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'At least I gave it a shot'
The San Francisco Giants held public tryouts in the 1980s. Who they signed (and who they didn’t) reflects the randomness of being discovered.
Candlestick Park was built on a garbage dump.
Which was fitting for the San Francisco Giants of the early 1980s. The proud franchise of Mathewson and Mays and Marichal and McCovey, born a century earlier in New York, had turned rotten. From 1976 through 1985, the Giants only had three winning seasons and didn’t finish any higher than third place. Attendance was among the worst in the league.
Even the team’s mascot, a sad, sorry blob with claws called the Crazy Crab, was despised.
With all apologies to slugger Jack Clark, there weren’t a lot of reasons to watch the Giants. And in 1981, during the 50-day player strike, you couldn’t watch the team at all.
San Francisco wanted to do something about its talent and fan support problems and put its dormant ballpark to use, and like a lot of middling sports teams, it tried to tackle the issues at the same time by holding a public tryout for area players -- a chance for random anybodies to possibly get scooped up by their hometown team.
The tryout was the idea of executive Tom Haller, who hoped to find some undiscovered gem that the team had overlooked.
About 250 aspiring pro players attended the 1981 tryout, ranging in age from 18 to 28. Participants like Larry Crews, a Cal State-Stanislaus pitcher, weren’t expecting much to come from the trip to Candlestick.
“This is just a pain in the neck. They're not going to sign anybody, this is just a publicity stunt,” Crews thought at the time. “I get to run around on a major league field for a little bit. I'll just stick it out. And that way, 20, 30, 40 years from now, I can say, ‘Hey, at least I gave it a shot.’”
The players checked in and warmed up, and pretty soon they were split into groups. Infielders and outfielders worked in the field, while pitchers warmed up then took the mound, one at a time, to show their talent.
A few dozen position players and about 10 pitchers were held back for an intrasquad game. Crews pitched pretty well. He got all three of the hitters he faced out, and that was it. The Giants told him they would be in touch. Sure.
Within a few days, Crews had all but forgotten the tryout -- he had summer school classes to worry about -- when a Giants scout called his mother’s house and asked him to return to Candlestick for a second tryout.
After the second round of tryouts, Crews and two other players, John Cardinali and Allen Smoot, were offered contracts.
“It was such a surreal moment. I kept waiting to wake up and think it's a dream or something,” Crews recalled in a 2017 interview.
The Giants informed their new prospects that they were to report to Great Falls.
“Great Falls where?” Crews asked.
“Great Falls, Montana,” home of the team’s rookie-level Pioneer League affiliate.
“Is that a problem?”
“Absolutely not. That will be perfectly fine.”
While Cardinali and Smoot’s pro careers quickly ended, Crews pitched in the Giants’ system for five seasons, climbing every rung of the team’s minor league ladder and going 48-33 with a 3.10 ERA. His tryouts at Candlestick opened the door for him to travel across the country and meet interesting people and follow his baseball dreams.
“I consider myself to be very lucky,” Crews says, reflecting on his pro baseball days. “Obviously, I would have loved to make it to the big leagues, but I can't be disappointed with where I got.”
The Giants held a second tryout in 1982, but it wasn’t as fruitful. Rob Jones was offered a contract, but he turned it down to keep playing at Yuba College.
The team never did end up finding their next star player through the tryouts during the early 1980s, but they could have. Ken Caminiti attended a Giants tryout with his college buddy and San Jose City College teammate, Max (Greg) Sosebee.
"We both went up to Candlestick along with 499 other guys," Sosebee, who recently passed away following a valiant cancer battle, told me in a 2017 interview. "We were running around out there. It was kind of a cool thing to do."
Ken made the final 50 players, but that’s as far as he got. Thanks, no thanks.
The Giants let the hometown kid slip away. He would play in Candlestick again as an opponent -- and give the Giants lots of reasons to regret their missed opportunity.