Chemistry a key element in San Francisco
Leadership abound as veterans, youngsters put team first
SAN FRANCISCO -- While all eyes at AT&T Park seemed riveted on fleet Darren Ford as he scored Wednesday night's winning run for the Giants against the Rockies in the eighth inning, a television camera captured a telling scene elsewhere.Admiring the passing Ford from the Giants' dugout, Aubrey Huff and Pat Burrell joyfully and playfully punched each other's ribs, beaming like kids receiving their first bicycle at Christmas. That scene reflected the spirit of the Giants. There stood a pair of veterans celebrating a teammate's accomplishment more than they would their own and reveling in the ballclub's impending victory. Various facets of the game have failed the Giants at different times this season, but their backbone -- the leadership provided by older and more experienced players -- has rarely flagged. Burrell and Huff have done their part. So has Mark DeRosa, despite missing most of the season with an injured left wrist. Barry Zito and Aaron Rowand remain respected figures. The buoyant Juan Uribe refuses to let anybody mope. Edgar Renteria and Guillermo Mota have had an impact behind the scenes. Though intangibles aren't nearly as important as pitching, hitting and defense, the Giants believe that the bond they share not only bolsters the clubhouse atmosphere, but also prompts them to act in concert on the field. Striving to catch the Padres in the National League West race and the Phillies in the NL Wild Card standings, the Giants need every edge they can muster. Feeling good about each other can only help -- particularly now, as they begin a crucial three-city, 10-game trip Friday in Los Angeles. "I think the chemistry we have as a team is second to none," second baseman Freddy Sanchez said. "We have a great group of guys who all look out for one another and pull for one another. That's definitely big at this time of the year when you know everybody's on the same page and knows what our plan is." That aforementioned televised image wasn't just coincidental. Huff and Burrell have played essential roles in refreshing the Giants' camaraderie, which survived the departures of Rich Aurilia and Randy Winn -- two other popular, respected veterans -- following the 2009 season. Huff, widely considered the Giants' most valuable player along with outfielder Andres Torres, has found an oasis in San Francisco after spending his previous nine Major League seasons in the victory-barren landscapes of Tampa Bay and Baltimore. "I haven't played on very many good teams in my career," Huff said. "I found that in those nine years, there's always good dudes around. [But] as a whole, the team just didn't have it in the clubhouse; you could tell. Too many cliques going on, too." Huff, who signed a one-year, $3 million contract with the Giants as a free agent in January, favorably compared his time with the Giants to his idyllic years at the University of Miami.
"In college, we pounded people and" -- here Huff spreads apart his hands before bringing them together -- "the team was like this -- everybody. I think that translates on the field, and this team has that feel."There's not a guy in here you wouldn't go to bat for every day." Unlike Huff, Burrell won a World Series ring in 2008 with Philadelphia and played with other successful Phillies teams. On the field, his patience at the plate -- a skill which eludes most Giants -- has set an example. Off the field, he has helped keep teammates focused on the potential prize ahead. Huff and Burrell were college teammates at Miami. So it follows that they've introduced a dash of rah-rah atmosphere into the clubhouse culture. Right-hander Sergio Romo related that after a tough loss, Huff or Burrell is likely to barge into the clubhouse and say, "'Hey, way to battle. Keep your heads up high. That was a great effort we put forth.' Those guys have us look at the bigger picture. Or at least they help make it more visible. It's not just individual effort. It's all of us put together for the same goal. "You look at the clubhouse, or the dugout during a game, and we're not down. We're always up and going. We always seem to have a pep in our step, and I think guys like Huff and Burrell, as veterans, mesh well with the younger guys and they match that energy. If not, they're the ones with more energy." Burrell indicated this week that leadership such as his will become even more necessary through the stretch drive. "There aren't that many teams that have a chance to be in the postseason. We have a legitimate chance," said Burrell, who the Giants signed in late May after Tampa Bay released him. "I think one of the things that helps is to have guys around who have done it before and have been there. I kind of know what it takes to push through. The biggest thing is, you have to play every game like it's the last one of the year." Sustaining the perseverance Burrell cited requires selflessness and genuine regard for the team concept. Few understand this better than Renteria, a six-time postseason participant during his previous 14 seasons. "This is the time you have to forget about whether you're winning a batting title or hitting a home run," Renteria said. "You have to pull that away and think, 'What can I do to win the game?'" The esteem Renteria commands among teammates eclipses the scorn he prompts from most fans, who view him as an overpaid (two years, $18.5 million) and aging (35 years old) albatross. Quiet by nature, Renteria exerts most of his influence privately, usually with a quick but meaningful chat to offer advice. "When things aren't going well on defense or something, then he'll come up to you," said Sanchez, Renteria's double-play partner. "Little things ... nothing major, but a few words that might help you when you're going through a little slump or not feeling good. He has so much experience and knowledge about the game. You can go up and talk to him at any time. He's approachable and somebody you can learn a lot from." Renteria takes his role seriously.
"You get to be a leader when you respect everybody and you tell everybody the truth to their face," he said. "That's my responsibility, to let him know what he's doing bad and learn to be successful in the future."As with Renteria, Mota's contributions are understated.
"He's a great dude," left-hander Jeremy Affeldt said. "A guy like Guillermo is phenomenal."Mota said that due to his friendship with Jose Guillen, the Giants consulted him before acquiring the right fielder last month. Mota vouched for Guillen, who obtained a checkered reputation while playing for nine teams. "Everybody said he was a bad teammate or had a bad attitude, but he's been here two weeks and I think everything is fine," Mota said of Guillen, who's hitting .354 in 15 games with San Francisco. Mota wasn't simply trying to accommodate a friend. After all, the team comes first. "We are like family here," Mota said. "If somebody asks me, I'm going to try to help."
Chris Haft is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.