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CHRIS ERSKINE / The Guy Chronicles

Batting Away the Chill in the Air

April 14, 1999|CHRIS ERSKINE

So here we are back at L.A.'s favorite restaurant, Dodger Stadium, on one of those April evenings when the wind shoots straight down from the Gulf of Alaska, glances off San Francisco, then throws a left hook into Chavez Ravine, where it knocks the cap off the shortstop and the foam off your beer.

Whoooosh. There goes 50 cents' worth of foam.

"Nice night," the boy says, as we settle into our seats.

"Unless you're an outfielder," I say.

In the outfield, three guys stand like penguins in a wind storm, arms at their sides, praying that they'll hear the crack of the bat over the flags snapping behind them.

Behind the plate, Todd Hundley, son of Randy, fishes bad pitches out of the dirt, baseballs that feel like chunks of brick on cold nights such as this.

He's earning his money, this second-generation catcher. By the time the night is over, he will suffer four wild pitches. By now, you'd think the Hundley family might've learned another trade. But like farming, catching is in their blood.

"Tough night to be a catcher," I tell the boy, as Hundley chases a wild pitch all the way to the backstop, a bus ride away.

In L.A., they build the houses big, and Dodger Stadium is no exception. Built for $18 million, it is essentially one giant room. Great views. Nice yard. From the plate down the left field line is 330 feet. To straightaway center, 395. Enough room for a decent garden. Or maybe a cattle ranch.

Almost 40 years after it was built, it remains one of the nation's finest baseball cathedrals, improving with age, the way cathedrals do.

This year, the field looks like those fairways at Augusta, the Bermuda grass groomed to the last blade, clipped short. Like a Dodger haircut.

A few more signs crept in over the winter. Pac Bell. Budweiser. But all in all the cathedral looks good, cleaner than ever from the recent rains, with new murals along the outfield wall.

The Dodgers are off to a fast start, and so is spring.

At home, the boy can't pass a lemon tree without pausing, grabbing a fresh lemon and hurling it at the nearest tree.

"Strike one!" he yells, as the lemon explodes against the tree trunk.

"Looked a little high," I say.

"Wanna see my curve?" the boy asks.

"Why not?" I say.

So he grabs another lemon and throws his best curve, snapping the lemon down at the last minute and turning his wrist, as if trying to snap his shoulder off, which is eventually what happens after you throw too many curves. You lose the shoulder.

It's a good curve, this lemon. At the last minute, it dives and catches the corner.

"Strike two!" he yells.

"Nice curve," I say.

"Don't waste the lemons," his mother calls from the porch.

"It was a strike," the boy explains.

"Caught the corner," I tell her.

I don't know exactly what she thought we were doing with the lemons. We were practicing pitching, which is not exactly wasting them. In fact, of all the things you can do with a lemon, pitching is probably the most worthwhile.

And now we're in Dodger Stadium, watching Todd Hundley scooping lemons out of the dirt, which is a hard thing to watch.

"Poor Hundley," says the boy.

"Tough night to be a catcher," I say.

Sure enough, it's cold and getting colder.

The temperature is barely 50. The beer, about 40. Average the two, then factor in the wind, and it feels about 30. By the second inning, we are already under the blanket, the one the boy found in the garage, full of sand from the beach last summer.

"Want some ice cream?" I tease, as the vendor passes by.

"Maybe later," the boy says.

Know that old saying about selling ice cream to an Eskimo? This is tougher. The vendor keeps waving his chocolate malts in the air but can barely choke out the words.

"Ice cream," he whispers, as if embarrassed.

"Ice cream?" some wise guy yells back, because in a crowd of 40,000, there are always a few wise guys.

"Take it home," the vendor says. "Put it in the microwave."

Out in right field, meanwhile, Raul Mondesi is chasing down a sure triple, an angry shot that looks like it's about to rocket off the right field corner. In his glove, softly, the triple dies.

"Rauuuuuuuuul!" the boy howls, accompanied by a thousand other boys, howling Mondesi's name in the night.

"Rauuuuuuuuuul!" they scream, till the coyotes in the nearby canyons run for cover.

"Rauuuuuuuul!" the children all scream, welcoming another spring.

"Nice night," the boy says when the screams finally die down."

"Yeah, nice night," I say.

Chris Erskine's column is published on Wednesdays. His e-mail address is chris.erskine@latimes.com.

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