On Opening Day, and hope

April 6, 2022

There was Will Clark, then Barry Bonds, then Buster Posey. But in the beginning, there was Dan Gladden.

I have images in my mind from before 1986 — a preschool teacher, a playground, my younger cousin wearing cowboy boots — but 1986 is the year of my first vivid memory in motion, one where I can place myself in time and space, where I have consciousness.

I’m in Candlestick Park on a sunny day, sitting on the first base side, about 20 rows up, just at the depth where infield turns to outfield. I don’t remember my mom and dad being there, but they must have been. I look out over the field and there, sprinting from center field toward left, crossing in front of the chain link fence, is a player in a brilliant white Giants uniform, number 32, with long blonde hair streaming out from under his cap, chasing after a ball in the gap. Dan Gladden. I’m pretty sure I knew then that it was Dan Gladden, because my parents recall I would pretend to be him. And therefore, it had to be 1986, because Gladden was on the Twins in 1987.

Will Clark was the first baseball player I knew was great. He deserved the 1987 National League MVP award more than Andre Dawson did — true, 15 to 20 players were more deserving that year than Dawson, but Clark was among them. In his second MLB season, he hit .308/.371/.508 for a 152 OPS+ and actually improved in the second half. In September and October of that year, over 109 plate appearances, he hit .359/.454/.707.

I remember going to more Giants games that year, and understanding that the Giants were in the playoffs against the Cardinals, who had a really good shortstop and a first baseman whom Giants fans would boo lustily. My dad recorded the 1987 National League Championship Series games on Betamax tapes, so for years afterward I was able to watch Games 5 and 6 over and over again. At that time, all I knew was that Clark was the Giants’ best player: a really good hitter, a solid fielder, some kind of team leader, who wore eyeblack and scowled in concentration.

The Giants lost that series in seven games, and even though Clark hit .360/.429/.560, he was overshadowed on his own team by Jeffrey Leonard, who was named NLCS MVP on the losing team by hitting .417/.500/.917.

Clark was also probably the best player on the 1989 National League champion Giants team, but his teammate, Kevin Mitchell, won the NL MVP because he hit 47 dingers to Clark’s 23, never mind that Clark did just about everything else on the baseball field better than Mitchell.

That year, the Giants lost to the Oakland A’s in a World Series disrupted for two weeks by a massive earthquake that forced my family to move into my grandmother’s home for some weeks. We were on our way to Game 3, driving down a hill, when I looked out the window of the car and saw a parked pickup truck bouncing three feet in the air. My dad thought a wheel had fallen off the car, so he stopped, then saw the telephone poles shaking. When the shaking stopped, we kept going to Candlestick, but realized things were really bad when we saw people streaming out of the stadium, and then saw on a portable television in the parking lot that a section of the Bay Bridge had collapsed.

In any event, the A’s were undeniably cool. Mark McGwire had amazing forearms. Jose Canseco was the first 40-40 guy. Dave Stewart was “I’m Gonna Kick Your Ass” personified. And Rickey Henderson might have been the coolest guy in all of Major League Baseball, what with the stolen bases, the wraparound shades, catching lazy fly balls by slapping them out of the air with his glove, and hopping out of the batter’s box and trotting thirty feet outside the baseline whenever he hit a no-doubt home run.

The Giants weren’t cool. Mitchell was known as a sort of wild card from his time with the Mets and Padres, and though he’d harnessed his considerable talents at the plate that season, and he caught a fly ball with his bare hand, I didn’t know anybody who wanted to be Mitchell the way we all wanted to be McGwire, Canseco, or Henderson. Clark was kind of cool, but not like the A’s were cool. Clark had a cool batting stance, a cool swing, and a cool game face, but he was also a redass whose swagger felt out of order with precisely how good a ballplayer I felt he was. In retrospect, I was underrating him, as did the broader baseball public for much of his career. I recall we were happy to see him on All-Star teams but after 1989 never seriously considered him an MVP candidate.

In 1993, Barry Lamar Bonds signed MLB’s most lucrative free agent contract to play for the Giants, and he joined Clark and Matt Williams to form a powerful lineup. Bonds won the MVP batting fifth most of the year behind Clark and Williams, the Giants won 103 games and failed to make the playoffs, and after the season Clark departed for Texas via free agency.

It’s no stretch to say that during his 15-year tenure in San Francisco, until the very end, he was either clearly the best baseball player in the world or certainly among the top three. And yet, even though the Giants moved to a picturesque waterfront ballpark (Candlestick was by the water, too, only you’d be forgiven for not realizing it after they closed the bowl, and because it was surrounded by parking lots), and even though they added a complementary star in Jeff Kent, and stalwart regulars like J.T. Snow, playoff appearances remained few and far between, and fans never learned to expect them.

Bonds’s last season with the Giants, and his last season in MLB even though he was undoubtedly still one of the best hitters in the game, was 2007. The Giants went 71-91 that year, and I moved to North Carolina that summer.

The next season, 2008, was a dark time. Tim Lincecum won his first of back-to-back Cy Young Awards, and Matt Cain was pretty good, but the team only improved by one game, to 72-90. The next year, 2009, they went 88-74 behind a dramatically improved pitching staff. No, really: they were shockingly dependent on pitching and defense, so much so that Pablo Sandoval, Andres Torres, and Juan Uribe were the only regular hitters with an OPS+ over 94.

But at the end of 2009, a new hero emerged. Gerald Dempsey Posey III, better known as Buster, was possibly the best hitter in college baseball the year he was drafted fifth overall by the Giants, which was all the more impressive because he was a catcher with a good defensive reputation who’d been converted from shortstop, and he also occasionally served as Florida State’s closer.

In 2010, Posey won Rookie of the Year, and the Giants won their first World Series in San Francisco. He missed much of 2011 to injury, then won NL MVP and another World Series title in 2012. Finally, in 2014, he led the team to a third championship.

In North Carolina, there was hardly anyone else to share my happiness. In 2010, my future spouse and I went to a bar to watch one of the World Series games and were the only ones out of about 30 people there who were interested in MLB’s championship series. The audio was set to a college football matchup.

When the Giants won in 2012, I whooped alone in my living room. My spouse snapped a picture of me twirling in delight.

In 2014, we had a newborn in October, so my co-pilot slept while I stayed up to rock the baby and watch Madison Bumgarner do superhuman things.

Buster wasn’t the best performer in any playoff series. He was excellent at the plate in the 2010 World Series, good in 2012, and dreadful in 2014. But for his entire career — from 2010 through 2021 — the Giants were his team.

When I lived in North Carolina, I understood all of that, and I watched dozens of Giants games each year, but I didn’t really feel it. That’s because certain flavors of fandom can only be experienced communally, in proximity to other fans. My parasocial relationship with Buster Posey couldn’t be the same as many of my San Franciscan friends’ relationships with him because they were constantly around other people who loved him more or less as they did. It couldn’t be the same as my relationship with Bonds, or my relationship with Clark, because Posey wasn’t in my oxygen the way they were when I lived in the city.

The 2022 MLB season is upon us. The Giants are set to retire Will Clark’s number this season after gradually increasing his visibility as an organizational ambassador over the past decade. Barry Bonds has largely stayed out of the spotlight after a stint as the Marlins’ hitting coach, though he still shows up to Giants games and sits in the field boxes, looking like he could still hit .240/.370/.430. Buster Posey retired and said he would move back to the Southeast, where he has family in Georgia and, presumably, can live a quieter life raising his young children.

I don’t know who will represent the next era of Giants baseball for me, or if it will even be a single person, or if this era will last very long. Perhaps it will be Logan Webb. Maybe Carlos Rodon. Maybe Gabe Kapler.

The traditional metaphor for Opening Day is rebirth. In the midst of spring, hope blooms. Hope that this is the year your team wins a championship, or contends for a championship, or gives you reason to keep hoping for a championship someday. But it’s a bit more than that. It’s hope that your favorites win a championship, whether that’s a player or a coach or (God help you sickos) a front office employee. It’s hope that when they win a championship, you will share that joy with fellow travelers who know and understand your journey, buffeted by fate though you may be, whether those are parents, siblings, spouses, co-workers, passersby on the street — where two or three are gathered in your team’s name, that hope is there among them.

(Photo: "Posey at Bat" by Don DeBold. Used under CC BY 2.0 license.)