The home of the team that I’ve followed for roughly 80% of my life, with downtown Los Angeles’ skyline looming in the background. Photo courtesy of andymarquardt7.wordpress.com
COMMEMORATING THE ANNIVERSARY OF A VERY IMPORTANT EVENT IN A BASEBALL FAN’S LIFE
Sunday, June 18, 1978.
My 11th birthday.
I had just finished the fifth grade.
A day that I was anticipating with excitement, considering my burgeoning obsession with baseball and one of my local teams, the Dodgers, due to their appearance in the World Series eight months before.
The reason for the excitement?
That eleventh birthday of mine was the day I went to Dodger Stadium and saw the team that my family, particularly my grandparents, who were loyal followers of since their Brooklyn days, for the first time ever.
For an impressionable African-American boy with the requisite disco-era afro who was approaching six feet in height, you can imagine the feelings going through me as I woke up that warm and sunny morning.
I made it a point to carefully dress in my baseball-style 3/4 sleeve shirt with the Dodger logo in the front, plus the mesh-backed adjustable replica Dodger cap with the interlocking “LA” on the front, as my mother and I left our tiny apartment in Santa Monica to go pick up the three cousins whose names I pulled out of a hat to go with me; she had gotten a total of six tickets on the field level down the right field line as we all piled up in her Opal Cadet to begin our journey to just north of downtown L.A. and what then-Dodger manager Tommy Lasorda called “Blue Heaven On Earth”.
Contrary to what some of you may be thinking at this point, the traffic wasn’t too bad as we turned left from the 110 at the Dodger Stadium exit, drove a few more minutes, and there it was!
Any youngster seeing a sports palace like Dodger Stadium for the first time in person would be mighty impressed at its majesty, and I was no exception, though interestingly enough the size of the 56,000-seat ballpark wasn’t the only thing that I noticed.
Not the Dodger game I went to; this contest happened about three months later. Photo courtesy of commoms.wikimedia.org
The bright colors of the seats, which seemingly reached up halfway to heaven, ranging from bright red on the top deck to orange on the loge section (second deck) to the blue-hued reserve section in between, was what I noticed the most as one of my cousins exclaimed how he wanted to see Steve Garvey, who was the All-American go-to hero among the children of Los Angeles at that time.
After my mom’s friend, who I considered an aunt, joined us, Mom proceeded to hand us kids the tickets, giving us the required lecture about staying together and being on our best behavior, before we headed for the turnstiles.
It was Helmet Weekend, meaning that everyone ages 14 and under got a free replica Dodger batting helmet that was a popular thing to wear back then, and of course I was excited when I was handed that blue plastic head covering, putting it on over my cap right away, my unruly afro sticking out underneath.
We then proceeded to our seats, Mom promising us that we would stay all nine innings, and as the Montreal Expos (now the Washington Nationals) were the opponents, I couldn’t miss the large red and white maple leaf Canadian flag flying next to the red, white, and blue stars and stripes beyond the center field fence.
Our seats weren’t far from the Expos’ bullpen, and I remember one of my cousins asking either Expos pitcher Stan Bahnsen or one of their coaches for an autograph as they were walking by us to their dugout, one of them saying, “I’ve gotta go to work.”
Which we were all incredulous about, going, “What? Playing baseball is work?!”
Little did we know; the innocent naivete of youth coming into play at that moment.
I vividly recall “O Canada”, that country’s national anthem, being played and sung before our “Star Spangled Banner” , with the Dodgers then taking the field and getting things started as the organ in the press box just below the reserved section played “Charge!”
Of course I enjoyed the famous Dodger (Hot) Dogs and the chocolate ice cream cups that I consumed over the course of the contest.
The co-hero of my inaugural Dodger experience, second baseman Davey Lopes (2nd from right), along with the other members of baseball’s longest-tenured infield: Third baseman Ron Cey (far left), shortstop Bill Russell (2nd from left), and first baseman Steve Garvey (far right). Photo courtesy of pinterest.com
OK, here’s what I remember regarding how the game unfolded…
Over the four decades since that day, the four details about that contest that I’ve never forgotten were…
- The Dodgers’ ace, Don Sutton, pitching a shutout,
- Dodger second baseman Davey Lopes stealing four bases,
- One of my cousins calling out Dodger right fielder Lee Lacy’s name, yelling “Lee! Lee!” between pitches mid-game and having him turn his head in our direction and (I’m sure) thinking, “Who the hell is calling my name?!”, and,
- The Dodgers beating the Expos 5-0, putting the finishing touches on the most memorable birthday of my childhood
As for any more details, I took the liberty to download and print a copy of the game’s box score online recently.
What I found was some very informative stuff:
- Don Sutton gave up six hits, walking one and striking out six in hurling a complete game gem; I was surprised to find that it only evened his win-loss record to 6-6 and lowered his earned run average to a pretty high 4.29; he had evidently gotten off to a bad start that season.
- Along with his four stolen bases, Davey Lopes went 3-for-4, earning him Co-Player of the Game honors with Sutton in the middle of his best season, Lopes raising his batting average to .320 that day.
- Yours truly, Mom, her friend, and my three cousins were among the 41,769 fans in attendance that day.
- Sutton’s Expos opponent on the mound, Wayne Twitchell, pitched not unlike a Bad News Bear as he lasted but four innings, walking five Dodgers. He and the two other Expo hurlers also did a crappy job of holding base runners as Lopes ran wild, and…
- (VERY significant) Having three future members of baseball’s hallowed Hall of Fame playing on that Dodger Stadium diamond – Sutton, plus Expos Andre Dawson and Tony Perez.
I think I may have bought this yearbook during that first Dodger game. Image courtesy of amazon.com
TO STATE THE OBVIOUS…
That first Dodger game set the tone for a forty-year (and counting) involvement in baseball and softball in some form, as I joined Santa Monica’s Sunset Little League the following spring and, after five years as quite the mediocre player, eventually spending roughly two decades coaching boys and girls on the youth level as well as umpiring (which I absolutely hated), playing pick-up softball – which I continue to do to this day – and writing about those sports (and others),
Like I’m doing right now!
As for the Dodgers’ 56 year old home, I would go on to see nearly sixty games at that ball park over the next four decades, including on two other birthdays in 1997 (the day I turned 30) and 2000 along with this past June 10th, when I watched those Dodgers beat the Atlanta Braves 7-2 from the top deck,
In addition to (I believe) eight games featuring UCLA’s Bruins taking on USC’s Trojans in the Dodger Stadium College Baseball Classic, which the Dodgers host every March and has become a good part of the Crosstown Rivalry, me sitting in the field level near the dugout.
Which considering how much it costs to see games there nowadays is the only time I get to sit close to the action.
And I have been honored to be able to go onto Dodger Stadium’s field on three occasions, the first time after watching the Dodgers play the Angels the day before my 40th birthday in 2007, when the fans were allowed to play catch with small rubber balls in the outfield.
The other two times were quite exciting, as I performed pre-game shows with the UCLA Alumni Band behind home plate in 2011 and 2012 for the Dodgers’ UCLA Day promotion.
To say that was a pronounced thrill would be an understatement!
It has gotten to the point where I could give tours of that place, thinking the last time I was there, “Sometimes I think I know Dodger Stadium too well,” me having the distinction of having sat in every section of that ball park at least once.
THE BEST WAY TO SUM THIS ALL UP?
I feel that I made a friend for life that mid-June Sunday in 1978.
At least, those are my feelings every time I go up the second hill on Vin Scully Avenue (formerly known as Elysian Park Avenue) and see the lights on top of Dodger Stadium in the short distance.
Since that memorable first trip to Chavez Ravine came to pass forty years ago today,
I think it’s more than fitting that I give proper props to that quintessential chapter of my childhood on this blog.
Dodger Stadium as it looked roughly ten years before my first visit there. Photo courtesy of insidesocal.com