February 2014

Hailing Mays, anticipating Bonds

Saturday, Feb. 22

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — At about 12:35 p.m. local time Saturday, the pulse of the Giants began beating a little louder and faster.

That’s when Willie Mays returned for his annual Spring Training visit.

Mays, the greatest Giant of them all, needs no introduction. Certainly not here, definitely not among Giants fans and especially not in the San Francisco clubhouse, where seemingly everybody — from rookies to veterans, from reporters to team employees — suddenly wore a smile just because an 82-year-old walked into the room.

An exultant Mike Murphy, the venerable equipment and clubhouse manager, reveled in Mays’ presence. Crowed
Murphy, “Spring Training’s complete now! Willie’s here!”

Drawn to Mays as if the Hall of Famer were magnetized, Angel Pagan was the first player to greet the legend. Pagan, the current heir to Mays’ center-field throne, sat with the master for several minutes as they conducted an earnest conversation.

More Giants will approach Mays in the coming weeks. Or at least they ought to. Widely renowned as the
quintessential five-tool player, Mays possesses wisdom that would help any ballplayer. Even pitchers can benefit from talking to Mays. He, as much as anybody, knows how a formidable hitter should be set up, having been one himself.

This is a man with more to offer than a handshake or an autograph.

*****

Mays’ godson, Barry Bonds, surely will command attention when he serves his first guest-instructor stint with the Giants next month.

Say what you want about Bonds and whether he used performance-enhancing substances. The man prompts
widespread respect among contemporary ballplayers. He’ll find numerous would-be pupils eager to hear his hitting philosophies. And as for the steroid stuff, Mark McGwire broke the ice by becoming a full-time batting instructor. Bonds, baseball’s all-time home-run leader, is a potential asset.

As is the case with Mays, Bonds’ singular skill makes him valuable. As many of you can recall, he frequently received only one pitch to hit in any given game. He often drove that single pitch over the outfield wall. Bonds knew, and presumably still knows, exactly what kind of swing to put on a pitch to hit it effectively.

The Giants should hope that Bonds brings his attitude with him. A former hitting coach for a National League team (not the Giants) recently told me that his role was “to make sure that each hitter feels tough when he finishes batting practice.” The coach actually used a much more colorful term than “tough.” But you get the idea. Bonds almost always played and hit with a swagger that insisted, “I’m better than you.” Conveying that mindset to the Giants’ hitters will help them considerably.

Chris Haft

Lincecum 1, Landlord 0

Thursday, Feb. 20

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Giants right-hander Tim Lincecum recorded his first victory of the year when it was announced Thursday that he and a former landlord agreed to a $100,000 judgment in his favor. The development cleared Lincecum of accusations of property damage to the San Francisco townhouse where he resided during the 2010 season.

Mindy Freile, the landlord, sued Lincecum for $350,000 in damages. Lincecum denied her accusations and countersued.

In a statement released by Lincecum’s representatives, the Beverly Hills Sports Council, his attorney, Peter M. Bransten, said, “It’s clear from the landlord’s agreement that a judgment be entered in Mr. Lincecum’s favor that her claim to have sustained hundreds of thousands of dollars in damages was baseless. Regardless of the amount in issue, Mr. Lincecum will aggressively defend himself against all meritless claims.”

Lincecum said in the statement, “I am pleased with the result and believe that this was an attempt from the very beginning on the landlord’s part to take advantage of my public profile for financial gain. She kept the balance of my security deposit while making unsubstantiated claims of exaggerated damage. While litigation is something you always want to avoid, I will always defend myself against frivolous lawsuits.”

Chris Haft

Hudson aches along with Mulder

Sunday, Feb. 16

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Empathy was etched on Tim Hudson’s face Sunday as he spoke of his friend and former teammate, Mark Mulder.

Inactive since 2008, Mulder was attempting a comeback with the Angels. The left-hander’s dream was dashed Saturday when he ruptured his left Achillies tendon as he was about to throw his first bullpen session. Mulder hopes to try again in 2015, but that prospect appears dim at this moment.

So Hudson is the only remaining active pitcher among the Oakland A’s superb core of starters — himself, Mulder and Barry Zito — who dominated the American League from 2000-04. He wishes he weren’t alone.

Hudson sent Mulder a consoling text message. “I’m sure he’s dealing with a whole lot right now,” said Hudson, who signed with the Giants during the offseason. “I hate it. It makes me sick to my stomach. He’s really worked hard to try to get back.”

Praising Mulder’s gallant effort, Hudson concluded, “Not a lot of people could be in position to come back after five years of not playing the game.”

It’s worth recalling the greatness of Hudson-Mulder-Zito. Yes, “great” is overused. But the term applied to this trio.

Hudson joined the A’s in 1999; Zito performed for them through 2006. From 2000-04, when they occupied Oakland’s rotation together, they combined to post a regular-season record of 234-119. That’s a .663 winning percentage. During this span, they each won 20 games once and made the AL All-Star team twice. Hudson finished second in the AL Cy Young Award voting in 2000, Mulder did the same in 2001 and Zito won it in 2002.

Justifiably so, Hudson treasures his Oakland memories, judging from his reaction to Mulder’s misfortune. The fondness with which he spoke of Zito a couple of days earlier underscored his appreciation for his A’s days.

“He was a great guy and a great teammate when I was with him and everybody around here still has a lot of great things to say about him,” Hudson said of Zito. “I wish him the best. Man, I wish he was still here. If he were still here, I don’t know whether I’d be here. But it would have been awesome to be teammates with him one more time.”

Chris Haft

Sandoval passes eyeball test

Thursday, Feb. 13

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Pablo Sandoval was in a hurry due to a personal appointment and politely declined an interview request Thursday afternoon. “I owe you one,” he said before leaving the Giants’ Scottsdale Stadium clubhouse.

You owe me nothing, Pablo. Just play hard. And he looked ready to do just that.

Sandoval’s well-documented struggles with his weight may have ended. Make no mistake, he’s still a big guy. But the oversized gut was gone. His clothes seemed to fit smoothly. Those positive reports on social media about Sandoval’s off-season conditioning appear to have been valid.

Did Sandoval firm himself up because he’s eligible for free agency after this season and wants to cash in big by getting in shape for a productive year? Or was he tired of underperforming (.280 batting average, 26 home runs in 249 games from 2012-2013) and used professional pride to stoke his desire to improve?

We may never know the true answer. Moreover, we won’t know until the season unfolds whether Sandoval’s exercise program truly worked.

But on this day, at least, he passed the eyeball test. Let’s see how he does with his legs, a glove and a bat.

Chris Haft

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