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April 30, 2014 BASEBALL

Ode to Joy

Jim Ruland

Ode to Joy photo


People spend their whole lives struggling to get what they think they want, and even if they get it, they find that it’s either not what they wanted, or it comes with so many unwanted consequences. We’re always shut off from pure joy.

—Harold Ramis


I still can’t believe it. Six months after the St. Louis Cardinals put an end to the Los Angeles Dodgers’ record-breaking season in the National League Championship, I still can’t believe their magical 46-10 run actually happened. Forty-six wins. Ten losses. That’s a winning percentage of .821. 46-10 is not a baseball record. It’s a college football score – if one of the teams is a Division I powerhouse and the other a backwoods Bible college. They were as invincible a team as I’ve ever seen play, and I’ve seen a lot of Dodgers teams over the years, usually with my friend Leo.

I met Leo in the late ‘90s at an Irish bar on Sunset Boulevard where I used to watch the Knicks back when Patrick Ewing still patrolled the paint. Leo is the most dedicated sports junkie I know with a vast and complicated network of contradictory allegiances. Although he is a hardcore New York sports fan, the Dodgers were his grandmother’s team when they were still the Brooklyn Dodgers, and that was enough for Leo. Over the years we’ve gone to dozens of games at Chavez Ravine, but we’d never seen a run like this.

What made it so remarkable was how badly the season began. When Hanley Ramirez was injured in the World Baseball Classic, Justin Sellers, who stands 5’10 and weighs 160 pounds, filled in for him at shortstop. Then Juan Uribe missed time at third base and manager Don Mattingly was forced to go to Luis Cruz. Justin Sellers batted .188, striking out 20 times in just 69 at bats; but those numbers were good compared Cruz’s, whose batting average was a pitiful .127. This clip of Sellers rolling an imaginary blunt (to go with his imaginary production at the plate) pretty much summarizes that experiment.

You could say injuries prevented Mattingly from fielding a competitive team.

You could say the Dodgers underperformed.

You could say they flat out sucked.

Things were looking bleak for the boys in blue. The Dodgers began the month of May with an eight-game losing streak and opened June ranked 20th in on-base percentage and 28th in runs scored. The pitching staff wasn’t getting any run support and closer Brandon League was pitching like he was getting paid for blowing saves.  Then disaster struck. Outfielders Matt Kemp and Carl Crawford injured their hamstrings in the same week, forcing the Dodgers to call up Yasiel Puig, the 22-year-old-prospect whose defection from Cuba in 2012 was so harrowing the rights to the story have been acquired by Hollywood.

Puig signed a contract for $42 million and batted a blistering .526 in spring training; but in 40 games of Double-A ball had averaged “only” .313 with eight home runs, 37 RBIs and a .982 OPS. These are good numbers, but it wasn’t the kind of performance that made anyone in the Dodger organization think they could throw Puig into the line-up and ask him to carry the team. That’s exactly what the Dodgers did and Puig responded.

In his first game as a major leaguer, Puig went 2-4 against the Padres, but it was a play with his arm that got everyone’s attention. In the top of the ninth he one-handed a deep fly ball and gunned down a base runner with a game-ending double play.

* * *

If I’m not at the ballpark, I prefer to listen to the broadcasts via the MLB app, which is the best $20 a baseball fan can spend. Vin Scully calls the first three innings, which is enough (there, I said it) and then he turns it over to Charlie Steiner and Rick Monday. The game of baseball is a narrative in numbers. It’s great radio but terrible television. But Puig changed all that. I needed to see this player with the once-in-a-generation skill set. When he threw that laser to Adrian Gonzales to double up Chris Denorfia, all the Dodger fans in the bar stood up and gave each other high fives with stunned expressions on their faces as if to say, Did you see that? Did that actually happen?

The next day Puig hit two home runs and drove in five RBI. Two days later, a grand slam. The day after, another dinger. In his first 15 games he racked up 27 hits. Nearly every day in June Puig tied or surpassed a new team or league record. He closed out the month with 44 hits, the most ever by a Dodger rookie and the second most in league history – and Puig didn’t even play the entire month. Who knows, with those extra days he might have even caught up to the guy who held the record: Joe DiMaggio.

This is when baseball purists began to lose it. They were outraged that someone who’d been in the league for less than a month was being compared to DiMaggio. In L.A. it was a different story. Puig fever gripped the city. You could turn on any radio station and hear the chatter. It was all Puig all the time. While the rest of the country was still trying to figure out how to pronounce his name, “Viva Puig” and “MVPuig” had become the city’s mantras.

I was no exception. I don’t drink anymore, but I started going to bars to watch Puig play. He is that rare player who passes the eyeball test: he is bigger, faster and quicker than anyone else on the diamond. He looks more like a linebacker than an outfielder. My interest in Puig crossed over to infatuation on June 11, when he was grazed in the nose by an inside pitch, setting off a series of retaliatory strikes that led to starting pitcher Zack Greinke getting beaned. A melee ensued and Puig lustily threw himself into the fray.

The next day, radio personality Petros Papadakis of the Petros and Money show on AM 570, the Dodgers flagship radio station in Los Angeles, broke down the skirmish and identified audio from the dust-up as belonging to Puig. “Yo soy Cubano! I am not afraid!” he shouted.

“Yo soy Cubano!” became the show’s oft-repeated refrain for the rest of the week and it worked its way into my own lingo, too. I taunted coworkers, trolled my wife. It was my go-to response whenever the veracity of an assertion was called into question, even though I am 1) not Cuban 2) full of fear. I was such a fan boy that I would have bought a Yasiel Puig lunchbox if there had been one to buy, but there wasn’t, so I made one of my own.

“Admit it,” my wife said. “You love him.”

Although I suspected she was jealous, because it was a most excellent lunch box, there was no point in denying the truth.

“Yo soy Cubano. I am not afraid.”

* * *

As amazing as it was to watch the emergence of a bona fide superstar, Puig’s heroics did not lift the Dodgers out of their doldrums. On June 21, the team’s record with Puig in the line-up was a dismal 7-10.

I finally had a chance to see Puig with my own eyes at Petco Park in San Diego. Leo was going to take the train down from L.A. and spend a day with me at the ballpark; but at the last minute he had to cancel because his knee, which he’d injured in a skiing accident a long time ago and had never healed properly, was giving him problems and wasn’t getting better.

I didn’t have tickets. It was the third game of a four-game series and the Dodgers had dropped the first two. The Dodgers were 30-42, a woeful 9.5 games out of first place. Zack Greinke was pitching against San Diego for the first time since he was injured in a benches-clearing brawl with the team back in April. I worried that it would be a less-than-family-friendly environment for my daughter, who was nine years old at the time.

At the last minute, we decided to go. I paid too much for a pair of tickets and a bowl of nachos, and we were treated to a 6-1 victory. We didn’t know it yet, but it was the beginning of the Dodgers record-smashing run. The Dodgers would go on to win six games in a row, take 10 out of 11, 16 out of the next 19, etc. Their run coincided with some atrocious baseball by the rest of the division and the Dodgers shot up the standings. Exactly one month after that game in San Diego they’d erased a ten-game deficit and were atop the division.

At the end of July, I splurged on a set of four tickets and got some friends together to see the Dodgers face the New York Yankees in what would be Mariano Rivera’s last game at Dodgers Stadium. Although Leo’s knee was still giving him fits – he was finally getting the physical therapy he’d put off for so many years – he assured me he would be there.

When we met up for the game, it was clear his condition was worse than he’d let on. In spite of aggressive rehabilitation, his knee wasn’t getting better. If anything it was worse. He’d just come from the acupuncturist and his knee had locked up. He said it would loosen up, but couldn’t say when. He warned me that he had to go slow and that it would take him a long time to get to our seats, which were in the upper deck. I asked him what was causing his knee to flare up like this.

“That’s just it,” he told me. “They don’t know.”

Leo wasn’t joking about going slow. It took him forever just to get across the parking lot. I’d walk with my friends for a bit and then we’d wait for him to catch up. He kept urging us to go on without him, which I couldn’t bring myself to do. Finally my friends went ahead to claim our seats and buy hot dogs and beer. Before we even got inside the park, ushers were offering Leo a wheelchair, which he brushed off. I didn’t blame him, but the way he was staggering around like a sailor on shore leave, I was worried someone would think he was intoxicated and start some trouble. It wasn’t just that his leg was stiff and his gait was slow, but his balance was off as well.

The Dodgers were down 0-3 in the ninth inning and Mariano Rivera trotted out for the save. They even played “Enter Sandman” for him. We all agreed that it would have been nice if the Dodgers had won, but it was better to have witnessed history. “Fuck yeah it was,” Leo said. I wasn’t so sure.

* * *

The Dodgers continued their historic march into the record books. They finished the season 92-70 with an eleven-game lead in the division. With the playoffs locked up, the critics zeroed in on Puig and the steady decline of his batting average. As Puig’s numbers went down, so did Leo’s health. Actually, that’s not true. Leo’s health – his knee in particular – stayed the same; it’s the diagnoses that kept getting worse.

He had a team of doctors working on him now. They began to suspect that he was experiencing nerve damage and that the cause might be neurological. One thought it was MS – multiple sclerosis. Another thought it could be a brain tumor. Yet another doctor didn’t want to rule out Lyme disease. Except the doctors never definitely said this or that; they said it might be this or it could be that. Leo underwent an arsenal of invasive tests and scans to rule out each calamity. It was maddening and expensive. The weight of not knowing was getting him down.

The moment playoff tickets went on sale I jumped online and bought a pair to Game 3 against the Atlanta Braves. The Dodgers had lost Game 2 after winning the opener. There was no question as to whom I would take.

I drove up from San Diego but got stuck in traffic and was running late to meet up with Leo. If we didn’t hustle, we’d miss the first pitch. Of course, Leo wasn’t hustling anywhere. When I got in his car to drive up to the stadium, he had more bad news.

“They sent me to a new doctor. He says I’ve got ALS.”

“But that’s….”

“A death sentence.”

I was going to say “Lou Gehrig’s disease,” but same difference. As we picked our way across the parking lot, I studied my friend’s walk more carefully to see if his uncertain gait had atrophied, but I detected no change. I went slower this time. Our seats were in right field so we had farther to walk, but we were in no hurry. Every so often ushers would appear from nowhere to offer their assistance, experts in what I had been blind to see: my friend was not well.

The rookie pitcher, Hyun-jin Ryu, gave up two runs in the first. By the time we made it to our seats the Dodgers were down and whatever electricity the fans in the ballpark what whipped up had now fizzled away. I went through all the things I knew about ALS. The speed with which it manifests, the severity of its symptoms. In sports, we like to think of the playoffs as do or die situations, win or go home. But now that death was in the cards for Leo, that comparison felt trite. I couldn’t stop myself from wondering if this was the last game I was going to see with my friend.

Leo’s news, however, did not diminish the importance of the game, at least not in my mind. Just the opposite in fact. If life is finite and fleeting, and we know that it is, then the pursuit of perfection in one specific thing makes a lot more sense than the random, purposeless mess that we generally make of things. It’s the pursuit that’s ennobling, not the achievement, and no entity on this earth does a better job of documenting that pursuit than baseball. It is a place where everything can be known and nothing is arbitrary. An umpire may blow a call, a pitcher may miss the strike zone, a ball may come this close to leaving the park, but almost no one dies playing baseball and if death were somehow part of the game, believe me, they’d get the fucking diagnosis right the first time. When time is not on your side, the best place to be is at a game with no clock.

Our seats were excellent. It was a gorgeous evening. Beach balls tumbled in the air as if in a dream. In the bottom of the second, a Dodger got on base. Then another. The woman sitting next to me slapped my leg and then apologized for getting carried away. Strangers exchanged ferocious high fives as the tension kept climbing higher and higher. Then it happened.

Carl Crawford lifted a high fly ball way up in the azure sky for a no-doubt-about-it home run, and hung there in the air for long enough to change everything. It was the strangest thing. The volume got so loud that it transcended the audible realm and enlisted other senses. Our bodies shook, but we were absolutely still. Speech wasn’t possible yet we were all in communication with each other. It was grand, it was glorious, and we were all witnesses to something extraordinary. There was no me, no Leo, no other people. No boundaries whatsoever. My heart desired to speak. My eyes wanted to sing. I believe the name for this feeling is joy.

The Dodgers scored four runs in the second inning, two in the third, and four more in the fourth and won 13-6. Puig went 3-5. The Braves went home defeated and demoralized. They had received their diagnosis and the outlook wasn’t good.

The Dodgers advanced to the National League Championship and were eliminated in six games by the St. Louis Cardinals, who lost to the Boston Red Sox in the World Series, though it was hard to care. It was football season, after all, and I had wagers to lose, fantasy teams to mismanage, entire Sundays to piss away while Leo underwent more tests.

His team was incensed with the new doctor’s diagnosis and set out to find out what was wrong with Leo for once and for all. In the parlance of medical professionals, they ripped the doctor a new one. Their anger was justified when the final, ironclad diagnosis came in: Leo did not have ALS; he had MS. There isn’t a cure but the symptoms are treatable and they are making great strides, which is what they always say, but still.

Leo sent me the good news in a text: “Looks like I’ll be around for another season after all.”


image: Jim Ruland