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THE VIEW FROM LEFT FIELD

Pure Evil
By Brad Rogers

In 1977 I came to baseball consciousness. I inherited my father's deep love for the Los Angeles Dodgers, a holdover from childhood time spent with his grandmother, a devoted Brooklyn fan. Many of my elders were Brooklyn fans here in eastern Pennsylvania, but most transferred their allegiance to the Phillies after the Dodgers moved west. For whatever reason, my great grandmother didn't, and this has affected a good part of my life so far.

I loved the Dodgers of the late '70s. I knew their lineup and the reserves; I revered Tommy Lasorda; I had a hero, my first outside of family, in Dusty Baker. Hours of my only-child playtime were spent going through the Dodger lineup, tossing a Wiffle ball to myself and hitting it toward a stone fence in my grandmother's backyard that separated lawn from flowerbed, and over which I was not supposed to tread. I would lighten up on my swings for the batters immediately in front of Baker, so that the bases always seemed to be loaded when he rocketed that hollow plastic ball over the twelve-inch fence. An open-throated hiss would stand in for the wild crowd's amazed roar.

There were many good reasons to love that Dodger team, even for adults. Long before pitchers began serving up superballs to the hitters of this era, L.A. managed to have four hitters (Steve Garvey, Ron Cey, Dusty Baker, and Reggie Smith) swat more than thirty home runs in the same 1977 season, a major league first. The National League pennant-winning years of 1977˝78 also marked the midway point of baseball's most stable infield, which held together for a decade: Garvey, Davey Lopes, Bill Russell, and Cey. And of course there was the pitching of Tommy John and Don Sutton.

Into this dream of heroism and happy victory strode the Yankees of the late '70s, cocky, loutish, stocked with large, imposing men—men you would nervously avoid on quiet city sidewalks. The Yankees were led by the wrathful Billy Martin and his dark, capricious overlord, George Steinbrenner, and manned by the arrogant Reggie Jackson, Ron "Louisiana Lightning" Guidry, Catfish Hunter, and lucky Bucky Dent.

The stories of Washington Irving and Stephen Vincent Benet's "The Devil and Daniel Webster" were familiar to me, as were other typical children's and Bible stories (I remember being particularly disturbed by the wicked Sea Hag from "Popeye" comics), so I knew that supernatural evil could, and maybe did, regularly manifest itself in human society. Still, I was shocked when I watched it lay low my beloved Dodgers.

The defining moment of the twin World Series of 1977 and 1978, and of a significant part of my development as a moral being, was the despicable Reggie Jackson's flagrant interference with a thrown ball as he was trapped, stopped between first and second base. The play proved pivotal, was obviously a cheat, and stood; umpire Frank Pulli refused to accept help from another ump with a better view (in other words, one who was actually watching the play), earning the eternal loathing of my household—somewhat ironic, considering that we shared the same small hometown of Easton, Pennsylvania, with the arbiter.

Back in our living room, my father, never a calm sports-viewer, was apoplectic. I stared, immobilized, for many minutes worth of replays, then began repeating the same questions over and over again to my parents, not hearing their answers (if there indeed were any). It was like being the survivor of a cataclysmic car wreck: "What just happened? Why is he allowed to do that? Why did the umpire not do anything? He did that on purpose, didn't he?"

Behind the fog of shock, something shifted in my soul. Things were different, scarier.

After that, Reggie's amazing three-homer game, which had wrapped up the Yankees' championship the year before, no longer seemed so incredible or surprising. I knew something large and immensely foul was involved, a power that was only defeated by armored knights in old stories and religiously gifted teenagers in space fighters (this was after the Star Wars summer, remember), not by real, mortal men like Steve Garvey.

My belief in the Yankees' pact with the forces of darkness has only intensified as the years have rolled along. The Dodgers' 1981 triumph over the Yankees was my little life's version of Brooklyn's 1955 redemption, but it was diminished by its occurrence during the strike-shortened season—and by the absence of Martin. Somehow, it didn't completely count.

The malignant power that was employed by the Yankees in the '70s (and was mysteriously dormant during the '80s) returned in the final decade of the millennium. Maybe it was all the extra karmic anxiety produced by a planet of beings who refuse to believe that they aren't the center of the universe. I don't know. Whatever the reason, it's back and even more insidious than before.

Who could suspect the likes of the most recent Yankee team, individually, of having a dark alliance? Bernie Williams is smart, quiet, and an amateur classical guitarist. Paul O'Neill, while looking like a bit of a whiner on TV, proves his worth admirably and displays one of the game's great swings. Don Zimmer is everything baseball romantics idolize. And Joe Torre . . . c'mon, he's like a baseball Eleanor Roosevelt (although he does do commercials for some vaguely defined insurance company—definitely a glimmer of evil there).

Derek Jeter may provide the one hint of the true evil behind the facade: nobody is that talented, that nice, that well-spoken, that handsome; in other words, that perfect. In the wonderful movie Broadcast News, Albert Brooks delivers a speech outlining the actual workings of evil in this world. He says that the Devil won't be some ugly thing with a tail and horns that runs around hissing at people—no one would be led astray by that. No, the Devil will be a polite, handsome, generally upstanding man who holds a position of influence in a morally strong nation, and who, bit by bit, leads us down the easy, comforting path of doom: Derek Jeter.

Examine some of the recent evidence of the Yankees' dark advantage. First, that kid with the glove out in the right field bleachers a few years ago: Is there anyone in the country besides the six umpires on the field that night who actually thought that was a legitimate home run and not obvious fan interference? Second, the less-than-stellar umpiring during the ALCS last year, naturally in favor of New York. I know the Red Sox bear the responsibility for the losses with their costly, bungled field play, but the umps really smoothed the road for the Yanks. Third, the Yankee "faithful" (a cult following if ever there was one) engaging in a mock Atlanta "chop" in the middle of the final game of the Series, during an inning in which the Yankee fielders turned in three remarkable plays to put down a Braves' rally. As any normal person can tell you, one doesn't get to mock the gods of humility without something turning around and biting you in the ass. (Just ask the old Brooklyn fans whom fate kept on a very short leash.) Finally, of course, there's "The Curse"—the alleged hex placed on the Red Sox by newly acquired Yankee Babe Ruth in 1920. Admitted, overt evidence of the black arts at work.

The events of the most recent postseason still haunt me. I am an embittered twenty-nine-year-old baseball devotee, exactly congruent in feelings and age as my father was when together we watched Reggie Jackson's third homer leave Yankee Stadium and sail into baseball eternity that October night in 1977. When the Dodgers aren't involved in postseason play, Dad's rooting strategy is to pull for the playoff teams in either league who would stand the best chance of beating the Yankees when/if they should meet.

I can't tell you how I'll root twenty-two years from now. With the Dodgers' recent change in ownership, and considering the generally asinine direction being plotted by the other baseball team˝owning financial organizations and their hypocritical leaders, I find myself floating along through baseball seasons, trying to latch on to what is most pure in a player or team or city. Thus, it did not take me long to realize, having matured somewhat emotionally during the '90s, that I had something sweet in Philadelphia and the local broadcasts of the great Harry Kalas. I no longer look at the Phillies as the Dodgers' mortal enemy in the National League. For now, I think of them as a team of which I am proud, staffed by talented, intelligent players like Doug Glanville, Mike Lieberthal, Bobby Abreu, and Scott Rolen. The blood I bleed is slowly turning from Dodger blue to a healthy Phillie red. The shift is painful, of course, but sometimes extreme measures are required when battling evil.

—EFQ

BRAD ROGERS was born and raised in Coffeetown, Pennsylvania, where any ball that reaches the barn roof is a home run. He studies and teaches English and folklore, and loves to take in games at Limeport (Pennsylvania) Stadium whenever he can.

© 2000 Brad Rogers

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