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Land Of The Giants

Baseball: San Francisco gets to heart of matter by clinching first title since 1989.


SAN FRANCISCO — The executioner's song was delivered to the accompaniment of exploding champagne corks Saturday.

Amid the lunacy, the San Francisco Giants chanted "Beat L.A.," having done just that.

The Dodgers were put to rest when the Giants completed their improbable drive to the National League West title with a 6-1 victory over the San Diego Padres before 54,578 at 3Com Park.

Barry Bonds danced across the dugout roof, retreated to the champagne stench of the clubhouse, and said:

"This is definitely more rewarding when you know the Dodgers had the better team.

"I mean, I'm just glad all those other teams gave up on the players we got. We're a throwback team.

"Nobody thought we could do anything, but we played together and prayed together."

Nobody else gave them a prayer--of that, Bonds is right--but the Giants went from last at 68-94 in 1996 to first at 90-71 in 1997.

They finish the regular season with a meaningless game today, then head to Florida for Tuesday's divisional series opener against the Marlins.

Defying Nevada odds and naysayers' opinions, the Giants qualified for the postseason with what many believe was less talent but more heart than the Dodgers

General Manager Brian Sabean, who needed only a year to revitalize the roster, didn't dispute that the Giants played with heart en route to 46 come-from-behind wins, but he bristled at those who put down the Giants' talent.

"Anybody who thinks this is a fluke, a miracle, is crazy," he said.

"I think [the Dodgers'] track record as a pitching staff is certainly impressive, but I don't think we have any less talent.

"That's an interesting story line because of how many new players we brought in and how it came together, or how the coaching staff and [Manager] Dusty Baker put it all in place. By the same token, look at how many of these guys had been in the postseason or in competitive situations."

The experience and talent were there, Sabean said. Throw in the work ethic, he added, and it leads to character and chemistry, or as Baker said:

"We have a lot of blue-collar guys who had been in different places and came here with something to prove, looking for a home."

"Dustiny" is what closer Rod Beck called it in tribute to the manager, who led his team to its first division title in eight years, erasing in part the bitter memory of 1993, when the Giants lost to the Dodgers in the season finale, allowing the Atlanta Braves, then in the West, to win the division.

The Padres can relate. They passed the Giants on the way down this year, going from first to last.

"I tip my hat to them," catcher John Flaherty said. "There weren't a lot of people giving them much credit in spring training.

"It goes to show you that if you've got a bunch of guys who maybe aren't the best players but are on the same page and want the same thing, good things can happen. They don't quit."

The Giants closed out the Dodgers in style, winning eight of their last 10.

Left-hander Wilson Alvarez, one of three pitchers acquired in July when Chicago White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf quit on his team, gave up only two hits in seven shutout innings Saturday. Roberto Hernandez, who came West with Alvarez, teamed with Beck to wrap it up.

Tony Gwynn, who will win his eighth batting title, wasn't in the San Diego lineup because of leg problems, but Gwynn wasn't going to compensate for the Giants' economical use of seven hits against five Padre pitchers.

San Francisco ranks 10th in the league in hitting, 11th in pitching and ninth in defense, but "that doesn't mean anything now," said Bonds, who savored a cigar and told reporters they owed Sabean an apology.

The new general manager had been labeled the village idiot when he traded Matt Williams to the Cleveland Indians for second baseman Jeff Kent, shortstop Jose Vizcaino and reliever Julian Tavarez, the first major step in the reconstruction of a team that had ended the 1996 season with a lineup of triple-A players.

"I know I'm not an idiot, but no one owes me an apology," said Sabean, a former New York Yankee scouting director. "I was baptized by George Steinbrenner. I mean, I knew I was trading an institution [in Williams], but we needed to fill a lot of holes and we needed to improve our depth.

"We weren't going to sit back and bide our time until the new park opens [in 2000]."

The subsequent acquisition of J.T. Snow and the trade deadline steal of Alvarez, Hernandez and Danny Darwin helped put the Giants over the top and has likely assured Sabean of his league's executive-of-the-year award.

"That's almost embarrassing because it would show how bad we were the last couple of years," he said. "It's flattering, but I don't do this alone."

However, he can't ignore how far the Giants have come and how much he had to do. Platoon third baseman Bill Mueller is the only home-grown player in the Giants' regular lineup.

"There haven't been many front offices in any sport in my memory that have done as much as we have in one year," Sabean said.

Well, there have been only four other baseball teams in this century to go from last to first.

Postseason Matchups

American League

New York vs. Cleveland

(begins Tuesday at New York)

Baltimore vs. Seattle

(begins Wednesday at Seattle)

National League

Atlanta vs. Houston

(begins Tuesday at Atlanta)

San Francisco vs. Florida

(begins Tuesday at Florida)

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