Brian Johnson’s home run was 20 years ago today, and it’s impossible to describe what that means to the young folks and punk kids. But I’m going to try. For a while, it was on a short list of the greatest moments in San Francisco Giants history. It still is, of course, but it sure used to be a lot closer to the top.
The year was 1997, and the Giants were supposed to be useless. The progression went like this:
1950s: Hello, Giants!
1960s: Second place. Every damned year.
1970s: Started strong, but was basically 10 straight years of harsh chemical burns.
1980s: Two postseason appearances in the same decade for the first time since moving to San Francisco! The first postseason series victory since moving to San Francisco! Still plenty of disappointment and pain!
1990s: Disappointment and pain, but at least Tampa can go to hell.
The 1996 Giants were like this year’s team with Barry Bonds stapled to it. He was worth 9.6 WAR, and the ‘96 Giants lost 94 games, so the math even checks out. They were absolutely dreadful, and then they traded away their second-best player. There was no hope, and there shouldn’t have been hope. That roster was awful.
Except ... look, I don’t know exactly what happened, either. I guess we have to start with the conclusion that it was absolutely brilliant to trade Matt Williams a few days before his 31st birthday. And I actually wrote about 1000 words after this that I’ll have to publish separately, because I started going off on tangents about J.T. Snow and Jose Vizcaino and Allen Watson. It’s too big of a story to jam into a celebration of a single game, but just know that the Giants were supposed to be bad. Then they weren’t.
The Dodgers weren’t supposed to be bad. They were supposed to win the division by 10 games. They had a player win the Rookie of the Year award in five straight seasons. So they were supposed to be good, rich, and young. It was the last time we would have to worry about the Dodgers like that again. But, man, they had Piazza, Karros, Mondesi, Nomo, Valdez, Park, Astacio. They had a five-man rotation in which every pitcher was clearly, unambiguously better than anyone the Giants could start.
The Giants had Barry Bonds.
Oh, and they had some serious luck! That was important. They finished with a team OPS+ of 98, even with Bonds. They finished with a team ERA+ of 94, and I’m surprised they weren’t worse. They had two good starting pitchers for most of the season, and both of them had ERAs that were outpacing their peripheral numbers. The 1997 Giants were outscored on the year, probably because of a game against the Expos that is still going on right now, and yet they still managed to win 90 games.
This was one of those games:
More context: The Giants were supposed to be awful, and they were being outscored on the season, so even after they made the huge trade for Wilson Alvarez and Roberto Hernandez, no one really believed they were going to win the division. They lost four games in a row before this two-game series against the Dodgers, and it was like, well, yeah, of course they were going to fade away. They were terrible and the Dodgers were not.
If the Dodgers won that game, they would have been two up with nine games to play. The Giants went into the series with a chance to fall out of the race, tread water, or suddenly find themselves back in a tie. Those were the three options, and there was only one palatable choice. They had to win both games.
And this one was wild. Check out the win-probability chart from Baseball-Reference.com:
When the red line is under the 50-percent threshold, that’s when the Giants were likelier to win. They had the lead for most of the game (oh, look at that, Barry Bonds hit a homer, weird), but they kept giving up runs. Mike Piazza had a bunch of hits because of course he did, and he tied the game with a two-out, two-run single in the top of the seventh.
Brian Johnson struck out in the bottom of the ninth, too. He was a Todd Zeile sacrifice fly away from being forgotten.
The top of the 10th inning is what I’ll always remember, the agony of knowing this is where the season ended. Rod Beck allowed three straight hits, and everything was ruined.
I remembered three line drives, but apparently Piazza got lucky, and, really, it didn’t matter. The Giants’ bullpen was shaky all year, and this one had that same feeling. With the bases loaded and no outs, the fans were booing Beck.
Here’s how much he cared about those boos:
I miss that man. Though I do wonder if history would have been different without the call on the first pitch.
Looking at the camera angle and where the plate was, I’m thinking that would have been a more obvious strike today, especially with the GameDay technology. On the other hand, lol, eat it, Todd Zeile.
Then Zeile foul-tipped a pitch and looked at a fastball right down the middle to strikeout. Eddie Murray then retired in the middle of the next at-bat, and the stage was set for Brian Johnson.
But first, Beck had to pitch another two scoreless innings. He did. They were perfect. He used 19 pitches to get six outs. He was a danged hero. We’ll remember Johnson as the hero of the game, and rightfully so, but don’t be afraid to call it the Rod Beck Game, too.
That was 20 years ago, and if you’ll remember the Mr. Show sketch about the two guys who turn a bar fight into a lifelong partnership, I just looked up and said, “Oh ... my life.”
Yeah, that one.
Anyway, happy 20th birthday to one of the best games we’ll ever watch. It’s worth re-watching if you find the time. The silence of the crowd before every Beck pitch, the roar after every Giants hit ... it’s all one of the reasons this site exists, really. The Giant would win more important games, and they would eventually win three championships, but that doesn’t mean this home run means any less. It’s still one of the greatest moments in franchise history, and you should probably buy it a gift card or something.