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Fifty seasons later, playing City Section baseball final at Dodger Stadium is still a dream come true

Fifty seasons later, playing City Section baseball final at Dodger Stadium is still a dream come true
Birmingham players celebrate after defeating Chatsworth for the 2017 City Section baseball championship at Dodger Stadium. (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

Robert LoPresti was a 17-year-old senior pitcher at Birmingham High in the spring of 1969 and the first to live out a dream seemingly every baseball player who grew up in Los Angeles has fantasized about — playing at Dodger Stadium.

He was the first high school player to throw a pitch in Chavez Ravine during the first City Section championship game played there. He remembers walking out to the mound used by his idols, Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale. He looked out June 4, 1969, and saw thousands of mostly empty seats. It was a little intimidating but also the most thrilling moment of his life, he said recently.

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For all the insults and negative comments bestowed on the Los Angeles Unified School District through the years (and some of them were deserving), a lasting treat for its baseball players has been that the championship game is played at Dodger Stadium. The Open Division and Division I finals Saturday will mark the 50th consecutive season of City Section championships played there. Since 2013, the City athletics office has run the final separate from LAUSD.

Former Dodgers owner Peter O’Malley said his father, Walter, welcomed the game to try to heal wounds in the city. Residents were still reeling after the tragedies of 1968, including the assassinations of Robert F. Kennedy in downtown L.A. and Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis, Tenn., and the city still was dealing with the ramifications of the 1965 Watts riots. So the Dodgers welcomed a high school championship game to their world-class stadium

“That was one of the reasons and it meant a lot to my dad, and it would be the right thing,” O’Malley said recently. “Supporting and encouraging youth to participate in baseball. It was common sense. We had the facility and why not do it.”

That is pretty remarkable. The Dodgers have always chosen to host the game over a rock concert or dirt bike extravaganza. The City Section has been willing to align its schedule to fit whatever date was available. O’Malley wanted to keep the tradition going even after he sold the team. Subsequent owners Fox Entertainment Group, Frank McCourt and Guggenheim Baseball Management have kept it going.

From athletes who never played again in a big league stadium to those who eventually made it back as major leaguers, playing at Dodger Stadium has been like going to Disneyland for the first time as a kid — thrilling and unforgettable.

Hall of Fame quarterback John Elway played for Granada Hills in the 1978 and 1979 City baseball championship games and faced Crenshaw star and future major leaguer Darryl Strawberry.

Randy Wolf of El Camino Real was the winning pitcher in 1993 and 1994 before a big league career that included time with the Dodgers. Garret Anderson won a City title for Granada Hills Kennedy in 1989 before starring with the Angels for most of 17 years in MLB.

Mike Moustakas, a World Series winner with Kansas City, won two City titles at Chatsworth. Steve Kerr, before he became an NBA player and coach, was on the Palisades team that lost 13-0 to Reseda Cleveland and Bret Saberhagen in 1982 in what was the only no-hitter in championship game history.

My favorite title game was in 1985, when Kevin Farlow hit a walk-off home run down the left-field line to give Kennedy a 10-9 win over Banning. That kept a San Fernando Valley streak going. Since 1973, all but one game has been won by a Valley team. The one team to break the streak was San Pedro in 1992 against Sun Valley Poly, my alma mater. We Parrots fans have never recovered.

Hy Cohen, Lake Balboa Birmingham’s coach and a former major leaguer, had been running the tournament for the City Section when he got a call that the championship game would be played for the first time at Dodger Stadium. Birmingham reached the final to play Monroe. Birmingham, then known as the Braves, was 0-3 against Monroe during the regular season.

A team photo of the 1969 City champions taken from the yearbook of Birmingham High.
A team photo of the 1969 City champions taken from the yearbook of Birmingham High. (Birmingham High)

Cohen was so superstitious that when his team took a 1-0 lead, he refused a request by one of his players to leave the bench to go to the bathroom.

“I said, ‘Bruce, you’re not going to the bathroom. You stay right there. If you have to pee in your pants, pee in your pants because we’re winning.’ ”

The key moment of the game was in the seventh inning. Monroe had loaded the bases with two outs, Cohen recalled recently. Cohen had a player warming up in the bullpen when he went to the mound to talk to LoPresti.

“How do you feel?” Cohen said.

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“I’m doing OK, but I’m getting tired,” LoPresti said.

“It’s the bases loaded, last inning. Don’t walk him. Throw strikes. Just do your best, Bobby,” Cohen said.

“He went to 2-1 and the guy hits a fly ball to left field. Rocky Jordan comes in, makes the catch but my heart jumped because I saw so much white coming out of that glove.”

Something unusual happened on the bus ride home that Cohen was hesitant to say.

“I don’t care,” he said. “They’re not going to fire me. Twenty kids took out a cigar and put it in their mouth and the bus driver nearly had a heart attack.”

Cohen, 87, lives in Palm Desert. LoPresti is a lawyer living in the San Fernando Valley. Many of the Birmingham players returned for a 40th reunion and were introduced during a Dodgers game.

Former junior varsity coach Wayne Sink on Thursday recalled a tradition that continues to this day: “Guys were scooping up dirt and putting it their pockets. They were pulling up clumps of grass as a souvenir.”

What’s the legacy of playing the City final for 50 consecutive seasons at Dodger Stadium? Anyone who has played in one will probably swear the experience ranks right up there with the best of their high school days, win or lose.

LoPresti visited Dodger Stadium on Saturday to watch the Dodgers’ game with the San Diego Padres. He said he mentioned to his friends, “50 years ago, I was on this same field as a 17-year-old.”

He said, “I went through my scrapbook and newspaper clippings. It was kind of nostalgic.”

On the 30th anniversary, in 1998, O’Malley said, “We’ve got to keep it going another 30 years.”

Amen.

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