A Life In 20 Dodger Games (and 1 Bonus Game)

The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It’s been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again. But baseball has marked the time.1Terrence Mann (James Earl Jones), Field of Dreams (1988). I’m not crying, you’re crying.

I

The broadcaster Keith Olbermann tells a story2Bottom of the Tenth Inning, Ken Burns’ Baseball (2010) about running into a cop near Ground Zero on the day of Major League Baseball’s restart after the 9/11 tragedy. The officer recognized Olbermann and they began talking. Olbermann asked how the officer was doing, and the officer replied “I’m worried…I’m worried about the Mets.” Taken aback given the circumstances, Olbermann asked why. Well, the officer explained, the season was restarting, the Mets were on the road in Pittsburgh, and they were struggling to catch the Braves. Olbermann asked how he could worry about something so trivial in light of the 9/11 tragedy. The cop responded:

“Of course it doesn’t matter. I got three hundred friends dead. It doesn’t matter. But tonight at 7, and all day the rest of today, I can look forward to putting my feet up and pretending that it does matter.”

II

I have been a Los Angeles Dodgers fan since birth. The 1980s Dodgers are not only Fernando-mania and 1988 to me. The 1980s Dodgers are Kenny Landreaux, Jerry Reuss, Mariano Duncan, Greg Brock, Alejandro Pena, and a host of others—some more accomplished and many less—but all of whom are remembered here.

I also grew up in the Superstation era—WTBS was Channel 17,3After Ted Turner bought the Braves, he signed a pitcher named Andy Messersmith as a free agent, assigned him the number 17, and put the name “Channel” on his back. Channel 17, get it? and it had the Atlanta Braves. I never cared for the Braves, even though they featured *Mormon4Out-of-favor nickname for members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. We’re not supposed to use it, but no one gave writers a replacement word. hero Dale Murphy. I was more a fan of the Cubs on Channel 26, WGN, with their garrulous play-by-play man Harry Carey and star second baseman Ryne Sandberg. The Cubs also played day games, which meant I could watch the end of games when I got home from school.

And I was adept at computer simulations. APBA was my favorite program, but I also used Micro League Baseball and perhaps other programs now lost to history. With these programs, entire seasons could be simulated with current players, historical players, or both. For some reason, it didn’t occur to me that this was even more make-believe than the game itself.

April 9, 1981: My earliest Dodger memory. My dad picked me up from pre-school and we drove to the game in his work pickup. On the way, the radio announcer says that scheduled Opening Day pitcher Jerry Reuss is a late scratch, to be replaced by rookie Fernando Valenzuela. I don’t remember the game itself, but Fernando changed Los Angeles’ relationship to the Dodgers forever.

September 11, 1983: Long before September 11 became infamous, this was a famous game in Dodger history. It was a Sunday, and I remember changing out of my church clothes in the car on the way to the game. The Braves were in town, and challenging the Dodgers for the pennant. The Dodgers fell behind 6-3 going into the bottom of the ninth inning, only to mount a furious four-run comeback capped by a bases-loaded squeeze bunt by R.J. Reynolds. Bedlam ensued. People threw babies from the rafters.

The only problem: We weren’t there. After the Dodgers went into the ninth inning three runs down, we left to beat Dodger Stadium parking lot traffic. We listened on the car radio.

III

I played Little League until age 12, and was not bad. But every game bordered on emotional crisis, which I realized only years later was a portent of the anxiety that hounds me for life. One particular game stands out. I had made the All-Star team and we were playing our hated Cheviot Hills rivals in the tournament. They were always better than us, and we had lost a practice game a few days earlier something like 18-2. But we were leading this game, and I was brought in to pitch my inning. The inning was like a movie. Bases loaded, two out, full count. I line it up and pitch: swing and a miss, strike 3. I remember coming off the mound weeping, not in celebration, but in abject relief. I’m not the goat. I’m not to blame when this all goes terribly wrong. I hadn’t learned to pretend.

The magic of the 1988 season still resonates. That year in particular, the games were on in our home nearly every night, either on radio or television. I think the greatest lesson I learned from that season, however, came several years later through George F. Will’s baseball book, Men at Work. When Will asked Hershiser, the Dodger great who broke Don Drysdale’s scoreless inning streak, whether he expected to pitch a perfect game every time he appeared, Hershiser responded:

“‘A perfect game . . . . ‘If they get a hit, then I am throwing a one-hitter. If they get a walk, it’s my last walk. I deal with perfection to the point that it is logical to conceive it. History is history, the future is perfect.’”

Ironically, this is the opposite of pretending. This advice is as real as it gets.

August 14, 1988: This game featured a 1-1 tie in the eleventh inning, when the Dodgers loaded the bases with two outs and the pitcher coming up. Out of position players (in part, because Mike Davis had just been thrown out of the game under questionable circumstances), Lasorda sent in workhorse starting pitcher Tim Leary, to pinch-hit. Leary drove a line drive single up the middle for another stunning win. One of the season’s many improbable moments foreshadowing the impossible two months later.

By the way, this time we managed to stay the whole game.

October 16, 1988: The day before, I was on the 405 freeway heading southbound with my scout troop when Gibson hit his miraculous home run. We shared season tickets and planned to go to Game 1, but the scout campout meant we had to trade tickets with my uncle.

But Hershiser put on a pitching clinic in Game 2, giving up only three singles to Dave Parker. He also added three hits of his own for good measure, including a double in the decisive third inning where the Dodgers scored five of their six runs in a 6-0 shutout.

After the series was over, Sports Illustrated ran a pictorial pitch-by-pitch summary of the game with written commentary by catcher Mike Scioscia. I never forgot it. I mentioned it so many times in the interim that a few years ago, my wife found a back issue and bought it for me.

Speaking of my wife, ten years later to the day, she and I were married in the Los Angeles California LDS Temple.

IV

Young baseball fans often age out of the sport, but this was not true for me. If anything, I became more fond of the game. These were rebuilding years, but the Dodgers were developing a series of young players—Karros, Piazza, Nomo—to anchor the team for the next decade. And I could drive myself to the games, though not always without incident.

April 29, 1992: I remember very little about the game. In fact, my memory told me it was against the Mets. But even that was wrong; it was against the Phillies. But the fire and smoke on either side of the 10 freeway on the way home was unforgettable. It was the night of the Rodney King verdict.

April 8, 1994: I went to this game with a girl named Dawn. That was notable enough at the time. But then Atlanta Brave fifth starter Kent Mercker pitched a no-hitter, the only one I’ve seen live. Fun fact: This game also featured the MLB debut of a young Korean right-hander named Chan Ho Park. He would have many better days than he had that night.

May 17, 1995: Japanese phenom Hideo Nomo blew away 14 Pirates in seven innings, and the Dodgers appeared in complete control, even up just 2-0. But Nomo’s elevated pitch count forced him out of the game and the bullpen collapsed, costing both Nomo and the team a win.

September 19, 1995: I was used to approaching Dodger Stadium from the west, not the east. But attending college in Claremont, I had to learn to approach from east-to-west. My roommate and I drove to the game, an otherwise nondescript game lost to the Giants when backup catcher Kirk Manwaring hit a mid-inning bases-loaded double. We left and I was so angry that I wasn’t quite paying attention to what I was doing, though I was aware that something was off. My roommate, who was from Seattle and didn’t know any better, actually asked me if I was going the right way. It wasn’t until I saw the sign marked “Sylmar” that I realized I’d gotten on the 210 Westbound. Old habits…

September 30, 1995The Dodgers can clinch the NL West pennant in San Diego, and my roommate and I realize that San Diego is not far from Los Angeles. Despite the Sylmar incident, he braves the drive. We get there (and back) without incident. The game is close through six until the Dodgers break through in the 7th. Then, in the 8th, Mike Piazza hit a laser-beam home run that, to this day, I swear never rose more than 12 feet from the ground. Talk about feats of strength.

Just a few days later, I had tickets to Game 2 of the subsequent playoff series against the Reds. My roommate had a class, and I called various other folks trying to find someone to go. I had made some friends at church, and I called one of them to tell her I couldn’t find anyone to go to the game with me. I ended up taking her. We were married three years later.

October 4, 1995: The Dodgers had already lost Game 1 and needed to win to avoid going to Cincinnati down 2-0 m. Down 3-2 going into the ninth inning, manager Tommy Lasorda called on journeyman starter Kevin Tapani instead of closer Todd Worrell. This was inexplicable, and I made my views loudly known from the left-field loge level. Tapani gave up two runs, which made it all the worse when Eric Karros hit a monster two-run home run in the bottom of the inning, which proved too little, too late.

V

I went on a two-year church mission in 1996,5I couldn’t watch tv or listen to radio during this time period, but I got newspaper clippings from home. This is how I found out about the Piazza trade and Nomo’s Colorado no-no.returned home, got married, and my life of responsibility began. With little money or time, I couldn’t attend games like I had in the past. I also left Southern California for Sacramento, Washington D.C., and finally for Utah and law school. But I followed from afar.

Moneyball was released in this period and had blown my mind. Inspired by Moneyball’s author, Michael Lewis, and the Godfather of Dodger bloggers, Jon Weisman, I started my own Dodger blog, but from a critical perspective. I wrote about the Dodgers and baseball in general6This was the “Ja[y]son” era of the Dodgers, as the team of this era featured Jason Phillips, Jayson Werth, Jason Grabowski, and Jason Repko, a circumstance with no shortage of comic potential, particularly since three of them couldn’t hit. until 2005, when I graduated from law school and began working. Afraid that writing would interfere with my new job at a top law firm, I stopped. Until last month.

October 22, 2000: Special bonus game from Kaiser Hospital—Fontana, where my wife is in labor. The television is on because its a Yankees-Mets World Series. She’s having contractions, but also Roger Clemens is facing Mike Piazza. Piazza fouls off a pitch and shatters his bat, part of which flies at Clemens. Clemens picks up the broken barrel and hurls it back at, or near, or around,7Depending on who you ask Piazza. Unfortunately, I was far more interested in this than what was going on in the room. Somehow, we’ve been married nearly 22 years.

June 18, 2004: The best pitch I ever saw was Eric Gagne’s Bugs-Bunny curveball to leave Bernie Williams frozen in stone for strike 3 to end this game. We were sitting in the high reserve seats way down the third base line and saw the ball break from there. Also, the first regular season game the Yankees ever played at Dodger Stadium.

October 9, 2004: Limatime! The Dodgers had already lost two in St. Louis and most believed that even a resurgent Jose Lima would be unable to hold back the Cardinals. But for one night, Lima was pure magic, twirling a shutout on a night far more energetic than it had any right to be. The Dodgers lost the series the next night, but we always have Limatime. Postscript: This is the game where Jim Edmonds hit a hard line drive into the left-field stands that I realized much too late was headed right at me. It hit me in the palm and left stitch marks—apparently, that’s not a cliche—then bounded off to be picked up by someone else. Still my last, best chance.

Boston native Frank McCourt8Not the author. Not even close. bought the Dodgers from Fox in 2004. McCourt was a parking lot operator who purchased the team with debt. After an early flirtation with analytics by hiring Moneyball guru Paul DePodesta as General Manager, McCourt generally abandoned all pretense of strategy and simply adopted across-the-board cost-cutting, like he was KKR and the Dodgers, RJR Nabisco. Further, McCourt considered the baseball team a carnival act to seed his real-estate interests. Then, as the ugly details of the collapse of McCourt’s marriage filtered through the media, it not only further distracted from the team’s mission; it revealed that the McCourts were far in over their heads.

This was alienating, all the more because it was too familiar. I was already surrounded by Frank McCourts—golden-tongued grifters and charlatans—making promises they never intended to keep. And now my beloved Dodgers were owned by the same kind of carnival barkers. It’s no coincidence that Jamie McCourt ended up in the Trump Administration. Frauds of a feather flock together. This proved to be too much pretending.

My interest in the Dodgers, and baseball as a whole, waned. I became tired of the pretending. But now my refuge was gone, just when I needed it.

April 17, 2006: A friend of a friend gave me tickets in the first row of the old field section behind home plate, right behind the new seats. Greg Maddux was in his second stint with the Cubs, toward the back of his career. He threw a textbook Maddux game, giving up one run on three hits in a performance that was far more dominant even than that. It was easy to appreciate from right behind home plate but, like many Maddux games, it came in at under two hours. My only game behind home plate was over by 9:30.

June 12, 2007: Wilson Betemit homers in the 2nd inning. The next batter is a young, relatively unknown (at the time) rookie named Matt Kemp. Kemp not only homers, it’s a “loge homer,”9The Dodger Stadium “loge” level is the second level of stadium seats. Most seats are in foul territory, except two or three sections near the foul poles. A hitter generates the most power when driving the ball to centerfield, which is why baseball fields curve outward as they head toward center. of which there have been only been a couple dozen. The next batter is pitcher Hong-Chih Kuo, one of the first few Taiwanese stars in MLB. Shockingly, Kuo turned on a pitch and drove it 412 feet for a third straight homerun. Sometimes life surprises you.

VI

I spent several years avoiding the hobbies and dogmas of my youth.10As further discussed here. Clayton Kershaw’s emergence somewhat helped, but it was the McCourts’ sale of the team that began the reconciliation process. The new management team put the team front-and-center and started spending money again. They recommitted to analytic methods, not just at the major league level, but throughout the organization. It was safe to pretend again.

October 3, 2014: I’ve attended a few games in luxury boxes, but none as memorable as this one. I’ve been invited with a bunch of other lawyers to attend. It’s not hard to figure out that I am more interested in the game’s result than most. And when Kershaw enters the seventh inning with a 6-2 lead, the celebratory texts are already going out.

Well, if you want to make God laugh tell him your plans. Kershaw loses his curveball, and his fastball is getting hammered. An approximately 93-pitch at-bat to Matt Carpenter ends poorly, and Pedro Baez adds gasoline to the raging forest fire by giving up a three-run homerun. The Dodgers fight back to 10-9 and have the tying run at third with two outs, but Yasiel Puig strikes out to end the comeback.

September 24, 2016: The Dodgers won this one 14-1 over the hapless Rockies, on their way to sewing up a division title. The result was less important than the real reason the sellout crowd was there: It was the night the Dodgers honored Vin Scully during his last home weekend as play-by-play announcer. I didn’t attend this one by mself; I took the entire family to honor a man that I will never meet, but who nevertheless had an outsized effect on my life.

VII

As new ownership proved its competence, my interest revived. The 2017 season was particularly memorable, coming in the midst of more personal turmoil and a six-month home remodel. But now, the Dodgers had my back. Even when they lost Game 7,11True story, with witnesses. We were watching Game 7, and it was clear Yu Darvish didn’t have it. My eldest daughter was applying to colleges at the time, and she had a question about one of her applications. Just as she asked, George Springer swung straight through a dead red 3-0 fastball. I couldn’t figure out how he missed it. I said to her “I’ll answer your question as soon as he hits this next pitch for a home run. Sure enough. . .”[\mfn] the sting didn’t last very long. I was too grateful for the game itself.

Something had happened during my hiatus. So many of the things I once cared about didn’t matter much anymore. Whether Dave Roberts used a lefty or righty in any particular spot, or whether he double-switched, or called a hit-and-run, just wasn’t a critical part of the equation. It doesn’t matter; it’s just fun to pretend that it does.

July 6, 2018: The family has tickets to the Dodgers-Angels game in Anaheim; our daughter is leaving home for school in the fall. My memory is that it was approximately 91211The newspapers claim 108 degrees at game time, but I was there. Even in the shade, it is one of the hottest days I have ever experienced.
degrees. Even worse, the Dodgers nursed a 2-1 lead into the ninth inning only for Kenley Jansen to blow the save and the game. This was a serious test of my reformation.

Perhaps the most remarkable organizational development of the past several years is the number of players obtained on turnaround and developed into great MLB players. Justin Turner, Chris Taylor, and Max Muncy are just three All-Star caliber players acquired for nothing and re-tooled into star hitters. The talent is a necessary prerequisite, but it’s comforting to know that skills that can be acquired. It isn’t all just God-given fortune.

October 27, 2018: The night before was the 18-inning 2-1 win that revived the Dodgers’ chances against a 108-win Red Sox team. I wasn’t planning to attend any games, but after a same-day discussion with a friend, we bought tickets for the game.

That seemed like a great decision when the Dodgers went up 4-0 into the 7th. But Dave Roberts maybe, kinda, sorta, probably quick-hooked Rich Hill—whose side eye when leaving the mound was visible from the top deck—and the bullpen was, uh, not up to the challenge. It was not a good sign when Ryan Madson showed up. The Red Sox dispatched the Dodgers the next day in summary fashion.

VIII

My reconciliation was timely, because the 2019 season offered a season-long sanctuary from a world now hellbent on destroying me. The Dodgers’ disappointing NLDS loss registered nary a blip—half-an-hour before Game 5 began, I made a decision that changed the course of my life. Then, I was able to kick my feet up and pretend that, for three hours, something else mattered. But it didn’t really.

One thing I had always wanted to do as a kid was attend Spring Training at Dodgertown: Vero Beach, Florida. But several years ago, the Dodgers moved camp to Arizona—much more convenient. I also hadn’t spent nearly enough time with my two sons, both of whom age too rapidly. Though I worry about time, and money, and everything else, I bought tickets, made motel reservations, and the three of us headed for Phoenix.

We arrived and checked in. The man in line behind us took a call from his wife, assuring her that coronavirus was not a concern. We had discussed it ourselves, but Trump had said just three days earlier that the few existing cases were under control and “heading to zero.”

February 29, 2020: Prospect Luke Raley homered, and the Dodgers won the game.12After the game we went to Johnny Rockets for dinner and saw The Call of the Wild at the AMC. Less than three months later, the Glendale mall we visited was attacked by a 20-year-old shooter with an assault rifle.

March 1, 2020: The Dodgers lost. The lemonade was good though.

The opportunity to share that experience with my sons was unparalleled. That part mattered.

Two weeks later, Rudy Gobert tested COVID-positive and the world shut down. The start of the 2020 baseball season—a new refuge—was postponed. We have been inside since March, and will likely be so for several more months. And after several weeks of false starts and acrimonious negotiation, a 60-game MLB season begins in late July.

Does it matter? Well, baseball owes us nothing. There is no obligation—moral or otherwise—for it to entertain us. If it were not there, we would have to find other things to do. But the decision has been made, and so we can kick our feet up for three hours a night and pretend that it matters. I won’t complain. Play ball.

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