For Better, For Worse, For Baseball

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Like marriage, baseball has its rituals.

On a cool and blustery day, some 30 fanatics have gathered on a diamond at the Los Angeles Dodgers Adult Baseball Camp. We're starting a week of games and instruction under the guidance of legendary stars, and it's time for the warm-up drill:

Furiously chewing a wad of bubble gum, I knock the dirt out of my spikes with a bat. I rummage in the dugout for a blue batting helmet that fits and park my butt on the bench.

Then I kiss my wife good morning.

"Hey, both of you cut that out!" yells veteran umpire Bruce Froemming, tearing off his face mask and charging up to us like a mad bull. "There's no kissing in baseball!"

Later on, Heidi sits on my lap, and I nuzzle her ear.

"No bench sex!" shouts a player, watching us through a chain-link fence. "One guy gets it, everybody gets it."

Welcome to married life in fantasy camp. You haven't lived until other men begin sizing up your wife in the sixth inning, wondering whether she's got what it takes to go the distance.

Ever since the Los Angeles Dodgers opened their sprawling spring training complex to fans 15 years ago, the lush green facility has been a male sanctuary, a hardball haven that few women have experienced. The typical Dodgertown crowd ranges from 30-year-old wannabes, lean and fit, to balding, 60-plus executives who shrug off their potbellies and stuff themselves into uniforms. They're all here for different reasons.

Some pay the $4,000 fee simply to rub elbows with the likes of Duke Snider, Ron Cey and Davey Lopes, and they wander the grounds in a semi-daze. Others come for a week of intense competition and, they hope, a first-place trophy for their team. A few are Brooklyn die-hards, rekindling childhood memories; others are L.A. fans, coming year after year.

I can empathize with all of them, and if Sandy Koufax made a surprise appearance, I'd . . . I'd . . . I don't know what I'd do.

*

But Heidi and I are here on a different mission.

We want to mark the 20th anniversary of our relationship. It began during the 1978 World Series between the Dodgers and the New York Yankees and somehow always has been colored by major league baseball. We also crave the freedom of summer camp the way it used to be, long before jobs, parenting and mortgages turned us into so-called responsible adults.

"I'm here to play ball," Heidi tells one camper after another. Many are incredulous, and it's easy to see why. Conventional wisdom has it that females might be repelled by the crude jock talk and rowdy disarray of a locker room. Common sense suggests that blazing fastballs and the aches and pains of a nine-inning game are meant for loud, carnivorous men.

"Women have fantasies," a reporter once wrote in a feature story about Dodgertown. "But generally they're not about baseball."

Well, buddy, you don't know my wife.

*

We are a strange couple.

When I was 10, growing up in Los Angeles, my parents bought me a Dodger uniform, and I slept in it the whole summer. When Heidi was 10, growing up in New York City, she was a tomboy who dreamed of playing shortstop for the Bronx Bombers.

In early October 1978, just as we met for the first time (in San Francisco, where we'd both gotten jobs), the Dodgers and Yankees were clashing for the 10th time in a World Series. Heidi and I clicked instantly, but it was clear from the beginning that we truly loathed each other's team.

"What kind of place is this?" she cracked on her first visit to Chavez Ravine, laughing at the palm trees and polite crowds. Obviously, she was homesick for Yankee Stadium.

"You aren't happy watching a ballgame unless there are tenements burning behind the bleachers," I shot back.

Our rivalry grew. And we realized, at the risk of sounding cliched, that baseball and relationships have similar ups and downs: Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, and sometimes you sleep through the game and call it a day.

*

It was bad enough, for example, that the Yankees beat the Dodgers in 1978. But when L.A. got sweet revenge in 1981, Heidi saw what was coming in the last game and left the room in the sixth inning to take a nap. I couldn't rouse her for hours.

In marrying Heidi, I bought into a family of Dodger haters. I remember nights at New York's Shea Stadium where my mother-in-law would roll up a program and whack me on the head after every Dodger home run. Once, she "outed" me to a hostile crowd at a Mets-Dodgers playoff game (I had to spend the rest of the night fending off La-La jokes). A week before Dodgertown began, my brother-in-law Richie sent me four rolls of blue toilet paper, along with an unprintable message.

On the afternoon we arrived in camp, Heidi brazenly walked in wearing a Yankee T-shirt. But the friction soon disappeared.

"The guys here are so nice, intelligent and generous," she confessed that first day. "I can't believe they're Dodgers."

For once in our relationship, I was speechless.

*

As Dodgertown opened in February, Heidi was just one player on a 15-member team, in a camp of eight teams and 118 people overall (only one other was a woman). But by week's end, she'd made a name for herself:

She outhit and out-hustled me; she won a coveted award in the closing ceremonies. In a clear sign of her acceptance by this Temple of Testosterone, she was fined $5 by a kangaroo court--for wearing earrings with her uniform on the field.

A few blowhards may have snickered when she showed up late for games and joked about having her nails done. But nobody laughed when she got her first base hit and pandemonium erupted.

"Wow!" a jubilant player told her. "You the man!"

When the week ended, we both were glowing. I could hardly believe that I'd managed to hit 75 mph pitches . . . and got picked off second base in Holman Stadium before 1,000 people.

I also was hobbling. My knees were locked in neutral, I had stabbing lower back pains, and the simple act of trying to raise or lower my left arm had become an orthopedic adventure.

"You're out of shape," said Heidi. "You should exercise more."

Right, I muttered to myself. Look who's talking. But this much is true: In camp, the daily grind of life is totally suspended. People serve you meals. They dress you. They plan activities for you. They take responsibility for you.

Hell, they belong in the Hall of Fame. From the helpful executives down to the cheerful dining-room staff, the folks at Dodgertown put on a sparkling show. In this, their 50th year, they have a lot to be proud of, and one reason is that two wrung-out journalists from Manhattan feel frisky once again.

*

You leave this place at your peril.

One night, Heidi and I decided to take a break from fantasy camp to catch a movie in town. On the way back, I nearly hit another car in the parking lot, and we had a big argument.

She doesn't like my driving. I don't like the way she talks about my driving. She doesn't like the way I talk about the way she talks about my driving. We could go on for hours.

But suddenly we were back in Dodgertown. We rushed to dinner and sat next to Froemming, who urged everyone in the room to boo him and then shouted: "Kiss my ass!"

We were laughing again, safe at home--with nine more innings tomorrow.

*

Heidi and I played on a team coached by Dodgers manager Bill Russell, and I discovered that this guy is a comic; he has a stoic yet cutting delivery that belongs on "The Tonight Show."

"I can't make any excuses. We stink," he told the camp one night after dinner, discussing our hapless team. "Heidi got a hit today and was thrown out at first base."

"I'm a slow runner," she said, trying to explain.

"Yes, you are," he deadpanned.

When I complained about my prolonged slump at the plate, Russell looked at me quizzically, like I was an idiot.

"I'm gonna take some batting practice," I told him.

"Wouldn't help," he said.

"But it would make me feel better," I protested.

"Maybe," he answered.

*

At the end of each day, the mood in the Dodgertown dining room got a little crazy. The president's troubles were on everyone's mind: "Bring us the interns! We want the interns!" was a popular chant, spreading from one table to the next.

Ballplayers love to rib each other, and in a brutal roast of former Dodgers, umpire Froemming skewered Don Zimmer.

"Don is really a family man," he noted. "Once, his granddaughter asked: 'Grandpa, where are the Himalayas?' And Don said: 'I don't know where Grandma puts that stuff.' "

The room exploded with laughter, and campers drifted into the bar. Many called it a night early, dragging their aching bodies to bed. Yet others lingered, cracking jokes about local escort services and lugging frosty six-packs to their rooms. They crashed long after midnight and had one helluva time.

*

I wasn't running in the wolf pack, at least not this year. Yet being here as half of a married couple attuned me to men and their character in a way I would never have suspected.

Take the Brocato Boys. Anthony, a former New York cop from Staten Island, brought his two sons--Frank, 31, and Charles, 33--to camp, and they competed to see who got the most hits. The winner would get a big steak dinner back home.

On the field, the Brocatos played hard. But in the locker room, Anthony talked about a family member who was missing. His late wife, Catherine, brought their boys to Little League games and taught them about baseball. In a sense, Anthony said, their impressive showing at Dodgertown was a tribute to her.

Then there was Len Blonder, a financial advisor from Los Angeles who has been coming to Dodgertown for 15 years.

"I look forward to this camp like you can't believe," he said, packing his gear on the last day. "But recently we had some tough financial times in our family, and in looking for costs to trim, I told my wife that Dodgertown had to go.

"She looked at me and said: 'That's the last thing we're going to cut.' She told me that this place makes me a better person because I come back happy and content, and she's right."

*

Ted Greenberg's high point might surprise you.

"On the last day, when the campers played the instructors, I noticed that three boys by the fence had been trying to get a baseball from the players," said the West Hills resident.

"The two older ones were constantly shoving the littlest guy out of the way. So I walked over to the ball bag, picked up a new one and flipped it to the little kid. He looked amazed, and that really made me feel like a major league ballplayer."

*

On the last morning, Heidi and I walked through the nearly deserted camp, and I realized this was as close as I'd ever get to the Dodger mystique. I'd worn the blue and white; I'd played on grassy fields that are rich in history and legend.

For that moment, all the baggage that comes with modern baseball--the loss of tradition, the rampant commercialism--had disappeared. What was left for me were images: Koufax mobbed by teammates after a no-hitter. Kirk Gibson circling the bases. Roy Campanella sitting in a wheelchair on the pitcher's mound, as 93,000 fans light candles to him in the Coliseum darkness.

It doesn't really matter who buys the Dodgers, I decided, because my memories aren't for sale. For better or worse, I am linked to this team . . . and to this woman.

In the weeks since, friends have asked me what I remember most. And the temptation has been to mention the obvious: the famous players we met, what it felt like to bail out on an inside fastball.

Yet one moment does stand out. Just after Heidi got her first base hit, Ron Cey retrieved the ball and presented it to her as a souvenir. The game was momentarily halted, and as players offered congratulations, I saw the same mix of pride, sweetness and good humor in her eyes that so moved me the first day we met, 20 years ago.

Suddenly, I pictured the two of us years in the future, sitting on the front porch of the Shalom Retirement Home near Fairfax Avenue. Once again, we'd be arguing about baseball.

"The Yankees aren't doing so hot," I'd say.

"At least they play here, not in Australia," she'd answer.

Then I'd lean over and give her a smooch. Because no matter what the umpires tell you, there is kissing in baseball.

And there will always be . . . till dugouts do us part.

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