Spring is here, which means baseball is too. Walking Darby Park in Inglewood late yesterday afternoon, I was happy to see a game underway on our new official Little League field. It's bigger than the old one, greener and more sharply drawn, with new dugouts, bleachers, and towering lights that remind me of palm trees. I'm still a bit nostalgic for the old field, a somewhat scruffy baseball diamond that was just as comfortable being a soccer field or a workout area or a place to run your dogs, which is what I did once a week. The old field was a kind of public square in the middle of a park otherwise divided into spaces for specific activities such as tennis, skateboarding, handball, and basketball. The new and improved field, officialized and off limits to the public, is now one of those divisions. As I watched the game from outside the fence I thought, with some regret, that I have yet to find another place to run the dogs.
But anyway -- baseball. This time of year always reminds me that in the '70s and early 1980s I was one of the biggest Dodger fans in the city. The game had caught fire for me when I was a teenager, when the heart-of-the-lineup quintet of Steve Garvey, Ron Cey, Davey Lopes, Dusty Baker, and Reggie Smith ruled L.A. like rock stars. I was true fan, meaning I tracked stats (RBIs, at bats, home runs, stolen bases, batting averages, ERAs), listened to pre- and post-game shows and followed the personal lives of the players with feverish interest.
One of the biggest thrills of those years was 1977, when I met Dodger team captain Davey Lopes at an appearance he made at Hawthorne Plaza in the old Montgomery Ward department store. After chatting with me and my sisters -- they were big fans, too -- he invited us all to visit him and the rest of the team in the dugout on our next trip to Dodger Stadium. I thought he was just humoring us, but he made good on his word. Descending all those stairs down into the bowels of the ballpark and then to the hallowed ground zero of the dugout was almost surreal, in the best possible sense. Meeting the other Dodgers was beyond description entirely. It was like Alice falling through the looking glass and encountering a world seen from a distance but one that she never expected to experience. Thirty-five years on, the thrill isn't quite gone.
Over the years I lost touch with my fire for the Dodgers; things were never the same after players stopped wearing names on their backs. But the team is hot again, it seems. The biopic of legendary infielder Jackie Robinson, "42," opened today. The Dodgers have celebrity owners who've plowed $100 million into stadium renovations. Like so many sports teams these days, the Dodgers are not so much a team as they are a brand, officialized as such long ago. Embracing them as I once did feels not only old-fashioned now, but ill-advised. Though I will go to a game or two this season, if only to visit my memory of meeting the Dodger team of a lifetime. I won't get down to ground zero this time, but I will listen to the pre-game show. If there is still such a thing.