Wearing My Dodger Blues, Part I

It took eight years to bring the most natural AL-NL matchup to fruition, and if that isn’t the most scathing indictment of Bud Selig’s poorly conceived interleague plan, then I don’t know what is. The Dodgers and Yankees have met in the World Series eleven times, the most frequent matchup in history, yet until this weekend, they’ve never squared off in a regular season game. When the AL East and NL West teams squared off in 2002, this marquee pairing was conspicuously absent from the docket, and while Bud might tell you it’s so that fans in the two biggest media markets could be treated to yet another home-and-home series with their crosstown rivals, it isn’t too hard to imagine the commish pulling a few strings to spite the two big-market teams, depriving them of rich paydays and promotional opportunities to celebrate their common past. But finally this weekend, the two teams will meet for a three-game series in Dodger Stadium.

On a personal note, this matchup features the two teams which have framed the entirety of my 28 seasons of baseball fandom. When I first began learning the game it was 1977, the Dodgers were our household team and the Yanks their hated October rivals. The Yanks had the loquacious Reggie Jackson, the gritty Thurman Munson, the fleet Mickey Rivers, and the fiery Billy Martin at the helm, while the Dodgers, led by the boisterous Tommy Lasorda, crossed the apple-pie superficiality of Steve Garvey with the quiet professionalism of players like Reggie Smith and Davey Lopes, who along with Garvey, Bill Russell and Ron Cey, anchored the longest-running infield in baseball history from 1973 through 1981. When they faced off in the World Series, Jackson’s fireworks got the upper hand, his three home runs in the decisive game elevating him into the pantheon of World Series heroes.

The two teams were an excellent contrast in those years. The Dodgers of that era represented continuity, Lasorda rising through the organization with many of his players and serving as manager for a remarkable 20 seasons. The George Steinbrenner-owned Yanks were the first team to crack the burgeoning free-agent market as a means of augmenting their home-grown talent while disposing of managers at the drop of a hat — seventeen changes in that same 20 year span. The teams met twice more in the Fall Classic with many of the same characters still on hand, the Yanks winning in 1978 and the Dodgers finally exacting some vengeance in 1981. Thereafter, Steinbrenner’s propensity for meddling in the team’s affairs took its toll, the Yanks signing too many of the wrong free agents and sliding into more than a decade of oblivion. The Dodgers, despite shedding their old infield and losing pitchers like Don Sutton and Tommy John to free agency (the latter signing with the Yanks and becoming the focal point for one of the most boneheaded decisions in Series history) kept coming up with homegrown talent and remained competitive in the NL, winning division championships in 1983 and ’85 and scoring a huge upset victory in the 1988 World Series over the Oakland A’s. Some lean years followed that, including a 99-loss season in 1992, but they returned to prominence at the end of Lasorda’s reign, winning the division in 1994 (the truncated strike year) and ’95. Slowed by a heart attack, Lasorda was forced to hand over the reins to Bill Russell in mid-’96.

I moved to New York City in 1995 still a Dodger fan, but as Lasorda faded from view and the Dodgers rolled over on the final day of the ’96 season to accept the wild card, my enthusiasm for the team began to wane. For the first time, I found myself in a city with a major-league baseball team, and surprise of surprises, it was the Joe Torre-managed Yanks, a much classier if less colorful group of ballplayers than the Bombers of my youth, who drew my fascination. Having the means to jaunt up to the ballpark whenever it suited me suited me just fine, thank you. In 1998, I began a partial season ticket package to Yankee games with some friends, and I’ve been fortunate enough to attend games in four World Series, even being present for the clincher in 1999.

While I’ve never renounced my allegiance to the Dodgers, keeping up with them on a day-to-day basis, even with the Internet and cable TV packages of today, has never caught my fancy quite like the buzz of following the local nine. The end of the O’Malley era of Dodger history and the transition into the benign neglect of the Rupert Murdoch years has given me a new perspective on Steinbrenner, who for all of his early buffoonery (such as the phantom elevator fight during the ’81 Series, which Murray Chass writes about in today’s New York Times) is more than happy to spend the money to bring New Yorkers a championship-caliber ballclub. If only L.A. fans could say the same thing, my Dodger citizenship might never have lapsed.

That said, there is no hesitation in my mind as to who I’ll be rooting for this weekend. Nine years of geographic convenience, even with a championship caliber ballcllub, aren’t enough to cut through the ties that bind, ties that take me all the way back to my grandfather’s bemusement at watching Babe Herman get hit on the head with a fly ball (or not, as that occurrence may be apocryphal). When I pull Boys of Summer off the shelf, I still cringe as I read about Billy Martin catching Jackie Robinson’s popup in the ’52 Series, when I see Game Three of the 1978 Series on ESPN Classic, I still throw objects at the TV when Graig Nettles makes another leaping stop of a Dodger liner to thwart a rally, and when I think about Fernando Valenzuela, Pedro Guerrero and the Longest Running Infield finally celebrating a World Championship, I’m all smiles. Deep down, I still bleed Dodger blue.

All of this is a gross oversimplification, of course, and it would take me an entire book to flesh out the nuances of the numerous story lines here. I’ve written about my youthful Dodger days and my transformation into a Yankee fan several times, including here, here and here. I hope to follow this piece up with a couple more this weekend to celebrate this historic rivalry.

Back to the present, this weekend’s series finds the two teams both in first place, much to my delight. After a sluggish 8-11 start, the Yanks are now 42-22, winners of 17 out of their past 21 games and leading the Boston Red Sox by 4.5 games in the AL East. The Dodgers were 22-10 on May 12, the best record in baseball, but immediately after that they dropped 12 out of 14. They’ve recovered to win 11 out of their past 17 and come in at 35-28, 1.5 games up on the San Francisco Giants. While it’s tempting to say that the Yanks are the team with all the sluggers and the Dodgers the team with all the pitching, the truth is that much of the difference, at least this season, is based on the teams’ playing environments. Here’s a chart:

          RS    RA    TOT    PYWP   WP   EQA   

YANKEES 5.44 4.75 10.19 .567 .656 .273
DODGERS 4.40 3.90 8.30 .560 .555 .271

What that chart says is that the Yanks are scoring about a run per game more than the Dodgers, allowing nearly a run per game more as well, for a combined scoring environment that is nearly two runs (or 22.8% greater) than that of the Dodgers. But based on their runs scored and allowed, the two teams are very close together, with only a seven point difference in their expected (Pythagorean) winning percentages, and only a two point difference in EQA, a park-adjusted hitting measure from Baseball Prospectus which combines OBP and SLG onto a scale comparable with batting average. However, the Yanks have outstripped their Pythagorean winning percentage by about 90 points, while the Dodgers have just barely underperformed theirs. Both teams have had similar success in 1-run ballgames (often a culprit for wide deviations from expected winning percentage), 13-6 for the Yanks, 12-5 for the Dodgers. The Yanks have had a fair number of lopsided losses, nine of five runs or more, but they’ve similarly dropped the hammer on their opponents eight times. The Dodgers have nine lopsided wins of such ilk, to go along with seven such losses. Other than the fact that the Yanks seem to be getting some incredibly well-timed hits, the explanation for their outpacing their Pythagorean by six wins in less than half a season is a bit elusive. Sooner or later, things will probably even out.

This weekend’s pitching matchups are a strange lot, especially for the Dodgers:

6/18 NYY – Vazquez (7-4, 3.43 ERA) vs LA – Weaver (4-7, 4.54 ERA)

6/19 NYY – Halsey (ML debut) vs LA – Nomo (3-7, 7.56 ERA)

6/20 NYY – Contreras (4-2, 6.20 ERA) vs LA – Lima (5-2, 3.67 ERA)

In the first game, the two teams showcase their marquee pitching additions in the offseason, and that the Dodgers’ marquee addition amounts to a Yanks’ castoff says something. After a disappointing season and a half in the Bronx, Weaver was shipped to LA over the winter for Kevin Brown, who finds himself on the DL at the moment with back woes. A native of southern California, Weaver hasn’t pitched all that well for LA since returning home and has a 5.09 ERA in his three June starts. On Saturday, the Yanks depleted rotation (Mike Mussina is also sidelined, having tweaked his groin) means they will send Brad Halsey to make his major league debut; the 23-year-old lefty has put up a 2.57 ERA with 5.4 K/9 and a 2.4 K/W ratio in AAA Columbus; blogger Cliff Corcoran has more to say about him here and Fabian McNally covers him here. Meanwhile Hideo Nomo has been simply Hideous since off-season shoulder surgery, and it simply baffles me that the Dodgers keep sending to the slaughter every fifth day, though he did sit for three weeks on the DL with a split fingernail. He’s lost five straight. Jose Conteras has shown signs of straightening himself out lately, having emerged disaster-free in winning his last two starts. On the year he’s had four starts where he hasn’t made it out of the fourth inning, but his recent pairing with backup catcher John Flaherty may be helping him. Meanwhile, Jose Lima is nuttier than a Christmas fruitcake, but he’s pitched effectively for LA, moreso as a reliever (2.84 in 19 innings) than as a starter (4.11in 35 innings). Still, if all of their reclamation projects turned out as well as he did, the Dodgers would be sitting even more prettily atop the NL West.

A couple of other things worth noting:

• the Yanks will be at a disadvantage without the DH in the NL park; theirs have hit .286/.375/.513 — compared to .264/.356/.456 overall as a team — with 13 homers and 38 RBI , providing time for Jason Giambi, Bernie Williams and Gary Sheffield to rest their ailing bodies in between letting Ruben Sierra swing his once-hot, now rapidly cooling bat.

• the two teams have two other recents deal in common. Robin Ventura was traded to the Dodgers last July 31 for Bubba Crosby and Scott Proctor. The Yankee starting third baseman at the time, Ventura’s since become a mediocre role player for LA; he’s hitting .217/..277/.233 on the year with no homers and 7 RBI after a similarly lackluster .220/.331/.422 post-trade. Crosby made a bit of a splash early this season, surprisingly making the club out of spring training and smacking homers in his the first two games he batted; he’s bounced up and down between New York and Columbus, currently in the bigs again, hitting .231/.259/.500 with the 2 HR and 7 RBI in 29 PA. Proctor appeared in five games out of the Yankee bullpen, posting a 7.36 ERA in 7.1 innings but striking out 9. He’ll probably get another shot later this year to give somebody in the pen a breather. More recently, the Dodgers sent Tanyon Sturtze to the Yanks, and while he’s 2-0 with a 4.26 ERA in 19 innings, he’s walked 10 men and allowed 1.53 baserunners per inning, thin ice to skate upon. The Yanks recently sent Bryan Myrow, a 27-year-old on-base machine of no fixed glove ability to LA to complete the deal.

Other than the aforementioned Chass article, there’s a dearth of traditional media coverage on the matchup this weekend. Perhaps that’s a reflection of how stale the concept of interleague play has become in general, but to me at least, this is one duel that should buck the trend, the resumption of a rivalry that should have taken place a long time ago. If all goes well, I’ll round up the few articles covering this in another post this weekend, and present a thumbnail guide to the two teams’ World Series matchups in yet another.

• • •

Late note: I’ve been invited to participate in All-Baseball.com’s Rashomon Project in which the A-B writers and I will all watch Sunday’s Dodger-Yankee game and file our game reports on Monday. On the A-B tip, be sure to check out what Dodger Thoughts’ Jon Weisman — who will be attending both Saturday and Sunday’s games — has to say in his Dodgers-Yankees by the Numbers.

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