In February I really put one over on the editors here at The Times. I’ve gotten away with some pretty outrageous stuff, but this one astounded even me.
I convinced them to send me to Vero Beach, Fla., where the Los Angeles Dodgers baseball club indulges nearly 100 old, fat and balding guys like me at something they call the “Dodger Hall of Fame Fantasy Camp.”
My editors thought I would be working. I told them I’d write a story about some of these guys, the Walter Mittys of baseball, and how they pay $4,000 and change just to play hardball with 13 long-since- retired Hall of Fame ballplayers, the Michelangelos and Mozarts of baseball.
Well, I didn’t do a lick of work. Instead, I reveled in Baseball Heaven.
Some of my compatriots in the newsroom could not believe my coup.
You see, around the office I’m considered something of a baseball nut. And if I am a baseball nut, I am definitely a Dodger lunatic. I admit it. I’ve learned to live with this character flaw.
To my view, the Dodgers holding off the dreaded San Francisco Giants in the dog days of an August pennant race is every bit as vital to the perpetuation of civilization as nuclear disarmament.
Anyway, I got my junket. I spent a week in Florida and wrote something mushy and sentimental and we took some beautiful color photographs and not a single editor was ever the wiser.
In the meantime, I got to meet my boyhood idol, Duke Snider.
Now, some of these Dodger haters will take exception to what I am about to say, but let me tell you straight out that the Dodgers’ Duke Snider was the greatest baseball player who ever lived. Take my unbiased word for it.
My greatest baseball thrill was in 1960 when I was 12 years old sitting in the cheap seats (I think they sold for about $1.25) at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on “Duke Snider Night.”
The Duke was getting on in years, his knees were killing him and the Dodgers wanted to honor him before it was too late.
Twelve-year-old Dodger lunatics pray for nights like that one. “Please let Duke hit a home run!” I pleaded aloud to the baseball gods.
Naturally, the Duke blasted a homer. It was like a dream. I was all aglow for weeks.
Well, in Vero Beach I finally got to meet Duke. I even ate breakfast with him. “Pass the toast please, Duke.” I could have died.
Like a bashful kid, I approached him at the batting cage one morning, dug my toe in the dirt, pressed my chin to my chest and muttered and stuttered something about how he has always been my favorite player and not only that, he was my 9-year-old son’s favorite player too.
It was like a dream.
After I returned to The Times and reality, I was so pumped up with emotion I told the Dodger haters back at the office--you may not believe it but there’s a dugout full of them--that my Dodgers would go to the World Series this year. “Pshaw,” said the Dodger haters.
Heh, heh. You know how that worked out.
Maybe you were watching on TV Saturday night when my son, daughter, wife and I were sitting in the cheap seats at Dodger Stadium. I wore a Dodger cap and T-shirt I had picked up in Vero Beach. Counting peanuts, sodas, Dodger dogs and a quick stop at the souvenir stand, it ran us about $300 for a night at the ballpark.
Some tickets were being scalped at up to $850. Each. But let me say this, everybody got his money’s worth.
With apologies to the Duke, I was in for my greatest baseball thrill.
Down 4 runs to 3, in the bottom of the ninth inning, with two out, one runner on base, the count was three balls and two strikes to a new Dodger, Kirk Gibson. A home run--about as likely as snow--would win the game.
To fully appreciate this, you must realize that Gibson is a left-handed home-run hitter, like Duke. And like Duke in 1960, Gibson’s legs were killing him Saturday night. In fact, Gibson hurt so badly that he had not even been in the game up to that point.
There he was, teetering at the plate like an old lady walking a rope bridge. The game was on the line.
I don’t know about the other 56,000 people screaming their throats raw, but I found myself imploring the baseball gods--just like I had for the Duke so many years before. Of course, the rest is history and headlines.
Gibson lunged and swatted at the fateful pitch and the ball rocketed off his bat and came to rest far beyond the right field fence. Just like the Duke.
My daughter, screaming wildly, tumbled into the seats in front of her. My wife hopped and hollered like she was dancing on hot coals. My son bellowed like a fog horn, standing on his toes on his seat.
I yelled just like I had at Duke Snider Night. It was like a dream.
On the way home, my son said to me, almost apologetically, that he thinks Duke Snider may not be his favorite baseball player any more. His new hero? Kirk Gibson.
I told my boy that I thought that was OK. I think Duke will understand.