Dodgers-Giants: A rivalry renewed

The great Maury Wills remembers his first season in the Dodgers organization; it was 1951, the year Bobby Thomson homered off Ralph Branca, the "Shot Heard 'Round the World." He remembers one of the the first fundamentals the Dodgers taught him as a player that year. It was this: He is not supposed to like the Giants.

Wills remembers the 1962 season, when he stole a then-record 104 bases, No. 104 coming in Candlestick Park despite the Giants trying to slow him down by watering the basepaths so much it was like running in quicksand. He recalls the pain of his Dodgers blowing a lead to the Giants in the ninth inning of the finale of the three-game playoff for the pennant, just as they had in 1951.

"It was like Gettysburg. Players lying around on the clubhouse floor," he says. "We thought the world had come to an end."

He vividly remembers that August afternoon in 1965 when San Francisco's Juan Marichal raised his baseball bat in anger and brought it down on Los Angeles catcher John Roseboro's head, spilling blood at Candlestick Park.

"Anything can happen when the Dodgers and Giants are playing," Wills says. "It's subject to happen again."

He remembers, too, when, as a Los Angeles instructor, he yelled at a Dodgers player to stop fraternizing with the Giants by the batting cage. "But he's my friend!" the player protested. Wills responded, "He's not your friend. He's got a Giants uniform on."

And he remembers that after he hugged an ex-Dodger friend who'd joined the Giants, he felt like he needed to change his shirt. Even now, as much as he respects Willie Mays, Wills jokes that if Mays' car broke down on a Los Angeles freeway, "I might have to say to him, 'Willie, you're going to have to call AAA.' That's my heartfelt feelings about the San Francisco Giants."

So it's interesting that after the Giants won the World Series last fall, Wills sat down and wrote a letter to San Francisco manager Bruce Bochy. He congratulated Bochy and the club for the achievement, and also praised the manager for showing everyone how the game should be played.

"That's a lot of growth for me to do that, but I did," the 80-year-old Dodgers bunting instructor says with a sly grin. "And it was on Dodgers stationery, too."

That does reflect growth. It also provides hope that peace is possible in the Middle East.

Of course, Wills' emotions likely will be challenged again this season, which promises to return the Giants-Dodgers rivalry to its glory days. After all, the Giants have won two World Series in the past three years, while Magic Johnson and the rest of L.A.'s new ownership group have invested so much in their team that the Dodgers have surpassed the Yankees for baseball's highest payroll.

"That makes them more Yankees-like. More Evil Empire-like," Giants broadcaster Jon Miller says.

Evil Empire? Them's fightin' words, and not just for a Yankees copyright attorney. The great Dodgers-Giants rivalry is primed for a reboot, starting Monday afternoon when these two longtime enemies open the 2013 season against each other at Dodger Stadium (2 p.m., PT, ESPN).

"It's alive and well," former San Francisco pitcher and current Giants broadcaster Mike Krukow says. "This rivalry needed a shot in the arm, and it got it when the new Dodgers ownership came in and spent $2.2 billion for them and started throwing money all around. Now, they're easy to hate and our fans are into it big time. There is expectation in L.A. I think they're going to have a good year and we're going to have a good year and it's going to be 18 games of banging heads, and I think there will be fights and it's going to be awesome."

Who knows? Things could get so heated that even Vin Scully might utter an obscenity.

The East Coast media consistently tout the Yankees-Red Sox rivalry as the best in baseball, but fans on the West Coast (as well as a few longtime New Yorkers who remember the old days) know better. We know baseball's best rivalry is the Giants and the Dodgers.

You see, a truly great rivalry isn't about one team regularly beating up the other. A truly great rivalry pits equals against one other. As Krukow says, "A rivalry is only good when you have two good teams. You can't have one good team and one bad team. If they live in the same area, it's just an ass-kicking. It's no fun. They have to be good. There has to be something at stake."

Here then, are Krukow's requirements for a good rivalry:

• Two teams that are geographically close.

• Two teams that are good.

• Two teams that are playing for the same thing.

And, finally, Krukow says, "Fans make the rivalry."

So, using those criteria, let's compare the Red Sox-Yankees rivalry with the Dodgers-Giants rivalry.

GPS: Both of them thrive because of proximity. The Giants-Dodgers rivalry began when the two teams were just miles apart in Manhattan and Brooklyn, and it continued when they simultaneously relocated to California's rival cities of San Francisco and Los Angeles before the 1958 season. New York and Boston are also geographically close, with a historic and cultural rivalry between them that transcends sports. Call this one a draw.

QUALITY AND PARITY: As passionate as their rivalry has been at times, New York and Boston rarely fought for a title during much of their history. From 1951 to 1976, there wasn't a single year in which New York or Boston won a title when its rival finished within nine games. That's a quarter-century -- an entire generation of fans -- without playing a September game against each other that truly meant something in the standings.

That changed when baseball instituted the wild-card playoff system, which dramatically boosted the Red Sox-Yankees rivalry, giving fans the Pedro Martinez-Don Zimmer throw-down, "Who's Your Daddy?" chants, Curt Schilling's famous bloody sock and the A-Rod slap. In 17 seasons since 1995, one of those teams won the AL East and the other was within nine games at the end. Overall, since New York got a team in 1903 (when the Yankees were known as the Highlanders), there have been 17 seasons in the Red Sox/Yankees rivalry in which one of them finished first and the other finished eight games back or closer .

The Giants and Dodgers have had 17 seasons when one of them won and the other was no more than eight games behind. The key, though, is that those seasons have been spread out more evenly: three times since 2000, twice in the 1990s, twice in the '70s, three times in the '60s and four times in the '50s.

Since 1903, New York has finished ahead of Boston in the standings 77 times; the Red Sox have finished ahead of New York 33 times. In that same span, the Giants have finished ahead of the Dodgers 58 times; the Dodgers have finished ahead of the Giants 52 times.

And here is the big one. The Yankees have played in 40 World Series and won 27 since they acquired Babe Ruth from Boston before the 1920 season, while the Red Sox have played in just six and won only two. The Giants have been to the World Series 20 times and won it seven times, while the Dodgers have been to the World Series 18 times and won it six times.

Big edge here to the Dodgers and Giants rivalry. They are as similar as Google and Facebook. The Yankees and Red Sox are more like Facebook and MySpace.

FANS: Here's how current Dodgers manager and former Yankees captain Don Mattingly compares the Dodgers-Giants and Red Sox-Yankees rivalries: "It's [Dodgers-Giants] not quite as crazy, I should say. In Boston-New York, the rivalry seems like it gets out of hand. The California one, the rivalry is the same and the importance of the games to the two cities is the same, but it's just a little more laid back on the West Coast. It's not so much like you've lost your children or something if you lose a game. It's just a little different."

So, is the Dodgers-Giants rivalry healthier?

"Probably," Mattingly says. "There's a little more perspective. But maybe not. Not necessarily. But it's good. I actually like it."

Overall, then, the Dodgers-Giants rivalry has been more consistent and equal than the one back East. As Krukow says, the key elements have been properly aligned throughout the rivalry's rich history.

Perhaps more fans would agree if, say, ESPN's headquarters were located midway between San Francisco and Los Angeles instead of halfway between New York and Boston.

The most famous turn of events in the Brooklyn-New York era of the rivalry happened in the 1951 pennant race, when Dodgers manager Charlie Dressen infamously sang "The Giants is dead" after his team took a 12 1/2-game lead on August 10. The living-dead Giants stormed back to force a three-game playoff, which ended so dramatically and memorably with "The Shot Heard 'Round the World." Thomson's home run has inspired several best-selling books, including the novel "Underworld," Don Delillo's opus that centered on what became of the home run ball.

If anything, the rivalry intensified when it moved to the West Coast. The Red Sox and Yankees might have Schilling's bloody sock, but the Dodgers and Giants had Roseboro's bloody scalp when Marichal went after L.A.'s catcher during the pitcher's plate appearance. Roseboro nicked Marichal in the ear as he threw a pitch back to Sandy Koufax, and Marichal exploded in rage, hitting Roseboro in the head with his bat. Marichal was suspended for just eight games. (Were that to happen today, he might end up in Gitmo.)

In 1962, the Giants virtually duplicated their 1951 finish when they again rallied from down in the standings to force a three-game playoff, then won the pennant when they again rallied from a two-run deficit in the ninth inning of the final game. The Dodgers took the upper hand after that, however, winning the pennant three of the next four years (with the Giants finishing second in two of those seasons). And after 1962, Los Angeles reached the World Series eight times before San Francisco made it back to the Fall Classic again.

Former Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda says the arrival of free agency in the late 1970s changed, and cooled, the rivalry.

"What began to happen is guys from other organizations would come and they didn't know what that rivalry was about," he says. "So it kind of leveled off. … It's not as much as it used to be."

Certainly not when players could socialize by the batting cage. But even then, the rivalry simmered.

"We didn't like them. Not as individuals, but as one organization to another organization, one team to another team," says Chili Davis, who played for the Giants from 1982-87. "I got along great with Dusty Baker, Dave Stewart. I got along great with a lot of Dodgers players. Reggie Smith. Dusty and I are really great friends. But at the time, there was that rivalry. However it started, it carried on."

California nearly lost the rivalry altogether in the mid-1970s, and then again in the early-'90s, when the Giants almost moved first to Toronto and then to St. Petersburg.

"How could you even think about going there and giving up that rivalry?" Krukow says. "If the Giants had moved, the rivalry would have been dissolved. It would have been gone. There would have been no rivalry."

But the Giants stayed in San Francisco, fortunately. When Peter Magowan bought the team in January 1993, he halted an announced relocation to Florida and rejuvenated the franchise by signing Barry Bonds to a massive contract and setting up the club for 103 wins that year. The Dodgers promptly responded by absolutely ruining that potentially great 1993 season for San Francisco by beating the Giants on the final day to cost them the division title. (Call that revenge for Joe Morgan and the Giants doing the same thing to the Dodgers in 1982.)

That '93 season put the Giants back on the path to the kind of success they hadn't enjoyed since the early part of the 20th century. In 2000, they moved into one of baseball's finest ballparks, the first new privately funded major league baseball stadium since Dodger Stadium opened in 1962. Since then, the Giants have played in three World Series while developing an ever larger and more passionate fan base.

When he was growing up, current San Francisco shortstop Brandon Crawford's parents owned Giants season tickets, and his name is even on a commemorative brick outside the ballpark that the family bought when the new stadium opened. Asked what he thought of the Dodgers as kid, Crawford says, "I hated them, honestly. Every Giants fan knows you're supposed to hate the Dodgers. If you grow up a Giants fan, you grow up hating the Dodgers. My dad taught me at an early age … they're our rival. They always play us tough. The crowd gets into it, and it just fuels the rivalry even more."

Having experienced it now both as a fan and a player, Crawford says the fans are more intense about the rivalry than the players these days, a belief shared by Dodgers outfielder Matt Kemp.

"I think that rivalry is more about the fans than anything else," Kemp says. "For us, it's just playing another good team that we have to beat. The rivalry is what gets the fans going. For us, yeah, we feed off the fans and see how much energy they have. But for us, it's just another game of 162. We're just playing the guys and trying to win a ballgame."

Sadly, two fans took the rivalry to a deplorable extreme after the season-opening game in 2011 when they brutally attacked and nearly killed Giants fan Brian Stow outside Dodger Stadium. Stow, who at one point was placed in a medically induced coma, recently was hospitalized for a third time due to blood clots.

That likely is an example of what Mattingly meant when he suggested that fans on the West Coast might not necessarily have a better perspective on the rivalry. Chili Davis recalls fights between Dodgers and Giants fans breaking out on a nightly basis at Candlestick Park. And according to Krukow, the environment wasn't, and isn't, all that much better at Dodger Stadium.

"You stand out there in Dodger Stadium wearing a Giants uniform, there are things said you never heard before. And it definitely fuels the fire," Krukow says. "And likewise, when the Dodgers are in San Francisco, it's the same thing there. You know when fans are playing with you and having fun with you, and you also know when they flat-out hate you. And that's what makes a rivalry. And this one is going to get very, very interesting."

Krukow means it in a positive way. So please, fans, no violence. It might be the Giants and the Dodgers, but it's still just a game. It's worth noting that Marichal and Roseboro became good friends after their fight in '65.

In the years before divisional realignment and wild-card teams, the Dodgers and Giants twice met in playoff series for the National League pennant after they finished the regular season tied. Unlike the Yankees and Red Sox, however, they have never both played in the postseason in the same year. Now that they both expect to be very good and with the addition of an extra wild-card team, that could change this season.

The Giants are the reigning world champs for the second time in three years. They have the reigning MVP (Buster Posey) and an imposing starting rotation featuring Matt Cain, Madison Bumgarner, Ryan Vogelsong and two-time Cy Young winner Tim Lincecum. The Dodgers have a new ownership group led by Magic, one of the most famous athletes in the country, and take a $200 million player payroll into Opening Day. They added free agent pitcher Zack Greinke to a roster that already included Kemp, Cy Young winner Clayton Kershaw, first baseman Adrian Gonzalez and shortstop Hanley Ramirez (who will miss the first two months). If they need help as the season unfolds, they have one of the game's most exciting prospects, outfielder Yasiel Puig, in the minors.

Given all that, these two teams are widely expected to finish first and second in the NL West.

"With the team they have now and us coming off a world championship, I see [the rivalry] really getting ramped up this year," Bochy says. "It will be great baseball. I think the matchup between the two teams will create a lot of interest. The Dodgers are favored to win this division and we're going to do all we can to get back to where were last year. So it's going to be fun to watch these games."

"I think what we've done this year ups the ante for everyone," Mattingly says. "We're basically saying, 'We're all in; are you going to stay in the game or not?' … And for us, really, you have to compete with the Giants. They've won two of three World Series, so they've really upped the ante by wining. So from our standpoint, we have to keep up."

Once as heated as a Balkan dispute, baseball's best rivalry cooled a bit in recent years, while the Yankees-Red Sox matchup boiled over. But as New York and Boston potentially face losing seasons in 2013 and the Giants and Dodgers look at possible playoff berths, perhaps even fans on the East Coast will begin to appreciate how great this rivalry is. And always has been.

"A rivalry is beautiful," says Davis, who played for the Yankees in his last two seasons (1998-99), so he experienced both the New York-Boston and Dodgers-Giants rivalries. "It makes the games more intense, more meaningful. And it makes you either compete or run and hide like a little wuss. And there were no wusses allowed in those rivalries."

Or, as Wills says somewhat more delicately, "The Giants would always bring out the best in me."

So we'll see how this season turns out. Maybe the Giants and Dodgers will meet in the NLCS with a finish so dramatic it not only inspires books and novels, it crashes Twitter. Perhaps there will be a bench-clearing brawl, and Lincecum will toss Wills to the ground like Martinez did to Zimmer in 2003. Perhaps Wills will have to write out another letter to Bochy. Or perhaps he will be the one receiving a congratulatory note this fall -- on Giants stationery.

It would be about time. After all, as Giants fans happily point out, the Dodgers haven't won the World Series in a quarter century. "19-88! 19-88! 19-88!"