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Players ran frantically from the shower stalls wearing nothing
but soapsuds, screaming and howling as if the cold water had
been turned off. A few other San Francisco Giants scooted out of
the trainer's room, suddenly not feeling so sore, and
leftfielder Barry Bonds bounced out of the manager's office,
where he had been sitting alone in front of the television. The
players converged under the big TV in the middle of the
visitors' clubhouse in San Diego's Qualcomm Stadium as the room
erupted in celebration: bodies slamming, palms slapping, men
shouting so loudly they could probably be heard up the road at
Dodger Stadium.

In this season of assaults on the baseball record book, we must
add another new mark: loudest celebration by a team that just
lost by 10 runs. We can only imagine what the Giants would have
done had they beaten the Padres last Saturday. Had a group hug,
perhaps? "This is probably the happiest I've ever seen a team
that got beaten like that," said San Francisco centerfielder
Darryl Hamilton. "Here's the way I look at it: At this time of
year, it's better to be lucky than good."

The Giants have been good for most of this season. On Saturday
they settled for lucky. They got waxed by the Padres 12-2, but
they barely had time to sulk because their rivals just north on
Interstate 5 were doing their best to cheer them up. As many of
the Giants watched on TV, Los Angeles Dodgers pinch hitter Eddie
Murray ended the game by grounding into a bases-loaded double
play, his second in three days, and L.A. dropped a 2-1 decision
to the Colorado Rockies for its fourth straight loss. San
Francisco retained a one-game lead in the National League West
despite the pounding by the Padres. "Everyone went wild," Giants
second baseman Jeff Kent said later. "I had to remind them that
we just lost. It sure doesn't feel that way."

"Feels like we got away with one," said Giants reliever Rod Beck.

It was a classic scene from an old-fashioned pennant race, and
this year, in case you haven't noticed, the National League West
is the only place you can find one. In the rest of the major
leagues, the last week of the regular season is about as
scintillating as a farm report. The expanded playoff system
adopted three years ago has, like a bad diet, caught up with
baseball, turning the once precious final week of September into
a meaningless prelude to the postseason. The Giants and the
Dodgers reminded us how much fun this time of year can be.
"After one game [against L.A. last week]," said San Francisco
manager Dusty Baker, "our batboy came up to me and told me he
was drained. I said, 'How do you think I feel?'"

While baseball owners were meeting in Atlanta to discuss ways to
create rivalries, the Giants and the Dodgers were busy proving
that you can't force a good feud. Sometimes it takes decades to
nurture a healthy hatred. The Giants and the Dodgers have been
slugging it out on two coasts for 107 years, and if last week
was any indication, their enmity is as strong as ever. The teams
met twice in San Francisco, and 3Com Park crackled with energy.
Two weeks after only 8,565 fans showed up for a game against
Houston, the Giants drew more than 102,000 for two midweek duels
with the despised Dodgers, and the fans were nearly as fired up
as the Giants. Baker's club won both games by a run. San
Francisco's 12-inning, 6-5 triumph last Thursday afternoon was a
classic, and after catcher Brian Johnson launched the
game-winning solo home run off Mark Guthrie, the race was a dead
heat with nine games to go. The best rivalry in baseball got
even better, and September baseball was saved. "I've been in the
playoffs before, and this two-game series was better," said
Kent. Hey, Bud. Realign this!

Last weekend the Giants went on to San Diego, where they won 7-4
before Saturday's loss and came back to beat the Padres 8-5 on
Sunday. Meanwhile the Dodgers lost three straight at home to the
Rockies to fall two games behind. As if the Dodgers weren't
feeling the forces of nature against them already, in the first
game of the Colorado series they lost to Pedro Astacio, a
pitcher they had traded for second baseman Eric Young last month
and had since voted a playoff share. Someone should have told
Pedro he might have cost himself some money.

San Francisco will finish the season this weekend at home
against the Padres. The Dodgers will travel to Colorado for
their final four games. The schedule seems to favor the Giants,
but the Dodgers remain the most talented team in the division.
"I still think this is coming down to a one-game playoff," says
L.A. starter Tom Candiotti. "It's destiny. Come on. You know
it's going to happen."

The teams have split 12 games this year and have been separated
by no more than two games in September. Before sweeping the
two-game set with the Dodgers, San Francisco had lost four
straight on the road, in Florida and Atlanta, and appeared to be
fading. Some observers said the plucky Giants had no right to be
in the race in the first place: They had finished last the past
two seasons (no team has ever finished first after two straight
years in the basement) and had traded slugger Matt Williams to
Cleveland in the off-season. "To be honest, when I signed with
the Giants I was hoping maybe we'd have a shot at the playoffs
next year," says Hamilton, who left Texas as a free agent after
last season. "This year? I didn't think so. I don't blame all
the writers for picking us to finish last again, because when
you're sitting up in the press box you can't see all the heart
this team has."

In a matchup with L.A., the Giants have a clear edge not only in
heart but also in leftfield. The Dodgers get the nod just about
everywhere else. On paper the Giants seem to have as much chance
against the Dodgers as Beck would have against Los Angeles
catcher Mike Piazza in a bachelor auction. The disparity in
talent levels only adds to the drama: Here are the Giants, a
colorful patchwork of retreads and rejects, arranged nicely
around the inimitable Bonds. Of the Giants' starting lineup and
rotation, only third baseman Bill Mueller is a product of San
Francisco's farm system. Los Angeles, on the other hand, has
four regular position players and four starting pitchers who are
homegrown. The Dodgers are second in the National League in ERA
(3.60 through Sunday) and fourth in batting (.267). They've had
five straight rookies of the year, and Piazza has a shot at MVP
this season. Los Angeles is held up as the model franchise in
major league baseball. "Which is kind of arrogant, if you ask
me," says Beck.

The Giants? If you don't count the standings, they lead the
National League in two all-important categories: intentional
walks and sacrifice flies. At the start of the week San
Francisco had 58 sac flies, which is 58 more than Murray had for
the Dodgers in his two bases-loaded, one-out at bats last week.
Remarkably the Giants, who are 11th in the league in hitting,
with a .257 average, have scored 31 fewer runs this season than
they have allowed (737 to 768 through Sunday). The Dodgers have
outscored their opponents by 85 runs (701-616). Even Bonds, who
homered in three consecutive games last week, isn't having a
career year. He leads the Giants with 37 homers but has driven
in just 96 runs. A three-time National League MVP, Bonds may not
even be the MVP of his team this year. "We can't expect Barry to
carry us, and he isn't expecting to carry us," says Kent, who
has driven in 114 runs. "Everyone knows he's got to step up and
do his part. We can't just look to Barry. He hasn't carried us
all year."

The Dodgers, of course, are residing in a different universe.
For them to consider this season a success, they have to not
only make the playoffs but also win some postseason games. They
have been swept out of the playoffs in the past two years, and
there could be only one thing worse than allowing that to happen
again: losing the National League West title to the ragtag
Giants. "If we don't win the division, this season has been an
absolute waste," says Piazza.

The Giants and the Dodgers are vastly different outfits off the
field as well as on. Most members of the media picked San
Francisco to finish last, the fans stayed away and team
management didn't pursue contract extensions for most of the
soon-to-be free agents. The Giants snuck up on everyone. "This
team can't hold a candle to the White Sox team I was on as far
as talent," says reliever Roberto Hernandez, who came from
Chicago in a trade with fellow pitchers Danny Darwin and Wilson
Alvarez at the end of July. "But this team has heart."

Although the Giants have their share of grizzled veterans,
they're playing with the raw enthusiasm of a team that just
qualified for the Little League world series. In the second game
of the L.A. series, the Dodgers loaded the bases off Beck in the
10th. When Baker left Beck on the mound to win or lose the game,
the home crowd booed. Beck struck out Todd Zeile and coaxed a
ground ball to second from Murray. When Kent threw home for the
unusual 4-2-3 double play to end the threat, Baker turned to the
crowd and pumped his fists. Beck was cheered like a rock star.
If this had been a college football game, the Giants would have
received a 15-yard penalty for excessive celebration.

Two innings later, Johnson ripped a shot through the wind and
over the leftfield fence to end the game and send 3Com into a
frenzy. Bonds bounded out of the dugout and pounded on home
plate as if to remind Johnson where to end up. Then Bonds
wrapped his arms around Baker and lifted him as if they had just
won a New Year's Day bowl game. The Dodgers were left to watch
and wonder who among the Giants had just cured cancer. "We'll
remember the celebrating they did, believe me," says L.A.
manager Bill Russell.

The Giants don't seem to care. They aren't going to let petty
baseball protocol spoil the party. "You wouldn't be human if you
didn't feel the highs and lows," says Baker. "We're playing a
game we love. This isn't life or death. We're like those surfer
dudes out on the ocean. When you get up on a good wave, you ride
it as long as you can." Just like those surfer dudes--isn't that
what Earl Weaver said when the Baltimore Orioles won the World

To a man, the Giants credit Baker with keeping things loose and
letting them play. "How can you not like playing for Dusty?"
says Beck. "He has two rules: Be on time and don't lie to me. He
makes it fun to be here. Everyone's friends."

When the Giants were in Cincinnati last month, Beck says, a
couple of veterans made plans to go to dinner and invited the
rest of the team along as a courtesy. Sixteen San Francisco
players showed up, an unheard-of turnout these days, according
to Beck. "Even in '93, when we dominated everyone, it wasn't
like that," he says. "I mean, we didn't need 25 cabs, but maybe
15. This team, we could jump in the same pickup truck and go
out, we get along that good."

Down the coast, things are a little different. The Dodgers have
many strengths as a ball club, but camaraderie isn't one of
them. L.A. players last week quietly questioned some of
Russell's moves, including his dependence on the cement-footed
Murray--a September call-up who won't be eligible for the
postseason--as a pinch hitter. Said one player, "Our chemistry
stinks. It never got any better. We just started winning."

Then they stopped. The Dodgers, at the start of the final week,
had lost 10 of 13 games and were feeling the pressure of the
pennant race. The Giants? What do they care? They caught a wave
a long time ago and are still enjoying the ride. "To me it
doesn't matter what we do now--it was still special," says
Hamilton. "To be picked to finish last and still have a shot at
the playoffs in the last week of the season, that's magical."

This is a magical time. The last week of September, the last
pennant race in baseball. Giants and Dodgers. The only baseball
meetings that matter.

COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT BECK Bonds remains the heart of the Giants, but he's far from the only reason they were leading the National League West. [Barry Bonds batting in game]

COLOR PHOTO: JED JACOBSOHN Things went from bad to worse for L.A. in Colorado, where an error by Piazza gave the Rockies a 2-1 win on Saturday. [Mike Piazza in game]

COLOR PHOTO: CLAY MCLACHLAN/REUTERS The Giants whooped it up after a 12th-inning, game-winning blast by Johnson (far left) pulled them even with L.A. [Brian Johnson being congratulated by teammates]