Saturday, September 17, 2005

Veteran's Day

September 16, 2005
Los Angeles Times
BILL PLASCHKE:

Dave Strong gave up baseball for family after serving in World War II, but the Dodgers give him a chance to live out his dream on the field

He is wearing a $27 Jeff Kent jersey, a wrinkled blue Brooklyn cap, faded jeans, clunky tennis shoes.But as Dave Strong staggers around first base Thursday morning, he is a Dodger.
"I can feel the power coming back to my legs," he says.

The Dodger Stadium stands are empty, the field is vacant, the only sound is of an old man shuffling through the dirt.But as Dave Strong rounds second base, the crowd is roaring."Can you imagine if this was a home run trot?" he asks.He stumbles home hunched, his body racked with Parkinson's disease, three decades of driving a beer truck, 83 years of life
.












NOT A DRAFT DODGER: Dave Strong, 83, who turned
down the Dodgers in 1946, got a chance to be on the
field at Dodger Stadium, have his picture on the scoreboard
and run the bases Thursday.
“This makes up for a lot of years,” he said.
(Ricardo DeAratanha / LAT)
September 15, 2005

But Dave Strong's only thought is, should I slide?"You'd have to carry me out of here," he says with a grin.So he simply steps on the piece of rubber and looks to the sky, home plate being where the heart is.Left on base for nearly 60 years, the old Dodger prospect finally scores."This wasn't as I dreamed it," Dave Strong says. "Because I could never afford to dream it."

He was once a top Bay Area third baseman, a buddy of Billy Martin, a solidly built kid with a future.Then World War II happened, and that future was a draft notice, and by the time Dave Strong left the service, he was 24 with a wife and two young children.That didn't stop the Brooklyn Dodgers from sending him a letter in 1946, from a scout named Wid Matthews, inviting him to join the organization.Ebbets Field. The beloved Bums. Stardom.Dave Strong, it seemed, had spent his life waiting for this letter.He looked around his kitchen, and turned the Dodgers down.

"My wife didn't want me traveling anymore, she wanted me to make a living and support the family," he recalled. "That was my responsibility. That's the choice I made. I couldn't leave them."Instead of driving balls into the gap, he drove a beer truck.Instead of diving across chalk lines, he dragged cases of Schlitz across loading docks.Instead of making big money, he never played baseball for more than $75 a game."He gave it all up for us," said his son, Dave Jr. "He never said a word about it. But we knew."

They would hear him occasionally mumble about hitting a double off Bob Feller during war games. They would hear him casually mention getting five hits in semipro games, or winning AAU national championships.Then, later, they would attend memorabilia conventions and meet other old-timers and all their father's mumblings turned out to be true."We heard bits and pieces of these things, then all these other former players would confirm it for us," Dave Jr. recalled. "It was pretty amazing. I guess my father was a real good ballplayer."














SPECIAL SECOND-BASE SHOT: Cameron Matheson takes a
picture of his grandfather, Dave Strong, who missed out on a
chance to play in the majors.
(Ricardo DeAratanha / LAT)
September 15, 2005

Good enough to be inducted into a couple of Bay Area halls of fame. But busy enough that it didn't matter, because he was a father first, catching his son's warmup pitches before high school baseball games, taking his kids hunting and fishing, the important stuff."I never wanted to be one of those guys who spends his life telling everyone he could have been great," Strong said. "Whatever it was, I had to live my life with no regrets, and so I did."But he wondered. Don't we all wonder?

And amid the wondering, he quietly tucked away bits of his past to remind him of who he could have been.Last year, his grandson, Cameron Matheson, brought his new wife to the Bay Area to meet Grandpa.Instead of introducing himself, Dave Strong simply handed her the letter.Yep, that yellow, faded letter from the Brooklyn Dodgers."That's when I knew," Matheson said. "All these years, Grandpa never talked about it, but when I saw that he saved the letter, I knew.

All these years, he thought about how he sacrificed his chance to be a big leaguer."Matheson was so moved, he contacted the Dodgers and asked them to give his grandfather the one moment he lost.He didn't want autographs, or player introductions, or even tickets."I just wanted my grandpa to feel what it would have been like to make the show," Matheson said. "I just wanted him to be able to sit at home plate, walk the bases, feel the dirt, see what could have been.

"The Dodgers receive many wild requests, but few that make so much sense.Josh Rawitch, public relations director, was touched enough to immediately write back and offer Dodger Stadium for 30 minutes on a morning when the team was gone.John Olguin, vice president for public relations, made it happen."The letter showed such a simplistic appreciation for the game," Olguin said. "They weren't asking for anything but a few minutes of the field. We totally understood."So, on Thursday morning,

Olguin arranged for the field to be lined, the bases installed and Strong's picture to be displayed on the left-field scoreboard.Then he escorted Strong and three family members down to the dugout with only a Times columnist and photographer watching.He set up a clubhouse chair at home plate. He handed the old ballplayer a Dioner Navarro bat. He stepped out of the way.













'I just wanted my grandpa to feel what it would have been
like to make the show. I just wanted him to be able to sit at
home plate, walk the bases, feel the dirt, see what could
have been.' (Cameron Matheson, who helped set up the
Chavez Ravine visit of Dave Strong, left)
September 15, 2005

Strong's formerly 6-foot frame has lost a couple of inches to age and disease.His once-thick forearms looked thin next to the bat.With his white beard and ruddy face, he looked more like Ernest Hemingway than Duke Snider."I used to have such strength … look at me now," he said, idly swinging the bat at home plate.

Then, suddenly, he took off around the bases.A man who earlier needed help negotiating the dugout stairs was almost sprinting.A man who takes 16 pills daily to stop him from shaking wasn't slowing or stopping."This makes up for a lot of years," he said between huge breaths.

He finally scored the run, accompanied not by cheers, but by the smiles of his son and grandson, and it was more than enough."Baseball is an amazing game," Dave Strong said. "But have you met my family?"

Bill Plaschke can be reached at bill.plaschke@latimes.com. To read previous Plaschke columns, go to latimes.com/plaschke.

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