topic, like Chris Mullin for Friday, but it’s usually one I want to do, anyway. For the most part, I decide what I want to do. I don’t go to night games, I don’t cover the NFL practice games. My wife is retired and we’re doing a lot of traveling; in the 22 months from February last year through December this year, we will have taken trips to South American and Europe, a trip back to see Nancy’s family in Tennessee and Arkansas and two Christmas cruises with our son and daughter-in-law. Closer to home, if we decide we want to do something like going up to the Napa Valley for lunch, we can do that, too. I think I’ve got the best of two worlds.
DEION SANDERS: Though he had a great career, the one season he spent in a Niners uniform, 1994, might have been what eventually made him a Hall of Fame choice.
At the time, Sanders was viewed as a great athlete who was so temperamental, he wasn’t worth the trouble, even though he had already made three Pro Bowls. When the 49ers signed him to a one-year contract, it was at a bargain basement price – the only way they could get him under the salary cap – because so many teams didn’t want him. Both team president Carmen Policy and coach George Seifert told him his career was on the line. If he didn’t fit into the team, probably no other team would want him.
Sanders listened. He caused no trouble during the season in the last of the 49ers Super Bowl seasons – although he had to be lectured by Jerry Rice when he started to act up the week of the Super Bowl – and he had a great season. In that season, he was the best corner I’ve seen on a Bay Area team, and I had seen both Willie Brown with the Raiders and Jimmy Johnson with the 49ers, both HOF members. Deion virtually took away one side of the field. Occasionally, a quarterback would see him laying well off a receiver and decide to test him, but Deion usually made him pay. He had six interceptions for a whopping 303 yards and three touchdowns, one for 93 yards. He was an easy choice as NFL defensive player of the year.
Deion left the Niners after that year to go to the Dallas Cowboys, and he want on to play through the 2005 season. He won a richly-deserved selection to the HOF and his 49er season was a small part of his career – but it might have been the most important one.
A’S FUTURE: General manager Billy Beane will be facing some interesting decisions in the rest of this season and the offseason.
The earlier assumption was that the A’s would trade Josh Willingham, but he’s still here. Beane has never been reluctant to make a trade so the natural assumption is that he didn’t get any offers attractive enough.
Meanwhile, Hideki Matsui has disproved my theory that his career was all but over by going on a tear since the All-Star break, hitting in 15 straight games at one point and with a power he hadn’t exhibited before the break.
Beane is going to face at least two important decisions at the end of the season:
1) Should he bring Matsui back next season? He may not have to make that decision. Matsui is obviously a proud man and he may well decide he’s done enough and retire. If he doesn’t, I think the A’s should not try to re-sign him. They need to give Chris Carter a chance to prove he can do it. Carter is not good defensively, either in the outfield or first base, but he has power. His history is that he starts slowly every time he’s promoted a level but then comes on strong when he figures it out. The A’s should give him that shot.
2) Whether they just let Willingham go? I think they should re-sign him. He’s said he likes it in Oakland, and he’s been the A’s only real power hitter.
Coco Crisp will probably move on, and that would probably be best for the A’s, too. He’s a good player but he can’t stay healthy, and the A’s have plenty of good outfielders.
Beane finally has a good manager in Bob Melvin, and he should bring him back. Melvin inherited a bad situation this year but starting out fresh in the spring will give him a much better chance.
THE READERS have all the best lines: “If Bruce Bochy can use a hypnotist to stop chewing tobacco do you think he could use him to make the Giants stop hitting the first pitch? -- Janice Hough of Palo Alto.
.That’s asking the impossible!
What do YOU think? Let me know!
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