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SAN FRANCISCO -- It is almost lunch time, and the streets in downtown San Francisco are deserted. Stores and shops are shuttered. Local restaurants are boarded up with trash strewn in front of their doors.
This was once one of the most lively, fashionable and diverse cities in America, and now there are sections of downtown that look like something out of a science-fiction movie, turning this beautiful city into a ghost town.
COVID-19 has changed the way of life in San Francisco.
The pandemic chased residents away, lucrative companies closed their offices, and many firms have instructed their employees to keep working from home until next year.
“Downtown is hollowed out,’’ San Francisco Giants president Larry Baer said. “In a normal day, there would be a million people within walking distance or a five-minute Uber or cab to our ballpark. We are 5% of that now, 50,000 people compared to a million.
“We have an urban ballpark, but we don’t have an urban life. Urban life still hasn’t returned because the employers haven’t returned. People just aren’t going back to their offices. Facebook has two towers just 10 minutes from here, and less than 5% of the people are working there, and not coming back until January at the earliest.’’
Yet, in the midst of this fear, anxiety and despair that COVID has created, there are the Giants.
In a time where folks in this city are in desperate need of joy, trying to find respite from their everyday struggles, the Giants have provided a place where neighbors can gather at the corner of 2nd and King, cheer on their ballclub and wash away their troubles.
There will be about 41,000 fans congregating at Oracle Park Thursday night (9 ET, TBS) trying to will their beloved Giants to victory in the winner-take-all Game 5 of the NL Division Series, taking down the team they love to hate, singing the familiar chant: “Beat LA!’’
“I was taught at a young age,’’ Giants All-Star shortstop Brandon Crawford, “not to like them.’’
Beating the Los Angeles Dodgers and moving onto the National League Championship Series isn’t going to revitalize the San Francisco economy, but, it could sure ease some pain.
The atmosphere at Oracle Park in Game 1 of the Division Series was so electric, so euphoric, the Giants players were swept up by the bliss. They couldn’t stop talking in the dugout about the crowd. Baer looked around the stands, not believing what he was seeing.
“I was emotional, I was tearful watching it,’’ Baer said. “I was thinking how far we’ve come, how hard we worked, from the front-line workers to the public health. It has been really, really, really, hard.
“I think there’s a lot of people in this community kind of climbing Mount Everest to get back. And no matter far we go, it’s incredibly fulfilling as a community to see where joy interjected at this time.’’
Giants players and coaching staff, remembering the days of the cardboard cutouts last year, and the small groups of fans early this season, could barely contain their enthusiasm watching their own fans act like real fans again.
They saw strangers high-fiving one another. People reaching across aisles to hug one another. Even dancing together after their Game 1 victory.
“It’s so great to see people back, obviously, we missed that a ton last year,’’ Giants third baseman Evan Longoria said. “There was some reluctance early in the year with everything kind of up in the air, whether it was vaccine mandates or mask mandates or capacity limits. But as the season went on, you’d see more and more people at the ballpark.
“And after seeing all of those people at the ballpark the first two games of our series, it’s definitely the loudest I’ve heard here.’’
It was 2010, 2012, 2014, all over again, the Giants’ World Series years, but even louder, Baer says. The energy might have topped the atmosphere from all of their postseason games during their three championship runs.
“Arguably, it was the best feeling in the ballpark than any of our postseason games in ’10, ’12 or ’14,’’ Baer said. “I just think it was this catharsis, almost like coming full circle.’’
Said Giants third base coach Ron Wotus, who has been on the coaching staff for the past 24 years: “It was certainly as good as any night I can remember. The crowd was into it. People were so happy to be there. I don’t know if it had to do with COVID, or whether it was the Dodgers, or how good the game it was, but there was so much energy.’’
It was a far cry from early this season when the Giants had sparse crowds with their capacity limited to 8,000 fans. Even when they were permitted to have full crowds beginning June 25, they weren’t selling out games. They didn’t have their first sellout until September, despite playing in one of the most gorgeous and energetic ballparks in baseball, and having the best record in baseball.
There was a genuine fear of being surrounded by strangers, unknowing who was vaccinated and who wasn’t. Public transportation was drastically reduced, with the last buses and trains stopping as early at 9 p.m, or about the seventh-inning stretch.
The result was an average attendance of 20,374, ranking just 12th in the major leagues, and lowest in the ballpark’s 22-year history.
“Even when we opened this year,’’ Baer said, “people had to be in socially distanced pods 6 feet apart. Couples had to sit away from each other.
“So, it was almost like a good news/bad news thing. The good news is that fans were coming to the game again. The bad news is that you couldn’t high-five your neighbor. That isolation was still there.’’
Now, the boisterous crowds are back, the ballpark is rocking, and the fans are rolling, with the Giants helping bring a struggling community together.
“I think most gratifying thing is that we all have something to come together and celebrate,’’ Giants manager Gabe Kapler said, “given what we all went through together over the last two calendar years. It has been a challenging time. People need things to take their mind off what’s going on. They need a break.
“Baseball helps provide that, and I think our club, with the way we’ve performed, has provided that to fans. I know that we’ve made a difference.
“That means absolutely everything to us.’’
Follow Nightengale on Twitter: @Bnightengale
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: NLDS Giants-Dodgers: S.F. playoff run brings community together