Game 3 of the Dodgers' NLDS was particularly important and special for me, as before this evening, I had never been to a Dodgers postseason playoff game before Saturday night.
It's ridiculous, I know. I've been to Dodger games all my life, and in recent years around 10-25 games per season, but never a playoff game. I was too young to have gone during the 1980s. In 1995, I was in school 3000 miles away. In 1996, I was living in San Francisco and had just started a new job.
In 2004, I was on vacation with my wonderful wife in Portugal (and I distinctly remember reading the game results via stolen moments using internet terminals at hotel business centers, as well as via choppy recaps squished in the bottom left hand corners of the International Herald Tribune). If Lima time seemed unbelievable to fans here in Los Angeles, imagine how preposterous that win would have seemed half a world away. That year, if the Dodgers had advanced to the NLCS, I would have been able to attend, having ended up getting an unusual in on some tickets--but that's a funny story for another time, and alas, the Dodgers didn't advance to the NLCS anyway.
In 2006, personal travel plans once again conflicted me out of seeing a Dodgers playoff game, despite the fact that I was in Los Angeles for some of the NLDS. I saw Game 1, the horrific train wreck of JD Drew and Jeff Kent getting skewered at home on the same play, on television over at Orel's house, with both Orel and I screaming our heads off as the disaster unfolded almost in slow-motion. Baserunners, and not stars, were aligning for the Dodgers that year, so I wasn't all that heartbroken to have missed the series' sole home game later that weekend while I was up in the Bay Area for a weekend function. It was probably all for the best, as watching that Mets victory in person just would have depressed me.
So here we are, in 2008, with a mercurial Dodgers team that has seen both eight-game losing streak freefalls and eight-game winning streak rocket-booster ascents. And despite drawing the Chicago Cubs, the team with the best record, in the National League, the Dodgers seemed to be rolling. Game 1 in Chicago was all us as soon as James Loney slammed home four runs; Game 2 in Chicago was both us and a lot of help from the Cubs infield, who gave us four errors and extra outs with which to play. And Game 3, back in here in Los Angeles, was my first chance to go to a Dodger playoff game. Ever.
And the evening, obviously, did not disappoint. You have to realize, with all of the expectations of years past and playoff games missed, there was a lot of tension for me even before I got to the stadium. Sure, we had a 2-0 lead and things were looking awfully favorable. But what if something went wrong? What if we never made it to the game? I just wanted everything to go right.
We left early, but not early enough, and ended up getting routed (fairly efficiently, I might add, for the first time all year) to park above the Think Blue sign visible over center field. The view of the stadium from there is striking and incredible, not that we stayed in place very long to look at it; we had a game to catch and it was clear from the roars of the crowd not only that the first pitch had already happened, but things weren't entirely going the Dodgers' way. With questions about "which Kuroda would show up?" lingering in the air, it was a pretty brisk walk to the stadium from there.
I recall parking in this lot somewhere on the Sea of Tranquility once before, for an Opening Day game against San Francisco in which I came late, had to catch a flight to London that evening which forced me to leave early anyway; my mom kept calling me every five minutes to find out how close I was to joining her at the game, which only served to make me more aggravated at my unintended delay; I ran down the hillside in a suit and dress shoes; and the Giants ended up bombing the crap out of us anyway, fueled by two Barry Bonds homers. So it wasn't a good omen, needless to say, to have to park up here on the moon again (though this time, I didn't run the most direct path down the dirt hill). Rations in hand, we set out on our long walk toward the bright lights.
Finally, we got close enough to catch a glimpse of the right field scoreboard lights. 0-0, that's good. First inning, two out, so that's good. The roars of disappointment from the crowd meant that the Cubs had at least one man on base (they had two; Derrek Lee on second from a double, and Aramis Ramirez was about to reach first from a walk). Hurry, get into the stadium as fast as possible, which luckily was reasonably convenient (I had bought field level seats on the third base side in 53, the section right beside the Dodgers' bullpen).
When one is late for a game, getting through the turnstiles is like a blur of split-second decisions as one slaloms through the obstacles en route to the concourse. Lament for a split second how it is too late to get a free NLDS rally towel, as it looks like they had run out; race past the legions of stadium photographers, trying to get fans to stop to take a picture with Dodger Stadium in the background (I've got a game to catch, dammit!); dismiss the guy asking fans to sign up for a Dodgers credit card to get an XL-size only Dodgers t-shirt (in other circumstances, particularly in my younger years when a t-shirt had more marginal value, I might have stopped at the kiosk and given a fake name and social security number in order to acquire said shirt; now, I'm older, I have way too many t-shirts, and did I mention I've got a game to catch, dammit!). Luckily for me, the Ramirez walk took seven pitches, so by the time Geovany Soto had grounded out to end the inning, I was already in the stadium proper, and could exhale a sigh of relief along with the rest of the Dodger faithful.
And that's when it hit me: the concourse was uncrowded. The 3rd Base Baseline Club room was practically empty. There were no queues extending from the mens bathroom. I almost expected a tumbleweed to come blowing down the aisle. It's not like there weren't a lot of Dodger fans there at the Stadium--the place was packed with people, and loud, and boisterous, and electric, and infectious with a positive vibe. But everyone was in his or her seat, watching the game. All of that "LA fans come late and leave early" bullshit just couldn't be further from the truth for this game; not only was everyone there, people were so enraptured by the game on the field, there were no crowds congregating in the concourse, which was so uncommon, it was a little eerie. But hey, it allowed us to get our beers and dogs without delay, an uncommon luxury which persisted all game long.
There was one other strategic decision to be made, and that was to sit in the section near my season seats, without a proper ticket. This was a reasonably high-risk move, but there were a pair of seats right beside my parents (who had said season seats this evening) that would have been morally unjust to have gone unused here in the bottom of the first inning. There's my mom, Bose headphones on, switching back and forth between Vin Scully and the USC football game. There's my dad, who sometimes comes to games with magazines to read, but this time was bundled up in his Dodger warmup jersey, on the edge of his seat. The guy on the aisle wearing his Gagne 38 jersey paid $400 for his seat. So you can imagine, my viewpoint for the fateful bottom of the first inning was incredible.
Russell Martin's ground rule double was roped, and there was no doubt that he was going to get two bases out of it. Manny Ramirez's single right after that was a little dicey; having initially frozen Martin at second (never run with the ball ahead of you), the ball slipping past the diving shortstop, with Martin breaking for third late and narrowly making it to the bag before the tag (from our perspective, that call could have gone either way). One out, men at the corners, and then Andre Ethier strikes out. More stranded RISP seemed imminent.
And up comes Loney. Long-time SoSG readers recall that we've been a fan of Loney's for quite some time; our "Free James Loney" campaign even had us make SoSG t-shirts with the slogan last year, as we tried to get Loney out of purgatory and into the starting lineup. And man, was he a hero this NLDS, including his backbreaking two-RBI double in the first inning of Game 3. Martin scoring from third was inevitable, but Manny lumbering in from first and then doing a childlike slide at the plate to avoid the tag, with third base coach Larry Bowa jumping and hooting and hollering along with it, lit the Stadium up with a euphoric scream.
There would be no two-runners-thrown-out-at-home tonight. The Dodgers had the right guys at the plate, the right runners on the basepaths, the right coach at third base, and the right crowd to celebrate along with them. 2-0, Dodgers, first inning. Here. We. Go.
My friend and I got at least three, possibly four innings in the good seats before a pair of grumpy Chicago fans showed up to rightfully reclaim their seats. (You see? Chicago fans, showing up late. Take that to the bank, Los Angeles stereotypers.) We promptly said goodbye to my parents and left the seats with a couple of empty beer cups and hot dog wrappers. I think the Cubs fans might have even made out with a third of a pack of pumpkin seeds that we picked up at the 7-11 on Sunset en route to the game; not that the Cubs fans weren't salty enough as it was, the way the game was going.
So, back to our "real" seats, in aisle 53, right inside the left field foul pole. From where we sat, I could peer down and see Cory Wade warming up in the bullpen, and Jonathan Broxton and Clayton Kershaw up and walking around in their warmup jackets. And the crowd here was great as well, excited to see two Dodger fans enter the section (through the course of my 12 regular season games this year, I had figured out the lucky sartorial combination consisted of a dark blue Dodgers t-shirt underneath the grey away jersey (no name on the back), jeans, and my phat blue puma sneakers), and help them kindly rib the poor naked outposts of Cubs fans scattered here and there.
The crowd out here was just as loud and vocal as our prior section. To my right, a woman who had been to 35 games this season, draped with a rally towel on top of her NLDS cap and wearing a smart NLDS shirt. In front of me, a crowd of young men cheering for every strike, getting us all to stand for two-strike counts. And behind us, a sweet lady with a fingernail of steel.
At least, that's what I quickly learned in the bottom of the fifth. Celebrating Dodgers' achievements with the fans around you is one of the things I love about Dodger Stadium, as I've written many a time for this blog and other sites. So when Rafael Furcal turned his one-out walk into a run scored off a Martin double, chasing Cubs starter Rich Harden with a 3-0 lead, I turned around to slap a high-five to the lady. And she missed the slap, and hit me in the head.
At first, I figured it had to have been a ring on her finger. But she wasn't wearing a ring! No, she hit me with her nail, piercing skin on my forehead, leading me to bleed just a little, which ended up making the night even more real. She was overly apologetic, but no apology was necessary--the Dodgers were winning, after all--and bleeding Dodger blue in appreciation was the least I could do to support my team.
As Orel said in his at-game recaps, the game was tense through the late innings, particularly in the eighth after Dodger scourge Daryle Ward hit a bloopy single to get the Cubs on the board and within two runs. In came Broxton, to shut his four batters down (Mark DeRosa to end the eighth, as well as Ryan Theriot, Kosuke Fukudome, and Alfonso Soriano in the ninth) with efficiency and exclamation.
And exclaiming we did, when Soriano's final check-swing was deemed full. The section erupted in screams of joy. High fives and hugs abounded. Rally towels swirled. The Dodgers had swept the mighty Cubs, and the fans were going crazy. It was incredible to see, to hear, to feel. It was years of postseason angst and heartache getting resolved with hearts uplifted all at once. And for me, it was a wonderful way to start my Dodgers postseason history: 1-0.
But, finally, I was there this time to see a Dodgers playoff victory; and, a series-clinching victory, no less.
And it was glorious. And well worth the wait.