Nov 15

Falling in (and out) of love

Ken Levine/Getty ImagesHome plate umpire Charlie Reliford approves as Dodger rookie Eric Karros slides home safely past catcher Mike LaValliere of the Pirates on May 24, 1992, one day after becoming a hero.

On the night of May 23, 1992, Dodger rookie Eric Karros came up to bat as a pinch-hitter. The situation: two runners on in the bottom of the ninth, Dodgers trailing Pittsburgh by two runs, sitting in last place at 15-22, and me unemployed and preparing to move away from my Los Angeles hometown while still nursing a breakup with my girlfriend. Could he bring some hope to my broken heart?

As baseball player and baseball fan, Karros and I were made for each other. We were born three weeks and two days apart. He was a product of the farm system, and I had long been partial to products of the farm system. A last-minute addition to the Opening Day roster, it was nice just to have Karros on the team, but he was still only getting partial playing time at first base while the Dodgers tried to mine some remaining value out of Kal Daniels and Todd Benzinger.

He was part of the future of a struggling Dodger team whose future was much in doubt. He was also the batter who could give me relief from the deep funk I had descended into. I desperately wanted him to succeed.

Karros extended Pirates reliever Stan Belinda to a full count, and then launched one to deep left-center … deep … back … gone! The fourth home run of his young career, giving the Dodgers a comeback victory. I jumped out of my head in joy. I was so happy, I wrote what I believe is the only piece of fan mail to an athlete. At age 24, I was thanking Karros for his home run and telling him how deeply important it was to me.

A more sober head prevailed in the morning, and I never sent the letter. But I was firmly in the Karros camp – he was one of my guys.

Given that Karros ended up hitting 266 more home runs for Los Angeles to become the Dodgers’ all-time leading home run hitter since moving west, you might have expected it was an eternal romance between Karros and me. But it didn’t work out that way.

As the decade progressed, he was an up and down player. In my memory, many of Karros’ homers came when the game wasn’t on the line. His power numbers hid a poor on-base percentage. He would start slow and then tell the fans they shouldn’t be bothered. Irrational or not, he wasn’t the player I wanted him to be.

The final straw for me was an incident in 1997 when he called out Ismael Valdes in the Dodger locker room and the two fought. The press (which I wasn’t a part of at the time) took Karros’ side, something I suspected was because the press couldn’t be bothered to get quotes from anyone who didn’t speak English as a first language. It motivated me to write another letter, this time to the Times, and this one I sent. I’m not sure who I was madder at, the press or Karros – I was just mad. Maybe Valdes was at fault, but no one was even trying to tell the whole story.

The residual damage to my feelings toward Karros was serious. Five years after I had fallen in love with him, I had fallen out.  The romance was over, and nothing he did, not even a relatively awesome 1999 season (.362 on-base percentage, .550 slugging) could change it.  A running joke in my family was that Grandma Sue always liked Eric Karros, and whenever she went to a game with us, I would say how lousy he was – and then he would go 4 for 4 with a homer. I actually owe Karros some thanks for giving Grandma such pleasure and the two of us such fond memories.

But still, we fell out of love. It happens.

It actually hasn’t happened for me for the current group of homegrown Dodgers. Maybe I’m different, or maybe the circumstances are.  I still have fond thoughts of Russell Martin, though he hasn’t been much of anything for a couple of years and who will likely be wearing a different uniform next season. Chad Billingsley struggled in 2009, and I stuck by him, just as I’m sticking by Jonathan Broxton. James Loney is producing worse numbers as a first baseman than Karros, but I’m hanging in there even if it means going down with the ship (a ship that might be traded within the next year). Even the mysterious Matt Kemp is, for me, a case of “Stand by your man.”

For that matter – not to give the impression that I’m nothing more than a softie – I don’t seem to have too many hard feelings about Karros anymore.  I remember the good times …

Fans have their own breaking points, though, and for many, they have already been breached. That’s part of what makes this offseason tense: tight relationships in a tenuous state. It’s always sad when love goes south, especially when you’re a hopeless romantic and it’s the ballplayer next door.

Nov 11

Third base: The cold corner

John McDonough/Icon SMIRaul Mondesi

Last time the Dodgers won a Gold Glove at the following positions:

C – Russell Martin, 2007
1B – Steve Garvey, 1977
2B – Orlando Hudson, 2009
SS – Cesar Izturis, 2004
3B – None
OF – Matt Kemp, 2009
OF – Steve Finley, 2004
OF – Raul Mondesi, 1997
P – Greg Maddux, 2008

The timing wasn’t right for Ron Cey or Adrian Beltre to win Gold Gloves for the Dodgers …

* * *

  • The history of Bill Russell as Dodger manager gets a long look back at the Hardball Times from Steven Booth, who is searching for parallels (and coming up with mixed results) with Don Mattingly’s nascent tenure in the hot seat.
  • Sam Miller of the Orange County Register questions a system that makes relievers 35 percent of Type A free agents.

* * *

All my best wishes and thanks to the nation’s veterans on this day …

Nov 06

‘Out. The Glenn Burke Story’ aims to strike out intolerance

Comcast SportsNet Bay AreaGlenn Burke, mid-1980s, openly gay and out of baseball.

If the celebration of Fernando Valenzuela was a highpoint in the history of the Los Angeles Dodgers and baseball, an exhilarating transcendence of a minority among a majority, then the desolation of Glenn Burke was the opposite.

It’s my general opinion that, for all the problems in our society, tolerance eventually defeats intolerance. It can take a long time – decades, centuries – but if you’re on the intolerant side, the side that would deny rights and respect to those who are different, you’re on the losing team. And sometimes I’m mystified by how many people don’t see that, how many people stay with the losers, in such a bitter place.

The reason is ignorance, which fuels fear. Solve the ignorance, and you’ll go a long way toward solving intolerance.

Those might seem like platitudes, but they become starkly real in “Out. The Glenn Burke Story,” which premieres Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. at San Francisco’s Castro Theater and at 8 p.m. on Comcast SportsNet Bay Area. (According to a spokesman for the channel, the documentary will be available in Southern California on DirecTV’s Sports Pack Channel 696 and Dish Network’s Multi-Sports Package Channel 419, but hopefully at some point it will come available to a wider audience in Los Angeles.) The program depicts nothing short of a tragedy of ignorance and intolerance surrounding a gay man, and though society has made progress since then, it reminds us that greater tolerance can’t come too quickly.

Burke, who was drafted by the Dodgers out of Merritt College at age 19 in 1972, not surprisingly comes off as a complicated individual in the 72-minute project. A star basketball player in high school, Burke chose instead to pursue baseball. He was given the highest ratings by scouts in throwing arm, raw power and speed, yet had trouble translating those skills into major-league success. He had a Richard Pryor sense of humor and exuded joy – punctuated by surliness and combativeness.

Most poignantly, after being called up to the majors in 1976, Burke was said to have immediately won the Dodger clubhouse over. Two years later, he was traded, and a year after that, at age 26, he was out of the majors for good.

Comcast SportsNet Bay Area

“Out” argues that while Burke’s teammates and friends at first shocked and discomfited upon learning of Burke’s sexual orientation, most ultimately rallied to protect him, because they genuinely liked him. “He was the guy who kept the chemistry going in the clubhouse,” former Dodger Davey Lopes says in the program. Onetime Dodger beat writer Lyle Spencer recalls that “guys were visibly distraught” over Burke’s trade to Oakland, “and that told me that my sense of how important he was to them internally was accurate. I even remember a few players crying when they found out about it at their lockers, which is stunning.”

Instead, the documentary says that it was unease in the managerial and front office seats that led to Burke’s departure, citing such incidents as a $75,000 offer the Dodgers made to Burke if he would get married. (As Reggie Smith remembers, “Glenn, being his comic self, said, ‘I guess you mean to a woman?'”) “Out” also notes that Burke dated Tommy “Spunky” Lasorda, Jr. (who was also a friend to Dodger players) and mentions a “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” moment. It should be said that no Dodger managerial or front-office personnel appear in the documentary.

Burke was playing sparingly as a Dodger by this point – in the team’s first 27 games, he had 12 plate appearances – so in a baseball sense, he was deemed expendable. And so he was sent to Oakland in exchange for Bill North, who ended up becoming Los Angeles’ starting center fielder.

The trade could have been the best thing that ever happened to Burke. He was back in the Bay Area where he grew up, in the country’s most gay-friendly environment. He could go to the Castro district and be embraced. However, where intolerance had been passive-aggressive in Los Angeles, with Burke’s orientation now an open secret, he came under more duress on the ballfield and in the clubhouse, generating more discomfort among new teammates who hadn’t known him before and more catcalls from fans.

“It became pretty obvious to a lot of people that Glenn was gay, and he started to make a lot of people uncomfortable in the locker room and the showers,” former A’s pitcher Mike Norris said. “It was an uncomfortable situation after a while.”

In June 1979, Burke left baseball. He attempted a comeback in 1980, but found himself under an utterly hostile new Oakland manager, Billy Martin, who made no pretense to hide any disgust with Burke. Burke never played a major-league game under Martin, or anyone else.

Struggling to adjust without his livelihood, it wasn’t long before Burke’s entire life spiraled downhill. He ran out of money and got involved in drugs. He was hit by a car that broke his leg in three places; a rod was inserted but wasn’t replaced when it needed to be and began rotting. He served six months in jail on theft and drug charges. And then he contracted what some then only knew as “gay cancer.”

“I recognized the voice, but I didn’t recognize the person,” Dusty Baker said of his friend and former teammate.

Baseball finally stepped up on behalf of Glenn Burke when sportswriter Jack McGowan lectured then-Oakland general manager Sandy Alderson that “the Oakland A’s have a former player who is living on the streets. No one is helping him. He’s dying of AIDS, and baseball should be ashamed of itself.” The A’s responded, and brought a small amount of support to Burke’s incredibly difficult final days. Lesions down his throat had made eating near-impossible for him, and friends and family were letting him smoke crack to take away the pain.

Burke died of AIDS-related complications on May 30, 1995 at age 42.

“The closet hurts people forever,” says Billy Bean, one of the few former major-leaguers to publicly acknowledge his homosexuality. “Everyone’s career ends, but to do it because you don’t feel like you belong there when you’ve proven that you do is damaging, and it affects everything. And I’m sure that’s why Glenn swam in the waters of drugs and alcohol, just to take away his frustration.”

In 1982, Burke became the first openly gay ballplayer via an Inside Sports magazine article and subsequent “Today Show” interview with Bryant Gumbel. The events inspired a 1983 “Cheers” episode, “Boys in the Bar,” written by David Issacs and current Dodger postgame co-host Ken Levine, that dealt fulfillingly with acceptance of a gay teammate.

And yet, “Out. The Glenn Burke Story” leaves us with the following statement:

“Credible studies place the incidence of male homosexuality between 3% and 5% of the adult population. Since Glenn Burke played his final game in 1979, 6,552 players have appeared in the major leagues. Not one has come out as gay during his career.”

It shouldn’t require being Rookie of the Year to inspire tolerance.

Have we progressed as a society since the passing of Glenn Burke? Yes and no. Does tolerance await a ballplayer who comes out of the closet? Yes and no. Can we be convinced that some people aren’t suffering because they fear they will lose their livelihood if they do nothing more than acknowledge something as harmless as wanting to be with their own gender. Someday yes, today no.

What is gained by denying people the right to like and love whom they want?

“Glenn was comfortable with who he was,” longtime friend Abdul-Jalil al-Hakim says in the documentary. “Baseball was not comfortable with who he was.”

Be on the winning team.

Oct 28

Dodgers had momentum, heart and purpose in 1978 … and it wasn’t enough

APJim Gilliam spent 25 years – half his life – in a Dodger uniform.

Keeping with this week’s theme

Davey Lopes, wearing Gilliam’s 19 on his sleeve during Game 1 of the ’78 Series, worshiped the Dodger coach.

Game 1 of the 2010 World Series almost exactly matched the final score of Game 1 of the 1978 World Series. That was Dodgers 11, Yankees 5, and it was played the night the Dodgers, for the only time in their history, retired the number of a non-Hall of Famer.

Jim Gilliam had passed away two nights earlier, barely 24 hours after the Dodgers won the National League pennant.

From Ross Newhan of the Times:

Throughout the playoff victory over Philadelphia he was driven by the memory of his relationship with Jim Gilliam, saying he had never before reached such an emotional peak, that when he went to the plate he could hear Gilliam speaking to him.

Davey Lopes, the Los Angeles captain, again resembled a man possessed Tuesday night at Dodger Stadium as the Dodgers, dedicated to sustaining the memory, crushed the New York Yankees, 11-5, in the inartistic opening game of the 75th World Series.

Lopes, who batted .389 against the Phillies, hitting two home runs while driving in six runs, ripped a two-run homer in the second inning and a three-run homer in the fourth, propelling the Dodgers into a lead that was 7-0 before Tommy John permitted his first run. …

The flags in center field were at half-staff and the game began only after the crowd was asked to join in a moment of silent meditation. The Dodgers carried a memorium to Gilliam on the sleeve of their uniform, a black patch with Gilliam’s No. 19 embossed in white.

“We dedicated the pennant to Jim,” manager Tom Lasorda said, “and we are determined to dedicate a world championship to him.” …

“Jimmy is up there watching us,” Lopes said following Tuesday’s victory. “His spirit is in each of us. The Yankees beat 25 guys last year and this year they’ll have to beat 50 of us. We’re going to do our damndest to win this for him and we’re confident we will.”

Things only became more emotional the next day. “On the afternoon of October 11,” I wrote in “100 Things,” “with Game 2’s first pitch hours away, baseball paused and gathered at Trinity Baptist Church to pay their respects – 2,000 strong – at Gilliam’s funeral. A memorable photo from that day shows Dodger tormentor Reggie Jackson of the Yankees standing solemnly between Lopes and Tommy Lasorda. All three delivered eulogies.” That long day’s journey into night ended with Bob Welch’s legendary triumph over Reggie Jackson for the final out.

From “100 Things”:

Clinging to a 4-3 lead in the top of the ninth, the Dodgers sent out Terry Forster for his third inning of work. Yankee playoff hero Bucky Dent opened the inning with a single to left field and moved to second on a groundout. A walk to Paul Blair put the go-ahead run on base, signaling that Forster had passed his expiration date.

Lasorda’s do-or-die replacement had 24 career appearances, 11 in relief. The two batters he needed to get out, Thurman Munson and Jackson, had 465 career home runs – three of them hit by Jackson in the last game of the previous year’s World Series. Dodger fans at the stadium and across the country waited for the roof to cave in.

Welch fed a strike in against Munson, who hit a sinking drive to right field that Reggie Smith caught at his knees.

APSteve Yeager is triumphant as Reggie Jackson strikes out.

It was Jackson time.  This wasn’t just any slugger.  This was the enemy personified, a man, though well-liked in his later years, considered perhaps the most egotistical, vilifiable ballplayer in the game.

Welch began by inducing Jackson to overswing and miss. With Drysdalesque flair, he then sent in a high, tight fastball that sent Jackson spinning into the dirt.

Jackson later told Earl Gustkey of the Times that he was expecting Welch to mix in some of his good offspeed pitches, but instead came three fastballs, each of which were fouled off.  Then there was a waste fastball high and outside to even the count at 2-2.

After another foul ball, another high and outside fastball brought a full count. The runners would be moving. Short of another foul, this would be it.

As everyone inhaled, in came the heat.  Amped up, Jackson swung for the fences – not the Dodger Stadium fences, but the fences all the way back in New York.

Only after Jackson missed the ball and nearly wrapped the bat around himself like a golf club, only through Jackson’s rage, could Dodger fans begin to comprehend what happened.

Jackson carried his fury into the dugout and clubhouse with him, pushing first a fan on his way to the dugout and then Yankee manager Bob Lemon once inside.

The only thing that could have made the event better for Dodger fans would have been for them to have had longer to enjoy it. The Dodgers didn’t win the World Series that year; they didn’t win another game. Welch himself was the losing pitcher in Game 4, allowing a two-out, 10th-inning run in his third inning of work, and gave up a homer to Jackson in Game 6. But for a moment, the Dodgers and their fans enjoyed one of the most triumphant and exhilarating victories over the Yankees ever imaginable.

There probably hasn’t been a more emotionally charged Los Angeles Dodger team in history. That includes 1988. This was a team that had revenge and redemption on its mind all year, feelings that were only intensified by the passing of their beloved coach.

And they fell in their next four games – a 5-1 Game 3 loss, the bitter 10-inning, Game 4 defeat that starred Jackson’s moving hip, and then the final two games by a combined 19-4.

Sometimes, the stars seem aligned; sometimes, you have every reason to believe. And sometimes you lose, even when you leave everything you have, absolutely everything, on the field.

Oct 27

Did we lose, or did they win? Both

In the wake of the Yankees’ elimination from the playoffs, Emma Span wrote the following at Bronx Banter:

… I think the tendency of fans — and certainly not just Yankee fans, but perhaps especially Yankee fans — to instinctively blame their own team after a loss, rather than crediting the opponent, is pretty interesting. Obviously not everyone does this, but as an overall fanbase mood I think it rings true, unless maybe some undisputed whiz like Cliff Lee is directly involved.

Setting aside for the moment whether or not it’s accurate or fair in a specific instance, what’s the psychological gain here? The outcome of any game depends on the combination of one team’s strength and another’s weakness, of course, and it’s often hard to disentangle a hitter’s success from a pitcher’s failure, or vice versa. How much of Colby Lewis’s kickass performance on Friday night was due to variables he controlled directly, and how much was due to the Yankees’ inadequate approach or execution at the plate? It’s not possible to tell precisely, although a lot of the newer baseball stats our SABR-inclined friends come up with are designed to help sort this out. And my first instinct, like many people in the bar where I was watching, was to yell “C’mon you useless #$&*s, it’s Colby Lewis” at the little pinstriped men on the TV.

I think in the end, it’s mostly about control: the idea that your team mostly controls its fate (like the idea that you yourself mostly control your fate) is generally preferable to the alternative. No one likes feeling helpless to change their situation. Everyone wants to believe that we’re in charge of how our lives turn out, not larger forces we can’t affect. And hey, if the Yankees lost because they failed, well then, they’re still better. They just didn’t show it. There must be something they could have done differently. …

Though it becomes even more New York-centric as it goes on, Span’s entire post is worth reading. I agree that fans have a tendency to turn on their team when things go wrong, out of a belief that the team should be better. No one likes to admit to limitations. To me, the 2009 Dodgers were a vintage illustration of this – even when that team was winning, the slightest, most momentary setback would send many fans into a tizzy. In my mind, that was a mistake. Yes, we all want to win, but losing shouldn’t mean the elimination of all joy.

It’s not necessarily a sign of weakness to tip your hat to your opponent. On some occasions, it could mean that you’re failing to look at your own inadequacies. But I don’t think that’s something Dodger fans are generally at risk of – quite the opposite. Every foible gets a thorough examination.

One thing that the McCourt controversy and the struggles of certain players did to the Dodgers this year, however, was make those limitations that Span talks about feel more real. Against our will, expectations have been lowered. It portends a sour 2011, though at least there’s this: There’s a lot more room to be pleasantly surprised.

* * *

  • I could bring more nuance to this, but this talk of expanding baseball’s playoffs – I’m dead set against it.
  • Life Magazine has released some previously unpublished photos from the 1955 World Series – check ’em out.
Oct 25

Should the Dodgers retire more numbers?

Focus on Sport/Getty ImagesNo. 6, Steve Garvey

The Dodgers, with only one exception, only retire the jersey numbers of Hall of Famers. So that’s why the 34 of Fernando Valenzuela doesn’t hang in the pantheon with Jackie Robinson’s 42, Sandy Koufax’s 32 and the like.

Valenzuela’s 34 is in unofficial retirement, having not been worn by a Dodger since the team released the lefty before the 1991 season, but “unofficial retirement” is as equivocal as it seems. Steve Garvey’s 6, for example, was unofficially retired for 20 seasons, only to be taken out of the safe for none other than Jolbert Cabrera in 2003. Since then, others to wear Garvey’s number are Brent Mayne, Jason Grabowski, Kenny Lofton, Tony Abreu and Joe Torre. (For that matter, the No. 6 was originally made famous for the Dodgers by Carl Furillo.)

Rogers Photo Archive/Getty ImagesNo. 14, Gil Hodges

I’ve never had a problem with the Dodgers’ retired-number policy, which was only ignored following the emotional passing of longtime Dodger player and coach Jim Gilliam during the 1978 playoffs. Ten numbers have been immortalized, and that has seemed like a plentiful number, one that spreads the honor around without diminishing it.

But over the weekend, I began thinking about the possibility that some of us might never see a Dodger uniform number retired again in our lifetimes. Think about it:

  1. Since Don Sutton reached the Hall and had his number retired by the Dodgers in 1998, the only likely future Hall of Famer to wear a Dodger uniform for more than a couple of seasons is Mike Piazza. Do you retire the number of a player who spent only seven years in Los Angeles?
  2. Oldtimers like Gil Hodges and Maury Wills have been trying to get in the Hall for years, to no avail.
  3. The only current Dodger whom one can even conceive of building a Hall of Fame career is Clayton Kershaw, but of course, odds that we’ll be attending his uniform retirement ceremony depend on him stringing together about 10 or more remarkable seasons without leaving Los Angeles.

Certainly, any year could bring a future Dodger Hall of Famer, but chances are strong that in, say, 2028, we’ll be marking the 30th anniversary of the last Dodger uniform being retired if the current policy remains.

So I just got to wondering whether it might be worth it to institutionalize a new era in retiring numbers.  This is just brainstorming, but one idea I had was that every 10 years, one Dodger great who isn’t in the Hall would have his number retired.

I’m curious about what your thoughts are on this subject, and also – if, hypothetically, my idea came to pass, which number you’d like to see retired next?

Oct 24

‘Fernando Nation’: A Babe Ruth for all

Ron Vesely/Getty ImagesFernando Valenzuela

Fernando Valenzuela’s April and May in 1981 were something you felt inside you, like a superpower. And that’s just if you were a 13-year-old white kid in the Valley.

If you shared a common heritage with Valenzuela, as Cruz Angeles emphasizes in “Fernando Nation,” which premieres Tuesday on ESPN, Valenzuela’s arrival was like the birth of the Justice League.

Angeles’ documentary on Valenzuela has a lot of ground to cover – it won’t surprise Dodger fans how inadequate 50 minutes is to do the job – but he gets across the depths Valenzuela rose from, the heights he soared and the impact he had on people he didn’t know personally but who had a powerful connection to him.

The personal story of Valenzuela isn’t lost amid the bigger picture. “When I was a child, we didn’t have any dreams,” Valenzuela recalls in the documentary’s opening minutes. After Valenzuela became a sensation in 1981, KABC Channel 7 raced to provide the dusty reality of the remote Mexican village he was raised in, a world away from the United States. But rather than aimlessness, that absence of expectation sowed in Valenzuela a discipline. “I just wanted to get better, step by step,” Valenzuela remembers thinking, even in his pre-teen years.

But as Angeles takes pains to illustrate, Valenzuela wasn’t a mere mascot for the Mexican, Latino or Chicano communities. He was something cathartic, something euphoric, to heel wounds that had been felt by some for decades.

Angeles mostly does well articulating the controversial displacement of the residents of Chavez Ravine in the 1950s, including the key issue of how the new public housing, playgrounds and schools that had been promised for that area as early as 1949 was eventually scuttled after one of its principal advocates, assistant housing director Frank Wilkinson, was swept up in the Red Scare. (Details of this are in Chapter 11 of “100 Things Dodgers Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die.“) It can’t be emphasized enough that most of the damage to people in this area occurred before Walter O’Malley had even heard of it.

The narrative in “Fernando Nation” plays things a little looser after O’Malley gets involved, directly connecting him and the construction of Dodger Stadium with the forced evictions of the area’s remaining denizens, even though those evictions were in the cards regardless of whether the Dodgers ever left Brooklyn. It is documented that Los Angeles would act in broad strokes with the area (which it bought back from the United States, on the condition that it be used for a public purpose, after the public housing contracts were canceled). A baseball stadium was but one of multiple possible outcomes, all of which meant taking full control of the land.

Nevertheless, even if the fine print absolves the Dodgers of responsibility for what happened at Chavez Ravine, there’s no mistaking what the lingering perception was for many: Dodger Stadium was on their land. And the ill will, Angeles notes, only deepened with the rise of the Chicano (Mexican-American, to oversimplify) movement in the late 1960s. To make this clear, Angeles uses archived footage of police brutality at a Chicano rally, including a cop clubbing a female bystander in the back, that makes the Rodney King incident almost look like childs’ play.

Even after Fernandomania began, issues of ethnicity and nationality remained alive; Angeles includes a clip from “The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson” in which the host cracks with regard to the 1981 players’ strike, “Reggie Jackson offered Fernando Valenzuela a job as a gardener.” Valenzuela is later called in a news report “Mexico’s most documented migrant.” And when Valenzuela held out for a bigger raise during Spring Training 1982 (like Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale in 1966, or for that matter Zack Wheat in the Prohibition Era), a government official pointedly comments that Valenzuela is in the country on a restricted visa dependent on his employment.

At the Q&A that followed Thursday’s premiere screening, one audience member asked Angeles why he had to bring such negativity into the Valenzuela documentary, considering how positive an experience Valenzuela was. Angeles responded that he didn’t see his inclusion of the history as a negative, believing that by understanding it, you see even more clearly the wonder of Valenzuela’s impact. The history is something to embrace, Angeles believes. It’s why nothing will ever be like Fernandomania.

And certainly, there is no shortage of joy in the program, especially as Valenzuela runs off to his 8-0, 0.50 start in ’81. “It is incredible, it is fantastic,” Vin Scully gasps in wonder. “Fernando Valenzuela – he has done something I can’t believe he has done or anyone will do.” Dodger fan Paul Haddad, whose childhood cassette tapes provide much of the primary-source audio for “Fernando Nation,” comments that “I was getting to experience my own Babe Ruth.” Viewers of “Fernando Nation” will truly revel in Valenzuela taking the nation by storm.

If there is a negative that is glossed over in the documentary, it is how quickly Valenzuela came back from the stratosphere to become mortal. Everyone knows what Valenzuela did in his first eight starts, but in his second eight (the final two of those coming after the strike was settled), he had one victory and a 6.46 ERA, averaging under six innings per start. (John Ely, anyone?)

Of course, Valenzuela recovered to have more great moments (such as the 1981 World Series complete game, of which Scully said, “This was not the best Fernando game, it was his finest.”) and great seasons. Valenzuela was also a wonder with the bat and the glove as a pitcher. What you’re left with is the impression that has always been an indispensable part of the Valenzuela story: He had the goods – the tools, the preternatural ability to learn the screwball from Bobby Castillo, the determination – but worked to be great.

Because of the time constraints and all the time spent discussing the birth of Fernandomania, “Fernando Nation” races to cover the later years of Valenzuela’s career – and in its depiction of Valenzuela’s 1990 no-hitter, there’s an omission in the documentary that’s nothing short of startling. But the documentary is nonetheless a success, because it leaves you, once more, with that unbridled feeling of superpower coursing through you. Fernando Valenzuela, sweetness.

Oct 22

Fernando’s smile

Yankees at Rangers, 5:07 p.m.

* * *

Fernando Valenzuela with Cruz Angeles (right)

OK, I’m just going to get this out of the way right now: Fernando smiled at me. I mean, he charmed the living daylights out of me.

Forgive me for acting like a lovestruck teen (or twentysomething, or thirtysomething … I’ve been through it all), but I mean, it was that nice a smile.

I wasn’t expecting it. I attended Thursday’s premiere screening of “Fernando Nation,” the ESPN “30 for 30” documentary directed by Cruz Angeles that will debut on the small screen Tuesday. Valenzuela was the guest of honor. After the screening, during the Q-and-A, I asked a question of the director that I really wanted to ask Valenzuela — in fact, part of the reason I asked was the hope that Valenzuela might step in and answer it. And he did.

The question related to how Valenzuela had handled the crush of attention that came during his rookie season and how he kept it from overwhelming him. Angeles first said he believes that Valenzuela’s family taught him the discipline to handle the challenge. Then, Valenzuela was handed the microphone. Here’s part of his response:

“I think when I decided to play this game, I knew a lot of things were going to happen,” Valenzuela said. “My first year with the Dodgers was the hardest year for me. I wanted to practice with the team; I wanted to be with the team. I wanted to just enjoy the game. … (But) I had it in my head that’s part of the game. I tried to do my best; I tried to take care of everyone.

“Also, I liked that year. That happens only once in life. It happened to me in ’81. I enjoyed it.”

As he answered, looking at me as he spoke, that was when that big smile came across his face. It didn’t have anything to do with me, it was just him enjoying the memory, or the moment of talking about the memory. But it really, really made me happy.

I don’t suspect I’m explaining this adequately. But I’m never going to forget that smile.

I’ll have more about the documentary in a separate post.

Oct 20

Glenn Burke documentary readies for premiere

“Out. The Glenn Burke Story” is a documentary to air in November, first on Comcast SportsNet in the Bay Area. (Thanks to Tom Hoffarth of the Daily News for the link.) I’m very keen to see this; hopefully, it will make its way down south for all Dodger fans to view.

A clip of former teammate Reggie Smith being interviewed for the documentary is shown above.

From the press notes:

… Many of Burke’s teammates were aware of his homosexuality during his playing career, as were members of management. And many of those teammates believe that his sexuality – and the reaction it provoked – led to the premature derailment of his baseball career.

Out. The Glenn Burke Story tells the tumultuous story of the wedge that was driven between Burke and the Los Angeles management, the ensuing similar situation in Oakland that led to Burke’s abrupt retirement, and the hero’s welcome that Burke received in San Francisco’s Castro District after he left professional baseball.

Comcast SportsNet’s narrative follows Burke through his public announcement of his homosexuality in a 1982 Inside Sports magazine article (‘The Double Life of a Gay Dodger’) and on The Today Show with Bryant Gumbel, to his subsequent downward spiral to drugs, prison, and eventually living on the same San Francisco streets where he was once hailed as an icon. …

Tangent: The semi-true legend of Burke giving sports’ first high five was the subject of Chapter 47 of 100 Things Dodgers Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die. “As much as George Washington is the father of our country, Glenn Burke is the father of the high five,” the chapter begins. “Which is to say that he was involved, and he gets most of the credit — but it isn’t quite that simple …”

Update: According to Comcast SportsNet Bay Area, “people in Southern California can view the documentary on DirecTV’s Sports Pack channel 696 and Dish Network’s Multi-Sports Package channel 419.”

Oct 16

October 16 playoff chat: Dodger Cy Young winners in the postseason

Rangers 7, Yankees 2, 6th inning

Giants at Phillies, 4:57 p.m.

To celebrate today’s matchup between Tim Lincecum of the Giants and Roy Halladay of the Phillies, here’s a look at how Cy Young winners for the Dodgers performed in their postseason careers:

  • Don Newcombe (1956): Newcombe famously lost a 1-0 start in Game 1 of the 1949 World Series on Tommy Henrich’s bottom-of-the-ninth home run despite allowing only five baserunners and striking out 11. Subsequent to that, Newcombe appeared in another 1949 World Series game, one in 1955 and two in 1956, and allowed 20 runs in 14 innings.
  • Don Drysdale (1962): After a two-inning relief appearance in 1956 at age 20, Drysdale made six postseason starts. Three he won in dominant fashion, including a three-hit, nine-strikeout shutout of the Yankees in 1963. He took a hard-luck, 1-0 loss in the final game of the ’66 sweep by Baltimore, and was hammered in two other starts, including the apochryphal “Why couldn’t you be Jewish too?” start on Yom Kippur, 1965.
  • Sandy Koufax (1963, 1965, 1966): The amazing Koufax allowed only six earned runs in 57 career postseason innings (0.95 ERA). In seven postseason starts, Koufax pitched two shutouts and four complete games. The only time he allowed a second earned run in a game, he struck out 15.
  • Mike Marshall (1974): Marshall pitched in two National League Championship Series games and all five World Series games for the Dodgers in 1974. Through the first six of those games, Marshall pitched nine shutout innings, allowing five baserunners and striking out seven, before being touched by a Joe Rudi home run in the middle of a three-inning outing in the final game. His career postseason ERA was 0.75, and he also stranded both inherited runners.
  • Fernando Valenzuela (1981): Valenzuela is most famous for his 147-pitch complete game against the Yankees in Game 3 of the 1981 World Series, in which he allowed four runs but won. In the four playoff starts he made before that game, Valenzuela went 31 2/3 innings with a 1.71 ERA. (He of course was also the winning pitcher, one out shy of a complete game, in the Dodgers’ decisive NLCS Game 5 triumph.) His postseason success continued with a victory in Game 2 of the 1983 NLCS and two strong outings against the Cardinals in 1985. Valenzuela wrapped up his postseason career in 1996 with a four-batter relief appearance for San Diego, leaving him with a career postseason ERA of 1.98.
  • Orel Hershiser (1988): His postseason career requires a separate post to give it justice. Well, so does Koufax’s too, I suppose, so forgive me.
  • Eric Gagne (2003): Gagne pitched shutout ball twice in 2004 playoff games for the Dodgers, who were trailing big in each game. His remaining seven playoff games came with Boston (five) and Milwaukee (two) and were mostly good, the main exception being his contributions to a seven-run 11th inning by the Indians against the Red Sox in Game 2 of the 2007 ALCS.
Oct 15

October 15 playoff chat: Kirk’s homer turns 22

Yankees at Rangers, 5 p.m.

On the 22nd anniversary of “improbable … impossible,” here’s a link to Joe Posnanski’s post this week about 32 great calls in sports history. I’m amazed to say I was actually watching more than half of these as they aired: 32, 31, 27, 26, 24, 23 (no sound, in a bar), 22, 21, 20 (different announcer), 19, 18, 13, 12b (different announcer), 10c (different announcer), 9, 8, 5, 1.

Oct 09

A long look back at Hideo Nomo

David Zalubowski/APWith raindrops falling, Hideo Nomo winds up to pitch to Rockies leadoff batter Eric Young on September 17, 1996, unaware that 27 outs later, he would have a Coors Field no-hitter. Nomo pitched from the stretch after the first inning to combat the wet mound.

Robert Whiting, author of You Gotta Have Wa, is writing a detailed four-part series for the Japan Times on the impact Hideo Nomo had on baseball on both sides of the Pacific.  So far, part one and part two have been published, and they are very good reads.

Here’s a sample:

… The Prime Minister of Japan hailed him as a national treasure. It was a remarkable turnaround, given that only months earlier, Nomo had been criticized heavily for deserting his team and his country. Ironically, Nomo received far more attention as a major leaguer than he ever had playing for the lowly Pacific League’s Kintetsu Buffaloes, who toiled before sparse crowds and hardly ever appeared on nationwide television.

One could even credit Nomo for helping to repair U.S.-Japan relations, which had been in tatters because of trade disputes.

Not so long before Nomo had arrived in America, the relationship was at a 40-year low. The speaker of the Japanese parliament had labeled Americans “uneducated and illiterate,” while American congressmen had been railing at Japan over “unfair trade practices” and its fanatical corporate warriors.

A group of U.S. congressmen had even smashed a Japanese car to pieces on the Capitol lawn. But the love affair of MLB fans with Nomo helped to dissipate the acrimony between the two countries.

Nomo was on the cover of Sports Illustrated and Time Asia and the subject of more than one TV documentary.

The New York Times noted with approval a shift in the mood in Japan. “Nomo’s arrival in MLB,” wrote that prestigious newspaper, “signifies that the Japanese penchant for closed door exclusivity is receding.”

The Asahi Shimbun called Nomo’s success a “catharsis” for Japanese who were weary of the constant carping of the U.S. government over trade.

Nomo’s appearance in the 1995 All-Star Game in Arlington, Texas, was an historically significant moment, coming as it did almost exactly a half-century after the end of the Pacific War between Japan and the United States, and no one watching could escape its significance. A player from Japan had emerged to reignite the national pastime in a way that perhaps no native-born American could have, given the bitter emotions that remained over the strike.

He brought back all the feelings that baseball players used to inspire. He was modest, humble, shy, hardworking and a joy to watch on the field. That last sentence could have been used to describe a Christy Mathewson, Lou Gehrig or a Joe DiMaggio. It made Americans and Japanese stop and contemplate baseball’s role in cross-cultural relations. …

Of course, not all was sweetness and light. Occasionally, nationalism and even prejudice reared its ugly head. …

(Thanks to Brett Bull for the tip.)

* * *

Vin Scully Is My Homeboy passed along video of an old Hollywood Stars Night at Dodger Stadium from the 1960s, starting with a combo of Walter Alston and Phyllis Diller, followed by Milton Berle, Dean Martin, Mickey Rooney, Annette Funicello, Billy Barty and more. See if Nancy Sinatra’s boots are made for walking to first base …