Tuesday, May 12, 2009

One constant in a changing city -- Dodger Stadium at twilight

At twilight, a show of natural beauty plays out against the hills.
(Lori Shepler/Los Angeles Times) August 19, 2003

It's a show of natural beauty played out against the hills of Elysian Park and the downtown skyline -- and it's best seen from some of the stadium's cheapest seats.

Hector Tobar, Los Angeles Times, May 12, 2009

The stars come and go. They bleed Dodger Blue one year, and another color the next. They send home runs over the fence and win a space in our hearts -- and then they do something dumb like fail a drug test.

Manny Ramirez was earning $25 million this year until his suspension last week. But the Dodgers don't need to pay that money to keep this fan. What I go to Dodger Stadium to see doesn't cost owner Frank McCourt a penny.

I go to Dodger Stadium for the twilight.

Over the years, the Dodgers have delighted me, but they've disappointed me many times more. The twilight, however, rarely fails to make the trek up and down the hills of the old Chavez Ravine worthwhile.

It's a show of natural beauty played out against the hills of Elysian Park and the downtown skyline -- and it's best seen from some of the stadium's cheapest seats.

A lot of things have changed in Los Angeles since Dodger Stadium was opened in 1962. But the experience of settling into your seat for a night game after a day of suffering down in the city below is the same as it's always been. We leave behind hot asphalt and smog for the cool air and comfort of watching a slow game unfold in a dry valley.

In a city that allows few things to grow old and familiar, twilight at Dodger Stadium is the same steady friend we've known since our childhoods.

I'm deep into middle age now, but when I go up in the general admission seats, or the slightly "better" seats of the reserve level, it's the 1960s and '70s all over again.

Beyond left field I see the white cube of the Police Academy, tucked into the bottom of the hillside. From this distance, it resembles a rustic country cabin, its familiar tile roof disappearing in the fading light.

In my memory, Joe Torre isn't the manager -- he's a much younger guy who plays third base for the St. Louis Cardinals. The man in charge of my team is lanky Walter Alston, who heads with slow strides out to home plate to hand his lineup to the umpire.

On the mound, future Hall of Famer Don Sutton throws his first pitches through the field's last squares of daylight. The sun is dipping behind the left-field stands, but its last rays are reaching underneath the upper deck's wavy roof.

Later, the sky turns a darker shade of blue and Johnny Bench of the hated Cincinnati Reds comes to bat. He smashes a twilight home run, and I have to squint to watch it disappear over the center-field fence.

Fenway Park has the Green Monster, and Wrigley Field its brick and ivy. We Dodgers fans have the deep-orange sunlight glistening off the palm trees behind the bullpens. Those older ballparks are widely worshiped for their history. But to my mind, the panorama at Dodger Stadium is just as worthy of reverence.

Dodger Stadium is a symmetrical bit of Space Age, mid-20th century hopefulness, but it's plopped in a very old corner of the city. It occupies a chunk of real estate where a barrio of tumbledown houses once stood, a neighborhood of mostly unpaved streets that looked a lot like a rural village.

"It was a little town, where everybody knew each other," says Helen Yorba, 74.

As a child in 1940s Chavez Ravine, Yorba played hide-and-seek and kick-the-can on the streets. "We didn't have TV then, so we ran around outside," she says, remembering the neighborhood she left at age 16.

Yorba's family house on Effie Street had a porch and a little lawn, and looked out on the hills of nearby Elysian Park.

The city never did allow developers to fill those bare Elysian Park hillsides, thank God. So even though her home is gone, we can still enjoy that same bucolic view.

From the general admission deck, we can buy a beer and spend a few minutes savoring the view to the south, watching the skyscrapers of downtown cast shadows over the Eastside.

We baseball fans inherited Chavez Ravine from the mostly Latino families that lived there. And just as they sat on their porches and watered their postage-stamp lawns, we sit in our plastic chairs and watch the groundskeepers water the outfield as the heat of the day lifts with each passing inning.

For much of the season, night games start a little before sunset. And during the dog days of July and August, a cool night at Dodger Stadium is a gift, even if the Boys in Blue are last in the standings.

Nightfall arrives in the middle innings. A cross-section of L.A. fills the stands, from the exclusive boxes near the dugouts to the plebeian benches of the pavilions. The distant mountains and even nearby hillsides become silhouettes and then fade to black

The floodlights come up and the field is bathed in the artificial light of a theater -- as it should be, because in the late innings, the sporting drama of baseball takes over.

You may remember Dennis Eckersley stepping out from underneath the palms still out there in right field, leaning over the bullpen. He walked up to the mound to pitch, eventually, to Kirk Gibson in Game 1 of the 1988 World Series.

"High fly ball into right field," Vin Scully announced as the ball climbed in the night. "She is gone!"

Every Dodgers fan knows that bit of history. A few years later, I witnessed another memorable moment, during a seemingly routine midseason game against the Giants.

On Aug. 17, 1992, Dodgers pitcher Kevin Gross took a no-hitter into the ninth inning. All around me, small groups of fans were heading for the exits.

"He's throwing a no-hitter and you're leaving?" I asked incredulously. From my reserved-level seats, I could see other fans running across the parking lot to get to their cars. As Gross recorded the last out, several cars were already zooming past the gates.

Perhaps those fans had come mostly for the sunset, the twilight and the beer, and didn't care enough about the game itself to endure the traffic afterward. The Dodgers' next home game is May 18, against the Mets.

I have no idea who will be pitching. I do know, however, that the sun will set at 7:51 p.m., about 40 minutes after the first pitch.


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