GLENDALE, Ariz. -- My first conversation with Jaime Jarrin took place over lunch one day in the dining room at Dodgertown in the spring of 2004. The dining room at Dodgertown was the perfect place for such things, laid out as it was with about a dozen large round tables that forced strangers to sit together and make small talk.
I was 37 but I was the new kid, just hired to cover the Dodgers for The Los Angeles Daily News. Bill Plunkett of The Orange County Register also was a new guy on the beat that spring, so we tended to spend a lot of time together as we slowly acclimated ourselves to the new surroundings into which we had been cast, a world in which the scenery was dotted not only with big league ballplayers and coaches but with various Hall of Famers and other Dodgers legends who still hung around.
One of those Hall of Famers and legends, a guy who was doing anything but just hanging around, was Jaime, the team's longtime Spanish-language broadcaster. And that day found us all at the same lunch table, where Jaime reached out in that warm, welcoming way that is so familiar to anyone who has ever known him.
The dining room was in the same building where the Dodgers' clubhouse had been in the years before they moved into a new multimillion-dollar structure beyond the right-field fence at Holman Stadium in 2003. As we got up to head back to that new building that also housed a media workroom, Jaime offered to take us on a tour of the old facility. He showed us the clubhouse; the bar where so many late nights had been whiled away by coaches, front-office personnel and old-time beat writers; basically every corner of the place where so much history had happened since 1948, when the Dodgers set up spring training in Vero Beach.
Since that day, Bill and I have shared countless meals with Jaime. One of the perks of covering baseball is that you occasionally form a close personal friendship with a legend. Bill moved over to the Angels beat after 2006, but our friendship with Jaime endures. Not much time had gone by after that first meeting before Jaime started referring to Bill and I as mis sobrinos favoritos (my favorite nephews), and we, of course, called him Tio Jaime. As a by-product of that, Jaime's broadcast partner Pepe Yniguez and I almost always address each other as primo (cousin).
So this story is about mi tio favorito, my friend, my sometime-Spanish teacher, my part-time neighbor in Phoenix where we both purchased homes in a development that was known as Camelback Ranch long before the Dodgers and Chicago White Sox moved in across the street and claimed the name for themselves.
Before Jaime was inducted into the broadcasting wing of the National Baseball Hall of Fame, before he got a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, before he spent more than a half-century calling Dodgers games in his native tongue, he came to Los Angeles from Ecuador in 1955. Although he came largely at the prodding of his wife, Blanca, he also initially came without her, and without a few other things, too, like money and a grasp of the English language.
"When I came to the U.S., I was lost," he said recently, over calzones at a restaurant near the Dodgers' spring training complex. "I had no job offers, nothing. In Ecuador, I had been the announcer for the No. 1 program on HCJB, the 'Voice of the Andes.' We had 80 announcers broadcasting in 22 languages."
And now, at the age of 19 he was in the proverbial strange new world, living with a Spanish-speaking family and looking for work though he had no car and the city's bus drivers were on strike. Jaime's first small break came when he was hired to make chain link for fences in a factory near MacArthur Park. He also attended English classes every day from 7 in the morning until 1 in the afternoon.
Even before those tough times, though, there was an omen of sorts. Jaime arrived in Los Angeles on June 24, 1955, a day when the Dodgers, who were still firmly ensconced in Brooklyn, brought in a rookie left-hander in the fifth inning. That pitcher, a kid named Koufax, was making his major league debut. The two had been born only 20 days apart in December 1935. But it would be a while before their paths actually crossed.
That fall, as the Dodgers were winning the World Series for the first time in their history, Jaime noticed something strange.
"I had never seen a baseball game in my life," he said. "In Quito [his hometown, the capital of Ecuador], they didn't play baseball at all. But in Los Angeles that October, I saw so many people gathered around television sets or listening to radios, and they were listening to baseball games being played in New York, the World Series between the Yankees and Dodgers. There were just so many people, so I thought to myself 'This must be a great sport."'
By that time, Jaime had landed a radio job at KWKW, one of the first Spanish-language stations in the country, where he was calling boxing matches at the old Olympic Auditorium. He had always been a sports fan back home in Ecuador, and this American sport of baseball had him curious. So over the next two years, when there were still no big league teams west of St. Louis, he attended as many Triple-A games as he could, seeing the Los Angeles Angels at old Wrigley Field in South L.A., or the Hollywood Stars at Gilmore Field, on the site of what is now Farmer's Market and the Grove.
And then word came that the Dodgers would move to town in 1958. And Jaime got an offer he never dreamed of.
"The station's general manager was a man named William Beaton," he said. "One day Mr. Beaton called all the employees together and said he had something very special to tell us. There were about 15 of us there, and he told us he had just signed a contract with the Dodgers to broadcast their games in Spanish. I was 22 at the time, and he liked me very, very much, and he said he wanted me to be one of the two announcers for the Dodgers.
"I went to him after the meeting, and I said, 'Thank you very much, but I don't think I'm ready to do baseball games. I know the game a little bit, but I feel I shouldn't be doing baseball because I like doing things I know I can do well.' But he said there was going to be a big following for baseball. He said, 'I know you have the talent. You have been doing boxing for two years and doing a very solid job. I will give you one year to prepare yourself."'
So even though the Dodgers came in '58, Jaime, by his own choice, didn't start calling their games until '59. Maybe he was their good-luck charm, because they won the World Series in his first season. Then again, maybe they were his, because he has now become one of a handful of people who are considered the faces of the franchise, the Spanish counterpart to Vin Scully.
"I thought it would be a matter of six, seven, eight years, and then I would move to something else," he said. "A Spanish television channel was just coming on the air in '64, and I thought that would be the next step. But I always felt like radio was my calling."
All these years later, he still feels that way. And he still loves doing Dodgers games.
"I could do two games a day, easily," he said.
Jaime's life hasn't been without its tragedies, and near-tragedies. In keeping with a misfortune that seems to target beloved L.A. sports announcers, Jaime -- like Scully and Chick Hearn -- lost a son. Jimmy Jarrin, the middle of his and Blanca's three boys, died unexpectedly in February 1988, collapsing from a brain aneurysm while sitting at his desk at work. He was 29.
When he received a phone call saying his son had been rushed to the hospital, Jaime figured it was his eldest son, Jorge, who had a more hazardous job as a helicopter traffic reporter for a local radio station. The last thing he expected was to receive such a call about Jimmy, who was a vice president for Broadway Stores and worked in an office.
"The paramedics took him to the hospital at UCLA," Jaime said. "The doctors there said they couldn't really give us any hope. He lived for 19 hours, but he was clinically dead."
The start of baseball season a few weeks later provided Jaime with no respite from his crushing grief.
"When I was alone in my hotel room, someplace like Pittsburgh or Cincinnati, it was tough," he said. "I found myself asking God, 'Why him?' The only thing that made it better was time, and talking about him a lot. That was the only remedy. My wife totally went into a shell for about eight years. She didn't go anywhere. Our social life was down to zero. She just didn't want to see any friends. Finally, after about six, seven, eight years, she started coming out of her shell. But it was very, very, very tough."
A couple of years later, during spring training in Vero Beach, Fla., Jaime was involved in a horrifying car crash. His injuries were so severe that he missed the entire season, much of which he spent in a Vero Beach hospital recovering.
Today, all seems to be well in Jaime's world. He received the Ford C. Frick Award, putting him into the broadcaster's wing of the Hall, in 1998. He and Blanca have two other sons. The elder son, Jorge, still works as a traffic reporter for KABC, although he now does those reports from terra firma, and he also works for the Dodgers selling sponsorships for his father's broadcasts. Their other son is Mauricio, and they also have three grandsons: Andrew, 25, Philip, 21, and Stefan, 18. Stefan is a promising second baseman at Orange Coast College.
Jaime is presently funding, through outside donations, a baseball academy in Guayaquil, Ecuador's largest city, for kids between the ages of 7 and 12. It began with 10 kids and has grown to 110, but it has just one playing field. Jaime hopes to soon open it to teenagers, as well as adding a second floor to the main building for a video-instruction room.
But expanded participation means expanded expenses. So far, Jaime has raised about $55,000 from a long list of donors, including Dodgers owner Frank McCourt and players Russell Martin, Jeff Weaver and Brad Ausmus; major league players Bengie Molina, Trevor Hoffman, Adrian Gonzalez and Nomar Garciaparra; former Dodgers owner Peter O'Malley; former Dodgers general manager Kevin Malone; and Angels owner Arte Moreno. A neighbor of Jaime's in Pasadena donated $10,000.
Jaime now dreams of a day when his native country produces a big league prospect.
"We're trying to have something for these kids," Jaime said. "They don't have any other facilities. We're also trying to get their parents to come with them and help us, especially on the weekends. Now we're trying to expand the facility so we can have 12- to 17-year-olds, so we're asking the city to give us some land. … Right now, baseball is like soccer used to be in this country -- everybody plays, but they only play until the end of high school and then they forget about it.
"I'm going to approach Major League Baseball about possibly helping us bring some instructors down there."
The calzones had been devoured, and the restaurant, which had been hopping when we arrived, had mostly cleared out. It was the first time Jaime, Bill and I had managed to get together this spring and -- given the frenetic schedule of spring training -- it would probably be the last. The server, who had somehow figured out that we were media types, finally asked who we wrote for.
She was looking at me when she asked, and it was late and I was getting tired, so without thinking I told her who Bill and I each wrote for. It was Bill who had the mental clarity at that hour to point across the table at Jaime and tell her that he was the real star in our group, a Hall of Famer in whose presence we were once again honored to break bread.
She clearly wasn't a baseball fan, but she feigned being impressed, left the check, thanked us and walked away. One of the first things you learn about Jaime is that after you have shared a meal with him, you never grab for the check, and if it's an occasion on which it would clearly be inappropriate to let him pay -- as it was one night a few years ago, when several of us took him out after a game to celebrate the 50th anniversary of his arrival in the U.S. -- even then you have to fight him for it.
This time, as usual, he snapped it up before it hit the table. I tried to reason with him, to point out that I was interviewing him for a story and that as such, it was customary for me to pay, but of course he was having none of it.
So Bill and I thanked him for buying us yet another meal in yet another restaurant in yet another city, and said goodbye. I would see him again the following morning; I see him pretty much every day during spring training and the season. But we all knew it would be a while before the three of us could get together again.
On the way home, I pulled into a convenience store to gas up my car, and there was Jaime, gassing up his. That was when it dawned on me that we aren't that different: the Hall of Fame broadcaster who grew up in a country I'll probably never see and the small-town boy from Arkansas who still sometimes feels a little awed by Jaime's presence.
For all his accomplishments and all his accolades, to me he's mostly my friend, my neighbor and the guy who went out of his way to make me feel welcome when I came to town to cover the Dodgers. I am a better man for having known him.
Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.