Why It Matters That Matt Cain Retired As A San Francisco Giant

In the bottom-line, sanctimonious, overstimulated world of pro sports, it’s hard to be here now.

Photo by Michael Marconi via Creative Commons.

On Sunday, the day Matt Cain turned 33, he thanked his friends, his fans, hugged his kids, kissed his wife, and stepped across the chalk line into retirement, bringing tears to the eyes of thousands of people, myself included.

The day before his birthday, Cain threw the final five innings of his 13-year big-league career without allowing a run. He walked off the field to a booming, endless ovation. In every single game he played — 342 in the regular season, eight in the postseason, and three All-Star games —he wore a San Francisco Giant uniform.

That’s a big deal these days. Players rarely last that long with one team. In fact, no Giant has played so many years with the team without playing for another. Even the Hall of Famer Juan Marichal, one of the few Giants’ pitchers to outpace Cain in the San Francisco era, played out the string elsewhere.

Warning: Don’t look under the red line.

For Cain, elsewhere was not an option. Announcing his retirement last week, Cain said that he’d rather retire a Giant. He could have tried to squeeze out another year or two, although I think he knows the deal. He hasn’t been right since 2013, the year of his historic perfect game. Nagging injuries and the home-run bugaboo that for so many years he had been able to avoid began to gnaw at Cain, like beetles burrowing through the tough bark of a tree.

In 2014, the slow painful demise began in earnest. He was either injured, terrible, or both for four years. It’s the type of career curve that can have cynical, impatient fans wondering what’s taking so long. They’re rooting for laundry, as the saying goes, and the laundry needs a wash.

Fans are spending more money and watching more sports than ever, but the disconnect with the players making tens, even hundreds of millions of dollars, is often great. Players bounce around, traded in salary dumps. Even in the midst of long contracts, they are free agents in spirit, unrooted from their team’s towns, flying to their Florida or Arizona tax-free residences in the winter.

While Cain kept a low profile, however, his profile by all accounts was rooted in San Francisco. In fact, his place of abode was a minor local obsession for a while. His Eraserhead hair during a TV interview provided fodder for some good Internet fun a few years ago, but we never had the same sense of Cain as a person as we did with, say, Tim Lincecum. Someone gave Matt the nickname “The Horse” because he was dependable and carried his burden deep into ball games. But it sat awkwardly upon him, a forced concession to marketing rather than a natural fit.

We knew him instead by the context that surrounded him. Cain began in the pit of despair that was the mid-aughts for the Giants. He was great but frequently got Cained — that is, hung with a loss because he dared give up a run, maybe two, while the “hitters” on his team could only score one, or maybe zero.

Lincecum, who has withdrawn from public view after failing to catch on with the Los Angeles Angels in 2016, represented the peak of our San Franciscan sports-loving ids. He was the high-kicking, dope-smoking, F-bomb-dropping, long-haired Freak that the city loves to imagine itself to be: countercultural, a little oppositional, but at the top of its game. We’re weird, but you respect us.

Matt Cain was a reminder of a different, perhaps fleeting, part of our psyche: The City That Knows How. He plugged away for years. Helped rebuild. Never complained about a Caining. Didn’t show much emotion at all, actually, although the beat writers have noted he was a clubhouse prankster. If he made funny ads for the team, no one remembers them. Not like this one or this one.

In an open letter published on The Players’ Tribune, Cain wrote to the fans and the city about his own view from the shelter of a big-league clubhouse: “I think I’ve realized that what I gave you guys is 15 years of baseball. And that what you gave me back is an entire life. I got to build an entire life here in San Francisco. I got to grow into a man, and a husband, and a father.”

In the modern sense of fandom — the yearning to feel connected, the 24/7 cycle of celebrity extending to sports figures — we never really got a sense of Matt Cain. But something even better happened. The clean-cut high school kid from suburban Tennessee who grew up, became famous, and got rich here, he got a pretty good sense of us, and himself.

Alex Lash is editor in chief of The Frisc.

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