Wednesday, August 1, 2012
Dodgers history culled from tapes of a young fanatic
He was so committed to the project he stuck with it for four seasons, until graduating on to normal teen pursuits, like cars and girls. But the tapes, logging the memorable moments of the 1978-81 seasons, were kept safe, pulled out on occasion to relive a favorite play or season. And all these years later, Haddad still treasures the collection chronicling the famed infield of Garvey, Lopes, Russell, and Cey; fall showdowns with the hated Yankees, who were finally slayed in the '81 World Series; and, of course, Fernandomania.
Haddad turned his adolescent hobby into a book, High Fives, Pennant Drives, and Fernandomania: A Fan's History of the Los Angeles Dodgers' Glory Years 1977-1981, released this spring by Santa Monica Press. The tapes play a prominent role, with numerous transcriptions of favorite calls from Scully, as well as his fellow radio announcers Jerry Doggett and Ross Porter.
There was also another voice regularly captured on the tapes: Haddad's. Not content to let the professionals have all the fun, he added his own commentary, cataloging the gamut of emotions of an adolescent diehard, from the anguish of the sub-.500 1979 season to the elation of a championship two years later.
Haddad's sense of humor shines throughout the book, particularly when detailing some of the low points of the hometown team, which he categorized under the heading "The Dodgers Blow It Again." As he explains in the Introduction: "I have always had a notorious competitive streak. It pains me to admit it, but my parents have Super 8 footage of me throwing an epic tantrum while playing miniature golf with three friends on my eighth birthday. By the final hole, I am bringing up the rear, at which point I raise my pee-wee club and pummel an unsuspecting windmill as if it were a piñata."
"Homerun Highlights" proved to be more than just a collection of favorite moments. The project whetted Haddad's appetite for both production work and entertaining, two itches he scratches these days as a television writer and producer in Los Angeles. Of course, his love affair with the Dodgers hasn't waned much over the past three decades (though it was tried a bit at points during the Fox years). And after all those visits to Chavez Ravine as a fan (often with his trusty radio/tape recorder boom box in tow), he'll be living out a dream later this month when he's scheduled to appear at Dodger Stadium to sign copies of his book. Even better, the Aug. 30 signing coincides with Vin Scully Bobblehead Night.
Haddad, who is donating proceeds from each sale to ThinkCure!, the Dodgers' cancer research foundation, was kind enough to donate some time to respond to my questions for what turned into a lengthy and informative Q&A.
JB: Why now, after 30 years, was this the time to write and release this Dodgers tale?
PH: A few things happened in 2009 that prompted me to write the book. One of them was Vin Scully was in his 60th year as the Dodgers' broadcaster. Since my book weaves in Vin's radio calls to help tell the story of the 1977-1981 Dodgers, I wanted to write a book that honored the team of my formative years and Vin's legacy, and share it with the Dodger community while he was still active. Needless to say, Vin is the connective tissue between generations of Dodger fans.
The other thing that happened was having a young son who started getting into baseball. Seeing him skip around the living room, imitating the announcers on TV calling exciting home runs made me want to recapture and memorialize that feeling for others. To this day, I still get goosebumps playing back Vin Scully calling a home run from Steve Garvey, or a strikeout from Fernando Valenzuela. Also, so many fans have fond memories of the team that was anchored by the Garvey/Lopes/Cey/Russell infield - the "Big Blue Wrecking Crew" -- but it's an era sorely underrepresented in book form. There's never been a book just about that period. So I felt there was a void that needed to be filled.
Plus, the team was mired in the McCourt era. I felt the timing was right to remind people just how great this franchise has been -- and can be again.
JB: Were you (or your parents) ever tempted to toss those tapes out somewhere along the way? How many times did you have to move them?
PH: Well, I always knew they were something special so I never considered tossing them. When I left for college, I left behind my collection of 10 tapes in a K-Swiss shoebox in a dresser drawer. I figured they stood a better chance of survival at my parents' home than in some rowdy freshman dorm, but I was always freaked out that Mom would throw the tapes away because she likes to organize and get rid of clutter. She's like an anti-hoarder. More than once I came home from college to find a favorite book or old sweater given away to Goodwill without my consent. I also had a bunch of baseball cards and Dodger newspaper clippings that fell victim to one of Mom's purges. I think every kid who ever headed off to college can relate. But somehow the tapes were spared… I think I might've left behind a note on the shoebox that said they were not to be trifled with!
When I returned to Los Angeles from college, I reclaimed my tapes and schlepped them around with me as I moved from one crappy apartment to another. I made a "Best Of" tape for friends who were Dodger fans, and sometimes even played the masters driving around in my car. Having majored in film at USC, I knew all about the fragility of magnetic tape, so I tried to play them sparingly. In fact, while I was digitizing them to write my book, one of them broke and I lost a good 90 minutes from the 1980 season.
JB: What was it like seeing Fernando Valenzuela pitch against the Dodgers later in his career? Did you ever have conflicted feelings about those games?
PH: It was strange to see him cycle through different teams throughout the '90s, in the same way it was strange to see Michael Jordan in a Wizards uniform. Even though he was clearly not the same pitcher, I admired Valenzuela's tenacity. You always pulled for Fernando. This was a man who lived to pitch, even returning to the Mexican League when no one else would take him.
But there was also a bad taste that lingered from the 1991 season, when Fernando was let go by the Dodgers during spring training. That led to some bitterness by Fernando and Dodger fans, like he hadn't been accorded the respect he deserved. I mean, it was only the year before that he pitched his one and only no-hitter for the team (punctuated by Vin's famous call, "If you have a sombrero, throw it to the sky!"). Rick Wallace had a great line in the L.A. Times after Fernando was cut: "Fernando Valenzuela may be the only Dodger in Los Angeles history that fans would rather lose with than win without." Fortunately, the ill will subsided and Fernando reunited with the Dodgers in 2003 to become their Spanish language color announcer.
JB: How did the production of your Homerun Highlights collections prepare you for your career in the entertainment industry?
PH: Like a lot of people who write or create for a living, I could always entertain myself with some crazy project as a kid. I remember writing a report, dozens and dozens of pages long, single-spaced, on the history of dinosaurs in the third grade. Not because it was a school assignment, but just for fun. I loved the act of writing, the feel of pen on paper. By the time I was 10, I had written some 50 books - comic books, story books, encyclopedias, "fun" books, even cook books.
So by the time I started my "Homerun Highlights" collection at age 11, I was already pretty disciplined in terms of setting goals and following them through. As the tapes evolved, they became more complex. I would utilize a second tape recorder so I could do narration with music beds, loop certain calls, do mock interviews, go back and feature "Memorable Moments," and so on. So yes, I was essentially writing and editing copy, even manipulating source material, laying the groundwork for a career in the documentary and scripted TV worlds.
JB: What has the reaction been like so far, particularly in the LA area? Have you done a signing at Dodger Stadium yet?
PH: I was hoping to do a book signing at Dodger Stadium in the spring, but the Dodgers changed ownership at the end of April and the timing just wasn't right. But it looks like we finally secured a book event. I'll be signing copies on August 30 at Dodger Stadium in the right field gift shop before the game, which just happens to be Vin Scully Bobblehead Night. You couldn't ask for a better date!
Overall, reaction has been really positive. The best part has been connecting with fellow fans at book signings and through my website, www.dodgerglory.com, where I've uploaded some rare and classic calls. The book seems to strike the biggest chord with fans who listened to Vin on their transistor radios under their pillows at night. My favorite compliments are the ones where a reader says the childhood memories engendered by the book moved them to tears. There's a wistfulness from those O'Malley years that we all miss. The local media has also been very generous, both print and radio, even some TV. I know my publisher was very excited to get the book into all the Costcos in the greater Los Angeles area. I'm doing a second Costco signing later in August.
JB: Given the success of Josh Wilker's Cardboard Gods, were you tempted at all to make this a little more about you, or did you go into it knowing the Dodgers had to be the focus?
PH: There's definitely a similarity between Josh's work and mine, in that I use old recordings like he uses baseball cards as a narrative device. But one thing Josh has going for him - aside from being a superior writer to me - is that he has a built-in audience because of his long-running website. I bought his Cardboard Gods book when it came out and it felt like I knew this guy already. So, yeah, I always knew that I would have to keep the Dodgers the main focus because, quite simply, who am I?
Having said that, I also knew that anyone can write a generic book about the Dodgers. I felt I offered two things that made my attack different and would resonate with readers. One was my cache of radio and TV calls that provided an "aural" diary of '77 to '81. The other was that I meticulously narrated the events of those years from ages 11 to 15. My excitement and heartbreak (and there was mostly the latter from those years) is right there on the tapes - you can hear it in my voice. For example, I had a recurring segment called "The Dodgers Blow It Again." One such segment featured newly acquired free agent closer Don Stanhouse giving up a heart-crushing, game-winning homer against the Braves, and my way of dealing with that as a 14-year-old was to repeat the call from Ross Porter 56 times in a row, on a loop, as if to rub it into my own face. So there is a personal element to the book - that of a fan falling into baseball in the most all-consuming, self-flagellating way - and I felt it was important to include what I was thinking and feeling at the time as a way to emotionally connect with readers who might've gone through similar experiences with the Dodgers or their own chosen team. The feedback I've received has validated that decision.
As I say in the introduction, I'm not a baseball scribe, I'm a fan. "A Fan's History" is in the title so that it's clear you're getting a history of the team, but also one filtered through the eyes and ears of a young fan. And of course I include some non-baseball things to give the book context, like what it was like growing up in Los Angeles in the 1970s. I felt my publisher did a good job of balancing it out and keeping it mostly baseball-centric.
JB: Jerry Reuss is blurbed on the back cover. Have you heard from anyone else associated with the team? Has Don Stanhouse weighed in yet?
PH: In 2010, ESPN Films interviewed me and used my recordings of Fernandomania for their 30 for 30 documentary Fernando Nation. The "blue carpet" premiere was at Dodger Stadium, and I got to meet Fernando, which was a huge thrill. This was right around the time I sold the book to Santa Monica Press (my publisher). So meeting Fernando was not directly related to the book, only my personal recordings. But it was kind of neat to think, who would've ever thought that some project I did as some pencil-necked youth for my own entertainment would pay such dividends 30+ years later?
Aside from Jerry Reuss, I did speak with Ron Cey on the phone about the book. He typically doesn't do book blurbs, but he could not have been nicer in his praise for what I was doing. I kept thinking, "I'm talking to the Penguin!" Mark Langill, the Dodgers' historian, provided some iconic photos, and Josh Rawitch, the team's former head of Communications who is now with the Diamondbacks, was also very supportive.
As for Don Stanhouse, I almost feel like I owe him an apology. I'm pretty harsh on him in the book. He was one of the first marquee free agent busts in baseball -- a ready scapegoat for Dodger fans. His record did not justify the fat contract the Dodger gave him. That's not his fault. But the word "fan" is short for "fanatic," so I guess I'll just hide behind that excuse. As baseball fans, I think it's our birthright to be irrational when it suits our needs.