STEVE GARVETS LIFE USED TO LOOK AS IF he sent in a cereal box top when he was a kid and won the American Dream. As a youngster playing in the shadow of the Los Angeles Dodgers' spring training camp in Vero Beach, Fla., where his father drove the team bus, Garvey worked as a batboy and imagined himself someday wearing Dodger Blue. Sure enough, in the '70s and early '80s he became the team's mainstay and its most exemplary citizen. Ten times an all-star first baseman, Garvey invariably led the Dodgers in offense on the field and in good deeds. His grownup dream: to become a U.S. senator.

The first seam in the portrait of Garvey as the ail-American hero came in 1981 when his wife, Cyndy Garvey, now a Los Angeles talk show host, left Steve and moved to New York City. The subsequent divorce left an enduring rift between Garvey and his two daughters, Krisha, now 19, and Whitney, 17. He was signed as a free agent by the San Diego Padres in 1983 and retired from baseball in 1988. his star somewhat dimmed.

But for Garvey, the worst was yet to come. In 1989 his former fiancée, Rebecka Mendenhall, 38, a senior national assignment editor for CNN in Atlanta, and a San Diego businesswoman whom Garvey had dated, announced almost simultaneously that they were bearing Garvey's children. At the time, Garvey had just capped a whirlwind one-week courtship with Candace Thomas, 35, a homemaker, by asking her to marry him. The same night she accepted, Thomas recalls, Garvey had to "get down on his knees and tell me that there was something that might change my mind."

It didn't. Although Thomas says she was "surprised" by the news, the two were married a month later, with her daughters from a previous marriage, Shaunna, 12, and Taylor, 11, looking on. The wedding, however, didn't quiet the tabloids—or the folks who marketed a bumper sticker that said, "Honk If You're Carrying Steve Garvey's Love Child." To this day he will only say of the controversy, "It's how you handle the problem that matters. People know that I have always been responsible." To Garvey responsibility meant admitting paternity, but saying little else. "It was tough," recalls his friend actor Ron Masak (the sheriff on Murder, She Wrote). "When your image is Jack Armstrong, and you have to admit something like that, it's hard."

Nor was it easy for Candace. "The pain was excruciating," she remembers. "We cried and cried. When we'd be at home in bed, we'd look at each other, and we were just numb." Most difficult for Garvey, Candace says, was that the scandals widened the gulf between him and Krisha and Whitney, both now in college. Neither girl has shown much inclination to have anything to do with her father. Mom Cyndy says, "I have nothing to say. They do what they want." Yet, Garvey holds out hope. "I love my daughters," he says. "There will be a time when we'll be together. I just can't tell you when."

Meanwhile, Mendenhall went to court last year and was awarded $2,175 a month in child support for their son, Slade, now 4. Garvey, who won't discuss Slade or his other child, also 4, does not see either child—though Mendenhall showed him a picture of Slade in the courtroom in Los Angeles. As she says, "If my son is failed by his father, it will be his father's doing, not because I did anything to inhibit the relationship."

Hoping to put all the heartache behind him, Garvey has moved on with his new career and new family. He runs a small firm called Garvey Communications, which does marketing and production for sports cable stations and other companies, makes appearances on ESPN and has taken to acting. He recently appeared in an episode of TVs Baywatch and plays an Army major in charge of a nuclear compound threatened by terrorists in the Roger Gorman film Bloodfist VI: Ground Zero, scheduled for a February release. Says Garvey: "I want to see how far this acting thing can go.

Meanwhile he and Candace rented a spacious home in Los Angeles's Brentwood section last year, and have a spanking new addition: 7-month-old Ryan Steven Patrick Garvey. Remarkably, Garvey still clings to his dream of running for national office. Garvey supported George Bush in 1992, and he has talked with Republican party officials about the possibility of running for a U.S. Senate seat from California someday. "People know I'm a hard worker," he says, "and they know how consistent I've been." Despite the downpour of tacky publicity, Garvey thinks he can come out a winner once more. "When you've struck out to end a game in front of fifty thousand people," he says, "you learn to put things in perspective."