Friday, October 24, 2008

Will 2009 Be the SF Giants' "Death Magnetic?"

I am not a music critic. I don't pretend to be. My musical instruction consists of several years worth of drumming when I was in junior high. That's it. I listen to a lot of different bands, but that's really only honed my personal tastes.

My baseball knowledge and expertise, on the other hand, is far more extensive.

I was an elite high school baseball player; good enough to be recruited by D-1 schools (not the good ones, but I can live with that) out of a smaller county in Northern California. I was 6'3", tipped the scales around 185, and played shortstop until knee surgery before my senior season moved me to rightfield.

I've also watched 90% of the San Francisco Giants' games played between 1988 and the present. That means a lot of baseball, but also a lot of listening at the elbow of Duane Kuiper, Mike Krukow, and John Miller. You can take or leave Kruk's shtick, but all three know the game and communicate it very well.

It is individuals like these who prove the inadequacies of blunt instruments like Buck Martinez, Steve Phillips, and Tim (vurp) McCarver.

So why preface my musical and baseball credibility?

Because my favorite band has made a phoenician return that I hope my favorite baseball team can emulate. And I see reasons to believe the Giants can do it. Let me explain.

First, the band is Metallica. As I said, I don't know enough to really go into the intricacies of the music except to say they are good for whatever ails me. The talents of James Hetfield, Lars Ulrich, Kirk Hammett, and the Bassists (Cliff Burton to Jason Newsted to the current Robert Trujillo) coalesce naturally as if designed for the purpose. They are the only argument for Intelligent Design I've seen that has any merit (and even it has the glaring weakness of Dave Mustaine).

Hetfield and Ulrich are the front men and get the pub. To a degree, it's warranted because they are both gifted in their own roles. Lars can bang with the best of them and James' dulcet tones didn't miss a beat even after he walked through a 12-foot high, magnesium flame.

But Hammett is the Force; I would say his guitar solos are magic except they really exist.

From the release of their first studio album "Kill 'em All" in 1983 until June of 2003, Metallica was nothing short of spectacular. That first album got off to a slow start, but larger success followed with "Ride the Lightning," "Master of Puppets," and "...And Justice for All." The Black Album's 1991 release launched Metallica's popularity into another stratosphere.

This moment announced the band's arrival on the mainstream stage, but it started a slow trickle of die-hard fans away from the bandwagon. The boys tweaked their sound, mellowed it a touch, and the result was a crossover success that opened their appeal to the masses.

The term "sell-out" became a permanent annoyance from this point forward.

Metallica followed the Black Album with "Load," "Reload," and two double-disc albums. "Garage Inc." came first in 1998 and was a compilation of covers from the band's early days. They followed it with "S & M" where the boys played alongside the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra. Each album elicited more groans from die-hards as they bailed.

Now, I'm a real die-hard for Metallica, much like I am for the Giants. I lean towards the four albums that preceded the Black Album, but every release has multiple songs that rival all but the best of their early work (in my opinion). That said, even I started to worry a bit when Lars and James took on Napster while using the pretext of playing benevolent benefactors to the Struggling Musician.

And then the wheels really came off.

Newsted split before Metallica recorded and released "St. Anger" in 2003. Remember, this is a die-hard fan typing. It's bad. All of it. It's in my collection, but it's the only one of the band's releases that gathers dust. And the layer is thick.

It looked like Hetfield, Ulrich, and Hammett - once destined to burn out - would just fade away. Until 2008 and their resurrection via the release of "Death Magnetic."

Metallica has knocked the dust off and returned with a vengeance. And I don't mean that in the limited sense that the album is good. I mean it in the broadest sense of the idea.

It seems impossible for a band to recapture completely the siren sound that brought their initial success. Time passes, causing everything to mature and evolve - attitude, style, sound, approach, etc. But the fellas came damn close while keeping some of the strengths wrought by their maturation.

I cannot adequately describe Unforgiven III, The Day That Never Comes, or Suicide & Redemption.

That immediately elevates them to the level of Ride the Lightning, Master of Puppets, Fade to Black, For Whom the Bell Tolls, Harvester of Sorrow, Seek & Destroy, Blackened, Trapped Under Ice, ...And Justice For All, One, Enter Sandman, Call of the Ktulu, To Live Is To Die, etc. In other words, to the level of excellence.

And those are the only three songs I have yet to fully appreciate. That means the album probably will settle in somewhere above the Black Album in the pantheon of Metallica's greatest works. It is an exceptional return to the band's former brilliance.

So what does this have to do with baseball, specifically the San Francisco Giants?

For the last decade or so, the Giants and Metallica have shared many similarities. The Orange and Black timeframe isn't a perfect match, but that's natural. The baseball world moves faster than the music world; each team has its version of an album release every year and thus has more opportunities to succeed or fail.

Still, those similarities are eerie.

From 1993 and the acquisition of Barry Lamar Bonds until October of 2003, the Giants were spectacular. Although they were the losers of the Last Great Pennant Race in '93 and followed that year with three lean ones, the Giants' version of "Ride the Lightning" came with the National League West pennant in 1997.

The Gents followed that season with two less successful campaigns in 1998 and 1999. But they were still highly competitive. Then came 2000 and the opening of what we will forever call Pacific Bell Park, the House That Barry Built.

They finished with the best record in baseball that year. The New York Mets bounced them unceremoniously from the first round of the postseason, but SF followed that abbreviated success with another competitive year and the infamous 2001 assault on Mark McGwire or All Things Holy (according to some).

Finally, the meteoric, three-year ascension culminated in 2002. Barry carried the Giants to the World Series and came five outs from that elusive ring. We were less than two innings away, only to see Dusty Baker crumble and, with him, our championship dreams.

Those three years - '00, '01, and '02 - were San Francisco's Black Album.

They launched their popularity to another level as fans flocked to success and a prodigious clean-up hitter. It also drove some of the purist die-hards away. Not right away, but the subsequent steroid and performance-enhancer revelations drove some from those teams, which thrived almost completely because of Barry's terrifying bat.

San Francisco mustered one last trip to the playoffs in 2003, but had already started its own version of fighting Napster. The clashing of egos between Peter McGowan, Baker, and Bonds drove more die-hards away. And it had me a little worried.

Then the wheels started officially shaking in 2004 as Bonds went down with injury and gave ownership an excuse to distance itself from him. Eventually, the wheels came off completely when ownership cut ties with the man in 2007.

They've followed that disastrous '04 campaign with even worse messes in 2005, 2006, 2007, and 2008. I still love them and watch every game. But their former success is sitting on the shelf and gathering dust.

Just like "St. Anger" enabled the dust to accumulate on Metallica's career, each successive disappointing season represents another layer on my beloved Giants.

But, as I said, I see reason for hope. Reason to believe that the 2009 San Francisco Giants could be the franchise's "Death Magnetic."

Those reasons are primarily Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, and Jonathan Sanchez. Secondarily, they are Emanuel Burriss, Travis Ishikawa, Freddie Lewis, Benjie Molina, Aaron Rowand, Pablo Sandoval, Eugenio Valez, Brian Wilson, and Randy Winn. Even a resurgent Barry Zito is worth mentioning.

If the three young studs can turn another year of maturation into tangible improvement on their respective performances in 2008, the Giants don't need much more help. They would have their own Unforgiven III, The Day That Never Comes, and Suicide & Redemption.

They would have the seeds of a return to glory.

And that's enough hope for me.

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