So, when team president Al Rosen told him "it would be in your best interest," to manage in the fall league after the 1992 season, to get some reps as the head honcho, Dusty Baker listened. "I wanted to go to Hawaii, but that league was postponed by some Japanese stock scandal, so I settled for Arizona," Baker said. "I did a good job there, and Al told me, 'The job will probably be yours, just don't screw up the interview.' "
Baker aced the face-to-face and was named the manager of the San Francisco Giants for the 1993 season. It was a popular choice in the Giants' clubhouse. "He had a great rapport with our players," recalls Robby Thompson, the scrappy second baseman who enjoyed a career year in '93. "Dusty had a way of connecting with each and every guy, which is tough with a 25-man roster."
It would be an extraordinary season by the Bay. New ownership would ensure the team would stay put, and not move to Tampa/St. Pete. In his first year with the club, Barry Bonds would win his third MVP award after hitting .336 with 46 homers. A late-season call-up would hit a stunning homer to win a crucial game. And the Giants would win 103 games, to this day the most the team has won since heading west from the Polo Grounds in 1958.
But they would not make the playoffs.
It would take a transcendent pitching staff, the midseason heist of a slugging first baseman, the burning of a stadium, and a comeback from a double-digit deficit to beat Dusty's Giants. But the Atlanta Braves, playing Javert to the Giants' Valjean all year long, would finally subdue San Fran on the final day of the regular season, the last of its kind.
Commonly known as The Last Real Race, the pennant duel fashioned by the Giants and Braves offered more day-to-day drama than Lindsay Lohan on her fourth vodka and Red Bull. It was a campaign that featured 207 combined wins between the two teams, one of only two seasons before playoff expansion in which two teams in the same division won more than 100 games (New York and Baltimore won 103 and 100, respectively, in 1980). And it would be the final time such a successful second-place team would feel so empty at season's end.
As the season was set to begin, a crushing sporting blow hit the Bay Area. The 49ers traded quarterback Joe Montana to the Kansas City Chiefs to clear the way for Steve Young. While the city struggled to recover from the loss of one icon, a new one began play for a team expected to finish near the bottom of the division.
But Barry Bonds immediately transformed the Giants. He had signed a then-record $43.75 million contract to spend the next six years in the city where his father Bobby had begun his career, and he earned every penny in 1993. Powerful hitters like Will Clark and Matt Williams saw more hittable pitches than ever, and others, like Thompson and Darren Lewis, had career years as the overall offense greatly improved.
And at this early stage, Bonds wasn't an island unto himself. He partook in the traditional clubhouse high jinks.
"We cut up all his Pirate-colored, black-and-gold shoes and threw them in the garbage," Thompson recalls.
"I always listened to a Frank Sinatra CD before games I started," says Bill Swift, who went 21-8 that season. "Barry got sick of it one day and jokingly yanked it out of the stereo and threw it away. But the joke was on him -- that one belonged to the clubhouse man, and I put in mine."
Let's not turn Bonds into Chris Farley; he could still be the arrogant cuss we all know. Baker took it upon himself to keep Bonds in line, at least so it didn't affect the team's play. "I didn't care if guys didn't get along -- I mean, my brother and I don't always get along."
The Giants had another new addition who drew national notice even before Bonds and the team got rolling. The franchise had hired Sherry Davis to be the first female public-address announcer in major league history.
"They had an open audition for the P.A. job," Davis says. "Of the 500 people who showed up, only eight were women. The first woman got up to the mike and announced 'Now hitting, Barry "Sweet Buns" Bonds!' Steam came out of my ears. Talk about reinforcing stereotypes! I did my two batters and got some applause. I was one of nine callbacks and made the final three, still convinced I was a token finalist. But they picked me."
It might have been an enlightened NorCal move, but it wasn't particularly popular. "Before I said a word, there was so much vitriol. I heard people call in to radio shows and say, 'I go to the park to get away from women!' and everyone would laugh. It was rather tense for me, but Dusty Baker supported me, and that was enough."
Opening Day at Candlestick Park came six games into the season. "Tony Bennett sang, and the Grateful Dead performed the anthem," Davis remembers. "They were very frightened. They weren't used to singing a cappella."
The game was in the 11th inning, when Lewis knocked in the winning run for the Giants. Davis, understandably nervous, "didn't move a muscle the whole game. My body was frozen stiff -- everything hurt." However, she made it through with nary a blooper and remained at the mike for seven years. Her scorecard from the opener now resides in Cooperstown.
With a woman conquering new ground, and Bonds conquering opposition pitching, the foggy cold of the Stick felt more like a breath of fresh air. The Giants roared out to a 33-18 start, and threatened to run away with the NL West.
Atlanta had added Greg Maddux to an already superb rotation over the winter. Winners of two straight NL pennants, and able to throw Maddux, Tom Glavine, John Smoltz and Steve Avery at opponents, the Braves were heavy favorites to three-peat. But the Giants handled Atlanta and its staunch pitching in early matchups, taking three of four at home and two of three in the return series in late May. The two teams wouldn't see each other again for nearly three months.
While San Francisco ripped off a 26-12 run to the All-Star break, the Braves hit a wall. Deion Sanders, who had been outstanding the previous season, began 1993 as a two-sport athlete, but was hoping the Braves would enrich him enough to allow him to stop playing football until the baseball season ended. After attending his father's funeral, Sanders did not return to the team in an attempt to get a better contract. When the Braves suspended him, he called it "the worst betrayal by a team in all sports history." Despite the hyperbole, Sanders was rewarded with an $11 million contract, and "Prime Time" announced he would be full-time from then on. That didn't sit well with Otis Nixon, the starting center fielder, who demonstrated his displeasure by showing up late for a game, then demanding a trade.
Meanwhile, 1991 MVP Terry Pendleton struggled mightily in the first half, hitting far below his norm and even walking off the field in frustration in the middle of an inning during a May game in Cincinnati, refusing to return, apparently because he was upset when pitcher Marvin Freeman refused to retaliate after Sanders had been hit by Tim Belcher. "I still won't comment on that," says Pendleton today, though he is open about his poor play. "I was trying to do too much, and I scuffled big time. The guys were telling me to back down and not put so much pressure on myself, but I was trying to fix it all with one swing."
Not surprisingly, considering all the turmoil, the Braves stumbled to the All-Star break losing four of six, and even with a staff full of aces, a three-peat seemed most unlikely.
THE FIRE AND THE FIRE SALE
Every season when the trade deadline approaches, Fred McGriff's name is invoked as the sine qua non of midseason deals. The acquisition came about mainly because the San Diego Padres, for whom McGriff had slugged 35 homers in 1992, fell apart after a strong third-place finish a year earlier. Drifting at 20 games under .500, the Padres decided to unload all their expensive pieces, including Greg Harris, Gary Sheffield and their first baseman, who was making $4.25 million. "I'm dangling out there, I know I'm going somewhere," McGriff told reporters. "I just hope it's to a team in a pennant race."
Cue the theme from "Gone with the Wind." Braves general manager John Schuerholz had a prospect the Padres coveted, Melvin Nieves.
"We knew McGriff was the guy we wanted, and when we were willing to include Nieves, it came together," Schuerholz recalls. "Nieves was a big, strong kid, and a switch-hitter, too." Schuerholz tossed in two other minor leaguers, Donnie Elliott and Vincent Moore (who managed 31 major league games between them), and McGriff was a Brave. Giants GM Bob Quinn spoke for most of baseball when he said: "What bothers me is that San Diego didn't get more for him."
The trade was consummated July 18. Two days later, McGriff arrived for his first game in Atlanta. A roaring bonfire greeted him -- but this was no pep rally. Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium was ablaze.
Braves' radio broadcasters Matt Stewart, Pete Van Wieren and Don Sutton had a close-up view. "We noticed flames coming out of a booth belonging to radio sponsors, about three or four booths down," Stewart says. "A breeze had blown some sterno flames into curtains that had probably been there since the stadium opened in 1965. They went up like pine straw. Sutton grabbed us both and said, 'We gotta get out of here.' "
The fire quickly spread out of control. "Nobody could get in there, because the key was with the owner," Van Wieren says. The press room was evacuated. "We ran away from this thick black smoke, and like dummies got in the elevator," Stewart continues. "When we got to the field, I met Jane Fonda for the first time. She was there with Ted Turner. Suddenly, there was a huge boom, and I jumped 10 feet out of my skin. It was the same thing that happened in the [World] Trade Center on 9/11 -- the steel girders had melted from the heat, and the structure collapsed."
Mark Lemke was standing with fellow infielder and good buddy Jeff Blauser on the field when the blaze erupted. "We were just watching the flames, and suddenly there was a huge boom, and we went tearing out into center field," Lemke said. A photo of the two gazing in disbelief as the press box burns is in the Hall of Fame. Sid Bream, the Braves' first baseman who was about to lose his job with the arrival of McGriff, said of the blaze, "I know I'm the most likely suspect, but I swear I didn't do it."
"Ted Turner told me two things," Schuerholz remembers. "One, 'We're going to play this game.' We cordoned off a portion of the stands for the media -- we didn't have many fans that night -- and started about 90 minutes late. Then he said, 'The stadium's caught fire -- tonight, so will the Braves.' "
As with cable news and the mainstreaming of the buffalo burger, Turner had seen the future with unusual clarity. The Cardinals took a 5-0 lead, but McGriff smashed a long homer to tie it, and Atlanta scored three in the eighth to win. Nine-year-old Jeff Francoeur, now playing right field for the team, was watching at home in suburban Atlanta: "I remember that like it was yesterday. McGriff got here, and suddenly we were sure we would win it."
The Crime Dog's impact was immediate and telling. He hit .422 with seven homers and 12 RBI in his first dozen games in Atlanta. "It balanced our offense," Schuerholz says. "The pressure was off hitters like [David] Justice and [Ron] Gant, who were trying to pretend they were cleanup hitters."
McGriff was pleasantly surprised by how loose the Braves were. "The first day I got there, they were playing putt-putt in the clubhouse." Two days after McGriff's arrival, the Braves lost to fall a full 10 games behind, but they ripped off their next six to announce they were back in the race.
Baker is still steamed about being misquoted in the wake of the deal. "I said 'I hope they got Fred too late,' but someone left out the word 'hope.' It went out everywhere like I was being cocky, but it was just a misprint." Sadly for Dusty, the Braves used the perceived slight as fuel for their run.
A less-remembered key to Atlanta's turnaround was the replacement of Mike Stanton as closer. Greg McMichael, a rookie who thought his career was over after several knee operations and his release by Cleveland, took over the role and immediately flourished. "His best pitch was a great changeup, and that eliminated lefty-righty matchups, because he could get either out with it," says Mazzone, then the Braves' pitching coach. McMichael was so effective in the late innings that he was featured in Sports Illustrated -- unfortunately, the accompanying photo was of Maddux.
The Giants attempted to make an impact deal at the deadline, too, but balked at Montreal's asking price for aging but cagey starter Dennis Martinez. The Expos wanted a top pitching prospect named Salomon "The Prophet" Torres. Unfortunately for Quinn, he didn't live up to Torres' nickname or he would have pulled the trigger.
San Francisco didn't play poorly in late summer, but the Braves were unstoppable. The center-field problem sorted itself out when Deion came down with a nasty lung infection, one that had him coughing violently and unable to sleep. Nixon took over full time, and the Braves started to win. And win. They reeled off 27 of 35 in the span between the McGriff deal and their first crack at the Giants with the new lineup, which came Aug. 23 in San Francisco.
The preceding weeks had been tense. "It seemed like we were never playing at the same time," Van Wieren says. "Either the Giants were playing late, in which case we'd have to wait until the next day to know the result, or an afternoon game, before the Braves played. There was just an unending series of games where the pressure was on, because one team knew what the other had done."
Now that the two teams were face to face for the first time since May, a playoff atmosphere gripped the series. "We knew we had to sweep," Pendleton says.
The Braves did just that, closing to 4½ back by taking all three at the Stick.
Just as the first game was about to start, a mistakenly flipped switch caused broadcasts in both cities to lose transmission, a moment that could only be appreciated by David Chase. The picture was restored after two batters, long before Atlanta put together a three-run second inning, en route to a 5-3 victory.
Trevor Wilson was forced to leave the game with a shoulder injury, ticketed for the DL. Before the next day's afternoon game, the Giants called up a replacement from Triple-A Phoenix: Torres. "I don't know anything about him," Baker said at the time. "You don't know if he'll be poised enough for the September stretch drive. But he has outstanding stuff, and that can make up for a lot."
The rest of the Giants didn't appear very poised as the Braves won the second game 6-4, thanks in large part to three San Francisco errors and three double plays. The Braves crushed the Giants 9-1 to sweep the series. In the process, the Braves also punished another titan: Oprah Winfrey. Telecasts of the two afternoon games on TBS dwarfed Oprah's talk show in the ratings.
THE (ALMOST) FOLK HERO
Five days later, the two teams reconvened in Atlanta for their final series of the season, sadly for all on the last day of August. Both had taken two of three between showdowns. Excitement over the comeback mounted in Georgia -- $9 seats were going for a C-note. It was money well spent for the home fans, as the Braves won 8-2 to close to 3½ behind. "Things have to change tomorrow," Giants reliever Dave Righetti said.
They did, and in a most unlikely manner.
Patterson had been on the disabled list for most of 1993, and by the first of September his shoulder was still too sore to make the throws from second base. But he could hit, and more to the point, he could run. So he was called up from his minor league rehab assignment as the rosters expanded Sept. 1. What followed was a day not even Roy Hobbs could have dreamed about.
"I went straight to the team hotel, and met the bartender there," Patterson recalls. "She loosened me up, so to speak, so I had a big smile on my face when I got to the park." Patterson cooled his libido for eight innings of a taut 2-2 ballgame, then came up as a pinch-hitter to lead off the ninth against flame-throwing reliever Mark Wohlers. "I got a 2-0 pitch, and hit it a long way. I knew it was gone, but being a rookie, I busted my ass out of the box -- you can imagine the reaction if it hit the top of the wall and I got thrown out at second."
The shocking dinger from the 160-pound Patterson was the first allowed by Wohlers in exactly two years, and it gave the Giants a 3-2 win that seemed to right San Francisco's badly listing ship. "I did a million interviews, and I was being too cool for Barry, who gave me s--- about it. 'You been here 10 years?' he asked."
San Francisco radio station KNBR replayed Patterson's shot over and over, urging listeners to "tape it for the archives." In another dimension, the Giants win one more game to hold off the Braves, and Patterson has a prominent spot in franchise lore. But in this one, Patterson now sells real estate in anonymity in Scottsdale, Ariz.: "The home run was a great moment, but overall, it was a bad year."
The rubber match in the series is a large reason why. With runners on the corners in a 3-3 game in the seventh, Gant lined one off hurler Dave Burba's backside. Burba spun in every direction in a desperate search for the ball, which had caromed back toward the plate. Catcher Kirt Manwaring grabbed it and dove to tag Nixon, who eluded him with an angled, head-first slide. Fulton County Stadium erupted as the Braves took the lead, one McMichael protected with a six-out save. The Giants' feeling of destiny had lasted 24 hours. The Braves were right back to 3½ behind.
THE HOMESTAND FROM HELL
Torres didn't seem to be having any trouble with the stress of the pennant race. He bookended the series in Atlanta with victories in Florida and St. Louis. The Giants ended the road trip by taking two of three at Busch Stadium, and headed back to the Bay Area for a nine-game homestand, still up 2½ after the Braves swept lowly San Diego.
Disaster was at hand.
The Giants' pitching staff was at a breaking point. Swift and fellow ace John Burkett, so reliable all season, were treading water in a monthlong stretch without a win. "I had a dead arm," Swift recalls. "It's a stage most guys go through during the season. Unfortunately, John and I went through it together." The nadir came on getaway day in St. Louis, when Swift blew a three-run lead and left the mound cursing a blue streak.
As if that weren't bad enough, starters Trevor Wilson and Bud Black were on the disabled list. Bob Quinn thought he had an answer for his team's pitching woes when the Expos placed Martinez on waivers. But Schuerholz put in a claim, effectively blocking "El Presidente" from heading west. "We wouldn't claim someone just to block another team," Schuerholz says today, but regardless of intent, it was a little-remembered masterstroke in a great season for the GM.
The Giants had little choice but to pick up a couple of veterans with a lot of tread on them, Jim Deshaies and Scott Sanderson. The latter won the first game back at the Stick over the Pirates, but that would be the team's last entry on the left side of the won-loss standings for more than a week. The Pirates won the next day, and then the Cardinals came in and swept four from the Giants. When the Braves rolled 13-1 over the Dodgers, paced by a mammoth three-run homer by McGriff, for the first time in five months, someone other than San Francisco led the NL West.
Matters didn't improve when the Cubbies came to San Francisco. Chicago swept three more in convincing fashion, while the Braves were taking three from Cincinnati, including one when they scored five in the ninth, winning on Gant's three-run blast. Atlanta was four games ahead, and now the crowing came from down South. I.J. Rosenberg led his game story with the words "Goodnight, San Francisco."
"I've never seen such a consistent string of things go wrong," Sanderson said. Bonds kept it simple: "It's a nightmare."
Only Baker kept his cool. One day during the losing streak, a reporter found him in his office listening to a rap record by Prince Markie Dee with the lyrics "Ain't no need to be stressed, I'm gonna be all right."
"You understand where I'm coming from, dude?" Dusty asked the scribe.
During the 1-8 homestand, the Giants lost 6½ games in the standings. Incredibly, after being up 10 games July 28, they were now four back with only 17 to play.
THE FINAL WEEKEND
Battered and seemingly beaten, the Giants somehow rallied. Swift finally won his 18th game, as the Giants shellacked the Reds 13-0, a laugher that had a revitalizing effect. They reeled off a 13-1 streak that was as improbable as the losing streak had been, and managed to pull even again with the Braves, who were still playing well, just not that well. "Now I know how Lazarus felt," said Baker, breathing a sigh of relief. Said Giants closer Rod Beck: "If they're not feeling the pressure, they're the inhumans we think they are."
The teams fought a proxy war by T-shirt motto -- the Braves wore ones reading "Furious Finish," while the Giants adopted the slogan "No Fear, No Pain." Unfortunately, there was all too much pain in the San Francisco clubhouse. Beck's arm was hanging by a thread from overuse, and Thompson was beaned by young Padres reliever Trevor Hoffman. "The doctor said his face looked like an egg after you dropped it on the floor," Baker recalls. "I asked the doctor if my nose was gone," says Thompson, who wouldn't suit up again until the season finale, despite begging the team to let him play sooner.
On the last Wednesday of the season, the expansion Rockies stunned the Giants 5-3, behind two Daryl Boston homers ("Atlanta's gotta be sitting back cheesin'," was Boston's take), while the Braves won to go up by a game. But the Braves gave it back a day later, when Houston rocked Smoltz en route to a 10-8 victory.
To end the regular season, the Giants were tangling, appropriately, with their archrivals, the Los Angeles Dodgers, and manager Tommy Lasorda relished the idea of ruining their season, just as the Giants had ruined the Dodgers' two years before, allowing the Braves to take the division. "We're having meetings, we're showing films, we're going to throw everything we have at them," Lasorda crowed. But the Giants took the opener of the four-game set in a half-empty Dodger Stadium. With three games left, both the Giants and the Braves were 101-58.
The Braves had a huge scheduling edge -- their last three games were against the expansion Rockies, whom they had beaten all 10 times they'd played so far. They did so again Friday night, behind five RBIs from Pendleton, but San Francisco kept pace three hours later, with Bonds going deep twice with two aboard in a repudiation of his choker label. On Saturday, both teams won for the 103rd time, Maddux stuffing the Rockies 10-1, while the Giants held off L.A. 5-3 after a long fly in the eighth with the bases full off the bat of Dave Hansen fell just short of a grand slam. Dave Martinez could feel fans behind him as he made the catch at the fence. "They must have been Giants fans; Dodgers fans might have tried to pull my hat down," he said afterward.
Tied, with one to play.
Dusty chose to go with Torres: "I didn't want to start a lefty against their righties, so that ruled out Deshaies." As for Sanderson, Baker essentially vetoed him 13 years earlier. Dusty was an outfielder in Los Angeles in 1980, and the Dodgers swept Houston in the season's final series to force a one-game playoff for the NL West crown. "We begged Tommy [Lasorda] to start Fernando [Valenzuela], who was a rookie, but he went with (Dave) Goltz." The Astros pummeled Goltz and advanced to the playoffs. "That made my mind up right there -- stick with the talent, regardless of experience."
Still, between the pressure of the race and the bad feelings between the Dodgers and Giants (on his office wall, Baker had hung the infamous photo of Juan Marichal clubbing Johnny Roseboro with his bat in 1965), Baker had mixed feelings about using the rookie. "I took Salomon to dinner the night before the game. We had some Latin food, and prayed on it." Content with the Lord's answer, Baker stayed with his gut, and Torres.
It was Oct. 3, exactly 42 years to the day that Bobby Thomson smacked the "Shot Heard 'Round The World" to win the pennant for the Giants over the Dodgers. Now, with the rivalry 3,000 miles to the west, new Giants owner Peter Magowan had flown Thomson and Giants legend Willie Mays in for the L.A. series. They were 3-for-3 so far.
In keeping with a season-long theme, the teams' final games weren't in sync, and the Braves put the pressure on. David Nied, a Brave in 1992 who was left unprotected in the expansion draft, gave up four early runs, but the Rockies made things interesting, closing to 4-3 off Glavine before Atlanta pushed across an insurance run. McMichael got the final six outs in order, and the Braves were at least assured of a tomorrow. They had beaten the Rockies all 13 times they played, the first season sweep in the NL since 1899.
The Braves retired to the clubhouse as the Giants game began, snacking on fried chicken while watching the contest across the country (McGriff watched the 49ers instead). Two weeks earlier, Schuerholz, following the advice of his teenage son, had called "heads" in a coin flip, and lost. If the Giants won, the two teams would have a one-game playoff in San Francisco the following day (Smoltz against Swift was the pitching matchup). The players had suitcases packed in case they needed to board a cross-country flight and play the following day. The Giants' game was shown on the Braves' scoreboard, and several thousand fans stayed to watch the unusual doubleheader.
They saw Torres get pulled in the fourth, down 3-0. Rookie of the Year Mike Piazza put the game away with two homers, and the Dodgers got their karmic vengeance, ending the Giants season, 12-1. "The rest of the guys got scalded, too," Baker says now. "So I don't feel too bad about the decision to start Torres." The fact Atlanta started the winningest pitcher over the last three seasons, while the Giants were left with a rookie making his eighth start, only enhances the job Baker did in getting his team to that point.
Patterson, he of the would-be full playoff share, took the loss hard. "It hurts to this day, man. When they panned the dugout, you can see my head was down and in my hands. It cut me deep. That was $30,000. When you're a rookie, missing out on that money hurts."
Back in Atlanta, the Braves, many of them still wearing shower shoes, swarmed the field to celebrate. The scoreboard displayed a photo of Lasorda, with the words "Our Pal" next to it. Asked about his contribution, McGriff, the catalyst of the comeback, said, "I guess I helped a little bit."
Several thousand fans were on hand to greet the Giants' charter flight at the airport. Torres wasn't there to be cheered, however. The rookie caught a later commercial flight to avoid the throng at SFO.
Says Patterson, "It hurt him really bad. He is only just getting over it now." Maybe not so much. Torres -- amazingly still in the majors, with the Pirates -- wouldn't relive that day for this article.
THE LAST OF ITS KIND
Dusty Baker, now a baseball analyst for ESPN, had trouble getting over the fact his first team had been so good, accomplished so much, and yet was home watching others play October baseball. "I went to the playoffs every day, until my wife told me to stop. I just couldn't believe we didn't win." Baker was named Manager of the Year after the Giants had improved on their '92 record by an astounding 31 games, but it wasn't enough. "Our team right here is a good argument for the new playoff format," Giants first baseman Todd Benzinger said in the aftermath of the loss.
After the strike of '94 did away with the pennant races and the World Series, the wild card took effect in 1995, with the Yankees and Rockies the initial lucky recipients. The drama of late-season baseball has been transferred from occasional but memorable all-or-nothing contests between great teams, to annual lower-stakes games between the good-to-mediocre. Could be an apt metaphor for the culture at large.
Nine years later, Dusty's final Giants team would get in via the wild card, and make it all the way to the World Series. That didn't make up for his '93 squad, the one he still calls his favorite, getting left out in the cold in the final season before playoff expansion. But if you're expecting tears and self-pity from Johnnie B. Baker, then you don't know the man.
"Dang, dude, that was just our luck," he says.
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Robert Weintraub is a freelance writer and television producer in Atlanta. He is a frequent contributor to Slate and Play, the New York Times Sports Magazine. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at www.robwein.com.