When I first heard the news, I was some 14 stories above Los Angeles at the Blogger Prom, meeting all the local bloggers and putting names to faces. Normally, I don’t miss Dodger games. I figured, tonight, sure. I wanted to meet these people. I’d keep tabs on the game and heck, we’d already won the three game set with the Reds. Eventually, my telephone blew up. Everyone was texting me. Some underwater depth charge had been set off in the Think Blue Nation. Something was happening, and I, season ticket holder and proverbial fanatic was the last to know. Manny had hit a grand slam.
To properly understand this event, you have to understand what else was at play here. There was so much else going on around this, before this, alongside of this that it took me a night of sleep to put it all together. This was not a sleepy grand slam in a throw away game on a lazy Wednesday night where the pitcher let one hang and some kid called up from the Tobacco Leauges got lucky and cleared the bases.
This was the most important at bat for the Dodgers in 20 years. And let me tell you why.
I watched the replay of the game to understand the context. In the simplest interpretation of this hit, it won the game. In just the literal, present-tense universe, this hit was significant. But this was just so, so much bigger than that. Most of the diehard Dodger faithful probably understood and made the event “the loudest” broadcast legend Vin Scully had heard the Ravine in 20 years. They felt the extra intensity and it manifested itself audibly.
But for the baseball casual, the people using this historic season as a mere bridge from the Laker victory parade to the start of Trojan football, read on and dive into the complexity of the national pasttime at her finest. It can be slow at times, it can be long-winded, but so can we all. No other sport collects tension like the American Game, no other sport is such an estuary, where backstories flow into deltas and dry into gunpowder just waiting for a spark to set off the fireworks.
Chad Billingsley needed a win. He was knocked out in his last game before two innings had gone by. Chad had spent the week looking for mechanical flaws. The Dodger faithful, the ownership, the media all are clamoring for another starter. An “ace”. They want and ace because they are not sure Chad Billingsley is one despite his sub 4 ERA, his 9 wins and his powerful stuff. Memories of his let downs in the NLCS last year ferment in memory. The Dodger Nation wonders if we have enough. A team with an 8 game lead (at that point) in the National League West, with the best record in baseball, wondering if we have enough. They wonder because this is our best shot in decades. This team can hit and run and field. This team seems to like each other. This team loses Manny Ramirez to shame and scandal and maintains their chokehold on the National League.
All of this and the weight of the franchise, the city and the citizens falls on Chad Billingsley, a kid from Missouri with an ox’s body and a boyish face. Is he enough? Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee rumors spin out of control. These are “proven aces” and Chad is in a “downward spiral”. Is young ace in training Clayton Kershaw tradable? Should we try to “win now”? Will his last seven starts (5-0, sub-1 ERA) be the beginning of his reign or just a teaser.
This start was important. It might dictate team policy. Sure, give every prospect from Albequerque to the Great Lakes for a player like Roy Halladay, but don’t give up on Chad Billingsley or Clayton Kershaw. Don’t give up on the kids.
Two wild pitches. The first, Russell Martin made like a cat to his left and fired a 120 foot strike to James Loney just in time to save Chad. The second, another hard curve in the dirt that a brick wall would be hard pressed to block. The Dodgers’ 2-1 lead is squandered. Billingsley’s win is in jeopardy…
At the same time, there is Manny. Homer Bailey “aw-shucks’d” his way out of throwing a burner inside on the dreadlocked slugger, but a lot of us, including many of the Dodgers, thought Manny had broken his wrist. He went to Pasadena for x-rays that came back negative, but as Orlando Hudson will tell you, the wrist is a a dangerous part of the body.
So Manny took no batting practice on his bobblehead night. A sold out Chavez Ravine and the slugger was on the pine. Mannywood in left field was somber. It had been a precarious start for Mannywood. Just as it was unveiled, just as we’d found out that the newly christened “Dodgertown” zip code was 90090 (with an emphasis on the 9s, hence #99), Manny goes down for a 50 game suspension. Last night was to be the true re-opening. Only the guest of honor wasn’t coming onto the field.
The bobblehead night had been planned before the steroids debacle. It was confusing in Los Angeles while Manny was gone. This wasn’t Barry Bonds or Giambi. This wasn’t speculation or straight up lying in the face of suspicion. This was getting caught and paying the toll. 6 million or so in lost wages. 50 games wasted. Angry and saddened fans. It wasn’t Clemens denying it, or Pettitte only fessing up because “he was recovering from and injury” or “doing it one time”. He sounded like a kid who’s dad caught him smoking pot.
No, Manny got nailed and he shut his mouth and vanished. He came back and we’ve all been waiting to see what happens. Even though he’s been playing for a couple weeks now, even though we’ve seen him hit home runs, we’d been waiting for the moment to know how to feel. We’d been waiting for a polarizing moment to lift him up or to bury the guy.
And when the bases were loaded and the dreadlocked one came forth from the home team’s dugout, the stadium started vibrating. It couldn’t happen now, could it? Vin Scully was aware that it was setting up to be special. I mean, Manny just needed a single and we’d be in the drivers seat.
Reds’ reliever Nick Masset delivered a 96 mph fastball and Manny Ramirez clocked it. The self-proclaimed “doubles maniac” hit a liner low enough that everyone could see it as it flew out towards left field and landed in an explosion of people right, smack dab in the center of Mannywood.
If there was a roof, it would have come off. The stadium did it’s best impression of the San Andreas Fault. I’ll say it. This was the biggest home run the Dodgers have seen since Kirk Gibson.
Chad got his win. The fans got their reward for selling out the stadium. The Dodgers swept the Reds. Manny called it one of the best nights in his career. One swing.
It’s a strange time in America. It’s a time when we celebrate death more than life. We like to look back more than we like to look forward. Bad economy. Bad heroes. Heroes that go to jail for dog fighting or carrying fire arms or lying to a grand jury. Winning or losing aren’t enough anymore. Who are we to root for? What do we look forward to?
I think I found the answer. In this world, in this country where we’re fighting so hard to claw our way back to the top, or at least out of the hole we’ve dug ourselves, we’re not looking for Superman anymore. We’re not looking for a perfect person to wear a uniform and save us. We’re not interested in squeaky-clean anymore.
We’re interested in redemption.
We want Michael Vick to apologize now that he’s served time. We want him to volunteer his time and his money to the Humane Society and find a way to stop the practices he indulged in. We want him to be rehabilitated. Isn’t that the point of sending someone to a “correctional facility”? For them to correct themselves? If it isn’t, we’re talking about a death penalty and well, in that case, there’s plenty of cheap housing in Texas.
Manny served his time and what we loved about last night was getting to cheer him. We loved letting him off the hook. We owed it to him. He broke our curse last year. He made the ballpark fun. You can see it in the kids on the team. You could see it when they stomped the vaunted Cubs and came so close to making it to the World Series.
This year, they are the best team. They are the best team and I say let’s go with the guys we got. Like he did last night, let’s let Manny lead the way. Let’s allow him to be the anti-hero he is. Manny made me realize it’s time we stop looking backwards. We need to move on into a new time where the story is “coming back from failure” and not simply lusting for someone else “to fail”.
Months ago, Manny did something wrong. Last night, he did something very, very right. In a time where California unemployment is soaring and the government is having trouble governing, Manny made us cheer.
And that’s what a baseball player is supposed to do.