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The Five Eras of San Francisco Giants Baseball

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I have been a fan of the San Francisco Giants since the 1960's and I have in interest in the team's history.

Willie Mays

Willie Mays

Franchise History

The Giants Franchise began in New York in 1883. For two years, they were called the New York Gothams, and in 1885, they were renamed the New York Giants. They would remain in New York, playing at the Polo Grounds, until the end of the 1957 season. They would then move to San Francisco, with the 1958 season being there first in San Francisco.

Reflecting back at what is now 62 years in which the Giants have played in San Francisco, their time in San Francisco can be broken into five rather distinctive eras.

Mays-McCovey-Marichal Era (1958-1971)

The Giants and Dodgers simultaneous move from New York after the 1957 season, signaled the beginning of Major League Baseball on the west coast.

Upon moving to San Francisco, for their first two years, the Giants would play at Seals Stadium. Seals Stadium had previously been the home of the San Francisco Seals of the Pacific Coast League. Then in 1960 they moved into Candlestick Park, which would be their home for 40 years. Candlestick Park was built on Candlestick Point directly adjacent to the Bay in the southerly part of the City.

In retrospect, the decision to build Candlestick Park in that windy location was a mistake that haunted the franchise for many years. The cold weather deterred fans from attending games and often discouraged players from wanting to play for the Giants. Mark Twain's famous line that "the coldest winter he ever spent was a summer in San Francisco" was never more appropriate than when attending a night game at "The Stick."

Not only was the location a bad one in regard to the wind and cold, but the park was built with a very deep left field, so deep that hitting home runs in that direction became next to impossible. Since the Giants had arguably the best right handed hitting power hitter in the league (Willie Mays), it adversely affected one of their strengths. After their first year at Candlestick, a chain link fence was constructed in front of the original wall to provide a more reasonable home run distance to left field. However, that fence gave the park a sort "second rate" appearance with a large open area between the old original wall and the chain link fence.

Despite the ill effects of the Park, shortly after moving to San Francisco the Giants began a lengthy period of success. There were three star players that were most responsible for this success. First there was Willie Mays, who came up with the New York Giants in 1951 and moved with the team to San Francisco. Mays was already an established star by the time that the Giants came to San Francisco. Mays had a rare combination of athletic skills that made him one of the best players to ever play the game and is considered by many to be the best ever.

The two other star players were Willie McCovey and Juan Marichal. McCovey, who joined the Giants in 1959, was a power hitting 1st basemen who ended his career with over 500 home runs. Marichal, who joined the Giants in 1960, was the perennial ace of the Giants staff through the 1960s winning 20 or more games six times in that decade.

The teams during this era were generally great hitting teams that featured Mays and McCovey as well as other great hitters like Orlando Cepeda, Jimmy Ray Hart and in the late 60s Bobby Bonds. The Giants had a solid if not spectacular pitching staff with Jack Sanford in the early 60s and Gaylord Perry in the mid to late 60s to go along with Marichal. Tom Haller and Jimmy Davenport were also significant players during this time.

Alvin Dark and Herman Franks were the two main managers of the team in the 1960s. Charlie Fox would manage the team into the 1970s winning the National League West in 1971.

The most notable season during this period was 1962, when the Giants and Dodgers finished in a tie for first and would play a best of three series to decide the National League Pennant. The Giants would win this series with a come from behind rally in the ninth inning of the third and deciding game.

The Giants then played the Yankees in the World Series. This series would also come down to the ninth inning of the seventh and deciding game. However, this time the game would not end in the Giants favor as McCovey’s line drive was caught by Bobby Richardson to end the game with the tying and winning runs on base.

During the period between 1960 and 1971 the Giants won 90 or more games in seven seasons. The Giants won more games in the decade of the 1960s than any other National League team. However, until 1969 the only teams to qualify for the postseason were the winners of each league who would then play in the World Series. The Giants would finish in second place five times during the 1960s. So all the Giants had to show for all that winning, were two postseason appearances (1962 and 1971 where they lost to the Pirates in the National League Championship Series). Too bad there were no wild card teams back then.

Jack Clark

Jack Clark

The Dark Ages (1972-1985)

After winning the western division in 1971, the Giants entered into a period of decline. Their star player’s best years were behind them. Mays was traded to the Mets in 1972 to allow him to finish his career where it started. Marichal and McCovey were both traded after the 1973 season. McCovey would return later in the decade to finish out his career as a Giant.

The Giants inability to develop players within their farm system to replace their aging star players combined with a number of ill-advised trades caused the Giants to experience a rather quick fall in the standings. During the late 60s and early 70s the Giants would trade away many star players such as Orlando Cepeda, Gaylord Perry, George Foster, Bobby Bonds, Gary Matthews, Gary Maddox and all three Alou brothers. It would be fair to say that the Giants never received equal value in any of these trades and in some cases they received little or nothing.

During this era, the Giants would have seven different Managers and three General Managers. Between 1974 and 1980 they would finish with a losing record every year, sans 1978. Management had also made a huge mistake in 1971 when Candlestick was expanded to accommodate the 49ers, by installing artificial turf. The hard turf tended to make Candlestick appear an even colder and more sterile Park and for the players it presented a greater risk of injury.

As the losing continued, attendance dropped, which put the team in a financially tenuous position. It was common place to have an attendance below 5,000 fans and the Giants would often struggle to draw a million fans for the season. After the 1975 season, the team owner Horace Stoneham put the Giants up for sale and it appeared that they were moving to Toronto. However, Bob Lurie saved the team at the last minute, by purchasing it and keeping it in San Francisco.

During this time, the Giants had promotions which sort of exemplified their difficult circumstances. The Croix De Candlestick badge was given out to patrons willing to stay to the end of an extra inning night game. The "Crazy Crab" was an angry mascot who jeered at the fans, usually causing them to pelt him with debris.

The Giants had a few notable players during this time. The two that stood out the most were Jack Clark, one of the few power hitters that the Giants had during this era and John "The Count" Montefusco who would predict a win or a shutout for a given game and often come through on his prediction.

Between 1972 and 1985 the Giants never made it to the postseason and really had only two years (1978 and 1982) where they were in contention late in the season. The 1982 season being the year when they were eliminated from contention by the Dodgers on the second to last day of the season and then returned the favor the next day by beating the Dodgers and eliminating them.

Matt Williams

Matt Williams

The Humm Baby Era (1986-1993)

Toward the end of the 1985 season, the Giants hired a new General Manager (Al Rosen) who then hired Roger Craig to be the Giants manager. Then at the start of the 1986 season, the Giants brought up rookie 1st baseman Will Clark and rookie 2nd baseman Robby Thompson. The Giants fortunes immediately started to change. On opening day of 1986 Clark signaled the beginning of this era by hitting a home run off Nolan Ryan over the centerfield fence at the Astrodome.

In 1986, the first full year under Craig (who would later be nicknamed Humm Baby), the Giants had a winning season and even led the division at the all-star break. Then they won the division in 1987 and advanced to the post season for the first time in 16 years and won it again in 1989 going to the World Series. The Giants would lose the World Series to the A’s in 1989, in a series most remembered for the earthquake that rocked the bay area shortly before the scheduled start of Game 3.

These teams were anchored by the power hitting of Will Clark and Kevin Mitchell and later Matt Williams. Jeffrey Leonard and Brett Butler were also key players during this time. The pitching staffs during this era were largely made up of veterans, most of whom Rosen acquired through astute trades. Pitchers like Mike Krukow, Rick Rueschel, Dave Dravecky, Don Robinson and Mike LaCoss. Craig’s ability to handle a pitching staff was a key to their success.

As the team experienced success, attendance started to climb again. Management had replaced the artificial turf with grass and had placed bleacher seats behind the left field fence, where there previously was a large open area. These changes improved "the Candlestick experience" for both the players and the fans.

During this time, the team would have a different slogan each year. Slogans like, “I feel good," “Humm Baby, it’s going to be fun,” and “You’re going to like these kids." It was an exciting time to be a Giants fan because after all the lean years, the Giants were finally relevant again.

However by the early 90s the Giants began to struggle as their veteran pitching staff started to show its age. Kevin Mitchell was traded to get some much needed pitching and 1992 would be Roger Craig’s last year as manager. This era officially ended at the end of the 1993 season when Will Clark left the Giants and signed with Texas as a free agent.

The 1993 season would turn out to be one of the most memorable in Giants history. During the 1992 season, team owner Bob Lurie decided to put the team up for sale and it appeared very likely that the Giants would be moving to Florida. However, Peter Magowan along with a group of investors bought the team and kept it in San Francisco.

Upon purchasing the team after the 1992 season Magowan made two moves very quickly, he hired Dusty Baker to be the manager and signed free agent Barry Bonds. Those two moves and a key trade that would be made a few years later would set the stage for the next era.

But as for 1993, the Giants would win 103 games, which tied them with the 1962 team for the most ever by a SF Giants team. It would be the only year that Will Clark and Barry Bonds played together. The combination of Clark, Bonds and Matt Williams in the middle of the order was one of the best in Giants history. The Giants pitching was bolstered with solid starters Bill Swift (acquired in the Kevin Mitchell deal) and John Burkett who both were 20 game winners in 1993.

Unfortunately 103 wins would not be enough to win the division that year as the Giants fell a game short to the pitching rich Atlanta Braves.

Barry Bonds

Barry Bonds

Bonds/AT&T Park Era (1993-2007)

The 1993 season signaled the end of the Humm Baby era with Clark leaving after the season and it was the beginning of the Barry Bonds era. The 1994 season was cut short due to the players strike. The financial impact of the players strike adversely affected the Giants for the next couple of years as they struggled at the bottom of the standings. As a result, it was in 1997 that this next era really began.

Although Bonds was certainly the most compelling figure during this time, there were two other people who would play a very significant role. One was manager Dusty Baker and the other was Jeff Kent.

After the 1996 season the Giants traded Matt Williams to Cleveland for a number of players, one of which was Kent. In 1997, after having a miserable year in 1996, the Giants surprisingly won the division. Between 1997 and 2004 the Giants would win the division three times (1997, 2000 and 2003) win the wild card in 2002 and be in a wild card playoff game in 1998. The Giants would win 90 games or more in six seasons within this period.

These teams were anchored by the middle of the order combination of Bonds and Kent. The Giants also had a number of solid starting pitchers such as Kurt Rueter, Jason Schmidt, Livan Hernandez and Russ Ortiz and had top closers in Rod Beck and Robb Nen. J.T. Snow and Rich Aurilia were also key players during this era.

However, during this era there was no doubt that the "face of the franchise" was Barry Bonds. The Giants signing of Barry Bonds was one of the best acquisitions by any team ever. Bonds coming back to San Francisco where his father Bobby played as well as his Godfather Willie Mays was a perfect fit. During this era, Bonds would break both the single season home run record that had been recently set by Mark McGuire and then the all- time home run record of Henry Aaron. Bonds, like Mays, was considered by most to be the best player of his era and one of the best of all time. On the negative side, Bonds was also at the center of the steroid scandal that baseball endured during the early 2000s.

It was also during this era that maybe the biggest event occurred to secure the Giants franchise as one of the best in baseball. In 2000 the Giants left Candlestick Park for their downtown ballpark by the bay (Pac Bell/ AT&T/Oracle Park). The Giants arguably moved from the worst park in baseball to what is now considered by many to be the best in baseball. Since moving to AT&T Park, attendance has been consistently good with sellouts being the norm during their better years. The days of financial instability due to a lack of attendance seem long gone.

But as good as the Giant teams were during this era, the Giants were ineffective in postseason play. It was only in 2002 that the Giants were able to win a series in the postseason and that season ended with the Giants losing a heartbreaking seven game World Series to the Angels.

Toward the end of this era both Baker and Kent had left the Giants as well as many other veterans who had been key players. By 2005 the Giants were no longer the same team and were slowly getting worse each year. In 2007 the only fan interest seemed to surround Bonds chase of Aaron’s record. Bonds would break Aaron’s record in 2007 and that would be his last year in Baseball. As 2007 was the last year for Barry Bonds, it was the first year for the Giants new manager Bruce Bochy.

Tim Lincecum

Tim Lincecum

The Golden Era (2007-2019)

When Bruce Bochy arrived as the Giants manager in 2007, the Giants had virtually no proven talent other than a few veterans like Bonds who were about ready to retire. As a result, the 2007 and 2008 Seasons had the feel of an extended spring training where the Giants played many young players, trying to discover a few gems that would stick with the big club. This strategy proved successful, as the 2009 team was much improved from the previous year.

Then came 2010 which was the beginning of what CAO Larry Baer called the "Golden Era in Giants Baseball". Interestingly, teams during this era have only won 90 games or more twice during the regular season (2010, 2012) and those years they won 92 and 94 games. These numbers are most similar to the regular seasons of the Humm Baby era, but pale in comparison to the Mays/McCovey/Marichal Giants who won 90 or more games in seven seasons and the Barry Bonds era Giants that won 90 or more games in six seasons

But it has been the post season that has set this era apart. Prior to 2010 the San Francisco Giants had never won a World Series and had only won four postseason series (1962 Playoff, 1989 National League Championship Series (NLCS), 2002 National League Division Series (NLDS) and 2002 NLCS). Since 2010 the Giants have won ten postseason series including three World Series in 2010, 2012 and 2014.

The foundation of these teams was built around four players who were drafted by the Giants and brought up through their system. Three top flight starting pitchers Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain and Madison Bumgarner and their catcher Buster Posey. Pablo Sandoval and the group of relievers that have been called the “core four” (Jeremy Affeldt, Sergio Romo, Javier Lopez and Santiago Casilla) also played a major role.

There were other key players that were acquired or brought up after the 2010 season, who contributed to the 2012 and 2014 titles. Players like Brandon Crawford, Brandon Belt, Hunter Pence, Angel Pagan and Ryan Vogelsong.

The three starting pitchers mentioned above (Lincecum, Cain and Bumgarner) all pitched well during the regular season, but all of them were outstanding in the postseason. In 2010 Lincecum won the first game of each postseason series beating the opposing team’s ace each time and then capped it off by winning the fifth and final game of the World Series. In 2012 Cain won the decisive fifth game of the National League Division Series (NLDS), the decisive seventh game of the National League Championship Series (NLCS) and was the starter in the 4th game of the World Series that the Giants eventually won in extra innings to win the title. Then in 2014 Bumgarner had a post season that ranks with the greatest ever. As good as he was during the early rounds of the playoffs, he saved his best for the World Series. By winning two games and having a “save for the ages” in game 7, Bumgarner’s performance is now ranked alongside Koufax in 65 and Gibson in 67.

However, as good as these individual performances were, the teams of this era have not been about individual players. These teams have not relied on just a few star players like the Mays/McCovey/Marichal teams or the Barry Bonds teams. You can take virtually any player and find some critical point in this run of championships where that player had little or no impact.

The question arises as to why this group of Giants were able to succeed in the postseason, when previous teams that had superior regular season records and probably superior talent were unable to do so. The teams of this era had a lot of good players, however, it is unlikely that any player from this era will become a Hall of Famer.

A lot of the credit had to go to manager Bruce Bochy, who seemed to have a low keyed approach which kept the team focused throughout the long season and more relaxed in the postseason. Bochy’s handling of the bullpen was without peer, he seemed to have an uncanny knack of putting his relief pitchers in a position to succeed and at the same time not wearing them out through the course of the season.

Then there was the General Manager Brian Sabian. In every one of the Giants World Series runs, Sabian was able to acquire some key players in the middle of the season to fill a hole that may have existed on the team. In 2010 he acquired Javier Lopez, Cody Ross and Pat Burrell during that year and it is hard to imagine that the Giants would have gone all the way without even one of those players. In 2012 he acquired Hunter Pence who was an emotional leader in the 2012 postseason and later became a key member of the team. He also made what arguably was one of the greatest mid-season pickups in history when he acquired Marco Scuturo for one minor leaguer. Scuturo would go on to hit well over .300 for the rest of the year, win the MVP in the NLCS against the Cardinals and knock in the winning run in extra innings of the final game of the World Series. In 2014 he acquired Jake Peavy who was a vital starter down the stretch.

The players themselves of course deserve a lot of credit as they ultimately had to make it happen on the field. In each of the Championship years the team had to overcome key injuries, which could have easy derailed their chances.

Was the fact that this group of players did not have to carry the weight of expectations an important factor? At the start of each of the championship seasons the Giants were not predicted to qualify for the postseason and when they made the postseason, they were not predicted to win. They never had to answer the question of “when are you going to win one” which is a question that certainly haunted Bonds as the years went on without a title and probably other previous Giant greats as well.

Or was it simply the Giants time. In every one of their postseason runs there was a moment or maybe a number of moments when the Giants season was hanging by a thread. But each time they survived, where previous teams didn’t. As Duane Kuiper said in 2010 after the Giants won a critical postseason game, largely as a result of an error by an opposing player, “maybe this franchise is due a little luck”.

Of course there is no clear answer to this question and it is probably a combination of a lot of these factors. But there is no doubt that the accomplishments of the teams of this era will never be forgotten. Not just the fact that they won, but how they won. Overcoming 52 years in San Francisco without a title in 2010. Winning six elimination playoff games in 2012 and winning as a wild card team in 2014. It truly was an amazing run.

After the 2014 World Series Title, the Giants would make one more postseason run in 2016, falling to the Chicago Cubs in the National League Division Series. After 2016, the Giants run was over. The game seemed to be becoming more and more dominated by younger players and the Giants reliance on veteran's from past Championship years was not producing results.

After the 2018 season, the Giants hired Farhan Zahdi, to be their new President of Baseball Operations, which is a title similar to the General Manager title in years past. After the 2019 Season Bruce Bochy retired as the Giants Manager and Madison Bumgarner, who was the last of the three great starters from their glory years, left the Giants and signed with Arizona as a free agent. These changes have signaled the end of this "Golden Era".

Yes there are still a few players on the current team from their Championship years, but their best years seem to be behind them and they will likely assume a diminished role moving forward.

Looking to the Future

So how do you move on from a Golden Era? It may not be easy, but the future is not without hope. Zahdi and the new Field Manager Gabe Kapler are disciples of Sabermetrics, which is the new more scientific way of evaluating talent as created by Bill James and Billy Beane. Last year, which was Zahdi's first year with the Giants, the team showed a lot of improvement from the beginning of the year to the end and the Giants farm system appears to be significantly improved.

In this Covid-19 shortened season of 2020, the Giants have shown a lot of promise especially offensively. So as we enter a sixth, yet to be named era, the Giants fortunes appear to be on the rise.

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