"Number 32! Number 32! Over here!"
No. 32, also known as Giants rookie infielder Bill Mueller, pauses for a moment, uncertain whether to reward a bunch of kids who are too lazy to read the name clearly sewn on the back of his jersey. Finally, he walks over to the stands and begins signing the baseballs, score cards, caps, and small scraps of paper thrust into his hand. Afterward, a few of the kids stare at the autograph with puzzled expressions, a look that says: "Who the hell is Bill Mueller?"
As this sad season came to an end, you couldn't tell the Giants without a score card, and even then their identities were often a mystery. A series of injuries to starters Matt Williams, Shawon Dunston, Glenallen Hill, Stan Javier, Tom Lampkin, and Robby Thompson, coupled with trades involving veterans Kurt Manwaring, Mark Carreon, and Mark Leiter, left the Giants fielding a team of unknowns. Most, like Mueller, were young rookies hastily called up from the team's Triple A affiliate in Phoenix, fresh-faced kids working on their first patchy goatees.
If spring training is baseball's annual rite of rebirth, then September for a losing ballclub is the slow march to the wintry grave. As the Giants played their final home games amid the lengthening shadows at Candlestick Park, the team was finishing one of its worst seasons since coming to S.F. By mid-September, they were mired deep in the cellar, 25 games out of first, with the worst record in the National League and the second worst in the majors next to the criminally inept Detroit Tigers.
The Giants' final homestand was an intimate affair. Most games were played before sparse crowds of fewer than 9,000 people, tiny, blanket-wrapped archipelagoes floating in an ocean of 54,000 empty seats. Most fans had long since lost interest in the team. With the start of the football season, the Giants were pushed deeper and deeper inside the sports section, landing next to the penis-enlargement ads. The Chron and Ex didn't even bother to send a beat reporter to cover the Giants' September series in Cincinnati.
In the Giants clubhouse, players were lacing up their spikes in preparation for a final home game. Several of the rookies had handwritten nameplates above their lockers, scrawled in flair pen in shaky letters. It can't be a reassuring sight for a young player hoping for a permanent position on the team.
"I don't care what position I play as long as I'm here next year," Mueller said. His solid play made him one of the few bright spots in an otherwise overmatched rookie lineup.
If the rookies were concerned about being back next year, the veterans seemed more worried that this year would never end.
"When you're that many games out [of first place], you just want to go home," said pitcher Allen Watson dejectedly. "It's tough coming to the park when you're 30 games out, or whatever, 25. It's just a miserable feeling. Guys are all down and depressed. It's just not a good situation on the field."
Back in the manager's office, Dusty Baker had the drawn look of someone suffering through his second consecutive last-place finish. Baker has a reputation for being a player's manager, an even-tempered and approachable skipper who never shows up his players or burdens them with unnecessary rules. But being forced to field a Triple A kiddie corps stretched Baker's patience to the breaking point. He noted after one recent loss that Giants coaches "find ourselves coaching during the course of a game, and that's kind of difficult to do because I've got to manage the game.
"We need lessons in having more respect for the veterans and not thinking we know it all," an exasperated Baker said. "We've got to work on fundamentals like defense and base-running and learning signals."
"Just sloppy play -- I've never seen so many mistakes," Baker said a week later, after the team dropped a doubleheader to the Pirates. "We've got to learn there's more to playing baseball than just hits, runs, and errors."
When a manager lists defense, base-running, learning signals, hits, runs, and errors as necessary areas for improvement, you know you've got problems. Baker's job is secure, since he recently signed a multiyear contract extension, but several members of his coaching staff will likely face the ax now that the season's over. Hitting instructor Bobby Bonds, Barry's dad, heads the list. Bobby was recently spotted walking through the team locker room, a cigarette dangling from his lips, looking like a condemned man smoking his last butt. The elder Bonds, a recovering alcoholic, seemed like he could use a drink, no surprise in light of the Giants' sobering .250 team batting average, worst in the National League.
Bobby Bonds surely won't be the only Giant sacrificed on the altar of a disastrous season -- quite a few players could be wearing new uniforms. Even Barry Bonds, arguably the best player in baseball, recently said he wouldn't be surprised if the Giants unloaded him and his $8.25 million salary. The Giants' 1996 attendance was second-lowest in the National League, and team management may figure that next year's numbers aren't likely to be much better, with or without him.
Up in the press box, sportswriters foraged through the bales of statistics dumped in front of them like cattle feed before every game. "Malaise" is a word that pops up a lot among the people who cover the Giants. During a recent game, the team had the bases loaded and one out, but you wouldn't have known it sitting among the beat writers. Several of them had their backs to the field discussing the football pool they were in; another was playing solitaire on his laptop. If the Giants were a U.S. president, they'd be Jimmy Carter, circa 1979. But no Ronald Reagan is anywhere in sight to proclaim it's morning at Candlestick again.
There's an even better word than "malaise" to explain why the Giants are so bad, and why they won't get any better: denial. The Giants are a last-place team that closes its eyes and covers its ears to the seemingly obvious reality that it deserves its plight. It started after their successful 1993 season, when the team let go of high-priced stars Will Clark, John Burkett, Billy Swift, and Mike Jackson. They replaced expensive talent with cut-rate castoffs and even cheaper rookies, all the while insisting they were fielding a competitive squad.
Now, it seems, the Giants have fallen victim to their own bullshit. Every baseball expert in the country picked the Giants to finish dead last this season, based mainly on the team's paper-thin pitching talent. At season's end, the Giants' front office staff seemed to be the only ones surprised. It's doubtful whether team owner Peter Magowan would have made his millions running Safeway if the food chain was operated similarly. No, those peaches aren't rotten -- worms are a sign of healthy fruit. ... And don't mind the smell of those cold cuts -- we're expecting to field a very competitive deli department this year.
No professional team should take the field thinking it's going to lose. But there has to be a balance between a team's competitive optimism and its willingness to look in the mirror and say, "You know, we suck." The Giants abandoned honesty long ago in an effort to convince their dwindling fan base that all was well. Now, they're only fooling themselves.
The leading voice of the Giants' denial is General Manager Bob Quinn, who continues to insist that injuries are the main reason the team fared so poorly this year. True, 15 players made 21 trips to the disabled list, a franchise record. But that excuse is always the last refuge of the mediocre. Even a healthy Giants team probably would have finished last this year.
But Quinn, the Giants' dean of denial, will brook no such pessimism. "Is the cup half-empty or half-full?" Quinn rhetorically asked KNBR's Ralph Barbieri recently. "With every problem there seems to be a rainbow."
Quinn's pathological optimism will certainly serve him well if he's fired or booted upstairs during the off-season, as is widely rumored. His job will likely be filled by chief scout Brian Sabean, who, to his credit, hasn't tried to sugarcoat the Giants' sour season.
The Giants' meltdown comes at an inopportune time, just as the team is hoping to pump up fan support to fill its new China Basin ballpark, scheduled to open in the year 2000. The Giants currently have surprisingly loyal and knowledgeable followers -- there just aren't nearly enough of them to make the team profitable. No doubt more casual fans will be drawn for a while, but it'll take more than a shiny new stadium to put people in the seats and keep them there. It may actually take putting a team on the field worth watching.
Such a notion runs counter to baseball's current build-it-and-they-will-come mania. Rather than addressing the game's problems -- installing a real commissioner, hammering out a labor agreement, and getting Rawlings to manufacture a baseball that isn't juiced -- baseball seems to be pinning its future on replacing every ballpark in the league with new downtown clones of Baltimore's Camden Yards. What happens when the novelty wears off is anyone's guess.
The Giants, with little to offer on the field these days except the promise of a new field, seem to have been seduced by their own reassuring patter. The Giants' glass isn't half-full -- it's bone dry. The only rainbow the Giants will see for a while is the colorful arc of yet another home run surrendered by one of their pitchers.
If the team makes some major trades in the off-season, it would at least signal that the Giants recognize they have serious problems. But if the team stays pat and starts talking about "bouncing back after a tough season" with the same lineup, it's a sure sign that this season's denialfest was only a warm-up. Even more than a few good pitchers, the Giants need a few "quality" realists.