Thousands of soccer fans from 32 countries, vuvuzelas in hand, have flocked to South Africa in support of their teams. Last November, more than 29 million people tuned in to watch Brett Favre return to Green Bay in a Vikings jersey. Right now, we're experiencing an epic Lakers/Celtics series, marking the 18th time they've met in the NBA Finals. Rivalries are what make sports worth watching. It's what makes them great. They turn a simple game into something much more. They're exciting, irrational, passed on through generations. They can spark discussions or start fist fights.
Yet there's one rivalry that has fallen by the wayside. It's a rivalry of which most baseball fans under 40 are unaware. It's a rivalry that spans almost 60 years of baseball history, including 11 World Series matchups and dozens of Cooperstown legends. It's the Yankees and the Dodgers.
The bad blood began in October of 1941, with the first of their World Series meetings. In the late '30s, baseball was dominated by New York. Four of the five last series had gone to the Yankees, with two of those wins coming over another New York team, the Giants. 1941 marked the Brooklyn Dodgers' first NL pennant in 21 years. And they were ready to stake their claim on New York City.
The Yankees ended up taking the series four games to one.
The 1941 series was just the start. The two teams met six times between 1947 and 1956, with the Yanks taking all but the '55 match up. Those games were some of the greatest of all time, including the only perfect game in World Series history. As their on-field skirmishes grew more intense, so did the enmity outside the lines. Yankees vs. Dodgers grew into something more than baseball, more than AL vs. NL. It was Brooklyn vs. The Bronx, Ebbets Field vs. Yankee Stadium, The Duke vs. Mickey Mantle.
Durocher and McCarthy
The rivalry continued, although less frequently, after the Dodgers left Brooklyn for Los Angeles in 1958. Five years after the move, they met again with a championship on the line. This time, the Dodgers, behind Sandy Koufax's exceptional pitching, never gave up a lead and beat the Yankees in four straight games. It was the first time the Yankees were ever swept in a World Series.
The next several years saw the once highly-contested rivalry grow dormant. The world wouldn't see another Yankees/Dodgers series until 1977, in what would be the first of two straight World Series battles. These two match ups provided the drama lacking in their last meeting.
Reggie Jackson's explosion in Game 6 of the '77 series was the stuff of legends and still stands as one of the greatest hitting performances in history.
In the '78 series, the Dodgers started hot winning the first two games at home. But a two-game lead was not enough against Bucky Dent and the Yanks, who won three straight at home and clinched the title in Game 5 in Los Angeles.
Dodger manager Tommy Lasorda was so upset by the loss that he prayed every night from the end of the '78 series, "Dear Lord, if you see it in your heart to have the Dodgers play in another World Series, if you have any compassion you'll give me one more chance against the Yankees." (In 2004, Lasorda recounted those times in an article for Sports Illustrated.)
In 1981, after three years of prayer, Lasorda and the Dodgers finally got their chance. After a turbulent, strike-shortened season, the Yankees and Dodgers faced off one more time. The eleventh Yankee/Dodger World Series was a mirror image of the tenth. The Yanks built a two game lead in the Bronx before heading to Los Angeles, only to see the Dodgers take the next four. Yankee fans would remember it as the most epic collapse in Yankee history, until the series that shall not be named.
Things have cooled down considerably since the '81 series. And the teams have only met once since then, in an inter-league series in 2004. But the rivalry is set to be reignited this month, when they face off in Los Angeles.
The Dodgers are coming off two consecutive NL West titles, while the Yankees are eight months removed from their 27th World Series Championship.
It may be a semi-meaningless inter-league game. But from an historical perspective, it's huge. It's great to see baseball recognize its own history and pay tribute to such a storied rivalry.
Come June 25th, Yankees fans and Dodgers fans will sit back, enjoy the rebirth of a rivalry and perhaps-if we're lucky-get a preview of the 2010 World Series.
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