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People absolutely loved Jim Ray Hart

Monday, May 23

I have relatively few recollections of Jim Ray Hart, whose death was announced last Friday, but the most vivid one is timeless as well as priceless.

I attended a twi-night doubleheader on June 18, 1971 against the Padres at Candlestick (thank you, baseball-reference.com) in which Hart made a pinch-hit appearance during the nightcap. By then, the skills of the Giants greats of the 1960s were beginning to decline. Yet the players’ popularity remained intact. And on this night, I fully realized how much the fans loved Jim Ray Hart.

Hart had just been promoted from Triple-A, where he was attempting to revive his game. Noticing No. 16 materialize in the on-deck circle, the crowd immediately began cheering, expressing tribute as much as anticipation. The noise grew as more spectators realized that Hart would bat. By the time the dulcet-toned public-address announcer Jeff Carter introduced Hart, the audience was delivering a full-fledged standing ovation.

Hart swung violently, almost wildly. He did so until he struck out. The fans briefly murmured in disappointment before showering another ovation upon Hart as he returned to the dugout.

Hart avoided the many Giants alumni functions that the club conducted. Yet everybody remembered him. When Bill Neukom was named as the franchise’s managing general partner in 2008, he remained reserved during most of an interview I had with him — understandable, since we didn’t know each other at all. But when I asked Neukom to cite his most enduring memories about growing up on the Peninsula as a Giants fan, he grinned and, with gusto, recalled the joy of watching Hart hit.

One ex-Giant I tried to interview for the obituary/appreciation I wrote on Hart was too aggrieved to talk. I approached this gentleman in person, and I quickly noticed that the creases in his face were brimming with tears. Best to leave this man alone with his emotions.

The two former Giants I managed to speak with, Ken Henderson and Jack Hiatt, were eloquent in their own way. Referring to Jim Davenport’s recent death, Hiatt said, “Two of our third basemen are together now.” Henderson’s immediate reaction upon learning of Hart’s passing was one of fondness. “What a good old soul Jim was,” he said.

For many, the memory of Jim Ray Hart will never go down swinging.

Chris Haft

Opening Day spinoffs boost Giants

MILWAUKEE — Some facets of the Giants’ sparkling 12-3 Opening Day victory Monday over the Brewers were overlooked — understandably so, but they still deserve recognition. Here goes:

* The defense was solid. That is, the Giants made the plays they should have made.

With the bases loaded, one out and a run in, Madison Bumgarner coaxed Aaron Hill’s inning-ending double-play grounder, which Brandon Crawford handled without fuss. The Brewers had a chance to break the game open at that juncture, but Bumgarner and the infield collaborated on a rally-killing play.

Some folks may have laughed at left fielder Angel Pagan’s four-hop throw that somehow reached home plate before Scooter Gennett, who was trying to score from second base on Domingo Santana’s single. This was another play that could have mushroomed into a big inning for Milwaukee had the Giants not apprehended Gennett at the plate. Give Pagan a break. He’s still adjusting to his new position, and at least he didn’t completely botch the throw.

* Amid the noise of the Giants’ four home runs, first baseman Brandon Belt quietly had an excellent day at the plate. He went 3-for-4 with a pair of doubles and a walk. He also crossed up the defensive shift commonly used against him by drilling a third-inning RBI single to left field.

* Four relievers — George Kontos, Cory Gearrin, Hunter Strickland and Josh Osich — threw a scoreless inning apiece. None of them issued a single walk.

Chris Haft

Bonds has examples to follow

Friday, Dec. 4

SAN FRANCISCO — Barry Bonds sounded passionate when he spoke of perpetuating the hitting lessons he learned from his father, Bobby, and his godfather, Willie Mays. What lessons they must have been! Bobby Bonds was perhaps the most talented player of his time (if you don’t believe me, ask anyone who played with or against him), and Mays … well, nothing more really needs to be said.

During Friday’s conference call trumpeting his hiring as the Miami Marlins’ batting instructor, baseball’s all-time home run leader said that he wanted to convey “what my father taught me and what my godfather taught me.”

If Bonds accomplishes this, he’ll do just fine in his new job.

Listening to Bonds awakened a couple of memories that might be nothing more than anecdotal. Juxtaposed with what he said, however, maybe the memories have some meaning.

Bonds emphasized his awareness of the need to “be in the trenches” with his pupils, to be willing to work endlessly with them. This brought back a scene I witnessed in 1996, which was Bobby Bonds’ final year as the Giants’ hitting coach. Navigating the catacombs of Cincinnati’s Riverfront Stadium / Cinergy Field — I covered the Reds then — I almost literally stumbled upon the elder Bonds working with Robby Thompson on his stroke hours before a game. I hesitated ever so briefly before leaving them to their business. Yet during my pause, I took a mental photograph of the scene, fascinated as I was by the intensity of their work. Given the stature of these men and my respect for them — as well as the inescapable reality that this was another horrible Giants team (the last one for a while, actually) — I captioned this snapshot “Last vestiges of Giants pride.” Melodramatic, to be sure, but I didn’t know that Jeff Kent, J.T. Snow and Shawn Estes were on their way.

Fast-forward nine years and shift the scene to Spring Training, where Barry Bonds was testing his injured right knee by taking extra batting practice at Scottsdale Stadium. In fact, it was believed that Bonds aggravated his ailment by hitting too much that day. He ultimately missed the season’s first 142 games. For most of this session, though, Bonds looked sharp, until he figuratively stepped in quicksand and hit a succession of popups and weak grounders.

Watching every round of Bonds’ BP was the great Mays, seated on a folding chair by the third-base side of the batting cage so he could scrutinize his godson’s hitting mechanics. Interrupting Bonds’ spate of bad swings, Mays barked some brief instructions. Bonds re-settled himself in his stance and hit a line drive. He pulled the next pitch over the right-field wall. He yanked the following pitch into the picnic area. He belted the succeeding pitch even farther, into the Giants’ bullpen.

Bonds descends from a lineage of fearsome hitters. The Marlins are fortunate to be adopted into his family.

Chris Haft

Pence, Posey upbeat; Vogelsong’s farewell address (?)

Sunday, Oct. 4

SAN FRANCISCO — A season-ending attitude check with Hunter Pence and Buster Posey, two of the Giants’ biggest cornerstones, revealed that their optimism for 2016 already has begun to develop.

Limited to 52 games this year by various injuries, Pence still expressed genuine enthusiasm over the season’s developments.

“I think you look at the bright spots,” Pence said. “What (Matt) Duffy’s been able to do, Kelby Tomlinson, (Josh) Osich, (George) Kontos, the whole bullpen — (Sergio) Romo, (Santiago) Casilla. We have a really good look going into next year.”

Posey elaborated on the potential of Duffy, the first rookie to win the Willie Mac Award.

“It was just the simple thing of showing up every day,” Posey said. “He was ready to play. You didn’t hear him complain or make excuses. He’s just a ballplayer. The consistency that he was able to have on a daily basis as a rookie hitting third most of the year, the confidence — I could list a lot. I’ve become a big Matt Duffy fan watching him the last six months.”

For the last few weeks, Posey’s view of Duffy has been across the diamond, while the three-time All-Star catcher has played primarily first base in Brandon Belt’s absence. Many continue to believe that Posey soon will switch permanently to first. Posey politely yet firmly reiterated where he stood on the issue.

“I want to do whatever Boch (manager Bruce Bochy) and management (thinks) gives us the best chance to win,” Posey said. “But I still definitely enjoy catching. That’s where I want to be — to my wife’s dismay.”

**********

The Giants didn’t give Ryan Vogelsong the ball. They did, however, give him the mike, which enabled him to please fans one last time.

Though Bochy used a franchise-record (for a nine-inning game) 11 pitchers in the Giants’ 7-3 loss to Colorado, Vogelsong was not among them. Yet the impending free agent was the only player who received the opportunity to address the crowd after the game before the team tossed autographed baseballs into the stands to cap Fan Appreciation Day.

As always, Vogelsong gave the crowd his best. He spent what could have been his last moments in a Giants uniform reaffirming that his true colors are orange and black.

“I will always, always be a Giant,” the popular right-hander said, drawing huge cheers.

For the second offseason in a row, Vogelsong appears unlikely to return to the Giants. This time, a split just might occur. He wants to start and the best role San Francisco conceivably could offer him is long relief if they jettison Yusmeiro Petit.

Wherever Vogelsong goes, he made it plain where his heart lies.

Chris Haft

Brown far from blue over handing ex-favorites loss

Monday, Sept. 28

SAN FRANCISCO — Often, it’s the little twists in the plot that add flavor to the Giants-Dodgers rivalry. Consider, for instance, Trevor Brown, the rookie catcher whose two-run double in Monday’s second inning propelled the Giants to their 3-2, 12-inning triumph.

Brown was born and raised in Newhall, Calif., about 30 miles away from Los Angeles. You can guess the rest. He grew up rooting for the Dodgers. Then the Giants selected him in the 10th round of the 2012 amateur draft.

“As soon as I got drafted, that was an immediate change,” Brown said.

Following the Buster Posey route as a converted middle infielder, the 23-year-old Brown has accomplished more than just assimilating himself into Giants culture. Roused from the early days of his offseason hibernation on Sept. 16 when the Giants realized that they needed more personnel depth, Brown has quickly made a positive impression.

“Brownie’s got a lot of confidence,” said Giants right-hander Jake Peavy, Brown’s batterymate on Monday. “Brownie feels like he belongs. The moment’s not too big for him. He’s a smart kid. He’s educated and he’s not letting the situation get the best of him. He’s playing baseball. The lights are bright out there in these situations … Pretty impressive what he’s done to step in with the poise he has, and obviously, deliver a huge hit tonight off the National League’s best.”

That would be Zack Greinke, the Dodgers co-ace who’s 18-3 with a 1.68 ERA. Brown maintained a calm approach to connect for his big hit.

“I was just trying to relax as much as I could,” said Brown, who has six hits in his last 12 at-bats. “I was looking for a fastball that whole at-bat and I finally got one there at the end.”

Chris Haft

Silence conveys Bumgarner’s competitiveness

Saturday, Sept. 19

SAN FRANCISCO — Even in defeat Friday night, Madison Bumgarner continued to enchance the legend that he established during last year’s World Series, when he transformed himself from being a big league pitcher into a symbol of endurance, energy and determination.

To listen to Bumgarner’s brief remarks after the Giants’ 2-0 setback at the hands of the Arizona Diamondbacks was to fully realize how much the man hates losing. He expressed more with what he didn’t say than with what he actually said — which wasn’t much.

Bumgarner delivered the kind of performance that made him a celebrity last October. As usual, he threw with precision, issuing 72 strikes among a season-high 117 pitches. As usual, he threw with distinction, allowing Arizona the game’s only pair of runs largely because left fielder Alejandro De Aza couldn’t prevent Paul Goldschmidt’s sixth-inning double from darting to the corner, though the ball appeared to be within his reach. The miscue enabled A.J. Pollock, who probably would have stopped at third base, to score.

Skeptics believing that Arizona might have scored without the error, had the runners remained on second and third with one out, should refer to the previous inning, when Yasmani Tomas lined a leadoff triple between center fielder Angel Pagan and right fielder Marlon Byrd (another preventable play). Bumgarner marooned Tomas at third by not allowing the next three batters to hit the ball out of the infield.

Bumgarner was disappointed at least and steamed at most after his seven-game AT&T Park winning streak dissolved with his first home loss since June 12 against Arizona. He pitched more than well enough to win, but San Francisco’s Pence-, Panik- and Aoki-less batting order made D-backs starter Rubby De La Rosa resemble Zack Greinke. Bumgarner received scant offensive or defensive help, the Giants took a huge step toward confirming October vacation plans, and Bumgarner didn’t feel like elaborating on any of it.

Asked whether he wished he could do anything differently in the sixth inning, Bumgarner didn’t take the bait like most pitchers who say that he would have preferred to throw certain pitches in different spots. “There were a couple of runs that scored — yeah, I’d like to have those back,” he said.

Bumgarner said little about his eighth-inning repartee with Goldschmidt, when he intentionally walked the D-backs slugger and mouthed to him that it wasn’t his idea. Nor did Bumgarner talk much about his stuff.

I asked Bumgarner a question which wasn’t particularly insightful but, I hoped, would maintain a dialogue. Did stranding Tomas at third base give him momentum? “I don’t know about the momentum, but that’s the goal right there, though,” Bumgarner replied. “That was good to be able to do, but — that’s my goal, to get guys out and get out of that situation. It’s hard to say momentum changed.”

In other words, Bumgarner did his job. His teammates didn’t, so he absorbed a defeat he didn’t deserve.Bumgarner didn’t need to say anything. His performance spoke for itself. The futility of his teammates, who weren’t worthy of his excellence, also resounded around AT&T Park for the game’s two-hour, 56-minute duration.

Chris Haft

Candidates for ‘Willie Mac’ Award abound

Sept. 2

LOS ANGELES — Among the many great aspects of the “Willie Mac” Award is that, each year, the recipient is the man who should win. Examples include Ryan Vogelsong in 2011, when he completed his ascent from anonymity to All-Star; Buster Posey in 2012, advancing toward Most Valuable Player status one year after sustaining his horrific left leg injury; and Madison Bumgarner in 2014, when he won the “Willie Mac” vote even before he dominated the postseason.

It’s easy to explain the award’s legitimacy. Its primary electorate, consisting of Giants players and coaches, are keen judges of character and consistency. They invariably make the right choice in determining the club’s most inspirational player, which is a simplified definition of the honor that’s named for iconic first baseman Willie McCovey.

However, this year’s vote promises to be more intriguing than most, if only because there’s a relatively large number of Giants who could win. That reflects the volume of high-quality people on the roster.

Here’s an alphabetically ordered look at potential candidates to become the next Willie Mac winner, who will be named before the Friday, Oct. 2 game against Colorado at AT&T Park (previous winners are excluded, for simplicity’s sake):

Nori Aoki. He has remained productive while surviving two incidents of being hit by pitches, including a beaning. It’s extremely evident that he gets the most out of his ability.

Gregor Blanco. San Francisco’s fourth outfielder appears destined to record personal bests in several offensive categories. Meanwhile, he has remained humble, upbeat and confident, all McCoveyesque traits.

Santiago Casilla. Many fans dwell on what Casilla can’t do. The Giants focus more on what he CAN do — maintain a strong clubhouse presence and convert about 80 percent of his save opportunities.

Brandon Crawford. A “homegrown” organizational product, Crawford received the payoff for his ceaseless diligence by ascending to All-Star status this year. Besides, he grew up rooting for the Giants. Can you picture him wearing any other uniform?

Matt Duffy. Not only has he exceeded expectations while solidifying third base, but he’s also displaying Major League toughness by playing through the discomfort caused by a sprained right ankle. McCovey, who hit 521 home runs while fending off constant knee trouble, would approve.

Chris Heston. The right-hander has overcome bone spurs in his elbow and the indignity of being designated for assignment. Now, even without the no-hitter he threw at New York on June 9, he’d rank among the most indispensable members of the pitching staff.

George Kontos. A model of perseverance, Kontos is on the brink of finishing his first full big league season — and a successful one, at that — after dividing the previous four years between Triple-A and the Majors.

Javier Lopez. Off the field, he carries himself with dignity and behaves with class. On the field, he’s so proficient that nobody wants to face him. He’s another current Giant who matches McCovey’s description well.

Don’t forget Billy Pierce’s Giants deeds

Aug. 1

ARLINGTON, Texas — Some obituaries of Billy Pierce, whose death at age 88 was announced Friday, mentioned as an afterthought that he pitched for the Giants from 1962-64.

That would be akin to citing Cody Ross or Pat Burrell as afterthoughts when recalling San Francisco’s 2010 World Series champions. Or downplaying Marco Scutaro’s achievements in 2012 down the stretch and in the postseason.

Pierce properly will be remembered as a star for the Chicago White Sox. He spent 13 of his 18 Major League seasons with that club and accumulated 186 of his 211 career victories with the South Siders. But he had some magic remaining in his left arm when he joined the Giants in a six-player trade before the 1962 season.

Pierce finished 16-6 for the Giants in ’62, including a remarkable 12-0 in 12 starts at Candlestick Park. “He had a sneaky fastball and a great slider,” said right-hander Bob Bolin, Pierce’s roommate during his San Francisco tenure. “He could pump up and throw them by the big hitters.”

Pierce excelled when it counted most that year. He pitched a three-hit shutout against the Los Angeles Dodgers in the opener of a best-of-three playoff series, then saved the Game 3 clincher for the Giants with a perfect ninth inning of relief. He won another three-hitter in Game 6 of the World Series against the Yankees, forcing the dramatic seventh game that New York captured, 1-0.

Bolin recalled that as a show of gratitude, the Giants dug up the pitching rubber used at Candlestick throughout 1962 and presented it to Pierce before the following season.

Chris Haft

Giants eyeing Seattle righty Iwakuma?

July 25

SAN FRANCISCO — A high-ranking Seattle Mariners talent evaluator followed the Giants here from San Diego. Given the proximity of the July 31 non-waiver Trade Deadline, I highly doubt that this gentleman is comparing the quality of the concessions at AT&T Park and San Diego’s Petco Park.

More likely, the M’s scout is pondering which Giants might be worth asking for in a trade involving right-hander Hisashi Iwakuma, who’s said to be available in the right deal. The 34-year-old is among the Mariners’ most attractive commodities available in trade — which would suit the Giants as they strive to add a reliable starter to their rotation.

Iwakuma, who has missed most of the season with a strained lat muscle behind his right shoulder, has looked healthy lately. He has accumulated 20 2/3 innings in his last three starts while allowing only four earned runs (ERA in this stretch: 1.74), walking four and striking out 18.

Here’s what doesn’t fit: The Giants typically avoid “renting” players who are poised to become free agents. Iwakuma, who’s earning $7 million in the final year of a three-year deal, would be affordable for the rest of the season. But any club acquiring him would do so while knowing that he very well could be just a short-term asset. For the Giants, who have grown accustomed to winning, a brief boost might be all they want.

Chris Haft

With Aoki sidelined, install Belt in LF

Wednesday, June 24

SAN FRANCISCO — Nori Aoki’s temporary replacement in left field could already be on the active Major League roster, and it isn’t Gregor Blanco or Justin Maxwell.

It’s Brandon Belt.

The Giants might have to tolerate an occasional defensive misplay from Belt, who has vastly more experience at first base than he does in left. But the offensive potential that San Francisco would gain by having Belt in left, Buster Posey at first base and Andrew Susac catching eclipses any other alternative.

Simpler, more obvious options abound: Summoning Juan Perez or Jarrett Parker from Triple-A Sacramento and plugging one of them in a corner outfield spot while Blanco or Maxwell occupies the other. Or, playing Blanco in left and Maxwell in right every day.

These are “safe” combinations that would provide adequate defense. And we all know that the Giants are rooted in pitching and defense. For the short term, however, the Giants need to reclaim at least some of the energy they lost with Aoki’s departure due to a fractured right fibula. They’d accomplish that while keeping Belt’s bat in the lineup, receiving possibly enhanced production from Posey, who’s hitting .313 (15-for-48) as a first baseman and .281 (56-for-199) otherwise, and adding Susac, who’s 7-for-16 in his last five games. The Giants already have tried this without dramatic results, but now’s the time to throw full support behind this venture.

This also might be a good opportunity to keep Brandon Crawford in the upper half of the batting order. Previously, he has occupied the sixth, seventh or eighth spots in 54 of 65 starts. Heck, bat Crawford leadoff. He knows what he’s doing up there. Matt Duffy, who seems incapable of NOT getting meaningful hits when called upon, also can help compensate for the void left by Aoki. Manager Bruce Bochy has somewhat fulfilled his promise to elevate Duffy in the batting order. But the rookie third baseman still has hit seventh in five of his last eight starts.

Overcoming the simultaneous absences of Aoki and right fielder Hunter Pence certainly will challenge the Giants. “If we want to be the ballclub we want to be, somebody’s going to have to step up,” ace left-hander Madison Bumgarner said. They have men who can accomplish this, if they’re placed in positions to succeed.

Chris Haft

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