There is something strange happening to our national pastime. At first, I couldn't put my finger on it. Everything seemed normal. I was sitting around on a Sunday afternoon, drinking a beer, watching my team, the L.A. Dodgers, playing their longtime rivals, the San Francisco Giants. I hadn't really followed baseball as of late; too many other things to do, I guess. I was alone and decided to luxuriate in the wonders of my new big screen "high-definition" TV. Man, the picture was good. You could count the pores in each player's face. The grass was so green, it looked like the teams were playing in Ireland. I love technology ... when it works. I settled back and eased into my massage chair. Life is fucking lovely.
As I was knocking back my second beer, my mind drifted back to the great games of 1950s and 1960s between these two traditional foes. I was about 12 years old and in Little League - for me, the fate of the Western world hinged on who won the National League pennant. I had been a Dodger fan since they were in Brooklyn. My grandfather (Nono) and I would listen to Dodger games every night to a station on the Mexican end of the radio dial. We would live and die with every pitch when the games got close and curse at the radio as if it could hear us when the signal faded. Major league games were just starting to be televised on Saturdays in black and white, which was an apt metaphor because the color line had just been broken in baseball. The TV networks knew what they had right away, so they televised as many Brooklyn Dodgers games as possible.
I guess what really made me a Dodgers fan from the beginning was that the team had Jackie Robinson, the first "Negro" in the major leagues. I must've been too young to fully understand the world-shaking implications of that, because by the time I started watching the Dodgers, they also had Roy Campanella, Junior Gilliam, and Don Newcombe. Besides, at the time, everyone in my neighborhood was "Negro," so what was the big deal? It just seemed normal.
Years later, I remember one of the most surreal moments I ever had as an adult. At some charity event with a lot of sports figures in attendance, I was at the bar getting a drink. I turned around and there was this huge guy standing in front in me smiling. He stuck out his hand and said "Hi, Cheech. I'm Don Newcombe." I stood there for what seemed like a year with my mouth wide open. I was instantly 10 years old and all I could think of was "Don Newcombe knows my name?" I wanted to say, "I know every single statistic about you. I have four of your baseball cards, including your rookie one. I've seen or heard every inning you've pitched for the last three years of your career. I know your dog's name. You're a GOD!" But the only thing that came out of my mouth was "Yeah, nice to meet you." Don smiled a big smile and walked away, chuckling. I walked like a zombie back to my table where my wife was sitting and blurted out, "I just met Don Newcombe." She looked up at me with those beautiful blue eyes and said, "Great, Did you get my drink?"
I liked Jackie Robinson because he was cool to watch, not because he was black. Every time you turned around, he was hitting a triple or making a great play in the field or, best of all, stealing home. Of all the plays in baseball, stealing home is by far the most exciting. It combines speed, daring, timing, surprise and most of all ... balls. Man, you can get killed stealing home. Think of it. You have a guy running with his head down, as fast as he can towards home plate and a guy swinging a bat with his back to you. The pitcher is throwing the ball at 95 mph to the same spot you're going, and the plate is being guarded by a catcher wearing an iron mask and armor all over his body. "Banzai!" It's a suicide mission and Jackie used to do it all the time ... and survive! I couldn't wait for Saturday morning to see the new adventures of Jackie Robinson and the Dodgers. Life couldn't get any better ... and then it did.
In 1958, the Dodgers moved to Los Angeles and my favorite team was now my home team. At the same time, the New York Giants moved to San Francisco and the rivalry continued, only on the West Coast. There was also an extra-added bonus to the Giants moving out west: the team had Willie Mays ... the greatest player to ever play the game. Let me say that again: "Willie Mays is the greatest player to ever play the game."
As much as I loved Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella, Junior Gilliam, and Don Newcombe, I loved watching Willie Mays play more than all of them combined even if he played for the "bad guys!" My worship for Willie Mays was cemented in 1954, the first World Series to be televised: New York Giants vs. Cleveland Indians; the first game in the cavernous Polo Grounds of New York. In one of the middle innings with the Indians threatening and two men on, Vic Wertz hit a screaming line drive to the deepest part of center field. Willie Mays took off at the crack of the bat (some say even before) on a dead run to the center field fence. With his back to home plate and without looking, he made an over-the-shoulder catch, then turned on a dime and threw the ball back to the infield, doubling off one of the runners. It is probably the single most famous play in baseball history.
In the ensuing years, I continued to play baseball in Little League and later, the Babe Ruth League, while following the Dodgers on radio and television. As often as possible, we would go with my grandfather and cousins to the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum to see them live. That was always my biggest joy. The stadium was in my grandfather's neighborhood, so we could walk to the games, getting there early to watch batting practice. As soon as Nono would let us, we would sprint down to the field and onto the grass behind the center field fence, right next to the players. We would join a crowd of 100 or more kids, yelling at the players to throw us a ball. Usually, I was the littlest kid, so my chances of getting one of those occasional balls thrown by the players over the fence were between slim and none. It was taking your life in your hands to mix it up in that crowd.
Mostly, I just liked to watch the players go through their motions up close. I was amazed at how far and fast they could throw the ball effortlessly on line while talking and joking with another player. Up close, these guys were big, strong, and older - best of all, they got paid to play. Of course, that's what I wanted to be when I grew up ... if I ever grew up.
I was watching the Giants in the field one July evening during batting practice when I noticed something that no other kid seemed to see. In the right field corner, a ball had rolled up to the fence and just lay there, lonely and unattended. Without trying to attract too much attention, I leisurely strolled over to where it lay snoozing. I got down on my hands and knees, and reached my little fingers through the chainlink fence and touched the ball. It felt different; it was a "major league" baseball.
Inch by inch, I started working the ball up the fence while glancing over to make sure the murderous gang of kids didn't notice. The work was slow and arduous. The ball almost fell from my grasp several times, but somehow, I managed to hang on. My fingers burned from fatigue. I stopped and rested three or four times, but I was determined. I would give the ball a good home. It would have its own special bed right next to my pillow. I would say goodnight to it every night right after I said my prayers. I got the ball up to eye level and stopped for a rest. Now would come the hard part: getting the ball over the fence. The top of the fence was over my head, but I could almost reach it if I stood on my toes. I summoned up all the concentration I could and started on the last leg. My eyes were solely focused on the ball, an inch away from my face. Eventually, I got it up over my head. I was exhausted and I stopped to catch my breath. I glanced over at the homicidal horde and they were occupied with beating each other up, so I was safe from them for a minute. I had to get the ball up and over the fence somehow ... and fast.
I couldn't even see the ball now. I was standing on my tiptoes and it was over my head. I was stuck and a ballplayer was coming my way. I did the only thing I could think of ... I tried to make myself invisible. I felt like I was going to black out, so I just shut my eyes as tight as I could. Maybe that would make me invisible. My vision began to get blurry and I started to to get dizzy. The ball was now at the top of the fence, just sitting there like a scoop of vanilla ice cream precariously perched on a brownie. The ballplayer was at the fence now and spoke, "Oh, there it is." I felt the ball leaving my fingertips. "Noooo!" I opened my eyes and saw Willie Mays six inches away from me on the other side of the fence with the ball in his hand. He turned towards the infield and yelled, "Heads up!" He made a big sweeping motion that I imagined would get any ball to home plate on the fly.
"Noooo!," I screamed again. Willie spun around like he did in the 1954 World Series and stared straight at me ... and then burst out laughing. He held up the ball, which he still had in his hand. He trotted back to the fence to the little kid with tears in his eyes.
"Here you go, buddy" and he dropped the ball over the fence into my hands. He was still laughing as he turned and jogged back to the dugout. I was now the luckiest kid in the world. I held in my hands a major league baseball touched by Willie Mays. I vowed then and there that I would keep it for the rest of my life.