This is how it begins, more than half a century ago: A gnarled, wizened-looking man on a baseball diamond in Griffith Park, hitting pop flies to a 15-year-old boy.
The man manages the Toledo Mud Hens during the summer, but now he's seasonally unemployed. The boy adores him, listens to his every word, sits at his feet for hours. The man has a funny, circuitous way of talking, but the boy always understands him.
Years later, he'll remember how strong the man was, how his pop-ups seemed to bore holes in the sky. The man hits fungoes for hours and the boy chases them like a puppy after a stick, never tiring of the game, vowing that no baseball will fall to the ground. Sundays in the park with Casey.
The year is 1930, the sky is azure. It is before smog, before freeways and before Casey Stengel ever dons Yankee pinstripes. That's Casey, the Mud Hen mentor.
That's Rod Dedeaux, the boy.
And now it's 56 years later, Dedeaux's turn to bid the game farewell. He has long been away from Stengel's protective wing. Casey, the Brooklyn scout, signed Dedeaux, and Casey, the Yankee manager, offered him a coach's job and the chance to be groomed to succeed him. But that's not how it went.
Dedeaux stayed on the West Coast with his wife, his kids, his trucking company and his other family, also known as the USC baseball program.
In his spare time, he built his company from one $500 Chevrolet truck into a five-company multimillion-dollar conglomerate.
Or, he managed USC in his spare time, take your pick.
Whichever it was, he and USC reached a glory of their own: 11 NCAA titles including five in a row from 1970-74, records that look safe for a century or two.
He passed it along, as Stengel had passed it to him. As Casey was revered, so will be Rod Dedeaux.
"The Tiger's finally hanging 'em up, huh?" says Paula Lee, the mother of former Trojan left-hander Bill Lee, from her home in San Rafael. "We'll miss him. We really enjoyed him over the years."
"With Rod, everybody's Tiger, Tiger, Tiger," says Tom House, another Trojan lefty, now pitching coach for the Texas Rangers. "I can still remember his sayings."
"If he was good enough to beat a Trojan, he'd be a Trojan!
"Move those puppies, Tiger!
"He was a little ahead of his time," House says. "In the '60s, they still had the blood-and-guts, go-get-'em type of head coaches. Rod had his Double Xers, his Bovard boners. He'd have everyone singing 'McNamara's Band.'
"Double Xers were the bench jockeys, the guys who didn't have scholarships, who didn't play much. We really had a reputation for being bench jockeys. The Bovard boners (USC then played at Bovard Field) was his little system of fines."
That wasn't all they did for fun, either.
"He liked to have a good time," says Paula's son, Bill, from Moncton, New Brunswick, where he has taken refuge in a Canadian senior league. "Whenever we'd go up to Palo Alto, we'd stop off at Dedeaux Island.
"Where is that? Right across from Big Al's and Carol Doda's place. You know, those twin 44s?"
Lee is referring to the North Beach area of San Francisco.
It was Dedeaux who talked House into going for his master's degree. When Dedeaux made 9-year-old Sparky Anderson his batboy, circa 1943, he made Sparky bring him his report card to prove it wasn't hurting his grades.
Playing for Dedeaux was like having another father . . . and more. Imagine getting your homework done so you can hit the honky-tonks with dad.
A DYNASTY FOR TROY
Dedeaux got the USC job in 1942, taking over from his coach, Justin Sam Barry. Dedeaux's first son is named for Barry. Dedeaux's program is like that, players sending their sons to him, brother following brother. The current roster has Don Buford's son and Al Campanis' grandson.
Actually, Dedeaux had had the job, unofficially, as a player. Barry was the basketball coach, too. His successor, Forrest Twogood, was another basketball coach who was also a baseball player and had to report to the Cleveland Indians. So the players helped run their own program.
In 1942, Dedeaux was returning to Los Angeles, his career having been cut short in the minors by a back injury. He spent the last $500 of his bonus on a Chevy truck and started hauling freight to Albuquerque. He earned spare change in the Pacific Coast League.
He also coached the Trojans.
"The truck business starts early in the day," Dedeaux says. "It would be rare that I wasn't there by 6 in the morning. By 2, I had put in a full day. And very often, it was coming down here (to his office in Commerce) at night. And a lot of the time, when we were hauling produce, I'd be here at 2 in the morning, so we could make the market."
Says his wife, Helen: "It just seems like he should be tired once in a while. But he doesn't ever seem to be."
In the afternoons, he built college baseball's first dynasty. Vigor and personality carried the day. That and the fact that this was Southern California, where the weather was warm year-round, baseball consciousness was rising and a mountain of talent lay waiting.