Opening Day at Dodger Stadium has been a tradition in which my father-in-law and I have indulged for about ten years now, but this year money has been so tight that I just didn’t make any effort to get tickets. I read with envy the “Comments” page on Dodger Thoughts as April 12 approached, trying to keep the vicarious thrill of listening to all the regulars expressing excitement about their Opening Day tickets from curdling into dark-green envy, but other than that I tried not to think about it.
Then, about three weeks ago, a friend called and asked me if I’d gotten my Opening Day tickets yet. I laughed to cover the pain and said, wincing, “No, I figured I was just going to end up missing it this year.” His reply was the one thing I didn’t expect to hear: “Well, I just picked up four of ‘em, and you can have two.” Whoo-hoo! Although I did win Loge Section 153 season tickets in a Little League raffle in 1997, otherwise known as The Summer When I Discovered Just How Many Friends I Really Had, these kinds of tickets don’t habitually fall into my lap. But this time I lucked out. That unlistenable Sting song, “If You Love Somebody, Set Them Free,” suddenly made a little more sense.
Game time was 1:05pm, and FIL and I arrived at around 12:15pm to our luxurious position within the stadium, Section 35, Row E, seats 112 and 113, about as far down the third-base side as you can get in the Top Deck, which means we were high, high above, but almost directly in line with, the Dodgers batters box. We got to meet Odalis Perez at the gate, along with newcomers D.J. Houlton (the relief pitcher who would figure impressively in the day’s action), new catcher Jason Phillips (acquired from the Mets in exchange for Kazuhisa Ishii) and second-string catcher Paul Bako (who was a Cub last year).
Then we hit the concession lines which were, at 12:15, about a tenth as long as the meandering snake leading into the Top of the Deck souvenir shop, thank God. We grabbed our Dodger Dogs (as is Opening Day tradition, I got two— Gary Busey would have been proud) and settled into our seats. Had not the electricity of the L.A. season opener been crackling through our systems, we might very well have been lulled to sleep by the persistently mediocre and fatally sincere mid-tempo thrashings of the rock band Lifehouse, who were set up on a stage in center field, a most unwelcome substitute for the lilting, bobbing swells of Nancy Bea Hefley at the Dodger Roland organ. Nancy would have her moments, but not as many as she deserves, and Lifehouse overstayed its welcome by about six songs (I think they played seven). This kind of Star 98.7 fan-baiting isn’t quite as bad as last year’s abominable “AOL Sessions” mid-inning promotions, in which the crowd was encouraged to pick their favorite among three incredibly lame acoustic versions of songs that were generally pretty wretched to begin with, but it was close. However, we knew it couldn’t last, and the electricity was still crackling about all that was to come. And we were right— Lifehouse ended their performance to the general indifference of the crowd and we moved right along to Navy SEALS parachuting into the stadium, fireworks, and all the other traditional Opening Day pomp and circumstance.
From our seats way up in heaven (all the better to get a really good overview of Heaven, I say, and for just $6.00, one of the best deals around!), I could pick out familiar and soon-to-be-familiar faces milling around the Dodger Dugout— Steve Lyons and Charley Steiner seated in front of the FSW2 cameras doing the pre-game show; Caroline Hughes glad-handing as many Dodger big shots as possible; Frank and Jamie McCourt mingling with friends and the media and eventually taking their seats in the owner’s box adjacent to the dugout; Eric Gagne accepting his (I’m not kidding here) Rolaids Relief Man of the Year Award; Bill Plaschke’s mug peering out from the press box (we were too close in and too high to be able to see Vinny); Cesar Izturis being presented with his 2004 Gold Glove award; Tommy Lasorda posing for pictures with Paul DePodesta and Duke Snider, who was present to kick off the season-long celebration of the Brooklyn Dodgers’ 1955 World Series win by throwing out the first pitch.
Fan reaction to the introduction of most of the Giants lineup ranged from tepid boos(Deivi Cruz, Michael Tucker) to lustier, but still half-hearted boos (Marquis Grissom, J.T. Snow). Of course, BalcoMan was greeted with a house-rattling barrage of low-register howling and catcalls, which he reveled in by lifting his bionic arms skyward and grinning like the Cheshire Cat caught with a mouthful of his gracious host’s beloved mice.
Fan reaction to the introduction of most of the Dodgers lineup was similarly tepid, but largely because the average fan had no idea who Jason Repko or Jason Phillips or Steve Schmoll is, or much feeling for new Dodgers Jeff Kent, Jose Valentin, J.D. Drew or Derek Lowe. Of course the loudest and heartiest applause and cheers were reserved for the returning veterans of the National League West division championship team— Gagne, Izturis, Perez, Opening Day pitcher Jeff Weaver, Giovanni Carrara, Jayson Werth and Milton Bradley, who seemed, if we’re to believe the defensive and offensive evidence of the first few road games, not to mention the favorable column in the Los Angeles Times that morning, to be enjoying the responsibility of his role as the emerging team leader. All the while these players were being stacked up on the first and third-base lines, I kept tumbling the thought around in my head: I wonder if this Opening Day will be one of those special ones, or one of those days that makes the walk back to the car seem excruciatingly long. And if it does end up special, which one of these guys is gonna be the one we’ll remember being right in the center of it?
A woman most of the crowd seemed to know-- she's apparently an American Idol contestant of some infamy, judging from the animated reaction of the crowd upon her appearance-- did a creditable job with “The Star-spangled Banner” (a far better rendition than was offered by previous AI winner Ruben Studdard before tonight’s opener of the weekend Padres series), the Stealth bomber buzzed the stadium— in the Top Deck that thing looks, and feels, like it’s gonna give you a buzz and a butch wax— and then the game got going. And right away, I started imagining that long, somber walk back to the car.
The Giants roughed up Weaver for five runs on a succession of soft singles that seemed to have no problem finding just the right holes in the infield to thread themselves through. Weaver’s location was terrible and it became clear very, very soon that he did not have the same stuff of last week’s 6-0 shutout up at SBC Park— hell, I’m sure he’d be the first to say that he had no stuff at all, and as a result the Hated Ones took him on the orange-and-black equivalent of Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride.
But in the bottom of the first, Cesar Izturis reached base and then immediately cruised home on Jason Repko’s first major league home run. Now the average fan might have a better idea who this kid Repko is. Not only did he give the fans an early sense that the Dodgers weren’t just going to roll over, like on one Opening Day of the recent past which had the Giants trampling the Dodgers by some 12 runs, but he also showed himself to be a heads-up left fielder, playing a couple of deep drives off the wall like a seasoned pro, not a rookie playing his first game at Dodger Stadium. Score at the end of one: Giants 5, Dodgers 2.
Weaver wobbled, but he didn’t fall down in the second, and the Dodgers would score again on an RBI single by Phillips to make it 5-3, Giants.
But the Dodger pitcher’s house of cards tumbled down in the fourth, when he was brutalized by a three-run Pedro Feliz homer that brought Jim Tracy out of the henhouse with the hook. Enter reliever Buddy Carlyle. The Dodgers would bat again, but the score would remain as it was at the top of the fourth: Giants 8, Dodgers 3. (I blame myself: I left at the top of this inning to get a Diet Coke for FIL and a bottle of water for myself. Surely if I’d stayed in my seat rather than opting to stand in one of the now-incredibly-long concession lines, Feliz would never have hit that F-in’ dinger…)
The top of the fifth would see Carlyle return, the first of the day’s relatively unsung heroes take the mound for the Dodgers. He and his bullpen mates D.J. Houlton and Giovanni Carrara would pitch two brilliant, scoreless innings each to keep the Giants quiet. But Giants starter Kirk Rueter would retire 11 straight batters himself before Repko reached on shortstop Omar Vizquel's error to open the sixth. After Drew singled and Kent walked to load the bases, Scott Eyre relieved Rueter. Bradley hit a sacrifice fly and Olmedo Saenz followed with an RBI double to make it 8-5, Giants.
And so it would be going into the bottom of the ninth. By this point probably close to 3,000 or more fans had hit the exits, opting for beating traffic rather than staying to witness a now nearly inevitable defeat at the hands of the Hated Ones that was about to be sealed by their newly acquired closer Armando Benitez. Giants manager Felipe Alou had already given hot-hitting left fielder Feliz the rest of the day off and put Jason Ellison in his place in the eighth inning. Alou, like most everyone else in the stadium, figured Benitez to be lights-out and the Giants soon-to-be winners of both their own home opener as well as the Dodgers’. Sure enough, the closer got leadoff batter Phillips on a grounder to short to start things off. Two outs to go.
Then Ricky Ledee comes up and hits a monstrous double to the center field wall, taking third on Izturis’s single, and all of the sudden the fans still in the stadium started getting a whiff of October 2, 2004 all over again. Only this time it wasn’t the Giants’ beleaguered bullpen throwing gas can after gas can, it was their high-quality closer who was having trouble locating the ball. Despite that, however, Benitez managed to get Jose Valentin, pinch-hitting for Jason Repko, to pop up to first. Two away.
But thanks to a combination of Benitez’ ineffectiveness and J.D. Drew’s discipline at the plate, the right fielder walked to load the bases. Two out, Dodgers down three runs. In a virtual repeat of a similar opportunity during the seventh inning, when he hit a soft grounder to third and into an inning-ending double play, Jeff Kent again came to the plate, this time with a chance to launch a monster game-winning grand slam and send all the remaining Dodger fans, who had by now twisted themselves into soft, sun-baked pretzels and chewed the insides of their mouths raw and bleeding, into a delirium of joy. But the salami was not to be. Instead, in another amazing display of discipline under extreme pressure, Kent laid off four of Benitez’s wild nibblers and walked in Ledee for a run. Giants 8, Dodgers 6. Still two out.
Enter emerging team leader Milton Bradley. Word had it that he’d endured a brutal barrage of taunts and insults, in center field and at the plate, during the opening series in San Francisco, but you could never tell as much from his on-field demeanor. During the subsequent weekend in Arizona, Bradley was effective with the bat, but even more impressive with his glove, making two spectacular catches in Saturday night’s game, the second of which was so wild that Vin Scully was almost as beside himself with joy as Bradley was, as Bradley ran off the field leaping and laughing like a overjoyed Little Leaguer. And during Tuesday’s Opening Day game, he was remarkably loose, even displaying a sense of humor about himself and his reputation as a hothead. At one point a fan in the bleachers tossed an oversized inflatable pill bottle with “BALCO” on its label in big red letters onto the warning track. The game was stopped long enough for Bradley to retrieve the comedy prop and toss it over the fence. But before he did he stopped short, stared briefly in the direction from where the pill bottle came, lifted it with one arm above his head, as though he was going to chuck it sharply back at whatever fan was responsible— a clear reference to the infamous plastic beer bottle incident of last season that ended with Bradley charging off the field and tearing off his jersey. But instead he tossed the inflatable harmlessly over the fence in between the pavilions.
Bradley calmly approached the plate with the bases loaded. And then my FIL turned to me and said, “I gotta go to the restroom. Meet me at the gate when this is all over.” Now, I don’t begrudge a man, particularly an 82-year-old man, his right, or his undeniable need to pee whenever it is that he’s gotta pee, and I never tried to talk him into staying. But if it were me, I think I would’ve just had to let whatever might happen, happen and worry about the mop-up afterward. But that's just shameless me. As Milton settled in to face Benitez, my FIL took off to one of Dodger Stadium’s lovely Top Deck troughs. Oh, well, I thought, at least they pipe Vin Scully in there.
Just to test the effectiveness of my blood pressure medicine, I’m sure, Bradley took Benitez to 2-2. And then he lined a shot right up the left field line. Fair ball.
Izturis scores. The ball rolls past Ellison, who gives chase all the way to the wall. By the time he catches up to it, Drew scores. Kent is rounding third when he sees Ellison bobble the ball and stumble backward a step on the pickup. Kent heads home. Ellison sees the Dodger second baseman a few feet from home plate and spikes the ball in the grass in anger. Kent scores! Dodgers win, 9-8! Bradley is elected mayor of Los Angeles, or at least of Dodger Stadium!
I’m vaulting over three rows of seats to high-five anyone and everyone in the general area. My voice is gone and will not fully return until the next day. This is the third dramatic comeback win for the Dodgers in seven games to start the season. And remember, they pulled this agonizing magic act 53 times last year. I know that everyone has their reasons— traffic, children, commitments, boredom, despair, whatever— but I know that from this day forward, whenever I watch a Dodger game in the 2005 season (and I do plan on watching a few), whether I’m at the stadium or at home in my comfy chair, I am not leaving/shutting off the TV, especially if they're only down three or four runs, until Vin Scully says “Good night, everybody!”
(Quick Jason Ellison note: The same buddy who procured our the Opening day tickets accompanied my girls and me out to the stadium the following night to see the Dodgers beat the Giants again, 4-1. Ellison was in right field this time. And he let two balls get past him. Neither resulted in Dodger runs— the damage had already been done, and Odalis Perez had held the Giants offense to just one run over a string of something like 15 batters shut down in a row. But still, how this guy Ellison isn’t back in double-A after this road trip, and especially after spiking that ball on Tuesday, is well beyond me. The funny thing is, he was replaced by Michael Tucker late in the game Wednesday, and Tucker let one slip past him too! My buddy and I were starting to wonder if Ellison might not actually be on the Dodger payroll. That crafty DePodesta!)
The walk back to the car was the most glorious Opening day post-game parking lot trudge I’ve ever experienced. My FIL, for God’s sake, was high-fiving delirious Dodger fans as they passed in their cars! Unheard of! Unbelievable! I believe, baby, I believe! May this season be sweet validation for Paul DePodesta, who is still twisting in the wind for some of the moves he’s made— the jury is still out on Hee-Seop Choi, even after his first home run as a Dodger Wednesday night— but who is certainly not the clueless slide-rule-and-laptop-wielding bumbler that Bill Plaschke has so relentlessly and routinely painted him in his fish-wrap column. I hope all those writers and commentators who have made such a profession out of piling on the Dodgers’ every move before a single pitch was thrown in the 2005 season feel compelled to publicly recant their Chicken Little prognosticating, should the season continue to play out well and thrilling for the organization and its fans. As good as I felt midseason last year, after such a long drought of mediocrity at Chavez Ravine, I feel twice that good right now, only nine games in. Maybe I’m a fool, maybe I’m setting myself up for a long season and even more heartbreak. But I’m betting I’m setting myself up instead for a summer of terrific baseball played by a roster full of “unfamiliar” Dodgers with no names on their backs and no “heart and soul” or “chemistry.” Well, somebody else said it first, but I believe it— winning breeds chemistry, not the other way around, and I hope these 2005 Dodgers, who barely knew each other before Opening Day, and who most fans are just now getting familiar with themselves, can build on that premise and prove it in October.
For now, thanks from the FIL and me to the Opening Day Dodgers-- Cesar, Jason R., J.D., Jeff K., Milton, Olmedo, Nori, Jason P., Jose, Buddy, Jason G., D.J., Hee-Seop, Giovanni, Ricky, Jim T., Jim C., John, Glenn, Tim and, yes, even Jeff W.— for a memorable, thrilling day. May there be 155 more just like it. Or, as my two-year-old daughter said when she saw the game on TV the other day, “Baseball! Beautiful! Go, Dodgers, go! Go, Dodgers, go!”
(My apologies for posting this so many days after the fact, but I've been pretty busy at work and, quite frankly, enjoying the giddy buzz of the Dodgers' hot 7-2 start to the season, and I've only now gotten a chance to write about it. I can only hope I make up in enthusiasm for what I lack in timely reporting skills...)