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Friday, September 20, 2002
True blue through and through

By Eric Neel
Page 2 columnist

Editor's Note: From his home on the Northern California coast, Page 2's Eric Neel is keeping a diary of the 2002 pennant races involving the Giants, Dodgers, A's and Angels. This is the 11th installment of Neel's journal.

Friday, Sept. 20
Thursday's scoreboard: A's over Angels, 5-3; Dodgers down the Giants, 6-3.

Status: Oakland has a one-game lead over Anaheim in the AL West; Los Angeles pulls to within one game of San Francisco for the NL wild-card spot. Nine games left.

In the interest of full disclosure, I should say that I'm a Dodgers fan going way back.

Steve Garvey
How could a team with Steve Garvey possibly lose?
I remember my Dad telling me stories about Duke Snider and Jackie Robinson.

I remember wanting to be Willie Crawford. I'd sit in the pavilion seats at Dodger Stadium and read the name across the back of his jersey, and I imagined it was my name, and that I was the one crouching in the outfield grass. For days after a game, I would play in the backyard throwing a ball in the air, running under it and catching it the way I thought Crawford would.

I liked Jimmy Wynn and Lee Lacy, and I thought Reggie Smith's stance was maybe the coolest thing I'd ever seen.

The sound of Tommy John's name rolling off my grandfather's tongue -- man, I loved that.

I saw Manny Mota get a pinch hit to win the game one night.

Steve Garvey in '74 seemed like a god to me, complete with hammers and bolts of lightning, and I was completely stunned to learn that any team with him on it could be beaten.

I lived and eventually died with the Dodgers teams in 1977 and 1978. I drew pictures of Davey Lopes on my school folders. I cried for Charlie Hough when Reggie Jackson hit his third home run, and when Bob Welch struck Reggie out to end Game 2 in '78, I ran out the front door, got on my bike and rode around the block screaming and shouting until I ran out of breath.

Fernando Valenzuela
Fernandomania was an epidemic for all Dodgers fans in the early 1980s.
In 1981, when Fernando Valenzuela won his first 10 in a row, I let my hair grow a little long all over like he had it, and I spent hours imitating his ojos-a-cielo screwball wind-up -- pitching a tennis ball at a carpet square tacked to my garage door.

I was in the principal's office when Rick Monday hit a home run in Montreal to win the NLCS and I got to go around to all the classrooms and announce that the Dodgers were going to the Series. Fernando pitched Game 3 (the Dodgers were down two games to none) of the Series against the Yankees, and he got in trouble early, giving up six hits and four runs in the first few innings. It was torture. I was at the airport Holiday Inn in Long Beach with my dad, who was visiting for the weekend. I wanted to turn off the set and go to dinner; I couldn't stand to see them lose. Dad told me to hang in there, said we'd get room service, which we did, and we sat on the edge of the bed and watched as Fernando somehow seemed to right himself and the Dodgers scored their fourth and fifth runs in the fifth inning and won the damn thing.

The next year, Joe Morgan's home run on the last day of the season pressed all the air out of my lungs.

In June 1985, I was playing summer-league ball with my high school basketball team, and we were all going out to our cars between practices and games to hear whether Pedro Guerrero had hit another home run. In October, when Lasorda had Niedenfuer pitch to Jack Clark, I was watching the game from outside my den window and I pounded on the glass, like Benjamin Braddock in the church at the end of "The Graduate."

Speaking of which, I worshiped at the Church of Orel Hershiser.

I saw Mike Marshall hit a grand slam to beat the Reds in 10 one night.

Kirk Gibson
Give me a dramatic homer from Kirk Gibson ... and hold the ribs.
On October 15, 1988 -- my 21st birthday -- I stood in line for pork ribs at Flint's, on Shattuck in Oakland. Eckersley threw a change-up, Gibson flicked his wrists, the ball went back, to the track, to the wall and she was gone ... and I saw the whole thing on a 12-inch, black-and-white, no-volume set mounted on the wall over the counter. Big women with cleavers were waving their arms and shouting, "Nooo!" Sturdy, hungry men and women all around me were rending garments. I threw a fist in the air and shouted, "Yeah, Baby!" or some such foolishness. The room went silent. I lowered the arm to my side, shrugged my shoulders and walked out the front screen door ... without my ribs, my potato salad, or my one slice of Roman Meal bread (the only defense against the hot sauce at Flint's).

I took my mom to a game on her birthday in May of '89 -- first-base box seats. She spent the night admiring Eddie Murray's backside and saying his name the way the p.a. guy did, "Now batting ... Eddie ... Murray."

I watched Daryl Strawberry strike out somewhere on the order of 4,000 times in one season.

I spent a lost weekend in the early '90s driving back roads around Iowa, listening to the Dodgers wilt before the Braves and Giants. Might have been two or three lost weekends, actually. I marveled at Mike Piazza's long, loopy swing and Raul Mondesi's gun.

I smile every time Hideo Nomo pauses at the height of the tornado.

These things are some small part of my list, my bio, my record of devotion.

It hasn't always been easy being a Dodger fan, particularly these last several years. Sometimes you're tempted, not to opt out, but to dial it back a little, to save yourself some heartache. Sometimes, when your team is two games back with 10 to play (when it could easily, quickly and mercilessly be three with nine left), when possibility appears to be a wisp of steam from a train that's done left the station with two lights on behind, you tell yourself you have a choice. You think maybe you can detach yourself from your boys' fortunes. You imagine yourself standing on a cusp between absolute, and potentially hazardous, commitment and cool, interested but not-quite-so-risky, observation, and you think, maybe I'll play it cool.

Shawn Green
Over the next nine games, Shawn Green and the 2002 Dodgers will write some history of their own.
You're kidding yourself, of course. There is no cusp. You're in, you're all in. You can't say I Do or I Don't because, as my friend Lila once wrote in a beautiful song about how much she loved her husband, You Do, You Already Do.

You think maybe you're too old or too busy to get wrapped up any more? Think again. You were never anything other than wrapped up.

And you know this because you were watching the game and it was all coming back to you -- the names and the moments, the ways guys bent their arms to throw and tapped their bats on the plate before the first pitch. And it's not just that your team won last night, and that they're mercifully only one back instead of three and so maybe you think they have a chance now, it's that they wear the colors and play on the field that have so long been a part of you.

When you realize this, when you feel it in the seventh inning of a 6-3 win, when, for no reason at all, the memories are coming fast and furious, there's a kind of freedom in it. Gone is the guilt of maybe not being committed enough; blown away is the fear that your hope and excitement will be met with disappointment and sorrow. None of that matters. You are what you are. You're a Dodgers man. There are blue and white threads in your genes. You might be stung during these next nine games, you might be rewarded.

The only thing that's certain is that you will be involved.

Previous entries: Sept. 19 | Sept. 18 | Sept. 17 | Sept. 16 | Sept. 15 | Sept. 14 | Sept. 13 | Sept. 12 | Sept. 11 | Sept. 9-10

Eric Neel reviews sports culture in his "Critical Mass" column on Page 2. You can e-mail him at eneel@cox.net.