Charlie Culberson knows there’s somebody out there in possession of the most important baseball of his career.
It doesn’t have his name on it, but it once had his bat on it, and he knows it’s out there. Maybe it’s sitting on a fireplace mantle. Maybe buried in a junk drawer. Maybe two oblivious kids are playing catch with it right now in a soggy Southland backyard.
Wherever it is, the ball belongs to Dodgers history, to the Vin Scully legacy, to one of Chavez Ravine’s greatest moments, and Culberson has a message for whoever is holding it.
Keep it. Celebrate it. The memory of his walk-off home run to clinch the West Division for the Dodgers in Scully’s final home game belongs to everyone.
“As weird as it sounds, it doesn’t bother me that I never got the ball back,’’ Culberson said from his home in Smyrna, Ga. “It’s a pretty cool souvenir for the person who has it, and sure I would love it, but I wouldn’t blame them for keeping it.”
Culberson laughed in his soft Southern drawl and added, “They can have the ball, I’ll always have the story.’’
And what a story that is, one that still powerfully resonates more than three months later, one that will linger in the hearts of Dodgers fans forever.
Mark Langill, longtime Dodgers historian, said he has thought about it a lot this off-season and come to a conclusion.
“For everything it meant to so many people, Charlie Culberson hit the most important regular-season home run in Los Angeles Dodger history,’’ he said.
If you were there, weeping and hugging and cheering, you will not argue.
On the last Sunday in September, in the Dodgers final home game of the 2016 season, Culberson hit a 10th-inning home run to beat the Colorado Rockies and clinch the division title just moments before a San Francisco Giants loss in San Diego would have handed the Dodgers the pennant.
The home run not only allowed Scully’s final home call to be a monumental one, but it set the stage for Scully’s final goodbye from the booth. The ball sailed into the left-field corner, Scully intoned, “Would you believe a home run?’’ and the party started.
The players swarmed and danced around Culberson before reverentially pointing up to Scully. Then, as everyone clutched and swayed both on the field and in the stands, Scully’s voice filled the stadium one last time with his final thank-you to Dodgers fans, a recorded version of him singing, “Wind Beneath My Wings.’’
It was the perfect celebration at the perfect moment, all of it made even more magical because it was utility infielder Culberson’s first home run of the season in only his 30th Dodgers game of the season.
More than three months later, even though the ball never showed up and his Scully-autographed bat is wrapped in a sanitary sock and sitting in a closet so his two young children won’t confuse it for a toy, Culberson says the magic remains.
“I’ve watched it on YouTube quite a few times and it still gives me chills,’’ he said. “I don’t know if anybody could write that any better.’’
The home run certainly couldn’t have been hit by anyone more symbolic of last year’s Dodgers work ethic and its renewed all-in culture. Culberson, 27, was one of a franchise-record 55 players used by the team in 2016. He spent half of the year at triple-A Oklahoma City. He has barely played one full major league season in 10 years as a pro.
Yet, on that late Sunday afternoon when he stepped to the plate with two out and the bases empty in the 10th inning against pitcher Boone Logan, he felt like he had been a Dodger for life. When he fought through the shadows to drive a one-strike fastball into splendid oblivion, that bond was sealed.
“The team gave me a chance, the fans have always been behind me, it was Vin Scully’s stage, it was his time, I was just lucky to be part of it all,’’ said Culberson, whose celebratory helmet toss seemingly eclipsed the arc of the homer.
After Scully’s song, Culberson found himself standing alone near the dugout, at which point the enormity of his blast sank in.
“I had a moment,’’ he said. “I was thinking, ‘Man, did that really happen?’ ’’
He could be excused for asking that question several times in the ensuing weeks, but he never did. While the home run moment changed his recognizability, it didn’t really change his role in the organization.
He was on the roster for a National League division series against the Washington Nationals, and was so thrilled he briefly filmed the team flight’s departure for Washington from his window seat on the charter. But he went hitless in seven at-bats against the Nationals, and, on the morning of the opener of the NL Championship Series against the Chicago Cubs, he learned he was being taken off the roster for the biggest games of the year.
“Everybody wants to contribute, but I had to get over it quick, I couldn’t sit there and pout,’’ he said. “I sent Doc [Manager Dave Roberts] a text saying I’m with you guys, I’ll do whatever I can before games to help you compete.’’
This off-season, he signed a one-year deal worth $550,000, but soon after was dealt was appeared to be another blow when he was taken off the 40-man roster and assigned to Oklahoma City. But he will be invited to spring training with a chance to make the opening-day roster, a spot he earned last year, and he’ll embrace that chance.
“I was very fortunate to get my contract, get invited to camp for another chance to make this team, I’m definitely not mad about it,’’ he said. “I’ve been in this situation before, this gets me in a good mindset, to keep working and competing.’’
The inspiration for this ethic comes from a person who did not see the home run, his father Charlie, known as Big Charlie, a former minor league batting champion who had to quit baseball after six minor league seasons to support his growing family.
”He had the ability, he just didn’t have as many chances as I had,’’ said the younger Culberson. “That he can say his son played in the big leagues, for me that makes it all worth it.’’
Big Charlie, who helps run a baseball school in Rome, Ga., became so misty-eyed talking about his son in a recent interview that he had to put down the phone.
”I know how hard it is to make it, and to see him get there, to live his dream …’’ Big Charlie said. “I’m like, ‘Man, you’ve made it, so I’ve made it.’ ’’
On Sept. 25, Big Charlie and wife Kim were in a movie theater when their son became a hero. They heard about it from numerous texts afterward. They rushed home and watched it on tape.
“I was like, ‘I’ll be damned, Charlie hit a walk-off,’ ’’ Big Charlie said. “I told him, ‘Son, you’re going down in Dodger history. Did you’all get the ball?’ ’’
Well, about that …