There are certain indications that San Francisco's tepid romance with her baseball team may at last be heating up again. Oh, there will not be any of that "Amazin' Mets" or "Big Red Machine" nonsense; not in a city that equates undue enthusiasm for athletics with Philistinism.
No, there are slenderer straws in the wind. Restaurateur Reno Barsocchini, for example, is contemplating renting buses once more to haul his customers out to Candlestick Park for Sunday doubleheaders and other noteworthy occasions, a practice all but abandoned during the Giants' seemingly interminable stay in second place. And Sam Cohen, who was so touched by the Giants' pennant success in 1962 that he poured champagne (domestic) on the sidewalk outside his bar, was asked by a customer just the other day if he knew the score of the Giants game with Atlanta. He did not, but as a one-share Giants stockholder he was heartened by the inquiry. They are even discussing the team in the steam room of the Ambassador Health Club, where stock quotations and paddleball scores are of greater immediacy, and in the Union Street "body exchange" bars, where conversations tend to be more conspiratorial.
This is not to say San Franciscans are flocking in great numbers to their drafty ball park. Attendance is running about 30,000 ahead of last year and almost twice that of the nearby Oakland A's, who play in strictest privacy, but the Giants still are averaging only slightly better than 13,000 a game. However, the baseball talk is a favorable sign, and if the team should continue to play as extraordinarily as it has, a return to flusher times would seem imminent.
During this first month and a half of the season, the Giants have made a mockery of the National League's Western Division race, leading by as many as seven games when barely 30 have been played. But far more interesting to their followers are the new personalities on a roster that once was as familiarly dull as the program at a groundbreaking dedication. Willie Mays is, of course, Willie Mays, but San Franciscans have long resisted his celebrated lovableness. His 40th birthday party at the Fairmont Hotel missed being a sellout by half a dozen tables, although it is possible some well-wishers stayed away to escape hearing Mayor Joseph Alioto's newest Italian jokes. Willie McCovey is a prince among men, but he is also a stoic. And Gaylord Perry and Juan Marichal are...well...old hat. The players who have most roused the natives are youngsters hardly anyone anywhere has ever heard of—a boy shortstop, a Jewish intellectual who plays championship Ping-Pong and who just might be a right-handed Koufax, and a relief pitcher who talked himself out of sloth. Then there is the team's manager, an Irish tenor.
May 16, 1971
The shortstop, Chris Speier, and the new Koufax, Steve Stone, were not even on the Giant roster at the beginning of spring training and the positive thinker, Jerry Johnson, was in the doghouse. The manager, Charlie Fox, was starting his first full season in the majors after a near lifetime of managing in the minors. All are now working hard on their legends.
Considering community taste, it is remarkable that Fox did not move into his job sooner. He is the perfect San Francisco baseball manager—a wag of the Lefty O'Doul stripe, who sings at parties, pours Galway Mist for newspapermen, performs trick pool shots and tells dialect stories. At the Mays birthday celebration, Fox favored the crowd with an altered rendition of Sonny Boy: "Friends may forsake me; let them all forsake me; I still have you, Willie boy."
"Charlie has this team playing loose," says Jerry Donovan, assistant to team President Horace Stoneham. "It's a happy ball club."
And yet Stoneham, for all of his reputation for conviviality—perhaps even because of it—in the pre-Fox days had preferred to hire Southern gentlemen like Alvin Dark and Clyde King as his managers, moralists who were bombs as public relations men. Fox is no Frank Sinatra, but in a city that prefers her celebrities to take a drink from time to time and swing a little, he is the sort of free spirit San Franciscans can empathize with.
Speier, too, seems to have been sent over by central casting. He is exactly the sort of ballplayer the Giants haven't had since the move West—a brash yet ingenuous kid with the physical and mental courage of a natural leader. Better yet, he is a local boy—from across the bay in Alameda. Speier will not be 21 until June 28 and already he is the star of proliferating anecdotes. There is the one about Speier ordering the fiercely competitive Perry to "keep the ball down, for Pete's sake, so I can get you a double play." There is Speier in spring training speaking so harshly to Giants Pitcher Jim Barr that Barr angrily throws the ball back to him, demanding to know if Speier wants to pitch in his stead.
And there is Speier asking his road roommate, Hal Lanier, if in the big leagues both games of a doubleheader are for nine innings. Or Speier eagerly introducing himself to Sportscaster Barry Tompkins and telling him how much he admires his work, thereby changing the course of the interview. Speier, in fact, considers it his duty to be as cooperative as possible with the media, a policy that will not hurt his image. And he can look upon himself with some wry detachment: "It does seem a little strange. I mean, these guys have always been my heroes—Mays, McCovey, Marichal and Perry—and now I'm out there with them. So here I am running up to Marichal and shouting, 'Hey Juan, let's bear down out there.' Even though I look up to these people with respect, I still have no reservations about talking to them like that. You just have to get on some pitchers sometimes. What I need to learn is a little more tact."
Before this year, Speier had only one season of professional baseball—he hit .283 in 1970 for Amarillo of the Texas League—but he looks to even the most skeptical of experts like a finished product.
"I watched this kid play maybe 60 games in the Instructional League," says Fox, "and I said to myself, this is the best young shortstop I've seen in 20 years. He has everything—range, quick hands and what an arm! So the boss says to me, 'Are you gonna give this boy a chance, Charlie?' A chance? 'Hell,' I said, 'he's better than anything we've got right now.' "
"It's discrimination, that's what it is," Herman Franks, one of Fox's predecessors, told him during last week's series with Atlanta. "I never had a shortstop in four years here and you come up with this kid."
Speier has been a .300 hitler this season and, as the second man in the batting order, he has proved adept at advancing the swift leadoff man, Bobby Bonds, either by sacrifice or the hit and run. He has made plays behind second base and deep in the hole between third and second, and with the agile, if erratic, Tito Fuentes at second, he has been giving the Giants the best doubleplay combination they've had in San Francisco.
"He's turned the whole team around," says Fox.
"The keys have been Speier, Stone, and Johnson," says Outfielder Ken Henderson, himself an emerging star of 24. These are three unusual keys to have on the same chain.
Stone is two years out of Kent State University, where he felt keenly the unrest that resulted in what he now calls "that accidental tragedy." He can appear before a boosters club and matter-of-factly describe how his nervousness in his first major league start "failed to manifest itself in the usual way." He can say with considerable conviction that reading Koufax' autobiography "five times" convinced him "just how mental this game really is. Why, you can actually will yourself to win." Stone has always been a winner of sorts. He was a table tennis champion in the Cleveland area, a leading amateur tennis player and a star on Kent State's bowling and volleyball teams.
He was not involved in a decision until his fourth start. Stone is now 3-1 and his ERA is 2.93. On Sunday he survived a 2-run 4-hit first inning. He allowed one hit in the next seven innings. He won 5-2. He struck out nine Pittsburgh Pirates in 6‚Öì innings in his only loss. Fox thinks he can win 15 games this season.
Johnson, who at 27 is four years older than Stone, has won four games and lost once as a relief pitcher. He came to the Giants last season in a trade with St. Louis, bringing with him a reputation as a fast-ball pitcher whose mind would wander in the heat of combat. It is a habit he is convinced he kicked after some soul-searching this past spring.
"I had a long talk with myself," he explained. "I said to myself, 'Now this is gonna be my year. If I'm ever gonna do it, this has to be the year.' "
Johnson is not the only one who had a long talk with Johnson. Fox also advised the absent-minded pitcher that he was squandering a first-rate talent. He's been a study in concentration since, as well as the team's busiest pitcher, appearing in 14 of the first 31 games. "What the heck," says Johnson of the heavy work load, "I'm a young fella." Most of the Giants are. Remove the 40-year-old Mays and the 33-year-old McCovey from the starting lineup and the team age averages only 25. In Fox's five-man pitching rotation, only Perry and Marichal are over 30. And there are promising youngsters on the Phoenix farm team to fill in when the comparatively elderly superstars finally falter.
Candlestick Park itself looks younger, even though at age 11 it is the second oldest stadium in the National League, junior only to Chicago's Wrigley Field. It is benefiting now from a face-lift that will increase its seating capacity and, it is hoped, ward off the cruel winds that sweep across Candlestick Point. New orange football bleachers sit unoccupied in the right-field wind tunnel and scaffolding for the double-decking rise from both the left-and right-field grandstands. Escalators are being installed to spare the weary of heart the arduous climb up Cardiac Hill and new plastic seats have replaced the wooden chairs that proved such a boon to the stocking industry in the Bay Area.
The Giants are now only moderately miffed that most of the gussying up is to accommodate the football 49ers who will play there this season after 25 years in the even more wretched Kezar Stadium. Candlestick looks like a giant construction project, providing an odd setting for an unusual team. The symbolism is obvious: neither the team nor its ball park has a finished look, but every day the pieces seem to be falling into place. And the city, unusual in its own right, looks on with increasing interest as they grow together. "We watch," says Sam Cohen, cooling the champagne, "with amazement."