The Loma Prieta Hangover
After a lopsided defeat in the earthquake-mired 1989 World Series, hard times would fall upon the San Francisco Giants in the early 1990s. Following a 90-loss 1992 season in which attendance at Candlestick Park dropped to 1.5 million, it took a famous 11th hour push from a Peter McGowan-led ownership group and a vote from National League owners to block the sale of the Giants to a Tampa-based group that would have moved the team to St. Petersburg.
The effort to save major league baseball in San Francisco seemed to rally the Giants as they headed in to the 1993 campaign, and new ownership staked their commitment to bringing winning baseball back to the city by signing reigning National League MVP Barry Bonds. Bonds made an immediate impact with the Giants, setting career highs with 46 home runs and 123 RBIs, and joined established stars Matt Williams, Will Clark and Robby Thompson in forming a powerhouse team. However, in spite of the MVP season from Bonds, 38 homers from Williams, and the presence of two 20-game winners in the rotation (Bill Swift and John Burkett), the 103 win Giants infamously missed the playoffs by a game; an occurrence that many believe helped push divisional expansion and the creation of the Wild Card.
Following the demoralizing end to the 1993 season, the Giants were unable to replicate the same success in the strike-shortened 1994 and 1995 seasons, and by 1996 had fallen to the bottom of the National League, losing 94 games and seeing home attendance drop to second-lowest in the league. There was no question the star-studded 49ers were the toast of San Francisco, and the Giants were merely attempting to regain respectability after missing the playoffs in seven straight years.
Dawn of the Sabean Age
On September 30, 1996, senior vice president of player personnel Brian Sabean was promoted to general manager, taking over for Bob Quinn. Sabean wasted little time making a splash, trading homegrown favorite and four-time All-Star Williams to the Indians in exchange for 2B Jeff Kent, SS Jose Vizcaino, RHP Julian Tavarez, and a player to be named (RHP Joe Roa). Sabean was mercilessly criticized for the move, as fans saw a beloved All-Star swapped in exchange for what was at the time an underwhelming trio.
Kent, in spite of a couple of 20-homer seasons during his stint with the Mets, was traded to Cleveland in the middle of the 1996 season, and failed to make a major impact with the Indians. Vizcaino had been traded four times in six seasons since his 1990 debut with the Dodgers and was a productive player, but not one that would make fans forget Williams. He had shared the middle infield with Kent in New York, and was also included in the deal that sent the second baseman to Cleveland. The pair would presumably fill the middle infield gaps left by departing free agents Shawon Dunston and Thompson.
Tavarez had burst on to the scene at age 22 with an outstanding rookie campaign for the 1995 AL pennant winning Indians, but endured a rough 1996 season that made him expendable in the eyes of title-contending Cleveland. In him Sabean saw a viable set-up man for resident closer Rod Beck.
That move came on November 13, 1996. Just 13 days later, on November 26, Sabean would make another trade that would reshape the Giants infield, stealing back-to-back AL Gold Glove winning first baseman J.T. Snow from the Angels in exchange for under- performing starting pitcher Allen Watson.
Just a day prior, on November 25, Sabean had quietly added right-handed reliever Rich Rodriguez via free agency. Rodriguez enjoyed strong seasons in the early 90s with San Diego, but had appeared in just one regular season game since 1994, and had spent the entire 1996 season in Triple-A.
To help plug the gap at third base left behind by Williams, Sabean acquired 2B/3B Mark Lewis from the Tigers in exchange for minor leaguer Jesse Ibarra. In addition to Lewis, the Giants would employ young homegrown 3B Bill Mueller, who had batted .330 in a 55 game audition with the team in 1996.
Finally, to help complete an outfield that already contained Bonds and the power hitting Glenallen Hill, the club was able to sign center fielder Darryl Hamilton to a free agent contract. Hamilton was coming off a career year with Texas in which he posted a strong .293/.348/.381 line to go along with 184 hits, 10th most in the AL. Hamilton also brought an element of speed and was known as a strong defender; he did not make an error in 147 games played in 1996. Sabean and the Giants were in talks with Hamilton early in the offseason, but broke off talks as the center fielder pursued other offers. However a better offer did not materialize, and San Francisco was able to sign Hamilton at a fraction of their original offer.
The team chose to stick with an in-house approach to the starting rotation. They re-signed Mark Gardner, who had a team-leading 12 wins in 1996, retained 13-game loser Osvaldo Fernandez, and chose to fill out the rest of the rotation with a trio of young arms: William VanLandingham, Shawn Estes, and Kirk Rueter.
VanLandingham was a top prospect and former 5th round pick of the Giants who had pitched well in limited action across the 1994-1995 seasons. However he stumbled to a 9-14 record with a 5.40 ERA in 1996, his first full season in the starting rotation. Estes was a former #11 overall pick by the Mariners whom the Giants acquired in a 1995 deal that sent Salomon Torres to Seattle. After a strong showing in 11 starts in 1996, the 24 year-old Estes was ready to step in at the top of the rotation.
Kirk Rueter debuted in 1993 with a perfect 8-0 record and 2.73 ERA for the Montreal Expos, and was 12-6 over 29 starts across the 1994-1995 seasons. In spite of a tenure in Montreal that could only be described as an overall success, the Expos chose to swap Rueter for Giants RHP Mark Leiter at the 1996 trade deadline . Rueter finished the 1996 season with a stellar 1.93 ERA over four starts with San Francisco, poising himself for the thick of the rotation in 1997.
Winning Baseball Returns
The new look Giants opened the ’97 season with a 5-2 defeat at the hands of the Pittsburgh Pirates, with the newly signed Rich Rodriguez taking the loss after allowing 2 earned runs that broke a 2-2 tie in the 7th inning. From that point on however, the Giants would do very little losing in the month of April. They ripped off a 13-2 run over their next 15 games, and finished the month 17-7 overall. The club’s hot start was matched by the power hitting Colorado Rockies, and the teams sat tied for first with the second best record in the National League.
The team went just 14-14 in the month of May, but were able to build a 2.5 game lead in the NL West, and were seeing immediate dividends from some of Sabean’s offseason acquisitions. Like a fish to water, Kent took to the role of protecting Barry Bonds in the line up, and through 52 games the pair combined for 19 homers and 72 RBIs. Jose Vizcaino had a .342 OBP and had piled up 26 runs scored, and Rich Rodriguez emerged as a pivotal piece of the bullpen, posting a 0.94 ERA over his first 29 appearances.
As spring became summer, J.T. Snow found the power stroke he had been missing early on, and belted 15 home runs while driving in 39 runs in June and July. And Julian Tavarez, who’s ERA sat at 7.11 at the end of May, lowered that number to 3.79 after a dominant two month stretch in which he allowed just five earned runs over 34 IP. On July 6th the Giants record stood at 51-36, second best in the NL, and they had opened up a six game lead on the Dodgers, who had overtaken the fading Rockies for second place in the division.
As the non-waiver trade deadline approached however, San Francisco went on a slide, going 6-12 from July 10-27. The team saw it’s lead in the division shrink to just 1.5 games over the surging Dodgers, and it became clear they would look to bolster their roster at the deadline. VanLandingham and Fernandez were a combined 7-11 with a 4.95 ERA at the back end of the rotation, so starting pitching became a top target for Sabean and the Giants front office.
On July 30, 1997, the Giants record stood at 59-49, and the charging Dodgers had cut their division lead to just a half game. San Francisco’s front office knew they had a pennant race on their hands, and the following day would make a trade that would pay serious dividends in the second half.
Look for Part 2 of the 1997 Giants story tomorrow, on Tales From the Stick.