The march of Great Missed Opportunities continues with the San Francisco Giants. Until recently, they were one of the most tortured teams in baseball, a distinction I made clear with this video starring myself and my son before the 2010 World Series.
However, in this new decade, the Giants have erased a lot of past misery, winning it all in 2010 and 2012. These recent successes haven’t wiped away all of the “what could have been” pondering.
My two ground rules for the Missed Opportunities series eliminates the two most obvious years for the Giants. The team had to play in the Wild Card Era, leaving the 103 win 1993 squad a year short.
And the team can not be a pennant winner. So we won’t be covering the 2002 Giants who blew a 5-0 lead in a potential clinching World Series game.
The 2003 Giants led wire to wire but lost heart breaking Division Series games to the eventual World Champion Florida Marlins, the final game ending on a play at the plate. That team seemed like the obvious choice for the series, but I am not picking them for reasons I will explain later.
Instead I am going to honor the 1997 Giants, a team that, had they won, would have changed the face of the team forever and possibly the destiny of one of its greatest stars.
After falling juuuuust short of the 1993 post season, the Giants and manager Dusty Baker fell on hard times. The splitting of the Divisions looked like they would be perennial contenders with Barry Bonds and Matt Williams leading the way. Instead they posted sub .500 records in 1994, 1995 and 1996 and the Dodgers looked like the top team in the Division.
The 1997 squad looked like they were going into full rebuilding mode when Williams, on the verge of free agency, was shipped off to Cleveland for a package of players that included underachieving second baseman Jeff Kent.
The team lost the opening game to the Pirates but then shot off to a 13-3 start that caught everyone off guard. Shawn Estes was pitching like an All Star, closer Rod Beck was unstoppable and Jeff Kent was finally overachieving.
On the strength of a Bonds 10th inning home run on May 14, the Giants were 10 games above .500. By early July, they were up 6 games on the Dodgers and had the second best record in the National League.
At the end of July, they wound up picking up three valuable pitchers from the White Sox. Wilson Alvarez, Roberto Hernandez and Danny Darwin gave the pitching staff instant depth and cost no significant players on the major league roster (although Keith Foulke would eventually develop into a star.)
The trade was much maligned at the time because Chicago was still in contention for the Central. But Giants fans did not mind.
While the trade was a good one, it did not put the Division out of reach for the Dodgers who crawled back into it, led by MVP candidate Mike Piazza. By August 1, the two rivals were tied on top of the division. By the end of August, Los Angeles took the lead and looked to cruise into their third straight post season.
By mid September, the two teams were either tied or exchanging the lead. An ill timed 4 game losing streak by the Giants gave L.A. a 2 game lead when they arrived at Candlestick for two games starting on September 17th.
Bonds launched a 2 run homer in the first inning of game 1 off of Chan Ho Park. It would be all the offense the Giants would get and all they would need. Kirk Reuter and Roberto Hernandez held the Dodgers to one run and cut the division lead to 1.
In the second game, Bonds once again homered, giving them a 5-1 lead. But the Dodgers battled back and Mike Piazza’s 2 run 2 out single in the 7th tied the game. The classic game went into the 12th inning when former Stanford star Brian Johnson hit a lead off walk off homer into the Candlestick bleachers. The Giants had tied the Dodgers with 9 games to go.
On September 27th, Wilson Alvarez threw 7 shutout innings against San Diego and Rod Beck struck out Greg Vaughn, sending Candlestick into delirium. The Giants were Western Division Champs. The clinching ceremony that had eluded the 1993 squad could finally take place.
The normally taciturn Bonds stood on the dugout, celebrating with the fans and the overachieving Giants had high hopes for the post season.
They would face the Florida Marlins, a Wild Card Team, and avoid the dreaded Braves until the NLCS. However a quirk in playoff scheduling in 1997 would haunt the Giants.
As the Division Champ, the Giants would have the 5th and deciding Division Series game played in their home park. However, the format of the series was 2-3. In other words, the first two games would be played in Miami.
This nonsensical system would be fixed for the 1998 post season, but like for the 1993 Giants, the change came a year too late.
The Marlins had many veterans on their squad, but they still felt like a young expansion team and few gave them much a chance in the post season.
Kirk Reuter and Florida’s Kevin Brown locked horns in a game 1 pitchers duel that was scoreless until Bill Meuller homered to make it 1-0 Giants in the 7th. Charles Johnson’s homer in the 7th knotted it up and Edgar Renteria (who would later lead the Giants to a 2010 title) knocked a 2 out walk off hit in the 9th to win the game for the Marlins.
In Game 2, the Giants faced more late inning frustrations. In a back and forth game, Bonds began hitting after flopping in his previous post season appearances. He got 2 hits and drove in a pair helping knock Al Leiter out of the game.
But his old Pirates teammate Bobby Bonilla drove in three runs of his own and the Marlins took a one run lead into the 9th. San Francisco tied the game thanks to some sloppy Marlins fielding. But the Marlins would put two on with nobody out in the 9th. Moises Alou singled to center and Dante Powell’s throw home hit the mound, allowing Gary Sheffield to score the winning run. The Wild Card team opened the series with two walk off wins.
Back to San Francisco, Wilson Alvarez tried his best to keep the season alive. Jeff Kent’s homer game the Giants an early 1-0 edge. But with two outs and nobody on in the 6th, the Marlins rallied and Devon White hit a go ahead grand slam.
In the bottom of the 6th, Bill Mueller got on base with a lead off single in front of Bonds and Kent. However he tried to steal second and was caught. When Kent homered two batters later, it loomed large.
The Marlins would add insurance runs to the board and win 6-2, sweeping the 1997 Giants into obscurity. Florida would beat the Braves and crush the hearts of the Indians winning a most unlikely World Series title.
The Giants began a wonderful run where they finished either first or second every year between 1997 and 2004. They would win the 2002 pennant and Division Titles in 2000 and 2003.
But looking back, the team in 1997 was the one that could have been the most special. They were a resilient team, finishing the year with a negative run differential but won 90 games. They won heart stoppers.
They were 23-17 in one run games and an eye popping 11-3 in extra inning match ups.
They had the late Rod Beck, who was a fan favorite from the 1993 squad. They introduced Kent and Reuter and J. T. Snow and Rich Aurillia to Giant fans.
It was a team that played in Candlestick (or 3Com as nobody called it then). While the park known as AT&T Park now is the crown jewel of baseball stadiums and the ‘Stick was rightfully maligned, it would have been special for the loyal fans to see at least one title in the old ballpark.
But most importantly, it was the lone division title in San Francisco won by Barry Bonds before he changed. He was still trim Barry. He still was the all around brilliant player.
He batted .291 with an unbelievable yet not impossible 1.031 OPS. He finished with 40 homers and 145 walks. He also stole 37 bases, falling just short of a 40-40 year. It was his fifth and final 30-30 season.
He would finish fifth in the MVP vote, trailing Larry Walker, Mike Piazza, Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio. As he put on a brilliant display of all around ability, the baseball world was transfixed by the Mark McGwire-Ken Griffey Jr. home run race that fell just short of Maris. The next season, McGwire and Sosa would top Maris and two years later, Bonds would physically transform.
Think of him on the dugout celebrating with the San Francisco fans who embraced him. The lean all around talent might have been the greatest player to wear the uniform since his godfather, Willie Mays.
Imagine if THAT Barry Bonds had won a World Series for the Giants in Candlestick. No offense to the 2010 nor the 2012 squad, but the 1997 team would be the most loved of all had that happened.
Had the Giants won the one run losses in Miami or held on to extend the series in San Francisco, perhaps it could have happened.
Instead the Bonds narrative did not end as anyone would have hoped and his entry to Cooperstown was delayed again. The franchise has moved on to a better park and multiple titles.
The great missed opportunity of 1997 is best remembered by die hard fans for the Brian Johnson homer and little else. How history, and the legacy of Bonds, could have been different.