A New Identity for the Giants and their Fans

In 1987, the San Francisco Giants won the NL West and secured their first post-season berth in 16 seasons. It was also the first time the Giants had made it to the playoffs since I had become a fan of the team in the mid-1970s. During the years between when I first became a fan and 1986 every other NL team and all but four AL teams, the Rangers, Indians, Mariners and Twins, had appeared in the post-season, so when the Giants finally won that division title it was a big deal and the end of a long difficult period in Giants history.

The Giants lost a tough seven game series to the Cardinals in that NLCS thus cementing their position in my eyes as a once proud franchise fallen irrevocably on hard times, and influencing the identity of a generation of Giants fans. We thought of ourselves as people who rooted for a perennially disappointing, and hard luck, team whose best days were in the past. Two years later in what remains one of my best memories as a baseball fan, that changed as the team won its first pennant in 27 years.

Last night the Giants won another pennant, their fourth in 23 years and second in only three years. Their last pennant before this one was part of the extraordinary 2010 season which saw the Giants win their first World Series since 1954. Last night was not only a great night for Giants fans, but it also forces us to rethink our identity as fans. Since 1989, only the Braves and Yankees have won more pennants than the Giants. The Giants have now won three pennants in 11 years, a period in which more than half of all big league teams have not won a pennant.

This pennant, especially given the dramatic way the Giants won it, following only two years after their World Series victory in 2010, solidifies the change in the Giants persona. Regardless of whether or not they beat Detroit in the World Series, the Giants are no longer the bad break team of Bobby Richardson catching Willie McCovey’s line drive, Dusty Baker giving the ball to Russ Ortiz, or Atlee Hammaker’s game seven in the 1987 NLCS. They are now closer to being a consistent contender and an enduring power in the NL. The Giants have clearly shaken off the identity they had through much of the 1970s and 1980s.

For longtime Giants fans, this means rethinking our identity as fans. We are no longer rooting for a forgotten team searching for a championship, a team that for a period of close to half a century were either mediocre or found a way to lose championships in dramatic, and occasionally strange, ways. Fans of other teams have experienced similar things. Any thoughtful Red Sox fan would have to rethink the narrative of being cursed and long suffering that was part of what being a fan of that team meant for more than eight decades, but after 2004 and 2007 can no longer be taken seriously. Similarly, a fan of the Orioles from 1966-1983 would have thought of that team as always contending, having stellar pitching and usually being in or around the playoffs while occasionally winning a championship, but over the last 30 years, the Orioles have evolved into being a very different, and less successful, franchise.

Loyalties to sports teams run very deep, but they are almost always built on factors such as geography or family. I am a Giants fan because my family moved to San Francisco when I was very young. My sons are Giants fans, even though we live in New York, because their father is a Giants fan. These are typical reasons why people root for teams, but they are not based on a thoughtful or probably even conscious decision. These circumstances lead us not just to a team, but to an identity, based on the fortunes and character of the team for which we root.

For many Giants fans, happily, the identity we have adapted no longer applies to our team. The Giants are not long suffering, nor are they living in the shadow of some of the game’s greatest players like Christy Mathewson, Willie Mays or even Barry Bonds. If fans like me hold on to that identity much longer we will become delusional and annoying, so we have to embrace the new. The new Giants identity may be simply that they are good and win more than their share of pennants. It may take a while to get used to that, but I think I can handle it.