If this is September and this is the office of San Francisco
Giants manager Dusty Baker, the sweet aroma of a pennant race
must be in the air. "Incense?" guessed Giants pitcher Scott Eyre
as he walked past Baker's office at Qualcomm Stadium in San
Diego last Friday. No, Jamaican Surprise, actually, a fragrance
redolent of vanilla and wafting from the scented candle burning
on the manager's desk as the Phat Jamz compilation CD
thump-thumped from his portable speakers. Baker travels with
candles to mask the usual pungency of a big league clubhouse.
For a sixth consecutive season Baker has San Francisco within
sniffing distance of the playoffs. At week's end he had managed
960 regular-season games since 1997, and the Giants had been in
first place or in contention for 950 of them. Hardy perennials,
they are the phlox of baseball.
This season's run is different, however. For one, San Francisco's
pursuit of the National League wild card is the only tight race
remaining in which the loser goes home. That the Giants' foil in
this daily drama is the Los Angeles Dodgers, whose rather
anonymous manager, Jim Tracy, is Baker's polar opposite, only
makes the race juicier. After all, the Dodgers-Giants rivalry
ranks right up there with the great civic and athletic showdowns
in western civilization, including Athens-Sparta, Yankees-Red Sox
and, of course, Canadiens-Nordiques. And although the Dodgers and
Giants have been knocking heads for more than 100 years, there
have been only seven seasons in which one team has edged the
other for a postseason berth by two games or less.
"It's just like hockey, just like the Montreal Canadiens and the
Quebec Nordiques," says L.A.'s Canadian-born closer, Eric Gagne.
"It's a lot of fun. You feed off that when you step on the field.
You get a rush with all the fans yelling and booing."
With 12 games to play, including four against the Dodgers in a
series that began on Monday in Los Angeles, San Francisco clung
to a one-game lead and the momentum. Trailing the Dodgers by four
games on Aug. 19, the Giants went on a 19-8 run that ended with a
4-1 loss to the Padres on Sunday. "I don't think we've had a
stretch like this all year," San Francisco shortstop Rich Aurilia
says. "The guys are starting to hit, and the pitching is coming
The spirit of the Dodgers-Giants feud is captured on the walls of
Baker's office at Pac Bell Park. There hang portraits of former
Dodgers Jackie Robinson and Jim Gilliam as well as a photo from
1965 of the rivalry's most notorious flash point, Giants pitcher
Juan Marichal's swinging a bat at the head of Los Angeles catcher
Johnny Roseboro, with Dodgers pitcher Sandy Koufax futilely
attempting to keep the peace.
Today the 53-year-old Baker personifies the conflict: He wears
number 12, in homage to former L.A. outfielder Tommy Davis, his
boyhood idol. Baker loved the Dodgers as a kid in Carmichael,
Calif., and then learned to hate them as a young man rising
through the Atlanta Braves system. "They had all these
good-looking guys, all sure of themselves, wearing tight, white
uniforms with their heads cocked off to the side a little bit,"
he recalls. "And after all that they went out and pretty much
handed your butt to you time and time again." He learned to love
them again upon being traded to Los Angeles before the 1976
season, the start of a productive eight-year run. Then he hated
them again when they released him after failing in attempts to
skirt his no-trade provision. "I got over it, but it took a long
time," he says. "You just can't carry that around, keeping your
heart hard like that."
Here, though, is what sets his sixth straight meaningful
September apart for Baker: He is a cancer survivor managing
without a contract for next season who knows getting into the
postseason is no longer rewarding enough. Baker underwent
successful surgery to remove his cancerous prostate nine months
ago and is prospering after some early-season irritability. "I
was getting up four or five times a night," he says, "so I was
walking around like a zombie."
His future with the team has yet to be determined. Giants owner
Peter Magowan told Baker before the season that his status would
be reevaluated after the season. Magowan told San Francisco
magazine recently that Baker "may decide he wants to take a year
off, stop and smell the flowers."
Reminded of that comment, Baker says, "I don't know where he got
that from, because I never said anything like that to anyone.
Stop and smell the flowers? Let me tell you something. You don't
start really living until you have cancer. I mean, before, you're
living, but you're just taking things as they come. Now I'm
living, really appreciating everything around me and what I do."
Baker recently arranged through one of his mentors, former San
Francisco 49ers coach Bill Walsh, to consult with Seattle
Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren, who left a winning program in Green
Bay. "I have a three-year-old son," Baker says. "I've heard
people say I'll go home to spend more time with him. What am I
going to do? Go to school with him? He's getting to the age now
where it's really fun for him to be around the ballpark, be the
batboy and things like that. Listen, I know I've got a good eight
to 10 more years of managing in me. I want four or five
championships. My son will be 12 or 13 then, and maybe it'll be
time to help him out with some coaching. I'm only halfway there.
I'd be crazy to leave now."
Before he sits down with Magowan, Baker must deal with the
Dodgers and with the void on his resume. While Baker has won more
games than any Giants manager except the great John McGraw and is
recognized for getting the most from veteran players, he has
never won a playoff series. Baker is 1-6 in postseason games,
including a 1-3 disappointment against the New York Mets in their
2000 Division Series that critics regard as the Waterworld of his
otherwise respected career.
This time Baker has the well-balanced, experienced club he
prefers. At week's end San Francisco was second in runs scored
(4.8 per game) and ERA (3.65). The eight regulars in his lineup
are at least 30 years old and have been through multiple pennant
races. That experience enabled the Giants to start their 19-8 run
immediately after a four-game losing streak in which they scored
five runs. "It was exactly what would have sent a younger team
floundering," General Manager Brian Sabean says, "but we turned
around on a dime."
Through Sunday, San Francisco had enjoyed fabulous health this
season: Its five starting pitchers had missed a total of four
starts, and none of the eight regulars had been sidelined for a
stretch longer than 15 games. Leftfielder Barry Bonds had put up
slo-pitch softball numbers, and second baseman Jeff Kent had
belted a career-high 34 homers.
The Dodgers' season, meanwhile, has gone much less smoothly.
They ranked 12th in the league in scoring at week's end and were
challenged by injuries to starting pitchers Kazuhisa Ishii (out
for the season with a skull fracture he suffered when struck by
a line drive from the Houston Astros' Brian Hunter on Sept. 8),
Andy Ashby (who used Krazy Glue on Sunday to help toughen the
skin over a persistent finger blister) and Kevin Brown (still
struggling after June 11 surgery to repair a herniated disk).
Shawn Green (42 home runs, 109 RBIs) has carried the team
offensively, though in spurts. He hit .302 with 32 homers in May,
June and August, but only .237 in April and .250 in July, with
three home runs in each month. L.A. has failed to find a
consistent force to put behind him in the lineup. Third baseman
Adrian Beltre ripped three hits in a 16-3 shellacking of the
Colorado Rockies last Saturday, but that followed a 1-for-34
meltdown during which he swung at 28 of 36 pitches in one
That the Dodgers remain a contender in the face of those
shortcomings enhances the growing reputation of the earnest
Tracy, who is Muzak to Baker's Coltrane cool. At 46, Tracy has
never been involved in a pennant race in the final week of a
season. He had 46 hits in a forgettable big league career, or
1,935 fewer than Baker, after which he took jobs selling
cardboard boxes and delivering newspapers. He apprenticed for 13
years as a minor league manager and major league coach before
Los Angeles promoted him last year from its bench coach to its
manager, replacing Davey Johnson. The team won 86 games in 2001
despite putting players on the disabled list 20 times. This
season the low-key Tracy has continued to shepherd the team away
from its clubhouse fractiousness of recent years. "They've
cleaned the air there and are riding on enthusiasm and
adrenaline," Sabean says.
When the Dodgers flew home from Denver on Sunday after a 2-5 road
trip, they took comfort in knowing it would be the last time they
would have to get on a plane this season--unless they need to
travel to San Francisco for a one-game playoff. They close out
their schedule at home against the Giants, Rockies and Padres,
with a bus trip down Interstate 5 to San Diego thrown in.
San Francisco, which begins a series with the Brewers in Miller
Park on Friday, asked the Dodgers to switch Thursday's game from
7:10 p.m. to an afternoon start to save the Giants from having to
arrive in Milwaukee at 5 in the morning. The Dodgers stopped
laughing long enough to say no.
Of this week's showdown, Los Angeles general manager Dan Evans
says, "They're big games, not necessarily because it's such a big
rivalry, but because we're two very closely compared clubs. We're
very similar, and I think we'll continue to be similar. It's easy
to have intensity when you've got Barry Bonds on the other club.
He's one of the greatest ever to play the game, and he's an easy
guy to dislike if you're a Dodgers fan."
Now the final two weeks of the season have brought the history
and heartache of Dodgers-Giants into a rare head-to-head
denouement. The distilling process guarantees this much: One team
will come away with a new reason to dislike the other.
living until you have cancer. Now I'm really appreciating what I