On Baseball, the Dodgers, and Ritual

(Justin Hargett / Eephus)

Ed. Note – This is the second of two essays reporting from the Cactus League. The first can be found here.

At 4:00am, Los Angeles looks holy: all stillness and fog and possibility. I wake early on purpose most weekends, to enjoy the quiet of the city. But this Wednesday morning is about other rituals: road trips, and, 6 hours later, baseball.

I’m traveling across the desert from one metropolis to another with my best friend for Spring Training. We’ll arrive for the first of five games in four days, this one between two teams from Ohio—some approximation of home-away-from-home. I grew up a Pirates fan; as a kid, I knew the Pittsburgh roster by heart, and by number, including Barry Bonds’ 24. Pirates center fielder Andy Van Slyke was my favorite player, though; he threw right-handed but batted left, something that awed me enough as a kid that I would only have Van Slyke’s number 18 on my Pirates replica jersey, a giveaway at Three Rivers Stadium courtesy of the KBL network.

Trips to Pittsburgh felt like such a huge deal, and though Three Rivers’ steep seating scared the hell out of me as a child, I miss that concrete fortress.

After the heartbreaking 1992 season-ending loss to the Atlanta Braves, the team I knew gradually split apart to become the famously losing franchise of the next two decades. I didn’t have patience to learn about what seemed a completely different and unimpressive team every year. I was in no rush to buy a Jason Kendall jersey, the Pirates franchise player for the better part of my youth, who also wore number 18. When manager Jim Leyland left in 1996—I had to look that fact up—that was the last Pirate I really liked from my earliest days with baseball and the Pirates. And he was the manager, not a player. I wasn’t an interesting enough kid to have a manager be my favorite baseball person.

At some point, I became a Mike Piazza fan. I was too young in 1988 to even know the Los Angeles Dodgers won the World Series that year, but for whatever reason, the Dodgers catcher from 1992-1998—one who could also hit, and was the face of the franchise—became my favorite player. When I was 9 or 10, I had the number 31 put on my oldest brother’s blue Dodgers replica jersey (red numbers on the front, with white numbers on the back). I wore it in an all-star league where the coaches didn’t pitch to the players, but some other kid actually threw the ball to the catcher. I think I batted a total of twice, a panic-fueled strikeout and a bases-loaded walk for an RBI.

I quit baseball after that. But I still watched it. And now, I had taken to memorizing every team as best as I could, every transaction, every number every player wore during their spells with various teams. I didn’t even focus on games all that closely; I was obsessed with trivia, knowing it was phenomenally boring knowledge to have, but something about studying roster moves and uniform designs had kept me interested in the sport, even as I couldn’t tell a curve from a slider.

***

I’ve been trying to figure out what kept me with baseball—why I watched ESPN’s “Baseball Tonight,” why MLB coverage was my favorite part of the hours of “SportsCenter” episodes I would watch even as they replayed repeatedly on weekends; why I loved game-of-the-night broadcasts with Jon Miller and Joe Morgan for what felt like every night of summer in Ohio.

But every potential answer to the question just makes me wonder even more: Why the hell do I love even the boring things about a sport that’s already so goddamn tedious? Why does anyone like baseball? Why would you?

***

I’ve been a Dodgers fan almost since the minute I arrived in L.A. for the summer 10 years ago. As soon as I arrived at my cousin’s boyfriend’s awesome little studio apartment—mine alone for my three-month stay for an internship—I called my parents to let them know I was fine, unpacked, and freaked-out at what the hell I was going to do in a huge city I knew basically not at all.

I turned on the TV while I decided dinner and ordered takeout. There was baseball on. I didn’t even know where in the city Dodger Stadium was located—it wasn’t an important landmark on the printed MapQuest maps I brought with me from back east—but the team had former Cleveland Indians outfielder Kenny Lofton and some other recognizable names, so I stuck with the game, and with the announcer who mentioned seemingly every bit of minutiae about players, and even coaches, as they batted, pitched, fielded, or watched from the dugout.

I’m probably not unique in that Vin Scully taught me about baseball again.

That 2006 team also had an impressive core of young players, all just about my age: Andre Ethier. Chad Billingsley. Russell Martin—a catcher who could hit. James Loney, behind Nomar Garciaparra on the depth chart for first base. Matt Kemp, an outfielder who played 52 games in a season where I felt like I watched every one of them.

When I moved back permanently to L.A. the next summer, the team—my team—was mostly the same. I watched Matt Kemp bat .342 on his way to becoming the face of the Dodgers; a franchise that was a fantastic mix of a talented young core and underappreciated veterans. I will always love the 2007 lineup: the never-ending hustle and heart of players like Juan Pierre and Rafael Furcal; our dependable pitching from Brad Penny and Derek Lowe; our great closer, Takashi Saito; Martin and Ethier and Loney and everyone I planned to watch as Dodgers for years.

We were such a consistently good team, and fun to watch; our offense, our pitching, our defense. We even hired one of the greatest managers in my lifetime, Joe Torre, the former Yankees manager who reminded so much of my late grandfather, himself a lifelong Yankees fan who died before we could talk about DiMaggio and Mantle—the amazing teams he would have followed on radio and television broadcasts in the Ohio Valley.

The Dodgers felt so promising, and so, in turn, did L.A. No matter how many games I can attend or hear on the radio each season, no matter how much time I can or cannot give to the Dodgers—and no matter what else this city has to offer—to think about L.A. is to Think Blue.

***

(Justin Hargett / Eephus)
(Justin Hargett / Eephus)

On Saturday, I wear my Dodger Blue.

We take surface streets from our second hotel in Peoria all the way to a new-looking mall/apartment complex/self-contained world next to the University of Phoenix Stadium, where the Cardinals of the NFL play. I meet a Dodger fan at the Fresh Healthy Café, where the vegan panini I order is delicious; or probably is delicious, because I finish it in about 40 seconds so we can avoid traffic as much as possible the rest of the way to Camelback Ranch.

Camelback Ranch is out there. Glendale itself is pretty far out there, but the Los Angeles Dodgers/Chicago White Sox shared compound is remote. We arrive with plenty of time before the game starts, but late enough that we’re parking in a dirt field that’s lined with chalk.

Besides being a hike from just about anywhere, Camelback Ranch is huge, and almost eerie. The Dodgers and White Sox have a few dedicated practice fields each, and the stadium is really nice, but…that’s kind of it. Shared stadiums have a weird air about them I can’t really pinpoint.

We saw this on the first day at Cleveland and Cincinnati’s shared Goodyear Park. The facilities are fine and clean, but there’s not a ton of appeal unless you’re an Ohio baseball fan. Besides some baseball history at that stadium’s home plate entrance—shoes Cleveland’s Bob Feller wore when he threw a no-hitter in 1946; a bat autographed by Cincinnati’s Johnny Bench—there’s a small manicured lawn with cornhole (or “bag toss,” if you call pop “soda”) just behind the seats along the third base side. And that was pretty much the scene. If one of the members of 98 Degrees had performed the National Anthem in cargo shorts, a painting of the afternoon would be a finalist in a contest for a new Great Seal of the State of Ohio.

On Saturday in Glendale, there are a decent amount of Diamondbacks fans but it’s mostly a sell-out crowd of blue.

Our seats in left field are close enough for a good view of Kenta Maeda’s first game pitching for the Dodgers. And he’s excellent this afternoon. We’re also near Andre Ethier, starting in left.

In the first, Maeda gives up a hit down the left field line, and Ethier holds the hit to a double with two out. Then the Diamondbacks are caught stealing, as shortstop of the future (and also the present) Corey Seager shadows the baserunner and applies the tag at third, a brilliant bit of individual and collective skill on defense.

In the bottom of the first, “Welcome to the Jungle” plays for the billionth time in a sports game.

During the persistence of sun and infinite pitches, I’ve wondered how much baseball players must be fucking sick of hearing Guns N’ Roses’ “Paradise City.” Even fans of GNR (or just Slash) have to be tired of it. Bad music is part of the connective tissue of baseball; of a lot of American sport in general, sure, but batters’ walk-up music over the years is largely a mixtape of overplayed standards that don’t sound better just because they’re played loud. It doesn’t have to be this way. Why don’t we hear Big Star? Or even Mazzy Star? Why isn’t any batter’s walk-up song “Fade Into You,” one of the most gorgeous mellow ballads ever written? In a game so cerebral, how has no batter ever thought of requesting something so melancholy as a way to fuck with the opposing pitcher?

In better ideas, the stadium sells nachos in an actual-size Dodgers helmet.

Howie Kendrick singles to center field to lead off the bottom of the first, and Dre singles Kendrick to third. Yasiel Puig makes our first out, but Arizona starter Shelby Miller isn’t fooling L.A.’s bats as the Dodgers take a 1-0 lead. Adrian Gonzalez walks to put 2 on with 1 out, but Yasmani Grandal hits into a double-play that Adrian argues with the umpire for a while as the Dodgers take the field again.

I usually know a decent amount about our opponents, at least enough to spot players to watch like I have the past three days, and especially about our National League West rivals. Any baseball fan can tell you that Arizona’s signing of Zack Greinke after the 2015 season, his last with the Dodgers, will be one of the biggest stories in the league this year, but I’m relying on Vin Scully to tell me everything else about their club a few weeks from now.

At the top of the fourth inning, the Dodgers make a few changes. Maeda’s day is over. Luis Avilan replaces him on the mound, and Adrian Gonzalez, probably the most popular position player on the team, makes his way out of the stadium.

As a lemonade vendor works the nearby rows, I head to the restroom to re-up on sunscreen. I overhear one fan’s gripe that Yasiel Puig is not earning all the money the Dodgers are paying him—because the 79 games he played in 2015, apparently, were that bad, that he apparently doesn’t contribute on offense or isn’t talented at baseball anymore. It’s an unfortunately and absurdly common complaint about Puig at the start of his fourth year in the Majors, and complete bullshit. (He’s also playing pretty well in the regular season already.)

After I’ve applied an amount of sunscreen that would have annoyed me as a kid, I make my way to the concession stand behind home plate to see more of the stadium and buy french fries and a water. The lines are long, so I miss an inning and more Dodgers lineup changes while I wait. I notice an Eric Gagné jersey or two and consider finally buying an Ethier one after 10 years; but I’d have to spend more time away from the game itself.

Some day.

I make it back to my seat for the bottom of the sixth, and the Dodgers re-take the lead with an RBI double by Alex Hassan. A faint “Let’s go Diamondbacks!” chant from the first-base side of the stadium dies out quickly. Corey Seager’s out of the game now, too, after moving from short to play third; Rob Segedin, pinch-hitting for Seager, homers just inside the left field foul pole, and the stadium roars.

Shawn Zarraga promptly doubles up the middle, and Charlie Culberson doubles in the big DH with a rip down the left field line, inspiring an Arizona pitching change.

And during the pitching change, the stadium plays “Sweet Caroline” for everyone to sing along, which…that’s Boston’s thing, and the Red Sox can have it. We’re wasting a perfect opportunity to play something more specific to L.A. here, and not Randy Newman’s ever-present tune about the city: I’ll assume that everyone in the stadium knows The Like’s “June Gloom” and wants to hear and sing along to it instead. (Unlike a lot of music I love, it has lyrics!)

The Dodgers have four runs in the sixth and take a 6-2 lead into the bottom of the seventh. With one out, the bases are loaded for Hassan, but this time he hits into a double-play to end the inning.

(Justin Hargett / Eephus)
(Justin Hargett / Eephus)

What’s true today is true of all the games we attend: No fans are hoping for miracles, whatever the score and whatever the inning. None of us are chewing on our shirt collars, praying through bloodshot eyes that Madison Bumgarner can carry a pitching staff through a seven-game championship series through will of brilliance alone. Even in the last inning of the close, high-scoring Giants/Brewers game in Scottsdale, the tone was mellow enough that a small group of ducks took to the field without much notice from players or the umpires. As the Brewers worked on closing out an 8-7 victory, the ducks continued their leisurely journey from shallow left to foul territory for the rest of the game. It was weird and beautiful, and also a perfect distillation of how we’re all here for professional practice games.

On day one in Goodyear, the pre-game proves to be the liveliest part of the afternoon. The public address announcer steps on the first notes of the National Anthem. A flyover by a solitary blackbird accompanies the song, and then the familiar boom of “Welcome to the Jungle,” as universal to the sport as the leadoff batter cleating-out the pristine chalk lines of the batter’s box, prescriptively breaking a rule never enforced. And the last pre-game sacrament: the ceremonial first pitch, thrown by the Cincinnati Reds current primary mascot, Mr. Redlegs, who looks like Mr. Met’s yacht-stealing nemesis. It’s goddamn delightful, and even tops the peppering of boos for former Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig when he threw out the ceremonial first pitch at the Giants/Brewers game in Scottsdale the next day.

The mood on Saturday is a dispiriting contrast to the rest of the games we’ve seen. At Sloan Park in Mesa, where we saw the Chicago Cubs host the Los Angeles Angels Friday afternoon from the Budweiser-sponsored outfield bleachers—built to replicate the Cubs’ home experience at Wrigley—the building exteriors are enormous posters celebrating Cubs franchise history, a nice touch for longtime fans and graphic design nerds. But the two-year-old venue is also popular because the atmosphere is built for anyone to enjoy a few hours and possibly baseball, regardless of which teams are playing (which it should be, since it was funded by Mesa residents). That night, we’re just in time to the Peoria Sports Park for the San Diego Padres/Kansas City Royals game to find out it’s also Dog Night at the stadium, hosted by the Arizona Humane Society, and I’m pretty sure there was nowhere else on Earth I wanted to be.

In Peoria, there’s also the intangible but unmistakable difference of a night game, a focused calm, despite thousands of people and a bunch of cool dogs. The 7:00pm, post-sunset start time also makes even a throwaway contest feel magical, following a day game that felt so alive and significant from its venue alone. Or maybe it’s our close seats; and a need to stay alert for foul balls that could easily curse backwards toward you, outside the reach of the backstop net. In any case, it’s the only game I don’t leave my seat, the one I watch the closest.

During that fourth game, I write that what I see as ritual worth celebrating is also monotony: a collection of memories that likely add up to nothing. But after immersing yourself in any sport intensely, you pick up little things: Jabari Blash’s tics in the batter’s box remind you of Nomar Garciaparra’s. In the bottom of the seventh, the last call for beer. Late innings see #73 pitching to #71. Still, though, as Justin says to me, the night game feels weightier, somber, more serious; and yet, still disconnected from October ball.

But not completely: The Padres and Royals produce a pretty good, brisk, 1-1 game, which the Padres make 2-1 in the eighth on a solid lead-off double by Jemile Weeks that Adam Rosales turns into an RBI, arriving at second safely. After Travis Jankowski hits a comebacker, Rosales moves to third with only one out thanks to excellent base-running—details that fans in the stadium may notice and clubs definitely do, especially when Rosales scores on a wild pitch to tack on another run. After Kansas City reliever Peter Moylan also walks Alex Dickerson, Erik Kratz lines out to third to end the inning.

It’s maybe hard to do justice to how exciting an inning like this is. To me, a string of hits and smart base-running is more enjoyable to watch than waiting for someone to maybe crush the ball into the parking lot. The combination of wit and speed Rosales used to eventually find an extra run for San Diego instead of sitting at first base is fascinating chess.

It’s that intricate work on offense by the Padres, mirroring the Dodgers’ first-inning defense the next afternoon in Glendale, that I love most about the game of baseball itself.

Between our day and night games Friday, between taking a long route back to the parking lot and then sitting in traffic on the way out to our hotel in Glendale or Peoria—I’m still not sure which—there was plenty of time to wonder if maybe five games in four days isn’t enough baseball—an idea that was ridiculous even that morning. But after the Cubs/Angels game, I felt like I could see several more, and the Padres’ 3-1 victory over the Royals reinforced that for me.

As a fan at Spring Training, I feel spoiled. The venues, for the most part, do make me miss Dodger Stadium and PNC Park, places that feel alive with great history even if the great history is only the last couple seasons. Still, nowhere has been a terrible place to spend a few hours.

It’s also easy to forget that this is the best chance some players will ever have; that it may be their last season due to age, injury, the position(s) they play, or the tyrannical reality that not everyone makes the 25- or 40-man rosters and the job securities afforded. Some, like the Dodgers’ Elian Herrera, wearing number 48 this Spring Training—who handed his bat to a young Dodgers fan as a souvenir as he left the stadium—are in their second or third stints with the same club, journeymen minor-leaguers hoping to break back into a big league roster, competing with and against and as teammates.

I’m on this trip because baseball is a ritual in my life, yes; but that precariousness, too, is intrinsic to professional athletics. It’s easily forgettable to fans, but when someone is traded to another team in another city, or cut from a roster, or not signed in the first place, the most that tangibly affects us is that our replica jersey of a favorite player is sometimes no longer current.

***

(Justin Hargett / Eephus)
(Justin Hargett / Eephus)

Whatever it was—the routing of the trip, the hotels, the people we met in the greater Phoenix area—I’m glad I made this trip. And that Justin took care of basically all the logistics (I bought him a churro at the Royals/Padres game, so we’re basically even).

By coincidence, everyone we sat next to, whether assigned seats or bleacher tickets, were fans of specific teams. But you don’t need to have any investment in baseball to enjoy yourself at Spring Training.

Baseball is such a weird goddamn experience as a fan anyway: isolating but serene; tense but quietly joyful. I barely know how to talk about baseball with friends who also love baseball. Slow-motion replays of a mechanically beautiful swing don’t really happen for a bases-empty single with two out in the second inning. The game itself is all waiting and trained reflex. There are no off-the-ball runs, no parallel sprints, no symphonic passes leading to an ecstatic goal; baseball is all tediousness and jolt.

All of this is to say that even though baseball is in so many ways the tumbleweed of sport—even when Justin Verlander throws 103 miles per hour, or Yasiel Puig rejuvenates a franchise—baseball is dear to me. And I can’t explain that fully, or even adequately, no matter how long I try to write it out.

The best experiences of baseball and its beautiful solitude are damn-near impossible to coherently describe, though Leesa Cross-Smith beautifully does. At its worst, baseball’s sacramental blandness is just an artificial reinforcement of its shameful history of racism and xenophobia. Fellow baseball-lover Sam Adler-Bell’s excellent piece, and the gifted, actually-fun-to-watch Bryce Harper’s salient criticisms of the sport, have been on my mind a lot as the season approaches.

I write on ritual deliberately. Our various intertwined institutions—cultural, religious, political, economic, fraternity, athletic—often desperately invoke the preservation of Tradition for the worst of reasons.

But it’s ritual that creates community though a deeply personal and shared devotion to some medium or idea. When we recognize and hold dear what’s potentially communal, versus what’s regressive bullshit, it’s more than possible to love a sport so boring—a nine-inning clusterfuck of fractured teamwork, slow-roasted stress, and blink-and-you-miss-it physical genius.

Even non-baseball fans can appreciate imagery as iconic to sports—and baseball-specific—as Lee Smith’s slow walk in from the bullpen; or Ken Griffey, Jr.’s casual stride to first base. I just described two guys walking to work.

I don’t need anyone to love baseball, and no fan should feel guilt for watching or listening to less than their team’s 160-plus games a year. I just hope that when the Dodgers play the Giants, Vin Scully tells me everything I need to know.

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Sam Vuchenich is a writer living in Los Angeles.