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"Barry! Barry! Over here!" If Giants outfielder Barry Bonds hears the shouts, he doesn't acknowledge them, gliding serenely past the young autograph hounds on his way to batting practice. Fact is, you've got as much chance winning Super Lotto two days in a row as you do getting Bonds' autograph before a game, but that doesn't stop kids from trying. Soon, youthful optimism sets its sights elsewhere.
"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.