Cul­ber­son had a ball — sort of

Dodger has a story and a small role in the fran­chise’s his­tory


LOS AN­GE­LES — Char­lie Cul­ber­son knows there’s some­body out there in pos­ses­sion of the most im­por­tant base­ball of his ca­reer.

It doesn’t have his name on it, but it once had his bat on it, and he knows it’s out there. Maybe it’s sit­ting on a fire­place mantle. Maybe buried in a junk drawer. Maybe two obliv­i­ous kids are play­ing catch with it right now in a soggy South­ern Cal­i­for­nia back­yard.

Wher­ever it is, the ball be­longs to Dodgers his­tory, to the Vin Scully legacy, to one of Chavez Ravine’s great­est mo­ments, and Cul­ber­son has a mes­sage for who­ever is hold­ing it.

Keep it. Cel­e­brate it. The mem­ory of his walk-off home run to clinch the West Di­vi­sion for the Dodgers in Scully’s fi­nal home game be­longs to every­one.

“As weird as it sounds, it doesn’t bother me that I never got the ball back,” Cul­ber­son said from his home in Smyrna, Ga. “It’s a pretty cool sou­venir for the per­son who has it, and sure I would love it, but I wouldn’t blame them for keep­ing it.”

Cul­ber­son laughed in his soft South­ern drawl and added, “They can have the ball. I’ll al­ways have the story.”

And what a story that is, one that still pow­er­fully res­onates more than three months later, one that will linger in the hearts of Dodgers fans for­ever.

Mark Langill, long­time Dodgers his­to­rian, said he has thought about it a lot this off­sea­son and come to a con­clu­sion.

“For ev­ery­thing it meant to so many peo­ple, Char­lie Cul­ber­son hit the most im­por­tant reg­u­larsea­son home run in Los An­ge­les Dodger his­tory,” he said.

If you were there, weep­ing and hug­ging and cheer­ing, you will not ar­gue.

On the last Sunday in Septem­ber, in the Dodgers’ fi­nal home game of the 2016 sea­son, Cul­ber­son hit a 10th-in­ning home run to beat the Colorado Rock­ies and clinch the di­vi­sion ti­tle just mo­ments be­fore a San Fran­cisco Gi­ants loss in San Diego would have handed the Dodgers the ti­tle.

The home run not only al­lowed Scully’s fi­nal home call to be a mon­u­men­tal one, but it set the stage for Scully’s fi­nal good­bye from the booth. The ball sailed into the left-field cor­ner, Scully in­toned, “Would you be­lieve a home run?” and the party started.

The play­ers swarmed and danced around Cul­ber­son be­fore rev­er­en­tially point­ing up to Scully.

It was the per­fect cel­e­bra­tion at the per­fect mo­ment, all of it made even more mag­i­cal be­cause it was util­ity in­fielder Cul­ber­son’s first home run of the sea­son in only his 30th Dodgers game of the sea­son.

More than three months later, even though the ball never showed up and his Scully-au­to­graphed bat is wrapped in a san­i­tary sock and sit­ting in a closet so his two young chil­dren won’t con­fuse it for a toy, Cul­ber­son says the magic re­mains.

“I’ve watched it on YouTube quite a few times and it still gives me chills,” he said.

The home run cer­tainly couldn’t have been hit by any­one more sym­bolic of last year’s Dodgers work ethic and its re­newed all-in cul­ture. Cul­ber­son, 27, was one of a fran­chis­ere­cord 55 play­ers used by the team in 2016. He spent half of the year at Triple-A Ok­la­homa City. He has barely played one full ma­jor league sea­son in 10 years as a pro.

Yet, on that late Sunday af­ter­noon when he stepped to the plate with two out and the bases empty in the 10th in­ning against pitcher Boone Lo­gan, he felt like he had been a Dodger for life. When he fought through the shad­ows to drive a one-strike fast­ball into splen­did obliv­ion, that bond was sealed.

“The team gave me a chance, the fans have al­ways been be­hind me, it was Vin Scully’s stage, it was his time, I was just lucky to be part of it all,” said Cul­ber­son, whose cel­e­bra­tory hel­met toss seem­ingly eclipsed the arc of the home run.

Cul­ber­son found him­self stand­ing alone near the dugout, at which point the enor­mity of his blast sank in.

“I had a mo­ment,” he said. “I was think­ing, ‘Man, did that re­ally hap­pen?’”

He could be ex­cused for ask­ing that ques­tion sev­eral times in the en­su­ing weeks, but he never did. While the home run mo­ment changed his rec­og­niz­abil­ity, it didn’t re­ally change his role in the or­ga­ni­za­tion. He will be in­vited to spring train­ing with a chance to make the open­ing-day ros­ter, a spot he earned last year, and he’ll embrace that chance.

“I was very for­tu­nate to get my con­tract, get in­vited to camp for an­other chance to make this team, I’m def­i­nitely not mad about it,” he said. “I’ve been in this sit­u­a­tion be­fore, this gets me in a good mind­set, to keep work­ing and com­pet­ing.”

The in­spi­ra­tion for this ethic comes from a per­son who did not see the home run, his fa­ther Char­lie, known as Big Char­lie, a for­mer mi­nor league bat­ting cham­pion who had to quit base­ball after six mi­nor league sea­sons to sup­port his grow­ing fam­ily.

“He had the abil­ity, he just didn’t have as many chances as I had,” said the younger Cul­ber­son.

Big Char­lie, who helps run a base­ball school in Rome, Ga., be­came so misty-eyed talk­ing about his son in a re­cent in­ter­view that he had to put down the phone.

“I know how hard it is to make it, and to see him get there, to live his dream …” Big Char­lie said. “I’m like, ‘Man, you’ve made it, so I’ve made it.’”

On Sept. 25, Big Char­lie and wife Kim were in a movie the­ater when their son be­came a hero. They heard about it from numer­ous texts af­ter­ward. They rushed home and watched it on tape.

“I was like, ‘I’ll be damned, Char­lie hit a walk-off,’” Big Char­lie said. “I told him, ‘Son, you’re go­ing down in Dodger his­tory. Did y’all get the ball?’”

Well, about that …


Char­lie Cul­ber­son re­acts after hit­ting a walk-off homer for the Dodgers against the Rock­ies on a mem­o­rable Septem­ber day.

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