Bonds has been steadfastly congenial this spring, even playfully congratulating himself for not busting any antiques when he did a half-gainer down a flight of stairs at his rented house last week. But look for another Bonds mood swing when the three-time MVP realizes that nobody else in this year's projected starting lineup hit .300 or had more than 19 homers last season. Hence Bonds, who endured a league-record 151 walks last year with Williams hitting behind him (when Williams was healthy), may not see another strike until baseball's new labor deal expires.
The Giants' other concern is pitching. Thirty-five-year-old Mark Gardner is likely to be the Opening Day starter. He signed with San Francisco as a free agent on the eve of last season. Gardner is the only Giants starter to have a winning record in 1996 (12-7, 4.42 ERA), but Sabean believes that San Francisco's youthful quartet of righthanders William VanLandingham and Osvaldo Fernandez and southpaws Shawn Estes and Kirk Rueter is improving. Indeed, the collective ERA of the Giants' starting staff did drop nearly a run after the All-Star break. Sabean also projects that Tavarez, who was 10-2 with a 2.44 ERA as a middle reliever in '95 but slipped to 4-7 and 5.36 last year, can become the Giants' version of the Yankees' former setup man, Mariano Rivera, providing a strong link between the starters and closer Rod Beck.
San Francisco's vastly improved defense could also help the pitchers. Last year Hamilton set an American League record by handling 389 chances without an error, and Snow won his second straight Gold Glove. Vizcaino may have limited range, but he did lead National League shortstops in fielding percentage in '95, the last time he played the position regularly. "I think the Giants have gone out and done a solid job putting all these new pieces together," says Snow. "I'm sure the experts will still pick us to finish last in the division, but that can make players even more determined to succeed."
Lewis knows that stepping in for Williams at third base brings new meaning to the term hot corner. And Kent is all too accustomed to replacing icons. He was traded to the Mets for David Cone in 1992 and to Cleveland for beloved second baseman Carlos Baerga last July. "In a sense you're seen as the booby prize, and you have the misfortune of being booed and disliked from the start," says Kent, who hopes to rediscover the stroke that produced 20-homer seasons in '93 and '95. "I know I can't go to all of the Giants' fans and ask them to like me, so instead I am driven by the fear of failure. I know I'm not a Hall of Famer, but I don't want to be second best to anybody, and I think a lot of us new guys feel that way."
As San Franciscans have begun to learn about these green Giants, there has been a gradual metamorphosis in public opinion. Sabean's blueprint will be given a chance. In a perfect world, a world of career years and good health, San Francisco might contend for a wild-card spot. In the real world they are more likely to be hard-nosed yet mediocre. And it's clear that whoever draws up the Giants' schedule possesses a wicked sense of humor and a soft heart. San Francisco's final two exhibition games will be at 3Com Park against Williams and the Indians. Then the Giants' first eight regular-season games will be against the National League bottom feeders: the Pittsburgh Pirates, the Mets and the Phillies.
Baker yearns for a quick start so he can get some shut-eye. Many times last season he woke up at 4 a.m. asking himself what he could do to make the Giants winners again. "I firmly believe this team will win the World Series, and we can do it before we move to our new ballpark in 2000," says the stubbornly optimistic Baker. "My goal is to win so many pennants here that people look at us like the old Boston Celtics and get tired of seeing us win all the time."
To realize that lofty—or is it loony?—dream, Baker will have to rely on the scouting instincts of Sabean, who admits that there are still plenty of cynics in San Francisco, folks who believe the Giants will win a championship right about the time mayor Willie Brown becomes president of the Elvis Grbac Fan Club. And who can blame them? The once proud franchise of Willie Mays and Leo Durocher hasn't won a World Series since 1954, before the San Francisco Giants existed. The team hasn't reached the playoffs since '89. Sabean's challenge is daunting, and as he continues to work the phones, moving players like a nine-year-old trading bubble-gum cards, he occasionally hears some ominous words ringing in his ears. They're a warning he often heard from Steinbrenner, now voiced by wary San Francisco fans.
Do what you want...but you better be right.
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