This will be a bit different from most of my blog entries. I was invited back to Dodger Stadium with a media credential for the second consecutive year. Hopefully, the relationship between myGameBalls.com and the Los Angeles Dodgers will continue to be a mutually beneficial one. Here’s the column I wrote for myGameBalls–which appeared as a three-part series of columns entitled On The Scene at Dodger Stadium: 9/16/11. And you can read those posts here, here, and here. Those posts each have a photo… ooh! Or just keep reading this post. Or do both!
Friday, September 16th, 2011. The Los Angeles Dodgers are on a bit of a tear after enduring a rough season. They’re trying to claw back to the .500 mark and maintain their mathematical eligibility for postseason play. This evening they’ll face the Pittsburgh Pirates, who just a month earlier had been the talk of the nation with their surprising success. But in mid-September both teams sit well out of first place and well out of the NL Wild Card lead. For the Dodgers, this overcast and dreary day is another chance for Matt Kemp, the potential MVP of the league to pad his numbers and for potential Cy Young-winner Clayton Kershaw to rest before taking the mound on the road to 20+ wins. The Dodgers have had it rough in 2011: the legal battle for team ownership has been the top headline, the Opening Day assault on a fan has made the news, attendance is down, and fan favorite, Andre Ethier has been hurt and will likely need surgery. The normally bright sky behind the L.A. cityscape is dark and rain is in the forecast. You wouldn’t know it though once you enter the stadium–it’s the magic and mystery of baseball. When there’s a game to be played, especially when you’ve got Vin Scully behind the mic, none of those negative news feeds seem to matter. Inside the gates of Dodger Stadium it’s still that “blue heaven” that Tommy Lasorda told us about.
The Dodgers (all forty of them) are out on the field working when I arrive. It’s almost 4:00pm and BP is about to start. The September call-ups, thrilled to get to be a part of it all, are jovial and being coached by the veterans. Kenley Jansen loses the handle on a breaking ball and the leather-bound sphere ricochets off his partner’s glove and into the box seats just past third base. An Easter egg for a lucky fan–the first of the day.
It’s what the teeming masses at the gates will sprint for. The chance to find a souvenir within the first moments of entering the stadium. Moments later Kemp blasts a ball into the left field bleachers and it settles on the cross-aisle. Another Easter egg to be had. As I move to left field, John Ely and Ramon Troncoso take a break from their pre-game activities and lounge in row D, showing each other how they grip the ball for each pitch. Another blast from the cage nearly hits them and the ball bounces into the crook of a seat… waiting for a wandering eye to find it once the floodgates open at 5:10pm. Salsa music plays on the PA system as the Boys in Blue continue BP. Soon, the stadium will fill with eager fans hoping for a ball and/or autograph. The early birds know the best time to snag a souvenir is early in the day. But the most important baseballs to almost all fans come later in the night–when there’s a chance that one of your heroes will send a game-changing home run in your direction.
The players vacate the seating bowl and head back to the field before the fans are allowed in and the sun starts to peek out from behind the clouds. It’s shaping up to be a beautiful night for baseball after all.
At 4:56 the first sign of Pirates activity starts up along the right field line as some Bucs jog along the track. The Dodgers leave the field at 5:20, the fans catching only a glimpse of their hometown club before the game. But in those precious ten minutes roughly a dozen baseballs are scooped up from the formerly empty seats by charging fans. For a lucky few, the game has already been a success and they simply hope for a bonus prize: a Dodgers win.
Throughout BP the Dodgers, then the Pirates, send souvenirs into the stands. Some are hit–most are thrown and all around the stadium fans’ eyes light up. It’s the game balls, however, that are the true diamonds in the rough. As the game’s first pitch nears I find a suitable locale on the Loge level and wait for the magic to start. Somewhere, as soon as a player misses by a fraction of an inch, a baseball will come flying back toward the seats. At 6:55 the colors are presented by members of the Armed Services as the fans continue to file in. This L.A. crowd, like most, arrives late. At the game’s first pitch there are roughly 10,000 fans in attendance. The extra room to run around is beneficial, however, for one lucky fan. I was about to meet a man who snagged a foul ball off a ricochet–from the Field level.
In the top of the second inning Ryan Ludwick fouls a ball back. It arcs high in the air and descends about ten feet shy of the Loge seats. But, with plenty of open territory on the Field level no one is in line to catch it. The ball smacks of the concrete and, with such a great amount of spin on it, bounces up and toward the Loge. Literally, a thirty foot ricochet into the waiting hands of Rudy. Rudy’s a fan of the Dodgers an he and his family (there are five of them in attendance) are thrilled at their good fortune. I ask him if he’s ever caught a foul ball before. Never–he’s been coming to Dodger Stadium since his childhood and this is his first game ball. He speaks English as his second language but the excitement behind his words can be understood by anyone from anywhere. This is a momentous evening for the L.A. resident and he’s thrilled to get to share the experience with his family. They have great seats between home and first base in the first row of the Loge. Rudy has a baseball in his hand that he plans to keep to share with generations of his family to come, and it’s a beautiful night in L.A. As we conclude our interview I thank him and then, showing he’s a true Dodger fan, boos the opposing team as they score a run and tells his family he knows the Dodgers can overcome this early deficit. For Rudy, this game will be one to remember for the rest of his life.
The Dodgers tie it up in the third inning on a single on an RBI single from Matt Kemp. But the story you won’t see in the box score is about what he did one pitch earlier–fouling a ball up to a pair of anxious hands in Section 118, two sections away from where Rudy snagged his prize. I find the lucky fan and ask him for a moment of his time–I suggest we chat after the inning’s over and he thinks that’s a great idea. When Dan finally can focus on my inquiries instead of his beloved Boys in Blue we talk about his highlight reel catch. Dan is sitting with his friend John and John’s son Jordan. My first question is about his ability to catch the ball without a glove. He tells me he leaned just to the right and was able to snag the ball on the fly using two hands (it’s good fundamentals, kids). The trio I’m talking to are all big Dodger fans but they don’t get to go to many games since they live in north Santa Barbara county. They’ve driven a long way to see the game tonight and I ask how many games Dan has been to this season. “One,” he tells me. I congratulate him and tell him it’s his lucky night and he heartily agrees. Dan’s forty-six years old and, when I ask if he’s ever caught a foul ball–or any kind of ball at a big league game he says, “No. Went to a lot of games, but no.” A grin creeps across his face and he stares down at the ball as he talks–he plans to put the ball in a display case and put it up somewhere in his home. I ask him about his thought process as the ball’s heading toward him. He tells me emphatically, ” I kinda saw it… it just seemed like it was floating there–like slow motion.” As I wrap up my questions to let these guys get back to taking in their one Dodger game they’ll get to see this year I thank them for their time and Dan tells me one parting statement: “[This ball] definitely has some meaning–it’s from Matt Kemp. He’s got a shot to be MVP!”
In the sixth inning rookie Alex Presely lofted his third career home run into the right field All-You-Can Eat Seats. I watched from the infield as someone in the sea of people made a clean catch of the ball. Looking at the replay a day later it was clear that the fan who caught it was thrilled–he raised his arms up and his mouth was agape as he yelled and cheered. A once in a lifetime moment. Lucky for me, I didn’t have to wait until the next day–I found fourteen year-old high school shortstop Alex, from La Canada, CA a few moments later and sat down with him in the bleachers. “Well, there was a home run by the Pittsburgh Pirate player. I just stuck my glove out–I didn’t think I could do it–but,” and then young Alex shows me the baseball in his hand. It’s clear he’s excited, nervous, and extremely happy. He’d just gotten off the phone with his grandfather and had told him about the catch he’d made as I chatted with Alex’s mom to see if it would be OK if I interviewed him. The whole family (“There are eight of us,” his mother would later tell me.) is jittery with excitement for Alex. Meanwhile, the booing from the surrounding fans has started to subside. He did, after all, catch a visiting team’s homer and he didn’t throw it back. I tell him, “I saw Matt Kemp pick up a ball that got thrown back to the field.” He tells me that someone a section to his right threw that ball–the crowd was yelling at Alex quite a bit and that friendly stranger’s throw “took some of the heat off.” Alex is no stranger to catching baseballs. He’s played the game for years and he’s snagged a few foul balls from minor league games but never a Major League home run. “I knew I was going to be here,” he says, gesturing to the outfield seats. That’s why he brought his glove. I said to him, “You’re in the middle of a row here. The ball would have to come right to you!” It did. Alex confesses he did have to lean a bit to his left, “It would have hit [his friend’s mom]. She didn’t have a glove or anything.” Alex laughs, and the family and friends around him agree. He goes on, “It all like slowed down–I felt really excited.” And after the catch… it was from a Pirate and Alex tells me he’s a Dodger fan: “Well, you kinda feel guilty.” He references that he knows that at a lot of places (“like Cubs games”) there’s an expectation that you throw the ball back. Alex, still reeling from this momentous occasion says, “It’s my first time ever home run catch. It’s really important, special…” and then, in one of the more memorable quotes of this pleasant L.A. evening, Alex concludes he just couldn’t bring himself to throw it back. “I love baseball so much. I needed to keep it forever.” He tells me, “I have a collection of foul balls. I’m gonna put it on my desk.” His shining new trophy–his mom is thrilled–and when I ask Alex to say, in one word, how the catch made him feel he enthusiastically responds, “Exhilarated!” and then adds, “It’s just amazing.” I snap a photo of Alex with his friends and family before parting ways. It’s moments like that, hat keep the fans coming to the stadium–all thirty of them–night after night over the course of a 162-game season. It’s the magic, the randomness, the “exhilarated” feeling we all get.
After inching closer in the top of the sixth the Pirates are on the verge of a lead before getting shut down by the Dodger bullpen. As starter Kuroda is hit for, I look around. Not as many fans are at this game as I’ve seen at previous tilts in previous seasons but I take note that when the billboards flash “MAKE SOME NOISE” the place really stars jumping. The fans out tonight are the passionate, do or die, all-in fans. With the score 3-2, the Dodgers get some pop from an unlikely candidate. As a pinch hitter in the bottom of the sixth James Loney lofted a ball to right-center. It was going to be close–A fly out? A wall-ball double? Nope. The pearl descended and bounced squarely off the tip-top of the wall and five rows back into the right field seats. A carefully timed jump and a solid glove were all it took from there for die-hard Dodger Fan, Mike, to make a sparkling catch. Over the thunderous cheering I interview Mike just a section and a half closer to center field than where Alex had been sitting. “Well, James Loney came up and hit a pinch hit home run off the top of the fence… and into my glove.” I get the feeling that Mike is stunned by his good fortune and convenient positioning in the stands. He is wide-eyed and speaks with uncertainty… he is, as he later mentions, overwhelmed by the experience. When I get to the “What did you feel when you caught it? question Mike replies, “I was in shock, actually… yeah!” I inquire: “Did you think there would be a chance you could end up with a home run tonight?” “Sure, yeah” he states… but it must be this Whittier resident’s lucky night because,” I’ve only sat here… twice in the last five years.” Wow! When asked if he considers himself a big Dodgers fan Mike tells me enthusiastically, “Yeah, totally! Yes!” Mostly though, he watches the games on TV and roots on his Boys in Blue. Mike only goes to about “four or five” games each year. Tonight he’s with four buddies. He reminds me, true fan that he is, “They’re not mathematically out yet,” referring to the slim shot the Dodgers have of securing a playoff spot after their great September run. Mike’s a very positive person, he assures me… then he looks for the first time to see it’s now 7-2 Dodgers. He’s thrilled–it was a three-run homer! I watch Mike’s face light up when he realizes the lead is that much. And has he ever gotten a ball before? “I did catch one once in batting practice… when I was about twelve years old. In this same section.” “And since then?” I ask. “Not another one until tonight.” Amazing! The stadium and this team, it’s clear, mean so much to fans like Alex and Mike, Rudy and Dan. Mike tells me, “I’m gonna show it off to everybody!” as he’s holding out the ball. “I caught it with the same mitt.” The same Mag Plus he’s had since he first became a fan of the Boys in Blue–I told him, “I don’t think they even make Mag any more!” He brings that glove to every game… just in case. And tonight it paid off in a huge way. “Heck yeah, this is the best game I ever went to!”
That 7-2 score holds up as the Pirates are unable to mount a charge against the hometown heroes. It’s a glorious night in Dodgertown, a cool evening–but not yet jacket weather in L.A. Plenty of fans are thrilled that their boys will fend off playoff elimination for another day. For a select few, though, this night meant something so much more special than a win from their team–this night is one they’ll remember forever, tell their kids about, and they’ll have a souvenir unlike any other to treasure in their own special way. When that sphere finds its way into the stands, whether its in fair or foul territory, the game itself comes into the hands of a fortunate fanatic at the stadium that night. A piece of the game is theirs to keep and theirs to show off to friends and loved ones. It’s a lasting memory of the laughs they shared and the sights and sounds of the ballpark and that ball signifies that sometimes the game, quite literally, gives back to those who come out to support it.
And, in case you’re wondering, loyal readers, I snagged three baseballs at this game. One was an overthrow by a Dodger pitcher, one was a homer that bounced around in the seats in the left field corner, and one I caught on the fly off the bat of a right-handed pirate halfway up the bleachers in left. All three were immediately given away to young fans and won’t count in my stats. Thanks very much to the Dodgers and Alan Schuster for helping to get this set up for a second straight year.