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San Francisco Giants
A return to 1997 form by lefty Shawn Estes could mean a return to the playoffs
By Tom Verducci
All the king's horses and all the king's men are trying to put lefty Shawn Estes back together again. From a University of Northern Colorado sports psychologist to Giants manager Dusty Baker to fans on the streets of San Francisco, the effort to rebuild Estes after his great fall in 1998 is as large as what's at stake. No player means more to the Giants' improving upon last season's 89 wins than Estes. "If people want to put that kind of pressure on me, that's fine," he says. "I expect that out of myself."
From an All-Star season in '97, when Estes went 19-5 with a 3.18 ERA and San Francisco won the National League West, Estes sank to 7-12 and 5.06 last year, when the Giants lost a wild-card playoff to the Cubs. He missed eight starts because of a strained muscle in his throwing shoulder and suffered from lack of control and loss of confidence when he was on the mound. "Living in the city where I play, I couldn't forget last year," he says. "But I have to say, when the fans reminded me of it, they were very supportive."
Baker, with the input of pitching coach Ron Perranoski, also has tried to lessen the pressure on Estes. He cut down on Estes's innings in spring games while emphasizing his side work. Moreover, after making Estes his Opening Day starter last year, Baker dropped him to the fourth slot in his rotation this season. "The plan is to pitch me against other teams' Number 4 starters instead of Number 1's," Estes says, "so for the first couple of months I can get my confidence and rack up a few wins early."
Baker has a reputation for getting his players to respond as if every day were the 15th and the 30th of the month. He calls his players "Dude," quotes to them allegories from the Bible and takes them fishing to offer advice or friendship. Despite the Giants' middle-of-the-pack payroll ($48 million this year), only the Braves and the Astros have won more National League games over the past two seasons than the Fabulous Baker Boys. "Dusty has a knack of getting everyone to play for him," San Francisco righthander Mark Gardner says. "If a guy has the smallest competitive bone in his body, Dusty will find it, and that guy will step up and do what he's asked."
Baker is the point man for the shrewd front-office team of owner Peter Magowan, general manager Brian Sabean and assistant G.M. Ned Colletti, which has created such a welcoming environment that players typically take below their market value to play for the Giants. Gardner, for instance, re-signed in November for $5 million over two years, a bargain for one of only 12 pitchers in the majors to win 12 games and have an ERA lower than 4.50 in each of the past three seasons. Gardner had been a career 41-48 pitcher when he came to San Francisco in '96 at age 34. He is 37-22 since. "I'm comfortable here," Gardner says, adding that front-office personnel frequently call to ask about his wife, Lori, who underwent a successful liver transplant in February 1998.
Likewise, outfielder Ellis Burks accepted a two-year, $10.6 million deal after playing 42 games for San Francisco last year following his trade from Colorado. "This is the place I wanted to play," Burks says, "so I didn't concern myself with what was going on in the market." Burks, who had off-season surgery on both knees, is one of four hitters in the middle of the Giants' lineup who have knocked in 100 or more runs in a season, with leftfielder Barry Bonds, second baseman Jeff Kent and first baseman J.T. Snow being the others.
Issue date: March 29, 1999
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