The visual of Giants general manager Brian Sabean breaking down in his suite, as Travis Ishikawa circled the bases after his NL Championship Series-winning homer, could not have been in more stark contrast with his public persona.
Sabean, in the minds of many, is cold, unfeeling, gruff. Even a little scary. Perhaps in a nod to his New York ties, he’s been likened to a mob boss.
When’s the last time you saw a mob boss cry? Didn’t think so.
Thus, the reaction to Sabean’s emotional moment was fairly muted. It got a little play, but despite his heartfelt explanation for the temporary loss of composure, very few people seemed to really appreciate or understand it.
Fitting, for that’s pretty much been Sabean’s existence in San Francisco since he took over as GM, replacing Bob Quinn in the wake of a miserable 94-loss season in 1996: underappreciated and misunderstood.
A third World Series title in five years, claimed Wednesday night in Kansas City, probably won’t change that, either. Sabean has been on the job for 18 years now, longer than any of his counterparts, and he knows as well as anyone that judgment is passed, and labels affixed, almost immediately. And because one of Sabean’s first moves as GM was to trade away fan favorite Matt Williams at the peak of Williams’ powers and popularity, he’ll be forever known to many fans as the outsider who came in, torched down the house, then took a highly defensive and defiant stance in the wake of the criticism that followed.
“I am not an idiot,” he said at the time. In another oft-cited episode, he referred to his critics as the “lunatic fringe.”
That was all it took, really, to make sure the early judgment, the label, stuck. San Francisco is a very provincial town, and because Sabean is an East Coast guy, there’s a big part of the fan base that will never wholly embrace the man, much less give him credit for all the good he’s done.
Joe Panik represents a perfect example. Despite having a dynamic young shortstop who likely has the position locked down for the next decade in Brandon Crawford, Sabean drafted used his first-round draft pick (29th overall) on Panik, a stud college shortstop, in 2011. The developmental staff that Sabean shaped took over from there, and Panik fast-tracked through the minor leagues — he started at Class A in 2012, Double-A in 2013, Triple-A in 2014.
On Wednesday, he started Game 7 of the World Series — as a second baseman, having been converted in 2013 — and turned in what might be the most significant defensive play of the season. This, after having filled the black hole that was the position for the bulk of the season, providing an immeasurable spark with his steady production at the plate, and having come up with one of the biggest home runs of the season with a two-run shot in the aforementioned NLCS clincher.
Yet Sabean gets almost no credit for what Panik did this year. The ridiculous prevailing narrative is that Panik got a shot only because there was no other option after Dan Uggla very publicly puked all over himself when Sabean rolled the dice and gave the former All-Star slugger a shot at resurrecting his career in orange and black.
Panik’s journey, though, was just as big a reason for Sabean’s meltdown as was Ishikawa’s. Sabean was overcome not by what was happening to him or his club, but by what was happening for Panik and Ishikawa, among others.
In other words, it was a brief glimpse of the real Brian Sabean. Cold? Unfeeling? Gruff? Scary? No.
OK, maybe gruff fits. He doesn’t exactly put off the most approachable vibe. But know this: Anyone who does approach him usually ends up surprised by the man’s warmth, wit, heart, humility and humanity.
He knows the drill. Fans will focus on his the missteps that every GM inevitably makes, and they’ll quickly forget the many masterstrokes he’s made in turning the Giants into a model franchise in many ways.
Think he cares?
“I learned a long time ago that if you’re looking for credit in this job, you’re in the wrong gig,” he told me this year. “That’s just the reality. You do the job the best you can, you trust the people around you, and if some of those people get some credit, you’ve done your job well.”
A million or so people are downtown today, giving credit to a lot of the people Sabean’s put in place. And that’s more than good enough for him.
Mychael Urban, a longtime Bay Area-based sportswriter and broadcaster, is the host of “Inside the Bigs,” which airs every Saturday from 9 a.m. to noon on KGMZ “The Game” (95.7 FM).