Dodger Stadium was heaven to Times baseball reporter Larry Stone when he was growing up in Southern California. He was a Dodgers fanatic as a kid, rooting for Sandy Koufax, Willie Davis and the rest of his heroes.
I have a friend, a fellow child of the smog-filled winds of Los Angeles (to steal a phrase from Frank Zappa), who sends me a periodic text or email with four simple words.
“I’m back in heaven.”
That’s our code word for Dodger Stadium — heaven. For both of us, the ballpark in Chavez Ravine, with the San Gabriel mountains resplendent in the background (on a clear day, anyway), still has almost mythical, and mystical, power. Every time I go back, I’m transported to my childhood in Whittier, Calif., in the 1960s, when my life revolved around Dodgers baseball, when I hung on every Sandy Koufax pitch, every Wes Parker at-bat, every Maury Wills steal, every Willie Davis running catch.
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With the Dodgers in Seattle for one of their intermittent interleague visits, I can honestly say that every vestige of Dodgers rooting interest has long since dissipated, the victim of passing time, relocation and 30 years in a job that hammers home the necessity of impartiality. This is the ultimate sacrilege for someone who bled Dodger blue in his formative years, but I actually have more of an affinity for the hated Giants, having spent 10 years covering the team from the mid-1980s to the mid-’90s.
My humblest apologies to John Roseboro, may he rest in peace. (Bat-wielding Juan Marichal got off way too easily — suspended for a mere eight days!!! — but that’s a whole ‘nother story.)
What hasn’t disappeared, and what never will, is the deep, emotional attachment I have to the Dodgers of that era. Matt Kemp and Clayton Kershaw mean nothing to me, except as embodiments of the best modern baseball has to offer. Ah, but Billy Grabarkewitz (the gritty little Billy G.), Sweet Lou Johnson, Willie Crawford (whose high, squeaky voice was an amusing counterpoint to Davis’ basso profondo) — those names, and all the others, still resonate with profound significance, conjuring up fond mental images to this day.
My Dodgers wheelhouse ranges from 1963, when even as a 6-year-old I got caught up in the excitement of the World Series sweep of the mighty Yankees, through the Garvey-Lopes-Russell-Cey crew of the mid-1970s. Then I went off to college — Cal-Berkeley, deep in the heart of Giants country — and it was all downhill from there, life itself drawing me ever farther from my Dodgers heyday.
The subsequent signposts of Dodgers history — the latter days of the Tommy Lasorda era, Fernandomania, Kirk Gibson’s homer, Eric Gagne’s exploits, the current Don Mattingly revival — I have viewed with increasing dispassion, much to the frustration of some of my back-in-the-day buddies. Somewhere along the line, I can’t quite pinpoint when, the Dodgers became just another team to me. It happens, particularly to kids who grow up to be sportswriters.
But childhood memories are powerful things, not so easily shed. When I began covering the Giants and Ron Fairly was one of their announcers, I didn’t waste the precious opportunity to have him regale me with stories of Sandy, Don Drysdale and Tommy Davis. And Ron, whose own formative years as a ballplayer were spent on those Dodgers teams, was happy to indulge me, a habit that continued when we both moved on to Seattle.
I called up Ron this week to try to get a feel for why those Dodgers were so special, beyond the fact that I was an impressionable kid.
I’m not claiming this is a story unique to me — it’s been played out across the country, across generations, from Fenway Park to Wrigley Field to Camden Yards. Right now at Safeco Field, kids are living the Mariners moments that will grow into the nostalgia of 2035. It’s part of the beauty of baseball.
But I believe there was a certain romance to those Dodgers, freshly transplanted from Brooklyn into the middle of Hollywood in its most glamorous manifestation. Fairly remembers that it was commonplace to see Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Jackie Gleason and countless other A-list celebrities at Dodger Stadium when it opened in 1962.
“If you were with the Dodgers in the early going, every place you went, people knew who you were,” he said. “It was quite an exciting time. I was already in awe of the Duke Sniders, Gil Hodges, Carl Furillos, Pee Wee Reeses. Then we move into Dodger Stadium, and you have Cary Grant showing up.”
One time, Clint Eastwood played in the annual “Hollywood Stars” softball game. He didn’t have a glove, so he borrowed one from Fairly, a fellow lefty. About 10 years ago, they were at a golf tournament together. Fairly went up and said hi.
“I still have your glove,” Eastwood said.
I asked Fairly to give me his best Koufax story. He told one about Pete Richert, a long reliever for the Dodgers, who used to feel emboldened to go out and party hard the night before a Koufax start. After all, who’s going to need a long man with Koufax on the mound?
So one very hot day, it happens — Koufax is struggling early in the game. Dodgers manager Walt Alston phones down to the bullpen — get Richert up. Koufax gets out of the jam, but the next inning he’s in trouble again. They get Richert up again. Meanwhile, Alston comes out to the mound, where the manager, Koufax and first baseman Fairly meet.
“How you feeling, Sandy?” Alston asks.
Fairly: “Sandy says, ‘Better than the guy you have warming up.’ Walt turned around and walked off, and we won the game for Sandy.”
OK, I’ll admit it — I eat that stuff up. I still remember the time Fairly told me that in certain games, on certain pitches, with a small crowd, he could actually hear, from his position at first base, the ball explode off Koufax’s fingers when he threw it, a kind of whoosh sound. I asked him about it again, just to hear the story one more time.
“It only happened three or four times,” Fairly said. “I remember one day at Wrigley Field, only about 7,000 people in the stands, hearing that little sound, almost like a little snap right off the end of his fingers. I’m standing there saying, ‘My God, who could hit that?’ I never heard that with anyone else.”
Did I mention I eat that stuff up? Ron and I agreed that the Dodgers’ legacy was tarnished by the disastrous Frank McCourt regime, and that makes us both sad.
“There are still a lot of Dodger fans, but it’s not like it was,” he said.
No, it isn’t, except for one glorious link from my Dodgers past (and every Dodgers fan of the past several generations) to the Dodgers present — the wondrous announcer Vin Scully, who didn’t make the trip to Seattle but is still going strong in his 63rd season behind the mike. I remember going to Dodgers games as a youngster and hearing Scully’s voice reverberating around the stadium. Everyone brought their transistor radios to hear Scully narrating the game they were watching — the ultimate tribute to an announcer.
“I’d be in the on-deck circle listening to him, too,” Fairly laughed. “As far as I’m concerned, if they had a contest to pick the greatest announcer ever, Vin would finish first, second and third.”
Listening to Scully today — which you can do pretty easily, by virtue of satellite radio and other Internet forums — is the closest I can get to being transported back to those halcyon days of youth. Sometimes, I truly believe that Vinny is going to keep calling Dodgers games forever.
Now that’s heaven.
Larry Stone: 206-464-3146 or email@example.com.
On Twitter @StoneLarry