Padecky: Catching up with ex-Giant turned winemaker Rich Aurilia

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Rich Aurilia never had any trouble expressing himself. He’s from Brooklyn, for criminy sakes, where opinions and emotions flow like spring runoff in the Sierras. Tongue-tied? Forgetaboutit. I got the answers to ya questions.

And so the single interview with the former Giants shortstop covered a lot of ground, with nary a hiccup, as Aurilia fielded the questions smoothly, as if they were another routine ground ball. It started with his Healdsburg home being a refuge for neighbors after the 2017 Tubbs fire, how he partnered with a former Dodger (I’m sorry you had to read this) to become a vintner, followed by his job as a baseball analyst for NBC Sports Bay Area, transitioning to a strong opinion on the deleterious effects analytics is having on the game. It finished with Aurilia talking about Super Glue as a healing property. Yes, Super Glue.

“I’m keeping pretty busy,” said Aurilia, 47. He probably was building a treehouse for his kids while we were talking.

Yes, house. No one can have a conversation around here these days without wildfires being mentioned.

“We stayed until the third day, when the smoke became too strong for us,” said Aurilia of the Tubbs fire that began on Oct. 9, 2017. Aurilia, his wife and two sons left their Healdsburg home and flew south to Scottsdale, Arizona, to their other residence. The fire advanced to within four miles of his home. “If the wind had shifted,” Aurilia said, “we would have been in serious trouble.”

Aurilia heard the stories of so many people losing their homes. So he opened up his. One neighbor stayed for a few days. One family stayed for six weeks. Another stayed for six months. Aurilia didn’t ask for a dime. Stay until you need to go. I know what this place means to people.

“When I step off the plane at the Santa Rosa airport,” said Aurilia, describing his affection for Sonoma County, “I almost can feel a weight lifted off my shoulders.”

Aurilia bought his Healdsburg place in 2015 but only stays there during the summers. The Aurilias will move to Healdsburg permanently in two years after Aurilia’s youngest son, Gavin, graduates from high school.

Aurilia will bring with him not only his family but his developing reputation as a wine executive. In his 12 seasons with the Giants, Aurilia stayed in downtown San Francisco and developed a taste for fine food and the wine that would accompany it.

He now is president and chief operating officer of Red Stitch, a label now entering its 12th year. Toward the end of his career, Aurilia became friends with another player, Dave Roberts, now manager of the Dodgers. When Roberts joined the Giants as an outfielder, he and Aurilia found they had a mutual affection for the grape. Partnering with a San Francisco businessman, Red Stitch came into being, which initially came also with a shrug from the wine industry.

“I think we’ve gotten past the stigma of athletes producing wine,” said Aurilia, referring to a stereotype that is almost comical — a retired professional athlete invests in a business he or she knows nothing about but sounds impressive. Which then all too typically is followed by mounting debt and losses that delete the millions made on the field.

With Red Stitch now entering its 12th season, Aurilia is also running another profession entering its eighth season — baseball analyst. Aurilia will do 50 games this season, a job which fits perfectly for a man who can articulate the game. Aurilia played 15 years in the big leagues, 12 with the Giants, and is all too aware of the numerical numbness that is deadening the game.

That would be analytics, a concept that removes the human element of the game, that decisions can be made or at least strongly influenced by facts. That somehow launch angle and exit velocity off a batted ball mean something.

“Analytics has its place,” said Aurilia, a 2001 All-Star. “But the average fan does not know what WAR means or spin rate either. Shoot, I’m a fan of the game and I don’t know all of it.”

There’s another way to put it and I challenge anyone to come up with a better description of the time-deadening effect analytics is having on baseball.

“Why do you need five pitchers to get three hitters out in an inning?” Aurilia asked.

It’s paralysis by analysis and baseball always has tilted and been tempted by statistics defining players and situations like this one: What’s the hitter’s batting average with runners on second and third with two out on artificial turf in the Midwest when the air temperature is 90 degrees, and its 2 o’clock in the afternoon with three seagulls in the air?

“Exactly,” Aurilia said. “I’ve asked but no one has ever told me how to improve a spin rate (the ball’s rotation as it is delivered to home plate). I like to think of analytics as a fashion trend. It’ll come and it will go.”

But while it is here …

“I admit I didn’t watch much of the postseason last year,” Aurilia said. “It took so long to make moves. It was too analytical. I really believe it’s one of the reasons Boch is retiring.”

Aurilia has tremendous respect for Bruce Bochy, in his final year as Giants manager. Aurilia said he learned the game from Bochy and Dusty Baker. He learned the game is determined by people in the dugout, not by a general manager sitting in front of his computer in his luxury box.

“Dusty and Boch would put in a right-handed pitcher against a left-handed batter because they knew the righty gets lefties out,” Aurilia said. “The game is as much a feel for a situation.”

Roger Craig, the former Giants manager, put it this way: “There are hitters who have a .320 average for the first three innings, .280 average for the next three innings and hit .230 in the last three innings when the game is on the line.”

Craig said the numbers are approximate but he said he didn’t have to go to a chart to determine them. Craig did it by paying attention. How did the hitter swing? How did he act if he failed? What did he say in the dugout?

Craig didn’t need numbers. He relied on his experience, on knowing the game — that baseball is played by human beings, not robots. Craig thought exit velocity was how fast he could leave the stadium after a crippling defeat.

“I think it’s going to be a while before you see another manager like Boch from that era,” Aurilia said. “Baseball changes every 10 years or so. Right now analytics is a trend.”

Trends, by their nature, come and go. Not Super Glue! Super Glue is here to stay in baseball. Super Glue is here to stay for anyone who makes a living by using a stick in their hands.

“Both of my sons will go to college on golf scholarships,” Aurilia said. “They play lot of golf. They swing the clubs a lot.”

What happens to their hands is the same thing that happened to Aurilia’s hands when he was a player. Hands become cracked with so much repetitive use. Same thing as swinging a hammer. Cuts develop.

So Aurilia tells Gavin and Chaz the same thing — close the wound with Super Glue.

In the beginning, the kids looked at dad as someone who took too many fastballs in the melon. Trust me, the father said. Super Glue was his best friend during spring training, when he was toughening his hands for everyday baseball.

“It works,” Aurilia said. And then we stopped the interview. We both needed a pause. We went all the way from wildfires to Super Glue. And I didn’t even ask him about Mike Trout’s contract. Didn’t have time. I needed for Richie to get back to building his treehouse.

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