Sports Nut

Game 1: Giants 4, Angels 3

My favorite moment of Game 1 was in the eighth inning when a twitchy kid named Chone Figgins was summoned off the Anaheim bench to pinch run. At first, I suspected the batboy had snuck into the game. Then it struck me: This is a Disney movie about to happen. Michael Eisner has worked it all out with Bud Selig. A 5-foot-9, 155-pound reserve nobody would play the hero. He would go on a base-stealing tear, culminating in a spectacular dust-up at home plate; miraculously, he would elude the tag of Benito Santiago, aka the Ancient Latino Mariner, and the Angels would …

Oh, yeah, they would’ve only tied the game, and it was only Game 1. So perhaps that explains why little Chone Figgins never did anything more than gamely take off with the pitch on a 3-2 count and watch helplessly as the third out was made. The game wrapped up an inning later when Robb Nen, the Giants’ terrific closer, mowed down the Angels in a way they have not been mowed down in some time.

I am sickened by the sight of the Rally Monkey, Thunder Sticks seem only slightly less lame than big puffy fingers, and that theme-park-ified rock formation beyond the bullpens at Edison Field is a hideous affront to the traditional beauty of baseball. And let’s not get started on Anaheim—what is it, exactly? I’ve been there a couple of times, and my only sense of the place, beyond Disneyland, is parking lots. Dilapidated industrial towns are a much better backdrop for baseball.

Despite all this, it is impossible not to like the Angels. They, along with the awesome Barry Bonds, have rescued baseball this season—rescued it from the near-strike that made you wish the owners and players would test the theory of Mutually Assured Destruction, from the All-Star Game fiasco, from the awful specter of Dead Teams Playing.

What’s most amazing of all is that they did it by turning some conventional wisdom on its head—in short, they play baseball as if it were football, as if every game were the end all and be all. The purest expression of this style is the fact that they led the American League in hitting and yet ranked only 11th in drawing bases on balls. Somehow, they win with this.

Until last night anyway. Once we got past the Bonds home run in the second inning, it was a fairly lackluster game. There was not a single great defensive play (though there were no errors, either), and both teams squandered many chances to score runs, despite the fact that neither starting pitcher had dominating stuff.

The most entertaining moments were those little “Sounds of the Game” snippets from the Angels’ dugout. When starter Jarrod Washburn came off the mound, the exchanges with pitching coach Bud Black were startlingly simplistic, like a father whispering encouraging go get ‘ems to his son. You would have never guessed this was the cerebral game of baseball they were playing out there. Right after surrendering the home runs to Bonds and Reggie Sanders, Washburn seemed preternaturally blithe, grinning from ear to ear, as if what had happened out there had happened to someone else. Black and catcher Ben Molina were discussing pitch location, and all Washburn could do was say, “Good hitter” and shake his head up and down. Later, Black yelled encouragingly at him, “You’re changing their eye levels out there!” Washburn imitated a bobbing head doll, yelling back, “Yeah, yeah!”

It was just weird—think of all the geeks out there who hyperanalyze every aspect of the game, including every pitch this guy throws, and he seems to have no mental grasp whatsoever of what he’s doing, as if he just wings it in there and hopes for the best. But why knock it, it seems to work for him. If nothing else, the Angels are proving in this postseason that playing hard is more important than playing smart.

Especially when your opponent doesn’t seem to be any smarter than you are. The Giants have the two best players on the field—Bonds and Jeff Kent—but they haven’t been using their heads much either. Though they did win the game, manager Dusty Baker ought to be concerned that Bonds came up with the bases empty every time. The guys in front of him, particularly leadoff hitter Kenny Lofton and shortstop Rich Aurilia, hacked away at everything, as if forgetting that the best hitter in history was coming up behind them and that they ought to do absolutely anything to get on base. Kent, the third-spot hitter, looked a little better (he nailed one ball, albeit right at the shortstop), but he didn’t get on base, either. If this continues, Baker might want to consider putting Bonds in the leadoff spot. It would be highly unorthodox, but what’s the point of putting him fourth—and potentially losing an at-bat a game—if the three top guys are making nothing but outs?

I still expect the Angels to take the series. They have more weapons, plus the momentum and confidence left over from their trouncings of the Yankees and Twins. And they have Chone Figgins ready to play the hero.