Blowin’ your mind like we knew we would

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Super Bowl Sunday, 1986 was certainly the high point of my senior year in high school. I knew that graduation was four months away, and going off to college would happen a few months after that, and then life would all be different. And that’s exactly what I wanted, to be honest about it. But the Bears made sure that the Springfield chapter of my life finished on a high note.

My family always went somewhere to watch the Super Bowl, and in 1986 we went, for the only time I can remember, to my Aunt Francie’s house. The Bears were the team that I had followed since Walter Payton first came to the NFL in the mid-1970s. He was known as “Sweetness” but he never had a team around him in those days. But in the early 1980s, the team started to rise under Mike Ditka. I was too young to know him as a player, but he looked the part of a football coach to me.

The 1985 Bears will always be the standard by which football teams will be measured. They made football fun, in a way that it had not been before and has not been since. Alongside Walter Payton, there was Jim McMahon, Willie Gault, Dan Hampton, Richard Dent, Mike Singletary, Gary Fencik and, the biggest attraction of all, the Fridge, William Perry. Someone had put a refrigerator outside of their house in my Aunt’s neighborhood, and painted the number 72–the Fridge’s number–on the front. All these years later, and I can still remember it like it happened earlier today.

The Super Bowl Shuffle video made them all household names. They lost one game down in Miami on Monday night, but then they never lost again. And maybe the best part of the game was that the Bears overcame an early 3-0 deficit with a stellar performance the rest of the way. Sometimes things go badly at first, and it puts you in a hole that you can’t get out of. But this team shook off the slow start and proceeded to put on a football clinic. It proved that how you start off is much less important than how you finish up.

The Bears probably should have won more than just that one Super Bowl, but it didn’t work out that way. It’s now more than a quarter of a century later, and the Bears are still looking for a companion piece to that year’s title. Who knows when we’ll see another one, but for now we can look back at what a special time–and team–that actually was.

I now live in Chicago, and I’d love to see what it would be like in this city if the Bears ever rise to that level again. Life has changed since then, as I knew it would, but that special few months in late 1985 and early 1986 are something that will always remain in my memory.

Sweet Home Ditka-go

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It’s Mike Ditka’s city, and I just happen to live in it.

Last Spring, I celebrated Chicago’s annual season of hope by writing out a list of all the reasons I could think of for why Chicago was not only a baseball town, but the best baseball town in all the land. It was a labor of love, and when I saw the piece on ChicagoSide’s web page, I was as happy as I can be. The artwork was a Chicago flag, with baseballs superimposed over the four red stars. It was quite a sight to behold.

And, just to make the story even sweeter, the story was picked up to run in the Chicago Sun-Times. For a kid who grew up delivering newspapers to the houses in my neighborhood for six years, it was a dream come true. The thrill of going down to the local 7-11 and buying a stack of them for whoever might want to see it was a special treat, along with thumbing through the paper, looking for the place where the article would appear.

It made sense, with the Sun-Times being laid out as it is with the Sports in the back, to flip it over and work from the back cover in. But I reasoned that working from the front cover back would stretch the moment out just a little bit longer.

On the front cover of the paper that day was a picture of Roger Ebert, on what turned out to be the day that he passed away. Of all the stories that my grandchildren will half-ignore some day in the future, appearing in Roger Ebert’s newspaper on the day that he died will probably be the very first one. It will always be a special honor to be able to say that.

As I worked my way through the local stories, and the opinion pieces, and the classified ads, I began to get excited. The back end of the sports section was coming up soon, and unless some malfunction had come up, I was going to be in it somewhere. The suspense was quite a thrill.

And then I came to it, on a two-page spread between pages 66 and 67. “Second to None” the headline blared, along with a large color image of Babe Ruth calling his shot in the 1932 World Series at Wrigley Field. The most storied moment in all of baseball history happened not in New York, or Boston, or St. Louis, but right here in Chicago. And all of Chicago was going to read about it, too.

Space limitations were such that only the first 50 reasons could appear on the two pages that day. The other 50 reasons were available on the ChicagoSide website, and my hope is that at least a few of those who saw the story in print made their way to the web site as well.

But what came after the teaser at the end of the piece was an unmistakable reminder of the true pecking order of sports in this town. For despite my attempts to raise the public’s consciousness of this city’s baseball history, the lower right corner told me—and anyone else who was paying attention—who really calls the tune around here.

“Mike Ditka: Player, Coach, Legend” read the ad, which also included a quote from da Coach and a website for DitkaSteaks.com. I appreciated the irony of a Mike Ditka ad placement on the baseball story I had written. I felt a little bit like Luke Skywalker in the first Star Wars movie, when Han Solo tells him “Don’t get cocky!” For no matter what excitement the piece brought to me personally, I was reminded—and always will be—that Mike Ditka casts a shadow in this town that nobody else can match.

Congratulations on the number retirement, Coach, and thanks for all the memories through the years.

Lovie’s nine-year tenure

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The Chicago Bears missed the playoffs this year, and they reacted the same way that several other NFL franchises did today: they fired their head coach. The bright line between success and failure seems to be making the playoffs, and I suppose that’s fair enough. It’s a binary thing: you either made it to the playoffs and had a successful season, or you didn’t, and now it’s time to hit the bricks and let someone else have a go at it instead.

I’ve said repeatedly that I’m not a Bears fan, but this kind of a move, in a football town like Chicago is, will suck up all the attention, sportswise and even newswise, until further notice. Not that I’m going to partake in any of it, I just wanted to point that out before retiring for the evening.

I hope New year’s eve is happy and safe for anyone and everyone who reads this.

Rooting for the enemy

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I live in Chicago, but don’t care enough about the NFL to consider myself a Bears fan. The Bears win, the Bears lose, and it’s all pretty much the same to me. But I’m certainly in the minority in these parts. Many people are emotionally invested in the Bears, and for the next three hours they will do something that will be exceedingly uncomfortable: root for Green Bay.

Yes, the Packers. The team from that little town up north, that is by far the smallest town in the NFL. Never mind that it’s a Wisconsin team as much as anything else. Illinois generally looks down on its neighbor to the north, and the ill will is returned in kind (like we don’t know what a FIB is). This mutual contempt for each other is the fuel that makes the oldest rivalry in the NFL go. And if Bears fans want to extend their season into next weekend, they have no other choice. It’s a long enough offeason already, so why add another week to it?

Go put on something in the lemon-lime colors that the Packers wear, or practice doing that belt thing that Aaron Rogers does. Embrace it, Bears fans, and just hope that it’s successful in the end. Because you’ll hate yourselves for doing it if the Packers lose.

Gave proof through the night

The piece I wrote yesterday about Jimi Hendrix and the anniversary of his death set me on a mission to find my Hendrix CD. It was purchased sometime in the 1990s, back when CDs still needed to be purchased in order to acquire music. I still have lots of old CDs, and fortunately I was able to find the Hendrix one without any trouble.

Probably my favorite song on the CD is his version of the Star Spangled Banner from his performance at Woodstock. It’s recognizable, but also twisted and contorted, just like I gather America itself was back then. When it’s understood for what it is, it’s beautiful, at least to me.

I had a “Francis Scott Key moment” of my own a couple of days ago. It started with the piece that I wrote about Bruce Springsteen’s tribute to Ron Santo in his first show at Wrigley Field. The piece ran on ChicagoSideSports.com, and within a day it had made it to the top of that website’s “Most popular” list. It felt like having a #1 record must have felt for Dexy’s Midnight Runners with “Come on Eileen.” I had to get an 80s reference in there, somehow.

The piece showed some staying power, hanging on for more than a week in the top spot. I have to admit that I checked in on it, from time to time, and it always felt good to see something I had done sitting at number one. It’s not a feeling that I’m familiar with, to be completely honest.

And then, in the wake of a disappointing Bears loss to Green Bay, ChicagoSide ran a piece by longtime Chicago sports columnist Jay Mariotti about Jay Cutler and how much the Chicago Bears suck this year. Mariotti had a long run in Chicago as the daily opinion maker for sports in this town. While he’s not in Chicago anymore, his name recognition alone, to say nothing of his considerable writing skills, virtually guaranteed a wide readership for what he had written.

And soon enough, his piece appeared on the site’s most popular list. It quickly made it up to number 2 on the list, and that’s where it was when I went to bed on Monday night. I saw my Springsteen/Santo/Tribute piece still on top, and his Cutler/Bears/Suck piece gaining ground quickly. I went to bed, convinced that the pieces would be changing positions with each other that night.

On Tuesday morning I was pleasantly surprised, like Francis Scott Key, when I awoke to find that the Springsteen piece was still there, on top of the list. I thought to myself that Springsteen had trumped Cutler, and the Santo tribute had trumped the Bears’ suck. I was probably over-analyzing it, but when your own stuff is involved, I think that’s allowed.

It wasn’t, in my mind, a personal vindication of any sort. I just told the story of a well-loved rock star paying tribute to a well-loved ballplayer on a Friday night in Wrigley Field. Nobody sucked, nobody had disappointed anyone, and it was all about something good and uplifting. The other piece was about kicking someone who was down. He might even deserve to be kicked, because I’ve never really been a fan of Jay Cutler. But be that as it may, the catharsis that comes from releasing frustrations was evident throughout the piece.

Chicago loves the Bears, much more than I do. And so when things go badly, especially when the Packers are involved, people can go a long way by riling up the team’s fans. The truth is that the Bears have invested so heavily in Cutler that he’s not going anywhere. Chicago is basically stuck with this guy. Railing against Jay Cutler is like a wolf howling at the moon: it might feel good to do it, but in the end it changes nothing.

So the inevitable finally happened, at some point on Tuesday. The Springsteen piece is something I’ll always be very proud of, and the attention that it received was well-deserved. It was a classy thing that Bruce Springsteen did, and Ron Santo very much deserved a tribute, for the Hall of Fame, for what he did for Diabetes research, and for how much of himself he put into baseball and the Cubs. What does Jay Cutler deserve? Not very much, unless he can somehow find a way to win the Super Bowl. And even if he does, it’s unlikely that fans would think very much of him, anyway.

So the torch has been passed, and the Jay/Jay pairing now reigns. I’m hoping to have another piece up on the website soon, but for now it’s gone far better than I could have imagined. And it’s certainly worth writing about here, too.

It’s time for Chicago’s Civil War

Baseball and Chicago are just meant for each other. People sometimes say this is a Bears town, but in reality, there are just eight Bears games played in Chicago every year (ten if we’re really lucky). The Cubs and the White Sox, however, play that many games in a little over a week. And while 162 home games are played in this city each year, the six most important ones are the interleague ones. With apologies to the rest of MLB, these games are the ones that matter most.

The Civil War is an apt metaphor here, in the sense of North vs. South or even brother against brother. The battle lines are drawn, and anyone who claims they like both teams isn’t really a fan of either one. That’s just how it is in this city.

The White Sox hold the lead in the interleague games, and as long as they have a World Series trophy and the Cubs don’t, they have the last laugh. The weather will cooperate, and Wrigley Field will be packed with partisans on both side of the chasm that divides this city.

Only baseball forces Chicagoans into separate camps this way, but we accept these assignments willingly. We love the game, and we’ll keep coming back to it, whatever may happen on the field.  So bring it on!

The pendulum swings toward Texas

When the FOX announcers began talking about how the Cardinals had never been involved in a 1-0 game in their previous 100+ games of World Series play, I knew the final score wouldn’t be 1-0. I’m going to suggest that jinxes do exist, and talking about a 1-0 game is the quickest way to make sure you wind up with something else.

So it’s now a best-of-five series, and Texas now has a decided advantage over the Cardinals. Only the Milwaukee Brewers had a better home record than the Rangers in the regular season, and the Rangers are 4-1 at home in the post season.

Cardinals fans who may have been saddened by the prospect of the Cardinals winning the clincher in Texas–and thus denying them the chance to celebrate with their team on the field for the third time this postseason–now have to hope that the Cardinals can win a game in Texas, to get the series back to St. Louis. There are no guarantees that will happen, either.

Elvis Andrus and Ian Kinsler did it all for the Rangers tonight. Their play to start a double play in the fourth was a thing of beauty, and the play they made to end the fifth–where Andrus dove to stop the ball and then shoveled it from his glove toward the bag at second, where Kinsler caught it and forced Jaime Garcia–is the kind of a play that will become legendary if the Rangers go on to win the Series. I wrote about how much I appreciated Curtis Granderson’s defense in an earlier series, but Kinsler and Andrus have this symbiotic relationship that makes what they do all the more amazing.

And then, with the game–and maybe even the season–on the line in the ninth inning, they came through on offense. Kinsler’s seeing-eye single and steal of second base set the table, and Andrus’ hit and the did-that really-just-happen misplay by Albert Pujols set the two of them up at second and third base with no outs. Then a sacrifice brings Kinsler in to tie the game, and another sacrifice fly brings Andrus home with the game winner. The Cardinals had their chance in the bottom of the ninth, but the two-man wrecking crew of Andrus and Kinsler carried the day for Texas.

So now we have the off-day tomorrow to make the Theo Epstein announcement, and then the Series resumes on Saturday in Texas. It promises to be quite a last weekend of baseball for the season. It should be much more intriguing than the Bears playing a football game (American style) in London.

Madlock took it away

1976 was the first full year that I considered myself a Cubs fan. Watching the games on WGN every afternoon was something of an elixir for the eight-year old that I was at the time. The games were always in the sunshine at Wrigley Field, and the away games must have happened, but they were never quite the same. Baseball looked better in the daytime, then and now.

The emergence of Bruce Sutter as a go-to reliever was the biggest surprise of the season. The pitch he threw, the split-fingered fastball, looked like a magic trick the way it dropped out of sight. Sutter learned to throw it after having surgery on his arm to revive a flagging minor league career, and I suppose you could say that it worked. 1977 was the best it ever got with him, as far as I was concerned, but the end of 1976 showed what was in store for the future.

The best storyline of the season, though, unfolded on the very last day. Some of this I remember, and some of this is computer-aided. The value of using the internet to assist with personal memories is discussed here. It was a Sunday at Wrigley Field, the Bears were playing the Redskins at Soldier Field, and fewer than 10,000 fans had come out to watch two baseball teams who were collectively 64 games under .500.

The reigning National League batting champion, Bill Madlock of the Cubs, trailed Cincinnati’s Ken Griffey (Sr.) in the league batting race. To make matters worse, Griffey planned to sit out his team’s last two games against the Braves. The Reds were defending world champions, and their playoff date with the Phillies was already set. If Madlock wanted another batting title, he was going to have to earn it.

On the mound for the Expos that day was the late Woodie Fryman. Madlock’s first at bat was a bunt to third base, which he beat out for a hit. Madlock came up again in the third, and beat out an infield hit to key a 5-run Cubs rally. Madlock wasn’t going down without a fight.

Madlock came up again in the fourth, and became one of the last batters to face Expos reliever Chip Lang, who at age 23 might have believed a long big-league career awaited him. Madlock singled in Tarzan Joe Wallis (I love that name) from third base, and things got even more interesting in the batting race. Madlock now stood at .3372, which was just an eyelash behind Griffey at.3375. I remember hearing Madlock’s average articulated out to four decimal places, and thought it was strange, but I understand it now. Madlock still needed another hit.

In the bottom of the sixth inning, Madlock came up against the Expos’ Dale Murray. He would pitch in other big-league games, if you’re wondering. Madlock lined a single to right on the first pitch he saw, lifting his average to .3385. Madlock had taken the lead in the batting race away from Griffey. The fans at the game that day will probably never forget what they saw.

But everything wasn’t over yet. Madlock’s turn in the order came up again in the bottom of the eighth. A hit would have raised his average even higher, but an out would have dropped him back behind Griffey. So Madlock “pulled a Griffey” when Rob Sperring, a utility player with one more big-league season ahead of him, took the at-bat instead. Madlock’s work was done for day.

When word of the events in Chicago spread to Cincinnati, Griffey interrupted his planned weekend off to try and counter Madlock. He pinch hit in the bottom of the seventh, and again in the eighth, but struck out both times, effectively handing the batting title to Madlock. It was the first time a Cubs’ player had repeated as the league’s hitting leader.

Madlock would try for a third hitting crown the next season, but in someone else’s uniform. Cubs ownership balked at paying a two-time batting champion what he was worth, and so they traded him to San Francisco for Bobby Murcer (more on him later). In the years since, Bill Buckner and Derrick Lee have won batting titles for the Cubs, but neither one in such dramatic fashion. And the young kid that I once was–who was watching the game on WGN–had another reason to follow his new favorite team.