Even before my plane from Melbourne had touched down at LAX, the Los Angeles Times was telling me that the city had fallen out of love with the LA Dodgers. That, “now batting for the Dodgers, well who cares” and, even worse, that the current Dodgers team had become “unwatchable”.
I felt like a soccer fanatic on a pilgrimage to Barcelona, only to be told that the city of unbridled passion could no longer find any passion for Barca F.C. But when it takes a day of your life simply to get to LA, as an Australian baseball fanatic I wasn’t going to have my spirits dampened by a cynical press.
So on a balmy June night I headed straight from LAX towards my date with the Dodgers. Being from a country where the sporting stadiums are usually a line drive from the CBD, I had thought my taxi driver was lost when he started driving up a mountain. But then I saw it, the baseball Mecca in the Mountains of Chavez Ravine, the Dodgers baseball sanctuary high up in the hills of Los Angeles.
I had arrived at a time of high anxiety for the Dodgers – in fact it wasn’t even known who owned the team as it was the subject of divorce proceedings filed between high profile husband and wife Frank and Jamie McCourt. Whilst bitter divorce cases usually involve houses, cars or the occasional speedboat, given that this was LA perhaps the fact that this divorce involved a tug of war over a Major League Baseball team wasn’t so surreal after all.
Due to the financial woes of the McCourts the players weren’t even guaranteed to be paid their salaries by 30 June 2011. During the 18 hour flight from Down Under I had nightmarish visions of arriving at Dodgers Stadium only to hear the Dodgers players were on strike, and having instead to occupy my time in LA with the dreaded “Secret Celebrity Homes” tour.
On arrival at ths stadium I was elated to find a crowd of nearly 40,000 whose passion for the game and their beloved team quickly embraced me. In a 3 hour flurry of excitement a Major League Baseball game delivers something for everyone. It is no surprise that Australia’s favourite pastime cricket has now shifted its focus from five-day epics and day long marathons to a shortened three hour 20/20 style format. This is no doubt inspired by the Americans who work more magic into their three hour sporting spectacles than David Copperfield could ever manage.
Every Dodgers player arrived at the plate to a musical interlude that reverberated around the stadium. I particularly enjoyed the arrival of Dodgers infielder Juan Uribe to Rihanna’s “Whats My Name”. It was an ironic choice of song name given this era of self promotion, where too many players often talk about themselves in reverential third person tones. The ultimate irony of the song choice however was that Rihanna was the last flame of the Dodgers’ biggest star Matt Kemp, before she (reportedly) started batting for the other team. Big Matt obviously bears no ill will about her departure from his life, or change of team, given that every time he goes to work he is now loudly reminded of her.
Even the romantics in Dodgers Stadium were catered for with “Kiss Cam”, where the cameraman between innings would zoom in on a couple in the audience and they would kiss to the roar of 40,000 people. Cupid missed only once, when his arrow zoomed in on a middle-aged couple where, as the man leant in for his obligatory kiss, the woman pulled away like he was breathing fire. The local media would have you believe her loss of passion was sadly symbolic of the attitude of LA fans to their Dodgers, but thankfully the reality I experienced in Dodgertown was far different.
Over two nights I saw dominant performances from Dodgers’ pitchers Clayton Kershaw and Chad Billingsley, local pitchers raised through the Dodgers farm system. However, the most exciting player I saw however was Devaris “Dee” Gordon at shortstop, another local product who lit up the Dodgers grand stage of baseball with a combination of fleet footedness, rocket armed throws and a hot bat bordering on a .300 average for the season.
It is one thing we certainly love in Australia, the home grown kid made good, and the Dodgers fans were certainly singing their approval from the same songsheet. Deep in the game and with the local hero Kershaw due up at the plate, the Dodgers Manager Don Mattingley stuck with Kershaw and didn’t call for a pinch hitter, his loyalty rewarded when Kershaw pounded in the winning runs. The Dodgers pitchers take their hitting very seriously, another sign that while the local media seemed to have given up on the team, the players were still competing feverishly in every aspect of the game.
Deep in the game and with the game hanging in the balance, a recorded interview with Tommy Lasorda was shown on the big screen. After 6 decades of loyal service as a player, manager and now club ambassador, Lasorda would appear in any dictionary where “Dodgers Legend” is defined. Everyone in the stadium listened intently to the great man, whose simple words contained more passion than you would find at any Spanish film festival. He finished with the immortal words that “….to me this place is not Dodgers Stadium, it is blue heaven on Earth”.
In a city where the hills are treated like Scrabble racks, his words are appropriately captured as a backdrop to the stadium.
Late in the game, and after polishing off a few hot dogs washed down with the always fantastic Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, I got talking to a local about those damn fine “Dodger Dogs”. I was told that not only are they the best hot dogs in baseball, but they are proudly made at a local farm where the recipe is a more closely guarded secret than Coca Cola. The dreamy eyed fan even pointed towards the farm somewhere in the distance, as if I could gaze across the hills like a kid outside the gates of Disneyland and suddenly spot the magical land of hot dog heaven.
It was a fitting moment that not only do these fans love their baseball team, they also even talk up their hot dogs as if they are the most treasured culinary treat on earth. On a balmy June night in Dodgertown they were as I woudn’t have traded that Dodger Dog for anything served up by a Michelin-starred French chef.
On leaving Dodgers Stadium and gazing out at the hills around me I asked a local resident whether locals like the fact that the only thing many people from overseas may know of LA is Hollywood. That surely the locals would want the world to know that there is so much more to their fine city than the glitz and glamour of showbusiness.
I was however immediately told that “every person in this city loves Hollywood – because we tell the world its stories”.
And on two nights in June 2011 I saw a few stories of my own. A tale of bitter divorces, backroom dealings, players playing with passion but with the threat of no pay, and through it all their fight to emerge victorious from the dark shadow cast by a scornful local press. An epic worthy of Universal Studios indeed.
With my first child due to arrive next month, my next trip from Down Under will surely be more Mickey Mouse than Mickey Mantle. It was an honour and a privilege while I could to be able to spend some time with the true fans of baseball in Dodgertown. Now to see if my local stadium will try and replicate those Dodger Dogs.