Title-defending Giants will try to ride the same horses in 2011
IN SCOTTSDALE, ARIZ. They gave Cody Ross the key to the city of Carlsbad, N.M., this winter, threw up a sign at the entrance of town that welcomed travelers to the "Home of Cody Ross." All winter, the San Francisco Giants kept flying Ross and his wife up to Northern California for the weekend - an autograph-signing event here, a charitable appearance there.
If Ross, a late-season trash-heap pickup, was one of the symbols of the Giants' improbable march to the World Series title last October - nothing defined the is-this-really-happening vibe more than his two homers off Philadelphia Phillies ace Roy Halladay in Game 1 of the National League Championship Series - so, too, was his winter a microcosm of what all his teammates experienced in their own hometowns and whenever they made their way back to the Bay Area.
"Thank you," someone would inevitably say, grabbing Ross's arm, the simplicity of the statement and the earnestness of the voice conveying the emotion behind it.
"No," Ross would reply, genuinely amazed and grateful that people recognized him and were so moved by something he had a hand in achieving, "thank you."
By the time the Giants reported to spring training last month to launch their title defense - met there by a camera crew from Showtime, which is shooting a season-long documentary series on the team - Manager Bruce Bochy felt the need to bring everyone back to reality. Closing the clubhouse doors (Showtime's cameras were kicked out, as well), he urged his players to get out of glory-basking mode and rediscover the hunger that drove them all the year before.
"We'll never forget what happened. You deserved every accolade you received," Bochy told them, as he summarized to reporters later. "But success is never final. You have to earn it again. You're never more vulnerable to complacency, sloppiness or arrogance [than you are now]. That's why we need to keep our focus."
For sure, it was a charmed existence, the likes of which few had ever witnessed, that the Giants led in the second half of the 2010 season, and all the way to the end of October. None of their five top starting pitchers missed a start, which is practically unheard of in today's world of sore shoulders and elbow blow-outs. Their September waiver-wire acquisitions, Ross and lefty specialist Javier Lopez, turned into Babe Ruth and Sandy Koufax every time they set foot on the field.
But if a skeptic questions whether everything could possibly go so right for the Giants in 2011, the Giants would answer: Who says it can't? And who says it has to?
"We love it when the critics say it was a miracle season," Ross said. "Because when you look at our lineup, we don't have any superstars in that lineup. You've just got a lot of guys who play baseball, and play the right way, and want to win. I'd take our team over a team with two superstars who only care about themselves, and nothing else. I've played on teams like that, and it doesn't work."
Maybe as a hedge against the law of averages - surely their luck can't be quite as good this time around - the Giants should have done more this winter than simply replace Juan Uribe with Miguel Tejada at shortstop.
But don't try telling the Giants' bean-counters that the team stood pat this winter. Indeed, the Giants' payroll has risen by more than a quarter, going from around $96 million at the start of 2010 to around $120 million this year - money the front office used to keep the rest of the team together.
Left fielder-first baseman Aubrey Huff, the rally-thong-wearing soul of the clubhouse in 2010, got a raise from $3 million to $10 million to entice him to remain in San Francisco (though he has reportedly ditched the thong). Aces Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain had sizable pay raises already built into their contracts, and a handful of Giants, such as Ross, closer Brian Wilson and lefty Jonathan Sanchez, received raises in settlements that avoided salary arbitration.
"I don't see why you'd feel like you need to make a lot changes," Ross said, shooting down criticism that the Giants should have done more to bolster their roster. "If anything you'd want to try to hang onto guys you have. We're all just as hungry. And we all want to try to go back and have that same feeling on Nov. 1."
If anything, the Giants think they can be a better team this year, from start to finish, than the 2010 version - which, after all, stood at just 40-38 on July 1, the day they installed prospect Buster Posey as their full-time catcher.
Give them a full year of Posey, renewed production from slimmed-down third baseman Pablo Sandoval and a healthy Mark DeRosa - all things they lacked in 2010 - and they will take their chances.
A skeptic might still have questions: Can Huff repeat last year's production at age 34? Can DeRosa and Freddy Sanchez stay healthy? Was Pat Burrell's strikeout binge in the World Series an aberration or a precursor? Can all those pitchers have perfect health again in 2011, especially given their innings in 2010? Is Tejada's terrible spring (.227 batting average, .550 OPS through Sunday) a sign of what's to come?
But there were questions like these, and worse, some 12 months ago, and the Giants - charmed, fluky or just plain good - answered them in definitive fashion by the end of October.