Jose can you see it?


Jose Cardenal played in many cities over the course of his big league career, and I’d be surprised if he had a special affinity for any one of them. But he was a Cub when I started following the team in the mid-1970s, and for that reason he’ll always be a Cub to me. He played six seasons in Chicago, and he also sang the seventh-inning stretch with Eddie Vedder a few days ago, so that must mean something.

Jose Cardenal is almost 73 years old, and if the Cubs are going to finally go all the way, I want him to be around to see it. The same goes for Rick Monday, Bruce Sutter, Rick Reuschel, and all the other players I’ve seen in a Cubs uniform through the years. That goes for Andre Dawson, Ryne Sandberg, Mark Grace, Sammy Sosa, Greg Maddux, Leon Durham, Jody Davis, and the list goes on….

There are Cubs fans–hopefully not including me–who won’t be here in October, if the World Series finally does come to pass. With the Pulse shooting in Orlando fresh in our memories, I’m reminded that tomorrow isn’t promised to anyone, and certainly that applies to me, too.

The Cubs will be a dominant team for a long time, I hope. But I want this year’s time to be the one that finally breaks through that 108-year wall. I wanted it last year, and I’ll want it every year until my time is up. May we all live to see it finally happen.

An unexpected payoff


Being a Cubs fan is never an easy thing. After spending almost forty years in that fold, I can make such a statement with complete confidence. The good years–as measured by when the team makes it to the playoffs– can be counted on one hand, or two hands at the very most. And every one of them has also supplied a moment of defeat and disappointment, whether it’s Leon Durham letting a ground ball go through his legs in 1984, or Greg Maddux serving up a grand slam to Will Clark in 1989, or Moises Alou throwing a fit when he didn’t catch a foul ball in 2003. Even the best years haven’t ended well for Cubs fans like me.

But every once in a while, there’s a moment of validation. The Rolling Stones got it right: you do, once in awhile, get what you need. And what I needed is a sense that decades of following a baseball team has put me in league with some good people who share my interest. Our team never has won the big prize in any of our lifetimes, but so what? That doesn’t mean we can’t follow them, all the same.

I very publicly threw up my hands on the present version of the Cubs, as constructed under the front office of Theo Epstein and others. I’m convinced that they aren’t worth following at this point, because they aren’t doing anything to make the team on the field any better this year. But even if that’s the case, decades of following the Cubs are still with me, and purging all of that from my memory just isn’t possible. I’d sooner cut off one of my hands than deny all of the memories I have acquired through the years, and have put so much time and effort into trying to describe them in this space.

And so tonight, I had an opportunity to put all of these memories to use. The Chicago Public Library sponsored a Wrigley Field centennial celebration, centered around Wrigley Field: The Long Life and Contentious Times of the Friendly Confines by Stuart Shea. The format of the evening was a trivia game, where members of the audience were randomly chosen to compete for prizes. I would have had fun watching others compete, but fate was smiling on me as I had a chance to put my Cubs experiences to work.

I answered some of the questions correctly, and missed some other questions, and had a great time in the company of others who cared about the Cubs as passionately as I do. I even walked away with a copy of the book, which is great because books are the best thing that anyone can give me. Abraham Lincoln once said that his best friend was the man who could get him a book he hasn’t read, and I agree wholeheartedly, particularly when that book is about the Cubs and Wrigley Field.

Knowing that there are others like me who enjoy the Cubs, despite all of the disappointment that they will inevitably bring in October (if not earlier), is something like finding old treasures in an attic, or finding money in the pocket of your jeans. It makes this year’s team (which was shut out for the second game in a row today, and will have the worst record in the majors until further notice) tolerable, not for the feelings of victory which EVERY OTHER TEAM in this city has experienced in my lifetime. No, it makes it tolerable because even though the team on the field has been defeated time and time again, the part of this city who loves the team has not allowed themselves to be defeated.

On the day that Maya Angelou passed away, many of her inspirational writings have been making the rounds on the internet. One of my favorites is “You may encounter many defeats, but you must not be defeated.” And tonight, I put those words into action at the public library in Chicago. Ms. Angelou’s words were undoubtedly meant in a larger context than following a particular baseball team, but the spirit of her remarks can be applied to any circumstance at all.

We all fail in life, and it’s not fun when it happens. We suffer defeats, and our expectations do not always meet the realities that we encounter. Certainly that’s been the case for the Cubs this year, and last year, and every year before that, as well. But those setbacks must never serve to crush our spirit. And following a team like the Cubs reinforces this lesson on a regular basis.

Eddie Vedder sang that someday we’ll go all the way, and there are untold numbers of people waiting for that day to arrive. In the meantime, at least there’s a new book about it to read. I think I’ll get started right now.

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 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.

How a baseball custom began


Sometimes the origin of a baseball custom or tradition gets lost in the mists of time. I wrote a piece last year about how the Star-Spangled Banner came to be played before baseball games, but only after I had inadvertently come upon the story online one day. Other customs, though, are well-defined as to when or how they came into existence. Take a look at Brian Bannister’s photo above for an example of one of them.

If you were to sit down and watch a ballgame all the way through this upcoming season, my guess is you’ll see at least one example of what Bannister is doing over the course of that game. Whenever a conference is held on the pitcher’s mound, the pitcher habitually talks into his glove and, presumably, everyone on the mound can still hear what the pitcher is saying. But on an October evening back in 1989, a future Hall-of-Famer did not do this, and his team paid a steep price for it.

It was the 1989 NL playoffs between the Chicago Cubs and the San Francisco Giants. Game one was the first post-season game ever to be played under the lights at Wrigley Field. The game started off with an offensive bang, and when the Giants came to bat in the top of the fouth inning, the score was 4-3 Giants. The Giants had loaded the bases, and Will Clark was due up next.

Clark had already homered and doubled in a run–by the fourth inning–and the Cubs wanted to keep the game close. Catcher Joe Girardi went out to discuss how to pitch Clark at this juncture, while Clark waited in the on deck circle. Clark was watching pitcher Greg Maddux, who was not speaking into his glove, and read the words “fastball in.” Clark knew what pitch was coming, and he didn’t miss it when it came. His grand slam gave the Giants an almost insurmountable 8-3 lead, and set the tone for a Giants victory in the game and in the series.

It wasn’t until much later that Kevin Mitchell, the hitter who followed Clark in the Giants’ order, spilled the beans about what had happened during the conference on the mound. And once the word got out, you can be sure that no pitcher would ever take that risk again.

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 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.