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A Classic Fall for Baseball in Southland

September 16, 2002|MIKE DiGIOVANNA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Not long after former Boston Red Sox slugger Mo Vaughn signed a six-year, $80-million contract with the Anaheim Angels for the 1999 baseball season, the Connecticut native began pining for the Northeast.

Southern California fans were too laid-back, Vaughn said. They lacked that intense, live-and-die-with-the-home-team attitude that so motivates players in Boston's Fenway Park and New York's Yankee Stadium.

After three years in what seemed like baseball purgatory to him, Vaughn got his wish when the Angels traded him last winter to the New York Mets, who have been one of baseball's biggest disappointments this season and are in last place in the National League East.

In Vaughn's wake, Southern California fans are in baseball heaven. The Angels and the Los Angeles Dodgers have never made the playoffs in the same season, and the success of the teams has Southern California baseball fans dreaming of a Freeway World Series in October.

The Dodgers and San Francisco Giants will resume one of baseball's most bitter rivalries in nearly sold-out Dodger Stadium tonight when they begin a four-game series that could determine the NL's wild-card team. The Dodgers trail the Giants by one game with 13 games left.

And the Angels, enjoying what could be their finest season, tonight will open a four-game series against the Oakland Athletics in Network Associates Coliseum that could determine the American League West championship. The Angels hold a one-game lead over the A's after Sunday's games. They each have 13 games remaining.

"What was Mo doing? Was he talking in his sleep, or what?" said Tom Lasorda, the Dodgers' senior vice president and their manager from 1976 to '96. "How can Mo make statements like that? Without a doubt, he's off-base, because what we have going on right now is tremendous. Look at the Giants, A's, us and the Angels. That's four teams playing tremendous baseball. This is what we've always wished for."

The Dodgers, who moved from Brooklyn to Los Angeles in 1958, have not reached the playoffs since 1996, and they have not won a postseason game since winning the World Series in 1988. The Angels, born in 1961, have not made the playoffs since 1986, when they were one strike away from going to the World Series before their playoff collapse against the Red Sox.

This season, both teams had to sweat out the possibility of their dream seasons being wiped out by a players' strike that was averted with an eleventh-hour contract agreement Aug. 30.

Now fans this week will get two Northern California vs. Southern California showdowns.

For the Angels and A's, this could be the series to ignite a rather tepid rivalry. Though they have played in the same division for decades, the teams have never gone head-to-head in the waning days of a season with a title at stake.

"This September battle with the Angels is totally new for us," A's fan and sheet metal shop owner Jerry Slakey said in Oakland. "They haven't been competitive for years. We've been looking north to Seattle and east to New York. But now that rivalry is here, that's for sure."

And if last week's four-game series between the teams in Anaheim is any indication, the rivalry is heating up. The Angels won three of four from the A's, two in dramatic, come-from-behind fashion, before some of the largest and most emotionally charged crowds in recent Edison Field history.

For the Dodgers and Giants, who played more than 60 years in New York before moving West in 1958, this is merely the latest chapter in a long and storied rivalry that has been part mystery, part thriller and, as legend has it, part murder-she-wrote.

According to Hall of Fame broadcaster Vin Scully, who grew up in the Washington Heights section of Manhattan, two men in a Brooklyn bar in the 1930s got into such a heated argument about the Dodgers and Giants that one went home, got a gun, returned to the bar and shot the other.

"That's how it was back then," said Scully, the voice of the Dodgers for 53 years. "The rivalry was bigger than life."

There's a do-or-die feeling about this week's series too. While a division title is on the line in the Oakland-Anaheim series, both teams are virtually assured of making the playoffs. Still, the A's expect more than 120,000 fans for four games.

But there's more at stake for the Dodgers and Giants, because the World Series champion Arizona Diamondbacks are on their way to winning the NL West title, leaving L.A. and San Francisco to fight it out for the wild-card playoff berth. The Houston Astros, 4 1/2 games behind the Dodgers, are also in the wild-card race.

"Four games against the Giants, we're both trying to get to the postseason, that's about as close as you're going to come to a playoff game," Dodger outfielder Marquis Grissom said. "The stadium will be rocking, so we've got to put on a show."

Too bad it wasn't the season's final episode. Each team will have nine games remaining against other opponents after this series.

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