The Unlikely 89 Season
They look, 20 years later, pretty much like any collection of men who once played major league baseball. A few jowls. A smattering of beer bellies. Some gray hair. Or no hair. And a few guys who still look fit enough to leg out a slow grounder.
“You got a portrait in the attic? What’s your secret?”
“Vodka and red wine.”
The usual give and take.
But Friday’s reunion of the 1989 Giants team – an afternoon gathering under a tent in Seals Plaza to raise money for the Giants Community Fund – was a reminder that this particular combination of players was unlike any in the history of the game.
Country boy Will Clark who underlined his intensity with eye black.
The smart and smooth-talking battery of Mike Krukow and Bob Brenly.
Lanky and scowling Mike LaCoss and compact and sunny Jose Uribe, a comedic contrast with their side-by-side lockers.
NL MVP Kevin Mitchell with his gold tooth and loud suits – and one half, with Clark, of the Pacific Sock Exchange.
The Caveman Don Robinson. The Killer B’s. The silent and fireball-throwing Scott Garrelts. Big Daddy Rick Reuschel, whose workout regimen included riding the exercise bike while working a crossword and smoking a cigarette. (“Best fielding pitcher in baseball,” said Norm Sherry, the ’89 pitching coach. “Great athlete. He was like one of those circus elephants that can balance on a ball.”)
And leading this motley crew was the Humm-Baby skipper, Roger Craig, holding court in the dugout every day with reporters who, resist as they might, fell hard for his cowboy charm and grandfatherly good humor.
“Of all the teams I played on, there was never one as close as this team,” relief pitcher Craig Lefferts said, standing at a table signing autographs with fellow pitcher Kelly Downs Friday afternoon.
“Roger did a really good job. There were so many different personalities from all over the place,” he said. “But everyone hung out. Four, ten guys would go out together.”
“Even in San Francisco, ten couples would go to dinner downtown,” Lefferts said.
And that championship season, so soon after the Giants’ worst year in its history, unfolded unlike any other.
There was Dave Dravecky coming back after surgery on a cancerous tumor in his pitching arm. “It looked like a shark took a bite out of it,” Krukow remembered. Against all odds, he played his way back into the starting rotation and won two games – only to break his fragile arm in mid-pitch in his second start. The arm soon was amputated. (“I apologize,” Dravecky joked Friday from the stage, “to everyone who was just introduced and I was unable to clap.”)
There was Mitchell catching a fly ball with his bare hand and, in all seriousness, asking Clark in the dugout afterward, “Think that will make SportsCenter?”
There was Will the Thrill, when the Giants trailed in the ninth inning of Game 5 of the NLCS, telling Mitchell in the on-deck circle, “Put your bat down, Mitch. I got it.” And he did.
“That’s what made him so good,” Donnell Nixon said, still marveling two decades later. “He wasn’t just talking. He backed it up.”
“If my life was on the line,” Greg Litton added, “and I couldn’t go the plate myself, the one person I’d want to hit for me is Will Clark. He had the same intensity whether it was the first inning or the bottom of the ninth. I never saw him give away an at-bat.”
Nixon and Litton were among the backup utility players who called themselves the Killer B’s, for the B squad in spring training. They made up a game that season they called “Service.” During infield, the Killer B’s – Litton, Nixon, Ernie Riles, Chris Speier, Ken Oberkfell – lined up at third base and had first-base coach Wendell Kim hit grounders as hard as he could. The player with the most errors had to serve the others the drinks of their choice after the game.
“I served a lot of drinks that season,” Litton said.
Litton remembered the time he tried to snap a bat over his knee after a strikeout. It didn’t break, and Litton – in searing pain and mortified — walked out to his spot at second base without so much as a limp or a grimace. “I’m proud of that,” he said, laughing about it now. “Then Roger did a double switch, and I’ve never been so happy to get pulled from a game. I took two of the biggest pain pills (trainer) Mark Letendre had. I was in treatment for two months.”
“I remember yelling over to you after you did that, ‘You big dummy!’ ” Mitchell said. After a season as manager and GM of the late Sonoma Crushers and seven years as a hitting instructor in the Mexican league, Mitchell has a new perspective on his playing days.
“I didn’t realize how hard it is (to manage a club),” he said. “You’ve got to look after everybody. I didn’t realize how much trouble I gave (the Giants).”
Trouble like missing a World Series workout. Trouble like never learning the signs. (He wasn’t alone – Jose Uribe never learned them either.) Clark recalled standing on third base and watching third-base coach Bill Fahey flash the sign for a suicide squeeze. Clark called time-out. “I ain’t goin’!” Clark told the coach. “He’s going to hit it right at me!”
Mitchell, listening to the story during the panel discussion Friday, piped up.
“I didn’t even KNOW the signs,” he admitted.
The Giants that year almost didn’t make it to the post-season. They needed to take just one game from the Dodgers in LA to win the division. Krukow told the story.
“The last week of the season we were leaking oil big time. We were in LA. All we had to do was win one game to clinch the division. We lost the first game, 5-2. Then lost the next day. Then the next. We come into the locker room at Dodger Stadium after the final game there and all the lockers had been covered in plastic. With our losses, the boxes of champagne had been pushed to the side. However, we still could clinch if the Padres lost to the Reds that night in San Diego.
“Someone said Tumorhead – trainer Mark Letendre – had the game on in the training room. He had a little transistor held together with white athletic tape. Only he could hear it on his earphone, so he’s giving us the play by play. Here come the Reds. They take the lead. 13th inning. Someone says, hey, there’s a better radio in the lunchroom. So 25 guys shuffle across the clubhouse like one big human hairball and into a room that’s about 12 by 10. Twenty-five guys, maybe 30, crammed in. Everyone could hear Jerry Coleman calling the game. Norm Charlton pitching for the Reds. Base hit. Sacrifice bunt. Runner to second. Second Out. Now Garry Templeton comes up. Strike one. Everybody leans in closer to the radio. Strike two. Everybody leans in even closer. Then we heard Jerry Coleman say, ‘Strike -’ And we never heard him say three.”
The Giants had won.
Then they beat the Cubs to win the pennant.
Then, in the unlikeliest of match-ups, they faced their rivals across the bay, the Oakland A’s, for the first Bay Bridge World Series.
And in the unlikeliest of events, an earthquake hit just as Game 3 was about to begin.
The ’89 Giants were swept in that World Series. There was no fairy-tale ending for that amazing season.
But if you had seen these guys gathered again for the first time since that World Series game, you knew that season changed each of their lives.
As Norm Sherry put it, surveying the room on Friday, “It was a bunch of guys that really thought they could win.”