Perched by the Bay Bridge, home to the San Francisco Giants, AT&T Park is reputed as the most-fun-bordering-on-wild place to watch a big-league baseball game.
It is a place where concessionaires serve up Gilroy garlic fries and crab melt sandwiches, where kids careen down a Coca-Cola bottle slide in the bleachers, where home runs launched over the right-field fence are chased by furiously paddling kayakers in San Francisco Bay, where fans defy the cold ocean breeze by huddling under blankets in the middle of summer, and where people love their beer.
To this oh-so-Cali arena Melky Cabrera returns with the Toronto Blue Jays on Tuesday, for the first time since being caught with a banned dose of testosterone in his system last August, and was suspended 50 games by Major League Baseball.
At the time, Cabrera was in the midst of a banner season for the Giants with a National League-leading batting average of .346. Upon learning of his sentence, Cabrera did not return to the clubhouse to offer teammates an explanation, and when he became eligible for return to play, the Giants elected to continue the banishment, leaving him off the postseason roster before proceeding to a 4-0 sweep of the Detroit Tigers in the World Series.
The Giants have recognized Cabrera’s contribution as a marathon champion might reward his pacer. His former teammates voted him a full share of the World Series prize money, and on May 14 at Rogers Centre, manager Bruce Bochy presented Cabrera with a championship ring in an exchange in a private room that lasted less than a minute. Whether Bochy wanted it that way or Cabrera did (likely the latter, but maybe both) remains unclear.
The Giants, an organization known for conducting itself with class, withstood charges of hypocrisy last October for the roster decision, considering two-time PED offender Guillermo Mota had returned to the roster after a 100-game suspension midway through the season, and, in years prior, the team raked in revenues as Barry Bonds treated baseballs like dunking doughnuts, luring packed houses nightly with his moonshots into the bay.
The Giants explained that even though Cabrera had tried to keep himself game-ready, and while he had compiled a formidable .906 on-base-plus-slugging percentage (versus .698 this season), they didn’t want to mess with chemistry.
“He was a good player, and a great guy,” Bochy told The Globe and Mail in an interview earlier this season, staying on his October message. “We were in a tough situation whether to bring him back for the playoffs, but he was very well-liked here, a good teammate, did all I asked, and I liked him. But we had played so well down the stretch, and those were the guys who deserved to go.”
So, while the Giants as an organization dispensed summarily with the leftover Melky business, Cabrera now comes face-to-face with the team’s fans. In a sense, he’s been tried, convicted and jailed, and on Tuesday, he’s up for parole.
Will they applaud him for his contribution to the championship season? Jeer him as a player who’d effectively abandoned the team? Or show chilling apathy toward a player branded as a cheat by simply ignoring him?
“I don’t worry about it,” Cabrera said in San Diego last Sunday, as interpreted from Spanish by coach Luis Rivera. “There is nothing I can do about it. If the fans decide they want to boo, that is fine. If they decide to cheer, I would be fine with that, too.”
Reserve infielder Mark DeRosa, author of an 11th-inning go-ahead homer in the Jays’ win over the Padres on Sunday, spent two injury-marred seasons in San Francisco (2010-11) and still gushes over the experience, calling AT&T’s atmosphere “one of the most electric” in baseball.
Yet when asked how the Bay Area fans might react to Cabrera, a man not often at a loss for words, paused for an instant or two before replying: “I don’t know. That’s a good question.”
In Bochy’s words, Cabrera “carried us” through a tough start to the 2012 season. Trailing first place in the NL West by as many as 71/2 games on May 27, the Giants fought to maintain ballast in May, with Cabrera batting .429 during the month with 17 RBIs and 24 runs scored. In June, the Giants wiped out the deficit exactly one month after being at their lowest point, as Cabrera averaged .304 with 13 RBIs and 15 runs.
Cabrera said he was glad, and proud the Giants won the World Series, with or without him. He drew a parallel between the Giants of May of 2012, and the Blue Jays of June of 2013, saying the talent in the Toronto clubhouse is more than comparable to that in the Giants, and feels they will put it together.
After 2012, Cabrera signed a two-year, $16-million (U.S.) deal with the Blue Jays, a deep discount compared to his value on the open market without the suspension.
In Toronto, while soreness and tightness of various muscles have sent some teammates to the disabled list, Cabrera has hobbled through a hamstring strain and recently stepped without complaint into the lead-off role, in the absence of the injured Jose Reyes. In 18 games as the lead-off hitter, he’s averaged .316 with a .369 on-base percentage, seven doubles and a home run.
As that lead-off hitter, presuming manager John Gibbons leaves the batting order intact, he’ll be first to the plate Tuesday, as the Jays face pitcher Tim Lincecum and the Giants at AT&T Park.