December 2011

Goodbye, 2011; farewell, Andres Torres

Saturday, Dec. 31

SAN FRANCISCO — When the Giants traded Andres Torres to the New York Mets, a friend recalled my declaration that I would weep if the cheery outfielder ever left the ballclub.

I didn’t need my buddy’s reminder to be so moved.

We who cover sports for a living grow emotionally attached to the athletes we meet at our own peril. The most obvious danger of this lapse is unprofessionalism. There’s also the simple fact that athletes don’t care about us as much as we might care about them. Another pitfall is the ache that remains when a well-liked player leaves. This is why many athletes resist befriending teammates, to insulate themselves from the shock of a trade or personnel move.

Though I pride myself on my professionalism, maintaining emotional distance occasionally challenges me. I completely failed in that regard with Torres. I’ve been fortunate to know numerous players who I’d welcome to a backyard barbecue. Luis Gonzalez, Sean Casey, Aaron Boone, Dmitri Young, Dave Roberts and Rich Aurilia are among the dozens who come to mind. But Torres was different. He simply was the most endearing ballplayer I’ve met. He made himself exceedingly easy to root for without even trying — though he tried so hard at everything else.

The timing of this almost embarrassingly self-revealing piece may seem strange, because the Giants traded Torres more than three weeks ago. Other writers already have weighed in on his merits. I admire their alacrity. I felt compelled to hold onto my thoughts, like a pitcher rubbing up a baseball and assessing its nearly imperceptible lumps, before unleashing. But I didn’t want the sun to set on 2011 without saluting Torres.

Few players — few people — are as genuine as Torres. His attachment to the Giants literally flowed from him as he sobbed when manager Bruce Bochy telephoned him after the trade became official. An athlete’s attempt to express loyalty to his team can fall flat; too often, he’s actually reaffirming his bond to his paycheck, not his city or teammates. But Torres’ desire to excel for the Giants was sincere. I was agog in August of that charmed 2010 season when Torres professed his dedication to the team. It wasn’t so much what he said as how he said it, with each word dripping emotion:

“I need to respect the organization for giving me this job. I want them to know I’m going to work hard, try to get better and help the team win.”

We all know why Torres felt this way. The Giants gave him a chance to thrive after he spent most of 11 pro seasons toiling thanklessly in the Minor Leagues. So he channeled his energies toward being the best Giant possible, ceaselessly delivering maximum effort.

My favorite statistic of the 2009 season was Torres’ total of eight triples in only 170 plate appearances. Even players who hit a lot of triples need close to three times as many plate appearances to accumulate that figure. Torres himself had eight triples in 570 PAs in 2010. Regardless, if he drove a pitch anywhere near a gap, he was virtually guaranteed to reach third. Usually he prompted hilarity as he did so, unintentionally amusing teammates with his sprinter’s style of running with a rigid upper body and furiously pumping arms.

But Torres the ballplayer didn’t engage me as much as Torres the person. He was unfailingly friendly, saying hello to everyone he encountered each day. Though his conversational repertoire wasn’t broad, it was heartfelt. He must have asked me a hundred times, “How’s your family?” So I’d tell him.

Then, late last season, I had the privilege of bringing my daughter Samantha to a game. We started to exit AT&T Park through the corridor leading past the Giants clubhouse. We came upon a nattily dressed gathering of players and their wives, about to leave for some sort of meet-and-greet function with sponsors or fans. Torres, who was among the group, burst forward to introduce himself to my daughter. All those times he inquired about my family, he truly cared.

My identification with Torres was partly forged by a third party. Tim Flannery, the Giants’ third-base coach who’s a superb singer-songwriter, dedicated “Right Or Wrong,” a song from his new CD “The Restless Kind,” to Torres. The tune includes the lyrics, “It’s never too late to be the person you were meant to be.” All of us who feel incomplete — yet not inadequate — can relate to Flannery’s articulation of Torres’ resilience, fortitude and perseverance. If you believe you still can reach your tantalizing goals, you can appreciate Torres’ story.

I kept hoping last season that Torres would escape his yearlong slump, but it never happened. Angel Pagan, who the Giants acquired from the Mets for Torres, appears to be a more consistent performer. The Giants did what they had to do by engineering the trade.

It doesn’t matter. Torres has entrenched himself in my “interior stadium,” to borrow the title of one of Roger Angell’s finest works. Some players I’ll remember for their excellence; others I’ll cherish for their personality. Torres will stick with me for many reasons, but mostly just because I felt lucky to know him. Yes, Andres, my family is fine. And in a way, you’ll always be part of it.

Chris Haft

Giants might be eyeing OF Ludwick, or vice-versa

Monday, Dec. 5

DALLAS — Add Ryan Ludwick to the list of free-agent outfielders who might intrigue the Giants.

The Giants were believed to have scheduled a meeting Monday with Ludwick’s agent, Dan Horwits. Ludwick earned $6.775 million last season but might be more affordable than that this winter, even on the open market.

A right-handed batter, Ludwick thrived in 2008-09, when he hit .283 with 59 home runs and 210 RBIs for St. Louis. When the Cardinals sent him to San Diego at the 2010 Trade Deadline, Ludwick remained productive, as he was batting .281 with 11 homers and 43 RBIs in 77 games at the time.

Since that deal, however, Ludwick has hit .229 with 19 homers and 101 RBIs in 198 games for San Diego and Pittsburgh. He batted .237 with 13 homers and 75 RBIs overall last season. The 33-year-old’s on-base percentage has dwindled each year since 2008, from .375 to .329 to .325 to .310. His slugging percentage also has declined annually, from .591 in 2008 to .447 to .418 to .363.

Ludwick has performed adequately at AT&T Park, where he owns a .265 batting average (22-for-83) in 23 games. His total of five home runs in 83 at-bats by the bay indicates that, unlike many hitters, the ballpark’s dimensions don’t intimidate him.

Other free-agent outfielders to whom the Giants have been linked include Coco Crisp and Josh Willingham. They also were thought to be interested in David DeJesus before the A’s traded him to the Cubs, and in Grady Sizemore before he re-signed with Cleveland.

Chris Haft