SAN FRANCISCO — Darin Ruf ripped a single to left field, Donovan Walton raced around third base and the crowd thundered at Oracle Park as if the Giants had scored the go-ahead run 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 was not a go-ahead run, either. The Giants were trailing 10-1 in the seventh inning.
The Giants played a dreadful weekend of baseball against a dreadful team, they made their fans search for reasons to cheer, and right-hander Anthony DeSclafani got picked apart after misfortune extended what turned into a seven-run soaking in the third inning. Yet there was a smattering of polite applause from the fans above the Giants dugout as DeSclafani handed over the baseball and walked off the field. There was more than a smattering of fans who stayed to watch the final obligatory innings, too. Those fans remained engaged and expressed hoarse-voiced enthusiasm when the Giants pushed across a perfunctory run or two at the end of a 10-3 loss Sunday.
It isn’t this way everywhere in the major leagues. The Giants have a core of loyal and supportive fans who would be the envy of two dozen major-league teams.
After a weekend like this, you wonder if the organization has taken them for granted.
You wonder if the Giants have allowed themselves to get stale.
The Giants have their greatest hold on the baseball marketplace in the Bay Area in more than 50 years now that the A’s have essentially given up trying to attract fans. The Giants still play in one of the most picturesque ballparks in the league. They are coming off a franchise-record 107-win season, and their investors are sitting on an enterprise worth upward of $4 billion. These are all healthy indicators.
But last year’s historic season, and the easing of the COVID-19 pandemic restrictions, hasn’t resulted in the return of sellout crowds. The Giants are averaging home crowds of 30,970, which is 11th in the major leagues and a dip from the 33,429 they averaged in the pre-pandemic 2019 season. Their average crowd size slipped every year from 2015 to 2019. Their season-ticket base has eroded from almost 30,000 (and a waiting list) in 2017 to barely half that number now.
This is a complex issue. There are hundreds of factors that influence consumer spending habits. We’re not fully out of the pandemic yet, and many people who worked in the city have relocated or continue to work full time from home. Inflation has eaten into every family’s discretionary spending.
But the Giants are drawing fewer fans this year — after what should’ve been a momentum-generating 107-win campaign — than they did in 2019, when they slogged through their third of four consecutive losing seasons. That should be a red flag even when you factor in everything else, shouldn’t it?
The Giants still have their core of unwavering fans. But what about everyone else? Is the organization doing enough to attract them, inspire them and entertain them?
The major-league payroll is just one data point, but it’s among the most visible. So let’s start there.
They invested money in players this past offseason in ways that were both direct (Carlos Rodón’s two-year, $42 million contract, multiyear deals for DeSclafani and Alex Cobb) and indirect (their new $70 million minor-league complex in Arizona). They spent money in other ways that no penny-pinching organization would, such as guaranteeing $5.2 million to rehabbing left-hander Matthew Boyd when the payoff might be 15 starts at best.
But their opening-day payroll of roughly $140 million was their lowest to begin a season since 2013 and ranked eighth — below even the Milwaukee Brewers — among the 15 National League clubs.
The Giants front office had every reason to expect the roster to be talented enough to content after reassembling most of the parts from last year’s NL West champion. But the front office also had every reason to anticipate additional health challenges from veteran players who would be one year older. Sure enough, Brandon Belt has missed swaths of the season because of a swollen knee and other issues. The Giants placed Brandon Crawford on the 10-day injured list Sunday because of a contused left knee while acknowledging the other nagging injuries — a quadriceps strain, a forearm issue, who knows what else — that have contributed to a steep decline from last year’s career -best season.
Although the Giants are 39-33 and one of eight NL teams in a viable spot to compete for one of six playoff berths, there are times when their vaunted depth has been exhausted and when they appear to be a player or two short.
Hot Stove hindsight isn’t a fair exercise, especially when several prominent free agents have underperformed for their new clubs. But how much would Trevor Story have improved an infield defense that has been among the least efficient in the major leagues at turning contact into outs? How much would he have helped the Giants leverage one of their most significant team strengths — a pitching staff that leads the majors in ground-ball rate and ranks third in lowest average exit velocity? How much would his right-handed power have helped them replace some of the run production they lost with Buster Posey’s retirement and Evan Longoria’s early-season finger surgery? And how valuable would he be to them now with Crawford out, when they have to shift Thairo Estrada to shortstop, Donovan Walton is his only backup, and the Giants have to put an even weaker defender at second base?
It’s not like Story would’ve 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 strikes out a lot and doesn’t have nearly the same arm as he used to. But there’s no question he would have made the Giants better. And the Giants had the current and future financial flexibility to make that kind of signing while still keeping all their options open.
The Giants get only so much credit for signing Rodón, too, because 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 choice because the answer could have been signing both pitchers.
Whether it’s Story or Gausman or any other free agent, the point holds: There was a vocal backlash from some fans that the Giants didn’t do enough or spend enough before this season. You’d better believe those fans will be twice as loud if the Giants miss the postseason or even bow out early.
In fairness, the front office remains as active and engaged as any in the major leagues. Its moves might be more conservative (or rational, depending on your point of view) than some would like, but at least the Giants are making them. And who knows? They might entertain being a little more irrational if they take a meeting with Aaron Judge this winter. At least this baseball operations group isn’t sitting on its hands.
The same can’t be said for the rest of the game-day entertainment experience. In so many ways, go to a Giants game and you might feel stuck in 2010. They’ve played the same music for years. They’ve done the same between-innings schtick for years. Giants relievers complain that their warmup music isn’t loud enough or gets preempted by “Strangers In The Night” for Kiss Cam. The Giants have plenty of young and creative minds working on their video production and stadium operations staff. But they can only do what the higher-ups allow them to do.
Compare it with Atlanta, where the Braves have “Beat the Freeze” and even turned their staid, corporate-sponsored mascot race between power tools into a choreographed, WWE-style event. Compare it with 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 100 mph. But when he enters games, there’s no hype and no fanfare. (Yeah, it’s not up to the Giants that Doval chose a Norteño ballad as his music. But they could at least spice it up with some sound effects.)
The problem? The Giants think that by keeping everything the same, they’re giving their loyal fans what they want. But they aren’t growing their customer base, and it’s clear by now that the shine is off from the World Series era in 2010-14. Whether it’s a lack of star power on the field or entertainment value off it, the Giants aren’t captivating the marketplace or attracting new fans.
If they don’t do enough to get younger on the field, it’ll become an unfixable problem. The same goes for getting younger in the stands, too.
(Photo of Anthony DeScalfani: Darren Yamashita / Associated Press)