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Fans Honor Spring Ritual at Old Ballgame

April 02, 1997|JOHN M. GLIONNA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Some things don't change in baseball, that sometimes grand game of youth, loyalty and obsession: Young boys reach for autographs and fly balls, Dodger caps stay blue, the peanut man runs clean out of bags just as he reaches your row.

Other things change like the fickle stadium winds come October: the names on the uniforms, the price of the nosebleed seats and, in Los Angeles, maybe even the owner of the team.

On Tuesday, during the 36th opening day game at Dodger Stadium, fans saw a little of both as they munched on new quarter-pound hot dogs for the first time and saw former team manager Tommy Lasorda take his bows before a packed stadium in Chavez Ravine for perhaps the last time.

Looking awkward in his pressed suit, Lasorda confessed that leaving the team he led for 20 seasons made him truly Dodger blue.

"You look forward to opening day all our life," he said moments before he took the field to a standing ovation. "But this is the first one in an awful long time that I'm not in a Dodger uniform."

For the 53,709 fans who would ultimately leave as blue as Lasorda after watching a 3-0 loss to Philadelphia, matters got off to a better start.

People skipped work and school. Veteran fans brought their sons to cheer on the Dodgers for the first time.

"This is like New Year's for us," said Norma Gaffney, a Pasadena legal secretary who for years has paid for opening-day box seats for herself and friend Linda Huerta. "We wait for this moment all year long."

Down in front of the home team dugout, Mike Robles of Monterey Park yelled out to Dodger coach Manny Mota as he watched the team warm up. He held out his game program for Mota to sign and then proudly handed it to his 9-year-old son, Chris.

"I grew up watching Manny play," he said. "He was the all-time greatest pinch-hitter."

Chris looked shyly up at his father. "This is OK," he said. "But I wanted Hideo Nomo."

James Mims, a 61-year-old Dodger Stadium field director who saw Jackie Robinson play, talked about how his hero could teach today's players a thing or two.

"It was his enthusiasm, the way he ran the bases, the way he stole home," said Mims, who saw Robinson play several times. "And I think he could teach these players to respect the fans they play for. A lot of these guys don't even sign autographs. They forget this is a kid's game in the first place."

Some of those at Dodger Stadium on Tuesday didn't forget that fact. People like the guy who calls himself Oregano, a ticket scalper who can make $300 on a good opening day. "It's just like the stock market. Buy low. Sell high," he said with a smile, taking his corner a few blocks from the stadium.

There's the fan who calls himself "Mr. Q," a La Habra utility worker who called in sick to make the game: "I should have been digging a ditch today."

And there's Ann Engevik, a fan who has started a silent relationship with infielder Chad Fonville, who throws her a ball just before every game. So far, she's got two dozen of them.

"I don't know why he does it, but I just made eye contact with him every game and he started throwing me the ball."

Last year, she wrote him a thank you note, saying she could use a bat as well. "The next game he just handed me this bat. He's the greatest."

As well, there are those who are paid to be at the game, but whose passion for being here is no less real. Workers like 28-year-old Susan Stringfellow, an usher whose heart breaks every time she has to chase young kids from seats they schemed so hard to grab.

And usher Vickie Aijian, who has seen families grow in her box-seat section: "I see the wives get pregnant, have the kids and then watch them grow up to be Dodger fans too," said the 14-year veteran.

On the field, Mike McDermott does a day's work before the game even gets underway: He's the warmup pitcher for Dodger players.

Once the stadium's bat boy for the opposing team, he was asked to try out 20 years ago and has stayed ever since.

"My job is to lay the pitch in there and not try to strike them out or fool them," said McDermott, who throws 130 warmup pitches before each game.

Up the runway from the Dodger dugout, Mike Sandoval's job is also done come game time: Sandoval is the team's uniform washer. "I used to get excited about opening day, but now I just see it as another 66 uniforms to wash," he said, pointing to his secret for giving Dodger uniforms just the right amount of give: rows of Snuggle fabric softener.

And perhaps as long as there has been baseball, there have been peanut vendors.

"I just love this day to death," said Marno Tavarez, a 74-year-old worker from Whittier who has peddled his wares at Dodger games for nearly 40 years. "It's the crowds, the enthusiasm, the dreams. This is the day where everybody believes we're going all the way. Even me!"

While he sells more peanuts on opening day, Tavarez says things aren't what they used to be. "Look at these," he said, holding up a small bag of peanuts.

"These used to cost 15 cents back in 1958 when I started. Now they're a buck and a half. Prices are going through the roof.

"But that's baseball."

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