Clinch Fuentes, 15, is a walking reminder of how long it has been since San Francisco won even half a pennant. The day after Clinch was born, Sept. 29, 1971, his father, Tito—now one of the Giants' Spanish-language broadcasters—and pals like Willie Mays, Willie McCovey and Juan Marichal sewed up the National League West Division title. The Giants have finished within 10 games of first place twice since then. Only the Cleveland Indians, Minnesota Twins and Texas Rangers have gone longer without winning a division championship.
Well, now the Giants look like a cinch to Clinch and to everyone else. After winning two of three games in Cincinnati last weekend they suddenly had the largest lead of any first-place team: six games over the fading Reds and 6½ over the Houston Astros.
"It's the way we've gotten here that makes us special," says outfielder Candy Maldonado, who seems not to know enough San Francisco Giants history to realize that just getting there makes this team special enough. "No big stars, just a lot of little day-to-day heroes that no one knows."
Maldonado is being modest, because the Giants do have players with star potential—and he's one of them. But for most of the season they seemed, like San Francisco clubs of the past 16 years, to be readying every excuse to explain away another fair-to-mediocre season. Maldonado missed 38 games with a broken finger. Jeffrey Leonard has been dogged by injuries. The infield was so badly decimated that 14 different players have manned second, short and third. Last season's 20-game winner, Mike Krukow, was 3-6 in mid-September. But out of such ominous shadows came those "little" heroes: outfielder Mike Aldrete (.328), for one, and 37-year-old infielder (and Tito Fuentes' 1971 double-playmate) Chris Speier (11 homers), for another. Meanwhile, general manager Al Rosen made three trades to obtain four proven pitchers in a span of seven weeks. All of them strengthened San Francisco's hand, while the Reds watched with envy.
On Saturday, Rosen's most important acquisition of the year, righthander Rick Reuschel, broke Cincinnati's back with a 7-1 win on the anniversary of Rosen's most important move of the last two years: convincing Roger Craig to become the Giants manager. That had not been easy. The 1985 Giants were on the verge of becoming the first team in the 105-year history of the franchise to lose 100 games. "Before Roger got here it wasn't whether we won or lost, but how fast we played the games," says catcher Bob Brenly. "He told us, 'We can win this division next year.' We thought he was off his rocker."
San Francisco didn't win in '86 but did improve its record to 83-79. Last winter, while the Reds and the Astros were being touted as the division's heavy favorites, Rosen went around telling everyone, "We're going to win the West." The Giants had one of baseball's leading double-play combinations in Jose Uribe and Robby Thompson. They had the best bench in the league. They had power and what Craig called "the makings of a good pitching staff."
They got off to a 16-7 start as the Reds were going 18-8, but then the injuries started. Uribe, Thompson and third baseman Chris Brown went down. Krukow couldn't win, and lefty Atlee Hammaker was disabled. Still, the Giants hung on, thanks to deft juggling by Craig, who used 112 different lineups in the Giants' first 143 games.
When San Francisco blew a six-run lead in Cincinnati on June 8, Reds general manager Bill Bergesch called the loss "devastating and demoralizing to the Giants." San Francisco was so devastated and demoralized it won the next two games of the series. But though the spirit was always willing, the flesh was not, and by July 4, the Giants had lost 30 of 48 and trailed the Reds by 5½ games. That night from his Chicago hotel room Rosen hooked up with his San Diego counterpart, Trader Jack McKeon, on a deal that came to be called the Chicago Seven. Rosen got a quality lefthanded starter, Dave Dravecky, a lefthanded reliever, Craig Lefferts, and third baseman Kevin Mitchell in exchange for pitchers Mark Davis, Mark Grant, Keith Comstock and third baseman Brown. Impact? S.F. is 9-5 in Dravecky's starts, Mitchell has hit .313 with 13 homers and 34 RBIs in only 54 games, and Lefferts has made 35 appearances since the trade.
The final push began at Candlestick Park on Aug. 7, when the Giants began a series with the Reds, still trailing them by five games. Craig called a rare clubhouse meeting. "Don't get your dawber down," he told his players, using one of his pet expressions. Cincinnati scored in the first inning off Mike LaCoss, but with the bases loaded and one out, Dave Parker hit a hard shot at first baseman Will Clark that became an inning-ending double play. LaCoss was untouchable the rest of the way as the Giants won 3-1 and began a 20-game surge that turned their race with the Reds upside down. While San Francisco went 15-5, Cincinnati went 5-15. By Aug. 26 the Giants led by five games—and Rosen had made the deal that would all but ensure the division title: pitchers Jeff Robinson and Scott Medvin to the Pirates for Reuschel.
What happened to Cincinnati? To start with they tried to make their own deals for Reuschel and Dravecky and failed. Their only pitching help came in the persons of Dennis Rasmussen (in exchange for Bill Gullickson) and reliever Pat Perry. But, says Cincy manager Pete Rose, "You can't blame it entirely on the pitching. The whole team has played just well enough to lose."
The Reds' ills go beyond the injuries that have slowed outfielders Eric Davis, Kal Daniels and Parker, and the one that knocked second baseman Ron Oester out for the season in early July. "There are a lot of very young guys here," says third baseman Buddy Bell. That's a nice way of saying that a lot of people are acting immature. "It's been a real learning experience," says Rose, who has learned the hard way that not all players are as self-disciplined as he was. Rose is worn out from trying to coax excellence from the league's worst staff of starting pitchers. He has been second-guessed by some relievers, bad-mouthed by some players (notably outfielder Tracy Jones, over his lack of playing time) and has taken heat from the press. "I had no idea how much different——a manager's got to go through," says Rose. He also didn't anticipate owner Marge Schott's belt-tightening policies which, according to the departed Gullickson, have "undermined the entire organization."
Only a sweep of San Francisco last weekend could have gotten the Reds back into the race, and they got off on the right foot Friday with a 4-3 win. "Don't get your dawber down," Craig reminded the Giants. He said, "I've been telling the players that pennant races aren't pressure, they're the most fun there is in baseball. Some guys rise to the occasion—like Jack Morris, Bob Gibson or Don Drysdale. I think Reuschel's like that."
Reuschel may be 38 and resemble TV weatherman Willard Scott, but as of Sunday he was tied for the league lead in complete games (11), was second in ERA (2.75) and had won four of his last five starts. On Saturday he got all the runs he needed before taking the mound. In the top of the first, Aldrete looped an RBI single off the closest thing Rose has to an ace, Ted Power (10-11), and Clark hit his 29th homer for a 3-0 lead. Reuschel, whose build belies his athleticism, made a leaping stab of a one-hopper through the middle that probably prevented a run, hit a three-run double and breezed to a 7-1 win. The Giants won again on Sunday, 6-1, and returned to San Francisco with that six-game lead. It should be a happy 16th birthday for Clinch.