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An L.A. father finds a baseball diamond in the rough

It’s easy to lose yourself in La Loma Park. Etched onto a hilltop at the apex of Monterey Park, it is sequestered from the city, connected only by a staircase to the outside world.

Journalist Jesse Katz came to the park seeking an escape from his tumultuous personal life and found refuge there for nine years -- first as his son Max’s baseball coach and later as the unlikely savior/baseball commissioner of the Monterey Park Sports Club. “It felt like our park. We had ownership over this place,” he says.

Katz, 47, sits on the bleachers at La Loma -- a baseball diamond sprawled out before him -- surrounded by memories. When he arrived with his 5-year-old son in 1999, the Portland, Ore., native was a consummate outsider, a white guy with a bad marriage, living in a community that was predominantly Chinese, joining a league that was largely Latino.

When he left in 2007, his marriage was long over, his son had become a young man and he’d gained a greater understanding of himself. “By the end of my commissionership . . . once I realized all these ways I’d been tested and pushed and pulled and all the ways my personal life had gotten wrapped up in my baseball life, I began to think this was the defining experience of my adult life,” Katz says.

La Loma is the flash point for Katz’s memoir, “The Opposite Field.” Equal parts personal journey, baseball book, immigrant tale and cultural anthropology lesson, it is ultimately an L.A. story about how disparate cultures come together and form a community.

“This where the barrio meets the ‘burbs and where the Asian world meets the Latino world and where a frumpy middle-class bedroom community meets a working-class port of entry,” Katz says. “There’s tension.”

In a way, Katz’s story is the immigrant saga in reverse. The son of a beloved Portland mayor and a notable artist -- he arrived in Los Angeles in the mid-1980s to work as a reporter for The Times -- immediately immersed himself in Latino culture, hypnotized by the city’s Eastside.

“I wanted to live in the center of Los Angeles, to be in the thick of the metamorphosis or transformation that I saw going on,” he says. “I remember driving around 7th and Alvarado thinking: Could I live in that building or that building?”

Katz settled in Echo Park and became a regular at the neighborhood’s cantinas. He met his wife -- an illegal immigrant from Nicaragua named Reynelda -- at a dive called the Sunset. It was an incongruous pairing. “Could I reach across that divide?” he wondered. “Would I be welcome on the other side, or would I just be a guy who didn’t know where he belonged?”

It wasn’t easy. Katz’s career flourished during his 13-year marriage; he became a Pulitzer Prize finalist as a gang reporter. He was less successful as a husband and stepfather to his wife’s son, Freddy, who preferred the dangerous embrace of the streets.

All that changed when Katz’s son Max was born in 1994. “Here’s this baby, this infant that I can hold and cuddle and nurture,” Katz says. “I was not going to drop the ball. I couldn’t. I couldn’t let Max become like Freddy.”

Baseball at La Loma became a central part of the father-son equation. “I loved coming here with him, throwing the ball around, hitting grounders or pop-ups. It seemed like an innocent, idyllic place,” Katz says.

But if the park was their shelter, by 2003 the Monterey Park Sports Club was weathering an internal storm that threatened to derail the baseball program. With the season in jeopardy, Katz volunteered as commissioner. From the start, he knew he was stepping onto a minefield. "[The league] was being looted and pillaged right under our noses,” he says.

It didn’t help that the new commissioner was greeted with suspicion by the old-schoolers. “People here were very concerned about mobility and acquiring some wealth and security, better than the immigrant generation before them. The fact that I had married into that immigrant generation, the new immigrant generation, was perplexing to them,” Katz remembers. “I seemed to have the skill set of this level of education and salary, so why was I not improving my status? Why did it look like I was going the wrong direction?”

Katz turned the program around, but, admittedly, he was no saint. “The Opposite Field” is filled with painful moments -- including a lovesick affair with a married woman and the coach-dad nightmare moment when Katz pushes a sick Max too far in the name of winning a championship.

Katz had wanted to write a book about Los Angeles since his arrival more than two decades ago, but he could never find a sustainable narrative thrust.

In the mid-1990s, he considered juxtaposing his experience covering gangs with his attempts to connect with his troubled stepson, but he was too immersed in both. “I was trying to write about something that was falling apart right under my nose, and I could never quite gain the perspective that I needed,” he says. Eventually, these efforts helped plant the seeds for “The Opposite Field,” which first took shape as a 2005 feature in Los Angeles magazine.

Yet even with such a compelling story, revealing truths about himself was a tall order, akin to intense sessions of therapy. “If you’re telling a story from your life and you’re trying to make it vivid and true to that moment,” Katz says, “your character can be self-deluded, but you as the writer better not be self-deluded. Set yourself in motion and see yourself in action, and yet be able to step away from that. That’s where the hard work of this book lay.”

As he wrote about himself and his son, Katz found himself connecting the dots back to his own parents, even retracing his mother’s journey from Eastern Europe to the United States during World War II.

“I realized what my ex-wife’s journey was about, what my stepson’s journey to America was about, sneaking over a line, getting across the border,” he says. “Sixty years divided those journeys, but they were essentially the same. Then I began to realize: I thought I had traveled a long ways away, but I really hadn’t gone that far.”

Now, though, Katz faces an unfamiliar crossroads. After spending much of the last two decades as a father, many as a single father, he is bracing for life without his son. Max is a high school junior, with college in full view.

“He’s not a child anymore; he’s a young man. And he’s going to be embarking on a new chapter of his life really soon,” Katz says with a nervous laugh. “I have a keen sense that everything about my life is about to change. Once he goes off to college, I can sort of do anything. Whatever I’ve thought my role has been these last number of years is about to be exploded. And I’m not sure I’m entirely comfortable with that.”

calendar@latimes.com


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