Happy Birthday to the Duke
Because I’m still taking some time to digest it (and reaching for the Pepto-Bismol throughout it all), I’m going to avoid any mention of recent developments within the Dodgers’ organization in this entry. I’ve had discussions ad nauseum (no pun intended) with many other fans over the last couple of days to the point where I finally got blue in the face…so I’ll save some of those comments for another time.
As an otherwise dismal September winds down with my team so not in a very exciting NL Western Division race, today I want to wish a happy birthday to Edwin Donald “Duke” Snider, of Fallbrook, California. The Hall of Fame center fielder for the Dodgers and native Angeleno turns 84 today. He’s the last surviving member of the starting lineup for the Dodgers that won the team’s first world championship in 1955. One of my favorite memories in recent years was hearing Duke speak at the San Diego Hall of Champions in 2005 along with former Dodgers General Manager, the late Buzzie Bavasi. What great memories they shared!–everything about baseball from Brooklyn to Los Angeles. Joining them at the Sports at Lunch event was former Yankee/current Padres broadcaster Jerry Coleman. Another San Diegan who was unable to attend that day was still a hot topic, with his career highlight–no small feat–discussed, anyway: Don Larsen’s perfect game in the 1956 World Series. Snider and Coleman were both on the field that day and shared their recollections of it. I also enjoyed hearing his memories of playing in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, the team’s home for four years upon their arrival in L.A. in 1958.
A few other notes about “The Duke”: He is also a veteran of the U.S. Navy. That’s something you don’t often hear much about. And, he knew how to celebrate his birthday with fanfare: on two separate occasions in his career, he homered twice on this day (1950 and 1953). Today, Duke and Beverly, his high school sweetheart at Compton High to whom he’s been married 63 years, live among the avocado groves tucked away in the northern reaches of San Diego County, where he is considered a community treasure. His health has not been so good in recent years, and he hasn’t been able to participate in one of his favorite activities, playing golf, for some time. But even though he maintains a lower profile these days, Duke Snider will be remembered with love by Dodger fans of all ages.
This Wednesday, September 22, two special Dodgers celebrate a birthday–Tommy Lasorda (#83) and “Sweet Lou” Johnson” (#76). So do two “Bobs”–although one is actually deceased. Hall of Famer Bob Lemon, of Long Beach, CA would have turned 90 that day. His career is interesting in that he started his major league career as a centerfielder for Cleveland in 1946 before eventually becoming a pitcher who recorded seven 20-win seasons and a .618 career winning percentage. As a player, he was a member of the 1948 World Champion Indians, and as a manager, he guided the Yankees to the 1978 world championship. Lemon, like the Duke, was also a Navy veteran.
Then, there’s Bob Geren, Athletics manager, who will turn 49 that day. A contemporary of mine while growing up in San Diego, we attended rival high schools in adjacent neighborhoods, and his feats were well known around town, although I must say I disliked him because of the team he played for. A first-round draft choice of the Padres, Geren’s professional playing career was cut short due to injuries, and I have certainly gained much more respect for him over the years!
Going back to the Dodgers’ current state of disarray, perhaps I should feel a little encouraged by the thought they could possibly enjoy a turnaround sooner rather than later. Recently, I was reminded of an exchange I had shortly after the World Series a couple of years back. So, rewinding to November, 2008, less than two years ago at this writing:
I was at a local sports talk event in which radio station XXsports 1090 was conducting a toy drive for local military families. While there, I chatted for a few moments with one of the station’s talk show hosts about the recent postseason in baseball which had just ended. I shared with him that I was a Dodger fan, but not a Padre basher, and we talked for awhile about our team’s futures. The Dodgers had just lost the NLCS to the Phillies, who then became world champions. At the time, the big story locally was the Padres’ discussion of trading their ace, Jake Peavy, in the offseason. They’d just come off a season in which they’d lost 99 games. Meanwhile, the Dodgers had surged with the second-half acquisition of Manny Ramirez, and rode that wave into the NLCS. Their future seemed bright. The show’s host looked at me and said, “The Dodgers are looking good for next year; you may need a tweak or two but they’re the team to beat. But at least your owners care about the team. Ours are too busy wrapped up with a divorce and cutting payroll. It’s really depressing.” I could see it in his eyes. I tried to sympathize, but with the Padres playing in the same division as my Dodgers, that was hard to do. Still, I have friends and some in my family who were in real angst about the direction of their favorite team.
Now, two years later, what we saw this year was close to a role reversal. It was the Dodgers whose owners are tied up in a bitter divorce (albeit much more high-profile than that of John and Becky Moores). It was the Dodgers who took a nosedive in the National League West, and whose future seems completely up in the air. Meanwhile, the Padres surprised everyone with their ascent in the standings, and their new owner has gone the extra mile to let fans –especially those alienated by the sour aftertaste of the Moores era–know he cares about putting a winning product on the field.
But expectations are different in both cities, too. The Padres have never experienced riding a crest of building their team through the farm for long-term success, trading for a few key pieces, and winning for a sustained period of time. The Dodgers looked like they were just about getting back to that point this year, and it appeared that their kids-turned-veterans, who are mostly playing in their fourth full season, were finally busting loose, with Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier set to establish leadership. Complementing the mix would be Manny and Raffy, two catalysts who make the team go, and that offense could be so explosive. Key injuries to those two players, though, would throw the lineup out of synch. Oh, of course it wasn’t just that. The bullpen imploding all season long was a huge contributing factor. I admit I had some concerns when the Dodgers’ payroll was slashed over the past year. Still, looking at the team on paper and realizing they’d been successful with most of the same players for a year or two, gave me cause to believe they had a good shot at repeating as NL West champions this year. In fact, on paper, just about any team in the division was going to be competitive; it was just a toss-up as to how wild the West was going to be. In my mind, the depth of our starting pitching was my only real concern–and that wasn’t the issue with the other teams in our division. The NL West is pitching-deep, for the most part. The differences are, despite a low payroll for a large market team like L.A., the Padres still have a lower payroll, and their fans have rarely had high expectations. Desires?–yes. But not necessarily expectations. Even the most optimistic among my Padre fan friends predicted they would finish in third place this year. That still has yet to be determined, but they have owned first place or a share of it most of the season. The Giants and Rockies will still have much to say over the next two weeks. But the Dodgers? They can’t even play the spoiler role right. So, how this all plays out will be very interesting.
A Tale of Two Trevors*
One is the major leagues’ all-time leader in saves, having just notched his milestone #600 last week. That, of course, is Brewers reliever Trevor Hoffman, former Padre, Orange County native, and San Diego resident. Although I agree with those purists of the game who remember the days when a save was a real save–that is, relief pitchers came in with runners on base and often pitched more than one inning–I’m still in awe of Hoffman’s ability to reach this level. Beyond what he has accomplished on the mound, he is a first-class human being, As a Padre, I saw the impact he had on his teammates, and I see the same thing happening in Milwaukee. I know firsthand how respected he is in the local community. The Hoffmans are deeply rooted in SoCal, with Trevor’s brother Glenn still the third base coach for the Padres–and a former manager, though briefly, of the Dodgers back in 1998. Glenn stayed on with the Dodgers’ organization through 2005, also as a third base coach, but always overshadowed by his famous brother. (Note: This trend has often been duplicated in this region. For example, Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn was forever a Padre, but his lesser-known brother Chris won a world championship ring with the 1988 Dodgers.. Chris later played for, and now works as a scout for, the Padres. And for a couple of seasons both All-Star Adrian Gonzalez, and his non-household-name brother Edgar, played for their hometown Padres as well. Adrian’s still a Padre, but Edgar competed in a Japanese league this year.)
Trevor and the Dodgers have crossed paths often. Over the course of his career, he’s notched more saves against the Dodgers than against any other team. And four years ago yesterday–September 18, 2006–in the heat of a division race between the Dodgers and Padres, the team from L.A. came back from the dead in the ninth inning with four consecutive home runs to tie the game, 9-9. Two of those home runs were off Trevor Hoffman, the man who had held the Dodgers in check in so many previous appearances.
So it’s been much easier for me over the last couple of seasons since Hoffy left the NL West, as far as admiring his accomplishments. I know Padre fans wish Hoffman well, and so do most baseball fans. It’s just less stressful when he isn’t helping another team in the division win games, especially knowing my Dodgers only play the Brewers a handful of games each year. It’s been a struggle for Trevor this season at age 42, but perseverance paid off, and his teammates stuck with him through difficult times.
By the way, the Padres have more than adequately replaced Hoffman on their roster with another kid from Orange County, Heath Bell, who’s been stellar in racking up 42 saves this season, with the bullpen being a big part of the team’s success. So, the transition went well. Congratulations, Trevor–a man of remarkable accomplishments and forever a class act.
*Of course, the other Trevor merits a mere footnote, and is the Athletics’ All-Star, Trevor Cahill, who at 22 is shaping up to be the ace in Oakland. Those who have read this blog for awhile know I’ve been following this local kid closely (even though I don’t care as much for AL baseball in general) this season. Cahill bounced back from a difficult start against
the world champion Yankees a couple of weeks ago and last weekend, shut out the Red Sox on three hits. Cahill’s record is 16-7, 2.84 ERA in 2010, his second as a major league pitcher.
A few weeks ago, I saw the independent movie, “Chasing 3000”, at a local theatre. I was immediately captivated by the subject matter and storyline: two teenage boys, diehard Pirates fans who’ve recently relocated with their mother from Pittsburgh to Los Angeles in the summer of 1972, escape with their mom’s car on a cross-country drive so they can “be there” for Roberto Clemente’s 3000th career hit when it finally happens. It’s based on a true story, and of course I’m sure much of it was “Hollywood-ized”, but even still, there were some minor issues that were clearly oversights as far as accuracy goes (or maybe the writers figured some people weren’t paying attention). Nevertheless, I loved the film overall. It’s a great story about bonding, a great story about what fans will do for the love of their baseball heroes and just to “be there” for a special moment. In some ways, I could identify with the basic premise of this story. While I certalnly never stole (or “borrowed”, in that sense) a car, even as a teen I pulled my bit of stunts to “be there” for my Dodgers at any cost, no matter what was necessary to get there, even when I was car-less myself. For me, it usually meant going it alone, though.
Certainly, credibility took a hit in the scene in which the main character picked up an L.A. newspaper and found no mention at all of Clemente’s march to 3000 hits. Hey, I read the L.A. Times then–yes, even as a 12-year old. I devoured the sports page of that newspaper. It was what sustained me and one of many sources that nourished my love for baseball–along with my dad, and Vin Scully–while I was growing up. Another “questionable call” I had to wonder about was–how is it that through all the scenes that took place in Los Angeles, with the many baseball references and games played out on diamonds around town, there was not even one mention of the Dodgers? (Okay, I get it. The Pirates were defending world champions. The Dodgers were transitioning. They probably weren’t even on the kids’ radar. Okay, the boys just didn’t care about my team. I suppose I understand!)
But what a heartwarming movie. It was sentimental without being sappy, nostalgic about an era in Pittsburgh baseball history in which the Pirates were on top of the world. I loved this film because it reminded me of when I was cutting my teeth on baseball, when I was personally falling in love with the game. Even though I was born and raised on the West Coast, I could appreciate that team on the other side of the country and their accomplishments. And there seemed to be a lot of baseball deaths of legends that year, some via personal tragedy like Clemente, others lost to failing health (Jackie Robinson, Gil Hodges).
After watching the movie the first time, I went back and saw it again with a couple of friends who are Pittsburgh transplants who lived through that era, and they thoroughly enjoyed it too.
“Chasing 3000” is set to be released on DVD soon. I didn’t want to wait for that. I’m a person who loves seeing movies in the theater, and that is particularly the case with baseball movies–I enjoy sharing the love of the game with an audience of diverse backgrounds, all of whom have that common thread, in the same room. I’m old school in that sense. For those who are too young to remember it or were not yet born, the setting of the early ’70s was captured well in “Chasing 3000”—those last fleeting years before free agency took hold of baseball…when teams really did stay together, for the most part. That in itself is nostalgic.