I remember it like it was yesterday, and that is not a good thing.
It was 1985. While the Lakers were making headlines with Magic, Kareem and Showtime, Los Angeles was a baseball town.
The Dodgers led the league in attendance every year with more than three million fans annually coming through the gates. I grew up following the team closely – remembering fondly the Garvey/Lopes/Russell/Cey infield – and though I was an average player at best, I imagined I would one day play center field in the indescribably green outfield grass of Dodger Stadium. I even took part in an open tryout for one of their minor league teams, but that story is for another time. Obviously, that experience did not turn out well.
In the fall of 1985, the Los Angeles Dodgers were in the playoffs. Along with the rest of the city, I was caught up in the fever. Back then, there were no wild card teams – you either had to win your division or go home.
At the time, I was literally a poor college student. I went to school full-time (a 40-mile, one-way bus ride) and worked retail for 30-40 hours a week, getting by with little sleep and very little help from the home front. I survived on cheap meals, generous friends and the Lord’s mercy, and borrowed a little extra on my student loans to get me through from semester to semester. “A character-building exercise,” said my former Sunday School teacher.
The Dodgers were playing the St. Louis Cardinals in a seven-game series, with the winner advancing to the World Series. It was a close series, with the Cardinals leading three games to two going into Game Six at sold-out Dodger Stadium.
Or so I thought it was sold-out.
At 9:00 am, the morning of Game Six, the Dodgers announced they were going to release a handful of tickets to the general public at 10:00 that morning for the 1:00 pm game. There was no Internet or Stubhub at the time – if you wanted tickets, you had to call the Stadium box office, wait in line at a TickeTron outlet, or pay big bucks to a scalper. Without cellphones or a lot of cash, TickeTron was my only realistic option
I was already at school. Although the tickets were $50 each – a fortune to me at the time – I really wanted to go and experience a playoff game at home. I asked my friend, Cathy, a fellow student and a big Dodgers fan, if she was interested in going. While we both had classes, we both thought we could work something out with our professors should we were able to score tickets.
As luck would have it, there was a TickeTron outlet just a block off campus. I got there around 9:30 and found myself first in line. By 10am, quite the line had formed behind me, but that didn’t matter. I got the first pair of tickets out of the machine – Field level, row thirty, third-base side, halfway between the bag and the foul pole. Sweet!
The stadium was a short drive from the downtown campus. Since I stood in line for the tickets, Cathy was kind enough to offer to drive.
When we got there, we had a bit of a surprise. While the seating diagram at the TickeTron outlet showed we had great seats, what it didn’t show was that the overhang from the Loge level above us would block our view of the sky. In other words, the highest we could see what the top of the left- and right-field pavilions. Strike one.
We settled in and quickly made friends with the fellow Dodgers fans around us. One of them brought an AM radio so we can listen to the magical voice of Vin Scully. Unfortunately, Vin was doing the television portion of the broadcast, so we settled for his sidekick, Jerry Doggett. Strike two.
The Dodgers, with Orel Hershiser on the mount, were cruising along, taking an 4-1 lead in the fifth inning. But it didn’t last long.
The Cardinals tied the game at 4 with three runs in the seventh inning. However, in the bottom of the eight inning, I screamed at the batter, Mike Marshall, to hit a home run to center field. He did just that on the next pitch, freaking out Cathy and everyone around me. It was a good feeling as the Dodgers took a one-run lead going into the ninth.
And then, depression set in.
In what is known as probably the most infamous moment in L.A. baseball history, there were runners on second and third with two outs and Dodgers relief ace Tom Niedenfuer on the mound. The team was one out away from tying up the series and going to a seventh and deciding game.
Dodgers manager Tom Lasorda had a decision to make. With first base open, he could either face the hard-hitting Jack Clark, or intentionally walk him to face light-hitting right fielder Andy Van Slyke. Lasorda chose to pitch to Clark, and the rest is history.
Clark took a big swing and connected on a Niedenfuer fastball. From our vantage point, since the overhang of the Loge section above us blocked us from seeing how deep the ball was hit, we had to rely on how far back Dodgers’ left-fielding Pedro Guerrero headed back for the ball.
It wasn’t pretty.
All we saw was Guerrero look up, take a step back, and then proceed to throw his glove as hard as he could onto the indescribably green outfield grass of Dodger Stadium. Clark’s blast went more than halfway up the left-field pavilion, silencing Cathy, me and 55,000 other witnesses. Strike three. Game and season over.
I didn’t need to watch the game highlights on the evening news or read about the game in the morning paper. We lost, it stung, and has been indelibly marked in my brain ever since.
Today, as the Dodgers face the Cardinals again in Game One of the 2013 National League Championship Series, I’ve been continually hearing about that moment. In fact, yesterday was the first since that game in 1985 that I saw a replay of how those watching television experienced the moment – one I’d still rather forget. Hopefully, these Dodgers can erase the ghosts of playoffs past. The Ghost of Tom Niedenfuer.