Thursday, July 23, 2009

A WEEK OF BASEBALL FURIES AND FUZZIES


What a week to be a Dodger fan. Scratch that-- what a week to be a baseball fan. It’s a game that carries with it so much baggage—dramatic, metaphorical, historical, emotional, associative, and a hundred more “ics” and “als” and “ives” that I haven’t mentioned. My wife asked me recently how I can stand to follow the game as closely as I do, investing so much of the way I look at life day to day in the fortunes of my favorite team and the various ups, downs and sideways of the game. I didn’t have a ready answer, because baseball can be so agonizing, so frustrating, so befuddling. And who could put into tidy words why they would voluntarily endure so much gnashing of teeth over the course of several months in spring, summer and fall, especially if, as has been the case with the Dodgers since I began following them seriously in 1994, your team is constantly snake-bit, a monument to mediocrity, or worse? Of course, with the devastating lows, and the steady thrum of the middle ground “meh,” come the occasional highs too—Steve Finley, arms lifted high, as his walk-off grand slam carried the 2004 Dodgers into the division championship; a perfect bunt, or a streaking rocket, hugging the third base line by a millimeter; the balletic beauty of an impossible grab by a shortstop, or the slender threading of the needle to complete a lightning fast double play around the horn; four home runs to even the score in the ninth against one of the best closers in the game, and a walk-off homer in the 10th to win it. The game is indeed like life—if it were all good, or all bad, we’d likely be driven mad with pleasure or frustration. The bumps and curves and changes of course are there to keep us interested, motivated, striving and hoping for better days and the wisdom to appreciate them when they come.


The week began by revisiting one of the most perversely entertaining homages to baseball ever put on film, found sparking off inside Walter Hill’s day-glo (or should that be nite-brite) action picture The Warriors (1979). The packed house at the New Beverly, gathered for the 30th anniversary of the movie, whooped and hollered and listened attentively as James Remar (Ajax), David Harris (Cochise) and Deborah Van Valkenburgh (Merci) held the stage for over an hour reliving precious memories of being on the set and fielding questions from rabid film fans, some of whom dressed like their favorite gangs from the movie. (I thought the house was going to come down on my head when I asked the cast what feelings they had, given their emotional connection, and the audience’s, to the original movie, about Tony Scott’s impending remake.) The movie still holds up very nicely after the passage of 30 years, which have done little to dilute its energy and quite a lot to highlight the fantastical, heightened distance from reality that was always there for the discernment, if one wasn’t otherwise occupied getting all balled up about the hoopla over the responsibility, or lack thereof, of the movie’s violence. And for many, the highlight of this vivid, visceral punch-out of a movie has always been the Warriors, bopping their way across hostile turf and fending off attacks by gangs who mistakenly hold them responsible for the murder of a high-profile criminal organizer, and their run-in with the Baseball Furies. The Furies, inspired by equal parts KISS and Murderer’s Row (they sport Yankees-style pinstripes that clash mightily with grotesquely designed full facial makeup), come out swinging and eventually get their maples and ashes kicked when the Warriors get hold of a few bats of their own. It’s a spectacularly choreographed scene (and it’s probably even topped by a later battle in a subway restroom with that preppie gang on skates), and I would have never guessed that, as electric as that scene is, it would be only the modest starting point of a week of baseball highlights that would just get better and better.

As I indicated earlier on my “On the Marquee” sidebar, the average baseball fan might well see Timothy Marx’s Bluetopia: The L.A. Dodgers Movie (2009) as little more than a puff piece designed to celebrate the 50th anniversary of a team they probably care less about than one of Major League Baseball’s 29 other franchises, and if they were feeling generous they might find enough to enjoy—including some moments spent with Vin Scully—to justify spending 90 minutes with this movie. And even Dodger fans, those of a inking to examine the darker shades of Dodger Blue, might hanker for a more hard-hitting documentary that gets after some of the issues that haunted the team during at least the first half of its semicentennial year—further tensions between veterans and younger players, the pressure of heightened expectations in the wake of the hiring of ex-Yankee manager Joe Torre, and the team’s perennial albatross, a mediocre offensive line-up. There are undoubtedly plenty of moments, and plenty of storylines, that have been left on the cutting room floor. But Marx’s pruning clears enough of a path toward the movie’s real theme—the team’s relationship with its ethnically and economically diverse fan base—that those who count themselves among the Dodger faithful are likely to be very forgiving toward the movie’s tendency toward sentiment and breathless testimony. Personally, I watched Bluetopia through a constant well of tears, fully cognizant of all the holes along the way that Marx has left to my own abilities as a viewer and a fan to fill in, but swept up in the emotional pull that the team has on me, a pull that the movie replicates with its own passion and its own desire to represent, with respect and accuracy, the experience of a diverse group of Dodger fans over the course of a suddenly thrilling, ultimately heartbreaking season.

The movie interweaves talking heads footage of Scully and other Dodger broadcasters, Frank and Jamie McCourt, Tommy Lasorda and several players with the stories of several devoted Dodger fans: a (fan)atical owner of a tattoo shop that specializes in Dodger ink, who eventually applies his talents to the shoulder of center fielder Matt Kemp; a group of septuagenarian ladies who kvetch from their seats in the left field pavilion and end up at a charity bowling match cooing over the likes of rookie Clayton Kershaw, Brad Penny and James Loney; a man and his son who pride themselves on being the first to arrive in the ball park and who make a habit of snatching up batting practice balls that lay uncollected in the pavilions before the crowd arrives; and a woman stricken with cancer who hopes only to survive long enough to see the Dodgers make the playoffs. It’s admittedly a strategy that plays best to the sentimental streak in any baseball fan, but if you are a Dodger follower that streak will widen considerably while watching this movie. The tears of happiness that were constantly brimming and distorting the picture on my TV spilled over in earnest many times as the movie gave over to the honest emotion and excitement it documents within the confines of Dodger Stadium. One favorite moment—- old Internet friend Jon Weisman’s encounter with Vin Scully in the press box, which he succinctly and aptly summarizes by admitting (and this is probably slightly paraphrased) that “there’s no rational way to express what this moment means to me.” From the Opening Day flyover, to the surprise addition of Manny Ramirez, to the giddy highs of an NLDS sweep of the Chicago Cubs, to the thudding disappointment at the hands of Cole Hamels and the Philadelphia Phillies while knocking on the door of the 2008 World Series, Jon’s comments wisely sum up the heart of a Dodger fan (at least this one), as well as the emotional effect of Bluetopia. It’s enough to make one hope against all hope that Timothy Marx has a camera crew rolling on this season too. The sequel might be even more satisfying.


Not that there’s been much of interest going on in Chavez Ravine this season, right? Wednesday, July 22. I saw the first 45 minutes or so of the game on Fox Sports West, enough to see Andre Ethier’s home run, the one that evened the score, 1-1. It was Manny Ramirez Bobblehead Night, and the game was sold out, fans wanting to get their soon-to-be-valuable souvenir. The bobblehead would be as close as they’d get to the slugger though, because Manny was not in the Wednesday night lineup, taking the night off with a sore hand after getting hit by a pitch the previous night. Joe Torre had said Ramirez would be available for pinch hitting, but who among us wanted to think about the last-ditch scenario, one probably built around a slowly depleting bench, that would require the services of the bruised superstar? Despite my desire to stay tuned, it was a Wednesday night, I was reminded, and so I gave way to my daughters’ one weekly TV addiction (at least until Star Wars: Clone Wars starts its new season) and allowed them to turn on Wipeout, an action-packed game show featuring lots of (mostly overweight) people getting drenched in mud, stumbling, falling and getting back up again as they pinball through an obstacle course designed for maximum difficulty and humiliation. (I was otherwise occupied, but not too successfully-- just try writing in the same room while this show plays to its most squealing and hyperactive demographic.)

The surprises and delights of Wipeout having been revealed and spent at 9:00 p.m., I turned back to the Dodger game just in time to notice the game was now tied a 2-2. With one out in the sixth, Cincinnati Reds pitcher Bronson Arroyo walked James Loney and Matt Kemp, then Russell Martin singled to left to load the bases. Arroyo was sitting tight with Mark Loretta gearing up in the Dodger dugout. But when manager Dusty Baker noticed dreadlocks stirring in the Dodger dugout he had a change of heart. Baker replaced Arroyo with reliever Nick Masset, thinking Arroyo, having just packed the house, might not have enough left to face Ramirez, who was suddenly headed toward the batter’s box, without so much as a single warm-up. I turned to my oldest daughter, who came back into the living room after brushing he teeth, and I said, as I frequently do when Manny comes up, “Watch this. He’s gonna hit a home run.” I didn’t really believe that he would; I was just saying it to pique her interest. But he did. Swinging at the first pitch he saw, he drove a streaking line drive right over left field and into—where else—the field-level section along the Dodger bullpen that was this season dubbed (except for a brief 50-game hiatus) Mannywood. On Manny Ramirez Bobblehead Night. A night on which he was not scheduled to play. This makes all that Roy Hobbs-Robert Redford bullshit look even sillier, but if someone would have scripted the events of last night’s game, none of us could have believed that either. Charlie Steiner went nuts on the Dodger Radio Network, but as is his brilliant ken, Vin Scully called the trail of the ball and then let the deafening crowd, which did not even begin to subside until the second Manny curtain call at the end of the inning, tell the rest of the story.



As he whooped it up in the dugout with his disbelieving teammates (“I was in awe," Kemp said. "He's amazing, man. I can't really explain him. I've never seen somebody who can go up there, no warm-ups or nothing, and just go hit. I need at least a couple of swings."), one camera caught a shot of Kemp walking up to Ramirez, tapping him on the forehead, and stepping back to watch the superstar who plays the game with the personality, for good and ill, like a 12-year-old kid begin to nod his head up and down in imitation of the bobblehead of which he was so obviously proud. To those who expected (demanded) that Dodger fans boo or otherwise ostracize this guy, who accuse Dodger fans of hypocrisy because they will not hold his feet to the fire in the way they did those of Barry Bonds, I offer the simple evidence of this kind of way of relating to his teammates, and to his fans, that marks the difference between Ramirez and the likes of Bonds. Ramirez may not have adequately apologized to fans for his violation of the MLB drug policy and subsequent 50-game suspension, but he has owned up to his culpability—unlike Bonds, hated by fans, reporters and insiders alike, who has arrogantly denied ever using any performance-enhancing substance, all mountain ranges of evidence to the contrary. Unless I’m mistaken, Ramirez did not contest his punishment but instead served it in exactly the fashion prescribed by the commissioner’s office. In societal terms, the man has paid his dues. Will Bonds ever pay his? In my eye, Manny Ramirez apologizes to his fans by energizing the clubhouse, relating to his teammates, and then plating up and batting like a maniac, as if those 50 games were instead a mere 50 seconds over a speed bump. All the Bill Plaschkes on earth (and thank Zeus there is only one) cannot make me feel guilty for thrilling to a moment like the one we witnessed Wednesday night. I wish I could have been at the stadium. But even though I wasn’t, I was there. And I have a feeling this isn’t going to be the last great moment of this Dodger season. Twenty-seven games over .500, three games ahead of the nearest team in the majors (the Yankees) for best record overall. Will Roy Halladay end up here, or in Philadelphia? This is why we love baseball. When even the lows are fascinating just for love of the game, how much more exhilarating then are the highs.


Oh, yeah, and tonight Mark Buehrle pitched a perfect game for Obama’s White Sox.

Here’s the peerless Jon Weisman not just once, not just twice, but three times on what some are calling the most memorable moment at Dodger Stadium since that guy Kirk Gibson hobbled to the plate in ’88. And this was a midseason game!

Here’s what the Grand Slam looked like from out near Mannywood.

Here’s the story on an upcoming commemorative poster in honor of last night’s great moment.

And here’s where you can buy Bluetopia online.

Up next: Richard Linklater's new documentary, Inning by Inning: Portrait of a Coach

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7 comments:

Jason Bellamy said...

Great stuff, Dennis, minus the reference to Steve Finley's slam, which as a Giants fan I had blessedly just managed to forget.

Out on the East Coast, I had no chance of seeing Manny's recent slam as it happened (as his fantasy baseball owner, the stat made me happy the next morning, however), but yesterday I got home just in time to watch the ninth of Buehrle's perfection. I'm an NL guy, so the AL players are somewhat foreign to me, but it doesn't matter in a case like that. I turned on the TV to see Wise drifting back on his way toward making that amazing catch. (My brother had texted me to turn on the TV, so I knew the implications of the catch when I saw it.) Talk about being dropped right into the action! What a fun baseball moment.

Anyway, while I'm here, a few words on Manny vs. Barry. The key differences are these:

1) Bonds was a villain of baseball long before PEDs. Some of it was fair (the guy can be a total jerk), some of it was unfair (not sure why sports reporters think that a guy's warmth, or lack of it, should influence their coverage), some of it was theater. Take away Bonds' worst moments (most of which were away from the public eye) and his general unspoken attitude, as perfectly summed up by a Sports Illustrated cover headline near the beginning of his Giants career, was "I'm Barry Bonds, and You're Not." He was the guy all opposing fans loved to hate, which only made Giants fans love him more, because he welcomed it, thrived on it.

Manny, on the other hand, has always been beloved for that goofy spirit that (stories suggest) can wear on his teammates. He's been the guy baseball fans can't help but love. So I honeslty don't think the forgiveness for Manny has anything to do with him "doing the time." Save Plaschke, who at this point has no choice but to fight from the corner he backed himself into, the intial reaction to Manny was pretty ho-hum. Which brings me to this ...

2) Even Bonds wouldn't have been vilified as he has been if he were Yet Another Guy To Get Busted, rather than the original poster child. Sports fans are pretty much over it at this point. Sad as it is, we've learned to not care if players are cheating or to assume that most of them are cheating, or have cheated, or will look for an opportunity to cheat someday. When Bonds was being (deservedly) crucified -- and that was his punishment, and it was far worse than Manny's "time," because Manny's sentence is over -- he was all alone. It fit his villain persona, and the sports hacks who'd been waiting for a chance to give the guy a taste of his own medicine piled on.

(Aside: Plaschke's bashing of Manny would be noteworthy if Manny had been a longtime Dodger. If Plaschke were to learn that, say, Orel Hershiser was a PED-user, and that is not an accusation, there's not a chance in hell he would have thrown a friend under the bus like he has Manny ... but the crime would have been the same.)

Where was I? Aw, doesn't matter. I just wanted to weigh in on the Manny-Barry thing and to say this, because it can't be said enough: Vin Scully is the fucking man.

jujutomb said...

Great post Dennis! On the day following a superb night of baseball excellence you've summed up particularily well what the great game of Baseball means to us, the fans...I feel sorry for all of those who don't understand the game, who don't appreciate it for what it all stands for: The daily drama, the subtle chess match mixed with explosive and jaw-dropping feats of athleticism and skill, the history, the cool baseball stuff (i.e baseball cards, fitted hats, team jerseys), the experience of going to the ball park or watching a game on TV...It really is the perfect sport! We ball fans could go on forever talking about this Great Game! Last night's perfect game is a perfect reminder of the beauty, athleticism and grace of baseball!
Best regards,
Julien

Megan said...

It was a beautiful week in baseball. Fantastic post, sir.

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