Old Flames

Now that the Padres and Rockies, newcomers to these proceedings, are peering up from the darkness, it cannot hurt to examine what they see high above. They see the Giants and the Dodgers, a couple of storied teams that would just as soon slash each other's throats as exchange pre-game niceties at home plate. Of all baseball's rivalries, this one might be the most passionate and intense, not least for the fact that the whole glowering, seething, glorious thing was once uprooted from its home, shipped across the country and plunked down in dumbfounded California.

Californians likely haven't been the same since. Out at the ballpark, Nob Hill narcissism has been colliding with Hollywood narcissism for four decades, and the results have been anything but laid-back. The scorecard? Juan Marichal may have whomped John Roseboro on the head with his bat one time, but Hollywood has more often wound up with the marbles: The L.A. Dodgers have won five of the nine World Series they've played; the Giants are 0 for 2 as West Coasters, losing in 1962 and 1989.

Old hands may be surprised to learn that in the 108 years the Dodgers and Giants have hated each other, they've wound up 1-2 in the standings only nine times. The last year they did it--this is hard to believe--was way back in 1971, when San Francisco finished one game ahead of Los Angeles in the National League West before losing the pennant to Pittsburgh.

This season, though, France and Germany are back in a shooting war. On Tuesday morning, Los Angeles led San Francisco by two games in the standings, and September promises a battle royale to the finish, despite the fact that the clubs will meet just twice more--September 17 and 18 at Dodgers Stadium.

Little matter. Every time Barry Bonds strikes out amid the inhospitable winds of Candlestick Park, hundreds of Dodgers fans snicker into their protein shakes. Whenever Mike Piazza, the exemplary L.A. catcher, stubs a toe or takes a foul tip off the mask, San Franciscans raise their espresso cups in triumph. There's no injury, physical or psychological, too grotesque for a Giants fan to wish upon an enemy down South. When, during the infamous Earthquake World Series of 1989, Mother Nature started tossing Candlestick around like a kid's toy, most Angelenos wouldn't have minded if the whole shebang had collapsed on top of Matt Williams and Will Clark. Might have thrown their batting strokes off come spring training.

The original Dodger-Giant antagonism was, of course, rooted in the nourishing belligerence of cross-town baseball in New York. The Giants and the then-Brooklyn Bridegrooms first played in October 1889--a nine-game series of which the Giants won six--and in the early years, Giant dominance continued. Between 1905 and 1924, John McGraw's club played in nine World Series, winning three of them, while their poor cousins in Brooklyn struggled and fumed in the second division. For the purposes of this discussion, there's no point mentioning that, over in the Bronx, just a long fly ball away from the Polo Grounds, the common enemy of the Giants and Dodgers--the imperious New York Yankees--were building the most famous dynasty in sports on the ample back of Babe Ruth. That's another story.

If one man personified the blood-and-guts tone of the old Dodgers-Giants feud, it was Leo Durocher. Combative, brilliant and thoroughly unlikable, he's the man who coined the phrase "Nice guys finish last" and whose character baseball commissioner Happy Chandler once assessed this way: "He would hold the lamp while his mother was cutting wood." Appropriately enough, "Leo the Lip" served as Brooklyn's manager for seven and a half seasons, then shocked New York by becoming the Giants' skipper, a post he held from '48 through 1955. He had been suspended in 1947 for consorting with gamblers. But National League umpire Harry Wendelstedt had an even lower opinion of him than the courts. "Call me anything," Harry once said. "Call me 'motherfucker.' But don't call me 'Durocher.' A Durocher is the lowest form of living matter."

Nonetheless, Leo led the none-too-talented blue-collar Dodgers to a pennant in 1941. He started up the careers of two guys named Jackie Robinson and Willie Mays. On July 8, 1949, he was there when the Giants' Hank Thompson stepped into the batter's box to face the Dodgers' Don Newcombe. The significance? For the first time ever, a black hitter was opposing a black pitcher in the major leagues. In what must have been sweet revenge, Durocher was also sitting in the Giants dugout at the Polo Grounds on October 3, 1951, when Bobby Thomson struck one of the most famous home runs in baseball history, the Shot Heard Round the World. That, of course, gave the Giants a win in their three-game playoff series with the Dodgers for the NL pennant and forever doomed the man who threw the pitch, Brooklyn's Ralph Branca, to ignominy. For Durocher, it was as satisfying a moment as sweeping the favored Clevelend Indians in the 1954 World Series. After all, his '51 Giants had trailed the league-leading Dodgers by 13 1/2 games in mid-August, then caught them--a thought that probably should not be embraced this September by Colorado Rockies fans.

Brooklyn had its one day in 1955, when their working-class baseball heroes finally took a World Series from the pinstriped Yankees after six previous failures. When the Yanks came back to beat Brooklyn in 1956, local wits quickly inverted the rallying cry heard for so many years in cozy Ebbets Field: "Wait 'til last year!" they bellowed.

Three years later the Dodgers and Giants found themselves on the West Coast, bereft of decent pastrami and wisecracking cab drivers. Before long, both clubs started to look cleaned up--a little square, even--but the old enmity hardly diminished. If anything, the new breed of Giants fans hated the Dodgers even more at a distance of 400 miles than when the clubs were separated by a subway token, and vice versa. Los Angeles and San Francisco are still worlds apart--the former is a "body city," the latter a "mind city," a wag once observed--and their baseball teams served to point up the differences. "Isn't it nice," legendary San Francisco columnist Herb Caen wrote, "that people who prefer Los Angeles...live there?"

Veteran outfielder Brett Butler, who's played for both clubs and is again a Dodger this season, savors the rancor. "Absolutely," he said last week. "It's great knowing how much they hate you. You love it. This is the kind of rivalry baseball needs. This has lasted a long time, and let's hope it lasts for a long time to come."

The Dodgers won their first West Coast World Series in 1959. Three years later, the Giants got their revenge. With seven games left in the 1962 season, L.A. led second-place San Francisco by four, but another Dodgers collapse in the final days forced a three-game playoff like the one of 1951. Looking for an edge, Giants manager Alvin Dark soaked his base paths to slow down Dodger base-stealer Maury Wills. When umpire Jocko Conlan found huge puddles between first and second, he ordered the grounds crew to repair the damage, but the game was still played in muck. "We were so angry over the mud that we couldn't concentrate at the plate," Wills later admitted. The Dodgers lost.

They came back to win game two, and in the final matchup, the Giants trailed 4-2 going into the ninth inning, the same score as when Thomson had come to bat on Coogan's Bluff exactly eleven years earlier. This time the Giants won the game on a single, a fielder's choice and a couple of walks, then lost the World Series to--who else?--the Yankees.

A few seasons later, amid a beanball war, Dodger catcher John Roseboro whizzed a throw back to pitcher Sandy Koufax past the ear of Giants batter Juan Marichal and got an appalling clubbing from Marichal as a result. The Giants and Dodgers have engaged in bench-clearing brawls (including two of them this year) and happily played spoiler to each other many times. San Francisco knocked L.A. out of the playoffs on the final day of the season in both 1982 and 1991, and in 1993 the out-of-the-race Dodgers got even by ending the season for the Giants, who had won an astonishing 103 games, by beating them 12-1 in the season finale.

Then-Giants third baseman Matt Williams explained it all at a fan rally back home: "We sat there today and listened to all those Dodger fans, and if you ask any man on this stage what it felt like to listen to that, well, I'd be surprised if the Dodgers win one game next year--just one."

Back in 1988, after the Giants postponed a Dodger divisional win (and eventual World Series crown) with a home victory at Candlestick, all you could see in the clubhouse was Dodger manager Tommy Lasorda knocking trays of post-game enchiladas onto the floor. "Who fuckin' said the word 'choke'?" he demanded. "Who's the fucker?"

Jackie Robinson and Lasorda are gone now, and sleaze-media magnate Rupert Murdoch proposes to bleed his own brand of Dodger blue. Willie Mays hobbles his way out of a taxi these days, and drafty, freezing Candlestick will finally give way to a nice, temperate ballpark downtown. Everything seems to have changed. Everything but the bright fury of the ancient Dodger-Giant animus, that is. If that doesn't energize every baseball fan's fervor, nothing can. Is playoff number three too much to hope for



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