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Lyle Spencer

Urban legend: When two largest U.S. cities clash

Stanley Cup raises memories of '81 Series, the last time NYC and LA played for a title

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LOS ANGELES -- It's the New York Rangers and Los Angeles Kings squaring off in the National Hockey League's Stanley Cup finals, and Tommy John, an Indiana kid who made good in America's two largest cities, is loving it.

A sports fan now, known more for a transformative surgery on his left elbow performed four decades ago by Dr. Frank Jobe than for his 288 Major League victories, John is familiar with the magnitude of New York vs. Los Angeles on any grand stage -- especially the ones he graced for both clubs.

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Having pitched for the Dodgers against the Yankees in the World Series showdowns of 1977 and 1978 and for the Yankees against his old team in the 1981 Fall Classic, John has a unique perspective on the rivalry of coastal Goliaths.

"These are two of the most highly recognized teams in baseball, both of them with a great tradition," John said. "They represent the financial and entertainment capitals of the East and West Coasts. No two teams are more publicized. It's a bonanza for the TV network and the commercial sponsors when New York and Los Angeles meet. But, mainly, it's terrific for the fans."

It's been four decades since N.Y. and L.A. squared off in an NBA Finals, but there was a time when the Knicks and Lakers ruled the sport. They collided three times in a four-year span in the early 1970s.

Featuring Willis Reed and Walt Frazier, the Knicks took a seven-game series in 1970 that was made famous by an injured Reed limping onto the floor for Game 7 at Madison Square Garden. Coach Red Holzman's crew, which included backup forward Phil Jackson, got the upper hand again in 1973 in five games.

The 1971-72 Lakers, having rolled to an all-time sports record 33-game regular-season winning streak, subdued the Knicks in five games behind Wilt Chamberlain and Jerry West.

"The Knicks were a team with great personalities and a style that captivated fans," West said. "We had a lot of mutual respect. When we finally won the title, it was more of a relief than anything else, really."

Since the Dodgers relocated from Brooklyn, they've faced their old interborough rivals four times in the World Series, each franchise winning twice.

The 1963 Dodgers, riding the left arm of the incomparable Sandy Koufax, silenced and swept the Bronx Bombers. Powered by Reggie Jackson and the magic of Graig Nettles' glove, the Yankees prevailed in 1977 and 1978 before the 1981 Dodgers avenged those defeats in six games, taking the finale at old Yankee Stadium.

That '81 World Series was a true Fall Classic on so many levels, bringing fans back to the sport after a labor dispute had turned ballparks dark from June 12 to Aug. 9.

The Yankees, with Jackson nursing a calf ailment, appeared in command in taking the first two games in New York. But the Dodgers roared back to sweep the three games in Los Angeles, leading to the infamous elevator incident involving George Steinbrenner following Game 5.

Reports were conflicting and confusing, but the Boss' fractured left hand confirmed that he struck somebody or something -- a heckler or an elevator door, depending on the version you chose to believe -- on a wild Sunday evening in the Wilshire Hyatt House.

If Steinbrenner, as some Dodgers personnel suspected, had concocted the tale of beating up one of the miscreants in the scrap in an effort to fire up the troops, it didn't work. The Yanks were flattened, 9-2, in Game 6, with Ron Cey, Steve Yeager and Pedro Guerrero sharing the World Series Most Valuable Player Award.

Moments after Steve Howe's last pitch settled into the glove of center fielder Ken Landreaux, Steinbrenner released a swift apology to Yankees fans for his team's showing -- an act swiftly and sarcastically ridiculed by his marquee star.

"I apologize, I apologize, I apologize, I apologize, I apologize," Jackson said as he read Steinbrenner's statement. "Well, I don't apologize for anything. I'm sorry we didn't win, but we tried our best. ... Are we supposed to do time because we lost?"

Jackson had personally destroyed the Dodgers in the 1977 Series with five home runs, including his three blasts on three swings in the decisive Game 6. His well-timed hip check to redirect a ball thrown by Dodgers shortstop Bill Russell, depriving the Dodgers of a crucial double play at Yankee Stadium, weighed prominently in the Yankees' 1978 triumph, also in six games.

Mr. October, coming back from the calf injury in '81, hit .333 with one homer in 12 at-bats in what would be his final Series in a Yankees uniform. Jackson signed a free-agent deal that winter with the Angels, along with John, a player he once called his "favorite all-time teammate."

John's final appearance in pinstripes was puzzling, even to T.J. Having gone 9-8 in the strike-shortened season after winning 21 and 22 games his first two seasons as a Yankee, the lefty was yanked for a pinch-hitter in the fourth inning of a 1-1 Game 6, dueling Burt Hooton.

"I couldn't believe it," John said. "I didn't know what was happening. I don't get angry. [Manager Bob Lemon] just said, 'I'm taking you out. We're going to try to get some runs.' It was out of my hands."

Jumping on George Frazier, who lost a record three games in the Series, for three quick runs, the Dodgers cruised to the championship as fans quietly evacuated the Bronx cathedral.

The momentum had turned the Dodgers' way in Game 3, when they returned home and were resuscitated by the wondrous Fernando Valenzuela. The NL Cy Young Award and Rookie of the Year Award winner, Fernando, 20, outdueled AL Rookie of the Year Dave Righetti. The headline the next morning in the L.A. Herald Examiner read: "All Fernando had was heart."

Valenzuela unleashed 145 pitches, yielding nine hits and seven walks while somehow holding the Bronx Bombers to four runs in a one-run triumph that paved the way for the three wins that would follow.

"He was like a poker player bluffing his way through a bad hand," said Tommy Lasorda, the Dodgers manager who knew better than to relieve a remarkable pitcher who invariably did his best work when he was in trouble.

Cey's three-run homer in the first inning was the big blow against Righetti, who almost had been dealt to the Dodgers for Don Sutton at the 1980 Trade Deadline in July.

Cey, in Game 5, had taken a 94-mph heater from Yankees closer Goose Gossage in the helmet. It was a frightening scene -- notably to Cey, known as the Penguin.

"Here we are at the most important time of our lives," Cey said, "going after the most important thing in the world. The last thing you expect is the possibility of death. It was like an explosion in my head. And then I felt like I was falling in slow motion. I knew I was conscious, but I felt like a fighter who had passed out on his feet. I lay there on the ground and it was almost as if I were in another world.

"I tried to stay on the pitch as long as I could. Depending on the velocity, you have one second or less to react. I would guess I probably had a tenth of a second to try to get out of the way. But the ball seemed to follow me like a magnet.

"I guess you can just never tell when it's going to be your turn to bow out."

As the teams returned to New York, where the Dodgers had endured six straight bad Series endings, a rainout helped Cey recover full control of his senses and balance. He delivered a pair of hits, scoring a run and driving in another as Guerrero's homer, triple, single and five RBIs toppled the Yankees.

"I guess you could say we owed them this one," Russell said, acknowledging that the Dodgers had let the manic environment of New York and its fans negatively impact them in 1977 and 1978.

Russell recalled how low-key club owner Peter O'Malley stood in stark contrast to Steinbrenner.

"The only time our owner came in the clubhouse was when we won a championship," Russell said, calling O'Malley "a gentleman."

As with the '77 and '78 adventures, '81 wasn't exactly a stroll in Central Park for the L.A. tourists. A bottle hurled from the stands narrowly missed Dusty Baker's head in left field in Game 1.

"We stood our ground and didn't let anything get in the way of our goal," Baker, the club's spiritual leader, said. "We might have had more talented teams, but that one was driven."

"I guess there was a certain amount of destiny involved," said Steve Garvey, who batted .417 with 10 hits in the Series. "It was kind of the feeling that the third time was the charm."

Lasorda, a Hall of Fame manager, called it "the greatest thing that's ever happened to me in baseball. It's something that escaped us twice before.

"I always wished that if the good Lord let us ever win the World Series, I hoped it was against the club that beat us twice."

In the aftermath, "New York, New York," by Lasorda's favorite singer and pal, Frank Sinatra, did not echo across Yankee Stadium.

Lyle Spencer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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