Any moment now San Francisco may discover that it has a baseball team. A winning team. There is even a chance that some people might wander into Candlestick Park, if they can remember where it is. Last week, though, like all of last season, legions of fans were forgetting. And some marauding high school students were having a field day mugging the few who did appear. What sports talk there was in the Union Street bars was of the basketball Warriors, and in the suburbs, where the Giants peddle 85% of the few season tickets they manage to sell, the situation was the same.
When they left San Francisco last week after an 11-game home stand, the Giants were in first place in the West but down 6,000 in attendance from last year, which was a disaster both on the field and at the gate. The 1972 Giants finished fifth in their division, drew only 647,744, lost more than $600,000 and for the first time in history did not pay a stock dividend.
Not that Owner Horace Stoneham is talking about fleeing San Francisco. He says the Giants signed a 35-year lease in 1958 and are committed to remain. But there are those who believe Stoneham laid the groundwork for legal escape a few years ago when he brought suit against the City and County of San Francisco over a freshly levied 50-cents-a-ticket operators' tax. Stoneham was understandably unhappy when the Giants were told that their fans would have to pay, via the tax, for the enlargement of Candlestick Park, an increase in seating capacity that would benefit the football 49ers but might ruin the Giants. Now there are 58,000 baseball seats in the park and an advance sale of near zero. Fans seldom rush to buy season tickets when they know they can get a good seat just by strolling in.
Nevertheless, the Giants are a team of tremendous talent and promise, and if they continue to perform as they have for the last couple of weeks, even San Franciscans will find it impossible to stay aloof. Of their first 16 games, the Giants won 12. All four of the losses were to Cincinnati, the 1972 pennant winner. Since the Giants have also beaten the Reds three times, it is not inconceivable that the team which plunged from first in 1971 to near the bottom in '72 could rebound all the way in 1973.
And when the fans do arrive, they will have few problems finding plausible heroes. First, there are the golden old-timers, Juan Marichal and Willie McCovey, both in remarkable shape after a year or so of medical reconstruction. Although he pitched one bad game, Marichal already has won three. For the first time in memory, he says, he is pitching without pain. The surgeons removed a lumbar disc from his spine last winter. In doing so they gave back to the 34-year-old righthander his high kick, and with it his control and most of his fastball. Ice cubes have done the rest.
"Always before, I see the other guys with their arms in an ice bucket after a game and I say no," says Marichal. "But this year I look at the calendar and see this is 1973, and I am born in 1938 and I decide it's ice for me. My arm snaps back now like it did 10 years ago. I hope it stays this way."
McCovey has two arthritic knees and pain is assuredly no stranger to the 35-year-old first baseman, but the right forearm he broke early last season is as strong as before and once again he is the most feared hitter in the game.
"I hate to see Willie come up, let alone hit," says Leo Durocher. When Durocher brought Houston into San Francisco last week the Astros were half a game behind the Giants for the division lead. That night McCovey hit a two-run homer in the ninth inning and the Giants won 5-4. The next day he hit two more, both in the fourth inning, and the Giants won 9-3. "See?" snarled Durocher. "See what I mean?" Last Friday McCovey got his fifth homer and Marichal pitched a five-hitter as the Giants beat the Dodgers 7-3.
A quiet Southerner named Ed Goodson is giving McCovey a chance to do something more than trot to first base after an intentional walk. For the first time since 1968, Jim Ray Hart's last good year, the Giants have a hitter behind McCovey. "We finally got someone who can protect Willie," says Manager Charlie Fox—who wishes he could find someone to protect himself from the San Francisco columnists. Some of these contend that Fox is old-fashioned and therefore should be fired.
Unquestionably, Fox does have a deficiency—one of communication with his troops. He tells them what he thinks they should know, and often that consists of little more than nine names printed on a lineup card. In the spring his silence had Goodson climbing walls. Goodson has been a first baseman and an outfielder, but now Fox said that he would like to have the tall Virginian try his hand at third base. A few days later Fox apparently forgot about him. Goodson began wandering around playing third, playing first, playing the outfield, playing with the thought of sky-diving without a chute.
When the season opened, Goodson found himself alternating at third with one Dirty Al Gallagher, an orator who publicly denounced Fox for not playing him regularly. "He said I'm a lousy third baseman," averred Gallagher, "and I say he's a lousy judge of talent." When the team returned to San Francisco from its opening winning jaunt to Cincinnati, Fox stunned everyone by starting Hart, who was so shocked he made two errors. Then Fox got serious: Gallagher went to the California Angels, Hart went to the Yankees and Goodson went to third. If that isn't communication, what is? Feeling secure at last, Goodson began ripping the ball smartly, and after 52 at bats was sixth in the league with a .385 average. It is tough to pitch around McCovey when the man behind him is communicating with the ball in that fashion.
Sam McDowell, an occasionally overpowering lefthander who has been having more trouble with his concentration than with the hitters and has been temporarily banished to the bullpen to regain his confidence, was a guest on a San Francisco talk show. A listener called in, questioned Goodson's ability to play third, and asked McDowell who really was going to play the position.
"No sweat," said McDowell. "As sewn as Hart gets healthy, he'll be the man." There was a moment of dead air. Then Monty Stickles, the host, said, "Ah, Sam, Hart was sold to the Yankees today."
Even with McDowell having his problems, the pitching staff has confounded the doubters—so far. There is Marichal, of course, and Tom Bradley, an import from the White Sox with a degree in Latin, and Jim Willoughby and Ron Bryant. Bryant has a Teddy bear. He would not throw a beanbag without it safely on the bench. The bear wears his own uniform, and when Bryant was 2-0, Fox, with unaccustomed garrulity, said, "If he keeps that zero on the end of his record, he can bring in the whole zoo."
Now that Bobby Bonds, age 27, has gotten over being angry at Fox for trading his close friend Willie Mays to the Mets last year, the Giant outfield is coming on strong. When Mays was traded, Bonds went into a sulk and a slump. But he did some soul-searching in the off season and came back ready to do whatever Fox asked. The manager's requests were succinct: have a great year in right field and become a leader. So far Bobby is on target with four home runs, a .311 average and a go-get-'em attitude. The speedy 23-year-old Garry Maddox has been a happy replacement for Mays in center. And then there are the one-r Garys. Fox has not yet decided whether Gary Matthews or Gary Thomasson is his left fielder. He has been alternating them, and both have played well, although Thomasson can make routine fly balls look exciting.
Additionally, Fox has not quite figured out what to do with Dave Kingman, a former Southern Cal pitcher who played left field, first and third base last year and led the team in home runs with 29. It is hard to keep a bat like that on the bench, despite the many times it whiffed. With Goodson at third, Kingman became McCovey's sub at first, which left him less than enthralled—a mood shared by Fox's critics when the manager brought on Kingman to pitch the last two innings of a game with Cincinnati. The Reds were leading 9-0 at the time, so it mattered little, perhaps, that the 6'6" righthander gave up two more runs. In any event, Kingman won a starting berth with trivia buffs. How many relief pitchers led their team in home runs the previous year?
Fascinating though the Giants are as individuals, they are continually in danger of flying apart as a team. The one man most likely to glue them together is a fiery, God-fearing youngster of 22 who plays shortstop and hits the ball as few shortstops ever have.
His long blond hair straightened by a recent shower, Chris Speier (see cover) walked quickly from the ball park into the players' parking lot. With concern he glanced around; then, spotting his pretty wife Aleta, he grinned. "Hey," he said, "are you feeling all right?"
"Were you at the game? I didn't see you. Are you sure you feel all right?"
"I feel fine. I was in section nine, the third row, where I always sit. Didn't you hear me yelling? I knew you'd get a hit in the ninth inning. I knew you would, and you did."
They got into their car and drove along a busy highway to their apartment in San Mateo. Speier drove carefully. A few days earlier they had learned that in November they would have their first child. They talked of the homes they had been looking at. Aleta mentioned that she had been asked to head a charity fund-raising drive in November. "November?" Speier frowned. "That may be a bad time." She laughed and said they could wait and see.
"Baseball," Chris Speier says, "is a job like any other job. I leave it at the park. Aleta has her worries, more important things than having to listen to why I'm not hitting the inside pitch."
If he is not hitting the inside pitch, then no one is throwing it. Last Friday he had four singles in five trips against the Dodgers and that lifted his average to .288. But if you should ask him about his average, he probably wouldn't know it. He says he never looks it up until the end of the season. "If I did, it would just add pressure," he said. "Hitting is hard enough as it is."
When he did look it up after last season, Speier's average was .269, highest on the club. "When an average like that is tops," he says deprecatingly, "you know we had to be in trouble."
True. Speier is a realist. Baseball is not his favorite sport, but it is the sport he fits. He was a high school basketball star in neighboring Alameda and he had scholarship offers. He weighed his future in basketball and then decided no. "If I had to do it over again," he says, "I'd be five inches taller and playing basketball. But I was a 6'1" playmaking guard, and I decided there wasn't much demand for those."
Speier signed with the Giants after a year of college, played one season at Amarillo, and when he went to spring training with the Giants as a nonroster player in 1971 he jokingly told Fox he was the best shortstop in camp. As it turned out, he was.
Fox may not say much, but he knows the complete shortstop when he sees one. He saw one in Speier. Chris' feet are quick, his hands quicker, and he flows to the ball without a move wasted. His arm should be registered with the National Rifle Association. But his temper is on a hair trigger. He leads the league in batting helmets thrown in disgust, at $100 a pop. "I've got to quit that," he says. "I've got family responsibilities now and I just can't be throwing my money away."
When Speier arrived in Candlestick Park, so had artificial turf, and suddenly Tito Fuentes, the second baseman, discovered the combination that would make him more than just another mediocre infielder. Fuentes' hands are amazingly quick, but on natural grass he tried to be even quicker, and this handcuffed him. On the artificial surface the ball comes faster and truer. Fox told Fuentes all he had to do was relax. He did, and he and Speier went together like the works of a very fine watch.
"You know what turned it around for me," Speier says reflectively. "Marrying Aleta last October. When I started playing I was a roustabout. I was single and I caroused. But the one thing she showed me that really turned me on was the way to God. I know what I was and I know what I am. With me, God and my family are one-two; baseball is third. They talk about me being some kind of a leader. To become a team leader you have to get respect off the field. You know what I hope they say: 'I wish I could be more like that man right there.' That would make me very happy."
At 35, a rejuvenated Willie McCovey is again a fearsome hitter.
Juan Marichal's famous high kick is back and the victories are coming once more.
A trivia question: Which right-handed relief pitcher led his team in home runs?