HOUSTON — From the field here Thursday night, after a workout for his Los Angeles Dodgers, Andrew Friedman gestured to the seats behind third base. It was there, at a different Houston ballpark, where he once rooted for the Astros in the postseason.
The day before, Jeff Luhnow had done the same thing at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles. Luhnow, who built the Houston Astros, pointed to the spot on the third-base loge level where he once cheered for the Dodgers in the playoffs.
Friedman, who runs the Dodgers’ baseball operations, grew up an Astros fan. Luhnow, who does the same for the Astros, grew up a Dodgers fan. Now their teams are meeting in the World Series, with the Astros striving to bring the first title in franchise history to a region recovering from Hurricane Harvey.
“I think for any city that hasn’t yet experienced it, it would be significant,” said Friedman, 40, who was born in Houston and attended nearby Episcopal High School. “Obviously, with what the city went through recently, it would be very significant. But I’m hoping that the American League championship will suffice.”
Luhnow, 50, was born in Mexico City, where his parents ran a publishing business. He spent his last two years of high school at the Webb School of California in Claremont, near Los Angeles, but was already smitten with the Dodgers by then.
His parents were from New York and rooted for the Yankees, as did Luhnow’s older brother, Chris, who told him they could not root for the same team. Luhnow picked the Dodgers, one of the more successful teams of the 1970s.
“I watched them on TV — sunshine, L.A., the beach, a likable team, I liked the colors, all that,” he said. “So they became my team.”
When Luhnow was 14, in 1981, Fernando Valenzuela profoundly jolted the franchise. Valenzuela, a pudgy prodigy from Navojoa, Mexico, opened the season by going 8-0 in eight starts and working nine innings every time. He ended that year with nine more innings against the Yankees to win Game 3 of the World Series, helping the Dodgers to a championship.
Luhnow had found his favorite player.
“He just didn’t look like a prototypical athlete,” he said. “He physically didn’t look like he was in that great shape, his delivery was so unusual, and he looked like a guy that grew up in rural Mexico and was suddenly on the largest stage in the world and dominating in an unusual way that no one could figure out — the screwball, the eyes rolling back and all the things that he did. He was a lovable player.”
Decades later, Luhnow would also defy convention to make it in baseball, using a business background and a strong belief in analytics to grow a thriving farm system for the St. Louis Cardinals — and, since December 2011, to patiently build the Astros into winners. When he moved to California for high school, though, that was too far-off to imagine. Luhnow just wanted to go to Dodger Stadium.
“I came to a ton of games,” he said. “My English teacher had season tickets, right up there in the loge level. I would come every time he would invite me, which was quite a bit.”
Luhnow was there for the first two games of the 1983 National League Championship Series against the Philadelphia Phillies — a loss in the opener and a victory by Valenzuela in Game 2. The Phillies won the best-of-five series in four and the Dodgers would not reach the World Series until 1988, after Luhnow had left California to continue his education, eventually earning an M.B.A. from the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern.
Friedman could relate to the World Series near miss. In 1986, just before he turned 10 (and before the Astros changed leagues), he attended the N.L.C.S. at the Astrodome. Friedman saw the Mets beat the Astros’ Nolan Ryan in Game 2, but the game that haunts him came a few days later.
That was the infamous — or celebrated — Game 6, which the Mets tied with three runs in the ninth. The Mets scored again in the 14th before the Astros, who were facing elimination, tied it on a Billy Hatcher homer. The Mets scored three in the 16th, gave up two in the bottom of the inning, but finally won the pennant — and avoided facing the unhittable Mike Scott in Game 7.
“I was heartbroken — I swore off baseball,” said Friedman, who had witnessed Scott’s division-clinching no-hitter that September. He added that ‘‘ ’86 scarred me some — I remember watching the World Series with the Mets and Red Sox, and it was painful.”
Of course, Friedman did not really give up the game. As the years went on, he would visit the Astrodome so frequently — about 30 times a summer, he guessed — that he befriended the stadium workers and could roam almost anywhere he pleased.
Long before clubs stamped game-used items with holograms and sold them at the team store, Friedman would often go home with broken bats or discarded equipment. He once scored an artifact from the early career of a future Hall of Famer.
“Probably a Craig Biggio helmet from when he was catching,” Friedman said, when asked for the prize of his collection. “It had a crack in it, and I don’t really remember how I got it — but probably someone that wasn’t him just saw me there hanging out.”
Friedman would play baseball at Tulane and, like Luhnow, work in business before joining a major league front office. He built the Tampa Bay Rays into pennant winners in 2008, and has been the Dodgers’ president of baseball operations for three years.
In their jobs now, Luhnow and Friedman regularly meet their old heroes. Friedman said he had put his fandom long behind, and was not awe-struck when he met Biggio a few years ago. Luhnow, though, has never quite summoned the courage to have a conversation with Valenzuela, who now broadcasts Dodgers games in Spanish and tossed the ceremonial first pitch before Game 2.
Luhnow said he got chills watching that ceremony. He has said hello to his baseball idol, but only casually. Yet Valenzuela is well aware of his work.
“I haven’t had the pleasure of meeting him, but I would congratulate him on where his team has gotten,” Valenzuela said in Spanish. “His team has reached the World Series, which is what you want.”
Actually, both of Luhnow’s teams — his employer and his first love — have reached the World Series. Both of Friedman’s, too.
Published at Sat, 28 Oct 2017 00:47:35 +0000