The traffic in downtown Los Angeles was worse than its usual molasses-crawling self last Saturday evening, as tens of thousands of baseball fans descended upon the Los Angeles Coliseum. The sidewalks were teeming with Dodger fans of all ages, their royal blue colors zigzagging among an equally impressive, though notably smaller, show of force from Red Sox Nation. Shortly after 7 p.m., with a brisk wind blowing straight out to right field and thousands of fans still jockeying to get inside, a ceremonial first pitch was hurled by a man named Wally Moon, and with it America’s pastime was played on Coliseum grass for the first time in nearly 50 years. A record-breaking crowd of 115,300 fans were on hand to bear witness to an essentially meaningless exhibition joust betwixt the Dodgers and the World Champion Boston Red Sox.
Orchestrated by Dodgers public relations guru Dr. Charles Steinberg, who until last winter was instrumental in making the Boston Red Sox the international brand it is today, Saturday night’s one-game return of hardball action to USC Trojan country was a carnival with a cause-raising an estimated $1 million plus in proceeds all earmarked for the ThinkCure Foundation.
The Coliseum was never meant to be a home for baseball, and while it has hosted everything from football to track to motocross to the “new frontiers” of JFK’s 1960 Democratic nomination acceptance speech, the one-tiered oblong oval had not seen a baseball game since Sandy Koufax pitched a 13-inning gem against the Chicago Cubs in 1961-and rightfully so. After their heartbreaking escape from Brooklyn landed the Dodgers in Los Angeles in 1958, the whack-a-doodle dimensions of the Coliseum provided a bizarre home field for the Blue until their digs at Ch¡vez Ravine opened up in 1962.
During those four controversy-filled seasons, though, including the 1959 world series, Los Angeles learned to fall in love with the Dodgers as they played host in an alien-shaped ballpark that featured a ridiculously short left-field fence some 250 feet from home plate (a far cry from the now-mandatory minimum of 320 feet), virtually zero foul ground space up the first-base line, acres of open space up the third-base side, and some spectator seats more than 700 feet away from the action. It was in this landscape that the aforementioned left-handed hitter Wally Moon made a name for himself with his trademark inside-out swing that sent “moonshots” soaring over the short porch in left for homeruns that would have been routine fly-ball outs anywhere else in the baseball universe.
The little league-esque dimensions were once again in effect on Saturday, with the left-field fence even closer to home at a mere 201 feet down the left field line. The right-field fence, on the other hand, was more than 420 feet away from the batters’ box. The result was one hell of a weird looking baseball diamond and a fun night for baseball fans. Aside from world-record breaking attendance figures-the turnout shattered the previous baseball record set in 1956 during an Australia versus American Services game at the Melbourne Olympics-the game also featured nuanced abnormalities like ground-ball singles that went all the way to the fence, defensive configurations with no one in left field, center fielders taking throws at second base, and a game-winning three-run homer by the notoriously light-hitting Red Sox backup catcher Kevin Cash on a line drive to left center that would have been lucky to have been hot anywhere else.
Then there was the wave. In the top of the fourth inning, with the stadium stuffed to its gills, a standard-order fan wave began in the deep right field corner. Undulating through the crowd, the wave made a few attempts before it broke out of the corner and rolled into centerfield, exploded around to left and then, just as it made the turn toward those seats behind home plate, became a moving wall of screaming people far surpassing any wave I had seen prior in my nearly 30 years of sports fandom. The swell continued around the ballpark for a second and then a third pass, each time growing incrementally larger beneath the flicker of the Coliseum’s Olympic torch. By its fifth and final pass, it was clear that this was no ordinary sporting event-after all, the outcome of the pre-season game didn’t even matter-but rather it was a human spectacle of epic proportions, a sort of carnival meets baseball meets 100,000 people in downtown Los Angeles type of affair.
In the end, the Red Sox held on for a 7-4 victory, the final three innings played mostly by players with names even the most diehard of fans struggled to recognize. After the game, with a stomach jammed full of Dodger dogs and $10 beers, I made my way back to the car, the undeniable smells of summer in the air and a welcomed “Yankees Suck! Yankees Suck!” chant ringing in my eras, heralding the turn of a harsh winter toward the sweet embrace of spring.