A Tale of Two Cities and One Legend

Matt Cain is the longest standing Giants player on the team right now by far. He is also one of the greatest San Francisco Giants who ever played. It only seems like yesterday when Cain first came up to the Giants at the age of 21 throwing absolute heat–and yet that was before the first ever iPhone had been released!

Like the fast moving technology of the Bay Area that often revolutionizes in a decade, Cain’s career spans two completely different Giants franchises–like a Tale of Two Cities of the baseball world. And like the greatest novels of all time, future generations will marvel at Cain and his lasting meaning as to what it was like to be alive today and be a Giants fan.

When Matt Cain arrived in 2005, the Giants were a franchise like a lost ship at sea. It was the worst of times. In their long history in San Francisco they had exactly zero World Series championships. Any Giants fan who says this didn’t bother them to the point of not even wanting to think about it would be lying. Today, the team is like an entirely different organization–more like a decorated aircraft carrier. They may be struggling on the field right now, but they are doing so with banners flying in the wind. No matter what happens the next few seasons, the Giants will almost certainly end up as the top team of this decade having already won three World Series titles.

The tale of Matt Cain unveils greatness. He has meant so much to the Giants, that it’s even easy to overlook the nightmarish aspect of his most recent $112.5 million contract—a contract that is one of the worst of its’ size in baseball history. How is it possible to overlook his dreadful performance as a $112.5 man? That’s just how great Matt Cain was before this contract, and also how his value goes beyond what numbers can show.

First about that contract: right before the 2012 season the Giants signed Cain to a five-year, $112.5 million contract extension that would start in 2013. Cain was already signed through the 2012 season, but whispers of the Dodgers signing Cain for the following season sent shivers through Giants fans, and this could have had a role in this deal getting done so early– a full season before he reached free agency. An upshot of this timing is that Cain’s career year in 2012 did not technically count as part of his $112.5 million deal. But even if the stellar stats from 2102 were included it would not be nearly enough to make his next contract look even average. The specifics of how he has played during the lifetime of this deal are the kind that has ruined the name of every other $100+ million dollar player. In the roughly four and a half seasons of the deal so far, Cain’s stats are: 19 wins, 37 losses, an ERA of 5.03, and a WHIP of 1.42. Yes he has battled arm trouble, but there is no getting around how ineffective he has been on the mound during this time.

But Cain’s value as a golden bridge from the team without a World Series title to being a multiple champion is so powerful that it transcends this contract. And like how true greatness can be easily summed up, Cain’s value can be succinctly illustrated in just two snapshots: his 2010 playoff performance and game 7 of the 2012 Series.

In 2010, while bringing the Giants their first ever World Series in their San Francisco history, Cain posted a ZERO ERA in the entire postseason. Yes you read that right: 0.00. He did not let in a single run in the League Division Series, the League Champion Series, or the World Series. He pitched a total of 20.4 scoreless innings during this heart pounding, pressurized, gut wrenching period of Giants history, where the World Series ghosts of 1962, 1989, and 2002 were finally vanquished. Cain’s record was 2-0, and with an ERA of zero does WHIP even matter? I’m not sure any post season starter with over 20 innings has ever warranted this question before.

The Giants arrived in San Francisco in 1958, and after 51 seasons without a World Series title going into 2010,  many fans were wondering if it would ever happen in their lifetime (even attentive seven year olds were probably pondering this painful existential question).

Cain’s near perfection throughout the entire playoff run during 2010 was crucial to the drought ending. This alone could put Cain in the pantheon of Giants greats, but then in 2012, he again played a critical part in another World Series victory. The entire 2012 season was like a dream season for Cain. That year he pitched one of only 23 perfect games in the history of major league baseball. And then in the post season, he won a winner-take-all game 7 against the Cardinals to win the pennant. To put the value of this in context, in the history of major league baseball, there have only been a total of 53 games 7’s ever played.

I was at that game 7 in the rain. It was a rout with the Giants scoring early and often, but I will never forget the confidence Cain exuded as he walked out to the mound to start this dramatic game. He looked like a cowboy confidently walking out to the OK Corral–with his understated swaggering gait–a quiet confidence that just gave the sense it was going to be OK. Cain always had the look and feel of a San Francisco Giant legend, a player who had arrived when the Giants were horrible, and then in his prime was leading them to their second World Series title.

Cain is a rare baseball player where statistics don’t tell the whole story. In those early days in 2005-2009, he was like an unbridled horse with an electric fastball, a pitch which almost elicited hope for the future with each explosive launch. Yet Cain kept receiving heart breaking losses due to a lack of run support. In 2008 Cain had the worst run support in baseball, and yet despite being in this early 20’s, he always accepted these losses as a team player and displayed maturity beyond his years, never blaming others or questioning the feeble offense behind him. In fact, losing a game after a terrific pitching performance became a verb which is still used today by both fans and broadcasters, it’s called getting “Cained”.

I will just never forget how pure and powerful his stuff was in those early days. It seemed every other game he had a no-hitter into the 6th inning. I was once at an interleague game against the Angels, and I had no idea he had a no hitter until I was in the bathroom in the sixth inning and I heard the broadcasters mention it. From my seat, it just looked like another typical young Matt Cain performance. And no surprise, he ended up getting ‘Cained’ that night. But as a young kid, calmly taking these heartbreaking losses onto his own win/loss record was leading by example, and showing how to blend trust and professionalism and friendship in the clubhouse. Clubhouse chemistry later was the secret sauce to the Giants championships.

A ‘Tale of Two Franchises’, starring Timmy, Cain, Buster, and Mad Bum.

Cain’s performances when it mattered most easily erased his last bad contract, and when he leaves the Giants, it will be like San Francisco losing another piece of its history amidst the urban sprawl of the day.

And then even on the best of days, without Matt Cain around, the Bay Area will be the one getting Cained.

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