COMMENTARY | The 1996 San Francisco Giants were awful in just about every sense of the word.
Just three years removed from a 103-win season, the Giants finished with a 68-94 record aided by an aging, injury-plagued roster. Barry Bonds' 40-40 season was the lone bright spot for the team, an impressive achievement considering his only protection in the lineup, Matt Williams, was lost for the season with an injury in early August. It was clear the Giants needed a major overhaul if they had any hope of being a contender again.
The overhaul did come, and it started at the top. At the end of the '96 season the Giants named Brian Sabean general manager, a move that would significantly alter the team's history -- both in the short term and in the future. Now, 17 years and two World Series championships later, Sabean is the longest-tenured GM in the game with reports surfacing that the Giants wish to sign him to another contract extension. It's a remarkable run that started with an equally remarkable team: the 1997 San Francisco Giants.
Sabean recognized that he'd inherited an incredibly flawed team with little discernible major-league talent and went to work that offseason to remake the roster. His first move was a major one, trading Williams to the Cleveland Indians for a package of players that included Jeff Kent, Jose Vizcaino, and Julian Tavarez. Williams was arguably the team's most popular player, and Sabean was crucified for the move by both fans and media alike. In fact, he famously went on Bay Area sports talk radio shortly after the trade to declare that he was "not an idiot" and asked for more patience.
Sabean made the case that the Giants needed position players, and trading Williams was the best way to fill a number of roster holes at once. Kent and Vizcaino were clear upgrades over what the Giants had at second base and shortstop, respectively, and Tavarez was a live arm who could help the backend of the bullpen.
Sabean wasn't done: A few weeks later, he traded pitcher Allen Watson and a prospect to the California Angels for first baseman JT Snow. The Giants had struggled to find a first baseman since Will Clark left before the '94 season, and Snow was a more-than-capable replacement. The Giants went on to sign Darryl Hamilton to play center field and bat leadoff; traded for infielder Mark Lewis from Detroit to pair with Bill Mueller (who had an impressive few months filling in for an injured Williams the year before) at third base; and signed veteran catcher Damon Berryhill to provide experience behind the plate. Suddenly, a roster that had seemed barren at the start of the offseason looked much more solid. Bonds had help around him in the lineup, and the Giants entered the '97 season with hopes they'd be a much-improved team.
And improve they did.
The Giants shot out of the gate, finishing April with a 17-7 record. They continued to play well throughout the spring and early summer, staying near the top of the National League West. Sabean's acquisitions were all performing well, and when the trade deadline rolled around that July it was assumed he'd look for reinforcements to bolster his first-place team. Sabean had already made smaller deals earlier in the month, trading for catcher Brian Johnson from Detroit and pitcher Pat Rapp from the Florida Marlins. Neither of those deals adequately prepared the baseball world for what Sabean had up his sleeve.
On July 31 of that year, Sabean pulled off the now-infamous "white flag" trade with the Chicago White Sox, sending a package of young players centered around pitcher Keith Foulke and top infield prospect Mike Caruso to Chicago for pitchers Wilson Alvarez, Roberto Hernandez and Danny Darwin. It was a shocking trade as the White Sox were still in contention for their division at the time of the deal. The trade improved the Giants' rotation and bullpen immediately and made them the favorites to win the West. It also showed that Sabean hadn't been cowed by the negative reaction to the Matt Williams trade, and that he still had it in him to make big moves when the situation called for it.
The Giants continued to play well down the stretch, and the players Sabean had traded for played big roles. Alvarez and Rapp helped strengthen the rotation while Hernandez picked up the slack for a struggling Rod Beck in the bullpen. Johnson gave the Giants a jolt of offense from a position that had been weak until his arrival; of course, he hit one of the most famous home runs in San Francisco Giants history when he beat the Dodgers with an extra-innings walkoff in late September (a game that was started by Terry Mulholland, whom Sabean had picked up from the Cubs in an August waiver deal).
The Giants went on to win the NL West before being swept in the Division Series by the Marlins, with two of the games being decided by just one run. Despite the early playoff exit, the Giants had established themselves as a team on the rise. And Sabean had established himself as one of baseball's boldest executives.
Looking back, the '97 season is even more impressive for Sabean considering where the Giants went from there. They enjoyed a run of success that lasted until 2004, a run that would include two more division championships, a wild-card berth, and a World Series appearance. In Kent and Snow, Sabean had acquired two cornerstone players who would play major roles for the Giants in the years to come. Plus, the '97 team reignited a fan base that had been lulled to sleep by three straight sub-par seasons.
Sabean has had his ups and downs during his 17 years as the Giants' GM. He's made some great moves, and he's made some really, really bad moves. He's put together impressive teams, and he's put together minor league-caliber teams. Through it all, he's never been afraid to make bold decisions when he thought they were necessary, and no team he's put together exemplifies that quite like the '97 team.
Brian Sabean has put together a World Series team in 2002, a 100-win team in 2003, a World Series winner in 2010, and another World Series winner in 2012. But, for my money, the 1997 team is still his most impressive achievement yet.
Dave Tobener has written about the Giants for the better part of a decade and has contributed Giants-themed articles to Yahoo Sports' Big League Stew. You can find him on Twitter: @gggiants.
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