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Picking A Side

It did not occur to me that an October might arrive when my two true teams would come face to face in a World Series, and that I would have to discover and then declare an ultimate loyalty. The odds against two particular teams’ meeting in a World Series in any given year are so extreme that I felt safe in moonily wishing for this dream date: when it came closer […] I became hopeful and irritable, exalted and apprehensive, for I didn’t know — had no idea at all — which would break my heart. In dreams begin responsibilities, damn it.
—Roger Angell, “Not So, Boston,” 1986

I entered the current postseason relatively unencumbered by overriding loyalties. There were no Mets to root for, no Yankees to root against, no overly familiar Braves or Phillies to wish spited. Everything was gravy. Open a jar and pour it on.

The two Wild Card play-ins came first, exercises intended to inflict a handicap on the winners. Those poor non-division champion saps; they win a game, yes, but now they’ve used up an essential starting pitcher and absorbed wear and tear their next rivals have had precious time to mend. Serves them right for not finishing first!

Funny thing, though. Instead of moving on to the LDS round weighed down by the extra game, those winners — the Royals in the A.L. and the Giants in the N.L. — were buoyed by it. They had 2014 playoff experience nobody else had. They also had a leg up on the rest of the remaining field in one of those “intangibles” Jimmy the Greek used to tout on Sunday afternoons.

They immediately became my favorites for October. Though I could’ve lived with any number of hypothetical LDS and LCS outcomes, the ones I found myself wanting were the ones that had the Royals and Giants emerging as pennant-winners.

I got what I wanted, which meant I was tasked with an assignment for which I hadn’t bargained: choose between the teams I’d just spent two-plus weeks getting solidly behind. Not exactly Sophie’s Choice material, but still. As happens under the best of Metless postseason circumstances, I’d grown extremely (if fleetingly) fond of two wholly likable outfits. They were making October fun. It seemed cruel to acknowledge one of them has to lose. I suppose I could just root for “good games” and “a long Series,” but I don’t operate that way. I require a rooting interest.

With no baseball in sight on Saturday, I watched — on my iPad, for crissake — a hyperlocally telecast high school football game, the first high school football game I’ve ever watched that didn’t involve the Dillon Panthers or East Dillon Lions [1]. It was the high school around the corner from me versus the high school from maybe a mile away. The key was I decided to have a rooting interest on behalf of the school around the corner. With it, I cared what happened. Without it, I would have been Creepy Rob Lowe keeping one eye on strange 17-year-olds slamming into one another.

Anyway, after one World Series game, the task of choosing a provisional favorite has grown marginally easier. Not too many pitches in, I realized can’t root for the Royals to lose. But I can’t root for the Giants to not win. The San Francisco pull, grounded in recent postseason experience and idealized ancestral loyalties, is edging the desire for an already great Kansas City story to grow into something historically spectacular.

The prior absence and the ongoing enthusiasm of the Royals makes them unquestionably worthy of contemporary affection [2]. I’ll throw in two slight familial connections as well: 1) my Kansas-born wife was quite delighted to see the team that plays practically on Kansas’s doorstep ascend to prominence; and 2) Stephanie and I long ago named our then new kitten (now eldest cat) Hosmer, never dreaming that in some far off future month we’d be watching baseball games in which television announcers are constantly calling out to him. I swear Hosmer (the cat [3], not the first baseman) perked up at least once when Hosmer (the first baseman, not the cat) notched a big hit against the Orioles.

Then Hozzie went back to his nap and my Wichita gal became distracted by something on her tablet and, for all the Royals’ undeniable charms, the Giants were still my Giants [4]. Maybe not “my Giants” the way Jim Mutrie allegedly meant it [5] — though the 19th-century skipper might have happily mistaken massive Michael Morse for Coit Tower — but my Giants for the duration. They’re like an autumn timeshare I rent out now and then.

When the San Francisco Giants are successful, as they were resoundingly in Tuesday night’s Game One [6], it provides an excuse for ace statisticians to haul out New York Giants lore. Madison Bumgarner’s stretch of scoreless innings to start a World Series career was second only to Christy Mathewson’s; Joe Panik was the first Giant rookie to triple in a World Series since Bill Terry; by homering and doubling in a World Series game, Hunter Pence was elevated into the same conversation with Mel Ott [7]. For years, nobody brought up old New York Giants. In one night, the three greatest who weren’t Willie Mays all took a Diamond Dust bow.

The orange NY with the familiar Metsian curls certainly factors into my recurring affinity for the SF successor as does my having come to know a passel of Giants loyalists hanging tough right here in the Metropolitan Area. I can’t read an e-mail like I did Monday from a fellow identifying himself as Bob in the Bronx…

“As a fan of the Giants my whole life — I am 65 — I can’t wait for Game One and a chance to win a third Series since 2010. Believe me, I am not greedy, but a truly tortured fan since the late ’50s, having been raised by a father who grew up in Yorkville, was a sandlot pitcher who threw a nasty knuckle curve, and spoke repeatedly of Carl Hubbell, Hal Schumacher and the great teams of the ’20s and ’30s.”

…and not want Bob — who proceeded to catalogue most every pre-2010 disappointment clear back to Willie McCovey’s line drive landing in Bobby Richardson’s glove — to bask in another hard-won round of glory. Then again, in 2002 I didn’t care where the Giants once called home or how many stubborn New Yorkers they let down, as I fell hard for the Angels in that postseason and rooted them home in the Series (Hosmer — the cat — figured into that [8], too).

As much as I revel in New York Giants lore, it’s the San Francisco version that appeals to me these nights, just as they did in ’12 and ’10. You can get sick of a team that wins every year [9]. I somehow don’t get sick of a team that wins every other year.

I like renewing hostility-free acquaintances with Buster, Panda and Hunter, a trio that sounds and seems ready-made for its own Saturday morning cartoon if they still made Saturday morning cartoons [10] (though I’d advise against calling it Buster: Panda Hunter unless you want to hear from the World Wildlife Fund [11]).

I like that in Belt and Crawford they have true Brandon equity.

I like that during the 18-inning war of attrition against the Nationals, they had due up in one extra inning “Perez, Blanco and Panik,” and I thought those could serve as emergency instructions from a cut-rate Honduran airline.

I like that Tim Hudson is in the World Series and the Braves aren’t.

I like that nine years after he was part of the package that brought the Mets Carlos Delgado [12], Yusmeiro Petit is the world’s greatest long man. He’s pitched nine innings in two appearances and given up two hits. That’s essentially Roger McDowell against the Astros plus Sid Fernandez against the Red Sox plus a little more. I’d make the Delgado trade again, mind you, but while Carlos awaits his first Hall of Fame ballot this December, Yusmeiro the ex-Met prospect carries on [13]. If nothing else, it reminds me we used to trade for power hitters and those hitters hit for power for us.

I like that if you stare at the back of Petit’s road jersey long enough, it will look like PET IT, which is a fine suggestion when you’re watching a ballgame in the company of a couple of cats.

I like that most of the core of the Giant bullpen is largely intact from 2010. How does that happen?

I like that Buster Posey, in whose name the act of sliding and attempting to score has been forever altered, has run into three outs at home plate this month and the Giants have won each of those games.

I like Bruce Bochy, the Met catcher for 17 games in 1982 who isn’t invoked as an all-time manager but is three wins from deserving a spot in the discussion.

I like Bumgarner becoming this great postseason pitcher without fanfare.

I like that the Giants eliminated the Nationals and the Cardinals, who aren’t the Yankees, Braves or Phillies but are surely the next-worst things.

I like the National League, even if the National League is apparently packed with teams I can’t stand.

I like that the 88-win Giants are in the World Series in 2014 more than two decades after the 103-win Giants of 1993 weren’t invited to the last playoff dance that didn’t include Wild Cards. Even though the Wild Card was supposedly designed to address such blatant omissions and not necessarily lower the standard for October admissions, the delayed cosmic makegood seems fair.

I like that Pablo Sandoval’s first-inning double looked awfully similar to the triple the Panda hit in the first inning of the 2012 All-Star Game at the very same Kauffman Stadium, though I still don’t like Sandoval usurping David Wright’s rightful starting nod at third base [14], or Matt Cain getting the ball over R.A. Dickey, or Cain reacting like a putz after hitting David in the head in 2009.

I like that Matt Cain is on the shelf, though I’m sorry Angel Pagan and Marco Scutaro are sitting there with him.

I like what Duane Kuiper is doing for his broadcast partner Mike Krukow [15], never mind that I didn’t care for Krukow being one of those lefties the Mets couldn’t touch when he was pitching.

I like the hell out of Hunter Pence [16], even if he was a Phillie. I’d be willing to commit that to posterboard.

I like that the Gotham Club [17] exists at Phone Company Park. Nice to see somebody commemorating the rich tradition of New York National League baseball, even if it’s in San Francisco.

I like how the Giants took care of business four and two Octobers ago. I like how they’ve taken care of business to date this October. I don’t dislike the Royals one little bit. If the World Series turns and goes the Royals’ way, I can’t imagine I won’t be happy for Hosmer and the rest of the Kansas City litter. They haven’t stopped being that kind of story. But I haven’t stopped liking the Giants and probably won’t until June 9, when they and probably too many of their fans (who can really put the SF in insufferable [18]) return to Citi Field.

I’ll like rooting against the Giants then. For now, I’m going to lean a little on their side.