When the three gleaming trophies had gone by and the parade was over, and the revelers on Market Street had cheered their last cheer, and the final piece of confetti had drifted down through the soft gray sky, and the speeches on the stage in front of City Hall were finished, it was time to wonder what it all meant—and just to wonder. “Can you believe this?” people kept saying to each other. “Can you believe this?” And none of us could.
Even to their most passionate fans, the Giants are a conundrum. The numbers don’t lie: They have earned three World Series rings in the past five seasons, a run that puts them in line with some of the greatest teams of the past 75 years: the 1942–1946 St. Louis Cardinals, the 1947–1956 Yankees (who won seven championships), the 1972–1974 Oakland A’s, and the 1996–2000 Yankees (winners of four titles). But these numbers don’t lie, either: The team has averaged just 87 wins a year during its five-year run. (By contrast, the Clinton-era Yanks averaged more than 97 wins.) As far as we can tell, in preseason polls in 2010, 2012, and 2014, only one of dozens of national baseball pundits picked the Giants to win the ensuing World Series. And none of those other experts were wrong, exactly: The Giants really shouldn’t have won those rings—at least not three of them.
No matter how you look at it, the Giants’ success baffles. Yes, they’re scrappy and well coached and relatively highly paid. But this is an age of extreme parity in Major League Baseball, when, thanks to revenue sharing, small-market teams like the Royals and the Pirates can challenge (and sometimes humiliate) fat cats like the Angels and the Dodgers. You could see a team with a top-seven payroll like the Giants winning the title once, maybe even twice, if the stars aligned just right. But three times? An average-hitting, good-pitching, six-games-over-.500 club with a revolving door of position players? It truly does defy belief.
Considering all this, it’s not surprising that not everyone outside the Bay Area bubble is crowning the Giants with laurel wreaths. In fact, their mind-boggling trifecta has only poured fuel on a raging debate in sports-media circles about just how good they really are. On one side are those who argue that manager Bruce Bochy’s 2010–2014 teams are among the greatest of all time. Sports Illustrated’s Cliff Corcoran opined that the Giants’ five-year achievement “stands as no worse than the ninth-best run of sustained success in major league history” and could rank as high as fourth. Time’s Sean Gregory wrote, “It’s time we revere the Giants like we revere the late-’90s New York Yankees or even all those Atlanta Braves teams that won year after year, even though they only won a single World Series.” SI’s Tom Verducci compared the Giants to the 1996–1999 Yankees, noting that both teams excelled at winning close games. The San Francisc Chronicle’s headline after the Giants beat the Royals in Game 7 read simply, “Dynasty.”
Taking the opposite view are detractors like Bill Madden of the New York Daily News, who wrote that the Giants are a “significantly flawed” team whose championship run was the result of a mediocre, diluted league. Forbes’s Tom Van Riper blasted the Giants as “boring” and “painfully bland,” a team “whose ability to outlast the rest of the playoff field has been as much about luck as anything else.” Van Riper’s description of Madison Bumgarner as a “soft-tossing lefty” raises questions about whether he actually watched the Giants play, but he’s hardly alone in his assessment. Another Forbes writer, Matthew Kory, called the Giants “baseball’s first parity dynasty” and questioned whether the Giants’ formula is simply to put “decent-to-good teams on the field each season” and then pray to the baseball gods that their opponents screw up first.
To settle the debate once and for all, I track down a member of the baseball punditocracy who also happens to be a lifelong Giants fan, Chris Russo, for his verdict. The host of MLB Network’s High Heat and the longtime cohost of WFAN New York’s Mike and the Mad Dog is definitive in his assessment: “The Giants are not a dynasty,” he says. “In order to be a dynasty, you have to win back-to-back. The Yankees of 1996–2000 won four out of five years—that’s a dynasty. The Giants didn’t even make the playoffs in two of the five years of their run, and in one of those years, they were bad. The Yankees were never bad. Anybody who calls the Giants a dynasty doesn’t know what the word means.”
But Russo does see some similarities between the two teams. “The Giants have had a lot of resourceful players: Marco Scutaro, Juan Uribe, Cody Ross, Pablo Sandoval, Hunter Pence. They don’t have a lot of Hall of Fame–caliber players, outside of maybe Buster Posey and now maybe Bumgarner. But they have guys who know how to win. The Yankees were the same. Outside of Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera, they didn’t have a lot of Hall of Famers either. But they had guys like Paul O’Neill, Jorge Posada—resourceful players.”
Russo credits Bochy and Giants general manager Brian Sabean with much of the team’s success. “The organization consistently finds these useful players—Sabean’s got to get a lot of the credit for that. And Bochy lets everybody play, gives them a chance, from Juan Perez to Travis Ishikawa.” But Russo also believes that the cosmic dice came up sevens for the Giants, at least this year. “I don’t think they were necessarily the best team this time. They caught a break when [Nationals manager] Matt Williams pulled Jordan Zimmerman out of Game 2, and when [Cardinals manager] Mike Matheny brought Michael Wacha in to pitch the ninth inning in Game 5. But sometimes you need to get a little lucky.” The Giants’ manager, Russo points out, didn’t make such tactical mistakes. “Bruce Bochy’s going to the Hall of Fame.”
And then there are the intangibles. “Like the Yankees, the Giants are playing in front of packed houses every night, so they’re not intimidated by the big stage,” Russo says. “And once you’ve won it once, you think you can do it again. The Giants have developed a winning culture—and when you figure out how to bottle that, amazing things can happen.”
In the end, you can throw it all into the mix—a great manager, a diluted league, a savvy GM, a healthy payroll, good luck, a contagious winning culture, gritty players who grind out quality at-bats, mistakes by the opposition, a supportive clubhouse, consistently strong pitching and defense, a loyal fan base—and you still can’t explain how this team won three World Series. And for Giants fans, that’s OK. It’s one of those questions that don’t have to be answered—because the game is won on the field, and every championship is different, and they’re all precious because no matter what era you’re playing in, it’s incredibly hard to win. When we shake our heads and give up trying to figure it out, the magical memories that matter so much more than any explanation—of Joe Panik’s double play and Travis Ishikawa’s pennant-winning homer and Madison Bumgarner’s indomitable stand—will still be there. And so will the three trophies in the case at AT&T Park.
Originally published in the December issue of San Francisco