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Q&A With Dan Fost of "Giants Past and Present"

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Dan Fost is a veteran Bay Area reporter and writer. I've known him since the dot-com days, when he wrote about high-tech for the San Francisco Chronicle. He's also a deep baseball fan, and his latest work is the wonderful Giants Past and Present, a coffee-table book that pulls off the rare feat of being all at once reverential, thorough, and thoughtful. One of my favorite lines: "Like folksingers anointed the next Bob Dylan and thereby doomed to failure, Bobby Bonds was called the next Willie Mays when he was signed by the Giants in 1964."

I recently had the chance to quiz Dan on the Giants, past and present. Enjoy.

ELM: Let's start with the big one. Who's your all-time favorite Giant and why? If you want to cheat and choose a pitcher and a position player, go ahead.

Dan Fost: I'm tempted to cheat in a big way and pick John McGraw. To me, McGraw is the guy who defined the Giants' character, and even though he was anything but a giant in stature, he looms large over the team's history as the manager for 30 years -- winner of 10 pennants, three World Series, and yet the guy who presided over so many heart-breaking moments that in many ways laid the groundwork for the team's current San Francisco persona -- one that often contends but always falls short.

But having plucked a non-player as my definitive Giant, I'm going to take you up on your offer, yet restrict myself to San Francisco Giants.

Pitcher: There are so many I love -- gutty, gritty guys like Kirk Rueter, or Rod Beck, or Robb Nen, or Mike Krukow, who left everything out on the mound. But I have a personal sentimental favorite: Matt Cain. When my son was in second grade, he went to a game with his teacher, a longtime Giant fan. It was the night after Barry Bonds hit his 756th home run. That night, Bonds hit career homer 757, and Cain hit career home run number one -- and Harry's teacher, Gabe Cohen, caught it. They got to take the ball to Cain after the game, and he couldn't have been nicer. From everything else I've seen about the guy, he is a total class act, never complaining no matter how many of his leads the bullpen blows or how few runs his offense scores. He keeps working to improve his game, and I think he'll be a great Giant for many years to come.

Position player: Now that I've picked the nicest guy I can imagine for pitcher, I'm going to go the completely opposite route and pick the biggest jerk for the field: Barry Bonds. We know all about his personality, how he treated everyone around him, how he took steroids - blah, blah, blah. I don't defend it. I don't condone it. All I can say is, for the time he was with the Giants -- and especially the time he was on the juice, from 1999 on -- he was the greatest baseball player I had ever seen. Shifts were on. No pitches got near the strike zone. No one in the batting order protected him. None of it mattered. In those years, I got a taste of what it must have been like to see Babe Ruth, or Ted Williams, or some other all-time great play. I may be part of a sparse crowd, but I look forward to coming to Third and King some day and seeing his statue unveiled. (It's hard not to pick Willie Mays for this, as I think a good case can be made that he was the greatest of all time, but I'm picking Bonds for the purely shallow reason that I saw him play.)

ELM: You pick Bonds; I would, too. In your research about the older generations, what did you learn about the use of "greenies," or amphetamines? They were reportedly available to all in clubhouses for a little pick-me-up on those hot August afternoons in St. Louis, or whenever. (Talk about performance-enhancing.) How does greenie use affect the debate over records, careers, and Hall of Fame eligibility?
I just finished reading a great book, The Baseball Codes: Beanballs, Sign-Stealing and Bench-Clearing Brawls: The Unwritten Rules of America's Pastime, written by a friend of mine, Jason Turbow, with Michael Duca. While they don't deal with steroids or even greenies, per se, they point out that baseball players have been cheating as long as there's been organized baseball. I don't think anyone wants to open up the morality dossier on the Hall of Fame and start booting guys or assigning asterisks. So there's some extra home runs in the steroids era. There are all sorts of quirks in baseball history. There was a higher pitchers mound and a wider strike zone in 1968 -- I don't see anyone looking to erase Bob Gibson's 1.12 ERA or Denny McClain's 31 wins.

ELM: Speaking of Bonds, will the Giants ever be able to lure top free-agent hitters with the reputation of Mays Field?

DF: I love that you call it Mays Field! Maybe if the Giants did -- or even Bonds Field -- it would send a message that hitters are welcome. And while I think it may be a problem, I also think that a hitter with a healthy enough ego, or perhaps the right batting style, would be very comfortable there indeed. Maybe the yard is death for guys like Aaron Rowand, who only hit .300 in hitter-friendly parks like Philly's; but if gap hitters like Sandoval, Sanchez, Schierholtz and Torres start racking up doubles and triples, maybe the word will get out and the Giants will get the players they need.   

ELM: Everyone's got a favorite obscure scrub. Did you find any in your research who should have gotten more from his career but didn't because of injury, timing, management incompetence, et cetera?

DF: Darryl Spencer was an original San Francisco Giant from 1958, and was a great interview. He hit 20 home runs as a rookie in 1953, including eight in June. (If he had played all of his games at shortshop, it would have been a record that stood until Troy Tulowitzki topped it in 2007; Ernie Banks hit 19 in 1954.) But scrappy manager Leo Durocher hated pull hitters, and told the right-handed batting Spencer to take the ball to right field. Even after Durocher was dumped, Spencer never got out of the habit, and never got his groove back.

But my favorite has to be Dusty Rhodes, the hero of the 1954 World Series, who didn't start any of the games, and who didn't even play in the finale. "It was just as well," he said later. "After the third game I was drinking to everybody's health so much that I about ruined mine."

ELM: The White Sox had Bill Veeck; the A's Charlie Finley; the Dodgers the O'Malleys and Branch Rickey. How important has ownership been to the story, the lore, the character of the Giants? 
DF: The Giants have had many crucial and colorful owners in their long history. Those vital to the team's story include the first owner, John B. Day; the scoundrel Andrew Freedman; the man who built the Polo Grounds, John T. Brush; and Bob Lurie and Peter Magowan, both of whom saved the team for San Francisco. But the key name in Giants ownership has to be Stoneham -- Charles Stoneham and his son Horace. Legend has it that young Horace wrote an essay on what he would do with $1 million, and he wrote, "I'd buy the Giants;" the father then bought the team to help realize his son's dream.

Charles Stoneham gave John McGraw free reign, and the Giants won four straight pennants and two World Series. He also had some questionable business interests. When he died in 1936, Horace, then 32, took over. Horace was the last of a breed -- men whose only business interest was their baseball team. His 40-year tenure was notable mostly for the move to San Francisco, although he also restored the Giants to winning ways when he hired the hated Leo Durocher from the Dodgers. Stoneham also famously drank way too much, and he presided over years of frustration, from the building of the atrocity known as Candlestick Park to the failure to win the World Series despite five Hall of Famers in the 1960s to the near-sale of the team to a group from Toronto in the 1970s.

ELM: Great stuff about Stoneham. In the owners' pantheon, where does Peter Magowan fit in? The hagiography says he saved the Giants from moving in 1993 and masterminded the new ballpark. But there's a case to be made that his refusal to rebuild after 2002 has led to the current vexing situation. What do you think? And how can Bill Neukom fix things?

DF: I know a lot of fans wish the Giants had started rebuilding sooner. And certainly even more of us wish they had made a deeper commitment to rebuilding, rather than being stuck with older, over-priced, under-performers like Rowand, Renteria and Zito. (Have to include Zito, even though he has admirably turned things around.) Yet I am going to stick to my guns and say I admire Magowan and am glad he owned the team as long as he did. They had a great long run, and I think it's a very difficult thing to keep winning year after year, especially when you don't have the budget of the Yankees or the Red Sox.

And is the current situation really so vexing? The Giants ultimately did draft very well, and we have Lincecum, Cain, Jonathan Sanchez and Brian Wilson to show for it, with Madison Bumgarner and Buster Posey waiting in the wings. As frustrating as things are now, I have hope that if injuries are overcome, a few players -- Rowand? Renteria? Uribe? Sandoval? -- can get hot, like in the first couple of weeks of the season, we'll stop whining about the lack of runs.

ELM: What should today's Giants fans know about the New York Giants that they probably don't?  
DF: Today's Giant fans need to know that the tradition of heartbreak that the team is known for in San Francisco -- from McCovey's line drive to end the 1962 World Series to the bullpen blowup in the 2002 Series, and all those painful episodes in between (see Maldonado, Candy; Perez, Neifi; Oquendo, Jose) -- that tradition did not start here, but rather has a long history in New York. The Giants were the first National League team to win a World Series, but they also were the team that brought us Merkle's Boner, Snodgrass' Muff, and other astounding pennant-blowing plays -- a blown rundown in the 1917 Series, and a bad hop grounder over Hall of Famer Freddie Lindstrom in the 1924 Series. It was Giant Hall of Famer Mel Ott who then-Dodger manager Leo Durocher was talking about when he said, "Nice guys finish last."

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