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Amazingly, the two baseball games ended almost simultaneously. Houston beat the Cubs on a sacrifice fly in extra innings, and one minute later ESPN switched us to Colorado, where a shortstop named Neifi Perez was pumping his right fist in the air after ripping a home run to right field to beat the Giants.

While Perez rounded third base early Sunday evening, the TV cameras switched to a shot of San Francisco manager Dusty Baker, who was slumping backward, dejectedly, in the dugout.

But then a funny thing happened. Baker got to his feet, and he had this broad smile on his face. He seemed close to laughter as he walked onto the field at Coors Field and began searching out members of the Rockies coaching staff to congratulate them on the end of their season.

Baker's team had just blown a big lead and squandered a chance to win the N.L. wild card outright. The Giants would have to fly to Chicago to meet the Cubs tonight in a one-game playoff. And yet, in a season filled with gargantuan home runs and gracious, sportsmanlike gestures, Baker seemed to be taking pleasure in simply being part of it all. It's fitting it should end like this -- with Sammy Sosa walking onto Wrigley Field one final time with a postseason berth at stake.

An American public that has been captivated by Sosa's home run race against Mark McGwire will get one last chance to savor this remarkable regular season, to smile and laugh and remember what a fun summer it was. Who will criticize the expanded playoffs now? If not for the wild card, there'd have been no meaningful September for Barry Bonds or Nomar Garciaparra or Roger Clemens or Mike Piazza, nothing for Sosa to chase but McGwire. Maybe Sosa will hit four out, lifting the Cubs into the playoffs, reaching 70 homers, tying McGwire for the single-season record and, yes, tying the single-game record, too. I must admit, I'm rooting for the Cubs. No offense to Baker, who should win a second straight manager of the year award, but the Giants aren't as good a story. They were in the postseason last year. They made the World Series in 1989 (beating the Cubs to get there). The Cubbies haven't been to the Series since 1945. A Cubs presence would give the playoffs a happy symmetry. It would put postseason baseball in both Fenway Park and Wrigley Field for the first time since 1918. It's been 90 years since the Cubs won a World Series. The Red Sox haven't won one in 80 years. They beat the Cubs in 1918 to do it. There's something about baseball and years ending in '8'. For Red Sox fans, tonight's playoff will rattle the ghosts of the 1978 one-game loss to the Yankees. The Bucky Dent game. As Sox fans steel themselves for the upcoming division series against Cleveland (and contemplate the fact that Boston has lost its last 13 playoff games), they'll recall it was 50 years ago, in 1948, when the Red Sox lost a one-game playoff to the Indians for the A.L. title.

Today, baseball fans still feel chills over the number '70', after McGwire slammed two more home runs on the final day of his season. Seventy. That's the target for home run hitters for years to come. We can only hope that, when it happens, the players will approach the dignity and class that Sosa and McGwire showed this season. McGwire has the record, but Sosa is still standing. That's how it should be, because Sosa was the MVP of the National League. An undisciplined, .258 life time hitter heading into '98, he dedicated himself to becoming a smarter, more patient hitter and produced one of the most staggering offensive seasons of all time. Sosa has 66 homers and 158 RBIs (and tonight's stats count). It's the most RBIs since the Red Sox' Ted Williams and Vern Stephens each drove in 159 in 1949. His 412 total bases are the most since Stan Musial had 429 in, yes, 1948. If you can suffer through one more Red Sox reference, Sosa's performance reminds me of the year Carl Yastrzemski had in 1967, when he reinvented himself as a hitter and carried the Red Sox to the A.L. pennant. As great as McGwire's achievements are, Sosa was the definitive MVP this year, taking his game and his teammates to an altogether different plateau.

The people couldn't resist. A recent New York Times/CBS News poll showed fans were more interested in baseball this season than at any time since the poll was first taken in 1985. Thanks to expansion, overall attendance reached a record 70.5 million. Fans were reminded that baseball is at once an individual sport and a team game, a series of one-on-one battles waged within geometric borders. They got the best of both worlds -- the two-man struggle between Sosa and McGwire and the sustained brilliance of the Yankees, who set an A.L. record with 114 victories. Everything was overshadowed by the home run race, but there were some wonderful individual feats, several in seeming defiance of age. Oakland's Rickey Henderson won a 12th stolen-base crown at age 39, 18 years after winning his first one in 1980. At 36, Toronto's Roger Clemens won 20 games, plus the A.L.'s ERA and strikeout titles. He didn't lose in the second half and single-handedly kept the Blue Jays in the playoff race in September. He will probably win a second straight Cy Young award -- 11 years after accomplishing the feat in the 1986-87 seasons. David Cone, battling back from arm surgery and an aneurysm, won 20 games for the first time since 1988. Eric Davis came back from cancer to have a monster season at 36. Cal Ripken ended his con secutive-game streak after 2,632 games. Juan Gonzalez drove in 157 runs. Ken Griffey had 56 ho mers and 146 RBIs. A year ago, he had 56 homers and 147 RBIs and was a unanimous MVP, but he's not favored to win this year. Amidst all the hoopla about the Yankees, did anyone notice that the Atlanta Braves won a fran chise-record 106 games, and ad vanced to the postseason for a sev enth consecutive time? It would be eight, of course, if not for the strike that caused the 1994 post season to be canceled. That dispute seems a lifetime ago, doesn't it? Nowadays when you read about labor strife, it's in stories about pro basketball. Sud denly, baseball seems as healthy as it's ever been. Granted, there's still a big disparity between the rich and poor franchises. The Marlins lost 108 games the year after win ning the World Series. The Expos are in dire financial straits. Still, it's been quite a run, en joyable enough for Dusty Baker to smile after a bitter defeat. Maybe he wanted one last chance to see Sammy Sosa connect with his fans at Wrigley. Maybe he figured the fans were having so much fun they couldn't bear even a one-day break before the playoffs. If the last six months is any in dication, amazing things could be in store in the next month. Surely, all the loyal baseball fans out there are smiling, too.

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