Tuesday, March 18, 2008

An Era Ends (and on My Birthday)

Hmmm. It's another March for Pastor Zip's Blog.

T. J. Simers opens his column in today's Los Angeles Times:
VERO BEACH, Fla. -- The Dodgers played their last spring training game here Monday, like most folks in California really care.

The Dodgers have been training here for 60 years, out of sight as far as Los Angeles is concerned, and who cares where they practice?

It's just another minor league baseball stadium, a clubhouse off limits to fans, and even the players no longer stay overnight in Dodgertown, passing on nostalgia for almost $700 a week in living expenses to hang wherever they want.

Blow up the place, and I don't think any of my neighbors will lose any sleep. Make a museum out of it, and I can still think of a thousand different places worth a visit first.
Read it all here. But T. J. Simers must never have been a boy growing up in Los Angeles. I was -- born on St. Patrick's Day as the Los Angeles Dodgers (a term at that point that tripped off the tongue of no one except Kenny Hahn) were in Spring Training for a season that would, shock of shocks, bring baseball's World Championship to the West Coast. (That means I passed a milestone yesterday, celebrating my 49th birthday -- one more than my grandfather, Charles Wallace Tibbetts, did.)

Vero Beach mattered. Even to an Angels fan in the West Valley who craved, instead, reports from Holtville and games from Palm Springs (it would be years before I finally figured out that the guy yelling outside the press box almost drowning out Enberg and Wells or Drysdale was hawking "ICE COLD BEER!") on KMPC. It meant the sports pages and reports on the TV news and a game or two on Channel 11 focussed on the other Southland team, meaning Dodger talk. It meant that the wonderful voice of Vic Scully was again describing the action on the field while selling Farmer John hot dogs, bacon, and other pork products.

In 1983 our Pastor's 15-year-old son was diagnosed with cancer in the bone of his right leg. Keith was at the time quite a young pitcher whose life ambition until then was to pitch for the Los Angeles Dodgers. The Saga of Keith and the Dragon Slayers became a focus of the congregation's shared life and all sorts of people got involved in offering comfort and support for Keith. Even the Dodgers had been involved -- baseball players and teams can be so good at providing inspiration and hope -- and, after treatments that included chemotherapy, radiation, and replacement of the bone with a titanium rod, it seemed young Keith had been cured.

And as 1984 was blending into 1985, somehow arrangements had been made for the high school kid who should have been pitching for El Camino Real High School (arch rival of the Hunters) was going to Dodgertown in Vero Beach, with his dad, and get to spend time with their beloved Los Angeles Dodgers. Alas, within hours of his arrival, Keith collapsed and in the hospital it was discovered that, unbeknownst to anyone, a tiny piece of that bone cancer had escaped capture and the cancer was now in his brain. And suddenly the questions were, as Pastor Dave was all alone in Vero Beach, how long could Keith live, and could he come back home to LA.

There were lots of stories yesterday as the Dodgers played what should be their last game in Dodgertown. Sports Illustrated's SI.com has a wonderful article, Dodgers: Farewell, Dodgertown of the day, with an 80-year-old Tommy Lasorda managing (while Joe Torre has part of the team playing an exhibition series with the Padres in China):
"It is a special place," former Dodgers ace Carl Erskine said.

His white hair ruffling in the breeze, Erskine played the national anthem on his harmonica. He threw the first pitch at cozy Holman Stadium when it opened in 1953, back when grassy embankments served as the outfield walls. Even now, there are just 17 rows of stands and no roofs on the dugouts.

The popular "Oisk" first arrived in 1948, when the Dodgers touched down at the converted naval air station a year after they trained in Havana.

The Boys of Summer are grandfathers now, Jackie and Pee Wee are gone and Brooklyn is now home to a minor league team.

But there was always that link to Dodgertown, where Sandy Koufax still came back to teach pitching. History abounded -- heck, the camp is older than almost half the franchises in the majors.
David Hinkley of the New York Daily News in "A farewell to Dodgertown" remembers being a 9-year-old Brooklyn Dodger fan in Connecticut struggling with the notion that, since the Dodgers had just moved to Los Angeles, Vinnie wouldn't be on the radio from Dodgertown.
Around 12:30, when the pregame shows used to start, I went to the kitchen and turned on the radio, a small black Magnavox with a plastic gold grill. I switched from WTIC, where Bob Steele gave us the weather every morning and school closings on really good days, to 840.

Nothing sounds like a baseball game on the radio. You know it as surely as you know the smell of popcorn in a movie theater. Even a pregame show is distinctive.

This afternoon, there was nothing distinctive on WKNB - probably, thinking back, some NBC network show.

I adjusted the dial, hoping I'd tuned wrong. I hadn't. I turned it off. Fifteen minutes later I came back, hoping maybe they just weren't carrying the pregame.

I started trying again around 12:55. By 1:15 there had been no mention of a ballgame.

Maybe it was rained out, I started to tell myself, but even at 9 I knew when I'd exhausted this delusion.

By 2 o'clock the announcers had done a half dozen breaks and never mentioned a ballgame.

I stared at the radio. I remember feeling very lonely.

As years have passed, I've thought of a lot of things I wish I had done, or could have done, when I was young. If I'd been just a year or two older, I might remember my great-grandmother, who came over from Ireland in the 1870s on a "famine ship" and died when I was 4. What a story she must have taken with her.

But those senses of loss came gradually. For acute, immediate loss, it would be years before anything would come close to what washed over me in the kitchen on that March afternoon.

It felt unfair. Just unfair.

Curiously, I didn't look to blame anyone, because it didn't really seem to matter who did it. Even if I'd known about Walter O'Malley, I wouldn't have understood enough to hate him. It would be years before I appreciated the treachery of Robert Moses.

I certainly didn't blame the Dodgers. I remained a fan, now a cross-country fan, hating the playoff loss in '62, loving the sweep of the Yankees in '63 and so on through the years.

So when I arrived back here in Vero Beach this spring, the sharp pain of that afternoon in the kitchen was tempered by the expectation of seeing Matt Kemp and James Loney and Andre Ethier, hoping they can make the Dodgers a good team again.

When they came to bat, Holman Stadium didn't feel like the scene of a wake. It felt like a a pleasant afternoon when I had tickets to see my team, which for the last 50 years I haven't had enough chances to do.

Still, it's hard not to feel the ghosts around Dodgertown, starting with Jackie Robinson's "42" on the right-centerfield fence.

Vero Beach is still the place where all those guys that I played in the backyard got good every spring - Hodges and Reese and Campanella, sure, but also Don Demeter and Randy Jackson and Gino Cimoli.

I was all of them. They were all here. And now this place is going to be gone, and that takes them away, too. There will be no more blue Dodger uniforms in a stadium where tropical trees grow up through the middle of two reserved sections. No more Dodger dogs.
Tom Singer now over at MLB.com, but who I read every day in the sports section of the Los Angeles Herald Examiner (now that was a newspaper), wrote Dodgertown blues: Time to say farewell:
Legendary broadcaster Vin Scully, eyewitness to almost as much of Dodgertown, calls his spring home for 59 years "my memory factory."

"This," Scully said before bidding an early farewell to Dodgertown on his way to China, "is where I stood in place and it seems like half the world came by -- players, coaches, managers, writers, broadcasters."

This is where time still stands still. Strolling down the dusty path from a back field, you come to an intersection where a traffic sign directs pedestrians, "Players, Left," "Public, Right." They rub elbows with each other, as they have for over a half-century, passing across Duke Snider Street, Don Drysdale Drive, Sandy Koufax Lane and so on.

"There were times you'd be rushing to get to the park," said Steve Garvey, the former Dodgers first baseman/icon, "and you'd be signing [autographs] and putting your bat between your legs and walking along through the people."

The homogeny also extended to the players, hundreds of them on dozens of Minor League clubs in the early years, when Holman Stadium was essentially the quad of Dodgers University.

Holman? Vero Beach Caddy dealer Bud Holman scored one of the first "naming-rights" deals for convincing legendary Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey to relocate the team's training base here. How long ago was it? To sell Rickey, Holman had to look him up in Cuba -- where the Dodgers were training in 1947.

"When you came here, you felt that competitive worry of having to make the club," said Jeff Torborg, Dodgers catcher 1964-70. "That's what Dodgertown meant. That family feeling you get being here, you don't feel anywhere else."

"We played baseball all day long," Lasorda recalled, "and that was the best part of it. Learning how to play so you could advance yourself to the Major Leagues. Greatest, most unique sports complex in America."

"Just walking in there ... smelling the orange blossoms, hearing the crack of the bat. The whole atmosphere was just something special," said Mike Scioscia, the Angels manager who first came here in 1977 before becoming the Dodgers' catcher, and last departed from here in 1999 as their Triple-A manager at Albuquerque. "And it's the people who made it special.

"Sandy Koufax, Carl Erskine and Roy Campanella would be in the Chow Hall, eating breakfast with you. They were all reminders that you were there to win, to achieve. Every time you stepped into the clubhouse, you were prepared to spend that day becoming a better ballplayer."

Even the poetic waxing about the place is itself part of the anachronism. The game is as great and as absorbing as ever, but the romance seems to have long ago left it. Sentiment is quickly put into its place.
The Times has a regular report of that last Dodger game at Holman Stadium in Dodgers bid farewell to Dodgertown (maybe):
VERO BEACH, Fla. -- Carl Erskine played the national anthem on a harmonica. Tommy Lasorda made a speech. And then the Dodgers said what may be their final goodbye to Dodgertown after 61 spring-training seasons today by losing to the Houston Astros, 12-10.

. . .

The Astros took a 3-1 lead in the third on back-to-back homers by Michael Bourne and Hunter Pence before the Dodgers rallied with four runs in the bottom of the inning, helped in part by Rafael Furcal's second home run of the spring.

Houston answered with another home run in the fourth -- one with an ironic twist given the day's history because it was hit by second baseman David Newhan, whose father, Hall of Fame baseball writer Ross Newhan, covered numerous spring training games in Vero Beach as the Dodgers beat writer for The Times.
The Dodgers hold Spring Training in Glendale, Arizona? With the White Sox?? No, it doesn't feel right. Not on my birthday, for heaven's sake. Dodgertown is part of the Dodger mystique! No, T. J., this LA boy knows you've opened your story all wrong.

But get past those heartless first paragraphs...
And when it was all over, the players leaving after a 12-10 loss to the Houston Astros, Lasorda lingered at home plate.

As he began to walk down the right-field line, every step appearing to be a chore, something almost chilling on a hot day began to take shape.

Somewhere beyond first base he looked up, and he saw it, too, Dodgers players standing in a long line, two-by-two across from each other, bats raised above their heads as if they were crossing swords in honor of a military hero.

And as he walked down the tunnel, he shook each of their hands, a bunch of kids taking it upon themselves without a call to any of their agents to honor an 80-year-old man.

A few minutes later, after making it to the clubhouse, Lasorda cried.

"A lot of amazing things have happened to me in my life," he said. "But what those players did for me with the bats is something I'll never forget."
It was another miracle. Somehow arrangements were made for a medically equipped jet -- this was 1985 -- to fly Keith from Vero Beach back to LA where his UCLA doctors could see what they could do and, unlike what we had feared, Pastor Dave would be leading his congregation in worship for Holy Week and Easter. Then the miracles ran out. Young Keith died a few weeks later, and for his funeral, people packed Resurrection to the gills.

Ah, "Resurrection." Stories for another time. But ponder this: the miracles really don't run out. Eras end, but there'll be something more. And better.

1 comment:

biggmann382 said...

Moving the Dogers training does make some sense for the LA fans. But let's not start a ugly FL v.CAL. Since it is possible you have never had a real orange I might send you some from my own tree. Biggmann382 Tampa Fl