By and large, the Great Giants of the Decade came with fairly substantial prospect sheen on their way up. No, this isn’t comprehensively true, but most of the team’s stars came with pedigree: 1st round picks like Timmy and Buster, MadBum and Cainer, high round picks who developed into Top 50 prospects like Brandon Belt and Hunter Pence. Even Brandon Crawford was a known dude coming out of high school who many expected to develop into a 1st or 2nd round pick (he eventually dropped to the 4th).
And then there was Sergio Romo, the undersized kid from the southern tip of the Salton Sea in Imperial Valley — as close to nowhere as one might ever find themselves and still be in California. Romo, whose college career wound from Orange Coast College to Arizona Western JC, to Alabama State, and finally to Mesa State College in Colorado where the Giants spotted him and used the 852nd pick of the 2005 draft (the year the Giants infamously maneuvered to intentionally lose their first round pick) to select the skinny, short, right-hander with more guts than stuff, who, yes, only looked illegal.
But that’s getting ahead of ourselves.
For a 28th rounder without a blazing fastball, Romo made fairly quick work of the minor leagues. It took him almost exactly three years from draft date to major league debut. He came to San Francisco as part of the original Churn, the great cattle call of 2008, that amazing season that also gave us the debut of the Kung Fu Panda, the Giants’ first Cy Young winner in 40 years, and a draft class that included Buster Posey and Brandon Crawford — solid amount of entertainment value for a season that opened with Brian Bocock and Jose Castillo in the lineup.
Romo finished his minor league career with a minuscule 2.36 ERA over 293 IP, with a ridiculous 333 Ks to just 55 BBs. He started out with strong performances as a starting pitcher in Salem-Keizer and Augusta. But he took his performance to another level once he was moved to the bullpen, including a year for the ages in San Jose where he posted a 1.36 ERA over 66 innings while striking out an absurd 106 batters and walking just 15. That combination of high K/low BB rates nicely summed up Sergio’s greatest strengths: for a guy with a pedestrian fastball he attacked hitters relentlessly in the strike zone with excellent command, and he proved incredibly hard to hit.
In fact, Romo wasn’t just hard to hit, he made major league hitters appear downright foolish in the attempt:
One-time site contributor (and founder of the sadly defunct Bay City Ball) Chris Quick once told me that if the technology for animated tattoos existed he would tattoo a gif of Romo’s slider right over his heart. And who wouldn’t? Romo’s “no dot” slider was pure unadulterated, aesthetic bliss. Shorn of score, of record, of context, removed entirely from the rigors of competitiveness, the sight of Sergio Romo’s slider could make you fall in love with baseball in all its gorgeous absurdity. I mean, seriously, look at this thing!
Sergio Romo, Slider (HP view) pic.twitter.com/7CjIuj3vP3— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) February 8, 2017
He could throw it to left handers or right. Extraordinarily, he would dot his huge frisbee break on the inside corner to right handed hitters to steal strikes early. And, of course, he had the nerves of a burglar, as he proved with his use of his fastball in two of the most excruciatingly glorious at bats of the decade.
Bruce Bochy had wanted to save Javier Lopez to face Cincinnati’s Jay Bruce with the game on the line in the final inning of the deciding NLDS’ Game 5. But thanks to Jeremy Affeldt’s exquisite talent for hurting himself (falling down the clubhouse steps trying to avoid a foul ball), it was Romo who was left to stare down the slugging lefty.
Eleven pitches later, Romo would finally win that battle, getting Bruce to fly out harmlessly to LF, before striking out Scott Rolen (slider) to advance the team to the NLCS. And 17 days later, knowing that Miguel Cabrera was looking slider only, leaning out over the plate and spoiling off beaut after beaut, he shook off Buster and spotted an inside fastball against one of the greatest hitters of his generation — who couldn’t fire off a swing.
It’s perhaps sadly fitting that Romo’s Giants career came to an end the same night — the same inning, really — that the Even Year Dynasty crashed a halt, as one of the parade of hapless relievers trying to staunch a flow of Cubs’ runs in the shocking conclusion to the 2016 season. Romo was such an avatar of the Champion Giants, it seemed inevitable that their magic would run out together.
But he has continued on being a useful major leaguer for competitive clubs, reaching the playoffs again just this past year. In the end, the longshot has outlasted many of his more celebrated teammates, still getting the better of major league hitters heading into his age 37 season, and there’s likely not a Giants fan in the world who wouldn’t be happy to see a reunion before he calls it a career (he’s a free agent right now, Farhan!)
Of course, it’s easy to focus on the success on the field, the dramatic triumphs and championships, but that was never all there was to Sergio. He was an ambassador, he was an essential part of the band of misfits, he was one of us. For nearly all of his years with the Giants, Romo caught the ceremonial first pitch every night, handing the ball back to a lucky guest with a handshake or a hug. He was a prankster, and a legendary practitioner of the photobomb:
He was a highlight of every year’s marketing package, even helping Buster show off some personality:
(Indeed, we should have had more opportunities to enjoy the goofy comic stylings of Sergio and Buster).
Sergio was always the guy who knew he’d gotten invited to the ball by mistake, and he was going to enjoy every last moment of the ride. Like his much more heralded, but similarly diminutive teammate Lincecum, he was goofy and lovable. He was almost painfully sincere and emotional and so easy to root for. The #1 ambassador for the team of the decade, for his native Brawley, California and its community, and for guys everywhere whose talent lies in their hearts as much as in their arms.
And so I sing a song of Sergio, very Good Giant, giver of inspiration, of mirth and of joy.