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 around."
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 LA 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."