Like so many San Francisco Giants fans, I tuned into Sunday’s season finale from afar, watching the game on a slowly-dying Costco TV, from my vaguely-Giants colored reading chairs rather than in person, from the most gorgeous ballpark ever imagined.
Like so many, I stood and applauded, alone in my apartment, as Brandon Crawford took his first at-bat of the afternoon; and again when he took his last; and again when he was removed from the game. A tear came and went, followed by a second.
It felt distinctly different from Madison Bumgarner’s farewell pinch-hit appearance, or Bruce Bochy’s final tip of the cap in 2019. It carried a different emotion than Barry Bonds taking the field one last time in 2007.
When those iconic figures bid adieu and scampered up the staircase, I found myself deeply sad. They’d come into our lives so unexpectedly, blessed us with brilliance, and departed swiftly. With Crawford I felt less sadness; instead, I felt — and I mean this in the most positive sense of the word — jealousy. Happy jealousy. Wondrous jealousy. But jealousy nonetheless.
Because his was the once-in-a-lifetime career that we all once felt was destined for us. His was one of the greatest athletic careers in history.
The story’s been repeated regularly since Crawford broke in. Born in the Bay Area. Raised in the Bay Area. Lifelong Giants fan. Parents got season tickets when Oracle Park opened, eight years before he was drafted and 11 years before he ever played on that infield dirt. Drafted by his home team. Developed by his home team. Starred for his home team. Won with his home team.
But it wasn’t until this year — a year that Crawford admitted has been frustrating, difficult, and downright bad — that I started to internalize what that meant. Watching Crawford through the season sent me reminiscing to my childhood. I remembered the tub of chalk I used to draw out a basketball court on my back deck before playing imaginary five-on-five games where I was all 10 players; I remembered my 49ers helmet I would put on when going out to the yard to play a football game against myself; I remembered the imaginary calls of Duane Kuiper as I smacked a baseball over the tiny fence protecting our propane tank: Klopfer hits it high! He hits it deep! It! Is! Outta here!!!
Well over three million kids in America play baseball every year. Millions more play basketball, football, and soccer. It’s safe to say a large swath of those kids hold dreams of playing professionally.
For nearly every one of them, the dream ends well short of maturation, with the heartbreaking realization that they aren’t good enough — that they’ll never be good enough. For some it comes during Little League or high school; for others after a college career that wasn’t enough to earn a professional opportunity; and for some in the Minor Leagues where, like the all too familiar feeling we all experience first thing in the morning, the dream is close enough to grasp as it slips through our fingers and disappears forever.
Along the way, most dream of playing for their home team. Sports may be the ultimate platform for individual triumph, but team sports are still defined, largely, by community. You come together, as a community, to cheer and hope and commiserate. You hug and high-five strangers. You don matching clothing. You swell with pride.
Fanhood runs deep because it’s merely a unique way of marking the boundaries of community. And community, if nothing else, is the backbone of humanity.
And so we love teams together, cheer teams together, curse teams together. And for as long as we harbor largely unattainable dreams, we imagine playing for those teams that we’ve already identified as our community.
I remember distinctly, long before my dreams of sports stardom dissipated, having the realization that I might get drafted by the Dodgers. My solution at that tender young age? Stop playing baseball if it happens. Pivot to a different sport.
But it was an unrealistic hypothetical. Unrealistic, I thought, because fate wouldn’t allow it — I’d either get drafted by the Giants, or get drafted by one of the other 28 teams and then traded to the Giants. Unrealistic, in actuality, because my baseball journey wouldn’t make it out of the backyard.
For Crawford it did. His baseball journey led to being drafted by his hometown team, after the villainous Dodgers passed him over three times, even though he’d attended college in their backyard. It led him to play for the only team he’d ever rooted for. It led him to be, if this is the end of his career, one of just 71 position players to play for just one franchise, and appear in at least 1,500 games and make an All-Star team. That number dwindles if you add a championship to the equation. And it becomes nearly microscopic if you limit it to players born and raised near the team they played those 1,500 games for.
There are so many good stories of local kids in sports, but so few like this. Joc Pederson and Mitch Haniger are Bay Area kids, but they didn’t come to the Giants until well into their careers. Logan Webb and Kyle Harrison justifiably earn the “local” moniker, but the former grew up in Rocklin and the latter spent much of his childhood in Southern California. They’re still incredible and improbable stories.
It was different with Crawford, even before the decade-plus of success, the four Gold Gloves, the three All-Stars, and the two championships. He was born in Mountain View and grew up in Pleasanton, two cities I only knew existed because of the ads that played on KNBR while listening to Giants games. In a profession defined by people who have beat the odds, he beat the longest ones that exist.
There’s a happy and poetic irony in the fact that while Crawford always felt like a Giant, he never felt overwhelmingly San Franciscan. The picture of young Crawford imploring the team to stay in San Francisco might be the most circulated image in franchise history, but the adorable narrative always felt pushed by the fans and media more than by Crawford himself. Players like Tim Lincecum, Sergio Romo, and Brian Wilson assimilated to the city in ways that felt predestined; outside of his Bay Area hip-hop-themed playlists and California-cool haircut, Crawford never had that vibe. Hunter Pence was on his third team when he arrived in San Francisco but now, well into retirement, he still lives downtown. And even Buster Posey needed just one year back home in Georgia to realize that his heart was in the Bay; Crawford, for all his ties to the area, has long made his offseason home in Arizona, where I suspect he’ll retire to.
It’s fitting, really. Greatness in sports is a surprise to those of us on the outside who never tasted it; for those who accomplish it, the moment was always expected. You never got the sense that Michael Jordan or Muhammad Ali or Serena Williams were shocked to be the greatest; they all expected it. Knew it. Never even considered the possibility that anything less than would transpire. Why act surprised when the inevitable occurs?
We all had that, once. There was a time, before I understood how big the world was and how poor my hand-eye coordination was, when I knew I would play for the Giants. Not thought; not hoped; knew.
I’d play for the Giants because they were my team. I’d play for them for well over a decade. I’d play only for them. I’d accomplish myriad individual accolades with them. I’d be a part of the highest level of team success with them.
That dream vanishes for nearly all who envision it in their backyard or at their local park. Even for those who make the big leagues, even for those who win MVPs and championships, even for those who stamp their place in the Hall of Fame, that dream fades, wilts, and dies for almost every kid that’s ever picked up a mitt or a ball or a helmet.
But it never did for Brandon Crawford.