The San Francisco Giants are honoring their 1997 team at tonight’s game, marking the 20 year anniversary of their improbable National League West crown. Two of the most important members of that team will only be there in fans and the team’s memories.
After the 1996 Giants finished in last place, manager Dusty Baker‘s boys went from worst to first. It was Brian Sabean’s first season as General Manager and he began by trading fan favorite Matt Williams to the Cleveland Indians for second baseman Jeff Kent, shortstop Jose Vizcaino, relief pitcher Julian Tavarez, and Joe Roa.
Hamilton was signed in January as a free agent. He had been with Texas the previous year, hitting .293 and the Giants brought him in to be their new center fielder and leadoff hitter.
The 32 year old played 125 games in 1997, but his leadership on and off the field could not be measured by any numbers. After Marvin Benard was asked to start as a 25 year old rookie in 1996, it was critical to bring in a veteran like Hamilton to shore up such a critical position as center field at Candlestick Park.
Beck, who had been with the Giants since 1991, was already established as the team’s closer. Known as “Shooter,” Beck already had 162 career saves with San Francisco when the year began. His 37 saves were great, but it was one of his seven wins that every Giant fan will remember forever. In what is known as “The Brian Johnson Game,” it was Beck who gave Johnson the chance to bat in the 12th inning.
Beck began the inning by allowing three straight singles to load the bases in a 5-5 game in the 10th inning. He followed that up with a strikeout and a double play to send “The ‘Stick” into a frenzy.
What was even more remarkable than the torturous 10th inning was the next two innings Beck pitched. Beck went 1-2-3 in both the 11th and 12th innings to set up Johnson’s walk off to lead off the bottom of the 12th.
Both the Giants were 84-69 after the game, but all the momentum was in San Francisco.
The team of “Dustiny” clinched the West in one of the most remarkable one year turnarounds in team history.
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Hamilton was gone the next season in a trade with the Colorado Rockies for Ellis Burks. After two seasons in Colorado, Hamilton finished his career with the New York Mets, including going to the World Series in 2000.
Beck would go on to save 51 games for the Chicago Cubs in 1998 and also had stints with the Boston Red Sox and San Diego Padres before retiring in 2004. Just three years later, the beloved closer had died at the age of 38.
"“It’s such a tragedy for him to go at such an early age,” said Giants Manager Bruce Bochy, who managed Beck in San Diego. “It’s a bad day for baseball. Everybody who played with Rod Beck could tell you what a big heart he had.”"
When the Giants honor the teammates of Hamilton and Beck today at AT&T Park, their memory will be felt throughout the stands and throughout the city.
The man who led games off and the man who finished them will never be forgotten.