Being regular guy made Beck one of baseball's characters

OTHER VOICES

The Kickoff

June 26, 2007|By ANN KILLION | ANN KILLION,SAN JOSE MERCURY NEWS

When you think of San Francisco Giants all-time greats, the usual suspects come to mind: Willie Mays, Barry Bonds, Willie McCovey, Juan Marichal.

Rod Beck might not even make your A list.

But for anyone who covered the Giants in the 1990s, Beck would be right near the top. An all-time, larger-than-life, heart-of-gold great.

Beck was found dead in his Arizona home over the weekend. He was 38, far younger than many of the current Giants and much, much too young to die.

It seems odd that he was still so young, because he was such a throwback. In an era of uniformity and in a sport that doesn't encourage much individuality, Beck was one of a kind. The Fu Manchu mustache, the frizzy mullet, the swinging arm, the beer and smokes, the cool "Shooter" nickname - he had the whole package. He was a character in an age of conformity.

"People say there aren't any characters in baseball anymore," said Mike Quade, who managed Beck when he was pitching at Triple-A Iowa in 2003. "But he's proof that's not true."

Back then, Beck was trying to make a comeback with the Cubs. While he was stuck in Des Moines, he lived in a motor home next door to the ballpark. He regularly invited fans and teammates in to drink beer and talk baseball after the games.

That was Beck: a regular guy in a millionaire's game. I learned about his death Sunday when I was in Sonoma, Calif., at the ultimate regular-guy sport - NASCAR. Beck would have been perfectly at home with the hordes.

He liked dirt bikes and RVs. He often joked about being "trailer trash," poked fun at his weight, indulged in a post-game smoke. He had great Ruthian quotes, such as: "I'm old school. I was taught that ice was for bourbon, not for your arm."

Unfortunately, Beck also had regular-guy problems. In 2004, he missed two months of the season because he was in rehab for substance abuse. The San Diego Padres released him later that season.

That was one season after he was named the National League Comeback Player of the Year, saving 20 games in 20 opportunities for the Padres, who needed him to replace injured Trevor Hoffman. He showed up at the Padres without his mullet, but with pierced nipples and a fastball that barely topped 83 mph. Yet he was fearless on the mound.

"I don't think anyone thought I had miraculous stuff," he said. "They believed in my guts."

Despite stints with the Boston Red Sox, Chicago Cubs and Padres, Beck was always a Giant. In 1993, he was the workhorse, saving 48 games and pitching on fumes down the stretch. He saved 199 games for the Giants. He was a three-time All-Star, though he didn't make it to this year's Opening Day reunion of Giants All-Stars.

His signature moment came in 1997 in the memorable September series against the Los Angeles Dodgers that propelled the Giants to a division title. With the score tied in the top of the 10th, Beck came in and gave up three singles to load the bases. The boos rained on him from every corner of a packed Candlestick Park.

Dusty Baker went to the mound, looked him in the eye and told him to get the job done. As Baker left the mound - while Beck remained - the angry outcry of more than 52,000 fans shook the stadium to its foundation.

But Beck struck out Todd Zeile and then got Eddie Murray to hit into a double play. The crowd roared at Beck. He roared back at them.

He pitched two more shutout innings before Brian Johnson came up in the 12th to hit the dramatic home run. That was the season Beck coined the term "Dustiny," for the Giants' journey to their first division title in eight years.

It was a challenging year for Beck. A deadline deal brought Roberto Hernandez to the Giants, and Beck was battling to save his job. He handled the trial with humor and class. One of the great Beck stories occurred after he had been bypassed in a crucial save situation and was clearly upset. San Francisco Chronicle columnist Bruce Jenkins cautiously approached him and asked, "Are you available?" Beck squinted up at him. "Actually," he said, "I'm married."

Reporters loved the guy. He was funny and fun, full of stories and insight. And he got it: He understood it was a game, that it wasn't curing cancer. He was just a regular guy who had lucked into the job of a lifetime.

Teammates loved the guy. Mark Grace called him "the best teammate a player could ever have."

After the 1997 season, the Giants acquired Robb Nen, the closer who had suffocated them in the playoffs. The move ended Beck's Giants career. In fact, he ended the Giants' season the next year, saving the Cubs' one-game wild-card playoff against his old team.

But the Fu Manchu drooping under the squint, the arm swinging in the fog, the mullet swirling in the Candlestick winds - that picture is a part of the Giants history that will never vanish.

Ann Killion writes for the San Jose Mercury News.

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