BY DAN McGRATH
For the Sun-Times
The world-champion San Francisco Giants.
They have earned that distinction three times in the last five years, and the Cubs are clobbering them, winning the first three games of a weekend series that represents the most significant baseball played at Wrigley Field since the Cubs’ regime change five years ago.
Three titles aside, the concept of the Giants as World Series winners remains foreign to those of us who remember when pouty-faced Johnnie LeMaster was their shortstop and Alan Cockrell was presumed to be the Next Big Thing.
Candlestick Park, a baseball abomination, was their home then. The team was frequently as drab as its surroundings.
How times have changed. They don’t act the part in odd-numbered years, but the Giants are one of the elite teams in baseball, their presence at Wrigley creating a playoff-like buzz that’s a nice accessory to the spiffed-up ballyard, which never has looked better.
Theo Epstein is the most visible symbol of the Cubs’ regime change, and given his noteworthy Boston background, it would follow that the Red Sox are advanced as the model of sustained excellence to which the Cubs aspire.
If two recent last-place finishes cooled the ardor for all things Boston, there’s always the St. Louis Cardinals, whom the Cubs have been chasing in the National League Central standings since Jim Edmonds roamed the Earth.
Though they’ve looked curiously flat this weekend, the Giants are a team for the Cubs to emulate — three World Series titles in five years represents real excellence. And the way the Giants have gone about winning speaks to the value of a smart plan and the nerve to stick with it.
They were consistently competitive during the Barry Bonds era, surrounding Bonds and Jeff Kent with useful, well-worn parts such as Ellis Burks, Reggie Sanders and David Bell. They got to one World Series, made four other playoff appearances and over one five–year stretch played in a total of 11 games of no consequence.
Meanwhile, they used the draft to stock a world-class starting rotation (Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, Madison Bumgarner) and an entire infield (Brandon Belt, Joe Panik, Brandon Crawford, Matt Duffy), with enough prospects left over to trade for right fielder Hunter Pence, who embodies the team’s quirky talent and unique millennial appeal.
There’s also something to be said for stability: Baseball operations boss Brian Sabean (18 years) and pitching coach Dave Righetti (16 years) are the longest-tenured men in the game at their positions. Bruce Bochy has been a major-league manager for 21 years, the last nine with the Giants.
Their waterfront jewel of a ballpark is another asset. In moving from Candlestick to AT&T Park in 2000, the Giants exchanged MLB’s worst facility for its finest and have drawn an average of 3.21 million fans the last 15 seasons. Nowadays it’s cool to be a Giants fan — the abundance of black and orange in the stands at Wrigley bears witness to the team’s road popularity.
But the engine driving the rise to prominence, the indispensable Giant, is catcher Buster Posey. Think Jonathan Toews swinging a baseball bat: natural leadership, choir-boy good looks concealing a fierce competitiveness, at his best when it matters most.
Posey already owns Rookie of the Year and MVP awards, a batting title and three World Series rings. At 28, he’s ancient by Mike Trout/Bryce Harper standards, but factor in the demands of his position and Posey belongs in any discussion of baseball’s best player.
This series, though, is about the Cubs and how they have used it to assert themselves as playoff contenders with four rookies in the every-day lineup. Kyle Schwarber, the newest addition, slugged a homer, drove in six runs, made a nice catch in left field and even stole a base during the first three games. “Slumping” Kris Bryant hit a two-run bomb off Cain in the third inning that should be landing any time now. Addison Russell had two doubles and an RBI single and displayed the grace, arm and range of a natural shortstop. Jorge Soler scalded four balls while collecting five hits and four RBI in three games.
Joe Maddon has managed as if the season were at stake, using six pitchers Thursday and Saturday, benching Starlin Castro and lifting Jason Hammel with one out in the fifth Thursday after his command deserted him with a three-run lead.
The Cubs are trying to get where the Giants have been. They’re on their way. The plan is working.