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 bat-boy 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.