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My First Game: 20 Years Ago Today

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by Mark Jent

It was Saturday, June 17, 2000. I got on the dial-up internet that I had available to me to do a little research and I saw on the schedule that the Dodgers were hosting the Cardinals for a 1:05 afternoon game. At this point, I had been a Dodgers fan since 1991 when I was 13 years old, yet growing up in Tennessee I had never been to a game at Dodger Stadium. I had watched them play a few times when they came east to Atlanta, St. Louis and Cincinnati, but never in Chavez Ravine. Considering where I was currently located, for me to get to the ballgame everything was going to have to fall precisely in place to make it happen, but I knew I had a chance.

The small caveat is I was in Sydney, Australia more than 7,500 miles away from Los Angeles. With the odds stacked against me for a variety of logical reasons, I was optimistic and liked my chances of pulling it off. On the 20th anniversary of my first game at Dodger Stadium, here’s the story of one of the most thrilling baseball moments of my life.

It was May 2000 and I had just finished my senior year at Lipscomb University in Nashville. Despite having completed four years of college, I was enjoying the experience so much that I strategically planned on not completing the required 132 hours on time, therefore ensuring that I’d return for a victory lap that fall semester and graduate in December. Since I had “an extra summer” per se of college, I had decided to serve on a three week mission trip in Australia. We left on May 24th to spend two weeks in Brisbane, then traveled to Sydney for the third and final week, returning home on June 17th. (Side note – I met a gorgeous brunette, Beth McCauley, on the airplane the night of May 24th somewhere over the Pacific Ocean! She was on the same mission team, but we had not met pre-trip. We got married three years later.)

As the mission trip came to a close I looked over our flight itinerary and noticed that there was a nearly 10 hour layover in Los Angeles before our connecting flight to Nashville. So I wondered what were the chances the Dodgers might have an afternoon home game that day and I could catch my first game at Dodger Stadium? A few gurgling sounds of dial-up internet later and jackpot – I found they were scheduled to play the Cardinals at 1:05! We were set to arrive in Los Angeles that morning about 7:00 and fly out around 4:30 that afternoon. I thought to myself “Getting to the game won’t be an issue, but will I get back in time to catch the return flight home?” It all depended on how many innings I wanted to catch and was it worth the calculated risk. I rationalized my optimism by thinking that if I missed the flight it’d be cheaper for me to rebook a one-way flight home than to fly all the way back to LA for a trip just to see a game!

Yet here I was, literally on the other side of the world sitting at my host family’s house, waiting on a ride to the Sydney airport to meet my teammates and bid farewell to our new Aussie friends. As I pondered the logistics, the execution of the adventure excited me about as much as getting to the ballgame itself. The sun had not come up yet in Sydney and it was mid-afternoon Friday in Los Angeles. Sydney was 17 hours of time zones ahead of LA. It was a 15 hour flight. I had done all the research I could possibly do with the little time I had. There were no iPhones; Uber and StubHub didn’t exist. I grabbed my bags for the airport not knowing whether it’d be a solo adventure or if someone would join me. This was going to be fun.

After I checked in and got to the Qantas gate in Sydney, I began to tell my mission teammates of my plan and extended the invitation to any one who wanted to join me at the ballgame. Most of them gave me a puzzled look followed by “But what if you don’t get back in time and miss the flight to Nashville?” To which I confidently replied, “Trust me, I’ll get you back.” In reality, I really didn’t know if I would get them back or not, but I was unwavering in the salesmanship of my certainty. Three brave souls said yes – Brooklyn Campbell, Jana Young, Leslie Scobey. To this day I’m not sure how much they wanted to go to a baseball game or whether they were just looking for an excuse to get out of the airport!

If you’ve never been on a 15 hour flight, it is a beast, especially when you are crossing the international date line traveling backwards and the clock says you have arrived on one continent a few hours before you actually left the other continent. With my excitement bubbling over, I’m not sure I slept a wink the entire flight. All I could think about was that since I was a kid I had cheered on the Dodgers since they acquired my favorite player Darryl Strawberry prior to the ‘91 season and within a few hours I would be walking through the gates of Dodger Stadium for the first time.

Upon landing at LAX the race was on. How quickly could we get there? How much of the game could we watch? And ultimately, would we make it back to to catch our connecting flight home? By this point I had talked and prepared the girls with the game plan. After landing and unloading, we went through customs with thousands of other people in one of the largest airports in the world. We got our bags amidst the chaos. We re-checked our bags, ensuring that we dropped them on the correct airline conveyor belt. We kindly asked our teammates if they would keep our carry-on bags while they sat idle in the airport. (Most of whom were disgusted with us for abandoning them and attempting this adventure while they sat through a 10 hour layover in the airport!) All of that took much longer than the few sentences it just took to describe it. It was now around 10:00 in the morning. We got on the sidewalk outside LAX and I hailed us a taxi, which is when I learned that a couple of the girls had never even been in a taxi before. On top of that, it was going to be the first major league baseball game for one of them.

We arrived at Dodger Stadium shortly after the gates opened at 11:00. We could have easily bought cheap seats in the upper deck, but after I got to the box office I convinced them that if we were going to do this, let’s spend a few extra bucks to get good seats! So Loge Level Section 129 on the third base side here we come! (Yes, I still have the ticket stub.)

With Dodger Dog in hand, we settled in our seats for the first pitch and I was finally able to breathe and relax. It was surreal. We had done it. I couldn’t believe I was actually sitting in Dodger Stadium with a view of the infamous San Gabriel Mountains in the background that Vin Scully would always so eloquently describe. What seemed like an impractical idea less than 24 hours ago on the other side of the world had become reality.

The Cardinals Andy Benes was facing off against the Dodgers Darren Dreifort. The Cardinals lineup consisted of Mark McGwire, Jim Edmonds, Ray Lankford and future manager Mike Matheny was catching. The middle of the Dodgers order was loaded with Gary Sheffield, Shawn Green, Eric Karros and future hall of famer 3B Adrian Beltre. (Fun fact: Starting at shortstop that day for the Dodgers was future trash-can banging Astros bench coach Alex Cora.)

Although we spent as much time going through customs as we did watching the game, we got to see four innings of shutout baseball. As exhilarating as the entire experience had been, as the clock was nearing 2:30 I decided to go conservative to ensure that we caught our 4:30 flight. As we waited on our taxi outside the gates, we missed two home runs in the fifth inning! Later on Mark McGwire hit a bomb in the seventh as the Cardinals rolled on to a 4-3 victory. The boxscore on Baseball Reference tells me there were 46,048 fans in attendance that day. I dare say none of the other 46,044 had the thrilling experience we had to just get to the game!

We arrived back at the airport and met our teammates at the gate where they had been sitting all day. We weren’t exactly welcomed back with open arms either because (a) they wished they had gone with us or, more likely, (b) they were secretly hoping we’d miss the flight.

The featured image of this story is my lasting takeaway from that first game at Dodger Stadium. I had my 35mm camera with me that happened to have a panoramic setting, a novelty back then. No telling how many rolls of film I used during those four innings! After the top of an inning, I just so happened to capture the Dodgers All-Star right fielder Shawn Green running to the dugout between innings. I didn’t know until I got home and developed the film that the picture I took couldn’t have been more perfect for the moment –  Welcome To Dodger Stadium: Being Here Is Everything. With Kirk Gibson’s epic swing from the ‘88 World Series adorning the outfield wall over his shoulder, that phrase encapsulated what the day was all about.

It turns out that wouldn’t be the only significant “first” for a June 17th date on my life milestone calendar. Fast forward eight years to 2008. By this point I had been married for five years to that gorgeous brunette who I met on that three week trip to Australia. I’ve always found it funny that on June 17th, 2008 our daughter Brooklyn was born, especially in light of the fact that her name was derived from team history!

The entire trip was an experience that I’m very grateful for. From the empty seat on the plane that night when I sat down beside Beth, to being able to visit and serve in Australia. From the opportunistic chance to check-off Dodger Stadium from my bucket list, to the even more meaningful significance of the date June 17th as we celebrate Brooklyn’s life each year. Although it was the primary focal point behind this piece, I would be remiss if I didn’t say this was about more than just another baseball story.



FEATURED IMAGE

June 17, 2000
RF Shawn Green, Dodger Stadium


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