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Charity begins at home plate

OK, so how did I end up standing at home plate in Dodger Stadium with a pitching wedge in my hand and a golf ball at my feet?

As far as I can recall, it all began months ago with me up in the stands, sipping a cold brew and letting my jock fantasies run wild.

Under the right circumstances, could I hit a baseball out of the park?

Given that I hit a total of one home run for my high school team, and that it happened 36 years ago, it seemed like a statistical improbability. The ball would have to be a golf ball.

Hey, that's it.

Could I hit a golf ball over the center field wall, not with a bat but with a golf club? And not with a driver or a 5-iron, but with the shortest club in the bag?

Hard to say, but I decided I had to find out. I'd heard that ex-Dodgers great Fernando Valenzuela is a scratch golfer, so why not challenge him to a duel at home plate?

"That's a really stupid idea," sports columnist T.J. Simers told me. "You've got to do it."

I called Dodgers PR man Josh Rawitch and tried to explain why this was worth Fernando's time. He was not wildly enthused, but agreed to pitch the idea.

To my surprise, Fernando said OK, he was in. He told Rawitch he could easily pop one over the center field fence, 395 feet away, without breaking a sweat.

But I think the doubts began to creep in. Fernando kept stalling and I got tired of waiting for him to come around.

Let's get an active player involved, I suggested to Rawitch. If Fernando finally gets up his nerve, the three of us will have a charity shootout. Last one to hit one over the fence donates to charities chosen by the other two.

No way would Fernando miss such an Olympian moment, I thought. But I misjudged the man.

Luckily, Dodgers pitcher Derek Lowe was more than happy to step in, and the showdown was set:

D.Lo versus S.Lo at the Ravine.

Just one problem.

It had been about 25 years since I played my last round of golf. The chance of embarrassing myself was at least as great as the chance of injuring myself.

I bought myself a $69 pitching wedge at a Roger Dunn Golf Shop, took two practice swings in the store and didn't dislocate anything.

Then I went to the driving range in Griffith Park twice in three days, paying $5 each time to hit a bucket of balls. I'm going to be hacking away in the Los Angeles Times/United Way Golf Classic on Oct. 1 in Pasadena, and I might as well get reacquainted with the game.

On the day of the showdown at Dodger Stadium, every muscle in my body ached from whacking those buckets of balls. Should I keep that to myself and play intimidator, telling Lowe the ball had been coming off my club like a rocket? Or should I limp onto the field, lulling him into complacency?

All of a sudden, there was no time to strategize. There we were at home plate, and I noticed that not only was Lowe several inches taller than I, but his pitching wedge made mine look like a toy.

I took a deep breath and told Lowe my charity was CASA of Los Angeles, which trains volunteers to be advocates for neglected, abandoned and abused children who enter the foster care system through dependency court.

Lowe's charity was the Mattel Children's Hospital at UCLA. Lowe began visiting patients at the hospital last year and then formed D-Lowe's Heroes this year, bringing young cancer patients and their families to Dodger Stadium each month for VIP tours. The Dodgers have nominated him for Major League Baseball's Roberto Clemente Award for his good deeds.

So how much were we playing for?

"How about $500?" I suggested.

"$500 it is," said Lowe.

Now that I'd put the money on the line, I needed an edge. I told him I hadn't played since I was 14.

"Which hand goes on top?" I asked.

We started at the backstop rather than home plate, so it would be harder for him to end the challenge with one swing. From there, the center field fence looked like it was in Glendale.

I went first, hitting off a little AstroTurf mat so I didn't take a divot big enough to break a Dodger's ankle and put them out of the pennant race for good. My big swing produced a rather anemic little sacrifice fly to left-center.

Not a good start.

Lowe nonchalantly lined one up and took a fluid, sweet swing that caught the ball perfectly, sending it straight at the 395 sign in center. I thought I was done, but Lowe's ball didn't get any help from an incoming breeze and fell about 30 feet short.

We moved halfway to home plate for the next shot, and then all the way to the plate after that. Tiger Woods could probably throw his bag farther than I was hitting the ball, but Lowe's second and third shots caught more wind and hit the warning track and then the wall.

I was still in the game, at least. Lowe advised me to play the ball back farther in my stance.

"You hit one left and you hit one right," he said, telling me the next shot was guaranteed to go straight.

It did. But I hit a sinker as good as the one Lowe throws, and it touched down 60 feet away at the pitcher's mound. Children, on a tour of the stadium, winced and prepared to duck for cover on my next shot.

On his fourth try, Lowe's Titleist cleared the fence and took my wallet went with it, setting me back 500 samolians.

Pride, and stubbornness, wouldn't let me quit. We had agreed that we would keep moving forward until both of us had cleared the fence. Lowe told me he hoped, for my sake, that I didn't end up taking swings from second base.

But his insults were like spit wads off a battleship. I moved halfway to the mound and told him I was feeling it now.

The shot followed the same trajectory as Apollo 11. OK, so it only cleared the fence by inches.

"For conversation's sake," Lowe said, it was more like "30 or 40 feet" out of the park.

S.Lo wrote out the check and handed it to D.Lo, and then I felt guilty about letting down CASA of Los Angeles. So I'm going to write CASA a check too.

I don't think Fernando Valenzuela could have kept up with us, but I'm going to give him a chance to redeem himself. This winter, if he plays winter ball in Mexico as he's been doing for years, I want to take my swings against him in batting practice. With a baseball bat.

He gives me 10 pitches to hit, and if I can drive one to the fence on a fly, a roll, or on the back of a pigeon, he donates to the charity of my choice. If I can't, I'll write a check to his charity.

Come on, Fernando. Don't weasel out on me again.

steve.lopez@latimes.com

see the video of the s.lo-d.lo charity challenge at www. latimes.com/lopezgolf

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