Breaking the Wave

The Cubs used an interesting approach with their season tickets this year. I’m not a season ticket holder, and never have been, but I had read about it online. Apparently, for all 81 home games this year, each ticket had the baseball card of a Cubs player on its face. The player had something to do with the game being played on that day.

For example, when the Cubs played the Cardinals on April 25, the card on the front of the ticket that day was Rick Monday. April 25, 1976 was the day that Monday saved the flag from being burned on the field at Dodger Stadium. Other examples I have heard about included Cubs players who had also played for the White Sox when the Cubs and White Sox played at Wrigley back in May. It had to be a lot of fun to participate in a project like this.

When a friend called me up and asked if I was interested in going to Tuesday night’s game at Wrigley Field, I initially hesitated a bit. The Cubs had just lost their 100th game of the season, removing any drama that might have accompanied their quest to avoid that hundredth loss. And besides, the Astros were the opponent. The soon-to-depart Astros who owned the only record in baseball that was worse than the Cubs’. The prospect of watching two 100-loss teams battle each other seemed uninspiring, at best.

But still, it’s baseball. It’s the game that I’ve loved since I went to my first game when I was seven. It’s the sport that nothing else has been able to hold a similar place in my heart, except for my family and this city that I call home. And it’s Wrigley Field, the cathedral of the game for this otherwise non-believer. The off-season was lurking around the corner, as well. It’s not like going to a ballgame in December is an option.

Will all that in mind, I agreed to go and bear witness to the final night game of this terrible Cubs season. I picked my little one up from play rehearsal, drove a few blocks to our super-secret free parking spot somewhere near Wrigley Field, and we spent a few minutes at a local playlot on our way to the ballpark. We enjoyed the scenery as we walked down Altavista (which could be a movie set, if it hasn’t been already)and continued down Seminary toward Waveland Avenue, and then to the Will Call window where the tickets were waiting.

The tickets bore the image of Rick Sutcliffe and his 1985 Topps card. Sutcliffe came over in a trade during the 1984 season, and caught fire in a way that few players ever do. He won the National League’s Cy Young award that year, even though he spent the first two months of the season in the American League. He went 15-1, and was as dominating as any pitcher wearing a Cubs uniform has ever been. I was glad to see a familiar face on the front of the tickets.

We went inside, met up with my friend, and enjoyed the warm night in early October. It was playoffs weather, even though all of us in the park knew this year’s team had no hope of being anywhere near the playoffs. We’ll all get to watch them on TV, of course, but that autumnal nip in the air while the game is progressing will be missing.

Around the third inning, my daughter and my friend’s daughter indicated that some hot chocolate would be nice. I sprang into action, and as I descended to the concourse, I could hear Pat Hughes and Keith Moreland on the WGN radio call. They indicated that the date, October 2, was the 28-year anniversary if Game One of the 1984 playoffs, which was played at Wrigley Field. The Cubs won the game easily by the score of 13-0, and before it was over, Rick Sutcliffe had even gotten in on the fun by hitting a home run. When your own pitcher outscores the other team, you know it was a very good day.

I returned to the seats, hot chocolates in hand, cognizant of why Rick Sutcliffe’s card appeared on the season ticket for that game. The 2012 version of baseball on October 2 at Wrigley Field shared none of the excitement of that same date back in 1984, however. The Cubs trailed the Astros 2-0, and there was little, if anything to cheer about. Simply put, the Cubs looked flat and uninspired on the field.

But the beer was flowing, and the field and scoreboard were serving as the backdrop for untold photo ops, as they always have. If you go to a ballgame at Wrigley Field, but you don’t pose for a picture with someone you know, did you really go to the game at all? I wonder about that one sometimes.

The game moved on, and I think it was about the sixth inning when the nonsense started. Some guy seated near the field on the first-base side, near shallow right field, appointed himself the leader of the Wave. He called out “1-2-3!” and a ripple of fans stood up. He tried again, and again, and still yet again.

I thought back to the 1984 season. The Cubs won the second game at Wrigley, and then went west out to San Diego. There the Cubs were undone by Steve Garvey and Leon Durham and Rick Sutcliffe’s collapse in Game Five and all of that. I’ve watched the replay of Garvey’s home run on YouTube, and Henry Cotto never quite jumps high enough to take it away.

The Wave was still a new thing back in 1984, and Padres fans seemed to take to it with a special gusto. They did it over and over and over again, to the point where I hated the sight of it. It probably didn’t help their team play any better on the field, but the fans did the Wave and the Cubs lost the series. The teenager that I was back then made a linkage between the two.

With those old memories awakened, I developed an immediate dislike for the Wavemaker. He was having his fun, and I can’t fault him for that, but he didn’t look like he had any appreciation for what happened to the Cubs back in 1984. He just wanted to tell all of his buddies that he got a Wave going at Wrigley Field. I’m not a confrontational person by nature, but I wanted to do something to remember 1984 in a positive way.

I wasn’t sitting terribly close to the leader of the Wave, maybe fifty yards away, but if I raised my voice, maybe I had a chance. After another failed Wave attempt, I yelled out “Wave sit down!” in the most commanding voice I could muster, and as loud as I could go. I have no idea if he heard it or not, but at least I was registering my disapproval. He counted three one more time, started one last Wave attempt, and this one—like all the others–barely even made it to first base before petering out.

Again I yelled “Wave sit down!” and the Waveleader, apparently tired of his failures, sat down in defeat. There was to be no Wave in Wrigley Field, on the anniversary of a day when we Cubs fans were blissfully unaware of what California held in store for us.

There was nothing else to cheer about that night, and my little one and I left as the ninth inning was getting underway. As we walked around the park, on our way toward the left field gate, I felt a small sense of accomplishment at breaking up the attempts at a Wave. Of course, I would have rather had a playoff win back in 1984.

I felt the tragic weight of being a Cubs fan as we said goodbye to the ivy on the outfield wall for one last time this season. We descended the stairs, walked through the gate, and headed out into the offseason together. It had been a very good night.

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.

A change of scenery

I can only imagine how bad the night of June 6, 1984 must have sucked for Rick Sutcliffe. His team, the Cleveland Indians, was already in 7th place, and 20 1/2 games out of first. The Cleveland populace had taken note of this, and fewer than 4,000 of them had come out that evening to watch their Tribe take on the visiting Oakland A’s. To put the attendance in perspective, just 5% of the seats were filled. The ballpark  must have felt especially cavernous that night.

Sutcliffe, who had a 3-5 record at the time, gave up a couple of runs early, but his team provided some run support in the fourth inning. Sutcliffe took the mound with a 5-2 lead, and proceeded to give up two singles, a stolen base, a walk, and a bases-clearing double to Dwayne Murphy. The lead was gone, and Sutcliffe exited the game, possibly on the hook for another loss. His team rallied to a 7-6 victory, but Sutcliffe could not have been looking forward to another three-and-a-half months of that.

And it turns out he didn’t have to. Whether he was praying for something like this to happen is something only he knows for certain, but on June 13th he was involved in a seven-player deal with the Chicago Cubs. His first start for the Cubs came in Pittsburgh, and his second start came in Wrigley Field against the Cardinals on June 24.

The Cubs and the Cardinals have one of the premiere rivalries in baseball, and pitching in front of a packed Wrigley Field, with the usual playoff atmosphere in the air, must have felt a long way from Municipal Stadium in Cleveland. Sutcliffe pitched a shutout, and then lost his next start in Los Angeles. As the fateful month of June, 1984 came to a close, things were looking up for Rick Sutcliffe.

Over the next three months, Sutcliffe found a groove that I doubt he had ever been in before.  In the seventeen starts that he made, he collected fourteen victories, including the division clincher in Pittsburgh, and he won Game one of the NL playoffs, to boot. He had been a pretty good pitcher in his career before then, but I imagine he felt superhuman over that stretch. Certainly the National League couldn’t beat him.

When it came time to pick the Cy Young Award winner, Sutcliffe won unamimously over Doc Gooden, even though Gooden had a lower ERA and had pitched in the league for the entire season. Gooden was named National League Rookie of the year, though, and two years later he would win the World Series title that always eluded Sutcliffe. The Red Baron, as he was called, even finished fourth in the MVP voting that season, which is truly amazing for a player who started June in almost complete obscurity in Cleveland.

The best news of all was that 1984 was a contract year for Rick Sutcliffe. Although he had many nice offers to choose from, he wound up remaining in Chicago, for five years and several million dollars. The contract had already been signed by the time this 1985 giveaway card from 7-Up appeared. His facial hair makes it hard to tell for certain, but I swear that he looks serene, and almost happy, as he’s delivering a pitch to the plate on this card. Sometimes, in baseball as in life,  a change of scenery really is for the best.

The curse of Terry Kennedy

It’s an off day in the World Series, and no matter what happens on the field, this will be the last weekend of baseball for 2011. And the NBA isn’t going to be taking up any of the slack after baseball goes away, either. Not that it ever really could.

I usually give deference to the big league players who passed through the Cardinals’ organization in the late 1970s and early 1980s. For reasons I still can’t comprehend, my hometown of Springfield, Illinois was the home of the Cardinals’ AAA affiliate in those years. It wasn’t major league ball, but it was literally the next best thing. By the time a player gets to that level, they’re either on the verge of making it in the big leagues, or if they don’t, they’re still pretty damn good.

Terry Kennedy was a catcher who spent only a couple years in AAA. His dad was a big leaguer before him, and was also the General Manager of the Chicago Cubs at the time.  I remember seeing a picture of the two Kennedys talking together before a game in the local paper, but I had no idea what a General Manager did back in those days. Now I know that his job is to assemble World Series-winning teams. Isn’t that right, Theo?

Terry Kennedy played for the Springfield Redbirds in 1978 and 1979. At the end of those two seasons, he went to the major league club  and backed up Ted Simmons, who was entrenched back then as the Cardinals everyday catcher. Kennedy was in the majors for good next season, even if he was there to give Simmons a day off more than anything else.

So what exactly is the “curse” of Terry Kennedy? I suppose that, until I looked at the back of one of his cards, I had blocked out what Terry Kennedy did over the course of his career. The Cardinals traded him to the Padres, where he was their everyday catcher for the 1984 team that snatched the pennant way from the Cubs. The Cubs had replaced Bob Kennedy as GM after the Tribune company bought the team, and so sticking it to the team that fired your dad must have felt pretty good, I would imagine.

Kennedy only hit .222 for the series, with no extra-base hits, so it’s hard to hold the Cubs’ collapse against him personally. Besides, hating on Steve Garvey is where the real action’s at for Cubs fans, anyway.

After a couple more seasons with the Padres, Kennedy went to Baltimore for a couple of seasons, before being traded to the Giants in early 1989. The Cubs made the playoffs that year, after winning their second division title. But once again, they ran into a team with Terry Kennedy behind the dish. Kennedy was a non-factor offensively, hitting a lowly .188 for the series. But again, he and his teammates successfully kept the Cubs out of the World Series.

Kennedy retired after the 1991 season, and began managing in the minors. He managed the AAA affiliate of the San Diego Padres this season, and he’ll probably get a shot to manage at the big league level in the next few years. As when he was a player, he probably won’t be at the AAA level for long. And I’d like to see the Cubs beat his team, when he does get that chance. It appears that he’s due a couple of beatings.