Course of the Horse: Cain reflects on career

With future in SF uncertain, righty shares thoughts on postseason, perfect game, mentoring young pitchers

Course of the Horse: Cain reflects on career

SAN FRANCISCO -- During the 13 seasons that Matt Cain has worn a jersey with San Francisco written across his chest, The City steadily has crept into his heart.

Cain very likely is spending his final days with the Giants, who open a three-game series Friday at Dodger Stadium. Club management almost surely won't pick up the $21 million option on his 2018 contract, reflecting his decline in status from staff ace to seldom-used reliever and spot starter.

Asked in a recent interview whether Cain assumed that the Giants would decline his option and pay him a $7.5 million buyout instead, he focused on the word "assumed" as if it were a catcher's target. "I don't think that's ever good to do," Cain said amiably.

Yet after a reporter apologized for asking a question that reeked of finality, Cain said, "Well, it's the truth. Anything and everything that we do comes to an end, at some point."

Nevertheless, Cain's relationship with San Francisco isn't over.

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Cain was a 17-year-old high school senior from Germantown, Tenn., when the Giants drafted and signed him in 2002. Thus, the circumstances of age forced him to grow into a man during his time with them -- which happens to be virtually unmatched. Since the franchise relocated to San Francisco in 1958, only three Giants played with the team for at least 10 years and spent their entire career with the ballclub: infielder Jim Davenport (1958-70), right-hander Scott Garrelts (1981-90) and second baseman Robby Thompson (1986-96). Unless Cain elects to sign with another team as a free agent, he'll become the fourth and longest-tenured member of this group, with 12 years and 38 days of Major League service time at the end of this season.

Living in San Francisco became more than just an obligation to Cain. It became a rite of passage.

"I was a 20-year-old kid who didn't understand anything about city life, didn't understand what it was like to be in a major city, in a huge media area," Cain said. "I had a hard time at first. My first handful of years, it was difficult for me to really get the grips on how to get around the city, how to take advantage of the city, how to enjoy it. I'd always grown up around trees and grass and outdoors, and here I am. I kind of felt like I was trapped in a bunch of concrete."

Alongside Chelsea Williams, who would become his wife, Cain learned to appreciate San Francisco. They opted to live in a different neighborhood each season, including downtown, Noe Valley and the Marina, to savor the city's variety. Cain grew to cherish the metropolis he represented.

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"We walked around the city the other day, and just the memories we've made in this town are tremendous. It'll always be something special for us," Cain said. "It's a place where we've even talked about, later on in life, when the kids are probably gone in college or whatever, of having a condo of some sort here. This city means so much to our family, it really can't be taken away from us. It's really, really special for us."

On the field, Cain evolved into one of the Giants' most essential performers. He made three All-Star teams and started the Midsummer Classic in 2012. He excelled in the postseason, posting a 4-2 record with a 2.10 ERA and a 1.052 WHIP in eight starts.

"We were so bad the first few years. We were!" said Cain, on the franchise's first San Francisco-era World Series in 2010, five years after he reached the Majors. "I was so ignorant that I thought, 'Look at the guys that we have.' But they were toward the back side of their career, and we weren't able to keep up with some teams that were able to do it. I saw how hard it was to have a successful year as a team. ... Then, man, with 2010, it was the transformation of so many pieces being able to fit together. So many guys getting hot at the right time. It was unbelievable."

And, of course, on June 13, 2012, at AT&T Park, Cain pitched the 22nd perfect game in modern baseball history in a 10-0 decision over the Astros.

Must C: Classic

"I definitely think it [changed my life]," Cain said. "A no-hitter was something I had always dreamed about doing. Amy [Gutierrez, postgame interviewer on TV] told me it was a perfect game, and I still couldn't believe it. Being that much in the moment and not understanding what was really going on probably helped me accomplish it and keep my mind focused on getting guys out instead of thinking about the whole situation. ... Being five years removed from it, I think it means a lot more to me now than it did then."

Meanwhile, Cain wanted to establish himself as more than just a pitcher.

"I kind of watched my dad and my granddad and my mom and my brother. I watched people, and I always wanted to try to set a good example like they did for me," Cain said. "I wanted to carry myself and present myself in the right manner, and I wanted to be able to go about baseball and even stuff off the field -- the way to be a man, the way to be a husband, the way to be a father, a teammate -- I wanted to be able to be that guy. I feel like I've done a good job of that."

Cain's contemporaries readily confirm this. The myriad of injuries that struck him beginning in 2013 prompted a decline that has been illustrated by his 19-40 record and 4.86 ERA in 105 games (95 starts) since the start of that season. As a result, Cain's career record (104-118) has plunged below .500.

The right-hander has responded to this adversity in the most admirable way possible. He freely dispenses advice to the Giants' younger pitchers, such as Ty Blach and Chris Stratton. Cain tutored Blach almost daily during Spring Training, though they were competing for the fifth-starter role. The pair maintained their bond by remaining catch partners for most of the regular season.

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Blach said that he valued "being able to bounce ideas off him about different lineups and just spending time around the guy, because he has had so much experience. He really knows how to go about the ins and outs of each day and understand the ups and downs. He's been awesome to have around. He's a mentor for everybody. He's very open and easily approachable."

"It definitely wasn't the easiest thing, because I knew that he was a guy coming in to take my job," Cain said. "But the more I thought about it, that's the game. The game is meant to be played by younger guys. Once I realized that I didn't see Blach or Stratton or any of these guys coming up through the organization as a threat, I looked at them as more of an asset. I could talk with them and communicate to them about things that were going on. I didn't want to be the bitter veteran that was mean to the guys. I want to see Ty and Strat and all of these guys succeed."

Cain frequently drew extra attention, from shouldering the expectations that came from being a first-round Draft choice to weathering repeated tough-luck defeats early in his career due to the Giants' subpar offense.

"I think he handled all that pretty darned well," Giants pitching coach Dave Righetti said. "Things didn't always go perfect. He wasn't the glamour child. But he was our go-to guy. This guy's going to make all his starts. We've got to have a foundation. Maybe that's the perfect thing to think about him, as being a foundation, one of those building blocks that you have to have."

Must C: Catch

Arizona outfielder Gregor Blanco, who spent 2012-16 with the Giants, shall forever be linked with Cain for preserving his perfect game with a running catch of Jordan Schafer's seventh-inning drive. Blanco distilled Cain's essence into one word.

"Respect," Blanco said. "Matt always has been a fighter. He always takes pride in trying to do his best for the team when he goes to the mound. He has left everything on the mound for the Giants. He's a guy who has a winning attitude. He's willing to give everything for the team, so I'm willing to give everything for him."

Cain's Major League journey wasn't destined. Nobody's ever is. However, Giants catcher Mike Matheny sensed that Cain was capable of leaving his mark upon the game. So after Cain's Major League debut on Aug. 29, 2005 -- a five-inning, two-run effort against Colorado that ended with Rockies star Todd Helton flying out to left field to end a 14-pitch confrontation -- Matheny sought a memento. He asked Cain to autograph a game-used baseball with the inscription, "First Major League start."

Recalled Matheny, now the St. Louis Cardinals' manager, "I don't have a lot of things that I keep, but I kept one of those. I knew, just watching him, that I had a lot of respect for the young talent that he was, but also how he was going about his business. It seemed to me that he was going to be around a little while. I guess I was kind of right on that."

Chris Haft has covered the Giants since 2005, and for MLB.com since 2007. Follow him on Twitter at @sfgiantsbeat and listen to his podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.