I can’t explain this

One of the things that I do with my spare time is I collect baseball cards. It’s not like it was for me when I was ten years old, though. The cards themselves aren’t worth a dime, and never will be, so I don’t do it for the money. More than anything else, I do it to remind myself of the kid I once was. I loved baseball when I was seven years old, and I still love it now that I’m a lot older than that.

But there’s another reason I do it, too. These little rectangles, with pictures on the front and numbers on the back,  can lend themselves to some very interesting stories. Examples are here and here and here, if you’re interested. But nothing could top the one that I’m going to tell here. I’ll be as succinct as I can, but this one’s just weird.

I sometimes made what are called “bulk trades” with people who, like me, are looking for anything and everything related to their favorite team. Recently, a Cleveland Indians fan offered to make such a trade with anyone who was interested, and I took him up on it. The cards he sent to me arrived last week and–like the 10-year-old that I can still be, under the right conditions–I sorted through the pile of 60-70 cards, looking for any that I didn’t already have. And  two of the ones in that category are shown above.

I first started following baseball in 1975, so any baseball card from before that year, and I have a handful of them, doesn’t interest me very much. But the two cards above are an exception to this.

The card on the right is for a pitcher named Dick Ellsworth. He pitched for the Cubs in the 1960s, before I was ever born, and he apparently made the all-star team one year. It turns out that he was an All-star in 1964, so this must have been his 1965 card.

I went to Baseball-Reference.com to find out more about Dick Ellsworth. I learned that 1964 was his watershed year with the Cubs, and that he was traded to Philadelphia after the 1966 season, in which he lost 22 games. That’s a lot of games to lose, and a trade was probably what he needed to get his career back on track.

After a year in Philly, he was traded to the Boston Red Sox in 1968. Since I was born in that year, and during the baseball season, to boot, I decided to see if this Dick Ellsworth pitched on my birthday. Starting pitchers like Ellsworth pitched every fourth or fifth day back then, so it was a longshot, but what the hell.

It turned out that former Cubs pitcher Dick Ellsworth did indeed pitch on June 14, 1968. The day that I was born. The first of only two partial days that I’ll ever have in my life. What are the chances of that?

I pulled up the box score from that game, and started to look for some interesting item to pull out. Luis Tiant was pitching for Cleveland that night, and even though he was having a dominant year in 1968, he surrendered two home runs to Ken “Hawk” Harrelson, who is now the announcer for the Chicago White Sox. Harrelson added a third home run late in the game to clinch it, so it was probably one of the best games that he ever had in the big leagues.

The Indians were the home team that night, and they had little to cheer about. On of the bright spots was a home run by Jose Cardenal, which was a rare thing for him. He hit a homer in just over 1% of his plate appearances that year (he hit 7 homers in 629 plate appearances, if you must know). The Jose Cardenal card from 1973 appears above, because it was also included in the Cubs cards that I got in the trade.

So help me wrap my mind around this one. A stranger who I’ve never met and lives hundreds of miles away goes into his baseball cards and pulls out 60-70 cards to put in a box and send to me. The odds that he pulls two players–one who had been traded away from the Cubs, and another who would one day be traded to the Cubs–who would one day face each other in an American League game on the very date of my birth are more than long enough. But the odds that the future Cubs player that I had heard of would also hit a home run off of the former Cubs player that I hadn’t heard of make it an almost impossible proposition.

I sent off the cards that I was trading for these two Cubs cards (and a few dozen more), and I hope they will arrive soon. But it was a great trade for me, in the sense that I found this story and got to tell it in this space. I can’t ask for anything better than that.

Hanu-Cubs, Night 6

We begin, as always, with the music of Steve Goodman. This is actually a remembrance piece about him, but it’s still worth a watch:

The rotation so far (and with so many pitchers, that word seems appropriate) has been Dave Roberts, Sam Fuld (the only non-pitcher), Ken Holtzman, Jason Marquis, and Steve Stone. The only other non-pitcher in this series is featured tonight. And if there’s a sadder tale than Adam Greenberg’s, I don’t know what it is.

Cubs fans probably know all about the story I’m about to revisit, but others might not. When I came upon an Adam Greenberg card a few weeks ago, I was suprised to see it, and glad to have one at the same time. On some level, these things can memorialize a player’s career, however briefly it may have lasted. And briefly is an all too fitting word in this case.

Adam Greenberg was drafted by the Cubs in 2002, and played for the Lansing Lugnuts in single-A that year. I went to a couple of Lugnuts games that season, but I can’t recall whether or not Greenberg played in any of the games I was at. At that level, I don’t really look at the names too closely. So I can’t say that I saw him play with any certainty, but it’s possible. He made his way up to the Cubs’ double-A affiliate, and then to triple-A, during the 2004 season, and then–midway through the 2005 season–he was called up to the majors. At the age of 24, Greenberg seemed to be on his way.

His major league debut came in a Sunday night ESPN telecast. The Cubs had begun their descent in the final half of Dusty Baker’s term as manager, but that night they were ahead 4-2 going into the ninth inning. After a groundout to begin the top of the ninth, and with the pitcher’s spot due up, Baker tried to get the offense going by calling Greenberg’s number (which, for the record, was 17. I still think of it as Mark Grace’s old number).

Greenberg hadn’t yet taken the field, or come in as a pinch-runner, so this was truly his major league debut. He came to the plate and stood in against Valerio de los Santos, who was probably best known for surrendering Sammy Sosa’s 60th homer as a rookie in 1998. De los Santos went into his windup and fired a pitch that came up and in and made a sickening collision with Greenberg’s head.

It was the first and only pitch Greenberg ever saw in the majors, and he probably saw almost none of it. The immediate concern, for Greenberg’s family, de los Santos, and everyone watching in the ballpark and on TV was “is he going to survive this?” A 90+ mile-an-hour fastball is scary enough if it hits the arm or the leg. But in the face? I can’t imagine that.

Greenberg did survive, and Carlos Zambrano was summoned to run in Greenberg’s place. Greenberg suffered severe headaches afterward, and the Cubs–in what might have been a good baseball decision, but seems very cold-hearted otherwise–released Greenberg at the end of the season. He came back in the Cubs’ system in 2006, but was released in the middle of the season. He was subsequently signed by the Dodgers, Royals, and Angels organizations, and for the past three seasons he has played–and played well–for the Bridgeport Bluefish in the independent Atlantic League. Greenberg also received a single at-bat during the 2012 campaign, at the culmination of a campaign by filmmaker Matt Liston. He struck out on three pitches, but received a standing ovation for doing so.

I’m glad to have an Adam Greenberg baseball card. The picture of him in the Cubs hat and jersey, against a sky blue backdrop, seems almost heroic in some way. Here’s the All-American guy, playing the All-American sport, so what could go possibly wrong? But we can’t take anything for granted in life, and what happened to Adam Greenberg is an extreme example of how true that really is.

I’ve reached the limit of my Cubs players in baseball card form, but I do have two more players lined up (both pitchers, if you’re curious) to bring this to its conclusion. I hope you’ll join me over the next two nights. And the full Greenberg card is below:

Reconstructing an old memory

As a kid who wore glasses from an early age, I identified with ballplayers who wore them, too. One of the most prominently spectacled players was Jeff Burroughs, who had a long career in the majors, with most of it spent in the American League. For some reason, though, I have a partial memory of him from my childhood. The memory goes like this:

It’s a Saturday afternoon, and I’m in my parents living room watching a Cubs game on WGN. I’m dressed for church, because we would sometimes go to mass at 4 PM on Saturday to fulfill our weekly obligation. And that’s all it ever was in my family; we went to mass once a week for school, and once on the weekend. And we went on the holy days too. But it was never something we wanted to do, and I always saw it as a pointless exercise. That must explain why I haven’t been a Catholic for thirty years.

But all that is beside the point. I remembered having a Cubs game on, and the game ended in the bottom of the ninth when Jeff Burroughs let a routine ground ball go through his legs in left field. I remember thinking that I could have made that play, but somehow he missed it. I then turned off the TV, and we went to mass like we had done a hundred times before, and would continue to do until I went away to college and stopped going altogether.

With just that sketchy bit of information–Jeff Burroughs, left field, and a game at Wrigley that ended on an error, I wanted to see if I could reconstruct the game to find out exactly how old I was at the time. And as it turns out, it took less than 5 minutes to accomplish this.

I started off by using baseball-reference.com to determine which seasons Burroughs played in the National League, which turned out to be 1977 through 1980. The only National League team he played for was the Braves, so I was already able to establish the Cubs’ opponent on that day.

From there, I was able to eliminate 1977 as a possibility, since he played in right field only that year. In 1978, he was moved over to left field, where he played for the remainder of his time in Atlanta. The next step was to look for one run games in Chicago that ended in the Cubs’ favor, which eliminated all games from 1978. I was getting closer.

From there, I was able to identify the date of the game as Saturday, July 21, 1979. Jackpot. I was eleven years old at the time. From there, it was a simple matter of pulling up the retrosheet boxscore for the game, and filling in the early-40s me on what the eleven-year old me had witnessed and largely forgotten about.

The Cubs went into the ninth inning of that game behind 2-1. Mike Lum, who would one day come to the Cubs for the final season of his career in 1981, hit a pinch hit home run off of Mike Krukow to break a 1-1 tie and provide the  slimmest of all margins to Braves’ reliever Gene Garber. Garber had pitched the 8th inning already, and was in line for the win if he could get the final three outs.

In modern baseball, the ninth-inning closer would have been ready to go out and get the last three outs to save the win for Garber. But that practice didn’t begin until Tony LaRussa, Dennis Eckersley and the Oakland A’s of the late 1980s. Garber was already in the game, and it was his game to finish out.

The Cubs pushed the tying run across in the bottom of the ninth, when Dave Kingman came through with a pinch single to score Miguel Dilone. The words “Kingman” and “single” don’t always get used in the same sentence, but this was clearly an exceptional day at Wrigley Field. The Cubs’ next batter was Scot Thompson.

My neighbor across the street at that time was also named Scott, but his name had two t’s at the end, as did every other Scott I had ever met or heard about, with the exception of Scot Thompson of the Cubs. If you ever get stuck for a word in Scrabble, “scot” with one t means a form of taxation. It’s where the term “scot-free” comes from.  So don’t say you didn’t learn anything today.

Scot Thompson delivered a single into left field, the ball rolled through Burroughs’ legs, Kingman came around to score, and the game came to a happy end for the 28,000 in attendance that day. Every game the Cubs won was a “thriller” to Jack Brickhouse, but this one legitimately fit the bill. And I have to believe that the ending of the game made mass more tolerable that evening, too.

The internet helped me to fill in some of the blanks about that game, turning a vague memory into something a bit more clear. The time or effort that it would have taken me to research this game in the pre-internet age would have probably prevented me from taking any action about this. And the results, now that I know them, wouldn’t have justified the time expenditures, either. But the internet is a great thing, isn’t it?