The home of the team that I’ve followed for well over forty years, with a nice view of downtown Los Angeles in the background. Photo courtesy of primetimeshuttle.com
COMMEMORATING THE MILESTONE ANNIVERSARY OF A VERY IMPORTANT MOMENT IN ANY BASEBALL FAN’S LIFE
Sunday, June 18, 1978.
The day I turned eleven years old, having just finished the fifth grade.
And a day that I was excitedly anticipating, being that my obsession for baseball and the Dodgers – due to their appearance in the World Series eight months before – was percolating, because that was the day I went to Dodger Stadium and saw the team that my family, particularly my grandparents, had followed since their Brooklyn days, for the very first time.
For a young African-American boy with the requisite 1970s disco-style afro who was tall for his age, approaching six feet, you can imagine the feelings going through me as I woke up that warm and sunny morning.
I made it a point to carefully dress in my baseball-style 3/4 sleeve shirt with the Dodger logo in the front, plus the mesh-backed adjustable Dodger blue cap with the interlocking “LA” logo on the front, as my mother and I left our tiny apartment in Santa Monica to go pick up the three cousins whose names I picked from a cap to go with me; she had gotten a total of six tickets on the field level down the right field line, and we all piled up into her Opal Cadet to journey east on the I-10, making a left on the 110, heading toward downtown L.A. to what then-Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda called “Blue Heaven On Earth”.
Contrary to what some might be imagining, the trip was fairly quick; I don’t remember running into any major traffic jams as we turned left at the Dodger Stadium exit, drove a few more minutes to Chavez Ravine, and there it was!
Any kid seeing a major sports facility like Dodger Stadium for the first time in person would be very impressed at its majesty, and I was no exception, though interestingly enough the size of the 56,000-seat ballpark wasn’t the only thing that I noticed.
The bright colors of the seats, which seemingly reached up halfway to Heaven, ranging from bright red on the top deck to orange on the loge (second deck) section to the blue-hued reserved section in between, was what I noticed the most as one of my cousins exclaimed how he wanted to see Steve Garvey, who was the Dodgers’ All-American go-to hero among the kids.
After my mom’s friend, who I considered an aunt, joined us, Mom proceeded to hand us kids the tickets, giving us the inevitable lecture about staying together and behaving, before we proceeded to the gates.
Don Sutton, who I saw pitch a six-hit shutout that memorable first Dodger game. Photo courtesy of pinterest.com
It was Helmet Weekend, meaning that everyone ages 14 and under got a free replica Dodger batting helmet (that was a popular thing to wear in those days), and of course I was excited when I was handed that blue plastic head covering, putting it on over my cap right away, my afro sticking out underneath.
We then headed for our seats, Mom promising us that we would stay all nine innings, and as the Montreal Expos (now the Washington Nationals, having moved to the nation’s capitol in 2005) were the Dodgers’ opponents, nobody could miss the large red and white maple-leaf Canadian flag flying next to the red, white and blue stars and stripes beyond the center field fence.
Our seats were not far from the Expos’ bullpen, and I remember one of my cousins asking either Expos pitcher Stan Bahnsen or one of their coaches for an autograph as they were walking by us, one of them saying, “I’ve gotta go to work!”
Which we were all incredulous about, going “What?!” Playing baseball is a job?!”
Little did we know; the naivete of youth coming into play there.
I also vividly recall “O, Canada”, that country’s national anthem, being sung before our “Star Spangled Banner” with the Dodgers then taking the field and getting going as the organ in the press box played “Charge!”
And of course I enjoyed the Dodger (Hot) Dogs and chocolate ice cream cups that I consumed.
Davey Lopes, one of the heroes of that 1st Dodger game I saw, standing 2nd from right with the other members of baseball’s longest playing infield: Ron Cey (far left), Bill Russell (2nd from left), and Steve Garvey (far right). Photo courtesy of twitter.com
I KNOW you want my reminisces about how the game unfolded – here goes…
Over the four decades since that day, the three details about the game that never left my memory banks were Don Sutton, the Dodgers’ ace, pitching a shutout,
– Dodger second baseman Davey Lopes stealing four bases,
– One of my cousins calling out Dodger right fielder Lee Lacy’s name, yelling “Lee! Lee!” between pitches mid-game and having him turn his head in our direction and (I’m sure) thinking, “Who the hell is calling my name?!”
– And the Dodgers beating the Expos 5-0, putting the finishing touches on the most memorable birthday of my childhood.
As for any more details, I made it a point to research that game online recently, downloading and printing the box score.
What I found was very informative and memory-inducing…
- Don Sutton gave up six hits, walking one and striking out six in hurling his complete game gem, though I was surprised that it only evened his record to 6-6 and lowered his earned run average to 4.29; apparently he had not gotten off to a good start that season.
- Along with his four stolen bases, Davey Lopes also went 3-for-4, earning him Co-Player of the Game honors with Sutton in the middle of what was the best season of his life, him upping his batting average to .320 that day.
- Me, Mom, her friend, and my three cousins among the 41,769 fans in attendance that day,
- Sutton’s Expos counterpart, Wayne Twitchell, having a bad day as he didn’t even last five innings, walking five Dodgers while not striking out anybody, and doing a terrible job at holding runners on base as Lopes went nuts on him, and…
- (VERY significant) having three future members of the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY on the field – Sutton, plus the Expos’ Andre Dawson and Tony Perez, who was one of the stars on Cincinnati’s “Big Red Machine” before being traded to Montreal in 1977.
TO STATE THE OBVIOUS…
That first Dodger game set the tone for a lifetime of involvement in baseball and softball for me as I joined the Santa Monica’s Sunset Little League the following spring, spending five mediocre years as a kid just trying to have fun, and eventually spending roughly twenty years as a baseball and softball coach on the youth level as well as continuing to play pick-up softball throughout college and to this day.
As for Dodger Stadium, I would go on to see nearly sixty more games at that place over the next four decades, fifty of them Dodger games – including this past June 10th, when I watched the Dodgers beat the Atlanta Braves 7-2 from the top deck seats,
In addition to (I think) eight games featuring my collegiate alma mater, UCLA, taking on crosstown rival USC in the Dodger Stadium College Baseball Classic, which the Dodgers host every March and which has turned into quite the event in the Crosstown Rivalry, sitting near the dugout on the field level.
Which considering the prices being charged for everything at that stadium these days is the only time I get to sit so close to the action now.
And I have had the honor of being on the field three times, once in the outfield during a “fans playing catch” event after the Dodgers played the Angels the day before my 40th birthday in 2007 – you can imagine the thrill I got doing that,
And behind home plate twice while playing with the UCLA Alumni Band, providing pre-game entertainment for the Dodgers’ “UCLA Day” games in 2011 and 2012 – again, great thrills!
It has gotten to the point where I can give tours of the place, as I have the distinction of sitting in each section of Dodger Stadium at least once during that forty-year span.
The best way to sum up all of this…
I feel like I made a lifelong friend on that 11th birthday of mine.
At least, that’s how I feel every time I make that left turn on Vin Scully Ave. (it was called Elysian Park Ave. on that first visit) and go up those two hills before seeing the stadium lights.
Since it all happened forty years ago today, it’s only fitting that I give homage to this personal watershed life experience.
The official team photo of the 1978 Los Angeles Dodgers, who I saw that memorable birthday in 1978. Photo courtesy of baseballhall.org