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A Baseball Fan’s Early Lesson

September 28, 2013

The 2013 baseball season is coming to an end this weekend.  All eyes are on the wild card race over in the American League.  The playoffs will begin next week and Bay Area fans will be watching the Oakland A’s, who have taken the entire baseball world by storm for the second season in a row with their slugging, solid pitching and manager Bob Melvin’s magical touch with player platoons and bullpen moves.  The San Diego Padres, who are bumping around the National League West Division cellar with the Giants and Colorado Rockies, will be out on the field with the Giants through Sunday.  The Giants defended their World Series pennant well through the end of May, but lost all ground in June through August, when they won only thirty-one games.  By Labor Day they were in dead last in the division, twenty-one games behind the first place Los Angeles Dodgers.

But September has been different for the Giants.  If we could take out the summer months, the season would have a whole new mark on it.  The team is 15-10 during the month and has been playing much better than they have in a long time.  The team just took two of three from the Dodgers and were in a position to win the third game.  The entire series had a playoff atmosphere – if you did not know the division standings, you’d think the Giants and Dodgers were battling for the title.  It was fantastic baseball all around and the Dodgers will be “tuned up” for their pennant race as a result.

Giants fans always remember series against the Dodgers, but will hold this one at the top of the list.  We watched two of our Cy Young award pitchers, Barry Zito and Tim Lincecum, quite possibly pitch for the Giants for the last time.  Both pitched excellently and the Giants won both games.

Zito joined the Giants in 2007 from the early-day Money Ball Oakland A’s, where he named as the American League’s best pitcher in 2002.  He was coveted by the Giants and was awarded an eye-popping seven-year contract that the A’s would never (nor could) sign.  Lincecum, who was signed out of college, also joined the Giants in 2007.  He was named the National League’s best pitcher in his first full two seasons in the major leagues.  He has struggled the past couple years, but still shows us that he knows how to pitch.  The game as it is, it is time for a reset for both players.  Zito, at thirty-five years old, will quite possibly simply leave the game altogether.  Lincecum is a free-agent and there may be other teams willing to outbid the Giants.  Time will tell, but as much as he has meant to the team and the fans, the front office will decide this and money will dictate.

Giants fans couldn’t get enough of these two guys this week.  Packed houses cheered for them loudly and with gratitude.  They even gave Lincecum a standing ovation for a (perfectly placed) sacrifice bunt.  But fans want to do this again, particularly with Zito, who was replaced in the game by a pinch-hitter and so did not walk off the mound to a curtain call roar that fans prefer for such moments.  There’s all sorts of speculation on what can be done to remedy this.  Some are suggesting that on Sunday, give Zito one more start and let Lincecum come in from the bullpen in relief.  That does not seem likely, but that’s my choice.  Bruce Bochy suggested Thursday that he’s thinking about finding a spot role for Zito this weekend.  I hope he does.

You see, Barry Zito is my “favorite player” and has been for a long time.  “What?,” you ask.  “A favorite player?  What is this – 1965?”

Well, let me restate it.  I really like watching him pitch.  I remember the first time I watched him pitch, when he was with the A’s.  I had never heard of him and was telling someone about it the next day, but still was not sure that I had the right name.  I just told the story about the big twelve-to-six curve ball from the kid on the A’s whose name starts with the letter ‘Z’.  It was a beautiful pitch and froze hitters, who couldn’t figure it out.

But I like watching most soft-tossing lefties who challenge hitters with big curve balls that also make their fast balls hard to hit.  It’s sixty feet and six inches of poetry in motion.  And of course, if the guy is throwing for your team, it’s easier to watch when he’s locked in.  I stuck with Zito during the many rough patches he endured as a Giant.  When the curve ball wasn’t fooling as many batters as we liked and the whole town was wondering just what were the Giants thinking when they made this guy a millionaire many times over, I still pulled for him.

The baseball part of it was still a fun pastime for me.  Not everyone can pitch consistently over long careers like Greg Maddux or Steve Carlton.  But there is more to it than that for me.  Barry Zito is my “favorite player” because of the person he that he is.  This all goes back to N, and another fellow, Al Spangler.


Ernie Banks in a 1970 Chicago Tribune photo. He is affectionately known as “Mr. Cub.”


Fergie Jenkins won at least 20 games for the Cubs six years in a row, 1967-1972. He worked fast, struck out a lot of batters and finished what he started – he completed more than 20 games during all of those years, including 30 in 1971. He drew the big matchups of the time – Marichal, Seaver, Gibson.

I fell in love with baseball as a kid in the Chicago suburbs.  We of course had two teams in Chicago – the Cubs and the White Sox.  I cheered for both, but the Cubs were my team.  I could read all about both teams in the paper of my parents’ choice (and mine too), The Chicago Tribune, which had a very good sports section.  As a side benefit to the lucrative paper route that I had, I could also read what seemed by comparison like a muck-racking tabloid, the Chicago Sun Times.  This paper had no place in my parents’ house, but out there on the suburban streets, I could take a peak for myself.  The font was different, the ads seemed a little bigger and bolder and the headlines seemed to scream louder.  There I was, a twentieth-century version of today’s American walking down the street with his eyes glued to a smart phone.  Only, I had my newspapers instead.  Due to the tabloid design of the Sun Times, I could walk my early morning route and start at the back page to work forward through the sports section or start at the front for the headlines and lead stories.  This wasn’t as easy to do with the Trib, which was a broadsheet and therefore would not have a crisp feel to it on the customer’s doorstep if I was too ambitious with it.  Nobody wants to reach out their front door for a morning newspaper that has already been read.


Billy Williams owned left field at Wrigley Field. He played in more than 150 games 12 seaons. He was soft-spoken and very talented, with a beautiful left-handed swing. Before stepping into the batter’s box for each plate appearance, he would spit into the air and then hit it with his bat as it fell to the ground.

The Cubs had some good lineups back then.  There were plenty of players to cheer for and a number of stars.  My favorite players as a kid were the usual cast, I suppose – Ernie Banks, Ron Santo, Billy Williams and Ferguson Jenkins.  These guys were really good baseball players.  They were recognized then and now as some of the best of their era.  It was easy to cheer for them as a kid, because the rewards came often.  It’s this type of experience which deludes sports fans that there is a causal relationship between talking to the TV and a player’s heroics.  When we cheered, Banks and Santo hit one out to Waveland Avenue or Williams yanked one out to Sheffield Avenue.  When we crossed our fingers, Jenkins struck out Hank Aaron or Willie McCovey in the ninth inning.  The clutch performances from these talented ballplayers could reinforce a youngster’s idea that he just might have a role in all of this and cultivated the art of baseball superstition at an early age.

Santo 3

Ron Santo was a gold-glove third baseman and a power hitter with many heroic hits. He played with passion, often getting into arguments with the umpires. As far as Cubs fans were concerned, he was always right – just why couldn’t the umpires see it that way?

So you could imagine my wonder when I asked Norman about his favorite players and he told me, “Al Spangler.”  Spangler played in the major leagues for thirteen years, but did not have a distinguished career.  He had a good batting average and could field his position, but was never a star.  He was a role player for a good part of his career and would be called off the bench to give somebody a day off or to pinch-hit.  While there’s nothing more thrilling than seeing a pinch-hitter get a hold of a pitch and deliver a timely hit, it never occurred to me to put a guy like that at the top of the list.


Al Spangler was a part-time player with the Cubs for four years. He was one of ours, but playing on team with a lot of stars, he was not in the headlines all that often.

But I wanted to hear more about this, since this was coming from N.  He was my cousin (second cousin, if I understand lineage ordinals).  When I was young, he was the coolest guy that I knew.  I was his kid cousin who shared some common interests with him and I always enjoyed his company.  Norman explained to me that of course he liked the other players – everyone wants the stars on their team – but he liked pulling for Spangler because he imagined how spectacular it felt for him when he got the big hit or made the big play.  He wanted Spangler to succeed.  I guess he liked pulling for the underdog.  Like other moments with Norman, this one stuck with me.

Baseball has changed a lot since then.  It’s three parts big business and one part a game.  We’ve mostly cheered for uniforms the past couple decades because players come and go.  The pampered lives and big money alienate many of them from the guy in the stands.  So when I see a guy like Zito, I stick with him.   He’s a standup guy and has never once pointed a finger when he wasn’t playing well.  His teammates say that they have never heard him say a negative word about anybody.  Bochy couldn’t be more complimentary about his work ethic and conscientious approach to the game.  Our announcers in the booth can’t say enough good things about him and the professional manner that he brings to the yard everyday.  The team’s general manager, Brian Sabean, said yesterday, “We learned a lot from his time here, and our pitching staff has [sic]. And, quite frankly, when we needed him the most, he helped us win the World Series. I find great satisfaction and solace in that. He’s a great person; he was a great professional in a Giant uniform, and he’s going to be missed for a while.”


Barry Zito has been a long-time supporter of St. Anthony’s, who has been providing hot meals for the homeless in San Francisco for over sixty years.

And we could stop here and you might say, well so what?  Well for me, there’s a shortage of these qualities all around, and they are very becoming on a wealthy man playing a kid’s game.  But another important part for me is the charitable spirit he brings to the community.  Zito helps out many who need the help.  He is the founder of an organization called Strikeout for Troops, which donates money to injured service members and their families.  He is very active with the organization and spends time and his own money helping these folks in their time of need.  He is also funds cancer research, including the work of The Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, in Seattle, where he received an award given to those who present honor, courage and dedication on and off the field.  Zito also donates to the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, Muscular Dystrophy Association, Special Olympics,  Make-A-Wish Foundation, and to organizations working on global illiteracy and organ donation.


A serviceman shows his respect for Barry Zito in one of the early days of Strikeout for Troops.

Zito isn’t an underdog.  And since I never watched Spangler play as an adult, I have a hard time finding any meaningful comparison between the two of them as people.  But my cool cousin gave me an early life lesson on being a baseball fan.  It’s a beautiful game and I like when my teams win.  But there is a lot more to it for me than picking a winner and riding them until they fail.  I’ll have nothing of the MLB’s hyper-promotion and relentless propping up of its chosen stars.  I’ll take a champ like Zito, instead.  It’s been decades since I have been in the kid’s business of picking favorite players.  Instead I have my favorite people in the game.  You could say that Barry Zito is my favorite person in baseball.

  1. Zito isn’t getting too many batters out with Nashville this year; not yet anyway, but his teammate Pat Vindette the ambidexter is….seems like it’s only a matter of time or an injury before Oakland calls him up. I hope so anyway. I didn’t know you were from Chicago suburbs. I’m biased being from Milwaukee suburbs, but we had three teams in the Cubs-White Sox and Brewers and maybe it wasn’t New York 1940’s, but close enough to me. I sinned and loved all three teams. I’m not in the habit of recommending books or music and what not unless I know someone a little but since Santo Jenkins and Banks are represented here, there’s a great national film board of canada documentary about Fergie and the Cubs 1972-73 called King of the Hill. I usually watch it in winter after the roar of the regular season fades….if you haven’t seen it, maybe you can store it away for November 2015. I enjoyed your post.


    • I will absolutley take a look at the film. Ferguson Jenkins was our ace and we always liked watching him play. He pitched quickly, as if he had somewhere to go. No fussing, just rear back and throw another strike. It didn’t matter who the opposing pitcher was, we knew Jenkins would compete. Thanks for mentioning it.

      Zito pitched well his last time out – 3 hits in 7 innings. It’s hard to see how they find a spot for him on the major league team this year, but stranger things happen over a long season. He pitched a 1-2-3 inning against the Giants in Oakland during the weekend pre-season series. Nothing out of the infield. Two standing ovations from Giants and A’s fans alike. That may be the last time we see him on the field. I hope not. I’d love to see him return and play a key role. Baseball seasons need fun stories like that.


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