SAN FRANCISCO–Before there were championship parades up Market Street, talks of a dynasty by the bay and an embarrassment of riches swirling around China Basin, there was a rather depressing verb.
The golden era of Giants’ baseball was so stunning in scope, so prolific in perspective and so remarkable in real-time that it’s effortless to let slip from memory the period that begat San Francisco’s sensational rise to the top of the sporting world.
On Saturday afternoon, the Giants will bid adieu to the only player left whose career bridges the gap between the franchise’s glory days and the dark, practically aimless era that preceded them. The man whose name transformed from a proper noun to an action verb when you needed a brief summary of what happened to the Giants in yet another loss.
Between 1998-2002, San Francisco had nine first round selections across five Major League Baseball Drafts. From 2005-2008, the Giants suffered through four consecutive losing seasons, the franchise’s longest stretch of futility since the four teams that played from 1974-1977 all finished under .500. The organization’s long-term slide isn’t tied only to its failure to acquire Major League-caliber talent through amateur drafts, but the scouting department’s annual whiffs played a significant role in the Giants’ roster deficiencies.
Of the first round draft picks the Giants made from 1998-2002, one never made it to the Major Leagues, two others never played a game for the Giants and one legally changed his first name from John to Boof. Eight of the nine lasted five seasons or fewer in the majors, the two hitters who played for San Francisco combined for just eight home runs, and three of the more successful pitchers –Kurt Ainsworth, Brad Hennessey and Noah Lowry– combined for 63 Major League wins, with Lowry earning 40 of those.
The Giants did manage to strike gold once, though. With the 25th overall selection in the 2002 Major League draft, San Francisco chose Matt Cain, a 17-year-old right-hander with a power fastball and country strength. The Dothan, Alabama native was selected out of Houston High in Germantown, Tennessee, and just three years after the Giants picked him, he found his way to a Major League mound.
After all of the Tony Torcatos, Arturo McDowells and Nathan Bumps the Giants swung and missed on, there was finally Matt Cain.
The first homegrown hero
In August of 2005, a 20-year-old Cain made his Major League debut under the watch of former Giants’ skipper Felipe Alou. At the time of his first start, San Francisco held a record of 57-73, and sat 7.0 games out of first place in the National League West.
It was a low-pressure premier for a homegrown product who admitted he didn’t understand the big-picture implications associated with the standings, and though he lasted 5.0 innings and gave up just three hits, the Giants lost 2-1. Eventually, a new verb was born to describe that type of an outing, but in the interim, the Giants had greater issues to focus on.
It turns out, after Cain’s introduction, the Giants didn’t lose for another eight days.
“There were so many priceless things with Felipe (Alou) and Felipe was, I remember him saying to me, ‘Hey you know, kid, just go out there. We’re not playing for anything, just go out there and have fun, just go out there and have a good time out there, enjoy the moment.” Cain said. “And like a start or so later, he’s like, ‘Hey now, we might be playing for something, kid. You’ve got to go out there and pitch a good game’ and it was just like, oh man, this is what we’re into.”
The only active Giants’ player who predates Bruce Bochy’s 2007 arrival, it took until 2009 for Cain to experience what it was like to pitch meaningful games in September again. However, that doesn’t mean that Cain’s starts, especially his earliest ones, lacked significance. At the beginning of the 2006 season, Cain struggled, and the Giants’ brass called a meeting to discuss whether or not he needed more time to develop in the Minor Leagues.
“The baseball moment without a doubt was Brian Sabean, myself, Matty, not sure if Gardy (Mark Gardner) was in there but he probably was,” pitching coach Dave Righetti said. “And Felipe (Alou). And we were talking about whether or not to send him down or let him do it here and figure it out. We were all together, Cain was in there and Sabes wanted to talk to him as a group and he ran the meeting and talked about, he’ll get mad at me for talking about this, but that’s why I love Brian too. It was just a feeling he had about Cain, that he was going to learn more about getting better here with us than it was about going back to the minors again.”
In his next start after the meeting, Cain threw a one-hit shutout in Oakland against the A’s. Sabean was right. Cain was here to stay. But for years, he labored with little reward.
“He went through long periods where, it didn’t matter how much he was going to throw, he wasn’t necessarily going to get a win probably,” Righetti said. “So how was this going to effect him? And he had to answer to people every day about the team, about not getting a win, that’s a lot to carry for a young guy and I thought he did, I thought it’s a model for anybody else that has to deal with that.
Though the Giants didn’t make the postseason, the 2009 campaign featured Cain’s first All-Star appearance, and his first season with a sub 3.00 earned run average.
By 2010, the Giants had finally acquired enough pieces to build a contender around Cain. It didn’t take long for the franchise’s 2006 first round draft choice, Tim Lincecum, to become a superstar, and at the end of the year, two other first round selections, Buster Posey and Madison Bumgarner, had also raced through the farm system in time to make a playoff push.
After five seasons of laboring in the Giants’ rotation with no postseason starts to show for his efforts, Cain was rewarded with his first opportunity when the Giants won the National League West in 2010. He didn’t look back.
Over three playoff starts, Cain tossed 21.1 innings without allowing an earned run while progressively improving with each outing. In Game 2 of the World Series, he neutralized a potent Rangers’ lineup to the tune of 7.2 shutout innings en route to becoming the first dominant playoff performer during the Giants’ golden era.
“I think the most impressive really is the 2010 year, he didn’t give up an earned run,” Bochy said. “He gave up one unearned run. The job that he did in our first title run, championship run, he was one of the guys that led us to that. Just played a huge part in developing the confidence in this club that we could do this and also that we could do it again.”
Bochy said “most impressive,” because two years later, in the midst of the Giants’ 2012 World Series run, Cain nearly outdid himself. In five postseason starts, including two elimination games, Cain navigated San Francisco past the Cincinnati Reds, St. Louis Cardinals and eventually, the Detroit Tigers. He was San Francisco’s starter in all three series-clinching contests, including a Game 5 NLDS showdown that capped off a comeback from a 2-0 series deficit.
“Actually having to live that moment stands out a lot,” Cain said. “All of the starts are extremely special, but I remember that one a ton because it was just so nerve-wracking. The build up, probably a couple of days before, should have gone home before that and just been like, ‘I’ve got to pitch in two days. Am I going to pitch in one more day? Ah crap, I’m pitching.’ It was a lot. It was so much. That start, I think I had, that one I felt so much emotion that game that I was able to carry that into the games against St. Louis and the games in Detroit. So I think that’s probably why I would pick that.”
That same season, Cain recorded the first and only perfect game in franchise history. By going 27 up and 27 down against the Houston Astros, the right-hander etched himself into the Giants’ history books forever, and put an exclamation point on the most dominant season of his professional career.
On Wednesday, Giants’ rookie Chris Stratton, another first round draft choice, approached Cain before he told the team about his plans to retire and explained why the perfect game stands out in his mind.
“I was drafted in 2012 and I ended up going to the park to sign and they asked me who my favorite player was on the Giants’ team and of course, I didn’t know who anybody really was besides Buster,” Stratton said. “But they were like, who do you think is their best pitcher? And I wanted to say Lincecum, but I didn’t want to mispronounce his name so I said Matt Cain. And the next day he threw the perfect game. So it’s just kind of funny, and crazy how that all turned out.”
Though Cain did not pitch during the 2014 postseason, the instrumental role he played in the Giants’ postseason success earlier in the decade helped him cement his legacy as the first of many playoff heroes. Before Lincecum, Vogelsong and Bumgarner –all of whom were San Francisco draft picks– fully developed their postseason resumes, Cain made sure his would always stand out at the top of the pile.
The price of success
Prior to the start of the 2012 season, Cain signed a five-year, $112.5 million contract extension which, at the time, was the largest contract ever given to a right-handed pitcher.
Without the foundation of Cain to build on, San Francisco couldn’t have reached the mountain top so early in the decade. For a brutal, four-year stretch, the Giants’ talent pool was Cain…and then everybody else. As Barry Bonds’ career came to an end, the Giants’ scouting errors and inability to develop homegrown prospects led to four consecutive seasons with 76 wins or fewer.
But during that time period, Cain became the “horse.” Beginning in 2007, at the age of 22, Cain started a stretch in which he threw at least 200 innings in six straight seasons. By his 26th birthday, Cain had already amassed nearly 1,100 innings, and showed limited signs of wear and tear. The Giants had every reason to believe that at his pace, he could produce at a near-Hall of Fame level for years to come.
But suddenly, the decline began. Father Time is undefeated, and after Cain buried him into the ropes for the first seven rounds of his career, fatigue began to set in. Slowly but surely, Cain took counter-punches that roughed him up. A surgery to remove bone chips in 2014 preceded a flexor strain that forced him to miss Opening Day in 2015. In 2016, it was a hamstring injury that forced him to miss a month and a half. The 20-year-old who arrived in the big leagues with a 97-mile per hour fastball knocked Father Time on his ass, but in the end, the clock came roaring back.
Cain’s battle against time was a fascinating one, perhaps because after 13 seasons, it ended in a draw. Cain knows he won the first half, and after trying to tough it out, he decided to bow out in lieu of moving to a different weight class, or franchise, this offseason. Does his arm still pack a punch? Sure. But as Cain will tell you, it’s not built for the knockdown, drag out brawl of a 162-game season anymore.
“I mean, I’ve talked with Jeremy Affeldt a ton, I know that he knows that his arm still has the capability of getting outs,” Cain said. “But it’s more than that. It comes down to what you feel like you can be able to put into the game and be able to get back out of it. And the same thing with our family and our mind and our body and there’s just so many factors that come into it. We all sit there and think that we can still throw like we used to and we probably can at certain amounts of times but I don’t know that you can for an entire season the way that you would like to.”
The horse rides away
On Saturday, Cain will make his final appearance in a Giants’ uniform, as the 32-year-old will start the penultimate game of the regular season against the San Diego Padres.
For Cain, it’s the end of a 13-year Major League career in which he worked with one pitching coach and one bullpen coach while wearing just one uniform. It’s the swan song for a pitcher who came up in a drought and lived through the flood, and a man who shephered his peers to the top of the peak and lived to tell the tale of walking back to the trailhead.
“When I first came into the organization, even when I first signed, I saw an organization that was in the postseason, I saw what it looked like, I started to learn more about the organization and you know, kind of coming through the organization, it was changing, it was turning over,” Cain said. “To be able to go through all of that entire process with an organization is special. To be able to be a part of a group that has had some really rough seasons and to be able to say that we had some amazing seasons and we won it all. Those are all special. I think being able to put all of those together is something that is very meaningful and not very many people get to see the bottom of the barrel and the top of the barrel and that’s really special to me.”
For his Giants’ teammates, Cain’s retirement is a reminder of who he is, who they followed to find that peak, and why they rushed to race up the path behind him.
“I think just, he had such a stoic presence from the time that I’ve played with him,” Posey said. “From Spring Training in 2009 to as you mentioned, 10 and 12. If he was ever nervous, you couldn’t tell. He took the mound with the same intensity and focus no matter if it was a start at the beginning of May or that Game 4 start in Detroit. I think that gave a lot of guys, not only on the staff, a sense of comfort and confidence but it also transcended to the rest of the guys on the team as well and we were able to draw some strength from that.”
After Wednesday’s game, a handful of those in the Giants’ clubhouse who know Cain the best were asked to share their reflections on what the longest-tenured player in the organization meant to them. While the words of Bochy, Posey and others speak volumes about Cain’s presence, it’s what Bumgarner refused to say that might best encapsulate the legacy Cain leaves behind. In a few different instances, Bumgarner said “that wouldn’t be right,” to attempt to sum up Cain’s impact in a few sentences, because he’s owed much more.
Instead, Bumgarner chose to acknowledge Cain’s competitiveness, his toughness and demeanor on the mound, and share his appreciation for what spending 13 seasons in the same uniform means in modern baseball.
“It says a lot,” Bumgarner said. “That always says a lot about a guy and his character. His leadership skills. I don’t, I wish I could elaborate more. There’s so much, especially for me, I’ve got so many different thoughts and memories in my head that it’s hard to give you one or two that take precedent to everything. There’s just been a lot of special times between us.”
When Cain steps away on Saturday, memories of his 2010 playoff run, 2012 perfect game, and perhaps even some of his recent struggles will be at the forefront of fans’ minds. And while it’s imperative to acknowledge everything Cain did during and after the Giants’ golden era to fully interpret his place in franchise history, it’s what Cain accomplished before San Francisco’s ascension that makes him such a unique pillar.
Before the Giants fielded a lineup with Posey, Brandon Crawford, Brandon Belt, Joe Panik and Pablo Sandoval, and before they prioritized pitching in the way they did when Cain shared the rotation with Lincecum and Bumgarner, Cain stood on his own.
When Lincecum and Bumgarner came through the organization, they had a homegrown talent to look up to. On Saturday, Giants’ fans can look back, and think about the precedent Cain set.
“He (Cain) was used all throughout the Minor Leagues,” rookie Ty Blach said. “You look at a guy like Cain, Lincecum, Bum, all of these guys who had success coming up through the Giants’ organization. He was always a big role model for guys who worked hard and guys who could go out at the highest stage and compete and it was big for all of us coming up to look to him as an inspiration.”
For a five-year period, the Giants missed on almost every important draft pick. The franchise struggled to find players talented enough to wear a Major League uniform, let alone find players worth keeping.
But in 2002, the Giants found Cain. And for a time, they didn’t have anyone else. His 112 quality starts without wins rank third among active pitchers, and his 77 quality starts in games the Giants still lost are the most in franchise history. That’s how your last name becomes a verb.
The days when the Giants got “Cain’d” wound up making them able, and over time, their drafting improved and their talent pool became wider. Three World Series titles and a perfect game later, the Giants don’t have to think about the era when they couldn’t pick players worthy of wearing the uniform. Finally, they chose one who refused to take it off.
“To know that I started out in 2002 putting a Giants’ uniform on and getting picked up by the Giants and knowing that that’s the exact same way that I’m going out, it’s with a Giants’ uniform on,” Cain said. “I’ve been able to be lucky enough to be in the same organization and it means so much to me and I can’t picture myself putting a different uniform on.”