I also crossposted this article to Medium, because it's long and because why not; you can find that here if you prefer.
The joke, of course—at least in the beginning—was that Brandon Belt was not The Guy.
This is because in 2021 and more or less the full decade preceding it, Buster Posey was The Guy. Which should go without saying, but in case it needs reiteration, here’s a charcuterie board of his achievements: Batting Title, 5x Silver Slugger, 2x Comeback Player of the Year, MVP, 3x World Series Champ, 7x All Star, Gold Glove, .302 career batting average, Rookie of the Year, Catcher of the Perfect Game and All Those No-Hitters, Elder Statesman, Stopper of Would-Be Steals, Boy Wonder Turned Regular Wonder, Holder of a Lifetime Supply of Northern Californian Hero-Worship, Emmy Award Winner, et cetera, et cetera. Pair those fine cheeses and crackers however you like. To my understanding, Buster Posey was The Guy, and maybe Brandon Crawford was The Other Guy as long as we're looking at it like that, King Of Shortstops and perennial Gold Glover, turning tricks between second and third, turning lead into gold, hustle doubles into double plays.
Brandon Belt? He loiters around first base. He hits the ball. He draws walks. He catches pop flies. He makes routine forceouts. He grounds into double plays. He sets the record for the longest regular season at-bat in Major League history (21 pitches).
He loses days, weeks, seasons to injury. To concussions, to COVID, to strains and tweaks and breaks and absurdly, one time, to appendicitis, which I had previously assumed was an ailment reserved for middle schoolers at the oldest, but you learn something new every day.
Brandon Belt was not The Guy. He was at best an accessory to The Guy, on the receiving end of Crawford’s brilliance. Or taking his turn being the Hero Of The Day as the title rotated perpetually through the lineup. Game-winning grand slam to the upper deck. Two-out, bases-loaded walk against a strikeout artist that forces in the go-ahead run. Bunt single that somehow scores two points. Take your pick.
Brandon Belt was not The Guy. But sometime in 2021, he cracks a couple jokes about it in the clubhouse, and right before a September 10th blowout dealt to the Cubs, third baseman Evan Longoria sticks some tape to his uniform. It’s jagged. It’s messy. It’s so clearly a joke.
It’s a C. For Captain.
In the postgame interview with NBC, Belt messes around with the interviewers. He calls himself the alpha male of the Giants and spends the first two minutes of the interview dunking on his teammates, talking himself up.
It’s all a joke, and everybody gets to be in on it, which is half the fun. Everyone’s having a good time: Belt, the anchors, the audience, his teammates. Even in the depths of this stupid keyfabe, Belt can’t help but resurface to compliment Crawford and La Stella, express his respect for the bullpen. Sure, he’s undercutting it—his brilliance will always eclipse all else’s, as the team alpha male and de facto Captain—but the mask drops right when it needs to. So when the Giants dress up like little sailor boys on the steps of the team jet, all saluting Captain Belt, it’s a joke. And when the Giants’ online store starts pushing Captain Belt merch hard during the offseason, it’s also a joke. And when the Giants approach Belt with a plan for Opening Day since they’ve got a homestand to start the year, and Belt enters AT&T Park in a boat, wearing full captain’s garb and chucking baseballs into the crowd and saluting everyone before finally hopping out to throw out the ceremonial first pitch of the whole season, it’s—
Well, it might be the shrewdest thing Belt’s ever done. Or the PR team. Or Kapler. Or whoever else might share responsibility for that stunt. Or maybe it wasn’t shrewd, and everything is a happy accident. I’m not assigning anything to anyone, whether that’s blame or accolades. All I have is a vague idea of what’s been going on since then.
But I haven’t been fair to Brandon Belt in this article so far.
Listen, I know. He’s easy to make fun of. He’s a dude who functions as a setup well enough, but then he turns around and hands you the punchline too, free of charge. Take it, man, it’s on him. You can spot him back next time.
One time in summer 2011, let me remind you, Krukow compares Belt to a newborn giraffe while he stumbles around trying to catch a fly ball in the outfield. Not only does Baby Giraffe become his Wikipedia-enshrined nickname, Six Flags names their next baby giraffe after the San Francisco Giants first baseman Brandon Belt. Not only that, Belt goes and meets the guy.
He calls the experience "amazing" and "one of the best mornings of [his] life." This from a man who is already living his childhood dream, playing baseball on the Major League level. This from a man who is married. A platitude? Oh yeah. Like, almost definitely. That is 100% what you’re supposed to say about a PR gimmick when you’re a public figure. But consider that a) this is Brandon Belt, b) you should scroll up and look at his face, and c) boy does it crack me up anyway.
When he first gets dubbed Baby Giraffe, he says to an SFGate reporter, "I’ve always had animal nicknames. In fifth grade, I got a lot of ‘monkey.’ That really did a lot for my confidence, especially with the ladies. It was tough growing up. Maybe I can be a human someday."
The 21-pitch, 14-minute at-bat. Baby Giraffe. The annual season-stifling injuries that are practically a miserable punchline of their own these days. He cheats in his warmup games of competitive catch with Crawford and brags about it to multiple news sources. He gets sent back down to the Minor Leagues during his rookie year on his birthday, 4/20, which is a birthdate that still makes me probably as delighted as a kid who just learned what weed is. He proceeds to not get a single hit on his birthday for a full decade, even though he is one of the best sluggers in the league by the start of 2022. He spends years of his career getting dunked on by fans, subject of debate so violent, circular, and constant, it gets dubbed The Belt Wars and it lasts for ten years. Is he worth it? When are we getting that offense he’s supposed to excel at? Is he any good? I mean, actually any good? Who cares, man, he gets arcade basketball machines installed in the clubhouse. He lets his teammate stick an electrical-tape C to his jersey and he wears it all game. He gives his teammates "high-Cs," having apparently deemed high-fives insufficient for an officer of his standing. He voluntarily—hell, gleefully—refers to himself as an alpha male in 2021. They're gonna be playing that clip on KNBR until the sun burns out.
He’s been on the Giants longer than anyone now. He and Crawford are the last remnants of the early-2010s dynasty. Neither of them have ever played for anyone else, even though they both became free agents at the end of the 2021 season.
For a decade, you could flip on your TV on a summer night, and, barring injuries, be guaranteed to see Brandon Crawford, Buster Posey, and Brandon Belt.
You take that kind of thing for granted when you’re a little kid, which is what I was around the time those three came up. Later on, though, you might learn that less than 10% of Major Leaguers make it to the ten-year mark. Even fewer stay with the same team all that time. Fewer still do it together.
But against all odds, here’s Belt, on the other end of brilliance. Here’s Belt, stretching forward to catch Arias from deep third and cement Matt Cain’s perfect game in history. Belt, charging over to the mound after the last out of Tim Lincecum’s 2013 no-hitter and piling onto the hug, having never bobbled a single throw, at least not that night. Belt, slugging .600 from the start of 2020 to early 2022, momentarily the best in a league of Juan Sotos, Fernando Tatis Juniors, Mike Trouts. Belt completing double plays, day after day after day. Belt digging passes out of the dirt without ever coming off the bag. Belt, hitting second, or Belt, hitting cleanup, or Belt, hitting sixth to ease back in from the injured list, or Belt, retreating to the 10-, 15-, 60-day IL again with a scowl and a pulled muscle. You don’t realize what it means to have such a damn good 1B until someone else is out there trying to fill his shoes, to cover the bag, to catch that electrical pulse from shortstop to first, to apply tags without missing a step. It’s hard, even if there aren’t many opportunities for flashy plays here. A dive if you’re lucky. A fumble to salvage a bad hop. A backhanded flick to the pitcher.
It comes down to this, though: nearly every time, the play is made. The pass tucks into his glove like the ninety-plus feet and the sudden nosedive and the God knows how many miles an hour and the backspin were nothing, and the stadium doesn’t even breathe a sigh of relief because it was Belt at first and therefore a given, and he doesn’t look unstoppable or Midas-touched or picturesque. He can’t; it’s just not in the nature of the position. But his teammates can. And they do. It might even be close to easy, when you’re handed that kind of grace.
Here’s Belt, pulling up a chair beside a rookie, offering him a quiet word of advice.
No matter how you slice it, Joey Bart has been having a rough debut. People are losing their patience with him. From where I write this in May 2022, you can’t go more than a week without tripping over another article about how he’s beefing it, all of which follow a more or less identical structure: Joey Bart is not Buster Posey, and obviously I would never expect him to be. But he strikes out more than anybody in the Major Leagues—here are some numbers illustrating how he’s screwing up so bad. But he’s good behind the plate, which is less easy to back up with numbers, but I can include some testimonies from his pitchers. We need to move on from Buster Posey [NOTE: this sentiment is always phrased in such a way that makes it very clear that the author wishes Posey still caught for the Giants.] But—Bart’s not making it easy to move on. Still, people have faith in him, or want to have faith in him. We hope he figures it out soon.
Joey Bart never asked to be haunted. The fact that Posey’s still alive, still friends with most of the guys, still the darling of every sports writer and Giants fan who was conscious between 2010 and 2021, still acting as pseudo-manager all the way from Georgia, probably adds insult to injury. Even the articles that insist they won’t refer to Posey, because it’s become the infuriating new plague of Giants journalism, end up implicitly referring to Posey. I couldn’t keep him out of this article either, obviously. Not even a little bit. He just means too much. It kind of drives me crazy.
Not that Bart’s ever made a public comment on any of this beyond the expected script, at least nowhere I can find. But sports articles are generally just fancy speculation anyway.
At any rate, Joey Bart can’t be sent down to Sacramento as it stands right now. He’s stuck in the public eye. His offense is a perpetual struggle, because he frankly still seems to be a Triple-A level power hitter who happens to be facing some of the best pitchers this sport has to offer. He’ll adjust over time and it’ll turn out okay, or he won’t and we’ll make adjustments instead. We know this, but that knowledge doesn’t make the present go down any smoother. His defense and game-calling are both about as solid as they can be, but few fans seem impressed by that. Not after eleven years of Buster Posey, who batted .305 in his rookie season, whose face people have plastered onto sweatshirts emblazoned You Shall Not Steal!, who famously played every position in a college baseball game once and managed to do all of it well, who accepted a Silver Slugger at his retirement ceremony, who called World Series wins at age 23. It’s not fair. Sports never have been, and sports fans even less so.
So, yeah, Belt takes him aside.
"I just tried to let him know that I’ve been through this a lot before, and I’m here if you need some help, and I gave him what my advice would be if I was talking to myself or anyone else: just simplify your at-bats," he told NBC Sports later. "It’s something that’s going to click in his head, but it’s tough, man."
He tells Bart to slow it down. That it’s early, and sometimes it takes a month or two to find your swing.
Belt would know. He went through the same thing, over and over. And now, more than a decade later, he’s still here.
Not just here—here and totally beloved.
People lost their minds for him on Opening Day. If you didn’t like Captain Belt’s stunt, said popular opinion, you just didn’t know how to have fun, and that sucked for you, but we’re all gonna enjoy the party, okay? People were delighted when his first hit of 2022—Spring Training included—was a no-outs bunt on Opening Day that scored Joey Bart from first base on a throwing error. Then he swaggered back into the batter’s box later and clobbered a solo homer. He got to be both the class clown and the hero. He was a goddamn delight. The Pirates of the Caribbean theme played as he entered on the boat. It was stupid. I loved it.
Afterward, there was the obligatory MLB interview article, in which Belt claimed not only to be the Captain of the San Francisco Giants but the Captain of Whole Entire Sport, full stop. In his own words, "Each sport can have its own captain. I just happen to be the captain of baseball." And I mean, hey, why not? Who’s gonna stop him?
Everything went according to plan. "That was the main thing," he said of the stunt. "I wanted to feel superior to everybody else. When I got to come in on a boat in a captain’s hat, I felt exactly that way."
Brandon Belt is not The Guy. He was never The Guy. His greatest talents lie in working the count full, laying off pitches until he gets one he has a chance to hit well, and having the best possible comedic timing.
But in September 2021, after years of dumb Twitter arguments about whether he was worth the Giants’ time at all, he decided he was The Guy. And, because baseball fans—whether we want to admit it or not—love having a The Guy, it worked.
Baseball fans really, really want The Guy. I’m not immune to it either. It’s why people lose their collective minds over the Giants’ payroll being $150 million instead of around $230 million like the Dodgers or Mets. It’s why people drooled when Juan Soto bantered with Brandon Crawford on the basepath and then immediately started tweeting things like "Soto to SF when????", up to and including Jalynne Crawford. It’s why people wept and tore at their hair when Seiya Suzuki went to Chicago, why people latched so hard onto Late Night LaMonte and Luis González when they were so hot in their respective Giants debuts, why people jumped to market Carlos Rodón as The Giants Ace after just a couple of (really incredible!) starts.
Having The Guy is nowhere near Priority #1 of the San Francisco Giants’ 5D chess game. It arguably hasn’t been for over a decade, and fans still hate it. Just this once, can’t we shell out for the next Barry Bonds or Nolan Ryan? Oh, we can! We totally can! But we probably won’t, and we all know it, and we’ve all known it for years, and it feels fundamentally wrong anyway. No matter what I tell my hindbrain, it’s still gonna whine back I know, I knowwwwww, but I really wanna see Juan Soto do his shuffle in a Giants jersey.
Whenever we get The Guy, it’s the way it was with Posey, with Lincecum: almost by accident, always tempered. A prospect who came up in our system, laid waste to every last corner of the minors, then came up and wrecked shop in the majors too. Even then, I don’t think we’ve gotten a single no-doubt first-ballot Hall of Famer out of it. We don’t really have guys who unilaterally dominate for years, manage to make baseball look like a one-player game. Even in our most dramatic moments of myopia, we tend toward duos, silent conversations between two guys who are making each other even greater. Bumgarner to Posey in the coda of the 2014 Series. Posey to Crawford in a routine strike-’em-out-throw-’em-out.
The Giants don’t operate on the assumption of having The Guy, capital T-G, who is "revolutionizing the sport of baseball, not to mention the craft of pitching/batting/fielding." The Giants operate on the assumption of having a bunch of guys, lowercase G, who are on varying levels of "solid at the job that they’re paid to do."
This is how we get our Hero Of The Day blueprint, everyone taking turns to step up and be The Guy for an at-bat or start or inning of relief. Sometimes it lasts longer: Joc Pederson’s April hot streak while everyone else was on the IL, Camilo Doval getting to be the Hero Of The Month last September, Webb our Pitching Icon Of 2021 overall, and so on. But it’s specialized. We don’t trust one Guy to carry everything these days. That was the sea change after Bonds, and I can’t imagine it changing back anytime soon. The strategy works. Except for all those times in the late ‘10s where it didn’t, but I digress.
Then Brandon Belt wakes up one sunny morning in 2021, rolls out of bed, and decides he’s gonna tell the world that he’s The Guy for the Giants.
Look, I can’t know what he expected. I can’t assign Belt motive, agenda, hopes, dreams, or anything else. I’ve never spoken to him. I sit in the bleachers whenever I go to Oracle, okay, I have to squint if I even want to read the dude’s jersey number.
No matter what he was trying to do, no matter how much he was joking, he said he was The Guy on a team whose ethos rejects having The Guy, to a fanbase that dunks on him relentlessly, and he sprinkled in some comically hypermasculine stuff about being the alpha dog while he was at it. I don’t even know what he did in his next game after that because by then it didn’t matter, to me or to pretty much anyone else.
Everybody ate it up.
Here’s the deal: I think Brandon Belt knows he’s not The Guy. I think he knows the team rejects that kind of thing like a bad kidney transplant.
Why do I think that? Because in April 2022, when the image of Captain Belt was long burned onto the insides of our eyelids, he said as much to Andrew Baggarly of The Athletic.
"We’ll have team meetings and talk about the kind of team we want to be. That’s to be the toughest out possible. To do that, you have to lay off balls and swing at strikes, and be ready to do damage. We’ve been great team-wide. [...] It takes pressure off a guy having to be the guy to win ballgames," he told Baggarly. "All we gotta do is get it to the next person."
Brandon Belt is not The Guy. If people try to frame him as The Guy, they will be disappointed. The dude went, like, 1-for-24 against the Rockies. At Coors Field.
Unless I’m totally wrong and he breaks out next week at age 34 to become the next Barry Bonds for the rest of this season. Weirder things have happened in baseball, albeit not by much.
Brandon Belt knows that he’s not The Guy. He doesn’t care, which is good, because he shouldn’t care. The fact that he’s not The Guy doesn’t take away from the fact that he’s an elite defensive first baseman, that he’s a pitcher’s nightmare even if the plate appearance ends in a flyout, that he can hit home runs with the best of them, that he’s consistently very, very good at what he does and respected for his skills, even in his mid-thirties. That he has his whole team behind him, teammates and coaches and managers. That he has the fans behind him too, more than he ever could’ve imagined before.
If you accept all that as true, then you might be wondering why. Why the machismo and the showboating, literal and metaphorical? Why the high-Cs and the tongue-in-cheek superiority complex? What’s it all for?
There was some uncertainty about it on Opening Day, but Belt would reveal that the boat stunt wasn’t his idea. He was approached by the Giants organization, and after some hesitation, he agreed (much to the head-shaking of Brandon Crawford, his fellow veteran who’s been around on the Giants only a month or so less than Belt has). That song and dance can’t be attributed to him, at least not entirely. According to a postgame interview with Darin Ruf, he came back to the dugout nervous after his first at-bat, which ended in a strikeout, muttering, "I shouldn’t have done that."
The cocky persona for the cameras, though, the humor and alpha-dogging and general other assorted bullshit—that was all Belt.
Again, I can’t assign motive, accolades, or blame. Not to him, or the Giants’ PR people, or Kapler, or whoever. I wouldn’t want to if I could.
This is what I’m thinking about, though. Say in 2021 Belt doesn’t decide to joke, for the hell of it, that he’s the Captain. He doesn’t tell his teammates he oughta get off the plane first, as their commanding, tenured officer. There’s no gimmick for the franchise to throw all their weight and money behind. There are no little sailor boys on airplane steps or high-Cs in the dugout or salutes to the crowd or Brandon Belt Captain’s Hat™ giveaways to the first 20,000 fans through the gates on This Date Only. No boat on wheels. No ceremonial first pitch. No gentle ribbing in KNBR’s Opening Day postgame show, tempered by genuine respect and humor and delight.
Say Posey retires and leaves a power vacuum that isn’t filled by anything, not even a joke.
In that universe, I bet we’re all hunting for The Guy, whether we’re consciously aware of it or not. We probably come down even harder on Bart for his strikeout rate, but also—and moreso—for not being Buster Posey. We have higher expectations for Wade Jr., whose legendary 2021 clutchness could well have been in a fluke or thwarted by the injury that kept him off the roster this April. We cling even tighter to Luis González when he comes up from Sacramento and starts knocking baseballs around for an average in the mid-.300s before getting sent back down again less than 30 games later. We’re even more alarmed when half our roster ends up on the IL and go nuts every time Webb falters on the mound. We write panicky posts whenever Brandon Crawford’s numbers or fielding confirm that he is, in fact, a thirty-five year old shortstop. We overlook Belt’s accomplishments—after all, they aren’t that special, a curiosity at best for an old 1B who’s bound to head downhill soon. We’re clamoring to trade or DFA anybody who slumps for more than a game, we’re busting down the clubhouse door screaming for them to call up Heliot Ramos or David Villar or Jaylin Davis or anybody, literally anybody, who looks like he could be The Next [Insert-Legend-Here]. We want a hero. We want the hero. We profoundly, desperately want another taste of the ol’ Even-Year Magic.
In that universe, we’re looking down the barrel of a team that feels like it’s still rebuilding, like it hasn't ever stopped. Like those beautiful 107 wins weren’t really meant for us, didn’t mean anything at all, fell into our laps by a lot of accident and even more good luck. The party’s over and there aren’t even leftovers, not for the Giants fans who have to wake up, leave 2021 behind, and go on living in 2022, the real world.
And I don’t know, I’m not that plugged into the emotions of the Giants fanbase, but I don’t think that’s how most of us feel at the moment.
(As long as we aren’t in an ugly five-game backslide. Then, you know, we could be indulging a little.)
Instead, we get what we have now. A team that falters sometimes and goes on slugging streaks other times. A team with a rotation that blows a start or two, then turns around and pitches some games so dominant you briefly forget why you were ever worried. A team with a mostly-effective bullpen, a platoon strategy that works pretty well, and advanced statistics often attached to the phrases "third-best," "fifth-best," or just "best." We worry, and we jump to conclusions, but we’re largely normal about this. We try not to compare ourselves to who we were last year.
Behind it all, the Captain. Who waffles between hot and cold like the rest of them. Who winks grotesquely into the TV camera and expresses real gratitude when his teammates present him with a dinky little PB&J sandwich on two paper plates for his birthday. Who catches the ball, and hits the ball, and tells us he’s the best at both of those things, so that we don’t go hunting for somebody else. Who rights the ship, in his own way. Keeps it steady.
Brandon Belt is not The Guy.
Brandon Belt is a guy who does a really solid job at what he gets paid to do. And, most importantly, Brandon Belt is in on the joke.
I think it’s a pretty damn good one.