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Plaschke: Welcome to Baseball USA — where the All-Star Game should always be played


The most impactful player in baseball history grew up here, Jackie Robinson learning his craft on the sandlots of Pasadena just up the road from Chavez Ravine.

His childhood house has been torn down, but you can still pay homage to a plaque that has been placed at his Pepper Street address.

Welcome to Baseball USA.

The most impactful pitcher in baseball history took the mound here, Fernando Valenzuela arriving from the tiny Mexican village of Etchohuaquila to throw a screwball, stare at the sky, and help mend the fractured bond between the city’s large Latino community and its baseball team.

Valenzuela has long since retired, but you can still see him in an announcer’s booth at Dodger Stadium, view his influence in the team’s largely Latino fan base, and hear him cheered as if Fernandomania is forever.

Welcome to Baseball USA.

One of the greatest moments in baseball history happened here, limping Kirk Gibson’s home run against unhittable Dennis Eckersley in 1988 still alive and coursing through the veins of blue-clad masses who will eternally believe in improbable and impossible.

The ball has been lost, but the seat in the right-field pavilion where it landed is painted blue and adorned with Gibson’s No. 23.

Welcome to Baseball USA.

When Major League Baseball decided to return its All-Star Game to Dodger Stadium after a 42-year absence, the grateful local sentiment could be summed up in five words.

What took you so long?

With deep roots and rich history and unbridled passion for a game that has gone stale in other parts of the country, Southern California is America’s greatest baseball neighborhood.

The All-Star Game shouldn’t just be here this year. It should be here every year. It should take up permanent residence on Vin Scully Avenue, the geographic heart of a diverse community that loves the game beyond reason and plays the game without equal.

Dodger fans attend the home opener against the Cincinnati Reds on April 14 at Dodger Stadium.

Dodger fans attend the home opener against the Cincinnati Reds on April 14 at Dodger Stadium.

(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

<p>The All-Star Game belongs in a place where there is a youth baseball game somewhere virtually every day, a place where high schools have produced 16 Hall of Famers, a place that houses the country’s most prolific college baseball program, a place that sells the most major league tickets to see the biggest major league stars.</p> <p>“You see it every day, Southern California has the best baseball in the world,” said Tom Dill, who has coached for 30 years at a Sherman Oaks Notre Dame high school that has produced a major league MVP (Giancarlo Stanton), Cy Young Award winner (Jack McDowell) and first overall draft pick (Tim Foli).</p> <p>When Notre Dame opened its new stadium in 2014, it was about more than bleachers, scoreboard and a snack table. The thing cost $3 million, Pete Rose was in the stands, and <a href="https://www.latimes.com/79409311-132.html">Neil Diamond was on the field singing, “Sweet Caroline.”</a></p> <p>Welcome to Baseball USA.</p> <p>The weather is perfect, the Latino roots are powerful, and, from Boyle Heights to Ventura to San Juan Capistrano, the game has been passed down like an heirloom.</p> <p>The <a href="https://www.latimes.com/sports/angels">Los Angeles Angels</a> are generally cited as the first stable professional team here, as they began playing in the Pacific Coast League in South Los Angeles’ Washington Park in 1903. But at the same time, during what has been called the Golden Age of Mexican American baseball, the local love of the sport was fueled by great barrio baseball being played in East Los Angeles, in leagues eventually led by legendary teams like the Carmelita Chorizeros.</p>  <blockquote><p>“The fans just aren’t just sitting there, they’re really into it. This town hangs on every pitch.”</p></blockquote>  <p>— Dennis Gilbert, the Dodgers’ most recognizable fan from his seat behind home plate</p>    <p>“Baseball’s popularity here is directly tied to the Latino fan base,’’ said Richard Santillán, one of the founders of The Latino Baseball History Project housed at Cal State San Bernardino. “The Latino love for the sport is instrumental in growing the game here. It became an essential part of the struggle for civil rights, and an important instrument to promote social equality.”</p> <p>Thus, by the time the Dodgers arrived from Brooklyn in 1958, all parts of the sprawling city had been essentially playing and watching and cheering high-level baseball for more than half a century. With Hall of Fame broadcasters <a href="https://www.latimes.com/sports/dodgers/story/2022-07-15/vin-scully-dodgers-los-angeles-fans-transistor-radio-dodger-stadium-coliseum">Vin Scully</a> and <a href="https://www.latimes.com/sports/dodgers/story/2022-07-15/jaime-jarrin-greatest-dodgers-memories-mlb">Jaime Jarrín</a> then brilliantly fueling the passion in English and Spanish, the devotion to the sport grew to a level unmatched in any other American metropolis.</p> <p>“When it comes to baseball, everywhere you go here, there’s so much training, so much focus, so much knowledge,” said Dill.</p> <p>And so much pure hardball love.</p> <p>Where else are nearly 7 million — <i> 7 million!</i> — tickets sold to major league games during an average summer?</p> <p>In 2019, the last year that attendance figures were not affected by the pandemic, the Dodgers led the league as usual with 3,974,309 fans, while Angels were fifth with 3,023,010.</p> <p>Even though Dodger Stadium is the league’s largest, that’s a million more tickets than were sold to the two stadiums in New York. That’s 2 million more tickets than were sold to the two stadiums in Chicago.</p> <p>Not counting the 2020 empty-stadium summer, the Dodgers have led the league in attendance for eight straight years.</p> <p>“And the fans just aren’t just sitting there, they’re really into it,” said Dennis Gilbert, the guy with the dark hair and glasses who has become the Dodgers’ most recognizable fan from his seat behind home plate. “This town hangs on every pitch.”</p><img alt="Dodgers fans cheer as the starting line-up is announced before Game 1 of the 2019 National League Division Series " width="840" height="566" data-src="https://ca-times.brightspotcdn.com/dims4/default/cd0ab00/2147483647/strip/true/crop/3900x2626+0+0/resize/840x566!/quality/90/?url=https%3A%2F%2Fcalifornia-times-brightspot.s3.amazonaws.com%2F34%2Fd4%2Fe44ff81a48ad9e91c0db44b2816c%2Fla-photos-1staff-468092-sp-1003-dodgers-nationals-6-gmf.jpg" src="image/gif;base64,R0lGODlhAQABAAAAACH5BAEKAAEALAAAAAABAAEAAAICTAEAOw==" /> <p>Dodgers fans cheer as the starting line-up is announced before Game 1 of the 2019 National League Division Series against the Washington Nationals at Dodger Stadium.

(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

Baseball is so big here, fans like Gilbert are actually part of the game. A former agent and insurance executive, Gilbert has spearheaded several baseball philanthropic efforts that have included overseeing a scout’s charity, building a junior college field, and working with several inner-city initiatives.

“The game works so great in this city because it doesn’t care about anything other than, can you play?” said Gilbert. “Race and background don’t matter. If you can play, you will get an opportunity.”

Fans fill the seats, cheer forgivingly for the players, and spend mightily on their memorabilia.

Last season, led by best-selling Mookie Betts, Southern California players accounted for five of the 10 best-selling jerseys in baseball. And none of those was the great Mike Trout.

This season, four locals — Betts, Trout, Trea Turner and Shohei Ohtani — were voted by fans to the All-Star Game starting lineup. That’s twice as many SoCal starters as New York starters, even though the Yankees and Mets are having a better combined season.

Dodgers right fielder Mookie Betts points to the stands at Dodger Stadium before a game against the Cincinnati Reds

Dodgers right fielder Mookie Betts points to the stands at Dodger Stadium before a game against the Cincinnati Reds on April 14.

(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

<p>Dig down deeper and the numbers are even more local. The game will contain All-Stars from five different Southern California high schools.</p> <p>“You coach around here long enough and you realize, almost every game, you could be competing against somebody you’re going to see on TV one day,” said Dill.</p> <p>It starts long before high school. Just ask James Szatkowski. He’s a 57-year-old retired warehouse manager from Ventura who is as popular as any Hollywood A-lister.</p> <p>Szatkowski is an amateur-league umpire, and a good one, and there are so many games in so many age groups being constantly played across Southern California that he could work multiple games virtually every day for the rest of his career.</p> <p>“Honestly, it never ends, it’s constant, I could work every night somewhere, the weather is so good, the interest is so high, there’s so much baseball everywhere,” he said.</p> <p>Szatkowski has worked seven games in one day. He’s worked 15 games in one long weekend. He’s worked games for 5-year-olds, 35-year-olds and everything in between. He’s been so battered and exhausted he’s fallen asleep on the drive home. He has 50 umpire shirts and 50 pairs of umpire pants and he wears them all. Contact him early. His calendar fills up quick.</p> <p>“I turn down as many as I accept,” he said. “I get sore. I get hurt. It never stops.”</p> <p>Although the best youth leaguers eventually play for traveling teams that have become the primary focus of many players hoping to attract professional attention, high school baseball is still a force in Southern California with a legacy unmatched anywhere.</p> <p>Did you know Eddie Murray and Ozzie Smith not only went to high school here, but they attended the <i>same school</i>, Locke High? Walter Johnson also went to high school here. So did George Brett, Tony Gwynn, Robin Yount, Bobby Doerr, Gary Carter, Ralph Kiner, Arky Vaughan, Duke Snider, Don Drysdale, Sparky Anderson, Bob Lemon and Trevor Hoffman.</p>  <blockquote><p>“You see it every day, Southern California has the best baseball in the world.” </p></blockquote>  <p>— Sherman Oaks Notre Dame coach Tom Dill</p>    <p>You know what all those players have in common? Of course. They’re Hall of Famers, 16 in all from Southern California.</p> <p>Studio City Harvard-Westlake produced three major league pitchers all drafted in the first round in a three-year span — Max Fried, Jack Flaherty and Lucas Giolito.</p> <p>El Toro has produced two third baseman who each won the Gold Glove for their respective leagues in consecutive years — Nolan Arenado and Matt Chapman.</p> <p>Then there was the 2017 draft, where locals were the first and second picks, San Juan Capistrano JSerra’s Royce Lewis and Notre Dame’s Hunter Greene.</p> <p>Not only are the local high school players among the best in the country, so are the teams. Since 2012, USA Baseball has sponsored the National High School Invitational featuring 16 of the nation’s top squads. In the tournament’s nine seasons, Southern California teams have won seven times.</p> <p>Then there is college baseball, where USC has won twice as many College World Series championships — 12 — as anyone else. While the Trojans haven’t won since 1998, in the last 30 years four different schools from the area have won championships — USC, UCLA, Cal State Fullerton and Pepperdine.</p> <p>During that time, unless you count the 200 miles between Starkville, Miss., and Oxford, Miss., no other neighborhood has had more than one champion.</p> <p>Baseball is forever in this city’s heart, its pulse, and even in its voice.</p> <p>The greatest broadcaster in sports history preached here, Scully rhapsodizing for 67 seasons about the Dodgers in words celebrated around the world.</p> <p>He has long since retired, but a video exists in which <a href="https://www.latimes.com/sports/dodgers/la-sp-dodgers-clinch-plaschke-20160925-snap-story.html">Scully delivers his final message</a> to Dodgers fans … by singing to them.</p> <p>He crooned that those fans were, “the wind beneath my wings.”</p> <p>His sport has long been beneath the wind beneath this city’s wings.</p> <p>Yeah, All-Star Game, what took you so long?</p> <p>Welcome to Baseball USA.</p>

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