SAN FRANCISCO -- A Most Valuable Player typically is defined by statistics. A most important player transcends them.
Important players do more than win games. They solidify a club's credibility, from commanding respect on the field to cultivating the fan base away from the diamond. Often, they're not just the face of the franchise, to use a well-worn term, but also its heart.
The most important Giants truly stand out, like those Orange Friday jerseys that tempt spectators to don sunglasses at night. The team's peculiar, particular history separates these men from the rest. San Francisco's finest teams, richly stocked with Hall of Famers, never won a World Series. The Giants nearly left the city three times. Through it all, numerous players ignored adversity and earned glory. But just a few strengthened or virtually saved the franchise; even fewer won World Series along with fans' hearts.
Here, named in reverse chronological order of their perceived peak influence, is a list of the 10 most important Giants in the team's San Francisco history:
Buster Posey: Signed through the 2021 season with an option for '22, Posey could build upon his considerable influence. As the 2010 National League Rookie of the Year Award winner and the 2012 NL Most Valuable Player Award winner, the 26-year-old has established himself between the foul lines. He's widely respected among teammates and opponents. Moreover, Posey has proven to be an able pitchman, highly sought for endorsements and extremely competent on camera in commercials. Being a catcher, and thus a central figure on the field, seems to enhance Posey's aura. Yet his popularity should survive his switch to another position, if it happens. Posey's jersey tops this year's sales charts for a reason.
Brian Wilson: That's right, the Bearded One himself. As a three-time All-Star closer with the Giants, Wilson guaranteed that the efforts of the team's excellent starting rotation weren't wasted. Responding to a question in Spring Training 2010, Wilson told MLB.com prophetically, "An elite closer is a closer who's part of a World Series win. If you get that final out in the final win of the season, then you can consider yourself elite." Wilson's outsized personality also made him a favorite among fans nationwide, who roared whenever he entered a game. His metamorphosis into a semi-celebrity kept pace with San Francisco's momentum as the club surged to the 2010 World Series title.
Tim Lincecum: The Giants couldn't have timed Lincecum's May 2007 ascent to the Majors any better. Even as Barry Bonds broke Hank Aaron's all-time home run record three months later, many fans sought an alternative to the slugging left fielder and his glowering, joyless image. Enter Lincecum, who charmed Giants followers with his youthful looks, affable demeanor and titanic skill produced from a diminutive build. The right-hander rejuvenated fan enthusiasm and hastened San Francisco's reliance upon pitching and defense, which produced two World Series titles in three years.
Barry Bonds: Make no mistake: AT&T Park is the house Bonds built, regardless of his notoriety as baseball's most polarizing figure. Signed as a free agent at the dawn of the Peter Magowan ownership era before the 1993 season, Bonds combined the clout, literally and figuratively, of many of the other stars on this list. He launched the Giants' drive toward obtaining voter approval for their bayside ballpark with his first San Francisco season (.336, 46 homers, 123 RBIs), in which he led the Giants to 103 wins -- which wasn't enough for a postseason berth in the pre-Wild Card era. Controversy still swirls around Bonds' link to performance-enhancing drug use, but there's no arguing that he insured the franchise's viability.
Will Clark: The Giants looked absolutely hopeless from 1984-85. They finished last in the NL West in both seasons, barely drew 1 million in '84 and sank to 818,697 in attendance in '85, when they lost 100 games for the first and only time in franchise history. But manager Roger Craig and general manager Al Rosen began restoring pride in the franchise when they took over in September 1985. The vanguard of this movement was Clark, who quickly ascended to the game's elite following his rookie season in 1986. Fans rallied around his intensity and swooned to his gorgeous left-handed swing. Appearing with Clark at FanFest activities in February 2009, one month after the ex-first baseman rejoined the organization, GM Brian Sabean compared the experience to accompanying Elvis Presley.
Vida Blue: In 1977, the Giants never exceeded .500 and drew 700,056 patrons to Candlestick Park, last in the NL. One year later, they spent 95 days in first place and finished with 1,740,477 in home attendance, second in San Francisco history only to the 1,795,356 they attracted in 1960, Candlestick's inaugural season. The biggest difference was Blue's arrival in a trade that sent seven players to the A's. Blue gave the starting rotation a true ace while spurring the rest of the club toward greater heights. Though the Giants flirted with moving to Denver in 1985-86 and nearly left for Tampa-St. Petersburg following the 1992 season, '78 did much to entrench the Giants in the Bay Area. None of that would have happened without Blue.
Willie McCovey: The towering first baseman built the bedrock of his Hall of Fame career during his 1959-73 Giants tenure. But his return in 1977 cemented his popularity. Nobody, maybe not even fans themselves, realized the extent of the ardor McCovey inspired until he re-signed with San Francisco as a free agent and received a deafening ovation before the '77 home opener. In a sense, people never have stopped cheering for him since. The franchise was still staggering after Bob Lurie purchased the team in 1976, but McCovey's presence helped keep it upright. The Willie Mac Award and McCovey Cove stand in everlasting testimony to his impact upon the franchise.
John Montefusco: The Giants had been gutted by the mid-1970s. Between November 1971 and October 1974, they traded McCovey, Gaylord Perry, Willie Mays, Juan Marichal and Bobby Bonds. What remained was a team that ranged from unrecognizable to unwatchable, except to its most adoring fans. The franchise's pulse was faint, but Montefusco sustained it with his brash charm and 31 wins in his first two full seasons. From late 1974-76, he was pretty much all San Francisco fans had to root for.
Orlando Cepeda: Mays' indelible association with the franchise actually limited his popularity with a segment of fans in a new city who wanted a new hero. This group adopted Cepeda, the effervescent slugger. He embraced the city's nightlife, chatted with patrons seated nearby as he played first base and scared the heck out of opposing pitchers. Cepeda's charisma helped the Giants average 17,860 per game in paid attendance at 22,000-seat Seals Stadium during 1958-59.
Willie Mays: He remains the Giants' alpha and omega. As the franchise moved from one coast to another, Mays kept the Giants' legitimacy in place with his sheer greatness. It's fitting that the main entrance to AT&T Park is the Willie Mays Gate, since he ushered generations of fans toward their interest in baseball. Dozens of Hall of Famers and All-Stars performed for the Giants as they built winning records through their first 14 seasons in San Francisco (1958-71), but only one gave the team its identity. Far and wide, the Giants were known as "Willie Mays and company." None of Mays' teammates complained.
Chris Haft is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.