The Giants’ longest-tenured arm tearfully bid farewell to his teammates Wednesday with the announcement that Saturday would be his final game. Twelve years, one team, three rings and a perfect game. But that doesn’t nearly tell the whole story…
My fandom of the San Francisco Giants, the team that in the late-’90s somehow came a lost boarding pass away from moving to St. Petersburg, Florida, signed the best free agent of all time in Barry Bonds and self-financed a stadium designed specifically so the slugger could deposit home runs into the Bay, ended in 2002.
October 26, 2002 to be exact.
That night, Giants manager Dusty Baker strode head high to the mound and took the ball from starter Russ Ortiz’s hand in Game 6 of the World Series. The Giants had furnished Ortiz with a 5-0 lead in the 7th. The Champagne was on ice in the visitors’ clubhouse. Baker, sensing history, let Ortiz keep the ball. Yes, gave him the game ball, in game.
With seven outs left, the Angels rightfully took offense and ravaged the Giants’ bullpen for six runs. They never even had to come to bat in the 9th.
For me, that was that.
At the time, I was reeling from a series of adult-type events that hit me like a succession of rogue waves: a failed relationship, getting fired from a job and losing one of my closest friends in the South Tower of the World Trade Center. The season to follow was my first as an adult baseball fan. It was the first time I had to do what all adults do, and get up and fake it everyday.
Because of these bumps on the road, these real wounds, I was forced to see baseball differently. At the time, I mostly blamed my father—taking me to game after game and not telling me the shit he was staring down every day, how to make money, how to deal with men and women, how to dress, speak, act, how to get up and out of bed when everything to your core says, don’t, just don’t. I felt betrayed. The veil wasn’t lifted, it was torn off and burned in effigy in front of me. I knew something was changing, over even—but rode the Giants’ success through the playoffs hoping with it would come some kind of satisfaction. Nope. Nothing. And in the end, their collapse that season felt fitting to me, like closure. And I accepted the fact that it was over.
The next season, I didn’t stop watching or paying attention entirely, I just did it differently. At the time I thought I was seeing the game a little like a cynic might. As entertainment, pure spectacle, not something to waste much time or emotion on. In hindsight, it was just a grownup’s point of view. It happens. The players weren’t guys to look up to anymore, I wasn’t waiting hat in hand for an autograph during BP.
Suddenly they were my age, with my same type of flaws; and yet, they were also the untouchable class. Lucky cusses traveling, enjoying the spread in the locker room, going out late after games, girls standing by for them like charter pilots. They were blessed, surely. And I was nowhere near their orbit. They had it figured out. I hadn’t yet started to figure it out.
A few more seasons passed and now these guys were starting to be younger than me. Blink and you missed it, that was your prime. I spent that moment in a cubicle, waiting tables, in an old creamery building on the Northern California coast editing a small newspaper, back to a cubicle, ignorant to notion that there was as much ahead as there was behind, opportunity and missed opportunity still equal on the scales—but for all those realizations to come, I still grew more distant yet from the game I’d loved as a boy.
I felt as estranged from it as I did to that boy himself.
Matt Cain was a September call-up at the end of the 2005 season. He was 20 years old. Barry Bonds was still on the team, four years removed from his 73 home run campaign, but his body and reputation were in grave disrepair. The Giants had a patchwork lineup of free agents built around no. 25 in his twilight. The federal investigation into the BALCO laboratory, which was the main supplier of Bonds’ (alleged) performance enhancing substances, was synonymous with not only the all-time great left fielder but the Giants franchise in general. It was a dark moment for both the team and the state of the sport.
Though he was one of baseball’s most touted prospects and the club’s best hope for an effective home grown starter in decades, Cain came up the same way he spent most of his career, quietly and in the shadow of something deemed greater.
Everyone referred to him as a country hardballer, at 6’3”, 230, the Alabama native was the youngest member of the National League. He finished the season a promising 2-1 with a 2.23 ERA and within a year’s time would become the club’s ace, a fitting antecedent to the Bonds era—the franchise scrapped it all and rebuilt after having discovered their ballpark was unexpectedly pitcher-friendly and Cain was a harbinger of things to come.
And yet, even during his assured rise, there was never much buzz about Cain outside the immediate confines of 24 Willie Mays Plaza. Maybe it was because the towering righty’s career was book ended by anemic offenses and lack of run support. The running joke was that every start he’d have to spark his own rally or risk losing or ending up with a no-decision. To that end, Cain’s legacy will live on as the best argument in the live ball era that a pitcher’s win-loss record is not a reflection of his acuity, or dominance on the mound.
With a win on Saturday, the final start of his career, Cain can move to a lifetime 105-118 record. This is the same pitcher who started 34 games in 2008, pitched 200 or more innings six straight seasons, was a three-time All Star and finished the 2010 playoffs, yes, the entire playoffs, allowing 13 hits and zero runs. His ERA was 0.00.
To me, it was Matt Cain’s performance on the night of June 13, 2012 that I’ll remember most. It was the 22nd perfect game in MLB history and I dare you to watch it without getting the good kind of chills.
The game came at a time when I was living in a new town, over my head at work and a little insecure in general. I was at a bar a few blocks from my house and it was on on the TV. Nobody ever finds themselves drinking alone on a weeknight watching baseball without having made a few recent mistakes, and I was no exception.
I remember dialing into that game during the first in attempts to feel less isolated, watching the second, third and fourth innings thinking he was on as a small crowd began to gather. A leaping catch by Melky Cabrera at the wall in the 6th and the diving heroics of Gregor Blanco screaming from right field into triples alley to rob an extra base hit in the 7th assured history may be in the offing.
Cain, upon the recording of the final out, was stunned for a split second; not in a way that he couldn’t believe that it happened, but that it happened to him. The man who’d struggled most of his career to get run support or defensive help was finally the beneficiary of both—and in return he delivered perfection.
I embraced the stranger next to me at the bar, someone bought a round. One guy was crying a little (OK, that guy was me), the point is, it brought me back to baseball. I realized then, as an adult, baseball doesn’t solve any problems, but for moments at a time, it suspends you above them.
Thank you 18.
Andrew J. Pridgen wrote this and tries not to drink by himself anymore.