One Last Time

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Not that I’m trying to be cute, but Life is like the World Series: Sometimes you have finality, but more often you don’t. When this year’s Series went to seven games, we knew that whoever won that game would be crowned champions, and whoever lost would have a long offseason to think about how things turned out.But not every Series goes that far, and most are decided in four, five, or six games instead.

My friend Mark was a presence in my life from kindergarten until we graduated from high school together. I saw him thousands of times, and we passed through–or at least we started to pass through–the difficult period of transitioning from children to adults with each other. But for all that, nobody ever told me when the last time I would see him would be. Try as I might, I can’t even remember it myself.

When I learned a week ago that Mark died in a New York hospital over the summer, I was hit very hard by the news. I hadn’t seen him since probably August of 1986, before he went away to study at Arizona State. I went off to a different school the following month, and our paths had forever diverged. I had hoped to see him again someday, somehow, but it won’t happen like that. And that’s why I want to get a few words down, to record what this feels like.

I went to the chalk mural that sprang up at Wrigley Field during this year’s playoff/World Series run last Wednesday, and wrote Mark’s name among the thousands of others that covered every available inch of space. I couldn’t find a good spot on the walls, so I used the ledge of a ticket booth instead. I wrote his name and the years of his birth and death, and took a picture to commemorate the event. It proved, in case anyone ever needed to see it, that Mark–who wasn’t a Cubs fan, at least as far as I knew–was there, at least in spirit. It felt very good, and very humbling, to be able to do that for one of my oldest and best friends.

Yesterday, less than 72 hours after visiting the mural, I drove past it and was saddened to see it had been removed and fenced off. I could see the wall, and the booth where I had written Mark’s name, but none of the names and artworks and victory messages were seen. Again, nobody told me it was going away, so I had no way to know that I was getting in at the end of the process. But I will be forever glad that I did.

As I have probably mentioned here before, I love the music from the Broadway show Hamilton. And my favorite song of all is “One Last Time,” which speaks to finality and the importance of making a known parting of the ways matter. When we get this finality on lives we must savor it, but we must appreciate all the other times in life when finality may (or may not) be present. An old Stones song that says “It may be the last time, I don’t know” is equally fitting. This could be my last blog post, I don’t know. I hope it’s not, but if it is, at least I enjoyed putting it together.

And now on to the rest of the weekend…..and hopefully not my last one, either.

An amazing 48 hours

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It’s been just about 48 hours–give or take a few minutes–since Kris Bryant threw over to first base to end the Cubs’ long championship drought. In an instant, a lifetime of losing was washed away. The “loveable losers” never existed in the first place, but that concept went away forever on the night of November 2, 2016.

I had already paid my respects to Jack Brickhouse at the start of the World Series, and now that it had come to a successful conclusion, I wanted to do the same with Ernie Banks. He wasn’t known as “Mr. Cub” for nothing, as his devotion to the team was matched by the love and respect that all living Cubs fans have for him.

When Ernie died in early 2015, I went to a spot on the sidewalk outside of Wrigley Field to pay my respects. I also felt something change inside of me, with a new sense of determination that the Cubs had to win, and the sooner the better. I put these thoughts into words for a piece published by FiveWideSports, and I fully understood that winning on the field was beyond my control. All I could do as a fan was expect it to happen, which I never really did before that moment.

When 2015 started going well for the Cubs, I was ready to finally go all the way, and it made their eventual flameout against the Mets that much harder to bear. Every season now had an all-or-nothing sense about it, which carried over into 2016. I told a Cardinals blog back in February that “This Year” had finally arrived, and following a terrible scare in Cleveland my prediction came to pass. The euphoria this has made me feel hasn’t yet worn off, either.

So I went to tell Ernie that we finally did it, by inscribing a baseball and leaving at his gravesite in Chicago’s Graceland Cemetery. It was a lovely fall day, and I had some time on my way into work. I never met Ernie Banks, but I did sing a song with him once, and I tried to use the experience to put being a Cubs fan into words. Ernie Banks meant a lot to me, and I wanted to thank him for this.

There was a reporter at the gravesite, and I spoke to him for probably 15 or 20 minutes about being a Cubs fan. I wish that every Cubs fan could have had a few minutes with a reporter yesterday, because each of us has so many stories to tell. I did my best to give him something worthwhile, and apparently I did because the story ran in the New York Daily News today, complete with my grinning mug at the top of the page.  My elation at having just come from the team’s victory parade down Addison Street in Chicago was made even sweeter by the news that for today I was the face of Cubs fans for newspaper readers in New York. It’s a daunting idea, but a role I would gladly accept for the team that means so much to me.

The papers themselves will all go into a landfill soon enough, but the story will live on digitally for a long time to come. And I’ll have a story that will live on here on my blog, as well. The greatest feeling I’ve ever had about anything–other than the birth of my two daughters–was greatly enhanced because I took some time to remember an ambassador for the team I’ve identified with for so long. That’s the stuff life is made of, isn’t it?

The parade report will come soon enough, but for now I’m off to get some rest. Good night to all.

The Cubs Win, at last

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It was the darkest moment of the Cubs’ 2016 championship run. The Cubs had lost to Korey Kluber for the second time in Game 4, and found themselves in a three games to one hole. Elimination seemed to be staring them in the face in Sunday’s early hours, and I wanted to do my part to help.

A Chicago radio station was taking calls from its listeners, and I had a long drive ahead of me so I called in to add some words of encouragement. I have done this many times over the years, as recently as the Dodgers series when the Cubs also seemed to be on the verge of losing. My message then was “keep the faith, it’s not over yet, remember what the Red Sox did in 2004.” It felt good to say that, and know that everything was going to work out in the end. And it did, because the Cubs came back to beat the Dodgers to move on to the World Series for the first time in my lifetime.

But the Sunday morning talk show wasn’t having it. I told the call screener I wanted to talk about the Cubs on air, and he asked me what I wanted to say. I told him that the series wasn’t over, and that past experience shows that a series isn’t over until the last out is recorded. He asked me if there was anything to add to that, and I told him that 2004 was evidence that comebacks can happen.

He sounded put upon for some reason, and told me that saying that sounded “dumb.” He then asked for my name, because perhaps he realized it was 1:30 AM and people aren’t lining up to call radio stations at that hour anyway. I think he was going to put me on the air, but I decided that he and the station he worked for didn’t deserve hearing such crazy thoughts as mine. I hung up, and asked myself what was dumb about trying to exhort Cubs fans to not give up on their team. The answer was there was nothing “dumb” about it at all.

The Cubs did indeed come back, and the station’s call screener probably celebrated like the rest of us last night. But he should realize that hope is sometimes all that a person has, and suggestions that such hope is dumb is, well, beyond dumb. It’s cruel. Hope must always be encouraged, wherever it exists.

I feel great today, as I knew I would after an event I’ve waited for over most of my life. And I realize that the hopes and dreams of Cubs fans–which sustained us over a terribly bad period of losing and despair–make the victory that much sweeter. In 1776, in the first volume of The American Crisis, Thomas Paine wrote “The harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph.” And today sure feels glorious to me.

The Cubs’ 2016 Graveyard

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Some people, in my neighborhood and in other places, turn their front lawns into faux graveyards at this time of year. So with Halloween upon us and the Cubs still playing meaningful baseball, here’s a look at some of the fake styrofoam tombstones that the Cubs could plant at Wrigley Field this year:

The Cardinals’ reign as NL Central champions: The St. Louis Cardinals have been the bullies of the division for some time, going all the way back to Albert Pujols’ days with the team. Wainwright, Molina, and all the rest have won and won and won again, and were trying to be the first team to ever win the Central division four years in a row. The Cubs laid waste to that, and controlled their division from Day 1 of the season.

The Giants’ beliEVEN thing: Winning the World Series in 2010, 2012, and 2014 was a nice pattern to be in for Giants fans, and when their team won the Wild Card came this year they thought the pattern would repeat itself this year. The Cubs had other ideas, though.

The Billy Goat Curse: Oh, that curs’ed goat. The reason–some would have us believe–for the Cubs’ decades worth of World Series absence is the old story of a goat that was denied entry into the 1945 World Series. A man who brings a goat to a baseball game has no mystical powers of any sort, but people talked about it, anyway.

1969? Billy goat curse.

1984? Billy goat curse.

2003? Billy goat curse.

But the Cubs finally laid that one to rest and made the World Series. May we never hear about that goat again.

So the one thing left to do is scratch the 108-year itch and win the World Series. The Cubs have to beat Korey Feldman tonight, or find themselves in a Series of elimination games. They’ll come around tonight, I hope, and even the Series up with three games left to play. It’s been a great, cemetery-making run this year, and it’s not over yet.

Looking forward to some Mighty Cubs Blasts

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I recently happened upon Evangeline, a poem written by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. I’m not very much of a poetry guy, but I found an old book at an estate sale with some poems inside, and decided to start paging through them. I even spent a quarter on the book, so I may as well see what is inside.

Evangeline, as Longfellow wrote it in the middle of the 19th century, tells the story of the expulsion of the Acadian people (who were largely French) from the village of Grand Pre, located in what is now the Canadian province of Nova Scotia. The events happened in 1755, and nearly a hundred years later Longfellow decided to tell their story in poetic form.

In the initial lines of the poem, Longfellow writes:

Waste are those pleasant farms, and the farmers forever departed!
Scattered like dust and leaves, when the mighty blasts of October
Seize them, and whirl them aloft, and sprinkle them far o’er the ocean.

Longfellow’s blasts had nothing to do with baseball, but instead with the cold wind gusts that can occur at this time of year. But there’s a different type of blast that will hopefully be on display tonight and through the weekend, as the World Series returns to Chicago’s north side for the first time in my lifetime.

The mighty blasts I’ll be looking for will come from Rizzo and Bryant, from Russell and Zobrist, and perhaps even from Contreras and–dare I say it?–new folk hero Kyle Schwarber. The Cubs won a game in Cleveland without the benefit of any longballs, but the October winds will be blowing this weekend, and the blasts should follow in short order. We’re just three wins away, after all, and things are looking great for the weekend ahead.

Go Cubs!

 

 

It’s gonna be a World Series weekend in Chicago

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One of my favorite old school Sammy Hagar songs–and I have quite a few of them–is Rock and Roll Weekend. Not only does Sammy name-check Chicago (and Cleveland) toward the end of the song, but he paints an image of the best part of the week, being filled up with the best music there is. A better combination could not exist.

So it’s worth pointing out that while Cleveland had the early part of the 2016 World Series on a Tuesday and Wednesday night, and they may get the final games of the Series again next week, this weekend will belong to the Chicago Cubs. The city has been starving for World Series action my entire lifetime (and probably yours, too), and when it finally does arrive it’s in the form of Friday, Saturday, and Sunday games.It could not be any more perfect than that.

So let’s rock, Chicago. Let’s fill the air with a celebration that none of us have ever known, and one that we may not ever see again, at least not exactly like this. Get on the phone, tell all your friends!

Tell ’em it going to be a World Series-winning weekend.

My letter of thanks to Jack Brickhouse

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Dear Jack,

Today was the kind of day that makes cemeteries interesting. As I drove through Rosehill on the far north side of Chicago, I watched the dried leaves blowing across my path on the way to the mausoleum where you are interred. This is generally not baseball weather here in Chicago, but you never saw a team like this year’s Cubs, either.

As I arrived at the door and removed my Cubs hat, I was appreciative to live close enough to be able to pay a visit to you before the World Series began. Thanks to your broadcasts on WGN through the years, a person didn’t have to live in or around Chicago to become a Cubs fan. That was true for me, who grew up in Cardinals country near Springfield, Illinois.

The Cardinals games of the mid-1970s–when baseball entered my life–were broadcast on the radio on KMOX in St. Louis. Everybody knew the sound of Jack Buck’s voice, but nobody got to watch the team actually play, unless they appeared on NBC’s Game of the Week or ABC’s Monday Night Baseball. But the Cubs did it a different way in Chicago by putting every game on TV, and for me it made all the difference.

I loved being able to watch a few innings of the Cubs games after school, or even entire games during the summertime. Night games on the road were OK too, but afternoon baseball at that gem of a ballpark in Chicago was pure happiness to me.

Many of today’s Cubs fans aren’t familiar with your work, and I think that’s unfortunate. Without you and your broadcasts on Channel 9, the Cubs wouldn’t mean nearly as much to me as they do today. But the World Series is upon us, Jack, and I wish you were here to enjoy it. Ernie Banks never saw one, and Ron Santo didn’t, either. But Billy Williams is still here, along with names you used to call for me like Rick Monday and Jose Cardenal and Bruce Sutter. Cubs fans my age love names like Barry Foote and Mick Kelleher and Champ Summers, because they belong to a specific time and place, and the sounds they remember from that era are your “Hey Hey!” call and they way you pronounced every Cubs win a “thriller.”

There was no better way to remind myself of how I came to be a Cubs fan than to come and pay my respects at your gravesite this morning. I’ll make sure to enjoy these upcoming games against Cleveland, not only for myself but for you and all the other Cubs fans who weren’t able to see it. I hope you’ve got a great seat where you are, Jack, because you deserve to have it. Thanks again for helping me to take baseball in once upon a time. This week wouldn’t be the same without you.

Rob Harris

Chicago, IL

The Cubs’ World Series trail led through California

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One year ago, I wrote a piece for WrigleyvilleNation pointing out that the Cubs were beating teams from the old National League East in the postseason, and I liked that idea. Teams from the NL West had been nothing but trouble for the Cubs, and I thought maybe the Eastern route would pay off in the end.  The Mets had other ideas, though, and the season came crashing to a halt in a stunning four-game sweep.

“Wait ’til next year!” we Cubs fans cried, for what felt like the thousandth time. But this time the team backed us up, and here we are in baseball’s equivalent of the Promised Land.

Before the games get going in Cleveland, I wanted to point out that the Cubs pulled off a California two-step that’s never been done before. By beating the Giants and the Dodgers in the same postseason, history was made by my team in blue.

The ghosts of 1989 and Will Clark were dispatched in Round 1, and the letdown of the 2008 playoffs (James Loney was the main culprit that time) melted away when the Cubs waxed Clayton Kershaw on a Saturday at Wrigley. California’s a lovely state, but the Cubs ushered two of its fan bases into the off-season this year. Good.

Here’s looking forward to lots of baseball in the week to ten days ahead. This is what we’ve all waited for, Cubs fans. So let’s be sure to enjoy it.

Arrivederci, San Francisco

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The Cubs don’t come from behind to win games in the postseason, and they sure don’t do it in the 9th inning. They either lose the game altogether, or they get out to an early lead and somehow hang on to win. But late game heroics has never been their calling card, at least not until tonight.

The Cubs were down three runs in the ninth inning tonight in San Francisco, and had only two hits through the first eight frames. But they found a way to get it done, by pushing across four runs in the ninth and bringing an end to the Giants’ run of even-year titles.

Nothing’s actually been won yet. Last year was an object lesson on how success in one round of the postseason means nothing, once the next round begins. So it isn’t even unchartered waters that were heading into just yet. I fully appreciate this fact moving forward.

But it sure feels good to be hovering above San Francisco in the baseball world right now.

Go Cubs!

For the Cubs, nothing’s been accomplished yet

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On this day off between the end of the regular season–where the Cardinals played all 162 games–and the postseason–where the Cardinals will watch it on TV like the rest of us–a few thoughts are in order.

That dig at the Cardinals sounds a bit petty, but the truth is I’m glad the teams will not meet in the postseason. The Cubs finally ended the Cardinals’ three-year run on top of the NL Central in 2016, and there’s no possibility of a rematch from last season, either. So enjoy the offseason for a change, Cardinals Nation.

Winning 103.5 games in the regular season was a feat I haven’t seen before, and may not ever see again. It was wonderful seeing triple digits in the win column, because they showed up on the other end of  the spectrum back in 2012, when Theo Epstein and his crew began the Cubs’ rebuild.

Bringing them all back for the next five years feels like a move that will cement the Cub’s legitimacy on the field, for as far as the eye can see. And the construction along Clark Street, to go with upgrades inside the ballpark itself, is another sign that everything is on the upswing near Clark and Addison Streets. “Ebullient” is not too strong a word to describe where this Cubs fan is at, two and a half seasons after being disgusted with everything they stood for. After all, everything changes in life.

The new facilities and the dynamic team on the field are designed to make the turnstiles spin and the cash registers ring for years to come, and that’s a great thing. But the ultimate prize hasn’t been achieved yet.

Division titles are great, and it’s the one sure way to punch a team’s ticket into the postseason. But this is also the sixth division title that I’ve seen as a Cubs fan, and all of the previous go-rounds in October haven’t ended well.

Again, 100+ wins in the regular season is a great feat, which I’m grateful to have experienced. Not since 1910 have the Cubs won so many times. And after three and a half seasons of losing-by-design, the wins now have a sweetness that I didn’t know about before. But it’s not the end of the journey, either.

A point could be made that winning the National League pennant and getting to the World Series would represent progress from 2015, and that would technically be true. But it also means that

  • we’ll hear about 1908 incessantly, in case we haven’t already, and
  • David Ross wouldn’t go into retirement with the ring his teammates want him to have, and
  • White Sox fans can harp on 2005 for one more season, and–most importantly of all-
  • an unknowable set of Cubs fans who are with us today will go to their graves without knowing what winning a championship feels like.

With all this in mind, the time is now, and Next Year is going to arrive this year. Because until that happens, Theo and his team haven’t accomplished a thing.

Josh Wilker says it all for me

 

I remember watching Yaz’s last regular-season at-bat. The Red Sox were bad that year, most of the superstars from my childhood gone. There weren’t going to be any postseason at-bats. I watched the game alone in a TV room at a boarding school that I’d be expelled from the following year. I’d started attending the […]

via David Ortiz — Cardboard Gods

I came to write a few words about the Cubs, and I expect to do that next, but Josh’s words of remembrance and parenting really got to me.

For me–and evidently for him too–baseball fills a place that nothing else can. It’s a connection to our past, and a reminder that life is always moving forward. Passing the game on to the next generation is the best thing we can do, for them as well as for us.

Inside the Ricketts Square

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My daughter, who’s in 8th grade in a Chicago public school, took biology a year ago. She was exposed to genetics and the Punnett Square, which brought back lots of old memories, and not necessarily fond ones, as I tried once again to understand alleles and dominant and recessive traits.

However, I apparently remember enough of genetics to have an analogy for what lies ahead in November of this year. It’s either going to be an amazing month, a terrible month, or something in between. And the Punnett Square helps to explain why.

This morning I came across an interesting story about the Ricketts family, and particularly Todd Ricketts. The family fortune comes from Joe Ricketts, who founded Ameritrade and has done very well as a result.

The family used their fortunes to buy the Chicago Cubs, and have been pouring money into the renovation of Wrigley Field, and the acquisition and destruction of many properties surrounding the ballpark on Clark and Addison streets. By the time they get finished, Wrigley will be the anchor for a high-end district the likes of which I’m sure Chicago hasn’t seen before. And none of this is a bad thing, if it keeps Wrigley Field and the Cubs in Chicago where they’ve always been.

But now, the family’s competing interest in politics will be considered. According to the story I saw, Todd Ricketts is offering to be the act as a cash collector for the Donald Trump campaign, through a group that is able to collect large sums of money without having to disclose who their donors are. Think of it as Trumpin’ on the downlow. When somebody wants to give Trump lots of cash without having to admit it to anyone else, Todd Ricketts is apparently their guy.

So November is going to bring two resolutions, in quick succession. The Cubs are hopefully going to finally go all the way and win the World Series, which I’ve been waiting for over three decades by now. When it finally happens, life won’t ever be quite the same for me again. And I very much want that to happen. We’ll know by November 2 if that’s the case.

And then just a few days later–November 8, to be exact–we’ll find out if Donald Trump is going to be president or not. That’s something I definitely don’t want to happen, as the world will disappear in flames and smoke if Trump wins. I get terrified enough just typing those words out on the computer.

So I’m thinking of November as a Punnett Square-type month, having to do with the outcomes of the Ricketts family and their twin interests in baseball and electoral politics. The Ricketts Square, as I’m calling it, has to do with the Cubs being dominant and winning (referred to on the square as C) or being recessive and losing (as signified by c). And yes, everything short of a World Series title will be considered as c to me, and many other Cubs fans, as well.

Since the Ricketts family is collecting money for Donald Trump, they also have an interest in whether he is dominant and wins (represented by a T) or is recessive and loses (as indicated as t). So there are four possible outcomes, which will be discussed below.

The Ricketts-preferred outcome is for both the Cubs and Trump to win, as represented by CT on the square. For somebody like me, that would result in a week’s euphoria over the Cubs, followed by the most profound “Oh Shit!” moment I can imagine.

The preferred outcome in my world is Cubs winning and Trump losing, represented by Ct on the square. The baseball celebrations of early November would then carry on into infinity, at least for me.

But it’s the other two results that could be most interesting. A Cubs loss, followed by a Trump loss, is represented as ct on the square. And as devastating as a Cubs loss could be, the following week would bring some good news, at least. It probably wouldn’t be enough to lift the clouds of disappointment, but as a human living on planet earth, I would feel at least a little bit better.

The final possibility is almost too gruesome to imagine: The Cubs fall short in the postseason, but a split is salvaged when Trump wins the White House a week later. This is shown as cT on the square, and would be a consolation prize for the Ricketts family, but a devastating development for the world that we all live in.  May this outcome never come to pass.

Anyone who has read this far and wants to have an issue with this will say “What about Laura Ricketts? Doesn’t she raise money for the Democrats?” and I will acknowledge this is true. Whether she raises any secret money from undisclosed donors is something I don’t know, but I’m willing to suggest there is more Republican sentiment within the family than not, and the two sides do not cancel each other out.

So October will be the prelude, and early November will bring the resolution. We’ll have to see how it goes, and perhaps by then the actual Punnett Square will make its way into my daughter’s vocabulary. The only thing there is to do now is wait and hope, while searching for a glimpse of that elusive red ivy at Wrigley Field.

 

Something never seen before

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As the Cubs’ season to remember keeps rolling along–and the team continues racking up victories like only a few living Cubs fans have ever seen–I’ve become more focused on the W flag. I have also written a piece about its history and significance for the Gamehedge blog. But I essentially see the flag as a validation that this year’s team is good, and has some great things in store for us over the next month or so.

According to a very good book I’ve read on the subject, the practice of running up flags at Wrigley Field after a ballgame began in the 1940s. The idea was to let the people riding the CTA’s elevated line past the ballpark know if the Cubs won or lost. That’s all. No game highlights or descriptions, just a binary result: W or L.

But from the early years of the practice until sometime in the 1980s (and the book isn’t any more specific than that with the dates), the color schemes of the flags were the opposite of what they are today. It makes sense, actually, because the Cubs team color is blue, so if they win perhaps the flag saying so should also be blue. And if the white flag symbolizes surrender, perhaps its fitting for the L flag to be that color, too. But they got switched somehow, and here we are.

This means one of two things, with regard to this season and the last time the Cubs had a similarly good season, back in 1945:

  • The Cubs hadn’t yet started flying flags after the games in 1945, because “the 1940s” is a wide span of time that may or may not include that season, OR
  • The flags that were flown in 1945 were either blue with a white W or white with a blue L, depending on the game’s outcome.

So even if the team had started with the flags in 1945, they didn’t look like the ones they use today, as shown above.

Either way, it’s worth pointing out that a white flag with a blue W on it has never flown over Wrigley Field before, when the team has 98 wins on the regular season, as they do today. They should easily reach 100 wins in the regular season, and have an outside chance to get there at home by beating the Cardinals on Saturday and Sunday. Wouldn’t it be nice to celebrate that 100th win with a W flag high above the ballpark? I know I’d love to see it.

The season really doesn’t begin until the postseason starts in October, but there’s still some dreaming left to do before that moment arrives. Go Cubs Go!

Telling a story about the Cubs

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The Chicago Cubs have been a major recurring theme of this blog, going all the way back to the first thing I posted in this space. It’s shaped who I am, in some way, and I won’t ever back away from that.

After taking a hiatus of almost a year from writing for WrigleyvilleNation.com, today they ran a piece of mine on the 20th anniversary of Andre Dawson day at Wrigley Field, back in August of 1996.

The 28 year-old that I was at that time had hardly ever used the Internet before, and had no idea about blogging or social media or smartphones. Those things–and everything else in my life, including having children–were once far away in the future, and now they’re an everyday reality.

Will I still be here in five years, or ten, or any other round number that is suitable for marking another anniversary of the events described in the piece for WrigleyvilleNation? That’s impossible to say. But I won’t have to be, because the piece I wrote will hopefully be around for as long as there’s an Internet.

The truth is my stuff will probably always be found at the intersection of nostalgia and Cubs baseball. And that’s exactly why I keep writing the way that I do. Somebody needs to help keep these stories alive, and I’ll gladly volunteer for that cause.

August and the stretch run

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As the calendar turns to August, thoughts of summer start to wane. It still is summer, of course, but as the days start getting shorter the inevitability of returning to those other, non-summery seasons starts creeping in.

Summer is my favorite time of the year, and I’d have a hard time relating very well to those who choose other seasons, instead. And nothing is more summer to me than baseball. It starts in the spring and ends in the fall, but it’s the summertime game. And the Chicago Cubs have been my team ever since I was losing my molars on a regular basis.

As August rolls around this year, I am reminded of all the years when baseball didn’t matter to me very much. The Cubs were losing, and the postseason wasn’t going to happen–AGAIN–so I just tuned baseball out. Bring on the end of the summer, so at least this awful Cubs team can go home and I can be done with them.

That didn’t happen in 2015, and it won’t happen in 2016, either. August isn’t the end of the regular season, but it is a strong reminder that summer is beginning to slip away. And the arrival of fall is going to be a glorious thing, at least for this year.

Go Cubs!

Cubs look to buck the trend

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The Crosstown classic begins tonight, and continues through until Thursday. The teams appear to be on different arcs, with the Cubs playoff-bound and the White Sox thinking about who they can trade away at the deadline coming up. But none of that matters when the two teams take the field tonight at U.S. Cellular Field.

On paper, it looks like the Cubs will be able to take it to the Sox, especially since Sox ace Chris Sale is out of action. This should be a mismatch, right?

But there’s an undercurrent that Cubs fans should be aware of, and it doesn’t bode well.

This year MLB has decided to create an interleague “home and home” series for every one of its teams. There were two games played on Monday and Tuesday in one city, with the action switched to the other ballpark for Wednesday and Thursday. Four days, four games, two ballparks. Fun, right?

Some of the matchups are geographically obvious, like the Cubs and the White Sox and the Giants and A’s in the Bay Area. But others are harder to understand. Boston and Atlanta are in the same time zone, and the Atlanta Braves were once the Boston Braves, but somehow they had an interleague series against each other already this season. The Red Sox took three of the four games of the series, so that counts as a win for the American League.

You might think that 4 game series like this should split two games apiece, with neither team able to declare victory over the other. Everyone ties, and nobody loses. But in only one of the 11 series so far this season has this happened. The Milwaukee Brewers and Minnesota Twins–bound together by being located in the upper midwest, I suppose–split their four games this season. But in 10 out of 11 series played so far, a winner could be declared.

Guess how many of these ten interleague series were claimed by the National League team? Five, right? After all, that’s half of ten, and it makes sense for the two leagues would split these series in this way.

But no, it isn’t five series for the National League, and five for the American League. In fact, that’s not even close to being the case.

Well then, let’s be optimistic and say that seven series went to the NL team, and three went to the  the AL team. After all, the American League pitchers have to bat sometimes, and that must work to their teams’ disadvantage, right?

But no, that’s not the case. In fact, you’re getting further away from the correct answer. You’re getting colder, I might say.

6 series for the AL, and 4 for the NL? Warmer.

7-3? Warmer, but not there yet.

8-2? Now you’re really warm.

9 wins the AL, and 1 for the NL? Congratulations.

Yes, the breakdown goes like this:

The Miami Marlins of the National League took 3 out of 4 from the Tampa Bay Rays when they played over four days back in May. And it’s all downhill from there, for the Senior Circuit.

Houston (AL) took 3 of 4 from the Arizona Diamondbacks.

Detroit (AL) took 3 of 4 from the Pittsburgh Pirates.

The LA Angels (AL) took 3 of 4 from the Dodgers back in May.

Seattle (AL) took 3 of 4 from the San Diego Padres.

Kansas City (AL) took 3 of 4 games from the Cardinals to claim Missouri bragging rights.

Oakland (AL) took 3 of 4 games from the San Francisco Giants last month.

Toronto (AL) took 3 of 4 games from the Philadelphia Phillies.

The Cleveland Indians (AL) outdid everyone by sweeping the Reds and claiming the Ohio Cup (or whatever it’s called).

So after 44 games of interleague play in these eleven “home and home” series, the American League has won 31 games, to just 13 wins for the National League. That’s a beatdown, no matter how anyone decides to look at it.

After the Cubs and White Sox play their series this week, there will be only the Mets and Yankees, Nationals and Orioles, and Rockies and Rangers left in this new format. I like the idea, and I hope it continues in the future.

But anyone thinking the Cubs will mop the floor with the White Sox needs to understand the odds of this happening aren’t real good.

With that said, Go Cubs!

 

 

Trying to understand

FC Pride

The picture above dates to 1998, and it shows a much younger, much thinner version of me during my teaching days on the south side of Chicago.

This was taken in the days before cameraphones, or even before digital photography, with an old school camera. They were fun because you wound up with a print that you could actually hold in your hands. It seems like forever ago, sometimes.

When I saw the video on Facebook of the death of Philando Castile, I thought about the kids I used to teach, two decades ago. They’re teenagers in this picture, but every one of them was already living with the possibility of ending up in a deadly encounter with a police officer. Not a day has gone by where they aren’t considered a suspect, in a way I never was and never will be.

I enjoyed teaching and coaching, but I also reached a point where I was ready to leave. For four years I tried to make a difference, in whatever small way I could. I watched as a group of freshmen–some of whom are shown in the picture–grew into seniors and got their diplomas. And then I left, disillusioned with what I was doing and the way I was doing it. I was a visitor into their world, and my skin tone gave me exit options that they never had.

I’ve since connected with some of my old ballplayers on social media, and I’m glad to see them at the stage of life where they aren’t teenagers anymore. But many of them I couldn’t name today, either. I hope they’re all happy with their lives, but I don’t have any way of knowing whether that’s the case.

The other coach, on the left side of the picture, was the cafeteria manger at my school, as Philando Castile was in St. Paul. I’m certain that there are lots of kids at that school who aren’t yet able to understand why it happened. They’ll learn in time, or possibly this event will force understandings on them that they weren’t ready to deal with. There’s pain in that school community, and it will be magnified once classes start up again in the fall.

Black lives matter. That should not be a controversial statement, but somehow it is. The ongoing shooting deaths of Trayvon Martin and Tamir Rice and Walter Scott and Philando Castile and countless others reinforces the fact that this country, writ large, views black men as suspects.  Woe unto us as a nation, if we see these shootings occur and don’t think that something must change.

I write this blog to sort through my thoughts, and then share the results with some tiny piece of the online world. Facebook posts and tweets aren’t sufficient for saying anything of importance, and this subject is about as important as it gets. The killings have to stop, and the only way of making this happen is to demand action.

Police have got to held accountable when they fail to live up to their oaths, and social media must be used whenever and however it can be to preserve events as they happen.The memory of what happened to Philando Castile demands nothing less.

The year that still haunts me

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2003 should have positive associations for me. It was the year that my younger daughter was born, and if there’s one thing in life I enjoy more than anything else, it’s being a dad. She’s going to become a teenager this summer, and looking at her now is a daily reminder that 2003–in human terms–was a long time ago.

And yet I have to admit that 2003 has a hold over me. As I was out walking the dogs this morning, I spotted a penny on the sidewalk. Sometimes the year stamped on the penny reminds me of other stages in my life, and I’ll add a few words about that year here. But today’s penny was from 2003, and it reminds me of some things I’d rather not think about.

In the five years that I’ve been writing this blog, I’ve written about Mark Prior and Moises Alou, Dusty Baker and Pudge Rodriguez, Sammy Sosa and Brian Banks. And I’ve analyzed Luis Castillo’s foul ball down the left-field line over and over again.

After decades of waiting for the Cubs to win the World Series, I felt that 2003 was finally going to be the year I saw it. Every Cubs fan felt that way, too. Watching it all fall apart in a half-hour’s time on a Tuesday night was excruciating. And the only way to ever make it go away is to–as Eddie Vedder put it–actually Go all the way.

2016 is looking really good so far, much more so than 2003 was looking at this point.On this day in 2003 the Cubs were in first place, but a few days later they had fallen to third place, where they remained until early September of that season. So there’s still a long way to go.

The Cubs’ present four-game losing streak isn’t enjoyable, but there’s not much doubt in my mind that they’ll win their division by a comfortable margin. They’re too good a team to do otherwise, I hope. And then the business of finally vanquishing the ghosts of 2003, and 1984, and any other near-miss season in our collective lifetimes can begin in earnest.

Jose can you see it?

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Jose Cardenal played in many cities over the course of his big league career, and I’d be surprised if he had a special affinity for any one of them. But he was a Cub when I started following the team in the mid-1970s, and for that reason he’ll always be a Cub to me. He played six seasons in Chicago, and he also sang the seventh-inning stretch with Eddie Vedder a few days ago, so that must mean something.

Jose Cardenal is almost 73 years old, and if the Cubs are going to finally go all the way, I want him to be around to see it. The same goes for Rick Monday, Bruce Sutter, Rick Reuschel, and all the other players I’ve seen in a Cubs uniform through the years. That goes for Andre Dawson, Ryne Sandberg, Mark Grace, Sammy Sosa, Greg Maddux, Leon Durham, Jody Davis, and the list goes on….

There are Cubs fans–hopefully not including me–who won’t be here in October, if the World Series finally does come to pass. With the Pulse shooting in Orlando fresh in our memories, I’m reminded that tomorrow isn’t promised to anyone, and certainly that applies to me, too.

The Cubs will be a dominant team for a long time, I hope. But I want this year’s time to be the one that finally breaks through that 108-year wall. I wanted it last year, and I’ll want it every year until my time is up. May we all live to see it finally happen.

Going for the sweep

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The Cubs don’t really need to win today against the Pirates at Wrigley Field. They’ve already won the series, and have a commanding 11 and a half game lead in the division on Father’s Day. But a lifetime of waiting for this has also made this Cubs fan greedy.

Today we’ll find out if the NBA’s Golden State Warriors can follow up the winningest regular season in history with a league title. If LeBron James  and his teammates can take it away from them, the Warriors’ season will be judged a failure, and rightly so. Winning a title is what matters most, as Vince Lombardi once said.

So a win today by the Cubs may end up being meaningless, because it appears they’re going to win their division easily. But Cubs fans will hopefully be forgiven for our gluttony. It’s been a long time, and an especially difficult road these past few years. So let’s go Cubs!

Let’s hear it for the Bae

 

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The Cubs are off to an amazing start this year (24-6 through the first 30 games) and I haven’t yet written a single word about it. I voluntarily disengaged from my long-time writing gigs with FiveWideSports and ThroughTheFenceBaseball, just in time to have the Cubs catching fire like this. It’s all in the timing, I suppose.

Javier Baez hit a walk-off home run in the 13th inning to get the win today. I was very hard on Baez in his rookie season, because he struck out too damn much. But he had a hard time last season, between injuries and personal issues, and he kept on going to get through it. He even got injured before this season started, but he kept his head up and here he is. I’m certainly pulling for him going forward. For all the talent he obviously has, he’s a survivor, too.

I really don’t like the word “bae.” Kids use it, in part, because adults do not. If I were to call someone “bae” it would feel strange, and my children would make their displeasure known. Some terms they don’t want me using, and I don’t have the urge to use them, either.

But “bae” happens to be first three letters of Baez’s last name, and adding the Z separately at the end–a la Jay-Z–seems like it can work. I’m going to call him Bae-Z, especially when he goes deep in extra innings to win the game. And the odds are very small my children (or anyone else, for that matter) will encounter that term here.

None of this will matter once October arrives. The Cubs have to bring home the pennant and the World Series this year, because at least a few of the Cubs fans enjoying this year’s great ride won’t be here when the 2017 season rolls around. I’m not being ominous, as much as I’m stating a fact. The sooner the Cubs climb to the the mountaintop, the more fans will be able to die happy when their time comes.

But so far this year has been amazing, and I hope it continues.

 

Play ball!

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It’s no accident that “Baseball” is the biggest topic in the wordcloud associated with this blog. Nor is it an accident that the first thing I wrote on this site related to baseball in some. Without baseball, I might not even have a blog in the first place.

Today it’s Opening Day, and what I’ve been looking forward to since last October has finally arrived. And this year, 2016, is the year that the Cubs will finally get to the Promised Land of the World Series. I’m beyond happy about that.

Enjoy the baseball gallery, and more importantly, enjoy the season ahead. Go Cubs!

Signing off from TTFB

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When I started writing this blog in the summer of 2011, I did it because I had things I wanted to say, and no outlet for saying them. I sent a couple of things I wrote to other blogs, but in the end I wanted my words to go someplace that I got to direct. The result was this blog, and starting it was a decision I’m very happy about.

For the first few months, this blog was a spigot that gushed forth with thoughts I had kept locked inside my brain for a long time. Nothing seemed too trivial to write about, because it was all stuff that I wanted to share with somebody–anybody–and finally I could do exactly that.

And then I started to wonder if some of my ideas wouldn’t be suited for wider consumption someplace else. The 2011 World Series between the Rangers and Cardinals was amazing, but my thoughts and writings about it came here to sit. I’d rather write something than let the thoughts die inside my brain–and that’s the feeling that still keeps me doing this, 500,000 words or so later. But there should be something else I could do with this stuff, too.

So the following spring, I began sending things into a website called ThroughTheFenceBaseball. I think I learned about them on a Craigslist ad or something like that. From the start, I wanted a place to send some of my baseball-related thoughts, while keeping the blog for everything else. And it worked out pretty well, because I sent them 215 pieces over the past four years, ending with a farewell piece that was published yesterday. I even got in a reference to Boston in my parting shot, which made me happy.

The number of outside websites I write for has varied through the years, but my four-year run at TTFB will always be my first one, and probably my longest one, too. I had hundreds of thousands of page views there, which means somebody might have read something they liked.  It was something I enjoyed doing, and I left a body of work that will live on for as long as the site does. And who really knows how long that will be, anyway?

 

The coolest card so far

Baseball cards are a cheap buzz for me. It goes back to when I was six or seven years old, when my dad gave me some change and told me I could go into the store by myself and buy a pack of baseball cards. It was the first thing I had ever purchased on my own, and it had an effect on me that I still remember all these years later. Needless to say, baseball has been important to me all through my life.

There’s a thing I do, sometimes, when I find myself in a Dollar Tree store. Up by the registers, they offer a variety of trading cards and stickers for sale. Sorting through them takes some time, but there’s a company that packages 30 cards together, of all years and brands, for the grand sum of one dollar. Somebody once got the idea that these things had some intrinsic monetary value, and as a result there are now billions of them, sitting on the shelves in Dollar Tree stores everywhere, waiting for someone like me to help relieve the oversupply.

The collective value of 30 old baseball cards isn’t even 30 cents, so it’s not a financial proposition for me. These things cost a penny apiece when I was a kid, because that’s all the value they have. Anyone who thinks otherwise is a fool.

But each pack of these things is a chance to find something interesting. The cards are old enough that the “promising rookies” who petered out and never got a whiff of the major leagues can be identified. Every player is a story that’s as easily discovered as a trip to google or baseball-reference.com. 30 potential stories for a dollar? It’s hard to beat that.

So yesterday I found myself in a Dollar Tree store, and I picked up a pack of old baseball cards. The cheap buzz comes in from tearing open the plastic, looking at the cards inside, and enjoying the rush of potential discovery. It’s probably what heroin feels like for some people, but without the side effects like addiction and the risk of an OD. It’s the lowest grade rush that I’m willing to look for.

Yesterday’s pack contained the most unusual and unexpected card I’ve ever run across. The pictures of the front and shown above, but basically the Score company, in 1991, put an American flag on the front of a card, and a prayer for the safety of soldiers in the first Iraq war (and for world peace in general) on the back. There was no has-been (or never-was) baseball player shown, but a reminder that baseball is the American game, and some things are far more important than being able to hit a curveball (or to throw one, for the pitchers of the world).

I thought of my friends who went to Iraq, and those who have served our country in uniform. Having never done so myself, I am grateful for those who do. I don’t like wars, and I’m critical of politicians who send soldiers into battle for reasons that later turn out to be false and misleading.  But that doesn’t mean the bravery and sacrifice of those in uniform is lost on me. Far from it.

This piece is written to honor those who serve, and to recognize that the 30 chances to tell a story in each pack of outdated old baseball cards can sometimes lead to something much more interesting than I ever thought possible.