A Nice Ring to It
Spring came early to Dodger Stadium this week, dancing its light upon wrinkled and swollen fingers trying to squeeze into a dull gold ring.
“It doesn’t fit,” Lou Johnson said. “It doesn’t matter.”
Spring came early, filling a deep green field with an old man’s smile.
“That’s freedom right there, this ring,” Johnson said. “That’s my history. That’s my life.”
Into his hands this freedom has returned, cradled there like a tender infant, tiny and blemished and perfect.
Johnson, a hero for the 1965 World Series champions and longtime Dodger community relations employee, handed that ring to drug dealers in 1971 as collateral on a cocaine transaction.
For 30 years, he has tried to recover it.
This week, dramatically restoring a sense of history that had vanished like that ring, the Dodgers recovered it for him.
Mark Langill, the Dodgers’ on-site historian and publications editor, was alerted by a former employee that the ring was being auctioned on the Internet.
Langill tracked down the auctioneers two days before the scheduled sale.
Bob Graziano, Dodger president, pulled out his checkbook and bought it before anybody else could.
The cost? $3,457.
The value? Visible in Johnson’s eyes Wednesday morning when he pulled it out of a box on a secretary’s desk.
“I had flashbacks, man,” he said.
He thought of Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale. Of a home run against Jim Kaat. Of a runt who, for a few brief moments, owned a town.
He thought about how a life of drug and alcohol abuse had cost him virtually every piece of memorabilia from that 1965 season.
“I don’t have my uniform, don’t have my glove, don’t have my bat, don’t have anything of value,” he said.
Yet suddenly, he was holding the most valuable thing of all.
The engraved signature on the side of the ring was in the bold, flamboyant hand of a young man.
The old man wept.
“It felt like a little bit of me had been reborn,” Johnson said.
And with him, a Dodger sense of tradition that had recently disappeared in a haze of bad manners and short memories.
“The decision to buy back the ring was easy,” Graziano said. “It was the right thing to do.”
That was the right thing to say.
Peter O’Malley once bought back a World Series ring for Don Newcombe.
To Dodger fans, “Sweet” Lou Johnson was just as memorable.
He was a journeyman outfielder, promoted from triple-A Spokane only when Tommy Davis broke his ankle early in the 1965 season.
He hit only 12 home runs that year--but that was enough to tie for the team lead.
He drove in only 58 runs, but it seemed that each one mattered.
And when it came to the fourth inning of Game 7 of the World Series against the Minnesota Twins?
That was Sweet Lou who homered, giving Koufax all the help he would need in an eventual 2-0 victory.
Dodger lore is filled with players like Johnson, players who only mattered here, more neighborhood heroes than national stars.
It has always been in the best Dodger tradition to remember and honor those players.
Even when--especially when--those players did not honor themselves.
Two years after he retired in 1969, desperate for a cocaine fix, Johnson gave his ring to a Seattle drug dealer as collateral.
He drove across town for the money.
When he returned about two hours later, the dealer--and the ring--were gone.
“I was at my lowest ebb,” Johnson remembered. “It was the only thing I had of value, and now I had given that away.”
He touched his chest.
“This here?” he said. “This was gone.”
Nine years later, the increasingly troubled Johnson returned to the Dodgers to ask for help. Newcombe sent him to a substance-abuse center. O’Malley paid the bills.
Johnson cleaned himself up. Typical of that time, the Dodgers were waiting when he finished.
He has worked in their community relations department, and served as a drug and alcohol counselor, ever since.
But he always wondered about the ring.
“The only thing I ever won like that,” said Johnson, 66. “Without it, a piece of me was always missing.”
Friends would ask of its whereabouts, and he would tell them he’d left it at home. He was too embarrassed to admit the truth.
Then, two years ago, the truth tracked him down in the form of the Washington Department of Unclaimed Properties.
His ring had been found in an unclaimed safe deposit box.
According to state officials, they offered to sell Johnson the ring.
“We were willing to sell it back to him and hold the proceeds in case the owner ever showed up,” said Stuart Thronson, program manager for unclaimed properties.
But Johnson said he was told he couldn’t have the ring until it had passed through red tape.
After two years, Johnson figured the ring would be tied up forever.
Then last month, historian Langill was tipped about the auction.
At that point, in the words of Vin Scully, ‘Would you believe . . . ?”
Langill was born one minute before the scheduled first pitch of the Dodger home opener in 1965.
His late father, Joseph Langill, had been a patient with Johnson at the abuse center in 1980.
“It was like fate,” said Langill, who hung up the phone and frantically began to search for the exact location of the ring.
When he found the site, his eyes widened.
“I realized we had only two days to try and buy it,” he said.
He called his bosses, whose decision took about two minutes.
“It was more valuable to us than anybody else out there,” Graziano said. “To us, this was about an emotional connection.”
A connection not only between a team and a player, but between a town and a team.
A connection we’d thought was lost. A connection that may still have a chance.
“People have asked me about doing a movie of my life, but I never had an ending,” said Sweet Lou Johnson, staring down at the ring. “But now, I have an ending.”
For him, maybe. For the rest of us, another beginning.
Bill Plaschke can be reached at his e-mail address: firstname.lastname@example.org.