The year that the world changed

There have been a couple of times where I have found a penny on the sidewalk, picked it up, and used the date on that penny as a jumping off point for a post in this space. And so it was today, as I was visiting Chicago’s DuSable Museum of African American History. I hadn’t been there in many years, since the group of high schoolers that I taught throughout their four years graduated in that facility back in 2000. It was a turning point in their lives, and in mine as well, since I had decided to leave teaching and go try something else. So it was a graduation ceremony for me, as well.

Back in 2000, my older daughter was still a baby, and my younger daughter hadn’t yet been born. So going back to the DuSable Museum today with my wife and two daughters–none of whom had been there before–was a special experience for me. And as I was leaving, I saw a penny on the sidewalk. I picked it up, looked at the date, and saw a year that seems like another world ago.

It’s probably fair to say that every year brings some change in a person’s life. I’m not sure which year I learned how to read (probably 1973 or so), but my world was never again the same after that. So to single out any year as a pivotal moment, above any other year before or after it, isn’t the best way to use this space. But, having said all of this, I feel like something did change back in 1995, the year that was stamped on the penny I found on the sidewalk.

In that year, my long-suffering alma mater, Northwestern University, shocked the sporting world by going on a Rose Bowl run that’s still being talked about. The team started out the year by beating Notre Dame, and since the two schools haven’t played since, I still get to claim bragging rights on that front. But they lost the second game of the season, to Miami of Ohio, in stunning fashion, and it wasn’t until they beat Michigan in the “Big House” that the season really took flight. And I remember that game, and that weekend, well.

A friend of mine and my wife’s from college was living in Atlanta at the time, and over the Columbus Day weekend, we flew down there to visit him. We watched the Michigan-Northwestern game on ESPN, and after the game was over we went to a Braves’ playoff game at the old Fulton County Stadium. I could look up the Braves’ opponent that night if it mattered, but just going to a baseball game in October was a new experience for me.

I wore my Northwestern hat to the game that night, and heard some complimentary things from people who had watched the game that afternoon. Michigan was the team that everybody not affiliated with the school loved to hate, and apparently that feeling extended to Atlanta, too. But a football game in the afternoon, and a playoff baseball game at night, made it a special sports day for me.

But what happened after the game was even more lasting. Our Atlanta friend took us to his office, where he showed us this new thing called America Online. I hadn’t seen it before, but it was fascinating, and I’m pretty sure that my wife and I signed up for it shortly afterward. We had dial-up at the time (who didn’t back in 1995?), but being able to get on the computer and interact with others was a revolutionary thing back then. The cheesy AOL ad above was really what it was like for me, and probably for millions of others, as well.

Almost seventeen years have gone by since then, and today I can’t remember how long it’s been since I had AOL. But it was my gateway into the online world, and for that reason I’ll always remember that trip to Atlanta back in 1995.

Dusty left him in too long, twice

I’ll never forget the 2003 playoffs. The way it ended is something that I might never recover from. I’ve posted about that before in this space. But there are some good memories from it, too. I was scheduled to go to Atlanta on a business trip, and lo and behold, the Cubs were going to be playing there the very week I would be in town. I took that as a sign that I was doing something right with my life.

Wearing my Sammy Sosa jersey–back when I would still do such a thing– while walking through the Atlanta airport was another good memory. So was getting ready for work on Monday, and hearing “Seats are still available” on the radio. It struck me as odd that the games weren’t sellouts, but Braves fans had gotten blase’ about simply making it to the playoffs by that point. And walking through the streets of Atlanta with thousands of fellow Cubs fans after the Cubs won Game one of that series is something I’ll always remember fondly.

But the best memory of all happened at the outdoor bar known as ‘Turner Beach” after the Cubs lost game two. A Braves fan was telling me that the Cubs stink and, instead of putting my head down and walking away as I might normally do, I decided to give it right back to him. I told the Braves fan that when the series returned to Chicago for Game three, his team would be facing Mark Prior, which meant they had no chance. I proceeded to make up Prior’s stat line for the game–something like 7 2/3 innings, three hits, two runs (at most), eight strikeouts, one walk–and then walked away, supremely confident that Prior would indeed deliver a stellar performance. And that’s exactly what he did.

The terrible irony of 2003 is that as much as Prior carried the team on his back–along with fellow starting pitcher Kerry Wood–he was the one on the mound when everything started to unravel during Game six. He didn’t give up all of the eight runs that cost his team the game and, eventually, a spot in the World Series, but the chain of events started while he was on the mound.

It didn’t have to be that way. The previous start that Prior made during that series was Game two, where he earned the victory but went much deeper into the game than he had to. It’s all hindsight now, and I know what they say about hindsight being 20/20, but Prior was badly mismanaged by manager Dusty Baker all season long, and it eventually caught up to the Cubs in Game six.

Mark Prior, over the course of his first full major league season in 2003, made 30 starts and threw an amazing 3,401 pitches for the regular season. That’s an average of 113 pitches per start,  which once wasn’t a big deal, but now is the cause for some serious alarm. Not only can it lead to arm injuries for the pitchers, but it can also cause them to simply run out of gas, which is exactly what happened to Prior in Game six against the Marlins that terrible evening almost eight years ago.

Back to Game two for a moment. The Cubs jumped out to an 8-0 lead after three innings, and they extended their advantage to 11-0 after five innings. Starting pitchers must throw five innings to qualify for a win, and had Prior been removed from the game at that point, he would have thrown a mere 73 pitches. But, for reasons that only Dusty Baker can explain, Prior went out to the mound in the sixth inning (throwing 21 more pitches), the seventh inning (10 more pitches) and the eighth inning (12 more pitches before being taken out of the game).

Yes, Prior was young, nearly unhittable, and in possession of the best pitching mechanics anyone had ever seen, but throwing 43 additional pitches–on the heels of throwing an excessive number of pitches already in the regular season and the playoffs–didn’t serve too much purpose in a game that was so far out of the Marlins’ reach.

In Prior’s next start, the ill-fated Game 6, Prior threw 102 pitches through the first seven innings. For a team with an established setup man, that’s the time to take your starter out of the game. By turning it over to the bullpen, you get a fresh arm to face the hitters, and a look from the new pitcher that the batters on the other team haven’t seen before. Regardless of whether or not Prior was beginning to tire after seven innings, the top of the Marlins order–Juan Pierre, Luis Castillo, and Ivan Rodriguez–was coming up in the eighth inning, and they had each faced Prior three times already. I wonder if Dusty Baker considered that fact before he sent Prior out to start the eighth inning.

The foul ball episode, which happened while Luis Castillo was at bat, didn’t change a thing about the outcome of the game. By the time Ivan Rodriguez singled home the Marlins’ first run, Prior had thrown 22 more pitches and was seeing the game starting to slip away. His last, best hope to escape the jam he was in fell by the boards when Alex Gonzalez booted a bouncing ball that could have been a double play.

And yet the Cubs still had a two run lead. Baker let Prior face still another batter–future Cub Derrick Lee, and Prior’s 126th pitch of the night resulted in a game-tying,  season-changing double to left field. Prior was finally removed from the game, but by then the damage had already been done. We know how it ended up, and it wasn’t pretty.

With the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, it seems that any of the Cubs relievers should have come in for the sixth inning of Game two against the Marlins, or the game should have been turned over to a setup reliever for the eighth inning of Game six. We won’t ever know how these moves might have worked out, but I promise they wouldn’t have been any worse than the results we did get.

Coke goes green

I love Coca-Cola. Not so much the soft drink in the red and white can (although I do drink lots of Diet Coke), but the corporate entity headquartered in Atlanta, Georgia. I own just a small handful of their stock shares, but it’s enough to make me pay attention to what’s going on with their business. And the story I came across today made me glad that I do.

Coke’s business model depends on the operation of an enormous fleet of trucks. Whenever I go to a grocery store, it seems like there’s a Coke truck somewhere nearby, unloading pallet after pallet after pallet of all the brands they sell. These trucks are hardly fuel efficient, since they have to be large enough to carry all that cargo around.

When gas is a dollar or two a gallon, maybe those trucks aren’t so expensive to run. But when gas is in the four dollar a gallon range–and I’m beginning to wonder if I’ll ever see it lower than that again–the operating costs are much higher. Multiply that by all the thousands of trucks that Coke operates, and there’s a clear incentive to cut costs by becoming more fuel efficient. When they go green, they’ll save green, and then they’ll put that money back into their shareholders’ pockets.

Coke has hired a company called Navistar to build the kind of all-electric, zero emission trucks that they want. When your market cap is upwards of $150 billion, you can hire whoever you want. These new AFVs (alternative fuel vehicles) are going to be rolled out–no pun intended–in limited numbers at first, but if the idea catches on we’ll be sure to see more of these new trucks on the street.

Maybe other companies will decide to follow Coke’s lead, and the much-needed movement away from fossil fuels will pick up some momentum. That can only help the planet, which seems to need all the help it can get right now. If and when this takes place, I’ll definitely have a Coke and a smile.