Replacing Snow is About More Than Numbers

In applying for a stringer job with MLB recently, one question on the form was "Where and when did you see your first live MLB game?" Well, hell, I'll be damned if I know. My parents took me to games of all sports before I could remember, both the Giants and the A's. I had no idea what to put, until I finally said that the first specific game I remember going to: The Dave Dravecky game when I was 12.

Every Giants fan should know it, but for those who don’t, Dave Dravecky was a pitcher for the Giants who developed cancer in his throwing arm. Despite the doubts his doctors had, over the course of a year of surgery and therapy, he was able to come back and pitch again, and walk off the mound a winner again, even if it was just for one more game.

That’s the thing about baseball. The sport is fun and enjoyable, but it’s the people that play the game that truly make us love it. And this offseason, the Giants lost one of those guys, with J.T. Snow being declined arbitration.

Even before the decision came down, the reports were out that the Giants were going to sign Mark Sweeney to replace him, and since then Sabean has committed to Lance Niekro being given the majority of time at first (Yea, Sabes, we heard that about 5 times last season, and it never happened). And thus, J.T. Snow has been replaced.

But the thing is, he hasn’t been.

Snow was one of the last holdouts of the Giants team that, along with the shiny new park, had captured San Francisco’s imagination again. He wasn’t the most overwhelming player, but then, the numbers aren’t the important thing with these sorts of guys. Snow was a singular personality. He was personable, and always smiling. He did good things off the field as much as on. I remember a symbolic moment in the 2002 World Series when Snow ran over to the warning track in Anaheim tracking a foul ball, and fell flat on his ass. Yet he did what few people would, but everyone would like to: he got back up and made the catch anyways.

That’s the thing about these sorts of players…they’re always getting back up. They’re always playing hard. Just look at the camera J.T. Snow dented with his chin as he fell into a camera well in San Diego last Septermber, getting a cut on the neck. Not only did J.T. stay in the game, he got the game winning RBI in the last must-win game of the Giants season.

That’s why we love J.T. Snow.

Even as the personalities who made the Giants so great the last five years have disappeared, the guys like Rich Aurilia, Kirk Rueter, and even the guys you may not be lovable but certainly are personalities, like Jeff Kent, Snow’s number 6 has been a reassuring presence at first. All the contenders and pretenders for his job that he’s fought off over the years. And now the bubblegum chewing ladies favorite is gone.

Replacing that presence is going to be the hardest thing for Brian Sabean to do. Not just in the clubhouse, but in the public. You could always count on J.T. Snow to be the face and voice of the team, and be beloved by the fans. As the Giants came back home last year as lame ducks for the first time in years, it was J.T. Snow who came out and apologized to fans, saying that they’d be better next year. And it was Snow, who collected his 1,500th career hit in what would be his final at bat with the Giants, who received the longest and loudest standing ovation of the day. All the fans knew why they were, and he did too, but no one was going to say it out loud. But it had nothing to do with the number.

The current group of Giants still has Bonds, who has been the nationwide symbol of the Giants for years, but he’s a different sort of player, not to mention he’ll also be leaving soon. And the team has some good guys who’ve been around for a while, guys like Jason Schmidt and Ray Durham. But the more this team heads towards the 2006 season, the more it feels like these guys aren’t the Giants, they’re just the placeholders. They’re the transition team into whomever is coming next. Not to belittle any of these players, as they’re fine guys and fine players. They just don’t feel like they belong to us. That may be reinforced by the knowledge that 6 of the 9 guys who will be in the opening day lineup (and several others) have their contracts expire after next season, and that the Giants have no players under contract after 2007 except for the young players coming up.

Maybe that is where Giants fans will be able to find some new favorites, and find a team that’s theirs again. How long will it take Giant fans to find Kevin Frandsen? Anyone who attended San Jose Giants games while he was there will tell you he’s that type of a guy. On and off the field, he’s a hard worker but someone who’s just having fun. He’ll never be part of that millionaire jock crowd, flashing the bling and entourages, and not caring about the fans. At least, we can’t imagine he ever would be.

Or maybe it’ll have to be a first baseman. There’s something about being a San Francisco first baseman. You’re either loved or hated, there’s no real in-between. San Francisco first basemen are guys like Willie McCovey and Orlando Cepeda, Will Clark and J.T. Snow. Or, they’re guys like J.R. Phillips and Damon Minor, Willie Montanez and Bob Burda, who might have been all-around good guys, but whose names are more punchlines than anything else in San Francisco history. Which is Lance Niekro? Can he be one of the beloved? I guess now we have no choice but to find out.

When General Manager Brian Sabean came to the Giants, he made his mark by making a move that fans then only saw as trading away one of those fan favorites, Matt  Williams. What we didn’t know then was that he was putting together a team that was just as beloved as the Humm Baby era. Now, it’s time to start putting together a new team for the next generation. And it’s not something that can be done by buying top free agents or looking for numbers. What Giants fans will need as much as those things is the stuff that’s inside, that can’t be quantified or statistically analyzed.

Until the Giants find that, it won’t matter how good these guys play, it’ll still just feel empty.

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