Editor's note, Oct. 2, 2016: Today was the final broadcast for Dodgers legend Vin Scully. And as we heard his goodbyes, we couldn't help but to remember this 1999 classic by Dave Wielenga, who remembered when he and his friend did the unthinkable: spite Vin Scully. It must be noted now that throwing the ball onto the field after an opponent home run is now a Dodgers tradition. Ah, progress...
"Throw it back! Throw it back!"
Fred was gasping hoarsely, practically strangling himself with urgency. The big moment had definitely arrived-we both realized that-but it was affecting us differently. I was short of breath, too, but not saying a thing-and definitely not making a move. I felt kind of dazed, almost paralyzed.
"Throw it back!" Fred was still saying. "Throw it back!" Who knows how long he had been repeating it? Maybe since the baseball began to arc toward our section, high along the left-field line at Dodger Stadium. Maybe since it landed among our legs and started to rattle around beneath our seats. Maybe since I dived after the ball, delivering a hard body slam-part strategy, part cheap shot-against the lady in stretched-to-capacity double knits who had been talking down to me all evening; she wasn't holier-than-anybody now, groveling in the spilled beer and popcorn, lunging and grappling for the foul ball, too.
Or maybe it only seemed as though Fred had been saying it for so long-"Throw it back! Throw it back!"-because of how long I'd been thinking about it. For years, actually. And for the past 10 or 15 seconds, intensely. Maybe Fred began frantically chanting only after he saw how triumphantly I had leaped to my feet, after he watched me proudly thrust my arm into the air with the ball displayed like a trophy, after he realized, horrified, that I was having serious second thoughts about following through on our long-standing pact-that I didn't want to throw it back.
Would anyone who grew up loving baseball? If Cupid wore a cap and swung a bat, foul balls would be his arrows. Like love, they come shooting out of thin air, unexpected no matter how long you look for them. There's the possibility they will never come your way at all-or the terrifying prospect that you will blow your one great opportunity. And let's not overromanticize this: foul balls, like love, can maim and kill. As a little boy, I used to bring my baseball glove to big-league games, praying for my moment, vicariously living and dying with those who were graced-and disgraced-by a foul ball. And now it had arrived.
"Give it to me," Fred said finally, more gently than I expected and not without understanding-but not about to take no for an answer, either. I offered the ball to him, and in one quick and definitive motion, he snatched it from my hand and launched it on a long return flight. As the baseball sprang perversely back from the stands-even before it dropped onto the field-the thin applause I had received for winning the struggle for it had dramatically transformed and swelled into a roiling thunder of deep offense and furious anger. A foul ball had been thrown back, and all of the faithful in Dodger Stadium who witnessed it instantly recognized the sacrilege. They booed, not at all playfully, and as their outraged voices billowed toward us, I understood something about the risks of disturbing the slumber of culture. I was afraid.
Fred and I mustered up a couple of smiles, but they were the kind that looked as though we were shitting our pants.
"Goddamn you, Vin Scully!" I muttered under my breath-despondent, frustrated, fearful-as the booing continued. "Goddamn you!"
Hating the Dodgers wasn't always as easy as it is today. Thanks to Rupert Murdoch, everybody has gotten hip to Dodger tradition: it's a marketing tool to excavate profits for the most evil man in the world. Twenty-five years ago, however, people actually believed in Dodger Blue. The O'Malleys were regarded as the First Family of the national pastime, Tommy Lasorda was baseball's goodwill ambassador, and Steve Garvey was such an all-American stereotype that a junior high school was named after him.
But Murdoch and the Fox Group haven't suddenly polluted a noble blue bloodline; from the Brooklyn they abandoned to the Los Angeles they invaded through eminent domain, the Dodgers' top priority has always been their bottom line. Dodger Blue has always been about Dodger Green.
"Walter O'Malley was in baseball for only one reason-to make money," Buzzie Bavasi, the former Dodgers general manager, told me last year. "And he was very good at it; he made a lot of money. Whatever happened in the standings, he never had a losing season. Never."
True to that tradition, last year, Peter O'Malley put a price tag on the team that was his family heirloom. Lasorda was accused of becoming general manager by stabbing his supposedly like-a-son protege Bill Russell in the back. And Garvey? A couple of years ago, he went from U.S. Senate hopeful to infomercial huckster when he fathered children by two women a few months apart.
But the true glory of Dodgers tradition is actually the melodious voice of announcer Vin Scully, who for 50 years has been as poetic as Robert Frost, as socio-economically insightful as John Kenneth Galbraith and, sometimes, as beside himself as Richard Simmons.
And so it was that, years before, while listening to a Dodgers game on the radio, Fred and I heard Scully have a hissy fit when a fan threw back a foul ball.
"I don't believe it," Scully had said in his familiar singsong. "Millions and millions of people come to ball games year after year, hoping to catch a foul ball. This guy gets one-and then he throws it back! I just don't understand it."
Scully went on and on, extrapolating the incident into an entire And-That's-What's-Wrong-With-the-World-Today scenario. We got his point. But Scully couldn't let it go. During the next few innings, he kept revisiting the issue, sprinkling his scolding disgust amid his play-by-play.
"Fastball, a little inside, ball one," Scully would say, and you could feel him trying to keep his mind on the game. But while waiting for the next pitch, his pain would return-it really bugged him-as though someone had disfigured a Norman Rockwell painting or set fire to Rick Monday. "I keep thinking about that fellow who threw back the foul ball. What was he thinking? It just goes to show you, it takes all kinds."
Exactly, said Fred and I, cracking up. I hated the Dodgers, and Fred loved them, but we were both teenagers, and it was just so cool to hear the Dodgers' imperturbable father figure so offended. That's when we made our pact. If either of us ever got a foul ball at Dodger Stadium, we would throw it back.
Fred's aim was incredible. The ball bounced a few times when it hit the field, and then it settled into a comical roll-past the Dodgers' dugout, past third baseman Ken McMullen and on toward the pitcher's mound. It rolled partway up the mound, almost to the feet of pitcher Andy Messersmith, then exhausted its momentum and rolled back down and stopped. Messersmith was already rubbing up a fresh ball and seemed mildly surprised. He shrugged, picked up our ball, tossed it to an umpire, shook his head and climbed back atop the mound. The booing subsided, and the game resumed.
People near us continued to shoot disgusted looks and insulting comments at Fred and me; the big lady in the stressed-out stretch pants kept harping about how we should have given the ball to a kid. But considering that moments before, we were worried that a mob might fling us from the upper deck, the whole experience was beginning to feel pretty heartening.
"We did it, buddy," said Fred, clasping my hand, generously including me in the celebration despite the way I'd frozen. "We made a pact, and we followed through." Yep, we made our statement, all right. Maybe we couldn't even say precisely what it meant, but we had made it.
And then the Dodgers made theirs: they kicked us out. Not right away, though. A couple of innings passed before two lines of straw-hatted ushers and hard-looking cops descended the aisles on either side of the section in which we sat. At first, Fred and I looked around, wondering who rated such a show of force. And then they all pointed to us, surrounded us, demanded that we collect our belongings and follow them, warned us not to resist, and walked us through the laughing crowd as though parading a pair of desperate fugitives. "How did you find us?" Fred asked one of the ushers.
He answered, "The third-base umpire pointed you out." We liked that.
In the security office, we sat and waited among other transgressors of Dodger Stadium Law and their confiscated weapons, cans of beer and stolen souvenirs. Somebody asked us, "What are you in for?"
We answered, "For throwing back a foul ball." We liked that, too.
Eventually, we were summoned by the security chief, who officiously explained that we had committed a serious offense, but he would take a full report before deciding upon further action.
"What's the charge?" we interrupted.
He answered unsmilingly, "Throwing a foreign object on the field." We pointed out that we had thrown a baseball onto a baseball field. We liked saying that, too.
But he gave us an are-you-finished sigh and began to ask us some serious questions as he methodically filled out the form. He used words like "arrest" and "jail" and "plea." We didn't like that so much. We were liking it less and less.
Finally, he asked us, "Why did you do it?"
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We knew better than to mention Vin Scully.
"We didn't want the ball. We really didn't have any use for it. We figured we'd help the Dodgers keep costs down. We thought we were supposed to throw it back." Fred and I were coming up with all kinds of reasons, but we were smiling those stinky-shorts grins again.
Ultimately, we were released, but it was with a warning that our names would remain in a permanent file and that if we ever again were taken into custody at Dodger Stadium, we would be arrested and jailed. We offered our thanks profusely.
Fred and I walked off into the parking lot. We could hear the crowd inside the stadium periodically reacting to the game that was still being played. We found our car and began to drive home through the darkness. Fred switched on the radio. Vin Scully was describing the action. He didn't say a thing about anybody throwing back a foul ball.