Category: Dailies

From Compton to Cooperstown

As Marvin Gaye sang, “Whenever blue teardrops are falling…”

Well, the teardrops fell from my blue eyes several times over the past few days, upon  the news last Sunday of the passing of the immortal Duke Snider.  Edwin Donald Snider of Fallbrook, California–commonly known as “The Duke”–had a special place in my own heart, going back to when I was a teenager…and he meant so much to Dodger fans from Brooklyn to Los Angeles, and to anyone who appreciates the game of baseball and its legends. 

I wrote about Duke in this space last September on the occasion of his 84th birthday, not knowing it would be the last he’d celebrate.  

And today, I celebrated the life and legacy of the great center fielder who wore #4, joining others in his rural community in remembering his life and legacy.

Long before Don Henley sang about them, of course, Roger Kahn wrote about them–The Boys of Summer.  The title of his book was taken from a Dylan Thomas poem, but Kahn’s paean to a bygone era of baseball lulled me into falling in love.  Over the course of reading it at age 15, I developed a passion for this team, these men who became iconic.   Most of them were still alive when the book was written in 1972.   (Gil Hodges and Jackie Robinson would die that same year.)   Duke appealed to me in particular, because he lived nearby and there were local connections.  

My father had bought a copy of the book, which I still cherish to this day.  Although I was more of a casual baseball fan back in the early to mid-1970s, over the next couple of years I became a passionate, true blue, diehard, eager to learn more about the rich history of the game, and my favorite team–the Dodgers.   Dodgers broadcaster Vin Scully, an icon himself, helped in that regard.  So did my late dad, who’d taken me to my first baseball games and taught me the basics–how to follow the game, keep score, etc. 

Of course, 40 years or so ago, we didn’t know how much the structure of baseball would change in years soon to come.  Free agency began to tear at the heart of teams that had been built from within, such as the Dodgers and Reds of the ’70s were. 

The first time I met Duke Snider was very briefly, outside of San Diego Stadium in 1970.  I was 10.  My friend and I were waiting after a Padres game to see if we could catch a glimpse of slugger Nate Colbert.  Instead out came Duke, who at the time was a color commentator for the second-year expansion team in San Diego, and a couple of other men.  Duke Snider was just another name to me at the time, a former player, someone important.  But I didn’t know much about his feats.  And he wasn’t who we were waiting for.

But within a few years, he’d become an important part of Dodger lore for me.  I regretted having been born to late to see him play.  Still, I would have more opportunities to be in the same place as he was over the course of the next 40 years, a short list of which follows.  And how blessed do I feel now because of that?

-There was the sentimental journey taken in 1980 when Duke’s No. 4 was retired at Dodger Stadium upon his induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame.

 

 

-There was the reunion in 2005 of the surviving members of the hallowed Brooklyn team on the golden anniversary of the Dodgers’ first world championship.  By that time, Duke was the last living player from the starting lineup of “Dem Bums”.  With me at Dodger Stadium that glorious afternoon was an older friend who had grown up idolizing Duke in Brooklyn, who now lives in San Diego.  Also present was a friend from Delaware who had flown to Los Angeles specifically to attend this game.  What a ceremony, and what a celebration! 

 

-Earlier that spring, there had been the San Diego Hall of Champions event in which he appeared with, among others, former Dodgers GM, the late Buzzie Bavasi, before a packed house of baseball fans, many of them graying, transplanted Brooklynites–telling stories and sharing anecdotes with an adoring audience, of that golden era of baseball.   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 Duke’s memories of playing in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, the  team’s home for four years upon their arrival in L.A. in 1958.  After the event was over, I had Duke sign my Dodgers 2005 yearbook celebrating the 50th anniversary of the ’55 team, then simply shook his hand and said, “Thank you, sir; it is an honor.”  He smiled back, a smile that made the day of everyone in attendance.  (That autograph of his, by the way, was one of the most beautiful in all of sports–it looked positively eloquent.)

-There was the “Field of Dreams” opening day pre-game ceremony in 2008, the 50th anniversary of the Dodgers’ arrival in L.A., in which Duke stood in centerfield of Dodger Stadium, with everyone in the house on their feet cheering wildly.

-And there was the famed “Return to the Coliseum” exhibition game, just a couple of weeks earlier at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, the Dodgers’ first home in Los Angeles.  It was clear at the time that Duke had slowed down a lot, but I still remember him signing autographs at the cavernous stadium before the game, even though it was never his favorite place to play given its unfriendly dimensions toward left-handed hitters.   Friends and I wondered then how much longer he would still be with us.

-And I’m not likely to forget being in attendance for Induction weekend at the Hall of Fame the previous summer, when in 2007 crowds setting record attendance descended on Cooperstown to see Cal Ripken Jr. and Tony Gwynn, another San Diegan, honored.  Seeing Duke in the elite company of so many others of his era was a thrill beyond just his Dodger moments. 

Over the years, friends purchased and had autographed for me two of Duke’s books.  Most recently, “Few and Chosen –  Defining Dodger Greatness Across the Eras”, was one Duke signed at Dodger Stadium, thanks to my friend Emma.  In the late 1980s, an old (ex)-boyfriend of mine from that era–a diehard Mets fan–gave me a copy of “The Duke of Flatbush.”  I cherish these as well as every other bit of memorabillia I have that reminds me of this wonderful player.

Duke was a Brooklyn Dodger, and one of the original Los Angeles Dodgers, having come full circle from his hometown.  He was proud to play in Brooklyn, thrilled to be a part of a legendary group of men playing at a classic ballpark remembered by many as the greatest ever; yet he was happy to come home to the City of Angels, even as his career was waning with his best days behind him.  He was a treasure to baseball, and fans in both cities adored him, as did baseball fans around the country.  Duke was not only a “transitional” Dodger, but he played for a world championship team in both cities–and in both cases, the first for the city (1955, 1959).  He was the last surviving member of the starting lineup for the Dodgers that won the team’s only title in ’55. 

As time went on, I still remember the rest of those boys, slowly leaving us–“Campy”, Roy Campanella; “Pee Wee” Reese; and “The Skoonj”, Carl Furillo.  By 1999, Duke was the last one of the position players who was left standing.  In recent years, the passing of pitcher Johnny Podres was yet another blow to fans.

So, all these thoughts were swirling in my head when I heard the news last Sunday.  And I thought it was very fitting that I was present in Compton, California–yes, the Duke was “straight outta Compton”–on the very site where Snider had played in his youth, the same weekend that he died 70 miles south in Escondido.

Some great college baseball was being played.  The annual Urban Youth Academy Baseball Tournament took place from Friday through Sunday, alternating between periods of rain and sunshine, and the academy, located at Compton Community College in Duke Snider’s hometown, is on the very same ground that “The Duke” would prove himself to his community, before becoming one of baseball’s most feared hitters. 

Snider’s debut in the major leagues in April, 1947 was overshadowed by the arrival of one Jack Roosevelt Robinson, but the two became integral pieces of a decade of the Dodgers establishing themselves as baseball’s beloved underdogs–losing to the Yankees in the World Series numerous times before finally defeating them in 1955.  Duke found it ironic that he broke in with the Dodgers at the same time as Robinson, a multi-sport athlete he’d admired in his youth back home, at Pasadena City College, and then as a UCLA Bruin–yet now they were teammates 3000 miles away from the sandlots of their younger days.

He was beloved beyond comparison in Brooklyn, and this past week many accounts have been written of his wonderful career there, where his Hall of Fame credentials sparkled.  In fact, one of his ten grandchildren is named with a variation on the borough–“Brooklynn.”

 

A few facts about Duke’s greatness are as follows:

-His 11 World Series home runs and 26 RBI are the most ever by a National League player.

-He knew how to celebrate his birthday with fanfare:  on two separate occasions in his career, he homered twice on September 19 (1950 and 1953). 

-To this day, he remains the Dodgers’ all-time home run leader. 

He contributed some historic firsts and lasts to Dodgers  history:

-On Sept. 22, 1957, he hit the last home run at Ebbets Field in Brooklyn, the second of two off Hall of Famer Robin Roberts Philadelphia Phillies

-At the Coliseum on April 18, 1958, the Duke singled for the first Dodger hit in his hometown

-And on April 10, 1962, he  had the first Dodger hit in the brand new Dodger Stadium

 

Beginning with his rookie year, he was a part of many historic moments in baseball over the next 18 seasons.

 

His passing came at an uncanny time: 

Two weeks after the death of his good friend Cliff Dapper, another former Dodger, lesser known to be certain–but also a Fallbrook resident.  (For more information, see my previous entry.)  So, after meeting a friend of Duke’s at the National Baseball Expo in January who had informed me he wasn’t doing too well at the time–and then hearing Dapper had passed away in mid-February–one of three Brooklyn Dodgers to die within one week–I organized a campaign with friends in my female baseball fans forum to all send a card to Duke.  We knew at the time that his health was failing, but didn’t realize how brief a time he had left.   A former coworker of mine had a sister who worked for the convalescent center in which Duke had been quietly placed.  I asked her to follow up that our cards were received, which she did.  I am so glad we took the time, and now I know they put a smile on his face.  For me, I simply wrote that even though I was born too late to enjoy his talents firsthand, I appreciated all that he had meant to baseball, and what he had been to the Dodgers.  I enclosed a copy of my blog entry from last September.

Two other notes about the timing of his death:

-It took place on the weekend of the GuacFest in San Diego, celebrating that sublime concoction produced from avocados, and the weekend the Dodgers would begin playing exhibition games in Arizona.

-And, it happened just a week after the release of a movie titled, “I am Number Four.” 

So, to memorialize him last Sunday, my friend and fellow Dodger fan who works at a North County nursery set a floral arrangement, all in blue, and had it placed on home plate at Duke Snider Field in Fallbrook.   This was similar to what I’d done in 2002 on the occasion of the great Ted Williams’ death, when roses were placed on home plate at Ted Williams Field in San Diego.
 

But what about Duke Snider before and beyond his glory days?  Here’s some background on Duke’s pre-Brooklyn life, and post-retirement:

Like Williams, and many players of his era, Duke proudly served his country–in his case, with the U.S. Navy.  

He never forgot his roots.  He was born in the Boyle Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles, just a couple of miles south of where Dodger Stadium is now located (and made note of that in the ceremony when his number was retired).  He was a gifted multi-sport athlete in Compton at Enterprise Jr. High and Compton High.  On a side note reflecting the times, the South Bay Daily Breeze notes of his junior high days, “Three of the team’s best hitters were Japanese boys, and when the war started they were sent to internment camps.”

In high school, Duke played QB and running back on the football team, and in his debut in his first spring on the baseball team, threw a 6-0 no-hitter against Beverly Hills High.  He also hit .411.  Duke excelled on the basketball court as well.  But it was on the baseball field where he flourished most.   (My dad, who was four years younger than Duke and graduated from Santa Monica High, remembered his exploits as a local athlete in those days.) 

As he developed into an outstanding player on the diamond, Duke’s coach at Compton wrote to then-Dodgers GM Branch Rickey alerting him to the talented athlete he was mentoring.  Scouts from the Cardinals and Reds organizations were also after him, but it was the Dodgers he eventually signed with.

The Daily Breeze also noted: 

“His Dodgers tryout in 1943 was held at Rec Park in Long Beach, the old dusty field that now is Blair Field [home of the Long Beach State Dirtbags].   If you dig through newspaper archives deep enough, you’ll find a few stories on Duke Snider’s high school exploits were written by a schoolmate and close friend from Compton who grew up to be NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle…The “Duke of Compton” helped plant the seeds of success that made the Dodgers as beloved here as they were in Brooklyn.”

In his post-baseball career, while he tended to growing avocados in Fallbrook in North San Diego County, Duke’s children grew up and graduated from Fallbrook Union High School, and he has been a visible supporter of youth and high school sports in that community for decades.  A writer covering Palomar College baseball remembered Duke following his son Kevin’s games while playing for that small school:  “While later Major League dads such as Graig Nettles kept low profiles at Palomar games and Bruce Bochy disguised himself, Snider openly mingled with the crowd for two full seasons.”

Duke was married to his wife, Beverly–his high school sweetheart at Compton High–for 63 years (they were wed just after his rookie season ended), and for most of his retirement has lived in the backcountry (just as did his friend Cliff Dapper), where he was considered a community treasure.  Early in his retirement, one of his business ventures was Duke Snider Lanes, a bowling alley in town. 

But, baseball always drew him back, particularly baseball in the Avocado Capital of the country.  Duke was active with fundraising for the Fallbrook baseball Booster Club, in particular their annual golf tournament, and he also sponsored an annual Home Run Derby.    During that event in 2002, Fallbrook High’s baseball field was renamed in his honor.  Local prep products benefitted from his involvement; in recent years, Cincinnati Reds pitcher Mike Leake (Class of 2006) was one.

Today, under bright sunshine on a beautiful March day, the Fallbrook High Warriors honored Duke Snider before and during their game against Temecula Valley, prompting me to make a special drive out to the backcountry of north San Diego County to meet a couple of friends.   Both teams wore #4 jerseys in memory of the Duke and all he has been to baseball at many levels.  There was a sentimental and stirring pre-game ceremony, with Farmer John Dodger Dogs® (grilled!) for sale at the game, and many men and women wearing Dodger jerseys and caps.  (I wore my “My Town Brooklyn” Tshirt from last year’s Dodgers promotion.)  It was the first high school game of the season for me, and the first time I’d attended a game at Duke Snider Field since my nephew pitched there as a visiting high school senior in 2008.  Most of Duke’s family was present today, and were comforted by the tributes to him.  A moment of silence was observed during the pre-game ceremony.  While at today’s game, I also ran into Bill, the same man I had met at the National Baseball Expo, who told me that this gesture on behalf of the Fallbrook varsity team would have meant so much to Duke Snider:  “He was all about baseball at this level.  He was all about community.”

One more thing about the day’s events:  During team warm-ups, the school PA system played the very fitting song,”Willie, Mickey and the Duke.”   

Next weekend, the Duke’s private memorial service will be held.  Fittingly, the Snider family has asked that in lieu of flowers, contributions be made to FUHS Warriors baseball.  What a precious gift!

 

And tonight, in an unrelated event, one of his contemporaries mentioned above, former Yankee Larsen of perfect game fame, is appearing in San Diego at a fundraiser for the benefit of Point Loma baseball.  He’s sure to share some memories of that centerfielder in Brooklyn.  

Among my favorite Duke Snider comments are the following:

From his Hall of Fame induction speech: 

“I’d like to thank God for including me in his master plan . . . being a Brooklyn Dodger and Los Angeles Dodger.”

And his most enduring, endearing himself to the Dodger faithful:  

“I don’t much care for Halloween because its colors remind me of the Giants.”

Upon the announcement of Duke’s death, legendary Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda had said, “God was waiting for a left-handed hitter in that lineup”…and now he’s got him. 

It surely must be heavenly now that you’ve joined the Big Dodger in the Sky with the rest of that baseball family.  But we’ll miss you down here, Mr. Snider!

 

Valentines, Passings, and Winter Baseball

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Happy Valentine’s Day!  Pitchers and catchers may report this week, but that is far from the only baseball going on.  Live action will be underway on the college mounds in less than two weeks!  (And I’m talking about games that count–not exhibition!)  So many showcases of top prospects have been taking place around SoCal, and the buzz is getting loud about some of these young players as they prepare for the season beginning this month.  At the major league level, some of my Dodgers are already at Camelback Ranch; others will be reporting later this week. 

That having been said, I’d like to post a tribute to three men who were not household names.   Yet, all were all Brooklyn Dodgers, and within the span of less than a week, we lost these three former players.  And while all three played for the Brooks, all three were very much Californians.  So on this day in which valentine hearts are so prevalent, I post this information with a heavy heart.

First, Tony Malinosky passed away in Oxnard (Ventura County) last Tuesday at age 101.  Malinosky played 35 games for Brooklyn in 1937, and on his life resume lists the following:

-Attended Whittier College and was a classmate of President Richard Nixon;

-Saw combat at the Battle of the Bulge with the U.S. Army;

in addition to two other impressive things: having played a brief stint in MLB, and being a centenarian. 
Many will recall the NLDS game in October, 2009
between the Dodgers and Cardinals, at which Malinosky celebrated his
100th birthday along with a sold-out crowd at Dodger Stadium.  Until his passing, Malinosky was the oldest living former major league player.

Next was Clifford Roland Dapper,
whose place in baseball history will forever be unique, although his story is pretty well-known.  Dapper was a
PCL star before WWII, and like many ballplayers of his era, he served
our country overseas.   But being traded for a Hall of Fame broadcaster was what
he will be remembered most for.  In 1948, Dodgers GM Branch Rickey shipped Dapper
to the Atlanta Crackers for Ernie Harwell, who was replaced in the booth
a couple of years later by our own Vin Scully.

More recently, Dapper was a neighbor, and remained a long-time good
friend, of Duke Snider.  Like the Duke, Dapper was a Los Angeles native
(Dapper graduated from Washington High) who retired away to the
backcountry of Fallbrook–the Avocado Capital of the world.  In that picturesque setting, both former Dodgers owned groves of Haas and citrus
trees.

I was fortunate to meet Dapper a couple of times.   He was an assistant
coach with Fallbrook High’s baseball team.  (Some of you will remember I’ve
volunteered for several years at the annual Lions Tournament here in town.)    Of
course, Dapper was the lesser known of these two ex-Bums in town–the
baseball field there is named “Duke Snider Field.”  Dapper got a bit of attention last year when Ernie Harwell died, mentioned in most obits as
the “other guy.” Overall, Dapper maintained a low profile (he was not
exactly a household name) throughout his later years in life, but on occasion attended
events at the San Diego Hall of Champions.   It’s my understanding that
he was last living at the Fallbrook Regency.   He had celebrated his 90th
birthday just a little over a year ago.

Dapper passed away in Fallbrook last week at age 91.

Finally, Gino Cimoli passed away on Saturday at age 81 in the Bay Area of heart and kidney complications.  He played a historic part in the Dodgers’ move to the West Coast in 1958, as the first major league batter to step to the plate in California.  Ironically, it was against his hometown team.  Cimoli, a native San Franciscan, hit leadoff for the Dodgers on Opening Day in 1958 for the Dodgers against the Giants at Seals Stadium. He struck out, and the Dodgers eventually lost that historic first game.

And it should be noted for the record that Cimoli finally lived long enough in San Francisco to see the Giants win one World Series there.  🙂

The outfielder, who was an All-Star in 1957, also played for the 1960 world champion Pirates over the course of a ten-year career that ended with the Angels in 1965.  Cimoli had been traded to the Cardinals for Wally Moon later in 1958; Moon helped the Dodgers win their first world championship on the West Coast the following season.  Cimoli went on to  play for the Braves, Athletics and Orioles, but he will always be remembered as one of the original Los Angeles Dodgers, and the Dodgers were the team he broke in with.

The San Francisco Chronicle also noted that after retirement he worked as a driver for UPS.   According to Wikipedia, “In 1990, the company honored Cimoli for completing 21 years of service without a traffic accident.  Cimoli, then 60 years old and still working for them, was now referred to as ‘The Lou Gehrig of UPS.’ ” 

Cimoli also shared a birthday with me, although he was 30 years older.  🙂

As they say, they go in threes.  Rest in peace, Old Bums!

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Congratulations to the Yacquis of Obregon, Mexico, who won the Caribbean Series on February 7, played in Puerto Rico this year.  Several friends and I got together for a viewing party, catered by Rubio’s.  The Caribbean Series routinely features some great baseball, and this year was no exception!  The fact that it coincided with the Super Bowl allowed for real baseball action to be followed for those who simply don’t care about the Super hype.  (I admit to having had some interest in the Super Bowl this year…although I’m not a fan of either team that played in it, SB XLV MVP Aaron Rodgers lives 10 miles away from me, as do a few other Packer players.)  Still, the fact that not all eyes in this region were focused on the game going on in Dallas was good for my soul to see, because I will forever be a baseball chick in a football-saturated nation.

Besides the events posted about in my previous entry, some of the other sights around town over the last several weeks have been kids playing pick-up games on Ted Williams Field in San Diego, winter youth and high school baseball underway in neighborhoods throughout SoCal, and college practices as several heralded programs gear up for the new season in a bid to become the best in the nation. 

FanFests and Caravans have their place.  They are fun to engage and participate in, but they are not the same thing as watching live baseball action.  I’m less about meeting the players, taking pictures and getting autographs than I am about the game itself!  So, I anxiously search out baseball at various levels during the months between the end of the World Series and the beginning of the next season. 

The Dodgertown Classic, which will be played at Dodger Stadium in Chavez Ravine on March 13, will feature the marquee game with crosstown rivals UCLA and USC facing off.  The Bruins are coming off a phenomenal 2010 season in which they fell just short of their bid to win the school’s first-ever College World Series, yet lost in the finals to “another” USC–University of  South Carolina.  Meanwhile, the Trojans, traditionally a college baseball powerhouse, are trying to rebuild in 2011 after several seasons of mediocrity. This USC, of course, has won more CWS titles than any other team in the country.  But UCLA, even without a baseball title, has more national championships overall than any other school in the nation.  So, the pride of these two teams in the City of Angels will be on display at the home of the Dodgers, just one month away.  The Dodgers fan base is pretty split between support for UCLA and USC, so it’s always fun when the two teams play each other in any sport.  Collegiate sports success is unrivaled in any other city in the U.S. compared to Los Angeles with these schools’ winning traditions. 

Perhaps all three teams will have great seasons, and there’ll be a lot of happy Angelenos.

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The Chinese Lunar New Year will conclude with the full moon this Wednesday, as we usher in the Year of the Rabbit.  I count many baseball fans among my Chinese friends–some Dodger fans, others Padre fans.  The two-week long festivities also coincided with the Super Bowl, and the celebration ends with the always colorful Lantern Festival.

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And speaking of rabbits, I am very much looking forward to this man’s return to the Dodgers as a coach.  Davey Lopes was a rabbit on the basepaths for the 1970s-era Dodgers and held down second base as a member of the longest-running infield in MLB history, which was  together from 1973-1981. The Dodgers of that eight-year period won four National League championship titles and one world championship.  Lopes was the offensive catalyst who set the table for the power bats of Steve Garvey, Ron Cey, Dusty Baker and Reggie Smith.  Let’s see what he does with the maturing kids of the 2011 Dodgers.

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Although it’s not yet official for the Dodgers, it’s no coincidence that Valentine’s Day often coincides with the day pitchers and catchers report to camp.  What’s more romantic than baseball?  This year, the official date for Los Dodgers is February 16, but one can always send their valentines late, right?

Never forget, though, that no matter how much red this holiday may bring out, LOVE IS BLUE, and may it eternally be so. 


PEACE, LOVE AND DODGER BLUE IN 2011!


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A Wonderful All-Baseball Weekend

“Do you know what Jackie’s impact was?  Well, let Martin Luther King tell you.  In 1968, Martin had dinner in my house with my family. This was 28 days before he was assassinated.  He said to me, “Don, I don’t know what I would’ve done without you guys setting up the minds of people for change. You, Jackie, and Roy will never know how easy you made it for me to do my job.” Can you imagine that?  How easy we made it for Martin Luther King!”

-Former Dodgers pitcher Don Newcombe

That, perhaps, is the only connection I can think of which Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had to baseball.  I had to wonder, because on the weekend of of the holiday honoring Dr. King’s birthday, baseball was swirling in the air non-stop all weekend around Socal.  Tournaments, a 5K benefit, the Professional Baseball Scouts Foundation Dinner, and last, but not least, the very first National Baseball Expo.  I almost wish they had rescheduled the Expo–or at least converted it to an outdoor event–because with the focus on baseball, it was too beautiful a weekend to spend indoors.  (And I’m not usually one for spending a lot of time cooped up inside!)

My weekend began on Friday, January 14, with picking up friends from out-of-state who were coming in to town for the Expo, escaping the frigid temps and snow of the Midwest.   A late
afternoon winter league game set the tone for the next couple of days’ events.   Baseball was definitely in the air, and there’s something about going to a game in January that does my soul good.   We grilled Dodger Dogs® to take along with us, a treat that was new and a positive experience for my visiting guests. 

Now, not much would get me out of the house at 7:00 a.m. on a Saturday morning, but again, another event having to do with baseball was one of them–coupled with a gorgeous day outdoors.   This was the day of the Strasburg/Gwynn 5K at San Diego State University, for the benefit of the Aztecs baseball team, and I met my friend Cathy, a diehard Padre fan, for the early morning start.   The San Diego sun was shining brightly even as I left my driveway shortly after 7, and 15 minutes later I was parking in the SDSU garage with hundreds of others, all of us ready to get moving for the Aztecs.  The 5K wound around the lovely campus of SDSU and ended at the baseball field, where there were refreshments, music and autograph sessions all around.  There, a festive atmosphere welcomed us as Stephen mingled freely among the runners and walkers, wearing his old Aztecs uniform, was interviewed by several local and national media outlets, and made himself accessible to fans of all ages.   Hall of Famer and Aztecs manager Tony Gwynn, beloved local icon, was making his first public appearance on behalf of his team after his recent cancer treatments.   Local favorite baseball family, the Boones, were there signing, too (Bob and Bret Boone had participated in the 5K); the current SDSU team, all in uniform, signed their 2011 team photo for fans and seemed to be taking it all in stride.  All in all, there was a real baseball groove going on, with so many families participating in the events.  All participants received an autographed photo of Stephen and several other freebies (tickets to Aztecs and Padres games).  As noted above, Stephen was pretty accessible to fans and media alike.  There were jokes made that it should have been
an “18K” instead of a “5K” in deference to Stephen’s masterful pitching
performance.

I had last been here at SDSU in early November for the annual Red-Black Series.  But after that, baseball took a back seat to football as the vastly improved Aztecs won the Poinsettia Bowl, and the hoops team won its first 20 games of the season without a defeat.  Yet here we were, back to having it be all about baseball on a glorious day.  California state budget cuts might loom, and that’s what prompted this event in the first place. 

From the San Diego Union-Tribune:

The event was a benefit for the Aztecs baseball program that turned an overweight and underwhelming, but obviously talented, pitcher from West Hills High into the certifiable sensation of both amateur and professional baseball.  Since the (Tommy John) operation, Strasburg has been working toward his degree with public-administration courses, but also getting his lesson in resilience from the SDSU head coach whose own name adorns the Aztecs ballpark.

“He came by the office,” said Tony Gwynn, also present at Saturday’s event.  “He feels like he’s ahead of schedule. He feels like he’s gonna be able to throw sooner than anybody thought.  I was telling him, ‘Hey, slow dowwwwwn. Tommy John, man. Tommy John.’ “

From the Washington Post:

“The program really needed it this year,” (Strasburg) said.  “They’re all Aztecs
to me.  We’re all here for the same reason, because we love the game and
we love this school.   It’s great to give back.”
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Once Cathy and I were finished with everything, this was followed by a late morning baseball tournament game and post-game BBQ; then we were on our way to our next event.  We met up with my friends from Illinois and jetted up the coast to the scenic town of Del Mar, north of San Diego, “where the surf meets the turf.”  Known for its thoroughbred racing in the summer and other events throughout the year which take place on the seaside fairgrounds, this was the scene of the first National Baseball Expo, which we’d been awaiting for several months.  Bing Crosby Hall, named after one of the racetrack and fairgrounds’ founders, was the location, and since this was the inaugural edition of this event, I wasn’t really sure what to expect, although I had some idea.  I wasn’t disappointed.  If you love this great game, you wouldn’t be either. 

“The National Baseball Expo is an exciting consumer show that will be a “must attend” event for all Southern Californians who share the enthusiasm for America’s pastime.

The ad in several baseball publications I receive certainly piqued my curiosity.

“Vendors will encompass every potential baseball interest a consumer might desire.  It truly will be the one-stop shop for everything baseball.”

The All-Star Fanfest, at which I worked last summer, celebrated the love of Major League Baseball.  This expo was not limited to that alone.

Inside, Crosby Hall was teeming with people of all ages sharing that love for the game.  I was pleased to see that this event covered nearly every aspect of the love of the game of baseball, from playing to being a fan.  I was also proud that San Diego was the location for such an expo.  Exhibits and displays, ranging from instruction, to baseball gear, to autograph sessions, to memorabilia (my favorite).  I ran into several people I’d come to know in the
local baseball community over the years, as well as many visitors from
out of the area.  Some were from other parts of the country, but in
particular I encountered a few of my L.A./Dodger fan friends here, too.

Over the course of the weekend, some of the highlights were as follows:

-White Sox veteran Omar Vizquel was on hand to fielding demonstrations.  

-Former Dodger Reggie Smith was there to discuss his playing days, his sense of fulfillment in working as a baseball instructor, and in particular, gripsize.com, a concept he’s working with today.  From their website:

“If you play baseball, you will be given the proper bat handle size for both hands and the beginning and end point of your stride at the plate.  Your perception of the point of the release of the pitch and the position of the ball as it approaches the plate will be precisely accurate.  The wrong bat handle size or an imbalance stance at the plate and the perception of the release of the pitch and the position of the ball as it approaches the plate will be inaccurate.  Reggie Smith tested these perceptual changes with over 50 major league players during 2009 Spring Training in Florida.”

-Among the vendors were some of the best baseball schools around.   Former Oakland Athletics star Eric Chavez showcased his baseball academy in Rancho Bernardo.  (Chavez would also this week privately work out for the Dodgers.)  Gonzalez Sports Academy, which was established a couple of years ago by then-Padre, now Red Sox Adrian Gonzalez and his brother Edgar, had established a strong presence, too. 

-Padres ace Mat Latos and All-Star closer Heath Bell were on hand for interviews and fan autographs. 

-Free samples were given of a variety of products.  When I was handed some packs of sunflower seeds, and opened them only to note the brand name on the package was Giant sunflower seeds, I almost choked!

-Weekend-long appearances by several players from the AAGPBL. 
These spunky ladies are always a hit wherever they go.

On the second day of the expo, I wore my “Diamonds for Women” Tshirt and fielded a few inquiries about the site. 

The event attendance thrived in the early afternoon hours on Sunday, and we were content to immerse ourselves once again in baseball and nothing but.   Also on this day, with so many pieces from the memorabilia dealers discounted for the last hours of the expo, I was happy to pick up some rare photos from the 1960s and ’70s-era Dodgers, some signed by the Dodger coaching staff.  It’s interesting to note that within a couple of days, two of the coaches on the staff had passed away. 

But the prized item of all wasn’t for sale; it was simply being transported like the precious item it is, by an elderly lady who carried an autographed baseball in a case, from exhibit to exhibit.  She was wondering if anyone could appraise the value of it–“not that it’s for sale, mind you–I’m just wondering.”  That rare baseball was signed by the Boys of Summer–the 1955 Dodgers.  My eyes lit up.  It turned out the woman had lived in Brooklyn and regularly attended games at Ebbets Field with her family:   “We would get a different player’s autograph each time we went to the park.  It was a wonderful time in baseball.”   She told me she’d moved to California from New Jersey only two years earlier.  We talked for quite a bit afterward about the many former Brooklynites I know around this region, but the Padre players (and at least one former Dodger) who were on hand for autographs during this time frame were very interested in perusing this artifact themselves.  They called out the names as they identified the players’ signatures, marveling at this small piece of history before their eyes.

On Sunday, the 2009 Little League champions, Park View LL, were on hand for autographs 17 months after their phenomenal run through Williamsport, PA being crowned the Little League World Series victors.  Copies of the book written about them last year were available for purchase, with the authors also present to sign them.

As mentioned above, I also loved that this expo was a celebration of the game, not just any one team, not just any one facet of the game.  The many conventions and caravans that take place at this time of year are often focused on individual teams rather than on simply the love of baseball.  There’s nothing wrong with that, but to me the game is bigger than any one team, bigger than simply being a fan and spectator, or a player.  This expo encompassed all of the above–in baseball terms, covered virtually all the bases. 

I loved seeing so many families present in Crosby Hall.  The $10 entry fee ($5 for kids) made this event affordable for so many, and while the majority of the vendors were male, I was happy to see so many young females perusing the exhibits.  Some kids came in uniform straight from playing in their own winter league games.

However, since this was indeed the first ever National Baseball Expo, I did note some room for improvement and expect that my suggestions will be taken into consideration.  The organizers were accessible and provided an email address for me to send any feedback and ideas for future editions of the expo.  There was even talk going on of moving it to Petco Park, although I liked the concept of the location remaining north of the city, so as to allow easier access for fans from Orange County and Los Angeles.  Still, since there is talk of expansion to other cities (and at least to the Bay Area), this might not be an issue in the future.  Whatever changes or additions are made, I am simply happy I had the opportunity attend the very first one. 

Later in the afternoon, as everything wound down, we ducked our heads into the San Diego Ski and Snowboard Megasale next door in the Exhibit Hall (admission free), before leaving the Del Mar fairgrounds.  And on the way out, I thought about how in just five months I will be hauling assorted items from my own baseball memorabilia collection to these same grounds for the San Diego County Fair, at which I enter the annual Home & Hobby competition in the Collections Division.  

The day was capped off watching a late afternoon game just a couple of miles inland, with a nice ocean breeze blowing off our backs.  I could almost swear it was really baseball season! 

Let everyone else fixate on football or shoveling snow.   For awhile on a lazy, sunny afternoon, the crack of the bat and cheers of the fans were all I could hear. 

This was also the weekend of the Professional Baseball Scouts Dinner in Los Angeles, something I enjoy seeing in the spotlight, as scouts are the “unsung heroes” of baseball.  There may be a lot of glitz at the awards presentation, but there isn’t much in the job itself.  Last year another friend and I attended the event, but this year it was just too much to fit into one weekend.  I’m envious of several of my friends in L.A. who did go to this dinner after spending the day in Del Mar (although none of them did the 5K, too).  Still, these are some true diehard baseball fans!  

My out-of-state friends were thrilled with their experiences of this mid-winter trip.  Unless you were going skiing or boarding in our mountains on this weekend, no deep freeze was needed for a few days of drowning in the love of baseball, both on and off the field.  It sure beat the alternative!

Because as much as I love a great baseball discussion, or reading a good baseball book, there’s nothing quite like being at a game.  The National Baseball Expo ran a close second, though.

Other notes…

–In an earlier era (pre-McCourt owned Dodgers), the beginning of January used to mean “winter workouts” began to take place at Dodger Stadium.  That all changed in the mid-2000s, and now the new tradition is prospects mini-camp, which took place in Chavez Ravine the week before all of the above.  I still miss winter workouts, though.

–Congratulations to Bert Blyleven for finally making it into the Hall of Fame!  The former Santiago High star’s induction is long overdue.  And while no Dodger player has been inducted in over a decade, still, an amazing total of  7 CIF players produced by L.A. area high schools between 1969-1978 are now in the Baseball Hall of Fame–certainly cause for pride in SoCal’s baseball roots.  (If you can name the other six, you know baseball!)  That decade corresponded with my own youth and budding interest in this beautiful game.  Blyleven has often cited his inspiration as the ’60s-era Dodgers when Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale reigned on the mound, as his family moved from Canada to Orange County, CA when he was a child.   He is a most deserving candidate.  And with the passing of Bob Feller last month, native Angeleno Bobby Doerr is now the oldest living member of the Hall of Fame.

–Congratulations to Trevor Hoffman, who retired this month after a wonderful career which he leaves as the all-time saves leader.  Hoffy, who grew up not far from where Blyleven did in Orange County (Savannah High, University of Arizona), will join fellow ex-Padres Mark Loretta, Dave Roberts and Brad Ausmus in the Padres’ front office this year.  That’s one classy F.O., and I might add, Hoffman is the only one of the four who did not play for the Dodgers, too–although his brother Glenn coached for them before moving on to the Padres’ coaching staff. 

Koufax Triples!

Koufax triples.jpg

Yes, this is the National League, where we play “real baseball”–none of that DH stuff–and Sandy Koufax just tripled.

Virtually every action photo of the Dodger legend taken during his
playing days features him on the mound, but not today.  Sanford Braun
Koufax turns 75, although in the mind’s eye of most people who were
around in the 1960s, he’ll always look a youthful 30, the age he was
when he  announced his retirement just after the 1966 World Series.

Happy birthday, Sandy. 

Many have asked where I’ve been and what I’ve been doing since my last
entry here three months ago.  The response is writing in my “real” job;
catching some offseason baseball, and coming to terms with the San
Francisco Giants being world champions. 

In the months since I last posted, the Scottsdale Scorpions won the
Arizona Fall League Championship and I caught a bit of the San Diego
State Aztecs’ Red-Black Series last month.

I’m ready to flip the calendar.  I hope everyone has had a happy holiday season, and is enjoying winter. 

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.

Duke.jpg

More Birthdays

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! 

Trading Places

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. 

“Chasing 3000”

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.

Chasing 3000.jpg

First, the Good News

Yeah, we Dodger fans have needed to cling tightly to anything good that we can, lately.  Even if it’s last week’s sweep of the Brewers–the team’s first sweep since June.  Really, I am tempted to start with yet another litany of the 2010 Dodgers’ woes, but nothing can dim the bright light of a wonderful announcement that was made last week. 

Vin Scully will return for his 62nd season of calling Dodger baseball in 2011.  Speaking as one of many fans who needed a lift like this news provided in this very trying season, I can only say this is a real cause for celebration.

I’ve given some thought about how blessed we as Dodger fans are, despite the drama accompanying 2010.  As if 60+ years with the greatest baseball broadcaster in history isn’t enough, we actually have two Hall of Fame announcers still calling games for us–Jaime Jarrin  is the other–and they’ve combined for 112 seasons of excellence.  What is really special is that, among all Major League Baseball teams, these two gentlemen have been associated with only the Dodgers’ organization.  Broadcasters have tended to hop around from team to team over the years, but these men are strictly Dodger Blue–two classy people who represent the organization so well.  Even in a dismal season, they make the intolerable tolerable.  Vin brings a smile to my face on a regular basis with his smooth and inimitable blend of knowledge, wit, and his masterful vocabulary, occasional weaving in cultural references.  Even his self-professed ignorance of some trends is charming in its own way–just a couple of weeks ago, Vin noted on the air he didn’t even know what a mullet was, much to the amusement of many viewers on Fox Sports Prime Ticket.  Of all the sights, sounds, and other things associated with baseball season, none is sweeter than the sound of his voice.  He is a link to Brooklyn history, a link to baseball’s arrival on the West Coast.  Vin was baseball long before I was a
twinkle in my daddy’s blue eyes.  I mean, think about it–Vin was
calling baseball games when Harry Truman was president! 

Still, I’m happy to share Vinnie with the rest of MLB’s fans, as he is a treasure to the game itself.  A devoted husband, Vin has always credited his wife with allowing him to continue his  work even though he’s cut back on the number of games he calls over the years.  So, in addition to being elated about this late season surprise announcement, I would also like to  express my gratitude to Sandy Scully, for sharing him with all of us.

I’ve always said there were two men who taught me about baseball–one was my late father, and the other was Vincent Edward Scully.  Dad has been gone for seven years.  And I have  never been more grateful to still have Vin.  Words, something that Vin is so good with, can never be enough to express my appreciation to him for his many accomplishments over the years. He has been part of my extended family for as long as I can remember.

So it was that baseball fans, but especially those in Dodgertown U.S.A., held their collective breath last weekend when it was announced that an announcement would be made the next day as to our beloved announcer’s future with the team. Vin will be 83 by the time next season gets underway.  To our knowledge, his health is still good.  Surely he couldn’t think of going out on a season like this, could he?  Even when asked about his decision after the fact, he beamed about his deep love for the game.  It’s to our benefit.

Whatever the 2010 Dodgers do in the next month, nothing can mar this wonderful news. The very definition of timeless excellence, Vin just keeps on bringing new generations into the fold, like he did with so many before them, with his golden voice.  It’s one I can’t imagine life without, although someday that certainly will come to pass.  But I don’t want to ever think about it having to happen.  I’ll certainly cherish every moment, come what may. 

Maybe it won’t ever come to fruition, and Vinnie will outlast us all.

Vin.jpg

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But now that we must move on, what a horrible season this has turned into.  And yet, I still savor it.  The events of the last few days have played out like a real soap opera.  Manny has been claimed off waivers and is now in a Chicago White Sox uniform.  (His last at-bat was an  abrupt, one-pitch pinch-hit appearance before he was ejected.)  The McCourts’ divorce trial  started today.  The Dodgers have lost their last two games, and trail in the wild card race by 6 1/2 games.  And as if all of that weren’t enough, the Phillies roar into town tonight fresh off a sweep of the first place Padres over the weekend, and our Bums get to face Doc Halladay. 

My thoughts on Manny are that I’m grateful for his carrying the team into the 2008 playoffs, and beyond, though they fell short of winning a championship.  Although I’d been on the fence about the acquisition when he arrived in L.A., I was supportive of the Dodgers re-signing him in the offseason, based on what we’d seen in those two-plus months of August-October.  Then, he disgraced himself and the organization with the PED suspension.  He’s still a great contact hitter, but the power just isn’t there, nor is the health.  He’s had three stints on the DL this year.  What more can you say?  Thanks to No. 99 for the thrilling moments.  The pinch-hit grand slam on his bobblehead night in July, 2009 was described by Vin as “even more Hollywood than Hollywood.”  But like the Hollywood sign needing refurbishing in its old age, I think this version of Hollywood is showing signs of wear and tear, too. .

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Way back in April, I noted here that several Dodger trends of the past decade were beginning to change.  That was noticeable in their season opening series on the road in Pittsburgh as the Pirates, a team they had always beaten handily since PNC Park opened in 2000, dominated them in the first four games.  Well, here’s another spell broken–prior to last weekend, the Cincinnati Reds had lost 12 consecutive games in Dodger Stadium, going back to 2006.  The law of averages, of course, dictated that streak would come to an end–but not only did Cincy win the first game, they won the series as well, taking two of three.  Reds manager Dusty Baker, a fan favorite during his Dodger days some 30 years ago, wears #12 just as he did when he played in L.A.–and said before the 13th game was played that the losing streak would end at 12.  Moreover, Baker’s team won the season series between the two teams for the first time since 2004. 

The next constant to fall by the wayside was the Rockies winning a series with the Dodgers, when they took two of three in Coors Field over this past weekend.  That hasn’t happened since 2008; Colorado and L.A. have played nine series, all won by the Dodgers, over that span.

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I’m disappointed, of course, with the recent news that Nationals rookie Stephen Strasburg will miss next season because he’ll undergo Tommy John surgery.  Fortunately, the success rate for pitchers is very high, as so many have returned to action and continued a stellar career.  If you didn’t read my post about “TJ and the Doc” last year, it’s in the September 2009 archives.   Best wishes to Stephen, although his recovery period will be long and surely difficult, in that youth is not patient.  But the kid has made us proud, however briefly.

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I’ll end this entry on another positive note:

Happy Birthday to the Splendid Splinter.  Yes, he’s been gone for eight years now, but today would have been Teddy Samuel Williams’ 92nd birthday.  Born in my hometown of San Diego on August 30, 1918, Williams was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1966.  The last player to hit .400 in a season, he was a two-time Triple Crown winner.  His 21-season career was interrupted twice by military service (39 combat missions as a Marine pilot).  Williams retired from baseball on September 28, 1960–fifty years ago next month.

Before I was old enough to know much about baseball, I knew about the legend of Teddy  Ballgame.  At the time, there was no major league baseball in San Diego.  He grew up in North Park, went to Hoover High, and played for the minor league Padres before making it big with the Red Sox.  And what a career!   There was a time when I was four or five years old when I could count on one hand the number of other major league players’ names I knew–Babe Ruth, Jackie Robinson, Willie Mays,  Mickey Mantle and Sandy Koufax.  So far as I knew, these six players were the “greats” of all-time.  

So here’s to “that other” Kid!  Thanks for all you did for the great game of baseball, and for this wonderful country of ours.

 
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’55 Bums, 2010 Dodgers

Oh, my Dodgers!  They have been in a terrible hitting slump for the last couple of weeks and  since the All-Star break, have suffered two losing streaks, the first one lasting six games, and the most recent one having just ended at six games.  While they’ve gotten great starting  pitching, lack of run production and some shoddy relief pitching has done them in.  The Dodgers have some good relievers (see Hong-Chih Kuo, and although he’s relatively untested, Kenley Jansen), but a definite liability in George Sherrill (ERA over 7).  And while the big bats aren’t coming through offensively, let’s face it, injuries have definitely taken their toll too, with a weaker lineup taking the field.  It’s just a combination of a lot of factors that has added up to many losses.  The fact that the surging Giants were able to sweep them over the weekend is definitely a sign of the times–Matt Cain, starting pitcher in the final game of the series, was 0-8 in his career vs. the Dodgers going in, and still came away with a victory, so what does that tell you?

Having just dropped to fourth place and at nine games out of first place, and playing four at  home this week vs. the division leading Padres, I decided I was going to give the new acquisitions–Ted Lilly, Ryan Theriot, Scott Podsednik and Octavio Dotel–a shot to see if they can turn this thing around in the next couple of months.  In fact, I would never count them out until they are mathematically eliminated.  And Lilly looked remarkable in his Dodger debut, which finally took place 14 years after the team drafted him.  We’ve still got two months left, folks.  So many short-sighted fans have forgotten our Bums were eight games out of first in mid-August, 2008, when they made their run and won the division.  However, they just can’t afford to drop any further back.  With the way the team had been playing even with the new arrivals, I began to think that perhaps Lilly, Theriot, Dotel and Podsednik were questioning if they ever really did leave the Cubs, Pirates and Royals.

Vin Scully opened the broadcast in the first of a four-game set against San Diego by saying some are wondering if the Dodgers are out of it.  He commended the Padres for hanging tough, but as usual, Vin’s words of wisdom included 61 years of observations about pennant races.  It’s true there are probably some younger fans who have no idea that the 1964 Phillies had a 6 1/2 game lead with 12 left to play, then lost 10 straight.  At least in recent memory, the 2007 Mets suffered a similar collapse, as the Phillies erased their seven-game lead with a couple of weeks left in the season.  But as Vin noted, the 1951 Dodgers led the Giants by 13 games in August…and that led to the “Shot Heard ‘Round the World” which stunningly put the Giants in the World Series.  In my lifetime, I can recall the 1978 Red Sox who led the Yankees by 14.5 games at the end of July, only to lose in a one-game playoff after both teams finished the season with the same record.  Then, of course, there were the 2007 Rockies who came out of nowhere (fourth place) to record one of the hottest Septembers on record in baseball history.  It was especially unlikely given the Rockies’ previous pennant race performances, and they had to climb over a couple of teams in the standings to win the wild card.  As Vinnie said, “nobody knows, but from what I have seen, no lead is safe.”

Something fans of other teams will never understand is this:  Losing, and then becoming winners, is tradition with the Dodgers; it’s part of our heritage, going back to our historic past in Brooklyn, and now the Dodgers have endured their worst drought since moving to Los Angeles 52 years ago–over two decades long.   But for those of us who love them, it’s part of supporting a team, and when I look back at the blessings in my life over the years, I count being a fan of this team as one of them.  Sure, everyone can claim pride in being a fan of their team–but very few teams can top the Dodgers’ contributions to baseball.  It isn’t always about winning or losing.  I think, believe, bleed, and breathe Dodger Blue forever!

So, we keep on keeping at it.  This divorce we too will survive.

In fact, the only series the Dodgers have won since the All-Star break was against the Mets at home, taking three of four.  The team is now 10-1 when I’m in attendance this year.  Unfortunately, the one game they lost was on July 23, the only setback in the four-game series with the Mets.  In particular, I  wanted to attend this game because the Dodgers would be honoring their first world championship team, the 1955 team which won their only title while playing in New York.  Baseball is a game that celebrates its revered history more than any other sport, and the Dodgers do that pretty well.Was it really five years ago that I was at Dodger Stadium for the  50th anniversary of the ’55 team?  It’s hard to believe.  I attended that game, against the  Houston Astros, with my friend Crzblue and two others, both from San Diego:  one, my good friend Harpo, a true historian of the game who attended the ’55 World Series as a five-year old, and the other my friend Rhoda, who was born and raised in Brooklyn, now in her 80s, who  had attended games at Ebbets Field while growing up.  For the golden anniversary, the Dodgers played the Astros that Sunday afternoon in August, 2005.  And to complete the cycle of the team moving west, it was a Los Angeles native, Jeff Weaver, who took the mound for the Bums that day, beating Roger Clemens.  (And as fate would have it, it was the Astros who actually played in the World Series a couple of months later.)

Now, everyone knows that the team’s one link to Brooklyn that has remained unbroken  throughout all those years is our beloved announcer, Vin Scully.  I cherish the video of that 50th anniversary game, because the Dodgers did something really cool with their broadcast  that day:  they showed the evolution of televised baseball, as it was in 1955, and as it was half a century later, everything from the camera angles to the way the action was covered then and now.

But, fast-forwarding to 2010, the Dodgers were honoring with one of their popular promotions  in the “My Town” section.  On selected home games, this section, in the reserved level/right  field, features a special theme celebrating the diversity of the City of Angels.  On July 23, “My Town” commemorated Brooklyn, New York:  “Dodgertown, Brooklyn.”  In all “My Town”  events, participating fans who purchase tickets in that section receive All You Can Eat food  related to the theme, along with unlimited non-alcoholic beverages.  I thought they should  have served Brooklyn pizza that night, but no…the menu of deli food was a bit thin, compared to that served at “Dodgertown, Philippines”, “Dodgertown, Mexico”, and “Dodgertown,  Ireland”, all of which I’ve attended going back to last season.  But no matter, one of the best things about “My Town” promotions is the Tshirts (with individual designs for each specific promotion) the attendees receive. 

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In this case, the  Tshirt featured the “55 since ’55” patch the team is wearing on their uniforms this season.  The first 20,000 fans in the gate were given a poster commemorating the ’55 Dodgers team winning the World Series.

55 since '55.jpg

Big Don Newcombe, who has been associated with the Dodgers for the better part of 61 years, threw out the ceremonial first pitch.  Newk was the only player in MLB history to win all three major awards, and is a source of inspiration and pride to the organization.  A contemporary of Jackie Robinson and Roy Campanella, he arrived on the scene as baseball was slowly integrating, in 1949.  His first pitch on this beautiful evening was thrown over an original home plate from Ebbets Field, which was placed over the Dodger Stadium home plate.  Newcombe was introduced as he took the field, as the “best dressed man in the house”–which he always is!  During games he attends at Dodger Stadium, he’s easily recognizable to fans around the park with his suit and hat, and of course his long, lean figure. 

House organist Nancy Bea Hefley played all night long, as the game proceeded without pre-recorded music.  Even the DiamondVision graphics on screen were in black & white.  Before the National Anthem was sung, some others in attendance joked about whether the flag would contain only 48 stars.  And, of course, the former Brooklyn Dodgers announcer and current L.A. Dodgers broadcaster, Mr. Scully was on hand for it all.

My mom is attending her 55th high school reunion here in San Diego in a couple of weeks.  I joked that she should wear the Tshirt with the “55 since ’55” replica patch.  🙂  Interestingly, her high school has a couple of cool baseball ties.  It is the alma mater of not one, but two, perfect game pitchers–Don Larsen, and David Wells, who both accomplished the feat for the Yankees, 42 years apart.

Speaking of the Brooklyn Dodgers:  Rest in peace to Billy Loes, who pitched for three Brooklyn National League championship teams, including the ’55 Dodgers, passed away on July 15 in Arizona, at age 80.  From the L.A. Times obituary:

He started Game 6 of the 1952 World Series for the Dodgers against the Yankees at Ebbets Field. The Dodgers led 1-0 in the seventh inning when Loes gave up a home run to Yogi Berra  and a single by Gene Woodling.

Then Loes balked by letting the baseball slip from his hand while he was on the pitching  rubber, sending Woodling to second base.  With two out, Vic Raschi, the Yankees’ starting pitcher, hit a ball off Loes’ leg, and it caromed into right field for a single, scoring Woodling.  The Yankees went on to a 3-2 victory, tying the series at three games apiece.  The Yankees won the World Series the next day.

Other items of recent note:

Congratulations to Andre Dawson, Whitey Herzog, and Doug Harvey, who were all inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame on July 25.  Congratulations also to Jon Miller, who is now in the elite broadcasters’ wing.  Even though he’s a Giants announcer, I have appreciated his wit  and superb broadcasting skills for many years.

While much attention has been focused on Dawson, the player, and Herzog, the manager, the unglamorous job of umpiring is usually overlooked.  So a special nod to Harvey, who is the first living umpire to be inducted.  I first met Harvey when I was in high school.   The umpire known as “God” is a San Diegan, and was a contemporary of my parents at San Diego State in the mid-1950s.  For some reason San Diego is a magnet for umpires; the Runge family (three generations–Ed, Paul, Brian) have been based locally, as well.  Recently I shared with friends a classic Vin Scully-ism from the early 1980s, when the Dodgers were playing a home game on Easter Sunday, that always reminds me of “God”:

“Jimmy Stewart is in attendance enjoying the game today.  And being that it’s Easter Sunday, well, one of the symbols of this day is a rabbit, and some of you may remember that Stewart appeared in a movie about a human-sized rabbit. What was the name of the rabbit?  Harvey.  And today, on Easter Sunday, Doug Harvey is umpiring behind home plate.”  After that, I  always busted up thinking of Doug Harvey as a rabbit. 🙂

Now suffering from throat cancer, Harvey also has a few Dodger connections–the first game he worked in his career, at third base, was the occasion of Dodger Stadium’s christening on  April 10, 1962, a moment near and dear to my heart. And the first player he ejected was Joe Torre, now Dodgers manager, then playing for the Braves.

So, best wishes to the ailing umpire.

And the same for a young pitcher, Stephen Strasburg, who with an inflamed shoulder last week suffered the first injury of his young Major League career. Stephen just turned 22 on July 20.  Many Aztecs supporters had been waiting to see if he’d make his first West Coast start during next weekend’s Nationals series at Dodger Stadium.  Apparently not, but there were busloads of fans waiting to take a trip up Interstate 5 just in case.

Some addenda to my previous post about the All-Star Game and festivities in Anaheim last  month:

–A couple of years ago, the 100th anniversary of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame”, baseball’s “national anthem” of sorts, was celebrated.  Who doesn’t love this light-hearted, early 20th century paean to the simplicity of attending a baseball game?  Most of us know the story behind it, about how it was written by someone who had never been to a baseball game.  What very few people know, and is one of Orange County’s obscure claims to fame, is that songwriter Jack Norworth is buried in Melrose Abbey Memorial Park.  During All-Star week, the Los Angeles Times featured a nice read about Nortworth’s long-time ties to the O.C. before his death in 1957.  Certainly, as I sang the famous song in Angel Stadium on July 13, I thought long and hard about the NL:  “If they don’t win, it’s a shame.”  With the Senior Circuit’s victory, tradition did indeed win out, Interestingly, he passed away the following year, just weeks before the Dodgers would win the first World Series ever played on the West Coast.  Norworth may have been a Philly native, but he died in Laguna Beach, and in fact, was the founder of that coastal town’s first Little League.

According to the Times:

…the first time he heard his song performed at a game was in 1958, when the Dodgers, newly arrived from Brooklyn, honored him at the Coliseum during the tune’s 50th anniversary. The makers of Cracker Jack presented him with a trophy.

Because there was nothing in the cemetery commemorating Norworth’s place in baseball history, a Facebook group was created to correct this oversight.  So, just before this year’s All-Star Game, on July 11, a three-foot tall black granite monument, paid for by concerned fans, was installed.

The composer of the melody?  That was Albert von Tilzer.  He passed away in Los Angeles, in 1956–a couple of years before the tune’s golden anniversary was celebrated.

–In connection with the All-Star Game’s Home Run Derby, the Times also wrote about the original Home Run Derby, a similar competition that was regularly filmed for TV audiences, which took place at L.A.’s Wrigley Field, once located at 42nd and Avalon, from 1959-60.

From that article:

The show developed in 1959 between sportscaster Mark Scott and a broadcasting company.  The idea:  have the best home-run hitters from each league compete against each other at Wrigley, a hitter-friendly ballpark.

The format called for two players to square off over nine innings, with each getting three outs per inning.  Anything but a home run was considered an out.  The winner received $2,000, the runner-up $1,000 – and three consecutive home runs earned a $500 bonus.

Scott, handsome and with a baritone voice, moderated the show and
interviewed one player while the other batted, giving viewers a personal look at their heroes.

The show was popular but lasted only 26 episodes after Scott, 45, suffered a fatal heart attack in 1960.

It’s hard for those who’ve grown up in recent years to understand how little baseball was actually shown on TV back in those days.  In the “Home Run Derby” days, all-time greats such as Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle, Hank Aaron and others appeared on the show.  If those men played the game today, they’d be seen in every at-bat on a nightly basis.  But a half-century ago, on network TV, sports programming was a lot more limited.  Many who are reading this now will remember that wonderful old show, and some will have enjoyed watching reruns of it years later on ESPN or MLB Network.

Now, though, it’s time to re-focus my attention on the Dodgers and how far they can go with one-third of the season left to be played.  How much defending of their back-to-back Western titles can really be done?  A win against the Padres was a great start, but unless that continues, treading water will be the norm.  The bleeding has temporarily ceased, but you can bet that everything spilled has been blue blood.  That never changes.