The Anxious Dodger

Dodger Stadium
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The Anxious Dodger

A springtime ritual of male bonding in 1970’s Los Angeles meant trips to Chávez Ravine, a 350 acre terraced plateau of chaparral, eucalyptus and palms overlooking downtown Los Angeles.  It was the epicenter of our baseball universe – the sacred home stadium where each year our Los Angeles Dodgers would battle for the National League West pennant.

My father loathed the crowds and traffic of sporting events.  Attending a game with 60,000 fans was a perfect storm of human imperfection – bad drivers, inept parking attendants, cretins with their hibachi BBQs, legions of loud, drunken buffoons and public urinals.  Adding insult to injury was the sobering fact that every LA sporting venue was located in a very rough neighborhood.

The LA Coliseum in South Central LA hosted the 1932 Olympics, the Rams, UCLA Bruins, USC Trojans and the 1968 Watts riots.  The Forum – home of the Lakers and Kings -was like Fort Apache precariously located in Inglewood, an area with more guards, barbed wire and barred windows than Folsom prison.  Dodger stadium sat like the Masada, a mountain top fortress on the southwestern plateau of the Los Feliz Hills in East Los Angeles.  East LA was often depicted in the media as an area dominated by gangs and drive by shootings. My father’s suburban anxiety manifested itself each time we would attend Dodger game.  His paranoid behavior made our long day’s journey an emotional roller coaster as we rode shotgun scanning alleys and side streets for potential assailants.

While we lived less than thirty minutes drive from the actual ballpark, we would literally leave hours before the game, as my father did not want to ever be stuck in traffic.  To the chagrin of his sons and wife, he was not particularly fond of going out.  After a hard week at work, he subscribed to the FIFO method of socializing – – first in, first out.

We would exit the freeway winding through densely populated, graffiti stained neighborhoods of chain linked front yards where laundry hung on clothes lines flapping like Tibetan prayer flags in a mistral wind. Like clockwork, my father would tell us to duck down in our seats and lock the doors. The toughest person I saw on the street before having my head jammed into my collarbone was a 75-year-old Hispanic woman pushing a baby stroller.  “ Careful, dad, that baby might put a cap in our rear end”, my older brother said sarcastically.  At 15, he had begun to challenge my father’s peccadilloes and delighted in touching each one the way a sadistic dentist might probe a deep cavity.

A magnificent 1970 Chevy Impala low-rider rumbled past – its occupants patrolling their barrio.  The chrome wheels and custom sapphire blue paint job reflected the hazy midday sun. It was the ultimate Chicano cruiser and we were very impressed.  My brother started to roll his window down.  “ He dude, that’s a cool ca…” My father grabbed him and shoved him down in his seat. “Jesus H Christ. You want to get us killed?”  The driver was a handsome tan twenty-something with arm tattoos and wrap around sunglasses.  He dismissed us with a nod and continued rolling down the street.  My brother continued. “ Dad what does H stand for in Jesus’ name? And isn’t his name really pronounced ‘hey-soos?’ Mexican people are still pissed off about us stealing California from them, dad. I hear they carry machetes and if your car breaks down they cut your head off and stick it on their front porch flag pole as a warning to other people who short cut through the barrio.”

“I’m scared,” I whined.  My brother looked at me disgusted, “ I’m just joking, you peon!”

My father had had enough and looked ready to explode from the goading and logistical anxiety of driving four boys to a baseball game on a hot, smoggy Sunday afternoon.  “If you don’t keep quiet, I’ll ‘peon’ you” he snapped.  My brother started laughing immediately and then my other brother realized what my father had said.  I finally appreciated the double entendre and laughed extra loud to convince all that I had known all along that my father was threatening to urinate on my brother.

He would park in the same area, Lot Y – the furthest space from the stadium and closest to the exit of the parking lot.  His greatest nightmare was to be trapped in post game traffic when LA’s great social insurrection occurred.  He believed these neighborhoods to be major social fault lines where pressure would always be building until one day, they 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 men with machetes decided it was time to take back the state of California.

Our seats were in the right field pavilion – a word I assumed must certainly be French for outfield bleachers.  The term “pavilion” sounded chic and elite. The fact you were sitting next to a guy wearing a wife beater undershirt and a tattoo that said, “Loco-motive“ did not seem to diminish your sense of prestige.  By the end of the game, you and that maniac were blood brothers.  You might even exchange phone numbers and promise to keep in touch – unified through the strange alchemy of beer, sun, foot long hotdogs and your common obsession with Tommy Davis.

If you were lucky, you would catch a glimpse of Roger Owens, the world famous peanut vendor whose uncanny accuracy with tossing peanuts made him an instant celebrity.  Owens could thread a needle with a bag of nuts across twenty rows – -consistently landing the salty prizes in the hands of his intended targets. He would throw between his legs, behind his back, often peppering three different individuals at the same time with three different bags.  According to the record books, his all-time personal record of most tossed peanut bags in a game was 2,400 bags set in 1976 in Dallas, Texas, at Texas Stadium during a Cowboys game.

About the sixth inning, my father would begin to furtively look at his watch and sniff as if he had a cold.  This was his “tell –tale” twitch indicating that we were minutes from exiting the ballpark. By the seventh inning stretch, we were being hustled from our seats and running across a great desert of burning asphalt and cars. “ Dad, why are we running?”  my brother would yell as we stumbled toward our car.  “ We don’t want to get caught in traffic!” my father would scream back as he raced ahead. Years later, my younger brother realized that eight innings is not extra innings in baseball.  He had never actually seen a game go beyond seven innings before being sequestered out of the stadium.  In fact, he assumed hockey had two periods, football was three quarters and any basketball game was over once a team went up on their opponent by more than 20 points.

We raced toward the freeway on-ramp, heads ducked in the car, on the look out for General Santa Ana and the Mexican army.   It was all very stressful – the ducking, the running, the rapid eating, the running, ducking, and 130-degree car with windows rolled up as tight as a submarine.  About this time someone would declare himself carsick and throw up.  Looking back, it all seemed very normal.

Years later, as I take my children to Yankee games, I find myself parking in lots that will afford me a rapid escape.  It is the seventh inning stretch and I consider the dreaded purgatory of post game traffic.  I turn to my boys and say,” let’s get going, guys.” There is a huge groan of resistance.  Alas, I have become my father. Yet, with each spring, I repeat our ritual pilgrimage to the Bronx. (Wait, isn’t this the same Bronx where the 41st precinct was called “Fort Apache” and where the gang from the movie “The Warriors” fought a rival gang dressed in pinstripes wielding baseball bats?) Yet, like my father, I brush back my demons with a high, hard sigh because I know to a kid nothing is better than a hot dog, Pepsi, peanuts and a homerun. Eternal youth is walking into a stadium on a warm summer day, the air heavy with the smell of cut grass and the sharp contrast of a blue sky against a green manicured diamond.

In the realms of fathers and sons, there is area where age has no boundaries. It is a safe place where moments are shared and words need not be spoken.  In this uncharted geography, you might come across a place of worship. It sometimes takes the shape of a baseball stadium.  As you get closer, you hear the deep crack of a hard maple bat, the roar of a partisan crowd and a boy yelling to his father above the chaotic din,

“Dad, why do we have to leave the game early?”

 

Me and Myself and the Mets

Shea Stadium - 2007 New York Mets-Boston Red Sox
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To my friend David, who is convinced that on the first day, God created the baseball stadium – and it was good.

April 17, 1964 – David was 8 years old, the same age of his father when his dad died of a sudden heart attack.  The father’s painful loss was hidden away like an old memento stored in the dark crawl space that lies between the present and the past. In a working class family, the patriarch was king.  To lose a father as a boy was to suffer an egregious identity theft, a deeply traumatic felony that robs a child of innocence and adolescence. The son, now a father, was suddenly fitted with size 34 pants and spent the next decade growing into them.

But on this day, for the father to be taking his young son to the opening of Shea Stadium, after a morning at the New York World’s Fair, must have seemed like he had hit a celestial round tripper.  The son clutched his father’s hand, a great catcher’s glove of security and watched as the world unfolded in a great sea of orange and blue.   It wasn’t the young boy’s first major league game but it was unlike the ancient brick of the New York Yankees.  There was a thrill of seeing something new, a franchise and a stadium with its whole future ahead of it, unencumbered by the gilded chains of nostalgia.  For father and son, the day represented all of life’s possibilities.

The Mets were hapless supporting actors in a play that ran every day in Queens.  “ A face only a mother could love” a favorite expression to describe anyone whose endearing under-achievement and ineptness condemned them to the fringes of society. The Mets, not unlike their fans, were a roster of young and old assembled by a general manager making the best of a tough situation.  In their first seven seasons, the team was a combined 394 – 737 for a winning percentage of .348.  For many in Queens, the basement seemed a familiar, reassuring place.

The father and son never had season tickets for any New York area sports teams.  In life and in sports, the father was never a great spectator. That dark corridor that he was forced to walk alone between eight and eighteen left him focused on doing, not vicarious living. He never went to college.  It seemed as if he was born and then went to work.  But like so many of his era, he never shirked his responsibilities.  He married, enlisted in the service during the Korean War and came home to start a family.  Yet, he was drawn to the Mets.  In life and in baseball, great teams were characterized by a blue collar work ethic – – the predictable integrity of repetition and the character of never accepting a mediocre result regardless of how mundane your own assignment might be. . The Mets represented a less than glorious franchise, located in perhaps the least glorious part of town.  Some called them the workingman’s team.  His loyalty to the Mets somehow softened his hard childhood – abandoned by his father and their baseball team, the Giants, who left NY to move to California in 1959. It just made sense that this orphaned soul would adopt this team.

In a world wracked by uncertainty, the son looked to the father for predictable leadership.  The son’s successes were nourished by the staples his Dad provided – durability, punctuality and resilience. With his son, the father maintained the distance of a third base coach and his star player, choosing to convey his delight or displeasure with subtle signs and signals – – a twitch of an eye brow, a hand to the chin or the sudden clap of determined encouragement, “C’mon, get a hit!” Trust, emotional proximity and unconditional support were the foundation of their relationship. It was as if they were seated next to one another in life’s stadium – each with their own ticket but sharing the game together.

Life is all about perspective. In the 1960’s, most of the boy’s friends were Yankee fans.  Following the Bronx Bombers seemed to represent a superficial kind of loyalty – something borrowed because it was popular and easy.  At 13 years old, the boy was at the peak of his adolescent fanaticism. He had recorded the entire Mets line up neatly on my seventh grade denim three-ring notebook. In June, the boy asked his dad if he would take him to a Mets game.  The entire neighborhood was elated that the lowly Metropolitans, a team that had lost 120 games in 1962 and were synonymous with last place, were now in first place with a chance for post- season play.   The dad asked his son to get him the schedule, and confidently pointed to the last home game of the season and boldly announced “The Mets will clinch the division championship here”.  On September 24, 1969, they were rewarded with a miraculous NL pennant for their unwavering loyalty to “ the Lovable Losers.”  1500 miles away, Chicago Cub fans were writing another painful chapter in their star-crossed history.  To this day, the son reminds his father of his Kreskin-like powers of prediction.

The son still recalls that night – the air thick with cautious anticipation and an ill fall wind that seemed full of broken promises for a winning season. When the Mets won the game, father and son erupted with the entire sea of humanity spilling on to the field. Today it would be impossible to penetrate the phalanx of mounted police that line the field.  That night, they roamed the stadium as if it was their own front yard.  On that day, the boy began to understand what the father had always conveyed to him – that anything was possible.

September 28, 2008 – It was never an option that they would not attend the final game at Shea Stadium to pay their respects to the passing of an age of innocence.  The father, now 80, complained to his son about his legs, and in doing so, foiled the boy’s best laid plans to retrace their 1964 “walk” into Shea.  The son, now a successful executive, had season ticket located two rows behind home plate.  Their journey from nose bleeder bleacher seats to the prime field level real estate was a map of their life’s journey.  The father had not seen Shea in 20 years.  The Mets lost, eliminating any hope of a post-season birth.  Yet, it was somehow apropos.

For a team as famous for losing as winning, it was a fitting eulogy.