SAN FRANCISCO -- When I was 9 years old, I received a T-shirt from my father that I wore almost every day for the next three years or so (to peruse our family album it appears as if it were a mandated uniform). It had a caricature of San Francisco Giants journeyman pitcher Bill Laskey in mid-windup, his extravagant black mustache curled downward into a sneer, as if threatening to advance to full handlebar, and it read:
I HATE THE DODGERS
At the time, in 1983, I was too young to understand the context. I didn't know this was an actual quote from Laskey who, upon arriving from the Kansas City system, had been entranced by the Bay Area's powerful distaste for all things blue-and-white-and-Lasorda. "When I beat Fernando, and saw how our guys and how the fans reacted, well, that's when I really got into the rivalry," he told reporters after winning a game that May. "I hate the Dodgers. I'm not saying why I hate them, I just do. So does this entire team. And we're coming after them too."
I was also too young to comprehend just how laughable that last statement was. After all, in 1983 the Giants finished four games under .500. The next season, it was 30 games under and the year after it was 38 (a woeful 62-100). No, none of this mattered to me. All that mattered was the sentiment. Because I too hated the Dodgers. Hated them with the pure, all-encompassing hate of a 9-year-old, the way I hated raw tomatoes and zucchini and, only a few years earlier, girls.
I treasured that hate. When the Giants had eliminated L.A. on the final day of the season a year earlier -- a day after the Dodgers had eliminated San Francisco, no less -- it sent my brother and I into paroxysms of joy as we listened to KNBR in our backyard, leaping about upon hearing of the deciding three-run blast from Joe Morgan. After all, who needed winning when you could make the Dodgers lose?
A decade after that, I was at Dodger Stadium when L.A. returned the favor, knocking the Giants out of the playoffs on the final weekend of the 1993 season even though that San Francisco team won 103 games (oh wild card, where were thou?). I remember the green, untested Salomon Torres being inexplicably trotted out to the mound with the season on the line, and I remember prized addition Barry Bonds putting up a fat goose egg for the series (or at least it seemed like he did). I also remember the crushing depression that ensued, a malaise that not even a tide of Natural Light -- I was in college, after all -- could lift.
Now, a decade and a half later, things have changed, or at least I have. I'm in my 30s, with two young children and a job that forces me to draw a line between fandom and work. Priorities are different, life is more complicated. Sure, I still follow the Giants -- listening to Jon Miller's languorous baritone on KNBR and reading the San Francisco Chronicle's daily post-mortems and engaging in the official Bay Area pastime of complaining about Barry Zito -- but not with the emotional intensity that I used to.
Do I still hate the Dodgers? Could I? Well, if there was ever a time to find out, it was this past week. For the first time since 2004, the Giants were in the hunt for the postseason in August, flirting with the wild card, and the Dodgers, lords of the NL West, were coming to town. I called my brother and my dad and a friend and we got tickets to Wednesday's day game, the series finale, with Lincecum on the mound and Manny in left field. Bring on the hate.
Things started off well enough, which is to say Lincecum retired the side in the first and we got a round of beers without too much trouble. From our seats down the left field line, we were also in the prime spot to watch the bleacher-blasting of Manny. Dreadlocks, syringes, defensive deficiencies, testicular circumference: the conversation was wide-ranging and one-sided, if nowhere near as vitriolic or enthusiastic as it might be in, say Philly. Furthering our potential for feistiness: a group of Dodgers fans sat directly in front of us. Of course, it was a father, his wife and their two adorable kids, but this was no time to get soft, right? We mustered a few family-friendly jibes but Dodger dad only replied with annoying good nature.
That's the funny thing about the Giants-Dodgers rivalry: in some respects, it is now often one-sided. Historically it was a New York thing, Brooklyn vs. Manhattan, but now it often feels as though L.A. could take it or leave it, whereas in the Bay Area, where I live, it's a rallying cry of sorts. We hate the Lakers, detest the Dodgers and mock our southern counterpart's politics, pollution and glaring lack of both a football team and reliable water source. But rarely is there return fire. Maybe it's that Los Angelenos can't be bothered. Or perhaps it's that our hate has been co-opted: after all, people chant "Beat L.A." in cities all over the country now, in all manner of sports. No one chants "Beat S.F."
Even during the Bonds home run-record chase, when Dodgers fans infamously heckled the Giants outfielder with all manners of inflated-head humor, it didn't feel like an S.F.-L.A. thing so much as an anti-Bonds thing (and, having been at that series for Sports Illustrated, I can attest that it was also very much a part-of-history thing; I remember L.A. fans booing when Dodgers pitchers walked Bonds). The Giants flagship station, on the other hand, put up this ingenious poll question during Tuesday's telecast: "Do you hate Manny Ramirez?" Hmm, couldn't imagine how that would turn out.
By the fifth inning on Wednesday, things were rolling. The Giants held a 2-0 lead, which can seem insurmountable with Lincecum on the mound. To be at one of his starts is to enjoy a rare sensation in baseball: you can relax when your team is on the field. Manny, Matt Kemp, Russell Martin: the Dodgers sluggers who'd punished the Giants the previous two nights were suddenly rendered impotent. It was beautiful to behold. What's more, things were getting entertainingly testy. Giants manager Bruce Bochy got tossed in the second for arguing a close play at first base, which of course we didn't get to see on the replay (one of the worst practices in baseball; at NBA and NFL games you get to see bad calls on the JumboTron and it adds immeasurably to the fan experience). Then both dugouts cleared in the fifth after Giants third-baseman-slash-lovable-ursine Pablo Sandoval got plunked. Giants fans summoned waves of indignation. A fan behind us unloaded as only Bay Area professionals can. "Joe Torre has no prostate!" he shouted.
By the ninth, the park was ready to erupt again, only this time in celebration. The Giants led 2-1 on a gorgeous afternoon and now Lincecum, who'd fanned the side in the eighth, had Andre Ethier down to his final strike with a man on second. We stood, we clapped, we hated. And then: a single to right. My gut sank. Around third came Rafael Furcal. Gut sank lower. He beat the throw. The score was tied 2-2.
All that energy evaporated. The fans were stunned and the park silent. Except for the smattering of Dodgers fans. And especially the family in the seats right in front of us. The 10-year-old girl was standing on her seat, cheering in a register only 10-year-old girls can reach. The 13-year-old boy in his Dodgers hat and jersey was jumping up and down wildly, pumping his fist in the air and roaring as loud as he could. Not at the Giants fans, not to impress his friends or family but because this was the most exciting thing he could imagine. This is the same boy who, while all around us people texted and BS-ed about work, had stayed front-facing and silent most of the game, clutching his glove and staring at the action. The same boy who, a few innings earlier when I'd cracked jokes about Dodgers outfielder Matt Kemp by calling him "Shawn," had turned to me, as sincere as could be, and said, "It's Matt. Matt Kemp, not Shawn." As it turned out this was his first time at AT&T Park -- his father woke the family up at 4 a.m. so they could leave LA and get to the game in time -- and now he was having a moment.
I knew I was supposed to be pissed off. I knew I was supposed to channel my Dodgers hatred at that moment, to curse and blame somebody, anybody. But then I looked at that boy and saw his happiness, the kind that would propel him for days. Surely, he savored this more than I ever could at this point in my life, burdened as I was with perspective. And for a moment, that knowledge salved the pain of Lincecum leaving the mound, the game now tied and the Giants in danger of being swept.
But only for a moment. An inning later, Juan Uribe -- the same Juan Uribe who'd made a horrendous error and stranded five men on base earlier in the game, of whom I'd just said to my friend Dan "it's like having a pitcher up there hitting" -- jackhammered an 0-2 fastball into the left field bleachers to win it in a walk-off. And as AT&T rocked and we celebrated, as the sun suddenly seemed a little brighter and the air a little cleaner and life a little bit better, I looked at that boy again, now forlorn, and I have to admit that I smiled. For perhaps we were both winners now. I'd gotten a jolt of joy, a reminder of why I love the game. And him? He'd gotten something just as valuable: the fuel of hatred for years to come. Here's to hoping he enjoys it.