Partially my place

For me, Starbucks is a company unlike any other. It’s the one company I think of when I’m out looking for a cup of coffee. In fact, the terms “Starbucks” and “coffee” are interchangeable in my mind. I might say to someone “I’m going out for a Starbucks. Do you want anything?” and they’ll know what I mean. I don’t make “Skippy and Smucker’s” sandwiches for my kids, and I wouldn’t think to order a “Pepperoni Domino’s” for dinner. But with Starbucks, it’s something else altogether.

I bought a small handful of Starbucks shares, back around 2006. It eventually went up to $40 a share for a few minutes, and then–like a caffeine buzz wearing off–it started to drop. The recession set in, and people who were worried about keeping their jobs didn’t want to spent $5 for a coffee anymore. I stopped watching its descent, but I also couldn’t bring myself to sell that tiny stake in the company. It would have felt like giving up on coffee itself, and that was more than I could bear to do.

The stock was down to around $7 a share in 2008, and then it started to come back. Howard Schultz returned as the CEO, and he brought the company back to where it was, and then some. Today the stock is at $50 a share, and Starbucks is pushing into new markets like China and India. And if these traditionally tea-drinking nations develop a taste for coffee instead, look out!

I like how it feels to own a tiny, tiny little piece of Starbucks. Perhaps other companies make more money than Starbucks does, but I’m certain that I couldn’t readily see (and partake of) what it is that they do. And that means something. I bought their stock with the goal of making money, yes, but I also like to think that, when I walk into a Starbucks, all of my interests in the company are somehow concentrated into that one location.

To give an example, there are fifteen letters lit up in the “STARBUCKS COFFEE” sign above. Perhaps I own ten of those letters. Or let’s say I’m out and I need to use the restroom somewhere. I can go into a Starbucks and not feel bad about it because, after all, I own the place. And even if it’s just the bathroom door and the toilet and the mirror on the wall in that one location, it’s still something, isn’t it?

Are there any companies that you feel this way about? Disney, perhaps, when you go to see one of their films in the theater, or visit Disney World in Florida? Or maybe it’s Nike, and it feels like all the athletes wearing the Swoosh stripe are working on your behalf? Or maybe it’s something else that I can’t think of here. Tell me about it in the space below, if you’re so inclined. And thanks for reading, as always.

A very meaningful number

When I started this blog last year, I learned pretty quickly that promotion is important. The Internet, and especially the blogosphere, doesn’t come knocking on your virtual door. So I applied, and was accepted, to the mlb.com/blogs page back in September. It was a great feeling to see my face on their web page for about a week or so, but more importantly than that, people started to click on the link to this page. The page views spiked upward, and they haven’t stopped since.

What I didn’t know at the time was that the MLB blogs page also tracks pages and ranks them at the end of each month. They recently released a list of the top 100 fan blogs for 2011, and I was honored to appear on the list as #31. Not too bad for a blog that didn’t come into being until the middle of June. This gives me an opportunity to write about the  number 31 which, for a Cubs fan like me, has great significance.

The first great Cubs player to wear #31 was Ferguson Jenkins. He pitched for the Cubs from 1966-1973, and again from 1982-1983. In his first run with the Cubs, he won 20 or more games for six straight seasons. To put that into some perspective, consider that after he left the Cubs, some thirty-nine seasons ago, the Cubs have had just three 20 game winners in a single season, and none of them did it more than one time. And in case you’re curious, they were Rick Reuschel in 1977, Greg Maddux in 1992, and Jon Lieber in 2001.

After Jenkins returned to the Cubs and pitched his final game for them in 1983, there was nothing to do but to wait for the call to Cooperstown, and it came in 1991. One of the perks of being a Hall of Famer is being able to sign baseballs with “HOF” and the induction year, as Jenkins once did for me on the ball shown below. And yes, I know that he’s a Canadian, but I had just come from Disney World, and let’s just say it’s hard to find regular baseballs when you’re there. I was lucky that I even had this one, and lucky that he obliged the autograph request. But here it is, in all its star-spangled glory.

The Cubs didn’t retire Jenkins’ number right away, because back in the early 1990s the only retired numbers belonged to Ernie Banks (#14) and Billy Williams (#26). The number 31 was assigned to a rookie named Greg Maddux in 1986, and he went on to win 20 games and a Cy Young Award in 1992, before leaving for Atlanta the following season. One can only wonder whether or not the Cubs could have won a pennant and a World Series in the 1990s, if Maddux had stayed in Chicago and been built around by Cubs’ management.

I saw Maddux pitch in person a few times, and the last time I saw him pitch at Wrigley–during his second stint with the Cubs in the mid 2000s–he was simply masterful. I told myself I’d never again see anyone as good at pitching as he was. May I be proven wrong in that assessment someday.

The Cubs decided to retire #31 for both Jenkins and Maddux in 2009, and their names now fly from the foul poles at Wrigley Field (Jenkins is in left field, and Maddux is in right). To have #31 attached to my blog, for whatever reason, allows me a moment to pay tribute to these two great pitchers, and to also give a special nod to the late Kevin Foster, an Evanston native who wore #31 while Maddux was pitching for the Braves.

To honor all of them in this space, I am also retiring #31 from any future posts here on BlueBattingHelmet. This applies to Dave Winfield (who I previously wrote about here) and probably a few others, as well.  I do, however, reserve the right to post something about Baskin-Robbins ice cream in this space at a future date.  Just give me a few months and I’ll think of some relevance for it.

Do the Walk of Life

Videos from the MTV era (when they still played videos, at least) are very important to people in my age group. Not only did they help bands like Def Leppard sell more albums (vinyl and cassettes, in those days), but they helped us form mental images of songs themselves.

For instance, if I say Addicted to Love, you think of Robert Palmer and those expressionless models pretending to play their instruments. Or if I say Billie Jean, you think of Michael Jackson making the sidewalk and the stairs light up. Or if I say Take on Me, you think of that comic book story that the coffee shop girl gets pulled into. It’s OK, everyone from the 80s does that.

Sometimes, if you’re lucky enough, something happens to override the MTV-inspired mental image of a song. It happened to me a few years ago, and rather than letting this story die when I do, I’m going to put it out on the interwebs for the world to see. That’s the only reason I write this blog, after all.

It was probably four or five years ago, in the mid 2000s (whatever that decade is being called now). My wife and older daughter had gone to Disney World for a week, and I was in Chicago with my younger daughter. She wasn’t yet old enough for the “How come she gets to go and I don’t?” phase, but I assure you she’s there now.

It was my job to take the little one to places that were fun for her that week. It was a job I happily accepted. One of the places we went was to Wolfgang Puck’s restaurant, which has since closed down (like several other places we went that week). They had a “Make your own pizza” thing on the menu, where kids got to roll out the dough, spread the sauce around, put on the toppings they wanted, and watch as their pizza went into the oven.

As my daughter and I were sitting in the restaurant, waiting for our food to come out, the radio that was on started to play Dire Straits’ the Walk of Life. The mental image I had of that video, and perhaps you did too, was of the video for the song, which was a series of sports videos, interspersed with clips of Dire Straits performing onstage. That was the video I saw, and those were the mental images I formed of that song.

But this was different. As I heard the song, I watched my little girl, sipping her drink through a straw and looking excited about the pizza that was coming out. I wished at that moment she could stay four years old forever, always happy to be with me and never getting angry about anything. And since I couldn’t make that happen, I decided to do the next best thing.

I listened to the Dire Straits song (Woo ooo…woo hoo hooo) and watched my daughter, forming a mental image that I hoped would stick in my head for anytime I ever heard the song again. And I think it actually worked, or at least I’m going to say that it did here.

The sports bloopers may or may not also be there in my head for this song, but hearing it now reminds me of a little girl, and a glass of water with a straw in it, and a restaurant I couldn’t go to again if I wanted to. And it’s all good for me. Now if I could only find something to take the place of some of the other songs from that era.