Lately, I’ve been falling asleep to San Francisco Giants games again, and it’s making me sentimental about baseball. I had forgotten how sports can do that.
I had never been to San Francisco when I became a Giants fan in 2012. This was two years after their first Bay Area championship but make no mistake: It was shameless bandwagoning (and the genesis of how that became a whole thing for me). The summer before, I had watched the first and penultimate season of Showtime’s “The Franchise,” which followed the team in the season immediately after that historic run. It was mostly about Brian Wilson’s beard, but I tracked down a Sports Illustrated cover with Tim Lincecum on it to hang in my off-campus college apartment. It was probably supposed to be ironic — or at least, a belated teenage rebellion to the Phillies fandom I’d grown up around — at first.
I graduated, got a job in baseball, and the Giants won again in 2012. I watched the last game of the World Series from an Upper East Side sublet while Hurricane Sandy brewed outside my window and felt like their win had something to do with me and the way I’d brashly insisted it would happen in the face of my more knowledgeable coworkers, based not on insight but on unprofessional passion.
In 2014, I was living with the man who would become my husband. He worked nights, covering baseball, and at bedtime, I perched my laptop on his pillow and let [Mike] Kruk[ow] and [Duane] Kuip[er] lull me to sleep. By the time he got home, it would be almost light out and the computer would be dead. “Did the Giants win?” I would ask, too asleep to remember the answer. He wasn’t working the night of the last World Series game, and when they won, we celebrated together and it felt like I was getting what I deserved for all my lonely dedication.
By 2016, I was jaded, and writing about sports from precisely that perspective. I didn’t think the Giants would win the World Series. But I went to the one-game wild-card game in New York and when Madison Bumgarner threw the best pitching performance I’ve ever seen, I started to feel like they might. Even year, and all. When they won a five-hour marathon NLDS Game 3 against the objectively better Chicago Cubs for their 10th straight postseason victory while facing elimination, I was sure of it. Everything until that point — the 32 regular-season blown saves — was just part of the characteristic “torture” of being a Giants fan. A sane person without superstitions or religion, I realized I harbored the secret subconscious delusion that the Giants would win the World Series if the story was good enough and if I really believed.
They didn’t, because that’s not how these things work.
Sports are unscripted. While that is sometimes to their narrative benefit, the truth is that it’s often not — typically the team you know to be better and expect to win, does. And the team that looks less good on paper loses. Underdog sports stories are often only the purview of children’s movies.
Part of what feels broken about modern sports is reaching the logical extreme of this. There’s a growing gap between — and increasingly early awareness of — teams that are likely to contend and teams that aren’t even trying. In other words: Which fanbases are allowed to have hope. The 2019 Giants were bad on paper so they hired Farhan Zaidi not to make the team better, but to tear it all down. What went wrong is they overperformed.
The Giants front office is not villainous for entering into a rebuild, but it is a little bit the plot of “Major League,” that a ragtag team of has-beens and nobodies would upend ownership’s plan by simply playing too well.
It is an inescapable reality that the more you know about something, the more predictable it becomes. At some point growing up, I’m sure I believed that on opening day, each team stood an equal chance of winning the World Series. Now I issue World Series picks in spring training as part of my job. It doesn’t matter how accurate they prove to be, the point is that the practice of issuing them renders the season a little predetermined. The Giants are supposed to trade Bumgarner this season, which means the most surprising thing they could do is not trade him. Until just a few weeks ago, I was sure that they would, and that made me sad. When the team came to New York, I took a picture of him on the field to commemorate the last time I’d see him wear his Giants jersey in person.
Now they have won 18 games in July, the most of any team, to inch above .500 and suddenly the season and that trade don’t seem so predetermined. Staring down the deadline, I hope the Giants don’t trade Bumgarner because my fandom has made nearly 29-year-old rookie Mike Yastrzemski into the sort of player who has an OPS of .965 for the month. Or at least sometimes it feels that way.
So much energy is spent on speculating about what’s going to happen in sports, but if it always played out as we predicted, we would never watch.
The Giants this year are proving why they bother to play the games at all. They’re not a very good team — the three previous championship teams plus the one that made it to the playoffs three years ago weren’t early season favorites either — but they are winning. Each victory feels both surprising and increasingly destined to people like me who are not ready to let go of Bruce Bochy and the aging group of guys who’ve gotten us there before. When they play, I hold my fingers up to my face and mutter under my breath just get a hit here or strike that guy out there. When it happens that way — seven wins in extra innings since the All-Star break, like torture — I almost believe the magical thinking works.
There’s a tendency in covering sports to divest into one of two tracks. Treat the game as an isolated, important entity — personnel moves, pitching grips, but also labor issues, and overarching trends to the sport. Or, if we want to get sentimental, as a vehicle for something else entirely — familial ties, especially fatherhood, municipal identity and the resilience of the human spirit.
And it is all of those: a massive industry, an exciting puzzle, a conduit for carrying a narrative about sappy stuff that sounds a little less like a wedding toast if you also talk about sports at the same time. But it can be harder to simply say that sports are sentimental of their own accord. You know this, intuitively. If spectacular physical feats didn’t induce an innate sense of wonder, we wouldn’t bother with all this angst and injury. Even without stakes, it just feels good to watch strangers you’ve decided to arbitrarily deputize as champions of your emotions succeed. But saying so makes for short and repetitive copy.
In the simplest terms, watching the Giants this year makes me feel — not hope for the state of the world, or nostalgia for my childhood — but just like a sports fan who believes things against her better judgment. And who wants the team to do the illogical thing and pay for it later because what’s happening right now might be magic.
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