From the beginning, the rivalry was the point.

Part of the package deal that brought the New York Giants and Brooklyn Dodgers to the West Coast in 1957 was the promise of enough anger between the fan bases to justify the move. Major League Baseball officials, The Chronicle reported in April 1957, were “fully cognizant of the strong rivalry between the Los Angeles Rams and the San Francisco 49ers, along with the huge crowds their games draw.” With any luck, these two baseball teams’ fans would hate each other, too.

They were half right, it turned out.

For most of the next six decades, the rivalry was remarkably one-sided. Giants fans leaned into the blood feud, booing Tommy Lasorda and Steve Garvey, while writhing like wounded animals whenever a Giant showed up in a Dodgers uniform. (That look of perplexed dejection on Dodger Gavin Lux’s face when the wind robbed him of a homer at the end of the Giants’ 1-0 win on Monday night? We looked like that for the entirety of 1991, when Giants hero Brett Butler appeared in the Dodgers outfield.)

Meanwhile, as Dodgers fans became the center of our fan world, it turns out they weren’t thinking about us much at all.

But what if, after 64 years, it’s now more than an illusion? What if Thursday night’s game — the most consequential in history between the two clubs — actually delivers the envisioned armies? What if the rivalry we were promised is finally here?

Aug. 11, 1981: Leo Sperandeo Jr. and other fans cheer for the San Francisco Giants during a 1981 game at Candlestick Park.

Steve Ringman / The Chronicle

I think about my own initiation into the San Francisco/Los Angeles rivalry. Around 1982, after the 49ers got good, I recall my mother and grandmother pulling me aside and telling me the facts. To paraphrase: “We put bricks in our toilets to conserve water while Los Angeles takes long showers in a desert, and they elect people like Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon. So, when Fred Dean sacks Vince Ferragamo, that’s all of us sacking Los Angeles.”

This bloodlust was realized at Candlestick Park, where I watched dozens of Giants/Dodgers and 49ers/Rams games over the years. Chants of “Beat L.A.,” “Dodgers suck” or more profane variations would start the moment we stepped on the SamTrans bus in Burlingame. Wins were bacchanalian celebrations. Defeats would be marked with silence on the way home, a quiet that might stretch into a family dinner or two in the following days.

This way of life hit an unfortunate peak on July 26, 1988, when the Giants/Dodgers rivalry came to Candlestick Park. Fans threw batteries and liquor bottles at Dodgers outfielders, poured beer on Dodgers fans in attendance and climbed an outfield fence, taking part of it down and nearly leading umpires to cancel the second game of a doubleheader. Thirty fans were arrested and another 100 were tossed from the park.

“The beach at Okinawa was safer,” Giants president Al Rosen said the next day, calling out his own paying fans. “That was the worst I have ever seen. I was frightened, shocked and disgusted.”

(Rosen could have been more introspective. Just that year, the Giants funded a “Hate the Dodgers” advertising campaign, according to a Glenn Dickey column from the era. With tiny crowds through much of the 1970s and ’80s, the team always seemed eager to treat the Dodgers’ arrival as part of a war.)

Meanwhile, on the diamond, things were generally more chill. There were some on-the-field fireworks in the mid-1960s, when the teams fought for National League supremacy late in the season. But through the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s and 2000s, the Giants and Dodgers seemingly took turns with their successes.

Sure, the temperature sometimes was raised by, say, an attempt to play spoiler to the other team’s pennant run or a perceived slight between the players, such as Juan Marichal going after Dodger John Roseboro with a bat, or Mike Marshall pointing at the Giants dugout after an April 1987 walk-off home run. But mostly, the players had more bitter enemies to think about.

“When I was with the Dodgers the big rivalry wasn’t with the Giants,” Dusty Baker, who played for both and managed the Giants, would acknowledge later. “It was with teams like Cincinnati and Houston, because those were the teams we had to beat to win the pennant.”

I learned how truly one-sided the Giants/Dodgers rivalry was when I moved down to Los Angeles in 1995, where I worked downtown as a courtroom journalist, blocks from the Dodgers’ ballpark at Chavez Ravine. I remember heading to my first game in a Giants hat, bracing for beer to be poured on it, and finding out how much of my sports world was built on lies.

Security guards watch fans behind barricades during a Giants game against the Dodgers at Candlestick Park on July 26, 1988.

Security guards watch fans behind barricades during a Giants game against the Dodgers at Candlestick Park on July 26, 1988.

John O’Hara / The Chronicle 1988

Where a Giants/Dodgers game at Candlestick Park had a prepare-for-battle vibe, at my first game in Los Angeles actor Barry Williams — Greg in “The Brady Bunch” — sang the national anthem. Seventy percent of the fans hadn’t arrived. The hat was just a conversation piece. “You’re from San Francisco? It’s really cold there, right?”

It was true, Angelenos were alarmingly cavalier when it came to water conservation. But the Giants/Dodgers rivalry was mostly a mirage.

Until it wasn’t.

Through the “Inception”-like logic of our new playoff system, the Dodgers and Giants, the two best teams in baseball in 2021, are facing each other in the National League Division Series — and now must contest a winner-take-all Game 5 at Oracle Park.

Spectators cheer in the first inning during an MLB game against the Los Angeles Dodgers at Oracle Park, Thursday, July 29, 2021, in San Francisco, Calif.

Spectators cheer in the first inning during an MLB game against the Los Angeles Dodgers at Oracle Park, Thursday, July 29, 2021, in San Francisco, Calif.

Santiago Mejia / The Chronicle

That was decidedly not a mirage when hundreds of Dodgers fans calling themselves Pantone 294 — named after the exact shade of Dodgers blue — marched to Oracle Park in September, looking a little like I felt during the late 1980s, when we all tried to adopt Will Clark’s sneer whenever a Dodgers fan was involved.

I was also pleased to see that rather than turn up the temperature in the stands, the presence of so many Dodgers fans, with so much at stake, didn’t bring back the urge to tear things down. Maybe it’s the world we’re living in, where it’s not NorCal-versus-SoCal any more, as much as California versus everyone else. It feels like we’re rooting against the teams, but not each other.

Hate is too strong a word, and it seems to be fueling too many other problems in 2021. With the Giants and Dodgers now, it’s more like we’re bound to each other. A rivalry brought both teams to the West Coast. And 64 years later, on a Thursday night in our third ballpark in San Francisco, we finally get what we were promised.

Peter Hartlaub is The San Francisco Chronicle’s culture critic. Email: Twitter: @PeterHartlaub



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