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How the greatness of Matt Cain touched someone halfway across the country

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Through the ups and the downs of a 13-year career, Matt Cain loved San Francisco — and The City loved him back. (Stan Olszewski/Special to S.F. Examiner)
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I cried a little bit as I read Matt Cain’s retirement letter in The Players’ Tribune. My eyes welled up when I read the line, “It hit me on Saturday when I woke up.” Cain, stoic stalwart that he is, only incidentally mentions holding back tears “5-to-10 times” as he dressed for his final start.

That was the second time I shed tears about Cain’s retirement. My love for Cain started long before I ever heard his name.

Cain begins his Players’ Tribune piece with an anecdote of his baseball origins, ultimately centered around his father showing him the 4- and 2-seam fastball grips and how they allow a pitcher to manipulate ball movement. “I thought it was magic,” he wrote.

While that Matt was gripping baseballs in Tennessee, this Matt was gripping them in Chicagoland, falling in love with Cy Young-winning fastball manipulators by the names of Jack McDowell and Greg Maddux. I’m one of the world’s foremost Mark Buehrle boosters.

It only follows, then, that I fell in love once again when Matt Cain got called up and made seven-straight quality starts to finish 2005, moving his fastball around the plate like the magicians of my youth. But as his career continued and his prowess grew, so did my appreciation of the man we call The Horse.

Cain was an excellent baseball player from 2007 to 2012 — he had an ERA of 3.18 and tossed 217 innings per year. But his four-year stretch from 2009-12 was truly spectacular: a 2.93 ERA and a WHIP of just 1.096. His 220 innings per year and 11 complete games, four of them shutouts, were perhaps even more appealing to an inveterate fan of the workhorse (pun intended) athlete.

Cain’s ERA over that stretch is second only to Clayton Kershaw among starters. He was top ten in innings pitched and top five in batting average against. His career stats still stack up amongst the all-time San Francisco Giants.

As all Cain fans know, he was also being let down by his offense and bullpen with alarming regularity — 77 times in his illustrious career, he threw a quality start and still lost. That’s not to mention no-decisions. There’s no telling what his career could have looked like with a little help.

Nevertheless, in mid-2012, Cain was 27 years old and headed for a career-best in both ERA and wins — truly pitching at a Hall of Fame level. Then, on June 13, he had his most Hall of Fame moment, and he was never the same.

There’s no sense belaboring the point, but Cain’s greatest individual achievement is also the obvious inflection point for his career. It may be that no arm is built to withstand the sort of workload he willingly accepted, it may be that this particular arm only had so many bullets in it, perhaps something happened on that day that changed the course of a Hall of Fame career. Whatever the specific reason, The Horse never threw another complete game after his perfecto.

What did not change as Cain’s career was beset by injury and ineffectiveness was his commitment to the Bay Area. Matt Cain loves the San Francisco Giants and the San Francisco Bay Area in equal measure. He was as good a citizen as he was a starter. It was a constant theme of his life here for more than a decade, and the centerpiece of his Players’ Tribune piece.

As he put it, “What Chelsea and I have been able to accomplish in the community, and with the community, over these last several years — it’s meant as much to me as any championship.” And for Cain, it goes both ways: “I got to build an entire life here in San Francisco … I got to become Matt Cain, Pitcher, San Francisco Giants. And I’ll always be in your debt for that.”

The fans were there for Cain one last time on Saturday, as — in perhaps the most fitting possible sendoff for a guy who suffered unreasonably from a lack of run support — he tossed five scoreless innings, allowing just two hits and striking out four, only to watch a 1-0 lead turn into a 3-2 loss courtesy of failures by the bullpen and offense.

I was there too, and it was when The Horse stepped out of the dugout for a well-deserved career-ending curtain call that I cried Cain tears for the first time.

I couldn’t help being overcome.

Here was a stadium full of fans who uniquely appreciated Matt Cain for what he really was — a true Giant. Fans cheered a man who, in turn, uniquely appreciated the fans and the franchise and the community and everything about his 13-year MLB career.

I may be a crybaby, but I’d say these were tears well shed.

Matt Kolsky is a sports media professional (or something like that) and lives with an aging Shih Tzu/Schnauser mix in Berkeley. You can hear his podcast, The Toy Department, on iTunes or wherever else fine podcasts are free. Find him on Twitter @thekolsky to share your personal feelings about this article or any other topic, he will respond to most tweets that do not contain racial slurs.

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