Sunday, December 14, 2008

Glory Days

It's almost as if the two words "Bitter Rivalry" are linked by some symbiotic notion of tribal fidelity, as if there can be no bitterness without rivalry. In the photo, San Francisco Giants pitcher Juan Marichal is in the business of whacking the unprotected skull of Dodgers' catcher John Roseboro with his ash-wood bat. Famed hurler Sandy Koufax rushes to aid his battery-mate. It is August 22, 1965, just weeks before the Dodgers would go on to beat the Twins to win the World Series. The Giants were in hot pursuit, finishing two games back. It seems that Roseboro aimed throws back to Koufax so that the balls whizzed past Marichal's ear. The two had words, and Marichal went off like the tightly wound Dominican he was. The fight lasted 14 minutes and Roseboro required 14 stitches.

The number 14 in baseball means everything to me. When I was seven years old, my father took me to Ebbetts Field to see the Brooklyn Dodgers. The "Boys of Summer" featured Jackie Robinson, Duke Snider, Roy Campenella, and Pee Wee Reese. The silent heart of the team, to me anyway, was the first baseman Gil Hodges, who wore number 14.

Gil, the son of an Indiana coal miner, had come up as a catcher in 1943, but shipped out to the Pacific, where he earned a Bronze Star for courage in battles on Tinian and Okinawa. When he came home, he was moved to first base, where he was a stalwart up until he was replaced in 1961 by Norm Larker. Consequently, I never much liked Norm Larker, who managed only 22 homers in four years with the Dodgers.

Hodges was strong enough to lug refrigerators without assistance. His physique and numbers were astounding. He was second only to Snider in leading the league in home runs and RBIs during the 50s decade. He won the first three Gold Gloves for fielding after the award was created, was the first player after Lou Gherig to hit four home runs in a game, and in 1950 became the first Dodger to hit 40 home runs in a season. An eight-time allstar who helped lead his team to six pennants, he was dwarfed by the greatness of other players around him (Mantle, Mays, Snider, Aaron) and has not made it to the Hall of Fame despite leading the Miracle Mets of 1969 to their World Series title as manager.

But I had other reasons for loving him. He was soft spoken, and his name was Gil, the same as my father's. Our initials are the same. And we both played first base. He looks as big as Jackie in this photo of the boys standing in front of the batting cage in Ebbetts.

The morning of my first game, dad drove us across Brooklyn in his gray Dodge and we got to Ebbetts Field in time to watch Gil take batting practice. Aside from the brilliant patch of green amidst the city scape around us--as so many writers remark about in their memoirs--I recall the vivid blue of the uniforms which had been black and white in the newspapers. Sure, there was the smell of the grass, but more than that was the overwhelming bank of cigar smoke, the overtones of roasted peanuts, and a sour aroma of beer in the air.

I knew from my reading that the rivalry between Giants and Dodgers fans during the era was, in fact, bitter, but I had yet to really feel it. Bobby Thomson's home run in 1951 apparently fueled the hatred. That was before I was born. When Giants fans bring that homer to my attention today, I am quick to point out that immediately afterwords, the Giants were destroyed by the Yankees in the World Series. I point out that since both the Giants and Dodgers moved west in 1957, only one team has won a World Series--in fact five of them--and that team wears blue.

But back to Brooklyn.... What I recall most about my first trip to Ebbetts Field was that we sat just to the left side of home plate, about 30 rows back, and the cast-iron pillars that supported the upper deck rose right between the seats and blocked our view toward first base. I remember the warmth of the crowd, which seems to blot out most of the other recollections. It remains my first memory of Black people, the fans who came to see Jackie. I remember the incredible kindness and joy in their faces, and how several made a point of speaking with me, including an older gentleman who sported a smoldering cigar and tapped me on the shoulder whenever the crowd roared. I remember wild music, played by spectators who had brought instruments with them. And a circus clown, mournful Emmett Kelly from Barnum and Baily, passed among the rows making us laugh.

We moved to Los Angeles--the same year the Dodgers moved--so I never lost my team. Dad would take us to the Coliseum and later, to Dodger Stadium to see the new boys of summer. I always rode in the back seat with my baseball glove in my lap. The place was packed whenever the Giants came to town. I hated to leave before the last out, but my dad often would get us up and out the ramps to beat the post-game traffic that tied up the freeways for hours. I'd listen to games on my transistor radio at the beach, in the car, while mowing the lawns, and in my darkened bedroom at night where I could see the grass and red-dirt infield in my mind's eye as Vin Scully carved out delicious swirls of language. We'd sneak a transistor radio and earpiece into synagogue, where the High Holiday services often conflicted with the World Series.

Mom loved to go to the stadium where they had fabulous hot dogs. Maybe they weren't as good as the Coney Island dogs at Ebbetts, but they were and still are tasty. Mom knew the game, too, and the players. We watched every battle televised from Candlestick when the Dodgers played the Giants--the only games on television aside from a weekly NBC broadcast. Dad would order a pizza and we'd set out the tv trays in the den and camp in front of the set for hours. We were watching the incredible stretch run in '65 that Sunday afternoon when Marichal whacked Roseboro on the head. That moment I finally became a Giants-hater.

When I moved to Northern California to go to college in 1972, the Giant's drew so poorly that I could go to games at Candlestick Park and sit among a crowd of Dodgers fans almost equal in number to the locals. The boys won their share of pennants those days, and it was fun to rub it in. One night sportswriter Gary Rubin finagled a press pass for me at Candlestick and I walked around the batting cage, yakking with Steve Garvey and Ron Cey, snapping a photo of Smokey Alston as he stood with his foot on the top step of the dugout in his last year as skipper.

But by the time the Giants assumed their new home in the city, the crowds were almost entirely made of hardened fans in orange and black with profound hatred of all things blue. I made the mistake of wearing my Dodgers jersey. A surly fan wedged his nacho chip into that so-called cheese sauce and dumped it over me.

Outnumbered, I simply found an usher, reported the incident, and had the fan tossed out of the stadium. Revenge was sweeter than the relish on their substandard hot dogs.

Only once have I rooted against the Dodgers. I am not ashamed of it. It was September 6, 1988 in Cincinnati's Riverfront Stadium. That year that the Dodgers would go all the way, riding to the World Series title on the backs of Kirk Gibson and Orel Hershiser. The game Cincinnati's Tom Browning of the Reds started against Tim Belcher began late following an evening shower. Tom Chiarella and I sat under the overhang in the upper deck and drank beers, waiting out the storm. Chiarella was an avid Mets fan, but more than that, he loved the game. We thought nothing of driving half a day to see the Mets play in Atlanta. For this outing, we had driven in the rain nearly four hours to Cincinnati, hoping they'd play the game.

The Reds would only get three hits off of Belcher, tallying a single run. But that is not the story. Gibson was tossed out after arguing strikes after his third futile at bat. Hell, they were all futile at bats. Not a single Dodger reached first base.

Browning took his perfect game into the eighth. Wonder about the odds of seeing a perfect game? There have only been 16 of them since Cy Young tossed the first one in 1904. So as the ninth inning rolled to the top of the scoreboard, I rose to my feet, dropped my blue hat on the seat behind me, and began cheering for Tom Browning until I was nearly hoarse as he retired the side. I watched as he was carried off the field and waited around for his curtain call.

I still reside in Northern California, where I am frequently confronted by Giants fans. I heard it especially during the recent dark era in which they joined in some inexplicable, hallucinatory hubris in their allegiance to Barry Bonds. In the face (an apt metaphor) of all evidence to the contrary, they loved their bloated, naked emperor with his artificially-swelled punkin' head.

It's difficult to reconcile my new-found devotion to Buddhism with historical sibling rivalry, especially when the bile arcs through my veins each spring. It's not as if I have not been a loudmouth thug myself. Once I got a row of fans tossed from Wrigley Field after yelling unkind epithets against an umpire who had crossed a picket line. An usher once asked me to remove a tee shirt I was wearing that suggested that the New York Mets should receive vigorous stimulation while bending. Simply saying that I have never touched another fan or tossed anything through the air, save for a beachball at Dodger Stadium on a hot summer's day, is gross rationalization. But growth takes time.

Crowds of fans have been trampled in sporting events around the world. I recall film clips from England where rival soccer aficionados tossed darts into a crowd, maiming the eyes of opposing fans. This is surely setting loose the precognitive, ancient furies of Irish and the English, Hatfields and McCoys, Arabs and Jews, Protestants and Catholics, the Red states and Blues. I don't see a fundamental distinction between beating up a fan in a parking lot because of the color of his cap as flying an airplane into a large office building. It's just a difference in amperage.

There's yet an odd peace in drifting to naive days where I sit in Ebbetts Field, craning my neck for a glimpse of Gil Hodges, that hulking Rock of Gibraltar, who brings Blacks and Whites, Christians and Jews, and all the odd fellows of the borough together where, for a moment, we are the embodiment of the refrain from the mystic Rumi, in which the poet says,

"Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing
and rightdoing there is a field.
I'll meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass
the world is too full to talk about."

1 comment:

Mark said...

Marichal should NEVER have taken a bat to Roseboro's head.

He should have gone at his knees....