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San Francisco Giants
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 percentage.
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 playerleftfielder 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 Bakera 26th-round draft pick of the Braves in 1967 who went on to play in three World Series with the Dodgersthe 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 moment."
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.
by Tim Crothers
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