Cordova Chronicles: Take me out to the ball game

Snitching a handful of outfield dirt from LA Stadium was the highlight of my career as a Dodger fan. Photo by Sue Shellhorn/for The Cordova Times

It started over the snap, crackle and pop of a bowl of Rice Krispies, this love affair with Dodger baseball.

At one time, Kellogg’s finest was standard breakfast fare.

Before I headed off to grade school one particularly crunchy October morning, a very young Vin Scully joined us with his broadcast of the 1955 World Series.

Across the table, Dad carefully adjusted the knob of a big Zenith Trans-Oceanic radio, battling static to hear if Duke Snider had blasted a homer out of Ebbets Field against the hated Yankees.

Back then, Alaska had so many time zones that a baseball game which started early in the afternoon in New York was sunrise action in Cordova. There were no lighted parks for night games in those days.

Pee Wee Reese, Gil Hodges, Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella, Don Newcombe, Johnny Podres and a very young lefty prospect named Sandy Koufax were just a few of my many heroes; batting averages and ERA’s were the national mathematics standards of that era.

These days, I arise early, make a pot of coffee, and head to the computer to find out how the Dodgers did in yesterday’s games.

Of course, right now, there is no action, late or early, as the coronavirus has brought everything to a halt, including major league baseball.

Herbert Hoover, 31st President of the United States, famously observed, “Next to religion, baseball has had a greater impact on the American people than any other institution.”

Thank goodness Covid 19 is not an institution, but nothing has had more impact on all the people on this planet than the spread of this virus.

We all hunker down, and hope for brighter days, with sports the last thing on our minds.

So imagine my astonishment, when faithfully checking Dodger Digest, a Los Angeles Dodger website, I discovered that the Boys in Blue just shut out the Colorado Rockies 3-0 behind 10 strikeouts from young flame-throwing right-hander Walker Buehler.

Early morning sun strikes a spice jar full of warning track dirt sitting on the edge of my computer. The label says, “Dodger Outfield, Opening Day, April 2008.” Photo by Dick Shellhorn/for The Cordova Times

Why, there was even a complete box score, and it was great to see that last year’s National League MVP, Dodger Cody Bellinger, had a pair of RBIs.

Ah, fantasy land, of course.

As was the outfield of Dodger Stadium, when I stepped onto the center field warning track, back in March 31, 2008.

It was Opening Day of the 50th Anniversary of Dodger baseball in LA, and no, I was not clad in cleats and a Dodger home-uniform of sparkling white, with blue logo and red numerals.

It was the Pilgrimage of a Dream, and my wife and I had arrived so early that the outfield gates were open to allow youngsters to enter and shag batting practice fly balls.

A security guard stopped us at the gate, and said politely, “Sir, you are not a little kid.”

Sue saved the day, with “actually he is. He has been a Dodger fan since he was a little kid, and we’ve traveled all the way from Cordova, Alaska, to see this very special game.”

The guard looked at the disappointment on my face.

“Ahh, OK,” he said. “But let the youngsters run down the balls.”

With warm California sun shining down and the smell of grilled Dodger Dogs wafting in the breeze, we stepped onto the emerald green outfield grass. Fifty-six thousand seats, gradually filling with fans, surrounded the immaculate field; the enduring Dodger logo stood high above the upper deck; Vin Scully was puttering about in his broadcast booth; and above it all, a huge U.S. fluttered softly.

I heard the crack of a bat and was almost clunked by a white sphere that followed a long trajectory to land just feet away.

A little kid with a big glove and Dodger hat gave me a strange look, and then scooped up the ball to fire it back toward the infield. Mercifully, he didn’t give me a lecture about keeping my eye on the ball.

As the group of young fans raced over to run down a ball that landed in right field, I looked down, and was surprised by the coarse red composition of the warning track dirt. 

The warning track is just that — a band of dirt surface along the outfield fence, intended to let outfielders chasing down long fly balls know that they have left the grassy outfield and are now on their way to a possible collision with the outfield fences.

I reached down to feel the crushed rock. It seemed almost volcanic in nature, and triggered thoughts of Sue’s collection of sands from all over the world, which included volcanic ash and gravel from Kilauea on the Big Island of Hawaii.

Arranged meticulously in carefully labelled little jars, my wife’s collection now numbers 59, including contributions from friends who know of her hobby, and have brought back little bags from their travels.  

I suggested adding Dodger Dirt to the collection would be a wonderful idea. She was skeptical and warned if we were caught attempting such a heist, might get thrown out before even seeing the game.

Ah, nothing ventured, nothing gained. Further prodding produced a small plastic bag from her purse.

When a long fly bounced off the right field fence, the security guard glanced that way, and I reached down, pretending to tie a shoelace and scooped up a small handful of immortal dirt.

It stands as one of the greatest moments in my life as a Dodger fan.

A flood of memories comes with that jar, sitting beside my computer, as the sun comes up on Odiak Slough.

And a flood of hope.

Someday, there will once again be sun shining on packed Dodger Stadium, notably located on 1000 Vin Scully Ave., as Bellinger races back on the warning track to make a spectacular catch against the outfield wall.

Just as someday, we will all look back on these pandemic days, and be thankful for the sacrifices made.

Especially when “God Bless America” is sung in the seventh inning stretch.

More tales of sports adventures can be found in Shellhorn’s book Balls & Stripes.

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Dick Shellhorn is a lifelong Cordovan. He has been writing sports stories for the Cordova Times for over 50 years. In his Cordova Chronicles features, he writes about the history and characters of this Alaska town. Alaska Press Club awarded Shellhorn first place for Best Humor column in 2016, and third place in 2017 and 2019. He also received second place for Best Editorial Commentary in 2019. Shellhorn has written two books about Alaska adventures: Time and Tide and Balls and Stripes.