LOS ANGELES – It’s always like coming home when I cover a game at Dodger Stadium. I worked here for years, for the Santa Monica Evening Outlook and Los Angeles Herald Examiner, newspapers no longer with us, and the memories are rich.
Stepping into the visitors’ clubhouse on Friday, I told a group of Angels about the time I tried to ask Cardinals legend Bob Gibson – in a corner of the clubhouse occupied at the moment by Joe Saunders – about his hometown of Omaha, Neb., which happened to be my own. I was doing something about a connection with Gale Sayers, who also called Omaha home, how two of the premier athletes ever hailed from the same place.
Gibson, not in a mood to chat, told me in no uncertain terms to take a hike. He wasn’t interested in discussing Omaha with me, now or ever. I also interviewed the late, great Roberto Clemente in this room, in the company of the late, great Jim Murray, who asked most of the questions. I remember Clemente talking about how terrible he felt, how his back was killing him and he didn’t know if he could even play that night.
He lashed three line drives, as I recall, and made one of his magnificent throws from right field. Clemente was the second most exciting player I’ve ever seen behind the one and only Willie Mays.
Near the press box, manned for years by a wonderful fellow named James Mims, I ran into an old buddy, Bobby Castillo. A right-hander pitcher for the Dodgers from East L.A., Castillo is the guy who taught Fernando Valenzuela the screwball.
Castillo, eyes alive as always, and I had a few laughs before Fernando, an announcer now with the princely Jaime Jarrin, showed up as if on cue. He was the same impish, smiling guy I met in 1980 and tried, without much success, to teach English in Dodgertown the following spring. Little did we know he was about to emerge as a national sensation.
My boyhood hero, the great Tommy Davis, walked by wearing No. 12, on his way to meet a group of fans. I shared a few words with Tommy D., who I covered briefly in his later years as a DH. Before breaking his ankle in a horrific slide – I was in the stands that night, high up in the left-field corner – Tommy D. was a Hall of Fame talent, I firmly believe. He was a great hitter and player, and he remains a gentleman of the highest order. He misses his old buddy Willie Davis, a dazzling presence who passed away much too soon.
Another familiar form arrived in Kenny Landreaux, another center fielder of superior quality for the Dodgers and other clubs. We reminisced, K.T. catching me up with some of the guys from those teams he enriched with his bat, glove and humor. Steve Brener, the Dodgers’ PR man from those days, surfaced, and in his company, of course, was Tommy Lasorda, the inimitable leader of teams I covered in the ’70s and early ’80s.
On Saturday night, Lou Johnson Al Downing — distinguished Dodgers of the ’60s and ’70s, respectively – strolled through the dining room, where Vin Scully was engaged in conversation.
There is no place like Dodger Stadium — the history it has preserved, its unsurpassed setting, the perfection of it all. I was here when it opened. I saw Sandy Koufax face Mays when giants ruled the game. I saw championships won and lost. Ownerships, managers and players come and go, but some things never change. This magnificent ballpark, thankfully, is one of those things. – Lyle Spencer