By Chris Haft
Special to The Examiner
Nod in approval, Barry Bonds. Doff that cap you wear in public, Willie Mays. Peer down from heaven and brandish a trimphant fist, Bobby Thomson.
The Giants aren’t just hitting home runs as they did in the days of Bonds, Mays and Thomson. They’re homering at a record pace. Manager Gabe Kapler’s band of surprising sluggers has clubbed 132 homers in 89 games, a pace that, if maintained, will enable the Giants to set a franchise record with 240 round-trippers.
The existing club standard is 235, which the Giants established in 2001. That happened to be the year when Bonds set baseball’s single-season mark with 73. Shortstop Rich Aurilia contributed 37, followed by Jeff Kent with 22. That was the second season in a row in which the Giants rewrote the team home run record. In 2000, the year that Oracle Park (nee Pacific Bell Park, SBC Park and AT&T Park) opened, a power-laden ballclub — nine players hit 10 or more homers — went deep 226 times. That eclipsed the then-National League-record 221 homers the Giants authored in 1947 when they represented New York and played home games at the Polo Grounds.
The impact of the Giants’ power cannot be denied. They have built the Major Leagues’ best record (57-32) while scoring 51.7 percent of their runs (228 of 441) via the longball, according to STATS Inc.
The team’s power surge can be attributed partially to the methods of contemporary baseball. Players won’t commit time to learning and refining their two-strike approach. (When’s the last time you heard that phrase?) Instead, analytics theory encourage hitters to swing from their heels and sacrifice a few strikeouts for a home run.
The slightly cozier dimensions at Oracle Park have also helped the Giants muscle up. Fewer drives die at the warning track. And club insiders have praised the work of hitting coaches Donnie Ecker, Dustin Lind and Justin Viele. Paralysis by analysis can become an issue when a ballplayer hears that many different voices whispering advice. However, the Giants’ trio apparently has succeeded in collaborating instead of tripping over each other.
The players seem to be listening. Brandon Crawford’s team-high total of 18 has drawn plenty of attention, since it’s just three short of his career single-season high of 21 in 2015. But balance is a key attribute. Buster Posey (12 homers), Mike Yastrzemski (12) and Brandon Belt (11) have joined Crawford in double figures.
On the other end of the spectrum, all 19 position players with more than 10 plate appearances have homered at least once. In between, Wilmer Flores, Austin Slater, Evan Longoria and Darin Ruf have nine apiece. Dickerson and Lamonte Wade Jr., have clobbered eight and seven, respectively.
Any discussion of the Giants and home runs must include 1947. This was the template for ballclubs that owner Horace Stoneham sought and tried to maintain into the 1970s. Never mind that those ‘47 Giants finished fourth in the NL with an 81-73 record. Stoneham loved power hitting more than any other dimension of baseball. “Powder river!” he bellowed when one of his players connected, which was often. Hall of Famer Johnny Mize pounded 51 homers in ‘47, followed by Willard Marshall’s 36, Walker Cooper’s 35 and Thomson’s 29.
Leo Durocher insisted on fielding lineups that relied less on power and more on fundamentals when he became manager of the Giants in 1948. But Thomson was still around in 1951 to beat the Dodgers with a three-run, ninth-inning homer in the finale of a three-game playoff in 1951 — a contest that shall forever remain among the franchise’s most storied and essential triumphs.
When Mays hit his 512th career homer on May 4, 1966 to become the NL’s all-time leader in that category, he surpassed Mel Ott, who spent his entire 22-year career with the Giants.
In fact, the lineage of prolific Giants sluggers has remained almost unbroken since Ott played his last full season in 1945. He begat Mize, who was followed by Mays, Orlando Cepeda, Willie McCovey, Jim Ray Hart, Bobby Bonds, Jack Clark, Darrell Evans, Will Clark, Kevin Mitchell, Matt Williams and Barry Bonds. Stoneham’s “powder river!” exclamation has echoed across the decades.
Pitching and defense were the dominant themes as the Giants won World Series in 2010, 2012 and 2014. Yet homers helped generate some of San Francisco’s most crucial victories in each postseason: Juan Uribe’s opposite-field, eighth-inning drive in Game 6 of the NLCS at Philadelphia that sent the Giants to the 2010 Series … Edgar Renteria’s three-run clout that accounted for the Giants’ scoring in that year’s Series clincher … Buster Posey’s grand slam in the 2012 Division Series finale at Cincinnati … Another Posey homer, good for two runs, which helped the Giants complete their four-game World Series at Detroit … Crawford’s fourth-inning grand slam that snapped a scoreless tie in the 2014 Wild Card game at Pittsburgh … Brandon Belt’s 18th-inning rocket in Game (2) of the Division Series at Washington … And, of course, Travis Ishikawa’s three-run drive that ended the 2014 NLCS against St. Louis.
Why else would the Giants keep “Bye Bye Baby,” based on Hall of Fame broadcaster Russ Hodges’ signature home-run call, as their unofficial fight song?