By MATT JOHANSON
Blast San Francisco Bureau
SAN FRANCISCO Not only did the Giants' first-place finish in 1997 shell-shock the hated Los Angeles Dodgers and induce a rare outbreak of baseball fever in Northern California, it also delivered a healthy dose of poetic justice to the "Free Agent Fan" who abandoned the team last winter.
But Michael Volpe, who gained national fame for "divorcing" the Giants after the club traded star third baseman Matt Williams, has no regrets, even though the organization that captured his fidelity -- the Philadelphia Phillies -- was the year's worst National League team.
"I still have feelings for the people of the Bay Area, and I'm happy for Dusty Baker," said Volpe, 45, a business consultant from Falls Church, Va. "He's a great manager, and he deserves a few breaks going his way after losing that race in '93."
Like everyone else, Volpe is at a loss to explain the Giants' incredible worst-to-first turnaround. "To be honest, I'm mystified by how they win so much," Volpe said before the Giants were swept in the playoffs by the Florida Marlins. "The team batting average is kind of low, and beyond Shawn Estes and Kirk Rueter, the pitching staff is a little shaky.... I don't know how they put it together."
A Giants fan since his childhood when both he and the team resided in New York, Volpe stuck by the club when it moved to San Francisco and through all the good and bad years since. He came to games at Candlestick Park when he traveled west on business and planned to fly back and forth across the country to catch every Giants playoff game in 1993.
That year ended on a sour note as the Atlanta Braves knocked the Giants out of the playoffs on the last day of the regular season. Then the club lost first baseman Will Clark to the Texas Rangers.
The Giants' deal sending the slugger Williams to the Cleveland Indians for "three warm bodies" was the last straw. Volpe expressed his disgust by mailing a letter of divorce to general manager Brian Sabean and returning all his Giants merchandise to the team, including a Giants jacket, six baseball caps and ten T-shirts.
Dozens of ballclubs courted him with "baseball loot," a Wheaties box with his picture, and an offer to throw out the season's first pitch at Yankee Stadium. During Volpe's visit to Veterans' Stadium, Philadelphia brought out the Philly Phanatic. The green, snout-nosed mascot "practically mugged me," Volpe said, hugging him, kissing him, tearing off his hat and throwing on a Phillies cap instead.
But the heartfelt letter the club sent won Volpe over. To follow the long-suffering team, it said, he needed "hope in his veins, a lump in his throat and fealty in his heart." To a man who detests the increasing commercialization of the game, that struck a chord. Volpe became a Phan.
He never thought he'd miss a Giants-Dodgers pennant race. Whether Volpe wants to admit it or not, the "three warm bodies" the Giants received in the Williams trade played a huge part in the Giants 1997 success. Jeff Kent belted a career-high 29 home runs and drove in 121 runs, shortstop Jose Vizcaino hit a respectable .266 and played brilliant defense, while iron-man reliever Julian Tavarez pitched in 84 games, tops in the Major Leagues.
"It certainly is surprising," Volpe said, grasping for an explanation. "Some people attribute it to (general manager) Brian Sabean's trades. (Jeff) Kent is having a career year...Good pitching stops, good hitting, and the Giants' pitching came out nowhere."
Volpe may or may not stick with the Phillies, who weren't half bad since the All-Star break. Returning to the Giants' camp, though, is not an option. "I tried to watch them on TV the other night, but they weren't the Giants to me," Volpe said. "They were just a bunch of guys wearing orange and black. If I rooted for
Giants, I'd just be rooting for the emblem on their uniforms. I guess you can't go home again."