Yesterday was “Jackie Robinson Day” around the major leagues, honoring the man who broke the color barrier as a rookie with the Dodgers back on April 15, 1947. This was the first time in several years that I’ve missed attending Jackie Robinson Day festivities wherever the Dodgers were playing. The last time they played a road game on April 15 was in 2004, during Petco Park’s opening week when the Dodgers played the Padres. From 2005 on, the Dodgers requested that Major League Baseball schedule them to play at home in Dodger Stadium on Jackie Robinson Day. Most of the time, their opposing team is the Padres or Giants.
We are fortunate enough to still have the legendary Vin Scully share with his listeners some wonderful stories about his recollections of Jackie’s days with the Dodgers. (Robinson’s debut in 1947 precedes Scully’s by only three years.)
Robinson’s courage, his heroics, and exciting style of play led to him
being named the 1947 Rookie of the Year, and his name now adorns that award.
It’s fitting that, in the years since his arrival, the Dodgers have had
more ROYs (16) than any other team in the majors.
Before last night’s game, Don Newcombe, one of Jackie’s teammates who was the 1949 Rookie of the Year and now serves as Special Advisor to the Chairman for the Dodgers, threw out the ceremonial first pitch to second baseman Orlando Hudson, who’s in his first season with the team. The Dodgers then beat the Giants, 5-4.
My most memorable JR Day was April 15, 2007, when the Dodgers and Padres were featured on the Sunday night ESPN Game of the Week on the 60th anniversary of this occasion. The atmosphere in Chavez Ravine that evening was electric, almost like a playoff game, as a spirited Dodger team annihilated the visiting team.
Make no mistake about it–all of baseball benefited from Jackie Robinson’s legendary career, those who were present then, as well as generations in the future. But he was still ours, and Dodger fans are proud of that. He played for no other major league team. Still, there are some who think he has no business being claimed by the Dodgers because they haven’t played in Brooklyn since 1957, one year after Robinson retired. Last night, at the new Citifield in New York, Robinson’s legacy was honored as well as at every MLB ballpark hosting a game across the country. Citifield, the Mets’ home that opened this week, features a Robinson Rotunda and other touches that are reminiscent of the Dodgers’ former home, Ebbets Field, in Brooklyn–a nice touch which was the vision of Mets owner Fred Wilpon, who’s an old Dodger fan. And over the past few years I’ve continued to hear that it’s “most appropriate” to honor Jackie Robinson
in Shea/Citifield or whichever stadium the Mets are playing in.
Well, it’s appropriate to honor him everywhere, but I say it’s most appropriate to honor him in Dodger Stadium because Jackie was, after all, a Dodger. He never wore a Mets uniform. He played his entire
career with the Dodgers. Some bitter New Yorkers, still incensed that the Dodgers would dare to leave Brooklyn, feel his legacy belongs to New York because he never played a day for the L.A. Dodgers. My response is that his story belongs to all of baseball, but Los Angeles is still the best place to honor him. That’s where the Dodgers make their home, and it is where Jackie’s roots are. Pasadena, just minutes away from Dodger Stadium, is where he was raised and first played
baseball. Robinson excelled as a four-sport athlete across town, at UCLA. He belonged to Southern California before he belonged to the world. His hometown in his youth was the future home of the Dodgers, and the Dodgers organization has proven to be an excellent steward of Robinson’s rich legacy. So the Mets need not lay any special claim to him.
Jackie Robinson was a hero ahead of his time. In his own words, “A life is not important, except in the impact it has on others’ lives.” May we never forget what he endured, and what he accomplished in the face of so many challenges and obstacles. He was a man of integrity both on and off the field–a Hall of Famer in life as well as baseball. His story transcends the sport and is part of our nation’s history. This should never be taken for granted.
(Note: This is a slightly edited version of a recap that appeared on another forum earlier today.)
Monday, April 13 was a day full of memories, a day full of emotion…a day that brought Dodger fans in attendance at Dodger Stadium joy and sadness.
It was the home opener, which hasn’t lost any of its luster in spite of the fact that, as a fan of baseball, I’ve been to some 15 professional games over the last couple of months whether they involved the Dodgers or not.
As is my usual tradition, I hopped the Amtrak to Los Angeles in the early morning hours for my annual trip to Opening Day at OLOCR. My first hint of a sad moment that day was the reminder of Nick Adenhart’s death last week, as the train passed Angel Stadium. Their flag was at half-mast, and the Angels marquee scrolled sentiments about the victims involved. (Later, at Dodger Stadium, I signed a giant card that would be sent to the Angels organization from Dodgers fans.) However, this would not be the last mention of tragedy this day, unbeknownst to me at the time.
Arriving at Union Station, I decided to take the bus rather than walk to the ballpark (which I’ve done the past couple of years)–a short hop up Cesar Chavez Avenue to Sunset Boulevard, to Elysian Park. At the bus stop, I ran into fellow Dodger fan Erik, who has season tickets in he LFP. We talked for awhile, catching up on all that has gone on during the offseason. The last time I saw him was on Opening Day at Camelback Ranch, which is the day he was interviewed by T.J. Simers and quoted in T.J.’s column the following day. It turns out Erik didn’t even know it was Simers he was talking to–he found out by reading his name in the Times afterward! We hiked up the hill to our destination–our shining jewel, our home away from home, at last…Dodger Stadium. Erik said a blessing on the 2009 season, and we parted ways as I went to pick up my ticket at will call and he headed for the pavilion.
The Dodgers’ new theme is “Dodgertown”, now that the brand name so long associated with Vero Beach has been transplanted to L.A. “Welcome to Dodgertown, California” is now being stamped on much of the merchandise for sale. Once inside the stadium, I took part in the usual traditions, taking in the sights and sounds of the ballpark at field level during batting practice. I thought I’d have my first Dodger Dog® of the home season early, and headed for one of the stands for a picante version, only to endure a rude awakening to the season…”We don’t carry picante Dodger Dogs anymore.” (WHAT?) The woman at the concessions stand said the stadium had only been open 45 minutes and she’d already had so many complaints about trimming this menu item, she suggested I contact them via email to register my dissatisfaction. I ordered a Super DD instead, and decided to make my way upstairs to reserved level, where my seat was located. I stopped and wandered around the club level first, though. It was there I ran into fellow Dodger fan Crzblue, who had just gotten her media guide and was leafing through it. I also finally bought my first Manny wig. LOL! I never even got around to wearing it, given all that was going on yesterday, and it arrived home with me still in its packaging. Crzblue and I waited around the Vin Scully Press Box for awhile. We knew Vin was throwing out the first pitch, and he’d have to walk past us to get to the elevator. While waiting, another friend of hers came by and started talking. That’s when I heard the terrible news about the Hall of Fame announcer for the Phillies, Harry Kalas, who had just died about an hour earlier in the broadcast booth in Washington. I must say it gave me chills thinking that here we were, waiting for Vin, who was good friends with Harry…what must he be going through? What must Phillies phans be going through? What a heavy burden to bear so early in the season.
A few minutes later, the idol of my teenage years, Steve Garvey, walked by, signing autographs for a few people here and there, looking good as always. Eventually, our own inimitable Tommy Lasorda came out of the press box, escorted by his usual entourage, and finally Vin did, too. Small groups of fans nearby waved and cheered for them both. There are only a few short feet to walk between the press box and the elevator, so these are brief encounters, but I silently thought to myself, “Take good care of yourself, Vin.”
By this time, of course, the pre-game ceremony was about to get underway, so I went upstairs to top deck, last row, and said hi to Crzblue’s brother and her friend Lorena. “Happy Opening Day” greetings were in abundance as we hugged and greeted each other. Of course, nothing could compare to last year’s Opening Day pre-game festivities, but I stayed and watched the flag ceremony and introduction of the lineups. Manny, of course, received a reaction that Vin described as “the roar that reached the heavens.”
As was tradition for many years but something I may have missed during the last few Opening Days, hundreds of beautiful white doves were released from the field, first becoming a dotted white juxtaposition against the Elysian Park hillside before flying off into the blue skies above in formation. Blue, white and silver streamers were also released into the stands.
When it came time for Vin to throw out the ceremonial first pitch, that loud roar for Manny may have been eclipsed. Vin was handed the ball by a Dodger fan who is a wounded veteran of the Iraq war, whom he hugged before throwing the pitch. As Charley Steiner set the scene in his introduction:
“Over the Dodgers’ 50 years in Los Angeles, there has remained one constant. In a city of stars and superstars, no one shines brighter than this man. He is simply the heart and oul of this city, and the team for which he has called games for 60 years now…”
This is Vin’s 60th season with the Dodgers–an amazing accomplishment in itself! Given the fact that he’s still so good at his craft after 59 years is even more remarkable!
Once the pitch was made and the ovation ended, Vin made these comments from the field: “I would like to say a couple of things to you all. First, we’ve been together a long time, and over all these years, I have needed [i]you[/i] a lot more than you have needed me.” (Oh, I beg to differ on that!) His second comment, of course, was the signature,[i] “It’s Time for Dodger Baseball!” [/i]
Prior to that pitch, a moment of silence was observed for Nick Adenhart and Harry Kalas. I know there was more than just a tear in my eye thinking about last October in this very setting, when the Phillies beat the Dodgers to advance to the World Series. So long as the Dodgers had to lose that series, I’m glad Harry went out “on top”, so to speak. I knew more would be coming from Vin in the broadcast, and of course there was.
But there was also a game at hand to be played.
It was the Dodgers vs.the Giants, beginning the 120th season of their rivalry which has endured through parts of three centuries. Billingsley vs. the Unit.
Chad took the mound and pitched his heart out–and the Dodgers backed him up. As Randy Johnson was getting knocked around, I learned from Vin that the Big Unit is the oldest player to wear a Giants uniform in exactly a century–a player from the New York Giants (whose name escapes me) in 1909 was the last one older than 45 at the sta
rt of a season.
Dodgers second baseman Orlando Hudson hit for the cycle, the first Dodger to do so since Wes Parker did it in 1970, and the first Dodger ever to hit for one at Dodger Stadium. As this story was unfolding, I recalled a Cardinal fan friend being present at Busch Stadium for Mark Grudzielanek’s cycle for the Cardinals a few years ago. Leading up to this season, Hudson has often spoken of paying tribute to a Dodgers second baseman of an earlier era–Jackie Robinson. Hudson’s performance against the Giants was worthy of it. Jackie Robinson hit for the cycle in August, 1948–60 years and eight months earlier. Hudson won over my heart when he signed with the Dodgers, with his comments about how he would not be as proud to play second base for any other team.
I would still rather be there in person to see a no-hitter, though. I think of a cycle as more of a novelty by one player in four or five at-bats, but a no-hitter (or better yet, perfect game) as complete domination by one man of 27 hitters in the opposition’s lineup. In fact, the cycle hitter’s team may still lose, while the odds are much more likely the no-hitter is going to be won (Harvey Haddix, etc. being exceptions to the norm).
That’s not to say it isn’t exciting to see, though! My only regret was that, after having finished the bottles of water I brought into the ballpark early, and the Diet Coke I bought later having been consumed, I was dying for thirst in the sixth inning and made one of the worst decisions of my life (well, maybe an exaggeration, but you get the picture) by deciding I couldn’t wait any longer to get up for another drink. Because of that, I had the misfortune of being in a long line several feet from the TV monitor when Hudson completed the cycle. I’ve long complained about the lines and how slow they move, and the Dodgers have implemented some improvements over the past couple of years–starting at the ground floor up–but they haven’t made their way to reserved level yet. This is the largest level in terms of seating in the ballpark, and it is located immediately below the top deck. By the time I reached the front of the line, I decided to order a beer instead of water to commemorate the achievement. At least there is still the DVR so I can go back and watch it to re-live and savor it!
Hudson claimed he didn’t even immediately understand why he received a standing ovation from the crowd.
Hudson, with his wife, two children and parents in attendance for the game, had his first hit of the day on an infield single in the first inning against Giants left-hander Randy Johnson. He then followed up with a solo home run in the third and a double against Johnson in the fourth.
Hudson completed the cycle with a triple down the right-field line against Giants reliever Brandon Medders.
But he admitted after the game that he didn’t even know he had hit for the cycle until teammates told him when he reached the dugout after scoring on James Loney’s single. Pitching coach Rick Honeycutt, Casey Blake and Doug Mientkiewicz were the first to tell him.
“I was like, ‘Congratulations for what?’” Hudson said. “I had no idea what was going on. And then I realized it was the cycle. I was wondering why they were cheering for me like that.”
Hudson was also proud because his cycle came mostly against Johnson, who is just five wins away from 300 career victories.
“Facing Randy is already tough,” Hudson said of his former teammate. “I’ve faced Randy quite few times and he did a number on me. But I guess I kind of reversed that today. I have a lot of respect for Randy. He’s a first-ballot Hall of Famer.”
Hudson struck out in his last at-bat in the seventh inning and finished 4-for-5 with three runs scored and two RBIs.[/quote]
Vin’s comment: “The O-Dog was barking early.”
Other offensive highlights for the Dodgers: Dr. Dre’s two homers, one of them a three-run shot. Offensive moments for the Giants were few, as Chad struck out 11 of them this afternoon.
By the time the picket fence was completed–an 11-1 Dodgers win–I was exhausted. Late in the game, it was announced that today’s crowd of 57,099 was the largest ever in the history of this ballpark, as it enters its 48th season of hosting games. Given the stadium’s capacity, I’m not sure how this was possible, but I’ll follow up on it. After the last out was made in the ninth inning, we all enjoyed singing along to the first “I Love L.A.” of the season–at home, that is. (Recall our on-the-road accompaniment at Petco Park last week.)
One final comment about the crowd in attendance: All around the stadium, on every level I was on (and I was on most of them before the game), there were uniformed military personnel present for no other reason than to enjoy the Dodgers, representing not one but all branches of the service…something that was wonderful to see.
Afterward, I joined fellow Dodger fan BlueTide and several of his friends as we walked down the hill for celebratory drinks at Barragan’s down the road on Sunset. The Short Stop, a small bar on the other side of the street, was festively decorated with blue and white balloons brightening up this gritty stretch in a working class neighborhood of the otherwise renowned boulevard. While there, we learned, via a phone call that I placed to my friend Harpo back home in San Diego, that former Tiger pitcher Mark Fidrych had passed away in a terrible accident today. The news floored everyone present–how horrifying.
Afterward, BlueTide dropped me off at the train station and I was on my way home. An exhilarating Opening Day, indeed, but one tinged with sadness to keep things in perspective. Two consecutive Opening Day Mondays. Two consecutive Mondays of being part of the largest crowd ever at the respective ballparks. Two Dodger wins. One Dodger milestone. Collectively, not a bad way to start the season. May it provide a spark for the next 154 games.
There’s been a lot of baseball going on around SoCal this week. Opening Day at Petco Park featured the Padres hosting the Dodgers in the first of a four-game set. Ninety miles up Interstate 5, the Anaheim Angels got the 2009 season underway against the Athletics. The fourth game of that series was canceled due to the untimely death of young pitcher Nick Adenhart, who was killed in an auto accident after pitching in the second game. While the Padres swept the Giants in San Diego over the weekend, the Red Sox traveled to Orange County and lost their series in Angel Stadium. So that’s 13 major league games played in our region during the first week of the season.
I doubt you will find more of a hotbed for baseball than the southwestern corner of the country. Whether youth baseball, high school, or college, the fields and sandlots of southern California have produced a vast array of talent in the MLB.
UC Irvine (5), Cal State Fullerton (6), San Diego State (18), Cal Poly SLO (21–okay, SLO may be stretching the boundaries), and University of San Diego (25) were all ranked in Baseball America’s weekly top 25 last week. Other SoCal colleges who’ve been ranked in the first half of this season include UCLA, UC Santa Barbara, UC Riverside, and Pepperdine.
Did I mention we boast the top collegiate player in the nation? Junior RHP Stephen Strasburg of San Diego State dazzled fans last season, competed on the U.S. Olympics team last summer, and has done nothing but come back with a vengeance this season. Strasburg boasts a 7-0 record and has struck out 107 batters in 54 innings. BA refers to him as one of the most dominating college pitchers of all time.
The Darryl Kile Memorial Tournament saw Marina High of Huntington Beach, reputed to have the best pitching staff in SoCal prep baseball, win the championship game on Saturday with a 1-0 victory over Vista Murrieta. This annual tournament is played in memory of the late Darryl Kile, a product of Norco High, who died in 2002.
The 59th annual Lions Tournament was also held last week, in San Diego. For those who aren’t familiar with it, this is the longest-running and largest high school tournament in the U.S. Here’s a partial list of major league players who’ve played in it over the years:roduced:
Anthony Gwynn Jr.
I’m sure many of you will recognize most of the players’ names on that list, from Major League Baseball–some young, some veterans, some retired, some now coaching. I counted roughly 15 world championships among them off the top of my head, Cy Young award and ROY winners, and a couple of World Series MVPs.
It is only a partial list of the major leaguers who are products of San Diego County, but the above-named players have all competed in the Lions’ Tournament, an annual event which features high school baseball at its best. If I were to include the names of the L.A. and Orange County players who’ve participated, we could add a few more world championship titles.
Now, a few more notes here about other goings-on of the past week:
A belated happy birthday greeting to Gertrude Baines of Los Angeles. Gertrude turned 115 last Monday, and as such is the oldest person in the world. Her secret to longevity? Dodger Dogs. Yes, it turns out the Dodgers sent her a cooler full of the world-famous signature ‘dog from Dodger Stadium. And she was delighted! Well, bless her heart. I thought it was rather appropriate that the Dodgers got her a birthday win in their season opener on the road in San Diego that same afternoon. I think she missed it for her afternoon nap, but the timing of that victory was not lost on me.
And an anniversary inspired by an embarrassing moment:
Last week I wrote about the 35th anniversary of Hank Aaron’s 715th home run, on April 8, 1974. What significant event happened the day after that home run was hit? Nothing to do with Aaron, and it’s more obscure, but it’s part of San Diego baseball lore.
This story has a lot to do with a “fan’s owner” who stepped in to buy the local team, rather than see it move to Washington, D.C. That’s what the future looked like for the Padres in late 1973. They’d only been an NL team for five years, finishing in last place each of those first few seasons.
Ray Kroc, hamburger king, purchased them that offseason, kept the struggling franchise in San Diego, and then gave them a verbal butt-kicking. It was Opening Night at San Diego Stadium–April 9, 1974–and the team was losing to Houston.
According to the San Diego Union-Tribune, in a recap of Padres history:
Ray Kroc not only saved the Padres for San Diego, he established a tone.
No longer would the Padres be patsies . . . well, not as long as Kroc had anything to say about it.
That became clear at the end of the Padres’ first home opener under Kroc, who had bought the almost moribund franchise on Jan. 25, 1974.
The night was April 9, 1974. Not only was it Kroc’s first game, it was the then-KGB Chicken’s first Padres game. At the end of a disappointing loss to Houston, Kroc went to the public address microphone planning to thank the 39,083 on hand.
What happened during the next several minutes transformed the genius behind McDonald’s hamburgers into a San Diego folk hero. Instead of thanking the fans, Kroc acknowledged that he shared their frustration.
“Ladies and gentlemen, I suffer with you,” he shouted across the PA system. “I’ve never seen such stupid ballplaying in my life!”
At first stunned, the fans broke into a combination of cheers and laughter. As that scene was still playing out, a streaker lit out across the outfield. Kroc went off a second time.
Major League Baseball censured Kroc. But not the Padres fans. Kroc was their man.
As for the players, Kroc’s honest reaction, coming from someone whose business background was Big Macs, was not well-received…even by the winning team. This story has a great footnote as to what happened the following night. Again from the U-T:
Kroc’s Opening Night tirade drew a reaction from Astros third baseman Doug Rader. “He can’t talk to us that way,” Rader said. “Who does he think we are . . . a bunch of short-order cooks?”
The comments led to the first of the great Padres promotions. “Short-Order Cook Night” greeted Houston for its next visit. Anyone arriving at the gates wearing a short-order cook’s hat was allowed in free. Rader was given the honors of delivering the Astros lineup to the umpires at home plate on a platter. And he was wearing a cook’s hat. Rader changed hats again the next year. The Padres acquired him in a trade.
No promotional giveaways at Petco Park last Thursday commemorating this moment…
That’s it for now. “Blue Monday” is the theme song for today…I’m heading to Dodger Stadium for the home opener. My beloved team w
ill take on the dreaded San Francisco Giants this afternoon, Chad Billingsley vs. Randy Johnson. GO DODGER BLUE!
On the occasion of the 35th anniversary of Hank Aaron’s setting a new all-time home run record, I’m gonna take everyone back in time here. Back to a time when I was younger and a much more casual fan of the game of baseball. But also to a time when the prevailing mood was anticipation, excitement, during the wait for a hallowed mark to fall.
The 1974 baseball season had just begun. Atlanta Braves slugger Hank Aaron was on the verge of making history, at the end of a march toward the most sacred record of all, Babe Ruth’s all-time HR mark. He was tied with the Yankee icon at #714. Aaron had received death threats along the way, but he was cheered along the way, too. He was a hero who stood out among great players. It was okay to applaud him as he quietly and confidently got closer to the milestone.
And on April 8, the Dodgers were playing Aaron’s team in Atlanta. However, I was supposed to be nowhere near a TV that afternoon.
It was my sister Erin’s tenth birthday, and our family was going to Disneyland. Being as it was that not all games were televised back in those days, and often were only by last minute plans if there was potential historic significance, there was not really any way to plan around seeing Hammerin’ Hank hit #715.
So, off we drove north to Anaheim. But, our car had other plans. Somewhere just past Oceanside and adjacent to Camp Pendleton, the VW van broke down. We got a tow back down the road to the nearest mechanic to find out what would need to be done to send us back on our merry way.
I don’t have any idea what the problem with it was, but we found out it was not a quick fix and they would need the car for the rest of the day. It was quite a letdown for the birthday girl.
So we sat in the waiting area at the station, and waited…and waited…and waited. A Marine in cammies was waiting for his car to be repaired, too. Late in the day, the Dodgers-Braves game got underway. On an older black and white TV set in the corner, the service station manager switched it on. Al Downing was pitching for the Dodgers.
It was, in fact, early evening here–with the station in Oceanside still open–and in the fourth inning in Atlanta, when Hank Aaron stepped into the batter’s box to a loud ovation, just as he had in the second.
Just as in the second, the mechanic stopped what he was doing. He turned the sound on the TV down, and turned the radio up on the Dodgers’ broadcast, with Vin Scully calling the anticipatory moment. The Marine stepped closer to the TV. We all watched, and listened. I wondered if I should even cheer for him to hit one out, considering it was my own team’s pitcher who might give up the home run.
Smack! There was history. Left fielder Billy Buckner chased it, to no avail. The ball landed in the Braves’ bullpen. There, it was caught by pitcher Tom House.
It wasn’t just Aaron rounding the bases, it wasn’t just the two kids from the stands in their geeky plaid pants hanging onto him as he circled, it wasn’t just the crowd in Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium going wild. It was a home run of historic significance because the record had stood nearly 40 years, it was a home run with social impact as described by Scully in this memorable setting that was a statement on how much the South had changed over the past decade–the fact that despite the ugly racist taunts and threats Aaron had received throughout his assault on the record, a black hero’s accomplishments were being applauded by white people. Vin waxed eloquent on his talent and all of the surrounding scene that encompassed this new record holder.
Curt Gowdy called it on NBC TV, and Milo Hamilton’s forever famous call, “There’s a new home run champion of all time…” will always be associated ith it. But Vin’s description reminded us of how far we’d all come.
My dad smiled and said to me, “Years from now, people will be talking about where they were when this happened, and you can say ‘I was at a service station in Oceanside, California.’ ” And but for a broken-down VW van, I might have been on the Matterhorn screaming my head off at the Magic Kingdom.
But, I was not, so perhaps the baseball gods had intervened. Instead, I was admiring a great baseball player reaping the success of much hard work, a man who began his career in an era when not all major league teams had integrated.
We got home that night and my dad called one of the local radio stations to request “Rainy Night in Georgia”, dedicated to Henry Aaron. I don’t think it really was rainy that night, in Atlanta, but he liked the line, “No matter how you look at it or think of it, it’s life, and you just got to play the game.”
Fast forward one week. These same Atlanta Braves were on the road and were coming to San Diego to play the Padres in a three-game set. Although as a rule, we didn’t attend games during the week on school nights, my dad made an exception for this one. And on a Monday night, the game sold out. This was an extremely rare occurrence for those days in the Padres’ early existence. But as we arrived at the ballpark, there was a buzz, a certain sense of excitement in the air and crowd energy in the stands. Hank Aaron was in town! Here was a home run hero all kids could look up to that was of our generation, not a dead man who lived long ago and who we knew from old B&W highlight reels.
Then, the lineups were announced. Aaron was not in it! He would sit tonight, rewarded with a rare night off. But every time Hammerin’ Hank popped his head anywhere out of the dugout within sight of the crowd, everyone in the house went wild. He tipped his cap to the crowd before the game even began!
Who won that game, 35 years ago, I do not even recall. All I know is that I had a brush of being in the same house with greatness, when a newly-broken record was fresh on the minds of baseball fans everywhere, but especially those in attendance that night. We didn’t know it at the time, but we were living in the last days of baseball’s best of times. Within a year or two, free agency was the name of the game, players became more transitory, and as salaries skyrocketed, many very talented men found they could be satisfied giving less than 100% and collecting a paycheck. Perhaps being a “role model” is overrated, but not in this case. The concept of a positive role model became less frequently borne out among professional athletes. The nature of the game and its players had evolved, for the worse.
Two years later, Aaron hit his final home run, and shortly thereafter, called it a career.
To this day, I often remind my sister of the baseball significance attached to her birthday.
After Aaron retired, I wondered if a record like this would ever be approached again. I only wish it was being done by someone with half the class of the man between the Babe and the man I will always refer to as “Bobby’s son.”
I originally predicted that when this record was broken, there would be a dark cloud hanging over it and a sour taste in the mouths of many long-time fans. There was be much questioning and second-guessing…unlike that day in April, 1974. Since August of 2007, many suspicions have been confirmed.
My teenaged nephews came on board as fans of the game in the mid-1990s, and were able to see players like Cal Ripken Jr. and Tony Gwynn model hard work, consistency, and integrity both on and off the field. Our family was present at the Baseball Hall of Fame when those players were inducted. But that was the end of an era. That year, Craig Biggio retired, one of the last of a dying breed like Gwynn and Ripken– position players whose entire career is spent with one team.
Sure, there are a few professionals left. But Justin and Garret have witnessed much more in their young lives to make them disillusioned and cynical than I ever had to be, about the players and their joy and love
of playing the game, while I was growing up, and their comparable moment, courtesy of Barry Bonds, will always be viewed as tainted.
One other note about that historic home run ball:
After leaving Aaron’s bat, the ball sailed into the Braves’ bullpen in left-center field, where it was caught by pitcher Tom House. The game was stopped to celebrate the milestone, and House ran to the infield to present the ball to Aaron at home plate. House is now a performance analyst and co-founder of the National Pitching Association, which is located here in San Diego. One of his comments on record about that evening, as told to MLB.com, was, ‘Catching No. 715 on April 8, 1974, was the highlight of my baseball career. It allowed me to be a part of baseball history. I would never have achieved anything like it on my own as a pitcher.’ (Just another guy in the right place at the right time, I guess!)
House further recalled:
The broadcasts of this moment, including Vin Scully’s call for the Dodgers’ radio network, can be heard here: http://www.archive.org/details/HankAaron-715thHomeRun-ThreeDifferentCalls
My family never made it to Disneyland on April 8, 1974. But, although he was 2000 miles away on the other side of the country, Hank Aaron did.
(Coming tomorrow…the 35-year anniversary of a great story involving baseball ineptness, not excellence.)
As a friend reminded me, yesterday, April 6, was “just another crummy day in paradise.” Getting ready for the game at Petco Park between the Padres and Dodgers, I was hearing reports of temperatures in the 30s and snow flurries at the home opener in St. Louis, rainouts elsewhere, and generally less than perfect conditions for baseball, the greatest game on earth.
None of that here.
It won’t really be Opening Day for me until next Monday, when the Dodgers finally play their first home game at Chavez Ravine, but with the many games I’ve attended at Petco Park over the past month, it’s getting to be a pretty familiar venue to me. The occasion of yesterday’s game was my fifth visit to the Padres’ home ballpark within the last three weeks, and my second time in the last four days. The usual Opening Day excitement was there for Dodger and Padre fans alike, and as there is typically a good mix of both fan bases in attendance at games played in San Diego, it was an all-SoCal event with typical SoCal weather. I can’t remember Opening Day played on a more beautiful afternoon. We are truly blessed, in so many ways.
I met up with several friends at various times and locations before the game. The mood was very festive both outside the ballpark and inside; a block party was taking place on the street, courtesy of 1090XX sports, the Padres’ flagship station.
Our seats were three rows behind the Dodgers’ dugout in a section full of Dodger fans. And we made history! Game attendance, announced as 45,496, was the largest in Petco Park’s five-year existence (starting its sixth season).
The “Team of the Military”‘s pre-game show not only honored, but included much of the military presence in San Diego. Since this is the Padres’ 40th anniversary season, the ceremonies included highlight clips of significant moments in franchise history since 1969–mostly highlights of Gwynn, Dave Winfield and Trevor Hoffman. Oh, and one Steve Garvey home run mixed in.
I haven’t been to a Padres opening day game since 1999!–when I had two very young nephews in tow–and that, of course, was at Qualcomm Stadium. But at least ten years ago, they were defending National League champions and really [i]did[/i] have something to celebrate.
It was cool to see four key players of the past four decades arrive in 1969 Corvettes. Gwynn and Winfield, the two franchise Hall of Famers, were a given. Randy Jones, the Padres’ first Cy Young award winner (1976) was another, and the last was one of the original Padres of the ’69 expansion season, outfielder Ollie Brown. I had spent a few minutes talking to Jones outside the ballpark at the block party. He’s always been a nice guy who’s done a lot for the San Diego community. Justin and Garret participated in his winter baseball clinic when they were much younger and Jones was very “hands-on” in his instruction and evaluation. I told him how much I appreciated that.
But it tugged even more at my heartstrings to see Brown. His baseball card was in the very first pack I bought as a child, and I’ll always feel some connection to his era. For a fleeting moment, I was taken back to a time 40 years ago, a skinny nine-year old girl sitting in a new stadium with her dad, poring over the lineup card, reading the names, asking questions, and taking in all the sights and sounds of my first major league baseball game. It’s something that, even nearing age 50, I’ve never gotten tired of. The game unfolding on a sun-splashed field in front of me on Monday afternoon reminded me of this.
Having grilled and prepared my Dodger Dog® at home (even Padre fans admit they beat the heck out of Friar Franks!), I’d originally brought three to the game with me. My friend Mark ate the second one, but another fan nearby, impressed that I had thought to bring my own, bargained with me–he’d buy me a beer if I gave him my last dog. Fair deal!
Perhaps the most significant thing to note about this win is the fact that the Dodgers beat Padres ace Jake Peavy. In other related news items, hell froze over, etc.! The L.A. Times put this into perspective in yesterday’s pre-game notes:
The Dodgers face perhaps their least favorite pitcher today, as Jake Peavy draws the opening-day start for the San Diego Padres.
There are no players remaining on the Dodgers’ roster from the last time the Dodgers beat Peavy. That was on Sept. 13, 2003, when Kevin Brown was the winning pitcher and Shawn Green hit a two-run home run.
Peavy has not lost in 16 consecutive starts against the Dodgers since then, with an 11-0 record and 2.07 earned-run average.
The Dodgers’ improved offense did not go unnoticed by the Padres, either. According to the game recap on padres.com:
Peavy marveled on several occasions Monday about the Dodgers’ lineup and wondered how a hitter like (James) Loney, who drove in 90 runs last season, can hit seventh or how Casey Blake, who drove in 81 runs last season, hits eighth in the order before the pitcher.
A snippet from Bill Plaschke’s column in today’s Times:
No question about the focused Matt Kemp.
Shortly after Kemp probably saved a run with a diving catch of a leadoff liner by Jody Gerut in the sixth, he stepped to the plate in the seventh and hit a ball halfway to Mission Bay.
Guess which play he liked more?
“I liked sliding in the grass, getting dirty,” he said with a grin. “If you’re not dirty, you didn’t do anything. I’ve got grass stains on my pants and a good catch too.”
Whatever, his teammates were impressed with how hard he worked this spring, and how much his skills have been refined.
Manny didn’t have one hit yesterday–but he helped manufacture a run after being walked in the third inning. Peavy attempted to pick him off but overthrew first base–like Manny is a threat to steal???–and #99 ended up on second as a result. Moments later, Dr. Dre singled him in.
Hi-Ku’s starting performance was outstanding. Other positive signs for the Dodgers were the performance of the bullpen, with Cory Wade, Hong-Chih Kuo and yes, even closer Jonathan Broxton coming through. Granted, the Padres’ lineup is pretty weak in general, but it was as if Brox was throwing smoke in the ninth. He melted down against the Phillies last October, but I’d love to see a re-focused Baby Bull out there the next time our Bums face that team. I still have my reservations until he proves he can do this consistently, and against tougher competition, but it’s not a matter of talent or not having the stuff.
When the game ended, we played our CD of “I Love L.A.”, to the enjoyment of the Dodger fans surrounding us. “Psycho” heard the song and started cracking up. He was waiting by the Dodgers dugout to interview Matt Kemp on the post-game show. A very spirited group of us continued to sing along after that concluded and Kemp grinned and waved up at us.
One of the coolest things about this game experience, other than the win, was the fact that I spent less than $5 total out of pocket. My game ticket was free, and the sum of my expenses was $4.50 for public transit.
For all I received in return, including a picture-perfect San Diego day–yes, some things are priceless!–and a Dodgers win, it was low risk, high reward.
The post-game vibein the Gaslamp Quarter was as festive as the post-game WBC experience, but with fewer international visitors. A lot of celebrating on the p
art of Dodger fans, though.
Three more games will follow here at Petco Park before the Dodgers move on.
For those of you who have asked about pictures, eventually some will follow.
GO DODGER BLUE!
Before the 2009 season gets underway, I’d like to introduce myself with my favorite memories from the 2008 Dodgers season. If you’re not familiar with the Dodgers’ year-long celebration, or even if you are, perhaps you will enjoy the following. There were so many unique events I’m proud to have been a part of that didn’t get much publicity outside of SoCal. And if you haven’t been around for 50 years, you may not realize what a big role the Dodgers have played in baseball history over the past five decades. So, without further comment…
“When did you fall in love with baseball?…”
That was the question, posed in a mural on the wall of Union Station Los Angeles, that greeted me last year on March 31, as I stepped off the train from San Diego, ready to unwrap the 2008 season, a very special one in Dodgers history. Although it had been an event-filled offseason, several months of excitement building up to Opening Day, the prelude was over and the main event was about to begin. But there was that question.
It was part of an advertisement for the Dodgers’ 2008 campaign, and if it made anyone who’d been a fan of the Dodgers since 1958 to stop and pause, it served its purpose.
50 years in L.A. …what a year it was! Beginning with announcements made in September, 2007 about what fans could expect to share in celebrating this occasion, the anticipation started during the previous autumn, followed by a series of press conferences as the Dodgers tried to rebound from a disappointing finish to the ’07 season.
And over the next 12 months, the Dodgers did so many things right–not only commemorating the team’s rich history over a half-century on the West Coast–but never forgetting what a huge part their fans have played in being a part of it, showing up in record numbers. It was a year-long celebration of their golden anniversary in the Golden State.
And on the eighth day, God said, “Let there be Major League Baseball in California!”
Los Angeles in 1958 was a place that was making things happen. The first U.S. satellite launch took place in January that year, the culmination of work by scientists at Jet Propulsion Laboratory, located a few miles away from Los Angeles and the site of what would in a few years become Dodger Stadium, hailing the dawn of space exploration. Around that same time, a new baseball team was arriving in town, soon to play in the first Major League game west of St. Louis. Now, two teams called California home as the state grew at a rapid rate, opening doors for future expansion in the western United States. How exciting it must have been to witness a bold new era in baseball as it was just beginning!
Thus, this 50-year anniversary of the Los Angeles Dodgers got underway.
It all began on New Year’s Day–”Blue Year’s Day”, as we preferred–when the team’s float, which I had helped work on the week before, rolled down the streets of Pasadena. There was a feeling of excitement in the brisk January air, and even though the season was still three months away, we had a feeling it would be a special one. If you’ve never done it yourself, you wouldn’t believe how much detail goes into decorating those floats! The Tournament of Roses organizers rely on volunteers working eight-hour shifts for several days before the parade. During the last weekend of December, 2007, I had the time of my life working on it, as well as the float for the Beijing Olympic Games. It was amazing to get to see the final product on January 1 as I waited anxiously on the sidewalks of Colorado Boulevard, and to think that even after all that hard work, my part amounted to such a small part of what so many hands needed several days to complete. I don’t think I got all the cranberry seeds out of my hair until the next day!
In March, I met up with friends in Florida to attend Dodger spring training games, during the 60th anniversary and final preseason at Dodgertown in Vero Beach, as the Dodgers were all set to move to a new ST complex in Arizona in February, 2009. It was bittersweet saying goodbye to this historic site, with all of its sentimental and historic ties to the Dodgers’ rich and glorious past, which dates back to 1948 in Vero.
But with one farewell over with, my fellow Dodger fans and I found ourselves on the brink of new beginnings with the season getting underway. There was so much more ahead for us upon my return from Florida, starting with the exhibition game at the Memorial Coliseum in late March–with 115,000 fans, it was the largest attended baseball game in world history, and something I’ll forever be proud to have been there for. The Coliseum was the Dodgers’ home from their arrival in L.A. in 1958 through the end of the 1961 season, until Dodger Stadium opened in 1962.
Two weeks earlier, the Dodgers had led Major League Baseball’s delegation to China, where their games against the San Diego Padres were the first ever to be played in China in the history of Major League Baseball. In fact, the Dodgers ended up playing exhibition games in three states and two countries–for a total of four time zones–during March alone!
The events of March 29, though, were truly magical, and, since we Dodger fans haven’t experienced a World Series in two decades now, for this much energy to be in the air for an exhibition game was truly remarkable. To recap, this contest was not only billed as the record-setting largest crowd to ever view a baseball game, but it served as a charity event as well, with all proceeds benefiting ThinkCure for cancer research, which the Dodgers owners, Frank and Jamie McCourt, had established the previous year.
On this brisk Saturday evening, there were so many connections to the four-year period in which the Dodgers called the Coliseum home. The previous largest crowd to ever watch a major league game was 93,000 in 1959, on Roy Campanella Night. For those who don’t know the background, the popular Hall of Fame catcher was paralyzed in an auto accident during the offseason in which the Dodgers were making their move to California, and thus he never played a game in Los Angeles. Yet he was embraced as a hometown hero by the new Dodger fans of the team’s adopted new home. Campy remained with the Dodgers’ organization until his death in 1993, serving as a coach, guide and in the words of Vin Scully, “a constant source of inspiration”. And on May 7, 1959, a year after the accident which shortened his career, he was wheeled onto the field to be honored by L.A. baseball fans in a pre-game ceremony, following which he threw out the ceremonial first pitch. At that time, the Coliseum’s lights went dark and fans were asked to light a match or lighter in silent tribute. Now, 49 years later, before the Dodgers-Red Sox game, the first 100,000 fans to enter the Coliseum were given an LED light and would be later asked to keep it “lit” in honor of those who have lost their lives to cancer. I found this to be a very fitting way of commemorating Campy’s night while at the same time bringing into focus the cause of the ThinkCure charity.
In the middle of the sixth inning, fans were asked to light their blue lights as fans had done for Campanella so long ago. But the house lights were not dimmed as they had been for Campy’s night, causing many fans to wonder aloud why not. What was really cool was the fact that the Olympic torch over the entrance was lit and stayed that way.
The venerable Coliseum, home to USC football, has been the site of many historic events over the years, from the 1932 Olympics, to Super Bowl I (and others in later years), to the 1984 Olympics. It was also on this very Coliseum field that an exceptionally gifted and very versatile college athlete named Jackie Robinson excelled in t
rack and field, as well as football, for UCLA. Later, he would be signed as a baseball player by this very organization whose history was now being celebrated.
In the lineup for Boston was a player by the name of Manny Ramirez. Little did any of us know what a major role he would play for the opposition within just a few months. The Dodgers lost the game to the Red Sox, but the experience was not lost on either the team or their fans. On this night, it could have been dubbed the Coliseum of Memories rather than the Memorial Coliseum, as nostalgia reigned. But what was really the highlight of the evening for me happened on the shuttle bus from the Coliseum back to Dodger Stadium, where many fans had parked. That’s when I found out the woman sitting across the aisle from me was Joni Campanella, Roy’s daughter! I told her how touched I had been by her dad’s positive attitude despite the obstacles he faced in light of his tragic accident, and that I was grateful for all he had done for the organization. I also said that all my life, I’d been impressed by stories about that one evening in 1959 with the 93,000 points of light, and admired that this exhibition game had rekindled the spirit of that one.
At this same location, fifty years earlier–in April, 1958–Dodger fans had made history in their first game as spectators, as the L.A. Times noted, “setting a new record for attendance at a Major League Baseball game, and they have continued to break records in subsequent years.” The Dodgers beat the Giants that day, 6-5.
Now, with this event in the books, I began to wonder if the regular season itself might be anti-climactic! But the awesome pre-game ceremony on Opening Day, celebrating the great Dodger players of the past 50 years at each position, sent chills down my spine. Even reclusive icon Sandy Koufax, a legend who doesn’t make many public appearances, showed up, to the delight of everyone in attendance.
And then the regular season got underway. The familiar and comforting traditions followed–cool, beautiful evenings in Elysian Park with the scent of jasmine and honeysuckle sweeping off the canyons, mixed with the sounds of Vin’s voice and the crack of the bat, the roar of the crowd. Picante Dodger Dogs® dripping with spicy mustard, making for a sublime experience at the ballpark. Wins, losses, and frustrations. In case any of you are wondering, I always stay until the last out of every single game I attend, including the 14-inning game I attended when I still had over 100 miles to drive home and had to be at work at 7 a.m. Beware the danger in believing stereotypes!
Near the halfway point of 2008, the Dodgers were honored by the Hollywood Historic Trust and the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce with an Award of Excellence star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, “in recognition of their significant contributions to the community of Los Angeles and world culture and entertainment.” I’m proud to say they were the first sports franchise ever to receive such an honor. I made sure to arrive an hour early to line up at the corner of Hollywood and Highland to be there for the occasion!
In July, Walter O’Malley, the owner many bitter Brooklynites vilified for moving the team west, was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. This perhaps validated the finally-recognized fact that this man, whether loved or hated, was a visionary, and a pioneer of the game, and was finally being honored. There is much evidence that the move west was a last resort, and thank God it finally took place. I respect and honor the Dodgers’ long, rich history in Brooklyn, but it was a chapter that had to end, thanks to New York politics and changing demographics. It’s not the L.A. Dodger fan’s fault, and O’Malley tried to make it work before moving to California–something millions of people from the East Coast were doing in the 1950s, anyway. Ironically, two Brooklyn Dodger icons–Jackie Robinson and Duke Snider–were Angelenos before they ever played in Ebbets Field.
Several celebratory promotions during home games commemorating past teams and players of the first 50 years were held throughout the season. I attended as many as possible, and each individual event was thrilling to be a part of. One thing I regretted, though, was that the Dodgers did not have a special reunion of the 1988 championship team, although they did celebrate the “Teams of the ’80s”, which included the 1981 and 1988 world championship squads. But, they were two entirely different teams, and many of their key players were not in attendance. As one of the most overmatched teams in history to win a World Series, I felt they deserved their own day in honor of the 20-year anniversary.
2008 was also the first year since 1988 that our team advanced in the playoffs, rather than be eliminated in the first round!–proving it’s been a long, hard struggle coming back up from the Fox-owned era. The trade for Manny Ramirez in late July invigorated the Dodgers with a new sense of purpose in their drive for the NL West division title. The last comment I have is that seeing the Dodgers play in the NLCS for the first time in two decades was a thrilling experience. I was in my 20s the last time they played in a World Series. Time really flies!
In 1958, the Dodgers moved from Brooklyn to California and never looked back. Over the last 50 years, they have won more pennants and more World Series than any NL team. But in 2008, they weren’t the only ones celebrating a half-century milestone. There were commemorations honoring the San Francisco Giants–a team which followed the Dodgers west, with relatively little success over the same time frame–there was a nod to space exploration, and, perhaps on a more obscure 1950s cultural footnote, Crayola crayons also celebrated their 50-year anniversary last year. If given a choice of that 64-box, I would choose instead to color the wonderful baseball season of last year a special shade. Dodger Blue.