The You-Know-What Hits the Fans

by Gregg Pearlman

Thursday, November 14, 1996

Never have I heard so much swearing in my life -- and I'm just talking about my sister. Deb and I were discussing the Giants' big transaction of November 13 (Brown Wednesday), and a great many "F" noises emanated from both of us. We're not pleased, you might say; Brown Wednesday is proof positive that, in the business of baseball, the fans do not enter the equation on any level except as the forkers-out of way too much money. Clearly we are to be counted, but not heard; what we want does not matter, and what we want is not what happened on November 13.

Matt Williams is gone. The Giants traded the classy, talented third baseman, someone who should never wear a major league uniform other than that of the Giants, to the Cleveland Indians. Years ago, when Contributing Editor David Beck and I corresponded via cassette tape, we used to do silly little sketches. One of Dave's sports updates reported that the Giants had received some awesome player or other in exchange for three walnuts, a helium-filled balloon, and a Ted Nugent album. If the Indians had sent the Giants the balloon and the album this time, maybe things would seem better, but not by much.

Here's what the Giants got in return for the best third baseman in franchise history: pitcher Julian Tavarez, infielder Jeff Kent, and infielder Jose Vizcaino. (Kent and Vizcaino were part of the package that the Mets sent to Cleveland for Carlos Baerga mere months ago, so obviously the Indians have little regard for them.)

On the morning of the trade, KNBR reported a USA Today rumor that had Williams going to the Indians for Tavarez and Jack McDowell, who is only a former Cy Young winner. I wonder if this offer was ever really on the table.

I'm pretty sure the Giants went after Tavarez because since the departure of Salomon Torres, they miss having the proper balance of head cases to sane people. Tavarez is the guy who body-slammed an umpire this season. He was the Mariano Rivera of 1995, when he had a monster year as a setup man to Jose Mesa. Last year, however, his ERA jumped by roughly three runs, he spent time in the minors, and at one point was yanked out of the bullpen for four largely ineffective starts. So you can see why the Giants were salivating at the chance to pick up a guy like this.

Jeff Kent is a former top prospect who has never quite panned out -- kind of the poor man's Todd Zeile. I've always perceived him as a brutal infielder (though he's seen in the newsgroups as "average"), and the kind of hitter who may give you 20 homers and 75 RBIs and a .270 batting average, meaning that he's another Glenallen Hill. Granted, you're now considered a moron if you place any stock in HR-RBI-AVG-type stats; no, nowadays you must go by batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage, which are fine gauges. Matty's last year were .302, .367, and .510. Kent's were .284, .330, and .432. I don't know what major league average numbers were in these categories, but league OBP traditionally is, or used to be, around .330. This means Kent has a roughly average ability to reach base. The batting averages weren't that far apart, really -- the difference would be nine base hits in 500 at-bats -- but the real disparity is in slugging percentage, as you see. So if you put Kent at third base, where he's played quite a bit over his career, you're losing a bunch of power and even a few walks, though Williams was hardly one to take walks. In the field, you're replacing a Gold Glover with someone whose glove is made of some kind of metal, but not gold. But evidently the Giants are planning to use this guy at second, which is even stupider.

Which brings us to Jose Vizcaino. Now, this guy can hit a little: roughly .280 to .300 with a few doubles and triples. He's not a bad player, and we keep hearing how "underrated" his defensive work is. He's been playing second base for the Mets and Indians lately, though he played mostly shortstop for the Dodgers and Cubs. I think he's primarily a second baseman now, which should make it obvious that the Giants figure on him to play short. I don't think he's a bad acquisition at all -- but in this particular trade, well, the price is just too steep. In recent days, the Giants have said that they expect to go with Rich Aurilia at short, which prompted Shawon Dunston to say, "I'm no backup," and look elsewhere for work. And now they're talking about Vizcaino at short, so whither Aurilia (not to mention whither Dunston)?

ESPNet SportsZone speculates that Kent will play third and Vizcaino will play second, but what about Bill Mueller? I have to believe that his 220 major league at-bats this season somehow led the Giants to believe they could trade Williams, so wouldn't it more likely figure that he'd play third and Kent would play first? Not only that, but it looks like they're not too high on Canizaro, or at least they've figured out that he's not ready yet. (Remember way back when the Giants' infield consisted of Will Clark, Robby Thompson, Royce Clayton, and Matt Williams?)

So obviously I do not like this trade at all; nor do any Giants fans I've come across on the net, over the phone, or on the radio, where callers were reaming Giants General Manager Brian Sabean. Now, granted, I bitched about the trade of Mark Carreon for Jim Poole, and many others, and I do tend to assume the worst when the Giants make a deal anyway, but I'm hoping someone can put a positive spin on this one besides, "Well, at least Williams won't be in the National League, where he'd have at least 12 opportunities a year to kill the Giants."

Isn't it interesting how the Giants have gone out of their way to sell Barry Bonds on the idea that they're trying to put together a winner? "We hope to build this club around Barry and Matt," says Sabean. (That was clue number one that Williams was on the way out, by the way. I'm wondering how soon we'll see Bonds complaining through his agent and demanding a trade again.) Sabean says, "We're not through dealing." Well, we've heard that before, and usually whatever deals they do make aren't significant. Last year Bob Quinn went on about going after pitching, but all the Giants really went after was a couple months of Deion Sanders. So why should we believe Sabean's protests of "commitment to making this team a winner"? He says he's going after a first baseman with some pop, but I don't think he can meet any such player's price.

Therefore, very soon, I foresee the first 200-walk season ever achieved by a single major league player, and here's why:

Javier cf
Mueller 3b
Bonds lf
Hill rf
Wilkins c
Kent 1b
Vizcaino 2b
Aurilia ss

Yecch. Blecch.

Then again, newsgroupie Ben considers any talk of Kent playing first to be moronic -- not that I'd put anything moronic past the Giants. "Mueller is nothing special at third base," he says. Kent-Muller-(Aurilia/Vizcaino) is OK, at second, third, short -- this is probably the average offense we've been looking for to complement Bonds and Williams.... only problem is NO WILLIAMS! Ergo, for this to make any sense, they must have a "replacement Williams" (at the plate) in mind; hopefully this is [Bobby] Bonilla (1b), or now that I think about it [Albert] Belle (RF or 1b)."

Belle! Ha! First, Cleveland couldn't sign him to $8.5 million for four or five years. They couldn't sign him! Then he's reportedly going to the Marlins, so the Indians deal for Williams. Now we hear that Bell's interested in sticking around.

Bonilla? Ho-hum. Barry and Bobby, together again. That might be fine -- if this were five years ago, and they had a supporting cast like the one in Pittsburgh.

Yecch. Blecch. Ker-barff.

Somehow I doubt that the Giants' front office appreciates, or is even aware of, the regard in which Matt Williams is held by the fans. We appreciate a guy who plays hard, plays well, appears to put the team first, and wants to stay in San Francisco. He's really grown on us. That's why the losses of Hank Greenwald, Robby Thompson, and now Matt Williams are a bit much to bear.

Now, you may wonder, how are they feeling back in Cleveland these days? And I'd call people there and ask, but I doubt I'd be able to hear them over the laughter. Joe, my brother-in-law, tells me that on ESPN, Indians manager Mike Hargrove was barely able to keep a straight face. Near as I can tell, ESPN had to cut away before Hargrove actually soiled himself with laughter and mirth.

"Call me a fair weather fan, call me a front runner, call me whatever you want," said Kevin, who posts in the Giants newsgroup, "but I'm breaking up with my love of baseball -- the Giants -- after 20 years of ups, downs, cheers and jeers." You know what? I'm not sure I blame him. At times like this, I'm wondering what'll be the last straw for me.

Tom, another newsgroup regular, says, "I just heard that they traded Matty to Cleveland for three stiffs. Please, please, please, tell me it's not true." Don't worry, Tom. The Giants also expect to receive a stiff to be named later -- or cash. Of course, they're also giving up a player to be named later. How come the Giants will send off, say, Russ Ortiz, or some other highly touted prospect, and the Indians will send off, say, Kim Batiste (whom they will no doubt sign for the very purpose of returning him to San Francisco)?

Stormy, who led me to subscribing to the Giants listserver (or whatever), said, "The Giants had better at least get Jim Thome." Ha! The man's a good ballplayer! Not allowed in San Francisco. Sure, we have Bonds, but the league rules, apparently, are that the Giants must have only one roster spot for a genuinely good offensive player. I'm not sure if we're allowed any roster spots for a genuinely good pitcher. I'll have to check the rulebook.

Now, Ben points out how horribly Al Rosen got ripped for trading Kevin Mitchell to Seattle, and I'm one of the ones who ripped him. Now, sure, I was wrong, and it just points to the notion that you can't evaluate a trade right away. But if you're going to ship out someone like Williams, who's never been a problem (unlike Mitchell) and whom people just plain like, you'd better pick up some very significant body, because you'd better figure on your trade being evaluated now. (Also, a mere five years later, everybody's gone from the Mitchell trade.)

A nearly anonymous poster said, "I agree that as of now the trade looks bad, but I have one hope to the contrary: that the Giants management knows something about Williams' future health that we don't. Could it be that he has some injury that will prevent him from ever reaching 100%? That's the only thing that would make this trade make any sense at all." Ralph Barbieri pointed out more or less the same thing on the radio a few hours after the trade. But you know something? I don't trust Brian Sabean and the rest of the Giants' "Brain" Trust to know anything we don't. Other teams, maybe, but not the Giants.

(By the way, folks, let's not forget that Williams has one more year left on his contract, which means that after 1997, some team will offer huge bucks for his services. God knows the Dodgers always need a third baseman.)

Probably one of the most important things about all this was said by a poster named Tor: "How ironic that just yesterday I was talking over which season ticket package I'd go with. Giants' front office just doesn't get it. I went out to the Stick 24 times last season, and I would have gone out more but I have this stupid job these days. I'm a Giants fan. Obviously I don't go out to see them win. I go out to see Kirt and Matty and Robby play. And cheer for Wendell when he sprints out to the box.

"Even if this trade made some baseball sense (and it doesn't) or some financial sense (none of that either [GP breaking in here: evidently the combined salaries of the three new Giants are just short of Williams'.]), Matty's value to the team goes beyond a high batting average or a low salary. He put asses in the seats. I ain't going to the Stick anymore. I don't care who they bring in. I've been watching the Giants play since I could walk. This has been an extremely difficult decision for me. I don't know what I'll do without baseball. But I cannot go out there and let the front office spit on me again."

"Spit"? I think that's a typo, 'cause it's not so bad when the spit hits the fan -- or, in this case, fans.

That's what this is about: the fans. Evidently the Giants hate us, and Tor is just saying that he's mad as hell and he's not gonna take it anymore.

As solace, newsgroup member Ken offers the following: "How about Orlando Cepeda for Ray Sadecki? This is not the first one-sidedly bad trade ever made by the Giants." While certainly true, that provides little succor. It just points out the fact that prolonged exposure to the Candlestick winds has an adverse effect on front-office brain tissue.

On the newsgroup I begged for some kind of positive spin on this deal. Jonathan, who is exactly the person I was hoping would provide such a spin, did so -- but remember: Jonathan's on the ball, meaning that he's well aware that any positive spin is akin to a teaspoon of wine in a vat of sewage:

  1. Williams is past prime age, and has been hurt lots recently. If he's on the way to being brittle, especially if he loses his defense, and if his offense slips back to his pre-prime levels, he would only be a fairly good player, nothing special at all. That's a formula for at least thinking about a trade, if you can get top value -- that is, if there's a team around that is willing to treat Williams as if he's one of the top two or three third basemen in the game.

  2. Julian Tavarez is a for-real prospect. He has an excellent chance of turning into a first class starting pitcher.

That's the good side.

On the down side...

  1. I tend to be on the optimists' side with regard to Matt Williams. Two unrelated injuries does not make for brittleness, and I've thought for years -- correctly so far -- that he was likely to be a late-peaking player. I don't want to get carried away -- he won't be the best overall third baseman on his team next year, after all -- but I think the odds of his remaining one of the best five third basemen around for the next three years are very good. Over the next three years, the only guys I'd clearly rather have are Thome and Chipper. I'll admit that's a pro-Williams view. [It's me again. Frankly, I'm surprised to hear anybody call anybody a better third baseman than Williams, but lots of other people are saying similar things, and I must admit that I'm not as current with statistics as I used to be. -- GP]

  2. Vizcaino is a fairly good utility infielder. Nobody has to give up anything to get a player as good as him.

  3. Kent is probably a just-below-average second baseman, unless his fielding has deteriorated there to the extent he couldn't handle it any more. He's a somewhat-below-average third baseman, and as a first baseman he's a bad joke. And that's assuming he isn't well on his way to a fast fade from his unexciting peak.

  4. Even worse, they might be planning to actually play Vizcaino. I can't swear Aurilia would be better in '97, but there's no doubt Aurilia would be better over '97-'99, and at any rate it's time to find out.

  5. Tavarez is a real prospect, but... there are some negatives. His K/IP do not really stand out. I wouldn't call him a grade A+ prospect.

  6. Even worse, what if Tavarez is left in the bullpen? Matt D. Williams for 80 innings pitched, even if it's a good 80 innings pitched? Blech.

    On those grounds alone, it's a terrible trade, in my opinion; there is a real possible upside (Williams gets old and brittle, Tavarez becomes a Top 10 starter), but that's about it.

    But that's not all. There's also:

  7. As signaled by the Hill signing, and now confirmed, Sabean/Baker have no confidence at all in the kids. I continue to believe that Bonds-Williams, along with Powell-Cruz-Aurilia-Canizaro-Jensen, along with a decent first baseman, along with Mueller/Keith Williams to replace whoever doesn't work out, would have been a perfectly solid team. Instead, we're going with much more expensive and only slightly better (if that) options with Hill, Kent, and Vizcaino, and we've lost one of the two core players. Just awful. It continues to confirm really bad things about Sabean/Baker.

  8. I also think it shows Sabean to be less than impressive in his negotiating skills. To trade an all-star for two worthless players and a pitching prospect -- even a good one -- coming off a terrible year is simply not impressive. I realize it's always easy for us, on the outside, to claim that better deals were available, but it sure looks that way to me.

  9. I haven't even mentioned yet the true nightmare scenario, which is that the possibility that the reason Tavarez couldn't get anyone out in 1996 could be arm trouble. Given the history of the Quinn years, I'd say it's fairly likely.

It's a sad day because Matt was such a fun player to watch; it's also a sad day because now, for the first time since 1986, we have to endure a winter in which the Giants have basically no chance of being good next year. At this point, it would take more than two good free agent signings for me to have any optimism about 1997. My optimism for 1998-2000 is gone, too.

If there's a Fire Sabean petition, sign me up.

Well, we could certainly start one, couldn't we?

Newsgroup regular Erik also answered my impassioned plea for a positive spin: "Well, Kent is not bad for a second baseman. Unfortunately, he'll play third for the Giants; oh, well. Vizcaino I have no use for. And they didn't save money. And there are about fifteen better guys to get from the Indians.

"That said, Tavarez could really be a good one; one down year at his age is not a big problem, assuming he wasn't hurt. We'll see. I would not be shocked if this move turns out not to be a disaster for the Giants -- my problem with it is that they could have done SO much better."

So obviously, despite his well-thought-out answer, Erik wasn't much help, either.

I spoke with three people about the trade the night it happened: the long-ago aforementioned David Beck, my friend Pat, and my sister Deb, who was the one who swore the most (though I called Brian Sabean something so colorful that I blush to even think about it here, let alone repeat it). Deb couldn't countenance spending a hundred bucks a few times a year to travel up to the 'Stick with her husband and two non-quiet, non-uncomplaining kids, pay for parking and lower-reserve seats, buy overpriced food and drinks, and watch Barry Bonds receive five walks a game, despite what that'd do for his on-base percentage.

Dave, whom I called from work at 3:45 when I found out about the deal, thought I was kidding, as I often do about things like this. Fail to take me seriously now, will you? Ha!

The first word out of Pat's mouth when I answered the phone was, "Why?"

I think I've found the answer.

Orders From Lasorda

In 1987 Dave first propounded his theories about the media's influence on baseball and how much he likes that. (He doesn't.) Buried in there somewhere was "Orders From Lasorda," which is the only explanation we can come up with for a lot of the unbelievable things the Giants do. Lasorda has a lot of power, we postulate, because his Dodgers are the perennial media darlings, plus they play in the most media-centered city in the nation, and therefore (as we've heard many times) what's good for the Dodgers is good for baseball -- and the media.

One of prime example of "Orders From Lasorda" is the 1989 game, often mentioned by Hank Greenwald, in which the Giants and Phillies were in a scoreless tie through nine at Veterans Stadium. Will Clark and Kevin Mitchell went deep in back-to-back fashion against Steve Bedrosian (a few weeks away from his acquisition), and suddenly the Giants were up 2-0. Craig Lefferts took the hill and immediately surrendered a couple of bloop hits. Then up came Bob Dernier.

The defense immediately swung way around to the right side for the right-handed Judy hitter. Lefferts offered a slider inside -- and Dernier whacked it down the left-field line, where it hugged the contours of the Vet for eleven hours before Kevin Mitchell could throw it home futilely. I'll never forget Dernier's triumphant bongo-playing on home plate as he scored the winning run head-first.

It is clear to me that Tommy Lasorda, watching the game on TV, phoned Al Rosen with instructions. Rosen then phoned Roger Craig in the dugout. Craig then signaled to Terry Kennedy (or whoever was catching) that now would be a perfect time to push the defense over toward right field but call for the inside offspeed pitch. There is no other explanation.

And maybe that's the best explanation for the trade of Matt Williams for, like, nobody in particular. Another way to tell just how horrific this trade is: Glenn Dickey, easily the most trashable Chronicle sportswriter who isn't Nancy Gay, considers it a "bold move that shows Sabean is determined to improve the team." No, see, getting a guy like Matt Williams shows determination to improve a team. The Indians have gotten way better, and the Giants way worse.

I'm starting to think Sabean is just flexing his muscles, just trying to show everyone that there's a new sheriff in town. Why? A very high fever is my guess. I just can't believe he managed to push this idea past ownership. (Then again, to what extent must he answer to ownership?)

But all we can do is sit back and wait for the other shoe(s) to drop. Sabean wants that powerful first baseman: we hear he's going after the Expos' David Segui and the Marlins' Greg Colbrunn. The Expos want Shawn Estes, whom the Giants almost certainly won't part with, and the Marlins want Jim Poole, who pitched very well after the Carreon trade, and who no doubt figures very heavily into the Giants' bullpen picture. Bobby Bonilla's name, of course, continues to be bandied about, for what it's worth. Worth much less is J.T. Snow of the Angels, whom many consider the worst offensive first baseman in the major leagues who isn't J.R. Phillips.

I cannot overemphasize the following: The Giants do not care about their fans. It is obvious now; it is indisputable. They've traded a fan favorite who's still in his prime. Now, if they'd acquired, oh, I dunno, somebody really really really good, then the sting wouldn't be quite so powerful. Sure, we'd miss Matty, but we'd have, say, Junior Griffey, or Alex Rodriguez, or Brady Anderson, or Mark McGwire, or Jeff Bagwell, or Chipper Jones, or Bernard Gilkey, or Sammy Sosa, or Jim Thome, or Gary Sheffield, or Ken Caminiti, or Juan Gonzalez, or Frank Thomas, or Pat Hentgen, or an Atlanta Braves starter, or someone I haven't thought of picking up the slack. What we have now, unless Sabean manages to pull off some amazing deals, which I don't trust him to do, is the baseball equivalent of an opera featuring Caruso and Mrs. Fleen's third-grade class.

In the meantime, what do we Giants fans do? First, will we even stick around? Judging from the posts I've read lately, a lot of us won't. My own sister said she wouldn't be going to any games for a while. Other fans are already jumping ship and donning Oakland green and gold. But for those of us who plan to stick around to the incomprehensibly bitter end, my suggestion is to dream up the scenario that would be most harmful to the Giants, and then wait for something even worse to happen.

Copyright ©1996 by Gregg Pearlman

Last updated 11/14/96
Gregg Pearlman,

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The photo of Matt Williams is copyrighted by Allsport and was lifted from ESPNet SportsZone.