For better, for Worse, for Baseball

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Right off the bat, I got grief.

"So this article you're writing," the smart-aleck sitting next to me at dinner says. "It's not really about baseball, is it? It's a 'chick' article in disguise."

It is my first night at the Los Angeles Dodgers Adult Baseball Camp, where 116 aging guys and two women are trying to get acquainted and recapture their lost youth. With or without the pre-dinner cocktails, my fellow campers are juiced for the five days of baseball ahead.

The crack of the bat will be matched only by cracks from the mouth. On and off the field, giving as good as you get becomes the foundation for friendship during an exhilarating and exhausting week.

Like the wisecrack from my dinner mate Rich Toomey, a commercial real estate broker from Jacksonville, Fla. Along with his three jock buddies, he was incredulous that I was going to suit up for infield practice--one leg at a time--the next morning. To prove what a true baseball nut I was, I confided to these guys that my husband, Josh, had agreed to my one condition of getting married: Any children we had would be raised as New York Yankees fans.

The boys went ballistic on Josh. "YOU LET HER HAVE THAT???"

Jaws continued to drop when I told people I came to Dodgertown with my husband. I proudly pointed out Josh--the left-handed Jewish guy wearing No. 32, the one who was daydreaming about Sandy Koufax in right field.

Dave, a weathered old man in the stands who was rooting for me to get a hit, was dumbfounded.

"You are the only gal out there with all these fellas, and you could have the pick of any one of 'em," said Dave, in a deep Southern drawl. "What did you go and bring him for? Hell, that's like bringin' a sandwich to a banquet."

Dave had a point. And Josh now had a nickname--"Sandwich"--a kind of blessing in baseball. My nickname, courtesy of Dodger Manager Bill Russell, was Heidi Fleiss. In your dreams, Bill.

So how did Josh and I come to be at Dodger camp?

Consider it a 20-year anniversary celebration. It was during the 1978 World Series that this guy slid into my life. The series featured my hometown heroes, the legendary New York Yankees, against--you should pardon the expression--the Los Angeles Dodgers. I was 23 years old, a new political aide in the San Francisco mayor's office. After six years out West, I was dying for a conversation with a kindred spirit, a fellow New Yorker.

A few weeks into my job at City Hall, I noticed a brooding and bearded man sitting in the mayor's press office. There was a baseball next to his paper clips, and a scary painting by Austrian Expressionist Oscar Kokoschka behind his desk.

Oh, boy, I thought to myself, I have finally found him. A New York guy with whom I could have a deep and funny and complicated conversation.

"You must be a Yankee fan" was my opener.

"Boy, do you have that wrong," said Dodger Blue Josh Getlin.

As they say, the rest is history. The Yankees went on to beat the Dodgers four games to two, a humiliating defeat for the L.A. guys since they had won the first two games. I felt I had the moral high ground. There was no limit to what this man would have to do for me: laundry, arrange our social calendar, cook. Boy, did I have that wrong.

Josh and I moved in together in 1981. That year, as fate would have it, the Dodgers and the Yankees met again. This time the Dodgers won in six. At least that's what Josh and the newspaper clippings say. I have trouble recalling that Series.

So here we are two decades later, with the usual complaints of the long married--too much time together, not enough time together. I do too much, he does more than most men. But we're still happily in the game.

Our 4-year-old daughter, Alex, is a little confused. Josh did respect the pre-nup: When we sing "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" Alex does "root, root, root for the Yankees." Yet "Lasorda" was one of her first words, since Josh adorned her room with Dodger baseball cards when she was born. Like a child raised by parents of different religions, Alex will have to make up her own mind when she is older.

*

In all honesty, during the weeks leading up to baseball camp, I pictured myself in Vero Beach lying awake at night, fantasizing about being with other men--men in pinstripes, like Whitey Ford, Mickey Mantle if he were alive, Ron Guidry (whose name I was given when I pitched on a women's softball team in my 20s). I thought I would secretly long to be at the Yankees' baseball camp in Tampa.

But I have to admit that within the first hour of arriving at Dodgertown, I was seduced. With kindness and generosity and first-rate instruction. Apart from the good-natured ribbing, I was treated seriously, not as if I were some female freak who had invaded a man's world.

First was hitting instructor Reggie Smith. What a sweetie pie! During the first afternoon practice, he showed me the right way to hold a bat, plant my legs and swing.

When my left arm was sore after 15 minutes of throwing, Dodger minor league coach Guy Conti came to the rescue. He taught me how to throw a "four-seamer"--two fingers across all four seams of the ball and your thumb facing down--so that my arm wouldn't kill me. And under the wry and watchful eye of outfield coach Dick McLaughlin, I nailed high flys rocketed out of a ball machine. This was no small feat. The last woman who did this, Mac told us, caught the ball with her face.

Even looking at Josh, I learned something new.

When he tapped me on the back the first day in his blue and white Dodger uniform, I did a double take. For 20 years, his uniform has been a blue shirt and tie. Now, he looked 11 years old. I kept thinking how this 47-year-old journalist and urban neurotic I called my husband looked just like Beaver Cleaver. All of his work-a-day angst had just melted away.

For some women, a row of silk dresses on a Bloomingdale's sale rack would be a thrill. For me, the row of perfectly sculpted dirt pitching mounds on a practice field made my heart dance. Goose Gregson, the Dodgers' pitching coach, caught me while I burned in my one and only pitch: a slow fastball. As I lifted my right leg high in the air, pretending to check an imaginary runner on first, my fantasy of pitching in the major leagues was complete. I was having a perfect moment in the sun.

"Hey, check her out!" Gregson shouted to another coach. Could a girl ask for anything more? Not this girl. Unlike basketball or hockey, as my friend Don put it, baseball is a game where you have time to smile.

One after another, Dodger players and coaches spoke about the game in ways I had never imagined. Everyone thinks they know baseball. But when you hear the pros talk, you realize you don't know borscht. I know I will never watch a game the same way again.

I will probably never play the same way again either. On the third day at camp, I not only got a hit and a chance to run the bases and score, but also pulled a groin muscle. Frankly, I never knew I had one. When the men got hurt, they went to the trainer's room, where Dodger professionals swaddled them in ice, heat, bandages--you name it. I, however, was dispatched to a darkened cocktail lounge and told to get ice from Mary Beth, the bartender who was setting up for the night.

"I have a wide job description," she quipped.

One morning, I noticed Josh chewing Bazooka.

"Hey, where'd you get the gum?"

He gestured toward the locker room. "They have baskets of it inside."

That hurt. The locker room was basically off-limits to me and Mandy Worley, an entertainment coordinator at Disneyland and the other woman at camp. We had to dress and shower alone in our guest rooms.

Josh told me the men had it all in there: a fridge stocked with cold drinks, sunscreen, lip balm, Ben-Gay, plus the ability to literally rub shoulders with Dodger greats.

"Did you see Ron Cey's thighs?" I heard one camper say as he emerged from the room. "They're awesome!"

(When I shared this observation with Cey's wife, Fran, she grinned: "You should have seen them when we were dating.")

Poor Mandy and me. We didn't get to see any of that. Well, maybe she did. Because I was a reporter on assignment, I was able to eat my lunch in the dining room with the well-mannered and fully clothed Dodger staff. But she had to retrieve her lunch from the locker room buffet table with the rest of the guys.

Each day, Mandy would find herself staring deeply into her roast beef sandwich while the men sat and ate naked, half naked. In order to navigate her way to and from the lunch table without embarrassing any of the guys or herself, she would have needed a seeing-eye dog. She had to look up a little.

"I've seen enough," said Mandy. "Believe me, looking down is better."

The men's locker room, when I finally got to peek inside, looked like a penitentiary. Just rows of open metal cages--imagine an oversized hamster cage without the wheel and water bottle--where they hung their uniforms and stored their equipment.

The other big advantage of eating in the dining room was being able to talk girl talk with the Dodger wives. And what a pleasure they were. Like oxygen.

"Are you sure you don't want to come shopping with us?" asked Jan Gregson, Goose's wife, an adorable construction worker and mother of three from Montana.

*

I asked Ann Branca if she'd known her husband, Brooklyn Dodger pitcher Ralph Branca, back in 1951 when he gave up the pennant-winning home run to Bobby Thomson and the New York Giants, the famous "shot heard 'round the world."

"Oh, that was quite an October for Ralphie," said Ann (whose grandfather, Stephen McKeever, built Ebbets Field). "We were married two weeks after that."

How long was he depressed about that pitch?

"My cousin, who was a priest, told Ralphie right in the parking lot after the game: 'God gives you a cross. He gives you only what you can bear.' After that," said Ann, "Ralphie never dwelled on it again."

The high points of my week at baseball camp, even better than my two singles, were meeting the Brooklyn Dodgers themselves: Branca, Carl Erskine, Don Zimmer, Duke Snider and Clem Labine. The old-timers spoke to all the campers one night after dinner about the magic of baseball and Brooklyn in the 1950s, and how the fans embraced them like sons.

Erskine, a pitching great and one of the true gentlemen in the game, likened the vast New York City borough to his small hometown of Anderson, Ind.

"Those neighbors were so great. They looked out for my wife, Betty, when I was on the road and the kids were small," said the man Brooklyn nicknamed "Oisk." Now a 72-year-old grandfather and bank vice chairman, Erskine recounted how Abe Meyerson from the little deli down the street insisted on giving the Erskines groceries on the days he pitched.

"Win, lose or draw, Abe would be knocking on my door with two bags of groceries, and he had five, six redheaded kids who must have been starving to death. I'd say, 'Abe, you can't give me all that,' and he'd say: 'You guys shouldn't pay rent, you shouldn't have to pay for anything. You're Dodgers, you're here in Brooklyn, you're part of us.' "

Zimmer, who was being groomed to be the next Pee Wee Reese, recounted how he came to Vero Beach in 1950 from Cincinnati as a wide-eyed kid, making $140 a month.

"I thought I was a millionaire," Zimmer said.

The summer Zimmer learned his wife was pregnant, he asked Dodger minor league director Fresco Thompson for a $50 raise to $350 a month ("Not 350 thousand, 350 dollars"). "I had just been a rookie of the year, a most valuable player," Zimmer said.

Thompson couldn't care less. His response to Zimmer: "No one told you to get married; no one told you to have babies. You want to play or not?"

It still burns Zimmer to remember that exchange, but his heart is full when he talks about his old teammates and playing for the Dodgers.

"No matter," he says, a catch in his voice. "I just always remember how lucky I was to be on that club."

*

On the final night at Dodgertown, my teammate Kirk "Kickstand" Krikstan got the coveted "Jock of the Camp" award. He'd batted over .500, pitched like a dream, played almost every position and graciously sat out many innings to give someone else a chance. This 50-year-old father of three from Maryland could do it all and was a class act to boot.

Mandy and I were honored with Mrs. Potato Head awards, the female counterpart to the Mr. Potato Head award, a traditional Dodger honor handed out each night to that day's outstanding players. When camp director Guy Wellman announced our awards, he bellowed into the mike: "To two girls who have put up with all this crap." Our teammates hooted.

A week after camp ended, I called Kickstand at the Department of Labor in Washington, D.C., where he works.

"Hell, I've already talked to my roommate a few times," said the mild-mannered bureaucrat. "I pretended I was calling from Dodgertown about all the towels he stole. Scared the pants off of him! I tell you I never laughed so hard as I did that week in camp."

As for me, sure, I would have liked a Potato Head award for hitting a game-winning triple or pitching nine perfect innings. But I would go back to Dodger fantasy camp again, with or without the Sandwich, just to play baseball. To play it better. To not worry so much about work, the health and happiness of my family and friends, and my own mortality.

To not feel so deeply, even for a week, the loss of my mother and father. To just play until dark and be called for dinner. To feel free.

So, Toomey, maybe you're right. Maybe this is a chick article. But somehow I don't think so. And if it is, what's it to ya?

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