WESTIN ST. FRANCIS HOTEL — Just before his third Major League start, Matt Cain was warming up down the left field line at AT&T Park, facing the stands, as San Francisco Giants pitching coach Dave Righetti looked on. One of Cain’s throws sailed over the head of then-catcher Mike Matheny.
“He smoked a guy right in the face,” Righetti said. “He hit him good. This guy was in pain.”
Once Cain finished warming up, he tried to give the injured fan a ball, but the fan didn’t want it.
“As [Cain] was leaving,” Righetti said, “I let him go ahead of me, and I said, ‘Some day, you’re going to wish you kept that ball.’”
Cain beat the Cubs that night in September of 2005, throwing a complete-game two-hitter. It was the first of 15 he threw over the course of a career that included three World Series titles and a perfect game. On Monday, Cain — eight months removed from his last Major League start — was inducted into the Bay Area Sports Hall of Fame, along with Tim Hardaway, Brandi Chastain, Harris Barton and John McVay.
“I didn’t know a ton about [the Bay Area Sports Hall of Fame], but I did know that I’d seen Rags (Righetti), his plaque in the airport, and just remembering, thinking, ’Man, that’s a huge honor to sit there and think that the city appreciates you that much,'” Cain said.
At the age of 33 and seven months, Cain is the fourth-youngest individual ever enshrined into the Hall’s ranks, behind skater Kristi Yamaguchi (32 in 2004), former Cal swimmer Matt Biondi (32 in 1998) and former Stanford swimmer Summer Sanders (31 in 2004).
Cain was asked by attendees when he’ll get involved with the Giants again. His response? After 104 wins and 1,694 strikeouts, he’s just trying to get some distance.
“I’m an old retired guy,” said Cain, who now resides in Arizona. “Playing golf and trying to keep up with the kids. Just really trying to work back into life, and kind of see where it takes us from here … I’ve got plenty to do. I’m trying to figure out how the golfball works, trying to get it straight and trying to figure out how to get the kids to school.”
Righetti, who introduced Cain at the gala held at the Westin St. Francis Hotel in Union Square, knew Cain was different from his first Major League spring training. Righetti liked to get first-timers some innings in intra-squad games, before sending them out to minor league camp. It was an unwritten rule that rookies didn’t ask when they’d be pitching, but Cain — ignorant of the code — came up to Righetti in the clubhouse and asked, all the same.
“I never told Matt Morris and those guys,” Righetti said. “The way he asked me, I didn’t laugh. I said, ‘Alright, Matty, I’ll do my best.’ He was going to fly his folks in. I said, ‘Matty, woah, woah, woah.’ I said, ‘Bring them in for 10 days, and I guarantee they’ll see you.’ It was kind of neat, to be honest. It never bothered me a bit. He was big enough that [the veterans] left him alone. That’s one good thing about being a young stud — only certain guys are able to get on you.”
Cain — who had committed to play collegiately for Memphis — signed with the Giants without hesitation after being drafted 25th overall in the 2002 Major League Draft.
“I got lucky enough that the Giants came through and said, ‘Hey, you know what? We’ll take a chance on you,’ and I’m glad it worked out that way,” Cain said. “The opportunity they were giving me was too good. I had always had the dream of playing baseball as a career, and once they gave me the opportunity, I had an idea I was going.”
He quickly rose through the ranks and was called up late in 2005. He became a stalwart in the Giants rotation, earning the nickname “The Horse” for averaging 6 1/3 innings per start over his 13 big league seasons. The first words on his plaque — “durability and dominance” — encapsulate his career.
“Surreal,” said Cain. “Just kind of amazement, really, at the fact, to think, coming out of high school, not knowing much about the city, to just be really welcomed by everyone, and to sit here and think that a nice, wonderful career is rewarded this way is very special for me.”
Cain’s 14-strikeout perfect game on June 13 — which tied Sandy Koufax for the most K’s in a perfecto — was, according to several BASHOF officials, one of the main reasons for Cain’s early induction. While that’s one of Cain’s personal highlights, there was one memory that stood out from the rest, as he looked back on his career: Winning his first World Series in 2010.
“We had 162 games and it literally came down to the 162nd game, and then, to go into really every postseason series as an underdog, we enjoyed it,” he said. “We had a lot of fun with it. To have all that be rewarded with a big celebration and a bunch of champagne is fun.”
After Brian Wilson struck out the Texas Rangers’ Nelson Cruz to end the game, amidst the on-field celebration in Arlington, Tex., Righetti made sure to find Cain first.
“At that time, it was five years in, six years in,” Righetti said. “Six years since he came up. He was probably my longest-tenured guy, even then. He’s always been old, but young.”
Cain remembered a team photo taken in the clubhouse in Philadelphia, at the end of the National League Championship Series, with Wilson clutching a cheesesteak. Looking at that photo, there were a few random faces — family members of teammates, he figures — that he didn’t recognize.
“As soon as you retire, you get young again,” said Righetti, who was himself inducted into the BASHOF in 2015. “Walking around, everybody else, he’s 33-years old. I know he’s going to miss it. The clubhouse, the camaraderie, it all just comes around at you.”
It was those moments — team moments — despite the 15 times Cain pitched into the eighth inning and got a no-decision, that he held most special.
“I didn’t know the severity of it,” Righetti said. “You’re in the middle of it, and you’re always trying to pump ‘em up, ‘Don’t let it bother you, some day it’ll turn around,’ — which it did — but for a young guy to be able to handle himself like that, he went through a lot … Any time you make reference to it, and our game is a team game, somehow you’re looking down on your teammates, and Matty never wanted to do that.”
Eight months ago, Cain — the Tennessee native who lived in Marin, in the City, the Easy Bay and in Noe Valley during his tenure with the Giants — drove from his home in Walnut Creek over the Bay Bridge for his 331st and final start. He went five scoreless innings, striking out four, and exited to a standing ovation at AT&T Park. He went over to try and hug Righetti, but Righetti had none of it.
“I probably didn’t see anything, really — it was more just hearing everything, just trying to keep it together,” Cain said. “It was definitely tough. One of the first people in the dugout was Rags. It was special for him to be there. I tried to hold onto him like a little kid, and he shoved me away like he normally did, as a father figure for me — more like an older brother.”
“He was dynamite,” Righetti said.