SAN FRANCISCO — Giants first baseman Brandon Belt made his major-league debut in Los Angeles in 2011, but it wasn't until this February that he fully understood the magnitude of the Giants-Dodgers rivalry.
After making a seemingly innocuous comment at FanFest about teams not being able to "buy chemistry," Belt felt the full digital brunt of a Dodgers fan base hopeful that you can buy championships.
"It was pretty bad," Belt said, laughing. "I had to get off Twitter for a while."
Belt and the rest of the Giants will get their first live taste of a rejuvenated Dodgers fanbase today, when the two longtime rivals open their seasons at Dodger Stadium, which has undergone nearly as much renovation in the past year as the roster.
Since purchasing the franchise for over $2 billion last March, the new ownership group in Los Angeles has operated without a budget. First baseman Adrian Gonzalez, left fielder Carl Crawford, right-hander Josh Beckett and shortstop Hanley Ramirez were obtained in blockbuster trades, and former Cy Young Award winner Zack Greinke ($147 million), Cuban outfielder Yasiel Puig ($42 million) and South Korean left-hander Hyun-Jin Ryu ($36 million) were signed in the offseason.
The result is a roster that many have picked to overtake the Giants, a fact that hasn't been lost in a clubhouse that is defending a title for the second time in three seasons.
When asked about the Dodgers earlier this spring, manager Bruce Bochy called them "the favorites" in the division.
"That's what I'm hearing," he said, smiling. "It really doesn't matter. That's on paper." On paper, the Giants look nearly identical to the championship club, with 21 members of the World Series roster making this year's opening day roster. Instead of battling the Dodgers in the free agent market, the Giants opted to bring back key contributors Angel Pagan, Marco Scutaro and Jeremy Affeldt, and they've also spent great resources on long-term deals for cornerstones Buster Posey, Matt Cain and Madison Bumgarner in the past year.
"They obviously got better," Giants starting pitcher Ryan Vogelsong said of the Dodgers. "But there are a lot of ways to improve your team in the offseason. I feel like they did it their way and we did it our way by keeping the same guys we had.
"I think it's going to be a great season, us going head to head with them." Vogelsong is as aware of the rivalry as any Giant, having turned down the Dodgers before his breakthrough 2011 season. While everyone in the clubhouse is aware of the Los Angeles remodel, Vogelsong said there's little conversation about now being considered an underdog.
The pecking order remains the same down South, too.
"The people that watch know we're going to have a good club, but it's hard to bypass the Giants in any way, shape or form when they've won two out of three and have their whole club back," Dodgers manager Don Mattingly said. "You always kind of stack them at the top. That's who you've got to measure yourself with."
By any measure, the 19 games between the rivals should be some of the most heated in years. Both clubs have deep rotations and experienced bullpens, and while the Dodgers have the potential to have the league's best lineup, the Giants will have the edge defensively and in the management department.