By Gyle Konotopetz
A man from Los Angeles politely requests a sample of the local IPA draught, and Yasiel Puig of the Los Angeles Dodgers is licking his bat on the big screen at the Sticky Wicket. Yes, licking his bat.
“Jackie Robinson…now there was a ball player,” pipes the gentleman from Los Angeles, his piercing blue eyes dancing at the memory.
I used to listen to Sugarfoot Anderson, the one-time Canadian Football League star, spin yarns about his friend Jackie – the man who broke baseball’s color line.
And now I have almost been knocked me off my bar stool at Victoria’s cricket themed pub. I can’t remember ever meeting anyone who was actually at Ebbets Field in Brooklyn to watch the great Dodger Jackie Robinson, the antithesis of Yasiel Puig.
“I watched Jackie Robinson steal home,” gushes the man from Los Angeles, gazing down the bar as if to challenge anyone to top that. “I’m 86, ya know. Nine decades I’ve rooted for my Dodgers…”
He nods his approval to the bartender and orders a pint of the local craft beer. He is obviously a man of fine tastes but appears a wee bit nauseous as the bat licker settles into the batter’s box.
He is visiting Los Angeles with his daughter. He is a dyed-in-the-wool Dodgers’ fan who moved from Brooklyn to L.A. when the team moved from Brooklyn to L.A. His daughter lives in San Francisco, roots for the Dodgers’ arch rivals, the Giants, and refuses to drink the beer of a Dodgers’ fan. She orders Guinness.
“Red Sox will win the World Series, right pop?” she teases, even with the Dodgers ahead 1-0 and on the verge of evening the series at 2-2.
She gazes down the bar and winks: “I’m from San Francisco and we don’t like much of anything about the Dodgers so I have to cheer for the Red Sox.”
I grew up listening to the Russ Hodges’ call of Giants’ games in the 1960’s late at night in Saskatchewan on the radio of the 1964 Galaxy 500. I idolized Willie Mays, who never once licked his bat or his biceps or his teammates as the Cuban showboat Puig does. So I switch to Guinness and propose a toast to the Giants’ fan and her father, the Dodgers’ fan.
While Puig waggles his bat and waggles tongue, the man from Los Angeles raves about the boys of Brooklyn summers, the Dodgers who were chronicled by sports writer Roger Kahn in The Boys Of Summer.
“Of course I read The Boys Of Summer,” he spouts matter of factly. “Three times.”
The man from Los Angeles was 18 when he watched the Hall of Famer Jackie Robinson steal home and fight the beanball pitchers and tune out the racists, some whom wore the same uniform. Curiously, he mentions only one other player and it’s Don Newcombe, one of the first black stars in the major leagues.
“It was a different game then,” says the man, squinting at the big screen showcasing Yasiel Puig. “You know something? Don Newcombe started both games of a doubleheader in ’49 (I looked it up in my Baseball Encyclopedia and indeed Newcombe pitched a two-hit complete-game shutout in the first game and seven innings in the second game against the Red Sox).
“Don who?” coos the girl next to me from Salt Spring Island who doesn’t baseball from cricket.
The cranky gentleman at the end of the bar is peering longingly at the souvenir cricket bats on the walls of the Sticky Wicket.
“Why is that man licking his bat?” the man from Sidney snarls, offering the bartender a bribe if he can switch the baseball to a cricket match. He is from Sydney, Australia, not Sidney, B.C.
That man takes a mighty cut on the sweet spot. The baseball is launched into orbit.
Puig, the Dodgers’ one-man ticker tape parade, flips the bat, takes a few moments to admire his work of art that has given the Dodgers a 4-0 lead in the sixth inning, triumphantly raises his arms and begins to dance around the bases while flexing and licking his biceps. Boston pitcher Eduardo Rodriguez slams his glove into the dirt, disgusted with himself and with Puig.
The man from Los Angeles is not cheering. He is despondent over the unabashed showboating of Yasiel Puig. He’s not sure whether to laugh or cry.
“I wonder what Sandy Koufax is thinking?” he says of the classy Dodger great who is watching from the box seats behind home plate. “Geez, what if that was Jackie? He never would have survived showing up the pitcher that way.”
He wags a bony finger at the big screen: “Watch out! The Red Sox will be fired up now.”
When the dust settles, it is Boston 9, Los Angeles 6. The man from Los Angeles was right. Yasiel Puig gave the Red Sox the spark they needed to mount a comeback and turn the series in their favor.
The man from Los Angeles has called the shot.
“The tab goes to the Dodger fan here,” his daughter instructs the bartender, lifting a Guinness toast. “Pop, your Dodgers will never win the Series as long as Puig is inspiring his opponents. Here’s to the Red Sox. World Champions to be. We’re goin’ to Big Bad John’s and you’re buyin’, Pop!”
The man who saw Jackie Robinson steal home raises his pint, taking it in stride. Next time he may order Guinness. His beer is called Shipwreck.
(The Red Sox never looked back after Puig’s dramatic blast, winning the World Series in five games over the Dodgers)