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Baseball Fantasyland : Never Mind Middle Age, This Man's Still a Boy in Dodger Blue

November 05, 1987|DICK WAGNER | Times Staff Writer

You are Dan Jett of Downey, and you have forgotten you are 42. You are a boy again, with a boy's Christmas morning smile as you gaze from the dugout at this baseball field in Commerce on which you will be playing soon.

You wear a Dodger uniform, so brilliantly white and blue and genuine that only it and not your bulging stomach is taken in at first glimpse. And middle age's bald reality is hidden beneath your "L A" cap.

You aren't a real Dodger, but on this Sunday morning you dream you are, as you did when you were a Little Leaguer, playing until you couldn't walk. Baseball was a wondrous universe to you then, filled with unreachable stars you looked up to. Your favorites were Roy Campanella, Johnny Podres and Carl Furillo.

But without the God-given ability of those idols, you never ascended in the sport beyond playing at Pioneer High School in Whittier. Sadly and inevitably, baseball ended for you--seemingly forever--at too early an age. All there was was softball, which you played for years but found an unsatisfying substitute.

And then a few years ago your wife, Pat, gave you a $3,000 Christmas present: A trip to the Dodgers' adult fantasy camp in Vero Beach, Fla., where for one glorious week, you learned baseball from the old Dodger stars. You ate and drank with them and sat wide-eyed in the locker room as Duke Snider told stories about Don Drysdale.

Then you and your fellow campers decided to extend the fantasy, so every other Sunday you put on the uniforms, choose sides and play baseball.

Grow up? You happily tell a visitor that the boy in you will never leave.

In the real world you are an accountant but that world, you regret, cannot match this one of grass, dirt, camaraderie, the smell of liniment and the squawking of spiked shoes on a dugout's concrete floor.

You survey this Veterans Memorial Park stadium--a green jewel below a freeway and distant mountains--and then go out and play catch. Then you take batting practice, cutting mightily at soiled balls, trying to drive them over the fence like Campanella used to do in Brooklyn.

Your opponents take the field. They are from the New York area--some wear Mets uniforms--and are here to stir interest in baseball leagues for men over 30. You watch them. Butterflies, born when you were a youngster, awake with their familiar flutter in your stomach. Sweat pops out as the sun warms.

Your stats? "I'm batting .257," you say. "Dropped 100 points in the last three years. I think our pitching gets better or I get older."

You and your teammates joke a lot about eroded skills, but you never want to look bad, to disgrace that uniform you accepted with such pride.

"If I do well, I feel great," you say. "If I don't, I'm down. I still like to play as good as I can."

And as hard. Three years ago you broke your collarbone during a play at the plate. Tomorrow morning you will be greeted as usual at the office with, "Everything still in place?"

You are a catcher, but after several games already this weekend, you will play right field today. In the first inning you make a running catch. In the grandstand your father, Calvin Jett, who says you can't "run for nothin'," is surprised.

You have your own little rooting section--Pat, Calvin and your mother, Melva, and your 5-year-old son, Ryan.

You remember when Calvin and Melva went to your Little League games in Whittier. Calvin always got there only for the last two innings because he had to work at the machine shop.

Calvin says you were "always playin' ball, knew every ballplayer on every ballclub."

And Melva remembers how she used to play with you "till I couldn't throw a ball anymore."

Melva's glad you aren't catching. Always scared her. She remembers how she got your dad to buy you a first baseman's mitt for $25--"that's more than we had for groceries almost"--but you kept catching anyway.

Melva says, "He'd quit his job and just play baseball if he could." And you know she's right.

Pat is admiring you. That uniform always does it to her. She recalls how handsome you looked at Vero Beach when she first saw you in it. And she remembers the look you had, like the look you have today, like a child's at a birthday party.

You are up to bat. You smash a line drive to left, and though it lands foul it is still a thrill. You wave clumsily at the next pitch, missing it, and then strike out on a high, hard one.

In the stands, a young girl, the daughter of one of your teammates, says, "This is just old men playing dumb baseball."

She can't possibly understand.

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