Ah, October. Autumn arrives and with it the final leaves of a 4860 game baseball season begin to fall as the competition is reduced to twelve teams across six divisions and two leagues.
As a young man, our four-boy family ritual of male bonding included trips to Chavez Ravine, a 350 acre terraced plateau of chaparral, eucalyptus and palms overlooking downtown Los Angeles. Dodger stadium sat like the Masada, a mountain top fortress on the southwestern plateau of the Elysian Fields neighborhood of Los Angeles. It was the center of the baseball firmament – the sacred home stadium of the Dodgers. Each season, our “boys in blue” would battle the hated San Francisco Giants and the despised Cincinnati Reds for the National League West pennant.
My father loathed the crowds and the traffic of sporting events as they equated to a perfect storm of human imperfection – bad drivers, inept parking attendants, cretins with their hibachi BBQs, legions of loud, drunken buffoons and filthy public urinals. Adding insult to injury was the sobering fact that every LA sporting venue was usually located in a very rough neighborhood.
Despite his misgivings, he understood the need to allow his boys to experience the electric atmosphere of a stadium packed with rabid fans and to witness young men who had so honed their athletic talents that they were afforded the chance to play Major League Baseball.
It was 1976 – America’s Bicentennial year – and it seemed everyone was declaring their independence. I was a surly freshman in high school and could not create enough distance between myself and my father. His existence annoyed me. Every syllable he uttered skidded like fingers on a chalk board. I cringed at the way he ate, talked and even breathed. It seemed that his principle job description was to control my life.
My mother had already crossed this hostile adolescent desert with my two older brothers and suggested to him that we spend some father-son time at a Dodger Game. On this sunny April Sunday, it would be a chance for my Dad to see his beloved Chicago Cubs and for me to reconnect with a more innocent time of Topps baseball cards, the chance to catch a foul ball and if we were lucky, a nostalgic glimpse of a time when my Dad was viewed as mentor instead of tormentor.
We exited the Pasadena freeway on to Academy Road, winding through a densely populated, graffiti-scarred neighborhood of chain linked front yards. Run down homes built in the 1930’s were perched on steep hillsides with laundry on clotheslines flapping like Tibetan prayer flags in the spring breeze. Like clockwork, my Dad told me to keep my eyes peeled. I suddenly remembered why I did not like going to sporting events with my father. The toughest person we actually saw on the street was a 75-year-old Hispanic woman pushing a baby stroller.
“Careful, Dad, that grandmother might have a gun”, I said sarcastically.
At 16, I had begun to routinely challenge my father’s conservative peccadilloes and delighted in touching each one the way a sadistic dentist might probe a deep cavity. Dad had finally come to recognize when I was baiting him and ignored the provocation, writing it off as the price of being together. He was a creature of habit – robotically driving the exact route, to the same parking area, to the same space– a location furthest from the stadium and closest to the exit.
My father’s greatest nightmare was to be trapped in post game traffic when Los Angeles’ great social insurrection occurred. He believed these neighborhoods to be major social fault lines where pressure was always building. One day, urban rebellion would explode in an earthquake of civil unrest. When it happened, he damn well would not be stuck in his car when a gang of peasant farmers with pitchforks decided it was time to take back California. It was a thankless time for my Dad. I had spent the last year challenging his views on everything. I complained about the distance we had to walk to enter the stadium. He walked slightly ahead – eager for a coke and the cool shade of the concession area.
I was impressed as we were directed by an usher to field level seats off the first base line. The Dodgers were expected to be decent this year and showed some promise with a line-up that featured Billy Buckner, Ted Sizemore, Ron Cey and Steve Garvey. The meat of the Cub lineup was Rick Monday and Bill Madlock.
As we sat down, I suddenly saw a different side of my father that afternoon as he began to rattle off statistics and insights into his favorite Cub players and the pitching match ups.
“The Cubs will probably lose. They have no damn pitching this year and there’s nobody to support Monday and Madlock. Those cheapskates the Wrigleys are too tight to pay for good players. They are no better than that idiot GM Jim Finks for the Bears who won’t get them a decent quarterback to help Butkis and the defense out. Monday hit .267 with 17 homers last year. He is hitting .365 now and is on fire. Steve Stone was 12-8 last year but his ERA was too high at 3.95. But, the numbskull likes to give up the long ball”
My Dad wasn’t even looking at me. He was like a little kid playing with soldiers, chatting away to invisible friends. He spotted Roger Owens, the famous peanut vendor.
“Michael, remember this guy? He once threw you a bag of peanuts between his legs over ten rows.”
He held up some money. The popular redheaded peanut vendor smiled and pointed at my father. He was four rows over and six rows up. Owens whirled and shot a bag of peanuts behind his back. Dad snapped them up as they flew above his head. There was a smattering of applause as he handed $4 to a daisy chain of fans who passed the money up to Owens.
The actual game was a nail biter that was likely to be decided by one run. However, the game proved to be a mere sideline to the drama that unfolded in front of 25,000 fans.
Heading into the bottom of the fourth inning, a fan and has 11-year old son leaped on to the grass of the outfield. Initially met by raucous applause, our cheers quickly turned to boos when people realized their intentions. My Dad turned to me and said, “Hey, give me those binoculars!” I heard him swear as he hissed, “that son-of-a-bitch Communist is trying to burn an American flag!” As he said “Flag”, I saw Cub outfielder, Rick Monday, rush past the protestors and grab the flag. The stadium went berserk and cheered even louder as security roughly escorted the agitators from the outfield. I looked up to see an entire small town of Americans standing and cheering.
“Dad, can you believe that?”
I looked over and saw that my father was almost crying. He was clapping his hands so hard that they must have hurt. “Atta Boy, Monday!” Dad was one of the last people to sit down as the game resumed. In his next at bat, Monday received another standing ovation from the grateful crowd.
The scoreboard flashed, “Rick Monday, you made a great play!” Dad stood again applauding the young Cub player who as it turned out, was also an ex-marine. I was about to tell him to calm down and sit but somewhere in the back of my adolescent brain, I knew this was the right thing to do. I stood up beside him and started clapping again. He turned to me and shouted over the din, “That’s what makes this country great. It’s patriotism. It’s goddamn patriotism. Don’t ever forget that!”
I suddenly felt a surge of pride. It was an awkward feeling to feel pride for being part of something bigger than you when you seemingly had made no contribution. But, I had witnessed something special. I was proud of Rick Monday, proud of my Dad and proud to be an American. In the thirty-five years that would follow, I cannot not recall a time when I saw my father so spontaneously happy. It happened as fast a lit match – – a hero deciding to take action. I realized action is what heros were all about – normal people, that in an instance, stopped watching and started moving.
The following year, Rick Monday was traded to the Dodgers and helped lead them to two division pennants. He became a permanent family favorite and a role model for a new generation looking for reliable points of reference in a rapidly changing society.