The Los Angeles Dodgers are just one big happy family these days. They run face first into fences with a smile. Bench warmers cheer for the guys who took their jobs. Starting pitchers jump up to help out in relief. Rookies get invited home for dinner, then stay for months.

These guys bleed Dodger Blue.

See, right away, you don't believe a word of it. Won't get fooled again.

That's Tommy Lasorda's legacy.

You probably think the Dodgers have a 6 1/2-game lead in the National League West because of their vast farm system or their knack for schooling pitchers or just because obscene wealth has a way of ending up in first place.

You don't want to hear about what sweethearts Orel Hershiser and Mike Marshall really are. You don't want to hear how Pedro Guerrero invited Mariano Duncan over for a meal, then allowed the rookie to live in his home for three months. You don't want to listen to paeans to Greg Brock's quiet persistence or Bob Welch's courage in the face of alcohol problems and injury. You don't want to know the farm system stinks and that these guys are a scratch-and-peck bunch held together by a fat little skipper who's managing terrifically.

No, you don't want to be told that the filthy rich Dodgers, back on top again just when you thought we were rid of them for a few years, are a bunch of cheerful, overachieving, gut-it-out hardnoses who've beaten long odds, mockery and self-doubt to become a .600 ball club that could win a world title.

For our ingrained cynicism toward the inhabitants of Chavez Ravine, we can thank the long tradition of treacle in Dodgers PR. When you peddle pap long enough, nobody hears the truth.

Lasorda always has specialized in the glad-hand fabrication and the good-natured wink.

As a lifelong Dodgers organization man, he simply has become a public parody of what his bosses want and expect.

Sometimes, Lasorda has fibbed. In a pinch, mere hyperbole might suffice. But, as a normal conversational staple, Lasorda has stuck to the blatant whopper as the safest policy. Once comfortable with total exaggeration, he never has lost his page. If somebody wants to know about Bill Russell's defense or Candy Maldonado's bat, Lasorda never has to worry about some subtle distinction he might have made in a previous exegesis.

He'll just say, "Out-stand-ing. And what a fine young man he is, too."

That's why, in his first years as manager, when the Dodgers went to the Series in 1977 and '78, few people doped out what a grumpy clique-ridden team they really were.

Steve Garvey and Don Sutton could punch each other, Reggie Smith could act paranoid, Dave Lopes could be Capt. Discontent and Ron Cey could grouse about a sunny day, yet what everybody remembered was Lasorda hugging 'em all.

Lasorda never expected anybody with half a brain to believe his act. He was always relieved when you stopped asking silly questions, forcing him to give his pat Pollyanna answers. Then you could just stand around and listen to his profanity, his spontaneous sarcastic wit and the occasional candid observation that might slip out.

Sure, he cultivated every La-La Land celebrity and plastered his walls with pictures of himself and Frank Sinatra, himself and the immortal Don Rickles, himself and the unforgettable Peter Marshall, host of that blockbuster "Hollywood Squares." And you never quite could tell how much he bought it all and how much he was just using everybody and laughing at them somewhere deep in his they-can't-keep-me-down-forever heart.

After 25 years in the minors, two in the service and five as a coach, when you finally get your chance at age 50, you take it. Get Sinatra on the line. Now.

So, Lasorda's not to blame.

But he is the problem. He's the reason these Dodgers are hard to see.

And he knows it and rankles at it.

"All spring I told everybody that if the president of the United States called me up and said, 'Tommy, I want you to pick 25 young men to go to Nicaragua and fight for America,' I'd have told him, 'Mr. President, I've got the 25 I want right here with me,' " said Lasorda last week.

"Maybe we finished fourth last year (79-83, only the Dodgers' second losing record since 1968), but I really believed in this team. I was still telling that story in May when we were under .500 (18-21) and in June when we were six games behind (San Diego). People thought I was crazy.

"Joe Garagiola heard me and he came over and said, 'Lighten up, Tommy. You're gonna make a fool of yourself.' "

What Garagiola meant, and Lasorda understood, was that Lasorda was in danger of discrediting himself not with the smart guys who'd always mocked him, but with the salt-of-the-earth baseball people who'd always ignored his act and liked him.

Didn't Lasorda know the Dodgers were lousy? Despite indisputably great pitching, they had the worst combination of hitting and defense in baseball. The strikeout in the clutch and the corrosively comic error were new Dodgers trademarks. Lasorda had to loosen his ties to this inexperienced bunch, or he'd sink, too.

"I had a meeting with my coaches and asked them, 'Why can't we win with these nice guys?' " That's as close as Lasorda ever will come to admitting how many of his other Dodgers teams weren't nice.

"Enos Cabell came over here (in a midseason trade)," said Lasorda, grinning, "and he said, 'Tommy, I don't get it. Nobody's mad at each other over here.' "

Maybe Lasorda could have made the "I'm okay, you're bums" distinction with some other team. But this was the club that actually possessed the virtues he'd pretended all his others had.

"When we were losing and people began to ridicule us, this team never blamed anybody else," he said. "They lost together. They could easily have come apart. Or turned on the manager.

"It was my job to make sure they didn't lose their confidence, didn't get a defeatist attitude," Lasorda said, the joy of boosterism rising in him.

"On June 26th, I told them, 'I'm very upset. I know you guys are better ballplayers than this. But I know if I'm upset, then how should you feel? It's you that everybody's criticizing. Go out and show somebody."

Indeed, the Dodgers have shown everybody. After that 18-21 start, they put together a solid 24-15 run. For the last seven weeks, since Lasorda's speech, they've scalded the league at a 30-12 pace to reach 72-48.

As the Dodgers took infield last week during a game at Philadelphia, Lasorda stood among his players and practically bellowed, "They don't need me now. Does (Mike) Scioscia need me now? He's hitting .285. Does Kenny Landreaux need me now? He's been hot for two months. No. They needed me when they were six games behind."

If any Dodgers team ever needed to grit its teeth and feign optimism, this was the one. The Dodgers of April and May weren't most happy fellas. But they didn't lose the faith, either.

When Duncan took over at shortstop, displacing mediocre Dave Anderson (who looked like he'd have the job for a decade), the team realized that its aversion to catching batted balls might change.

Moving Guerrero from third base to left field eased Dodgers' minds further while prompting Guerrero to go berserk at the plate. His 15-homer June kept the meek-hitting Dodgers competitive until other pieces fell in place.

Little by little, Los Angeles started to look better. A pitching staff that had been tortured by injuries -- epitomized by 1984 NL ERA champ Alejandro Pena's season-ending shoulder miseries -- gradually got healthy. Then it got marvelous.

Tom Niedenfuer (elbow ligament), Jerry Reuss (bone spurs in both heels), Rick Honeycutt (shoulder surgery) and Welch (chronic elbow pain) all returned to prime form. Kids like lefty Carlos Diaz (1.95 ERA), fast-balling Ken Howell (16 wins-plus-saves) and control artist Hershiser (13-3, 2.37 ERA) made the loss of troubled relief pitcher Steve Howe bearable.

Now, the pitching has reached the point where the team hardly can remember its last poor game. Just 10 days ago, a team record of 52 consecutive shutout innings was set. Welch (9-1, 1.94 ERA) and Fernando Valenzuela (15-8, 2.43 ERA) have won eight games in a row each. In almost 25 percent of the Dodgers' first 120 games, Los Angeles allowed no earned runs, getting shutouts in 18 of the 29 instances.

Confidence breeds confidence. Long gone are the doomsday early-season anecdotes. Like the time Lasorda visited Valenzuela at the mound with the great Mexican left-hander already trailing, 3-0. "You hold 'em, hold 'em right here, and I promise we'll score enough runs to win," said Lasorda in perfect Spanish.

Valenzuela answered in perfect English: "You sure?"

The more a team watches itself overcome its demons, the more exorcisms become possible. Second baseman Steve Sax has cured his mysterious malady of not being able to toss the ball to first base on routine plays. Marshall has returned from an appendectomy. First baseman Brock, bedeviled by comparisons with Garvey, his predecessor, has 16 homers, 48 RBI and some peace of mind.

Even coach Joey Amalfitano, his hand in a cast, is on the mend. Sax gave the coach such a violent high-five last month that it broke his thumb.

With confidence comes both blind luck and foolhardy heroism.

On Aug. 15, for instance, Lasorda sent up Terry Whitfield, who hadn't played in a week, gotten a hit in a month or hit a home run in three months, to pinch hit. He beat the Braves with a two-run homer.

Far more typical of what has gotten the Dodgers into first place was a play Tuesday night in Philadelphia.

With the score tied and two on and one out in the ninth inning, the Phillies' Tim Corcoran hit a ball that should have landed eight feet up the right field wall to end the game.

Instead, Marshall made one of the bravest, luckiest and most terrifying catches of any season. At full speed, he leaped, snagged the ball in the tip of his glove, then smashed face first into the plexiglass, which catapulted him backward. Staggering and spinning, he threw back toward the infield, where the Dodgers had their choice of which dumbfounded runner to double off base to end the inning.

After the Dodgers ran off the field cheering, they got to the dugout and discovered that Marshall, after he had finished the play, wobbled back to the wall and collapsed in a heap.

The Dodgers' dugout emptied.

Two innings later, Los Angeles won.

In the clubhouse, Lasorda was bellowing the praises of starter Honeycutt, who'd gotten an emergency save. "What a job that Honeycutt did," the manager yelled to his team. "Let's hear it for Honeycutt. All together now."

And the whole team, led by Lasorda, hollered, "So what?"

For a team that has an entirely different infield from the one it used on opening day (Brock, Sax, Duncan and Cabell replacing Sid Bream, Duncan, Anderson and Guerrero); for a franchise whose AAA and AA teams are in last place with records worse than .350, the Dodgers aren't too bad.

"What a catch that was," says Sax, interrupting the interview of the laconic, self-deprecating Marshall. "Incredible. Unbelievable, I'd say.

"Whatdaya think Billy Murray would have to say about you taking so long to get back to the dugout?"

Sax imitates actor Murray's jovial-moron voice in "Caddyshack" and says, "Duuuh, I was unavoidably detained."

Around the room, everybody is in pennant race paradise. Reuss shoots his underwear into a laundry hamper and says, "Reuss already has 25 on Jabbar tonight." Lasorda is telling his "25 men to fight for America in Nicaragua" story again, but this time Hershiser interrupts him. "Skip," says the second-year pitcher whose face is so innocent they call him Opie, "could we just make that 24 guys to Nicaragua? You got one conscientious objector."

Marshall watches it all. The next night, he'll be back in the lineup, limping, and start a 15-6 rout with a grand slam in the first inning. He can't really explain why a grown man would run full tilt into a wall. It's not smart. And with a big lead in the division, it's not even necessary.

"Some players are just built that way. You never think about not doing it. Other guys would never think to do it," Marshall says. "There are a lot of hard-nosed players in here. A lot of tough guys."

The Dodgers?

Talented, sure. But tough? Full of togetherness? Naaah. No way.

Probably just more of Lasorda's lasagna.