AT&T PARK — When Larry Baer was growing up in the Outer Richmond at the dawn of the Giants’ era in San Francisco, he never envisioned one day presiding over the 60th season of his hometown club as president and CEO.
Young Larry wanted to be a Hall of Fame center fielder.
“I was focused on if I was going to be Willie Mays,” Baer said with a smile on Friday.
“I loved the Giants. I used to throw the ball against the stairs on 29th Avenue and fantasized about being a player and just following the Giants.”
Speaking on the suite level at the team’s home park — a sweeping view of the field and the Bay extending out on the horizon beyond the floor-to-ceiling windows — Baer has just delivered the keynote speech, like he always does.
Officially, it’s the Media Open House. Unofficially, it’s the annual Larry Baer luncheon, the final landmark of the spring before the Bay Bridge Series arrives.
In a poetic twist, Baer, who is nearing his 61st birthday, is the same age as his childhood team. Under his stewardship, the Giants have emerged as a model franchise in the world of professional sports.
Forbes recently dubbed AT&T Park — already fully paid for — the No. 1 stadium in MLB. Baer boasted that the Giants are on track for 30,000 full-season ticket holders, also tops in baseball. Ownership dished out $104 million in future salary to right last year’s 98-loss season.
At the home opener on April 3, more than a dozen of the franchise’s icons will be on hand.
“The whole thing is pretty cool,” Baer said. “Here we are 60 years in San Francisco and some of the greatest names in not just baseball but in sports, have worn Giants uniforms. Willie Mays. Willie McCovey. Juan Marichal. Barry Bonds.”
That last legend will be especially noteworthy in 2018. Bonds, who struck more home runs than anyone in the history of the game, will have his No. 25 retired on Aug. 11. Baer’s stance on the polarizing ex-slugger is unequivocal. He called Bonds’ career “unparalleled.”
“Just judging from our fans, the Barry Bonds number retirement on August 11 has become sort of the No. 1 attraction other than Opening Day because you just look at the career,” Baer said.
For Bonds, who serves as a special adviser to the Giants’ boss, the ceremony is the latest step in his return to prominence in the orange and black orbit after spending the early years of his post-playing days wandering in the wilderness.
Earlier in the spring, Bonds tweeted a pair of pictures from Scottsdale, Ariz. The first featured a smiling Bonds with McCovey on one side, Mays on the other. The second shows Bonds, microphone in hand, addressing the spring training clubhouse, a room full of players and coaches with rapt attention.
“He is family,” Baer said of Bonds’ significance to the franchise.
“So, the people, because his father [Bobby] was a great Giant and his godfather was maybe the greatest of them all — Willie Mays — I think there’s an ownership feeling with Barry in terms … of his family is just so much a part of our family that I think it’s a long deserved recognition.”
He’ll be the sixth San Francisco Giant — and the 12th overall, including the New York days — to have his number immortalized. Of that dozen, he’s the only one who is a Cooperstown outcast.
“There’s a lot of discussion about Hall of Fame — not Hall of Fame — so we decided to go ahead and do this,” Baer said.
Bonds will also be among the legion of Giants on hand for the home-opening festivities. It’s a group that includes luminaries like Mays and McCovey and also unlikely October heroes like Travis Ishikawa.
On July 28, the Giants will honor another famed journeyman, adding Ryan Vogelsong — and Matt Cain — to the Wall of Fame that runs along King Street. After the team unveiled Bonds’ bronze plaque last summer, Vogelsong and Cain will be the 50th and 51th Giants to join the club.
Baer, who’s been here for the entire run in San Francisco, has the perfect perspective to appreciate just how much success the Vogelsongs, Cains and the Ishikawas of recent seasons have brought to the Giants.
“It will be great to relive those moments as we pause and think about 60 years in San Francisco,” Baer said. “It’s a blessed thing that really the last half dozen years have provided a big chunk of the great memories in San Francisco.”
Season No. 60 will give Baer the chance to think back to his days playing ball on 29th Avenue. And, like a shrewd exec, to plan ahead.