Why I love baseball ... and a team 3,000 miles away

The Dodgers are coming to town next month, and this serves as a call for any other Dodger fans to make their way to South Florida and check out the Marlins' new digs, which are unquestionably garish but kinda cool, especially if you finagle the kind of seats my husband does. (And you gotta see the bobblehead museum.)

It also serves as a jumping-off point for a question I'm frequently asked: Why are you a Dodger fan?

The simple answer: Because my Daddy is.

That was what I knew, anyway, when I stood in line at spring training, watching Jay Johnston sign the piece of paper my 7-year-old hands thrust at him while his dripping apple blurred the ink. It was what I knew when I watched Kirk Gibson make modern baseball magic and when I bought my Daddy a Duke Snider baseball card set one year for Father's Day.

Upon seeing the gift, my mother said, "That's my favorite player!" It turns out my mother is a Dodger fan, too, and actually once set foot on the hallowed ground of Ebbbets Field.

I reckon back in the day, you had three choices for your East Coast baseball fandom, assuming you were dependent on radio broadcasts to paint pictures of the games in -for instance - the Carolinas: the Dodgers, the Giants or the Yankees, and I thank both my parents for choosing correctly.

The impending visit by the boys in blue also calls to mind a little something I wrote a while back. I was flipping through ESPN, the magazine for people who like graphics about sports, in effort to distract myself from the FOX News loop playing at the auto shop, when I came across a contest for short, sports-themed stories. What I produced clearly didn't merit publication with a confusing series of slightly different-colored circles obscuring the text, but I thought y'all might like it.  

As ESPN did not, this is my intellectual property, blah blah blah. Go Dodgers.

Untitled Baseball Ditty,  by Melinda Waldrop 

Her forehead was sweating under the too-tight brim of her Dodgers cap. She had never been able to pull off caps. Her head was too large and too round, and the brim always rode up in that very uncool, Davis Love III way.

But it was important to wear it today.

She gave the cap yet another downward tug and tried one more time to flex some of the stiffness from her shoulders as she straightened her spine in the hard-in-the-center, soft-on-the-sides hospital chair. Her eyes fell again on the neon floral pattern of the upholstery, huge orange blossoms of some aggressive flower with prominent stamens entwined around stiff brown branches against a background of lurid green grass. It was vaguely sexual and entirely out of place.

The doctor was due within the half hour, his part in this dance of anxious uncertainty a sure two-step. He’d sweep around the corner, white coat belling ever so slightly behind him as he moved, and stride purposely toward her. By now, he remembered her. He’d gracefully gear down as he approached her, fumbling to her feet, his feminine, well-scrubbed fingers laced together below hairless wrists, sometimes with a ballpoint pen trapped between them, clicking in and out, in and out, keeping three-quarter time with the languid Lowcountry rhythm of his speech.

The voice on the other end of the phone call she’d received yesterday had been completely different, dissonant and jarring, vowels and consonants mushed together in a watery vegetable gumbo as it formed surreal sentences she was still trying to piece together in her head. Father. Car accident. Head injuries. Coma. Quickly.

She’d kept half an ear out for the voice since she’d arrived six hours ago, and was disproportionately relieved not to have heard it again. That meant everything might be OK after all. No one could possibly get well, no bones could heal and no scars fade, in the turbulence of a voice like that.

She slid her eyes toward the elevator that had been disgorging an uneven trickle of relatives at half-hour intervals. Uncle Bill, still wearing his overalls and smelling like tractor grease, was the first to come, his sun-squinted eyes scanning the waiting room until they lighted on her, a semi-familiar figure and the only viable candidate to be Eugene Howard’s daughter, the girl no one on this side of the family had really seen that much since she took that job in Raleigh or Wilmington or – no, wait, Norfolk – five years ago. He steamed toward her with singular determination and then stopped a safe three feet short of where she sat, suddenly awkward in that way only well-raised Southern men of a certain age can be, and offered her a shy smile and a calloused hand.

She’d always liked Uncle Bill, who wasn’t technically her uncle but some complicated cousin and a constant presence beside Daddy in the corn field and the kitchen table, where he gulped gallons of Granny’s sweet tea and kept the after-church talk moving so that everyone could be done and the dishes drying in time for the final segment on NFL Today. While Daddy had instilled in her the basics – offense, defense, holding, idiot officials who could hear you if you yelled loud enough at the TV – Uncle Bill had refined this raw material, weaving in the connective tissue of the option, man-to-man coverage, three- and five-step drops and zone blitzes.

When the Redskins played the Cowboys, he’d usually come over, and side with Granny and her older brother Mark, three traitors she suddenly no longer knew as they rooted for that detestable star. That left her and Daddy outnumbered on the Redskins side of the room, but that didn’t matter, because they just pulled harder and yelled louder, cheering every time the camera cut to Joe Gibbs and whooping at the sight of John Riggins’ thick thighs churning through a pile of bodies on his way to the end zone.

After Uncle  Bill came Cousin Peggy and Aunt Jenny and assorted second and third cousins, many dragging interchangeable tow-headed uncomfortable children in their wake. Their presence was discomfiting and the small talk they required – remembering names and bits of childhood debris, that time the ladder broke and left Kenny dangling from edge of the hay loft for an hour while everyone else went fishing – was exhausting. She’d never been any good at this, and it didn’t help that, no different from any family reunion or Christmas gathering, she could feel their eyes rest a beat too long on her face, her ringless fourth finger, her high heels, her hammered silver earrings.

Take care, they said. We’re praying for y’all, they said. Then they left, no doubt to deliver the casserole cooling in the backseat to whoever was minding the house and mixing the tea back at the farm this hour.

In a brief interval between the relatives’ visits and the doctor’s arrival, she settled back into the ugly chair and tried to empty her brain of the thousands of thoughts doing battle there. Her eyes closed and in front of them formed the Washington Nationals’ stadium in D.C., where she’d bought two 300-level seats a few months ago and then driven Daddy, in town for her birthday, three hours up the interstate.

It was an early September night, not very humid, requiring long sleeves but still permitting shorts. They’d gotten lost on the way to the stadium, like she always did in downtown D.C., but after two turns around DuPont Circle she seized on a chance to turn right on M street and eventually found a sign with the curly W and an arrow pointing straight ahead.

It was one of Manny’s first games back from his steroid suspension, and he had an RBI single in the four-run first inning. They cheered him wildly as the night settled above the right-field fence. She prevailed upon a lady a few rows down to take a picture with her cell phone of the two of them in their matching Dodger blue hats, bought the day before – the only two the store had - so no one would mistake them for Nats fans. Hers was too tight, and rode up on her forehead.

The Dodgers’ bullpen gave up three runs in the seventh and eighth, and her head itched under her cap. Sidelong glances at Daddy made her teeth grind and ache. His eyes were fixed on the field, his jaw working as Ronnie Belliard, on his way to an 0-for-4 night in his return to D.C., watched an 0-2 pitch drop into the catcher’s glove directly over the heart of the plate.

Daddy would mutter under his breath from time to time, sometimes barking his frustration out loud. Each groundout became a personal affront, each stranded runner a snide insult.

This was why her mother would sometimes refuse to watch games with him.

This was how she knew to care.

Please win, she thought. Oh please win.

There weren’t that many people packed into the third level of the home ballpark of a team with the worst record in the NL East, but some of those present no doubt wondered why this blond-haired girl with a honeysuckle accent was pulling so hard for a team from Los Angeles, yelling herself hoarse and standing to applaud while those around her scowled after a scoreless Nationals at-bat.

Because my daddy likes them, she’d said, since she first heard the question. Later on, when she got older, she’d go on – I suppose because when he was a kid, you either had the Dodgers or the Yankees on the radio, and he picked the Dodgers, thank God. And my Mama does, too. But at first, that answer more than sufficed. Because my Daddy.

Jonathan Broxton struck out Adam Dunn with a runner on first in the bottom of the ninth to end the game. Traffic was snarled because two lanes of I-95 were closed for 11 p.m. construction, and they ended up having supper at a Waffle House because the game had been too close, too tense, to get up for nachos or a hot dog. Daddy got steak and eggs – medium rare and soft scrambled – like he always did.

The doctor is rounding the corner. She can feel the shift in the air before she sees him. His expression is maddeningly neutral, giving nothing away, as intentionally impassive as a closer trying not to watch a walk-off home run rocketing over his head.

The swelling in your father's brain is slowly going down, he says, click-click-clicking the pen. It’s a good sign. We may be able to operate soon, or if the swelling keeps going down, we may not need to operate at all.

It’s a strange interplay, this intensely personal exchange between two people whose first names will forever remain a mystery to one another. But his eyes, startlingly blue above his glasses – Dr. T.J. Eckleburg, she thinks suddenly, randomly – seem to be searching her face, attempting to impart more information, more feeling, than the clinical terms restricting his mouth. It’s a good sign, he says again, and the eyes smile at her. Or so she chooses to think.

The doctor walks away and she takes a slow look around the waiting room. It’s empty, except for the elderly lady who’s been there since she arrived, working crossword after crossword, receiving no visitors and speaking to no one.

She ducks into the bathroom for just a minute and studies herself in the mirror, wincing under the fluorescent light that turns her skin sallow and gives it a bruised, purplish tint. Her mascara has bled into the creases under her eyes, more pronounced now but still not so bad for her mid-30s. Her mouth, always prone to sharp downturns at the corners, sags more than normal, making look her tired and angry.

In the pointless little anteroom between the bathroom and the hallway, upholstered in a more sedate fabric that is just as comfortless, she slides her iphone from her purse. Miracle of miracles, she has a pulse of service, and thumbs to mlb.com.

Chatter filtering through the thin walls announces a new wave of cousins, churchgoers and people her daddy taught in high school. She takes a deep breath as she scrolls through the scores.

Her hand strikes the door, gives it a solid push. The Dodgers are winning, 6-2, in the fifth.