By Michelle Dingley

It’s the Battle of (about 40 miles south of) the Bay.  It’s Giants-A’s playoffs, minor league style: the San Jose Giants facing off against the Stockton Ports in game one of the California League Divisional Finals.  The San Francisco Giants are slowly fading into oblivion, while the A’s have been there for months.  Their Advanced-A affiliates, however, have been spectacular all year, and they are now facing off for the chance to play the Southern Division winner for the Cal League title.

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Yes, it’s single-A, but these games matter more than the major-league games do, at least now that SF has virtually thrown in the towel, along with the ACE bandages.  The “Little Giants” and the Ports are battling for postseason supremacy, something that is no longer an option for the big league teams.  The “rivalry” between the Giants and A’s is really nothing special; they play each other just six times a year in interleague play.  Fans can talk trash, and some reminisce of 1989, but without the teams meeting in the postseason, the idea of a rivalry dries up.  They are just another opponent.  But the Little Giants and the Ports see each other all the time, something the players are quick to point out.  Tommy Joseph, while passively observing the Ports’ batting practice, remarked that there is no more need to scout the team; the Giants already know everything there is to know about the Ports because they have seen them so much.  Alex Burg echoed the sentiment, saying, “We’ve played [Stockton] it feels like 100 times.”  The Giants and Ports actually played each other 22 times in 140 games.  This has the makings of a true rivalry.

As the importance of each SF Giants and A’s game dwindles, the magnitude increases for San Jose and the Ports.  These games are huge, and not just because they are playoff games.  These players are auditioning for promotions.  Minor league teams get fans in the stadium to see the players of the future before they make it big.  The stadiums often feature large murals or photos of past players who have made it to the show.  Not all of these kids will make it, but some will.  Some will be All-Stars and Cy Young winners.  As Ryan Cavan put it, this Giants-Ports series could be a precursor to a Giants-A’s playoff rivalry maybe three years down the line.  The future of each franchise is in the minor leagues.  At no time is this clearer than when the minor league team blossoms while the major league team wilts.

Two big names from the Giants organization stopped by San Jose during game one.  Felipe Alou, baseball legend and former San Francisco manager, came by the game during batting practice.  I saw him, and immediately recognized him, yet did not believe it.  He was kind enough to shake my hand and chat with me for a moment, as I stammered for something to say.  Mr. Alou said hello to a few players and manager Andy Skeels before disappearing, like any good celebrity can do.  Mr. Alou now serves the Giants as special assistant to GM Brian Sabean.  It is likely that he was there to watch the team, see how the players perform under pressure, and report back – basically, to scout.  I also heard that Bobby Evans, VP of baseball operations, was at Municipal Stadium in San Jose.  I did not see him, but I heard his name enough times by enough employees to know that he most definitely was on the premises.  Evans was also at the game to scout.  By this point in the year, a good player has likely already made a name for himself, but I suppose you can’t scout too much, despite what Tommy Joseph may think.  The Giants organization has a lot of talent.  Much of that talent is currently in the minors, but they won’t be stuck there for long.  The SF Giants, as well as the A’s, could use some help.  Mr. Alou and Evans will help decide the fate of these ballplayers in San Jose: who will play in the fall league, who will be invited to Spring Training, and who will get promoted or demoted.  It’s near the end of the season for both the majors and the minors.  It’s time to impress the front office and show them where you deserve to be next season.

Jarrett Parker made his name known on Saturday, first, for the wrong reason, then for the right.  In the top of the 2nd, Stockton’s Mitch LeVier singled to right.  Parker’s throw sailed past the catcher, Tommy Joseph.  Michael Gilmartin was safe at home, which was likely to happen even if the throw was perfect.  LeVier took second base on the throw, but he was stranded, so the error didn’t cost a run.  Parker led off the bottom of the 4th with a solo shot to right, erasing any ill will from the error.  If that wasn’t enough, Parker made an amazing catch in the 5th, robbing Conner Crumbliss of a hit.

Giants ace Craig Westcott had a bit of a rough night.  In the first, he gave up a solo homer to Michael Choice.  That’s nothing to feel ashamed of, as Choice led the Cal League with 30 long flies in the regular season.  In the 4th, things started to turn against the Giants, as Westcott gave up a grand slam to Mitch LeVier.  The Ports added on in the 6th, when Rashun Dixon’s 2-out bloop single landed in right field’s no-man’s-land, scoring what proved to be the winning run.   Westcott pitched through traffic most of the night, giving up 7 runs on 7 hits and 3 walks in 6 innings, while striking out 6.

Ryan Cavan had a bit of a Jekyll and Hyde night.  In the first, his RBI single scored what was then the go-ahead run.  He made a great play at second base as well.  Cavan was hit by a pitch in the 3rd, the ball ricocheting hard off his leg.  He stayed in the game, even though that must have been painful, judging by the sound and trajectory of the ball’s carom.  The fact that Cavan stayed in shows a lot about Ryan (gamer!), but it also demonstrates the deeper importance of this game.  Cavan probably felt that he couldn’t come out of the game unless he could not play, period.  You don’t want to get the reputation as someone who asks to come out, and you definitely don’t want to come out with Mr. Alou and Bobby Evans watching.  The bean ball was probably not as bad at it looked from my point of view, but it couldn’t have felt good.  After Cavan was hit again in the 7th, he was thrown out trying to take second on a ball in the dirt.  Had he not been hit in the leg earlier, he might have been just quick enough to make it.  To add insult to injury, Cavan struck out with the tying run on first to end the game.

The Ports took game one of the series, 7-6, but the Giants played with a lot of heart, coming back with a run in the bottom of the ninth.  For a moment it looked like they could force extras, or even get a walk-off.  San Jose games are anything but boring.  They don’t give up when they are behind.  They know they can score.  They play with the confidence and swagger that is so noticeably lacking in San Francisco.  San Jose is much more fun to watch than San Francisco this season, and they look like a better team.  Stockton, likewise, plays like a more complete team than Oakland.

With the bay area’s big league teams almost eliminated from contention, it’s time to look toward the future.  The future is in San Jose; the future is in Stockton.  Whichever team wins this series, be it the San Francisco or Oakland affiliate, the future is bright for them both.

I owe an enormous debt of gratitude to Max Hollister for all of your help.  You went far above and beyond what was necessary.  Giant thank-yous are in order for Tommy Joseph, Ryan Cavan and Alex Burg.  Thank you for your time.  It was a pleasure and an honor to meet you all.


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