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Citizens of San Francisco had long feared the Big One when it
struck just after 2 p.m. Pacific standard time on Nov. 13. In
his first roster move after only six weeks as Giants general
manager, Brian Sabean traded All-Star third baseman Matt
Williams to the Cleveland Indians for pitcher Julian Tavarez,
infielders Jeff Kent and Jose Vizcaino, a player to be named
later (pitcher Joe Roa) and $1 million. At the epicenter, in the
Giants' ticket office, reaction to the move measured 7.8 on the
Sphincter scale.

In a San Jose Mercury News survey published on Nov. 15, 93% of
those polled disapproved of the Williams trade. The other 7%
apparently thought the Giants had dealt Mitch Williams. Scores
of fans threatened to cancel their season-ticket orders. The
team received so many angry phone calls that a switchboard
operator, Corrinne Espino, broke down and wept. Sabean and other
San Francisco executives were bombarded with hundreds of
threatening faxes and E-mail letters. One 30-year season-ticket
holder suggested that Sabean jump off the Golden Gate bridge.
Several others asked him if he had done something with his head
that was anatomically improbable. Newspaper columnists compared
Sabean to heavy-drinking former Giants owner Horace Stoneham,
who, in his most infamous transaction, traded future MVP Orlando
Cepeda for journeyman pitcher Ray Sadecki.

A few days after the Williams deal, when it became safer for the
40-year-old Sabean to go out in public, he gave a press
conference during which he sounded vaguely Nixonian as he
declared, "I am not an idiot." Privately, however, Sabean was
pleased with the passion, if not the pathology, of the San
Francisco faithful. He knew what the fans didn't: that the
Williams trade was only the first step in his master plan to
revive the Giants, who would have been the worst team in the
National League last season had it not been for the slapstick
Philadelphia Phillies.

Besides, Sabean was inured to criticism after having worked
eight years in the New York Yankees' player personnel
department. Sabean had often gone to war with Yankees' owner
George Steinbrenner when the Boss wanted to trade prized
prospects for immediate gratification. "I'm battle-tested,
because that was an education under the gun," says Sabean, who
had the guts to court and marry Steinbrenner's secretary,
Barbara McArdle. "Those days taught me to stand by my
convictions no matter how high the stakes."

Still, Sabean admits that trading Williams was the toughest
baseball decision he has ever made, one that caused him three
sleepless nights before the deal was consummated. He understood
that trading a player who had averaged 30 homers and 92 RBIs in
the 1990s to the Indians appeared, at first blush, to be lunacy.
Sabean correctly predicted that San Francisco fans would see
their gain from the swap as nothing but a middle reliever
(Tavarez) and two guys (Kent and Vizcaino) recently cast off by
the lowly New York Mets. "I didn't have my head in the sand,"
Sabean says. "I knew Matt was a fan favorite and that this would
not be a popular decision, but I was tired of losing. Desperate
times call for bold moves."

After all, the 1996 Giants lost 17 of 19 games during one
stretch and finished with a 68-94 record, 23 games behind the
National League West champion San Diego Padres. Because of
injuries, the lineup penciled in by manager Dusty Baker on
Opening Day played together only three other times the rest of
the season. San Francisco used the disabled list a
franchise-record 22 times, for 13 players. Every starter except
Barry Bonds convalesced there, and Williams missed 57 games with
a shoulder injury. Relegated to often playing with minor league
call-ups, the Giants were third worst in their league in hitting
(.253) and second worst in pitching (4.71 ERA). Not
surprisingly, they drew the fifth-lowest number of fans (1.4
million) in baseball.

The Giants' third consecutive dreadful season made them the
target of much derision around the Bay Area, especially from
their crosstown rivals. Oakland A's general manager Sandy
Alderson joked recently: "I was listening to Hooked on Golf on
the radio and thought to myself, What could be worse than golf
on radio? And then I thought, The Giants on television."

So Sabean cleaned house. By signing free-agent centerfielder and
leadoff man Darryl Hamilton (.293, six home runs and 51 RBIs
with the Texas Rangers in 1996) and trading for first baseman
J.T. Snow (.257, 17 and 67 with the California Angels) and third
baseman Mark Lewis (.270, 11 and 55 with the Detroit Tigers) to
go along with Kent (.284, 12 and 55) and Vizcaino (.297, 1 and
45), Sabean shored up San Francisco's outfield and gave the
Giants a new starting infield. A sixth starter, catcher Rick
Wilkins, had joined San Francisco in a trade with the Houston
Astros last July. Sabean correctly states that other than at
third base, the Giants this year will have a better (or at least
equal) player at every position than it did last season.

So it's no surprise that San Francisco's spring training
clubhouse in Scottsdale, Ariz., has looked like a frat house
during rush week. Hello, my name is Barry Bonds, and you are...?
"It's almost like I'm managing a different team," Baker says.
"It reminds me of my days in the Marines. I'm walking around
here calling everybody by his last name because I haven't
learned some of the first names yet."

In fact, the only notes of normality have been sounded by the
mercurial Bonds, who began the off-season miffed at management
for firing his father, Bobby, as hitting coach and demanded a
trade, moaned about the Williams deal and claimed that ownership
"flat-out lied" to him by reneging on a contract deadline. Then
he arrived at Giants camp three days early, saying that he
desperately wanted to finish his career with San Francisco,
whereupon he signed a two-year, $22.9 million contract
extension. All this proved once again that Bonds is like the Bay
Area weather: If you don't like his personality, wait five
minutes and it'll change.

Bonds has been steadfastly congenial this spring, even playfully
congratulating himself for not busting any antiques when he did
a half-gainer down a flight of stairs at his rented house last
week. But look for another Bonds mood swing when the three-time
MVP realizes that nobody else in this year's projected starting
lineup hit .300 or had more than 19 homers last season. Hence
Bonds, who endured a league-record 151 walks last year with
Williams hitting behind him (when Williams was healthy), may not
see another strike until baseball's new labor deal expires.

The Giants' other concern is pitching. Thirty-five-year-old Mark
Gardner is likely to be the Opening Day starter. He signed with
San Francisco as a free agent on the eve of last season. Gardner
is the only Giants starter to have a winning record in 1996
(12-7, 4.42 ERA), but Sabean believes that San Francisco's
youthful quartet of righthanders William VanLandingham and
Osvaldo Fernandez and southpaws Shawn Estes and Kirk Rueter is
improving. Indeed, the collective ERA of the Giants' starting
staff did drop nearly a run after the All-Star break. Sabean
also projects that Tavarez, who was 10-2 with a 2.44 ERA as a
middle reliever in '95 but slipped to 4-7 and 5.36 last year,
can become the Giants' version of the Yankees' former setup man,
Mariano Rivera, providing a strong link between the starters and
closer Rod Beck.

San Francisco's vastly improved defense could also help the
pitchers. Last year Hamilton set an American League record by
handling 389 chances without an error, and Snow won his second
straight Gold Glove. Vizcaino may have limited range, but he did
lead National League shortstops in fielding percentage in '95,
the last time he played the position regularly. "I think the
Giants have gone out and done a solid job putting all these new
pieces together," says Snow. "I'm sure the experts will still
pick us to finish last in the division, but that can make
players even more determined to succeed."

Lewis knows that stepping in for Williams at third base brings
new meaning to the term hot corner. And Kent is all too
accustomed to replacing icons. He was traded to the Mets for
David Cone in 1992 and to Cleveland for beloved second baseman
Carlos Baerga last July. "In a sense you're seen as the booby
prize, and you have the misfortune of being booed and disliked
from the start," says Kent, who hopes to rediscover the stroke
that produced 20-homer seasons in '93 and '95. "I know I can't
go to all of the Giants' fans and ask them to like me, so
instead I am driven by the fear of failure. I know I'm not a
Hall of Famer, but I don't want to be second best to anybody,
and I think a lot of us new guys feel that way."

As San Franciscans have begun to learn about these green Giants,
there has been a gradual metamorphosis in public opinion.
Sabean's blueprint will be given a chance. In a perfect world, a
world of career years and good health, San Francisco might
contend for a wild-card spot. In the real world they are more
likely to be hard-nosed yet mediocre. And it's clear that
whoever draws up the Giants' schedule possesses a wicked sense
of humor and a soft heart. San Francisco's final two exhibition
games will be at 3Com Park against Williams and the Indians.
Then the Giants' first eight regular-season games will be
against the National League bottom feeders: the Pittsburgh
Pirates, the Mets and the Phillies.

Baker yearns for a quick start so he can get some shut-eye. Many
times last season he woke up at 4 a.m. asking himself what he
could do to make the Giants winners again. "I firmly believe
this team will win the World Series, and we can do it before we
move to our new ballpark in 2000," says the stubbornly
optimistic Baker. "My goal is to win so many pennants here that
people look at us like the old Boston Celtics and get tired of
seeing us win all the time."

To realize that lofty--or is it loony?--dream, Baker will have
to rely on the scouting instincts of Sabean, who admits that
there are still plenty of cynics in San Francisco, folks who
believe the Giants will win a championship right about the time
mayor Willie Brown becomes president of the Elvis Grbac Fan
Club. And who can blame them? The once proud franchise of Willie
Mays and Leo Durocher hasn't won a World Series since 1954,
before the San Francisco Giants existed. The team hasn't reached
the playoffs since '89. Sabean's challenge is daunting, and as
he continues to work the phones, moving players like a
nine-year-old trading bubble-gum cards, he occasionally hears
some ominous words ringing in his ears. They're a warning he
often heard from Steinbrenner, now voiced by wary San Francisco

Do what you want...but you better be right.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY V.J. LOVERO Baker (foreground) and his new charges--from left, Hamilton, Vizcaino, Kent, Lewis and Snow--spent early spring training days learning one another's names. [Darryl Hamilton, Jose Vizcaino, Dusty Baker, Jeff Kent, Mark Lewis and J.T. Snow]

TWO COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY V.J. LOVERO While Hamilton (left) adds speed and defense to the Giants, Kent brings little of either, so he had best recover his power stroke. [Darryl Hamilton; Jeff Kent]



Even with slugger Matt Williams batting behind him since 1993,
Barry Bonds has drawn more intentional walks (145) in the last
five seasons than any major leaguer over a comparable span, at
least since baseball began keeping track of intentional walks,
in 1955. Here are the six players who rank behind Bonds and
their totals.

Years Player, Team Int. Walks

1967-71 Willie McCovey, Giants 143

1987-91 Wade Boggs, Red Sox 100

1975-79 Ted Simmons, Cardinals 99

1967-71 Hank Aaron, Braves 97

1961-65 Frank Robinson, Reds 97

1992-96 Frank Thomas, White Sox 96