When my friend, Kelly, called me up last week and asked Emmett and me to join him at a Dodgers game, I didn’t hesitate to accept. Weather wise, it was a classic Southern California evening (mild and 75), it was a Friday night game, it was against the Angels, and his seats were just five rows behind home plate. With that kind of a grand-slam combination, how could I say no?
I love outdoor baseball. I love baseball in general but I know it all stems from the pure pleasure of watching the game under a big, blue sky. Going to Dodger Stadium brings back fond childhood memories of watching the Twins play outdoors at the Old Met Stadium in Bloomington, Minn. I couldn’t have been older than 10 (and maybe was as young as 7) but I distinctly remember the heat of the sun on my arms as we sat in the exposed box seats that we would sneak into. And I remember the smell of the sometimes hot and crisp, sometimes stale and humid air mixing with the wafting aromas of hot dog and cotton candy and “3-2” beer. My brother and I would always have our baseball gloves on, ready to catch a foul ball had one come our way. The only time our gloves would come off would be to shell the peanuts my mom or dad would smuggle in.
I took Emmett to his very first professional baseball game shortly after we started dating. I was horrified to learn that he had never been to one before (“But I’ve been to the bull fights in Spain,” he retorted upon my scoffing) and I immediately set about to rectify this childhood malady. Sadly, his first game would be at the horrible Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome, the Old Met having been demolished over a decade before during the covered-stadium building boom of the 80s. The Metrodome was not a baseball stadium. It was what they called a “multi-purpose stadium,” home to football, soccer, tennis, monster truck races, and any other event that could be shoved into the space. Needless to say, it left a less than stellar impression of the joys of watching a baseball game “live,” so to speak, but with players like Kirby Puckett, Kent Hrbek, Danny Gladden, Timmy Laudner, and Greg Gagne, it didn’t really matter too much. The game’s players made up for personality where the stadium left off and Emmett was hooked on going to baseball games as much as I was. (Side note: the Twins now play at the recently built Target Field, an outdoor, baseball-only stadium, just like the Old Met was. And the pendulum swings once again.)
Luckily, just a few years later, Emmett got to experience outdoor ball with the arrival of the minor league’s St. Paul Saints (thank you, Mike Veeck and Bill Murray!). Their home, Midway Stadium, was just down the street from the apartment we lived in together. We could see the glow from the lights of night games as we sat on our deck and the cheers of fans were welcome background noise in an otherwise quiet little neighborhood. Midway Stadium is not very big—we’re talking only 5,000 seats. So it’s a pretty intimate baseball experience when you’re there. And did Minnesotans love it. Tickets to games were nearly impossible to get but somehow we managed to score a few every season, and when we did, I felt like a kid again—I’d even smuggle in peanuts (but got to enjoy them with beer this time around!)! We were there for Darryl Strawberry’s “comeback” and watched one of professional baseball’s first female pitchers, Ila Borders, step on the mound. We waved, along with everyone else in the stands, to conductors of trains that went by on the railroad tracks behind the stadium and laughed out loud, along with everyone else in the stands, when the announcer encouraged us to watch a replay on the “mini-tron,” a 26-inch TV out in leftfield (the Saints’ spoof on big-stadium jumbo-trons). Saints games were (and still are) legendary for their between-inning crazy antics and silly competitions (sumo wresting, dragging the field in drag) and their unique and funny baseball promotions (mime day, booblefoot give away instead of bobblehead). In other words, it was outdoor fun with a baseball game going on.
Fast forward to today where Emmett and I consider Dodgers baseball one of a few really good reasons to continue living in L.A. despite the state economically imploding and a 10% sales tax. Dodgers Stadium isn’t anything fancy, but that doesn’t stop the celebrities from showing up or corporate sponsors from investing marketing dollars in it. We love the fact that you can bring your own food into the place and planning our menu (which has included veggie sushi, gourmet sandwiches, Thai food, chips and guacamole, decadent desserts, veggie hot dogs topped with their fixings, and even Pringles) is just as much a highlight as being at the game itself. Dodger Stadium has a comfortable feel about it, as if you’re sitting at home in your backyard just chillin’ out. As a result, those sitting around you feel like your neighbors and it’s not uncommon to hear conversations with the impression of familiarity going on between perfect strangers. Adding to the fun is that Dodgers fans are engaged. You won’t find one sitting through the 7th inning’s “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” (sung passionately by some more than others, but everyone sings, nonetheless!). And then there’s the setting. With the San Gabriel Mountains as a backdrop, you can stare longingly out over the outfield and watch the mountain range light up in beautiful sunset hues without ever missing a play. And as the marine layer settles in (usually around the 5th or 6th inning in a night game) or as the afternoon sun deepens shadows in the stands (around the same innings for day games), there is something magical about the experience, as if you are riding on the back of day itself. Add to all of this, players who have captured the hearts of many Angelenos (Manny Ramirez, Russell Martin, Rafael Furcal, Matt Kemp, Andre Ethier), and once again I ask, how could I turn down tickets to a game?
The seats Kelly had to the game Friday night were practically on the field, just left of home plate with the Dodgers dugout a few feet away. The section was aptly called the “Dugout Club.” If I told you I could smell the players as they stood in the on-deck circle taking practice swings, you might think I was exaggerating. But you’d be wrong. We were that close. The only other time I’ve ever been that close to a baseball field during a game was when I watched my brother play in grade school (and years later high school). Sometimes I’d sit in a lawn chair behind his team’s bench. Other times, when my dad was coaching, I would sit on the bench right alongside the players and keep the scorebook. I loved recording every play using the special code, a series of numeric and letter abbreviations as well as symbols, that made it feel like I was privy to a secret ancient language. Petroglyphs for baseball, if you will. And like professional baseball, my brother’s teams also had a cast of colorful characters on them (Fast Eddie being one I remember fondly). Perhaps this is where my love for outdoor baseball was forged—on the neighborhood fields in communities called Lakewood, Brooklyn Park, and Osseo.
But being in the Dugout Club section that night was the closest to the field Emmett and I have ever been at a Dodgers game. We usually get the cheap seats and while they too are behind home plate, they are high above it (three levels higher!), somewhere in the last few rows the stadium has to offer. I was looking forward to watching the game from this new-to-me Dugout Club section, thinking that after such a close-up experience, we’d never be able to go back to our cheap seats again. But really, other than being able to see the facial expressions of players as they ran on to and off of the field (and other than having servers bring beer to you rather than having to stand in line for it), it was just like any other Dodgers game for me (or for that matter, any other baseball game). And this only reinforces my love for outdoor baseball, because in the end, it doesn’t matter where you sit in the stadium—you’re always in the best seat in the house.