The Dodgers will host the San Diego Padres for four games beginning Thursday night. Depending on who you ask, the series is either the best rivalry in baseball, or it is not a rivalry at all.

The turning point for me came in the 10th inning of their game last Friday in San Diego. The score was tied, 6-6. The Padres were batting with the winning run 90 feet from home plate. Dennis Santana was pitching to the Padres’ Jorge Mateo.

Santana’s first pitch hit Mateo in the leg, which elicited a heated discussion on the field. Players from both benches streamed onto the field, the men in brown hats pulling each other away from the men in blue. The sound of the crowd lay somewhere between engaged and enraged. It looked like a rivalry. It sounded like a rivalry. It felt like a rivalry.

“Once you get that first bench-clearing (moment),” Dodgers pitcher David Price said after the game, stealing the words from my thought bubble, “that’s when it kind of goes to that next level.”

What makes a rivalry a rivalry might be a matter of opinion. I trust the opinion of Price, who made eight starts for the Boston Red Sox in Yankee Stadium from 2016-19. I trust Dodgers manager Dave Roberts, who played for both the Giants and the Dodgers, and once stole a base for the Red Sox in an important playoff game against the Yankees.

“It felt like a rivalry tonight,” Roberts told reporters in his postmortem. “I’m very hesitant to get ahead of things but it was like a playoff game.”

The truth, in this case, might be relative. What constitutes a rivalry among fans might not be a rivalry for the players or vice versa. But what if it isn’t? What if history offers a rubric for judging what does and does not a rivalry make?

Speaking of history, let’s start there.

1. History

The fate of the Giants and Dodgers was predestined.

Brooklyn had the best team in the American Association in 1889, then lost a nine-game World Series to the New York Giants. For the 1890 season, the Dodgers joined the National League and won a pennant there, too. If geography and talent were not enough to foment a rivalry between the teams into the 20th century, a feud between their longtime managers, John McGraw and Wilbert Robinson, did the trick.

To this day, it’s sacrilegious to reference the Giants-Dodgers rivalry without mentioning it began more than a century ago in New York. History helps. History is an unblemished banner hanging above the front door, with words printed in 2,000-point typeface declaring “THIS IS A RIVALRY.”

But is history necessary to make a rivalry a rivalry? I’m not sure how long the families Hatfield and McCoy knew each other before the first Hatfield allegedly murdered the first McCoy. (Were they sending each other Christmas cards before the Civil War?) Regardless, history has dismissed the 1865 shooting of Asa Harmon McCoy as the origin of a rivalry that spanned generations. The fire behind America’s original Family Feud needed more than one spark to catch.

If the Dodgers-Padres rivalry is to be remembered beyond 2021, the teams must sustain their peculiar animus. Otherwise, it’s an unmemorable rivalry. It’s Dan O’Brien vs. Dave Johnson. It’s Tab Clear vs. Crystal Pepsi. Regardless of how they arrived at this point, it’s still a rivalry.

2. Geography

Brooklyn lost its identity twice.

In 1898 it became a borough of New York City. In October 1957, the Dodgers and Giants moved to California, leaving Brooklyn without its cultural nucleus. The Dodgers’ plane hadn’t even left for LAX when the New York Times issued the canonical take: “In deserting Brooklyn for Los Angeles, the Dodgers will leave an aching void in the Borough of Churches. Few baseball clubs have had greater identity with, and greater impact on, their communities than the Dodgers have had on Brooklyn.”

Even before they moved west – especially before they moved west – the geographical element of the Giants-Dodgers rivalry had a big brother/little brother feel. By population, Boston is less than one-tenth the size of New York. The disparity between St. Louis and Chicago is almost as great. The biggest rivalries in baseball suggest a particular kind of sibling analogy.

San Diego is about one-third the size of Los Angeles, and the number of major sports franchises in each city makes it obvious which side represents the “little brother.” The Chargers’ recent move from San Diego to Los Angeles drove home a point that was already in the garage. Call it an inferiority complex, call it a chip on the shoulder – if one side has it, the rivalry is enhanced.

It helps if the two rivals share a time zone, or a territorial boundary, or a body of water like England and France. A Napoleon complex helps more.

3. Parity

As semi-original National League franchises, the Dodgers and the Cardinals have a long history. Whatever you do, don’t throw out the records when these teams meet. They’ve played each other 2,078 times. The Dodgers have won 1,032 games. The Cardinals have won 1,030. This is one of my favorite statistics every year.

That kind of parity has implications. It’s why every playoff series between the teams brings uncommon uncertainty, as if an invisible centripetal force draws the two teams to the closest possible outcome. Ask Tom Niedenfuer or Jack Clark.

Parity can overcome geography. It can overcome the awkward silence between each on-field confrontation. The Green Bay Packers have an all-time record of 101-95-6 against the Chicago Bears since their first meeting in 1921, proving parity can overcome any gap in market size.

Parity is the pesky problem the Padres must overcome with the Dodgers. They have a 404-485-1 record in the series, including 190-255 at Dodger Stadium. The Dodgers swept the Padres in a National League Division Series last October, and nearly won all three games last weekend in Petco Park. In the eyes of some fans, that makes the concept of a Padres-Dodgers rivalry easy to dismiss.

For now, checking two of the three boxes will have to suffice. The Dodgers are beginning to turn parity into a real problem for baseball’s other 29 teams. The best hope for “the field” to dethrone the Dodgers lies in San Diego. Keeping the final score close, the outcome tense, and the players on the edge of the dugout won’t be enough for the Padres to convince the naysayers. That’s the life of a rival.