As a child, my parents would regale me with tales of where they were when the hobbled Kirk Gibson hit his iconic home run off of Dennis Eckersley in Game 1 of the World Series. Returning from a wedding on the west side of Los Angeles, they heard the radio call and noticed multiple cars pulling over to the side of the freeway and honking their horns in celebration. Commutes and general traffic safety halted while Los Angeles county and its swath of 10 million citizens celebrated one of the most unlikely and memorable moments in baseball history.
Opposing fans are quick to joke about Dodger fans arriving in the third inning and leaving in the seventh, but consult the stadium’s response to Gibson’s homer, their sendoff to Vin Scully last season or Justin Turner’s walk-off home run in Game 2 of the 2017 NLDS. In those moments, and throughout the regular season, you’ll find an impassioned group that finishes either near or at the top of attendance every season.
My parents heard the radio call in 1988. I was born in 1989.
So when the Dodgers clinched their first pennant in 29 years last week, my first instinct was to call my dad, who too often upended his weekend plans to take a pouty, baseball-obsessed son to Dodger Stadium’s top deck to watch a team that never finished any better than second or third place.
The second call I wanted to make, I couldn’t.
Among the countless Dodger fans who populate Kerouac’s “loneliest and most brutal of cities,” I cultivated a true kinship with one other person always willing to tolerate endless queries about their transactions, nightmare ownerships and in-game decisions. I’ve worn out the patience of friends, girlfriends and family with talk about the Dodgers. But I knew one person would always be happy to listen.
Chuck Ballingall was my debate coach, history teacher, economics teacher and mentor during my often arduous teenage years at Damien High School in La Verne, Calif. Undersized and underslept with a funny mushroom haircut, I channeled whatever intellectual energy I had away from Odysseus’s journey after the fall of Troy and the function of mitochondria into studying the Dodgers’ upcoming season and how to perfect my fantasy baseball team. As a “never-will-be” infielder who couldn’t hit the ball more than 150 feet, I stood no chance at the athletic glory I envisioned in my backyard as a child. It’s hard to make the big leagues when you get cut from the JV team twice, and those football dreams are mere illusions when the coach says he won’t miss you if you don’t return for the second day of freshman practice.
So Chuck pressed to get me to join the debate team, a group whose legacy is rich with unathletic adolescents whose competitive fire is channeled into argument instead of physicality. He invested plenty of hope and resources into my becoming one of his star debaters for a nationally competitive team.
I let him down. I neglected research assignments the same way I did my homework. I performed well enough at tournaments, but seldom exceeded expectations and never worked as hard as my teammates.
Fortunately, Chuck was a Dodger fan. A native of Fountain Valley, Calif., he was one of the top collegiate debaters in the nation during his university years, a lexicon of American history and macroeconomics, and would soon become a nationally recognized debate coach and revered AP US History and Economics teacher at Damien. A lifelong sports fan who recorded mock talk shows on his own as a child, he was the recognized PA announcer for Damien basketball and baseball. He rooted for the Dodgers during the halcyon years of Garvey, Cey, Lopes and Russell and saw Sandy Koufax pitch as a kid. He’d happily recount those memories to me when the Dodgers limped to another third-place finish or sent Daryle Ward up for a pinch hit appearance.
With a booming baritone voice that reverberated through the worn speakers of Damien’s gym, Chuck’s PA work had a melodic and authoritative tone present in only the finest voices. He worked Clipper games when the regular announcer was unavailable. One time, I trekked out to Dodger Stadium to hear him fulfill his lifelong dream of announcing the Dodgers. His idol, and computer background during my sophomore year, was Vin Scully.
Chuck knew I was a distracted student and debater. Guilt gnawed at me that I was actively failing a teacher who invested faith in my future. Ultimately, I did enough to avoid failing, but seldom more than that. Even when he knew I probably hadn’t prepared for an upcoming tournament, we’d pile into a van full of rank and bawdy teenagers and drive.
We’d drive from La Verne to Berkeley. Or Stanford. Or Las Vegas. Or Long Beach. Wherever the tournament was that weekend, Chuck navigated us with his zest for passing on the right and ear-splitting renditions of Billy Joel and Elton John. As the rest of the team faded to sleep in the backseat, he’d ask me whether the Grady Little was the right replacement for Jim Tracy. Or whether the Dodgers should have held onto Paul LoDuca instead of shipping him to the Marlins. He’d quiz me on World Series MVPs of years past, of Dodger lineups from his youth and to name trades exactly as they were executed. I could always talk about baseball.
As high school ended, the conversations were less frequent, but we’d meet up twice a year to discuss the Dodgers. As college ended and I moved east to New York City, I’d meet up with him once a year when he visited his brother and nephews in New Jersey. We missed each other the last two years.
The last time I heard Chuck’s voice was on December 4, 2015. I was drinking alone at my local haunt, nose in a book either trying to atone for my past sins of missed homework assignments or simply drinking alone. An alert arrived that Zack Greinke spurned the Dodgers to sign with the Diamondbacks. Speech slurring and vision doubling, I called Chuck to alert him of the tragedy.
He picked up and chatted. We weren’t sure how we’d solve Greinke’s departure if we were the GM, but the conversation lasted 40 minutes. He restructured his Friday evening to talk about the Dodgers with an inebriated former student. Regardless of his endless work obligations at debate tournaments, basketball games or mock trial events, Chuck always found time to keep up with his former students.
This past August, Chuck’s heart gave out at 56 years old. His memorial service at Damien was nearly filled the gym. I think my relationship with him was special. But the beauty of the ceremony was that the halls teemed with former students and colleagues with whom he forged similar bonds. My relationship with Chuck was special, but hardly unique.
It’s a tough year to tell you to cheer for the Dodgers ahead of the Astros. The city of Houston is reeling from the devastation of Hurricane Harvey. Jose Altuve is baseball’s most exciting player, and one who can bring the casual follower into fandom. The city of Houston needs this title more than the Dodgers, the league’s richest and arguably smartest team.
Of course this is the team that broke the color barrier while in Brooklyn, made fans of Mexicans (Fernandomania in 1981), Japanese (Nomomania in 1995), South Koreans (Chan-Ho Park) and local boys (Justin Turner). The Dodgers have always been keen about the demographics of its adopted city, and their stars often reflect the impossibly diverse population. The crowd at Dodger Stadium is the richest tapestry of ethnic backgrounds that you’ll find in the nation. It is fundamentally American. The Dodgers may be presented as this coastal behemoth towering over the middle markets, but all they’ve done is invest smarter and evaluate players better (though it helps to have the money).
Ultimately, I just want this one for Chuck. I smarted about the Cubs winning last year’s World Series until I saw the countless videos of older men and women weeping at the site of the Cubs hoisting the World Series trophy and the testimonials of people wishing that their grandfather, father or friend had been around to see it.
While I let out a yip and a clap when the Dodgers clinched the first pennant of my lifetime, a prevailing emptiness followed the elation. Rooting for teams is an unwise investment of our emotions that leaves us ultimately defenseless when they lose again. When the payoff finally came after years of heartbreak, I felt the burden of annual sorrow lift. And then I remembered that the second call I wanted to make wasn’t possible anymore. There’s a fondness that accompanies the memories of someone lost to time, but missing them never gets any easier.
This will be our year, Chuck. And we’ll chat about it someday.