ARLINGTON, Tex. — If there is symbolism in cartoon robots, Aubrey Huff has found it. Huff, the No. 3 hitter for the San Francisco Giants, has the logos for the Autobots and Decepticons — the good and the evil of the old “Transformers” television show — tattooed on his shoulder blades. Huff has seen plenty of both in his life and career.
The good was Huff’s two-run home run in the third inning Sunday in Game 4 of the World Series. His towering blast off Tommy Hunter stayed just inside the right-field foul pole and helped the Giants to a 4-0 victory over the Texas Rangers, Huff’s childhood team. As a result, the Giants stood one victory from a championship.
“It’s in the back of your mind: you’d like to hit a big homer to put you ahead,” Huff said. “It’s pretty surreal right now.”
The bad, in the baseball sense, was playing almost 1,500 games before ever reaching the playoffs. But that could not compare with the tragedy Huff endured at age 6.
Huff’s father, Aubrey Jr., worked as an electrician at an apartment complex. In December 1983, he was killed as a bystander in a workplace domestic dispute. A man had shot his wife and then tried to shoot the apartment manager. Huff’s father pushed the manager out of the way but was killed when the gun went off in the struggle that followed.
Huff’s mother, Fonda, raised him and his sister in Mineral Wells, Tex., about 60 miles west of Arlington, while working in the meat department of a grocery store and taking classes to become a teacher.
“I told my mom one day I wanted to be a professional baseball player — probably, what, 8 years old, 9 years old — and she bought me a batting cage on a Winn-Dixie salary,” Huff said after Game 4. “Single mother raising two kids, to buy me a batting cage, I think she did it to keep me out of trouble more than anything. I don’t think she realized how much I worked hard in that thing every day.”
That work began Huff’s winding path back to Arlington for the World Series. He guessed that he had seen the Rangers play 100 times growing up, rooting for stars like Juan Gonzalez and less memorable names like Steve Buechele.
But mostly, Huff said, he rooted for Nolan Ryan, the Hall of Fame starter and now the Rangers’ president. Huff had tickets to Ryan’s last no-hitter, in 1991, but he said his mother was tired that night and did not take him.
“I grew up watching Nolan Ryan pitch,” Huff said. “He’s a childhood idol of mine. I wanted to be a pitcher because of him. Turns out I didn’t throw very hard.”
Huff’s mother has been to the World Series games, with other family members. High school friends have bought their own tickets, Huff said, and he has recognized random faces in the stands while stretching before the games.
But Huff is here on business, trying to help the Giants win their first title since 1954, four years before the franchise moved to San Francisco. He planned a lunch with old friends on Sunday, but his children and wife felt sick, so he canceled. Huff has received lots of phone calls and e-mails and has tried to tune out the distractions.
It has never been like this for him before. At the end of the regular season, only two players — Randy Winn of the St. Louis Cardinals and Michael Young of the Rangers — had played in more career games without appearing in the postseason. But Huff had his chances.
Huff played his first six seasons for losing teams in Tampa Bay. In 2006, the Rays dealt him to the Houston Astros, who were trying to defend their National League title. The deal helped the Rays, who got the future All-Star Ben Zobrist. But the Astros struggled to finish .500, and Huff hit .250.
The Baltimore Orioles rewarded Huff, anyway, with a three-year, $20 million contract. But by the end of the deal, in late 2009, he was playing for the Detroit Tigers, who fumbled their American League Central lead as Huff hit .189.
That showing, and a crowded market for first basemen, diminished Huff’s value in free agency. The Giants showed interest in Nick Johnson, who signed with the Yankees for $5.75 million. They made an offer to Adam LaRoche, but he signed with Arizona for $6 million.
Huff had doubts about playing at AT&T Park, with its cavernous right-center field. But he acknowledged that he had no offers, and when the Giants called, he jumped at their one-year, $3 million proposal.
“We needed a left-handed hitter,” General Manager Brian Sabean said. “We were too right-handed. He was a guy who had been around the block in terms of average and run production, and he had played enough first base that we were able to see that he’d be playable there.”
Signing Huff might have been the steal of the off-season. He ranked 10th in the league in on-base plus slugging, at .891, while leading the Giants in homers (26) and runs batted in (86).
He also helped the Giants fit their prize rookie, Buster Posey, into the lineup. When the Giants promoted Posey in May, Bengie Molina was still their catcher. Rather than unseat Molina immediately, the Giants shifted Huff to the outfield and used Posey at first base until they traded Molina to Texas in July.
Huff made 57 starts in the outfield, his most since 2005, proving his versatility at age 33.
“He claims to be the best athlete on the team, if you talk to him,” Manager Bruce Bochy said. “But he has done a great job wherever we put him and has stabilized our lineup. I knew he was a good player, but he’s even better than I thought.”
Young pitching, more than any factor, has carried the Giants this far. But they needed an anchor for their offense, too, and Huff has provided it. For a player so used to losing, it has been quite a transformation.