Plaschke: Special moment as fans welcome champion Dodgers home for first time in 548 days

Plaschke: Special moment as fans welcome champion Dodgers home for first time in 548 days

A city cheered again. A city chanted again. A city breathed again.

For the first time in 548 days, Los Angeles squeezed into its Kershaw jerseys and pulled down its sweaty blue caps and sprawled out across Chavez Ravine with the giddy grins of lost souls who have found their way home.

Dodger Stadium has never looked so beautiful.

“Let’s Go, Dodgers” has never sounded so sweet.

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A World Series champion has never shined so bright.

In a wonderful confluence of commemoration and celebration Friday afternoon, the Dodgers welcomed back fans for the first time since the beginning of the pandemic with a glorious reminder of what they missed.

Nice to finally see you. … Check out our new championship rings!

Great to finally hear you. … Look at our new championship flag!

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Before a home-opening 1-0 victory against the Washington Nationals in front of 15,036 fans scattered in socially distanced fashion, the Dodgers distributed diamond rings along the third base line and then hoisted the blue-and-white flag behind the center-field fence.

The ceremonies were in honor of a 2020 World Series title that was won mostly in silence.

They were accompanied by 15,036 fanswho sounded like 150,000.

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“It was a surreal moment,” Dodgers third baseman Justin Turner said. “I had chills and goose bumps.”

It was the start of an afternoon that amounted to 32 years worth of thunderous exhale, the fans roaring from the first glistening diamond to the last weary out. This was the parade that never happened. This was City Hall speeches that were never heard. This was owed.

“It almost seemed like a packed house,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said.

From left, the Dodgers' Matt Beaty, Cody Bellinger and Mookie Betts celebrate during a pregame ring ceremony Friday.

From left, the Dodgers’ Matt Beaty, Cody Bellinger and Mookie Betts celebrate during a pregame ring ceremony Friday.

(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

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Fans began chanting “Let’s go, Dodgers” during the middle of the ring ceremony. They couldn’t wait for the game. They had waited too long already.

“We’ve missed the kind of noise that was all being made for one reason, everyone together,” longtime fan Michele Aguilar said. “I’m jumping out of my skin right now.”

They chanted “Moooookie” at their first sight of Mookie Betts, a deep-throated sound they have been waiting to shower upon him since he showed up here a year ago.

“So important to be here,” said Ryan Sanchez, Aguilar’s companion with an “LA Dodgers” tattoo on his right forearm. “So important to make up for last year.”

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They chanted “M-V-P” at Corey Seager, something they never got a chance to say last October. And when Julio Urías was the last to receive his ring, they roared as if he was once again was striking out Tampa Bay’s Willy Adames to clinch the World Series championship.

“Hearing the roar of the crowd, it was nice to be home,” Turner said.

The last time fans were here, they witnessed the Dodgers’ playoff meltdown against the Nationals in 2019, one of the lowest moments of the 32-year title drought.

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The fans returned Friday as champions, with a newfound swagger and a desperation to finally be heard.

On the 40th anniversary of Fernando Valenzuela’s first career start, marking the start of Fernandomania, it was another brilliant day of new beginnings.

“So much happened last year, and we all missed it, and this is our chance to celebrate it,” said Ron Chen, a longtime fan who was one of the first in the field-level seats. “This is just beautiful.”

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When Turner broke a scoreless tie with a home run to left in the sixth, the cheering morphed from yesterday to today, the roar sounding nearly as loud — and certainly as heartfelt — as the noise that accompanied his playoff homer in 2017 against the Chicago Cubs.

“This is Los Angeles’ second home, and it’s so great to feel the return of that vibe,” Sanchez said.

Turner, a local, echoed that sentiment in a pregame videoconference, noting that his grandmother would spend her vacations driving to Chavez Ravine to watch the stadium being built.

“It’s an iconic space in L.A., and most people consider it their home away from home,” he said. “… To be able to come here and watch their beloved Dodgers play, I think this place holds a special place in everyone’s hearts.”

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Socially distanced fans attend the Dodgers' season home opener April 9, 2021.

Fans attend the Dodgers’ home opener Friday. “So much happened last year, and we all missed it, and this is our chance to celebrate it,” said Ron Chen, a longtime fan.

(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

Those hearts were bared again during the seventh-inning stretch, when, accompanied by organist Dieter Ruehle, a simple song soared.

Finally taken back to the old ballgame, fans really sang it, belted it out, almost loud enough to drown out the organ, individual groups hugging and swaying to the music.

Ruehle had earlier started the dancing by playing “Welcome Back” followed by “Happy Together” followed by “We Are The Champions.”

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“It all feels so special today,” Ruehle said.

That feeling continued in the top of the ninth when reliever Corey Knebel, perhaps being groomed to replace struggling Kenley Jansen, struck out all three Nationals batters as the crowd resumed its trademark ominous and intimidating pressure cheer.

“They really didn’t have a chance against him,” catcher Will Smith said. “He was on, the crowd was into it, and the three batters he faced, you could tell they could feel the crowd. It comes into effect more than you think.”

Save, Dodgers fans.

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When the game ended in the Dodgers’ sixth victory in eight games this year, Randy Newman’s “I Love L.A.” filled the air and the normally fast-leaving patrons did the darndest thing. They stayed in their seats. They danced and waved to the players who waved back and tossed them baseballs.

The Dodgers celebrate a 1-0 victory over the Nationals in the home opener.

The Dodgers celebrate a 1-0 victory over the Nationals in the home opener.

(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

It had taken 548 days to get here; they weren’t about to just rush off.

“This means so much to so many people,” said Sanchez.

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The game itself was actually a bit player in the Dodgers’ elaborate pregame production.

It began with a Dodgers’ ring ceremony featuring players being congratulated on the video board by their former big league heroes, which made for some awkward booing of the likes of Alex Rodriguez and Will Clark.

It was a shame that former Dodgers legends and heroes weren’t used to pass along the 11-carat jewels. But the moment was carried when a ring was awarded to Roberts by Laura Lasorda, daughter of late Dodgers legend Tommy Lasorda.

“Opening day at Dodger Stadium was my father’s favorite day. … Rest assured he is smiling today,” she said.

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Later, Roberts said: “I thought it was great to bring Tommy back to Dodger Stadium today. For me, I got a little choked up thinking about Tommy not being here.”

The ceremonies continued when the championship flag was raised by Dodgers co-owners Magic Johnson and Billie Jean King, broadcast legend Jaime Jarrin, and local politicians including Mayor Eric Garcetti. Yeah, Garcetti was roundly booed. Again, where were more Dodgers legends?

Small nits to pick, for sure. The day was overwhelmingly won by a baseball team and its special connection to a community, Los Angeles and the Dodgers, finally together again.

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It was a day whose tone was set from the start, precisely at 11 a.m., when Dodger public address announcer Todd Leitz made it official.

“Ladies and gentlemen, good morning and welcome back to Dodger Stadium, the home of the 2020 World Series champion Los Angeles Dodgers!” he intoned. “It is so good to have you back in the ballpark!”

So good. So good. So good.

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