Why the Dodgers-Padres rivalry is baseball's best for a generation

For the first time in a generation, Major League Baseball has a must-watch rivalry that makes for appointment television. Not since the zenith of Red Sox-Yankees hegemony in the early-2000s has one hardball matchup so beguiled a populace as that between the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Diego Padres right now. Sports fans all over the world cannot get enough of this battle, which could shape a baseball epoch and usurp anything we have seen in terms of diamond excitement for a very long time. Yes, The I-5 Series is that good. 

Sure, the Dodgers and Padres have battled for decades out west, but never with this verve, never with this meaning, and never with this energy. Through the prism of a captivating four-game series at Dodger Stadium this past weekend, these teams showcased an effervescent brand of baseball, showing why the balance of big league power has shifted to southern California. Rarely has April baseball been so enthralling, and rarely has the national pastime so dominated the cultural agenda in recent years. A new dawn has risen over this vaunted old game, and its most accomplished exponents reside in the division of sand and palm trees.

Of course, the Padres’ bildungsroman hit a roadblock last year, when the Dodgers swept San Diego in the postseason en route to a World Series crown. Seemingly unperturbed, however, the Padres sent a clear message of intent this weekend, winning three of four games in intoxicating fashion, tearing up the almanac at every turn. Property of the Dodgers for eight straight seasons, and 11 times in the past 17 years, the National League West is up for grabs – and the upstart Friars fancy their chances of taking charge.

Why the Padres-Dodgers rivalry is drawing comparisons to the vintage Yankees-Red Sox feud

Indeed, for all the overwrought media hype, there are aspects of this feud that hearken back to the glory days of Pedro and Roger, Manny and A-Rod, Nomar and Derek. In the Dodgers, à la the Yankees, we have an imperial megalodon hellbent on era-defining domination. Meanwhile, in the Padres, just as with those idiosyncratic Red Sox, we have a scintillating startup determined to flip the script and rewrite history. Sparks fly whenever these forces get together, and the world cannot help but watch - often openmouthed.

As chronicled in my latest book, the Boston-New York tryst peaked in 2004, when The Olde Towne Team finally toppled its pinstriped nemesis. Much of the bad blood was drained by the time the Red Sox collected their championship rings on Opening Day in 2005, with the Yankees watching on as Fenway guests. Since then, baseball has struggled to find another organic rivalry worthy of mass attention, and that has meshed with the game’s decline as a pulsating event.

Yes, there have been mesmeric matchups, such as that between Toronto and Texas, while old staples like the Cubs and Cardinals can always be relied on for interesting storylines. Digging deeper, though, we soon discover that the present Dodgers-Padres saga has the potential to be even greater than those bouts, because there is a check in every 'rivalry' box, and there will be for years to come.

What makes a great rivalry? And what makes Dodgers-Padres games so exciting?

What, after all, makes a great rivalry? Well, two very good – borderline great – teams is an obvious prerequisite. Dodgers and Padres? Check. Fanbases that do not like each other helps, too. Check. A mutual dislike between the players, tempered with communal respect, also goes a long way, as do iconic uniforms, beautiful ballparks and electric atmospheres. Check, check, check and check.

We have been trained to expect baseball rivalries to consist of brawls with a smattering of postseason heartache. The Padres and Dodgers are working on that, no doubt, with bubbling friction and ubiquitous chirping, but this is a new type of rivalry, fit for a broader swathe of casual observers. This could be a rivalry built on present talent and future potential rather than relying on past transgressions and ancient karma. We could fawn over engaging personalities, signature moments and marquee pitching matchups, as opposed to raging about bygone slights and prehistoric trades.

There is a different dimension to this rivalry, in other words. There is something so refreshing about these games. Sure, we have a staid colossus and a likeable underdog. And yes, we have two teams separated by just 125 miles of gridlocked Californian tarmac – Los Angeles, the bustling melting pot of 4 million souls; San Diego, the slow-paced sun-trap a quarter of the size. Yet there is a writhing aura to this crusade, which has seen April games played with an October garnish – all bat flips, fist pumps and gruelling strategic marathons. Not since the murky pomp of Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa has the National League mustered such relevance, and baseball fans are reacting with similar enthusiasm.

Why Fernando Tatís Jr is the new Face of Baseball ™

Nevertheless, even the stratospheric Bonds struggled to reach the startling plateaus that have now become commonplace between these Dodgers and Padres. For instance, take Fernando Tatís Jr., the headline superstar. Aged just 22, Tatís went 8-for-18 against Los Angeles over the weekend, launching five homers, driving in six runs, walking twice and stealing three bases. No other visiting player – not even Bonds, who owned the Dodgers – has ever hit five dingers in a three-game stretch at Dodger Stadium. None. Similarly, Tatís is the first road player to author consecutive multi-homer games in Chavez Ravine since – you guessed it – Bonds in 2002. Soon, we may run out of superlatives to describe this kids’ ascent. At this point, he is otherworldly.

Undoubtedly, Tatís Jr is now The Face of Baseball ™, and a sense of mounting expectation accompanies each of his plate appearances. He may not be the best player in baseball, and he is certainly not the most polished, but those are different conversations. Mike Trout is on track to become the greatest player who ever lived, but Tatís is the most thrilling and the most marketable. Just as Jeter surpassed Bonds in endorsements, and just as Reggie Jackson outshone Nolan Ryan, the most accomplished player is not always the most compelling, and baseball must harness that potential as it approaches new frontiers.

On a personal level, Tatís Jr. may be the most exciting ballplayer – in terms of raw, unadulterated ability and cosmic quality – to emerge in my 17 years as a fan. Trout is a paragon rather than a thespian. Bryce Harper was a startling supernova. Then we have the outsized attributes of Shohei Ohtani, Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton, José Fernández, Ryan Howard, Noah Syndergaard and Jacob deGrom. But Tatís is different. He has all the tools, plus the smile and swagger of a transcendent superhero. Nothing seems to faze him, and he is still of a precocious age where anything is truly possible. That makes for bingeworthy attention, primed for our Netflix age.

Why Dodger Stadium is the biggest stage in baseball, and how the Padres hope to conquer it

Make no mistake about it – Dodger Stadium is the biggest stage baseball has to offer right now, and it cannot contain Tatís. The Yankees will always command attention, and the Red Sox will always remain a gift to lyrical lamentation, but in terms of spotlight, pressure, drama and class, 1000 Vin Scully Avenue is the epicentre of baseball’s resurgence. There is no finer canvas, no more demanding Thunderdome. The Dodgers have reimagined baseball for the modern age, and the Padres are right there beside them – heirs to the throne, princes to the king.

Objectively, the Dodgers are the most complete baseball team we have seen since the dynastic Yankees of Jeter and Rivera. They have the payroll of a small island nation, spending around $60 million more than any other team, but there is a lot to be admired in their ethos, controlled expertly by Andrew Friedman, the game’s latest demagogue. Since 2008, the Dodgers have played in the NLCS on seven occasions, clinching three pennants and one world title in the process. Their will to win is second to none, and that deserves immense praise.

For their part, meanwhile, the Padres are arguably the most exciting baseball team we have in decades. In Manny Machado, Eris Hosmer, Yu Darvish, Jurickson Profar, Jorge Mateo, Trent Grisham and Dinelson Lamet, San Diego is a conglomerate of global talent, gawping into a huge window of sustainable contention. If cajoled into a cohesive mould, their supreme mix of talent could be historically good, and any serious baseball fan is keen to see it happen.

That these teams are crammed together in a tight division, slated to play each other 19 times per year, is a treat to behold. “We are going to get 19 World Series games this year,” said Dodgers stalwart Justin Turner in spring training, and truer words have rarely been spoken. Indeed, not since Aaron Boone blew out his knee playing basketball, forcing Alex Rodriguez into pinstripes, have early-season baseball games meant so much. And it is great to have that sizzle back.

Way back when, the Red Sox and Yankees charged hundreds of dollars for sold-out spring training games, as scalpers made a killing on Grapefruit League passes. That would probably be the case for the Dodgers and Padres, too, if it were not for Covid-19. Nevertheless, even with reduced crowds in attendance at Petco Park and Dodger Stadium so far this season, the miasma of expectation has been monumental, setting the tone for epic battles we will remember for years to come.

How an epic weekend series sets the tone for more Dodgers-Padres magic in 2021

To wit, San Diego won the first two games of this weekend’s series, beating Walker Buehler and Clayton Kershaw, respectively. Tatís clubbed two bombs off Kershaw, the greatest pitcher of his generation, including the hardest-hit ball Clayton has ever surrendered. The phenom cranked another two homers – off reigning Cy Young Award winner Trevor Bauer, no less – in Saturday’s Dodger victory, before the main event blew us all away on Sunday night. 

The ESPN cameras captured that one, giving it the full Red Sox-Yankees treatment so often bemoaned by a generation of baseball diehards. Indeed, for the first time in forever, there was a genuine buzz to Sunday Night Baseball, a key engine of any dramatic narrative. Undoubtedly, this was appointment viewing – for April baseball. Some kids did not know that could even be a thing.

Rising to the occasion, Los Angeles eked out a six-run lead in familiar, metronomic fashion. Situational hitting is this team’s elixir, and it was on full display beneath the Sunday lights. Tatís added to his lore with yet another moonshot – giving him 2,055 feet worth of home run in the space of four days – but there was a sagacity to the Dodgers’ play. Until the Padres woke up, that is. Until the Padres went off.

In the history of Major League Baseball, stretching back well over a century, teams coming to bat in the seventh inning down by six runs have a .007 winning percentage. Well, they had a .007 winning percentage, because the 2021 Padres joined that exclusive cohort with a comeback for the ages, scoring six unanswered runs to force extra innings, then beating the Dodgers in eleven frames. More pertinently, they made it all look routine.

As baseball junkies, we ate up every pitch – all 422 of them. The game fell one minute shy of lasting five hours, but nobody complained. A conclusion was reached after midnight on the east coast, and shortly after sunrise here in England, where devout hardball nuts consumed the drama over bagels and morning coffee. Still we watched, still we marvelled, and still we questioned our eyes. These guys were playing a different game to everybody else – baseball from another planet – and it was a privilege to bear witness.

Who will win the NL West in 2021? Can the Padres win the division title, or will the Dodgers add another flag?

To that end, can San Diego ride this preternatural ability to outpace Los Angeles through a full 162-game season in 2021? Only time will tell. The Dodgers are a formidable juggernaut, and they have mastered the psychology of baseball better than any team I have ever seen. However, this rivalry is real, and it is here to stay. We are just devouring the starter, with a main course and dessert to come.

There are supernatural talents on both sides of the field, and they are set to lock horns for decades. Tatís recently signed a 14-year, $340 million contract extension. Mookie Betts, the Dodgers’ own megastar, will be in Los Angeles through 2032. Then we have the supporting cast, which also seems committed to this long-term revitalisation effort, this cataclysmic campaign. 

The Padres have existed since 1969, but they have never been so popular, and they have never been so cool. Of course, they have also never won the World Series, and they last hoisted a pennant in 1998, before Tatís Jr. was even born. Therefore, we should urge caution with regard to expectations for this team, these players and our current baseball age. Still, the future is most assuredly bright, and baseball needs this after a rough few years. It might just save the game like Sosa and McGwire did all those years ago - except with something more believable, something more true.

The Dodgers will not crumble, though. Their culture is too developed, and their fierce competitive instinct is too strong to cease before winter. In Dave Roberts, they have a dextrous manager who has known heated rivalries before, as a prominent Red Sox player in their jousts with the Evil Empire, and as a Dodgers player in their clashes with Bonds’ Giants. “I’m emotionally exhausted,” Roberts told his wife after returning home from Saturday’s game, a warrior suddenly drained. Such is the scale of this baseball moment, and such is the toll on its main protagonists. The calendar is about to welcome May, but the mind is stuck in October.

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