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Rooting For Instead of Against

We are on the cusp of the Blessedly Likable World Series, featuring two teams that carry little baggage in our weary eyes. We’re not rooting against anybody; instead we’re choosing between the team that took out the Yankees and the team that took out the Phillies. How can we not like both of them?

Pulling back from our Met myopia, the Series pits teams supported by two fan bases who have gone forever without. The big Without. No world championship in the 52 seasons prior to this one for the San Francisco Giants. No world championship in the 38 seasons prior to this one for the Texas Rangers. Somebody’s schneid will be abandoned very soon. Who deserves it more from a long-suffering standpoint?

Who doesn’t?

Between them, the Giants and the Rangers can mourn 90 seasons without ultimate reward. San Francisco has a 14-year head start, but once you start piling up double-digits, long enough is long enough. There is no dishonor in not being able to claim quite as many as fallow years when all the years involved are solidly fallow.

Once the Red Sox and White Sox shook off their respective eight- or nine-decade slumps, it rather surprised me to realize that the chronological pecking order went Cubs (1908), Indians (1948) and then Giants, 0-for-San Francisco since quitting New York in advance of 1958. I’m fully aware of how long their fans have waited, yet gut instinct doesn’t quite comprehend that they have, in the fanly sense, suffered.

Joe Posnanski of Sports Illustrated took similar notice last week [1], writing that for all the sympathy baseball fans are capable of generating for teams enduring epic title droughts, “the national group hug never seems open for the Giants.” I don’t think it’s because there’s widespread anti-Giant animus (excepting those who’ve ever listened to Christopher Russo speak into a microphone). It may be because there’s suffering and then there’s suffering.

The San Francisco Giants have failed to fail miserably. There was a lot of finishing second there for a while (every year from 1965 to 1970), and there was a definite falloff in contention once Willie Mays returned home to New York, but utter San Francisco lousiness never completely set in for terribly long. The Giants didn’t finish last out west until 1984 and have only done it five times, losing 90 or more games just eight times. This postseason is their tenth dating back to 1962, their sixth since 1997.

Plus, it’s almost always sunny at Phone Company Park; they did get to ooh and aah at five in-their-prime Hall of Famers during the 1960s (Mays, McCovey, Marichal, Perry and Cepeda); they didn’t complain too loudly when Barry Bonds was breaking home run records in their midst; and, for what it’s worth, San Francisco is San Francisco. It doesn’t matter in the standings, but it’s got to take a little of the edge off not winning a World Series.

To be fair, one can never truly know how much any team’s fan base suffers without being among them. There’s probably some random game from some random season that we’ve never heard of that could drive Giants fans straight into McCovey Cove if they dwelled on it. They also have neighbor issues, though on a different scale than we have.

Everybody needs a championship now and then, if not sooner. But I’ve always maintained that the most you can reasonably ask from your team is it not leave you parched for playoff relief for interminable periods. That doesn’t guarantee you’ll finally win an elusive Game Seven, but it’s better than being pounded into perpetual Pirate pain.

Contend regularly and enter the tournament periodically — if your team does that, then you have it pretty good. You certainly have it better than many. By that standard, you know who’s had it very good for an extraordinarily long time? Longer than anybody?

I know who you’re gonna say, but let me apply a standard that even the Yankees can’t match.

Making the playoffs every year might sound like bliss, but we can see it spoils fan bases. Nothing but eleven wins every October will seem satisfactory after a couple of years. There are no nice tries, no deriving small pleasures from getting close. It’s just win or go home, you losers. What probably works better in the long run is making the playoffs often.

How often is often?

Let’s use, as our rule of thumb, two presidential terms: eight years. A shorter interval might be preferable, but eight years tests your resolve without casting you out into eternal darkness. Eras can overlap across eight years; there’s likely a player or two left over from the last time your team made the tournament. You haven’t waited forever. You get your legitimate modicum of suffering in, but not so much that you’re cruelly deprived. Chances are your team hasn’t been uninterruptedly pathetic for the seven seasons in between, either. There was probably a little coming down off the last high and a little building up to the next one.

It bears repeating that this is a rule of thumb. If, by chance, your last playoff year ended in extremely dismaying circumstances…and it was followed by the blowing of a massive divisional lead on the last day of the season…and then your team replicates that pattern on the last day of the next seasonwhich coincides with the permanent closing of your team’s stadium…and then your team descends below .500 and into an utter shame spiral…

If this happens, consult a physician.

But if all things can possibly be equal, a maximum eight-year wait between playoff appearances — not always as many as eight years, but never more than eight years — seems reasonable. By that criteria, what fans have been dealt with most reasonably of all the longest by their team’s competitive trajectories?

The answer is the Los Angeles Dodgers. If you’re a Southern Californian born in the early 1950s, and you gravitated to the first major league baseball team you ever saw, this has been your reward:

A world championship the second year you ever had a team;

a world championship four years later;

a world championship two years after that;

a pennant the year after that;

a pennant eight years after that;

a pennant three years after that;

a pennant the year after that;

a world championship three years after that;

a division title two years after that;

a division title two years after that;

a world championship three years after that;

a division title seven years after that;

a Wild Card berth the year after that;

a division title eight years after that;

a Wild Card berth two years after that;

a division title two years after that;

and a division title the year that.

Let’s spell those Dodger postseason appearances out: 1959, 1963, 1965, 1966, 1974, 1977, 1978, 1981, 1983, 1985, 1988, 1995, 1996, 2004, 2006, 2008 and 2009. That’s 17 times Dodgers fans have had something to look forward to once the regular season ended without ever having to wait more than eight years for their next big chance.

That strikes me as excellent fortune. Dodger fans might gripe they haven’t won the big one since 1988 and, if they’ve been around long enough, they might speak of the scars they bear from losing the three-game pennant playoff in 1962 and/or the sudden-death play-in game of 1980…but screw them on that count. They are, by the reasonable two-term standard, never without playoffs for very long.

The team with the second-longest streak of this nature is the Oakland A’s, starting in 1971 and continuing through 1972, 1973, 1974, 1975, 1981, 1988, 1989, 1990, 1992, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003 and 2006. Four world championships are wrapped up in there, though none in more than 20 years — and when the A’s aren’t swinging into the playoffs, they’re usually in something approaching tatters. But see above regarding the screwing of fan bases who would complain for very long if they’re making the playoffs reasonably often.

As for the Giants, their immediate neighbors are the Oakland A’s and their nearest division rivals are their ancient enemies, the Los Angeles Dodgers. Even if the Giants/A’s split isn’t as acrimonious as the rifts that exist in other two-team markets (remember those half-Giant/half-Athletic caps from the 1989 Series?), and the Giants have generally existed as a more secure entity in the Bay Area market than the A’s, Oakland’s four-decade record of resiliency must gnaw a little. And, presumably, any reminder that the Dodgers never fully fall apart is unwelcome news in Giant circles.

But I don’t know that it constitutes suffering.

As for the Rangers, their pre-2010 ledger is 38 years with one cluster of division titles that earned them no playoff series wins and, otherwise, just about nothing in the way of legitimate contention. Objectively speaking, their diehard fans have suffered more than the Giants’ diehard fans. It’s no contest. The Rangers have no Dodger-equivalent in their existences (and whatever antipathy the Astros generate, it’s not like Houston can hold any substantial prize over Arlington’s head), but Texas doesn’t need a formal rival. It’s been battling poor circumstances and unwise decisionmaking most of its existence…and it’s been losing to both.

At no point besides 1996-1999 was there ever a runaway Rangers bandwagon on which to jump. If you developed your taste for Rangers baseball between 1972 and 1995 or 2000 and 2009 — or if you didn’t step away after the limited success of the late ’90s proved fleeting — then this week is for you. You’ve had zero for more than a decade and barely anything [2] for forty years. Your biggest star was Alex Rodriguez, and 156 tainted home runs notwithstanding, the biggest thrill you got out of him occurred Friday night when Neftali Feliz struck him out to clinch your first American League pennant.

Barry Bonds’s home runs were likely tainted, too, but at least he wanted to stick around San Francisco. A-Rod took the money, juiced up, led Texas nowhere and then begged out of the state. I imagine Rangers fans will be rewinding that final ALCS pitch a few hundred more times.

Rangers fans have suffered more than Giants fans. But does that make them more deserving of a World Series championship? I couldn’t say. It’s a shame either fan base will have to leave this summit unsatisfied. They’ve both waited through plenty of presidencies let alone presidential terms for what’s within their immediate grasp right now. Unless something comes along to influence my rooting interest as the Series unfolds, I think I’ll feel as bad for the losers as I will good for the winners.

And I hope the winners are…

Longtime readers might assume I’d veer directly to the Giants given their New York roots and my affinity for that history. But that’s murky territory in my view. The San Francisco Giants did pick up where the New York Giants left off, and they’ve been respectful of their heritage (why shouldn’t they be?), but  the unavoidable fact is they left New York — not for New Jersey, but for the other side of the country. It’s hard to reward them with my temporary allegiance for having been the team I probably would have lived for had I been born a generation earlier. That also means they would have crushed me in 1957.

I take my guidance in these matters from the writings of the late, great columnist Vic Ziegel, a gentleman who never passed up an opportunity to reflect on his childhood team, the New York Giants. In 2002, he covered the San Francisco Giants’ last World Series, the one they lost in fairly excruciating fashion to the Anaheim Angels. I’m going to quote liberally from the column he wrote [3] for the Daily News the day after that year’s seventh game partly because it’s relevant to our conversation, but mostly because I love and terribly miss the writing of Vic Ziegel.

It doesn’t take much prodding to get me to write about the Giants. The baseball Giants. The baseball team that played in New York through 1957. Those Giants.

Not these other Giants, the ones who just gave away the World Series. So shame on them, whoever they are. I know this: They aren’t my Giants. How could they be?

My Giants were the World Series winners in 1954, a four-game sweep against the almighty Indians of Cleveland, who won 111 out of 154 games and were going to make easy work of the Giants. It was nonsense, of course. The Indians played in the wrong league, the vanilla league, I told my friends, and winning 111 games from that crowd was a lot easier than finishing ahead of the Dodgers.

Since I grew up in the Bronx, two subway stops from Yankee Stadium, and my friends were all Yankee fans, I was finally getting a chance to rub their pinstripes in it. I’m a rotten winner.

That was the best year. Three years later, when stories began circulating about the Giants leaving New York, I refused to believe it. Other teams left other cities. Not the Giants. You knew that the same way you knew your phone number. And that Little Richard had more to offer than Pat Boone. And you didn’t make egg creams in paper cups. And salami came from heaven. And Mickey Mantle’s rookie card was something you pitched to the wall. The New York Giants weren’t going anywhere. Period. Simple.


I was in San Francisco for the League Championship Series against St. Louis. Pac Bell Park is a beauty. The rust doesn’t fall off the rafters the way it did at the Polo Grounds. They sell French fries with garlic. They sell large lattes for $4.50. There’s a statue of Willie Mays on the grounds. I walked along a corridor, made a turn, and found myself staring at framed photos of New York Giants — Carl Hubbell, Mel Ott, Christy Mathewson.

It’s a kidnapping. What are they doing there? Why are they in San Francisco, an ocean away from where they belong? There’s a Brooklyn Dodger museum in the Coney Island stadium where the Cyclones play. There are plans for a Dodger Hall of Fame. If Fred Wilpon ever gets to build the new Shea he keeps talking about, he wants it to resemble Ebbets Field.

There is nothing to remind us of where the Giants played, those ridiculously short foul lines at the Polo Grounds, a long fly ball from the Harlem River at 155th St. The Giants might as well be the Incas. This was the team that owned New York until that Babe Ruth chap came along. Bobby Thomson’s home run in the 1951 playoffs is baseball’s greatest moment. Nothing else is close. But it didn’t get enough votes to land in the Top 10. How can this be?

And now a team that calls itself Giants gets into the World Series, and the TV people show clips of Leo Durocher and Thomson jumping home and Willie’s catch — you know, the catch. They must think there’s a connection.

They kept saying a win would be the first for the Giants since 1954. What are they talking about?

People who know I was a Giants fan ask how I feel about the Giants coming so close to being world champions again. The truth? There is no again. I don’t feel a thing.

That affected me in 2002 (though I’d been rooting for the Angels anyway) and it affects me today. I can’t quite use the New York Giants as an excuse to root for the San Francisco Giants. When I first encountered the San Francisco Giants, they were just another team the Mets had to beat. At base, they don’t mean anything more than that to me.

But because there were New York Giants, and because I’m always seeking out as much first-hand knowledge of those Giants as I can find, I’ve come into contact over the years with a lot of New York-based San Francisco Giants fans — the kind of New Yorkers Vic Ziegel didn’t get. They’re good people, from what I’ve found, and if it makes them happy to see a team they still follow get this far, then I can’t root against that.

Then again, I’m not rooting against anybody in this Series. The rooting against was for the LCS round and for 2009. This is about the quest to root for.

I don’t know any Ranger diehards, but I do know there are a few Met fingerprints on the Texas team. The most recent of them belong to Jeff Francoeur, the most mythic of them belong to Nolan Ryan and some incidental sets can be traced to the likes of Darren Oliver, Darren O’Day and, if you want to stretch, coaches Clint Hurdle and Mike Maddux.

I like Met DNA as much as the next guy, but honestly, none of these people ever excited me when they wore blue and orange. I flat out detested the presence of Mike Maddux in our bullpen in 1993 and 1994 (a performance-based judgment, not at all personal). O’Day came and went in a flash. Oliver was a valiant one-year wonder [4] who proved a former GM wrong on the subject of career sustainability, but I didn’t bemoan Omar Minaya’s decision to let him walk after 2006. Clint Hurdle, last a Met in 1987, doesn’t really move the needle one way or another.

Francoeur landed softly on a division leader at the trade deadline, and good for him. Let others bash Frenchy (plenty are willing). I didn’t see any point in his remaining a Met, and he stopped being one on August 31. We embrace Ryan’s Met beginnings more than Ryan himself seems to. The more 1969 stories [5] his presence in the World Series spotlight generates, the better, I suppose, but Nolan’s never shown much sign of particularly cherishing his time here. That’s his prerogative — and it was eons ago — but it leaves me feeling less than warm and fuzzy when the cameras track him down.

The Giants are managed by a former Met. Bruce Bochy’s Shea tenure was so brief that he may have forgotten about it. It lasted 17 games, from August to October 1982. The Mets were mired in a miserable losing streak when the journeyman catcher was brought up from Tidewater, and they remained mired in a miserable losing streak immediately thereafter. The ’82 Mets’ record with Bochy in residence was 5-12. Bochy’s helmet size was, per Ralph Kiner and Lorn Brown, enormous. The same could not be said of the impact he made on a team that wound up 65-97, buried in last place.

Talk about suffering.

The Giants are the National League representative in the 2010 World Series, so that’ll probably break the tie. Nothing against the Rangers, however. Nothing against anybody (not even, for the duration, the hate firm [6] of Cain, Ross & Burrell). If Texas wins, good for them; there should be a little simpatico among expansion brethren. If Cliff Lee drives his price up, good for him, too. We’re not gonna be the ones paying it anyway. If San Francisco wins, the Polo Grounds will be invoked a few hundred times and — apologies to Mr. Ziegel — that won’t be a bad thing. If there’s a parade in San Francisco, I imagine Willie Mays will ride in a convertible or at least wave from a podium. That won’t be bad, either.

Nothing bad about this matchup. Bad was swept out over the weekend. It’s all good from here.