A tough way to begin the year

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My first post about 2015 comes five days into the new year, and it’s a sad tale. Stuart Scott passed away over the weekend, and I felt like I had to say a few words about his legacy, both on TV and in the way he battled cancer for as long as he did. The story appears on FiveWideSports, and I’m grateful to them, as always, for running with my ideas.

As the father of two daughters–like Stuart Scott–I love the way he professed his love for them so freely. I’ve done that myself, and I make no apologies for doing so. My girls will live on when I’m gone, just as his daughters will for him.

There’s no greater feeling than love, and when you have it for someone, there’s just one thing to do: hold it up for the world to see. His speech at the ESPYs last summer–his final bow, in some ways–did exactly that. And if I didn’t already love and respect him for the words he said on television–and I surely did that–I would give him all the credit in the world for saying the things he did.

Thanks for showing us how it’s done, Stuart, both on camera and off. We should all do our best to follow your example in the days and years to come.

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Oh yeah, life goes on

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It was a typical Saturday of taking my daughters to their various meetings today, but it started, as it often does, at the ice skating rink. And the TV was tuned, as it so often is, to Sportscenter on ESPN. I’m sure that the skate moms aren’t much interested in the day’s sports headlines, but whoever makes the decisions about what to put on in the morning is probably in tune with me, on some level.

The ESPN highlights this morning included the sort of thing that made ESPN so exciting once: a backboard being shattered at what looked like a high school basketball game. When Darryl Dawkins broke two backboards back in 1979, ESPN (which had just gone on the air that September) showed the footage over and over again. These occurrences got more exposure than they would have received back in the dark days when the only way to get sports highlights was on the local news at night. I remember those days, and ESPN caught on, in part, because people want to see sports more than just a few minutes of an evening. People’s appetite for sports, in fact, is nearly limitless.

I say all of this because as thrilling as a backboard shattering dunk once was for me, seeing one as an adult hit me much differently than it did back in the late 1970s. For one thing, it occurred to me that the game in question probably came to an end when the backboard was shattered, or at least there would have been a terribly long delay in clearing the court and hanging a new backboard, assuming that it could be done in an hour or less.

And, on top of the existential threat to the game itself, the cost of a new backboard would have to be absorbed by somebody. Maybe there’s insurance to cover it, and maybe there isn’t. But either way, backboards aren’t free, and the money would have to come from somewhere.

It seemed that a shattered backboard was less of an exciting thing to me at this stage of my life than it would have been to me as a teenager. From the look of it, the fans in the stands were enjoying the sight of shattered glass in their gym. But it created headaches for some people as well, and I realize that now more than I ever would have in the days of Darryl Dawkins.

After my daughter took to the ice for her skating lesson, I went back to the car and turned on the radio. The first song that I heard was the guitar part of John Mellencamp’s “Jack and Diane,” and the lyrics “Oh yeah, life goes on…long after the thrill of living is gone.” It seemed funny that Mellencamp’s lyrics somehow applied to glass backboards being shattered. My thrill of seeing one–such as I had when Darryl Dawkins did it–has now been replaced by more grown-up concerns about what such an event means to the game and to somebody’s bottom line. Life sure has gone on, just as Mellencamp predicted it would

Consider this a little ditty about crackin’ backboards…..

The radio is enough

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The BCS title game is about to kick off in Miami, and I’m hoping for a competitive game. But the truth is, I won’t be watching it. My cable package doesn’t include ESPN, so I can’t watch it at home. I would feel strange nursing a Diet Coke in a bar, since I’ve committed myself to not drinking any more. So here I am in the car, listening to the game on the radio.

Times change, and people change, too. So TV and beers are out, and radio and writing for my blog are in. It should have happened a decade ago, but better late than not at all.

Here’s to a game worth writing about tomorrow.

UPDATE: It’s 21-0 Alabama right now, and things aren’t looking too good for Notre Dame. So what does the picture have to do with anything? Nothing, really, but it was the coolest thing that I could find on my cellphone as I was typing this out. That counts for something, doesn’t it?

UPDATE 2: Final score was 42-14 Alabama. Not too many saw that coming, I’m sure. Notre Dame is getting pummeled on Twitter, too. Funniest tweet may have come from @KateUpton, who said this: “It’s okay Notre Dame this happened to the Jets every week.” Ouch!

Notre Dame had an amazing season and deserves credit for being a far better team than most people thought. I’m sure that’s cold comfort this evening, though.

The year that the world changed

There have been a couple of times where I have found a penny on the sidewalk, picked it up, and used the date on that penny as a jumping off point for a post in this space. And so it was today, as I was visiting Chicago’s DuSable Museum of African American History. I hadn’t been there in many years, since the group of high schoolers that I taught throughout their four years graduated in that facility back in 2000. It was a turning point in their lives, and in mine as well, since I had decided to leave teaching and go try something else. So it was a graduation ceremony for me, as well.

Back in 2000, my older daughter was still a baby, and my younger daughter hadn’t yet been born. So going back to the DuSable Museum today with my wife and two daughters–none of whom had been there before–was a special experience for me. And as I was leaving, I saw a penny on the sidewalk. I picked it up, looked at the date, and saw a year that seems like another world ago.

It’s probably fair to say that every year brings some change in a person’s life. I’m not sure which year I learned how to read (probably 1973 or so), but my world was never again the same after that. So to single out any year as a pivotal moment, above any other year before or after it, isn’t the best way to use this space. But, having said all of this, I feel like something did change back in 1995, the year that was stamped on the penny I found on the sidewalk.

In that year, my long-suffering alma mater, Northwestern University, shocked the sporting world by going on a Rose Bowl run that’s still being talked about. The team started out the year by beating Notre Dame, and since the two schools haven’t played since, I still get to claim bragging rights on that front. But they lost the second game of the season, to Miami of Ohio, in stunning fashion, and it wasn’t until they beat Michigan in the “Big House” that the season really took flight. And I remember that game, and that weekend, well.

A friend of mine and my wife’s from college was living in Atlanta at the time, and over the Columbus Day weekend, we flew down there to visit him. We watched the Michigan-Northwestern game on ESPN, and after the game was over we went to a Braves’ playoff game at the old Fulton County Stadium. I could look up the Braves’ opponent that night if it mattered, but just going to a baseball game in October was a new experience for me.

I wore my Northwestern hat to the game that night, and heard some complimentary things from people who had watched the game that afternoon. Michigan was the team that everybody not affiliated with the school loved to hate, and apparently that feeling extended to Atlanta, too. But a football game in the afternoon, and a playoff baseball game at night, made it a special sports day for me.

But what happened after the game was even more lasting. Our Atlanta friend took us to his office, where he showed us this new thing called America Online. I hadn’t seen it before, but it was fascinating, and I’m pretty sure that my wife and I signed up for it shortly afterward. We had dial-up at the time (who didn’t back in 1995?), but being able to get on the computer and interact with others was a revolutionary thing back then. The cheesy AOL ad above was really what it was like for me, and probably for millions of others, as well.

Almost seventeen years have gone by since then, and today I can’t remember how long it’s been since I had AOL. But it was my gateway into the online world, and for that reason I’ll always remember that trip to Atlanta back in 1995.

2011 in review

The year is coming to a close, and everyplace you can think of seems to take this opportunity to do a retrospective on the year gone by. I’ll join the crowd for this one time, and look at what happened in 2011 for the subject that I write about the most: Cubs baseball.

The biggest developments of 2011–as far as I’m concerned– were the birth of this blog (back on June 11) and the dismissal of Jim Hendry in July (although we weren’t informed of it until August). Trailing behind that was the hire of Theo Epstein, which indicated to me (and others, I’m sure) that the Ricketts family was serious about winning the World Series. That has become the white whale of Cub fandom, especially over the last decade. The teams that we either empathized with for losing (Boston, San Francisco) or just plain don’t like (St. Louis, that other team across town) has won their championship, and here we are, forced to watch Catching Buckner on ESPN, and blowing a late September game in St. Louis so the Cardinals can make the playoffs and go all the way to the title. Theo and his team have just one goal (sorry, Chicago Blackhawks, but it fits for us, too). And we all know what that is.

As far as the team itself, I did a year end report card piece for Baseball Digest, and I wasn’t very kind at all. Other than Starlin Castro, what did we really have last year? Sean Marshall pitched well, but he’s gone now. There was Carlos Zambrano’s meltdown, Matt Garza unable to break .500, Carlos Pena’s underperformance, a starting rotation in shambles, and Marlon Byrd writhing in pain at home plate in Fenway Park. The Fenway experience was neat, but the only victory in that series was the throwback game on Saturday, and it only happened because the Red Sox gave the game away. If I missed anything positive, please let me know. And yes, Ron Santo did finally make it into the Hall of Fame. But it’s sad when the most notable player on your team hasn’t set foot on the field in over 30 years.

The bottom line for 2011, like every year in my lifetime, and my father’s lifetime as well, was that the season ended without the Cubs being victorious. My maternal grandfather was born in 1909, and he lived his whole life without seeing it, too. I don’t think that he was actually a Cubs fan, though. My paternal grandfather was born in Chicago in 1894, so he would have been a teenager when the Cubs were in their heyday. There were no tales from the west side to tell me about (the team didn’t move to the Northside until 1916), because he died several years before I was born. So I, like most other Cubs fans, have nothing to go on. And that really sucks.

I have dreamed of the day when the white W flag is raised at Wrigley Field after a World Series game. No one has ever seen that, as far as I know, and it will be great once it happens. But until then, everything else is just noise.

Happy Next Year, Cubs fans!

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:

The LuPu Line

There’s a lot of talk about Pujols right now. The big contract, the move from St. Louis to the American League, all of it. And I’ve even written about Albert Pujols here and here. But perhaps there’s another Pujols-related discussion that can be had at this moment in time. And a fundamental wrong that can be addressed and corrected.

I wrote a piece about the “Mendoza Line” a few weeks ago. In it, I argued that the term is a misnomer because Mario Mendoza, who the Line is named for, actually ended up as a .215 hitter for his career. If it wasn’t for some ribbing from his teammates, who repeated it to George Brett, who then repeated it to Chris Berman of ESPN, this term wouldn’t even exist.

And yet the “Mendoza Line”  continues to exist, despite the fact that it technically doesn’t even apply to Mendoza. It’s like calling the site of an important Revolutionary war battle Bunker Hill, even though the battle was fought on Breed’s Hill instead. But a hill is a hill, and Mendoza is a person. A living, breathing person, who has lived for decades with a title he doesn’t deserve.

Enter Luis Pujols. I don’t think he’s related to Albert in any way. He came into the majors in 1977, and never saw anything resembling regular playing time. He backed up Alan Ashby as the Astros catcher for most of his career, and his final appearance in the big leagues was in 1985 with the Texas Rangers. Ironically enough, he singled off of Dan Quisenberry in his final at-bat.

Unlike Mendoza, who ended up hitting several points above the line that bears his name, Luis Pujols ended his career with a .193 batting average. When his playing days were over he became a coach, and ended up managing the Tigers during a mostly disastrous 2002 season, which I wrote about here.

My point here is that the .200 batting “line” given to us by George Brett and Chris Berman should be renamed. It’s not fair to Mendoza to have to live with this. If you want to name it for a person, which doesn’t seem necessary to me but might be what it takes to get the title away from Mendoza (something like “Tag, you’re it!” in real life), I suggest naming it after Luis Pujols. The “Pujols Line” won’t work, for obvious reasons, but perhaps the “LuPu Line” would work instead.

“LuPu” is a condensed version of Luis Pujols’ name, but it doesn’t bring shame or dishonor to anyone’s name in particular. According to his page on Baseball-reference.com,  Luis Pujols didn’t seem to have a nickname, anyway. Perhaps he would have been called this in today’s game, where  nicknames like “ARod” and “V-Mart” are common, but as it now stands, “LuPu” has no meaning at all. Apart from the “LuPu Line,” that is.

Beyond the Mendoza Line

How does it feel to have your name associated with something negative? Thankfully, most of us won’t know the answer to that. But Mario Mendoza isn’t so fortunate.

Mendoza was a shortstop who came to the majors in the Pirates organization.  He never was an everyday player for them, probably because his yearly batting averages were .221, .180, .185, .198, and .215. The Pirates were assembling the pieces of what would become a championship team in 1979, but not before they traded Mendoza to the Seattle Mariners after the 1978 season.

I have written about the 1978 Mariners here. They finished with over 100 losses, in their second year of existence. By contrast, Mendoza had played for a Pirates team that went 88-73 and finished in second place in their division. Leaving a rising contender like the Pirates could not have been easy for Mendoza, but being traded to Seattle meant that he would be a starter for the first time in his career. Every dark cloud has a silver lining, doesn’t it?

Mendoza started the 1979 season off strong, and was hitting a robust (for him) .250 at the end of the first month of the season. By the middle of May, though, his average had fallen below .200, and his average did not rise above .210 for the remainder of the season. In the entire month of August, his average stubbornly remained in the narrow range between .198 and .206. He was sitting at exactly .200 after the 159th game of the season, but was hitless in the final two games to end up at .198.

Two of Mendoza’s new teammates on the Mariners were Bruce Bochte, the starting first baseman, and Tom Paciorek, an outfielder who had come to the American League after many years with the Dodgers and Braves. They took note of their teammate’s light hitting ways, and as an inside joke they dubbed a .200 batting average as the “Mendoza Line.”

One of Mendoza’s teammates, most likely Bochte, made their inside joke known to George Brett, a future Hall of Famer and one of the best hitters in the American League. Brett, who routinely hit well over .300 and knew nothing of struggling at the plate, started to use the Mariners’ term, and he repeated it to Chris Berman, a reporter at a fledgling new channel called ESPN. As you can imagine, Berman ran with it, and before long the “Mendoza Line” entered the sporting lexicon, and eventually the wider public’s lexicon as well, as the dividing line between what was acceptable and what was not.

Mendoza played another year with the Mariners, generally in an everyday role but with around 100 fewer plate appearances than the year before. His average that season was a startling .245, still far below Paciorek and Bochte’s averages, but much improved from the year before. It was not enough to secure his future with the organization, though, and at the end of the season he was involved in an 11-player trade–you don’t see those anymore–between the Mariners and the Texas Rangers. Mendoza played two seasons for Texas in a reserve role, and then played for several seasons in the Mexican League, retiring in 1990 at the age of 39.

I toyed with the idea of telling the story of Mario Mendoza and his futility on offense in the 200th post in this space. I decided, instead, to write this as the 215th post, in honor of Mendoza’s lifetime major league average of .215. George Brett is in the Hall of Fame now, and Chris Berman is still on ESPN, while trying to get us to eat at Applebee’s.  Neither man might be aware of the fact that Mendoza himself wound up on the right side of the line they helped to publicize.

Mendoza got his average up above the imaginary line that bears his name, but apparently that didn’t matter. Perhaps some acknowledgment of this fact is the first step toward getting rid of it one day. May Mario Mendoza live long enough to see that happen.

Don’t overlook that first game

Reliving ballgames from the past is a bit like watching Titantic and hoping the boat won’t sink. The boat’s always going to hit the iceberg, and panic is always going to ensue, and that band will always keep playing with the chaos around them. Watch it again and again if you like, but those things are just always going to be there.

And so it is with me and the 2003 NLCS. The recent ESPN documentary, Catching Hell, was bad on many levels, but perhaps the cruelest bit of all was the very final scene were “Alou” finally makes the catch on that foul ball down the third base side. I don’t know what the point of that shot was, but life just doesn’t happen this way. You can’t make a credible documentary about a factual event and then change the final outcome. You might just as well show Joe Jackson coming out of the cornfield.

In any best-of-seven series, winning the first game is crucial in establishing momentum. For each of the ten years before 2003, the team that won Game one of the NLCS had then gone on to capture the pennant. Looking at how Game one was won and lost in 2003 is futile, but I’m about to do it anyway. Come on along if you’re so inclined.

The Florida Marlins were the wild card entry into the playoffs, and so the Cubs, as a division winner, got to host Game one of the series. Carlos Zambrano was pitching for the Cubs, and he was staked to an early four-run lead. Zambrano gave it all back and more in the third inning, and the game see-sawed all the way to the ninth inning.

In the bottom of the ninth, Sammy Sosa hit a dramatic two-run homer to tie the game and force extra innings. Joe Borowski pitched a scoreless tenth inning, and for the 11th inning, Dusty Baker turned to Mark Guthrie. Guthrie was a veteran middle reliever, in his second tour of duty with the Cubs.

The first batter Guthrie faced was Mike Lowell. Lowell had broken his wrist, and thus lost his starting third base job, in late August of that year. Coming off the bench as a pinch hitter was a new role for him, but one that he evidently took to quickly enough. Guthrie hung a 2-2 fastball, and Lowell sent it to the bleachers in centerfield, giving the Marlins a lead they would not relenquish.

After taking the loss in Game one, Guthrie came back and pitched one inning of mop-up duty in Game two, but he did not pitch again in the series. In fact, it was the final pitching outing of Guthrie’s career. No one can say whether this home run had any impact on Guthrie’s career after 2003, but clearly Dusty Baker had lost confidence in him. Otherwise, Guthrie might have pitched at some point in Games three through seven of the series.

The Cubs came back from the opening defeat to win the next three games, and they had the Marlins on the ropes until Josh Beckett shut them out on two hits in Game five. If the Cubs had captured Game one, it’s possible that Beckett wouldn’t have had another chance at the Cubs. The series would have then been over in four games.

Coulda, woulda, shoulda. It’s all conjecture, and none of it changes what actually happened. But it’s also worth remembering that plenty of things did happen in the series before the eighth inning of Game six, even though ESPN would rather fixate on Moises Alou and the foul ball he didn’t catch, at least not in real life.

The game without any drama

When history looks back on the baseball games of last Wednesday night, the Red Sox/Orioles game in Baltimore and the Yankees/Rays game in Tampa will receive the lion’s share of the attention. The endings of the games were weirdly synchronized with each other, in a way that Hollywood would never be able to script.

But it does go beyond that, too. The sports establishment–and by that I mean ESPN–seems to have a vested interest in keeping the focus on the Red Sox and the Yankees as much as they can. Fans of those teams will deny it, of course, or perhaps they’ll just tell you they’re the two best teams, anyway.

The baseball media world was praying for the Yankees and Red Sox to meet in the playoffs, so they could bandy the word “epic” around a few hundred more times than they already have over the years.  But fate intervened, between Papelbon’s meltdown, Longoria’s bat, and an inexplicable quirk in the left field wall at the Trop. So no heaping dish of Yankees/Red Sox epicness this year. Sorry.

Then, as an afterthought, the Braves’ loss to the Phillies may get some discussion, especially since the game went into extra innings. They’ll mention the Braves collapse (but quickly point out that Boston’s was bigger), and probably leave it at that.

The game that will be largely ignored, though, is the one that was played in Houston that same night. And as much drama as the other three games, the fourth one was devoid of any drama at all, thanks to a five-run first by the Cardinals and the pitching brilliance of Chris Carpenter. And the Astros being the worst team in baseball, of course.

I’m not sure why Carpenter even took the mound to begin with. A big lead over an inferior opponent, what could go wrong? Injuries, that’s what. Why not just give him the night off, or let him throw five token innings to pad his 2011 win total? Saving him for the one-game playoff against the Braves–if necessary–also made a lot of sense. But it was Carpenter’s turn to pitch, and he went out and threw a two-hit complete game shutout. Unbelievable.

It was great for my fantasy team, which features Carpenter as one of the starters (Jon Lester, Johnny Cueto, and an ever-changing cast of characters are the others). A complete game shutout was the next best thing to a no-hitter in my league, and that’s probably why I paid any attention to it at all.

But Carpenter’s gem put the pressure squarely on the Braves. They already had the collapse on their minds, and seeing that the Cardinals were cruising to an easy win only made it worse. The Braves took it down to the wire, and beyond, even, but one great collapse deserves another, doesn’t it?

The difference between Cubs fans and Red Sox fans

In the Spring of 2004, I was in Seattle on business. One bright, beautiful day, I went out to lunch with some of my associates. We went to a seafood place on the waterfront, and as we sat down to lunch, the conversation turned to baseball.

Two of the people at the table were Red Sox fans, and they began commiserating about how bad they had it. The pain of the 2003 playoffs was still fresh, and they went through that in detail. I commented as best as I could, since the Cubs collapse was still every bit as painful, and just as fresh.

Then they began talking about Bill Buckner and the 1986 World Series. I again told them that the Leon Durham ground ball in the 1984 Playoffs was just as devastating, and strangely similar to what happened that night in New York.

The Red Sox fans then began discussing the 1975 World Series, when their team lost to the Reds in 7 games. I told them that Cartlon Fisk’s homer in Game six is as enduring an image as we’ll ever have in sports.

The Red Sox fans, who were about my age, give or take five years, then talked about the 1967 World Series, which none of us could have had a very good memory of (I wasn’t yet born, and I’d be surprised if either of them were born yet). One of the Red Sox fans said to the other, “It sucks the way we always lose in seven games.” And by that point, I had had enough.

I told my lunchmates that yes, it is unfortunate that the Sox have three seven-game World Series losses in recent history. But simple math reveals that Red Sox Nation, depending on how old they are, have as many as 21 games of World Series experience to draw on. But, as a Cubs fan, I can’t relate to that because I’m still waiting to see one World Series game involving my team.

The Red Sox fans didn’t have too much to say to that, and the conversation quickly turned to another topic besides baseball, much to the relief of the football fan at our table. I wasn’t trying to quash their conversation, so much as I was trying to remind them of how good they actually have it. And that was before they won the first of their two World Series championships later that year. They were in a better place than I was early in 2004, and they’re in a far better place than I am today, baseball-wise.

Last night’s documentary on ESPN, Catching Hell, was told from the perspective of Alex Gibney, a Red Sox fan who felt that his suffering as a Red Sox fan gave him an insight into what Cubs fans have been going through. The documentary then took on a Bill Buckner/Red Sox angle, and I wondered if the filmmaker’s main objective wasn’t to get an interview with Bill Buckner. It felt that way to me, at least.

My point is that, in the afterglow of two World Series wins, Red Sox fans can stop pretending that they know what being a Cubs fan is like. Buckner got his personal redemption–and that’s just fine with me–but the Red Sox and their fans are now inside the ski lodge, with mugs of hot cocoa in hand, while Cubs fans are still outside, freezing in a snow drift. And letting us look in through the window doesn’t make it any better.

But even in the dark days before 2004, Cubs fans and Red Sox fans were not in the same place, as much as they would like us to believe we were. Getting to the World Series, and then losing it in seven games, was no doubt agonizing, but it’s still far better than not reaching the Series to begin with.

In my senior yearbook in high school, when all of the awards for “Most Likely to Succeed,” “Most Popular,” and so forth were given,  I won the award (if that’s the right word) for “Worst Car.” Many of my classmates probably had a good laugh at the 1973 two-tone Dodge Dart that I drove back then (it was gray and light blue, if you’re curious). But I took it in stride, reminding myself that at least I had a car to begin with. Some of my classmates couldn’t say that, and I was grateful to not be among them.

Red Sox fans had it better than they realized, even back then, and for them to suggest otherwise is disingenuous. They may have been driving the two-tone Dart, but we Cubs fans had to get rides from people or take the bus.  And they have traded up to a luxury ride since then, while we’re still waiting for the bus, hoping it will arrive in our lifetimes.

The Buckner Surprise

At the end of tonight’s ESPN documentary Catching Hell, I found myself saying one simple word: No. To expand upon that, I offer the following instant analysis:

No, I don’t see the connection between the Red Sox collapse in 1986 and the Cubs of 2003. For one thing, the Red Sox were at least in the World Series, which is something that no Cubs fan under 70 knows anything about.

No, the fact that Bill Buckner was traded from the Cubs to the Red Sox, or that he wore a Cubs glove on his hand that night, does not make him or his error relevant to what happened to the Cubs in 2003.

No, Alex Gibney, your feelings of empathy–or whatever it is that compelled you, as a Red Sox fan, to make this documentary–do not make things any better for me as a Cubs fan. You don’t know what being a Cubs fan is like, and it’s insulting to think that you can channel it through your own team.

No, the footage of  Bill Buckner triumphantly entering Fenway Park in 2008 did not add anything to the story of the 2003 Cubs. And forcing Cubs fans to watch it felt like forcing a hungry man watch someone else eat a steak. It seemed sadistic on some level.

No, the quasi-confessional nature of the interviews with the FOX producer and with Steve Lyons does not change what the hapless Cubs fan went through, and will continue to go through until further notice. They may or may not feel bad about the way they acted that night, but the impact of their actions cannot be undone by anything they say or do now.

No, speaking with Eric Karros was not enough to fully convey the team’s reaction to what was going on that night. He’s clearly a telegenic guy, and maybe that’s why he was chosen, but there were others on the team that I would have liked to hear from too, such as Mark Prior or Kerry Wood, or maybe even Alex Gonzalez. And Dusty Baker wasn’t worth talking to, either?

I appreciated some of the angles that I hadn’t seen before, and the Matt Liston footage from inside the park was also very engaging, but the documentary itself seemed like a Buckner Surprise, with far too much emphasis on the Red Sox and their travails, and not enough attention paid to the Cubs and their fans in the days since 2003.  Our itch remains unscratched, and although Gibney acknowledged as much at the end, I don’t think he really understands that.

Why does Gonzo get a pass?

If I’m Alex Gonzalez, the one shown on the card above, I would consider myself an extremely lucky man. Without the widely known–and tragically unfortunate–interference event that happened during the top half of the eighth inning of Game six of the 2003 NLCS, Gonzalez would be as renown as Bill Buckner for the error he made in the 1986 World Series.

Perhaps Gonzalez would not be quite as well-known to the general public, since the stage in 2003 wasn’t exactly the World Series. Cubs fans, however, would still know his name. And they would point to a play he failed to make as the reason for the Marlins’ comeback victory that evening. But instead, the Cubs fan that everyone knows about takes the heat. The game even has his name attached to it, as if he were actually on the field that night. I somehow feel the need to explain that this was not the case.

I’ve written about that game before here and here. I haven’t used the fan’s name in either post, but not for the same reasons that I couldn’t use the recently-departed reality mother’s name. With this guy, it’s different. He didn’t seek the notoriety he has, and his split-second reaction is something that has haunted him enough already.

If I asked fans on the street to tell me what happened to the Cubs in 2003, they might use the names “Prior” or “Baker” or even “Alou” in their descriptions. Marlins players like “Lee” or “Rodriguez” might be in their descriptions as well. But everyone would use the name of the fan in the stands, who wasn’t a ballplayer, and was just a paying customer like everyone else in the ballpark that evening. And few, if any, would use the name “Gonzalez.”

The stage needs to be set just a little bit. With the Cubs ahead 3-1 in the eighth inning, and runners on first and second with one out, Marlins rightfielder Miguel Cabrera hit a bouncer at Gonzalez, who was the Cubs’ shortstop. The back of the baseball card above indicates that Gonzalez “shines at shortstop,” and so a bouncing ball should have been an automatic double play. Field the ball, throw to second, and then watch as the second baseman “makes the turn” over to first. Automatic. Cabrera had grounded into 12 double plays that season, and one in Game four of the series, so there’s no reason to believe he was getting to first base very quickly.

But Gonzalez booted the ball. It hit his glove, fell to the ground, and by the time he picked it up, the bases were loaded. That play had to be made, if the Cubs were to have any chance at getting out of the inning and winning the pennant. Not only did it give at least one more out to the Marlins, but it put the go-ahead run on at first base. The tying run was in scoring position, and there was a runner on third, too. But Cabrera–who should have never reached base to begin with–now represented the lead run at first base. It should be pointed out that the incident between Alou and the fan didn’t actually put a runner on base.

The Cubs proceeded to self-destruct that inning, and I don’t want to run down all of the gruesome details here. At the end of it all, that 8-spot the Marlins put on the Cubs effectively crushed any chance for a comeback. But Cabrera’s run was the one that counted the most, and Gonzalez made it possible when he botched the double play ball.

So why does the fan get all of the attention, including ESPN’s documentary that will pull the scab off the wound all over again? I can think of two reasons: First, it gives everyone the iconic, snapshot image that all of the papers put on their front pages the next day. If the foul ball hadn’t occurred, and the Cubs still lost the game, maybe there would be a picture of the booted double play ball on the front pages. Or perhaps there would have been an anguished Mark Prior, or a dejected fan, or some other shot for the readers to look at instead. We’ll never know this for sure, either.

But secondly, the everyday fan can relate to another fan in the stands before he or she can relate to the players on the field. We know nothing about where these players come from, how hard they have to work to get where they are, or what their lives must be like, travelling from city to city and being paid very handsomely in the process. Alex Gonzalez made $4.5 million in 2003, and upwards of $30 million over the course of his playing career. And as much as I would like to relate to that, I can’t do it.

The fan in question was closer to most of us. He loves the game–and even coached it if I remember correctly– but since he wasn’t blessed with extraordinary natural skills, he had to get up in the morning, go to work, sit at a desk, send and answer emails to his colleagues and supervisors, and do all of the things that we do in the daily course of our lives. We can’t relate to what he’s gone through since that night, of course, but up until that instant, he was one of us. And he’s still one of us, even if he now has to keep himself out of the public eye at all costs.

There was a story that the fan in question was recently offered a substantial sum of money to show up at a baseball card show in Chicago and sign one autograph. To agree to that would have been like walking into a lions’ den, since angry Cubs fans would also be there to give him some of their frustrations over how it all turned out. And that’s truly unfortunate.

My guess is that he probably just wants his old life back, but the lingering misperception that his reaction cost the Cubs the pennant that year has made it all but impossible. In a way, he’s already served eight years to life, and hopefully Cubs fans, and the media, will let him out on parole someday. At least, that’s what I’m advocating for here.

As I’m getting ready to watch the ESPN documentary this week, I remember how, on that awful night back in 2003, I didn’t pound the floor in frustration when Moises Alou missed a ball that was already out of play. I certainly did pound the floor, however, when Gonzalez made his incredibly costly error. There’s a real difference between these two moments, and I hope ESPN doesn’t gloss this over. We’ll find out soon enough.

#MLB got it wrong

For last night’s 9/11 remembrance game in New York, which was broadcast by ESPN and was basically the capstone of the 10 year commemoration of the events of September 11, 2001, Major League baseball got wind of a plan by the players. The full story is here, but essentially the Mets’ players wanted to honor the first responders of the NYPD and others by wearing their logos, rather than the Mets logo, on their caps during the game last night.

It isn’t like MLB and ESPN weren’t going all out anyway, with the pregame ceremonies and everything else. The players wanted to get in on it, too. A small gesture, but important for the city they play in and align themselves with. A no-brainer, right?

Apparently not. The powers that be in Major League Baseball–which is headquartered in New York City, I might add–sent Joe Torre out to deliver the news that this gesture would not be allowed. Then, they took it one step further, according to Mets’ pitcher R.A. Dickey’s tweets, by confiscating the players’ hats. So, unlike the actions of Steve Trachsel, John Franco, and the other Mets players who defied a similar mandate in 2001, this time MLB decided to be proactive in heading off any dissent from the players.

When I saw this story in today’s news, I thought immediately of the Steve Trachsel card shown above. Trachsel was a Cub for many years, and played for the Mets during the 2001 season and several years thereafter. And that’s where it gets interesting. The card above appeared in a set of cards put out by Upper Deck in 2007. More than five years had gone by since Trachsel and his teammates had worn these caps–consequences be damned–and this action was still making its way into baseball card sets. The “FDNY” jumps right off the card, and the reason why he has it on is clear to everyone who remembers that day’s events.

When this card was released, in the Spring of 2007, Steve Trachsel was technically a free agent. He could have signed with the Mets again, but there was no guarantee that he would do so. In fact, Trachsel signed with the Baltimore Orioles, presumably after this card came out, and a second card with Trachsel in an Orioles uniform was released later that year. But it seems as if someone at Upper Deck, with probably lots of Steve Trachsel images to choose from, chose to use an image from five years earlier, either to commemorate Trachsel for defying MLB’s rule, or possibly to honor the first responders themselves.

And now, with the memories and the pain of 9/11 brought to the surface again, MLB cut its players off at the knees. It feels petty on their part, and I will suggest that any negative reaction they get from this will be richly deserved.