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A Hard Shell With a Soft, Tender Center

Baseball: Giant reliever Rod Beck might look tough, but the sick and disadvantaged people he supports know what he's really like.


MIAMI — Your image doesn't matter much. Unless, of course, you routinely face intense, bat-wielding men with games on the line.

In that case, any edge helps. Intimidation is a good thing in a closing pitcher's chaotic world.

San Francisco Giant closer Rod Beck, with his frizzy long brown hair, Fu Manchu mustache, menacing scowl and pot belly, has that look. Beck's job forces him to live on the game's fringe, and he's well groomed for the role.

But if ever a cover didn't tell the whole story, this is it.

When Beck, who went to Grant High in Van Nuys, isn't doing his best to shoot down Giant opponents in ninth innings, he's giving to Bay Area charities. And not only with his money.

Beck and his wife, Stacey, are involved in several organizations that help people with AIDS and HIV. Beck has been lauded by San Francisco's leaders for his efforts, which have remained constant, no matter how things have gone for him on the mound.

This Giant is truly a giant in the community, and he's no less important to his team. National League West champion San Francisco opens the best-of-five division series here today against the Florida Marlins at Pro Player Stadium, and the Giants like their chances with Beck in the bullpen.

"Shooter [Beck] is one of the best relievers in the game, and he means a lot to this team and this community for a lot of reasons," Giant Manager Dusty Baker said. "Shooter does a lot of things that don't get headlines, because that's not the reason he does them. He does them for the right reasons."

The Becks work with Bay Area Perinatal AIDS Center, raising awareness about Pediatric AIDS through public service announcements. They conduct fund-raisers, auctioning memorabilia autographed by Rod, and they have persuaded other Giants to contribute signed items.

The Becks also raise money for Camp Sunburst, a camp for children who have the virus. Not surprisingly, Beck is the spokesman for the Giants' nationally renowned "Until There's a Cure Day," an annual event that began in 1994 to promote AIDS awareness.

Beck, 29, doesn't speak of his commitment to the cause unless asked. And then only reluctantly, trying his best to keep the spotlight where he said it rightfully belongs.

"The important thing is to help people with the disease and to find a cure," Beck said. "People need to be more aware of what this disease is about and that it affects everyone."

The Becks, who have two daughters, became involved with Sunburst in 1991. They were searching for a way to make a difference and found it.

Beck's compassion has increased his popularity in San Francisco. However, Giant fans have had a love-hate relationship with Beck this season.

Although he tied for second in the league with 37 saves, Beck (7-4 with a 3.47 earned-run average) struggled at times. He had eight blown saves and often heard boos.

Beck handled the July 31 arrival of closer Roberto Hernandez, who was traded to San Francisco from the Chicago White Sox along with pitchers Wilson Alvarez and Danny Darwin, about as well as anyone in his position could. Baker initially said Beck would remain the closer, but Hernandez also finished games in save situations.

Beck is the Giants' all-time save leader with 199. He is tied with Dennis Eckersley for fourth on the single-season list with 48 saves, which Beck reached in 1993. Beck has saved 30 or more games four times.

The Giants got Beck, drafted in the 13th round of the June 1986, draft by Oakland, through a 1988 trade. He has been with the Giants since and has the longest tenure in the organization.

However, that could change soon. Beck is in the final year of a two-year contract extension that pays him $2,927,447 this season. Hernandez, making $4,620,000, is also a free agent, and it is unlikely both will return.

As entrenched as Beck is in San Francisco, it would seem strange if he were no longer there. But he's been in the game long enough to know to always expect the unexpected.

"This has been a very special season for me," Beck said. "I'm proud of the accomplishments of this club and of the strides this organization has made to improve. We all have a lot to be proud of."

If Beck does depart, guess where he will leave his heart.

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