Saturday, March 13, 2010

Opening Day at ELL
Spring and baseball have returned to the Neverland at the corner of Hayvenhurst Ave. and Magnolia Blvd. in Encino. It's opening day for Little Leaguers on the space of land owned by the federal government, and it has been welcoming back boys, and now girls too, each year since 1954.
The fields look the same, always immaculate, the grass cut and watered, the infields combed with a fine rake, the dugouts freshly coated with dark-green paint.
Like baseball itself, the place is timeless. Some changes have been made since we played there in the 1960s. They've added batting cages behind the American League field. The trees have matured to give boisterous moms and dads plenty of shade on hot Saturday afternoons. The concession stand where my Tigers teammates and I would load up on real junk food, such as bubble gum, hot dogs and soda pop, usually all bought by our manager if we won our game, is still there.
The major league diamond with its 90-foot base paths was used by former Dodger Reggie Smith to conduct a baseball school for teenagers.
I'm sure there is still a connection with Hollywood. A number of scenes from "61*", the movie Billy Crystal made about Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle and their pursuit of Babe Ruth's home run record in 1961, were filmed at Encino Little League, mostly at night.
In 1960, Dennis Weaver coached a team in the National League, the Cubs on which his son Rick played first base. John Wayne sponsored another team, the Giants. Wayne, in a blue suit and Dodger hat, would stop by for a few innings now and then, usually sitting in the stands by himself.
Dodgers first baseman Gil Hodges came to our opening day one year and he signed my glove. Michael Ovtiz, Billy Eckstein Jr., Lee Margulies and John Miller, whose dad did several of Nat King Cole's arrangements, all took the field at ELL.
It may be more commercial now, with a website, a marquee at the gated entrance on Hayvenhurst and asphalt parking lots. But the atmosphere is still the same. Bright colored uniforms, the sound of aluminum hitting horsehide, tears flowing after a strikeout, and runners rounding third and heading for home.
It's good that some things more or less stay the same.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks, John, for a trip down memory lane. I played there in the 1970s and 1980s and it was the same thing--I can remember many a game, my cheeks loaded up with Big Chew gum, listening the roar of the freeway behind us but enjoying every second of those weekend games. Walking home a few blocks away to the east, I'd find all kinds of discarded things in the dirt, watch some local kids drag race, or walk past abandoned mobile homes adjacent to the park. My family tended a small plot at the community gardens across the street, where I'd sometimes go in uniform after the game. While so much of the Valley has changed since then, it is nice to see that the place I played for the Expos, Orioles, and Cards remains constant.