Wednesday, July 04, 2007

For one fan, Dodger Stadium is where dreams come blue

Los Angeles Times
Bill Plaschke, July 4, 2007

Maurice Gardner, who has worshipped the Dodgers from afar for his 46 years, finally makes the trip to L.A. and the stadium from his Virginia home, knowing his time might be short as his cancer progresses

He walks onto the concourse, stares down at a Dodger Stadium field dotted with current players and past legends, grabs his camera and immediately begins snapping photos.

Photos of the grass.

"Look at how green it is," he says.

Photos of the crooked roof above the outfield pavilions. "Just like on TV," he says.

Photos of the streaking baseball plastered on the concrete high above home plate. "I've dreamed of seeing that baseball," he says. We take it for granted, don't we?

We've lived next to Dodger Stadium for so long, we ignore its beauty, shrug at its charm and lose sight of that funky streaking baseball. We are so worried about the lousy concession lines, inconsistent parking and cramped concourses, we forget that our aging neighbor may still be the most beautiful sporting spot on Earth.

Meet a man who does not, who will not, who cannot. He is Maurice Gardner, a 46-year-old furniture factory worker who has spent his life loving the Dodgers without ever setting foot in Los Angeles, an affair of the couch and the remote and the heart.

From 2,400 miles away, in the southern Virginia town of Martinsville, he has cheered for them even though he has no Dodgers ticket stubs, no programs, no autographs, no evidence of any human connection.

A souvenir Dodgers clock in his bedroom is the first thing he sees each morning. A flicker on his car dashboard — Vin Scully calling the ninth inning on satellite radio — is often the last thing he sees at night.

"I may not love the Dodgers any more than Tommy Lasorda," Gardner says in his syrupy Southern twang, "but I guarantee I love them just as good."

Their traditions taught to him by an older brother, the Dodgers have long dominated his life, more powerful than anything other than family and church, until last year, when he finally met something stronger. It was cancer.

It invaded his colon and rectum, disappeared, then returned to his liver and lungs. Now doctors say the cancer cannot be stopped, and while Maurice Gardner is going to keep fighting it, he knew there was something he must do before he dies.

He flew to Los Angeles this week to do it. The lifelong Dodgers fan came here Tuesday to see, for the first time, Dodger Stadium. "Seen it so much in my mind," he says. "Wondered if it was actually real."

His church paid for the plane tickets. His wife, Susan, arranged for the downtown hotel. They didn't rent a car because they were too afraid to drive. Susan e-mailed the Dodgers asking for the location of the best seats. When an e-mail exchange revealed his condition, the Dodgers immediately offered free tickets and a stadium tour.

On Monday, the night before the tour, Maurice Gardner rode every elevator in the downtown hotel looking for a view of the stadium lights. When he finally realized they could be seen from his room, he curled up next to the window and stayed awake late, until they were finally dimmed.

"Having waited all my life to be that close to Dodger Stadium, I wasn't going to sleep until it did," he says.We take it for granted, don't we? We find it hard to believe that our bewitching, befuddling Dodgers were once a national institution, their philosophies admired, their players respected, their stadium treasured. We forget that these Dodgers are still loved by people all over the country, people who remember Jackie, people who cheered for Maury and Sandy and Bulldog and Tommy.

We never think about folks like Maurice Gardner. From the moment his brother told him about the charm of the 1960s champions, he became hooked. Growing up in a town with no nearby major league baseball, it became his team. "They were professional, they played hard, they looked good in that blue," he says. "They took hold of me, and never let go."

He watches any Dodgers game that appears on his basic cable TV package. He disappears into his Chevy Lumina at night to listen to Dodgers games on the radio. A couple of years ago, he drove to Atlanta for his one and only Dodgers game. He hasn't been able to afford to attend one since."Now, it was time," says Susan. "Money didn't matter. It was time."

He shows for Tuesday's pregame tour in a weathered 8-year-old Dodgers cap a simple blue Dodgers T-shirt and blue-jean shorts. His wife shows up with a cast on her foot after breaking her ankle while boarding a Hollywood tour bus Monday.

As team historian Mark Langill gently leads them around the stadium, they take photos of hallways, seats, doors and even took photos of photos."What is that smell? Is that....?" says Susan, sniffing the air."Yep, that's Dodger dogs, and I'm getting you one," says Maurice with his eyes wide. Maurice meets old heroes Lasorda and Maury Wills, and new hero Russell Martin, and late-night companion Vin Scully.

The Dodgers of his dreams show up at his side, one by one, generous with their time, pretending not to notice that behind him, his wife is weeping.

Batting practice ends, but Maurice Gardner stays, grinding his tennis shoes into the soft grass behind home plate, staring at the hilly view that has been unchanged for more than four decades, standing in the shadow of that silly streaking baseball, shaking his head.

"In my mind, I've been here so many times before," he says. "In my mind, I'll be here forever."

As he so graciously reminds us, he will not be alone.
Los Angeles Times
Bill Plaschke, July 4, 2007

No comments: