An amazing 48 hours

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It’s been just about 48 hours–give or take a few minutes–since Kris Bryant threw over to first base to end the Cubs’ long championship drought. In an instant, a lifetime of losing was washed away. The “loveable losers” never existed in the first place, but that concept went away forever on the night of November 2, 2016.

I had already paid my respects to Jack Brickhouse at the start of the World Series, and now that it had come to a successful conclusion, I wanted to do the same with Ernie Banks. He wasn’t known as “Mr. Cub” for nothing, as his devotion to the team was matched by the love and respect that all living Cubs fans have for him.

When Ernie died in early 2015, I went to a spot on the sidewalk outside of Wrigley Field to pay my respects. I also felt something change inside of me, with a new sense of determination that the Cubs had to win, and the sooner the better. I put these thoughts into words for a piece published by FiveWideSports, and I fully understood that winning on the field was beyond my control. All I could do as a fan was expect it to happen, which I never really did before that moment.

When 2015 started going well for the Cubs, I was ready to finally go all the way, and it made their eventual flameout against the Mets that much harder to bear. Every season now had an all-or-nothing sense about it, which carried over into 2016. I told a Cardinals blog back in February that “This Year” had finally arrived, and following a terrible scare in Cleveland my prediction came to pass. The euphoria this has made me feel hasn’t yet worn off, either.

So I went to tell Ernie that we finally did it, by inscribing a baseball and leaving at his gravesite in Chicago’s Graceland Cemetery. It was a lovely fall day, and I had some time on my way into work. I never met Ernie Banks, but I did sing a song with him once, and I tried to use the experience to put being a Cubs fan into words. Ernie Banks meant a lot to me, and I wanted to thank him for this.

There was a reporter at the gravesite, and I spoke to him for probably 15 or 20 minutes about being a Cubs fan. I wish that every Cubs fan could have had a few minutes with a reporter yesterday, because each of us has so many stories to tell. I did my best to give him something worthwhile, and apparently I did because the story ran in the New York Daily News today, complete with my grinning mug at the top of the page.  My elation at having just come from the team’s victory parade down Addison Street in Chicago was made even sweeter by the news that for today I was the face of Cubs fans for newspaper readers in New York. It’s a daunting idea, but a role I would gladly accept for the team that means so much to me.

The papers themselves will all go into a landfill soon enough, but the story will live on digitally for a long time to come. And I’ll have a story that will live on here on my blog, as well. The greatest feeling I’ve ever had about anything–other than the birth of my two daughters–was greatly enhanced because I took some time to remember an ambassador for the team I’ve identified with for so long. That’s the stuff life is made of, isn’t it?

The parade report will come soon enough, but for now I’m off to get some rest. Good night to all.

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2015 is slipping away

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Now that Christmas is behind us, there’s just a few days left in 2015. It’s been quite a year, as I suppose is true of every year on the crazy blue marble we call home.

Our losses this year included Ernie Banks, Minnie Minoso, Stuart Scott, Dusty Rhodes, Roddy Piper, and lots of people who weren’t ballplayers or sportscasters or pro wrestlers.

We lost many people– just as we have every year–but we also gained some people, too. People who will change the world someday, as they grow and learn and figure out what it is the world needs, and how they can go about providing it. That day will come, even if many of us won’t be around to see it. As long as the world is spinning on its axis, people will be finding new ways to make life better.

But we also got a few things back in 2015 that I thought were gone forever. “Bloom County” was my favorite comic strip back in the 1980s, and its creator Berkeley Breathed has recently revived it for the 21st century. I genuinely look forward to seeing Opus and Milo and Steve Dallas and the rest on Facebook every day.

But even more than that, 2015 was the year that Star Wars came back. I never really followed the first three movies in the series as they were coming out over the past decade or so. I had resigned myself to thinking that the series came to an end–at least for me–around the time we first saw the Ewoks in Return of the Jedi. But Disney has rejuvenated the franchise, and reminded me of how much I had enjoyed the characters and the story when they first came into my life back in the late 1970s.

It’s been an interesting year, and given the rate I’m posting in this space lately, this could very well be the last time I’ll post anything here in 2015. With that said, let’s hope that 2016 will bring us more surprises worth writing about.

 

2015 and the vortex of Death

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Any way you look at it, 2015 has been a rough year so far. The recent deaths of Bob Simon of 60 Minutes and David Carr of the New York Times have come on the heels (no pun intended) of the death of Dean Smith–a renown basketball coach–Ernie Banks, Stuart Scott, and others. The last piece I wrote in this space, a few days ago, was about the passing of Anne Moody, an important figure in the Civil Rights movement. So I’m aware of the toll this year has already taken.

I wanted to write this post in response to a tweet sent out by Jake Tapper in response to David Carr’s death. He asked “What the hell are we going to do now?” and the answer to that is very clear. It’s what we always do, as a society. It’s what we will always do, in the face of loss and adversity. We will carry on, inspired by the contributions made by the departed. But we can’t stop, ever, no matter who it is that has fallen.

David Carr, like every person who has gone before him, left a legacy behind. Thanks to the internet, anyone who wants to read his legacy can do exactly that. The stories he told, and the engrossing way he told them, are quite remarkable. Anyone who doubts the power of the written word needs to check out some of his stories. His “Me and My Girls” should be required reading for all parents, everywhere.

But the point of this piece, which is being written at a time when I should be getting some sleep instead, is to say that we the living need to keep on going. Carr, and the others who have passed, left their mark on us, and we would do well to remember this always. But we must carry on, and strive to create whatever legacy we can for those who will follow in our wake. Not all of us will leave 1,776 pieces for The New York Times behind. But each of us can leave something. What that looks like is up to each of us. So let’s do it.

Nobody on the road, Nobody on the beach

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It’s been more than two weeks since I wrote anything to put in this space. That doesn’t mean I’ve stopped writing, though. In fact, I wrote a trio of pieces relating to the recent death of Ernie Banks, and sent them off to websites that are willing to share my thoughts with their readers. I appreciate having places to go with the thoughts that enter into my brain from time to time.

The title for this post is the first line of Don Henley’s “The Boys of Summer.” It’s a song I’ve always liked, because it tries to come to grips with changes in life. The summer’s over, but he’s still interested in whatever girl the song was written about. Dogged determination counts for something, doesn’t it?

The summer feels out of reach for me and this blog, too. I used to sit at the computer every night, looking for new ideas to put into this medium that I hope will be around after this Boy of Summer has gone.

The posts will likely still come to me sporadically, and when I have the inclination I’ll put them down here. But it won’t be with the frequency or the intensity that it was even just a few months ago. Life will still go on, as it always has.

Link to a post on ThroughTheFenceBaseball

Farina

Last night I sat down to reflect on the passing of Dennis Farina. I liked his work in the movies and on television, of course, but the fact that he was a life-long Cubs fan is what hit me the most. So I tied his passing to the recent sing-along with Eddie Vedder and Ernie Banks at Wrigley Field. I’m actually quite proud of how it turned out.

Someday we’ll go all the way is a pretty good earworm to have, too. There’s a lot of hope in that message. When that’s all you have, you’d better hold onto it as tight as you can.

Some days it rains

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The Pearl Jam show at Wrigley Field was a unique and special experience. I’ve not yet had the time to digest it all, but I wanted to get a thought or two out there for public consumption. I’m sure that more will follow in the days ahead.

The concert was Eddie Vedder’s emotional homecoming, and it showed throughout. Eddie grew up around Chicago, and went to a Cubs game for the first time at five years old. A story he told about seeing the green field at Wrigley Field for the first time rang so true for me. And he brought Ernie Banks out onto the stage, which was an emotional moment for all Cubs fans in attendance.

But what I’ll remember the most will be the rain delay. At an outdoor show, in a baseball stadium, it was almost inevitable for the rains to come. And they sure did come, too. But rather than play on through the rain, as with the second Springsteen show at Wrigley last summer, the band asked all the fans to take cover and ride out the storm. The way he phrased it was “getting through the weather together.” And that turned out to be exactly what happened, too.

After two storms came through the area, the band went on shortly before midnight and played all the way until 2 AM. And if what Eddie Vedder said from the stage comes to pass, they’ll be back again next year, too. Maybe next time the weather will cooperate a little more. But then again, there’s something about hearing live rock in the early morning hours, too. And if the neighbors can’t get any sleep, that’s a small price to pay for living in such a vibrant part of a city like Chicago.

All in all, it reminded me of the great things that can happen when good people come together with a shared appreciation for rock and roll. Eddie Vedder called it “something beautiful” and I wholeheartedly agree with him. Many thanks to the band, their fans, the city, and the weather for helping to make it happen.

Forget about the goat

Before reading any further, I want you to think of an unlucky number. I’m willing to say that the default answer is the number 13. Absent some searing personal tragedy–like someone who lost their job on January 6 and now considers 16 to be unlucky–most people just accept that there’s something unfortunate attached to the number 13.

I bring this up because, once again, I was fortunate enough to be listed on the mlb.com/blogs monthly leaders list for May. Each time I’m on the list, I use my position as a jumping off point for a blog post related to that number. Last month it was Dusty Baker and the number 12, and before that I have written about Ron Santo and others, Bobby Murcer, and Greg Maddux and Ferguson Jenkins. There are others, too, but those are the ones I can think of off the top of my head.

This month I won’t be focusing on a player at all, even though Starlin Casto, the Cubs’ incumbent number 13, is a very good player. No, I’ll be discussing the number and its association with the Cubs, in a way that you might not know about.

There was a story in the news recently about some Cubs fans who left Arizona and walked to Wrigley Field with a goat in tow. They arrived at Wrigley Field this week, having achieved their fifteen minutes of fame, while at the same time raising funds for cancer research. Kudos to them for coming up with the idea, and for doing what they see as something constructive to help end this terrible drought that all Cubs fans are suffering through.

But their efforts won’t make a difference, because the goat isn’t the reason why the Cubs have been losing for so long. No living thing–be it a man, a billy goat, or those infernal seagulls that invade the field sometimes– has the power to put such a hex on a professional sports franchise. And yet, fans, the media, and everybody who knows anything about baseball continues to eat up the billy goat curse. Those people are actually missing an even more powerful force, and that’s the federal government. Yes, Uncle Sam has been keeping the Cubs down all these years.

The building above is the post office that serves the Lakeview neighborhood of Chicago.  To get there from Wrigley Field takes about five minutes in a car, and less if you don’t get stopped by either of the two traffic lights along the way. It’s the post office that would handle any correspondence you might care to send to Wrigley Field. I’m sure that in the age of email and texting that there’s far less mail going into and out of the ballpark than there once was, but it’s still there, and always will be.

A fun bit of trivia about this post office is that it is named for Cubs fan Steve Goodman, whose “A Dying Cubs Fan’s Last Request” is required viewing for anyone who fancies themselves a Cubs fan. Goodman wrote this song in the early 1980s, but the reference to the Cubs as a “doormat” probably ruffled some feathers, and so he wrote the much happier “Go Cubs Go” as a protest song. It may be the biggest inside joke there’s ever been in baseball, the way the song has caught on with Cubs fan in the decades since.

The mail has been delivered in Chicago for more than a century, but the invention of  ZIP codes to help route the mail officially dates back to the summer of 1963. That year, the Cubs had four–count ’em, four–future hall-of-famers on their everyday roster (Ernie Banks, Billy Williams, Ron Santo, and an up-and-comer named Lou Brock) along with what would turn out to be the National League’s rookie of the year that season, the late Ken Hubbs. With so much talent, the Cubs were positioning themselves as a force to be reckoned with in the National League.

But in the offseason, Ken Hubbs died in a plane accident. And early in the 1964 season, when the Cubs traded away an African American player because of complaints from their fans, they decided to trade Brock for a pitcher with a more agreeable pigmentation. And you had probably chalked that trade up to front-office incompetence.

These two moves seemed to set the Cubs back, and even though they made a run at the pennant in 1969, they never got to the point where they were playing in meaningful games in October.

In the summer of 1963, there were twenty teams in the major leagues. Some have moved since then (the Milwaukee Braves now play in Atlanta) or changed their names (Houston’s Colt 45s are now called the Astros) or both (Washington’s Senators are now known as the Texas Rangers). But of those 20 teams, there is just one that hasn’t played in a World Series since then. And I’m quite confident you already know which team it is.

So how does the post office come into this? Well, Chicago ZIP codes typically begin with the numbers 606, with the last two digits depending on which post office serves that neighborhood. And the post office above, the one that carries every piece of mail that goes into and out of Wrigley Field, has the ZIP code 60613. Uh-oh. Didn’t you identify that as an unlucky number at the beginning of this piece? And yet there it is, the federal government’s cruel joke on the Chicago Cubs.

So unless the U.S. Post office steps in–which is unlikey, given that the president is a known White Sox fan–the Cubs may well continue their long pennant drought. And if you’re willing to believe in the billy goat story, don’t you also have to allow for the possibility that it’s something else entirely? Something as simple as two numbers, arranged in such a way that it has gotten a bad rap over the years.

Here’s hoping that the Cubs can prove me wrong in all this, preferably at some point in my lifetime and yours.

A move that backfired on the Cubs

Even when Ron Santo was alive, he didn’t have the title of “Mr. Cub.” That distinction will always go to Ernie Banks, the Cubs’ Hall of Fame shortstop of the 1950s, 60s, and early 70s. His statue stands outside of the Wrigley Field ticket booth on Clark Street. His number 14 was the first one that the Cubs retired, some thirty years ago. It’s fair to say the name “Banks” generally has a cherished place in Cubs’ lore.

But there’s another intriguing “Banks” in Cubs’ history. And no, it isn’t Willie Banks, who was a pitcher for the Cubs in 1994 and 1995. No, this “Banks” is even more recent than that. Few Cubs fans would be able to tell you who Brian Banks was. But his story is an endlessly fascinating one that I’m going to spend a few paragraphs sketching out.

Brian Banks was originally drafted by the Milwaukee Brewers in 1993. He was a September call-up for the 1996, 1997, and 1998 seasons, and spent the 1999 season in the majors, being mostly used as a pinch hitter and a defensive replacement. He was released at the end of spring training in 2000, and missed the entire season. He was, at that point in time, out of baseball.

And then the Cubs came calling in November of 2000. They signed Banks, sent him to their triple-A affiliate in Iowa to start the 2001 season, and effectively revived his baseball career. But he didn’t hit very well, and was released after 17 games and 43 plate appearances. But unlike when the Brewers released him in 2000, this time Banks caught on with another team, the Florida Marlins. He spent the remainder of 2001 in the minors, and in 2002 he again was a September call-up.

In 2003, Brian Banks made the Marlins team out of Spring training, and on July 7 of that year he got a taste of what might have been. He made his post-Cubs Wrigley Field debut, and grounded out to third in a pinch-hitting appearance in the seventh inning. He played against the Cubs again later that month in Florida, striking out against Kerry Wood in one game, and popping out against Mark Guthrie in the other game.

In late July of 2003, when both teams were in third place in their divisions, it seemed unlikely that they would meet again in the post season. But that’s what happened, after the Central-division champion Cubs beat the Braves, and the Wild-Card Marlins beat the Giants in the first round of the NL playoffs.

Brian Banks was called on to pinch-hit in the 4th inning of Game two of the NLCS, with his team already in a 8-0 hole against Mark Prior. He popped out to center, and did not take the field for the next half-inning. And had things gone differently in the series, that might have been his second and final post-Cubs appearance in Wrigley Field.

After the Marlins staved off elimination in Game five in Florida behind Josh Beckett, and again in Game six when that awful eighth-inning collapse occurred, Game seven offered Brian Banks the chance to make it to his first World Series.  But in order to get there, the Marlins would have to beat Kerry Wood, the ace (or co-ace, if Mark Prior is included) of the Cubs’ staff, in front of legions of Cubs fans packed into Wrigley Field. A daunting task, indeed.

The Marlins jumped out to a quick lead, but Wood hit a homer onto Waveland Avenue to tie the game, and then the Cubs took a 5-3 lead going into the fifth inning. Wood retired the lead-off hitter, and fourteen outs stood between the Cubs and their first pennant in generations.

With the pitcher’s spot due up next, Banks was sent in to pinch hit. Since he had struck out against Kerry Wood the only time they faced each other in the regular season, nobody in Wrigley Field had reason to fear Brian Banks.

But Wood’s control momentarily deserted him, and he walked Banks on five pitches. After recording the second out, Wood then issued another pass, this time to Luis Castillo. Banks advanced to second, and with two outs he would be able to run on contact. Ivan Rodriguez doubled to tie the game, and the rally that Banks had started was in full force. A single by Derrick Lee then brought Rodriguez home, and the Cubs’ collapse was complete.

When Banks came around to score on Rodriguez’ double, it marked his final appearance in a major league game. He didn’t play at all in the World Series that year, and he began the following year in triple-A before being released. No other teams were interested in his services, and so his career came to an end after a decade of bus rides, call-ups, and pinch-hit appearances. Very few people can say they’ve had any experiences similar to that.

Brian Banks’ walk, issued by Kerry Wood, was the beginning of the end for the 2003 Cubs. There’s no telling what might have happened, had the Cubs had not claimed Banks off of baseball’s scrap heap three years earlier. But Cubs fans generally don’t think of 2003 in those terms. It’s just easier to dwell on Game six, Moises Alou, and that foul ball that went into the stands, isn’t it?