Monday, May 7, 2012

The LA-SF rivalry -- Chapters 7-8

-- by Josh Suchon

The Giants and Dodgers resume their rivalry tonight at Chavez Ravine, and another chapter in the rivalry begins as Guggenheim Baseball takes over as the Dodgers owner. We’re looking back at the different chapters in the rivalry’s rich history.

Chapter Seven – The Dodgers go corporate (1998-1999)

The Giants enjoyed moments of holding the upper-hand over their rivals through the first four decades since the team moved to California. But they never could sustain that advantage for very long.

That was finally changing. The Giants won the most recent battle on the field, and it was about to get better off the field. They’d secured financing for a new ballpark in downtown San Francisco, the countdown was on for leaving Candlestick, and they still had Barry Bonds.

Down south, Peter O’Malley looked into the future, and didn’t think family ownership was in that future. O’Malley became owner of the Dodgers in 1979, when his father Walter died, and continued running the club with the excellence of his father. Even if it was a little thing, like free ice cream for employees whenever the team was in first place, the organization exuded grace.

It was reported as an estate and tax planning move for the O’Malley family. Some believe that O’Malley knew that he’d eventually have to raise ticket and parking prices, he’d have to put advertisements all over the ballpark, that he’d have to add more luxury suites and other amenities to keep the payroll skyrocketing, and he didn’t want that on his legacy.

Whatever the case, the final straw was when L.A. city officials rejected a plan to bring an NFL franchise to Chavez Ravine, following the departures of the Rams and Raiders after the 1994 season. O’Malley scrapped plans for the football team, and put the cherished baseball club up for sale after 47 years of family ownership.

It was sold to Rupert Murdoch’s NewsCorp. The deal closed during the 1998 spring training.

Thirty-seven games into their ownership, Fox Entertainment traded Mike Piazza and Todd Zeile to the Florida Marlins for Bobby Bonilla, Charles Johnson, Gary Sheffield and Jim Eisenreich. General manager Fed Claire was blindsided by the trade. He was never consulted.

On paper, it wasn’t that bad a trade. But sending away the outrageously popular Piazza was a PR disaster, and the nightmare was made worse when all the newcomers flopped.

The message was clear. Fox was building new regional TV networks across the country, and the baseball team was just a pawn. The Dodgers were just another corporation with no soul.

Throughout the rivalry’s history, there were always those awkward times when a player went from one rival to the other. Juan Marichal ended his career with the Dodgers (and was lustily booed). Dusty Baker went straight from LA to SF. Brett Butler went from SF to LA, and became the biggest villain at Candlestick.

But the role reversal that was the weirdest of all is when the Giants signed free-agent pitcher Orel Hershiser for the 1998 season. He wasn’t close to the Orel from a decade earlier, but he made every start, went over 200 innings, and won his first two starts against the Dodgers.

In the first year under Fox, without Piazza, the Dodgers finished in third place and 15 games behind division winner San Diego. The second year, they were third place again, eight games under .500, and 23 games behind first-place Arizona.

The team ahead of them each year was the Giants. They lost a one-game playoff to the Cubs for the wild card in 1998, and were eliminated in the final week of the 1999 season by the D-backs.

Even if they just missed the playoffs, the Giants were relevant, they were always a factor in the playoff races, they had the best player in baseball in Bonds, and now they had a new ballpark on the way.

Chapter Eight -- Giants get a new home (2000-2003)

The single biggest development in the LA-SF rivalry was the opening of Pacific Bell Park in 2000. It changed everything. It changed the Giants fan base and energized its players.

For the first 42 years in their California rivalry, the Dodgers were the classy team that played in the warm beautiful SoCal sunshine in a cathedral palace with magnificent blue and white uniforms.

The Giants were a rag-tag outfit that played in a gray, dumpy, miserably cold ballpark in a bad part of town. Fans didn’t enjoy going to games, they survived the elements to watch their team.

Fittingly, there wasn’t a cloud in the sky when the Giants opened the ballpark against the Dodgers on a brilliant Tuesday afternoon. Kevin Elster would hit three home runs and the Dodgers won 6-5, but that was just one day.

The ballpark reviews were in, and the Giants were the hottest ticket in town. It was no longer for the diehards to survive the elements. Casual fans showed up. Habits were changed. Fans took public transportation. Every game sold out. Every game was an electric atmosphere. Fans watched games from kayaks in the Bay, beyond the right-field fence, and fought for Bonds’ “splash hits.”

The Giants won a majors-best 97 games that year, ran away from the fading Diamondbacks in late summer, and finished 11 games ahead of the Dodgers.

The next year, Bonds hit 73 home runs to break Mark McGwire’s single-season record. He tortured the Dodgers along the way. He hit career home run No. 500 off the Dodgers on April 17, a game-winning two-run shot in the eighth. The next day, he hit No. 501 in the seventh inning, off Chan Ho Park, for another game-winner.

Bonds hit No. 67 on Sept. 24 off James Baldwin, one of the few Dodgers pitchers who challenged him in the series. Bonds was walked seven times in the three-game series at Dodger Stadium. The Dodgers fans booed Bonds when he came to the plate, cheered when he struck out, booed when he was walked, and couldn’t help cheering when he hit one out.

Fate would lead to another Giants-Dodgers showdown on the final weekend. The 9/11 terrorist attacks postponed a week of games. The games missed were moved to the week after the regular season was supposed to end. So instead of ending the year at San Diego, Bonds’ pursuit of history, and the Giants playoff push, culminated against the Dodgers in San Francisco.

Bonds broke the record on the third-to-last day of the 2001 season. Once again, Park was his victim. He hit No. 71 in the first inning, No. 72 in the third inning, didn’t miss No. 73 by much in the sixth inning, and was walked twice. (His 73rd would come on the final day of the season.)

Bonds won the battle, but the Dodgers won the war. They won that night, 11-10, in a game that lasted four hours and 27 minutes (which set a nine-inning record at the time). That eliminated the Giants from the playoffs.

The scoreboard for final weekend eliminations was now even.

Giants over Dodgers – 1982 and 1991
Dodgers over Giants – 1993 and 2001

In 2002, the teams would fight for the playoffs for the second time in six years. This time, it was a three-way race with the Diamondbacks. The defending champs pulled away with the division, leaving the wild card race at stake between the rivals for the final weekend.

With the Dodgers watching helplessly from San Diego, the Giants beat the Astros on the penultimate day to clinch the playoffs. Tom Goodwin, who was released by the Dodgers earlier in the year and still drawing his paycheck from them, delivered a pinch-hit, two-run single for the final outcome.

The Giants and Bonds got the playoff monkey off their backs, finally beating the Braves in the division series, stomping the Cardinals in the NLCS, and faced the Angels in the World Series.

It was the ultimate nightmare for the Dodgers: their longtime rival against their freeway rival. Either way, the Dodgers would lose. The Angels staged a historic Game 6 rally at home, and won a drama-free Game 7 to win their first world title. Pouring salt on the wounds, the Angels manager was former Dodgers catcher Mike Scioscia and his coaching staff was filled with former Dodgers as well.

In 2003, Dusty Baker and Jeff Kent were gone. It didn’t matter. Bonds won another MVP, Jason Schmidt was the Cy Young runner-up (losing to Dodger closer Eric Gagne), the Giants won 100 games and were back in the playoffs yet again.

It was the Giants third playoff appearance in four years. In the seven seasons from 1997-2003, the Giants played just nine games that didn’t matter (seven in 1999 and two in 2001).

The Dodgers were spending big money on free agents, yet had the reputation of a team that would self-destruct late in the season. They hadn’t made the playoffs in seven years and hadn’t won a playoff series in 15 years.

The fans were still showing up. Over three million paid in seven of the eight years between 1996 and 2003. But frustration was building, and the greatest stretch in Giants history was only making it worse.

Tuesday: Chapters 9-10.

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