• The Return of Dodger Blue

    by  • August 30, 2012 • Baseball, Features, Mike Spry • 0 Comments

    LATE LAST FRIDAY NIGHT, the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Boston Red Sox made what is perhaps the largest trade in baseball history, in terms of the contractual obligations involved and the status of the players leaving the chaos of Red Sox Nation for the perhaps once again temple of Chavez Ravine. Adrian Gonzalez, Josh Beckett, Carl Crawford and Nick Punto went west for James Loney, Iván DeJesús, Jr., Allen Webster, Rubby De La Rosa, and Jerry Sands. It was the kind of massive blockbuster that sport doesn’t see anymore. It was the kind of trade I would have loved reading about as a kid. And it brought the Dodgers back—to me anyway.

    I haven’t thought about the Dodgers much in the past 20 years. At some point they slipped away as a my mistress team from way out west. But at times this year, whether by affection for nostalgia or disappointment in the Blue Jays, I’ve found myself checking on them. I like that Don Mattingly is their manager, the ex-Yankee. Donny Baseball. As close as you can get to a Hall of Famer without being one. He missed the Yankee glory years, on both ends of his career. As I write this, the Dodgers are one-and-a-half games out of the wild card, and 3-and-a-half back of the NL West leading rival San Francisco Giants, another west coast franchise that broke New York hearts. Their star pitcher is the impossibly named Clayton Kershaw, titled like a Hemingway character. The team has escaped the failed ownership of Frank and Jamie McCourt, and is now owned by a group that includes longtime MLB exec Stan Kasten and Magic Johnson. They want to win. They’re willing to spend, to take chances. They want to return the Dodgers to past glory.

    They want to return to 1988.

     

    WHEN I WAS A KID, my maternal grandmother spent her winters in Vero Beach, Florida. On a few occasions my mum took my sister and I down to visit. There wasn’t much to Vero Beach. A beach stop on the highway. A rail line passing through. A JC Penney, who carried the unavailable-in-Canada “Underwear is Fun to Wear”. Piper Aircraft is based there. Grandmother’s hide from the Canadian winter there. But as a kid, you don’t ask much of your vacation spot. I wasn’t hungry for art galleries, museums, Gap outlets, Tilted Kilts. I just needed a pool. A beach. A store that sold baseball cards and/or comic books. Kraft Dinner reserves. An abundance of colas. Batman briefs. Despite its pedestrian nature, its Everytown, Florida charm or lack thereof, it had something that did set it apart from the Myrtle Beaches, and Pensacolas, and Dunedins. Vero Beach had Dodgertown.

    In 1948, before spring training was spring training, before many teams ever stepped foot in Florida, the Brooklyn Dodgers built Holman Stadium on an old Naval base in Vero Beach, and Dodgertown slowly grew around it. A spring training complex, an annual retreat, was the brainchild of Dodgers’ GM Branch Rickey. Among Rickey’s other contributions to the game were batting helmets, statistical analysis, minor league systems, and oh, the notion that African Americans should be allowed to play, too. For over 60 years Dodgertown was the place where the Dodgers began anew, where they gave birth to another season, where they started tied for first, where everything, everyone, was equal. This is where Don Drysdale, Sandy Koufax, Don Sutton, Pee Wee Reese, Roy Campanella, Fernando Valenzuela, and a kid named Robinson spent their Februarys and Marches. The Dodgers may have broken hearts in Brooklyn, but they remained faithful to Vero Beach until 2006 when Arizona and promise of commerce over history took them to Glendale.

    Dodgertown. Even the name sounds implausible. Of another time. There are no more Dodgertowns. Hell, the Dodgers are just another team now. They struggled through the 90s and 00s as an also ran, a sometimes contender, often showing promise, but coming up short. They certainly weren’t the New York Yankees, their old cross-town, then cross-country rival. While the Yankees became the crown jewel of the sport, of all-sport, the Dodgers fell from grace. They suffered through bad ownership, bad trades, players and managers on the downside, the twilight of careers defined elsewhere.

    But just last week, that may have changed. With a bold trade, born of new ownership, it looks like the Dodgers may be back. Could Dodgertown be far behind?

     

    I WAS AN EXPOS FAN growing up, so it could be assumed that the Los Angeles Dodgers would be my natural foe, the opposition in the 1981 NLCS, the root of heartbreak. But Nana didn’t choose her winter locale based on my sporting affections, on Steve Rogers’ pitch selection, and the 10 year-old mind had no difficulty reconciling those emotions. The Dodgers have a long and beautiful relationship with Montréal. The AAA Royals were based there, Jackie Robinson’s last stop before being summoned to the major leagues, and changing the racial landscape of America forever. Rick Monday’s homerun in 1981. A Dennis Martinez perfect game thrown against the Dodgers in 1991. “El Presidente, El Perfecto.” The team that gave Montréal Pedro Martinez. So, despite my unwavering affection for the ‘Spos, the Dodgers were the team I had on the side. It was, perhaps, my first experience with promiscuity, with infidelity.

    The Expos, as all Expos’ fans know, teased like a three drink drunk. Always close. Always short. And then, 1994. And then, eventually, inevitably, Washington. But through those years, when the postseason came, and you needed a team to cheer for, the Dodgers were often in the hunt. And as a kid, they had everything you wanted in a team. A grand history that you could trace on the back of Topps’ cards, a story, a grace, and clean, crisp, traditional uniforms. Dodger blue. I had a cap, the only kid on the gravel lots of Ottawa sporting one.

    And then came 1988.

    I followed them in the papers that year, always a day behind with the late West Coast games. I matched the names from the box scores with those on my baseball cards. The nerdy Orel Hershiser, with his oversized glasses and strange name. The portly catcher Mike Scioscia. The star second baseman Steve Sax. The veteran Mickey Hatcher. A roster filled out with players with names that seemed made up, seemed part of a bedtime story about baseball: Mike Marshall, Jeff Hamilton, Franklin Stubbs, John Shelby. They were managed by a chubby bowling pin of man named Tommy Lasorda, who as a kid I always pictured eating lasagna in the clubhouse. And a player by the name of Kirk Gibson, who wore a moustache and once terrorized the Toronto Blue Jays on my parents Baycrest TV as a Detroit Tiger.

    Kirk Gibson. 1988.

     

    IN 1986 MY MUM took me to Dodgertown to see a Spring Training game between the Dodgers and the Houston Astros. Arriving at Dodgertown was like entering a cathedral.  The palm trees like disciples draped over the driveway. The parishioners equipped with their scorecards, unwritten psalms of a winter afternoon in the Florida sun. Dodger caps maintaining that quiet wool blend division between man and God. The caps were beautiful in their modesty, a stylized ‘L’ interlaced with a matching ‘A’. Their colour what is known, simply, as Dodger Blue. It was my first baseball game. The stranger next to me taught me how to keep score. I watched in awe as the players I knew only by baseball cards were just steps away.

    My mum, not baseball fan, or a blazing hot Florida sun fan, made us leave with the score tied in the 8th inning. I don’t remember making a fuss, but I probably did. The Dodgers would end up winning the game in extra innings, I would read in the local paper the next day. Mike Scioscia knocking in the winning run. At least once a year in my adulthood, I tease my mum about making me leave. Truth is, I’m just happy she took me. As a kid, you think that you’ll do everything again, that each experience is one of many. But in truth, most experiences are singular, individual, and fleeting. I imagine its much like getting to a World Series as a young player, and upon losing thinking you’ll get back there one day. But most never do, and I’ve never been back to Florida, never been back to spring training. But two-and-a-half years after being dragged away from our first baseline seats, that afternoon in the sun would connect me to a team I hadn’t known, or cared for, before.

    THE 1988 WORLD SERIES was not what the baseball world wanted, certainly not the league itself. The New York Mets and the Boston Red Sox had won their divisions, and the promise of a Sox-Mets Fall Classic sat just beyond the horizon, a horizon made of the Oakland Athletics and Los Angeles Dodgers. The Sox were the darlings of destiny, a team without a World Series for generations, but had Roger Clemens, Wade Boggs, Jim Rice, and yet the curse of history. The Mets were the sideshow NL cousins of the clean cut Yankees, with Darryl Strawberry, Dwight Gooden, Lenny Dykstra, and the Kid, Gary Carter keeping them calm, controlled, focused as he had in ’86, when they won it all.

    But it was not to be, and both the Sox and the Mets were dispatched in their respective LCSs, and baseball had a World Series comprised of two California teams. The Dodgers weren’t given much of a chance. The As boasted the young and brash Bash Brothers, Mark McGwire and Jose Canseco, veteran power in Daves Henderson and Parker, and everyone’s favourite comeback and recovery story in the feared reborn closer Dennis Eckersley. The Dodgers, on the other hand, had burned themselves out just getting to the Series. Kirk Gibson was beaten down with bad knees and a bruised hamstring, and couldn’t even walk to the plate let alone play in Game 1. Pundits declared that the As would win, and manager Tony LaRussa, who often credited himself with inventing baseball, would finally win that elusive title.

    I don’t at all remember Game 1 through the first 8-and-a-half innings. Who even knows why, at 12 years old, I was even watching the west coast game. But I recall pulling myself close to that same Baycrest TV, the signal fading in and out, the picture anything but crisp. I recall thinking Eckersley was scary, and that his flawed and dangerous sidearm sling was probably unhittable. I recall thinking at any point my parents were going to make me go to bed, like my mum had made us leave Holman Stadium three springs previous. The As were up 4-3. Tommy Lasorda sent Dave Anderson to the on-deck circle to hit in the pitcher’s spot. Eckersley pitched around Mike Davis, feeling he could avoid Davis’ power and get the light hitting Anderson out to end the game.

    But baseball is nothing without its narrative, and as the team of Koufax, Drysdale, and Robinson was being written off, Gibson was in the clubhouse changing the story. He told Lasorda he could hit, and as Davis made his way to first Gibson hobbled from the dugout towards the plate. Chavez Ravine erupted. A scene was presented. Two stars, one in what would prove to be the twilight of his career, the other entering his career’s unexpected second act, facing each other unexpectedly.

    I could write in flowery prose what happened next. I could try the rest of my life to put it into words. But those words would always fail, because in my memory, in many memories, the moment that followed was, and always will be, described by Vin Scully:

    What strikes me, as I’ve watched that clip over and over the past few days, the past few years, the past few decades, is how simple the game is presented. How the players are smaller. How the game is smaller, but somehow much much bigger. The organ playing in the background as Gibson rounds the bases. Not noise, but background born of the game. And more than anything, I see the joy. The joy in Gibson as he makes his way past first, barely, hobbling not for effect but because he couldn’t run. The joy in Lasorda as he comes rumbling out of the dugout onto the field. What manager in today’s game would do that? What coach in any sport would do that? Today’s game is one of posturing, and absent of truth. The joy. It seems more honest. More genuine. More natural than what we have today.

    IN HIS FIRST AT-BAT for the Dodgers, Adrian Gonzalez hit a three run homer. Again, Chavez Ravine erupted. Gonzalez is a Mexican-American. He was born for that market, for those fans. And as he rounded third after his three run shot, you could see a sense of joy, or perhaps relief from escaping Boston. Maybe this is a sign, a hint at the possibility of a return to that time, to an era of Dodger baseball, of Dodgertown. In a season of PEDs and an era of parity, it would be good for the game for this franchise to reclaim its place atop the game.

    The pieces are in place for the narrative. Gonzalez. Mattingly. Johnson. The way the season’s unfolding, the Dodgers could meet the Washington Nationals in the playoffs. And wouldn’t that be something? For the team that was once my Expos to meet the team that could once again be the Dodgers. And in a likelihood, should the stars align and the baseball gods awake from their slumber, a date in the Fall Classic with their old neighbours, the New York Yankees and Vin Scully with the call. I’d stay up for that.

    About

    Mike Spry is a writer, editor, and columnist who has written for The Toronto Star, Maisonneuve, and The Smoking Jacket, among others. He is the author of JACK (Snare Books, 2008), which was shortlisted for the 2009 Quebec Writers’ Federation A.M. Klein Prize for Poetry, and he was longlisted for the 2010 Journey Prize. The short story collection Distillery Songs (Insomniac Press, 2011) was shortlisted for the 2012 ReLit Award. He lives in Wakefield, Quebec. His most recent work is the poetry collection Bourbon & Eventide from Invisible Publishing.

    http://www.mikespry.org

    Leave a Reply