On an overcast Tuesday morning, a crowd of 300 volunteers came out to clean the beach at Santa Monica Pier alongside their Los Angeles Dodgers heroes. Nearly every volunteer was dressed in Dodger gear and some came three hours early to meet Matt Kemp, Rafael Furcal, Steve Garvey, Fernando Valenzeula, Derrel Thomas, Sweet Lou Johnson, Shawn Green, Gabe Kapler, Tony Gwynn Jr. and Jay Gibbons. Despite the drizzle, everyone had a great time picking up trash, getting autographs and listening to the players tell stories of their exploits on the diamond.
The Dodgers visit, courtesy of team exec Howard Sunkin and owner Frank McCourt, marked a stop on a public service caravan around L.A. before the men in blue take off for spring training and the grapefruit league at Camelback Ranch in Glendale, Ariz. Howard introduced me to the players on the team bus and I felt a heckuva lot more nervous than I do testifying at city council. When Steve Garvey and Fernando came off the bus, I felt like I was in a time machine transported to my days as a teenager obsessed with the outcome of all 162 games on the schedule. After posing for a “team photo” right next to Fernando, I gathered up the nerve to tell the Dodger legend that I was there to watch him pitch as a 19-year-old call up in the September of 1980. Ever stoic, Valenzuela shook my hand and said nothing.
Then we walked across the sand to the sea of blue of Dodger fans in front of a standing microphone. I walked alongside former slugger Shawn Green and asked him some small-talk question about what he was up to now in the O.C. He answered politely. I always was a big Greenie fan. Star center fielder Matt Kemp took the long way to mic because he didn’t want to get his new black Nike kicks sandy. He soon got over that. Of course, Charlie Steiner emceed the event. Steiner remarked “it was a beautiful day for a ballgame” despite the gloomy drizzle. He introduced the entire Dodger lineup and then welcomed S.M. Mayor Richard Bloom and me. That’s right, I got an intro from Charlie Steiner. How cool is that!
Then the Dodger-Heal the Bay beach cleanup got underway. The fans divided into groups to clean the beach with a couple of Dodgers each. Heal the Bay volunteers and staff gave beach safety talks and then the blue crew and fans were off. Of course, S.M. beach maintenance staff did an extra-thorough job of cleaning the beach during their dawn patrol run, so the Dodgers ended up walking half a mile north of the pier in their efforts to clean up a clean beach.
I hung back to be regaled by stories from the humble Sweet Lou, a man who truly lives up to his nickname. One of the fans asked him if the highlight of his career was his game winning homer in Game 7 of the 1965 World Series against the Twins. His answer touched me.
He said the highlight was just playing for the KC Monarchs in the Negro Leagues in 1955 because that’s where he learned how to eat, how to dress, how to be a ballplayer and how to deal with people that didn’t want you around. Sweet Lou is a Kentucky native that grew up in a time of segregation in the South, so his message of tolerance was an unexpectedly profound moment during a morning of environmental public service.
Then a fan asked him if he ever batted against Big D, Don Drysdale, in batting practice. Johnson remembered Drysdale pegged him right in the head one time. Sweet Lou said he was so angry, “I refused to fall down.” Last try. I asked him about the best Negro League ballplayer he ever saw and he talked about seeing Hall of Famer Satchel Paige pitch in his mid 40s. Over 60 years after he saw Paige pitch, Johnson is still mesmerized by his hesitation pitch – a pitch that was banned because of its effectiveness. (Although the Cuban Indians-Red Sox star Luis Tiant used a modified version to become a three-time All Star.)
By now, the rest of the players had completed their long walk along the beach. As the volunteers weighed their trash, I had the chance to talk to Garvey. Truth be told, Garvey and Ron Cey were my favorite ballplayers from the ‘70s glory days, so it was pretty awkward to ask him a question. I told Garvey that I was there to see his single greatest game – a five extra-base hit performance (two homers, three doubles, five runs and five RBI) in an 11-0 Don Sutton shutout. Garvey responded by reminding me that the game was against the Cardinals in 1977 and that he hit a grand slam off of Clay Carroll. His description of the game made me feel like I was 13 again.
At the end of the morning, the beach was a lot cleaner, but more importantly the players and fans got to hang out together in the community. Lots of stories were told, autographs were signed and pictures taken. Smiles graced the faces of the volunteers and the ballplayers. I thanked Steiner for helping out and took off to go to a meeting in the South Bay. And I left feeling giddy, awash with the recollections of hundreds of Dodger games. A couple of hours on the beach brought back a lifetime of great memories for me and hundreds of other fans on a drizzly day. I love this job.