Saying Goodbye to Shooter
by Richard Van Zandt, BaseballEvolution.com
June 25, 2007
The date was September 18, 1997. The Giants trailed the Los Angeles Dodgers by a single game in the standings after the day before winning the first of a key two game series. Through nine innings the score was tied 5-5 as the home town nine battled to draw even with the rival Dodgers in a race to the post-season. That’s when Rod Beck entered the game.
The first batter Rod faced, Mike Piazza, singled to right. Eric Karros then followed with a basehit to left before Raul Mondesi loaded ‘em up with nobody out. By this time in Rod’s career, his stuff wasn’t what it used to be. His heart however, was as large as it had ever been. This would turn out to be about as big a moment in Giants history as there had ever been.
Beck got Todd Zeile to strike out for the first out of the inning, leaving the bags full for Eddie Murray, a future Hall of Famer who would end his career with 19 grand slams. Rod promptly took care of Murray by inducing him to hit into a 4-2-3 double play to end the threat and the inning. I can still vividly picture Rod emotionally pumping his fists in the air as he strutted off the field, the game still tied.
The game in fact would remain tied until the bottom of the 12th inning, when Brian Johnson strolled to the plate and hit the biggest home run of his major league career, ending the game in walk-off fashion and pulling the Giants even with the dreaded Dodgers for first in the NL West. If you were a Giants fan at the time, you remember exactly where you were when he hit that home run. Myself, I was in my car on 237, stuck in traffic on my way to work. Anyone around me looking at me at that moment would have thought I was nuts.
Beck was the winning pitcher that day, throwing two more shutout innings after that harrowing 10th inning scare without allowing another hit to give Johnson all the chance he needed to be the hero. If you’d have asked Rod, he’d have told you he was just doing his job. To me, as big a Rod Beck fan as you could find, he was the hero that day. Without him, Johnson would never have had the chance to win the game.
The Giants, propelled by that dramatic win, would end up winning the NL West by two games over LA, reaching the playoffs for the first time since 1989. Without Rod Beck, it just doesn’t happen.
Rod Beck passed away on Saturday. He was just 38.
Rod Beck was more than just a baseball player to me. He was more than just my favorite player. Rod Beck in the mid-90’s was also a friend.
I was lucky enough from 1995 through 1997 to have attended nearly 100 Giants games at the ‘Stick, including 37 in ’95 alone. I was a Bleacher Creature; a regular. The ‘Stick during those years was a home away from home. There was nowhere I’d rather have been (or where I’d rather be now). I arrived early and left late, collecting autographs, razzing the opposing team (Todd “The Gas Can” Worrell, I’m talking to you buddy!) and getting to know some of the Giants players pretty well for an outsider.
Almost from the moment Rod Beck took the mound against the Expos on May 6, 1991 in his major league debut, he became one of my favorites. Like my other favorite at the time, Will Clark, Rod had more than just talent. He had heart. He played the game hard and with all of his Giant heart. He didn’t play the game because he could make a living at it. He played it because that’s what he loved to do. Because that’s what he knew to do. It was his passion and he knew no other way to play it.
In 1993, Beck’s third big league season, the Giants signed Barry Bonds and won 103 games. Beck himself would save 48 games. Somehow, it wasn’t enough to make the playoffs. Giants fans will of course recall rookie Salomon Torres and the disaster that was the final day of the ’93 season. But what should never be forgotten was the how Beck left his heart – and damn nearly his right arm – on the field at Chavez Ravine that final, heartbreaking weekend.
At the All-Star break that year, San Francisco led Atlanta by 9 games in the NL West. As late as August 15 of that season, the Giants lead over the Braves was 7 ½ games. By September 23, the Braves led the Giants by 2 ½. Despite possessing the most phenomenal team I have even seen in SF (not to mention the league’s MVP), the season was slowly slipping away.
Not if Rod Beck had anything to say about it.
Beck would pitch in the Giants next 8 straight games, all Giant victories, earning 6 saves and a win. By the time he closed out his 48th save on October 2, he was like a car that was out of gas and running purely on fumes. He had nothing left in the tank but heart. One great big Giant heart.
It was all in vain, of course, as Torres got pounded the next day by Mike Piazza and the damn Dodgers in a 12-1 drubbing that Beck could do nothing about. Coupled with the Braves beating the Rockies (for the 13th time in 13 games that year), this loss sent the Giants home despite having the second best record in Major League Baseball.
But with Clark on his way out following that season (there never could be room enough for both Bonds and Clark in a single major league clubhouse), Beck was now without a doubt, my favorite Giants player. It was his heart that won me over. His great big Giant heart.
Of course, Rod also had a bit of talent to go with that heart. He saved 286 games in his big league career, good for 22nd all-time. His 199 saves in a San Francisco uniform were the most ever by a Giant until Robb Nen past him in 2002. He had a 3.30 ERA and a 1.16 WHIP during a career that spanned 768.0 innings and lasted from 1991 through 2004 that, along with his stay in San Francisco, included stints with the Cubs, Red Sox and Padres.
You will hear Beck’s former teammates describe him as a great guy and a great teammate.
“It comes as a complete shock,” Barry Bonds told reporters Sunday. “We all just found out. He was a great guy, great for us when he was here.”
"He loved the game," said Red Sox catcher Jason Varitek. "He loved competing. Was there early, was there late. Was great at what he did. He was a good person to be around."
Rod Beck was quite easily the nicest guy in baseball that I’ve ever met. He really was just genuinely very nice. Giants GM Brian Sabean, who took over prior to that ’97 season, described Beck as, “like a civilian in the clubhouse….he wasn't at all like a baseball player. He loved cowboy boots, he loved kids, he loved country music and he loved to smoke cigarettes. He was an upbeat personality who respected the game, loved the game and loved the Giants.”
Rod Beck was just a regular guy as anyone who ever stopped for a beer at his trailer in Des Moines after a 2003 Iowa Cubs game can attest to.
But it was those years from ’95-97 for which I will always remember him best.
As I mentioned before, back in ’95 I had the good fortune to make it out to 37 games. This was in the year following the strike which meant among other things, that the stands were often empty of all but the most die hard of fans, especially at those mid-week day games. Batting practice was almost more enjoyable than the games were (especially considering the Giants disappointing 67-77, fourth place finish). Hanging out, heckling the other team and chatting with the Giant players, trying to get autographs from those who didn’t stop in the parking lot on the way in. I have a lot of fond memories of that time. The fondest easily is my memory of Rod Beck.
I spent a lot of time talking with Rod during BP those years. He signed countless baseballs and other paraphernalia for me. Unlike Matt Williams, he never asked me what I was doing with it all. He never asked, as Matty did, whether I was selling them. He never gruffly responded with an “I don’t do that” when asked to sign a ball on the sweet spot as Bonds did. He just signed. For the record, most of them I gave away to kids I knew. The rest I kept for myself, someday to be handed down to my own kids.
Rod took the first home run ball I ever caught to the clubhouse for me to have it signed by the player who hit it, Rick Wilkins. It wasn’t his fault that Wilkins stole the ball from me (Wilkins said his father didn’t have too many of those and tried to pass off a signed game ball instead – I demanded and got a signed bat and the lousy “game ball”). He felt genuinely bad about it too. But it wasn’t his fault. All I remember now about Rod when I think back on it was how nice it was of him to take it to get it signed for me. It wasn’t something he had to do or something most any other player would do.
I think back on all the times Rod and I chatted during BP. I think about how he was going to trade his used BP jersey for a new one I had purchased (they had to buy theirs, so it was only fair). It wasn’t his fault that Murph had already packed the used one away for the season ending road trip. Instead he signed the other jersey for me. I will always cherish it.
But most of all, I will cherish the ball he signed for me on September 19, 1997. It is inscribed with the words, Rod Beck, 200 career saves. He signed it before the game and inscribed it that way at my request. I’m not sure who was more pissed off that night when Dusty Baker left Roberto Hernandez out there to close out what should have been Rod’s 200th save in a Giants uniform.
Rod may not have gotten that 200th save that night or even ever as a Giant. But I will cherish that ball forever. I will cherish it not because of any monetary value it could ever have. I will cherish it because it is a lasting memory of the friendship Rod showed me.
Years later when Rod returned to San Francisco as a member of the Padres – and long since I had been able to make it to the ballpark on a routine basis as I had during those special years – he did not remember me. Considering all the fans he met during his big league career it’s not surprising. Nor does it detract from the memory I will always have of him
Rod Beck was a great Giant and a great closer. But far, far more than all of that, he was a great person.
My heart today bleeds and goes out to Rod’s estranged wife Stacy and their two daughters. As great a person as Rod was, he had a problem; a drug problem. He spent time in rehab during his tenure with the Padres but in the end that problem may have been his ultimate undoing. It may have been too much for his great big Giant heart.
My heart bleeds today.
Rest in peace Shooter. And thanks for your friendship.
August 3, 1968 – June 23, 2007
Disagree with something? Got something to add? Wanna bring up something totally new? Richard resides in San Francisco, California and can be reached at email@example.com.