Column: Giants are channeling glory days in their return to relevancy
I finally had a chance to catch up with Brandon Belt — or, more precisely, I finally had a reason to seek him out.
His team mattered again, the San Francisco Giants hosting the Dodgers on Friday night in the opening game of a three-game series with the teams tied for the first place in the National League West. The Giants won 3-2 in 11 innings to take the division lead.
The last time I spoke to Belt was the last time the Giants were relevant. That was five years ago.
The immensely likable first baseman blamed me for jinxing them in 2016 when I congratulated him at the All-Star game for the division title that they appeared bound to win. The Giants were in first place with a 6½-game lead over the Dodgers, who looked awful.
The Giants went on to lose 23 of their next 34 games, and the next time we saw each other, they trailed the Dodgers by a game.
“I was like, ‘This guy, he did that on purpose,’ ” Belt said at the time. “He’s a lifelong Dodger fan, probably.”
That was news to Andrew Friedman, and that was certainly news to me.
The Yankees and Red Sox have been touted as baseball’s best rivalry. The Dodgers and Giants could reclaim that title, starting with this weekend’s series.
In any case, the Giants never recovered. The Dodgers finished four games ahead of them.
Over the next three seasons, the Giants ended 40, 18½ and 29 games, respectively, behind the Dodgers. In the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, they were 14 games back.
The Dodgers’ greatest rivals had become the division’s crash test dummies.
So, what a pleasant surprise for the Giants to be where they were entering this series, the magnitude of which turned back the clock at Oracle Park. The place felt like as turbo charged as it did when it was called AT&T Park, recreating a distinct atmosphere the sport has missed in recent years.
Giants players were introduced before the game as Jay-Z’s “Roc Boys” played over the public-address system. Orange towels were waved everywhere in the stands. Some fans danced in the aisles between innings. Brandon Crawford still used San Francisco rapper Andre Nickatina’s “Jungle” as a walk-up song.
And when Crawford singled in the second inning, the first “Beat-L.A!” chant broke out down the left-field line. The battle cry quickly spread throughout the stadium. There was the eighth-inning stadium-wide sing-along to Journey’s “Lights.”
The Giants take sole possession of first place in the NL West with win over the Dodgers.
Giants manager Gabe Kapler noticed there were more reporters and television cameras for his pregame media session.
“A lot of excitement,” Kapler said.
Much had changed since September games here against the Dodgers counted for something, however.
For starters, it doesn’t smell like garlic fries any more. I’m told the longtime ballpark favorite continues to be sold, but the dominant aroma is that of popcorn.
The makeup of the crowd has also changed, with Yale-educated Dodgers beat writer Jorge Castillo estimating that about 20% of the fans were wearing blue.
The Giants have three World Series championships over the last 11 years and the Dodgers have only one, but Los Angeles fans are clearly convinced their team’s eight consecutive division titles make their franchise the most dominant in baseball. They made their presence here known with their unusually loud reactions to routine fly balls.
After Barry Bonds retired, the rivalry between the teams was defined by the aces of their pitching staffs, Kershaw for the Dodgers, Tim Lincecum and Madison Bumgarner for the Giants.
With Kershaw pitching a two-inning simulated game as part of his recovery from an inflamed forearm and previously scheduled starter David Price sidelined with an unspecified arm injury, the Dodgers opened the game with reliever Corey Knebel on the mound.
The Giants, who are now led by former Dodgers general manager Farhan Zaidi, are expected to start relievers over the next two games.
And if the Dodgers were now the team of Mookie Betts, Max Muncy and Justin Turner, the Giants were … what exactly?
Belt, Crawford and Buster Posey were recognizable holdovers from their glory days, but their unexpected success was viewed as a credit to previously undervalued players such as Darin Ruf and Mike Yastrzemski who were unearthed by Zaidi’s baseball operations department.
Dodgers pitcher Trevor Bauer remains on leave while the L.A. County district attorney’s office determines whether he’ll face sexual assault charges.
“I think that people always want to identify with a couple key players … but I think that both teams are a product of the sum,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said.
“Both teams have carriers, as far as superstars, but a lot of what makes these two teams go are guys that are not the carriers. I think the fun part now is it goes back to the names on the front. It’s the Dodgers versus the Giants. For me, that’s sort of cool.”
I wanted to ask the now-33-year-old Belt about all of this, and the Giants’ spokesman Matt Chisholm said he would speak to me some time before the game.
The meeting was shorter than expected, Belt emerging from an indoor batting cage to offer a polite apology.
“I don’t think I’ll have time after this, sorry,” he said.
He returned to the cage and continued his pregame routine.
This time, he avoided any curse, the Giants taking the first game in 11 innings, 3-2, to regain a one-game lead over the Dodgers.
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