SAN FRANCISCO — Darin Ruf ripped a single to left field, Donovan Walton ran around third base, and the crowd thundered at Oracle Park as if the Giants had given the go-ahead in a playoff game.
It was not a playoff game. It was a series finale against the Cincinnati Reds, who have the worst record in the National League. It wasn’t a green light either. The Giants trailed 10-1 in the seventh inning.
The Giants had a terrible weekend of baseball against a terrible team, they had their fans looking for reason to cheer, and right-hander Anthony DeSclafani was parted after misfortune prolonged what turned into seven runs in the third inning. Still, there was some polite applause from the fans above the Giants dugout as DeSclafani handed over the baseball and walked off the field. There were also more than a handful of fans who stayed to watch the mandatory final rounds. Those fans remained engaged and hoarsely expressed their excitement as the Giants made a shallow run or two at the end of a 10-3 loss on Sunday.
This is not the case everywhere in the major leagues. The Giants have a loyal and supportive core of fans that would be the envy of two dozen major league teams.
After a weekend like this, you wonder if the organization took them for granted.
You wonder if the Giants have allowed themselves to become obsolete.
The Giants have their biggest grip on the Bay Area baseball market in more than 50 years, now that the A’s have essentially given up on attracting fans. The Giants still play in one of the most scenic baseball fields in the league. They’re coming off a season-record 107 franchise wins, and their investors are sitting on a company worth more than $4 billion. These are all healthy indicators.
But last year’s historic season and the easing of restrictions related to the COVID-19 pandemic did not lead to the return of sold-out crowds. The Giants are averaging 30,970 home attendances, which is 11th in the major leagues and down from the 33,429 they averaged in the 2019 pre-pandemic season. Their average attendance numbers have fallen each year from 2015 to 2019. Their subscription base has grown from nearly 30,000 (and a waiting list) in 2017 to barely half that number now.
It is a complex question. There are hundreds of factors that influence consumers’ consumption habits. We are not yet fully out of the pandemic, and many people who used to work in the city have moved or continue to work full time from home. Inflation has eaten into every family’s discretionary spending.
But the Giants are attracting fewer fans this year – after what should have been a momentum-building 107-win campaign – than they did in 2019, when they weathered their third of four straight losing seasons. That should be a red flag even when you take everything else into account, right?
The Giants still have their core of unwavering fans. But what about everyone else? Is the organization doing enough to attract, inspire and entertain them?
The major league payroll is just one data point, but it’s one of the most visible. So let’s start there.
They’ve invested money in players this past offseason both directly (Carlos Rodón’s two-year, $42 million deal, multi-year deals for DeSclafani and Alex Cobb) and indirectly (their new complex $70 million minor-league club in Arizona). They’ve spent money in ways other than any organization looking for a dime, like guaranteeing $5.2 million for left-hander Matthew Boyd’s rehabilitation when the payoff could be 15 at best. departures.
But their opening-day payroll of around $140 million was the lowest to start a season since 2013 and ranked eighth — even below the Milwaukee Brewers — among 15 National League clubs.
The Giants front office had every reason to expect the roster to be talented enough to contend with after reassembling most of the pieces from last year’s NL champion West. But the front office also had every reason to anticipate additional health issues from veteran players who would be a year older. Sure enough, Brandon Belt missed chunks of the season with a swollen knee and other issues. The Giants placed Brandon Crawford on the 10-day injured list on Sunday with a bruised left knee while acknowledging the other nagging injuries – a pulled quadriceps, a forearm issue, who knows what else – which contributed to a sharp drop from last year’s career. – best season.
Although the Giants are 39-33 and one of eight NL teams in a viable position to compete for one of six playoff spots, there are times when their vaunted depth has been sold out and where they seem to be a player or two short.
Hot Stove’s pushback isn’t a fair exercise, especially when several top free agents have underperformed for their new clubs. But how much would Trevor Story have improved on an interior defense that has been among the least effective in the major leagues at turning contact into outs? How much would he have helped the Giants leverage one of their most important team strengths – a pitching staff that leads the majors in rushing ball rate and ranks third in lowest average output speed? How much would his right-handed power have helped them replace some of the running production they lost with Buster Posey’s retirement and Evan Longoria’s finger surgery earlier in the season? And how valuable would he be to them now with Crawford out, when they need to move Thairo Estrada to shortstop, Donovan Walton is his only backup, and the Giants need to put an even weaker defenseman at second base?
It’s not like Story would have come cheaply. He signed a six-year, $140 million contract with the Red Sox. It’s not like he’s without his warts too. He still hits a lot and doesn’t have the same arm as before. But there’s no doubt he would have made the Giants better. And the Giants had the current and future financial flexibility to make that kind of signing while keeping all of their options open.
The Giants aren’t getting much credit for signing Rodón either, as his salary is more or less reallocated from the $22 million option that Posey walked away from when he announced his retirement in November. And there’s no rule that says you have to set up Rodón or Kevin Gausman as a binary pick because the answer could have been both pitchers’ signatures.
Whether it’s Story or Gausman or any other free agent, the point stands: There’s been vocal backlash from some fans that the Giants haven’t made enough or spent enough heading into this season. You better believe those fans will be twice as vocal if the Giants miss the playoffs or even retire early.
In all fairness, the front office remains as active and engaged as any in the major leagues. His moves might be more conservative (or rational, depending on your perspective) than some would like, but at least the Giants make them. And who knows? They might have fun being a little more irrational if they meet Aaron Judge this winter. At least this baseball ops group isn’t sitting on its hands.
The same cannot be said for the rest of the game day entertainment experience. In many ways, go to a Giants game and you might feel stuck in 2010. They’ve been playing the same music for years. They’ve been doing the same schtick between innings for years. The Giant Lifters complain that their warm-up music isn’t loud enough or is preempted by “Strangers In The Night” for Kiss Cam. The Giants have a lot of young, creative minds working on their video production and stadium operations staff. But they can only do what superiors allow them to do.
Compare it to Atlanta, where the Braves “Beat the Freeze” and even turned their corporate-sponsored mascot race between power tools into a WWE-style choreographed event. Compare that to the atmosphere in the ninth inning when Kenley Jansen enters Truist Park for a save situation, the stadium lights go out and thousands of fans wave their phone flashlights. The Giants have a closer, Camilo Doval, who throws at 100 mph. But when it does enter games, there is no hype or fanfare. (Yeah, it wasn’t at the Giants that Doval chose a Norteño ballad for music. But they could at least spice it up with some sound effects.)
The problem? The Giants believe that by keeping everything the same, they are giving their loyal fans what they want. But they’re not growing their customer base, and it’s clear now that the luster of the World Series era in 2010-14 has passed. Whether it’s a lack of a star on the field or entertainment value, the Giants aren’t captivating the market or attracting new fans.
If they don’t do enough to rejuvenate on the pitch, it will become an unsolvable problem. The same goes for rejuvenating in the stands.
(Photo by Anthony DeScalfani: Darren Yamashita/Associated Press)