October 2, 2014

Remembering Dave Niehaus

I was out of the country on vacation last week when the great Dave Niehaus unexpectedly passed away from a heart attack.  As a baseball fan who spent his 20s in Seattle, I listened to a LOT of Mariner baseball games.  In those days, the Mariners played in the cavernous Kingdome and were really, really bad (it wasn’t until 1991 that they finally secured their first .500 season), but there were a number of jewels that captivated the minds of baseball fans across the Pacific Northwest, including Ken Griffey, Jr., Jay Buehner, Randy Johnson, Edgar Martinez, Tino Martinez and, of course, Dave Niehaus.

Outside of Vin Scully, Niehaus was the best baseball broadcaster I ever heard.  Like Vin, Dave had a conversational style, but he also had a passion for the team and game that always brought a smile to your face.  The guy could definitely be a bit over the top at times, but he was a big guy with a big heart and had a big, big love for baseball in Seattle – something that was a needed antidote to the anemic play that often took place on the field.

I’ve read a lot of articles over the past few days about Dave Niehaus’ passing, but one of the best remembrances I read was from “Dodger Talk” co-host Ken Levine, who teamed up with Niehaus in the broadcast booth during the 1992 season.  While Levine’s hiring seemed unconventional at the time, I really loved listening to his calls with Niehaus.  They were a great team. 

Earlier this season, after a routine Joe Torre pregame media session at Dodger Stadium, I was trudging up the stairs to the press box with Ken and I offhandedly mentioned how much I enjoyed listening to him and Dave during that 1992 Mariners season.  Ken stopped, turned around and told me how much he appreciated the comment.  From our short conversation on those steps, I could tell that his experience with Niehaus meant far more to him than I had originally expected.

It’s for that reason that I was really looking forward to reading Ken’s thoughts on Dave, and I was not disaapointed.  It’s a must read for anyone that loves the art of baseball broadcasting and just fantastic insight into a great man:

Still, people in the Pacific Northwest clung to his every word. The attraction was not the team; it was listening to Dave. His passion for the game, vivid descriptions, and magnificent voice made any baseball game sound exciting, even a Mariners’.

Sound familiar, Dodger fans?

Ken was also recently a guest of Mike Gastineau on 950 KJR AM in Seattle and shared a little more insight into how he first met Dave during a college internship, as well as some additional personal anecdotes that can’t help but make you smile.

Finally, for baseball fans in the Northwest, the Mariners are planning a free public “Celebration of Life” to honor Dave Niehaus on Saturday, December 11, at 1:10 p.m. at Safeco Field.  The program is still being developed, but will include tributes from the Niehaus family, Mariners players and Dave’s close associates throughout his long and celebrated career in the game of baseball.

Photo Credit: AP Photo/The Seattle Times, John Lok

The Return of Fernandomania

Fernandomania is the subject of the next “30 for 30″ documentary (put on by ESPN Films) and I couldn’t be more excited.

Called “Fernando Nation,” the series looks at the one and only Fernando Valenzuela.  Like many fans of the team, some of my favorite early Dodger memories revolve around Fernandomania and the excitement that the young Mexican phenom generated in my group of friends, deep in the heart of suburbia – to say nothing of Angelenos everywhere.  Fernando’s accomplishments literally transcended race; the overweight, shy, Spanish-speaking kid was someone everyone could root for.  And they did. 

Even today, when I think about what Dodger legend’s name I would put on the back of my jersey (if I had one), Valenzuela is a clear #2 (Scully is my #1).  There simply has not been a young player for the Dodgers that inspired and electrified the crowd from his first day in Dodger Blue quite like Fernando Valenzuela.

For those of you that were born after Fernandomania, here’s a quick summary of the legendary pitcher’s accomplishments (courtesy of the Dodgers PR team):

In his 10 appearances with the Dodgers in 1980, Valenzuela didn’t allow an earned run in 17 2/3 innings. He posted a 2-0 record with one save and the Dodgers finished the regular season tied for first place in the National League West.

Valenzuela was the emergency starter on Opening Day 1981 when he hurled a 2-0 shutout over Houston, one of five in his first eight starts that season. The phenomenon of “Fernandomania” ensued shortly thereafter. While leading the Dodgers to the World Championship that year, he became the first player in Major League history to be named Rookie of the Year and to win a Cy Young in the same season. Valenzuela also earned the All-Star Game start in Cleveland. He still holds the rookie record for consecutive scoreless innings (35.0), as he began his major league career with a 10-0 record and a 0.40 ERA (4ER/90.0 IP) including his late season call-up in 1980.

In 17 big league seasons, Valenzuela compiled a 173-153 record and a 3.54 ERA with Los Angeles, the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, Baltimore, Philadelphia, San Diego, and St. Louis. He was named to the National League All-Star team for six consecutive seasons from 1981-1986 and in 1986 he won 20 games while also earning the Rawlings Gold Glove Award.

Here’s the official summary of the film:

“‘The Natural’ is supposed to be a blue-eyed boy who teethed on a 36-ounce Louisville Slugger. He should run like the wind and throw boysenberries through brick. He should come from California.” – Steve Wulf, Sports Illustrated, 1981.  So how was it that a pudgy 20-year-old, Mexican, left-handed pitcher from a remote village in the Sonoran desert, unable to speak a word of English, could sell out stadiums across America and become a rock star overnight?  In Fernando Nation, Mexican-born and Los Angeles-raised director Cruz Angeles traces the history of a community that was torn apart when Dodger Stadium was built in Chavez Ravine and then revitalized by one of the most captivating pitching phenoms baseball has ever seen.  Nicknamed “El Toro” by his fans, Fernando Valenzuela ignited a fire that spread from LA to New York—and beyond. He vaulted himself onto the prime time stage and proved with his signature look to the heavens and killer screwball that the American dream was not reserved for those born on U.S. soil.  In this layered look at the myth and the man, Cruz Angeles recalls the euphoria around Fernando’s arrival and probes a phenomenon that transcended baseball for many Mexican-Americans. Fernando Valenzuela himself opens up to share his perspective on this very special time. Three decades later, “Fernandomania” lives.

Now how does that not get you excited if you’re a baseball fan?  The Dodgers had the official premiere for the film at Dodger Stadium on Thursday evening, and the reviews are starting to come in: 

- Dodger Thoughts’ Jon Weisman offers a glimpse into his boyhood love for Fernandomania (more on the film is coming soon from Jon)

- Evan Drellich of MLB.com gives some context to Valenzuela’s accomplishments

- Roberto over at Vin Scully is My Homeboy gives the doc two thumbs up and has some photos from the premiere

When covering games at Dodger Stadium, I frequently see Fernando, now the Spanish radio analyst for the team, walking through the press box and on the field, greeting kids and community groups before games.  He’s no longer the shy ballplayer he was when he first arrived, but he continues to carry himself with the grace and class and grace that’s fitting of a Dodger legend.

I can’t wait to watch “Fernando Nation” on Tuesday night, if only to flash back to the magic he created in Chavez Ravine in 1980 and beyond.

“Fernando Nation” will air on ESPN Deportes on Sunday, October 24 at 6 p.m. PST and on ESPN on Tuesday, October 26 at 5 p.m. PST.

Photo Credit: Rick Stewart/Getty Images

John Lindsey to Play in Houston? Signs Point to Yes

One of the brightest spots of the season (aside from the announcement of the return of Vin Scully in 2011) is the arrival of career minor leaguer John Lindsey in a Dodgers uniform.

After 16 seasons and 13 different minor league teams, John Lindsey is finally going to get his chance to play.  Yes, the remaining games are practically meaningless for the Dodgers this season, but you can’t deny the “fee good” nature of this story in a year that’s been full of disappointment for Dodger fans, players and management.  This is a “kid” who has worked tirelessly to achieve his goal of playing in the major leagues, and that dream is happening.  And for that reason it seems especially fitting that Lindsey’s first day on a major league roster fell on Labor Day.  But this isn’t a move just for the positive PR: Lindsey is batting .353 with 25 HR and 97 RBI for the Isotopes. 

ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne has been covering a possible Lindsey roster move as of late, and has two great stories on the arrival of the 33 year-old rookie.  Clearly it’s an emotional moment for not only the player, his family, his teammates and the general manager, but also for Tim Wallach, his AA manager, as reported by Shelburne:

“It was,” Wallach said, “as good as it gets.”

And, of course, the Dodgers communications team has been fully prepared to take advantage of the John Lindsey’s arrival, releasing a video on the Dodgers Media Network showing Ned Colletti making the call to Lindsey to share the good news.  Even better, Ned tells Lindsey that he’s flying his parents, wife and kid to Houston to watch the upcoming series against the Astros.  A nice touch.

But something tells me that the best is yet to come in the story of John Lindsey this year.  Only time will tell if this is just the proverbial “cup of coffee,” or maybe the start of something bigger, but as someone who loves the emotional side stories in baseball, I can’t wait to see what happens next.

Photo Credit: Jon SooHoo/Dodgers 2010

Dodgers Media Game Photos

So the annual Dodgers Media Game took place at Dodger Stadium on Sunday afternoon following the game with the Mets, and while I don’t have the full rosters or know who won, I do have a few photos of a couple of the media guys that I could identify.  I think next year the Media Game should be expanded to feature two teams: Traditional Media vs. New Media…let’s see what the Dodger bloggers can do out there!  In the meantime, enjoy the photos!

Patrick O’Neal from Fox Sports West and the Dodgers pre and postgame shows goes for the catch.

“DodgerTalk” co-host Josh Suchon shows his skills at the plate.

Suchon shows off his fielding skills.

Photo Credit: Jon SooHoo/LA Dodgers 2010

It’s All About Perspective, Dodger Fans

The sky is not falling.  The world is not ending.  Yes, the Dodgers were swept by the Cardinals, with the knife being twisted in our collective gut in a very agonizing fashion on Sunday afternoon, but life as a Dodger fan does indeed go on.

Yes, the team is struggling right now.  And yes, I get frustrated by the inexplicable losses – just like everyone else.  But that frustration doesn’t define my love for the team, just like winning a World Series wouldn’t.  In thinking about how I was going to respond to Sunday’s game, I thought back to why I love the Dodgers and decided to share that story with all of you.

I became a fan because of my grandmother.  She passed away last year, and following is the text of the short speech I gave at her memorial service:

One of the things that my grandmother and I shared was a love of baseball; specifically Vin Scully and the Dodgers.  I was a huge sports fan growing up and we both appreciated great writing and storytelling, no matter what the sport.  In fact, my grandmother was the one who turned me on to my favorite sports columnist, the late Jim Murray. 

When I was away in high school, in college and even after college, Gmom would cut out the best sports articles from the LA Times and Wall Street Journal, date them and then mail them to me.  “Isn’t it great to see the Dodgers getting off to a good start – well, a promising one anyway,” she wrote one April. “A day game today, so I’ll be listening.”  These notes usually arrived with a book of stamps or a postcard – a not so subtle hint to write back.

When I’d go visit her, we would talk about how the team and Vin were doing, and she would tell me stories about the seats she and Grandad had at the LA Coliseum, and then later at Dodger Stadium, in the first row over the dugout.  He also shared her love for baseball.

I’m not really sure how it started, but several years ago, we decided that we should go to a Dodgers game together.  I distinctly remember inviting her as my treat, but somehow Gmom managed to turn it around and try and take me to the game by slipping me a check.  Whenever I would ask her how she was doing, or if she was warm enough, she’d always grab my hand, give it a good squeeze, flash her trademark smile and deliver one of her favorite lines: “Better than ever.”

I don’t know who looked forward to those games more, and every time I saw her she would ask me when we were going again.  After that first game, we tried to go once a year for maybe four or five years.

One of the most remarkable things about each trip to Dodger Stadium was that I never once saw her go to the bathroom, even after three plus hours!  But that was Gmom – elegant and dignified no matter what the occasion.

The last time we went, just a couple of years ago, it was an evening game.  Once we were settled in our seats, I asked Gmom what I could get her to eat or drink.  Frankly, I wasn’t really sure what her answer was going to be.  She thought about it for a second and said, “You know, I’d like a hot dog and a beer.  It’s been a long time since I’ve had a hot dog and a beer.”

When I think back to those games, I’m reminded of the traits that we all saw in Gmom everyday: her generosity, her dignity, her appreciation of a great game or story, and most importantly, her love for an adventure with her grandchildren.

I love watching Dodgers games today because it reminds me of my relationship with my grandmother, and how much closer we became by discussing the team’s annual achievements and struggles.  As in life, there will be ups and downs, but for me, it’s about the long-term journey and what’s gained along the way. 

So take heart, fellow Dodger fans, and remember why you love the team.  It’s all about perspective.