Monthly Archives: December 2007

The Purity of Baseball: Told Through Two At Bats By Benito Santiago

An unfamiliar scene has begun to unfold in the China Basin over the past few weeks, as the Embarcadero has seen its bayside, city street flooded with people wearing orange.  It looks like construction workers have gone on evening strikes a few times a week and marched towards Pac Bell Park, but the orange sardines in Muni bus windows have belonged to San Francisco Giant loyalists, thankful that baseball season in 2002 has lasted longer than three days in October. It is Game 4 of the National League Championship Series, where the visiting St. Louis Cardinals are tied up with the Giants at 2-2 in the bottom of the eighth inning.  Rick White, a 34 year old journeyman right hander on his fifth team since being drafted by the Pittsburgh Pirates eight years ago, turns his grizzly beard to the runner on second before winding up and delivering a mediocre forkball to the plate. With two outs and two strikes, Giants catcher Benito Santiago chokes up and spits in the dirt. His withered and worn wrinkles show every one of his sixteen years in the majors as his eyes grimace and get ready for White.  Benito’s lanky, every man’s stance doesn’t portray the power of a five spot slugger that hits behind Barry Bonds, but this year has been different.  He has had a resurgence, unlikely for a thirty-seven year old catcher, but nonetheless has slugged more homers this year than the last two combined, and has continued to throw out base stealers from his knees.  With the coolness of the fog that clouds the crisp San Francisco air, Benito swings.

 

 It would be uncharacteristic if it were any other day in early April. But it is understandable that a crystal blue sky with little to no wind was granted by the baseball gods because it is Opening Day at Candlestick Park in San Francisco, and like Opening Days tend to be, it is perfect.  Daytime fireworks.  Headline artists for the national anthem. Players signing autographs who normally don’t.  Red, white, and blue balloons are released in the air after the Blue Angel jet fighter crew flys at a sonic boom pace overhead.       Besides the allure of Opening Day, cheery, optimistic Giants fans have sold out the stadium today for two reasons: to see the cocky, arrogant, gold crossed earning wearing, largest contract acquiring, son of Bobby Bonds take left field on his first day playing in front of a Giant crowd; the other, to see the teal colored Florida Marlin expansion team play their first game outside of Miami. In the second inning, batting behind Will Clark and Matt Williams, Barry hits a solo shot over the chain linked right field fence.  The fog horn in center field emphatically bellows as Bonds rounds first.  I watch the scene unfold from an upper deck seat in between right field and the first base line.  With a wooden spoon lodged in my mouth, I hurriedly scribble in my scorecard to signify a home run in the second for Mr. Bonds, his first in San Francisco as a Giant, and then get back to my chocolate malt.

 

 Ill-advised fans usually scream their heads off when the ball hits the bat in a pressure packed situation.  From the fan viewpoint in centerfield, the upper deck, even behind the plate, any ball hit in the air has a chance at going out of the park. Maybe it was because the forty thousand screaming fans were already screaming.  Maybe it was a result of low expectations because of who was holding the bat with two strikes. But when that baseball first hit the bat, there was a still silence that came over the forty thousand fans at Pac Bell Park.   

Once the brief, day dreamy Disney-like moment (where the aging catcher connects for one last time) has passed, hope and happiness erupt as the ball makes its skyward ascent.  Like a leaflet dropped from an jet plane, a baseball floats into the hands of a fan in the sixteenth row of the left field bleachers.  My dad and I turn to each other with bewildered, “did that really just happen” looks on our faces.  The next day, the Giants win the pennant and go to the World Series.  Benito Santiago is named National League Championship MVP.

   The Florida Marlins are making the Giants left handed starting pitcher Trevor Wilson look much better than he actually is.  He has worked through five and two-thirds innings of scoreless, flawless baseball before allowing his first run on a double to first baseman Orestes Destrade. With two outs, Trevor Wilson looks over his left shoulder to hold the runner at second, and then delivers a mediocre fastball. 

Lanky, withered, working man Benito Santiago lines the chest high meatball over the left field, chain link fence.  The newly installed bleachers, possibly installed to bring the fans closer to the Giant’s new star in left field, chant for the ball to be thrown back where it belongs.  Succumbing to peer pressure, a fan whirls it over the head of Barry Bonds towards shortstop Royce Clayton, who playfully picks it up and tosses it to the umpire.  With my wooden spoon still lodged in my mouth and no chocolate malt left to dip it into, I begrudgingly scribble a home run for Mr. Santiago into my scorecard, which happens to be the Florida Marlins first home run in franchise history.

 In light of Senator Mitchell’s reports today, I felt I had to write something baseball oriented.  Benito Santiago was named in Mitchell’s report, as were twelve other former Giants (not all of whom took steroids while on the team) for taking steroids. One experience described above, in 1993, when chocolate malts with wooden spoons and scorecards in opening day programs were the priority, was when virtually no one besides the Bash Brothers across the bay were on steroids.  The other, when fans were dumbstruck at the sight of a ball poetically being placed in the stands to send a team to the World Series, was when the majority of the league was.   

Say what you will about steroids, but these two games, these two book ends to Benito Santiago’s career, will always stick out in my head as pure moments in baseball. 

Benito Santiago     Benito Santiago

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Cal’s Football Season

Cal’s football season is like a 100 oz. steak challenge.  It’s exciting at first, with the hungry challenger admired by his peers, the promise of achieving the unachievable enough to draw the attention of all in attendance at the restaurant.  But then, after the allotted amount of steak a human body can reasonably consume is, well, consumed, it is all downhill from there.    

 

The date is September 22nd.  It’s a late afternoon game at Memorial Stadium in Berkley, where the sunshine unsuccessfully attempts to penetrate the gray, Northern California clouds looming overhead. Cal running back James Montgomery punches in a three yard run into the end zone with 10:53 remaining in the third quarter to give the Bears a commanding 38-10 lead over the Arizona Wildcats.  I’m watching the game on the Versus network in Washington D.C. with three Wildcat fans, all of who are replacing their college football induced optimism with Rolling Rocks.   

 

When week 5 is complete, USC stands at no. 2, while the Cal Bears claw at the Trojan’s heels with the no. 3 spot.  Tickets spring up on eBay for their November 10th match-up in seven weeks at prices comparable to 70 inch plasma screens.  Antsy Bear fans begin to think this is the year, and begin googling around to see if hurricane season might affect their sugary run to the national championship in New Orleans.       

 

If they only knew.

 

Flash forward to Saturday, December 1st, where Stanford senior Nick Sanchez leads a charge through students in the end zone to emphatically reclaim The Axe.  As he and his teammates pass the prized trophy around around, becoming the first seniors to pose for pictures with it in six years, the weight of Cal’s catastrophic two month tumble sets in like the challenger that tried to take on the 100 ounce steak.   

 

Much like the 100 oz steak challenge, its sickening and intriguing to see what happened to the California Bears football team since that convincing win over the Arizona Wildcats. The next week, they beat then no. 9 Oregon on ESPN’s college gameday in Eugene.  They were ranked no. 2 in the entire country.  Did they catch the “number 2 bug” (which plagued USC, media darling South Florida, Boston College, Oregon, Kansas, and most recently West Virginia)?  Did they just completely fell apart as a team?

 

They lost six of their last seven games, after starting the season 5-0.  They barely made a bowl game.  They’ll be taking on the unranked Air Force Falcons in the Armed Forces bowl in Fort Worth, TX, where a win would go largely unnoticed and would do nothing to salvage their season. 

 

A little different than the Sugar Bowl.

 

Exciting at first, uneventful at its end, Cal’s football season is one that won’t be forgotten anytime soon.    

 cal-bears-football.jpg    

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Captain Jack

The Golden State Warriors in game entertainment crew shines the spotlight on San Francisco Giants center fielder Randy Winn.  Seated a few rows off the north end of the court, the Santa Clara native is asked which player he would like to see a highlight reel for.  Accepting the remote from the peppy hype man, Randy settles on a name and presses select.  With that, heads direct to the video board to the mean mugging, tattooed arms crossing, Stephen Jackson.

Stephen Jackson, acquired mid-year last season from the Pacers in a deal that involved eight players, has given the Warriors, and their faithful following, hope.  It started last year when the Warriors snuck into the playoffs on the last day of the season, breaking a 13 year absence from the post season.  It continued when the small ball “midgets,” as TNT commentator Charles Barkley called them during halftime of Game 2, pulled off arguably the biggest upset in NBA playoff history by knocking off the 67 win Mavericks in 6 games.   Hope has come out to play Monday when the Phoenix Suns pulled into Oakland.

In the first half, Stephen has drained threes, grabbed boards, stood at half court and flapped his albatross like arms to fire up the crowd.  His 20 points blend in nicely with the Warriors 72 first half
points, and are a big reason why Golden State has played out of their minds to lead by 11.

The Warriors are 5-7 this year, but the record is deceiving.  And there’s a reason for that.  Stephen Jackson shot a gun five times in the air outside a strip club after being hit by a car, landing him 100 hours of community service for felony criminal wrecklessness and a seven game suspension from the NBA front office.  The Warriors lost six of the seven games without their captain.  This incident, coupled by the forgettable fight Stephen had as a Pacer which landed him a thirty game suspension, landed Jackson a reputation as a gangster.  A bad boy.  Uncontrollable, considering that he came in a
fifth for most technical fouls last year.

Knowing damn well what people think of him, Stephen vowed that this will be the first year people know him for how he is on the court. “I’m going to be smarter about what I say. I’m not just going to get tech fouls for the hell of it. When I’m focused and not screamin’ at the refs and taking all the energy to the negative, I play better.”
So far, he has been a changed man.  He has been a different player.  Don Nelson, who definitely isn’t in his first rodeo with his 29th NBA season as a head coach, called Stephen Jackson, not franchise player Baron Davis, the emotional leader of the Warriors team.

The Warriors are making a run without All-Stars Steve Nash and Amare Stoudamire on the floor, who are resting on the bench..  The Suns head coach Mike D’Antoni, who could easily pass as a used car salesman, calls a timeout in an attempt to stymie the up-tempo game.  A sweaty Stephen Jackson trots back to the bench like a jubilant little leaguer that has appeased his parents.  A teenage towel boy greets him a white cloth to wipe his permanently solemn game face. Before heading back to the huddle, where coach Don Nelson begins to draw up plays, Jack, as the wildly enthusiastic team dentist seated next me likes to call him, throws up a fist pound to the towel boy. Hesitantly, the boy throws the pound back and locks closed fists with Jackson.

Everyone is a part of the team around Oracle Arena, and it’s Stephen who has taken on the extra duty to make it feel that way.  He joins the huddle with his mean mugging, NBA sweatband adored face.
Lips naturally pursed, the immediate impression is that he’s too cool for school.

In fact, Stephen was too cool for school.  He originally prepped at Lincoln High School in Port Arthur, Texas before transferring to high school basketball powerhouse Oak Hill Academy in Virginia.  The high school All-American was ruled academically ineligible following graduation, preventing him from fulfilling his commitment to the University of Arizona Wildcats, and instead led Stephen to the NBA draft.  He was selected 43rd overall in the 1997 NBA Draft by tonight’s opponent, the Phoenix Suns, but was released before seeing any NBA action.  It would be three years until he would return to the league.  In those three years, Stephen traveled all over the world in pursuit of a basketball dream.  He would play in Canada, Australia, Venezuela, and the Dominican Republic before landing a chance to join the New Jersey Nets in 2000.    A successful rookie campaign landed him a spot with the Spurs, where he helped win a NBA championship as the team’s third leading scorer.  He signed a 6 year, 38.3 million dollar contract as a free agent in the summer of 2003, joining the atrocious Atlanta Hawks, before being traded to the Indiana Pacers for Sixth Man runner-up Al Harrington.  Of course, this wouldn’t be the last trade involving these two names.       Monta Ellis, the Warriors soft-spoken, Mississippi native shooting guard is taking over.  He has just scored the last 15 points for the Warriors, all of them coming on two-time MVP Steve Nash.  Again D’Antoni tries to derail the run with a timeout, but it is all a party in the Warriors huddle.  Monta, who is 22 and in his third year after earning the NBA’s most improved player award in his second season, giggles as Stephen Jackson comes over for some inspirational, testosterone induced yelling.  Monta looks at Stephen like he’s the cool uncle that comes around on Christmas.

Stephen is somewhat of an unorthodox player.  His shot looks like the makings of a pump fake that continues into a stationary jumper, where the soles of his shoes look like goo is making them stick to the hardwood.  In the times that Don Nelson has him bring the ball up the court, he dribbles like he will bounce it off his foot at any moment.  The way he runs is more like a north to south shuffle.  But, he makes it all work, pulling off 21.6 points and 5.6 rebounds a game with the grace of a giraffe, and the smarts of a squeaky wheel.
A group of six year old boys adorned in Warriors garb outstretch their arms and scream from the third row.  They are competing to be the winners of the Stephen Jackson’s sweatband giveaway, a post game ritual of his that goes undocumented.  One orange, sweaty headband is flung towards one of the boys, followed by two NBA wrists bands as the buzzer sounds.  Fox Sports Net nabs him for an interview and the PA announcer switches the stadium sound system to the FSN microphone, turning
what Jackson has to say into a public speech for the thousands that stick around after the game.

Shawn Marion walks into the tunnel leading to the locker room, looking up at the jumbo-tron, shaking his head in disbelief at the 129-112 final score.  Mid-shake, Shawn’s side to side movement of his head turns from disbelief to indifference.  “It’s November, it’s early,” you could almost see Shawn reassuring himself about getting waxed from start to finish by the Warriors.  “It doesn’t matter.”

After posing for a picture with the fan of the game- in which he leaned in and kissed her on the cheek- Stephen gives his swooping signature on a few leather basketballs and puts his hands up to his ears to the hundreds of appreciative fans that clamor for a picture as he enters the tunnel.  The cheering continues for hero of the night Monta Ellis, who trails Stephen like a faithful golden retriever into the locker room with a career high 31 points.

In Captain Jack, and his band of 6-7 Warriors, I trust.

 

 

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