A life cut short

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, when the Topps Company would present three players side by side on a card as a team’s “face of the future,” the players usually turned over from one year to the next. If there was another holdover prospect from one year to the next, I’m not aware of it. But then again, I don’t pay much attention to teams other than the Cubs, so it wouldn’t surprise me if it did happen and I just missed it. I’ve missed bigger things than that before, believe me.

The 1980 card for the Chicago Cubs shows an infielder named Steve Macko.

Steve Macko was called up to the Cubs in 1979, and he played in sixteen meaningless games in August and September. He began the 1980 season at Triple A, and was called up to the majors in late July. On August 6, he started the first game of a doubleheader at Wrigley Field, and went 2-for-3 in the game, including a double in the sixth to tie the game up. He came out of the game after the double, in part because of a collision with Bill Madlock at second base while turning a double play the previous half-inning. He couldn’t know this at the time, but he would never play baseball again.

In the process of receiving treatment related to the collision, Macko learned something else: he had testicular cancer. Proving himself at the major league level became secondary to his survival. And I wonder if Topps had any inkling of this, when they selected him to appear on the Cubs’  1981 Future Stars card.

Perhaps this card was meant to motivate him, or express some confidence that he would overcome the cancer and go on to have a big league career, anyway. Or maybe his cancer diagnosis was just a well-guarded secret, and Topps was unaware of it when they made the decision to include him on the card. Either way, Steve Macko didn’t survive 1981, and he passed away in November at the age of 27.

The Cubs did nothing to remember Steve Macko during the 1982 season. The team had been recently purchased by the Tribune Corporation, and any tribute to him would have been their call. But they remained silent. Perhaps this was to honor the family’s wishes. But it looks cold and uncaring on their part to let the death of a player pass unacknowledged.

I’ve written about ballplayers and death here. Since Steve Macko was a Cubs player, and I was a fan of the team back then, it would have been a shock to learn about his passing. But at least now, thirty years after his death, the internet has afforded me an opportunity to learn about it, and offer a few words of reflection.

I often say that life is short, and that when your time comes, there’s nothing you can do about it. Steve Macko is a case in point. He might have had a career in the game, either as a player or as a coach or manager. I say that because one of his friends on the team, Jim Tracy, is now the manager of the Colorado Rockies. Steve Macko grew up with the game of baseball, and he likely would have found some way to remain connected to it once his playing days were over. But unfortunately, it was not to be.

I think about Steve Macko and I feel fortunate to be alive at my age. I wonder if anything in his life topped the two dozen games that he played as a big-leaguer. I also wonder if he would trade those games for a life more fully realized than the one he had. He couldn’t do that, of course, so I’ll chalk his example up as yet another reason to enjoy all that life gives me.

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