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Bleacher bonds

A bad recent stretch doesn't come close to discouraging Dodgers fans seated beyond the outfield fence, who keep the faith and keep the pressure on opposing outfielders

August 19, 2007|Kurt Streeter

The guy has a cowbell in one hand, a baseball glove on the other and a spiky Mohawk mask fixed atop his baseball cap. His name is Gabriel Ruiz, and he looks as if he wants to drive a stake through my heart.

"We can't give up, man," Ruiz says. "We're here every night. And if you bleed blue, like we do . . . " He pauses and glares at me. Do I get his point? "You don't stop coming when the team goes on a losing streak."

All week, I'm at Dodger Stadium -- and at the start, the hometown team is behind. In less than a month, the Dodgers have tumbled down the NL West standings from first place to fourth. They can't hit, can't run, can't field or pitch. The team is done, people are saying. Too much reliance on young players and has-beens.

Ruiz, 24, is in the low, bench-filled bleachers that cling tightly to the outfield. This is not the part of the stadium where tickets sell for $450. No carved tenderloin is served here. The seats are not contoured. Yelling does not get you stared at by surgically corrected fashion models.

Here in the left-field bleachers, tickets go for $8. The smell of burnt pork, Dodger Dogs, hangs heavily. The flat benches can leave you with splinters. You could shout to the heavens and run down the aisles in your skivvies, and no one would blink an eye.

I don't let up. I point at the scoreboard. With the Dodgers playing like bums, why endure all this just to come and watch? Have you lost your marbles? Haven't you guys thought once about packing it in?

Flanking Ruiz are a row of fans. When the season began, they didn't know one another. Now they have bonded over baseball. Among them is Matthew Roysner, 14, freckled, with an impish smile. Pack it in? He is disgusted by my question.

"No way!" he says. "This is where you find the believers."

Here in the bleachers, maybe more than at any other sports venue in this city, Los Angeles shows its true self. A tattooed gangster high-fives with black-clad hipsters. A soccer mom sits bum-to-bum with a high school teacher from Boyle Heights on one side and a gabby grandfather on the other, who reminisces about seeing Jackie Robinson's first game.

They work double time to be positive.

"Brox! Brox! Come on Brox!" shouts Gino Cornejo, 30. "We need you, man. We need you!" Cornejo sits high in the bleachers, holding his 2-year-old son, Gino Jr. They peer at the bullpen, where Jonathan Broxton, a relatively inexperienced reliever with mutton-chop sideburns and an X-ray glare, is warming up.

You need him? I ask. The Dodgers aren't going anywhere anyway.

"No way," Cornejo says, shaking his head. His eyes focus on mine. "They can still make the wild card."

I sidle up to other strangers and ask them: When are they going to come to their senses? Everyone says the same thing: The Dodgers will come back, and we're going to be here to see it.

Teenage girls say it.

Rough dudes with tattoos snaked around their necks say it.

In the heart of the flat benches, the front rows near center field, rowdies 1) lacerate the opposition with taunts, and 2) worship Juan Pierre as if he's the second coming of Duke Snider.

I sit with Sal Fuentes, 29, a rent-a-car repairman who wears a blue Dodgers T-shirt and a white skullcap.

He sits next to Jeffrey Fager, 27, a Glendale accountant with a shy smile, thin-rimmed glasses and his Dodgers cap turned backward.

"Give up?" Fuentes says. "What? Man, you've got to be kidding me with that."

There's deep passion in the bleachers. Sometimes, Fuentes says, things can get out of control. "I was here the night the guy got killed," he says, referring to an evening four years back when a Dodgers fan shot a Giants fan in the parking lot. Since then, Dodgers officials have beefed up security.

Now, Fuentes says, "it's way, way different than it was then. But still, if you come and you talk mess about our team, it can get physical."

Suddenly, I can't hear a thing Fuentes is saying.

A group next to us, a bunch of 20-somethings who resemble the cast of an MTV reality show, have found a way to ease the pain of another loss. They toss verbal bombs at Houston outfielder Jason Lane, ranging from the scatological to the sophomoric.

They have a new name for him: Jason Lame.

"Lane is Laaaame!" "Lame is a mean man . . . he kicks young puppies!" "Lame hates fresh-baked cookies!"

From under his cap, Jason Lane peers up at them.

One of the 20-somethings turns to me and says: "Dude, it's all about the experience."

Ruiz, the guy with the cowbell and the mitt and the Mohawk mask, would agree with that. On Monday night, the Dodgers fall to Houston, 4-1. On Tuesday night, they fall to Houston again, 7-4.

But then on Wednesday, Ruiz gets his night. The game ends, and he has a Cheshire cat grin.

All around him, people cheer.

A middle-aged man who spent the evening marking down game statistics with the precision of a NASA engineer.

A family of 12, chaperoned by a father who had immigrated from Lebanon 20 years ago.

An Orthodox Jew, in his dark suit and yarmulke.

Finally, the Dodgers have won. They have thumped the Astros, 6-3.

"The whole thing is great!" Ruiz says, his voice hoarse from shouting at Jason Lane. "All of us together like this. We'll always come back."

--

kurt.streeter@latimes.com

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