In the classic baseball film “Field of Dreams,” an Iowa farmer named Ray Kinsella hears a voice in his cornfields inspiring him to plow part of his crop under and build a baseball field. Magically, several deceased baseball players arrive to play the game they love. In the famous final scene that makes men of all ages sob, Ray realizes the catcher is his father. As father and son walk down the first base line to have a catch, Ray asks, “Is there a heaven?” His father responds: “Oh yeah. It’s the place dreams come true.” For my immigrant father, that place was America.
My father, Mario, was born in Argentina in 1945 with large skin discolorations and rubbery nodules called hemangiomas across his face. He was poor and Jewish in a country where Jews were treated as second-class citizens, sometimes worse. People weren’t so good to Dad. He was bullied and forced to endure mocking stares wherever he went.
While Dad wasn’t formally educated, he possessed worldly wisdom and could see the writing on the wall for Argentina, with its political instability and lack of opportunity. Dad fantasized about a better life in that place where immigrants from around the world were given a chance to make their dreams come true: America.
Dad caught a break in early 1963 when his Uncle Samuel moved to Los Angeles. He wrote asking if he could come live with Samuel and in the meantime saved every peso. The letter from America finally arrived. Samuel said yes.
Dad arrived in Los Angeles in October 1963 with four dollars in his pocket and no skills or trade. He didn’t speak a word of English. He was 17.
Twelve hours later, Dad had his social security card. By noon, he’d landed his first job. With broom in hand and beaming with pride, he swept floors at a clothing factory in the downtown L.A. garment district for $1.25 per hour. He would spend the next 40 years of his life there working with immigrants from every corner of earth.
Dad embraced America, which meant he naturally fell in love with baseball. His beloved Dodgers, who played just a few miles from the garment district in their new stadium, became part of his life. He’d attend games and sing the “Star Spangled Banner” and “Take Me Out to the Ballgame”. He learned English by permanently tuning his radio to Vin Scully’s Dodger broadcast, which was delivered in the legendary commentator’s warm, unhurried style.
With the support of my mother, who’d separately emigrated from Argentina with her family, Dad worked his way up from sweeping floors to the head of a department. He and Mom used their savings so Dad could start a garment business that eventually would bring 30 years of success and allow him to hire and mentor new immigrants. With guidance and encouragement from Dad, many of those immigrants went on to start their own businesses, something that brought him great joy throughout his life.
Dad’s successful run in business ended in 2001, but by then he had already sent my sister and me through major universities. He gave us the opportunities he and Mom never had. His daughter became a corporate lawyer; his son an entrepreneur who partnered with a Taiwanese immigrant to start a business in his college dorm that grew large, then enormous.
Then our perfect world came crashing down. Dad called one day in May of 2016 instructing me to find my sister, grab our spouses and get to his house immediately. When we got there, we learned about Dad’s cancer. After a sleepless night, Dad came over the next morning. I had a burning desire to have a catch. We grabbed our gloves and tossed the ball back and forth in the warm California sun like everything was fine. Then we sat together silently; two guys who never stopped talking for once had nothing to say.
A few months later, my son and I picked up Dad and headed straight to our favorite place on earth, Dodger Stadium. Picture three generations of diehards eating Dodger Dogs along the first base line. It was perfect. We talked about our team’s incredible history – Jackie breaking the color barrier, Sandy’s perfect game, Fernandomania, and the night 31 years ago when Dad let me stay up late to watch Gibby hit it out. And Vin. Always Vin. I knew Dad was weak. He only lasted a couple innings, but I just had to be there with him one last time.
In October of that year, Dad passed away in my arms. My hero and role model, the kindest and most loving father a boy could ever have.
Recently, I became an owner of the Dodgers, joining an incredible group of individuals. The more I reflect on this momentous step in my life, the more I realize that, at its core, it’s about honoring Dad and the opportunities this great nation offered my immigrant family.
Last week, I arrived at Dodger Stadium with my son for my first game as an owner, 38 years after Dad took me to my first game in that same sanctuary. We arrived early. My boy wore a Clayton Kershaw jersey, I wore Fernando Valenzuela—two legendary Dodger south-paws. We watched batting practice and grabbed peanuts and dogs before lineups were announced.
When called upon to stand for the great American tradition, we rose and removed our Dodger hats placing them firmly over our hearts for the “Star Spangled Banner.” I gazed out at our country’s flag and thought of everything it represented: freedom, opportunity, hope (and, of course, baseball). In no other country on earth would my family’s story be possible.
I thought back to that poignant moment in “Field of Dreams” when Ray asked his father if there’s such a place as heaven. I wondered what Dad would have said if I’d have asked him if this was that place. I know his answer would have been simple and true: “No, son. This is America.”
Alan Smolinisky is an entrepreneur, investor and a Los Angeles Dodgers owner.
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