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.