Celebrating the Routine Joys of Dodger Days

As I have said before, nothing arouses such nostalgia in the heart of an old American as a Sunday at the ballpark.

That's because, in part, baseball is so slow to change. While the world reels from change, baseball remains pretty much the same. It's still three strikes you're out at the old ballgame.

Of course, television money has made millionaires of even journeyman outfielders. Remember when Sandy Koufax, the great Dodger left-hander, held out for a measly $125,000 a year and Don Drysdale struck for only $100,000? Today they pay untried rookies that much.

Today we have that silly designated hitter rule, which allows a non-playing batter to bat for the pitcher, but fortunately that is limited to the misguided American League.

We went to the game on a recent Sunday when the Dodgers were playing the San Diego Padres. Of course that game is history now to sports fans, who will have read Tim Kawakami's story reporting that the Dodgers won, 7-1, to climb within one game of the then-division-leading San Francisco Giants.

It was a big day for the old-timers, players who have reached the age of 30 and been around a few years. What excites me about a baseball game is not the home runs but the routine fielding plays. An outfielder runs, leaps horizontally through the air, reaches out and spears a fly ball two feet above the ground; a shortstop charges a hard-hit grounder, scoops it up on a dead run, transfers it to his throwing hand and throws the runner out at first base. Routine plays, but they employ the breathtaking coordination of a figure skater.

The day was overcast, but, as usual, it did not rain. My wife and I and our older son and his wife and their three children were guests of Peter O'Malley in his box, sitting with such distinguished fans as Rachel Robinson, widow of Jackie, and Roxie Campanella, widow of Roy. I no doubt dazzled the two women with my knowledge of the game.

The reader may wonder why I enjoy such a privilege. O'Malley and I have been friends for years through our membership in a men's club, and he knows my family loves baseball--even my wife, who loves it when we sit in O'Malley's box.

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For her, the highlight of the day came when she remembered hearing on the radio that Tommy Lasorda, the Dodgers' manager, kept caged birds. As a bird fancier herself, she asked O'Malley if he knew what kinds of birds Lasorda kept.

"I'll know in five minutes," he said, and left to dispatch a message, evidently to the sports box. Five minutes later he turned up with a sheet of paper on which was typed the following information:

"Facts on Tommy Lasorda's five parakeets.

"Received the five parakeets on opening day of 1994.

"There are four green parakeets and one blue parakeet.

"Roger McDowell gave the birds to Tommy as a good-luck present for the 1994 season.

"Tommy named the birds after the 1994 infield players and catcher. The blue parakeet has been named Piazza. The oldest bird is named Wallach, the slowest bird is named Karros and the two quick birds are DeShields and Offerman.

"Tommy is quick to point out that the birds know by the tone of his voice which team won the game. After a Dodger win the birds can be heard all during the postgame and after a loss the five birds remain quiet."

At one point my granddaughter Alison told her father that she felt very nostalgic at the game. I was not surprised that a bright 17-year-old knew the word, but I wondered that she could feel nostalgic at that age. She said it was the singing of "The Star-Spangled Banner," the roar of the crowd, the sound of the ball on the bat and all those cherished things.

Coincidentally, a few minutes later I heard Vin Scully say something pertinent: "When I was younger I could remember everything, whether it happened or not." He added: "I think that was Mark Twain."

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At the ballgame, everybody who has a portable radio has it tuned in to Vinny so they'll know what's happening.

According to Bartlett's, what Twain said was: "When I was younger I could remember anything, whether it happened or not; but I'm getting old, and soon I shall remember only the latter."

But Vinny was close enough.

I have a feeling that any teen-ager who feels nostalgic at a baseball game is growing up fine.

In the sixth inning the Dodgers scored three runs--two on a double by Raul Mondesi and one on a bunt by pitcher Tom Candiotti--and went on to win it.

I could imagine Lasorda's parakeets chortling their little hearts out.

* Jack Smith's column is published Mondays.

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