March 1, 1998
AS LATE AFTERNOON rolled around on Thursday, September 18, 1997, the majority of the 52,140 people at Candlestick Park probably realized the importance of it all. How could they not have? It was the top of the tenth inning. It was tied at five. It was the Giants. It was the Dodgers. It was the pivotal game in the race for the National League's Western Division title. The division winner would advance to the playoffs and a shot at winning it all. The division loser would watch those very playoffs from home, having the entire winter to ponder "what could have been."
After this game, there would be only nine more to play. The Dodgers had a one-game lead over the Giants. A Los Angeles win would put the Dodgers up by two games, and as most baseball fans know, overcoming a two-game deficit with only nine to go is not as easy as it sounds. A San Francisco win would move the Giants into a tie with the Dodgers. The Giants clearly appeared to have the advantage over Los Angeles over the span of those nine games, playing the last place San Diego Padres in seven of those nine. The Dodgers would battle the red hot Colorado Rockies seven times out of nine, including four at Coors Field to close out the season.
The tension, anxiety, and excitement were heavy in the Candlestick air. Fans of both teams hung on to each and every pitch. The Dodgers needed this one to gain a relatively comfortable lead. The Giants needed it strictly for survival. This game alone seemed to have a season's worth of memories. Flash back to that glorious September day with me, won't you?
TOM CANDIOTTI VERSUS Terry Mulholland. A 40-year-old knuckleballer against a man in his third tour of duty with the Giants. In fact, many Giants fans were aghast when Mulholland was acquired in August. Those same fans undoubtedly groaned with disgust upon learning Mulholland would start the season's biggest game. When Otis Nixon, a man with a grand total of nine home runs in his 15-year career, took Mulholland deep in the first inning, even the most optimistic Giants fans had to view that as a bad omen. But in the bottom half of the inning, Glenallen Hill's single scored Barry Bonds to even the score. Mulholland settled down, and San Francisco took the lead in the fourth inning on a J.T. Snow homer.
In the fifth inning, Darryl Hamilton and Bill Mueller singled, and Bonds, who had been under fire all season for his struggles with runners on base, slugged a towering home run to right field, giving the Giants a 5-1 lead. Bonds' two-run homer in the first inning the previous night had lifted the Giants to a 2-1 win. It was just what the Giants needed - their best player getting hot at exactly the right time. Bonds was proving the old saying right. Great players aren't always great. They're just great when they have to be.
Mulholland started to show signs of fatigue in the sixth inning. Los Angeles pushed two runs across the plate in the sixth, but the Giants still had to feel good about their chances. They still had a two-run lead, and their bullpen had been strong all season. But the Dodgers rallied to tie the score at five on Mike Piazza's two-run single off Roberto Hernandez in the seventh.
DUSTY BAKER CALLED on Rod Beck to pitch the tenth inning. In Atlanta just three nights earlier, Beck came on in the ninth to protect a 4-1 lead. Before you knew it, Fred McGriff's two-run homer off Beck had given the Braves an improbable 5-4 win. It was the most demoralizing loss the Giants had suffered all year, and many fans and members of the media figured it would be the game that finally killed the Giants.
Remembering what had taken place in Atlanta, Beck took the Candlestick mound to more boos than he usually heard. Piazza led off by dumping a single to short right field. Karros followed with a single to left. Raul Mondesi then hit a sharp single to right. Had it been anyone other than Piazza on the basepaths, a run would have scored. But the Dodgers' slow-footed catcher could only make it to third base.
Bases loaded. Nobody out. Beck was booed like he had never been booed before. Baker popped out of the dugout and made the long walk out to the mound. Lefthander Rich Rodriguez was throwing in the Giants' bullpen, and one had to think Baker had seen enough of Beck. But in an instinctive decision, the Giants' skipper stayed with Beck, who responded by striking out Todd Zeile for the first out. Los Angeles manager Bill Russell then sent veteran slugger Eddie Murray to the plate to bat for reliever Antonio Osuna. The Dodgers had signed Murray, a future Hall of Famer with more than 500 home runs and 3000 hits in his career, for exactly this kind of situation. In a pennant race, you can never have too many battle-tested veterans.
BECK KNEW MURRAY was a notorious first pitch fastball hitter, so he chose to start him off with a split-finger fastball. Murray chopped the ball to second baseman Jeff Kent, who fired home for one out. Catcher Brian Johnson gunned the ball back to first, nipping Murray by half a step to complete the double play. Just like that, Beck and the Giants had come out of the mess unscathed. Beck stomped off the mound, and the Giants' dugout erupted, with Baker leading the cheers. The same fans who were mercilessly booing Beck just moments earlier were now on their feet, cheering him like he was a returning war hero. It was now obvious there was NO WAY the Giants would lose this game. Not today. Not after this.
Beck worked two more perfect innings, although he had a scare in the twelfth. Karros jumped all over a split finger that stayed up, and hit a high drive to deep left field. Bonds backpedaled to the warning track. But the infamous Candlestick Park wind knocked down Karros' fly ball and Bonds put it away to end the inning.
Russell went to southpaw Mark Guthrie in the twelfth inning. After an outstanding 1996 campaign, Guthrie had endured a miserable season in 1997. He was about to hit rock bottom.
GUTHRIE'S FIRST PITCH to Johnson, leading off the twelfth, was a fastball. Johnson hit a line drive to left field that looked like it maybe did not have enough height to clear the fence. Dodgers' left fielder Todd Hollandsworth went back to the wall, timed his leap, jumped ... and came down empty handed. THE GIANTS HAD WON IT 6-5!!! The San Francisco dugout emptied, mobbing Johnson at home plate. Bonds picked up Baker in a bear hug and looked like he would never let go of him. Johnson, who had been acquired from the Detroit Tigers only two months earlier, was the unlikely hero, and he will be forever etched into the memories of Giants fans worldwide. His home run was perhaps the most memorable ever hit by a San Francisco Giant at Candlestick Park.
The Giants would go 6-3 over that final nine-game stretch, while the Dodgers never fully recovered from their misfortunes in San Francisco. They went home, only to see the Rockies come in and sweep them in a three-game series at Dodger Stadium. Los Angeles would go on to take three of four in Colorado to close out the season, but it was too little, too late. Meanwhile, the Giants clinched their first Western Division crown since 1989 with a 6-1 win over the Padres on September 27 at Candlestick. Beck, the Giants' elder statesman, had the privilege of striking out Greg Vaughn to wrap it up and start the celebration.
WHY MAKE SO much of the Thursday afternoon game with the Dodgers? Because it was THE game of the year. Had the Giants come out on the losing end that day, it is very likely they would have been the runners up. That game was really a microcosm of the season. The Giants get off to a nice early lead, but here come the Dodgers to tie it up. And just when you think the end is near, when Los Angeles is about ready to deliver the knockout blow, Beck finds the inner strength - through guts, determination, heart, and sheer will - to wriggle out of a bases loaded, nobody out jam. And then of course, an unlikely hero emerges, and the Giants somehow, some way, win a game they desperately need.
The playoffs ended far too quickly. San Francisco dropped two heartbreakers in Florida, twice losing one-run ballgames in the bottom of the ninth. Facing elimination, they returned to Candlestick, but there was simply no magic left. The Giants held a 1-0 lead into the sixth inning of Game 3 when Wilson Alvarez suddenly lost control, loading the bases and then surrendering a grand slam to Devon White. It was all she wrote for the Giants, as the Marlins completed the three-game sweep.
THE ULTIMATE GOAL in baseball is winning the World Series. But many think the most difficult achievement is to be the best team in a division over the course of 162 games. Playing every day for six months, the best team wins the division every single time. The Giants and their fans will always have that to be proud of. Memories of ninth inning singles by Moises Alou and Edgar Renteria, along with White's grand slam, will always make Giants fans cringe, just as the memories of Jose Oquendo, Salomon Torres, and Candy Maldonado in right field at Busch Stadium will always evoke plenty of "what ifs." But my memories of the 1997 season do not include the October games against Florida.
Instead, I remember the nine-game winning streak in April that vaulted San Francisco into first place. Jeff Kent, playing hurt the entire second half of the season, yet having the year of his life. J.T. Snow, hitting 27 homers and driving in 82 runs from June 1 on. Bill Mueller's hustle and grit. Jose Vizcaino, playing a solid shortstop and being a true cheerleader. Stan Javier, losing both his mother and grandmother during the season, but giving the Giants a very professional hitter in the 6-spot of the lineup. Barry Bonds, having a subpar year by his lofty standards, but carrying the team the final 11 games. Darryl Hamilton, hampered by nagging injuries thoughout the year, but providing spectacular defense in center field along with leadership in the clubhouse. Brian Johnson, for his clutch hitting that started the day he donned the orange and black. Shawn Estes and Kirk Rueter, going from boys to men, combining for 32 wins and pitching brilliantly down the stretch. Mark Gardner, the staff leader, winning big game after big game into August. Rod Beck, an All Star the first half, who ended up sharing closer duties with Hernandez in September, but handling it like a true professional. Hernandez, blowing his 100 mph fastball by everybody. And to the unsung heroes of the 1997 Giants: Rich Aurilia, Marvin Benard, Damon Berryhill, Glenallen Hill, Mark Lewis, Wilson Alvarez, Danny Darwin, Osvaldo Fernandez, Doug Henry, Terry Mulholland, Joe Roa, Rich Rodriguez, Julian Tavarez, and William VanLandingham. Without the contributions of those players, 1997 would not have been nearly as memorable.
GONE FROM THE 1997 club are Berryhill, who went to the A's, Hill, who signed with Seattle, and Lewis, who signed with the Phillies. Vizcaino is the new shortstop in Los Angeles, Henry is now in the Astros' bullpen, and VanLandingham will get a shot with Anaheim. Alvarez and Hernandez signed with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, and Beck and Mulholland both signed with the Cubs.
The new faces on the 1998 squad include longtime enemy Orel Hershiser, who joins the rotation after spending the last three years in Cleveland. Closer Robb Nen comes aboard from the world champion Marlins. Steve Reed will bolster the Giants' bullpen after pitching for the Rockies since 1993. Brent Mayne, after spending last season in Oakland, is the new backup catcher. Infielders Charlie Hayes and Rey Sanchez were acquired from the Yankees. Baker will give youngsters like shortstop Rich Aurilia and outfielder Jacob Cruz every opportunity to become starters. For these two players, it is their time to show that they can handle the rigors of being a regular in the big leagues. Cruz led the Pacific Coast League with a .361 average last year. Aurilia has been the backup shortstop since late 1995. They will never be more ready than they are now, and the Giants have to see what they can do.
AS THE 1998 season draws upon us, expectations for the Giants are low, just as they were last year. San Francisco was picked to finish last in 1997, and most publications rank them fourth in a five-team division for 1998. It is anyone's guess as to where they will finish, but Giants fans should take solace in knowing that they have as good a manager as there is in Baker. General manager Brian Sabean has displayed an ability to find "diamonds in the rough" and seeing talent in players that other teams have not seen. The ownership team, led by Peter Magowan, has proved that it will increase the payroll by bringing in veteran help down the stretch if need be. Magowan is part of a dying breed. He is an owner who cares about more than the bottom line. He is a baseball fan and has the game's best interests in mind.
In just two short years, Giants fans will be rewarded after dealing with 40 years of Candlestick's shortcomings. Pacific Bell Park will open in April 2000, giving the Giants and their fans a jewel of a ballpark in the heart of the most beautiful city in the world.
All this baseball talk has me thinking.
I CAN'T WAIT UNTIL MARCH 31 ....