IndyCar driver J.R. Hildebrand is best known for nearly winning the 2011 Indianapolis 500 as a rookie, but he is also a huge Bay Area sports fan. Good time to be him.
ESPN Playbook caught up with the 24-year-old Sausalito native to talk about the World Series and the Niners.
The last time the Giants were in the World Series, you had a chance to go to a game in Texas but you passed. I know you regretted that; were you able to fix it this time around?
Yeah, I went to Games 3 and 4 in Detroit. It was only a four- or five-hour drive from my house, totally worth it.
When the Giants clinched the World Series in 2010, you were home alone in Indianapolis annoying your neighbors. Were you able to really go crazy last night with some fellow Giants fans this time?
It kind of goes both ways because you want to be respectful that you are on somebody else’s turf. I wasn’t going bananas because you realize there are a lot of Detroit Tiger fans that are seriously bumming out. But it was totally worth it to go up there from where I live, in Indianapolis, and actually see it in person. It’s true in any sport, but especially baseball -- there are so many teams and so many things that could happen; just getting to see your team in the World Series is special. All of that being said, I am definitely looking forward to going back to the Bay Area and I can go celebrate over a few beers with my buddies back there.
The last time you were out near San Francisco was for the Grand Prix of Sonoma, where you had that Niners-themed race car -- but to be honest, I was more impressed with the full football-uniform-style driver suit you wore.
Yeah, it was an awesome suit! I thought it was going to be the dumbest thing ever when we first started talking about doing it. I started working with Alpinestars this year on my suits, and they are just money every time. When I actually got it, I was like, “Oh my god, this is so cool!” Because I was afraid it was going to be stupid or gimmicky, but when I put it on, I thought that it was the coolest driver suit I had seen in a long time.
With the 49ers connection, it was totally coincidental that I am from the Bay Area. The reason we did that is because Jim Harbaugh was one of the co-founders of my team, Panther Racing. We actually use No. 4 because that was his number when he played for the Indianapolis Colts. It was a major bonus for me that he coaches for my home team now.
Any chance you will try to run a Giants-themed race car next year?
If it was up to me, I would do it in a heartbeat, but it’s up to the boss man. If not, I had some special orange-and-black driving gloves made with SF logos on them; I can bust them out next year.
Back to the World Series: The way the first two rounds went, were you surprised that the Giants swept the Tigers?
Well, it was much less stressful that way, for sure. The Giants pitching staff, if they are performing at their highest performance level, is easily one of the best in baseball. My opinion has always been if our starter can go six innings, then we should win the game. And that’s effectively why we were losing games in the NLDS and the NLCS. The starting pitching couldn’t last or hold the other team to three runs or less.
In the World Series, we were able to put a few runs on the board early and the starters were just awesome through five or six innings. But if you had asked me ahead of time if I thought [Barry] Zito was going to outduel [Justin] Verlander and even get a hit off of him in Game 1, I would have said you were full of it! After being in the hole the first two series, to finish it off that effectively really shows what kind of character this team has.
Was Panda your choice for MVP?
Yeah, absolutely. The NLCS was definitely [Marco] Scutaro’s series, but [Pablo] Sandoval was the man in the World Series. It’s impossible to overlook either of them; they were the obvious choices, each hitting close to .500 in their respective series. Sandoval had a better postseason at the plate than he did in the regular season, and he became a guy that other pitchers were scared to face, even more so than [Buster] Posey. With a guy that’s a real free swinger, that can go both ways -- but the Tigers' pitching staff throws real hard and they throw a lot of strikes, so it worked out real well.
A lot of people were caught off guard by Zito’s stuff in the playoffs. Did you see that coming?
I follow the Giants very closely through the regular season, and it was clear he had it together from the All-Star break on, but you knew at the same time that he was getting a lot of run support, a lot more than the Giants average. The guy only throws 85 or 86 mph, so he has got to have pinpoint location, and he did. As Giants fans, you forgive him for those crappy seasons and lousy starts the last few years because he was Mr. Clutch in the playoffs. In the postseason, you have to give a nod to him and [Ryan] Vogelsong as the keys to the series because they were so money. They came through in a big way, and [Tim] Lincecum was lights-out in relief -- those guys were all question marks as the regular season was ending, and they were just killing it the whole way through the playoffs. The Giants' pitching staff are just people you like rooting for as a fan.
It’s obvious you aren’t just jumping on the bandwagon.
There are a lot of bandwagon fans these days, and, I mean, this is a great team to rally behind. They have great characters and they play really great baseball, so, as a baseball fan in general, they are fun to watch. But I spent enough time up in the nosebleeds covered in blankets with my parents at Candlestick back when they weren’t going to the NLCS every year. I feel like I put in my due time, so it’s been a great payoff for a longtime Giants fan.
Do you have a lucky jersey, and will you be getting a new one to commemorate this playoff run?
In 2010, I was wearing a generic batting practice jersey, but, as soon as it was over, the first thing on my list was a Brian Wilson away jersey. That’s been my jersey since then, but I think this time around I am going with something that’s not really a trendy pick -- I think I am going with Brandon Crawford. The second half of the season this year, he was huge, just an incredible defensive player; he turned that around from the beginning of the year. He’s a young guy; his family is from the Bay Area; it’s a cool hometown story; plus, he was the strength of the bottom of the order with a lot of clutch hits. Hopefully he will stick around for a long time. That’s the tough thing, though, if they ever leave. I have to get a J.T. Snow jersey as a backup in case anyone goes to another team. At least I will have a go-to jersey that I won’t have to mess with.
Congratulations, savor the flavor.
I hear that, I will!