VERO BEACH, Fla. — Mike Marshall, a new baseball in hand, was the first Dodger to approach the white-haired man sitting in a semicircle of reporters.
"Would you sign this for me?" he asked. "For me--'To Mike.' Thanks, Mr. DiMaggio."
"You're welcome, son," Joe DiMaggio said.
Steve Sax followed. "Mr. DiMaggio, Tommy Lasorda wanted me to tell you that my mother's half Italian, too, so we have something in common," Sax said.
Even Steve Howe abandoned his usual cockiness. "I wouldn't want to pitch to you," Howe said. "I'd walk you."
Joe DiMaggio laughed. "I did make contact with a lot of bad pitches," he said. "I wished I'd stayed up at the plate longer.
"I didn't have an eye like the great Williams. I was a swinger."
And Picasso was a brush man. Besides, the statistics belie the image of DiMaggio as a free swinger. In his career, DiMaggio hit 361 home runs. He struck out only 369 times.
Joe DiMaggio is 70 now, but by his reckoning, this was his first visit to Dodgertown.
"No, Joe, you came here once before," Manager Tom Lasorda said. "You worked with Frank Howard here, in the cage."
"I don't think so," DiMaggio said. "I guess we'll have to ask Frank. Maybe he'll remember.
"I'm not one of these guys who seeks to give out advice. I think people make hitting more complicated than it is. I suppose you can teach 'em something, but you can't teach 'em to be .300 hitters."
DiMaggio was here at the invitation of Dodger Vice President Al Campanis, a longtime friend.
"I'm here purely for pleasure," DiMaggio said. "I came down to play in the Italian-American golf tournament in Tampa, and I promised Al I'd come down to see him here. Going to see the Yankees tomorrow."
DiMaggio doesn't attend many games anymore, but when he does, it is an event, even for that generation that knows him best as pitchman for a coffee maker. In the crowd that rose as one to give DiMaggio a standing ovation when he threw out the first ball Monday afternoon at Holman Stadium, it was obvious that the memories went back further, to a generation when DiMaggio was synonymous with style, to a generation that remembered DiMaggio as the Yankee Clipper, not Mr. Coffee.
Throughout the game, people passed by the press box, where DiMaggio was sitting, to take pictures, get an autograph, catch a glimpse.
"He's got the stature of a Dempsey or a Ruth," Dodger broadcaster Vin Scully said. "I remember the first time I saw him, when he first came up, in 1936, he must have been 21 years old. I was 9. Even then, you heard, 'Come out and see the great young DiMaggio.' It was something."
It still is.
"Joe, I've been meaning to ask you something all these years," Campanis said. "Is it true that when you lived in the Mayflower Hotel (in New York) and a young lady would come to see you, you'd instruct the doorman to pay the cab fare and send her up?"
DiMaggio smiled. "I never stayed out late," he said. "But sometimes I was awakened early."
They always said DiMaggio made it look easy, but appearances, he said, were deceptive.
"I always busted my gut, but I could time the ball," he said. "I was gifted with good judgment."
The great ones, he said, are all gifted.
"Hitters, in my estimation, are pretty much born that way. They have the qualities of good eyesight, good reflexes."
Someone asked DiMaggio if he would have preferred to play in Fenway Park, with its left-field wall, the Green Monster, an inviting target for right-handed hitters, rather than Yankee Stadium, a left-hander's paradise.
"I've thought about it a lot, and the Wall would not have been helpful," he said. "My shots were line drives. My balls needed a little more room to take off.
"The park I would love to have played in was Ebbets Field. That was an ideal ballpark."
Said Campanis: "If he had played in Ebbets Field, he would have broken Babe Ruth's record."
The most money he'd ever made playing baseball, DiMaggio said, was $100,000.
"Three years in a row--'49, '50, '51," he said. "I hate to say this, Al, but the club owners were a little tough on us."
Although the owners might have been cheap, the public never held back its affection for DiMaggio. And it still doesn't.
That's why, as the old men and little girls lined up to pay their respects, no one wanted to believe that Joltin' Joe will ever go away.