Monday, April 20, 2009

Take me out to the You-Know-What

This is a little sportswriter-ish. Sorry:

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA—It’s my favorite spot in the city. The downtown skyline looms over my shoulder and the upper level entrance to Dodger Stadium beckons. It’s a view I never tire of. It’s a Friday evening in the Dodger’s first home stand against the Colorado Rockies. Riding a five-game home streak, the Dodgers’ new season evokes memories of games permanently affixed in the hearts of fans. You know them all, and I won’t replay them here for you.

But entering the field as Colorado takes its batting practice, I spot one-time megastar turned TV color analyst Fernando Valenzuela, leaning against a dugout railing. I reminded him of our first interview, way back in the 1981 season, his second with the team, in the year the Dodgers won the World Series. He spoke no English. I spoke no Spanish. It went about as well as you can imagine.

After I stumbled through a “no speak English” interview with his parents in a tiny village in Sonora, Mexico, the story, for Newsweek’s Inside Sports, appeared on newstands all over America, with no inkling that I was linguistically challlenged. As I laughingly reminded him of the story—in the same dugout where I’d stammered through that interview—He looked up at me, and asked dryly, “And what’s your point?” Gee, he speaks English so well now. Cue the embarassing music. But I digress.

Every Dodger visit is like walking through a living scrapbook. There’s former manager Tommy Lasorda (two world championships, four National League titles, and eight division banners) cutting up with friends in a hallway. Dodger legend Don Newcombe chats with players near the batting cage. Hall of Fame broadcaster Vin Scully passes me in the hallway, nods hello. (I once stood next to him in the press box restroom. That was surreal.) Former players hang out in the press dining room. It’s a baseball fan’s little nirvana.

The Dodger press dining room, I recall, used to be filled with overweight sportswriters, since food is served non-stop throughout the game, but not so much anymore. Tonight the most popular item is the salad. Who knew? (No, the press doesn’t eat for free. Dinner is $9, up from $7 last year.)

Nirvana aside, the Dodgers, led by manager Joe Torres, are out to expand upon last year, when they finally managed to win a game they had to win, the first in more than twenty years. They swept the Chicago Cubs in three games, then were treated like punks by the eventual world champion Philadelphia Phillies, who thumped them four games to one.

The 2008 Dodgers had two new faces who instantly made an impact on the team’s fortunes—stellar manager Joe Torre, he of the hated New York Yankees, and slugger Manny Ramirez, he of the dreadlocks and the deadly bat. Torre took the Dodgers to their first playoff appearance in eons, his thirteenth in a row. Manny was, well, Manny. In two months, he led baseball with a .396 batting average, and a .489 on-base percentage, along with a .743 slugging percentage. He hit four home runs in his first six days, the first Dodger to ever do so. He and newly acquired Casey Blake banged out 27 homers in the last five weeks of the season, and the Dodgers are reasonably expecting more of the same in 2009.

Visiting the 45 year-old Dodger Stadium for the first time in a couple of seasons, the physical improvements, begun in 2007, are readily apparent. The field level concourse was renovated following the 2007 season, as the Dodgers revamped the field level concourse, increasing the number of concession stands and restrooms, and adding two Baseline Clubs for baseline season ticket holders.

This year the Dodgers will also stage fireworks (that I can see from my house) after every Friday night home game. (That makes 14 of them through September. FYI, that Dodger Trolley Friday night shuttle service that was so popular last year, providing a slow but convenient ride from Union Station to the Stadium, is no more. It was supported by LA and the MTA last year without participation from the Dodgers. who have once again opted not to pay for it. Write your councilman.)

On to the game itself: LA’s five-game hot streak is in trouble immediately after a first inning two-run shot by Colorado’s Brad Hawpe puts them ahead. All is silent upstairs in the Dodger press box, but not because the Dodger are losing. Cheering, or any favoritism, is not allowed, and can get you removed.

In the bottom of the seventh, the Dodgers got four runs in the bottom of the seventh—including a single by Manny— to defeat the Rockies and extend their win streak to six games. Later, Dodger tough guy Jonathan Broxton eased out of a bases-loaded jam in the bottom of the eighth with the game at 4-3, and finished the game to record a five-out save. Of his four saves, it’s his first of more than one inning.

The Dodgers have high hopes this season, though few experts are expecting them to vie for any titles. But maybe the future was foretold on this season’s first afternoon home game. Dodger newcomer and switchhitter Orlando Hudson “hit for the cycle” in his first four at-bats. He opened with a single, then banged out a home run, then a double; then a triple, against the Giants, who were clobbered by the Dodgers, 11-1. Both the cycle and the big win were a surprise for Dodger fans, since the Dodgers have never really been stellar on Opening Day.

As Hudson told an MLB reporter, “Please don’t expect this every game. This is a hard enough game as it is.”

But therein lies the beauty of every new season. We are filled with hope and short memories. Like children, we believe in everything good, and see blue skies ahead. Yes, that would be Dodger Blue.

Hope springs eternal. And sorry about the Habs.