Saturday, May 5, 2012

The LA-SF rivalry -- Chapters 1-4

-- by Josh Suchon

A new chapter in the Dodgers-Giants rivalry starts Monday night at Dodger Stadium when the teams play for the first time in 2012. The transfer of power from thrifty Frank McCourt to the deep-pocketed Guggenheim Baseball ownership group ensures a new chapter in this historic rivalry.

Which chapter is it?

In my opinion, it’s the 11th chapter since the teams moved from New York to California. I’ll provide my unique perspective as somebody who covered the Giants for The Oakland Tribune from 2000-2003, then was the reporter for the Dodgers Radio Network and co-host of Post Game Dodger Talk from 2008-2011.

Since I’m only 38 years old, I won’t try to fake the early chapters with long poetic essays. After all, I wasn’t alive. But the more recent chapters, when I enjoyed a front-row seat, will get longer treatments. We’ll start today with Chapters 1-4, then continue the next few days.

Chapter One – Getting settled in California (1958-1962)

The move from New York to California brought the rivalry across the country. The hatred amongst the players remained, and the new fans bought into it immediately.

These were transition years. The Dodgers played the first four seasons at the LA Coliseum, before moving into Dodger Stadium. The Giants played their first two years at Seals Stadium, before the debut of Candlestick Park.

Each team enjoyed some success. The Dodgers won a World Series in 1959. The Giants beat the Dodgers in an epic three-game playoff to win the 1962 pennant, only to lose to the Yankees in game seven of the World Series.

Chapter Two – the Koufax years (1961-1966)

Yes, chapters sometimes overlap. That's the beauty of writing your own version of history.

Sandy Koufax single-handedly impacted the balance of power more than any other pitcher in this rivalry’s history. Koufax’s six years from 1961-66 were the greatest by any pitcher, and it’s doubtful it will ever be replicated.

Koufax was an all-star all six years, won the Cy Young three times, finished third another year, and also won a Most Valuable Player award. Led by Koufax, the Dodgers appeared in three World Series, won it all in 1963 and 1965, and finished with a better record than the Giants four times in those six years.

Koufax was also on the mound when the ugliest on-field incident in the rivalry took place on August 22, 1965.

A series of brush-back pitches ignited the flames, then Koufax threw a fastball inside to Giants ace Juan Marichal. When catcher John Roseboro’s throw back to Koufax nicked the ear of Marichal, words followed. An enraged Marichal swung his bat and hit Roseboro in the back of the head.

A remorseful Marichal apologized the next day, but was fined $1,750 and suspended eight games. He missed two starts, and the Dodgers finished two games ahead of the Giants. Roseboro sued Marichal, and settled out of court, although the two patched up their differences and later became friends before Roseboro’s death.

Chapter Three – dominated by Red (1967-1976)

Each team had its moments during this nine-year period, but it was mostly dominated by teams wearing red uniforms.

Koufax was forced to retire because of an arthritic left arm after the 1966 season. The Dodgers finished eighth and seventh (out of 10 teams) the next two years, and wouldn’t finish in the upper half of the division again until 1970.

The Giants couldn’t take advantage of life after Koufax. They finished in second place in five straight years, the final two of Koufax’s career and the next three years after he retired.

The Cardinals filled the immediate void after Koufax left, reaching the World Series in 1967 and 1968. When division play began, the Cincinnati Reds dominated. They won the division in 1970, 1972, 1973 and the World Series in 1975 and 1976.

The best year for the rivalry was 1971. The Giants led by 8 ½ games at the start of play on August 30th, but the Dodgers stormed back into the race. They won five head-to-head meetings in September (and 12 of 18 overall). But the Giants held off their charge, clinching on the final day as Marichal went the distance at San Diego.

It was the Giants first playoff appearance since 1962, but they lost to the Pirates in the division series. That would be the final full season with Willie Mays in San Francisco, and the Giants finished under .500 in five of the next six seasons.

The Dodgers only playoff breakthrough came in 1974, when they won 102 wins to beat the Reds by four games for the division. They beat the Pirates in the NLCS and lost to the A’s in the World Series.

The early-and-mid '70s were a frustrating era for the Dodgers. In the four years before that '74 playoff run, and the two years after, they finished in second place every time. They were good. They were better than the Giants most of the time. But most of the time, the Reds were still best.

Chapter Four -- Tommy takes over (1977-1985)

Tommy Lasorda took over as manager in 1977, and did more to further this rivalry than any other skipper. The ultimate showman, Lasorda’s notorious lines about “The big blue Dodger in the sky” outraged Giants fans and made him a beloved cult figure in Los Angeles.

Lasorda was the ultimate heel at Candlestick. The visitor’s clubhouse was located down the right-field line, requiring a long walk across the field to the third-base dugout. Lasorda was always serenated with boos. Lasorda loved it, played up the rivalry with the fans, ripped the ballpark and the weather, and made the rivalry fun.

More important, Lasorda’s motivation guided the Dodgers to finally get past the Reds in the division. They reached the World Series in 1977 and 1978, were eliminated in a one-game playoff in 1980, won a world championship in strike-shortened 1981, and reached the playoffs in 1983 and 1985.

Of course, Lasorda wasn’t the only person in a Dodgers uniform that was a target. Attendance wasn’t good at Candlestick in these years, but drunken fans would show up when the Dodgers were in town and raise hell.

Reggie Smith went into stands after a 1978 game after a fan threw something at him. Another hoodlum fan attacked the car of the great Vin Scully in the parking lot one night. In 1981, Smith jumped into the stands again, this time in the middle of a game, after Giants fan Michael Dooley threw a souvenir helmet at him. Smith was ejected and Dooley was arrested.

The Giants were essentially a non-factor in this time. Their record was under .500 in six of these nine years, and they never finished above third place.

The 1978 team holds a special place in the hearts of Giants fans because they were in first place for most of the summer. After winning three of four in LA, the Giants were 69-49 on August 14. But they lost 12 of 14 in early September, including four to the Dodgers, and never threatened again.

Symbolic for this time in Giants history, their best year was 1982, when they knocked the Dodgers out of the playoffs on the final day of the season. In the middle of the Giants lineup was Reggie Smith, who signed with the Giants five months after going into the stands to fight a Giants fan.

Often forgotten is the Dodgers eliminated the Giants on the same weekend. The Giants had won 20 of 26 games down the stretch. With three games left, the Giants and Dodgers each trailed the Braves by one game.

Jerry Reuss pitched a three-hit shutout to win the series opener, and with a Braves victory, the Giants were essentially done. A 15-2 drubbing by the Dodgers the next day made it official.

On the season’s final day, the Braves still led the Dodgers by one game, but were losing huge down in San Diego. A one-game playoff was looming if the Dodgers could sweep in San Francisco.

Joe Morgan ended all that. Morgan’s three-run home run in the seventh inning not only snapped a 2-2 tie and was the difference in the 5-3 win, it re-ignited a rivalry that was on life support.

Not only were the Dodgers routinely reaching the playoffs, they were dominating the Giants head-to-head. They went 68-34 against SF from 1977-82.

The “Beat LA” chant was just fairly new at this time. But for long-suffering Giants fans, a new mantra was born: if we can’t make the playoffs, at least beat LA.

The next year, perhaps inspired by this mantra, the 83-loss Giants beat the division-champion Dodgers in 13 of 18 games, including seven of nine at Candlestick. Even during humiliating 96- and 100-loss seasons that followed, the Giants were a respectable 15-21 against the Bums.

The Dodgers fabled infield of Steve Garvey, Davey Lopes, Bill Russell and Ron Cey was slowly broken up in the early ’80s. But with the farm system producing Steve Sax, Mike Marshall, Greg Brock and Pedro Guerrero, the Dodgers were back in the playoffs in 1983 and 1985.

They lost in the NLCS each time. Still, the Dodgers owned this rivalry, and were the class of the National League. The bigger question was not if the Giants could ever get over on their rivals, it was if they would even remain in San Francisco.

Sunday: Chapters 5 and 6.

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