’97 Giants left lasting legacy

Before Brian Johnson won the Giants’ biggest game of the 90s, Rod Beck saved it. And together the 1997 Giants put San Francisco on the baseball map in a way that offers hope for the floundering 2017 team.

Ask anyone who was there at Candlestick Park on Sept. 18, 20 years ago next month. Beck, then 29, faced Los Angeles in the 10th inning of a do-or-die game. The appearance could have hardly started worse for the All-Star closer, as Dodgers Mike Piazza, Raul Mondesi and Eric Karros singled in succession to load the bases with no one out.

Beck was in deep trouble, as were the Giants, who had led the division all year only to stumble in September.

After last-place finishes in 1995 and 1996, general manager Brian Sabean made wholesale roster changes, releasing second baseman Robby Thompson, trading slugger Matt Williams and bringing aboard such new talent as Jeff Kent and J.T. Snow.

Fans howled at the loss of their stars and pundits picked the team to finish last again. But the orange and black streaked to nine straight wins in April and won 13 of their first 16 games, the best in baseball.

They clung to their division lead through nail-biting games all summer, until an agonizing September slump allowed Los Angeles to overtake them. Then the Dodgers, leading by two games, came to San Francisco for a two-game series.

Southpaw Kirk Rueter shut them down in the opener, a 2-1 thriller that the Giants won on the strength of their pitching and Barry Bonds’ two-run homer.

“I saw all around the upper deck, thousands of fans chanting, ‘Beat LA,’” said Rueter, who calls the game his career favorite. “That was the first feel I got of the Giants-Dodgers rivalry and my first taste of a September playoff run.”

That set the stage for the blockbuster sequel. Bonds homered again for San Francisco, as did Snow. Otis Nixon homered for Los Angeles. Both teams turned double plays. Through nine innings, the classic foes fought to a 5-5 tie.

Enter Beck, then San Francisco’s all-time saves leader who had fallen on hard times. His recent blown save against Atlanta had dropped the Giants out of first place. The Dodgers’ tenth inning rally threatened to ruin San Francisco’s season. The Candlestick crowd booed loud and hard.

Manager Dusty Baker visited the mound and fans sarcastically cheered the move they expected him to make. But the skipper didn’t pull “Shooter” from the game. “Dig deep,” he told him instead.

“There was no time for doubt. I had to find a way to get out of it,” Beck said. “One run was not an option… I just knew I had to get them out.”

Chewing hard on his gum, the closer glared in and rocked his pitching arm in his trademark pendulum swing. With two strikes, the Giant fired Todd Zeile a 94-mph fastball on the inside corner, his hottest heater of the year. The umpire rung up Zeile with an emphatic called strike. The first out was huge, though more trouble loomed on deck.

Eddie Murray pinch-hit in the Dodgers pitcher’s slot. Shooter threw a first-pitch splitter to the future Hall of Famer, and Murray knocked an easy chopper straight to Kent. The second baseman shot home – over a ducking Beck – for a force out on Piazza, and then catcher Johnson fired to a reaching Snow to just beat the 41-year-old Murray to first.

The unusual double play crushed the Los Angeles scoring threat. Against all odds, Beck had brought San Francisco back from almost certain doom.

“That’s my single most thrilling moment in nine years behind the mic with the Giants,” said broadcaster Ted Robinson. “Before the Rod Beck escape, it appeared the game was done. That he got out of that inning was the most incredulous thing. That’s when I started to think that they would actually win the game.”

Beck clapped his hands and screamed as he marched to the dugout. Baker spun to face the crowd and swung his arms like mad. Fans leaped to their feet to wildly cheer their closer once more.

“All of a sudden, he was everybody’s best friend again,” laughed shortstop Rich Aurilia. “All 50,000 people were cheering and going nuts.”

Beck pitched two more scoreless frames without another hit or walk. The three-inning outing was his longest in five years, setting the stage for his teammate Johnson’s well-known heroics.

Dodgers hurler Mark Guthrie threw the catcher only one pitch. Johnson smashed the heater just over the left field fence. Instantly, the barnburner game came to a spectacular end. San Francisco defeated its arch enemy, 6-5. Instead of suffering a season-dooming loss, San Francisco had tied Los Angeles for first place with nine games to play.

Johnson pumped both arms in triumph as he trotted around the bags. Beck joined a frenzied Giants mob that swarmed him on the field. Bonds lifted Baker off his feet in the delirious gala. Screaming fans waved brooms in celebration of the series sweep. Younger fans who experienced the World Series dynasty might not know this kind of revelry did not happen at Candlestick much.

Johnson’s homer lives forever in San Francisco’s highlight reels, rightly so. Less celebrated is the gutsy fireman who slammed the door on defeat. But Beck made the victory possible by retiring eight Dodgers in a row.

Another ten days remained in the ’97 season, though the Giants seemed to win the National League West on Sept. 18.

“It was a frustrating series for us. Those games really knocked the wind out of our sails,” Piazza said.

“That’s when we really got the feeling that this was our time,” said Rueter. “We knew we were gonna win, that we were supposed to win.”

In the Sept. 27 game against the Padres at Candlestick, Beck struck out San Diego’s Greg Vaughn to clinch the division title for San Francisco, the city’s first in eight years.

After many earlier seasons of losing when they should have won, the Giants forever changed San Francisco’s baseball culture by winning when they should have lost in ’97. The Dodgers had a higher payroll, more talent on paper and future Hall of Famers. The Giants beat them with guts, heart and 23 one-run wins.

“Everybody on that team had struggled somewhere in their career,” said Rueter. “Everybody had an organization that had given up on us or traded us. I don’t think a lot of people gave us much of a chance to finish even in the middle of the pack. That’s what made it such a magical year. It’s a lot more fun when nobody thinks you can do it and you prove everybody wrong.”

That amazing division championship renewed the region’s interest in the team, catalyzing support for the ballpark at 24 Willie Mays Plaza that opened in 2000 and regularly sells out, dwarfing the size of typical Candlestick’s crowds. That has allowed the orange and black to increase payroll and invest in minor league players. One could even make the case that the ’97 Giants set the foundation for orange and black’s World Series dynasty in this decade.

Personally, the ’97 Giants brought me back to the game for the first time since the 1994 strike and exhilarated me with the sense of limitless possibilities. If the underdog Giants could prevail, anything seemed possible to a young college student living in San Francisco not far from Candlestick. Years later, I got the opportunity to meet and interview the players quoted in this perspective, which remains among the highlights of my modest writing career.

Beck was especially memorable and classy in his comments I recorded in late 2006. “I was pretty upset with the fans but I don’t like to come off that way,” he said. “It was the one moment in time when I felt like that. For me, it was not so much an ‘I told you so’ as it was ‘This is where I should be, this is who I am’ to the city of San Francisco. I’m very grateful for the time that I spent there.”

San Francisco revived these memories on Aug. 5 when members of the ’97 club reunited to celebrate their 20th anniversary, drawing warm ovations from fans who haven’t had much to cheer about this year.

Their visit may have even inspired the current roster, which rallied to a ten-inning comeback in ’97 Giants style: unlikely heroes like Pablo Sandoval and Jarrett Parker delivering big hits, leading to a one-run win.

Perhaps most importantly today, the success of the ’97 team offers hope that a woeful ball club, like the Giants in 1996 or 2017, can turn things around quickly.

“I think next year you’ll see a different Giants team,” Rueter predicted.