Monday, March 31, 2014

THREE YEARS AT DODGER STADIUM

               

               
     The brushed stainless steel sign in front of the press box in Dodger Stadium is laser cut with the name of the man for whom the media area is named. The signature of Vin Scully, backlit in Dodger blue, glows from behind the steel and is as elegant as the prose Scully uses to call a baseball game, something he’s done for over sixty years.
     No one gets to the club level but fans who will sit inside the modern appointed suites, and media. At the entrance to the press box sits a man checking media credentials, wearing the blue polo shirt and khaki pants uniform of Dodger stadium operations staff.  The nods at writers and technicians he knows, smiles, acknowledges them in some simple way. With me, there is no familiarity yet. It’s my first time approaching the press box, the first night I’ll sit inside and watch a Dodger game. I flash my media badge, he nods.

     The door has opened, and I am walking through it. A door to a sense of legitimacy for me in sports journalism, a door that allow me to have a very, very small part, on the very large tapestry of baseball media coverage. Nervous, yes. Anxious, of course. Ready for the next level of an intrepid career in sports journalism, cultural reporting, news, small market radio? I think, yes. The door swings open, and I’m in.    
     Through a combination of luck, having broadcasting and sports writing skills I’d kept on active reserve hosting cable television shows, writing for a local Los Angeles cultural tabloid, and a reputation as a solid studio host, I’ve landed a three year gig covering Los Angeles Dodgers baseball. My company had negotiated a major media sponsorship with the Dodgers, earning naming rights for the Stadium Club for a few years, and to seal the deal, we committed to producing a studio show featuring Dodger players, highlights, analysis, and community features. It came with a press pass. And I was going to use it.
     The commissary is around the corner behind the rows of counter tops and chairs where the writers and television personalities sit. I’m hungry, but that has to wait. First, I’ll pick my spot, see where to drop off my laptop and notepad, set up shop. There’s nobody to ask about where I should sit, and before walking in I’d already decided, I’m not asking questions. My media pass is legitimate, photo and name, affiliation. But I’m following my instincts, my own rules, and number one on my list, is act like I belong. Many of the best spots in the press rows have name placards. Some seats, like KCBS-TV sports anchor Jim Hill’s, remain empty. L.A. Times columnist Bill Plaschke has a name placard, and will frequently occupy his position. For my first night in the press box, it’s a seat along the back row. I can see Dodger organist Nancy Bea Hefley from my position, and she smiles at me as she works the keyboard and entertains the crowd.
     On the schedule, I’ve penciled in a few games, teams, dates, making notes of players and managers I want to check in with. The Giants are coming off a 2002 World Series loss to the Anaheim Angels. Triple Crown winner, MVP in both leagues and number nine on the all time home run list, Frank Robinson is managing the Washington Nationals. Roger Clemens pitches for the Houston Astros that year.
     This is my first night in the press box of a Major League Baseball stadium. But a few days earlier I’d interviewed Dodger closer Eric Gagne, down on the field.
     A baseball field is a special place for me. When I was a small boy my father took the family to Giants games at old Seal’s Stadium in the first year the Giants came to San Francisco. We sat in the center field bleachers for my first major league game. Willie Mays was directly below where I sat, patrolling the wide green grass field, roving to his left and right in a smooth gallop, picking off fly balls with his signature basket catch, his glove and hands belt high. Later, at Candlestick Park, I’d enter the stadium through a narrow tunnel in the stands. From a dark musty cement thru-way, the ball field would bloom suddenly in front of my eyes, the green outfield grass contrasting with the tan of the infield dirt. Professional ball players warming up just before a game threw long-toss to each other with easy snap-throws, a flick of the wrist, the ball sailing in easy flight to another player who would wait, almost as if he wasn’t expecting a ball. With a casual moment of attention the player would cock an elbow putting the glove in the exact position to catch a throw. The ease and skill of simply throwing and catching a baseball was something I studied as a boy. I could play, but not at that level, my throws wild and high, low and in the dirt. Scrappy, tough, determined, would best describe my style of play. Major league ballplayers scoop ground balls with practiced elegance, rifling perfect arching throws to first base. But it was always the smooth beauty of the field that caught my eye. The diamond has geometry, symmetry and metric precision in chalked baselines, the foul lines stretching out beyond the bases. White stripes on green grass to me were universal signs of competition, whether on a baseball or a football or a soccer field. Lines. Lines determine the edge of the field, the parameters of a fair or foul ball, a touchdown or a touchback in football. Lines, converging at home plate, starting at the foul pole and working back to the bases, across dirt base paths to the batters box and the plate. I’ve never seen white chalk line on green grass that I didn’t like.

     Spring training in Arizona is a good place to watch major league players in close proximity. Smaller ball parks, a more casual atmosphere, you hear the power of baseball from different angles and sight lines than in the big, major league parks. Down close during batting practice, the players groove their swings in spring training under sunny skies and warm weather that thaws the winter chill. Fans and players casually engage in pre-game small talk about golf handicaps, pool time and cocktail hours, where to get the best steaks in exclusive Scottsdale restaurants. Women young and old trail players to their cars hoping to catch a major leaguer’s eye and get a date or a couple of beers in a room.
     During a Cubs-Giants spring training game, I watched Lee Smith up close, warming up in a practice area down the right field line. The bullpen was enclosed with steel chain link fencing, and big Lee was throwing hard. Fenced in like a tiger, Smith, a big man, 6’ 5” tall and a chiseled chunk, threw bullets. Lee was a standout closer for years. His huge body was a blur of coiled motion as he torqued his torso over a rock-solid lower body, balanced on his left leg, unleashing a furious power that whipped the ball at over ninety five miles an hour, ending with a sudden smack in the catcher’s mitt. Over and over Smith worked his fastball, each time driving his legs to power his abdominals and up to his thick shoulders, leveraging his right arm from deep behind his body to its full extension before angling his elbow and hand into the release point and snapping his wrist to put just enough spin on the ball to make it tail up and away before the sudden pop of the leather catcher’s mitt. Controlled aggression, precision angles and perfect hand-eye coordination made Lee Smith a top reliever in all of baseball. There was an energy field around him, a tornado of air that swirled from his coiled kinetics.
     Eric Gagne has two seasons of Dodger baseball before his arm blew out. For two years Gagne was un-hittable, delivering fastballs at ninety eight, ninety nine miles per hour, then dropping in a slider at ninety miles an hour that looked so slow in comparison it buckled a hitter’s knees. For two years he was the most devastating closer in Major League Baseball. Pitching is always at a premium in baseball. Pitchers who can throw hard and put the ball where they want it, consistently, are rare. In Rancho Cucamonga I worked at a minor league stadium near the bullpen areas. I’d watch young pitchers throwing hard, and while their mechanics were sound, some late movement of the ball would put it off the plate. It takes years to perfect pitches that can get major league hitters out, over and over, game after game, year after year. In the minor leagues players learn the rigors of the long, professional season, enduring bus travel, playing in front of small crowds in wind-swept parks in Visalia, Bakersfield, Lancaster. Always with their eyes on the big leagues, players work and train in hot, late afternoons, before going live under the lights in the dog days of July and August. 
     Eric Gagne commanded the big stage, and I walked up to him after he finished his late afternoon stretches, before batting practice, and asked for an on-camera interview. Sure, he said, but let me take some swings in the cage first. Fine, I said, and set up with my cameraman between the dugout and the third base line at Dodger Stadium. The sun was still high in the sky in early April, the scent of cut grass and wet dirt coming up from the ground. Soon, he came over and said, Okay, let’s do it.
      His role, he said, was to preserve the game, hold the lead, take the game to the finish line and get a win. His out pitch, the split finger fastball, comes up hard then drops down just as the ball crosses the plate. The ideal split finger fastball starts out low to mid level in the strike zone, then disappears into the dirt. I asked him to show me how he grips the ball. Get a close shot, I told my cameraman Greg. He focused in as Gagne showed how he holds the ball. His thumb is on the bottom of the ball, his index and middle fingers spread across red-stitched laces, getting rotation across two seams of the ball, not all four. The split-finger release puts a unique spin on the ball pushing it sharply down, once the laces have caused enough air to accumulate on top of the speeding ball. We stood on the dirt skin of the field in front of the dugout. Gagne wore thick black rimmed glasses and had a wispy mustache and goatee that became his trademark.
     “How’s the chemistry of this club?” I ask.
     “Good,” Gagne says. “We’re coming together. Early yet in the season, but we think we’ve got some good players.” In the eternal spring, all teams are optimistic. It’s the long road trips, post-midnight airport arrivals, buses at 1:30 A.M. and late night room service that wear out bodies. Gagne is in his peak, his prime, and his command of pitches and ability to get batters out is among the finest the game has ever seen.
     “Coming in to the game late,” I say, “the crowd yelling and stomping, ‘Wild Thing’ playing, what’s that like?”
     “Awesome,” Gagne says, grinning. “They love you as long as you perform. I hear it when I’m coming in from left field,” from the bullpen, “and when I get to the mound, I shut it out. The only thing I see then is the catcher’s mitt and the plate.”
     Greg gives me a nod, he’s got the shots, the close-ups of Gagne’s fingers, his thick knuckles wrapped around the baseball. Greg always got me great shots. I’m hoping my mini-interview has good audio, hoping my voice sounds reasonable enough, wondering if Vin Scully happened to click on ‘Inside Dodgers Baseball’ and saw Kurt Taylor interviewing Eric Gagner, he’d think, ‘This guy’s okay, he knows what he’s doing’, or think ‘What’s this guy doing on the field? Who let him in?’.
     I’m always thinking of the stars, the players, the coaches; Tommy Lasorda, Scully, Rick Monday, wondering if they even notice who sits in the press box, if they watch cable television shows, ever watch our shows taped down in the Dugout Club set. My co-host for three years was veteran Dodger sportscaster Geoff Witcher, who did play-by-play for Dodger games with ON-TV and years of Dodger Talk on radio. He is gracious and encouraging, and we get along fine. For three seasons, I’m in. I’m on the field, in the Dugout Club set, doing features and presenting Dodger community news, occasionally doing a piece with a player or coach.
     The San Francisco Giants are in town, and I make it to the stadium in time for batting practice. My day job is managing cable television operations in Van Nuys, and even when I leave the office at five o’clock, traffic snarls and slows down around the stadium. My pass gets me into the the media gate and I park up top, take the elevator down, all the way to the bottom floor and the entrance to the Dugout Club. It’s also the field access point for media. The Dugout Club is filling up with suits and executives lingering over cocktails and shrimp platters and frosted beer glasses. I move through the tables quickly, getting to the outside door which leads to the short series of tunnels and out to the field. The security guard at the access point knows me now, nods and opens the short gate to the field. The Giants are taking batting practice. The stadium is glowing from the high stadium lights starting to take effect in the early summer evening. The 2003 Giants are fresh off a disappointing loss in the 2002 World Series to the Anaheim Angels, and their lineup is a mixture of stars, role players, and veterans hoping for one more day in the sun. I think about my shoes, because I’ll be walking over the crushed red brick apron between the stands and the field to the dirt walkup ramp that leads to the batting cage. The grass is cut as carefully as a Marine’s DI haircut, sheared close, three quarters of an inch thick, uniformly as green and lovely as a moss-covered meadow. And for some reason, thinking my shoes will touch this field, this Major League Baseball field, maybe an ounce of magic will stay with my shoes, rub off on my soul. Hoping, perhaps, that standing on hallowed baseball ground will complete the loop from throwing catch with Dad and my brother, to the sandlots, years of watching Willie and Marichal and Koufax, this rich textured grass will leave a residue of greatness on my shoes.  Because greatness—and there is no doubt about this--is about to enter the batting cage.
     I won’t talk to Bonds. Nobody, almost nobody, talks with Barry Bonds. For a moment, put away the rumors and charges of steroid abuse, the perjury charges that he lied about substances he knew were against the rules, ignore spousal neglect for just this one time, tabloid tales of multiple-mistresses, of the Barca-Lounger at his home park clubhouse, the wide screen television, the arrogance towards the media. Go with me to the batting cage. Come with me towards the greatest home run hitter of all time, watch with me the refined elegance of a beautifully efficient short compact baseball swing.
     Right now, Jeff Kent is in the cage taking his cuts. Kent is a power-hitting second baseman, a rarity in baseball. Kent lashes line drives to left field, to center field, and then to right field. His approach in practice is to take the ball to all fields, moving the ball around the outfield. J.T. Snow steps into the box, the first baseman and a fine hitter. J.T. snaps shots to right field, center field, demonstrating his slashing stroke that hits the gaps and moves runners around the bases. Veteran catcher Benito Santiago is next, the rangy catcher who resurrected his career in 2002 after a near-fatal car accident. Santiago is a fan favorite in San Francisco, and Benito rips shots down the line in left, up the middle, sending the ball on a flat plane before it lands safely in base-hit territory. The hitters are working their swings, angling balls into play from pitches they’re likely to see tonight. Bonds is alongside the batting cage, chatting with Giant’s manager Felipe Alou, one hand on the end of the bat, wearing a black Giants pullover wind shirt, grey baseball pants, and bright orange shoes he only uses in the batting cages and on the practice field. Santiago wraps up his swings and comes around the cage.
     I step forward onto the grass, a few feet from the cage. Hot dog and beer vendors hawking pre-game refreshments calm down, the noisy crowd busy settling into the ball park eases off and becomes still, the lights are brighter, the sky darker. Barry Bonds strides into the batting cage.
     It is a ‘Field of Dreams’ moment, for they have given me a media pass to gain close field access, and I have come. I think of my Dad, who sat with me and my mother eight rows behind home plate before the front row seats were extended, guests of SportsChannel. He’s gone now, but I am here. I’ve gained proximity. I’m at the batting cage, and the greatest baseball slugger of all time is digging in.
     Bonds is a big man, 6’2”, but his bat is short. He swings a light bat, generating high bat speed to fuel his power. In the batting cage he doesn’t waste time going to left field. He takes no balls up the middle. He slashes no line drives to the gaps. Bonds goes deep. Number 25 on his back, he is relaxed and balanced at the plate, elbows tight, bat high, torso straight. No coiled stance, no bat waggling, none of that swaggering involving endlessly rolling the bat around in arcs before the ball comes his way. Bonds is a fuse ready to be lit, a spring about to be sprung, and he leans slightly forward and short-strides as the ball comes in. His brilliance is in how he generates maximum torque and tension in the split second as his bat comes from the neutral, up-right position, and swings down and into the hitting zone. Hips, legs and abdominal muscles working in a kind of unity to move the wood from no-motion, into ultra-high speed blur, a familiar movement all pitchers know and fear. It is the milli-second before contact that a pitcher will see a million times in his nightmares, that fractional moment when the ball is moving into the ball at Hall of Fame speed and the crack of wood on ball tells the pitcher he’s given up a home run.
     The baseball shoots out of the cage from Bond’s bat like a cannon shot, loud and hissing and straight as a three-iron golf shot, deep into the right field seats. The next pitch, Bonds delivers the exact same compact swing and screams another line shot deep, deep into the Dodger bullpen. Two for two, two pitches, two long straight rifle shots. It is batting practice, and this is perfect practice. Third pitch, Bonds nearly takes off the batting practice pitcher’s head, maybe hoping the starting pitcher tonight is watching, thinking of his vulnerability during a game when there will be no protective screen in front of him when a ninety mile an hour fastball comes back eye-ball high at 120 mph+ off Bonds’ bat.
     Bond’s superb batting eye has mapped out the entire strike zone with computer-like accuracy, giving him the target-zones of pitches he likes to hit, and pitches he’ll let go. In practice his swing is near identical, over and over. Each ball is landing beyond the fences, sending fans scrambling in the bleachers for a Barry Bonds souvenir.
     The sound of Bonds’ hits are unique. Sharp, crisp, the sound of a perfect, dead-solid sweet-spot wood on the center of the ball. Santiago and Snow and Kent deliver their spray shots into the field, working the angles, and their swings do not produce home runs. During games, some of their hits will clear the fences. But Bonds launches a repetition of straight-line shots over the fences with his short compact swing. Finishing his turn, he comes around the cage in my direction for a moment before taking his spot directly behind the plate next to Alou. The Giants manager gives him subtle signs, a finger point to center field, a sweep of the hand to right, two fingers pointing toward second base.
     Skies darkening, the lights taking hold, the game will start in less than an hour. Other Giants take their turns in the cage, each time making a few less swings, speeding up the rotation of batters. Bonds will take another turn. He’ll launch more right field missiles, perhaps loosening or tightening his elbows, add a bit more bottom hand, roll the wrists a click to get the right backspin to raise the ball just out and over a fielder’s outstretched arm.
     I’ve got moisture on my shoes now, a few clipped blades of grass on my cordovan loafers, a moment near the batting cage with the greatest slugger of all time. Tomorrow night, or the next night, or maybe in a week or two when I return to Dodgers Stadium, the field level access door will open again, and close behind me. The security guards eventually will recognize me, some will know my name. The Dodgers public relations staff will accommodate my requests for player interviews, shake my hand when I’m seated at the back row with my laptop fired up. In the late innings I’ll pack up and head across the parking lot above the stadium’s top level where the twinkling Los Angeles skyline seems to float like a Hollywood backdrop. Red and white lights of the cars on the 110 freeway move at varying speeds at 10:00 PM as I walk to my car.
     Vin Scully will be on the radio calling the last few innings as I ease down the back lot to the gate and out to the freeway and on home. Plaschke will be putting finishing details on tomorrow’s column. They’ll never recognize me, won’t ever know if I’m there. But I’ve been in the room with them. The door has been opened, and through it I have walked.  
    

    
    
     
    
    
    
      
    

       

2 comments:

Timecheck said...

A great post. Looking forward to more.

Kurt Taylor said...

Thanks Ralph!