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The Chase Comes Down to a Showdown

Baseball: With pennant on the line, Dodgers and Padres finally meet again.

September 19, 1996|BILL PLASCHKE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Finally, they meet.

Richard Kimble and the one-armed man. The coyote and the roadrunner. The cowlick and the comb.

The Dodgers and the San Diego Padres, together, today, for the first of seven games in the final 11 days of perhaps sports' most dramatic spectacle.

It's called a pennant race.

It happens when baseball teams that leave a starting line together in April can still hear each other's breath in September.

It happens when what should be a six-month marathon becomes a six-week sprint with athletes too weary to dominate, too desperate to quit.

It happens when days become lifetimes, when heroes on Saturday become failures on Sunday, when competitors spend numbing hours of countless weeks trying just to take a first step.

The winner of such a race, after all, only qualifies to play in the first of two series that can qualify them for the World Series.

But those October nights rarely chill like the last weeks in September.

To have this sort of chase between any teams at the end of a 162-game season is rare. But to have it run through the same neighborhood, well, let Dodger first baseman Eric Karros explain.

"Incredible," he says.

*

For the first time in the 27 years that two National League teams have been located 120 miles apart in Southern California, a division title has indeed come down to those two teams.

The Dodgers and Padres are separated by only half a game in the National League West, and have been no farther apart for 11 of the last 13 days.

In only eight of the last 117 days have they not been together in first and second place.

The Dodgers are currently in first, but what hour is it?

The West lead has been volleyed between the two teams three times in the last two weeks.

And always from afar. Since their last meeting on July 17, the teams have circled each other and glared at each other without ever actually touching each other.

At least not physically.

Ten times in the last 24 days, the teams have matched wins. As if through this constant grind, they had actually become each other.

In one of the more eerie sights of any season Tuesday, the Dodger TV announcers were describing the action of the Padre game in San Francisco . . . while the Padre TV announcers were describing the Dodger game in Colorado.

Hideo Nomo pitched a rare no-hitter at altitude in a Dodger victory, while the Padres were blowing a 6-0 lead to the lowly Giants. The results gave the Dodgers a 1 1/2-game lead, their biggest cushion this month.

The beginning of the end? Think again.

Less than 24 hours later, the Dodgers blew a three-run lead to the Rockies in a 6-4 loss and the Padres won, 8-5, setting up today's first of seven showdowns.

Featuring celebrated former Dodger pitcher Fernando Valenzuela.

Starting for the Padres.

"All along, I think everyone thought it would come down to this," Karros said. "This was the way it was meant to be."

It is teams, and it is towns.

The Dodgers have never treated the Padres differently from any of the other 12 teams in the league.

The Padres and their fans, however, have long thirsted to beat the Dodgers as if nobody else matters.

"It's like San Diego always feels like the off-breed," said Dick Williams, manager of the Padres' only playoff team, in 1984. "It's a better place to live, but they have always felt like the little brother."

Because of the league's 2-year-old wild-card playoff format, both teams can make the playoffs if the second-place finisher has a better record than any other second-place finisher in the league.

If the season ended today, in fact, both teams would qualify.

But that safety net grows considerably thinner when you realize that while the Dodgers and Padres are beating each other up during these last 11 days, the wild-card contender Montreal Expos could be playing at least six games against teams with no incentive.

It is with a loser-lose-all attitude that the teams will step onto the Jack Murphy Stadium field today, the descendants of every pennant race performer before them.

Four consecutive games in San Diego, followed by three season-ending games in Dodger Stadium next week, followed by years of debate.

"You will have players who seize the moment, who deliver in that sweet spot in time," said Steve Garvey, who starred for both teams. "And you will have players who will wilt."

There will be players who will arrive early to visualize themselves as heroes, as Garvey once did. Before pennant race games he would sit in the upper decks in street clothes an hour before batting practice and just stare at the outfield wall.

Then there will be players who will sit in other places.

"I remember going to the bathroom a lot," said Jeff Hamilton, former Dodger third baseman. "The pressure can just get enormous."

Nobody involved will talk openly about handling the race--just as nobody would go near Nomo on Tuesday during his no-hitter. The baseball world avoids discussing pressure the way dentists avoid detailing root canals.

*

But players will scream if their uniforms are out of place, or their bats are upside-down, or somebody takes their parking space.

"I used to go crazy if somebody even touched my glove," Hamilton said. "Players have superstitions during the season that become magnified during a pennant race. You don't want anything happening out of the ordinary. Nothing."

And whatever you do, don't even try to guess what is going to happen.

Bill DeLury, longtime Dodger traveling secretary, was phoned this week by an insistent airline agent warning him to reserve team flights for the playoffs in two weeks.

The extremely efficient DeLury refused.

"I don't know where we are going, and I don't know when we are going," he told the agent. "And I don't know when I am going to know."

He recounted the conversation with a sizable sigh.

"A pennant race. You lie in bed. And you toss. And you turn. And you wonder."

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