SAN FRANCISCO – To understand what Wednesday's World Series parade through the streets of San Francisco will mean to lifelong Giants fans, you probably have to start with geography; with the confluence of longitude and latitude that creates the fog-swept romance, eye-watering views and quirky hills of the city this team has called home since 1958.
It's a helluva place, San Francisco.
I admit. I'm biased. I grew up 6 miles north of the Golden Gate Bridge, in an impossibly idyllic town called Mill Valley, in the shadow of a graceful mountain called Tamalpais. Coastal Miwok Indians gave it that name because its signature ridges resembled a "Sleeping Lady." If you drive or hike the 2,571-foot peak of Mount Tam, you can gaze down at a unforgettable sight: the entire panorama of San Francisco. From there, you can watch the snow-white fog creep in, through the narrow passage of water called the Golden Gate, linking San Francisco Bay to the mighty Pacific Ocean. You look past the architectural marvel that is the Golden Gate Bridge, and thank whatever forces rule this universe that your seed happened to germinate here, in the region called the Bay Area, with San Francisco at its center.
I've traveled to a lot of places in this world. Never seen a place like ours.
This place, well, it shapes your soul, is what it does.
So, yeah. We do "civic pride" here pretty well.
Thus is the wellspring of all the intense emotion you felt through your TV sets when you watched Giants playoff games at AT&T Park this October. We love this place. And we love anything that has to do with this place – from the soothing clang of a cable car bell to the memory of Joe Montana rolling to his right to the muffled sound of a foghorn at night to, yes, the baseball played by the 2010 World Series champions.
We understand that other American cities are marvelous; that New York is the most exciting place in the world; that Boston's historic pedigree is second to none; that New Orleans is the most joyous party on Earth; and that Seattle rivals San Francisco for sheer physical beauty. But our love is parochial, and when we have a chance to exhibit that love, well … you have 43,000 people, full-throated, in the middle of the 8th inning of a World Series Game 2 on an October night at Third and King, belting out the lyrics to a 32-year-old Journey rock anthem:
"When the lights go down/In the City
And the sun shiines on the Baaaayyyyyy …"
Oh. I mentioned Third and King. That is the address of AT&T Park, after all, and we are here to talk about baseball at some point, right?
Understanding the intense affection The City and the Bay Area and all of Northern California had for the 2010 Giants is tied to all this: to civic pride and joyous recognition that we are so lucky to call this place home. Understanding the affection for this team also must bring into account history, because it runs deep here.
A huge part of living in the Bay Area for so many Giants fans is appreciation for the generations and generations and generations that came before us. While San Francisco – and particularly, the ever-dynamic Silicon Valley 20 miles south – is defined by its constant welcome of newcomers, there is also the deep backdrop of history for so many families, history that goes back to the Gold Rush of 1849. When San Francisco became the jewel of the West in the mid 19th-century, when there was gold in them thar hills, and when the Transcontinental Railway began its construction Westward, so many current Giants fans had ancestors come to this place when horse-drawn carriages roamed Market Street. Chinese faces … Irish faces … Italian faces … these three strands of immigrants wove the fabric of this town, and for so many Giants fans, when they wear a hat with 'SF' on its crown, or a jersey that says 'GIANTS' on the front, they are representing a place that means something to their families, and has for a century-and-a-half, even through the devastation – and perhaps because of – felt in 1906 and 1989, when the earth shook and the sky burned.
There is another important strand at work here: The Giants are not the first baseball team to make The City – yes, we capitalize the 'C' – love the game. From 1903 to 1957, San Francisco was defined by its Pacific Coast League Seals, and for some of our grandparents and great-grandparents, the Seals will always be their first love, ahead of the interlopers from New York. Seals Stadium, at 16th and Bryant, was where San Franciscans cheered on Joe DiMaggio and Lefty O'Doul and Ferris Fain and Tony Lazzeri, City legends all. Seals Stadium was where parents went on first dates, and where young boys arrived on Sunday afternoons in street cars, clutching golden tickets to a ballgame, intoxicated by the smell of the bread factory across the street and the sight of a ballfield in the middle of the City.
The San Francisco Giants' most beloved figure – no, not shaggy-haired Tim Lincecum(notes), or blackbeard Brian Wilson(notes), or Accidental Giant Cody Ross(notes) – is Mike Murphy, the clubhouse manager since 1958. "Murph" was there in Texas after the Series win. He called Willie Mays on the phone, even. And where did Murph get his start? As a batboy with the Seals in the mid-1950s.
So against this backdrop of history and civic pride and baseball played in this town for over 100 years, there was one thing missing: a championship.
It was the only hole in an otherwise blissful existence as a San Francisco baseball fan, where East Coast-like fan passion, along with heavy jackets, carried us through freezing, marijuana-scented nights at Candlestick Park, and through ever-enduring taunts from Dodgers fans – and, yes, Oakland Athletics fans – that our franchise, our beloved franchise, had never won a World Series.
We had Stretch and the Say Hey Kid and the Dominican Dandy and the Baby Bull and Jack the Ripper and The Count and Will the Thrill and Mitch and Hac Man and Bar-ry, Bar-ry, Bar-ry … but we never had a championship. Instead, we had McCovey's line drive in 1962; an earthquake in 1989 and Game 6 in Anaheim in 2002. We had, as they call it so fondly here now, "torture."
I used to half-joke with any Dodger fan or A's fan friend: "It's easy to root for a team that wins championships. It takes character to stick by your guys when they don't!" Half of me still loved the Giants and The City and the park and the fans because we never won one. Half of me felt like not winning a Series made us fans tougher, made us more loyal.
Truth is, if it ever came, all our invested emotion and generational history would make any Series title that much more rapturous. As the Irish say: What's rare is wonderful, eh?
And then came the 2010 Giants. In a City that embraces open lifestyles, the star pitcher was picked up for pot possession in the offseason – and spawned a cottage industry of "LET TIMMY SMOKE" T-shirts. In a town where many come for a new start, the castoff first baseman announced he'd wear a red sparkly thong all through September and October. And in a town where Beatniks roamed North Beach with signature facial hair a half-century ago, the closer dyed his woolly beard jet black.
Most important, they played great baseball. They pitched: Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain(notes), Madison Bumgarner(notes), Brian Wilson. They played defense with Freddy Sanchez's(notes) range, and Andres Torres'(notes) legs. And when they needed to, they hit: Juan OOO-REEBAY hit every clutch homer you'd ever want. So did Edgar Renteria(notes), the aging warrior on his last stand.
They were just carefree enough, and just gritty enough and just underdogs enough and just invincible enough to recall comparisons to the holiest of sports analogies in our town: The 49ers of 1981, the first Super Bowl champions.
Those '81 Niners with Joe and Dwight and Ronnie and "The Catch" and The Genius were the first sports team to make us feel this good about being San Franciscan sports fans, about shining on the stage for all to see.
That emotion you will see in today's parade? That hasn't been felt since then. Back then, it was the same wellspring: history, pride, family. Today, the same principles apply here, above the blue and windy sea.
Geez, I feel like I need to get in my car and drive back up to Mount Tam this week, late afternoon, perhaps. Maybe gaze back down on it all. And cue up the iPod to Journey's "Lights."
You're welcome to sing along.