Renteria’s winning home run comes full circle

ARLINGTON, Texas – Edgar Renteria(notes) massaged the pearl in his hands, caressed the cowhide. He was not quite sure what else to do with the ball that won the San Francisco Giants their first World Series. He probably should’ve hunted for disinfectant.

The ball had traveled a pair of unlikely routes Monday night. The first was 397 feet through the air, off Cliff Lee’s(notes) cut fastball, emanating from Renteria’s bat. Five weeks ago, Renteria was talking retirement. Now he was smacking a three-run home run off a postseason deity.

Edgar Renteria was talking retirement five weeks ago. Now he's walking away with the World Series MVP hardware. (Getty Images)

The second path was far less linear. It started in the bullpen, where a group of relief pitchers leaned over a railing and urged the ball to fly to them. Go, ball, go. Get here, they said, yelling themselves hoarse. When it did fly over the fence, into an alcove next to where the Giants stood, Billy Hayes negotiated its retrieval from the man who plucked it off the ground.

Hayes is the Giants’ bullpen catcher, and he gets what that five-ounce orb means. It unlocks more than five decades of frustration and heartbreak and urges them to leave, because in a place where the San Francisco Giants are champions of baseball – honest-to-goodness kings following a 3-1 victory over the Texas Rangers gave them a 4-1 series win – there is no room for poisonous thoughts. Life is good.

So good that Hayes thought nothing wrong of the vessel with which he brought Renteria’s home run ball back to its rightful owner.

“My nose was running a little bit, so I was blowing my nose on this washcloth, and I stuck it in my pocket,” Hayes said. “I don’t think I snotted too good on it, so I put the ball in it.”

Just more proof that winning isn’t the only thing the Giants do ugly. From their cobbled-together roster to their popgun lineup to their lucky charm – first baseman Aubrey Huff’s(notes) red thong underwear – the Giants are proof positive that aesthetics need not accompany championships. San Francisco did a whole lot wrong in the last few years – keep Barry Bonds too long, sign Barry Zito(notes) to a $126 million contract, bury the superlative Buster Posey(notes) in the minor leagues for the first two months this year – and they still popped corks and showered in beer and tore up the field at Rangers Ballpark in an homage to themselves.

They were “castoffs” and “misfits,” in the words of their manager, Bruce Bochy, though that’s only half-true. Their everyday lineup? Well, yeah. The Giants’ pitchers, on the other hand, spent the last two months handcuffing almost every hitter they faced, major leaguer after major leaguer flummoxed by nonpareil arm after nonpareil arm. This championship is a paean to pitching, something recognized from every disparate piece in the clubhouse.

“We have calm guys, excited guys, weird guys, normal guys,” reliever Jeremy Affeldt(notes) said. “It’s like a collage of personalities, a mosaic of people who want to win baseball games.”

They fit together more like a Jackson Pollock piece than artwork that makes any sense, and Renteria personified the Giants during the World Series. His MVP performance came after a regular season in which he went to the disabled list three times, lost his starting shortstop job, contemplated leaving the game at 35 years old and drew a unanimous assessment from scouts: They didn’t think he had it anymore.

“Me, either,” Renteria said.

Certainly not like 13 years ago, when Renteria won a World Series for the Florida Marlins with an 11th-inning single in Game 7 that still prompts those in Cleveland to curse him. He’s older now. Heavier. Grayer. And has just the same knack for enraging cities with the mere mention of his name.

Lee nearly carved his way out of the jam into which the Giants put him with back-to-back singles to lead off the seventh. Aubrey Huff laid down the first sacrifice bunt of his career – a testament to just how difficult runs were to come by with Lee and Tim Lincecum(notes) savaging hitters – and Pat Burrell(notes) whiffed for the second out. On the way back to the dugout, Burrell turned to Renteria, standing in the on-deck circle, and said: “C’mon, baby.”

Lincecum sat in the dugout with a towel on his head. Bochy fixed his glare on the field. The bullpen fidgeted. Texas fans chanted, “Let’s go, Rangers.” Renteria dug in. Lee stared him down. Aaron Rowand(notes), with only one at-bat this series prior to Monday, waited on deck. The Rangers challenged Renteria anyway, and on a 2-0 pitch at 8:44 p.m. local time, the biggest home run since the Giants moved from New York bookended Renteria’s career.

“I just feel good,” he said. “When you feel good, when you see the ball good, something can happen. You don’t lose nothing if you don’t swing it. In the World Series, it do something. My level gets higher.”

Out came Lincecum the next inning, amped as ever, and though he gave up a home run to Nelson Cruz(notes), it mattered not. His eight-inning, three-hit, 10-strikeout masterpiece capped a postseason dominated by arms, particularly those in Giants uniforms. Matt Cain(notes) finished the playoffs with a 0.00 ERA. Rookie Madison Bumgarner’s(notes) eight shutout innings in Game 4 were every bit as dominating as Lincecum’s clincher. The Rangers finished the series with 29 hits. The Giants scored 29 runs.

“Everybody’s done their part,” Lincecum said. “Everybody’s been a hero on a given day. And what a great [expletive] team.”

Great may be excessive. This was a good team with great pitching and a propensity to coax great feats from its players. From Cody Ross(notes) to Aubrey Huff to Andres Torres(notes) to Freddy Sanchez(notes) to Juan Uribe(notes) to Posey and especially Renteria, the Giants marched through Atlanta, dispatched Philadelphia and toasted Texas. Only an epic San Diego collapse and a pitching-fueled surge allowed the Giants to win the NL West in the first place.

Once they reached the postseason, though, their strengths overwhelmed their weaknesses, and the Giants transformed into a juggernaut. How they failed to win championships with Willie Mays, Willie McCovey, Orlando Cepeda and Juan Marichal for more than half a decade still nipped at fans. Why they couldn’t parlay Bonds’ talent into a World Series victory in 2002 left them chewing on lemons. No, the Giants’ futility didn’t match the Chicago Cubs’ or the Cleveland Indians’. That didn’t lessen its ache.

So they went mad in San Francisco, and if Proposition 19 passes Tuesday and legalizes marijuana in California, the city might well collapse from joy. The Giants’ dugout nearly did as the players traipsed through it hugging each other as the clubhouse attendants readied the locker room for their celebration. Once plastic sheets adorned the walls, they bounded up the stairs, some yelling, others shaking their heads, a few bellowing: “We nailed it!”

It was a phrase Burrell coined soon after his arrival with the Giants, and it’s so simple and straightforward, it caught on.

“When you nail something, you do it to perfection,” said Brian Wilson(notes), who closed out the Rangers in the ninth, “and this was nailed.”

Much like Lee’s fateful cutter, a pitch he’ll rue the rest of his career. The game effectively ended on that pitch, and with it, too, began Renteria’s career as all-time hero in San Francisco. Surely he’ll gather some write-in votes for governor, and though he was noncommittal about his future, if he wants a job, he’ll get one somewhere.

For now, he was plenty content savoring his ball. Hayes took the snot-rag-wrapped package, stuffed it in a bag with his gear and celebrated with the rest of the team. It wasn’t until 10:52 p.m., a little more than two hours after he connected, that Renteria was re-introduced to the piece of history he created.

When he finished looking at the ball, he shoved it inside his Louis Vuitton satchel. Though this was far from the first famous ball that came off Renteria’s bat – he also hit the comeback to Keith Foulke(notes) that ended Boston’s championship drought and put the Red Sox and Doug Mientkiewicz(notes) at loggerheads – it meant the most.

Renteria plans to take it home and put it in his trophy case, front and center. And he won’t bother washing it, either. No sense in ruining such an apropos memento for the 2010 San Francisco Giants, contradictory champions they are: so ugly, and so, so beautiful.

Jeff Passan is a national writer for Yahoo! Sports. He is the co-author of the book "Death to the BCS: The Definitive Case Against the Bowl Championship Series," which following five printings of the first edition was re-released in a second, updated edition in October. Follow him on Twitter. Send Jeff a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Tuesday, Nov 2, 2010