The Artful Dodgers

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A book is the reason why I flew across the country to California for a third and final time last weekend, just so I could visit Dodger Stadium for the first time in my life.

Over the summer, I read Molly Knight’s The Best Team Money Can Buy: The Los Angeles Dodgers’ Wild Struggle to Build a Baseball Powerhouse, which chronicled how the Dodgers nosedived into bankruptcy in 2011 under the ownership of Frank McCourt and rose again with the riches of the Guggenheim Group after the consortium — which included NBA legend Magic Johnson — purchased the club in 2012. The mismanagement of money by McCourt, the politics behind the Guggenheim purchase of the Dodgers, the Guggenheim spending spree on big-name earners, and resulting clash of egos in the locker room made this story an engrossing soap opera. By the time I finished Knight’s book, the captivating collection of characters in that locker room — from outfielder Yasiel Puig, who lived and played on the edge, to Zack Greinke, whose bluntness occasionally broached awkwardness — convinced me to check out the on-field product at their home.

In late July, I bought my tickets for this past Saturday’s game between the Dodgers and Pittsburgh Pirates — way too early to forecast whether three-time Cy Young lefty Clayton Kershaw, Cy Young winner Zack Greinke, or someone from the anonymous bottom three of the Dodgers’ rotation would start for Los Angeles. I must have had a horseshoe up mine when I bought that ticket two months ago, because Dodger manager Don Mattingly would hand Saturday’s start to Kershaw.

Dodger Cy Young Winners

Dodger Cy Young Winners

Dodger MVP award winners

Dodger MVP award winners

Dodger Stadium, nestled just north of Downtown Los Angeles, opened in 1962. As the third oldest ballpark (behind Wrigley Field and Fenway Park) for the eighth oldest MLB franchise, Dodger Stadium is loaded with numerous exhibits commemorating the club’s 131 years of existence. A mural of the eight Dodger Cy Young winners is on display on the Right Field stand; the franchise’s 11 MVP winners, including Jackie Robinson, grace the mural of the Left Field stand. Outside the Field level gates, a giant Gold Glove sits atop a pedestal that lists every Dodger who has won the award. Statues of the championship rings for the World Series-winning Dodger teams are also scattered outside those gates. Giant baseballs with the names and signatures of the Cy Young winners dot the Reserve level gates, while the Dodgers’ retired numbers stand outside the gates for the top deck.

There is a lot of history to look at, but there’s also a hidden listening exhibit permeating through Dodger Stadium. The words to keep your ears perked up for include this sentence: “Please have your tickets or cell phone open and ready at the gate.”

The only reason those words are exciting is because Vin Scully — the legendary 87-year-old broadcaster who has called Dodger games for 66 years, overlapping with the team’s days in Brooklyn — delivers the pre-recorded message telling fans how to get through security quickly so they can “make memories cheering your favorite ballclub.”

Baseball for Sandy Koufax's Cy Young awards

Baseball for Sandy Koufax’s Cy Young awards

Sculpture of the 1955 Brooklyn Dodger World Series ring

Sculpture of the 1955 Brooklyn Dodger World Series ring

Upon passing the gates and into the stadium, more allusions to Dodger history greet the fans. Images and logos marking milestones in Dodger history, such as the Dodgers hosting an All-Star Game or the anniversary of a World Series win, are painted outside each restroom. A number of concession stands sell Brooklyn Dodger Dogs in addition to the regular Dodger Dogs. The deference to all of Dodger history, from Brooklyn to Los Angeles, was perhaps best represented by the number of fans I saw wearing shirts or caps with the Brooklyn Dodgers’ “B” instead of the iconic interlocking “LA.”

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At around 5 pm, I took my seat under the sun in Section 1RS, a Reserve level section located behind home plate and above the Vin Scully Press Box — its namesake behind the mic was directly below my section. I was so close to a living, breathing icon of baseball history, but I wouldn’t be able to see him. There was a way to compensate for that, though.

After the national anthem, I plugged my headphones into a $15 portable radio player I bought before flying out to Los Angeles, slipped the headphones into my ears, and tuned the radio to KLAC AM 570, the radio home for the Dodgers. I would let the Scully, the voice of the Dodgers, guide me through the first three innings of Saturday’s game. Although Scully does TV play-by-play for SportsNet LA, the locally blacked-out TV home for much of the Dodgers’ fan base because of a stupid distribution deal, KLAC simulcasts Scully’s broadcast for the first three innings of every game he calls. Starting in the fourth inning, ESPN SportsCenter alum Charley Steiner takes over play-by-play duties for KLAC, while Scully continues to provide his play-by-play to the few who are lucky enough to have a TV package that carries SportsNet LA.

Because Scully plans to make 2016 his final season in the broadcast booth, the thought of listening to this cultural icon for the first time in my life almost topped the appeal of seeing Kershaw on the mound. I wanted to hear why Scully is so beloved.

He didn’t have to say much to make me understand his appeal.

I don’t remember the first words I heard Scully speak, but I do know that his calm and understated voice immediately provided a soothing juxtaposition to the loud mass of blue that surrounded me in the stands. The steady rhythm at which Scully spoke only amplified how clean and crisp his voice sounded at the young age of 87. Siri and Cortana would envy the consistency of his delivery. Despite his age, he had the stamina to keep talking while holding your attention, eschewing the brief pauses acceptable for talk radio with stories taken from his years on the job or relevant stats, such as the ramifications for this game in the Wild Card chase between the Pirates and Chicago Cubs and Divisional race between the Dodgers and San Francisco Giants.

As a living encyclopedia of the game, Scully spoke like he memorized passages from those mines of information. Scully usually introduced each player on the Dodgers and Pirates with a quick dossier that included that player’s country/state of birth, height, weight, history of teams he played in, and a random stat. His only quirk seemed to be shortening the Dominican Republic to simply “the Dominican” when he noted Pirates pitcher Francisco Liriano’s birthplace and rise to the majors.

Scully the storyteller is on another level, though. When Pirates star outfielder Andrew McCutchen stepped up to the plate for his first at-bat against Kershaw, Scully easily threaded between providing the pitch-by-pitch action and telling the story of how McCutchen’s father drew an imaginary home plate in front of Andrew and told Andrew that home base had everything he loved — his mom, dad, personal belongings — and that it was Andrew’s job to protect the plate from the intruding baseball. Somehow, Scully finished his story and still transitioned seamlessly to capturing McCutchen’s line-out to right field.

The rich language of his storytelling transcended the boundaries of media; even though his broadcasts were for TV, Scully’s play-by-play was perfect for radio. Whenever the Pirates had men on base, Scully always noted when Kershaw entered the stretch before the delivery of each pitch. When the broadcast returned from an early commercial break, Scully described the “beautiful California sunset” over the mountains and forests surrounding Dodger Stadium, tracing how the clear sky at first pitch turned orange, and that the hues of orange in the sky were now giving way to blue and purple. That sunset was so gorgeous; the only place I’ve already visited in Los Angeles that tops Dodger Stadium for watching a sunset is the Hollywood Bowl.

Again, viewers watching him on TV could already see everything he was talking about — heck, I was at the game and I could see all this right in front of my face — but Scully’s attention to detail helped reproduce the atmosphere at the stadium for viewers at home and enhanced my appreciation of the sights and sounds I was taking in at Dodger Stadium.

The level of detail on McCutchen’s upbringing, or Kershaw’s delivery, or the sunset over Dodger Stadium is usually reserved for print, but here was Scully, articulating all that within the constraints of time and the action on the diamond. What a gift for him to have; what a gift for us that he’s shared his talent with the sports world for nearly 70 years.

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Sunset into Night at Dodger Stadium

Sunset into Night at Dodger Stadium

It’s amusing that Clayton Kershaw’s bad day at the ballpark would be considered a great one for the typical MLB pitcher.

Kershaw threw 100 pitches over 7.0 innings, struck out 8 batters, and gave up only 3 Earned Runs. However, Kershaw still got the loss because he was responsible for the game-winning baserunner, who scored when reliever Chris Hatcher gave up a double to Pirates third baseman Aramis Ramirez in the 8th inning.

Despite the quality start, Kershaw didn’t get much help from his offense. Dodger 2nd baseman Howie Kendrick gave the Dodgers a 1-0 lead in the 1st inning, then the LA bats just went cold after that. While Liriano began to shut down the Dodger bats, McCutchen gave the Pirates a 2-1 lead in the 3rd inning with a 2-out RBI double. (What a great duel Kershaw and McCutchen had. McCutchen went 1-3 against Kershaw, but in the end, his two RBI helped beat Kershaw.)

A whole lot of pitching dominance by Kershaw and Liriano carried the 3rd through the top of the 7th innings. In the bottom of the 7th, the Dodgers suddenly found themselves back in business after first baseman Adrian Gonzalez hit a single — the first Dodger hit in the game since a double by Justin Turner in the 1st inning. The hit woke the Dodger crowd up from its slumber; a playoff atmosphere stormed in and killed the near-silence and lame attempts to get the wave going.

“Let’s go Dodgers! Let’s go Dodgers!” the crowd chanted.

The next batter, Alex Guerrero, grounded into a force out that removed Gonzalez, then Corey Seager walked to move Guerrero to second. That set up perfectly for catcher A.J. Ellis, who ripped a double to score Guerrero and move Seager to third. The Dodgers and the crowd smelled blood. The chanting intensified, then turned into an angry flurry of “Boo” when Liriano intentionally walked Chris Heisley.

With one on and the bases loaded, Mattingly sent pinch hitter Austin Barnes in Joc Pederson’s stead. The cries of “Let’s go Dodgers!” resumed and Barnes repaid the faithful for their optimism by grounding into a double play to end the inning.

That was the moment the Dodgers lost the game. Pittsburgh seized its precious opportunity in the following inning.

Kershaw opened the 8th inning by throwing his 100th pitch and giving up a double to Greg Polanco, whom scouts once called a “sick giraffe” until he figured out how to blaze through the bases like a “healthy gazelle,” per Scully during one of his story times. After conceding the double, Mattingly gave Kershaw the hook, and the ace trudged back to the dugout with his head down, a sight that contrasted with the standing ovation the crowd gave Kershaw during his exit. Hatcher entered the game, intentionally walked McCutchen, then defeated the purpose of that walk by giving up the game-winning double to Ramirez.

Pirates set-up man Neil Walker shut down pinch hitter/Dodger elder Jimmy Rollins and the top of the lineup. Closer Mark Melancon finished the job in the ninth by getting Gonzales, pinch hitter Andre Ethier (who came into the game with an ovation almost as loud as the “Let’s go Dodgers!” chants in the 7th), and Corey Seager all the ground out.

The Pirates victory was not the result I wanted for my Cubs; Chicago defeated St. Louis and kept pace with Pittsburgh anyway in the Wild Card standings. But listening to the smooth voice of a Hall of Famer and seeing the unique wind-up of a future Hall of Famer made the cross country worthwhile. The only thing better than reading history is witnessing the story for yourself before everyone else writes about it.

1 thought on “The Artful Dodgers

  1. Pingback: 1929 Major League Baseball: map with crests & uniforms, final standings and stats leaders; champions: Philadelphia Athletics. With illustrated article: The 1929 and 1930 Philadelphia Athletics: the most overlooked team in baseball history. – bil

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