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Thursday, April 26, 2012

Huff the victim of a vitriolic fan base?

I've been guilty of deriding Aubrey Huff for all those four-to-threes, the 23-hoppers to second base that filled last year's scorebooks.

I've been frustrated by his inability to recapture the swing that was so critical to the Giants' 2010 World Series triumph. And I've criticized Boss Bochy for sticking with the veteran long past Huff's expiration date.

But I always hoped he would do well. Maybe his off-season Pilates workouts would translate to a more physically ready Huff this year. Maybe knowing that he had competition this spring would kick him into gear. He seemed to have responded, at least in Spring Training.

When the bell rung, however, we were treated with another round of weak ground outs complemented only by ineffectual popouts in clutch situations. It appeared that, indeed, Huff was heading to that good night.

The straight ahead stare and clenched jawbones were signs of a man defeated. His lapse at second base in New York last weekend -- failing to cover the base on what should have been an easy double play -- captured it all: though he had never played the position, he should have known that the first thing to do is to cover the bag. But he froze.

Afterward, it was painful to see him standing out there with no place to hide. (Blame for that play, by the way, should have been squarely shouldered by Bochy, who should never have put Huff in that spot).

Huff had previously shown signs that he'd been troubled by the pressures he was facing.

When Barry Zito turned in his improbable shutout in his '12 debut, Huff said, "It's no secret he gets buried by fans and the media, everything like that, so ... for all the haters out there, that's for them."

It was an astounding comment that gave insight into Huff's own inner turmoil. It was as if he was answering his own critics.

Perhaps Aubrey Huff has been harboring dark thoughts about Giants fans, but if so, he had a reason. They have been merciless.

They've arrived at the point of hysteria when it comes to Zito (though they've been temporarily muzzled by Zito's astounding run of decent outings), and Giants' fans have been nearly as rabid about Huff (particularly over the issue of giving Brandon Belt regular playing time).

Some fans have questioned Huff's desire and his dedication, as if just because he landed a nice, fat contract, he all of the sudden decided he didn't care what he put on the back of his baseball card. That's from fans who have never played and who believe that money drives ballplayers.

Compounding Huff's troubles with fans is the proliferation of blogs and social media outlets, on top of a more discerning and ever-present talk show culture.

Criticism is louder, gets amplified and goes viral. In my younger days, the only time a Giant would hear criticism would be from the boos in the stands, and maybe from callers to KNBR, which had a three-hour talk-show slot for sports. Now, KNBR is an all-sports station, and Huff has no doubt gone to bed with some of that vitriol ringing in his ears.

It seems to me that Giants fans have become increasingly critical, especially since after the 2010 World Series. I've detected something of an entitlement mentality that used to be associated strictly with East Coast fans. Success is supposed to breed more success. Unfortunately, success also breeds greed.

We don't know if the anxiety disorder Huff's been diagnosed with is connected to the pressures he's facing from his failures on the field. It could be the divorce he's going through. Or a combination of both, and other unknown factors.

But at this point, we should all take a step back and consider what pressures professional athletes go through. Yes, they're paid obscene sums, but that doesn't take away from their humanity.

Professional ballplayers are exceptional people with the ability to withstand more pressure than any of us can imagine. But, they also have frailties.

If anything, Huff's anxiety shows that he cares -- cares about what people think of him, cares about producing, cares about the impact that his failures have had on his teammates.

Remember, Huff was one of the good guys in that championship clubhouse in 2010. His clubhouse presence was the stuff of legend. He's the kind of guy I'd loved to have had as a teammate. The wise-cracker with a big heart.

When he comes back to the field, I hope fans give him a warm welcome, let him know that we care about him.

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