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.

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.

Remembering the Hawk

One of the themes running through the “Don’t Blame Steve” song and video is admiration for Andre Dawson (or “Hawk Dawson” as he’s referred to in the video). Dawson only played six seasons in right field at Wrigley Field, or roughly half as long as Sammy Sosa’s tenure there. But believe me when I say that Sosa never would have anything close to the outpouring of love that Dawson received in the picture above.

I first saw Andre Dawson play near the beginning of the 1987 season, shortly after his escape from Montreal. After 11 seasons playing on artificial turf, he left and signed for a minimal amount to play on grass and in sunshine. The Cubs got a bargain as Dawson turned in an MVP season, while playing for a last place team. But he wanted to be in Chicago, and the fans picked up on that right away.

When Andre Dawson would play catch in the outfield between innings, every throw was a laser beam. I’ve been told that Dwight Evans, who had a legendary throwing arm, was the same way in Boston. I would watch Dawson throw and tell myself that if his throws are like that during warmups, what would a throw look like when it counts? I’m not sure that I ever found out, but it wasn’t for a lack of trying.

I never made it to the bleachers at Wrigley as much as I wanted to in college, but I always planned my spring schedule with baseball in mind, more so than academics. And the right field bleachers were always the place to be. There were more seats there than in left field, but right field was also where the Hawk played. To sit somewhere else would have felt disrespectful.

The salaam, where fans bow with both arms extended as a sign of reverence or respect, originated with Cubs fans and Andre Dawson. It was extended to Sammy Sosa in the late 1990s, but I for one wasn’t comfortable with that. That was a Dawson thing, and Sosa seemed to be usurping it on some level. But the legend of Sammy and the Hop washed those misgivings away, unfortunately.

Dawson left Chicago just before the the 1993 season. He played two seasons in Boston, and then two years with his hometown Florida Marlins. It was as a Marlin that he retired after the 1996 season. He played in only three complete games that season, all of them in April, and his role was essentially that of a late-inning pinch hitter when the Marlins came to Wrigley in late  September of that year.

I wasn’t going to miss that day for anything. I somehow found myself in Wrigleyville, instead of at work, and made my way to the bleachers in right field. I’m near the top of the picture, just to the left of the headless bikini top. This picture appears in the book Baseball as America. I whole-heartedly joined in the love and respect that was rained down on the Hawk that day. I heard the speech that he gave that day, and the one he gave at Cooperstown upon his Hall of Fame induction in 2010 (although sadly not in person that time), and I can confidently state there hasn’t been a player since then that I’ve admired so much.

The surprise for me isn’t that I’m writing about Andre Dawson now, but that I’ve already written so much in this space without discussing him. Consider that oversight to be corrected.

Welcome Back Buckner

I want to preface this by saying that I don’t think Bill Buckner will ever be a Hall of Famer, even though is career was longer and more productive than many current Hall of Famers. His .289 lifetime batting average, for instance, is higher than that of Eddie Murray, Ryne Sandberg, and Carl Yastrzemski. But the truth is, he never won any MVP awards or World Series rings. And there’s also the matter of that ground ball in New York…

And so, with Buckner’s status as a non-Hall of Famer established, I’m going to open a hypothetical debate about which cap he would wear if he were accorded this honor. I maintain–1986 World Series or not–that Buckner would wear a Chicago Cubs cap upon his never-going-to-happen induction. On behalf of all Chicago Cubs fans, I’m claiming Bill Buckner as one of ours.

The Hall of Fame hasn’t been good to the Cubs over the past few years. I’m leaving Ron Santo’s lifetime snub out of this, but it will be a bittersweet day for all Cubs fans when Santo finally gets his due next summer. The induction of Bruce Sutter in 2006 was the first slap at Cubs fans, since he pitched more seasons, won more games, and recorded more saves with the Cubs than he did with the Cardinals. He won the World Series with the Cardinals in 1982, but he won his only Cy Young Award with the Cubs in 1979. The two cancel each other out, in my mind. It’s still hard to accept that a Cubs star like Sutter could be enshrined in Cooperstown wearing a Cardinals cap.

But Andre Dawson’s induction in 2010 hurt even worse. Dawson played more seasons in Montreal than he did in Chicago, but he also prolonged his career in the late 1980s and early 1990s with the Cubs, and would not have made the Hall of Fame without the six seasons he played on the North side. And Cubs fans, myself included, revered Dawson like no other player. The Expos franchise had folded up and gone away by 2010, so the handful of Expos fans who cared to notice his induction was dwarfed by the large contingent of Cubs fans who were insulted by the Hall of Fame’s decision to show “the Hawk” wearing an Expos hat.

Which brings us to Bill Buckner. He played more seasons in Chicago than in Boston. He played as many seasons with the Cubs as with the LA Dodgers (eight in both cases) and he had more hits with the Cubs than any other team. He also won his only batting title with the Cubs in 1981. It’s a combination of that one terrible moment in the World Series, and the usual overbearing Boston behavior, that has made Buckner a Red Sox player in the public’s mind. In truth–by any measurement someone might wish to put forward–he’s a Cub more than anything else.

I can almost hear Boston fans, among others, saying “OK. You can have Buckner. Why are you fighting for him, anyway?” The reason is that he’s just been hired as a hitting instructor in the minor leagues by the Cubs organization. Even if he’s not a face of the franchise, like Ernie Banks or Billy Williams, it’s still a homecoming of sorts. I wish that he hadn’t been traded away at the start of the 1984 season, to clear the way for Leon Durham and his costly error during the playoffs against the Padres. But Durham was younger, and hit for more power than Buckner did, and the decision looked like a good one all season long, until Tim Flannery hit the ground ball that opened up the floodgates for San Diego.

So welcome back, Billy Buck. Teach young Trevor Gretzky, and young Shawon Dunston, Jr. and all the other prospects who are coming under your tutelage. Show them how to hit a curve ball, how to work the count, how to get on base and help the team. The organization was smart to bring you back into the fold after all these years.

My second favorite place on earth

I grew up watching Cubs games on WGN in Chicago. It was a central part of my youth, just like the school I went to and the things I did to keep myself amused and out of trouble when I couldn’t watch or play baseball. I watched other shows on WGN too, like Bozo’s Circus and the Ray Rayner show. On some level, I considered myself an honorary Chicagoan, even though I had never set foot in the city and had only a vague idea where it was.

When the time came to go away to college, I always thought I would be going to Champaign to attend the University of Illinois. It was a good school, and a state school that was not exorbitantly expensive. Good enough for me, or at least it seemed that way. But something was missing. When I went to visit the campus, there were cornfields everywhere. I had seen enough of cornfields by that time in my life, and didn’t want to go spend even more time surrounded by them.

But going to visit my other option, Northwestern University in Evanston, was remarkably different. I loved the traffic on the expressways. I loved the setting of the campus, even though it was cold and gray and the Lake was obscured, though it was right there on the campus. But most of all, I loved the complete and utter lack of cornfields. It wasn’t Chicago–not by a longshot–but it beat Champaign in every way I could think of.

The financial aid office worked its magic, and I somehow had enough loans and grants and scholarships to make a ridiculously high-priced education possible. And, although it didn’t overtly factor into the decision, I would also be able to finally see the Cubs play in Wrigley Field. With these issues involved, it was really not much of a decision at all.  Champaign was going to have to get along without me.

My first game at Wrigley was the second home game of the 1987 season, the year that Andre Dawson came to Chicago. I sat in the bleachers, of course, and seeing the green grass on the field for the first time was an unforgettable experience. Like the Eiffel Tower, or Mount Rushmore, or the Grand Canyon, you can look at pictures all you want to, but seeing it with your own two eyes is something else altogether. And so it was for me on that day. At 18, I had done what the seven year-old me, and the ten year-old me, and the 15 year-old me, had always dreamed of doing.

I’ve lost track of how many games I’ve gone to at Wrigley since that day. It’s upwards of 100, at least. When I was in school, I would deliberately schedule classes so that my afternoons were open during Spring Quarter. After I graduated and moved into the city, I usually lived within a few blocks of Wrigley, so that even if I wasn’t at a game, I could still go by the field and take comfort in its presence. And today, I’m still in the city and only a short drive or a longish el ride away.

Wrigley Field is not my home, and for that reason it can never be my favorite place on earth. But, at the same time, I can’t imagine that the physical or emotional distance between my home and Wrigley Field will ever be too great. No other place I’ve ever seen or been to can have that sort of an anchoring effect on me, and for that reason Wrigley is, and probably always will be, my second favorite place on earth.