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The Guy Chronicles

Ballpark Reveries and a Nightmare

September 11, 2002|CHRIS ERSKINE

Here we are on a Sunday evening, worshiping the Dodgers at the late service, saying vespers and looking forward to the playoffs, mustard on our busy lips.

"Go, Dodgers!" a boy in front of us prays.

"Yeah, go, Dodgers!" says his friend.

We've come to this outdoor service to wish these Dodgers well as they prepare to leave town to pursue a playoff spot. Next stop: San Francisco, that little settlement by the bay.

"Go, Shawn," yells the little girl.

"Go, Dodgers!" screams a believer in a blue wig.

The little girl's bony elbow is on my shoulder, nudging my sunburned neck. Ever notice the way a kid invades your personal space? It's worst at a ballpark, where they lean on you, elbow you, wipe their ketchuped hands on your ketchuped knee.

All around us, kids like her bounce in their seats. No one sits normally. They sit on their ankles. They sit on their knees.

The young fans jump around like squirrels at a wine tasting. The organ plays, they bounce. Someone fouls off a pitch, they bounce. Doesn't anybody sit still anymore? No, they bounce.

"Sit still," I tell the little girl.

"Me?"

"Yeah, you," I say.

"OK, Dad," she says, grabbing at my shoulder.

Not much seems to change at Dodger Stadium, other than food prices and center fielders. Next to me, there's what passes for progress here: garlic fries, a new offering. Mostly, everything else is the same.

We look left. We pan right. At some point in every game, every fan takes a wide, sweeping look at this classic ball yard. You can't be anything but pleased with the way it's holding up after 40 years. Middle age never looked better.

I explain to the little girl how the stadium sits among hills, nestled into the canyon with its back to the wind.

Evidently, old man O'Malley knew his stuff, sparing his ballplayers the vagaries of ocean breezes.

"Who?" she asks.

"O'Malley," I say.

"O'who?"

"Never mind," I say.

In the third inning, the beach balls appear, America's last act of civil disobedience, in numbers too plentiful to count.

Four of them scatter in front of us like a covey of quail. It's as if they're breeding under the seats.

"Look at all the beach balls," the little girl marvels.

"Just watch the game," I say.

"He popped it," she says.

"Where?"

"The usher," she says. "He popped it with a pen."

"Just watch the game," I say again.

"There's another one," she says.

Back on the field, dusk seems to pull a blanket over the Dodgers' eyes. In the first three innings, they can't manage a hit.

Meanwhile, their opponents, the team from Houston, score early. At the end of three innings, the Astros lead by two.

Then, in the fourth inning, a pitcher's worst nightmare. Line drive to the face. Dodger pitcher Kazuhisa Ishii raises his hands but not in time. The ball ricochets off his brow and bounces to the backstop. A hundred feet, at least.

Ishii collapses as if struck by lightning, which he was. His legs kick the dirt. Fans cringe and turn away.

The batter stops halfway to first, wondering if he just killed a man. Players rush to the mound, fearing what they'll find. Diamondvision goes blank. More than 43,000 fans go quiet. Real prayers begin.

"Is he going to be OK?" asks the little girl.

"Don't know," I say.

"Oh no," she says, burrowing her head into my shoulder.

For 15 minutes, we wait as emergency personnel tend to the wounded pitcher. The center field fence opens and an ambulance arrives. Finally. Early word is that he suffered a concussion but will be all right.

"Lucky man," I say.

"Yeah, very lucky," says the guy behind me.

And slowly, the game returns to Dodger Stadium. In the bottom of the fourth, Dave Roberts, master thief, lays down a perfect bunt, then steals second. A somber crowd gets its voice back. But the Dodgers surrender without a run.

About 6 p.m., an early autumn chill begins to work its way through the shadows. L.A. can go from too warm to too cool in about 30 seconds. Not tonight. Tonight, it cools down slowly. Like soup.

Even with the Dodgers' bats at rest, there are things to watch. A hot dog wrapper floats gently down from the deck above. A vendor yells, "Nuts! No waiting! Nuts!"

Up the aisle--again--comes one of those L.A. creations, blond and in need of constant attention. It confirms my theory that women with the biggest breasts have the smallest bladders.

This one strolls up and down the aisle at least a half dozen times, disrupting the evening's main event as she heads to the restroom. Back and forth, back and forth. Doesn't anyone stay still anymore? No, they bounce.,

It's a distraction, even by L.A. standards. Every time she passes, fathers stop eating mid-bite. Small boys forget their mothers.

"Who's that?" the little girl asks.

"Eat your ice cream," I say.

In the eighth, still down by four, the Dodgers begin to mount a counterattack. The crowd stirs. The beach balls are forgotten. Even the kids settle in their seats.

"Put on your rally cap," I tell the little girl.

"OK," she says.

Two Dodgers have reached base on hits, and a third is walked, loading them up. Alex Cora twists an inside pitch down the line for a double, and suddenly the Dodgers are within two runs.

"These hats are working," the little girl says.

"Think so?"

"Yep."

Just in time for a pennant race. Just in time for fall.

Chris Erskine's column is published Wednesdays. He can be reached at chris.erskine@latimes.com.

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