One of the reasons baseball has remained the nation's favorite sport is that fans can identify immediately with most professional baseball players. Though they are superb athletes, they come in all sizes and shapes and colors. Some of the greatest ballplayers were not men of any special size, as is required in professional basketball or football. They are kind of "everyman" for most fans. The Baseball Hall of Fame includes 5'10", 160 lb Pee Wee Reese (of the Brooklyn Dodgers) as well as 6'4", 200 lb Willie McCovey. Even more interestingly, baseball players are known for being generally down-to-earth, unpretentious, ordinary people who excel at what they do. There aren't any professional baseball players that have won a Nobel or a Pulitzer Prize. They are us - but better at baseball than most fans can ever hope to be.
And, as in life, a good deal of luck is necessary. A team must stay healthy; the right combination of players is required for a successful team; and a single fluke on the field can sometimes spell outright disaster after a whole summer of work to reach a championship: an errant pitch, a mistake fielding or running the bases - really, a hundred things - can spell the difference between elation or despair for a major league ballplayer and, of course, the fans. When the San Francisco Giants played their first West Coast World Series in 1962 against the New York Yankees, they lost the entire 7-game contest by a single, absolutely impossible catch by Bobby Richardson, made off of a red hot line drive to right center field hit by the aforementioned Willie McCovey, and in an instant it ended the Giants' season. The record books are full of such turns of luck. Moreover, in baseball there are no ties. One's team either wins or loses, just like in life itself.
Baseball is such a part of the fabric of American life that we use baseball terms all the time to describe our own mundane world. One "hits a home run" at work. We "can't get to 1st base" in persuading someone of a point of view. We "round 3rd and head for home" as we anticipate a success. We pass "3 Strikes" laws for offenders.
San Francisco is a big baseball town and always has been. Their first team, the San Francisco Seals, dated back to 1903 and the Pacific Coast League. It is also a town which has given Major League Baseball a wealth of talented players: the DiMaggio brothers from North Beach; "Lefty" Gomez from Rodeo, just across the bay; "Dink" O'Brien; Tony Lazzeri and Bob Meusel of "Murderers' Row" fame; Eddie Joost; Frank "Lefty" O'Doul; the list of San Franciscans who made it to "the bigs" is impressive indeed.
My father took me to my first Seals ballgame when I was 8 or 9 years old. Seals Stadium was located in the Mission District, a part of the city made up of blue collar workers from the shipyards and warehouses which made up the bulk of the local economy in those days. The Seals were my team. I was a fanatical follower of the sports pages, checking the standings each day to see how they were doing, or listening to their games on the radio with my father. Baseball was as much a part of my life back then as roller skating around the neighborhood. Pickup ballgames were always being played in the park across the street from my house on Niantic Avenue in Daly City, a working-class town butted up against the southern city limits of San Francisco.
In 1951, a young fellow from my neighborhood, Eddie Cereghino, was a star pitcher for Jefferson High School and he became a local celebrity when he was signed by the Yankees and broke into professional baseball as a Seal. I used to sit on the curb at his house and watch him practice with his father, throwing blazing fast balls into his garage where his father would catch him. And when Ed pitched his first game at Seals Stadium, my dad and I were there. It was all a very heady thing for a young boy of 8 years, and I got about as close the baseball gods as I would ever get, watching Eddie Cereghino.
In their last year as a San Francisco team, the Seals won the Pacific Coast League pennant in 1957. The New York Giants had decided to move to San Francisco, and that was the end of an era in The City. At first, it was hard for me to transfer loyalty to the Giants, but it didn't take too long for it to happen.
From 1958, when they played their first season in San Francisco (at Seals Stadium, no less!) to last week, when they finally won it all, the Giants had never won a World Series in San Francisco, despite getting to the Series three times. For the fans it was one season of varying frustration after another. Some years were good ones and others, well, were disastrous. At one point the team was so bad that the fans stopped coming to games at all - and the park they played in at Candlestick Point was so unfriendly to fan and player alike that the Giants nearly pulled up stakes again to go to Toronto to play on one occasion, and in the early 90's it looked like they would depart for Tampa. But soon enough, local investors saved the team from moving, a spanking new ballpark was built and the Giants became a settled, permanent fixture of local life.
All of which brings me to last Saturday, when the San Francisco Giants won their first World Series after a drought of no fewer than 56 years. As in life, this boy's game, this teacher of persistence and constant effort to persevere, this microcosm of life itself, suddenly galvanized a whole city as never before.
When they came home in triumph from Texas as champions, some 20,000 people welcomed them them back home. The new heroes were people with names like Uribe, Linsecum, Renteria, and Wilson. And as the fans cheered, they remembered Mays and Davenport and McCovey and Snow and Montefusco, the Alous, and all the Giants on whose shoulders the new champs now stood. And some of us remembered those days at Seals Stadium, too, sitting in the stands cheering our boys on, a 25-cent "redhot" in hand.
For some of us who remember, the day was filled with gauzy images of a city filled with a colorful baseball past. And of fathers taking their sons to see a ballgame.