The 1993 San Francisco Giants hold a place in history. It’s a place that’s worthy of honor and respect, but also one that the players and fans surely wish they didn’t have. The ’93 Giants are baseball’s last great team to be left out of the playoffs.
Major league baseball was at the end of an era in 1993. A shift in divisional alignment and playoff format for 1994 was going to double the teams in the postseason and allow for a wild-card for the first time. A sport that had long been defined by extraordinary pennant races, month-long battles to the death between great teams, was making a fundamental change. That change came one year too late for the Giants.
Nothing of the sort was realistically expected when the season began. After an NL West title in 1987, a National League pennant in 1989 and a solid contending season in 1990, San Francisco had slipped off the pace the past two years.
Now that’s not to say there wasn’t optimism. San Francisco made a monster splash on the free agent market, signing two-time National League MVP Barry Bonds away from Pittsburgh. But the Giants were still chasing the NL West’s new power, the Atlanta Braves. The Braves were fresh off back-to-back pennants and made a big offseason splash of their own, signing Hall of Fame starting pitcher Greg Maddux.
In short, San Francisco was hoping to be good again, but baseball fans in general were not expecting them, or anyone else in the NL West (which included the Reds, Dodgers, Padres, Astros and Rockies) to make a serious challenge to Atlanta.
But this Giants team could swing the bats. Bonds, playing at a time when his head was still normal-sized and most observers believe he was not using PEDs, won his third straight MVP award. The numbers were dazzling. A stat line of .458 on-base percentage/.677 slugging percentage. 45 home runs, 123 RBI, 129 runs scored and 29 stolen bases. There was nothing Barry couldn’t do.
Matt Williams put up big power numbers at third base, slugging 38 homers and driving in 110 runs. Will Clark, one of the better first baseman of his era, had a final stat line of .367/.432. Robby Thomson had a big year at second base with a .375/.496 line.
Willie McGee was now 34-years-old, but the veteran outfielder who had been a part of championship teams in St. Louis and Oakland, played right and put up an OBP of .353. Kurt Manwaring’s .345 OBP was respectable by any standard and good for a catcher. All in all, San Francisco finished second in the National League in runs scored.
The pitching was almost as good. Bill Swift and John Burkett each won 20-plus games at the top of the rotation. Swift’s ERA of 2.82 made him the ace of the staff, while Burkett clocked in at 3.65. Manager Dusty Baker had to piece together a rotation behind the two aces, but he got respectable part-time work out of Trevor Wilson and Bud Black, who combined for 34 starts and finished with ERAs in the mid-3s.
Baker’s bullpen was built around Rod Beck, who saved 48 games with a 2.16 ERA. Reliable work ahead of him was done by Dave Burba, Kevin Rogers and Michael Jackson. Baker could also turn to Jeff Brantley and Bryan Hickerson, who shuttled between the pen and the rotation. The San Francisco staff ERA was fifth-best in the National League.
The Giants lost their opening series in St. Louis. When San Francisco came home for a four-game series against Atlanta, this 1993 saga really got cooking.
Bonds ripped three hits and a home run off Maddux in the series opener, a 6-1 win. Burkett outdueled John Smoltz for a 1-0 win. The bats went quiet on Saturday, mustering only three hits in a 2-0 loss. When an early slugfest on Sunday saw San Francisco in an 11-6 hole after just four innings, this series looked headed for a split.
But Williams had four hits and two home runs. Bonds had four more hits of his own. The Giants rallied to tie and eventually won 13-12 in 11 innings. They were off and running. By the time Memorial Day weekend arrived, San Francisco was 31-17, holding a four-game lead on Atlanta. And they were playing three against the Braves.
Burkett did not pitch well in Friday’s opener, losing 7-4. But Clark and Bonds homered on Saturday to key a 6-3 win. Sunday’s rubber match was a good early season baseball game. San Francisco was struggling to score against Atlanta’s great Tom Glavine, trailing 3-1 in the seventh. Bonds ripped a three-run jack, the Giants won and they arrived at the holiday with a five-game lead in the NL West.
The early part of the summer was more of the same. San Francisco lost just one series between Memorial Day and the All-Star break. Their 59-30 record at the midpoint was the best record in baseball and they were nine games ahead of Atlanta.
There was no letup out of the break. San Francisco swept the contending Montreal Expos (today’s Washington Nationals) and took three of four from NL East-leading Philadelphia. A series loss at home to Los Angeles quelled the momentum and Atlanta—buoyed by a trade for slugging first baseman Fred McGriff—was building steam. But the Giants still had a 7 ½ game when they began a sequence of two three-game sets against the Braves in late August. This was the chance to put this race to bed.
The bats went silent. Over the three-game home series, Bonds, Williams and Clark combined for just eight hits—six of them singles. Swift got crushed in his start. San Francisco lost all three. The visit to Atlanta was only marginally better. Bonds swung the bat, but Swift was crushed again, the rest of the lineup was quiet and San Francisco lost two of three.
By Labor Day, San Francisco still had the best record in baseball at 88-48. But Atlanta had the second-best record in the game and was only 2 ½ games behind. Baseball’s last great September pennant drive was at hand.
The Giants stumbled badly in early September. They played seven games against the Cardinals and Cubs. St. Louis was respectable. Chicago really wasn’t. In either case, San Francisco lost all seven and scored just 16 runs in the process. By September 17, they were in a four-game hole. In a stunning turn of events, it was now San Francisco that looked dead in the water.
But appearances were deceiving. The Giants got off the mat, swept Cincinnati, won three of four in Houston and came home to take four straight from San Diego. With six days to go in the season, they were back within a game of first place.
San Francisco split two games with Colorado, a split that was good enough to hold serve and stay within a game. The Giants were heading to Dodger Stadium to conclude the season with a four-game set. Swift opened the series on Thursday night with a sharp performance and a 3-1 win. The Braves concluded their series with the Astros by losing 10-8. The race was tied.
The odds were still against San Francisco. They were on the road against a respectable team in Los Angeles, who wanted nothing more than to spoil the dreams of their ancient rival. Atlanta was at home against Colorado. But given where the Giants had been just a couple weeks ago, they would take it.
And Bonds met the moment on Friday night. After Burkett struggled and dug an early 4-0 hole, Barry homered twice to key an 8-7 win. The Braves kept pace.
It was Clark, the MVP of the 1989 NLCS, who stepped up again in the clutch on Saturday afternoon, with a four-hit game. Dave Martinez, the reserve outfielder who would one day win a World Series managing the Washington Nationals, drove in three runs with two hits. The Giants won 5-3. The Braves kept pace.
San Francisco and Atlanta were both 103-58. Only once since divisional play began in 1969, had a team with 100 wins failed to win their division—the 1980 Baltimore Orioles. Even if you go back to the beginning of the World Series in 1903, there were only three other teams that had played at this level and failed to finish first. History was going to be made.
The Giants had one big thing going for them—they won the coin toss to determine where a potential one-game playoff on Monday would be played. That meant a short flight for them, a long cross-country flight for the Braves and then the advantage of the Candlestick crowd. If it got that far.
Atlanta won early in the day. Baker gave the ball to 21-year-old Salomon Torres, his eighth career start. Torres didn’t have it. Burba came on in early relief and couldn’t stop the bleeding. Los Angeles manager Tom Lasorda, having been knocked out of pennant races on the final weekend by San Francisco in 1982 and 1991, was anxious to deliver payback. He got it. The Giants were routed 12-1. The dream was over.
It was a crushing end to a magnificent season. And it begs the question—how should the 1993 San Francisco Giants be remembered?
To me, the 103-59 record says all. To use the Latin phrase Res ipsa loquitor—the thing speaks for itself. But I also know most fans judge a regular season by a simple standard—did it lead to a playoff berth?
Will Clark certainly felt that way. In the offseason he signed with the Texas Rangers in free agency. When the Rangers managed to lead the newly shrunk AL West with a record of 52-62 at the time of the 1994 players’ strike, Clark said simply “All I know is last season we won 103 games and didn’t get to the playoffs.”
But with the passage of time, San Francisco fans have had the chance to see their beloved franchise win three World Series titles. One of which came as a wild-card and none that were as good as this 1993 team. Perhaps that can represent some kind of balancing out. And the 1993 San Francisco Giants can simply be remembered as one of the greatest baseball teams of all-time.