Getting to Be a Fan Again … and Loving It

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Manager Dave Roberts hoists the trophy after the Dodgers defeated the Atlanta Braves in Game 7 of the National League Championship Series on Sunday. L.A. faces the Tampa Bay Rays in the World Series. (Photo courtesy MLB)

By MIKEY HIRANO CULROSS
Rafu Sports Editor

I wasn’t completely certain I had all the correct answers, but I knew for sure that I wanted the test to be over.

I was sitting in my high school English class on Oct. 19, 1981, taking an exam on a topics that couldn’t be further from my mind.

No, I was completely focused on an event I couldn’t see, one taking place a continent away, in another country.

The L.A. Dodgers were in Montreal, playing in the fifth and deciding game of the National League Championship Series against the host Expos. The winner would earn a trip to New York the following day, to face the Yankees in the World Series.

Although the room was silent as we – in theory – concentrated on the test, our teacher, Mr. Garden – an unabashed baseball fanatic – allowed one of my classmates to have a transistor radio with an earphone tuned into the game.

My favorite player in all of baseball was Dodgers outfielder Rick Monday, now a broadcaster for the team. Sitting at my desk, my mind wandered to images of his Frankenstein stare at the plate, the subtle rocking of his hips and that long, sweeping, gorgeous swing.

Then it happened. I was nearly finished with a question on Steinbeck or Paradise Lost or something of that ilk, and the game in Montreal was tied in the ninth inning.

“Rick Monday just hit a home run!” the classmate shouted. The classroom broke into cheers. I bowed my head and gave myself a quiet fist pump.

These days, I still enjoy following the games on radio, but quite often I’m at the stadium. For the last 20 years or so, I’ve had the great fortune of being able to cover the games for The Rafu Shimpo. I have the humbling honor of seeing my own name included on a tribute wall to journalists that overlooks the seats in the Dodger Stadium press box, and from time to time, I get to offer passing hellos to Rick Monday. It’s weird. What do you say to the guy you idolized as a kid, who motivated you not only to play the game, but to be your best at anything?

Usually, the best I can muster is an unconvincing, “Hey Mo, how are ya?”

Last year, when the Washington Nationals were battling the Dodgers in the playoffs and pulled ahead in the 10th inning, I was in the corridor that leads to the home team locker room, underneath the stadium. The throng of reporters there had to rely on the muffled reaction if the crowd, then updates on cell phones to know what was happening.

Hardly witnessing the excitement of the moment, we were there to work, to report objectively on the game and its outcome.

This year has been different in so many ways, most of them depressing at best. Unsure if the season would be played at all due to the pandemic, baseball finally stumbled into a truncated schedule that featured limited travel, some new rules to keep games from dragging along and the truly bizarre advent of cardboard fans in the seats.

Some of the game’s biggest names opted not to play at all, out of concern for their own safety and the well-being of their families.

Because of the health protocols, few reporters have been credentialed, and I have yet to visit the stadium in 2020. Baseball is taking no chances, and so far, the measures have been largely successful.

One welcome by-product came to my attention Sunday night, however. My lovely wife and I sat on the couch, watching the terrific Game 7 of this year’s NLDS between the Dodgers and Atlanta Braves. When Kiké Hernandez hit the game-tying home run, I bellowed, “Get outta here!”

My son teased, “So you’re going to be the kind of dad who shouts at the TV when something exciting happens in sports?”

That was the moment I realized it. What was previously feared would be a lost season has become the year I get to be a fan again.

And I’m loving it.

Kudos to ESPN for doing their utmost to give us our fix when there was no Major League Baseball, broadcasting Korean League games in the middle of the night. Strange as it was initially, the idea of the fan cutouts and piped-in crowd noise helped the mood along effectively, keeping the games from sounding as if they were being played in a library. A special shout-out to whomever it was in Kansas City who produced the cardboard likeness of the titular – and deceased – character from the movie “Weekend at Bernie’s” to be seated in the front row.

The games have been, for the most part, exceedingly normal – exactly what we all need in a year that has – and likely will be for some time – as far from “normal” as we will ever know. Just what the doctor ordered, and it’s a fine panacea.

We needed this. I needed this.

Within milliseconds of Cody Bellinger’s go-ahead home run in the clinching game on Sunday, my voice repelled off our living room walls, an uninhibited “Goodbye!” along with my wife’s squeals. I was a lifetime away from English class, but right there in that zone.

As the Dodgers headed into the opening game of the World Series Tuesday against the Tampa Bay Rays, I continued to marvel at the success the team has had under manager Dave Roberts. He has guided the team into the playoffs in each of his five seasons at the helm, including three World Series berths in the last four years.
Should the team win the championship – a feat that has eluded them since that magical year of 1988 – Roberts’ place in the Hall of Fame would be all but certain.

Tampa Bay has been the surprise of the American League, holding off the Houston Astros to earn their way to the World Series for the second time in team history.

The Rays feature Japanese star Yoshitomo Tsutsugo and Korean slugger Ji-man Choi.

One broadcaster said this week that the 2020 season would “forever have an asterisk,” a note that suggests this season was somehow less in value or weight of importance.

I couldn’t disagree more. This season has turned out to be the salve we all desperately needed, casual observers and die-hard fans alike.

Holding back his emotions following Sunday night’s win, Roberts reflected on what has happened in and out of the game this season.

“It’s been a crazy year,” he said atop a podium as the team gathered on the infield below. “Guys away from their families, social injustices, and these guys have stuck together.

“We have a lot of work to do, for the Dodger fans that are here, the ones who aren’t here, we love you, and we’re thinking about you.

“This year is our year,” he preached.

As the Fall Classic is played out in the friendly confines of that neutral site in Texas, I’ll be on the couch, or perhaps in my backyard with my trusty radio on. Maybe you’ll be in the car or at your own desk. It doesn’t matter. Baseball is there for us, as it’s always been. For that, we still have hope, and win or lose, there’s always next year.

That’s maybe the most comforting phrase to hear in 2020. There’s always next year.

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