The troubled San Francisco Giants seemed to be headed toward a number of destinations in recent years—Toronto, Washington, Oakland, debtors' prison—but first place in the top-heavy National League West was never one of them. Yet that is exactly where the Giants were last week, thrilling their fans, confounding their opponents and amazing themselves. A sign of the new times hung from a railing near the rightfield foul line at Candlestick Park: WE'RE #1! EAT YOUR HEART OUT WORLD!
In a division long dominated by Cincinnati and Los Angeles, even #2! would have been cause for celebration. Fourth a year ago, the Giants have not had a winning record in five seasons, a million-plus gate in seven or a pennant in 16. Nob Hill had become Sob Hill. But league-leading pitching and timely hitting are starting to change all that, and Candlestick Park, once a cold, lonely outpost, is suddenly red hot with excitement. The Giants increased their winning streak to eight and 14 of 16 last week with two victories at home against Chicago and one more in Los Angeles, where 153,113 L.A. fans suddenly found themselves watching the sort of Giant-Dodger imbroglio not seen since 1971. Meanwhile, attendance back in San Francisco was up 68% from a year ago, and expectations have soared even higher than that.
An important reason for this turnaround is Vida Blue, the sassy newcomer who is 6-1 with a 2.90 ERA since crossing the Bay Bridge from Oakland. "I want to take the Giants to the playoffs," he said after beating Chicago last Wednesday. "We can do it. It will be hard, but we can do it." After all, as Blue himself points out, the A's did not start winning championships until he became a member of the rotation in 1971. Now he hopes he can do the same for the Giants.
Blue's new team is hoping so, too. "If leading this early meant anything, I'd already have three pennant rings," says second baseman Bill Madlock, a former Cub. "I'm just hoping we can stay around first long enough for the pitching to take us over. We can't hit with the best, but we can pitch with anybody."
Madlock has a point. The lowest batting average ever recorded by a National League pennant winner was New York's .242 in 1969. Even with a recent flurry, the Giants were only up to .247, seventh in the league, at week's end. Only two regulars were batting better than .300, including Madlock, a .328 career hitter. Mike Ivie had a .357 average but he has only played part time. But while the Giants have not been hitting a lot, they have been hitting when it counts, having won nine of their last 10 one-run games.
Right now the lack of consistent batting support is something the pitchers can joke about. Says John Montefusco, "We have the kind of hitters who are capable of scoring one or two runs in any game we play." Of course, Montefusco said that before San Francisco's 10-7 win over the Dodgers Friday. It was the Giants' biggest scoring outburst of the year, but the Count was counted out after 7⅖ innings. He got the win anyway.
When Blue and another hard-throwing lefthander. Bob Knepper, are pitching, one or two runs are most often enough. Since being bombed by Cincinnati in his first start. Blue has had a 2.37 ERA, and Knepper, who is 5-2, has surrendered as many as three runs in only four of his nine starts.
To be sure, Blue was expected to pitch well, which is why the Giants scraped together $400,000 and seven players to get him. He won 124 games during his eight seasons in the American League and had a 2.94 ERA, but his last years with deteriorating Oakland were enough to make Vida really blue. "If I had a dollar for every hour of sleep I lost from dealing with Charlie Finley, I would own my own team," he says. "I'm not just happier now, I'm happiest. I'm enjoying baseball again."
And the Giants are enjoying him. Not only has he won but he has also proven himself to be a regular guy, working hard, leading cheers, boosting morale and, during a rainy game in Chicago, toweling off the bats and batting helmets. The closest thing to a complaint comes from Catcher Marc Hill. He is amazed that even with the thick mitt his calloused left hand can feel the sting of the Blue blazer.
By obtaining Blue, the Giants accomplished what many other clubs had tried and failed to do. Commissioner Bowie Kuhn shot down two of the proposed deals involving Blue because he thought the amounts of money involved were too high: the Yankees' $1.5 million offer in June 1976 and the Reds' bid of $1.25 million plus minor leaguer Dave Revering last December. "Did you ever see one of those old cash registers where the dollar sign pops up?" says Blue. "Well, that's what my eyes looked like when I heard how much teams were offering for me."
An unexpected benefit of the Blue acquisition has been his effect on Knepper, 24, who six-hit the Cubs last week 4-3. Knepper was struggling when the Giants brought him up from Phoenix last year to replace the injured Montefusco, but he found the majors more to his liking as he had an 11-9 record. Sudden success, however, brought sudden responsibility he did not particularly want. "People started telling me I was supposed to be the team's ace lefthander," says Knepper. "Instead of asking me only to do my best they were putting pressure on me. But with Vida here, I can concentrate on learning how to pitch without worrying about being the star."
Now that Montefusco has recovered from last season's ankle injury and with Ed Halicki back in the rotation after missing the first five weeks with a muscle pull, Knepper should have plenty of help. This wealth of starters has made a reliever of Jim Barr, even though he has two of the staffs three shutouts. As it is, the Giant bullpen, led by Gary Lavelle, has been called on to make only eight saves.
Good pitching is not the only reason the Giants vaulted to first place. The rest of the team is doing the little things needed to win even while ranking seventh in the most important statistical category—runs. Rightfielder Jack Clark scored what proved to be the winning run in a game against San Diego by racing home from second base after a fly ball to center. Last week Ivie, who is built like a budding Boog Powell, set up another one-run victory when he unexpectedly stole second base. It was only the 14th theft of his six-year major league career. He then scored on a bloop double to center. Another contribution has been the defensive work of Shortstop Johnnie LeMaster. A woeful hitter with a weak swing and a .202 average, he has saved one-run wins against the Pirates and Cardinals with backhand stabs in the ninth inning.
And then there's the timely hitting. Willie McCovey is among the league RBI leaders with 26 even though he has only 21 hits and a .196 average. The outfield of Terry Whitfield, 25, Larry Herndon, 24, and Clark, 22, has provided the most consistent offense, with batting averages of .298, .277 and .308, respectively. With his speed, power and strong arm, Clark is considered the most promising. A .300 hitter in the minors, he batted only .252 during 1977, his rookie season, but last week he was in the midst of a confidence-boosting 12-game hitting streak. "There's no stopping me now," he said.
There seems to be no stopping Ivie either, if only he gets enough opportunities to play. But first base is his best position, and McCovey is an institution not easily displaced. Even Manager Joe Altobelli admits it is a "ticklish situation." So while McCovey recuperated from an injury last week, Ivie went on a .400 tear. "I'm going to get all I can while I have the chance," he said.
That pretty much sums up the feelings of all the Giants. "The Dodgers and Reds have the prestige of the past, but this is today," says Whitfield. "We're young, they're getting old." Adds Montefusco, "I used to have to lie a little to get the fans to come out. Now I really believe we are good. I finally feel like I'm in the big leagues."
Considering the doings in Oakland the last couple of seasons, Blue must feel that way, too.