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Following a Different Blueprint

Angels captured Southland's imagination last year, but this season Dodgers have reclaimed their turf.

June 20, 2003|Mike DiGiovanna | Times Staff Writer

Los Angeles, City of Angels? The Dodgers think not.

The Angels had their magical run to the 2002 World Series title, turning Edison Field and much of Southern California into a sea of red, but any hopes the Orange County upstarts had of knocking the Dodgers down to the No. 2 slot in the Southland baseball market have been wiped out by their disappointing first half of 2003.

And, just to be sure Southern California baseball fans were still thinking blue, the Dodgers returned to the forefront of the region's baseball consciousness with a first-half surge that had pushed them into a first-place tie with arch-rival San Francisco in the National League West, before a 2-0 victory Thursday enabled the Giants to leave town with a one-game lead.

When the Dodgers and Angels resume their Freeway Series rivalry tonight with the first of a three-game interleague set at Dodger Stadium, the Dodgers' primary motivation will be to keep pace with or move ahead of the Giants in their division.

But there is added incentive for the Dodgers, who can reclaim some of the fans they lost last October and reaffirm their king-of-the-hill status in Southern California with a strong showing against the Angels this weekend and next, when the teams play three more games at Edison Field.

"I tip my hat to the Angels, they're the world champions, but it's a new year, and I think this is going to be our year," Dodger center fielder Dave Roberts said. "If there were some fans who wavered, who jumped ship or changed sides, we've got to find a way to get them back, and the only way to do that is to win."

For decades, the Angels looked longingly up the 5 Freeway, wishing they had the winning tradition and bedrock fan base of the Dodgers, the model franchise with six World Series championships, annual attendance in excess of 3 million and the legacy of Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale, Duke Snider and Jackie Robinson.

But this year, it is the Dodgers who are looking south with envy.

"They have something we want," Dodger catcher Paul Lo Duca said of the Angels. "Defending your title is always tough. They want to prove they're still the top team in Southern California, and they are until we knock them off."

Though some Dodger executives privately seethed at all the attention the Angels got last fall, and some players admitted it was tough to stomach watching the Angels win the World Series, the company line, for public consumption, was that the Dodgers were happy for the Angels.

After all, the Angels are managed by a popular ex-Dodger catcher, Mike Scioscia, and there are three former Dodgers on their coaching staff -- Mickey Hatcher, Alfredo Griffin and Ron Roenicke.

They played an unselfish, team-oriented style of baseball last season, and their World Series victory came over the Giants, the Dodgers' hated rivals going far back to the days of Ebbets Field and the Polo Grounds in New York.

"Would we have rather been in the World Series? No question," said Derrick Hall, the Dodgers' senior vice president of communications. "But [the World Series] was exciting for us to watch. We have very loyal fans, as do the Angels, and I don't think one team's success has an impact on fans of the other team.

"I think true Dodger fans were happy to see the Angels win because they're a Southern California team and they were playing the Giants.... Because of their success, it has added to the overall interest and excitement of the interleague series. If both teams do well, both will benefit."

Tonight's game in Dodger Stadium is a sellout, a large crowd is expected Saturday, and Sunday's game is close to being sold out. The Dodgers won't be surprised if a few of those red noise sticks and red-clad fans make their way into their stadium this weekend.

"There might have been a few Dodger fans go their way last fall -- I don't know about the true Dodger fans -- but we owe the Dodger fans here something," Lo Duca said. "They've been on a roller-coaster ride the last three years; we've gotten close and fell short. We won 92 games last year [and didn't make the playoffs]. I don't care if it takes 85, 90, 95 or 100 wins to make the postseason, as long as we get it done. Dodger fans are a little upset, and they have a right to be."

Dodger fans are still a little uneasy about this season, mostly because of their team's anemic offense. But the best pitching staff in baseball, a superb defense and just enough timely hits have propelled the Dodgers back into playoff contention and fueled an eight-game win streak that ended with Thursday's loss.

The Angels, by comparison, are a mess. Their starting pitchers have been roughed up frequently, the offense hasn't been nearly as consistent and persistent as it was in 2002, and with a .500 record (35-35), they are in danger of falling out of the American League West race by July.

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