And the ride gets a little smoother…
Since I last posted here two weeks ago, something sensational has happened in the National League West.
The Dodgers have moved into a tie for first place! Yep, the team that just 12 days ago was in last place has tied the Padres for the division lead, by virtue of winning 12 of their last 13 games.
It all began with a victory in the final game of their previous homestand, then moving on to sweep the Diamondbacks in Arizona and the Padres in San Diego (more on that in awhile), and finally coming back home to win five of their next six games at Chavez Ravine.
So, let me rewind this story a bit to before the season began.. Every year in the offseason, I begin making arrangements for a group road trip to Petco Park for a selected game in which the Padres play the Dodgers, to which Dodger fans travel from various points to cheer on our beloved boys in blue. Sure, we get a lot of locals grumbling about us “taking over” and making it “Dodger Stadium South”–but seriously, Padre fans, if your attendance was supportive enough of your team–which has performed very well over the first six weeks of the season–then there wouldn’t be so much room for us, would there? (The Padres have held down first place for some time now–why not more fan support?) In past seasons, this group trip has ranged from 40 to 75 people. This year, there were 62. L.A. may be only 100 miles north of San Diego, but contrary to popular opinion, Dodger fans don’t only come from Los Angeles. The Dodgers have had an international following for decades, as their efforts to grow the game in other parts of the world are unmatched by any other MLB team; thus, the World of Dodgertown–much too big to be limited to a nation! We had one fan fly in from Guam; several were serving in the U.S. Navy stationed in San Diego, and then there’s another fan whose love of the Dodgers dates back to the Brooklyn days, who regularly comes in from Delaware for this annual event. Still another couple drives across the border (from Rosarito, B.C.) for the game. Others arrive at Petco Park from the Bay Area in NorCal, and from Riverside and Orange Counties.
Last Saturday’s Padres-Dodgers contest, May 15, was “our” game. Now, passion is one thing we Dodger fans aren’t short of. Our block of seats at Petco Park is located on the field level, just past third base and beyond the Dodgers’ dugout, so we loudly make our presence known with enthusiastic cheering. Usually, we bring along a boom box and play the Nancy Bea CD to rally the troops (Petco Park doesn’t have an organist; only uses recorded music). We even have specially modified lyrics for “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” during the seventh inning stretch. Earlier in the afternoon on game day, we even have a pre-game “meet and greet” party at a pub whose owner is a season ticket holder for the Padres, yet knows Dodger fans bring in good business. They even have Dodger Dogs® on the grill ready for all of us!
And we always have an eclectic group–singles, couples, groups of friends, families with children, etc., ranging in age from five years old to one woman in her 90s (last year).
It requires quite a lot of work on my part coordinating all of this–but it’s always worth it in the end, no matter how hectic things are before the date of the game. On paper, it might seem pretty cut and dried, but a lot of legwork and headaches are involved: making seating arrangements within the block of tickets distributed so those who want to sit with other specifically designated fans are accommodated; collecting money and submitting the payment to the Padres’ office before tickets go on sale to the general public, filling orders, mailing out the tickets to all the individuals involved, and working with the pub owner.
This year, we were rewarded with a Dodgers win, as young Clayton Kershaw bested Kevin Correia, 4-1. And, several in our group were actually caught on TV, on the KCAL-LA broadcast, with two out in the ninth inning. A mutual friend of ours who wasn’t able to make it to the game texted us the photo.
Two memories stand out about this game aside from the baseball and the fellowship. One was our 15 seconds of fame (above); the other was our creativity in turning an anti-Dodger promotion around on the Padres. It seems both Padres AND Giants fans are fixated on the whole “Beat LA” sentiment, but by pure coincidence the Padres have scheduled “Beat LA” giveaways in two consecutive seasons when our road trip group is attending the game. Last year, it was a beach towel emblazoned with the words “BEAT LA” on a California license plate. As the Dodgers had the best record in the major leagues at the time, my beach towel was doctored to read “BEST = LA.”
“BEAT LA” also became “BE LA” and “I LOVE LA” for other fans in our section. Then there was the guy who simply cut the word “BEAT” out of the towel altogether, leaving a hole there.
This year, it was a Tshirt with “BEAT LA” that was handed out to fans attending the game. Thanks to Sharpies and markers, that became “BEAT BY LA”, along with other variations.
Let’s face it – BEAT LA is a lame chant unless you can back it up by winning more than a head-to-head game. The chant was started by Boston Celtics fans back in the 1980s during their classic NBA finals match-ups with the Lakers–which, interestingly, we could be seeing again, soon. But, at least the Celtics could back that up by winning a few titles. Neither the San Francisco Giants or San Diego Padres have done that. Perhaps they should focus on supporting their own team and winning against all teams, rather than giving so much attention to only one. Or maybe, if you must, chant “Beat the Rox” when the Rockies come to Petco Park. After all, Padres, you play them the same amount of times every season as the Dodgers, and they have certainly been a thorn in your side.
Teams that are secure with their winning identity don’t need to do this. When you go to games in Busch Stadium, for example, they don’t hand out “Beat the Cubs” Tshirts–their promotions are all pro-Cardinals.
Don’t read me wrong–I’m not saying individuals in all these ballparks don’t spew derogatory statements towards the opposition. I think that happens everywhere; I’ve certainly encountered it in the NL West ballparks. But the image portrayed by the organization, overall, is more positive in some cities than others.
And, like it or not, the “BEAT LA” chant really is the ultimate compliment. Clearly that’s not their intent, but that’s the way it comes across, because it acknowledges that the most successful team in the National League West really is the Dodgers and has been since the division’s inception in 1969–which is not pointed out any chest-thumping on our part, but by theirs. Doesn’t that give the Dodgers enough attention? As a Dodger fan, I don’t feel the need to remind anyone of that fact, but the Padres and Giants do. If the situation were reversed, I certainly wouldn’t want to give the Giants any extra attention. To me, it is much like booing the visiting team’s best player–a sign of respect that he can truly hurt you badly. You’re not likely to boo the opposition’s .230 hitter as much, are you? Is it quite as sweet to see him strike out, or to see the All-Star go down swinging?
As for the Padres, they have played us tough over the years, but it’s hard for me to hate a team that has never won more games than our team in two consecutive seasons. I can only respect them as a division rival–that’s about it. After the Giants, the other three teams in the NL West are on equal footing in terms of my feelings towards them.
Now, that game last Saturday was only one of a three-game set. On Friday, with a different group of friends, I saw Ramon Ortiz beat Jon Garland, 4-3. And on Sunday, in a great pitching match-up between the Padres’ Wade LeBlanc and Chad Billingsley, LeBlanc threw five innings of no-hit ball before Dodgers catcher Russell Martin came through with a single to drive in the only run of the game as the Dodgers won, 1-0. It was wonderful to see the great turnout and sea of blue, as usual, packing the Petco yard. The Padres and Dodgers played to three sellout crowds, largely thanks to the visiting team.
What’s been impressive about this run are two factors. One is the pitching, which has really anchored itself over the past two weeks. Prior to that, it was very iffy and prone to implosion. Everyone remembers our Dodgers endured a horrible month of April, but eventually it came time to move beyond that and turn the page to May. This month has been a wonderful one, in which L.A. has streaked to a 16-4 record as of this writing, looking more like the Dodgers of 2009. Rookie call-up John Ely has performed admirably in five starts for the team after Vicente Padilla became injured. Chad seemed to work out his problems; Kershaw and Hi-Ku are warriors, and only the fifth rotation spot has been unreliable. Most important, we are also getting more innings out of our starting pitchers.
The other factor, of course, is that Dre has been placed on the DL due to a fractured finger he hurt in batting practice last weekend–which makes the run more impressive. While he is much missed, just as Manny was during his absence following his suspension last year, his teammates have taken care of business without him, anyway–they’re 6-1 since.
The fight for the NL West title will most likely be a dogfight all summer long, among three and possibly four teams, with the winner emerging battle-tested and no doubt having earned it every step of the way.
Notable events since the last time I posted to this space: Padres Hall of Famer and current San Diego State head coach Tony Gwynn turned 50 on May 9 (which was also Mother’s Day). As one who not only watched Gwynn come of age from high school and through the college ranks, to being a constant pain to Dodgers’ pitching during his career in San Diego, I have developed a great sense of respect for him–not to mention that he’s a Hall of Fame class human being. Having just turned 50 myself, I can now welcome him into the Half-Century Club.
And the road stays bumpy…
There’s been no smooth part of this wild ride whatsoever! One month in, the Dodgers are still entrenched in last place of the National League West, even though they’re back-to-back defending division champions. Whenever one sharp corner of the ride is turned, we’ve learned that even still, nothing is certain. They just can’t seem to get into a groove. And I’ll have to write more about that later. Last night’s win at Dodger Stadium, with another thrilling walk-off by the Walk-Off King, Andre Ethier, merely prevented a three-game sweep by the Brewers. It was a hard-fought victory, but a win nonetheless. The Dodgers fell flat on Cinco de Mayo, a date in which they have traditionally been successful in recent years, and who knew they’d play the part of France, with Chad assuming the part of General de Lorencez, surrendering four runs in the first inning.
For now, I’m spending a Friday evening at Chavez Ravine. I need this, and perhaps the Dodgers need me. We’ll see. The Colorado Rockies move into L.A. this weekend, where despite the Bums’ poor overall record, they are well over .500 at 8-5.
But why has May 7, in particular, been such a date of note on the Dodgers’ calendar over the years? Whether for good or bad reasons, several historic moments and incidents have occurred on this month and day. Consider these examples:
-On May 7, 1959, the Dodgers–who had only played in Los Angeles one full season at that point–hosted “Roy Campanella Night” at the Memorial Coliseum, to honor their beloved long-time catcher, who would eventually land in the Baseball Hall of Fame. In attendance that evening were over 93,000 fans, paying tribute to the man whose career was cut short due to injuries sustained in a terrible car accident that took place just before the team’s move west from Brooklyn. Campy never played a game in L.A.–but that mattered little as he was wheeled out onto the field by former teammate, Pee Wee Reese, to throw out the ceremonial first pitch. The game that followed was an in-season exhibition between the Dodgers and Yankees, who had met in seven previous World Series. As the house lights dimmed, fans were asked to light a match, and thus, 93,000 “points of light” flickered in honor of Campanella. Later that year, the Dodgers went on to win their first World Series on the West Coast. Inspiration taken from May 7? Perhaps.
-On May 7, 1970, Dodgers first baseman Wes Parker hit for the cycle in Shea Stadium. Until Orlando Hudson accomplished this feat in 2009, Parker remained for several years the last Dodger to do so. So for a few decades, May 7 figured prominently into Dodgers trivia answers.
-Two years ago today–on May 7, 2008–two friends of mine who are Mets fans accompanied me to Dodger Stadium to take in a rare mid-week afternoon game, as the NL team from New York faced the Dodgers. I reminded them that it was the 38th anniversary of Parker’s cycle–against their Mets, no less–but not much looked good for the Dodgers on this day all these years later. Brad Penny started for L.A., and was shelled; the Mets won handily, 12-1.
-So last year, on May 7, what should happen but the big news came down about Manny’s failed drug test and resulting suspension. At the time, the Dodgers were on fire–they’d won 13 consecutive home games to start the season. But on May 7, that changed. The Washington Nationals were in town, and even though they were down early, 6-0, thanks in part to a Matt Kemp grand slam, they went on to rally and win, 11-9. A record streak had come to an end.
Unfortunately, Manny dominated the news and the buzz around the stadium that night, on what should have been a special evening given that the pre-game ceremony honored the 50th anniversary of the 1959 World Champion Dodgers team…with the Campanella family in attendance. And I was there at the Ravine for that one, too.
I don’t know why, but I feel compelled to be with the Dodgers tonight, even though their last two games played on May 7 have been disasters.
Oh, and one more thing? Today is Dodgers first baseman James Loney’s 26th birthday. On that May 7 game in 2008, James’ mother was in attendance for the Mets’ rout, and the Dodger Stadium scoreboard displayed a nice birthday greeting to him, signed, “Love, Mom.”
In addition, I know several other baseball fans who were also born on May 7–a Cubs fan, the son of a Giants fan, and the late father of my good friend, Harpo. Harpo, as a child, was there with his dad at the Memorial Coliseum 51 years ago today, holding one of the 93,000 flickering points of light.
On this May 7, Manny is again out of the lineup, but due to an injury, not a suspension.
What will take place on May 7, 2010 in Dodgers history?