The New San Francisco giants are like a nursery rhyme, what with all of their talk about butchers and Baker and the Candlestick makeover. But rub-a-dub-dub, one man keys the club. And who do you think he be?
Like the Golden Gate and the Bay Bridge, cable cars and Rice-a-Roni, Barry Bonds has become an alliterative San Francisco treat. As new Giant manager Dusty Baker says of the new Giant leftfielder, "He is a bad dude, man."
And bad is good, and good is nice, and nice is what the residents of the newly renovated Candlestick Park are all about. "It's important when you walk into the ballpark that people are outwardly friendly," says new Giant president Peter Magowan, former CEO of a grocery conglomerate. "A lot of people judge Safeway on how friendly the butcher is."
Thus, as San Francisco was ascending to first place in the National League West last week, third base coach Wendell Kim politely inquired of an autograph hound behind the home dugout, "Are you sure? I don't want to decrease the value of your ball." The kid had Kim sign anyway, happy in the knowledge that the Giants (who finished 26 games out of first place last season) aren't moving to Tampa-St. Petersburg. Or moving anywhere else. Save, perhaps, in the right direction.
When Magowan arrived at the Giants' executive offices last Friday morning, San Francisco was in first place for the first time since June 1, 1992, having beaten the Atlanta Braves and their ace, Greg Maddux, 6-1 the night before. The lavishly salaried Bonds had hit a home run in his first at bat (as he had in the Giant home opener, on April 12) and had driven in five runs on the evening after having missed the previous two games with a strained right hamstring.
"Ol' Barry," said Magowan, one of 20 investors who collectively paid $100 million last January to keep the Giants in San Francisco. "When he hits these home runs in the first inning, it's like: Forty-three million dollars? All this controversy? And then bang! And there's no doubt about it."
Magowan couldn't quite contain himself, so how was his office supposed to? He burst into the hallway and popped in on new Giant general manager Bob Quinn. "Last night was the epitome of what a great athlete Bonds is," Quinn told Magowan. "The home run. Then that ball he hit to left center: It hit the wall before the defense could turn around. After two days off. With an injury!"
With hands held high over their heads, the fans in Candlestick's new bleachers had bowed deeply from the waist each time Bonds trotted out to his defensive post. Magowan mentions that he would have loved to have seen Bonds bow back or, at least, acknowledge the fans' gesture. And wouldn't it have been nice if Giant pitcher Jeff Brantley had exhibited so much as a tug of the cap when he was removed from that game to a standing ovation? "I know," says Quinn, nodding. "I know. I'll give them a nudge at the appropriate time."
Un-nudged, Bonds hit three doubles and a single, drove in three runs, scored three others and stole a base in San Francisco's 13-12 win over Atlanta in 11 innings on Sunday, giving the Giants three wins in their four-game series with the division favorites and an 8-5 season record. And while second baseman Robby Thompson had already missed seven games with tendinitis in his left forearm and first baseman Will Clark was hitting an un-Thrilling .170 at week's end, San Francisco still had won seven of its last nine. Shortstop Royce Clayton (.319) had hit safely in the Giants' first 11 games, and catcher Kirt Manwaring was hitting .317.
As the winds of change sweep Candlestick Park, it is important to remember two things: It is still windy, and it is still Candlestick Park. For 33 seasons now the Stick has been the Frigidaire that has prevented the Giants from drawing as many as two million fans in all but one year in San Francisco. Because Bay Area taxpayers wouldn't subsidize a new ballpark, owner Bob Lurie sold the Giants to Magowan's group after a deal with a group of buyers from St. Petersburg was not approved by baseball's other owners.
"Right or wrong," a current team executive says of Lurie, "the perception was of a Forbes 400 kind of guy putting a gun to the head of the community and saying, "Build me a new ballpark.' " The new Giants are doing just the reverse. A 17-year-old boy wrote a letter to Magowan in which he suggested the club replace the chain link fence in the outfield at the Stick with a dark-green wooden one. Simple. So the Giants did it. Then bleachers were erected just behind the fence in leftfield, replacing scats that began 40 feet behind the old Cyclone fence.
"The new fence really looks good," says San Francisco closer Rod Beck. "But they could have moved the gaps a little farther back. They're only 365 feet away now." What's worse, the gaps have been conveniently labeled: There is an ad for The Gap on the fence in each of them.
Even without the ads, opposing hitters have had little trouble finding the gaps against Giant pitchers in recent years. "Everybody criticizes our pitching," says San Francisco ace John Burkett, whose 1-0 win over the Braves last Friday night made him the first pitcher in either league to go 3-0 in '93. "And pitching is the worst aspect of this team, no doubt about it. I know we're going to hit the crap out of the ball. If we get pitching, we'll be good."
In any event, "It's nice to be talking about wins and losses and hitting and pitching," says first baseman Clark. "And not about where the team is moving."
"What would it mean to be without National League baseball in the Bay Area?" asks Baker in the soft light of his office, above the soft jazz from his CD player, late one night last week. "Thinking about that snapped us all out of it. Hey, maybe things aren't so bad at Candlestick. You never know what you have until it's nearly taken away."
Baker is a pleasant and thoughtful man who was a Giant coach for the last five seasons. He keeps a biography of Thur-good Marshall on his office shelf and knows the late Supreme Court justice from Brave rightfielder David Justice. He wears the same style glasses Malcolm X wore, but Baker's laissez-faire managerial demeanor is decidedly un-X-ian. "He gives us rope," says Clark, "and he tells us, 'Just don't pull too tight on it.' "
Just don't hang yourself, in other words. The Giant owners are willing to risk doing precisely that to keep the team in San Francisco. "I would say we did this more as a civic gesture," says Magowan. "I don't think that any of us made the miscalculation that we would get a good return on this investment."
It will help if San Francisco home games are no longer seen by fans as grim tests of will, though survivors are still awarded a pin—the Croix de Candlestick—for staying to the end of an extra-inning night game. There is the new food, for instance. The Giants canned their concessionaire of the last 100 years, Harry M. Stevens, and allowed a distinguished panel of judges to select the stadium's new hot dog from among 19 brands. ("Not happening," San Francisco lounge singer Bud E. Luv said of one wiener on judgment day. "Clumsy. The texture is all wrong.")
The winning dog is made by the tiny Alpine Meats of Stockton, Calif., which has had to double its production. The dog is almost as delicious as the irony was for the home opener at the Stick. That was when the Grateful Dead, antiestablishment icons and Bay Area residents, sang the national anthem before the playing of the national pastime. "We're like bad architecture or an old whore," said Dead guitarist Jerry Garcia. "Eventually you get respectable if you're around long enough."
Then there is Giant P.A. announcer Sherry Davis. She has retained an agent to sift her endorsement offers and arrange her speaking engagements. Davis, a legal secretary, got her loudspeaking engagement—the first ever for a woman in major league baseball—by beating out some 500 wannabes, only eight of whom were women, at an open audition in March. Some have cynically suggested that Davis was hired for the publicity tsunami that she brought. Could be. Who cares?
"The point is, we're trying," says Laurence Baer, the Giants' ebullient 35-year-old executive vice-president. "And not everything we try is going to work. We're trying something called Spry Seniors, for instance. We're going to use spry senior citizens in sneakers as ball boys and girls. But we don't know that that will work. God forbid someone should get winged by a line drive, but...."
Fotoball Day certainly didn't work as planned on Sunday; the promotion turned ugly when a hailstorm of souvenir baseballs fell on the field following a fourth-inning home run by Atlanta catcher Greg Olson. But the acquisition of Bonds has worked just fine: He was hitting .400 through Sunday, with three home runs and 12 RBIs.
There are two things that most sportswriters find difficult: algebra and Barry Bonds. The Giants are already bored stupid by questions about whether their two stars, the intense Clark and the brash Bonds, will get along this season. Aren't they? "Yeah," sighs Clark, affixing his signature to an 8 X 10 glossy while a clubhouse attendant affixes a shine to his boots. "Yeah. Yep."
"I just want to play ball," recites Bonds. "It's good to be on a team that has no dissension."
How long all of this will last is anybody's guess. But for now, it is tempting to say that the Giants are good, that Candlestick is better and that baseball should find itself a few more Magowans. That is, an owner who answers his own mail; who encourages fans to visit him in Section 13, Row 4, the seats he has had for a dozen years now; and who couldn't help but know and love baseball, having been a high school friend of ESPN überseamhead Peter Gammons.
"Some people say, 'Christ, he's going to be another George Steinbrenner,' " says Peter Magowan, referring to Peter Magowan. "That's the last thing in the world I'm going to be. I'm never going to tell Bob Quinn who to trade. I'm never going to tell Dusty Baker who to play. But I have had a lot of experience in marketing. And in pleasing customers."
It is mentioned to Magowan that a Candlestick tradition of long standing appears to be absent this season. There are no garbage eddies in the outfield, no hot-dog wrappers corkscrewing in the air above the infield. That is right, says Magowan. Groundskeepers have been instructed to pick up all debris between innings.
"I think a baseball field that is clean is as pretty a thing to look at as there is in the world," says Magowan the baseball fan. "Think of someone who grows up in the inner city of Oakland, someone who isn't used to seeing green grass. You come into a ballpark for the first time, and it's immaculate. It makes an impression on you that you never forget.
"And the other thing is, the moment a fan sees a hot-dog wrapper swirling in the breeze, they're reminded of the breeze," says Magowan the marketing fiend. "We don't want fans thinking about the breeze anymore."