Moncton LA fan makes pilgrimage to see her Dodgers and Vin

Hearing Vin Scully sing ‘Wind Beneath My Wings’ was very emotional for me. Photo credit: Stephen Dunn.

Hearing Vin Scully sing ‘Wind Beneath My Wings’ was very emotional for me. Photo credit: Stephen Dunn.

 

Dec. 3rd, 2016


Life Is But a Dream

By Gail Johnson

ThinkBlueLA
It is Sunday, September 25, 2016, and I am sitting in Section 29 at Dodger Stadium – standing, actually – with my travel buddy Andy, screaming “CHARLIE!!!” at the top of our lungs, after Culberson’s incredible, improbable walk-off home run has just won my beloved Dodgers their fourth straight National League West Division. 

In a few minutes, the sound of Vin Scully’s elegant voice singing “Wind Beneath My Wings” fills the stadium, and I try to capture the moment with my iPhone, as I’ve just gone “Live” on Facebook for the first time where friends back home in Moncton, New Brunswick (a mere 3,500 miles away) are watching this historic moment with me. This isn’t real life, is it? 

Am I really here and not watching this at home from my couch, like I have all other Dodgers games since early 2014? It must be a dream. It sure feels like a dream, and not one I could have ever conjured up in my own wild imagination.

After the song stops, the champagne starts flowing, and the celebration on the field begins. I close my eyes and flash back, way back, to a day in October 1981 when the Dodgers celebrated in similar fashion on a field in Montreal, and my nine-year-old self cried tears of despair, which now contrast to today’s tears of joy and gratitude that this moment even happened, and that I could be here for it. I am reminded that my childhood love for the Expos and my connection to their longtime third baseman Tim Wallach, who wore that magical No. 29, is what ultimately brought me here to this moment.

I had written previously about how Tim Wallach was my favorite player growing up. As I re-discovered my love of the game back in the spring of 2014, I wrote a letter to him in June of that year, addressed to the Canadian Baseball HOF where he was being inducted, which led to me becoming acquainted with baseball writers Bob Elliott and Danny Gallagher. 

Gallagher, a colleague of Elliott’s, wrote an article on the web site about me and my connection to the Expos and Wallach, and a week before Christmas 2014 (perhaps in response to my HOF letter, I will never know), I received a handwritten letter from Tim thanking me for being a fan. 

Dodgers fan Mike LeClair from Cranbrook, BC found out about the letter – likely because I had posted it on Twitter for my new friend Andy Lane Chapman (@DodgerGirlinPA) – and told Ron Cervenka about it. Ron then invited me to join the ThinkBlueLA group. Ron was also interested in the story behind the letter, so I sent him an email detailing the experience, which resulted in him posting a nice story about me on his blog on New Year’s Eve 2014.

As that off-season progressed, I was welcomed into the ThinkBlueLA group and was happy to discover there were other fans out there who were just as crazy about baseball and the Dodgers as I was. I also started feeling a tug towards Los Angeles and Dodger Stadium. Could I really get there someday? As I continued to meet more fellow fans through the forum and Twitter, getting to the place they called Blue Heaven On Earth still seemed like an impossible pipe dream.

I had surgery in early 2015 and also purchased my first house that spring, so my personal and financial focus was elsewhere, although I still managed to watch every Dodger game that season and had a story about it published on the ThinkBlueLA site in the Fall of 2015. 

In writing that story and being given free reign by Ron about that to write, I ended up opening up for the first time, except to a few close friends, about my past struggles with depression and how baseball had helped me regain the focus and happiness that I had been craving. Through a lot of hard work, determination and a decision to finally be present in my own life, I was no longer struggling, but rather, living with the illness. Baseball and the great people I brought into my life because of it had become a big part of that road to recovery.

In April 2016, Opening Day was finally upon us, and that pull towards Dodger Stadium remained. With Vin Scully having announced this was his last year broadcasting Dodgers games, the desire to get there grew even stronger. My quote from last year’s column still rings true to me: “Be fearless in your pursuit of what sets your soul on fire.” 

The good news is that I was no longer fearful of pursuing my dreams, yet realistically, still unable to find the funds that would make the trip possible. This would not be an inexpensive trip, and even without dependents, I am still a homeowner with financial responsibilities and “stuff” to pay for.

At the beginning of the season, Ron ran an annual ThinkBlueLA contest where he would give two tickets to any Dodgers regular season game to the first person in the forum to correctly guess the name of the first Dodger of the year to hit a home run. On a whim, I guessed Yasiel Puig and joked that if I win, that means it is a sign that I need to go. The cost of game tickets was not what was actually preventing me back from getting to LA, it was the cost of the flight and accommodations that were holding me back, but having game tickets would sure mean a fun sign of something, and perhaps give me the motivation to finally get out there. 

Kenta Maeda then improbably hit the first Dodgers home run of the year in Game 3, and I joked on Twitter “I think it’s safe to say that no one is going to win ThinkBlueLA’s HR contest”. Thankfully, Ron extended the contest to the NEXT Dodger who hit one out, and a few innings later, Puig came through.

I had told Ron that if I couldn’t use the tickets I would ask him to be sure they get used by someone, and that if I did somehow find a way to get there, it would be the last home stand of the year as that would give me the most time to save the money. Little did I know at the time that the last home stand would turn out the way it did, and that the tickets for that weekend would soon be at a premium due to Vin Scully appreciation night planned for the Friday night, and a commemorative coin being given out Saturday night.

I made a few off-handed comments (wishful thinking at the time) on Twitter about trying to get out to Dodger Stadium to say goodbye to Vin, and Andy, who I had gotten to know through live tweeting games and realizing we had a lot of common, messaged me on Twitter to say that if I was actually going, she would be willing to take the trip with me.  Yet still, money was a factor.

Then, in late June, fate intervened. A rare opportunity came up at work to perform a delivery job on the side that would make me enough money for my flight and tickets, there it was, another sign that I had to go for it and make this dream a reality. I thought about it and realized that there was always going to be something else to pay for, some other responsibility to fulfill, but my gut was telling me that this was finally the time to make this dream a reality. For nine long days in July, on a week’s vacation from my full-time job, I walked and walked and walked while delivering flyers door to door so that I could earn the money I needed for the trip. Two weeks later, I got paid for the job and was finally able to book the flight and buy tickets. This dream was finally coming true!

Once the flight was booked and the tickets were bought, the stars began to align. Vin Scully Appreciation Night turned into an entire Vin Scully Weekend, Clayton Kershaw returned from the DL, the Giants kept losing, and the Dodgers kept pulling further ahead in the NL West. All of a sudden, I found myself doing the math and counting the games after each win, and that little voice in my head kept whispering “Could this really happen while I’m there?” I almost didn’t dare dream that big. This season had been so improbable already, and I didn’t want to get greedy.

Quick side note on the team – The Dodgers’ 2016 journey from eight games behind the Giants and “near doom” in June (when Clayton went on the DL), to alone in first place by Aug. 17th is already well documented, but one of the many reasons this team and this season will always be special to me is that there is a part of their determination, resiliency and perseverance that I will always identify with. As their season became more and more improbable, so did my eventual trip out to Dodger Stadium on Sept. 23.

It goes without saying that Kershaw’s dominance, injury and return are the most important things to happen to the team this year, and so would be my No. 1 story of the year, so here are the rest of my Dodgers Top 10 stories:

Top nine Dodgers happenings in 2016 for me:

Kenley Jansen and Clayton Kershaw out of the bullpen in Game 5 of the NLDS. The ninth inning alone almost killed me, but oh, what a thrill it was when they won.

Dave Roberts’ dugout reactions and personality

Corey Seager – everything he did, all of it. The future is indeed bright.

Andrew Toles’ rise from Class A to become affectionately known as ‘Tolsey’

Chase Utley – he did so much more for this team than just hit those big home runs in NY and Philadelphia

Yasiel Puig. From the OKC Party Bus to the one leading the NL West-clinching Dodgers around the field to shake hands with fans.

Yasmani Grandal and the “Bat Drop”

Rich Hill. What a great curveball, and what a great story.

Throughout 2014 and all the way through to that day in July 2016 when I finally booked my flight and set the dream in motion, that tug towards Dodger Stadium had never gone away. I half-joked to a friend recently that I’ve become psychic the older I get, and although that is not entirely true (or I would have picked the winning lottery numbers by now), I have learned to trust my gut and often get strong feelings about people, places and events that often end up coming true. Throughout that two-and-a-half year period, I would often dream of being at Dodger Stadium and in these dreams I am watching Clayton Kershaw pitch, am surrounded by other true fans, and would feel like I belonged there. 

Never, however, in any of these dreams, could I ever have imagined the way the weekend of Sept. 23-25 would turn out. Just seeing the Dodgers clinch would have been enough to make the weekend unforgettable – honestly, just being there would have been enough for me – but the rest became delicious icing on a multi-layered cake.

As the weekend approached, Andy and I chatted more and more on Twitter, making plans, as the Dodgers kept climbing in the standings. A fellow Dodgers fan by the name of Kandice, who neither Andy or me had ever met in person, offered to let us stay at an Air BNB that she manages in Venice Beach, AT NO COST, simply out of the goodness of her Dodgers heart. Worries over accommodations expenses went out the window, and anticipation and excitement over the trip kept growing.

On a side note, those who know me well likely wondered what I was doing meeting up with and, in some cases, staying with people I had never met before. “They’re Dodgers fans, I trust them,” was the best, and simplest, response I had. Sure, it was all a little out of my comfort zone, but it felt right, just like everything else with the 2016 Dodgers. Andy messaged me and asked if my friends worried that I was going to get murdered by strangers. (I told her to let her husband and kids know not to worry about me as I’m Canadian and too nice to be a murderer).

The travel itself to LA via Toronto was a breeze. Everyone was so happy that weekend – a festive mood surrounded us. After meeting up for a drink with our new friend Kandice in Venice Beach, we spent most of the time at the stadium, where I can still remember that feeling of excitement in the air as the Dodger were close to clinching, along with an anticipation mixed with sadness knowing that the time we were all lucky enough to have had with Vin would soon be coming to an end. 

Meeting Dodger Stadium organist Dieter Ruehle with Andy Lane Chapman (left) was among the highlights of Gail Johnson’s trip to Los Angeles for Vin Scully Weekend. Photo: Ron Cervenka. 

Meeting Dodger Stadium organist Dieter Ruehle with Andy Lane Chapman (left) was among the highlights of Gail Johnson’s trip to Los Angeles for Vin Scully Weekend. Photo: Ron Cervenka. 

From the parking lot attendant who shook my hand Friday night on my way in and welcomed me to Dodger Stadium, to the stadium organist (as well as super talented and very nice) Dieter Ruehle, who took a few minutes out of a very busy Sunday to come out and say Hi and get a photo of us near the press box area, to the lovely lady at the concession stand who asked me for ID when I ordered a beer mid-game on Sunday, there were warm, welcoming smiles, and positive vibes everywhere. For those three magical days at least, I felt like I was exactly where I was supposed to be. In fact, the whole weekend went by like a dream.

(Note on the “getting asked for ID” incident: At the time of this writing, Dec. 1, I am exactly one hour away from my 45th birthday, so needless to say, this was literally the most pleasantly surprising thing that had happened to me in a very long time.)

Other noteworthy trip moments (in no particular order)

Standing directly behind the Dodgers bullpen pre-game Saturday and watching Clayton warm up.

Meeting up with Ron, Mike and David from the ThinkBlueLA crew. I hope there is more time to visit on the next trip. Mike took video of me arriving at DS for the first time which I am sure is lovely, as I had been up for about 18 hours straight at that point.

Venice Beach in the morning sunshine – BREATHTAKING

Meeting our Twitter friend and awesome baseball writer Sarah Wexler (@SarahWexler32). This girl is the real deal, folks. Baseball smarts and very genuine. Can’t wait to buy her first book!

Andy having the patience to drive us everywhere. I loved being in LA but those freeways scared me!

Meeting and getting photo taken with Dodgers fan and organist Dieter Ruehle before Sunday’s game, whose music I had often heard, during the games, in my living room all of these miles away. Thanks to Ron for the intro!

Finally finding my all-time favorite actor Jim Carrey’s spot on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and putting my hands in his hand prints where the encryption in the cement reads “Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily …”

Participating in the LADF auction and bidding on a worn Chase Utley worn jersey. I don’t think I had the winning bid.

Meeting and chatting with fellow fans and Twitter peeps Jim (@peelrjim), Amanda (@AmandaRTubbs) and Nurse Bailey (@heartRN13). So fun to chat in person with other true fans and genuinely nice people.

Taking the elevator to the very top of the stadium. The views are breathtaking and any picture I took couldn’t do it justice.

Scoreboard watching during Saturday night’s 14-1 blowout, and watching the end of the Giants game on the stadium screen after the Dodgers had left the field … just in case the Giants bullpen blew another one.

It’s now Sunday, Sept. 25, 2016, and the final regular season home game at Dodger Stadium and all of the on-field celebrations ended about 30 minutes ago. The team is dousing each other in champagne in the clubhouse directly below our seats, Dieter is playing “Closing Time”, but I don’t want to leave.  Do I really have to leave?

Once I get to the LAX hotel that night and get ready for my flight in the morning, it all hits me. This all happened because of a variety of people who had come into my life. You see, baseball has always been just as much about the people on and off the field as it is about the game being played. 

I can talk managerial strategy, pitch selection, stats and numbers with the best of them, but it’s still the people and the stories behind each of them that serve as the root of my emotional investment. While I believe that we are the only ones really capable of saving ourselves at the end of the day, I humbly recognize that if not for lot of people touching my lives in various ways, this trip simply would not have happened.

Thanks to my fondness for baseball as a child and of Tim Wallach leading me to the Dodgers, as well as a little help from my friends Ron, Mike and the ThinkBlueLA crew, Andy, and Kandice, I had made my dream come true. I had felt a wonderful sense of belonging at Dodger Stadium that weekend, one that an independent, naturally introverted woman like me doesn’t often get to experience. 

All these miles away now, and with winter having found its way to Moncton, NB, Canada, I close my eyes and can still feel the warmth of the California air, hear the sounds of the pre-game organ music, smell the outfield grass, and taste the beer. I have finally found my Happy Place, and its address is 1000 Vin Scully Avenue. I am forever grateful, and I already can’t wait to get back.

To indirectly quote Jim Carrey from his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame: “Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily … life IS but a dream!”

 

Gail Johnson has been enduring annual baseball heartbreak since October 1981 when she watched Rick Monday’s home run off Steve Rogers clear the center field fence at Olympic Stadium. Now, 35 years later, she is the self-proclaimed biggest Dodgers fan north of the border, having followed her childhood hero Tim Wallach’s career from the Expos through to his coaching career with the Boys in Blue. Gail works (Brunswick News) and plays in Moncton, NB and is counting the days until pitchers and catchers report.