Welcome to Bat Flips & Nerds, Geoff Enderby…
If you take the elevator to the top of the tower of City Hall in Los Angeles you can see far into the California distance, the L.A. river glamourised in Terminator 2 and the Hollywood Hills, glamourised everywhere else. As you walk around like I did at 10am on a midweek morning you get a feel for the 1930s City of Angels and the tapping of typewriters and the hustle of patrolmen, the world of Marlowe; dicks, dames and the rise of the silver screen. It also feels false, like a movie set and as an outsider I feel like an imposter, an alien surreptitiously investigating a new or forgotten world of arches and open space combined with small offices with brass door handles and department names stencilled onto wooden and glass doors in filigree or gold leaf.
Vin Scully convinced me. Or rather changed my mind. My almost week long southern California break was only supposed to cover San Diego and environs, despite the convenient flight to John Wayne airport in Orange County and the subsequent proximity of Los Angeles, the west coast megalopolis. The broadcast opens with familiar words from Scully and the camera pans to show the Dodgers logo and the rippling flags on Dodger Stadium beating loudly in the robust breeze of Chavez Ravine.
I had been engrossed in White Jazz, the final chapter of the original L.A. quartet by James Ellroy and the descriptions of the battle of Chavez Ravine, an outstanding area of natural beauty which as Ellroy describes was the home of the local Latin and predominantly Mexican population in the 1950s. The embitterment of the populace and the local community would echo for decades as the location itself was sequestered for “regeneration” and the ultimate construction of the baseball stadium still standing today remains iconic in itself, in its own way not unlike the bloody territories of ancient conquistadors in the reaches of Latin America .
I found the majesty and resonance of Vin Scully’s voice mesmerizing, the scene and crowd described with his unerring detail, the voice from a different age and generation. I called to mind a recent experience in a bar at midday in Palm Springs as I listened to an American pensioner reminisce of his time in Germany and England after the Second World War.
I had also only recently, after almost thirty years of New York Mets fandom, discovered that the colour scheme used by the Mets had been that of the Dodgers and Giants combined. Many of us are drawn to colours, as we are to locations and sounds by some kind of magnetism, personally I am enamoured by the parallels and echoes of the past we can find in the modern day and this small discovery, despite its belatedness, was a sign that maybe my excursion to Southern California could not only end with baseball but also a view of the past.
I located myself in Chinatown, as close to Dodger Stadium as you can realistically get if you actually like to walk, a relatively unknown pastime in the United States and even less so in this unrelenting urban sprawl. Alongside downtown, Chinatown has changed less than you would expect, many of the streets and avenues remind you of the movies of the last century and nearby Union Station magnificently survives the local developments and difficulties of vagrancy, economy and modernisation.
A brief look at the popular culture uses of the Station building give you an idea of how evocative the building can be amid the surroundings. One of the great, yet smaller Station Buildings in the United States, you still get the feeling of Raymond Chandler’s Los Angeles, probably spoken with a hard G, as many of the local streets have reimagined their names to meet the prevailing culture, softening and hardening letters along with the cultural wind. The entire area highlights the cultural and economic melting pot that is L.A. today, from the Mexican pueblo to Chinatown and the resident or itinerant skid row denizens.
I walk from Chinatown down Hill St and over the pedestrian bridge and the almost stationary traffic of the freeway, emerging on the other side and walk up the incline into Chavez Ravine.
I am the only person with any intention of walking any further than absolutely necessary, but that suits me as I can breathe in the resonance of history and wonder at the setting sun over the treetops as the stadium emerges into view over the apex of the car park entrances.
A benefit of being further north than my usual home of Mexico City means that instead of night falling like a piano from a tower block, here the darkness falls more like a slowly sipped martini wearing carpet slippers. In the ensuing dusk, sun glimmers through the breathless majesty of the Ravine itself, you can see why this location has been of prime historical importance and yet wonder whether the occupants of the blacked out SUVs really notice as they hurry to the turnstiles.
I am welcomed at my gate by a tribute to another icon, Fernando Valenzuela, a player I was aware of when I first discovered baseball in 1986 yet revered in Mexico as one of the greatest Mexican sportsmen of all time. For a time in the early 1980s there was nothing more important than a Valenzuela start and he still covers Dodger games in Spanish language broadcasts today. The irony of such a Mexican icon gracing this location was lost or ignored by a need for recognition and hero worship of a starved nation and a reminder of why baseball can enrapture us all if we would only allow it. As I enter the stadium seating areas, passing murals echoing a Brooklyn past but never forgotten and stalls selling emblems of both entities, I am reminded of my first clear memory of Dodger Baseball.
We had to settle for highlights in the UK in the late 80s, or such is my memory. The World Series for me was something from a world I never expected to see and the ticker tape celebrations of New York City in 1986 a tableau of a place I never expected to visit let alone witness a game of baseball. Players seemed larger than life and capable of anything on highlight reels, the next pitch could be a strikeout or a home run with the result often hanging on one or the other.
1988, World Series Game 1, the scene was perfectly set as a heavily injured Kirk Gibson came to the plate, the man could hardly walk, and surely couldn’t pull of a miracle in the bottom of the ninth. What came next is etched into my sporting memory and the rounding of the bases seemed to me like an eternity, legend and history was made.
I made my way to a beer vendor who commented on my shirt, a Ralph Lauren polo shirt in Dodger (Mets) blue with a Giants (Mets) orange motif, fittingly todays game was an NL West clash between the Giants and Dodgers, a pleasing symmetry which suited my emotional psyche. The next decision was now difficult, garlic fries had to be tried, but do I take an original Brooklyn dog or a Dodger dog? Is this a test? This is problematic and a something you can only allow your conscience to decide, I won’t influence you here.
The preparations are complete, pregame rituals taken care of and seats are taken, the unique atmosphere of evening baseball is being soaked up and swallowed, everybody seems to be here – movie moguls in the expensive seats included – as we anticipate the first pitch. As a foreigner at US sporting events I always expect some blowback from my unwillingness to stand or indeed respect the national anthem but I’ve never had an issue. This time I plug in and find the broadcast as I intend to be accompanied by Mr Scully for the first three innings.
Scully transports me to the 1950s and through every decade since as he transforms the game into a meeting of distinct human beings from different backgrounds, quotes from parents or teammates, points of historical note or just plain poetry. Scully converts the staccato name Duda into the eminently more musical Doo-Dah, his words are the manifestation of all that makes baseball the king of all sports. All things are modified and adapted and changed to meet the whim of modern culture, whichever the era; the franchising of sports teams is anathema to us Brits, almost completely unknown in modern times and as American as using the extra letter on the word sport or calling your team “them” instead of “us”, as favoured in the old country.
The term ‘Fall Classic’ to represent the World Series is the ultimate sign of the past and the present and the differences between our cultures, Brits think that ‘fall’ is an American word yet it was used by Shakespeare and imported as modern English and it is us Brits who have changed things to suit ourselves and use the term autumn and not fall as Bill would have it. The colours of the Mets, Giants and Dodgers have also been modified and are the colours of the flag of New York, itself using the blue, white and orange adopted from the Princes flag of the Dutch Republic and reflects its own melting pot history as New Amsterdam. You can then go back to William of Orange, of course, but that isn’t recommended.
If words are your weapon of choice, you can fall back to Vin Scully, the bard of the ballpark. For my part, I am skulking, a British Met, undercover at Dodger Stadium, visiting Chavez Ravine to feed my soul.
Walk done, fries in hand and head full of contemplation – ‘It’s time for Dodger Baseball!’