Dodger faithful

first_imgSo there was 22-year-old, wide-eyed Howie Levine of Sherman Oaks sitting next to the Voice himself – Frank Sinatra – in the singer’s box at Dodger Stadium during a nationally televised day game back in 1977. Around the third inning, the camera panned the box just as Sinatra leaned over and whispered in Howie’s ear. And 20 guys drinking beer and watching the game on TV back in Cleveland went nuts. “We saw you sitting with Sinatra at the ballgame today,” they yelled when they called Howie later. “Man, you’re making it big out there.” AD Quality Auto 360p 720p 1080p Top articles1/5READ MOREFrumpy Middle-aged Mom: My realistic 2020 New Year’s resolutions. Some involve doughnuts.The truth was, Howie was in his fifth season as an usher for the Dodgers, making minimum wage. When he showed up for work that day, he was told his job would be to sit next to Sinatra, keep his mouth shut unless spoken to, and make sure nobody bugged the star during the game. Now, you have to understand something, Howie says, almost 30 years later. He’s a huge Sinatra fan. Telling him he was going to be sitting next to the Voice was like telling the pope that God would be dropping by the Vatican for a visit. “I could hardly breathe sitting next to him, let alone talk,” Howie said Wednesday, marking his 35th season as an usher for the Dodgers. So what did Sinatra whisper to him that day? The Voice wanted Howie to get him a hot dog. “A few years later, I’m working the clubhouse door, and Frank walks up after the game with Cary Grant and Gregory Peck to see Tommy (Lasorda). “He smiles at me, and says, `Hey, kid, how you doing?’ Again, I couldn’t breathe. I just stood there smiling. These guys were my heroes. Where else can a kid from Cleveland meet his heroes like that?” Only at Dodger Stadium. Ballplayers come and go. So do owners, general managers, field managers and coaches. But the ushers, peanut sellers, cooks and organist stay – season after season after season. It’s the third inning in Wednesday’s day game, and there’s not much for Nancy Bea Hefley to do until she next plays in the bottom of the sixth. The veteran organist is in her 19th season with the Dodgers, two seasons longer than her predecessor, Helen Dell. When she got the job – after beating out two other organists in a three-inning tryout during a 1988 Valentine’s Day game – the team organist was penciled into the starting lineup every inning. Now, canned music at the stadium has limited her playing time to a few innings. Even the “Charge!” rally is taped. Nancy plays the national anthem to start the game and sits out until the bottom of the sixth – unless she’s called in for relief when one of the starting pitchers gets yanked. Then she hits the organ keys up in the press box to fill in the dead time that it takes for the manager to walk to the mound, yank his pitcher and call in a reliever from the bullpen. In the middle of the seventh, she wraps up her night with the traditional closer, “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” Nancy and her husband, Bill, a retired iron worker, live in Silver Springs, Nev., in the off season. During the season, they live in their fifth-wheeler in a San Dimas mobile home park. “I still love coming to the stadium every day, especially during a winning season like this,” Nancy says, warming up her fingers. “I’ve been so lucky. I had the glory years of Orel Hershiser and Kirk Gibson’s home run. So many great memories.” She looks up at the scoreboard and begins to put her game face on. It’s the third inning, and the Dodgers are already down 4-0. After 19 seasons and more than 1,500 games sitting behind this organ, she can smell a pitching change. Sure enough, Dodger manager Grady Little walks to the mound to yank his starter. “They show me on Diamondvision now during the seventh-inning stretch, so I’m getting recognized a lot more walking through the stadium,” Nancy says, continuing to play as the reliever makes the long walk in from the bullpen. “It’s nice having people stop you and say how much your music has meant to them over the years, especially the fun of singing `Take Me Out to the Ballgame.’ “I really don’t think I’ll ever quit this job.” In her 23 seasons with the Dodgers, usher Vickie Gutierrez has never missed a game. Not one, including preseason and the playoffs. “Truth is, I would have taken this job for free, it’s so much fun,” she said Wednesday, working aisle 26 on the field level leading to the visitors’ dugout. “I have other part-time jobs, but they know the Dodgers come first.” Her late husband, Ruben, worked the same aisle behind the Dodgers dugout for almost 40 years before he died of a heart attack two seasons ago. “Ruben looked across the field that first game I worked and noticed me,” she says, laughing. “After the game, he asked if it was OK if he walked me out to my car. That’s how we started.” A few longtime season ticketholders walk up to Vickie and give her a big hug. A lot of the fans in her section stopped being just row and seat numbers years ago and became friends. In 23 seasons with the Dodgers, she’s watched dozens of children in these seats grow up and return with children of their own. Veteran ushers like Vickie and Howie may never have gotten a base hit, caught a fly ball or turned a double play, but they’ve still scored a lot of runs for the Dodgers up in the stands over the years. “A handful of us always get here early before every game,” Vickie says. “We sit up in the empty stands and just watch the grass grow. It’s so peaceful and beautiful. “I’ll never quit this job. I’ll go out like Ruben.” Dave Pearson was a chef at Swallys Restaurant on Olympic Boulevard in downtown Los Angeles 38 years ago when he got the call from the bullpen. “They asked me to come over and help out cooking in the Stadium Club during the playoffs,” Pearson said while taking a break from making omelettes for the news media and Dodger employees in the press box. “They asked me to come back and cook the next season, and I told them I’d think about it. Well, I did, and I’ve been cooking here for 38 years now – 21 in the Stadium Club and the rest in the press box. “I love it,” Dave says, keeping a close eye on the growing line of Dodger employees in the front offices coming in for lunch Wednesday around the third inning. “I’ll keep going as long as this old body lets me,” he says, putting his chef’s hat back on and walking back into the kitchen. “This ain’t work, man. This is fun.” Back down on field level, Howie Levine is shaking hands and talking with some longtime friends and season ticketholders. Levine graduated from Grant High School in Van Nuys and returned to the school as a physical education teacher and basketball coach. “I was 171/2 when I worked my first game – aisle 15 on the yellow level,” he says. “In those days, if you showed up every day, they gave you a spot. “If there wasn’t a spot open, you went upstairs to the blue level and watched the game for free. Either way, you couldn’t lose. “In 35 years, I’ve never lost that tingling feeling on the back of my neck walking into the stadium and smelling the grass,” Howie says. “I still show up every game feeling like a kid.” Ballplayers come and go. So do owners, managers, and coaches. But the ushers, peanut sellers, cooks, and organ player stay – season after season after season. Dennis McCarthy’s column appears Tuesday, Thursday, Friday and Sunday. [email protected] (818) 713-3749160Want local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set!last_img