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DUST OF THE FIELDS BEHIND US

September at the Ballpark
By John Bergez

Author's note: The following reminiscence—if that is the word for an account composed in white heat on the same evening as the event it describes—was originally written to a good friend who has managed to remain a good friend even though she is a lifelong Dodger fan (going back to Brooklyn days, no less).

 

September 17, 1997

Mick (oh blue-blooded Dodger fanatic), this is not a gloat—honest. Ten games to go, plenty of time for several trips through purgatory and back. I know better than to gloat. This is just about September, at the ballpark.

A couple of months ago, when everyone (myself included) assumed this would be going-through-the-motions time, Jeanne and I reserved family pavilion seats at "3Com Park"—still the Stick to the faithful—for home game number seventy-seven, a Wednesday night versus the Bums, the last of our seven games for the year. What the hell, at least it would be Giants and Dodgers even if it was meaningless in every other way, since by then the Jints would long since have faded after a gravity-defying spring and early summer.

Weeks pass, and we've been hanging, hanging, game after improbable game on TV or radio or, lately, the computer (for the Dodger games), and whaddyaknow: Game seventy-seven turns out to mean something after all.

The days leading up to the game are wrenching, as the Jints lose the last two of their longest losing streak of the season (four) while the Bums are pulling out a pair of miracle wins. Suddenly the Bums are alone in first, the Jints two back. Eleven to go, the next two the final games of the season between rivals whose mutual loathing goes all the way back to amateur contests between New York and Brooklyn teams in the 1840s. Game seventy-seven is number one, the one that counts most, the one that means no worse than a split, and life.

By Tuesday the game is a sellout. With freebies, the anticipated crowd is over sixty thousand. Whatever the actual count, in the end there are very, very few empty seats.

It has been a long time—okay, four years, to be exact—since I've been this excited about going to a ball game. In the car on the way to the park, I tell Jeanne how the local papers blew the buildup, missed the chance to weave the history into the game-day stories. The Giants-Dodgers rivalry is all about southern California stealing our water, says the Examiner, trying to be flip. Lord save us.

I tell her how I would plan to write the story of this game for tomorrow's paper. The piece starts, last night sixty thousand people were in the stands for the Giants and the Dodgers, and at least as many ghosts. Under the roar of the crowd you could hear the ghosts murmuring, listen to them reminiscing, old to-the-death foes sitting companionably side by side, their ancient wars long since transcended. Bill Terry was there. Leo the Lip. Reggie Smith. John Roseboro. Juan Marichal. Ralph Branca. The two Willies. The Barber. Jackie.

Out of the corner of your eye you could glimpse them, the spirits of the quick and the dead, players and fans and scribes, perched in the stands, on the roofs, chatting and pointing; it is a reunion of ghosts. (And one surprisingly shrunken, gnomish, evil spirit, Giant fans' archfiend: La Sordid, I used to call him, sitting abandoned and alone, high up in the Uecker seats.)

In the radio booth, too, an ectoplasm of Jon Miller: Russ Hodges. Above all, Russ Hodges.

Giants and Dodgers, in September. Nothing like it in all the world of sports, in all the world, period. So I tell her.

Meanwhile, the radio is doing a better job than the papers. The radio is staging its own reunion. Joe Morgan is heard from, and Jerry Reuss. The radio knows history.

Longtime Giant announcer Lon Simmons is brought on to tell anecdotes from 1962, when the Jints and Bums—"like two drunks having a fight in a saloon," one writer said—staggered, punch-drunk, to the finish before winding up in their second pennant playoff. But Lon, bless him, is in his dotage, and he fumbles the anecdote about the Willie Mays look-alike who played for the Jints that year, Carl Boles. (When the Giants' bus was rocked by an ecstatic mob at the San Francisco airport following their playoff win over the Dodgers in LA—the Giants were actually in fear of bodily harm—somebody on the team called out, "Let's throw 'em Boles—they'll think it's Willie.") Lon tells the story, and well, but he calls him Carl Jones.

We park three-quarters of a mile away, on the street where it's free and the traffic won't be a problem afterward. Lovely slow anticipatory walk to the creaking misbegotten park, and even the tinny radio I'm holding to my ear reminds me of '62 and the transistors held to ears all over town, all during September.

Outside the gate, half or more of the projected sixty thousand are already there, more than an hour before game time. Already the place is electric. I gesture to the fans filing in and say to Jeanne, this could be New York and the Polo Grounds in 1912, or Ebbets Field in 1953, or the Stick of my youth, when I sat in the center field bleachers for ninety cents, right behind Willie, and brought peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to eat because after the bleacher ticket and the Ballpark Express fare, there would only be money enough for a bag of peanuts to go with the sandwich. I tell her how baseball is about being connected to something. Had anyone asked at work where I was going tonight, leaving a little early, I would have said: to church.

Before the game there is a 130-piece marching band from some high school on the field. Unfortunately, their school color is Dodger blue. We can't even recognize the tunes under the boos and the drumming of feet in the bleachers and the pavilion and the "Beat LA" chants already moving in waves around the park. I feel sorry for the kids.

On the radio—this has to be a Jon Miller touch, he grew up listening to Russ and Lon—they have brought back tapes of Russ Hodges. We hear the "Bye Bye Baby" song introducing Russ's opening greeting and then Russ's voice, straight out of the grave, with his hearty "How ya doin' everybody?" and then his call on Mays's homer in the bottom of the eighth on the last day of the regular season in '62 that gives the Giants the win over the Houston Colt 45s that they have to have to stay alive. Earlier, Lon had told the story of how the fans stayed in their seats that Sunday after the game and listened to Russ recreate the last innings of the Dodger game in LA by tickertape feed and how the Stick and the town went nuts when the last pop-up was caught by Julian Javier and the Bums went down to the Cardinals 1–0 and Russ's voice boomed over the loudspeakers and the transistors: "We have a playoff!"

The radio knows history.

By the first inning the other half of the seats have magically filled. The noise has abated; now there is anticipation, the waiting.

To read the rest of this story, click here to order a copy of the Fall 2003 issue.

—EFQ

JOHN BERGEZ is an independent book editor whose editing credits include The Giants and the Dodgers: Four Cities, Two Teams, One Rivalry, by Andrew Goldblatt (McFarland & Company, 2003) and Through a Diamond: 100 Years of Japanese American Baseball, by Kerry Yo Nakagawa (Rudi Publishing, 2001). He has also written a number of "easy reading" books for struggling young readers, including Home Run Heroes and Jackie Robinson and the American Dream (both published by Don Johnston, Inc.).

© 2003 John Bergez

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