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He’s living proof you can’t keep a good man down

There is nobody watching this Dodgers comeback, except if you count three Chihuahuas that bark at each limp.

There is nobody cheering for this Dodgers rehab, except if you count the kids who stop their bikes in front of the tiny stucco house to watch a man trying to walk down his driveway on an aluminum leg.

While injured Dodgers stars like Jason Schmidt and Rafael Furcal are spending the summer enveloped in embraces and encouragement, Luis Arevalo is surrounded only by chain-link fence and concrete.

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His mission, like theirs, is to return to Chavez Ravine before the end of the season.

His mission, however, is based not on a contract but on the heart.

Arevalo, 51, was a Dodger Stadium elevator operator for 30 years. Two seasons after losing his leg to complications from diabetes, he is determined to be one again.

“My home,” he says. “I want to go home.”

Do you remember him? If you’ve ever ridden Elevator No. 1 from the ninth level down to your seats, you remember him.

He was the one who was smiling. He was always smiling. Outside, the team could be losing and the fans could be booing but inside his little box, nine floors at a time, 10 hours a night, 12 seconds from top to bottom, Luis Arevalo was always smiling.

“Why not smile?” he said. “It’s a ballpark. It’s baseball. We’re all so very lucky.”

Do you remember him now? Maybe he asked where you were from. Maybe he asked if you had enjoyed the game. Maybe you were surprised that a guy who spends his nights pushing buttons would care enough to push one of yours.

He would console struggling players on the long rides up to their parking spots. “I would always tell them tomorrow was a new day, because it was,” he said.

He would counsel maintenance workers on the long rides down to their jobs, telling old women holding wet mops that, yes, tomorrow would be a new day.

For 30 years, he not only carried the Dodgers’ message up and down, but out and across and beyond, often sending away even the most drunk and grumbling fans with that same smile.

“The job of every Dodger employee is to make fans feel like they’ve had the best experience in baseball, and Luis was the epitome of that,” said Lon Rosenberg, the Dodgers’ vice president of stadium operations. “He was around so long, he knew so much, you didn’t just take an elevator ride, you had an experience.”

All these years, and he’s never stepped out of the elevator long enough to watch even one inning.

“Dodger Stadium is the kind of place where you don’t need to see the game to appreciate it,” he said. “There’s the sounds, the smell, the feel.”

All these years, and only twice has his elevator stalled, and both times he was by himself, waiting 30 minutes for help to arrive.

“No, I didn’t go crazy. Why go crazy?” he said. “It’s Dodger Stadium. There are worse places to be stuck.”

All this for about $10 an hour and the longest days imaginable, beginning at 8 a.m. with his regular job as a security guard at Hollenbeck Middle School, ending at Chavez Ravine around midnight.

“But going to Dodger Stadium wasn’t like a job,” he said. “It was like going to be with my family.”

He isn’t sure whether the players ever even knew his last name, but it didn’t matter. He never really saw the fans outside the elevator, but he saw them enough. Unmarried, still living with his parents, he truly considered this his family.

“I feel like I watched a generation of Dodger fans grow up,” he said. “One year they would get into the elevator as children, and then the next day it was like, wow, they have become adults.”

Everyone grew older, it seemed, except for Luis Arevalo, who always had the same shock of black hair, the same deep grin.

Until February 2006, when, for the first time, he found himself on the disabled list.

Only, this being real life, it was a real disabled list.

One Friday morning, he awoke with a sharp pain in his left foot. By nightfall, the foot was black. By Monday morning, his left leg had been amputated from above the knee, a casualty of untreated diabetes.

The man who spent a life in motion spent much of the next year unable to move.

“It was awful, it was so depressing, I didn’t know how I could do it,” he said.

He ultimately decided that he didn’t have a choice. Fifteen minutes from his Boyle Heights home, there were people lined up outside that elevator, people waiting for him to open the doors, people waiting for that smile.

One of his strengths was the ability to remember what floor a person entered the elevator, so that after the game, he could remind them where to step out.

“I was always good with faces, and I missed those faces, I missed their happiness at being at the ballpark, I missed it all,” he said. “I had to get back to the stadium.”

So, from wheelchair to crutches to cane to temporary prosthesis to his permanent aluminum humdinger of a left leg, his giant goal was to return to his little box.

He knew he had to be able to walk from the parking lot to the elevator, so he worked on his endurance.

He heard that the Dodgers had removed stools for the elevator operators, so he worked hard enough to be able to stand. Those stools are back now, so he will be able to sit again.

“Whatever the rules they have there now, I want to follow them,” he said. “I don’t want to come back unless I can come back at 100 percent.”

He says he is 90% now. He believes he can return by September. He is working a strenuous, if self-made, rehabilitation program to get there.

Every morning, he steps outside the tiny house with barred windows and into an adjoining driveway cluttered with five cars and three dogs.

He walks back to one of the green plastic garbage cans and slowly begins his walk to the black iron gate.

It’s maybe 30 feet, but sometimes it feels like 30 years. Sometimes, after only a couple of laps, he must rest. Other times, he feels the strength and balance to carry him all afternoon.

He stops for lunch, returns to the driveway in the afternoon, and only quits at dinner time.

His blue Dodgers visor is darkened with sweat. His skin is leathery from the sun. He will do it all again tomorrow.

“I want to be ready for the end of the season, that is my goal, I truly believe I can do it,” he said. “I think they need me. I know I need them.”

The Dodgers are also ready, with Rosenberg announcing Tuesday that this is one starter who will not lose his job to injury.

“As soon as he’s ready to come back, he will be welcome in the same job he had,” Rosenberg said. “Luis is truly one of the good guys.”

And when Luis Arevalo does return? Should the cheers match those given the return of Schmidt and Furcal?

Appropriately, the only kind of ovation that can be given in an elevator is a standing one.

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Bill Plaschke can be reached at bill.plaschke@latimes.com. To read previous columns by Plaschke, go to latimes.com/plaschke.


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