For the San Francisco Giants, last weekend was supposed to be a time of healing, three games in three days against one of the humblest teams in all of baseballdom, the Cincinnati Reds. You almost felt sorry for the little red machine. The Giants, those standings climbers, would use the Reds for their own selfish purposes. Cincinnati would help prove that the San Francisco of April, with its flashy 17-7 record, was legit, that its little road-trip stumble in the final days of the year's crudest month was an aberration. The Reds would be an excellent tonic for the Giants, who opened May with a 3-2 defeat in Pittsburgh.
But San Francisco lost 6-2 to Cincinnati on Friday night. And in Saturday's matinee the Giants lost again, 3-1, wasting seven innings of shutout pitching by William VanLandingham, the fourth pitcher in their five-man rotation. VanLandingham, the man with the longest full name in major league history, had been intently reading a book—a serious novel, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh by Michael Chabon amid the pregame clubhouse cacophony on Saturday morning: a good groove sound coming over loudspeakers; a decent argument about shoe styles in Spanglish; Barry Bonds, a cross dangling from his left ear, dissing some stranger invading his space.
By late Saturday afternoon the scene was different. Fifteen minutes after the defeat, a loss caused in part by three San Francisco errors, the Giants' clubhouse was lifeless, the way locker rooms are when good teams drop games they should have won. There were no discs spinning in the CD player, no singing in the shower, no banter in the trainer's room. Ron Perranoski—once the Los Angeles Dodgers' pitching coach, now San Francisco manager Dusty Baker's bench coach—sat on the cushioned reclining chair in front of his locker and stared into space through closed eyes. A couple of kids on the roster, new to the ways of old-time baseball, were doing the same thing. This was a serious baseball team, sober in defeat. The Giants' record was now 17-10.
This 1997 San Francisco team isn't easy to get a handle on. By all rights it should be pleased to be winning more than it's losing, given that last season the Giants finished 68-94, good for last place in the National League West, 23 games behind the division champion San Diego Padres. Worthy construction projects take time. Rome took a while to build, so there's no reason to think the renovation of San Francisco can be completed overnight. When its ownership sings the small-market blues (the Giants share five million-plus Bay Area residents with the Oakland A's), the lyrics ring largely true ("Got no TV money, baby/Got a bad stadium lease, too/When I get done paying Barry/Got me the San Francisco Bay blues"). General manager Brian Sabean cannot afford big-name free-agent pitchers in the manner of his former boss, New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner. He finds his arms where he can.
The pitching staff is an unlikely assemblage. VanLandingham's colleagues include reliever Joe Roa (the only player in major league history with a shorter name was Ed Ott), who toiled for eight years in the minors before becoming the player-to-be-named-later in last November's trade of slugging third baseman Matt Williams to the Cleveland Indians. The San Francisco ace, so-called, is Mark Gardner, a veteran righthander who entered the season with a 4.39 career earned run average. Immediately behind Gardner is Shawn Estes, a 24-year-old southpaw who 24 months ago was a Class A pitcher in the Seattle Mariners' organization with a bad temper. The No. 3 starter is Osvaldo Fernandez, a Cuban defector who two years ago was playing amateur baseball. The closer, Rod Beck, has been one of the best stoppers in the majors for most of this decade, except last year, when he finished with an 0-9 record and seven blown saves. Those pitchers—along with five others rejected from elsewhere—make up the staff.
And this staff is flourishing. At week's end San Francisco had the second-lowest team ERA in the National League, 2.73—considerably lower than its 4.71 mark of last season—and was in second place in the strong National League West, just two games behind the division-leading Colorado Rockies.
The season is still in dawn, practically. Who knows what the Giants' ERA will be and whether San Francisco will be in first place or last when autumn nears. Yes, the Giants began the new season by winning 14 of their first 18 games. But 10 of those victories were against a troika of forlorn teams—the Pittsburgh Pirates, the New York Mets and the Philadelphia Phillies. On April 25, San Francisco began a weeklong road trip in which it won three times, lost four and played unspectacularly. Thai brings us to last Friday, with the Giants back home preparing for a visit from the Reds.
"Last year the longest anybody was here was about a month," Beck was saying on Friday, alluding to injuries and trades that kept the Giants' roster in a state of flux. "This year we've got major league players who can all field their positions. You can make your pitches knowing guys are going to catch the ball." Since first being called up by San Francisco in 1991, Beck has witnessed the Giants' defensive skills go from superb to adequate to dismal and now back to good. He knows that one sure way to improve a pitching staff is to improve the gloves behind it. This San Francisco has done.
The Giants' new guys at short and second, Jose Vizcaino and Jeff Kent, respectively, have played together since 1994 and know each other's moves and work the double play well. J.T. Snow, the new first baseman, won Gold Gloves in 1995 and 1996 for the California Angels, down the coast in Anaheim, and is now showing Northern California why. The new third baseman, Mark Lewis, who has the unenviable task of attempting to replace Williams, has been solid. San Francisco has been catching by committee, with three players sharing the job, and its rightfielder, Glenallen Hill, has a nice arm, though he still hasn't learned Candlestick Park's—3Com, if you must—odd air currents. The leftfielder, Bonds, has a deserved reputation for catching baseballs mortal men cannot, and the new centerfielder, Darryl Hamilton, expected back from a dislocated right thumb in the next week or two, is one of the most reliable outfielders in the game. A nice defensive squad.
Many of the pitchers have something to prove to former employers. Take Roa. From 1989 through last season he had a remarkably successful minor league career, running up a 78-41 record while pitching in the organizations of the Indians, the Mets and the Atlanta Braves, none of whom gave him a chance to show his stuff in the big leagues. "I want to show," he said, "that I'm not a player-to-be-named."