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Tuesday, November 6, 2012
Giants win! But MLB? Not so much

By Howard Bryant
ESPN.com

Even as the transaction wire snakes its way through Election Day and Thanksgiving, the winter meetings and Christmas, and as the trees go bare and the ticker tape turns to litter, 2012 will always belong to the San Francisco Giants -- the same underestimated Giants who two years ago claimed the throne and shed both their tears and their not-good-enough-to-be-great identity by winning the World Series for the first time in the city's history.

While the world was talking this spring, summer and fall about the Strasburg Dilemma and Cabrera, Verlander and Beltran, the Giants again turned the World Series into their own personal intrasquad game.

This year's title was historically different than the one in 2010 -- this one a budding mandate more than a teary, generational cherished accomplishment -- but it was no less satisfying for the 3.37 million fans who pushed through the turnstiles at AT&T Park and the millions more who watched this first year of a new playoff format produce an old champion, a team that has been around since 1883.

San Francisco Giants
They won in 2010. They won in 2012. And the Giants appear poised to be winning into the future, too.

What is past is prologue. A century ago, in 1911, the New York Giants began a run of eight World Series appearances over a 14-year span. Today, with a ballpark that soon will be paid off, stable management, superb young battery talent, an increasingly winning culture and the overwrought superlatives that come with it -- already the Giants are being discussed as, ahem, a dynasty -- San Francisco is set up financially to be in the contending conversation for years.

So much of what occurred in October will be savored as the hot stove warms. The Giants finished the postseason with a seven-game win streak, tossing four shutouts while yielding a total of seven runs in that stretch. Just to reach the Series, they won six elimination games, outscoring the Reds in the last three National League Division Series games and the defending champion Cardinals (who as late as Game 4 of the NL Championship Series had been anointed the toughest postseason out in years) in the last three NLCS games by a total of 36-9.

Once they arrived in the World Series, the Giants outclassed Detroit. The Tigers led for all of two innings -- the fourth and fifth innings of Game 4 -- and finished the season by striking out in seven of their final 10 at-bats. The last, Miguel Cabrera's look at Sergio Romo's strike three to seal the title for San Francisco, will be remembered forever by the die-hards in the hipster joints near the Giants' ballpark in China Basin like Paragon, in the old-school bars like the Double Play Tavern in Potrero Hill across from old Seals Stadium and in the neighborhood blue-collar spots like Tommy's Mexican Restaurant in the outer Richmond District, where a Giants shrine sits behind the bar, surrounded, of course, by tequila.

In their past two World Series appearances, the Giants have played nine games, won eight and trailed for just 12 of 82 total innings.

A revived Giants franchise returns the NL to its title roots of McGraw and Stoneham and Feeney, all of which is good for the game. What proved baffling during the postseason, however, is baseball's seeming indifference (or intransigence) to the slow death of its signature asset. The World Series brand feels to be on life support, and the commissioner's office looks more and more like one of its Kevorkians. The Giants won in front of the smallest television audience in World Series history; just 12 million viewers watched them defeat Justin Verlander in Game 1, and the sweep averaged 12.75 million viewers. By contrast, 62 million fans watched the Red Sox defeat the Reds in Game 1 of the 1975 Series, and that was a day game.

After four games, the returns were grim. Hardly anybody watches the World Series anymore.

Across the Bay Bridge, in Oakland, the justification for this season's extra round of playoffs grew evident each day during a boisterous and terrific September, as the A's pressured and finally broke the two-time defending American League champion Texas Rangers while soaring to 94 wins and an unexpected division title. The A's embodied the framers' visions of the new "play-in" one-game wild-card format, which sought to protect the integrity of the regular season by keeping prospective division winners from mailing in September to set up their pitching rotations for the playoffs.

Jonny Gomes
Jonny Gomes' celebration in Oakland at the end of the regular season seemed to justify the new playoff format.

It was an unassailable success, for neither the Atlanta Braves (winners of 94 games and closer to the Washington Nationals' 98 wins than the Cardinals' 88) nor the Rangers (winners of 93) -- both losers of baseball's first play-in games -- appeared to feel as though they'd actually made the playoffs. While it seemed gimmicky, the play-in format is actually a poison game no one wants to go near. The message, as Ron Washington and Nolan Ryan and Jon Daniels now know, is abundantly clear: Win your division or, after 162 games over six months, risk going home in nine innings.

If the long-term goal, however, is for baseball to showcase its greatest teams playing its most important games under the best conditions, the sport has failed miserably. With the possible exception of the NBA, which takes two bloated months of playoffs to crown a champion and grinds good players into sawdust in the process, no sport treats its championship worse than baseball -- a stunning thought considering no title in American sport owns more historical relevance or reverence. The weather is typically late October-, early November-horrible, and soon a day will come when a Rockies-Twins or Red Sox-Reds World Series is destroyed due to the weather again, as 2008's Phillies-Rays Series was. After 200 exhibition, regular-season and playoff games (plus, next year, the World Baseball Classic, which will push the World Series near the start of the second week of November again), the national fan base is fatigued, the players more so.

On the field, before the Giants commenced mopping up, theories abounded as to why the Series is no longer as compelling as it once was. It is true that while the venerable Giants, Red Sox, Yankees, Cardinals and White Sox all have won world championships in this new century, the Series themselves have been clunkers more often than not. Since 2004, seven of the nine World Series have been sweeps or five-gamers.

The competition in the sports marketplace today is more ruthless than ever. College and professional football broadcasts now appear nightly from Thursday through Monday, putting September and October baseball in constant, head-to-head competition with football. Once, the NFL would not compete with the World Series. Today, the national appetite for football -- encouraged by even the broadcast networks that are business partners with baseball during the regular season -- is devouring the game.

A big part of the problem is the playoffs themselves. Baseball is not football or basketball or hockey, in which an elongated postseason can follow an elongated regular season and the implications of these tectonic shifts might (or should, considering what the Giants accomplished over the past few years) affect how teams are built. To win a World Series now requires an offense to be consistent for nearly a month, which is nearly impossible. The big, bashing teams such as the Tigers and Rangers and Yankees all suffered multiple months during the season when team batting averages fluctuated more than 18 points over a 30-day period. In a monthlong tournament, offense, where the big contracts are usually applied, is highly overrated. Better to pitch and catch, steal and create. For all the boom of the long ball, the Giants won the World Series after hitting the fewest home runs in the major leagues this season.

Ryan Theriot
That's the Giants' Ryan Theriot under all those layers before a frigid Game 4 of the World Series.

After 162 games, a monthlong postseason is exhausting. The fatigue factor is too high; by the end of the regular season and three earlier playoff rounds, the World Series opener no longer feels like a showcase event -- after nearly 200 baseball games, it's just another day at the park. The Giants and Tigers didn't even put up the bunting for the World Series this year.

Baseball has chosen a new road, closer to March Madness than the Fall Classic, devolving from a postseason that once produced the two best teams over the course of 162 games into a battle of the two hottest teams. San Francisco's comeback over St. Louis prevented (for the moment) the first World Series between sub-90-win teams. As it was, the Giants and Tigers "showcased" the teams with the fourth- and eighth-best records, respectively. The last time the top team in each league met in the World Series was 1999, when the Yankees swept the Braves.

Combined with the weather, which was atrocious in Detroit -- it was 42 degrees when Romo froze Cabrera for the championship out -- baseball has sacrificed its most important games for money.

What is past is prologue.

To understand baseball at all, and make reasonable demands of it, the fan must bear in mind that baseball is show business. Their protestations notwithstanding, the owners measure the Good of the Game in terms of the profits they receive after their expenses are subtracted from receipts. Everything else is subordinated, including the quality of what takes place on the playing field. The proprietors of baseball have never hesitated to adulterate the game to make an extra dollar. Exhibit A is the profitably extended season of 162 games, plus pre-season exhibitions, plus in-season exhibitions, plus intraleague championship playoffs, plus a World Series that has become a travesty because the men are utterly exhausted before it starts.
-- Curt Flood, "The Way It Is," 1971.

The opportunities for remedy -- playing fewer regular-season games or shortening the season by adding twi-night doubleheaders, and keeping baseball from playing in raw and terrible conditions -- have been rejected by baseball because owners don't want to give back any money to improve the quality of the World Series experience. The sport will push toward the radical -- neutral-site World Series played in the good weather of Arizona or Las Vegas -- before it ever cuts back on the season. Baseball laments the length of games and continues to pressure players into moving faster, while at the same time it allows the networks to add more and more commercials to the broadcast.

Giants, Zitto fan
This guy apparently is a fan of Barry Zito, but not necessarily of Zito's contract.

One year into the new playoff format, baseball already appears to be at a crossroads. The game is not bankrupt. It still makes money, but money isn't everything. Pornography makes money, and so do mixed martial arts and Justin Bieber. That doesn't mean any of the three is necessarily good for the world.

Still, none of these boardroom concerns diminish what the Giants did on the field. They provided the latest lesson that we should never underestimate a team or an athlete who has something to prove. San Francisco's championship will always be remembered for the heavily motivated, from Barry Zito (left off the 2010 World Series roster but now the winner of two of the most critical games in the 2012 run), to Pablo Sandoval (overweight and benched but now the Series MVP), to Tim Lincecum (a former Cy Young winner who became indispensable in the bullpen), to Marco Scutaro (bathing in the downpour of the NLCS Game 7 win, the role player as championship catalyst).

Before Game 2 of the Series at AT&T Park, a Giants fan walked down Third Street to the stadium wearing a Giants T-shirt with "ZITO 126" on the back. (Zito signed a staggering seven-year, $126 million deal with San Francisco as a free agent following the 2006 season.) The shirt's message simultaneously captured both the hero worship and resentments of the fan. It was Zito, his team facing elimination down three games to one in St. Louis, who pitched the game of his life and started the seven-game winning streak that ended with him again holding a World Series trophy.

This time, it certainly contained greater meaning for him. Vindicated on the field, where it counts, he had earned his money.