With thanks to my Dad on his birthday

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Family has been one of the constant themes on this blog, since I started writing it more than five years ago. I’ve put over 1,500 entries into this space since then, but I didn’t get through the first ten posts before I mentioned my dad for the first time. Since I’ve always been one who prefers writing over speaking, this is the best medium for wishing my dad well on his 70th birthday. I hope he still has many more birthdays ahead of him, too.

Parenting is great for many reasons, but perhaps the best one is that it wakes you up to how just difficult it is to raise a family. My own daughters don’t understand that yet, and I’ve told myself that one day, if they’re lucky, they will. But it will probably take arriving at the gates of parenthood to drill that point home. That’s certainly how it worked for me.

My dad gave me his name, and for many years I hated being a Junior. But now I’m OK with it, and I like his (and my) distinctive middle name. The world has thousands and thousands of Robert Harrises, but at least we have an interesting way to stand out in that crowd.

I’ve also written about being left-handed on many occasions, and I get that from my dad. It makes me different from most people, since we lefties are never in the majority anywhere (except for the cast members of Seinfeld, where Julia-Louis Dreyfus is the only righty in the bunch). I also enjoy counting Jimi Hendrix, LeRoy Neiman, Barack Obama, and David Bowie–among many others–in my lefty tribe.

But the thing I’ll always be most grateful for is that my dad taught me to learn how to love baseball. I had no idea about what baseball was as a kid in the 1970s, but that summer my dad took me to St. Louis to see a doubleheader against the Mets in the first Busch Stadium.

I’ve written about this before, how being a part of the baseball experience shaped me like nothing had before, and not too much has since. The best way to get into a sport is to go and see a game for yourself, and that’s probably always been the case. I’ve been to hundreds of ballgames since then, but that first game still remains a treasured memory. At one point in the game, Ted Simmons doubled off the outfield wall, and everybody came to their feet and cheered. All subsequent baseball memories have built upon that moment for me. I don’t know if I’ve ever thanked my dad for taking me along that day, but I need to do that here.

The Dad memories don’t stop there, either. I remember playing Pong with my dad in either a department store or a grocery store, back in the 1970s. The sensation of being able to move a controller and have it move something on a TV screen was pretty revolutionary to the young kid I was at the time. Today’s kids won’t ever know what that feels like, but I remember it because I was playing a game with my dad.

My dad also took me to see Star Wars back in 1977, around the time that I turned nine years old. Before that, the only times I had been to a movie theater were old Disney movies with my mom. Those were fun, but Star Wars was different. Seeing R2D2 on screen again in The Phantom Menace a year ago reminded me of how excited I was to see him for the first time. And without my dad, that moment wouldn’t have happened.

So as my dad celebrates a big round number for his birthday this weekend, I’m happy that he’s made it this far in his life’s journey, and that I was along for a good chunk of the ride.

I was once a Cardinals fan

Can't go there anymore, April 14

Forty years ago, I was a fan of the St. Louis Cardinals. My dad took me to my first baseball game–a doubleheader against the Mets at the old Busch Stadium in St. Louis–in late July of 1975. It was the most exciting thing I had yet experienced in life, and the result was a love for baseball that continues to this day.

My time as a Cardinals fan was brief, however. I found the Cubs and Wrigley Field on a TV broadcast in late September of 1975, and they have been my choice team ever since. I couldn’t watch the Cardinals on TV in those days, and that was enough to shift my loyalties to the team from the north.

Had I remained a Cardinals fan, which there are more of than Cubs fans in the city I grew up in, life would be different, I’m sure. The Cardinals are accustomed to winning, and their success makes them the red yang to the Cubs’ blue yin.

This season could offer more of the same, as the Cardinals have the best record in the game, and the Cubs are trying to chase them down over the last six weeks of the season and into the playoffs. However it turns out, I’ll always look back at that short two-month period in 1975 as an example of how life can bring about changes.

And with that in mind, go Cubs!

A legend and I

I wish I had more time to flesh this out, but summer vacation starts today and a long stretch of relaxation beckons. And it’s my birthday tomorrow, followed by Father’s Day this weekend. Life is pretty good.

I share my birthday with a few notable people, such as Donald Trump, Steffi Graf, and Che Guevara. But the most interesting one of all is Mike Laga. In September of 1986, he became the only player ever to hit a ball out of the old Busch Stadium in St. Louis. It was a foul ball but that’s still an amazing feat, when you think about it. It deserves folk tales and legendary stories, but a half-assed reference in an insignificant blog will have to do instead. At least it’s better than the pastel jersey that Topps airbrushed onto him for his 1987 baseball card. I hope it is, anyway.

Happy summer to all.

Can’t go there anymore

The postcard above was sent from St. Louis to an address in Connecticut back in 1971. The words written on the back refer to the “new baseball park,” even though it had been in use since the 1966 season. And the irony of that description is that it was a “dual use” facility, meaning that the St. Louis Cardinals football team played there, as well. If you look inside the stadium, you can see the yard markers for football games. It wasn’t only the baseball stadium, but the Cardinals had Brock and Gibson and were winning pennants and World Series in those days, while the football team never got a whiff of success. So it was characterized on the postcard as  being the “baseball park.”

A number of years after this card was mailed to its recipient, and presumably kept somewhere in his or her possession, I attended my first baseball game at Busch Stadium with my father in 1975. It was a double header against the Mets, and I was introduced to something that would have great meaning for me ever since. So even though I didn’t care for the stadium itself, and I seemed to only go to games there when it was at least 110 degrees, I still recognized that the stadium was a special place.

In the 1980s or 1990s, the stadium underwent some renovations. The Astroturf was pulled up, and replaced with natural grass. That was a big improvement, but there were others, as well. And I went to the “new” Busch Stadium–which was still round like a batting donut or an ashtray–with my wife and older daughter in the summer of 2003. Almost 20 years after seeing it for the first time, it was still important to me, if only because I was introduced to the game in that spot.

But in 2005, the stadium was torn down to make way for a new, single use stadium literally right next door. The new park was asymmetrical, and opened up to embrace the Arch and other big buildings. The endless arch loop that ringed the top of the stadium was taken down, too. It sure seemed like progress to me.

Now move forward to 2010. My father and I attended a game, on another brutally hot day, in the new stadium. The amenities were nice, and the all-you-can-eat/drink section we were in was stretched to capacity. I didn’t really want to see the old stadium, but I noticed its absence when we arrived at the ballpark. And I began thinking about some things.

The first thought I had was that everyone who’s ever been to a baseball game has a “first stadium” as I do, but there aren’t so very many of the old ones left, anymore. If you’re in the same age range as I am, we’ve lost Tiger Stadium, County Stadium in Milwaukee, Cleveland Municipal Stadium, the Astrodome, Shea Stadium, Fulton County Stadium in Atlanta, Yankee Stadium, Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia, and the list goes on from there.

In 2012, years after my “first stadium” was torn down, and years after the 1971 postcard was sold or given away, I came across the postcard in a box filled them, from all over the world, in a bookstore in Evanston, Illinois. The bookstore itself is closing soon, proof once again that everything in life will come to an end, or at least morph into something unrecognizable.

When I found the postcard, I realized that I had to have it. A second chance at it wasn’t going to come my way. I bought the postcard, scanned it, and have now spent a few moments trying to make it come back. I can’t do that in a physical sense, but I can bear witness to the fact that it once did exist, and thousands–if not millions–were introduced to baseball on that spot. That by itself makes it worthy of some form of tribute, however humble this one may be.

Today, a Saturday in April of 2012, there are 15 major league stadiums (I know it’s actually “stadia” but I don’t want to use that term) that will become the “first stadium” of some number of people. And that ritual will repeat itself, every day, all season long. And then some day, one of these will be torn down, and some of the people I mentioned earlier will lose their “first stadium.”

Hopefully, these people’s attachment to the game will remain, even if their introduction point does not. And maybe some of them will also be fortunate enough to find a reminder of that place in a box some day. At least, I’m glad that this happened to me.

Going behind enemy lines

The picture above was taken after a Cubs and Cardinals game in St. Louis. In case you didn’t already know this, the only thing more miserable than July in St. Louis is…August in St. Louis. Before the sun sank down below the grandstand level, the heat was about the worst thing I had ever experienced. But I will say that the new Busch Stadium is miles ahead of the old one, in my opinion.

I went to this game with my dad, and we fully availed ourselves of the all-you-can-eat-and-drink section in the outfield. I was still an enthusiastic consumer of fermented refreshments at the time, and there’s no way I could have survived the heat without them.

At the end of the game, when it was time to get on the bus and head back to Springfield, I asked my dad to take a picture of me in my Cubs gear. I was proud to represent my team in the home of our biggest rivals. Whenever the Cubs and Cardinals play, whether in Wrigley Field or Busch Stadium, it feels like a playoff game. The records don’t matter, and the standings don’t matter, either.

I say this because the incoming Cubs braintrust may not quite understand this. They understand the Red Sox and the Yankees, because that’s their background, but they might be looking at the Phillies as the team the Cubs most need to overcome to get to the World Series in the coming years.  I might do that too, if I was in their shoes, because the Phillies’ starting rotation is scary, and their everyday lineup is very good, too. But beating the Cardinals in the division will not only earn the Cubs a playoff berth, but will also scratch an itch that doesn’t get relieved as much as we would like.

When Lovie Smith came in as the Bears’ head coach, he affirmed that beating Green Bay was a top priority for him. Beating the Cardinals is a similar goal for this Cubs fan, and probably many more just like me. Winning the World Series is the real objective, but in order to win it the Cubs need to get there first. And beating the Cardinals–the National League equivalent of the Yankees–would be a major step toward achieving that goal.

Tony LaRussa’s already gone, and this probably confirms that Pujols will leave for greener (as in more money) pastures pretty soon. The Cardinals won’t be the same team they were this year, but they’ll still be formidable with Carpenter, Holliday, and the other parts that they’ll still have in place next year. And they’ll still be the team that we’ll want to beat as often as possible.  I hope the Cubs’ new powers that be will remember this as they begin constructing their World Series team.

Solving an old mystery

A friend of my wife’s has a young son who just began collecting baseball cards.  I brought a big box of cards, mostly doubles of Cubs cards I already had, along on a weekend outing last fall, and told him could take whatever he wanted to add to his collection. But he insisted on trading cards with me, which is how I would have done it when I was a kid. Most of his cards were from the 2011 Topps base set, and I paged through his binder full of cards, looking for something that caught my eye.

The binder was a tipoff to how card collecting has changed since I was a kid in the late 1970s. My cards were kept in a blue plastic box, with a flap that folded down to close it up. I’m not sure how I got it, but it somehow became the home of my baseball card collection.

These things didn’t have any monetary value back then, they were just fun to have. The All-Star cards were the ones I wanted most, like every kid did, because we all wanted to be Mike Schmidt or Jim Palmer or Reggie Jackson. There were lots of role players, and they all had cards too, but getting one of those cards was never any big deal. Superstars and utility infielders all shared space inside my blue box, though.

Keeping my cards inside of a binder, with plastic sheets specifically designed to protect their condition, is something I wouldn’t have ever considered. Likewise, the idea of keeping cards all jumbled together, willy-nilly, inside of a plastic box wouldn’t occur to him, either. One storage system isn’t any better than the other, of course, but they do reflect differing views about these cards.

The card I found, which is shown above, isn’t an original 1977 card, but a reprint of that card for an “insert”  for the Topps base set. There were special cards (Father and Son Big Leaguers, Record Breakers from the previous season, etc.) when I was a kid, but these were all integrated into the larger set of cards. Somewhere along the way, some special cards were pulled out from the larger set, numbered differently from the base set, and are now thought to be more desireable than a base card of a player. Another new wrinkle since I was a kid.

The insert card I found was of Don Sutton, who was a pitcher for the Los Angeles Dodgers back in the 1970s. I saw Sutton pitch in a game in Busch Stadium when I was ten years old, but I never really knew what happened in that game. I remember that he left the game in the middle of an inning, without any explanation being offered to the fans, and that was it. The game just carried on, with another Dodger pitcher in his place. It just felt very weird at the time.

I wanted the Sutton card, though, and the trade was made. Trading baseball cards with a nine-year old felt a little strange, but many kids his age don’t seem to have an interest in baseball today, unless they’re playing a video game version of it.  So maybe I was just perpetuating the real thing, on some level.

I took the Sutton card home with me, and took to the internet for some research. It turns out that Sutton was ejected from the game for scuffing a baseball, and was suspended for ten games as a result. When Sutton threatened litigation against the League (this was back when the National and American Leagues were separate entities, unlike today), they backed off and Sutton was reinstated. The nickname “Black and Decker” followed him around throughout his career, as players assumed he had his toolbelt on whenever he took the mound.

I realized that this had happened in the pre-ESPN era, when the only way to get information like this was through reading a newspaper or perhaps Sports Illustrated. Sutton’s transgression was thus easier to bury than it would be today, and he was then able to have a Hall of Fame career without any real damage to his reputation, as least as far as I knew about.

In doing this research, I learned something else on the internet about Don Sutton that I didn’t know before. Sutton was apparently bothered by Steve Garvey’s All-American image, and made some comments to a newspaper along these lines. Garvey then confronted Sutton about it, and the two began wrestling around in the clubhouse. From a Cubs fan who hates what Steve Garvey did to us in the 1984 playoffs, I offer you a hearty bravo, Don Sutton.

#Cubs now 36 losses away from the historic #DoubleTriple

The Cubs lost again tonight, but Albert Pujols got his 2,000th hit. I hope he picks up another 1,500 or so in a Cubs uniform in the years ahead. I can dream, can’t I?

1975 Detroit Tigers

Expansion team: No

Overall record: 57-102

# of win streaks of 3 games or more: Three

Manager(s): Ralph Houk

Hall of Famers on roster: None

100 loss seasons since: 1989; 1996; 2002; 2003

Pennant wins since: 1984 (World Series winner); 2006

1975 was the year I will always point to as the year I became a baseball fan. I bought my first baseball cards that year, and the 1975 Topps design is still my personal favorite, with the two toned color scheme, and the team name in another color on the top. Classic. I had the Hank Aaron card pictured above, but I wouldn’t learn about what made Aaron so important until several years later. I love the abbreviation inside of the baseball, too. The idea of a DH is too ingrained to make that necessary anymore.

1975 was also the year of my first baseball game. My dad took me to a Cardinals-Mets doubleheader in St. Louis, where I saw Tom Seaver pitch, and Lou Brock steal a base. The fans all started yelling “Lou!” but they sounded like boos to my seven year-old ears. There was some sort of a fashion show between games, where this retractable runway popped up from the playing surface. It seemed a little weird, but whatever. I loved it just the same.

One afternoon in late September, I was changing the channels after school (which was done manually in those days) and I saw a baseball player pulling into third base after hitting a triple. I remember the announcer saying that it was the first time in history that someone had gone 7-for-7 in a nine-inning game. The player was Rennie Stennett of the Pittsburgh Pirates. The final score of the game was 22-0. And the venue was Wrigley Field in Chicago. Life was never again the same for me after that. Jack Brickhouse, and afternoon games at Wrigley Field, and WGN broadcasts all began to cast their spell on me, and all these years later, here I am. Emotionally scarred, yes, but just as dogged as ever in my loyalty to my team, to the game, and to the city I now call my home.

The 1975 World Series was about as good as it gets. But this blog is about losing, and there was one team in 1975 that hit this magic number. But, a mere nine years later, the Tigers were as dominating a team as I’ve ever seen. So turnarounds do happen.

The Tigers ended the first month of the 1975 season in first place. But they took a 17-3 pounding on May 1, and that began a painful five month stretch to end the season. They won nine games in a row at some point, but they also lost 19 in a row. Even this year’s Mariners team can’t relate to that. The Mariners themselves were still a few years away, but another round of expansion was already being discussed.

This trip through the 70s will undoubtedly continue as the weekend in St. Louis drags on.