’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.

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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.

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Five Days in Anaheim

It’s been a wonderful last few days in Orange County, California, working as an All-Star  FanFest volunteer (with some great stories about that experience!), attending other festivities, and finally, the Mid-Summer Classic at Angel Stadium.

Enough will be said about the game itself; the most important and biggest storyline is that the National League won, 3-1, for the first time in 14 years.  My nephew who is 20 had just gotten out of kindergarten the last time the NL won an All-Star Game!  While this one was not the  best All-Star Game I’ve attended, it was a pretty good one, featuring great pitching, and the Senior Circuit prevailed–so that was good enough for me. The NL has won a majority of the  times I’ve been to ASG, so I had a feeling this would be the year, finally–and I was  right.  The law of averages, if nothing else–such as my presence–said so.  Since 1997, the AL had been so dominant, it was frustrating for NL fans. When I was growing up, the opposite was so true that I actually felt sorry for the American League not being able to win a game for so many years.  

As all baseball eyes were on Anaheim over the past week, I’m also proud I was able to support a worthy organization as a result of seeing this game played live.  I’m the  co-moderator of a forum for female baseball fans, and my cohort had asked back in January  how many of us were interested in organizing a group trip to the game.  Her husband is a  subcontractor who had done some work for friends of his who are Angels season ticket holders.  They offered him their family’s eight tickets to the All-Star Game in exchange, as  payment for the work done, since they had a family trip planned out of the country this July.  In turn, he graciously offered them to our group free of charge, so we took him up on that!  The seats were great–on the field level, just beyond first base.  Instead of selling the tickets, they  asked that donations be made to CHOC (Children’s Hospital of Orange County) as they have a son who is a special needs child.  What could be better, right?  Watching baseball in great seats, while supporting a good cause, at a “name your price” discount?  The icing on the cake was the National League victory.  Hopefully this is the beginning of another winning streak for the NL.  Ever since the 2009 World Series ended, our forum has been organizing events to promote socializing around baseball, and we’ve attended some college and winter league games over the last offseason to satisfy those hunger pangs without MLB.  Though the core group of us resides in Southern California, we’ve had at least one come from out of state for one of our winter activities.  

So, it was a win-win-win situation, all around, with our tickets secured without a hassle, CHOC receiving donations, and the enjoyment of camaraderie within our group.  Other than the above-mentioned husband, we also had the boyfriend of one of our fellow female fans accompany us.  Those of us from the forum who attended are all National League fans, so we wore our forum T-shirts in solidarity, along with our corresponding team caps.  My fellow female fans in attendance also volunteered time at FanFest, too.  And with the win, we all went home happy.  (By the way, the NL leads the overall All-Star Game series 41-38-2.)

So congratulations to Braves catcher Brian McCann, who was named Most Valuable Player of the game for the NL.  And what do you know, Jonathan Broxton proved he could close out a big game with serious national exposure, shutting the door on the AL in the ninth.  This was important not only for him, but because in recent years the NL had gone into the late innings with a lead only to see the AL rally off such illustrious closers as Trevor Hoffman and Eric Gagne. 

At this time last year, I wrote about my previous experiences attending All-Star Games.  That post can be read in my entry from July, 2009.  

One of my favorite memories that did not have to do with the action in the game itself took  place 30 years ago last week–on July 8, 1980, as Dodger Stadium hosted its one and only  ASG, ever.  That All-Star Game was the second of five I’ve attended, the first one being a high school graduation gift for me in 1978.  But I still cherish my ticket from the 1980 All-Star  game.  I sat in the RF pavilion, and the cost was $8!  On that evening, the Dodgers unveiled the brand new state-of-the-art DiamondVision screen by Mitsubishi, the first ever large-scale  video display to be used at an American sporting event.  The 56,000 fans on hand were excited and impressed by this advanced (for the time) technology.  Although it was our lovely ballpark’s one and only moment to shine in the Mid-Summer Classic, I’m so proud I was there!  Decades later, Jumbotrons have become not only standard but essential at all sporting venues.  But, this is where it all started.

Now, some comments about the All-Star FanFest at Anaheim Convention Center.  I worked at this event for three days, the second time I’ve volunteered at a FanFest (the only other time was in 1992 in San Diego), but I’ve also worked at similar conventions of sports fans, such as the NFL Experience at the Super Bowl.  This was also the third time I’ve attended FanFest, as a  baseball enthusiast myself.  It is always a thrilling experience, shairng the love of baseball with fans from all over the country and many parts of the world.  

So, this week I’ve been meeting enthusiasts of the great game who have traveled from near and far to Orange County, CA for the festivities.  While Angels and Dodgers fans have had the largest turnout in numbers, it’s been fun to meet fans from Japan and Korea, many of whom were here for  the World Baseball Classic held at Dodger Stadium last year; and, of course, many fans who’ve traveled the short distance from Mexico.  So when you hear about folks traveling from “near and far” to attend All-Star festivities, that’s accurate. The World Cup may have just concluded, but baseball is gaining in international popularity.  (And let me state for the record that I didn’t watch the World Cup.  The only sport that interferes with baseball season that I will give a nod to is the NBA Finals.  Besides, I was working on the floor at Anaheim Convention Center on the day of the final match.)  Hey, it was bad enough I had to miss Dodger games which were taking place during my shifts. 

The Futures Game is one of my favorite things about All-Star weekend.  In fact, I like it better than related All-Star activities such as the Home Run Derby and parade, more because it’s actually about baseball being played than the others, which I consider to be mostly the ratings hype of star power.  The unglamorous world of minor leaguers lacks the glitz and drawing power of the Major League All-Star Game itself, with its big names, but the desire to win is still there–perhaps even more so because  these players must continue to prove themselves.  This year’s game, unfortunately, was not a great one–it was a 9-1 rout on the part of the U.S.  Of course I’m glad the U.S. won, but a  more competitive game would have been better to watch.  Congratulations to Angels prospect Hank Conger!  Hank, a catcher out of Huntington Beach, was the Most Valuable Player of the Futures Game, and how appropriate to have him excel in Angel Stadium, giving their fans a glimpse of what their future might hold for them.  Conger hit a three-run homer in this game, and he might not have even been there, if not for the fact he was a late addition to the roster to replace an injured player.

As I love to follow the local youth talent throughout this region, I made note
that on the U.S.  roster of the best minor leaguers, seven of them played high school baseball in the surrounding area of Orange County–which is a pretty impressive number given the number of players in the minor league talent pool.   It must have been a thrill for their families and  friends to see them play in the neighborhood again, with higher stakes.  In addition, Royals prospect and first round draft choice in 2007, U.S. Futures player Mike Moustakas, is from Los Angeles.  Moustakas holds the CA state record for home runs in a high school   “career”–52.  So, it was like a homecoming for many of these young men.  

In the MLB All-Star Game, 11 of the players (both NL and AL teams) were from Southern California.  Obviously Stephen Strasburg was not one of them, and I understand the reasons behind that decision; however, if he’d been included on the final vote ballot for the NL, no doubt he’d have made it in.  There’ll be plenty of opportunities for him to make the team in future All-Star Games.  In particular, Trevor Cahill of the Oakland Athletics, a RHP in his second year with the team, deserves a nod of recognition as a  first-time All-Star, even though he did  not play (wasn’t eligible since he pitched on the Sunday before the game) .  In my past posts  I’ve mentioned two pitchers from the high school class of 2006 in San Diego–Mike Leake, and Stephen.  Cahill is also a third pitcher from ’06.  Who knew he’d make the MLB All-Star team  only four years later, before the other two?

During the All-Star FanFest, the Golden Spikes Award presentation was made to college baseball superstar Bryce Harper–to nobody’s surprise.  (Last year, at the FanFest in St. Louis, it was Stephen who received that same honor.)  So, congratulations to Bryce!   Both Harper and Strasburg were the No. 1 overall picks in their respective drafts, and with both being selected by the Washington Nationals, it should be interesting to see how things progress for that organization.  Harper, at only age 17, is out of the College of Southern Nevada.  

Over the weekend, we had a few comments about our SoCal weather, which was had been  atypical all week long.  For the benefit of those who don’t live here, I’ll just say this region is full of microclimates which can vary from neighborhood to neighborhood.  Along the coast, it had been relatively cool over the Fourth of July week.  Laguna Beach had temps in the high  60s and low 70s, while in July it is typically 75-80.  Many who’ve traveled from other parts of the country have welcomed this relief from the heat and high humidity, but others wonder where is the California sun that is the staple of the All-Star Game commercials?  On the coast, it was making on and off appearances.  In Anaheim, which is a few miles inland, it was more noticeable, but there were still puffy clouds interspersed.  This has certainly been an unusual beginning of summer here, with everything from the 60s at the beaches–which is more typical of winter weather on the coast–to the 70s in inland suburbs, 90s in the mountains, and 100+ in the desert–all in the same day!  But by Monday, the day before the big game itself, everything had returned to normal in the suburbs of Orange County.  Temps were in the mid-to-high 80s, and in the mid-to-high 70s at the beaches west.  
 
Indoors as I was most of the day, I missed much of the sunshine.  For the first couple of days at FanFest, I was assigned to the batting cages, loading balls into the pitching machine as  person after person took their turn at the plate for five pitches each.  Then, I got a bit of  exercise shagging balls in the so-called “outfield.”  Later, I was assigned to the cages in which bunting techniques are stressed (the Firestone Tire Challenge, with tires arranged as targets for the bunted balls).  As I watched so many partake in these activities, it was evident the love of baseball knows no boundaries, as fans of all ages, sizes and shapes participated.  There were more than just fathers and sons, there were entire families taking  at-bats; there are dads and daughters, moms and daughters, bulky guys who are the size and build of MLB players, and tiny tots.  Kids wearing Dodger caps and kids wearing Angel caps,  some sporting USC, others UCLA.  My favorites were the tykes with eyes as big as saucers as they struggled to hold a bat that was larger than their own tiny bodies. 

As noted above, fans of all ages were in the cages.  There was the 80-something year old woman who didn’t look a bit frail as she made contact with the ball.  There was the daughter  about 10 years old who laid down a perfect bunt, and laughed as her dad fouled his off.  And I must add, I love that this event is so inclusive.  If All-Star FanFest had been held 40 years ago, when I was first playing organized softball, there’s no doubt this activity would have been limited to boys only.  Now, girls are accepted as a part of the game at many levels.

In the “Home Run Derby” batting cages, I had a long way to go to keep up with shagging balls for a couple of hours.  Two Marines were volunteering at the same time, and they were definitely outpacing me.  I’ll say I definitely got a workout, as opposed to my regular day job in which I’m sitting at a desk most of the time.

But the best and most enjoyable part of working at FanFest was interacting with the  participants in “You Call the Play”, on my final day of work.  In this popular activity, fans are given the opportunity to record their own broadcast of a historic moment in Major League baseball history.  There were several choices, the two most popular being Kirk Gibson’s 1988  World Series Game 1 home run, and the Angels winning the 2002 World Series.  The third most requested baseball moment was Tony Gwynn’s 3000th career hit.  Others were:  Hank Aaron’s 715th home run, Rod Carew’s 3000th hit, Jackie Robinson stealing home, and Nolan Ryan’s seventh no-hitter.  Participants were handed an informational sheet with stats and some of the  background to place them “in the moment” as the scene was set. 

The majority of the participants were kids under 14, so this was very entertaining.  I laughed and I cried, and I laughed all over again, during the three hours I was assigned to this station.  Some of the kids chose to make their broadcasts solo, a la Vin Scully, while others sat in the booth with a friend.  It reminded me of the Junior Dodgers broadcasts, a kids’ program in  which selected fans under 14 call games in the press box at Dodger Stadium.  For the kids at FanFest, though, there was predictably a lack of polish, which made it even more enjoyable for me listening in.

Some switched back and forth from being “in the moment” to the present, making observations on the in-between years:  There were plenty of corrections and interjections made with two broadcasters in the booth.  Listening in as the kids called the plays, I started jotting notes on some of the more entertaining ones:

From two youngsters, about age 12:

Kid #1:  “Well, I’m here with my friend Josh in Montreal, Canada.  Tony Gwynn is going for his 5000th hit here.”

Kid #2:  “Three thousandth!”

Kid #1:  “Oops, I mean his 3000th.  Here’s Gwynn waiting for the pitch…I think he’s going to be in the Hall of Fame someday.”

Kid  #2:  “Dude, he is already in the Hall of Fame!”

Kid #1 (sounding exasperated):  “Well, he isn’t now, not yet!”

Kid #2:  “Well, here’s the pitch and it’s a line drive, Tony Gwynn has gotten his 3000th hit and the Padres win the game!”

Kid #1:  “They didn’t win yet!  They just stopped the game a minute!”

Kid #2 (lowering his voice and adopting a more serious tone):  “Well, I remember Roberto Clemente and his 3000th hit…he got into a car accident right after.”

Kid #1:  “It was a plane crash, dummy!”

Kid #2:  “Oh yeah, plane crash, well anyway, he is dead, and this is Tony Gwynn’s time now.”

Kid #1:  “This moment is brought to you by El Cajon Ford.  Nobody beats El Cajon Ford!”  (Note:  Gwynn has been a spokesperson for that dealership since his playing days.)

One young man simply read the information sheet as if from a script, documentary-
style, while the video moment played:  “Tony Gwynn and the Padres were on the road in Olympic Stadium in Montreal on August 6, 1999.  Gwynn stepped up to the plate with 2999 hits in his career…”

From a husband and wife, on the 2002 World Series, Game 7:

Husband:  “And your Anaheim Angels…”

Wife:   “Not Los Angeles Angels…”

Husband:  “…have won the World Series for the first time!”

From an eight year-old girl, on the same game, pleading for the outcome:

“Two out in the ninth inning and the Angels are still ahead.  Here’s the pitch, ohhhhh!  He hit a fly ball!  Please, please, please, catch it so we can win the game!”

Of the kids’ calls on the Angels winning the World Series, there were
several variations on the scene showing the Giants’ dugout:

“Barry Bonds is just sitting there in the Giants’ dugout.  He just can’t believe it!”

“Barry Bonds…you can see how mad he is on his face!”

“Barry Bonds is getting up…he can’t stand to watch the Angels celebrating!”

Then, with the scene of a crying Darren Baker, the three-year old son of San Francisco manager Dusty Baker:  “I would not want to be that kid now!  He is crying his head off!”

For the Gibson home run, two guys in their early 30s sat in, as if performing a comedy act (one was a Dodger fan, the other an Angel fan): 

Guy #1:  “Well, it’s going to be Kirk Gibson vs. Dennis Eckersley here.  Say, Steve, which one do you think has the better mustache?”

Guy #2:  “Well, I don’t know, let me think about that one.  And there is Mike Scioscia, Dodger catcher, watching from the bench.  Hey, Jake, I do believe Scioscia might make a good manager someday.  I just can’t see him doing it anywhere other than here in Dodger Stadium.”

Guy #1:  “Oh, I don’t know, Steve.  He might make a pretty good Angels manager.” 

Guy #2:  “Next thing you know you’ll be telling me the Angels will someday have a chance to win the World Series.”

Guy #1:  “Gibson swings, and it’s going to go over the right field wall and into the stands.  What an amazing moment!  Even Tommy Lasorda, who has seen everything in baseball at least twice, hasn’t seen this until now.”

Guy #2:  “Yeah, Jake, I think Tommy just sweated off about 10 pounds watching that at-bat.”

Guy #1:  “Eckersley can’t believe what just happened.   There’s a consolation, though, I think he has the better mustache.”

Guy #2:  “You know, people may still be talking about this home run 22 years later.  What do you think?”

On the Gwynn milestone, as a father and son called the moment

Dad:  “They’ve stopped the game, his teammates are all out of the dugout.   Everyone’s happy for him.  And Tony is being hugged by his mother on the field.”

Son (about age 7, recoiling in horror):  “Oh my God, Dad.  I wouldn’t want Mom to come out and hug me!”

Another father-son duo, Angels fans, who had already called the Angels World Series moment earlier, decided to sit in on the Gibson shot this time–with Dad prompting the young boy, who remained pretty quiet until a revelation hit home with him:

Dad:  “Well, what’d you think of that pitch?”

Son:  “Ummm…it was a good pitch.”

Dad:   “What’d you think of the swing?”

Son:   “It was an ugly swing.”

Dad:  “There’s Dodger catcher Mike Scioscia watching on as Gibson takes another swing, it’s 0 and 2.”

Son:  “Hey, Dad–is that our Mike Scioscia?”

From a young Angels fan:

“And the Angels win the World Series!   This was the best day of my life!”

Afterward, I asked him how old he was, and he replied, “I’m 10.”  I said, “So you were just a baby when that happened, huh?”

His response:  “Yeah.  But it was still the best day of my life!”

Two young boys, on the Gibson home run:

Kid #1:  “Well, here we are at Yankee Stadium.”

Kid #2:  “No it’s Dodger Stadium!”

Kid #1:  “Oh yeah.  It’s the Dodgers and the “A”s in Game 1.  Sorry I forgot it’s not against the Yankees.”

Kid #2:  “That is Mark McGwire playing first base for the “A”s.  He looks skinny there.  Hey, how long do you think after this was that he started using steroids?”

Kid #1:  “Gibson swings and that is a home run!  I didn’t see who caught it, do you think he will sell it on Ebay?”

I was impressed there were kids who had such an appreciation for
history, that they called moments that happened decades before they
were born.  Of course, for some of these kids, even the ’02 World Series took place before they were born!

One of them, calling a moment from the 1955 World Series:

“Oh!  Jackie Robinson is going to try and steal home!  He is called
safe!  But this catcher for the Yankees better watch out.  He might get
thrown out for arguing with the umpire!”

A 12 year-old on Hank Aaron’s 715th home run:

“He hits it deep, is it out, is it out yet?  Yes!  Oh my God, he did it, he broke Babe Ruth’s record, that was awesome!” 

Some of the more noticeable errors made (by adults) were:

The Angels have beaten the Giants to win the pennant!”

“The Dodgers have won the game, 4-3!”

(Hey, excitement can get the best of anyone, even years after the fact.)

The Gibson home run was the longest segment of all, but it was the most popular among fans, overall.  We had Dodgers and Angels fans both calling it; Yankees, Cardinals and Cubs fans called it.  At 7 minutes plus, from Gibby stepping up to the plate, to the rounding of the bases and celebration at home plate, it was high drama unlike any of the other moments, and that is what makes it such a timeless bit of baseball history.  And, as long as it may have lasted, I loved every second of it–even after seeing it for the thousandth time. 

One guy, about 40, stepped up and selected 1988 World Series, Game 1, and I told him it seemed to be pretty popular.  “I bet you’re sick of this one, huh?” he said with a laugh.

“Oh, no, sir,” I replied.  “I never get tired of this one.”

I won’t go into many other details about the FanFest, other than to say if you’ve never been and you consider yourself a hard-core fan, it covers nearly every aspect of the game you could ask for.  And, though Anaheim may be an American League town, there was definitely a Dodger/National League influence there, from all the blue at the
FanFest and the 1988 World Series calls, to the final game score.

And why did it seem like very few Angels fans, at least among the volunteers present, knew about their own team’s history?  One of my friends (a Padres fan) and I both knew the answer to one of the trivia questions asked of the volunteers:  “What was the Angels’ original home field and where was it located?”  She won a pair of tickets to a future Angels game for answering correctly.  (Wrigley Field, at 42nd and Avalon.)  I wondered if many Angels fans knew the part Wrigley Field played in successfully establishing Major League Baseball on the West Coast, to begin with?

In general, though, I must say I did see a lot of friendly co-existence between Dodgers and Angels fans throughout those several days.  Some families even showed up with several in their group wearing gear from either team.

On the stage outside the main convention floor, a variety of musical acts entertained fans over the five-day duration of the event.  Listening to a mariachi band play “Take Me Out to the Ballgame”, and
“It’s a Small World”, that well-known theme song from Disneyland located just across
the way, I was reminded of the message that baseball is, indeed, expanding across the
globe. One surf-sound band set
the tone for the overall All-Star festivities with a nice  version of
“Good Vibrations”, which summarizes the love of both baseball and the beach for me.  Was there a hidden trivia question there?  (Brian
Wilson, a Giants pitcher with the same name as the Beach Boy who wrote
“Good Vibrations”, is an All-Star on the NL team.)

And the memorabilia that was available!  For collectors like me, it’s heaven, much like the shops lining the streets of Cooperstown.  I purchased a few old scorecards and yearbooks from early-to-mid-’70s era Dodgers.  Some I was sure I’d bought before, at that time, but had lost track of over the years.  Who knew when I was saving my hard-earned babysitting money back then to spend $2 on a World Series program, that I’d be spending $25 on the same all these years later?  I even found an All-Star Game program from 1974, when my beloved Steve Garvey won the write-in vote to start at first base for the NL. 

Disneyland, just down the street from Angel Stadium, is known as the Happiest Place on Earth, and with a National League win,  the surrounding area continues to be known as a place where dreams really do come true.  Many fans from out of the area raved about their wonderful visit to Southern California, and although I’d love to see another All-Star Game take place at Dodger Stadium, this was perhaps the next best thing.  I’m so proud I has part of one of the most successful All-Star weekends ever. 

After the FanFest closed on Monday evening, I drove home south along the coastline of PCH (Highway 1), watching a golden sunset out of the corner of my eye as El Sol sank into the Pacific.  Like the Gibson home run, that’s something beautiful I never get tired of seeing.  And so it was the next night that the sun set on 14 years of American League dominance. 

Today, the sun rises on the rest of the 2010 season.  Let’s make it a memorable one, just as my All-Star experience was. 

June Madness!

I’m taking some time away from MLB for this blog entry, not just because I don’t like interleague play–that’s a topic in and of itself–but because something much more exciting is going on in baseball right now.  And while I do have a bit to say about a couple of National League pitchers who are making names for themselves, I will get to that later.

I figured out I’ve been to almost 70 baseball games so far this year, because I’ve averaged  close to four a week since February began.  From Dodger Stadium to Petco Park, to the CIF  championship game, to Tony Gwynn Stadium and Jackie Robinson Stadium, Cunningham  Stadium, and of course Camelback Ranch–I’ve seen this great game played at many sites over the last four  months.  Except for a brief day trip to Arizona for spring training, unlike some people I know, I haven’t taken any real “road trips” this year.  But that’s okay, because I haven’t really had time to get away!  

But with a recent passing of a legend, and another SoCal team winning a championship, there has already been enough to talk about in the City of Angels this month.  Congratulations to the Lakers, who clinched the franchise’s 16th NBA title last week, and have established  themselves as the team of this millennium, so far, with five NBA titles since 2000.  Can they pass the baton to the Dodgers?  In 1988, both teams won championships just months apart–but that’s the only time they’ve enjoyed the ultimate success in the same calendar  year.  The Dodgers and Angels played an interleague series during the NBA finals, and all  eyes of fans from both teams have been on the team in purple and gold.  I’ll say a few more  words about basketball, shortly.  

Back to baseball, though, for now, it’s all about UCLA!  The Bruins are in the College World  Series!   

Whether you are a college baseball fan or have never followed it, read on because I have plenty to say about its impact. And although I still love my Bums, UCLA is playing with a lot more heart now than the Dodgers are.  Watching the “other” team in blue over the last couple of  games has been more rewarding and satisfying than witnessing the Dodgers’ interleague sweep.

This has been a great season for the team from the West Side of Los Angeles, which finished 48-14.  They roared out of the gate with 22 consecutive wins to open the season, establishing themselves as a dominant pitching team.  The Bruins’ great run began back in February when  the cross-town rivals in the Pac-10 faced each other in the Dodgertown Classic at Dodger  Stadium.  This was appropriate because, as is the Dodgers’ tradition, pitching has been the hallmark for UCLA and the biggest factor of their success.  They beat USC that afternoon, and despite a mid-season struggle while losing to Arizona State, haven’t really looked back since.

And how is this for a twist?  UCLA happens to reside in the same city of the team with the most CWS championships of all–USC.  Although they haven’t won it all since 1998, the  Trojans are much like the Yankees of college baseball.  And they’ve fallen on hard times in recent years.  Several college teams can claim a great baseball legacy, but none like the  University of Southern California.  Since the College World Series’ inception in 1947, the Trojans have won 12 titles.  In fact, USC plays its home games at Dedeaux Field, named in honor of their late coach, Rod Dedeaux, the most successful in the history of college baseball. 

When I was growing up, USC won seven CWS championships in an 11-year period (1968-78), with Dedeaux leading the way.  But, no matter that Dedeaux was a great coach.  UCLA plays its home games at Jackie Robinson Stadium.  Think about that, what a  legend!  Most of my baseball fan friends and I have enjoyed watching games at this facility  many times over  he years, but I still can’t believe I have a few friends who have never been to Jackie Robinson Stadium.  (Ironically, baseball was considered the multi-talented Robinson’s “worst” sport at UCLA.)

Starting with the great Robinson, UCLA has produced a few very good players over the years.  Another great second baseman currently in the Majors, Chase Utley, excelled on this diamond in his pre-Phillies  days.  A few recognizable names since the 1990s include Troy  Glaus, MVP of the 2002 World Series with the Angels, who’s now enjoying a successful year  with the Braves; all-time Los Angeles Dodgers home run king Eric Karros; and another  one-time Dodger, Dave Roberts, who had a fleeting moment of fame with the 2004 Red Sox.  These are just a handful of players who had decent careers in the majors who wore Bruins  blue and gold.  The list is much longer on the USC side, and it includes many big names over  several decades.

UCLA has also won the most sports championships, overall, of any Division I school (106, at this writing).  But they have never won one in baseball!   Now, factor in that UCLA’s  women’s softball team just won the College World Series, beating Arizona earlier this month.  Can the men match that feat?

Much of the Bruins’ success in the last half-century was due to their basketball legacy.  Which brings me to this:  Their great hoops coach, John Wooden, passed away at age 99 1/2 on June 4.  And Wooden was a huge baseball fan!  In his younger years, he was often seen at both Dodger Stadium and Angel Stadium.  Wooden was a long-time friend of Dodgers announcer Vin Scully, whose touching tribute during the Dodgers-Braves broadcast on the  evening the Coach died had me in tears.  Scully and Wooden had been neighbors when the Dodgers first moved to California in 1958, bringing along their young announcer.  Over the next couple of decades, both men would become legends in Los Angeles.  Concurrent with USC’s reign atop college baseball, between 1964-1975, the Bruins were busy winning basketball  titles in 10 of those 12 seasons.

So, between Coach Wooden and Coach Dedeaux mentioned above, it’s an amazing fact that during the 1960s and ’70s in Los Angeles, there were 21 NCAA titles won between just baseball and basketball, all in the same city!  All of this just so happened while I was cutting my teeth on sports over those years, but I didn’t realize at the time I was witnessing dynasties the likes of which would never again be seen.

But, back to Bruins baseball, circa 2010.  UCLA breezed through the Regionals; I attended one game of that tournament (in which UC Irvine eliminated the defending College World Series champions, LSU), and watched the rest on TV.  Another team I was following closely, the University of San Diego Toreros, were sent home in the first round.  In the Super-Regionals, again held at Jackie Robinson Stadium–with UC Irvine having been ousted from further competition–UCLA was matched up against Cal State Fullerton, a perennial contender in the CWS, in a best-of-three series played over the weekend of June 11-13.  Fullerton is another baseball program which has been very successful in SoCal, having won four national championships in Omaha since 1979, most recently in 2004.  In baseball-rich SoCal, it’s located about 30 miles from UCLA in Orange County; yet, several of UCLA’s key players also come from OC.

CSUF won a tight Game 1, 4-3, and the Titans had the Bruins reeling on their own field–when in  Game 2, they were one out away from clinching a trip to Omaha.  But, what an exciting   finish!  UCLA came back to win, 11-7, in ten innings, then bested Fullerton decisively, 8-1 in  the rubber game, an
d began packing for a trip to Nebraska. 

Sophomore RHP Trevor Bauer pitched the Bruins over Florida, 11-3, on in their opening game in Omaha on Saturday, striking out 11 Gators in the process.  Facing TCU two days later, UCLA ace Gerrit Cole shut out the Horned Frogs through six, gave up a bases-loaded triple in  the seventh, then shook it off and proceeded to win, 6-3.  Cole struck out 13 over eight  nnings. The Bruins’ pitching depth is amazing; Rob Rasmussen and Garett Claypool have yet  to pitch in Omaha, and hopefully being “rusty” won’t be a factor once they do take the mound, because UCLA gets a few days off now.  Arizona State, the top seed in the Pac-10, has  already lost twice and been sent home.

Gerrit Cole.jpg

Beyond sports, UCLA is a proud school with developments that have impacted the world.  In  fact, you wouldn’t be reading this without the Internet, the origins of which were born over 40 years ago on the UCLA campus, with absolutely no help from Al Gore.  But for all their accomplishments and production, the Bruins have no longstanding winning baseball tradition.  Perhaps that will now begin to change. 

One more thing, the Bruins are honoring Coach Wooden’s memory throughout the College World Series.  Both their caps and batting helmets feature the initials “JW.”

UCLA baseball.jpg

 

Do I wish college baseball would use wooden bats?  Yes.  Do I wish they’d do away with the DH?  Of course.  But baseball at this level still provides some thrilling games, some of the best pitching around, and quality baseball played by young men who are getting an  education–not getting paid–still playing for pride and passion for the game. 

How can anyone not love that?

————————————————————————————————————————————-

Major League Notes:

Props to two young pitchers I mentioned in my last post a few weeks ago, my hometown boys Mike Leake and Stephen Strasburg.  As I had stated at the time, both kids graduated  from San Diego area high schools in 2006, both went on to have excellent seasons in college, Mike at Arizona State, and Stephen at San Diego State.  Both were selected in the first round of the 2009 draft.  Now, one year later, both are playing in the Majors.

Stephen’s debut with the Nationals on June 8 was perhaps the most highly anticipated ever in Major League Baseball.  (In fact, his opponent that day was the Pirates’ Jeff Karstens, another San Diego born and bred pitcher–hardly spoken of in the same breathtaking manner as Strassy is!)  Washington won, 5-2, as Stephen, age 21, notched his first major league victory.  In his first three starts, Stephen has struck out 32 batters.  He was named National League Player of the Week two weeks ago.  The last time I remember this kind of a buzz about a pitcher, it  was 2003 and the pitcher was Mark Prior of the Cubs, a USC product, also a first-round draft pick.  (Yes, he was also another San Diegan!)  [EDIT:  Stephen’s first loss of the year came on the same day I posted this entry, a tough 1-0 setback to the Royals.  He struck out nine in that outing.]

Mike, who skipped the minor leagues altogether, has been in the Reds’ rotation since April.  Now, he’s back in Stephen’s shadow again, just as he was the last several years. But let this fact be known:  Mike Leake was the first pitcher in Reds franchise history to go undefeated after 11 major league starts.

Who did his first loss come at the hands of?  My Dodgers, of course!, who scored five runs off him in a game played in Cincinnati last week.  The only time I’ll be rooting against him.  🙂

By the way, don’t mention DH to this National League pitcher.  As of this writing, he’s hitting .385! 


Leake.jpg

 

Lesser known:  Quietly excelling is a young American League pitcher who, like Leake and Strasburg, also graduated in 2006, but from Vista High.  Trevor Cahill is not being talked about much outside Oakland, but he’s another young pitcher doing quite well this season.  Cahill,  22, is 6-2 with a 3.21 ERA for the Athletics.  I don’t follow the American League quite as closely as I do the National League, but I try to keep tabs as best I can, and I saw Cahill beat the Dodgers during interleague play at Dodger Stadium last season, his rookie year.  Teammate Dallas “Perfect Game” Braden is the bigger name on the “A”s’ staff.

Final Accolades:

Congratulations to Rancho Bernardo High, who won the CIF-SD championship title on June 5, beating Poway, 9-5, at Tony Gwynn Stadium.  RB over the past 15 years has become a  baseball powerhouse in San Diego County, producing the likes of Cole Hamels and Hank Blalock as well as numerous others who’ve gone on to play professional baseball.  This time,  a new generation of Broncos is on top.  Their title was the fifth for RB overall, and the first since 2005 (they won back-to-back championships in Hamels’ era).  This was also the ninth  championship for coach Sam Blalock, Hank’s uncle, who won four CIF titles at Mt. Carmel  High.  Will we be seeing anyone from this class excelling in the majors in a few years?

A Little Bit of Everything…

Andre is back!

And what a freaky finish to the month of May, in a game played on a gorgeous Memorial Day evening at Dodger Stadium. Playing the opening game of a long homestand on this holiday, the first of a three-game set against the Diamondbacks, the Dodgers fell behind early, 4-0, behind Chad Billingsley, but pecked away and were finally able to tie the game on a double-error misplayed ground ball in the eighth inning!  If that wasn’t wacky enough, they then won the game in the bottom of the ninth on a walk-off balk.  This, after Dodgers first baseman James Loney had been picked off between second and third in a huge baserunning blunder.  Shortly afterward, Dodgers third baseman Casey Blake, who had advanced to third, was able to distract Arizona reliever Esmerling Vasquez into committing a monumental error:  Blake danced down the line to the point where Vasquez flinched; Casey pointed and called out for the balk, with umpire Tim Timmons nodding in agreement.  Blake trotted home with the winning run, with Dodgers announcer Vin Scully noting (was it pleading?), “Look out, boys, for broken legs”, an obvious reference to the Angels’ Kendry Morales’ recent injury sustained while landing on home plate after a walk-off grand slam.

And the Dodgers notched a 5-4 victory. The Diamondbacks have had constant bullpen woes this season, but this was certainly an unusual way to end a game.

And how’s this for a crazy bit of trivia:  one of the oddest in baseball’s quirky stats department everyone was talking about, was something Vinnie mentioned early in the game on Monday:

Manny, who turned 38 on Sunday, has never hit a home run on his birthday in his career.  However, he has hit one on the day after his birthday eight times–including in the Memorial Day game, scoring the Dodgers’ first run of the evening, off Arizona starting pitcher Rodrigo Lopez.

 

SO…the first two months of the season are in…results, mixed, but definitely on the upswing.

The Dodgers seem to be back on track toward their goal of defending back-to-back NL West titles. They just posted an excellent 20-8 record in the month of May following a horrendous April.  It was their best month of May since 1962, the year Dodger Stadium opened, and given that their best performing offensive player was missing for half the month, that made it more impressive. These Dodgers know they can’t rest on their laurels after winning the division in 2008-09.  Their competition has improved; the Western Division is the deepest pitching division in the league.  But they’re a resilient team, too, refusing to let the first month’s problems bury them.

Let’s back up and review a bit:

Surprising trends in the early going:

–The failure of the bullpen in the first month of the season; given the ‘pen had been a strength of the Dodgers in recent seasons.  In all fairness, this was partially due to some missing pieces, such as Ronnie Belisario reporting so late to spring training from his native Venezuela (due to visa problems) that he missed the beginning of the season, and Hong-Chih Kuo, a valuable late-inning lefty, starting 2010 on the DL. Two pitchers named Ortiz–Russ and Ramon–who were on the Opening Day roster, are no longer with the team. Closer Jonathan Broxton recorded only one save in the month of April. That was due to a very limited number of save opportunities–the Dodgers were so often trailing late in the game, and played so many road games in April, that the dynamics of bullpen use were shuffled a bit.  I’ll admit I’ve been a bit concerned about overuse of Ramon Troncoso, who was used in 24 of the team’s first 41 games. But Jeff Weaver has also stepped up nicely, as he did last year in pitching so reliably.  Also, reliever Justin Miller has recently been called up from Triple A Albuquerque.   

–Starting pitching:  A concern during the offseason with the loss of “El Lobo”, the perception was that not much had been done to address this. That seemed to be borne out in April.  But a struggling Charlie Haeger was replaced by rookie call-up John Ely late in the month, and Ely has performed remarkably well.  And since the team turned the page to May, with the rotation shuffled a bit, the relief corps also found its way back. Early season jitters by Billingsley and Clayton Kershaw have more or less righted themselves, although Chad still struggles from time to time.  A solid fifth starter is still needed, and there is much speculation on what will be done, but that’s all it is at this point–mere speculation.

–Turning of the tables by Pittsburgh and Cincinnati: The Dodgers have had their way with these two Central Division teams for most of the last decade. Going into the season’s opening series at PNC Park, L.A. had enjoyed boasting the best winning percentage of a visiting team in Pittsburgh since the turn of the (21st) century. But the Pirates started out with a bang, taking that first series of 2010.  Just a few weeks later, they lost three of four in Dodger Stadium, but the Bucs haven’t rolled over for the Dodgers at home in over a year now, taking a key series from the Dodgers at the end of September, ’09, and carrying that over to the new year.

The Reds also took their first series over the Dodgers, played in Great American Ballpark in April. These one-time bitter rivals throughout the 1970s, when they both resided in the same division, haven’t been on a par competitively since the last millennium ended. Cincinnati has been thoroughly dominated in recent years by L.A.; this Reds team, though–managed by a former Dodger great, Dusty Baker–appears to be much improved and a force to be reckoned with as they lead the NL Central.

 

Trends that carried over from last year:

The Dodgers’ domination of the Rockies. They posted a 14-4 record against Colorado in 2009, and so far this year have beaten them in four of the first six meetings.

The Dodgers’ overall success against the rest of the division. They’ve only faced the Giants in one series, and took that one, back in mid-April. In three series against the Diamondbacks, they’re 7-1 (as of June 1; the current series continues with one more game).  Against the division-leading Padres, the Dodgers are 5-1. Their overall record within the National League West was a major contributing factor to their winning the division in 2009.

The Padres, Dodgers, Rockies and Giants are all within four games of each other, and I anticipate a close race all season long. The hapless Diamondbacks are the only team that won’t contend in this division. Even though I’m not a fan of the local major league team, I’ve got to commend the Padres on doing so well holding down first place, surprising most who predicted them to be somewhere in the middle of the pack. We’ve tied them a few times for the lead, but have never been able to move ahead…yet. 

As of this writing, the Dodgers have won their first game in June, in a more conventional walk-off manner, on Tuesday night–1-0 on a Matt Kemp HR in the tenth–and, combined with the Padres’ earlier loss to the Mets, have cut their deficit to one game back.  I’ll take that over where they were at this point last month–fighting it out for last place in the division.  Those 1-0 games are certainly tough losses, especially for the D-backs, who’ve lost nine straight on their road trip.  L.A. had just suffered a similar fate at the hands of the Cubs with one late-inning run breaking a scoreless tie.  On the road in Wrigley Field last week, in an interesting twist, Chicago native John Ely, pitching for the Dodgers, was outdueled by L.A. native Ted Lilly, on the mound for the Cubs.  Pitchers’ duels are great if you’re a hardcore fan of the game, which I am.  In Tuesday’s contest, it was yet another case of a visiting pitcher coming back to haunt his hometown team.  Diamondbacks starter Danny Haren, a local boy who attended Pepperdine University, threw an excellent game, going late into the night to give his team’s beleaguered bullpen some rest.  Ely matched his effort, but L.A.’s ‘pen is the mirror opposite of Arizona’s.  So, with the game going into extras and a scoreless tie, something had to give. And with a 1-0 win, the Dodgers are 1-0 in June.

Oh, and (drum roll), my beloved team has a 1.000 winning percentage with me in attendance, being victorioius in all five games I’ve been present for.  And I’m going to game #6 next week!

Rest in peace…

–Former pitcher Jose Lima died suddenly on Sunday, May 23 at the age of 37, of a heart attack.  Lima pitched for the Tigers, Astros, Dodgers, Royals and Mets over the course of an 11+ year career.  The shocking news of Lima’s death came down just as fans were arriving for the Dodgers-Tigers game at Dodger Stadium that day, and the flag was lowered to half-mast shortly afterward.  Jose and his family had been attending games at Dodger Stadium this season and had just been there that Friday evening.  Even though he was only with L.A. for one season, Lima really endeared himself to the city.  He was great with fans, and a wonderful teammate from all accounts I’ve heard.  I think there was a mutual sense of appreciation on the part of both Lima and the Dodger faithful.  I still remember him singing the National Anthem before a game there during the 2004 season!  He also performed at the Viva Los Dodgers Festival that year. In my mind, I can see him at the edge of the dugout steps during games he wasn’t even pitching in, shouting encouragement to the rest of the team as they were on the field, and at bat.  Whenever a Dodger scored, he was often the first to high-five him. Lima ignited Dodger fans’ passion in a way I hadn’t seen since Mike Piazza left.  He was certainly known as a great guy to have around, always having fun and entertaining, and very engaging–not only with teammates and fans, but the media as well.  Jose was an Angeleno, living in Los Angeles and it was reported he would be working for the Dodgers’ Community Relations Department.  What a great job for him that would have been!   

Lima pitched the Dodgers to their only victory of the 2004 NLDS over the Cardinals–a complete game five-hit shutout in Game 3 at Dodger Stadium.  What a lot of fans elsewhere may not realize is that game’s significance and how much of a boost and moral victory that win was for Dodger fans–up to that point, our team had not won a playoff game in 16 YEARS!  That drought dated back to Game 5 of the 1988 World Series when the Dodgers had last won it all.  The team that had enjoyed postseason success for several decades had fallen on hard times in the 1990s, and in October, 2004, many fans felt they were on their way back up. Since that night nearly six years ago, the Dodgers have had three more playoff appearances, with several more victories, although not yet reaching the pinnacle again. But before “Lima Time”, there were some quick playoff exits in the Clinton era, and then many more seasons of finishing behind the Giants. 

So the World of Dodgertown has now lost two fan favorites in the last few months, the first being “Three Dog”, Willie Davis, a popular player in the early Los Angeles Dodgers era, who passed away at age 69 in early March, just as spring training was getting underway.  

–Another loss of note that hasn’t seemed to generate much press is that of Morrie Martin, World War II hero and former Brooklyn Dodger, who passed away on May 25 at the age of 87 due to complications from cancer.  Martin, a left-handed pitcher, debuted with the Dodgers in 1949, the same year teammate Don Newcombe was Rookie of the Year.  (Newc, as everyone knows, is still a comforting presence at Dodger Stadium, fan-friendly and accessible, more than 60 years after breaking into Major League Baseball).  Like Lima, Morrie Martin was only a Dodger for a season.  But the pressures of Major League Baseball may have seemed trivial considering what preceded his arrival.

While in the U.S. Army, Martin was actually buried alive in Germany following a bombing, then suffered a bullet wound in his thigh during the Battle of the Bulge.  He was at Omaha Beach on D-Day, 66 years ago this week.  He nearly lost a leg, but was able to fight his way back and compete.  That he was able to make it to the Major Leagues for ten seasons is truly remarkable.  As noted above, he passed away just days before Memorial Day.

–And of course, long-time Tigers broadcaster Ernie Harwell, who called Dodger games when Martin pitched for them, in the late 1940s, passed away earlier in the month.  Harwell was replaced behind the mic by a young Vin Scully, hired by the Dodgers in 1950. What a link to the present!  Poor Vin must be feeling his own mortality these days.  He’s had to come on the air three times in the last month to call a game and comment on a death that was just announced before game time. Vinnie’s shared memories of his predecessor in the broadcast booth were touching and eloquent. Of Hall of Fame pitcher Robin Roberts, who died the week after Harwell, Vin recalled the 1950 National League playoff game in Ebbets Field between the Dodgers and Phillies, which he worked as a “rookie” broadcaster. Roberts led Philly’s “Whiz Kids” to the World Series that year, where they lost to the Yankees–a fate the Dodgers of that era were quite familiar with..

Props:

Just wanted to give some nods to some great local San Diego guys who are doing a lot of exciting things on the mound and off.  Some people think it’s amusing that I follow the individuals who are local products and generally want them to have success, but at the same time, I don’t root for the major league team from San Diego. That’s because I was a Dodger fan first. But that’s another story.

This area is known for producing some great pitchers–from the two perfect game pitchers out of Pt. Loma High–Don Larsen and David Wells, who both accomplished the feat for the Yankees–to Cole Hamels, MVP of the 2008 World Series, and so many others in between. Over the last 35 years I’ve followed many of them through youth leagues, high school, college and into MLB.  I’ve volunteered and/or, have just been a spectator, at many tournaments over the years, and have been a fan of baseball around SoCal since I was a kid. 

Right now, I just want to give a nod to a few more of them, two coming up the ranks, and one an established veteran:

-The phenomenal Stephen Strasburg.  Everyone knows him, the former San Diego State Aztec who was the first overall draft pick in 2009, now the Washington Nationals’ property. This RHP breezed through spring training, but was still sent to minor league camp.  On April 11 he made his first MiLB start for the Harrisburg Senators, and handled the Altoona Curve pretty efficiently in front of a packed house on the road, with throngs of media credentials issued as the excitement built. Stephen did not disappoint.  That was just the beginning of the buzz.  He continued to dazzle, was then promoted to Triple A, and didn’t miss a beat. Stras has lived up to expectations every step of the way.  Now he’s poised for his major league debut next week, and the anticipation builds. He appears to be more than ready. We’ll soon see if he really is.

-The not-as-well-known Mike Leake, who cracked the Reds’ starting rotation this season. Leake got a bit of attention for skipping the minor leagues altogether after being selected by the Reds in the first round of the 2009 draft.  Making his first major league start on April 11 vs. the Cubs, the righty allowed only one run and Cincinnati eventually won, while Leake got a no-decision (he’s had several more of those since then).  As a starting pitcher at Arizona State in 2009, he put up great numbers but still lived in the shadow of Strasburg, who was superb in posting the best-ever season for a college pitcher, that same year.  And both Leake and Strasburg are graduates of San Diego County high schools in 2006–Leake at Fallbrook, and Strasburg at West Hills. I look forward to seeing how these two fare in their major league careers.  Just don’t excel against the Dodgers!  )  (Note:  Leake actually did beat the Dodgers in April–but he gave up five runs in that game).

–Barry Zito. Yes, he’s a Giant.  I still like the guy (again, except when pitching against the Dodgers, of course!).  I know I should hope he gets shelled every time out, because that would help our Dodgers’ cause. Yes, he has seriously underperformed a lot in the first three years of his mega-contract, but he seems to have figured something out this season.  At this writing, he’s 6-2 with a 2.78 ERA.  Beyond all that, though, I’ve admired this guy off the field for years for his “Strikeouts for Troops” program. What a class act this USD High/USC alum is. I only wish he didn’t wear orange and black. 

 

Brackets, brackets:  The NCAA regionals are about to get underway, and the stages are set. UCLA, completing a fine season at 43-13 (finishing at No. 8 in the nation), hosts perhaps the most difficult regional of them all, with three top 25 teams to play at Jackie Robinson Stadium beginning this weekend.  The Bruins began 2010 with an amazing 22 consecutive victories.

Cal State Fullerton (No. 7, 41-15), which hosts its own Regional; University of San Diego (No.15, 36-20); and UC Irvine (No. 21, 37-19) are the other ranked teams in the top 25 I’ll be following more closely.  Let the march to the College World Series begin!

 

Big week coming up:  Between this coming Saturday and the following weekend, there’ll be lots of baseball-related events and activities going on in my life.  Not only will I try to find time to attend one of these NCAA regional games, I’ve got tickets for the Dodgers-Cardinals game in L.A. on June 9. This weekend, I’ll be delivering my Dodgers memorabilia collection to be displayed at the County Fair in Del Mar. I’ve competed in the Home & Hobby Show there for several years of the last decade.  The memorabilia exhibit is a multiple blue ribbon award winner, but that doesn’t make it automatic. Different judges view the collections every year and give awards accordingly.  In 2009, my collection was a second-place winner. I’m determined to win my Dodger Blue ribbon back!  A friend of mine is entering his baseball memorabilia collection, too, but for the first time, not a repeat entrant like me.  His items are  Cubs-related; he’s got some great old stuff, too, so, there’s a good chance he could win instead.  Blue vs. blue?  No matter what happens, I always enjoy viewing the memorabilia that is the pride of other fans, and sharing my own for their enjoyment.

I’ll also be following closely the First-Year Player Draft, which gets underway next week..

And last, the weekend following this one, I’ll be attending a training session for All-Star FanFest volunteers.  As everyone knows, the All-Star Game and related festivities will take place in Anaheim, California, this year, and I can’t wait to be a part of it.  I’ll report more on this later.

Coming up in my next entry:  Some general baseball rants from the first two months of the season, unrelated to the play on the field.  

Is that enough?  Too much baseball?  Never–no such thing!  

Quince de Mayo Road Trip, Team on Fire

And the ride gets a little smoother…

Since I last posted here two weeks ago, something sensational has happened in the National League West.

The Dodgers have moved into a tie for first place! Yep, the team that just 12 days ago was in last place has tied the Padres for the division lead, by virtue of winning 12 of their last 13 games.

It all began with a victory in the final game of their previous homestand, then moving on to sweep the Diamondbacks in Arizona and the Padres in San Diego (more on that in awhile), and finally coming back home to win five of their next six games at Chavez Ravine.

So, let me rewind this story a bit to before the season began.. Every year in the offseason, I begin making arrangements for a group road trip to Petco Park for a selected game in which the Padres play the Dodgers, to which Dodger fans travel from various points to cheer on our beloved boys in blue. Sure, we get a lot of locals grumbling about us “taking over” and making it “Dodger Stadium South”–but seriously, Padre fans, if your attendance was supportive enough of your team–which has performed very well over the first six weeks of the season–then there wouldn’t be so much room for us, would there?  (The Padres have held down first place for some time now–why not more fan support?)  In past seasons, this group trip has ranged from 40 to 75 people. This year, there were 62.  L.A. may be only 100 miles north of San Diego, but contrary to popular opinion, Dodger fans don’t only come from Los Angeles. The Dodgers have had an international following for decades, as their efforts to grow the game in other parts of the world are unmatched by any other MLB team; thus, the World of Dodgertown–much too big to be limited to a nation!  We had one fan fly in from Guam; several were serving in the U.S. Navy stationed in San Diego, and then there’s another fan whose love of the Dodgers dates back to the Brooklyn days, who regularly comes in from Delaware for this annual event. Still another couple drives across the border (from Rosarito, B.C.) for the game. Others arrive at Petco Park from the Bay Area in NorCal, and from Riverside and Orange Counties.

Last Saturday’s Padres-Dodgers contest, May 15, was “our” game.  Now, passion is one thing we Dodger fans aren’t short of.  Our block of seats at Petco Park is located on the field level, just past third base and beyond the Dodgers’ dugout, so we loudly make our presence known with enthusiastic cheering.  Usually, we bring along a boom box and play the Nancy Bea CD to rally the troops (Petco Park doesn’t have an organist; only uses recorded music). We even have specially modified lyrics for “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” during the seventh inning stretch. Earlier in the afternoon on game day, we even have a pre-game “meet and greet” party at a pub whose owner is a season ticket holder for the Padres, yet knows Dodger fans bring in good business. They even have Dodger Dogs® on the grill ready for all of us!

And we always have an eclectic group–singles, couples, groups of friends, families with children, etc., ranging in age from five years old to one woman in her 90s (last year).

It requires quite a lot of work on my part coordinating all of this–but it’s always worth it in the end, no matter how hectic things are before the date of the game. On paper, it might seem pretty cut and dried, but a lot of legwork and headaches are involved:  making seating arrangements within the block of tickets distributed so those who want to sit with other specifically designated fans are accommodated; collecting money and submitting the payment to the Padres’ office before tickets go on sale to the general public, filling orders, mailing out the tickets to all the individuals involved, and working with the pub owner.

This year, we were rewarded with a Dodgers win, as young Clayton Kershaw bested Kevin Correia, 4-1.  And, several in our group were actually caught on TV, on the KCAL-LA broadcast, with two out in the ninth inning. A mutual friend of ours who wasn’t able to make it to the game texted us the photo.

 

group at Petco.jpg

 

Two memories stand out about this game aside from the baseball and the fellowship.  One was our 15 seconds of fame (above); the other was our creativity in turning an anti-Dodger promotion around on the Padres. It seems both Padres AND Giants fans are fixated on the whole “Beat LA” sentiment, but by pure coincidence the Padres have scheduled “Beat LA” giveaways in two consecutive seasons when our road trip group is attending the game.  Last year, it was a beach towel emblazoned with the words “BEAT LA” on a California license plate.  As the Dodgers had the best record in the major leagues at the time, my beach towel was doctored to read “BEST = LA.”

“BEAT LA” also became “BE LA” and “I LOVE LA” for other fans in our section.  Then there was the guy who simply cut the word “BEAT” out of the towel altogether, leaving a hole there.

This year, it was a Tshirt with “BEAT LA” that was handed out to fans attending the game. Thanks to Sharpies and markers, that became “BEAT BY LA”, along with other variations.

Let’s face it – BEAT LA is a lame chant unless you can back it up by winning more than a head-to-head game. The chant was started by Boston Celtics fans back in the 1980s during their classic NBA finals match-ups with the Lakers–which, interestingly, we could be seeing again, soon.  But, at least the Celtics could back that up by winning a few titles.  Neither the San Francisco Giants or San Diego Padres have done that.  Perhaps they should focus on supporting their own team and winning against all teams, rather than giving so much attention to only one.  Or maybe, if you must, chant “Beat the Rox” when the Rockies come to Petco Park.  After all, Padres, you play them the same amount of times every season as the Dodgers, and they have certainly been a thorn in your side.

Teams that are secure with their winning identity don’t need to do this.  When you go to games in Busch Stadium, for example, they don’t hand out “Beat the Cubs” Tshirts–their promotions are all pro-Cardinals.

Don’t read me wrong–I’m not saying individuals in all these ballparks don’t spew derogatory statements towards the opposition.  I think that happens everywhere; I’ve certainly encountered it in the NL West ballparks.  But the image portrayed by the organization, overall, is more positive in some cities than others. 

And, like it or not, the “BEAT LA” chant really is the ultimate compliment. Clearly that’s not their intent, but that’s the way it comes across, because it acknowledges that the most successful team in the National League West really is the Dodgers and has been since the division’s inception in 1969–which is not pointed out any chest-thumping on our part, but by theirs.  Doesn’t that give the Dodgers enough attention?  As a Dodger fan, I don’t feel the need to remind anyone of that fact, but the Padres and Giants do.  If the situation were reversed, I certainly wouldn’t want to give the Giants any extra attention.  To me, it is much like booing the visiting team’s best player–a sign of respect that he can truly hurt you badly.  You’re not likely to boo the opposition’s .230 hitter as much, are you?  Is it quite as sweet to see him strike out, or to see the All-Star go down swinging?

As for the Padres, they have played us tough over the years, but it’s hard for me to hate a team that has never won more games than our team in two consecutive seasons.  I can only respect them as a division rival–that’s about it.  After the Giants, the other three teams in the NL West are on equal footing in terms of my feelings towards them.

Now, that game last Saturday was only one of a three-game set. On Friday, with a different group of friends, I saw Ramon Ortiz beat Jon Garland, 4-3.  And on Sunday, in a great pitching match-up between the Padres’ Wade LeBlanc and Chad Billingsley, LeBlanc threw five innings of no-hit ball before Dodgers catcher Russell Martin came through with a single to drive in the only run of the game as the Dodgers won, 1-0.  It was wonderful to see the great turnout and sea of blue, as usual, packing the Petco yard.  The Padres and Dodgers played to three sellout crowds, largely thanks to the visiting team. 

What’s been impressive about this run are two factors.  One is the pitching, which has really anchored itself over the past two weeks.  Prior to that, it was very iffy and prone to implosion.  Everyone remembers our Dodgers endured a horrible month of April, but eventually it came time to move beyond that and turn the page to May. This month has been a wonderful one, in which L.A. has streaked to a 16-4 record as of this writing, looking more like the Dodgers of 2009.  Rookie call-up John Ely has performed admirably in five starts for the team after Vicente Padilla became injured.  Chad seemed to work out his problems; Kershaw and Hi-Ku are warriors, and only the fifth rotation spot has been unreliable.  Most important, we are also getting more innings out of our starting pitchers.

The other factor, of course, is that Dre has been placed on the DL due to a fractured finger he hurt in batting practice last weekend–which makes the run more impressive.  While he is much missed, just as Manny was during his absence following his suspension last year, his teammates have taken care of business without him, anyway–they’re 6-1 since.

The fight for the NL West title will most likely be a dogfight all summer long, among three and possibly four teams, with the winner emerging battle-tested and no doubt having earned it every step of the way. 

  

Notable events since the last time I posted to this space:  Padres Hall of Famer and current San Diego State head coach Tony Gwynn turned 50 on May 9 (which was also Mother’s Day).  As one who not only watched Gwynn come of age from high school and through the college ranks, to being a constant pain to Dodgers’ pitching during his career in San Diego, I have developed a great sense of respect for him–not to mention that he’s a Hall of Fame class human being.  Having just turned 50 myself, I can now welcome him into the Half-Century Club. 🙂 

MAY 7…

And the road stays bumpy…

There’s been no smooth part of this wild ride whatsoever!  One month in, the Dodgers are still entrenched in last place of the National League West, even though they’re back-to-back defending division champions.  Whenever one sharp corner of the ride is turned, we’ve learned that even still, nothing is certain.  They just can’t seem to get into a groove.  And I’ll have to write more about that later.  Last night’s win at Dodger Stadium, with another thrilling walk-off by the Walk-Off King, Andre Ethier, merely prevented a three-game sweep by the Brewers.  It was a hard-fought victory, but a win nonetheless.  The Dodgers fell flat on Cinco de Mayo, a date in which they have traditionally been successful in recent years, and who knew they’d play the part of France, with Chad assuming the part of General de Lorencez, surrendering four runs in the first inning.

For now, I’m spending a Friday evening at Chavez Ravine.  I need this, and perhaps the Dodgers need me.  We’ll see.  🙂  The Colorado Rockies move into L.A. this weekend, where despite the Bums’ poor overall record, they are well over .500 at 8-5.

But why has May 7, in particular, been such a date of note on the Dodgers’ calendar over the years?  Whether for good or bad reasons, several historic moments and incidents have occurred on this month and day.  Consider these examples:

-On May 7, 1959, the Dodgers–who had only played in Los Angeles one full season at that point–hosted “Roy Campanella Night” at the Memorial Coliseum, to honor their beloved long-time catcher, who would eventually land in the Baseball Hall of Fame.  In attendance that evening were over 93,000 fans, paying tribute to the man whose career was cut short due to injuries sustained in a terrible car accident that took place just before the team’s move west from Brooklyn.  Campy never played a game in L.A.–but that mattered little as he was wheeled out onto the field by former teammate, Pee Wee Reese, to throw out the ceremonial first pitch.  The game that followed was an in-season exhibition between the Dodgers and Yankees, who had met in seven previous World Series.  As the house lights dimmed, fans were asked to light a match, and thus, 93,000 “points of light” flickered in honor of Campanella.  Later that year, the Dodgers went on to win their first World Series on the West Coast.  Inspiration taken from May 7?  Perhaps.

-On May 7, 1970, Dodgers first baseman Wes Parker hit for the cycle in Shea Stadium.  Until Orlando Hudson accomplished this feat in 2009, Parker remained for several years the last Dodger to do so.  So for a few decades, May 7 figured prominently into Dodgers trivia answers.

-Two years ago today–on May 7, 2008–two friends of mine who are Mets fans accompanied me to Dodger Stadium to take in a rare mid-week afternoon game, as the NL team from New York faced the Dodgers.  I reminded them that it was the 38th anniversary of Parker’s cycle–against their Mets, no less–but not much looked good for the Dodgers on this day all these years later.  Brad Penny started for L.A., and was shelled; the Mets won handily, 12-1. 

-So last year, on May 7, what should happen but the big news came down about Manny’s failed drug test and resulting suspension.  At the time, the Dodgers were on fire–they’d won 13 consecutive home games to start the season.  But on May 7, that changed.  The Washington Nationals were in town, and even though they were down early, 6-0, thanks in part to a Matt Kemp grand slam, they went on to rally and win, 11-9.  A record streak had come to an end.

Unfortunately, Manny dominated the news and the buzz around the stadium that night, on what should have been a special evening given that the pre-game ceremony honored the 50th anniversary of the 1959 World Champion Dodgers team…with the Campanella family in attendance.  And I was there at the Ravine for that one, too.

I don’t know why, but I feel compelled to be with the Dodgers tonight, even though their last two games played on May 7 have been disasters. 

Oh, and one more thing?  Today is Dodgers first baseman James Loney’s 26th birthday.  On that May 7 game in 2008, James’ mother was in attendance for the Mets’ rout, and the Dodger Stadium scoreboard displayed a nice birthday greeting to him, signed, “Love, Mom.”

In addition, I know several other baseball fans who were also born on May 7–a Cubs fan, the son of a Giants fan, and the late father of my good friend, Harpo.  Harpo, as a child, was there with his dad at the Memorial Coliseum 51 years ago today, holding one of the 93,000 flickering points of light.

On this May 7, Manny is again out of the lineup, but due to an injury, not a suspension.

What will take place on May 7, 2010 in Dodgers history?  

Home Opener, and the Ride gets Bumpy

think blue.jpg

Last week I wrote about the Wild Ride of the 2009 Dodgers, who started out blazing hot, but stayed the course and won their second consecutive NL West title.  Well, so far, the 2010 Dodgers have been anything but consistent in their first eight games of the season.  And they certainly aren’t going to start the season by winning a record 13 straight at home–that was evident after their second game in Dodger Stadium on Wednesday night. 

I love and wholeheartedly support my team.  That will never change.  However, I understand many fans’ disappointment with the front office’s failure to shore up the pitching staff in 2010.   Last year’s patchwork rotation was impressive in that it usually got the job done, despite injuries, and 14 starting pitchers were used over the course of the season.  Amazingly, they were mostly effective.  The loss of El Lobo over the offseason caused some concern to the fans, because the hometown boy from Woodland Hills was actually the most consistent starter for the Dodgers last season–something nobody expected.  That they didn’t even offer arbitration was perplexing.  But then again, the last several months have been murky with news of divorce proceedings and personnel firings related to the McCourts’ discord, with the stories getting uglier as the offseason proceeded, and the question of who really owns the Dodgers–Frank or Jamie–to be determined in a courtroom later this year. 

And the season–much as we all love baseball and anxiously waited for the Dodgers’ return–has begun with that cloud hanging over it.  But, never mind that for now.

The Dodgers opened on the road but lost both series, in Pittsburgh and in Florida.  Chad got the only win in the series vs. the Pirates, and Hi-Ku was the sole victor for L.A. in Florida.    Kuroda-san pitched his heart out in the first game, and just when you thought the Bums might be finding a groove, they blew late leads in back-to-back games.  What’s with the bullpen?   One of the most solid in all of baseball last year?  I’m still sorting it all out.  Certainly, the Dodgers are missing Ronnie Belisario, a solid rookie reliever for them last year, whose arrival at spring training camp was delayed due to visa problems, which means he’s not quite ready to be activated yet.  But still, the bats are there. The team battled back from minor deficits over the weekend in Miami, only to see Jorge Cantu come up with key hits and turn two games around in the Marlins’ favor. 

In Pittsburgh, the Dodgers were able to avoid a sweep, which is of interest because the tide may be starting to turn there in head-to-head play.  Since PNC Park opened in 2000, the Dodgers had the highest winning percentage in that park of any visiting team.  And they’d played pretty well against the Bucs in L.A. for years, too.  But last September, in the heat of a close division race, L.A. looked pretty bad in losing three of four in Pittsburgh–something that was hard to swallow given how much the Dodgers had dominated the Pirates throughout the decade. 

Opening on the East Coast allowed the team to get two of those three-hour time difference series out of the way early.  In the Pirates series, two games started while breakfast was still being served here in California.  The middle game was halfway over by the time I got home from work.  In the Marlins series, the latter scenario was repeated as I arrived home in the fifth inning.  The rubber game was halfway over by the time I got home from church on Sunday.  At least I got to see the middle contest in its entirety, although I didn’t much like the ending.  Knuckleballer Charlie Haeger struck out 12 in his first start this season for L.A., on Sunday.  The Dodgers still lost.

Vicente Padilla, a late season acquisition in ’09, made starts in both road series, being  knocked around in Pittsburgh, then fared only slightly better in Florida.  Clayton Kershaw, still a kid at 22 and only in his second full season in the majors, got the nod for the Dodgers’ home opener on Tuesday.  Kershaw didn’t look especially sharp in his start in PNC Park, although he gave up only three runs in a game the Dodgers eventually lost, 4-3.  I hoped he would raise the bar while facing the Diamondbacks in Dodger Stadium, and although he wasn’t satisfied with his effort, he did.  For Arizona, newcomer Ian Kennedy took the mound.  This caused me slight concern that a trend from last year could possibly carry over to the ’10 season.  It was a trend that was all too prevalent in 2009–that of SoCal boys coming back to haunt their hometown team–and it happened more times than I care to remember.  Kennedy is a graduate of La Quinta High in Westminster, and he also played college ball just a couple of miles from Dodger Stadium, at USC.  I’m quite an enthusiastic supporter of our regional talent around the major leagues, except for when those players face my Dodgers!   Fortunately, Kennedy did not continue the trend.

And so, April 13–Martes Azul!— finally arrived–Opening Day at Dodger Stadium–2010 being the 120th anniversary of the inception of Dodger baseball.  This game was also the third home opener the Dodgers were a part of thus far, as both Florida and Pittsburgh hosted them in their first home series.  I had been listening to Dodger music all weekend long–Nancy Bea Hefley’s Songs from Dodger Stadium CD; “Music to Your Ears”, a compilation giveaway from a couple of seasons back that contains several Dodger-related songs, and Ozomatli’s tribute to the 50th anniversary of the Dodgers in L.A., a song originally written and performed by them in 2008.  Just like I was as a kid waiting for my family’s annual trip to Disneyland, I was up early and ready to go before dawn on Tuesday morning.  I take Amtrak’s Surfliner train from San Diego County to downtown L.A. every year on Opening Day–and yes, it does pass Disneyland and Angel Stadium.  Driving past the rolling flower fields of Carlsbad and the sunrise over Batiquitos Lagoon, I leave my car at the Oceanside transit center and board the train.  It passes over the ocean cliffs in San Clemente, through Orange County’s verdant hillsides, past the tree-lined southern suburbs of Los Angeles, and finally through the industrial yards of downtown L.A.–there are many changes of scenery on this commute. 

But the yard I am headed for is one of graceful palms, beautiful floral displays, bright blue, and baseball.  All along the 90-mile Surfliner route, men, women and children in blue Dodgers gear board the train at almost every stop.  We nod at each other with mutual optimism for our team.  Then we all disembark at Union Station, and it’s slightly more than a mile up Sunset Boulevard, the last leg of the journey, to our Shangri-La in Elysian Park.

So, here I was at Chavez Ravine, City of Angels.  I’d been to my home away from home twice over the last few months, the first time in mid-January, during an Open House for potential season ticket holders, and the second in late February for the great crosstown rivalry of USC-UCLA baseball, the Dodgertown Classic, played on a Sunday afternoon..

The weather on Opening Day was much  like the visit of three months ago–slightly crisp in the mid-morning with a few puffy clouds, giving way to bright sunshine by the afternoon, with the mountains glistening in the background.  Just as was the case in January, the previous day’s rain left the skies blue and Elysian Park, which embraces Dodger Stadium, green.  The peaks were not dusted wit
h powder as they’d been back in February, but they stood majestically as if on guard. It’s always breathtaking to take in the sight of our shining jewel in the hills again.  So upon arrival at the front gates, I said a blessing for the 2010 season, as I usually do.

“Happy Opening Day, Happy Blue Year” greetings were in abundance as I met up with others, some of them old, long-time friends, and some new acquaintances.  It was wonderful to hear long-time organist Nancy Bea Hefley on the Dodger Stadium organ again, reassuring to see the enthusiasm and support among the fans, and simply sublime to sink my teeth into the first Dodger Dog® of the season.  And yet, with all the tantalizing sensory delights of MLB’s return, none is sweeter than the sound of Vinnie’s voice.  Since he doesn’t accompany the team on East Coast road trips, we’ve only heard him call spring training games so far in 2010.  This was our first game to be savored with Vin.  It reminded me of Charley Steiner’s introduction of him to the fans on Opening Day, 2009, as he prepared to throw out the ceremonial first pitch:

“Over the Dodgers’ 51 years in Los Angeles, there has remained one
constant.  In a city of stars and superstars, no one shines brighter
than this man.  He is simply the heart and  soul of this city, and the
team for which he has called games for 60 years now…”

Hearing the response gave me goosebumps.

So, a lot of things were going through my mind.  But finally, there was the game at hand ready to be played.  Clayton Kershaw, beginning just his second full major league season, took the mound for the Dodgers and held the Diamondbacks to one run through five innings.  The Dodgers pecked away at Kennedy, working hard just to get a lone run on a bases-loaded sac fly.  Then they broke through:  Manny, Casey Blake and Matt Kemp all homered
off Kennedy in the middle innings.  Dre, in his return to the lineup after missing the Marlins series due to a sore ankle, added a three-run blast off
reliever Esmerling Vasquez in the sixth to give the Dodgers a comfortable lead.  Or so we thought.  By the time Kershaw exited and the game was turned over to his bullpen, it was encouraging that the Dodgers had that sizable lead, because the Diamondbacks tacked on three more runs before Jonathan Broxton was able to slam the door in the ninth.  Final score  – Dodgers 9, D’backs 5.

While watching, I remembered last year’s Opening Day thrashing of the Giants, when “O-Dawg” hit for the cycle, the first Dodger to do so in 39 years.  He played in L.A. but one season, yet left his imprint on Dodgers history.

I do have to say that for Opening Day, the ceremonies seemed rather insignificant compared to previous Opening Days.  Sure, it was great to see the 2009 Silver Slugger and Gold Glove awards presented by former Dodger greats, but the festivities compared to the last couple of years were pretty low-key.  And aside from the divorce news, the Dodgers were pretty low-key over the offseason, so perhaps this is a sign of how things are going to be for awhile.  Still, for the entertainment capital of the world, you’d think they could bump the pre-game excitement up a notch.  They know how to do it right, as they have so often in previous Aprils.

The game began and ended with the first rendition of “I Love L.A.” of 2010.  At nearly four hours long (3:42), this was the longest Opening Day game in terms of regulation in Dodgres franchise history.  That’s saying a lot!

One more observation, I was happy to see the flags of the various countries represented in the WBC still flying atop Dodger Stadium.  They are a reminder of the World of Dodgertown and the Dodgers’ far-reaching impact on baseball around the world, the World Baseball Classic having been played here in 2009. 

So how did the Dodgers follow all this up?  With what looked like a great performance by Chad, holding the Diamondbacks in check for the first few innings on Wednesday night.    Unfortunately, he returned to his old ways and unraveled in the middle innings.  I’m noticing another disturbing trend in the early going now–that of the Dodgers relentlessly coming back from deficit after deficit, only to lose after a late inning uprising by the opposition.  It happened again in this one–a game the Diamondbacks eventually won, 9-7, in the 11th inning.  Sloppy relief pitching did them in, yet once more.  And this was a game that required nearly four hours in regulation before even going to extra innings. 

When the clock struck midnight, Vin was there to remind us that “it’s the bewitching hour.  How does that song go?  ‘Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered.’  Well, this game has a little bit of all that.”

And so it goes.  Now, here it is April 15–Jackie Robinson Day, a very special day around the Major Leagues, and a source of pride in particular for Dodger fans.  But looming on the horizon next is a big home series this weekend against the Giants, who’ve stormed out the gate with a 7-2 record while my Bums have struggled in the early going.  Clearly, this will really put our sluggish team to the test.  The rubber contest with Arizona is next, and then we’ll find out how the 2010 edition of this bitter rivalry plays out.