CLOSE BUT NO CIGARS/NL WEST
This is an article from the March 23, 1998 issue
Eleven times last season the Giants lost a game by nine or more
runs. The team finished 10th in the National League in batting
average, eighth in stolen bases and sixth in slugging
percentage. The lineup did not feature a single .300 hitter. The
pitching staff ranked ninth in ERA, 10th in walks and 11th in
runs and hits allowed. San Francisco finished 10th in fielding
Q: How the heck did Dusty Baker's club win 90 games and the
National League West title?
Dustiny is a dash of Dusty, a pinch of destiny and gallons of
sweat. Dustiny is becoming only the third team ever to reach the
playoffs despite being outscored during the regular season.
Dustiny is producing 46 come-from-behind victories, including 23
in your team's final at bat, and winning 11 of 14 extra-inning
games. Dustiny is tying the Mets for the league lead with 59
sacrifice flies. Dustiny is a journeyman catcher named Brian
Johnson, who had been demoted to the minors by the Tigers on
July 9, getting traded to the Giants on July 16 and helping
propel San Francisco to the division title. "Baseball isn't like
some machine where you plug in the right amount of quarters and
you win the pennant," Johnson says. "There's room for magic in
the game, but you have to work very hard to put yourself in a
position to use it."
It was particularly surprising that the '97 Giants came to
symbolize blue-collar teamwork, because for four years the
franchise had revolved around one player--leftfielder Barry
Bonds. But a funny thing happened last season. Bonds struggled
in April, and some players who were new to the team took matters
into their own hands. "Barry is one of the greatest players in
the game, but even he can't win every game by himself,"
much-traveled rightfielder Stan Javier says. "For years
opponents' strategy was to not let Barry beat them [he led the
league in walks the last four years], so we had to prove we had
other players who could beat them."
Second baseman Jeff Kent and first baseman J.T. Snow, veterans
who were off-season pickups, carried San Francisco through the
first half of the schedule and joined Bonds to become the first
Giants trio to knock in 100 runs apiece in the same year since
Johnny Mize, Walker Cooper and Willard Marshall did it in 1947.
Johnson hit 11 homers in just 56 games with San Francisco, and
third baseman Bill Mueller led the team in hitting (.292) in his
first full season with the club. Skillfully directed by Baker--a
26th-round draft pick of the Braves in 1967 who went on to play
in three World Series with the Dodgers--the Giants were a team
brimming with overachievers. Says Bonds, "Now we know that there
are lots of guys on this team who can be heroes."
The mastermind behind the resurgence is general manager Brian
Sabean, who believes that because San Francisco is a
medium-market team, the front office must take risks to compete.
Last winter Sabean gambled by trading popular four-time All-Star
Matt Williams for Kent and three other important role players.
Next he engineered a deal for Snow, who had struggled mightily
in '96 and fallen out of favor in Anaheim. Then, just before the
July 31 trading deadline, Sabean dealt six prospects to the
White Sox for lefthander Wilson Alvarez, righthander Danny
Darwin and closer Roberto Hernandez, who helped bury the Dodgers
down the stretch. "Our philosophy is that baseball is so
competitive these days you don't have the luxury of a five-year
plan," Sabean says. "To be thought of among the best
organizations, you can't just wait for a new stadium to open and
expect it to be nirvana. You've got to be willing to seize the
Thanks to Sabean's proactive maneuvering, Bonds and Javier are
the only holdovers from the Opening Day lineup of just two
seasons ago. After the Giants were swept by the Marlins in the
Division Series in October, Sabean went right back to work,
adding more postseason experience by acquiring closer Robb Nen
(Florida) and starter Orel Hershiser (Cleveland) from the two
World Series combatants. Now the Giants stand at a crossroads.
Will they revert to their days as one-hitter wonders or will
Dustiny revisit San Francisco in '98? "Each one of our players
knows that the only way we'll keep winning is to be the best
team," Kent says. "We may not have great stats, so we have to
lead the league in heart and desire. That's Dustiny." --T.C.