Wednesday, February 20, 2008
New-look Giants looking to bond without Bonds
By Jerry Crasnick
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- The newest San Francisco Giant has an agenda straight out of an Outward Bound brochure. When Aaron Rowand isn't sacrificing his body diving for balls in the gap, he spends his free time organizing team functions meant to foster clubhouse chemistry.
Team barbecues at Chez Rowand will have to wait until the regular season. As the post-Barry Bonds era gets under way in San Francisco, it's all about Cactus League bowling night in Scottsdale.
Rowand arranged the Giants' first weekly trip to the lanes on Sunday, and the turnout was brisk. A group of 22 San Francisco players showed up and bonded over trash talk and 7-10 splits.
Rowand, who signed a five-year, $60 million deal with the Giants after a 27-homer, 89-RBI season in Philadelphia, conceived the idea of bowling night last spring in Clearwater, Fla. From experience, he knows the relationships forged in February and March will come in handy when his new team hits a rough patch this summer.
Based on the Giants' 71-91 record in 2007, the lack of a big bat and the burgeoning strength of the National League West, things could get ugly.
"If you get together and guys start hanging out away from the park, people end up becoming good friends," Rowand said. "Then if things go sideways, you can get your point across a lot easier. The last thing you want as a teammate is to tell somebody something and have them get defensive. That doesn't do you any good."
As a communal activity, bowling certainly beats sitting in the clubhouse watching Bonds glare at ESPN's Pedro Gomez.
The 15-year drama known as "Barry by the Bay" unofficially ended in September, when the Giants announced their franchise pillar would not be back in 2008. Five months later, the impact of Bonds' absence is quickly being felt here in Arizona.
San Francisco held its first full-squad workout Tuesday, and the new world order was manifested by a revised seating chart. Barry Zito is dressing in the locker once occupied by the home run king. Noah Lowry is in Zito's old spot, and Matt Cain has moved over from the opposite end of the clubhouse to set up shop in the pitchers' lair.
The most pronounced change is evidenced by what you won't be seeing at Scottsdale Stadium this spring. Say goodbye to testy press conference exchanges, frazzled media relations representatives, Kimberly Bell references, and out-of-town reporters descending upon Bonds' locker with their digital recorders and intrusive questions.
"That's the biggest thing," infielder Kevin Frandsen said. "When you walk in here, you can actually walk in here."
Bonds' former teammates seem to be liberated now that he's no longer around to dominate the proceedings. Zito told reporters that some San Francisco players weren't "totally comfortable in their own skin" around Bonds, and reliever Brian Wilson said the other Giants no longer have to walk around "on eggshells."
Bonds had too many moments when he was either dismissive or rude to teammates, fans, club employees, reporters and anyone else who crossed his path. Nevertheless, his fellow Giants were conditioned to giving him a wide berth. They realized the same anger and tunnel vision that made Bonds oblivious to his surroundings also drove him to be great on the field.
Frandsen, who grew up a Giants fan in San Jose, saw a different side of Bonds than most. In August 2007, he was limping along at .211 and running low on confidence. During a doubleheader in Pittsburgh, Bonds cleared out the indoor batting cage at PNC Park, threw batting practice to Frandsen and held a tutorial on hitting.
The routine continued in Atlanta and Florida, with Bonds throwing BP and providing words of encouragement. Frandsen rewarded his buddy with a .367 batting average over the next six weeks, and still feels a kinship with Bonds.
"He got my mind right," Frandsen said. "He even knew things about the way I had hit in the minor leagues. I was like, 'You've got to be kidding.'
"Everybody always wants to make Barry out as the villain, but he was very good with me. Of course, you're going to be intimidated by him just because of how good he is. But we're intimidated by Willie Mays when he walks in here, too. You're in awe. It's the same thing with Barry."
For many years, the Giants' organizational philosophy ran on autopilot. While the farm system failed to produce, the Giants papered over their lack of organizational depth by acquiring a Shawon Dunston and an Eric Davis here and an Ellis Burks and a Kenny Lofton there. Why not? They always knew Barry would carry the day.
|Aaron Rowand signed a five-year, $60 million deal with the Giants this past offseason.|
Now the Giants are in a transitional phase, and general manager Brian Sabean must settle on a plan. Are the Giants ready to hitch their future to Frandsen, Dan Ortmeier, Fred Lewis and other prospects who aren't that highly regarded by the Baseball America set?
While Oakland GM Billy Beane is trading away veterans for prospects en masse across the Bay, the Giants are in a holding pattern. They have seats to fill, bad contracts to endure, and a seeming lack of will to simply rip things up and start fresh.
As manager Bruce Bochy contemplates a lineup with catcher Bengie Molina in the cleanup spot, he talks about generating more offense with stolen bases, hit-and-run plays and contributions up and down the order. Trouble is, it's hard to sell fans on the "Go-Go Giants" when six regulars might be 33 or older.
The Giants ranked last in the majors with a .387 slugging percentage last season, and Bonds and Pedro Feliz, who hit 48 of the team's 131 home runs, are gone. On the bright side, the Bonds effect was more fiction than fact in 2007. The Giants averaged 4.03 runs per game during Bonds' 116 left-field starts. In the 46 games Bonds didn't start, the team averaged 4.67 runs.
"Nobody can say your team is better without Barry Bonds," outfielder Dave Roberts said. "He's one of the greatest players of all time. But now that we feel we can't count on Barry to work a miracle and win a game for us, guys are taking it upon themselves to be accountable. That's the approach we're taking going into spring training."
Short-term salvation lies in pitching, and the Giants will run out a nice starting rotation of Zito, Cain, Tim Lincecum, Lowry and either Kevin Correia or Jonathan Sanchez. Before the start of camp, the San Francisco starters made a pact and agreed to wear the old-fashioned high stirrup socks in a sign of unity.
"It's more a symbol of camaraderie than just a look," Lowry said. "It's that old-school mentality of playing the game hard and playing the game right."
Of course, symbolism won't pacify fans who are antsy after three straight sub-.500 seasons, but the Giants can at least make losing more palatable by showing some fight. They'll take their cue from Rowand, who played for a World Series winner in Chicago in 2005 and won legions of fans in Philadelphia by crashing face-first into a wall in 2006.
Since 1993, Bonds was the dominant force in town, and the Giants' clubhouse was his domain by default. This spring he's just a tarnished icon whose only link to the headlines is a federal indictment for perjury.
So does the San Francisco clubhouse now belong to Aaron Rowand? You won't hear him make that claim.
"I think it's our clubhouse," Rowand said. "It's not mine. It's not Omar Vizquel's or Barry Zito's or Richie Aurilia's or Ray Durham's. It's ours as a group."
The first day of life without Barry is gone, and the Giants will derive strength from shared suffering or pleasantly surprising the skeptics. Win or lose, they're all in this together.
Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN.com. His book "License To Deal" was published by Rodale. Click here to order a copy. Jerry can be reached via e-mail.
Everybody always wants to make Barry [Bonds] out as the villain, but he was very good with me. Of course, you're going to be intimidated by him just because of how good he is. But we're intimidated by Willie Mays when he walks in here, too. You're in awe. It's the same thing with Barry.
--Giants infielder Kevin Frandsen