So long, Champ

The reason I write this blog is to take some of the bits and pieces that float around inside my brain and extrude them for the outside world to see. It’s an an endeavor that I enjoy, and has the added benefit of one day being of interest, possibly, to somebody that I don’t know and will never meet. Consider it an exercise in addressing the unknown world of the future.

Champ Summers is a name that I’ll forever associate with a particular time and place. His name was actually John Junior Summers (Junior was somehow his middle name), and he was a veteran of the Vietnam war. He was discovered as an athlete playing in a softball league after he came back from the war. Think about that for a moment. A major leaguer who came from a softball league. It could never happen in today’s game, where malnourished kids in the Dominican Republic are fighting everyday for roster spots that a guy like Champ Summers once occupied. The fact that I’m even ruminating about Champ Summers in the first place is an improbable mystery.

Summers was traded by the world champion Oakland A’s to the Chicago Cubs before the 1975 baseball season started. I’ve written about 1975 several times in this space, because it was the year that I first got into baseball as a young kid of seven. I went to my first live game with my dad in the summer of that year, discovered the Cubs on television in the fall, and was transfixed by the drama of the World Series in October of that year. My life hasn’t been the same since.

I’ve written of Rennie Stennett and the historic 7-for-7 day that he had at Wrigley Field back in 1975. When Stennett stepped to the plate in Wrigley Field on that September afternoon, he was sitting on a 6-for-6 day, and trying to do something nobody else ever had. At that same moment, I was a young kid with a broken leg in Springfield, Illinois. Stennett slashed the ball into right field, in the general direction of one Champ Summers.

As Summers was flagging down the ball out in the right field corner of Wrigley field, I was changing the channels on my parents television set, wishing I could be outside instead. Summers corralled the ball and threw it back in to the infield, while Stennett pulled into third with a standing triple. At that moment, as Stennett was standing on third and WGN in Chicago flashed a crude 1970s graphic informing the game’s viewers that Stennett was the first batter to ever go 7-for-7 in a nine-inning game, I was just tuning into the game.

I had literally never seen or heard of the Chicago Cubs before, but I started to watch the game. By the time that game came to its merciful conclusion, I was hooked in a way that I didn’t fully understand, at least not yet. I get it now, though. Baseball and the Cubs have followed me around through life ever since.

Had I remained true to my Central Illinois and Cardinals-based upbringing, I’m not sure if I would love the game the way that I do now. Certainly, I would know the kind of success that the Cardinals have enjoyed and I’ve always missed out on as a Cubs fan. It’s a bargain that I once made, without fully understanding its ramifications. Baseball is one of the touchstones of my life, and I’m grateful for this, but only because I follow a team that has disappointed me time and again over the years. And that is particularly evident on a day like today, as the Cardinals are basking in the afterglow of the most improbable comeback that most of us will ever see.

So the Cardinals have victory and the prospect of continuing on in the playoffs, while I have an old memory of Champ Summers and being on the wrong side of a historic event. And it gets even worse. Since this is the only time I expect to ever write about Champ Summers, I may as well tell that tale, too.

Champ Summers was traded to the San Diego Padres in 1984, where he was involved in what could be the craziest baseball game ever, at least where fights are involved. I learned of the game from a tweet from my baseball compadre Josh Wilker at CardboardGods, where I also learned that Summers had passed away. Again, corporate baseball in 2012 would never have allowed such a brawl to take place, and I watched the footage as if I was looking back into another time, which is exactly what it was.

But no Cubs fan of my age or older can think of 1984 and the Padres without a sharp twinge of regret. It was the year that the Cubs were 2-0 in the playoffs, and just needed one win on the road to seal the deal and get to the World Series. Champ Summers had pinch hit in the ninth inning of Game one, which the Cubs won in a 13-0 laugher, and again in Game four, the infamous Steve Garvey Game. He also pinch-hit in Game four of the World Series that year, and stuck out in what would be his final big league appearance.

It must have been quite a ride from the softball league to the World Series for Champ Summers. It also ran through one of the greater disappointments I’ve known as a Cubs fan, but I feel that it’s a part of who I am today. So I salute you, Champ Summers, and honor you here in the best way that I know how.

Trying something new

Budweiser was my gateway into alcohol in general. Over time, I developed a preference for Corona with a lime wedge, but Bud was like an old friend to me. I could dabble in other beers, or harder drinks on occasion, but Bud was always there to welcome me back. And I never strayed too far from the self-proclaimed “King of Beers.”

And then one day, I decided I had had enough. After a quarter century, and who knows how many thousands of dollars spent chasing the next buzz, I decided that I could live without it. I didn’t need rehab or detox, just a resolution that the way things had always been wasn’t going to work anymore.

The presence of a Budweiser ad in the background of Tony Campana’s rookie card seems odd to me. The strained look on Campana’s face is unusual enough, but he seems to be almost engulfed in the red and white signage behind him. If it’s not product placement for Budweiser– right down to the circled R symbol appearing to the right of the Cubs’ logo–it sure looks pretty strange.

But Tony Campana represents something, too. His speed–as evidenced by his 22 thefts in limited action in the majors last season–is something I’ve never seen on the Cubs before. He’s a stolen base threat every time he reaches base. I think about this as “game-changing” speed, since a pitcher will be distracted whenever he’s on the basepaths. You can try to think of a comparable player in Cubs’ history, but you won’t be able to do it.

The closest I can remember was Bob Dernier in 1984. He was the Cubs’ leadoff hitter, and Ryne Sandberg hitting behind him comprised what Harry Caray dubbed the “Daily Double.” Dernier stole 45 bases that year, which is a lot by Cubs’ standards but was only eighth-most in the National League that year. He also set the table for Sandberg (who won an MVP that season), Gary Matthews, Jody Davis, and all of the others on that team.

The presence of a tablesetter at the top of the lineup is something that the Cubs have done without for much too long. And a resolution to make a change is all it would take to make this a reality, for this season and beyond.