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Welch hinted at greatness quickly at ‘Stick

Great moment No. 1 in the late Bob Welch’s career was, of course, his strikeout of Reggie Jackson that sealed the Los Angeles Dodgers’ triumph over the New York Yankees in Game 2 of the 1978 World Series.

Great moment No. 2 for Welch very well could have occurred during that same year. It was a performance against the Giants that helped re-establish the Dodgers’ footing in the National League West.

Saturday, Aug. 5 dawned with the Giants leading the West by two games over second-place Cincinnati. Los Angeles, the reigning division champions, occupied third place, 4 1/2 games behind the Giants. The Dodgers appeared to be reeling, having slipped closer to fourth place (San Diego trailed them by four games) than first.

Then Bob Welch took the mound at Candlestick Park.

The Giants clearly were overdosing on momentum. They captured one-run decisions in the first two games of a four-game series against the Dodgers. The pitching matchup for game three of the series seemed to favor the Giants. Ed Halicki, a 16-game winner the year before who had a respectable 3.03 ERA this season, opposed Welch, a rookie making his 13th Major League appearance but just his fourth start. Surely, San Francisco would teach Welch what the Giants-Dodgers rivalry was about.

It didn’t happen that way. Welch pitched his first Major League complete game, allowing nine hits in Los Angeles’ 2-0 victory. In a dress rehearsal for his confrontation with Jackson, Welch struck out Jack Clark, the Giants’ premier slugger, with two runners on base and one out in the ninth inning. The Giants remained in the division race through early September. But the Dodgers did more than just hang around. Welch’s victory began a 20-6 surge that helped propel Los Angeles into first place.

As the saying goes, you never get a second chance to make a first impression. Anybody who saw Welch pitch that afternoon sensed that he would make an impact. He certainly did, as his career attested. If more pitchers like him come along, baseball fans should be so lucky.

Chris Haft

Sandoval’s big day: Illusion or the real thing?

Sunday, April 27

SAN FRANCISCO — False alarms signaling Pablo Sandoval’s hitting resurgence have sounded on a handful of occasions already this year.

Thus, any enthusiasm over Sandoval’s outburst of offense (2-for-4) in the Giants’ 4-1 victory Sunday over the Cleveland Indians must be tempered. He’s still hitting only .180.

But the season is so young that just a few big games will restore Sandoval’s batting average to respectability.

Sandoval insisted that he’s not dwelling on his statistics. “I don’t look at my numbers. The only thing I care about is winning,” he said Sunday for about the fifth or sixth time this year.

That’s a wise comment from a guy who’ll become a free agent at the end of this season. But why be cynical? All of us who have watched Sandoval since he ascended to the Giants late in the 2008 season believe in his baseball passion and his hitting ability.

Sandoval’s production at the plate in the series finale against Cleveland indeed appeared to be the start of something big. Batting left-handed against hard-throwing Indians right-hander Danny Salazar, Sandoval drilled his fourth-inning double into the left-field corner before scoring on Brandon Crawford’s double. In Sandoval’s next plate appearance, he singled to right-center on a 2-2 pitch — his first hit of the season on a two-strike count. Was this the vintage Sandoval who sprays line drives to all fields? It certainly seemed that way.

Maybe it was just a coincidence that Barry Bonds, who needs no introduction, visited the Giants clubhouse on Sunday.

Speaking to Manolo Hernandez-Douen, the excellent Spanish-speaking baseball writer, Sandoval said he recently scrutinized videotapes of his at-bats and observed, “I see what I was doing wrong.” The next few games could reveal whether Sandoval truly has righted those wrongs.

Chris Haft

Celebrate! Celebrate! Kuiper’s HR to be observed

 

SAN FRANCISCO — One might be the loneliest number, as the song says. But not for Giants broadcaster Duane Kuiper, whose lone Major League home run will be celebrated Friday at AT&T Park with a bobblehead giveaway, courtesy of Comcast SportsNet Bay Area.

“Look — the numbers don’t lie,” Kuiper said Thursday, one day before the Giants open a six-game homestand against the Cleveland Indians, the team Kuiper spent his first eight Major League seasons with — hence the promotion’s timing. “It’s not like you can go back to your career stats and go, ‘Wait, you guys are full of it. I hit a bunch of home runs.’ ‘No, you didn’t. You hit one.’ So you have to play with it. You have to have some fun with it. If I had hit two, there’s no bobblehead [Friday] night. … You can tell when people are trying to be mean-spirited about it. And for the most part, people are never mean-spirited about it.”

That’s at least partly due to the popularity Kuiper has built since becoming a Giants broadcaster in 1987, two years after his playing career ended with San Francisco. Said Kuiper, “I’ve been a broadcaster in this market for, what, 25 or more years? I’m quite sure that’s got more to do with it than anything else. I’m quite sure that if I had gone into selling cars, I don’t think there would be a bobblehead night for me.”

Kuiper insisted that he never was a home-run hitter — not even in high school, where future Major Leaguers typically dominate their competition. “I’m from Wisconsin,” Kuiper reminded. “We played 10 games (a season).” Kuiper estimated that he hit one home run in high school, four or five while playing for Indian Hills Community College in Centerville, Iowa, and one at Southern Illinois Universiy.

“I wasn’t allergic to hitting them,” said Kuiper, who finished with a respectable .271 career Major League average. “But my swing wasn’t the type of swing where you were going to pull a lot of balls. I hit a lot of balls to the opposite field.”

Frank Robinson, who managed Kuiper in Cleveland (and later in San Francisco), ordered his No. 2 hitter to put the ball in play and abandon any thoughts of home runs. That might have tempered Kuiper’s power, which he unleashed on Aug. 29, 1977, in the first inning at Cleveland Stadium against White Sox right-hander Steve Stone. Kuiper’s first-inning drive off Stone, who began his career with the Giants and also became a broadcaster, would stand alone among his 3,754 big-league plate appearances.

“If it stays in the air, you’re not going to play,” Kuiper said, recalling Robinson’s dictum. “Which, I know now, was total baloney. But at that time, anything he said to me, in my mind, was God’s word.”

– Chris Haft

Giants’ No. 2 hitters once gave opponents the Willies

Friday, March 14

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — The presence of a No. 2 hitter who doesn’t fit that profile tends to generate concern among Giants fans. If you’re among these folks, I’m not here to belittle you; I’ll try to convince you not to worry when somebody like Brandon Belt or Michael Morse occupies the second position in the batting order.

Granted, the Giants hitter who best suits that role, Marco Scutaro, could be sidelined with back pain when the regular season begins. But manager Bruce Bochy most likely would fill the second spot with Brandon Crawford or whoever replaces Scutaro at second base.

And what if Bochy decides to hit Belt second? It’s not such an awful choice, due to Belt’s ability to make contact and spray hits to all fields. But conventional wisdom dictates that Belt probably will settle somewhere in the middle of the order.

Whatever happens, don’t feel as if the world has spun off its axis. Back, back, back when ballplayers wore flannel uniforms and road trips routinely lasted two weeks or more, two of history’s most formidable hitters occasionally batted second for the Giants.

That’s right. Willie Mays and Willie McCovey.

Mays hit second in the lineup 120 times in his career, including 102 games as a San Francisco Giant. McCovey occupied the No. 2 spot in 74 starts.

But what relevance do the batting orders of (for example) the 1964 Giants, who used Mays and McCovey in the second spot 14 and nine times, respectively, have for the 2014 Giants? Well, consider this: If this year’s lineup proves to be as deep as the Giants hope, elevating a big bat into the second slot might make sense if Belt, Morse, Buster Posey, Hunter Pence and Pablo Sandoval are all hitting proficiently (Bochy pointedly said the other day that Morse will NOT bat second).

That’s apparently why Mays and McCovey hit second as often as they did. The managers of the Giants in that era, Bill Rigney and Alvin Dark, faced the enviable task of trying to figure out daily how best to deploy Mays, McCovey and Orlando Cepeda — who, by the way, never hit second in any of the 2,028 games he started.

Rigney liked hitting Mays second so much that he dropped The Peerless One into that spot 45 times in 1959. Dark saw fit to write Mays’ name second in the lineup on quite a few occasions during the Hall of Famer’s third- and fourth-most-prolific home run seasons: 17 times in 1962 (49 homers) and 14 times in the aforementioned ’64 campaign (47 homers). McCovey hit second 15 times in 1963, when he and Hank Aaron shared the National League lead in homers with 44 apiece. In 1966, his second of six consecutive seasons with more than 30 homers, McCovey started in the No. 2 spot 16 times.

Productivity wasn’t an issue for either man. In 559 career plate appearances as the second hitter, Mays batted .300 with 34 homers and 85 RBIs. Kind of like an average season for him during his Say Hey-day. McCovey batted just .259 in 343 plate appearances in the second slot but mashed 23 homers.<p/>

Certainly it’s essential for Bochy to arrange his hitters in a sequence that enables them to complement each other best. But history suggests that if Willie Mays or Willie McCovey proved suitable here and there for the second spot, Bochy has room for creativity.

Chris Haft

Minicozzi’s baseball mantra

Wednesday, March 5

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Mark Minicozzi’s saga is so multidimensional that it can be chronicled in several ways.

One small but illustrative aspect of Minicozzi’s baseball life that I couldn’t wedge into today’s story (http://mlb.mlb.com/news/article/sf/mark-minicozzi-travels-improbable-road-back-to-giants?ymd=20140305&content_id=68768810&vkey=news_sf) was a framed poster he mentioned that hangs on his wall at home. It’s a motivational print called “Between The Lines” that depicts an infield, from the center-field vantage point. The photo is black-and-white — except for the infield’s inner-grass portion, which is tinted green.

Printed beneath the photo are these words, which Minicozzi told me he read daily for inspiration:

“When I step between the lines, I become a legend. With my head held high and hat to my chest, the words ‘Oh say! can you see,’ remind me of what I am: A catalyst of tradition, striving to measure up to the heroes from past and present. Through countless hours of dedication and hard work, I live my dream. My heart is filled with true love for this game knowing I, too, could be one of the all-time greats. I exist solely to experience the senses that are unmistakable and sacred to ‘America’s Game.’ The smell of freshly cut grass. The distinct sound of a ball meeting the bat. Sensations of holding the glove to my face as the sun warms the back of my neck. These are the immortal rewards in baseball. This passionate game has created who I am, a member of an elite group: The Boys of Summer. Then I hear those timeless words of ‘PLAY BALL!’ which once again remind me game time has arrived. It has always been at this very moment, between these lines, that I become frozen in time, when I am pure! And now, as the sun paints another beautiful picture of our national pastime, my heart begins to question who the better player will be today. Who has worked harder? Who will be tougher? Who wants it more? No matter who this may be, the humbling game of baseball will neither care nor remember the next time we step Between The Lines.”

Kind of makes you wish you could grab your glove and play in a game, doesn’t it?

Chris Haft

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

Giants fans bound to dwell on Candlestick finale

Sunday, Dec. 22

SAN FRANCISCO — For a lot of people, the fact that a National Football League game will be played Monday night at Candlestick Park is merely incidental.

The featured performer, as many fans believe, is Candlestick itself, that object of derision which has prompted tidal waves of nostalgia with the approach the 49ers-Falcons game — most likely the last major sporting event held at the 53-year-old park.

The tender feelings fans have expressed toward Candlestick on websites, in newspaper forums and on radio talk shows shouldn’t be misinterpreted as wishes for a revival. Everyone knows the 49ers need a new stadium, which awaits them in Santa Clara, and everybody has long embraced AT&T Park as the Giants’ home since they left Candlestick following the 1999 season.

Why have Candlestick’s final days stirred such emotion? Simple: For Bay Area sports fans, the stadium has become something of a patriarch: Aged, gray, incapable of performing tasks its younger counterparts can, yet somehow imposing due to its history and undeniable strength (example: its resolute response to the Loma Prieta earthquake before Game 3 of the 1989 World Series). His time has come and gone, but the old man shall forever remain a member of the family.

Giants fans are especially prone to these feelings. Because the Giants endured so many abysmal seasons at
Candlestick, and because it was such a trying place for baseball spectators (that’s putting it mildly), those who visited the park regularly — whether to watch Gaylord Perry or Allen Ripley, J.T. Snow or J.R. Phillips — mostly were genuine fans who truly loved the sport, the Giants or both.

To these zealots, Candlestick became oddly special. No wonder that this second and final goodbye to Candlestick has been especially intense for many Giants fans. Essentially, nothing in their lives has changed or will change when Candlestick is demolished. But the patriarch — visible from a safe, happy distance on drives along Highway 101 — will disappear, making that inevitable transition from reality to memory.

Revel in those memories, Giants fans. Celebrate what you saw, what you experienced, what Russ or Lon or Hank or Ron or Jon or Kruk & Kuip told you.

Maybe you’ll attend Monday’s game and revisit a particular spot at the stadium that remains significant. Maybe, like me, you’ll stare at the top row of the upper reserved seats in Section 5, remember sitting there for Game 1 of the National League Championship Series and continue to wonder how Dad got tickets.

And you’ll devour a Polish sausage for old times’ sake.

And though it’s a football crowd, you’ll long to hear that passionate, unbridled roar of the fans, real fans, rise from the stands over and over.

Again, I sense that football will be only incidental for a small but meaningful percentage of people watching Monday’s game, whether they do so at Candlestick or on television.

These will be the folks who’ll behold Candlestick one last time and recall rushing to the players’ parking lot to gaze at Willie Mays’ pink Cadillac, or who got golf-ball-sized goosebumps just watching Mays saunter into the on-deck circle, his uniform as elegant as a tuxedo.

Monday’s game is for them.

It’s also for anybody who thinks the city’s finest spans are the Golden Gate Bridge, the Bay Bridge and Willie McCovey stretching at first base for a throw.

It’s for anyone who refused to leave his or her seat whenever Clark — that’s Jack or Will — was due to bat.

It’s for anybody spellbound by the talents of the Bondses, pere et fil.

It’s for anybody who marveled at Juan Marichal kicking his left leg toward those impossibly high light towers in the middle of his marvelous motion.

It’s for anybody who played Little League, high school baseball or anything in between against one of Jim Davenport’s sons.

It’s for anybody who still can summon Jeff Carter’s voice in one’s internal public-address system.

It’s for anybody who paid 90 cents — NINETY CENTS — to sit in the bleachers.

It’s for people who emptied mothballs from their warmest clothes to attend a game in July or August.

It’s for fans who supported John Montefusco with the same ardor they now reserve for Tim Lincecum.

It’s for folks who loved to debate who was the better closer (Rod Beck or Robb Nen) or double-play combination (Chris Speier/Tito Fuentes or Jose Uribe/Robby Thompson).

It’s for people who, however briefly, ignored Candlestick’s flaws and appreciated the game in front of them.

It’s for everybody who’s focused on what’s important — the present — yet will always treasure the gifts of the past.

Chris Haft

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