Oct 14, 2011
Webmaster's note: What follows is the first in a three-part series written by Matt Jackson, our on-site reporter at Dodger Stadium. Jackson describes it "An all-access look into BP, foul balls, home runs, and the fans that end up with the souvenirs."
Friday, September 16th, 2011. The Los Angeles Dodgers are on a bit of a tear after enduring a rough season. They're trying to claw back to the .500 mark and maintain their mathematical eligibility for postseason play. This evening they'll face the Pittsburgh Pirates, who just a month earlier had been the talk of the nation with their surprising success. But in mid-September both teams sit well out of first place and well out of the NL Wild Card lead. For the Dodgers, this overcast and dreary day is another chance for Matt Kemp, the potential MVP of the league to pad his numbers and for potential Cy Young-winner Clayton Kershaw to rest before taking the mound on the road to 20+ wins. The Dodgers have had it rough in 2011: the legal battle for team ownership has been the top headline, the Opening Day assault on a fan has made the news, attendance is down, and fan favorite, Andre Ethier has been hurt and will likely need surgery. The normally bright sky behind the L.A. cityscape is dark and rain is in the forecast. You wouldn't know it though once you enter the stadium--it's the magic and mystery of baseball. When there's a game to be played, especially when you've got Vin Scully behind the mic, none of those negative news feeds seem to matter. Inside the gates of Dodger Stadium it's still that "blue heaven" that Tommy Lasorda told us about.
The Dodgers (all forty of them) are out on the field working when I arrive. It's almost 4:00pm and BP is about to start. The September call-ups, thrilled to get to be a part of it all, are jovial and being coached by the veterans. Kenley Jansen loses the handle on a breaking ball and the leather-bound sphere ricochets off his partner's glove and into the box seats just past third base. An Easter egg for a lucky fan--the first of the day.
It's what the teeming masses at the gates will sprint for. The chance to find a souvenir within the first moments of entering the stadium. Moments later Kemp blasts a ball into the left field bleachers and it settles on the cross-aisle. Another Easter egg to be had. As I move to left field, John Ely and Ramon Troncoso take a break from their pre-game activities and lounge in row D, showing each other how they grip the ball for each pitch. Another blast from the cage nearly hits them and the ball bounces into the crook of a seat... waiting for a wandering eye to find it once the floodgates open at 5:10pm. Salsa music plays on the PA system as the Boys in Blue continue BP. Soon, the stadium will fill with eager fans hoping for a ball and/or autograph. The early birds know the best time to snag a souvenir is early in the day. But the most important baseballs to almost all fans come later in the night--when there's a chance that one of your heroes will send a game-changing home run in your direction. The players vacate the seating bowl and head back to the field before the fans are allowed in and the sun starts to peek out from behind the clouds. It's shaping up to be a beautiful night for baseball after all.
At 4:56 the first sign of Pirates activity starts up along the right field line as some Bucs jog along the track. The Dodgers leave the field at 5:20, the fans catching only a glimpse of their hometown club before the game. But in those precious ten minutes roughly a dozen baseballs are scooped up from the formerly empty seats by charging fans. For a lucky few, the game has already been a success and they simply hope for a bonus prize: a Dodgers win.
Throughout BP the Dodgers, then the Pirates, send souvenirs into the stands. Some are hit--most are thrown and all around the stadium fans' eyes light up. It's the game balls, however, that are the true diamonds in the rough. As the game's first pitch nears I find a suitable locale on the Loge level and wait for the magic to start. Somewhere, as soon as a player misses by a fraction of an inch, a baseball will come flying back toward the seats. At 6:55 the colors are presented by members of the Armed Services as the fans continue to file in. This L.A. crowd, like most, arrives late. At the game's first pitch there are roughly 10,000 fans in attendance. The extra room to run around is beneficial, however, for one lucky fan. I was about to meet a man who snagged a foul ball off a ricochet--from the Field level.In the top of the second inning Ryan Ludwick fouls a ball back. It arcs high in the air and descends about ten feet shy of the Loge seats. But, with plenty of open territory on the Field level no one is in line to catch it. The ball smacks of the concrete and, with such a great amount of spin on it, bounces up and toward the Loge. Literally, a thirty foot ricochet into the waiting hands of Rudy. Rudy's a fan of the Dodgers and he and his family (there are five of them in attendance) are thrilled at their good fortune.
I ask him if he's ever caught a foul ball before. Never--he's been coming to Dodger Stadium since his childhood and this is his first game ball. He speaks English as his second language but the excitement behind his words can be understood by anyone from anywhere. This is a momentous evening for the L.A. resident and he's thrilled to get to share the experience with his family. They have great seats between home and first base in the first row of the Loge. Rudy has a baseball in his hand that he plans to keep to share with generations of his family to come, and it's a beautiful night in L.A. As we conclude our interview I thank him and then, showing he's a true Dodger fan, boos the opposing team as they score a run and tells his family he knows the Dodgers can overcome this early deficit. For Rudy, this game will be one to remember for the rest of his life.
The Dodgers tie it up in the third inning on a single on an RBI single from Matt Kemp. But the story you won't see in the box score is about what he did one pitch earlier--fouling a ball up to a pair of anxious hands in Section 118, two sections away from where Rudy snagged his prize. I find the lucky fan and ask him for a moment of his time--I suggest we chat after the inning's over and he thinks that's a great idea. When Dan finally can focus on my inquiries instead of his beloved Boys in Blue we talk about his highlight reel catch. Dan is sitting with his friend John and John's son Jordan. My first question is about his ability to catch the ball without a glove. He tells me he leaned just to the right and was able to snag the ball on the fly using two hands (it's good fundamentals, kids).
The trio I'm talking to are all big Dodger fans but they don't get to go to many games since they live in north Santa Barbara county. They've driven a long way to see the game tonight and I ask how many games Dan has been to this season. "One," he tells me. I congratulate him and tell him it's his lucky night and he heartily agrees. Dan's forty-six years old and, when I ask if he's ever caught a foul ball--or any kind of ball at a big league game he says, "No. Went to a lot of games, but no." A grin creeps across his face and he stares down at the ball as he talks--he plans to put the ball in a display case and put it up somewhere in his home. I ask him about his thought process as the ball's heading toward him. He tells me emphatically, " I kinda saw it... it just seemed like it was floating there--like slow motion." As I wrap up my questions to let these guys get back to taking in their one Dodger game they'll get to see this year I thank them for their time and Dan tells me one parting statement: "[This ball] definitely has some meaning--it's from Matt Kemp. He's got a shot to be MVP!"
Stay tuned to myGameBalls.com for Part 2 of this series, coming tomorrow.