The Kansas City Royals are not the only daunting opponent facing the San Francisco Giants tonight in a winner-take-all Game 7 of the 2014 World Series.
Also lurking like specters to ruin their season is the crushing weight of history – baseball history and Giants history. So much of it is against the Giants tonight, a trail of sweat and tears experienced by generations in Giants uniforms and decades of players with the historical misfortune of trying to win the climactic game of the World Series in a hostile stadium – as the Giants will attempt tonight.
As I watched from my home in Sacramento as the Royals obliterated the Giants on Tuesday night, I was visited by haunting flashbacks of the last time the Giants were in this precarious position.
The entire Giants organization is still nursing the wounds of 2002, when the Giants left San Francisco leading the World Series three games to two as they did Sunday against the Royals.
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Facing the Anaheim Angels, the ’02 Giants were six outs away from winning it all when the Angels staged an improbable comeback to win Game 6. Then the Angels finished the Giants off the next night in Game 7.
Afterward, the Giants clubhouse was a mixture of grief, disbelief and fury. It would be the last chance at a title for Barry Bonds, the all-time home-run hitter and statistically the greatest Giant of them all. But on that night, in that Game 7, Bonds’ bat was quiet and he was powerless as the Angels celebrated with their fans as Bonds trudged angrily back to the wake that was the Giants changing area.
Like many journalists, I crowded around Bonds’ locker for a quote, but the crush of media was so great that some of us began to get shoved from behind – and closer and closer into Bonds’ space.
All at once, a shirtless Bonds – his massive upper body as solid as an anvil – wheeled around and faced us with rage in his eyes. He said, “If you all come one step closer, I’m going to snap!”
We backed up.
That night, I saw tears from the eyes of Giants general manager Brian Sabean, as stoic a man as there is in pro sports. Giants broadcaster Duane Kuiper often says that he still hasn’t gotten over it.
This is because there is a mystical quality to Game 7 of the World Series. For more than a century, the symbolism of Game 7 is of one game to decide an entire season. In some cases, Game 7 crushes lifetimes of dreams that go unfulfilled no matter how gifted the player.
For Bonds and Ted Williams, two of baseball’s immortal hitters, there would be only one chance in two hallowed careers to win a World Series Game 7 – and both lost it. Both men won everything else there was to win in baseball, but they lost that biggest game of their lives.
Dusty Baker, a Sacramento athletic legend, managed the Giants in 2002 but has never gotten back to the World Series since. As decorated as Baker’s career has been, many Giants fans still blame his decisions for the loss of that series – an unfair claim, but one that has stuck to Baker anyway.
That’s the thing about Game 7 – an otherwise outstanding player or manager can be tainted forever by one human error or by simple twists of fate in that one critical game. What many of these men have had in common recently is that they wore the gray uniforms of the visiting teams that the Giants will wear tonight.
It used to be that the visiting team regularly won Game 7. It happened a few times each decade and four different times in the 1970s.
But the visiting team has not won a Game 7 of the World Series in 35 years – not since 1979 – when the Pittsburgh Pirates won Game 7 in Baltimore over the Orioles.
Ever since then, nine straight visiting teams have gone into hostile stadiums and lost each time.
Eight of those nine teams traveled to the opposing city leading the World Series three games to two, just as the Giants did. They all lost Game 6, then Game 7. The last time the Royals were in the World Series, they won Games 6 and 7 at home after trailing three games to two.
And then there is Giants history. The New York Giants first lost Game 7 in 1912.
In a quirk of history, the New York Giants won Game 7 of the 1921 World Series, but it wasn’t the climactic game of that season. Baseball was experimenting with a soon-scrapped format where the World Series winner had to win five games out of nine to be champion.
Those ancient Giants won Game 7 in 1921, but didn’t put away the New York Yankees until the next day in Game 8.
By 1924, baseball had reverted back to the format it employs to this day – the champion must win four games out of seven to hoist the trophy. The New York Giants lost Game 7 of the 1924 World Series to the Washington Senators. By 1962, the Giants were in San Francisco and playing at home in Game 7 – but lost a razor-thin game to the New York Yankees. The last time the Giants played a Game 7 in Missouri, they lost in the 1987 National League Championship Series to the St. Louis Cardinals.
Are these Giants different? They have been since 2010.
After Tuesday’s loss, Giants manager Bruce Bochy tried to remind reporters his teams won two World Series in 2010 and 2012 while being the underdog. They even won a franchise-first Game 7 by beating the Cardinals in the 2012 National League Championship Series – though that game was at AT&T Park.
“Tell these guys about going against the odds because they’ve done that before,” Bochy said in his televised post-game news conference.
“A lot of people had us getting beat in the first and second round. We’ll put (Tuesday’s) defeat behind us.”
If Bochy is right, it could be his biggest win of all.