The 1989 San Francisco Giants hadn’t won a pennant in 27 years as the season began. But the Giants were getting warmer. They won the NL West in 1987 and gotten to within one game of the World Series, before dropping the final two League Championship Series games in St. Louis. Expectations were high for 1988, but performance didn’t match and not only did San Francisco disappoint, but they had to watch the archrival Los Angeles Dodgers take the West, then go on and win the World Series in a year.
The lineup was anchored by first baseman Will Clark and leftfielder Kevin Mitchell. Clark was one the really good pure hitters of this time, able to hit for contact without compromising his power stroke. His productive years ended prematurely, as his upper body wasn’t built to last, and there’s no evidence he used steroids at the time everyone else was trying out the new fad. Mitchell had been a part of the Mets’ 1986 championship team and was one of the game’s top power hitters, as his 47 home runs, .635 slugging percentage and NL MVP award in ’89 would attest.
These two cornerstones were supported by a 1-2 combo of centerfielder Brett Butler and second baseman Robby Thompson. Neither were outstanding, but both were steady in providing RBI opportunities. A young third baseman in Matt Williams stepped up and hit 18 home runs and further contributed to an offense that finished second in the National League in runs scored.
San Francisco’s manager, Roger Craig, had made his reputation as a pitching coach under Hall of Famer skipper Sparky Anderson in Detroit, and he got the most out of the Giant staff. 40-year Rick Reuschel won 17 games with a 2.94 ERA. Scott Garrelts finished 14-5 with a 2.28 ERA and Don Robinson contributed 12 more wins.
At the end of the bullpen were Craig Lefferts and Steve Bedrosian, who combined for 37 saves and each had a sub-3.00 ERA. Mike LaCoss and Kelly Downs both started and relieved and were competent in each role. Collectively, it added up to a staff with the third-best ERA in the league.
The Giants plodded their way out of the gate and were 14-15 on May 5, when they won 10 of 14 games to right the ship and roll into Memorial Day with a 27-21 record, tied with the Cincinnati Reds and narrowly ahead of the Dodgers, San Diego Padres and Houston Astros in a packed race
San Francisco carried the momentum into the early summer and went 12-3 from June 9 to June 24, including taking five of six from the Reds and Astros. The Giants led the NL West by as many as four games before slogging their way through the last couple weeks prior to the All-Star break.
The good news was that the race was drastically thinned out. Houston was still within two games, but the Dodgers had collapsed. The Reds were headed into a long summer that would end with Pete Rose’s banishment from baseball for gambling. Meanwhile, San Francisco didn’t always play well, but they never fell over the cliff.
The slog continued after the break, with the Giants splitting their first 26 games of the second half, but the Astros couldn’t take advantage and the lead stayed at one game. San Francisco was hoping for an inspirational lift, and perhaps some practical help for the pitching staff when Dave Dravecky returned on August 10.
Dravecky had been diagnosed with a tumor in his arm and made his comeback. He beat Cincinnati 5-3 and it looked like a great story in the making. Then, on August 15, making his next start, he literally broke his arm in mid-delivery, a horrifying scene on the field, ending his career. Dravecky’s terrible injury overshadowed the surge the team was starting to go on.
The dichotomy of tragedy looming over triumph was oddly foreshadowing for these San Francisco Giants. They played well and pushed their lead to five games by the end of August, steadily maintained throughout September and clinched prior to the final weekend.
San Francisco met the Chicago Cubs in the National League Championship Series. The two teams traded blowouts in Wrigley Field, and the Giants then won three close games at home to win that first pennant in nearly three decades.
The tragedy followed triumph again in the World Series. The Giants met the Oakland A’s in what was supposed to be a celebration of the Bay Area. Instead, the nation saw an earthquake rock the region just prior to the third game. The Giants lost the Series in a sweep, but all was overshadowed by the extraordinary devastation that hit their home region.
Oakland, out of respect for the suffering going on around of them, didn’t have champagne in the clubhouse afterward. For the Giants, they’d had a great season and now a city had to be rebuilt.