Baseball

San Francisco Giants: The modern era’s model franchise

There is a timeless quality to the 2014 San Francisco Giants, the champions of baseball whose style and substance are both classic and modern.

The new champions are thoroughly contemporary: many of them young players sporting garish tattoos, enamored of music and clothing that’s more boyish than business. Yet, they are conservative of spirit, much like players of the early 1960s who held their emotions close and avoided controversial words and provocative actions.

Their ranks are diverse, as has been true of baseball for decades, but in a manner more typical for Major League Baseball in 2014: Venezuelans, Dominicans and American-born Latinos blending easily with players from Hickory, N.C.; Leesburg, Ga.; Mobile, Ala; and Yonkers, N.Y.

Manager Bruce Bochy is a throwback with his gravelly voice and no-nonsense manner. He is also a connoisseur of fine wine, and part of a management team that employs complex analytics to distill games down to match-ups that put their players in the best position to win.

The Giants beat the Kansas City Royals to win their third World Series in five years, and did it with players who, for the most part, are homegrown and committed to the team for the long haul – also like dynasty teams of yore.

Starter Madison Bumgarner – statistically the greatest World Series pitcher ever – is just 25 and committed contractually to the Giants for five more seasons. Catcher and team leader Buster Posey is 27 and locked in for eight more seasons.

Dynamic right fielder Hunter Pence, 31, is not a free agent until 2019. First baseman Brandon Belt, 26; shortstop Brandon Crawford, 27; and second baseman Joe Panik, 24, are years away from free agency.

Even the team’s veteran players speak to tradition: Pablo Sandoval – the Giants’ best offensive player in the 2014 title run – is 28 and now a free agent. The beloved and corpulent “Kung Fu Panda” might be leaving to the highest bidder this winter after setting a record for most post-season hits.

Also poised to leave is 31-year-old Sergio Romo, the bearded, tattooed, diminutive relief pitcher and proud Mexican American from Brawley.

Both Romo and Sandoval were scouted, signed and developed by a Giants ownership group in place for more than 20 years. Long-time coaches, scouts and front office leaders also raised other key players in impressive succession: Posey, Belt, Panik, Crawford – and pitchers Matt Cain and Tim Lincecum.

The Giants belong to the ages now for the championships they won in 2010, 2012 and 2014. It’s a run like no other National League team since the St. Louis Cardinals won championships in 1942, ’44 and ’46.

The Giants did it in the post-steroid-era style, with strong pitching, solid defense and smart base running. As a team, the Giants hit only two home runs in the seven-game series – and none after center fielder Gregor Blanco led off Game Two with a solo home run.

That means the team went the final 51 innings of the World Series without hitting a single ball over the fence. That used to happen in baseball – in the early part of the 20th century.

Posey, the past World Series hero with more than one memorable home run to his name, hit nothing but singles during October 2014. His moments of glory were subtler.

Posey shined in the way he called pitches thrown by Bumgarner as the tall left-hander won the first game of the series, then pitched a complete game shutout in the fifth and five scoreless innings to close out the climactic seventh.

The Giants rode Bumgarner’s broad shoulders to wins in three World Series games and stepped up as a team to win one game without him. With the Giants evenly matched with the Royals in every other respect, Bumgarner was the difference.

Some might call it luck, but the Giants selected Bumgarner in the 2007 amateur draft when nine other teams – including the Royals – chose other players. Two years before, Cain was the Giants’ pitching hero. Two years before that it was Lincecum. It’s all been part of a vision of success built player by player.

Looking over the entire postseason, virtually every key Giant had a team-saving moment. Emergency left fielder Travis Ishikawa became a Giants legend with his walk-off home run to close out the National League Championship Series. Reliever Yusmeiro Petit stopped opponents for long stretches of critical post-season play. First baseman Belt hit the winning home run in the longest postseason game in history, an 18-inning Giants triumph over the Washington Nationals in early October. Oft-injured outfielder Michael Morse stroked the game-winning hit in Game 7 of the World Series.

In the end, Bumgarner posted the lowest career earned run average in the history of the World Series. Meanwhile, Sandoval has one of the highest career batting averages in World Series history. Such numbers deflate storylines that would characterize the team’s success as unlikely or surprising.

They may have finished second in their division and won just 88 games, but the Giants also suffered season-ending injuries to Cain and outfielder Angel Pagan. They had to plug pitcher Jake Peavy into the mix in late summer, trading for him though he had been languishing in Boston. He credited Posey – his extraordinary catcher – for his resurgence in the final month of the season.

Panik stepped in to close a gaping hole at second base, and once he did, the Giants began to take off – too late to win their division but in the nick of time to be that team no one wanted to face in October.

It was then that Bochy told his players they had “championship blood.” They rallied around the phrase and proved him right.

Now, the Giants are three-time champions and the model franchise of the modern game: a winning chemistry based on steady teamwork, not home-run heroes.

The baseball world is debating whether the Giants are a true dynasty, but the Giants aren’t interested in the discussion. They are content to let the indelible images of 2014 speak now and for years to come.

Call The Bee’s Marcos Breton, (916) 321-1096.

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