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Issue #10 |

Stealing Home

dodger stadium

When the Los Angeles Dodgers won the 2020 World Series last year, I was sitting on the couch with my youngest daughter Rosette, 25, here in Riverside, California, 55 miles from Dodger Stadium in LA, and on the phone with my mother, Gabrielle Gertrude Leu Straight Watson, 85, who was sitting alone in her mauve upholstered rocker, next to her knitting basket, in the small living room of her assisted living home. “Did you see what Austin Barnes did?” I asked her. “Remember, the other day, he threw out someone stealing home. And tonight he was the tying score on a wild pitch. He’s turned into a great catcher, and he went to school with Gaila and Delphine.”

Those are my other daughters, 31, and 29. They, along with Austin Barnes, 30, went to Riverside Poly High School. Barnes began playing Little League at nine years old, at Shamel Park, a few blocks from my house, where my brothers also played baseball.

My mother said, “Did he?” She was only two miles away. But we couldn’t be with her—not since COVID quarantine on March 17 have I been in her apartment to watch TV with her. So we watch the Dodgers together on the phone. Her memory loss has deepened—we don’t talk about the names of players now. We talk about Vin Scully, the veteran Dodger announcer who retired four years ago, and is now 92. My mother always wanted to marry him.

“Vin Scully must be happy,” was the first thing she said last night, when Julio Urias had just struck out the last batter, when Barnes leaped onto the young pitcher and then the rest of the team mobbed them in celebration. “I learned how to speak good English from Vin Scully, you know, listening to him on my little radio every night. I never missed a Dodger game. I was so young and I had just come to America.”

I said what I always say, when we talk about the Dodgers, the radio, and Vin Scully—“You were living in the big boarding house then, right?”—because that is how conversations go, every day, when your loved one has memory loss. She said right away, “I rented a room on Seventh Street, and it wasn’t very nice. I was the only girl. There was an old woman in one bedroom, and then there were all men. I’d come home from work and sometimes, someone would have stolen my little radio, and I’d cry. I’d have to go buy another one, so I could hear the Dodgers. The landlady was cheap, and she wouldn’t put locks on our bedroom doors.”

“So you ate yogurt and a banana every day, to save money, for your radios,” I said, standing in my kitchen now, looking at the eerie sky filled with ashes and smoke from an October wildfire pushed by the fiercest Santa Ana winds we’d had in decades, and all of it came back to me, my entire childhood here in southern California, the voice of Vin Scully every night on my mother’s radio, while she knitted us sweaters and vests though it was hot as hell in Riverside, because my little mother had lost her own mother when she was only nine years old, in the frigid snowy Alps of central Switzerland, and she had to knit and darn socks for her father and brothers by a fire until the family left for Canada in 1952. There, she knitted some more, in different frigid weather, until her stepmother tried to marry her off to a local pig farmer. My mother was fifteen. She packed her small suitcase, with the few things from the trunk they’d brought on the boat from Europe. She ran away to the city of Oshawa, across the border from Detroit. Eventually, her stepmother took the family to Fontana, where my mother joined them five years later. She lasted a week in the trailer park where they still lived in an RV. She rented a room in Riverside, and bought a transistor radio.

 

I was the oldest of five kids and we watched the Dodgers, no matter what. We wore those vests. We played baseball at nights in the park—my mother the pitcher, and I the catcher. So when Austin Barnes became the unlikely hero of the series with several unusual plays, I was thrilled. In Game Three, he executed a perfect squeeze bunt to bring in a run, which I had to explain to my other daughter, Delphine, 29, sitting beside me as well on the couch. She watched the replay. My three daughters, including Gaila, 31, had been kind enough to watch the Dodgers with me for my birthday, and I was for the first time in my life explaining the intricacies of baseball to them and my son-in-law, Kunmi Jeje, 29, born in Ibadan, Nigeria. He has been for four years explaining the intricacies of a life in soccer. When Barnes then hit a home run, he became the first player to hit both a bunt and homer in a World Series since Hector Lopez did for the Yankees in 1961.

In Game Four, when Randy Arozarena, the dynamic Cuban-born outfielder for the Tampa Bay Rays, raced toward home, Barnes kept his head and tagged Arozarena out. Stealing home? I was up for hours after the game, thinking about my mother’s love for the words of baseball, for how much the game taught me, a first-generation kid in an area of southern California where sports have always been one of the few ways to become successful. Sacrifice fly, squeeze bunt, grand slam, stolen bases. Saying those words to my own daughters and son-in-law took me back to childhood, and the idea of making America home.

 

My youngest daughter has kept me company during these long, long baseball games. She came home from LA in April, and works twelve-hour days in this living room, and then I turn on baseball. But my girls are so kind to me now, when I come home from visiting my mother, standing masked in the lobby doorway while my mother asks when we can go outside and take a walk. Her restlessness has been abated slightly by the joy of her Dodgers, but she has watched every game alone.

When her memory began to waver, a few years ago, I asked her once why her sole viewing has always been sports, and she said without hesitation, “Because it’s competition, and the best team always wins. That’s all that matters. Other kinds of stories are foolish.”

I remember thinking about the vagaries of referees and umpires, of cheating scandals and budgets, but my mother would have been unmoved. The narrative of loyalty is deeply ingrained in her, as an immigrant. The Dodgers mean home.

My stepfather, born in New Brunswick, Canada, came to southern California when he was 19, worked with an uncle who was a plumber in Montebello, not far from Dodger Stadium. He and my mother took their citizenship oaths together in the courthouse in Riverside, when I was four. Throughout the 1960s and 70s, my dad patiently, unwaveringly drove us all in a 1966 Ford Country Squire Station wagon for over an hour to Dodger Stadium, where we ate Dodger Dogs and my mother was in heaven. We knew every play, every player, and we waited hungrily for the seventh-inning stretch, when I’d get one box of Cracker Jacks and parcel out equal measures of caramel corn to my siblings.

Vin Scully was the voice I heard in utero, the voice I heard more than any other growing up. The history of the Dodgers was fascinating—the Brooklyn baseball team established in 1883, called the Brooklyn Bridegrooms in 1890, and according to legend, named the Dodgers because the neighborhood was so full of Trolleys that locals had to survive by dodging them. The name Dodgers became official in 1932; in 1958, owner Walter O’Malley moved the team to Los Angeles, and was never forgiven.

My mother listened from the beginning, in her little rented room. She told me last night, “Vin Scully’s voice was so perfect, and he could talk about anything, in between. So I learned my English, but you know, I also learned about America, and how to talk to people.” Her voice darkened. “There were not nice men, living in that house. I had trouble with one man, but I told him what for. I told him where I stood. And he better not bother me again.”

I stood in the kitchen, chilled. Dementia, progressing quickly this fall for her partly, I believed, because of this hated isolation, meant that I never knew what my mother would remember, or what she would say. Two years ago, when my biological father died of the flu at 86, my mother was in a rage that I held him in his hospital bed. She began to tell my middle daughter cryptic and dark things he had done. But she had, for the first time, begun to confuse us—my daughter and me.

She had told me many times about the radio.  But she had never mentioned “trouble” like this.  And in that silence, as I stood near the kitchen window, I thought about her small body, her fierce disdain of men all my life, including even her second husband.  She loved only the Dodgers, men distant on the diamond, or on the television.  

My mother said, “I stayed there for a year. Then I left.”

She meant she was working in a loan company by then, for an abusive alcoholic boss. I knew that story. She did most of his work, too. When young couples came in for loans, she was supposed to make initials for their race—W, N, and I—and loans were often refused to couples who were Negro or Interracial. My mother wouldn’t do it. Because he was often gone, she gave loans to those couples. Then my father walked in, asked for a $50 loan because he was on strike from Boeing Aircraft, sleeping in his car, and she gave it to him. Then she went out with him. She left the boarding house to marry him, and have me. He left her, eight months pregnant, when I was three years old. It was 1963. The Dodgers won the World Series that October, just after my birthday, when the Santa Ana winds had blown tumbleweeds all around our tiny house. I remember the voice of Vin Scully, smooth and resonant comfort, from the radio in the living room while my mother knitted.

When my brother and I moved her to assisted living in February, I put that same knitting basket, filled with her needles and yarn, by her thirty-year-old rocker, facing the television. I could see her that night, the night the Dodgers won the World Series, sitting there watching the Boys in Blue, alone for the first time in her life.

We talk about where the players are from, and what California must mean to them, as home. Austin Barnes, the catcher, growing up here. Joe Kelly, the pitcher born in nearby Corona, CA; and Dave Roberts, the first Dodger manager to be a man of color, born to a black Texan father who was a Marine, and a Japanese born mother in Okinawa, raised in Vista, California, near San Diego. My daughters, mixed-race women, and I have spent the series talking about home, and race, and America, as well in this tumultuous, fearsome October. How can Americans not watch 60 games in this truncated season, ending in a “World Series” which takes place solely in this nation, and not see the vibrant joy and ceaseless hard work of young men who came here as young as sixteen, like Julio Urias? Born in Culiacan, Sinaloa, Mexico, he was scouted when Dodgers coaches went to see Yasiel Puig; Urias left his own parents behind and came to the farm system, a tiered level of professional baseball where hundreds of young men practice and play far from home, in small cities. The farm league—the big show. That night, looking at the players’ faces when they received the trophy, I knew, as a child of immigrants, exactly where they were all from. All those pitchers: Victor Gonzalez, 25, born in Tuxpan, Nayarit, Mexico; Brusdar Graterol, 22, born in Calabozo, Venezuela; Kenley Jansen, 33, born in Willemstad, Curacao; Pedro Baez, 32, born in the Dominican Republic. And the tall Texans: rookie Dustin May, 23, from Justin, Texas, and veteran future Hall of Fame pitcher Clayton Kershaw, 32, born in Dallas.

I watched them leaping onto each other’s shoulders, and thought that this World Series, of 2020, the year that should teach us all what my mother taught me—stealing home, sacrifice fly, and grand slam—all of those are about rounding third base for home plate, the small creamy-colored shape covered with dust from the feet that have run before yours, every single run counting exactly the same no matter who you are.

 

Photo courtesy of Chris Yarzab; view more of his work on Flickr.

author susan straight

Susan Straight‘s memoir, In the Country of Women, was published in 2019 by Catapult Books, released in paperback in 2020.  The book was named a best of the year by NPR and CodeSwitch, a finalist for the Clara Johnson Prize for Women’s Literature, and longlisted for the Carnegie Medal for Excellence.  She has published eight …

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