THEY LEFT THEIR HEARTS AT COOGAN’S BLUFF-NY TIMES

Thanks to George Vecsey
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In 1954, the champion Giants were welcomed home. These days, the San Francisco Giants still acknowledge New York as their ancestral home.
By GEORGE VECSEY
Once they were the darlings of Coogan’s Bluff, but now the San Francisco Giants are the darlings of a bar in New York’s East Village as well as thousands of passionate baseball fans back East who stay up late to root.

For the last two decades, the Giants have acknowledged their inner Christy Mathewson, their inner Monte Irvin, as part of their heritage. Did this help them win the World Series in 2010 and 2012? Well, Posey and Sandoval did not hurt.

A cadre of Giants, including one Willie Howard Mays Jr., will return to the ancestral home in the next week to be honored for the most recent Series victory. This organization is touching all the spiritual bases.

During the World Series of 2010, I wandered the halls in the ballpark in China Basin and loved seeing old photographs of wondrous doings in a far-off time and land — Mel Ott, Sal Maglie. The Giants had names from their glorious past tossing out the first ball — McCovey, Cepeda, Perry, Marichal, Irvin, Bobby Thomson’s family, Dave Dravecky. They invited Barry Bonds, who is part of the history. A few days later, they polished off the Texas Rangers for their first championship since Leo Durocher and Dusty Rhodes in 1954. I wrote a column that began with two words: Karma counts.

“There was a ticker-tape parade in 1958,” said Larry Baer, the president of the Giants, who cherishes history as a partner of profit. “We replicated that in 2010.”

Baer and the current ownership also honored the haunts of the ancient past. Two years ago, Mays visited Public School 46 in Harlem, where the Polo Grounds once stood. This week, Buster Posey will make a private visit to the Yogi Berra Museum and Learning Center in Little Falls, N.J., for some catcher talk.

The Giants are coming home for a visit. That is their attitude, and it is a marvelous one. By honoring their past, they have illuminated their present. At the moment, they generate more emotional wattage in New York than the franchise hunkered down in the marshes of Flushing.

Does karma really matter? Why did it take 86 years for the Boston Red Sox to get past the disposal of Babe Ruth? What miasma hangs over the North Side of Chicago? How long will the creepy smirk of Bernie Madoff haunt the Mets?

For a long time, the Giants seemed haunted by some malediction from their departure from New York. At the same time, the Los Angeles Dodgers, pursued by outright hatred from Brooklyn for being the alleged instigators of the move to California, won five World Series while the Giants failed, often with comparable talent.

In 1992, with the team facing a possible move to Florida, Peter Magowan of Safeway, a New Yorker who had coincidentally moved to San Francisco in 1958, joined a new ownership team put together by Baer. (There are now 32 owners, with Charles B. Johnson, chairman of Franklin Resources, the largest single shareholder.)

“We wanted to celebrate the connections to New York, and not deny it or minimize it,” said Baer, comparing his hometown, San Francisco, to New York, where he worked for a decade. I told Baer I have always thought of San Francisco, with its bustling waterfront, as European — Genoa or Istanbul or Naples or Barcelona.

“When you live in Northern California, this big thing, this elephant in the room, is the rivalry with L.A.,” Baer said. “We feel more like New York or Boston. We think of ourselves as a city. The City. Longtime San Franciscans call it the City. L.A. is the biggest city in California, but we are a city like New York or Boston, with a central business district, people go downtown for entertainment, to the opera, the symphony, the theater, the ballpark.” He also compared New York and San Francisco because of ingenuity, electronics, energy.

Some of this is marketing babble, but the Giants made the visceral connection with an expedition to deepest Gotham in January 2011 for the baseball writers’ annual dinner, and they came bearing superstars and hardware.

They also had the acuity to accept an invitation from a sports bar, Finnerty’s on East 14th Street. Two new owners, Brian Stapleton and Dieter Seelig, had been renovating its East Village funk for a year, trying to induce patrons to stop and have a beer, anything. One bartender invited some friends of hers to root for the San Francisco 49ers on Sundays, and some began coming back for the Giants.

“Ten-thirty on weekday nights,” Seelig said the other day. “We’re open till 4 a.m., and sometimes, those games don’t end till 3 a.m. The night Matt Cain pitched his perfect game, people began coming over at midnight and stayed till the end. We must have had 60 people here.”

Finnerty’s gained a reputation as a Giants bar, much the way there is a trend toward soccer pubs for specific teams, cricket and rugby pubs, Steelers bars, college football bars, you name it, Seelig said.

Could the success and new bicoastal reach of the Giants cut into the popularity of the Mets? What popularity? you ask. The cash-poor Mets are trudging into the new season without one legitimate major league outfielder, not a good omen in Front-Runner City.

Seelig says Finnerty’s sends busloads of Giants fans to Queens — 200 tickets for each of four Giants games last April. Many of his patrons are transplants from the Bay Area, Seelig added, saying, “I don’t think they’d become Met or Yankee fans.” He does not see the Giants as a threat to the Mets. It’s all good for business, he suggested.

Are the Giants touching hearts and minds back East? Stan Isaacs, the great sports columnist at Newsday for many decades, grew up a Giants fan — in Brooklyn, no less. Isaacs, 83, said he hated Horace Stoneham for moving the franchise, but added that recently, “I was delighted by the act of emblazoning the words of Russ Hodges — ‘the Giants win the pennant,’ the historic call,” from 1951, in faraway San Francisco. The Giants painted the quotation on a wall of the ballpark’s club level. Isaacs admits it: he’s rooting for his old team again.

Christopher Russo, the Mad Dog himself, now yapping away weekday afternoons on SiriusXM satellite radio, has been a Giants fan since childhood, long after the team’s defection. Russo can recite the horrors of 1993 and the 2000 postseason loss to the Mets, as well as the nastiness of the Bonds era. This team, Russo pronounced, “is likable,” and has won two Series. “I never thought I’d see the day,” the Mad Dog barked.

The Giants might also be candidates for the Nobel Peace Prize, having brought together opposing Giants fan clubs. This sounds like one of those New York jokes (“that other congregation, you wouldn’t catch me dead in”), but this schism really exists between the New York Baseball Giants Nostalgia Society and the New York Giants Preservation Society, offshoots of a faded group whose name must not be spoken.

Having once covered religion, I felt right at home delving into this. The Nostalgia people are a mix of old fans and young fans who meet periodically to talk about the Giants. For that matter, so are the Preservation people.

When the Giants come to New York, both groups will meet Mays & Company at a Midtown hotel. Together. “They have a truce,” Baer said. “A détente.”

Bill Kent is the leader of the Nostalgia group. The highlight of his early childhood was watching the lumbering slugger Ernie Lombardi chasing a pal of Kent’s around the field during batting practice. (Old Giants fans know right away that the Schnozz never did catch the little kid.) Kent says that at meetings of the Nostalgia group, “We go into the twilight zone” and become little kids again.

Gary Mintz is the leader of the Preservation group. He is 51, a schoolteacher, and honors the Giants in memory of his dad, Louis. “I’d wake up every morning and ask him the score” from the Giants’ West Coast games, Mintz said in a husky voice. Last year, a group of Preservation people made the hegira to San Francisco and were honored before the game. Then Magowan led the group into the glass-enclosed office of Miguel Murphy, the clubhouse manager since 1958. There, the Preservation people got to shake hands with Mays. Mintz is still glowing.

Murphy’s office may be the emotional center of the franchise. He has been there since Seals Stadium, since Candlestick Park, and now China Basin, and knows all the secrets. Ownership has encouraged him to make his office the home for former players. I do not know any other major franchise where old-timers gather so routinely.

“For any home game, Willie Mays and Willie McCovey are there,” Baer said. “Plus Orlando Cepeda, Will Clark, Vida Blue, plus visual depictions of Mathewson, McGraw.” He says it is funny to watch a new Giant take a gulp of air and tiptoe into Murphy’s sanctum and introduce himself to one or more deities who tell him to sit down and talk awhile.

“We’re not just winning for the 25 guys in uniform today but also for the hundreds or thousands of guys who have worn the uniform over 131 years,” Baer said.

Baer says the Giants are no threat to the popularity of the Mets or the Yankees. Nonetheless, they will surely sell tickets as they visit the two boroughs (Queens, Sept. 17-19, and the Bronx, Sept. 20-22). Six Giants games in their old city in 2013. They’re not moving back to Coogan’s Bluff, but they have honored their roots. Karma still counts.

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