I first noticed the phenomenon in 1975, whilst following Wimbledon. Arthur Ashe struggled in every match leading to the final, losing at least one set in most of them. Jimmy Connors? He only won every match in straight sets, and the final would prove a mere formality before tennis fans could proclaim him the best in the world. And the championship match was a rout. Ashe won 6-1, 6-1, 5-7, 6-4.
Then came the 1975 UCLA Bruins college football team. Crushed by Ohio State on their way to an 8-2-1 record, the Bruins survived one rough struggle after another to win the then-Pac 8 title and face the Buckeyes in a rematch at the Rose Bowl. The UCLA coach, some smart-mouthed young sprat named Dick Vermeil, bravely insisted that his men would actually try to win, and was ridiculed for his claims by the Eastern sportswriters, who awaited only a rout before proclaiming OSU one of the greatest college teams in history. And the 62nd Rose Bowl was a rout. UCLA won 23-10 in a game that was not as close as the score.
Which brings me to the 2012 San Francisco Giants.
How did they sweep the Detroit Tigers?!
The Cincinnati Reds were weaker than Detroit, yet the Giants fell into a 2-0 hole in games, and had to become the first team to win the next three playoff games on the road to reach the National League Championship Series vs. the defending champion St. Louis Cardinals.
The Giants fell into another must-win-three hole, this time 3-1. Barry Zito, a pitcher the Giants had dropped from the 2010 playoff roster, because their last hope in game 5. He only pitched 7+ innings of shutout ball in what was at the time the biggest game of his life. Pablo Sandoval, who hardly played in the 2010 postseason because of a slump, hit a home run in the game, and San Francisco proceeded to outscore the Cardinals 20-1 to win the pennant.
Only to face the Detroit Tigers. Only the team with the best pitcher in the game, Justin Verlander, and the best hitter, Triple Crown winner Miguel Cabrera.
Oh, and the Tigers had almost a week to relax, prepare, and get ready after slaughtering the Yankees in four games.
The Giants pitching rotation had become such a mess that Zito (overall, he had been a huge disappointment since coming to the Black & Orange in free agency) had to face Verlander in Game 1, and staff ace Matt Cain could not pitch until Game 4. Therefore the overwhelming majority of prognosticators who picked Detroit to win the World Series had excellent reasons for their picks.
Therefore, Barry Zito pitched even better in the new biggest game of his life, Pablo “The Kung Fu Panda” Sandoval joined Babe Ruth, Reggie Jackson, and Albert Pujols as the only players to hit three home runs in one World Series game, and the G-Men crushed Verlander and the Tigers in Game 1 on their way to a four-game sweep.
A lot of people have put forth plausible reasons for the one result that no one, I mean, no one expected. The Tigers’ extended layoff could have harmed them; the Giants’ relievers gave them a huge edge, even without Brian “Fear the Beard” Wilson; inferior defense hurt Detroit; et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. Maybe the Giants were in fact better than Detroit; Dick Vermeil once claimed that his college team Bruins could have beaten the NFL Philadelphia Eagles he took over after the Rose Bowl.
I’d like to offer my own hypothesis: The San Francisco Giants won the World Series because they suffered more. Like Arthur Ashe and the UCLA Bruins, they had to overcome enormous difficulties just to get to the finals. The Giants lost Wilson for the season, lost Melky Cabrera for fifty games and chose not to bring him back, just to get to the finals. They needed to put together two three-game winning streaks with their backs against the wall just to get to the finals.
My hypothesis is that once you’ve gone through heck and back, and then made a second round trip, just to reach the finals, the championship game(s) start to look really, really easy by comparison. Since no one expects you to win anyway, you become free to relax and play your best, and what the heck, why not try to win, just for fun?
Vonn Scott Bair
PS–Even I did not pick the San Francisco Giants to win the World Series. In my play Le Bistro de la Verite (see here and here), the characters discuss the 2012 Giants and agree that they will win the NL West Division and advance not one step further.