New York — It's a coast-to-coast jet flight nowadays instead of the old subway ride between Brooklyn and the Bronx, but there's still that special magic in the air when the Dodgers and Yankees meet in the World Series.
Ask Dave Righetti, New York's spectacular young rookie left-hander. He was celebrating in the clubhouse after the American League pennant clincher over Oakland when an interviewer queried him as to his preference for an opponent - Montreal or Los Angeles. Instead of the diplomatic evasion that is standard in such situations, Righetti blurted out the answer that surely represented the thinking of most of his teammates.
''The Dodgers,'' he said emphatically. ''All I ever thought about all my life was the Yankees and the Dodgers.''
Well, now he has it, and so do baseball fans all over as these old foes go at it in the 11th renewal of the game's most storied rivalry.
It was the Brooklyn Dodgers, of course, when the teams first met in 1941, and again when they dominated their own leagues and clashed in six epic struggles over a 10-year period from 1947-56.
Names like Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, Jackie Robinson, and Roy Campanella were in the headlines then, and nearly every one of those classics was a bitterly contested affair, with four of them going the full seven games.
The first meeting after the Dodgers had moved west occurred in 1963, when a Los Angeles team led by Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale humiliated its erstwhile Big Apple neighbor in the only four-game sweep either team has ever achieved over the other. The Yankees turned the tables in the two most recent renewals, however, winning in 1977 behind the slugging of Reggie Jackson and again in 1978 to boost their overall margin in the long rivalry to 8-2.
Jackson's offensive outburst in '77, by the way, launched a recent trend of superstar domination which may help dispel the myth that it's always some little-known player who becomes the Series hero. This is a nice bit of folklore , and it does happen on occasion (Billy Martin, Dusty Rhodes, Gene Tenace). But much more often it is the big names who come through - as underlined by the recent MVP performances of Jackson, Willie Stargell in 1979, and Mike Schmidt last year.
As for this year's potential heroes, both teams are loaded with veteran stars plus such exciting newcomers as Righetti and the Dodgers' 20-year-old Cy Young Award candidate Fernando Valenzuela, who defeated Montreal 2-1 Monday in the fifth and decisive game of the National League championship series.
Both clubs also have the balance you expect of pennant winners - meaning the ability to win games at the plate, in the field, or on the mound. Both also showed their grit and determination in the playoffs with pressure-packed fifth game victories. And both are led by managers with outstanding winning credentials - Bob Lemon for New York and Tommy Lasorda for L.A.
Graig Nettles, MVP of the American League championship series with 6-for-12 including two doubles, a homer, and nine RBIS, joins Jackson, Oscar Gamble, Jerry Mumphrey, Bobby Murcer, and the switch-hitting Larry Milbourne to give New York its usual solid array of left-handed hitters. But this year the Yankees also have a strong right-handed corps as well featuring Dave Winfield, Lou Piniella, Bob Watson, Rick Cerone, and Willie Randolph, and are thus dangerous against any type of pitching.
Los Angeles, though, counters with a solid and versatile lineup of its own. There are old Dodger standbys like Steve Garvey, Ron Cey, and Dusty Baker, hard-hitting newcomers like Pedro Guerrero, and of course playoff hero Rick Monday, whose ninth-inning home run won the pennant-clincher over the Expos.
The two pitching staffs are very strong, too, both in terms of outstanding individual performers and depth (the latter a particularly important factor this year in the wake of two exhausting rounds of playoff action).
The Yankees, who had the best team earned-run average in the AL, boast three of the game's top left-handers in Ron Guidry, Righetti, and Tommy John (who, ironically, pitched for the Dodgers in both the 1977 and 1978 classics), a solid right-handed starter in Rick Reuschel, and the spectacular bullpen duo of Ron Davis and Rich Gossage. That's a hard group to beat, but the Dodger staff featuring southpaws Valenzuela and Jerry Reuss, right-handed starters Burt Hooton, Bob Welch, and relief ace Steve Howe is also pretty stingy with runs, as evidenced by the NL's second best ERA.
Defensively the Yankees look a bit stronger, especially in the infield and in left field, where expensive free agent Winfield has been earning his megabuck salary and displaying his superb athletic talent to boot with some remarkable wall-climbing catches.
Because of the strike-induced extra round of playoffs this year, both teams already have gone through more than the usual amount of playoff pressure just to get this far.
The Dodgers have really been through the wringer. After falling behind Houston 2-0, they won three straight to become the only team ever to overcome such a deficit in a best-of-five series. They were on the ropes again vs. the Expos, trailing 2-1 before fighting back to win the last two on the road.
The Yankees also were extended to the five-game limit in their first series against Milwaukee, but then swept the A's to gain the advantage of a few extra days' rest - for whatever that turns out to be worth.
After the first two games here this week, the scene shifts to Los Angeles for Games 3, 4, and (if necessary) 5 over the weekend, then back to Yankee Stadium for Games 6 and 7 (if either or both should be needed) next week.
The question of site doesn't really seem to mean much in postseason play, however. Over the last 10 years, for instance, the team with the supposed advantage of the extra home game in World Series play has only won the classic four times while losing six. And in the 26 games played in this year's two rounds of playoffs, the home-away tally came out all even at 13 victories apiece.