In Part 1 (found below), we discussed the climate surrounding the Giants in late 1996, and the series of offseason roster moves that created an overnight contender heading into 1997. Today, we’ll cover the second half of the 1997 season, all leading up to the thrilling two-game set with the Dodgers that September, and the eventual clinching of the NL West.
The White Flag Trade
On the final day of July, the Giants and White Sox agreed to a nine-player deal that became infamously known to White Sox fans as “The White Flag Trade”. While Chicago stood just 3.5 games out of first place in the AL Central, GM Jerry Reinsdorf traded three pitchers; starters Danny Darwin and Wilson Alvarez, as well as relief ace Roberto Hernandez, for a package of six minor-leaguers that included Mike Caruso, Bobby Howry, and Keith Foulke.
Osvaldo Fernandez had made his last appearance of the season on June 25th, and just a week after the deadline deal, VanLandingham was waived. While Darwin and Alvarez would provide a steady presence at the end of the rotation, Roberto Hernandez was the key figure in the trade, as he joined Tavarez, Rodriguez, and Rod Beck in forming a staunch bullpen.
The White Flag Trade received the majority of the publicity, however it was a much quieter deal made two weeks before the deadline that set the stage for the most memorable moment of the 1997 season. On July 16th, the Giants sent catcher and former first-round pick Marcus Jensen to Detroit in a straight up exchange for Tigers catcher (and Stanford alum) Brian Johnson. A part time player with Detroit, Johnson was acquired to replace the struggling Rick Wilkins (who was soon released) and became the Giants primary catcher for the season’s final two months, knocking 11 homers and driving in 27 runs over 56 games.
Boosted by the new acquisitions, the Giants went 16-13 in August, but still found themselves 2.5 games behind the Dodgers as the campaign entered it’s final month. For the first time since the 1982 season, the arch rivals were locked in a playoff race that was going to come down to the wire.
Oddly enough, in the days before the unbalanced schedule, the two teams would face each other just twice in the month of September. Scoreboard watching took on a new gravity as the clubs battled to the finish. The Florida Marlins held a comfortable lead in the Wild Card race, meaning it was division or bust for the NL West foes.
Up two games on September 7th, the Dodgers went on a five-game slide, allowing the Giants to pull even on September 14th. The Giants dropped their next two games to the powerhouse Braves however, while Los Angeles swept a two game series over the Cardinals.
That set up the match up that would define the season, as the Dodgers entered 3Com Park on Wednesday, September 17th up two games in the division. 56,625 fans, the Giants largest home crowd of the season (by a comfortable margin), packed the venerable concrete hulk to watch 12-game winner Kirk Rueter toe the slab against the Dodgers 13-game winner Chan Ho Park.
In a game that took a tidy 2 hours and 26 minutes, Rueter out-dueled Park, allowing just one run on four hits over seven strong innings. Park only allowed two hits himself, but a 2-run first inning homer off the bat of Barry Bonds was the difference in the ballgame. Roberto Hernandez entered in the 8th and slammed the door, and the Giants had cut the Dodgers’ lead to just one game.
The following day, another 52,000 stormed through the Candlestick gates for a game that began at 9:40AM local time. The pitching match up featured two veterans, as 39 year-old Tom Candiotti faced off against the 34 year-old Terry Mulholland. Mulholland, a former first round pick by the Giants, had been reacquired in early August and was making a spot start in place of the injured Mark Gardner.
The Giants led 2-1 after four innings, and put up three more runs in the fifth on the strength of a 3-run bomb from Bonds, his 35th of the season. The Dodgers struck back with two in the top of the 6th however, thanks in part to an error by Gold Glover J.T. Snow to begin the inning.
Mulholland would be relieved in the seventh by Julian Tavarez, who retired Wilton Guerrero to begin the inning before allowing singles to Todd Hollandsworth and Eric Young. Dusty Baker then pulled Tavarez in favor of Roberto Hernandez, who entered with runners at the corners and one out. A stolen base moved Young to second, but Hernandez fanned Otis Nixon for the second out. But in stepped MVP candidate Mike Piazza, who lined a two-run single to left that knotted the game at 5-5.
The Giants would load the bases with one out in the bottom of the seventh, but Mark Lewis lined in to a double play to end the threat. After Doug Henry tossed a perfect 1-2-3 top of the 8th, the Giants put runners on first and second with two outs in the bottom half of the inning, only to strand two more men as Snow popped out to end the inning.
The teams traded zeros in the ninth before “Shooter” took the hill for the top of the 10th. Beck allowed three consecutive singles to begin the inning, and it appeared inevitable the Dodgers would take the lead. Up came Todd Zeile, who stepped in with 27 home runs and 85 RBIs on the season. Beck struck out the slugger looking however, before facing pinch hitter Eddie Murray, in the final season of a Hall of Fame career. This time Beck was able to induce an inning-ending double play, miraculously escaping the bases-loaded, no out jam unscathed.
It appeared then, that fate was on San Francisco’s side.
After both bullpens recorded three up, three down innings in the 11th, the game moved to the 12th still tied at 5-5. Beck, still in the game and rolling following his escape in the 10th, retired the Dodgers in order in the top of the inning.
As the game crept into it’s fourth hour, catcher Brian Johnson stepped to the plate to lead off the bottom of the 12th inning. He would face Dodgers left-hander Mark Guthrie, in to relieve Todd Worrell. Johnson had already reached based three times on the day, with two base hits and a walk. He had struck out in his other two plate appearances.
On this day however, one swing would forever place him in San Francisco Giants lore. The Oakland native and Stanford alum sent Guthrie’s first pitch screaming in to the left field bleachers for a game ending homer, tying the NL West race and sending the home crowd into delirium. Both arms extended above his head, Johnson was greeted by a mob of teammates at home plate, and took his curtain call as chants of “Beat LA” echoed into the early afternoon sky.
It was arguably the biggest moment at Candlestick Park since the Loma Prieta quake struck before Game 3 of the 1989 World Series, but one that fans will remember fondly instead of with grave reverence.
While the moment was huge, the Giants were still far from securing their first trip to the postseason in seven years. They had nine games yet to play: two with Colorado and a whopping seven with the San Diego Padres. The Dodgers would finish the season with the inverse, with two against the Padres and seven against the Rockies. The Rockies stood at 79-75, while the Padres were scuffling at 73-81.
Momentum, schedule, and fate were all on the Giants side, and they would deliver. The Dodgers were swept at home by the Rockies following the walk-off in San Francisco, while the Giants took two of three from the Padres. Los Angeles would never get closer than 1.5 games for the rest of the season, as the Giants would win six of nine, clinching the division with a 6-1 victory over the Padres on September 27th. Fittingly, it was a Rod Beck strike out that sealed the NL West.
Bonds, who had up to then been criticized during his time in San Francisco for his brooding, “diva” attitude celebrated arm in arm with fans behind the Giants dugout. He stayed to absorb the moment while many teammates headed to the clubhouse for the team celebration. More than four years after signing the superstar, the Giants were finally heading to the postseason.
Unfortunately for Giants fans, while San Francisco may have been the team of destiny during the regular season, they ran into the team that may have been fate’s favorite in the postseason. The Florida Marlins won the first two games of the NLDS via walk-off hits, and would secure the third and clinching game in San Francisco with a 6-2 victory. They would go on to defeat a stellar Atlanta Braves team that won 101 games for the NL pennant, and defeat the Cleveland Indians in one of the most memorable World Series in baseball history.
While the playoff run was short-lived, the 1997 Giants ushered in a new era of winning baseball for San Francisco, which would finish with a winning record every year from 1998-2004, including a run of four straight 90+ win seasons from 2000-2004. The opening of Pacific Bell Park in the year 2000, coupled with a 97-win team, marked the complete revitalization of a franchise that was on the precipice of leaving the city just eight years prior.
But most importantly, it was the first season in which your author was old enough to fully pay attention and be aware of what was happening in a Major League game, and I have fond memories of raising two fists in the air following neighborhood round-trippers. A lifelong love affair had begun, and here I sit, 20 years later, just as smitten with a team and a game that has been the guiding light of my life.
1997 San Francisco Giants Notables:
Barry Bonds: .291/.446/.585, 40 HR, 101 RBI, 37 SB
Jeff Kent: .250/.316/.474, 29 HR, 121 RBI
J.T. Snow: .287/.381/.510, 28 HR, 104 RBI
Bill Mueller: .292 BA (led team)
Stan Javier: 25 SB
Jose Vizcaino: 151 hits (2nd on team)
Shawn Estes: 19-5, 3.18 ERA, 181 K
Kirk Rueter: 13-6, 3.45 ERA, 1.28 WHIP
Rich Rodriguez: 71 G, 3.17 ERA, 131 ERA+
Julian Tavarez: 89 G (led league)
Rod Beck: 3.47 ERA, 37 SV
Roberto Hernandez: 28 G (after 7/31 acquisition), 2.48 ERA, 4 SV