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As Dodger Stadium returns to full capacity, a final ode to the fake fans

A man, standing against a wall adorned with pictures of Clayton Kershaw, holds an oversize image of himself.
Austin Donley, wearing a Clayton Kershaw jersey and surrounded by memorabilia of the ace, holds a cardboard cutout of himself that was hit by home runs twice last season.
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

The cutout with the wounded neck has taken up residence on a bedroom floor, beneath a windowsill, next to a cap rack and a chair painted Dodger blue with a framed image of Clayton Kershaw above.

Dodger Stadium returns to full capacity Tuesday for the first time in 20 months. In between, the Dodgers played a championship season before an empty stadium.

When historians reflect upon how fans experienced that pandemic season, this might be the lasting image: a fake fan nearly decapitated by a real ball.

You might have heard the story: Austin Donley and his father bought fan cutouts to be placed behind the outfield fence at Dodger Stadium. On the third day of the season, Donley watched the first few innings of a Saturday afternoon game, then rode his bike to the beach. All of a sudden, his phone buzzed, repeatedly and insistently.

Will Smith had hit him in the head. That’s the go-to line, of course. To be precise, Smith hit a home run, and the ball collided with the head on Donley’s cutout. On Twitter, Donley posted a video clip and asked if he got to keep the ball.

Smith messaged him back, asked for his address, and a few days later a bat arrived, with this inscription: “Sorry I hit you in the head. Go Dodgers! Will Smith.”

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Austin Donley holds a bat signed by Dodgers catcher Will Smith bat.
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

The impact had partially severed the head from the torso, so Donley’s cutout looked down. Until six weeks later, that is, when Mookie Betts hit a home run that landed on a drink rail, bounced up, and hit Donley’s cutout hard enough to briefly knock the face back upright.

Surgery was required. Donley said a Dodgers employee “took a piece of cardboard and taped it there to give me a spine.”

Donley is 25, headed to USC in the fall to pursue a graduate degree in physical therapy. He keeps the cutout in his bedroom, along with the bat Smith autographed, pictures and an enormous wall decal of Kershaw. He might already have had his 15 minutes of fame: radio and television appearances for him, a Postmates commercial appearance for his cutout.

“For a sports nerd like me,” Donley said, “being on ‘Baseball Tonight’ is really cool.”

He grew up on the Dodgers. His family has season tickets. He said his parents were concerned about taking him to a loud and crowded stadium at too young an age, but they still took him to the ballpark, to sit on the top deck and take in the panorama.

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“We’d drive by the stadium on an off day,” he said, “and watch them mow the grass for about 10 minutes.”

Those communal experiences, whether among families or among sellout crowds, are what Los Angeles has missed at its house of baseball for the last 20 months. Donley had no hesitation in saying whether he would prefer to go to a game, as one among 50,000 fans, or stay home to watch Max Muncy or Justin Turner hit his fake face and make him famous all over again.

“It was cool watching the cardboard cutout get hit,” Donley said, “but it’s so much more fun being there and being able to enjoy the energy and watch with other people.”

He has attended a handful of games this season. To him, it did not feel quite real at limited capacity.

“When you can hear the conversation of everyone around you, it feels like it’s batting practice,” he said.

He is more than ready to join the city at a full stadium.

Austin Donley sits alongside his life-size image.
Austin Donley poses with the twice-damaged cardboard cutout of himself, which is now part of his collection of Dodgers memorabilia.
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

“I think it’s going to be crazy,” he said. “I think there are going to be a lot of people that haven’t been to a game in two years.

“Most people haven’t seen Mookie Betts play in person yet. I think it’s going to be loud. I think it will be pretty electric.”

Donley’s fame, now recorded on his Twitter biography, is this: “Will Smith and Mookie Betts both hit me in the head.”

He joked about whatever corporate team-building exercises might await in his future.

Said Donley: “I have the ‘What’s a fun fact about you?’ answer for the rest of my life.”


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