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October 15, 2010

Prospectus Q&A

Richard A. Johnson

by David Laurila

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Richard A. Johnson knows baseball history, and as a lifelong fan of the team that calls AT&T Park home, he certainly knows San Francisco Giants history. The longtime curator of the Sports Museum in Boston, Johnson is the author or co-author of numerous books.

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David Laurila: How would you define the 2010 San Francisco Giants?

Richard A. Johnson: To me, this is the “free-range, organic, chemical-free Giants team.” Unlike the 2002 and 2003 teams, we don’t have the shadow of a syringe casting any doubts over what it has achieved. This is a real team in an era where that has been the exception rather than the norm. I love the spirit of this club.

DL:
Beyond that, what type of team has general manager Brian Sabean put on the field?

RJ:
This is a team where players have come in and risen to the occasion. [Andres] Torres, to me, is the symbol of the team. We all knew that [Aubrey] Huff was talented, and that in the right context, especially getting a lot of at-bats, he might blossom. And he has. But Torres coming in and taking over center field… there’s a great story. Here is a guy with attention deficit disorder, and of a clinical variety, not just the sort of ham-and-eggs version that a lot of us have probably had. He is someone who has struggled with that, and who was given a chance to play every day by [Bruce] Bochy and Sabean, and has made the most of it. I think he is the player who most symbolizes the team.

We were all hoping that the Panda, the Kung Fu Panda [Pablo Sandoval], would continue hitting like a maniac, and he has dropped off. Who would have thought that with Kung Fu Panda dropping off the map—not hitting like he did last year—that we would have been able to contend?

Another big move was getting Bengie Molina when we did, because my impression of the team last year was that he and [Jose] Uribe were the heart and soul of the club. And they certainly gave the keys to the car to Buster Posey, and Posey has been nothing short of phenomenal. Now, he didn’t hit superbly against the Braves in the first series, but that’s OK; he did what he had to do. He caught beautifully and he survived that collision. So, Posey and Torres are probably the two players I would point to who, on an everyday basis, have changed the culture of the team and its prospects.

DL: What about the pitching?

RJ:
We all knew that the pitching was going to be good, and Sabean gets an A-plus for shoring up the bullpen. The middle and long relief for the team has been their Achilles' heel for as long as I can remember, and he seems to have filled that hole in the dike. That bodes really well, because the pitching staff isn’t just the starters anymore; it is the entire pitching contingent, which is as solid as that of any team in the major leagues, maybe over the past 10 years.

DL:
Is this the best pitching staff in San Francisco Giants history?

RJ:
Yes, it’s the best pitching staff they’ve had since they’ve been out on the West Coast. Certainly, the staff they had in 1962, with a young Gaylord Perry, Juan Marichal, Jack Sanford, Billy Pierce, Bob Bolin… that was a very good staff. And, of course, that team made it to within about a quarter of an inch of winning a world championship. That Giants team had hitting. They had [Willie] McCovey, [Orlando] Cepeda, [Willie] Mays, Jimmy Davenport, Chuck Hiller…I mean, the biggest problem on that team was whether McCovey or Cepeda would play at first base or in the outfield. We don’t have that type of problem on this year’s Giants team.

What we have today is a team with decent hitting… say, if you were to grade the offense of the Giants, it’s a B-minus while the pitching staff is an A to an A-plus. Is that good enough to win a world championship? We’ll see.

DL:
How does the current squad stack up against the best San Francisco Giants teams in history?

RJ:
Oh gosh, the best team may have been the 1965 team that didn’t win. After the [John] Roseboro incident, the Giants dropped like a stone. That really hurt the team as much as anything. I think that the 1965 Giants were as good a team as they’ve ever had. Certainly, the 1962 team would be the one that a lot people would point to, having come within an inch of winning a World Series.

As for this team, it’s so different that it’s hard to compare them to the others. The profile of great Giants teams in the past has always started with offense; it has started with slugging and often with one man: Willie Mays. There isn’t a Mays or a Barry Bonds in this current equation. You think more in terms of the one-two punch of [Tim] Lincecum and [Matt] Cain, but now [Jonathan] Sanchez enters the picture and I really think it‘s a big three. That’s the identity of this team.

Again, it’s basically a question of architecture and institutional philosophy. The [Horace] Stoneham scouting department, and development department, headed by Carl Hubbell, scouted and signed hitters above and beyond everything. This scouting staff, this team put together by Brian Sabean, is built to win at AT&T Park.

DL:
With players like Lincecum, Kung Fu Panda, and Brian Wilson, is this maybe the most colorful team in Giants history?

RJ:
I don’t think there’s any question. I mean, Aubrey Huff wearing a sequined thong… having that article of clothing being a symbol of the team is just hilarious. I haven’t seen a picture of it yet, and I don’t think I want to, but the fact is that you have that thong, and you have Brian Wilson’s Mohawk and orange shoes. You have Panda’s unbridled enthusiasm, Tim Lincecum’s hair and his French bulldog named Cy holding court in the Giants clubhouse… it’s all wonderful.

Part of why we love baseball is because we love characters in the game. We love color, and that’s one of the reasons that I’m enthused by this team: I love color and character. The Bay Area certainly embraces eccentricity, and there is a fair measure of eccentricity on this team. They’re certainly not the Yankees, where everyone has to cut their hair and shave their beards, or the old Reds teams who used to have to do that. There isn’t this sort of institutional anything, it’s just basically, “Let’s play some games and have some fun.”

The ballpark is a symbol of this team, too. AT&T Park rejuvenated the team economically, spiritually, competitively, and from an aesthetic standpoint as well. It’s a beautiful place. Even if you have no interest in the sport, and someone asks if you want to sit for three hours and drink a cappuccino and talk politics in the upper deck, looking out over the Bay, that wouldn’t be the worst place in the world to do it. It isn’t like it was at Candlestick [Park]; people are happy to stay for extra innings.

DL:
Back in the 1960s and 1970s, the team was very multi-racial and multi-cultural, featuring players like Mays, McCovey, Marichal, Cepeda, and the Alou brothers. Do you see that as being an important part of the franchise’s identity?

RJ:
Yes, they basically were the team that extended the whole idea of what we wanted baseball to be. But there is one thing that I fault the Giants on, and I don’t think that hardly anyone has ever talked about it. The team that signed Masanori Murakami [in 1964] has completely missed the boat on Japanese players since then. My gosh, the Giants should have been the team that got Ichiro. I know that Ichiro went to Seattle because part of the Mariners ownership group is Japanese, and I think there was kind of an insider feel to that transaction, but my lord… the San Francisco Giants, the team of Murakami, should absolutely be a team that has at least one really good Japanese player. We had [Tsuyoshi] Shinjo, and I’m not going cast any stones at poor Shinjo, but he was not what we hoped he was going to be.

But yes, during the 1960s, this was a team that had players from everywhere that the game now relies on for an extraordinary percentage of their talent. The Giants and the Pirates, and to a lesser extent the Dodgers, were the teams, in the 1960s, that were as likely to listen to meringue and soul in the clubhouse as they were rock music.

That is a very proud part of the Giants heritage, and they embrace their past. Any number of those guys still remain employed by the team as ambassadors. I know that Cepeda, Mays, and McCovey are on the payroll. Vida Blue, who came in the 1970s, is on the payroll as a special advisor. They embrace that, because it is one of the prouder parts of their heritage.

There is the fact that the Alou brothers were the first trio of brothers ever to play together in an outfield at the same time. That happened with the San Francisco Giants. And it’s the team that brought back Felipe Alou as their manager, which was also great. You don’t have to explain to any of the current players who Willie McCovey is, because he is brought down to the clubhouse in a wheelchair, and he talks to guys. They all compete to win the Willie Mac Award every year. And Mays stops by every so often, although not quite as often as during the Bonds years.

DL: Who was the greater player: Barry Bonds or Willie Mays?

RJ: Oh, I’d say that Mays was, and I’ll tell you why. Mays didn’t feel the need to transform himself into another incarnation. Now, some people might say that the drug of choice back then was greenies and uppers, but I think that’s splitting hairs. Bonds actually became a different person. He actually took the very skilled, and very talented, young player for the Pirates and turned him into a behemoth of a great player for the Giants. And I think there is sort of a universal agreement that he really didn’t need to do that to continue to be a great player, a Hall of Fame-caliber player.

Bonds is certainly the best hitter I ever saw play. He and Stan [Musial]. I’m not quite old enough to recall Ted Williams’ at-bats—I vaguely remember seeing him on TV as a young kid; I’m about to turn 55 years old—but Mays, in terms of everything in his game… and there is the wonderful story from Charles Einstein, about how on several occasions Mays was in a game where he knew that his slugging would be needed for the team to win, so he would purposely strike out if there were two outs and no runners on base. He would do that on a pitch he knew he wanted to get again, and that he would airmail the next time up. He’d strike out on a slider that he knew he could hit any day of the week, lulling the pitcher into throwing it again, and then, with men on base, he’d crunch it.

From every account I’ve ever read about [Mays], his knowledge of the game, and his instincts for the game, were the match of his immense natural talent. With Bonds, I don’t know that you can actually say that. So Mays gets the nod from me, and I bet that if you talked to Bonds, he’d say that Mays would be his choice, too.

DL:
Is Tim Lincecum as good as Juan Marichal?

RJ: Well, he has two more Cy Young awards, which is something. Of course, it’s interesting to note, from a footnotes standpoint, that Mike McCormick won the award in 1967 and he may well be one of the biggest “sleepers” to ever win the award.

But it’s hard to say; it’s like comparing flavors of ice cream. I think that Lincecum is certainly one of the great pitchers in team history, but as my brother pointed out to me the other day, and he’s been a Giants fan for even longer, because he’s eight years older—he distinctly remembers listening to the epic Marichal-Spahn extra-inning game that Mays won with a home run. Apparently, someone did a pitch count that day and Marichal threw something like 270 pitches that game. So it’s hard to compare them precisely. I’d probably have to give Lincecum one more great year before I’d put them on the same platform.

DL: From a historical perspective, what would the Giants winning the World Series this year mean?

RRRrrrrrrrrrJWell, it wouldn’t be any big, dramatic statement, but it would mean that a mid-market team, which I jokingly refer to as being yet another hostage to history—the Giants are one of these teams whose history is so grand that it will be forever difficult for them to match it—for them to recapture even a measure of that is important in this day and age. They’re a mid-market team of mostly homegrown talent, and a team like that reaching the top rung of the ladder is, to use a way-overused term, good for the game of baseball. You like to see teams do it the right way. The Yankees and the Red Sox buy it—and they buy very well—but those teams have not typically been stocked with homegrown talent. The Giants are a very much a home-cooked meal. They’re home-cooked, free-range, organic, and chemical-free. It would be wonderful to see them win it.  

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