The year it all began for me

Peace

I’ve done this thing a few times that I call “Pennyfind.” I even have a category for it here. It happens when I come across a penny on a sidewalk or in the street or some unusual place. Being a superstitious sort, I usually pick it up and take a look at the year stamped on the penny. If it gives me an idea about something, I’ll put it into a blog post, because that’s where my random thoughts find their way into the world.

Toady’s penny, which I found waiting for me in the street this afternoon after parking my car, had the most important year of all stamped on it: 1968. Many times I’ve referenced 1968 in this blog, because I was born just about in the middle of it, on a Friday in June.If I ever have a gravestone, or I’m important enough to have the years of my birth and death printed in parentheses after my name someplace, 1968 will forever be the first half of this pairing. So I better well have something to say about it here.

In 1968, Martin Luther King was killed in April, and Bobby Kennedy was killed in June. There were riots in Chicago and many other cities. I’ve seen pictures of cops swinging batons, and National Guard units patrolling the streets, and it looks like another world  because, in lots of ways, it was another world.

The world didn’t know about personal computers, the internet, emails, cell phones, and all kinds of other things that we take for granted today. Cars were big and bulky, running on gasoline that had lead in it. You could buy Unleaded gas, but it cost more so most people just used “Regular” gas instead.

The factories that are now shut down and sitting empty were all operating back in 1968. Things were actually made in this country, from the shirts on our backs to the shoes on our feet to the baseballs that are used on the playing field. When I was a teacher, nearly 20 years ago, I confidently offered straight As for the entire year to any student who was wearing American-made shoes, an American-made shirt, and an American-made backpack. I never had to pay out on this though, because none of my students ever had so much as one of these American-made items.

In 1968, there were precious few career paths available to women. I’ve spoken with some of them, who told me the options for working women were teaching or nursing, and nothing more than that. As shocking as that was, I’m happy that my daughters will have career choices that my mother simply didn’t have when I was born.

In 1968, race was a defining feature in American society. It still is, and it probably always will be, but the idea of an African American in the White House would have been farcical on the day I was born. And yet here we are. Racism and discrimination still exist, but the color of a man’s skin is no longer a bar to the highest office in this nation.

So many other changes have come in the course of my lifetime: Pay phones (of the rotary dial variety) once were everywhere, and now it’s almost impossible to find one, especially when you need to make a phone call. Laws against smoking indoors, even in hospitals, were unheard of. The Stonewall riots in New York were still a year in the future. Douglas Englebart invented the computer mouse, and Start Silver discovered the weak adhesive that, many years later, would be turned into Post-it notes. And Starbucks, possibly my favorite brand name of all, was still three years away from opening its first shop in Seattle. It’s amazing how much change has come during my lifetime.

The second of my two incomplete years–the one that will complete my lifespan inside the parentheses following my name–hopefully hasn’t been stamped onto a penny just yet. I likely won’t write very much, if anything, about that year. So I’ll just make up it by writing about 1968, instead. Peace to all those who began their life’s journey in such an important year.

Here come the double 13s

Lucky

Lucky

I’m quite sure nobody’s mentioned this, but today is the first of a series of twelve dates this year with a double 13 in them. Today is 1/13/13, and if you have triskaidekaphobia, well, you’d better get over it for this year. I’ve speculated that this hasn’t helped the Cubs very much over the past half-century, but perhaps this year will be different. Maybe they’ll cancel each other out or something.

The true test of this, if you believe in such things, will come in September, and again in December. Then, for the only two times in our lifetimes, we’ll have a Friday the 13th on a year that ends in a 13. The world somehow lived through all previous centuries where this happened, so I guess we’ll get through this, too. It should be interesting, though.

Mission Accomplished

If there’s a piece of advice I would give to someone going to a Bruce Springsteen concert (other than to go in the first place), it would be don’t be disappointed if he doesn’t play a particular song, unless it’s “Born to Run.” With hundreds of songs on his albums, and fans who bring signs asking for nearly every song under the sun, it’s possible that your song will get left out of the evening’s setlist. It doesn’t mean it’s not a great song, or that others won’t hear it in another city or at a different show.

Earlier this year, when news that Springsteen was bringing the Wrecking Ball tour to Wrigley Field was first reported, I wrote a piece in this space about “The Promised Land.” I love the song, and would suggest that it’s probably my favorite one of all his songs. The meaning of the lyrics is what gets me: not so much the guy who works in his Daddy’s garage in the Utah desert, but the underlying idea that faith in something that hasn’t yet been seen is an essential part of who we are as people.

My lack of a religious faith does not mean that I don’t believe in things. I believe in people’s ability and desire to do good things. I believe that cooperation is not always easy, but it’s always better than conflict. And I believe, most irrationally of all, that the Cubs will win the World Series one day. I just hope that it happens in my lifetime.

The piece I wrote back in March suggested that since Bruce had played “The Promised Land” at the first of his Fenway park shows back in 2003, it may have had something to do with breaking Boston’s supposed “Curse of the Bambino.” They did, after all, win their first World Series in many decades the following year. I’m not sure if it would have happened without that song appearing on the setlist for one of the shows, but nobody can deny that he played that song in that place, and then the baseball team that plays there finally won a championship.

So, before the second show at Wrigley Field had even been announced, I suggested that, if there would only be a single show at Wrigley Field, perhaps playing the song would help the Cubs, too. I went to the show on Friday night hoping to hear that song, but after 28 great songs–“The Promised Land” not being one of them–I left happier than I had ever been at the end of a concert. And there was still a second show at Wrigley, so perhaps that would be when the song was played.

And sure enough, not only was it played at Wrigley Field last night, but it was the opening song of the entire show. So my admittedly strange theory that one song, played by one performer, can break curses and lead to better times for the sports team that plays there, has now been put into play.

The Cubs clearly won’t win anything this year, but the “billy goat curse,” and any other hexes or spells which may have been hanging in the air at the old ballpark, may have just met its match. And if I live long enough to see it, I’ll be sure to dig this piece out, present it to the world, and then go looking for Bruce at Mary’s place, wherever that might be, because we’re definitely gonna have a party.

Forget about the goat

Before reading any further, I want you to think of an unlucky number. I’m willing to say that the default answer is the number 13. Absent some searing personal tragedy–like someone who lost their job on January 6 and now considers 16 to be unlucky–most people just accept that there’s something unfortunate attached to the number 13.

I bring this up because, once again, I was fortunate enough to be listed on the mlb.com/blogs monthly leaders list for May. Each time I’m on the list, I use my position as a jumping off point for a blog post related to that number. Last month it was Dusty Baker and the number 12, and before that I have written about Ron Santo and others, Bobby Murcer, and Greg Maddux and Ferguson Jenkins. There are others, too, but those are the ones I can think of off the top of my head.

This month I won’t be focusing on a player at all, even though Starlin Casto, the Cubs’ incumbent number 13, is a very good player. No, I’ll be discussing the number and its association with the Cubs, in a way that you might not know about.

There was a story in the news recently about some Cubs fans who left Arizona and walked to Wrigley Field with a goat in tow. They arrived at Wrigley Field this week, having achieved their fifteen minutes of fame, while at the same time raising funds for cancer research. Kudos to them for coming up with the idea, and for doing what they see as something constructive to help end this terrible drought that all Cubs fans are suffering through.

But their efforts won’t make a difference, because the goat isn’t the reason why the Cubs have been losing for so long. No living thing–be it a man, a billy goat, or those infernal seagulls that invade the field sometimes– has the power to put such a hex on a professional sports franchise. And yet, fans, the media, and everybody who knows anything about baseball continues to eat up the billy goat curse. Those people are actually missing an even more powerful force, and that’s the federal government. Yes, Uncle Sam has been keeping the Cubs down all these years.

The building above is the post office that serves the Lakeview neighborhood of Chicago.  To get there from Wrigley Field takes about five minutes in a car, and less if you don’t get stopped by either of the two traffic lights along the way. It’s the post office that would handle any correspondence you might care to send to Wrigley Field. I’m sure that in the age of email and texting that there’s far less mail going into and out of the ballpark than there once was, but it’s still there, and always will be.

A fun bit of trivia about this post office is that it is named for Cubs fan Steve Goodman, whose “A Dying Cubs Fan’s Last Request” is required viewing for anyone who fancies themselves a Cubs fan. Goodman wrote this song in the early 1980s, but the reference to the Cubs as a “doormat” probably ruffled some feathers, and so he wrote the much happier “Go Cubs Go” as a protest song. It may be the biggest inside joke there’s ever been in baseball, the way the song has caught on with Cubs fan in the decades since.

The mail has been delivered in Chicago for more than a century, but the invention of  ZIP codes to help route the mail officially dates back to the summer of 1963. That year, the Cubs had four–count ’em, four–future hall-of-famers on their everyday roster (Ernie Banks, Billy Williams, Ron Santo, and an up-and-comer named Lou Brock) along with what would turn out to be the National League’s rookie of the year that season, the late Ken Hubbs. With so much talent, the Cubs were positioning themselves as a force to be reckoned with in the National League.

But in the offseason, Ken Hubbs died in a plane accident. And early in the 1964 season, when the Cubs traded away an African American player because of complaints from their fans, they decided to trade Brock for a pitcher with a more agreeable pigmentation. And you had probably chalked that trade up to front-office incompetence.

These two moves seemed to set the Cubs back, and even though they made a run at the pennant in 1969, they never got to the point where they were playing in meaningful games in October.

In the summer of 1963, there were twenty teams in the major leagues. Some have moved since then (the Milwaukee Braves now play in Atlanta) or changed their names (Houston’s Colt 45s are now called the Astros) or both (Washington’s Senators are now known as the Texas Rangers). But of those 20 teams, there is just one that hasn’t played in a World Series since then. And I’m quite confident you already know which team it is.

So how does the post office come into this? Well, Chicago ZIP codes typically begin with the numbers 606, with the last two digits depending on which post office serves that neighborhood. And the post office above, the one that carries every piece of mail that goes into and out of Wrigley Field, has the ZIP code 60613. Uh-oh. Didn’t you identify that as an unlucky number at the beginning of this piece? And yet there it is, the federal government’s cruel joke on the Chicago Cubs.

So unless the U.S. Post office steps in–which is unlikey, given that the president is a known White Sox fan–the Cubs may well continue their long pennant drought. And if you’re willing to believe in the billy goat story, don’t you also have to allow for the possibility that it’s something else entirely? Something as simple as two numbers, arranged in such a way that it has gotten a bad rap over the years.

Here’s hoping that the Cubs can prove me wrong in all this, preferably at some point in my lifetime and yours.

Beyond creepy

It’s a foggy night in Chicago. Most everyone is in bed already, getting rested for whatever might come at them tomorrow, but not me. I usually can’t get to sleep too well, and so I waste time on the computer, looking at box scores and old pictures on Facebook. I typically have too much caffeine during the day, which invariably leads to needing more caffeine in order to function later on today. It’s a terrible cycle, indeed.

I decided to take the dog out, since he’ll leave something for me overnight if I don’t.  I put his leash on, walked down the front steps, and headed towards what we call the “short corner,” which has two or three places my that dog can target at his pleasure. It’ll just be a few minutes, and then it’s off to bed, finally.

Then a cab drives down my street, right past me. I don’t think anything about it, until I get a look at the cab’s number: 666.  Why, with thousands of cabs in this city, couldn’t number 1483 be driving past me, instead? Why did it have to be that particular number? Is it some kind of an omen? I don’t know, but the weirdness of it compelled me to write this down, lest it be forgotten by morning.

A short night’s sleep has now been made even shorter by my decision to type this small story out. But then again, a foggy night and Mephistopheles’ favorite cab probably don’t come into one’s life together all that often. And when you encounter them–and live to tell the tale–you’re duty-bound to put the story online, I think. So now I’ll get some sleep, and hope there isn’t a cab involved in my dreams. That would be too weird, wouldn’t it?

As close as can be

The other day, I found a penny in the parking lot where I had parked my car. As I’ve written before, I instinctively pick these pennies up, partly for good luck and partly because I’m curious to see what year the penny was minted in. In this case, it was 1982, the year I graduated from grammar school and got into a fight after a high school football game. I hoped that something more interesting than that happened in 1982, and so I googled the year and found a few things that would be worth spending some time revisiting. Here’s the most interesting one, in my view:

It was Tuesday, September 28, 1982. The final week of the regular season in baseball was underway. The Milwaukee Brewers of Gorman Thomas and Robin Yount were on their way to their only American League pennant, but the Toronto Blue Jays were on other end of the AL East, and the American League in general. In their sixth year of existence, the Blue Jays had yet to escape the cellar in their division. Their expansion counterparts in the AL West, the Seattle Mariners, had at least made it into the middle of the pack in their division.

The bottom feeders of the AL West, the Minnesota Twins, had come to Toronto for a four-game series, with a doubleheader starting things off. One wonders why anyone would come to see not one, but two meaningless games between teams that were collectively 50 games out of first place. And just over 11,000 people (about a quarter of Exhibition Stadium’s capacity) had turned out to see the games. But they were probably glad they did.

In the first game of the twin-bill, Jim Clancy of the Blue Jays went up against Frank Viola for the Twins. Both pitchers would win games in the World Series one day, but that must have seemed like a long way away to these two pitchers. Not much happened until the bottom of the fourth, when Viola gave up a pair of solo home runs. So the home crowd had something to cheer about, at least.

But as Clancy went 1-2-3 against the Twins in the fifth, and in the sixth, and again in the seventh, those in attendance became aware that none of the Twins had reached base yet. Clancy was working on not just a shutout, and not just a no-hitter, but a perfect game. Provided that no one in the park that day was over 60 years old, there had only been five perfect games that any of the fans  could have witnessed, and it’s doubtful that any of them would have done so.

I’ve been going to ballgames all my life, and I’ve never seen anything close to a no-hitter in person. I have to imagine that most fans are the same way, too. Whenever a pitcher takes one into the third or fourth inning, the fans start to get excited at the prospect of witnessing history being made. But it rarely works out that way, and that’s why it’s so historic to begin with. Give professional batters 27 attempts at a pitcher–any pitcher–and they’re likely to break through at least once.

The Jays provided Clancy with another solo homer in the bottom of the seventh, and there were only six outs to go to make history. Clancy again retired the side in order, and now had only three outs left to get. And there were some very excited fans in among all of the empty seats in Toronto.

The irony of a near perfect game is that the final three outs belong to the weakest hitters in the lineup, theoretically.The seventh and eighth innings have the better hitters coming up, and the bottom of the order is all that remains in the ninth. It’s a bit different in the American League, because of the designated hitter, but none of the Twins’ last hitters was within shouting distance of  .300, either.

Randy Bush stepped in to start the ninth. A video of his result appears below:

It’s clear from the footage that Bush blooped one into just the right spot. With just another fraction of an inch reached out by the Blue Jays’ second baseman, Damaso Garcia, the out could have been recorded and the perfect game preserved. But it was not to be. Clancy gave up a walk, but otherwise got out of the inning unscathed, and took the victory in a 1-0 shutout with a (just barely) one-hitter.

The fans still had another game to sit through, if they wanted to, but the run at perfection that Jim Clancy made in Game one was probably what they told their friends about afterward. It was an impressive performance, to be sure, and one that makes us realize just what the mantra “baseball is a game of inches” is all about.

The pendulum swings toward Texas

When the FOX announcers began talking about how the Cardinals had never been involved in a 1-0 game in their previous 100+ games of World Series play, I knew the final score wouldn’t be 1-0. I’m going to suggest that jinxes do exist, and talking about a 1-0 game is the quickest way to make sure you wind up with something else.

So it’s now a best-of-five series, and Texas now has a decided advantage over the Cardinals. Only the Milwaukee Brewers had a better home record than the Rangers in the regular season, and the Rangers are 4-1 at home in the post season.

Cardinals fans who may have been saddened by the prospect of the Cardinals winning the clincher in Texas–and thus denying them the chance to celebrate with their team on the field for the third time this postseason–now have to hope that the Cardinals can win a game in Texas, to get the series back to St. Louis. There are no guarantees that will happen, either.

Elvis Andrus and Ian Kinsler did it all for the Rangers tonight. Their play to start a double play in the fourth was a thing of beauty, and the play they made to end the fifth–where Andrus dove to stop the ball and then shoveled it from his glove toward the bag at second, where Kinsler caught it and forced Jaime Garcia–is the kind of a play that will become legendary if the Rangers go on to win the Series. I wrote about how much I appreciated Curtis Granderson’s defense in an earlier series, but Kinsler and Andrus have this symbiotic relationship that makes what they do all the more amazing.

And then, with the game–and maybe even the season–on the line in the ninth inning, they came through on offense. Kinsler’s seeing-eye single and steal of second base set the table, and Andrus’ hit and the did-that really-just-happen misplay by Albert Pujols set the two of them up at second and third base with no outs. Then a sacrifice brings Kinsler in to tie the game, and another sacrifice fly brings Andrus home with the game winner. The Cardinals had their chance in the bottom of the ninth, but the two-man wrecking crew of Andrus and Kinsler carried the day for Texas.

So now we have the off-day tomorrow to make the Theo Epstein announcement, and then the Series resumes on Saturday in Texas. It promises to be quite a last weekend of baseball for the season. It should be much more intriguing than the Bears playing a football game (American style) in London.

Maybe this explains what happened to the Red Sox

Earlier this year, I went to Washington, DC with my family on Spring Break. Since it was in April, and baseball season had just gotten underway, I naturally wanted to take in a ballgame if I could. The Nationals were out of town that week, but the Orioles were playing at home against the Twins. It was a bit of a drive, about an hour or so, but being in Baltimore allowed us some time to see the sights of this historic city.

The city is best known as the home of Fort McHenry, whose bombardment by the British inspired attorney Francis Scott Key to write “The Star Spangled Banner.” We didn’t get to see that site, but we did see Federal Hill, which is nearby and has an enormous Stars and Stripes flying atop it. Explaining what the words to Key’s composition meant, in that place, was an experience I’ll always treasure.

We spent some time at Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, before heading in the direction of the Orioles’ Stadium, commonly known as Camden Yards (although the official name is something like “Orioles Ballpark at Camden Yards.”) On our way, just a few blocks from the ballpark, is a house located at 216 Emory Street, which now serves as the Babe Ruth Birthplace and Museum. Yes, Babe Ruth was born just a few blocks away from where Camden Yards now stands.

The house itself was a window into a world that doesn’t exist anymore, but it allowed me to tell the story of George Herman Ruth to my two young daughters. Whether they enjoyed it or not, I sure enjoyed telling it. And, as an added bonus, I picked up some vintage Topps “wax packs” baseball cards in the gift shop on my way out. Old habits die hard, I suppose.

We went to the game on a wonderful spring evening and sat in the bleachers, just about where Nolan Reimold’s ground rule double bounced into the stands last night. The game I was at ended in dramatic fashion, with a catch on the warning track to preserve a one-run Orioles’ victory. (The final score of the game escapes me at the moment, but the one-run margin is enough to know).

As we gathered our things and left the stadium on Eutaw Street (which is the concourse area beneath the large warehouse out past the right field wall) I stopped at a large statue of a young Ruth, named “Babe’s Dream.” I found it strange that he would have a statue in Baltimore, since he was known for playing in New York and Boston instead. I then realized that by putting the statue up as they did, the city of Baltimore was claiming Ruth as its own. Larry Bird–to give a modern example–played professionally in Boston, but he still calls himself the “hick from French Lick (Indiana)” and is affiliated with Indiana’s basketball franchise, not Boston’s. It all made sense to me on that night.

So if there ever was anything to this “Curse of the Bambino” thing–and I’m not saying I know it one way or the other–isn’t it strange that last night’s Boston collapse happened in the shadows of this statue of Ruth? Nobody seems to have pointed this out, and it’s probably just a coincidence, anyway, but Ruth’s hometown didn’t seem very hospitable to the Red Sox last night.

Trying to find something that explains the inexplicable can lead you down some silly paths sometimes. But last night was so strange, so otherworldly, that it’s not outlandish to think that Ruth, or the spirit of Ruth, was somehow involved with last night’s outcome. At the very least, I can imagine young George Herman getting a good laugh out of it.

Midnight in Baltimore

How devastating was last night for the Red Sox? The collapse that consumed the month of September was one thing, which ended with a 7-20 record coming down the stretch. But there was still hope for them, as they were clinging to a one-run lead in the ninth inning. At the same time, the Yankees had runners on first and third with no outs in the 12th inning, with a golden opportunity to put Tampa Bay away. Everything seemed to be going the Red Sox’ way, for a change.

And then midnight came to Baltimore–Poe’s hometown–both figuratively and literally. I was following the games online, and it didn’t seem possible that the Yankees could go from first and third with no outs to first and second with one out without a run being scored. What happened to the runner on third?

I found out when I saw the replay later on, but Greg Golson would have to be considered a goat for his baserunning blunder off of third base. People will remember Evan Longoria’s offense last night, but his heads-up defense helped to kill off the Yankees’ rally and should be remembered as well. I suppose there will now have to be a “Greg F. Golson” for Red Sox fans, to go along with Bucky F. Dent and Aaron F. Boone. Yankees all, I might point out.

But the Red Sox still controlled their own destiny, with Jonathan Papelbon on the mound in the ninth inning. His only job is to get three outs in a situation like this. And the Orioles–the worst team in the AL East– were going home after the game was over, anyway. This should not have been a problem. The first two batters went down swinging, and Chris Davis was all that stood in the Red Sox way.

Chris Davis began the year at Texas, and was traded to the Orioles at mid season. He went on the DL with a torn labrum, rehabbed in the minors earlier this month, and proceeded to tie the club record–and just miss out on the major league record–by striking out five times in one game on September 7. His future with the Orioles is uncertain, and yet he stepped in for what could have been the final at-bat of the season for the Orioles and doubled to right on the first pitch he saw.

Papelbon still had the hammer, with Nolan Riemold coming to the plate. But Riemold was up to the task, hitting a ground rule double into the seats in the right field bleachers. Tie game, lead gone, and the Red Sox fans–in Baltimore and everywhere else–grew very quiet. But the next batter, Robert Andino, was o-4 with two strikeouts already in the game. Surely a top closer like Papelbon could get him out, right?

It looked that way when the ball came off of his bat. Carl Crawford seemed to have it in his glove, even. But the ball came out and–since the runner at second was off on contact–the run came across. Game over. In the space of nine pitches, Boston’s flickering wild card hopes were extinguished.

But all was not lost yet. The Rays could still lose, and then there would be a playoff game to settle things. That would mean rooting for the Yankees, but what the hell? You do what you gotta do.

The result of the Rays/Red Sox game was posted with Evan Longoria at bat in the 12th. Exactly three pitches later, Longoria hit the modern day “Shot Heard ‘Round the World” through the lowest part of the fence, in the closest part of the outfield wall, and that was that. It wasn’t a towering bomb, but a line drive instead. And it was enough to seal the Red Sox’ doom.

Red Sox fans had to root for the Yankees when, in the end, the Yankees didn’t care if they won or lost. Joe Girardi’s decision not to use  Mariano Rivera was enough to tell us that. So the Red Sox are home now, and the calls for Francona and/or Epstein to be fired are probably at a fever pitch in Boston today.

You know what? Let them go, so the Ricketts family can bring them to Chicago. They have the winning pedigree that I’m looking for. So do it already, Red Sox Nation. Let the only winners you’ve ever had leave for someplace else. Old-time ballpark, tormented fan base–it’s perfect.

Theo Epstein, please come to my city and work your sabermetric magic here. Perhaps Poe and whatever creepy forces inspired him to write were helping to force you out of Boston. I can’t think of a more rational explanation for what I saw last night.