Dodgers getting back to normal

The right field pavilion was where the trouble started last year. Bryan Stow watched the Dodgers’ home opener from those seats, reportedly trading barbs with rival fans before exiting into the Dodger Stadium parking lot where his life changed forever.

Aside from that evening’s victory, very little went right for the Dodgers in the first months of the 2011 season. There was ownership turmoil, a takeover by the commissioner’s office, a bankruptcy filing, a precipitous fall from contention.

Tuesday, a very different scene unfolded in those bleachers. On a sun-splashed afternoon, the scoreboard behind the section flashed an upbeat message dedicated to the popular Dodger who roams the grass beneath it: "HAPPY BIRTHDAY, ANDRE ETHIER!" The fans caught on. By the middle innings, they were singing “Happy Birthday!” to the 30-year-old.

“I caught myself turning around, waving, saying, ‘Thank you,’ for it,” Ethier said. “It was a fun birthday. There was different pockets of singing and standing up and singing and taking big drinks for me.

“I have a great right field corner and great bleachers back there. Unless you’re an outfielder, you don’t understand how fun it is to be out in those bleachers and see what goes on. It’s a great group of people we’ve got out there in those bleachers.”

The yellow-planked section has been more often described as one of the most dangerous seating areas in baseball. But on this day, it was a site of unbridled joy. With the score tied and two out in the eighth inning, Ethier put the Dodgers ahead to stay with a high, majestic home run. It landed — you guessed it — in the first rows of the right field pavilion.

A gift from the birthday boy.

As Ethier rounded the bases, a sellout of 56,000 roared with the full-throated enthusiasm absent from Chavez Ravine for the past two seasons. The sale agreement between owner Frank McCourt and a group including Magic Johnson might have had something to do with that.

“It’s fun to be back at Dodger Stadium, playing in front of these fans again, having this atmosphere (like) what was going on a couple years ago,” Ethier said after the 2-1 victory over Pittsburgh. “That’s an addicting feeling. It’s something we had a chance to experience for quite a few years here. Then it kind of went away. We weren’t doing our job. It felt good again to look up and see that support.”

For Dodgers fans who want to believe in their team again, this was the eureka moment: Ethier was a frequent late-inning hero in 2009, when he tied a major-league record with four walk-off home runs. The Dodgers reached the playoffs that year. They haven’t made it back since.

Moreover, his star turn came on the 50th anniversary of the first game at Dodger Stadium. That’s right: Ethier shares a birthday with the ballpark he calls home — a cosmic connection that came to his attention only in the past several days. Maybe Ethier was meant to be a Dodger, in the same way a July 4 birthdate adds cachet to a soldier, statesman or reality TV star. (Michael “The Situation” Sorrentino, assuredly a patriot, was born on the Fourth of July.)

Ethier hadn’t played at Dodger Stadium since last Aug. 31, shortly before undergoing season-ending right knee surgery. He’s healthy now and has nine RBI through five games — the sort of production that will help superstar Matt Kemp see more pitches to hit. Kemp continues to look like the best player in baseball. He just tied a franchise record with RBI in nine straight games.

Afterward, Ethier declared that this is the best clubhouse environment he’s experienced in the big leagues. “These guys like each other,” manager Don Mattingly said. Cy Young Award winner Clayton Kershaw, coming off a bout with the stomach flu, allowed one run in seven precise innings. The Beach Boys played “Surfer Girl” and the national anthem, with band member Mike Love calling it their first-ever gig at Dodger Stadium. “About time, don’t you think?” Love said.

Just about everything in the Dodgers’ universe seemed perfect, with one glaring exception: Hall of Fame broadcaster Vin Scully was absent because of a cold and could miss several games. Ethier and Kemp were among those who offered get-well wishes to him in their postgame comments.

The Dodgers had to shuffle their broadcast lineup without Scully. Charley Steiner teamed with Steve Lyons on television, while Rick Monday handled the radio play-by-play. Maury Wills, who attended a pregame ceremony for the ’62 team, and current general manager Ned Colletti joined Monday in the booth as in-game guests.

Colletti, a former sportswriter, even momentarily handled the play-by-play. “That’s a ball high, for those of you not watching,” he said as Kershaw missed with a pitch to Rod Barajas in the fifth. Scully, 84, might have smiled at that if he were listening at home.

Even if Scully’s absence proves brief, there was no mistaking the unease many felt without him around. The crowd groaned audibly when it was announced before the game that he was too ill to work. Scully has been the Dodgers’ standard-bearer for decades — and a steadying presence amid the recent ownership tumult.

Now the team is 4-1, the sale is imminent, and all of Los Angeles wishes to see Scully back behind the microphone as soon as his health allows. If this season finishes as well as it has started, Dodgers fans will need Scully’s words to help them make sense of it all.