PUT IN HIS PLACE
Aisle 25, first row, seats 1, 2, 3, 4.
Numbers to anyone else, but a life’s work for Irving Zeiger, who has had the best seats in the house for as long as there has been a house.
Zeiger mailed his initial deposit for Dodger season tickets while the team was still in Brooklyn, reportedly the first check Walter O’Malley received.
When O’Malley built Dodger Stadium, he rewarded Zeiger by renting him the cornerstone.
His seats were in the first row directly above the Dodger dugout. He was so close he could smell the resin and spot the tobacco stains. He wore a glove not for souvenirs, but protection.
For 43 years he has sat there, placing his diet soda on the dugout roof and autograph-seeking kids at his feet and embracing this town’s last bit of unchanging real estate.
“It may sound funny, but to enjoy these seats with my family, to share them with others, I really had an emotional feeling about them,” said Zeiger, 86.
Then, this winter, he received a phone call.
It was a strange woman from this strange new organization known as, well, the Dodgers.
The voice was cheery. The news sounded good.
The Dodgers had moved the dugout closer to the field and installed four new rows of seats behind it. But Zeiger need not worry, he could retain his four stadium-best seats directly above the new dugout.
It would cost him only $120,000.
You read that right.
It would cost him only $120,000.
Irv Zeiger has cheered for Koufax, screamed for Gibson, pumped his fist for Piazza.
But no Dodger has ever blown him away like that woman on the phone.
“I thought she was joking,” he said. “She wanted $120,000 from me to keep those seats I’ve had for half my life?”
Zeiger was scheduled to pay $20,000 for his four seats, so the new figure constituted a 500% increase.
To move up four rows.
To watch a team that has won one playoff game in 16 years.
To support an owner who spent the winter breaking up a division champion while slashing the payroll.
And, oh yeah, the Dodgers would throw in parking and a pregame buffet.
“I eat one Dodger Dog every game, with relish, mustard and onions,” said Zeiger, shrugging. “I told the woman, ‘You want $120,000? Are you kidding me?’ ”
He said the woman laughed and said no.
Zeiger, a retired Navy pilot and aerospace executive who long ago built his Hollywood Hills home for less than $120,000, did not share that laugh.
He declined the offer and kept his four original seats.
But for the first time since the stadium opened, he won’t be sitting there for the home opener.
In a protest that nobody will see, in a message that will change nothing, Irving Zeiger will watch the game on television from his family room chair.
He will pull a diet soda from the refrigerator while Bea, his wife of 60 years, turns on the stove and makes him a hot dog.
With relish, mustard and onions.
To him, it’s not that his seats are no longer special, although they aren’t, what with a wall and waitresses and four rich rows now separating him from the field his money helped build.
To him, it’s the organization that is no longer special.
“I just don’t feel like the Dodgers are my team anymore,” Zeiger said. “I doubt that they are even L.A.'s team anymore. It’s no longer about a relationship. It’s about a business.”
The Dodgers regret that Irving Zeiger no longer has the best seats in the house.
But, financially, they’re not going to miss him.
They added about 50 seats in the first row directly behind both dugouts and sold every seat at $30,000 per season.
They added a total of 250 seats in the other three rows behind the dugout and have sold every one.
There will be a total of 1,600 new seats at the stadium this year, and most have been sold.
The increased revenue supposedly will help McCourt sign players, although he must have forgotten about the renovations when he was dismissing Adrian Beltre.
“There is obviously a demand for these seats,” said Marty Greenspun, executive vice president and chief operating officer of the Dodgers. “We are trying to serve all the fans.”
Meanwhile, pricing for 80% of Dodger Stadium seats remains unchanged, a kid can still walk up and buy a $4 pavilion seat, so it seems they’re not trying to bleed the average fan.
Except, well, Irving Zeiger and other longtime ticket-holders consider themselves average fans.
“I’ve never met a player, I don’t care about any of that, I’m just a guy who likes to watch baseball,” Zeiger said. “I’ve worked hard all my life, made a better-than-average living, and I just like to watch the game.”
Watching it from the front row was about more than a good view of the game. It was about a good view of his life.
Growing up in Cleveland, Zeiger could never afford anything but bleacher seats, from where he watched everyone from Babe Ruth to Ted Williams.
“I always said to myself, if I had a chance, I would sit closer to my heroes,” he said.
During discussions about moving the team from Brooklyn, Walter O’Malley would publicly joke that some nut from Los Angeles had already sent him a deposit.
That nut was apparently Zeiger, who sat behind the dugout at the Coliseum before moving to his prime seats at Dodger Stadium.
He still has the stubs for the initial home opener on April 10, 1962.
Those are the same seats he has today.
The same seats that he would give up for long stretches before every game so children could stand in front of him and get autographs. The same seats he would donate to countless charity auctions.
“For me to have gone from the bleachers in Cleveland to those seats, it always meant something to me,” he said.
Good thing he has a framed photo of himself leaning over the dugout cheering wildly for a Ron Cey homer in 1980. He has forever been pushed out of the picture.
Although not far enough that he would give up his old seats.
“I thought he was off his rocker,” Bea said. “I said, ‘If you’re so mad, why don’t you just give up the tickets?’ He said he couldn’t. He said he still loved the game too much.”
Zeiger knows his one-game walkout will have no teeth because, indeed, he probably will be back the next night.
He doesn’t care. He won’t apologize for being a baseball fan. He doesn’t want the Dodgers to apologize for being businessmen.
He simply longs for the days when they were watching the same game.
“I don’t want to sound like an old guy who is mad things are changing, because I know they have to change,” Zeiger said. “I know Frank McCourt doesn’t have money to buy the team, so he’s making everyone else pay for it. I’m not mad at him. That’s business.”
He shook his head.
“But at some point, even for one day, if only for yourself, you just have to say you don’t want to be part of it.”
Bill Plaschke can be reached at email@example.com. To read previous columns by Plaschke, go to latimes.com/plaschke.