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Postcard From L.A.: A classic ballyard that feels like home, even in the nosebleeds

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Baseball fans come early to watch the St. Louis Cardinals take batting practice before a game against the Dodgers.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

In the best essay ever written — baseball or otherwise — John Updike once tagged Fenway Park “a lyric little bandbox of a ballpark.”

By comparison, Dodger Stadium is baseball’s Carnegie Hall.

Half-buried in a hillside, like a cask of cowboy loot, it rests in the middle of a tangle of freeways, remarkably simple in design, with groovy space-age angles and a VIP view of the mountains.

Without fail, the outfield is brushed velvet. The lawns in County Cork should be so green.

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Dodgers fans take an escalator to the field level of Dodger Stadium before the game.
Dodgers fans take an escalator to the field level of Dodger Stadium before the game.
(Luis Sinco)

Dodger Stadium’s connective tissue may be concrete, but the classic ballyard — third-oldest in the majors — manages a rustic vibe. Thoreau would’ve loved the Pantone purples of the mountains at dusk. He really should’ve thrown out the very first pitch.

They play almost 100 home games here, what with an extended postseason added in, as it usually is in this thriving franchise, as healthy as any in sports.

Each year, an understudy you never heard of, some skinny kid with lint on his lip and an insouciant scowl, makes his mark, becomes a star and continues the great Dodger legacy.

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Robinson. Drysdale. Kersh.

Honestly, in American lore, this place might be greater than Carnegie Hall, for the memories it generates, in its cast of ballpark characters.

Take Roger Owens. Please.

The wise-guy vendor has been slinging peanuts and punchlines at Dodger games for 61 years. He predates Tommy Lasorda, maybe even beer itself. Over the years, his dazzling throws and chatty nut-case persona have landed him on the “Tonight Show” and at Jimmy Carter’s inauguration.

“I throw a fast nut, a curve nut and knuckle bag,” Owens likes to brag.

Even his admirers will tell you that Owens’ arm is better than his jokes. But a legend still. The Sandy Koufax of vendors, he has pitched at nearly a dozen World Series.

“Did I ever tell you about the bear ... ” he starts.

Only a million times, Roger. But tell me again.

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Mychal and Liam Schottler, of Long Beach, munch on Dodger Dogs
Mychal and Liam Schottler, of Long Beach, munch on Dodger Dogs before a game between the St. Louis Cardinals and the the Dodgers on Tuesday, Aug. 6, 2019.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

I think it’s this continuity that makes Dodger Stadium so comforting — the touchstones, the familiar smiles … the roar of the mustard, the smell of the crowd.

With so many games, baseball is different from football — more casual, less amped, almost genteel. Guys with rakes are always working the field, like yeoman farmers.

Dodger games are best on soft summer nights like this when the overblown sound system takes a break and for a precious minute you get the murmur of the fans — the acoustic purr of the place.

“Ice-cold beer here,” a vendor sings. “Credit cards accepted. If you like it, we can swipe it.”

Liam Schotter, 8, is here for only the second time, hanging with Mom and Dad (Mychal and Mike), working on his freckles, hoping for big things from his hero, Justin Turner, to whom he once penned a fan letter.

On the other hand, there’s Armando Sepulveda and his wife, Dianna, who have been here a thousand times. They met on a blind date at Dodger Stadium 43 years ago, married and have had season tickets ever since.

Los Angeles Times columnist Chris Erskine walks around the top deck of Dodger Stadium
Los Angeles Times columnist Chris Erskine walks around the top deck of Dodger Stadium before a game between the St. Louis Cardinals and the the Dodgers on Tuesday, Aug. 6, 2019.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
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“This year feels different,” he says of the team’s success in the wake of recent postseason heartbreak.

James Harvey agrees, and he’s seen a few games as well. As the team’s longest-serving usher, “Harv” has been up and down these concrete steps for 49 seasons, guiding patrons to their seats, answering questions, making folks feel right at home.

In the days when the family still owned the team, Harvey was the O’Malleys’ personal usher, watching after the first family of baseball while shaking hands with U.S. presidents.

“I take it year by year,” the former teacher says of retirement plans. “For sure I want to do 50.”

Owens. Sepulveda. Harvey.

What would L.A. be without Dodger Stadium? Barstow, that’s what. Not only is it the city’s heart, it’s our town square.

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Photographs of the Dodgers past and present hang on the walls of Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

Fifty-six thousand seats, fifty-six thousand stories.

Tonight, there’s Fred Huguez, who sold drinks here in his teens. He says he lost 37 friends to gang violence over the years and now credits the stadium gig with keeping him on the right track and leading him toward a successful career in business.

“I learned everything I needed to know about in my life … how to talk to people, everything,” he says of his early stint as a vendor.

“I had a foul ball land right in my Coke tray once,” he remembers. “And the fans swarmed all over me to get it.”

Well, this ain’t a Methodist wedding, after all. It’s a ballpark. A spirited free-for-all, and sometimes a theater of the absurd, as when those beach balls skitter through the crowd in idle moments, one of my least-favorite Dodger traditions.

But it’s not my park; I don’t make the rules. It’s your park, its L.A.’s park, and even as prices rise, it’s the lone venue where this fractured, congested city comes together … a summer’s place, a raucous yet soothing retreat.

Over the past 30 years, I may have plopped down in every seat in this sprawling old ballpark, and generally I recommend getting as close to the action as you can, scooping up bargains on the secondary market, where last-minute tickets can go for only a few bucks.

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From the farthest seats in the house, Dodger Stadium manages to glow. The ballpark, third-oldest in the game, can be both buzzy and serene.
(Chris Erskine / Los Angeles Times)

But every now and then, I like to escape to the nosebleeds. There is a perverse pride to occupying the worst seat in the house, with peering down from above the left-field foul pole, soaking it all in, as you would from a balcony seat at a Harold Arlen musical.

Like tonight. Listen, if I were any farther back, I’d be in Fresno. If I were any higher, I’d be sitting on the moon.

Still, this is all kinds of wonderful, way up here in my sky seat. If you snag yourself a Dodger Dog and a $16 beer, a bag of peanuts that is always more than you can eat, you might just find the most elusive of big-city pleasures:

A subtle warming of the heart.

Essentials

Dodger Stadium is located at 1000 Vin Scully Ave., Los Angeles, with multiple entrances off the 110 and 5 freeways, and a main gate at Sunset Boulevard. Game times vary, but most night games begin at 7:10 p.m. Ticket information: (866) 363-4377.


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