Tuesday, May 8, 2012

The LA-SF rivalry -- Chapters 9-10

-- by Josh Suchon 

The Dodgers and Giants renewed their historic rivalry last night in Los Angeles. New owner Magic Johnson escorted the widow of Jackie Robinson onto the field for a special ceremonial first pitch, and a new chapter in this rivalry was definitely underway.

Continuing our five-part series, here's a look back at Chapters 9 and 10 in this rivalry.

Chapter Nine – Return of the Dodgers (2004-2009)

Plenty of questions remained when Frank and Jamie McCourt purchased the Dodgers from Fox Entertainment in 2004. As his lawyer would later note, Frank didn’t spend a penny of his own money. It was such a highly leveraged purchase, it led to immediate questions on whether McCourt had the funds to afford the game’s top players.

Still, the McCourt era got off to a rousing start in 2004. Fox was out. A family owned the Dodgers once again. The team drew just under 3.5 million fans, their more since 1982.

The season culminated with yet another final weekend between the Giants and Dodgers, this time at Dodger Stadium. In the 161st game of the season, the Giants took a 3-0 lead into the ninth inning. If they could get three more outs, they would play the final game of the season the next day, with a chance to tie for the division.

Rookie shortstop Cody Ransom, inserted for defense, booted a groundball that opened the floodgates. The Dodgers tied the score at 3-all, then Steve Finley hit a grand slam walkoff to touch off a wild celebration in Los Angeles.

All was right in Los Angeles again. Frank and Jamie McCourt were happy, dancing on the field, as their team reached the playoffs. They lost in the first round, again, but at least won their first playoff game since 1988 as Jose Lima pitched a spine-chilling masterpiece in Los Angeles.

That offseason, the BALCO probe deepened, and The San Francisco Chronicle published the grand jury testimony of Barry Bonds. Steroid suspicion had followed Bonds for half a decade, but now the public learned about “the clear” and “the cream” that Bonds was using.

In 2005, Bonds’ body broke down. He missed all but 14 games, due to two knee surgeries, and the Giants dropped back under .500 again. In 2006 and 2007, Bonds’ final two seasons, the only story was Bonds’ asterisk-discussed pursuit of Hank Aaron’s all-time home run record.

General manager Brian Sabean’s strategy of year-to-year fixes, signing veterans and neglecting the farm system, finally caught up. The Giants finished 11 ½ games back of the first-place Dodgers in 2006, and 19 games back of Colorado in 2007.

In 2005, the latest SF-to-LA player switch occurred when the Dodgers signed Jeff Kent, after his two-year stopover in Houston. Now the Giants fans had their newest target to jeer, and Kent was the perfect heel.

Plenty of players had switched uniforms. A few recent managers switched sides in the rivalry. Next, it was time for the leader of baseball operations to switched sides.

McCourt fired Paul DePodesta after the 2005 team collapsed, and his pursuit of a new General Manager ended with Ned Colletti, formerly the asst. GM of the Giants. Brian Sabean and Colletti were together for a decade in San Francisco, and as close as brothers. Now, their friendship would be put on hold.

It was tough for fans to warm-up to Colletti because of his Giants background. It helped that Colletti’s moves led the Dodgers back to the playoffs in 2006, albeit a fourth straight first-round playoff exit. It didn’t help that Colletti signed former Giants ace Jason Schmidt to a three-year, $47 million and Schmidt spent virtually the entire contract on the disabled list.

Colletti hired legendary manager Joe Torre for the 2008 season, then Manny Ramirez fall into his lap at the trading deadline in late July.

The next 2 ½ months were extraordinary. Mannywood was the biggest phenomenon since Fernando-mania – except this took place every night, not every five days. Ramirez tortured every team, and his two homers at home against the Giants in a 10-7 win on Sept. 20 gave the Dodgers a 3-½ game lead with seven left.

The bubbly popped four days later, and just in time. The final three games were in San Francisco. But since the Dodgers already clinched, the Giants couldn’t ruin their party this year.

The Dodgers broke their playoff drought by sweeping the Cubs, then lost to the Phillies in five games in the NLCS.

In 2009, the Dodgers followed the same script: win the division title, sweep the division series opponent (this time the Cardinals), and lose to the Phillies in five games in the NLCS.

But for purposes of the Giants-Dodgers rivalry, 2009 was the year when steroid-enhanced performance came full circle, and the rivalry was evened again. It was also a reminder to be careful of what you mock your rivals over, because the same thing might happen to your team.

Dodgers fans delighted in jeering Bonds, chanting “steir-oids” at him, holding up asterisks signs, and claiming all his accomplishments were tainted.

Then on May 7, 2009 – two months after signing a two-year, $45 million contract -- Ramirez was suspended 50 games for testing positive for HCG, a female fertility drug commonly used as a masking agent for steroid use.

The tables were turned. Now it was the Giants fans calling the other teams’ star a cheat, and it was Dodgers fans who tried to moralize cheering for a drug user.

Meanwhile, with Bonds retired, the Giants re-built a farm system and the results were showing. Tim Lincecum won the Cy Young award in 2008 and 2009, and he was surrounded by plenty more quality young pitching. If the Giants could just get a little offense, they’d be dangerous.

Chapter Ten – Divorce and a drought ends (2010-11)

This chapter probably started the day Frank and Jamie McCourt announced they were getting divorced. It was October 2009, right smack in the middle of a second straight NLCS loss to the Phillies. The day after the playoffs ended, Frank fired Jamie, and accused her of adultery.

While the Dodgers insisted nothing would change and it was business as usual, that was false bravado.

The next two years, as brilliantly reported by Bill Shaikin of The Los Angeles Times, would be filled with one story after another detailing how the McCourts used the Dodgers to fund their extravagant lifestyle. The fear that existed when the couple bought the team in 2004 was now laid out in court filings.

In mid-summer of 2010, with lawyers trading blows with court filings, the Giants took advantage on the field.

If you want a specific turning point, look at the ninth inning of the July 19 game at Dodger Stadium. At the time, the Giants were 50-42, in third place, 4 ½ games behind San Diego. The Dodgers had lost five straight coming out of the all-star break, including the series opener, and were 5 ½ games back.

The backdrop was in the sixth inning, when a pitch came inside to Russell Martin, and bench coach Bob Schaefer yelled that Giants pitcher Tim Lincecum should be ejected. Schaefer’s yelling got him ejected. The next inning, Clayton Kershaw plunked Aaron Roward. He was ejected, and so was manager Joe Torre.

Don Mattingly, then the hitting coach, took over the managerial reigns. In the ninth inning, with the bases loaded and one out, Mattingly visited the mound to set his defense. He walked off the mound, then first baseman James Loney asked him another question, and Mattingly walked back onto the mound to answer.

Giants manager Bruce Bochy spotted this immediately, and reminded the umpires this counts as a second trip to the mound (via rule 8.06). The umpires agreed it was a second trip, but botched the ruling. Closer Jonathan Broxton, who was about a month into his own meltdown, should have pitched to one batter and then get removed.

Instead, he was forced out immediately. Struggling setup man George Sherrill entered the game. Crew chief Tim McClelland told him he could get as many warmup pitches as necessary, but home plate umpire Adrian Johnson stopped him after eight. Sherrill didn’t protest, and Mattingly didn’t realize it (until I told him after the game).

A cold Sherrill immediately gave up a two-run double, and the Giants tacked on another run in a 7-5 victory. Broxton took the loss. It was one of three losses the Giants would pin on Broxton that year. The Dodgers never recovered.

Manny Ramirez was gone a little over a month later. The Dodgers placed him on waivers, the White Sox claimed him, and the Dodgers let him go … for nothing in return. The White Sox owed about one-sixth of his $10 million salary for 2010, but the Dodgers still owed Ramirez $25 in deferred payments.

On August 30, the same day Mannywood ended, Frank and Jamie McCourt arrived in divorce court. The Giants were still five games behind the first-place Padres, but those Padres were halfway into a 10-game losing streak.

The Giants caught the Padres on Sept. 10, and clinched the division on the final day of the regular season. Then they did what no other San Francisco Giants team could do, beating the Braves, Phillies and Rangers en route to their first World Series since moving to California.
The euphoria in San Francisco was historic. The silence in Los Angeles was deafening.

The Dodgers still had more World Series titles, but the Giants were on the board. What’s more, the Giants had become a model franchise, and the Dodgers were the epitome of what’s wrong with professional sports.

In 2011, the Giants sold out every game. Merchandise sales went through the roof. The Giants fan base was basking in the superiority their team was enjoying over their long-time rivals. The Giants had dominant young pitching, a rising young superstar in Buster Posey, and players with charisma and character that made for an entertaining reality show on Showtime.

The Dodgers payroll kept shrinking, and so did attendance at the ballpark. The fans just couldn’t take it anymore. A silent boycott made Dodger Stadium look old, sound quiet, and was downright dangerous at times. It all came to a head on opening day 2011 when Giants fan Bryan Stow was savagely beaten in the parking lot by two Dodgers fan.

Players make an on-field plea for peace in the stands.
Eight years earlier, Giants fan Mark Allen Antenorcruz was shot twice in the parking lot of Dodger Stadium after a man he was arguing with pulled a .25-caliber semiautomatic handgun from his SUV. The argument was over the Giants-Dodger rivalry. For reasons still hard to explain, that tragedy faded away from the news fairly soon.

But the beating of Stow, a firefighter and father, struck a nerve in San Francisco and Los Angeles and nation-wide. McCourt was being blamed for everything, and the lack of security would be cited in this beating. More lawsuits would follow.
McCourt couldn’t even make payroll without taking out a $30 million loan from Fox. In late April 2011, baseball commissioner Bud Selig appointed Tom Schieffer to oversee the Dodgers business operations. Any expenditure over $50,000 needed to be approved by Schieffer.

In June, McCourt filed for bankruptcy and kicked Schieffer out of his office at the stadium.

On the field, infielder Juan Uribe would replace Schmidt as the overpaid ex-Giant who was a bust for the Dodgers. The bright spots were a runner-up MVP finish by Matt Kemp and a Cy Young award for Clayton Kershaw.

The duels between Kershaw and Lincecum in 2011 were like the duels of Juan Marichal and Sandy Koufax in the 1960s. They went head-to-head four times. Kershaw won all four games. The final scores were 2-1, 1-0, 2-1, and 2-1 again for Kershaw’s 20th win.

Those four games would prove critical. An injury to Posey, and the lack of hitting, caught up to the Giants as Arizona pulled away with the division. The Giants didn’t return to the playoffs, but their dominant young pitching and sold-out ballpark makes them an annual threat.

Finally, on Nov. 1, after two years of insisting he would never sell the Dodgers, Frank McCourt agreed to sell the team. For Dodgers fans, there was finally light at the end of the tunnel.

Wednesday: a look to the future as Chapter 11 begins.

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