I used to think it was fairly normal for people to sip wine and eat sushi and bean pies at ballgames, for sports-talk radio callers to be greeted with generosity and mirth by good-natured hosts who would offer microbrew recommendations and then would humor, if not seriously engage, impossible Atlee Hammaker–for–Bobby Bonilla trade scenarios. This exaggerates things, of course. But California, like any place weighty enough to lay claim to its own “state of mind,” is different, and those stereotypes of a mellow populace, where it’s always 65 and moderate, where even the thugs speak with a casual drawl, aren’t wholly fantasy.
I realized how strange all this was when I moved to Boston, headquarters to a different, more desperate kind of regional stereotype. For years, whenever someone at home asked what it was like “back East” — and why it was always “back” even though none of us had ever been there suggests the extent of the East >>> West brainwashing — I would recount this one May morning when I was sitting in a cab on its way to Logan Airport, taking in the strained harangues of people yelling on WEEI about how sundry Red Sox were “RUININ’ MY SUMMAH,” only to arrive a few hours later in San Francisco, where the hosts seemed pathologically unconcerned about the Giants’ slow start, assuring, “It’s early. It’s still summer!” I am smart at a lot of things but dumb at thinking rationally about sports, and it was easy to confuse that hoarse, hyper-local intensity for the edge necessary to lift a team to great heights. It’s a familiar narrative, the one about pressure producing greatness, the big and knee-weakening game separating the weak from the obsolete. Those who couldn’t hack it in Boston or New York or Philadelphia would never be winners, and so on.
But the highlight-filled 2012 that the Bay Area has experienced has been a testament to the opposite of all that. A different strain of excellence is coming into focus, one that’s been quietly incubating for a few years. The Giants won the World Series and the 49ers came within a few plays of the Super Bowl; the A’s continued to be scrappy and unkillable, and the Warriors are beginning to feel relevant again. The Sharks remain a force (albeit a perennially underperforming one) in that bygone thing called professional hockey. The Raiders continue to not fall into a pit of lava.
It doesn’t take Wikipedia to remember when many of these teams weren’t very good — it was just a few years ago that fans questioned the decisiveness of the Niners and their revolving door of bad coaches, the post-Bonds Giants and their surplus of 36-year-olds, the A’s and the frustratingly cyclical way they would build and destroy. There was something almost moving about the way Warriors fans mercilessly booed owner Joe Lacob this past March when the team retired Chris Mullin’s jersey. Standing in the shadows, next to Lacob, was a legend, one-third of Run-TMC, living, breathing evidence that the Warriors had once had a future. It wasn’t hatred of Lacob so much as it was desperation that Mullin’s service to the club hadn’t been in vain. Just wait, Mullin and then an indignant (is he ever not indignant?) Rick Barry explained, reading the hail of boos as a kind of displaced passion, the same energy that had made the 2007 Warriors such a joy. The team is moving in the right direction, they assured.
There’s no grand theory here as to why some of these teams are moving in the right direction, except maybe to point out that those missteps along the way were integral to the process. Job security is probably better than in other big markets — Brian Sabean, for example, could have easily lost his job by now if he were in another city — and ideas have been tested and scrapped without those simmering fan resentments reaching a serious boil. This isn’t to idealize the Bay as some lax, anything-goes space. But these teams seem to testify to the importance of leadership, structure, and the patience to see those evolutions through. These have become clubs identifiable by the people in charge: Jim Harbaugh (and his disciple down the road, David Shaw), Mark Jackson, Bruce Bochy and the re-redeemed Sabean, the current pairing of Billy Beane and Bob Melvin. There’s something appropriately regional about this — the faith in individual genius, the vague belief that some sort of Steve Jobs/Bill Walsh–type managerial guru might be the key to shaping a talented roster into a dynasty. After all, it was Beane whose successes helped shape our perceptions of how successful teams can be built without splashing out a half-billion dollars.
Watching these teams excel has convinced me that there’s some truth to this: Good leadership puts players in a position to succeed, and sometimes it’s just about putting the right players in the same room and letting them be weird together. The A’s always seem to find sustenance on a steady diet of overachievement and the intense camaraderie one feels at being collectively underestimated, and they found their footing while keeping the “Bernie Lean” alive. Sometimes that team-first cliquishness inspired acts of selflessness — like Tim Lincecum accepting his demotion to the bullpen, or Alex Smith remaining OK (thus far) through the Colin Kaepernick era.
Obviously, you can only describe things this way in retrospect. Maybe we’ll look back on Mark Jackson’s instrumental role in assembling one of the best backcourts in the NBA, and hopefully the Raiders will soon find a post–Al Davis identity befitting their bloodthirsty and bespiked Nation. When things are going well, you dwell on that exceptionalism, you assimilate all the little details and scrapes into a coherent story about success and perseverance. You read pluck and luck as culture, and things that might have seemed annoying any other year take on a precious, city-size charm. There are a couple uniquely Bay things this year that I’ll never forget. I’ll always remember being at the NFC Championship Game, a tense few hours that never felt as close as the scoreboard suggested. One of the few moments of release was when E-40, head-to-toe in flashback gear, appeared on the JumboTron. His sour sneer — and the fact that everyone recognized him, erupting in appreciation — was a reminder of the Bay’s innate, insular weirdness. (Even further left-field: A couple months later, the legendarily self-made flamboaster would release a triple album, with three more to come next March.)
We all — even E-40! — sat shivering and withering away in postgame traffic, waiting to leave archaic Candlestick. Soon the Niners will leave that old concrete monstrosity behind for good. This year the team broke ground on a futuristic new stadium down in the South Bay. There will be screens the size of office buildings, Wi-Fi everywhere. I’m sure the food will be sumptuous.
The Niners had a strange bond with the Giants. For a few weeks in October, the teams took turns tipping (and occasionally stretching) their hats to each other, with Alex Smith nearly incurring a fine for daring remind anyone that there are other ways to interlock an S and an F. After the Giants won the World Series, Smith and Harbaugh demoted themselves to the role of chauffeur for the parade.
Sergio Romo’s not from the Bay Area — he’s from Brawley, near where California bleeds into Mexico — but he became a kind of local folk hero this year. He took over for Brian Wilson after the eccentric closer went down for the season, bringing an excitable, beardo charisma to the Giants’ bullpen. But more important, Romo seemed to embrace the meaning of playing in the Bay Area. Fans want to win, but they also want their heroes to respect what it means to play here, to understand our values and beliefs and history. Romo showed up to the parade wearing a T-shirt that read “I JUST LOOK ILLEGAL.” In the past, he’s worn another shirt that boasts, “Made in the USA with parts from Mexico.”
It’s the kind of gesture you can imagine happening only in a tirelessly liberal place like the Bay Area. It’s an easy place to caricature, and having moved away long ago, I find those things funnier than ever. But it was bittersweet witnessing all this from across the country, where there are actually four seasons rather than one long, temperate one. I watched the Niners’ thrashing of the Arizona Cardinals on TV as Superstorm Sandy touched down outside my window. I found a place in my neighborhood that sells It’s-Its and I watched a lot of Pac-12 football just to see the campuses.
You might disagree with Romo’s quasi-political, ethno-hippie statement, and it’s doubtful that anyone in Northern California went to the polls a few days later with his provocation on their mind. But Romo reminded us, if for a moment, of the unpredictable effects of feeling high or low based on how successfully a bunch of strangers defend a patch of grass — and of where all this might take you. “Look at the diversity,” he explained to a reporter when quizzed about his shirt, “the different faces from different places, the different strokes. We all had one, how do you say, dream.” Every photograph of him that day showed him flashing a different grin. “You should be very proud. I am very proud.” It was a reminder that an athlete might do something that hundreds of thousands of people with little in common other than the coincidence that they all live near a bay would never forget. And in return, that place might change him, too.