SAN FRANCISCO, AUG. 28 -- Willie Mays was in center field. Juan Marichal was pitching. And Willie McCovey was playing first. That's how long it has been since the San Francisco Giants were in first place this late in a baseball season.

So, after 16 years of waiting, after nearly 400 nights of frustration at windblown Candlestick Park, you could forgive Tom Kennedy for his schizophrenic frame of mind.

"This is our year to kick butt in the World Series," gushed the 54-year-old plumber, waiting in line outside an empty stadium this week to buy advance tickets for the home stretch run. "Then again, with the Giants you can never tell. We could still end up in last place."

August always has been the cruelest month for both tourists and baseball fans in San Francisco. The same cold fog that shivers the life out of optimistic visitors wearing shorts and T-shirts seems to bewitch the home team.

This year the Giants have managed to escape that spell. With 34 games to play, San Francisco leads Houston in the National League West by 2 1/2 games.

Are the streets of San Francisco steeped in enthusiasm? Has baseball fever infected this laid-back Baghdad by the Bay?

Well, sort of.

"A lot of people must think we're sold out," said Giants public relations director Duffy Jennings, asked to explain why more than 93,000 tickets for this weekend's three-game home stand against the defending world champion New York Mets remained unsold Thursday morning.

Everywhere you go in this city, you hear conversations about the clubhouse brawl between Will Clark and Jeffrey Leonard, about Candy Maldonado's comeback from a broken ring finger, about Chris Speier's clutch hitting, the banishment of beer sales in the stands and the prospects for a new stadium in downtown San Francisco.

But bold predictions of world domination do not come easily from fans who have grown numb watching high flying hopes blown back into the stadium and caught for the third out. And with the Oakland Athletics, just a subway ride away, contending for not only first place in the American League West but the affection of Bay area fans, folks here have been cautious in making a Giant commitment.

If this year is different, it may be more the result of politics than power hitting. During the last two months, Giants owner Bob Lurie and General Manager Al Rosen have made three very profitable, if expensive, baseball deals to get third basemen Kevin Mitchell and pitchers Dave Dravecky and Rick Reuschel.

The motives behind those deals, which have strengthened the Giants' faltering pitching staff, have been a popular subject of sports call-in shows and cynical sports columnists, who note that no trades were made when the Giants were in contention a year ago, and that these trades coincided with Lurie getting the downtown stadium plan on the November ballot.

Most Giants fans would welcome a move from Candlestick, where you can watch the same hot dog wrapper swirl in a mini-cyclone for two full innings. And, whatever the motives, fans have been delirious about the trades. Since becoming a Giant on the Fourth of July, Mitchell has batted more than .330. In seven appearances, Dravecky has two wins and four saves. And Reuschel, in his first game as a Giant this week, pitched 7 2/3 scoreless innings in a 2-0 victory over the Phillies.

"This club can smell it, boys. This club can smell it now," said Giants Manager Roger Craig after his team swept three games this week from Philadelphia.

A caricature of Craig's face, elongated to look like a cross between a man and a fox, adorns billboards on the highway that skirts San Francisco. His coaching style puts emphasis on the steal, the hit and run, and constant lineup juggling.

"This is just another way to keep everybody healthy, ticked off and ready to go," said Craig this month. "I'm going to play the guys who are hot. I'm going to manage with my head, not my heart. And we're going to win this thing."

There is one man on this team, Speier, who was a member of the last Giants squad to hold first place this late in the season. Speier, 37, was a rookie on the 1971 team that won the West, then lost to Pittsburgh in the playoffs.

Speier returned to the Giants as a free agent last December after two seasons with the Chicago Cubs as a utility infielder. He has been such a clutch player this year that, though an irregular starter, Craig calls him the team's "most valuable player."

But this week, when Speier was asked if this was a team of destiny, a team to share billing with the likes of Mays, McCovey and Marichal, he adopted a characteristic San Francisco stance:

"Destiny? Check with me in a couple of weeks."