The Cubs’ 2016 Graveyard

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Some people, in my neighborhood and in other places, turn their front lawns into faux graveyards at this time of year. So with Halloween upon us and the Cubs still playing meaningful baseball, here’s a look at some of the fake styrofoam tombstones that the Cubs could plant at Wrigley Field this year:

The Cardinals’ reign as NL Central champions: The St. Louis Cardinals have been the bullies of the division for some time, going all the way back to Albert Pujols’ days with the team. Wainwright, Molina, and all the rest have won and won and won again, and were trying to be the first team to ever win the Central division four years in a row. The Cubs laid waste to that, and controlled their division from Day 1 of the season.

The Giants’ beliEVEN thing: Winning the World Series in 2010, 2012, and 2014 was a nice pattern to be in for Giants fans, and when their team won the Wild Card came this year they thought the pattern would repeat itself this year. The Cubs had other ideas, though.

The Billy Goat Curse: Oh, that curs’ed goat. The reason–some would have us believe–for the Cubs’ decades worth of World Series absence is the old story of a goat that was denied entry into the 1945 World Series. A man who brings a goat to a baseball game has no mystical powers of any sort, but people talked about it, anyway.

1969? Billy goat curse.

1984? Billy goat curse.

2003? Billy goat curse.

But the Cubs finally laid that one to rest and made the World Series. May we never hear about that goat again.

So the one thing left to do is scratch the 108-year itch and win the World Series. The Cubs have to beat Korey Feldman tonight, or find themselves in a Series of elimination games. They’ll come around tonight, I hope, and even the Series up with three games left to play. It’s been a great, cemetery-making run this year, and it’s not over yet.

A Halloween creep-out

014 Granary Burying Ground

Today I dropped off my teenager at her Saturday class, and then took a detour through the local cemetery on the way home. It’s a gray, cold, and slightly rainy day here in Chicago, and it’s also Halloween, so I figured why not.

I parked the car in a random spot, got out and walked around for a bit, determining how old people were when they passed on. Some were older than I am now, and some were younger. Life is short, no matter how many years and months and days you actually end up getting here on earth.

A one point I stopped and scanned the horizon. It was 360 degrees of rain and cold and falling leaves and general reminders of death. It was so creepy that I actually enjoyed it. I’m definitely in the Halloween spirit now.

As I started walking back toward the car, a small gravestone caught my eye. It was grey with a rounded top and some jagged edges. Nothing fancy, but its isolation was what made me notice it. There was nothing within at least 20 feet in any direction, which is unusual for this cemetery. And along the top one word was carved: ROBERT. No dates, no description of who the person was or when they walked the earth. Just my given name, ROBERT. The creep factor went off the charts with that one. But I think I’ll enjoy this day, both for myself and that other Robert who can no longer do so.

An unconventional Halloween

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This year, my little one didn’t go out trick-or-treating. And she’s at the age where Halloween and trick-or-treating are among the highlights of the season. So missing out on it wasn’t an easy thing.

She participated in a Halloween-themed play, and the last show was on Halloween night. She loves being on stage, and I told her that being in costume on stage was a better use of the evening than begging for candy could ever be. I don’t think she believed me, but she’ll remember the play far more than she would a night fueled by fun-sized candies.

After the show was over, and the curtain calls and cast pictures had all been dispensed with, a cast dinner was held, marking the end of a successful show. She’s already learned, at an early age, that the hard work and camaraderie of building a show from scratch doesn’t last for very long. The set is struck, the cast goes their separate ways, and then it’s on to the next show. There is no permanence, other than the memories that you take from doing each show.

By the time we said our goodbyes, it was 10:00 on Halloween night, which was too late to do any of the ritual begging for candy at the homes of strangers. My little one at this point started to cry with an inconsolable sadness. I did all I could to cheer her up, and remind her of all the fun she had had in the name of the theater. But none of that mattered to a ten year-old who only wanted some candy.

We then went to a Halloween party at the house of some friends, where a large bowl of undistributed candy lay waiting. Despite protestations that it didn’t feel right, or that it wasn’t supposed to happen this way, she filled up her Trick-or-Treat bag with more candy than she would have otherwise received in the customary way. And this, eventually, helped to calm her down. We left the party filled with Halloween spirit–no pun intended, of course.

There aren’t very many Halloweens left for me, at least in the current configuration of having a child who wants to go out collecting candy. But in a larger sense, I cherish Halloween as an affirmation of children and childhood itself. The little ones who come to our door on Halloween won’t do it for too many years, and when their trick-or-treating window closes, more children will be there to take their place. On an evening that was originally meant to remember the departed, we are reminded that there will always be reinforcements in the progression of life. And I find that  comforting, in a strange way.

A Halloween field trip

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It was rainy and gray in Chicago on Halloween, and walking around in a cemetery for a few minutes was just what I needed to appreciate life a bit more than I already do.

Life is short, as all of these tombstones can attest. So the best way to enjoy it is to go out and live. There will come a time when I can’t do it any more, but for now here I am. And gladly so.

This person sure loved dogs

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Today was a rainy and gray Halloween. It other words, it was perfect. If central casting can send days instead of people, it did a great job today.

I walked around in one of the sections, looking for interesting things. I found lots of them, but mostly I was just glad to be here on this pale blue dot, as Carl Sagan described the earth. All the graves around me were for people who had their turn, and now they’re off somewhere else. And so it goes.

I wasn’t able to make out the name of the person buried between the two dogs above, but it was touching to see these stone canine bookends. Of all the pictures I took, this one was the most interesting, so here it is. I hope this person, whoever they are, has a dog or two with them now for company. Dogs are great that way.

A Halloween baseball story

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A piece that had been forming inside my head for the past few months came together this weekend, and it appeared on ChicagoSideSports this morning. It combines some of my favorite things: Baseball, history, Chicago, and Halloween. It’s the type of story that I love to tell to anyone who might be interested.

Happy Halloween to all.

Laugh about the old days

The last time I wrote in this space, less than 48 hours ago, I told the story of a baseball player that I never met, who died in Chicago during the regular season a decade ago. And just a couple weeks before that, I wrote a farewell to an ex-ballplayer who had a small connection to my development as a Cubs fan. And today, it appears, we’ve hit the trifecta when it comes to ballplayers who have passed away.

On Halloween, or perhaps the day after it, Pascual Perez was killed in a home invasion in the Dominican Republic. Perez had problems with drugs back in the 1980s and early 1990s, and he gave “three strikes and you’re out” a new baseball meaning. Cocaine cost him his career, and he’s far from the first player with problems in this regard. But to be killed in your own home just seems especially cruel.

Perez was the primary instigator in an ugly bean ball–or bean brawl–game played back in 1984 in Atlanta. Perez hit an opposing batter with the first pitch of the game, and things spiraled out of control on several occasions. On one of the occasions, the aforementioned Summers broke free and raced across the field, with Pascual Perez in his sights. He was foiled by one of Perez’s teammates, along with some overanxious fans, and a physical confrontation was avoided. That was the exception in that game, though. Here’s a clip of the incident, in case you’re interested.

I was struck by the proximity of these two players’ deaths, within weeks of each other after 27 years had passed by. I don’t believe there’s an afterlife–though I’m willing to be proven wrong when the time comes–but if there is, I wonder what would happen if Champ Summers and Pascual Perez should somehow encounter each other in the Great Beyond. Would they resume their hostilities from that day, or would they laugh about the old days, instead? I would hope it’s the latter option.

I say all this because Pascual Perez’ demise bore an eerie similarity to a recent tragedy that happened right here in Chicago. A former student of mine was killed in his own home, shot in the face on Halloween night. I was musing about Darryl Kile and life is short and all of that, while one of my former students lay dead just a few miles away.

When I first learned of his death yesterday morning, I felt a sense of grief that I haven’t felt for anyone else before, not even for my own grandparents. In each of their cases, I knew the end was coming and had a chance to prepare for it emotionally. But in this case, it was so sudden and unexpected, and it hurts that much more. And I’m sure that the pain felt by those who loved him and cared for him is far greater than mine is.

Although I had some run-ins with this student back when I was teaching, I’m very pleased to have reconnected with him on Facebook within the past year. I have become Facebook friends with several of my past students, but I never seek any of them out. If they want to friend me, I’m flattered that they want to do this, and provided that i have any memory of them at all, I’m happy to accept their requests.

But Brandon’s friend request gave me pause, initially. I thought it over for a few days, because I still had vivid memories of what our relationship was like back in 1997 and the years immediately afterward. Eventually, I decided that it would be better to accept the request than to ignore it. And I’ll forever be grateful that I did this.

One day, a week or so after we had friended each other, he sent me a direct message, with an apology for the way things had gone between us back then. In truth, we both had things to feel bad about. My youth and impatience and desire to follow rules probably made me into less of a teacher and more of a cop, in his eyes and in mine. But we agreed that the past should remain in the past.

With the reconciliation having been achieved, we then encouraged each other to look at the pictures of our kids on Facebook. After a few minutes we parted amicably, at least in the electronic sense of the word. It meant a great deal to me on that day, and it means a great deal more to me now. I’ll forever be grateful that Facebook afforded us the opportunity to find peace with each other.

If there is an afterlife, and I make it there at some unknown point in the future, I’ll go looking for Brandon Johnson, and not in an angry, Champ Summers kind of way. If I should be fortunate enough to find him, I’ll be sure to greet him warmly, and thank him for teaching me one lesson about reconciliation, and another about how fragile life can be. And then, hopefully, we’ll laugh about the old days.

R.I.P. Brandon Bso Johnson

A Halloween reminder

It’s Halloween night in Chicago. Earlier in the evening, I was at the house of some friends of long standing. They’re possibly the best people that I know, and we were spending some time together, along with our kids and with some other families, on about the most special night of the year for kids. When else can you dress up in a costume, walk around from door to door, and get candy from complete strangers? When you’re a kid, it’s a day that you look forward to all year long.

The weather was good, and many kids were out, chasing after sweet things while they still had the chance. The candy bowl was being taxed again and again, by superheroes and princesses and all manner of imagination come to life.

The first Halloween costume I can remember was a football player when I was about four or five years old. I wore a little football jersey, carried a toy football around, and had some burnt cork smeared under my eyes to make me look like a player. I thought it was the greatest thing in the world, even without the candy. I had other costumes over the years, but I never forgot how much fun it was to be a kid at Halloween.

The candy had dropped to dangerously low levels, and it was still relatively early in the evening. There was no let-up in the stream of kids that could be expected. Action had to be taken, so I hopped in my car, drove to the nearest Dollar Tree store, and did an adult version of trick-or-treating. In other words, money changed hands and I had what was needed to keep the kids coming by the house.

On my way to the checkout, as I sometimes do in Dollar Tree stores, I picked up an assortment of thirty baseball cards inside a small plastic bag. Every bag has at least one story that could be told, if I can recognize it and then find the time to tell it. And tonight’s bag was no different. In fact, it was actually about the best one I’ve come across so far. This is a story that must be told this evening. What better way is there to spend the final hour of Halloween?

I was flipping through the cards, looking for something interesting, when I came to a card of Darryl Kile. And not just any Darryl Kile card, but one that shows him delivering a pitch in Wrigley Field. I always keep an eye out for cards that include Wrigley field shots, and you’d be surprised at how many of these cards there are. Or maybe not, given the beauty of Wrigley’s ivy and brick interior. Wrigley Field for baseball cards seems to be like the fake backgrounds that are used in photographers’ studios. Anything you put in front of it has a decent chance of looking good.

Darryl Kile pitched in the majors for many years. He went from the Astros to the Colorado Rockies, and then on to the St. Louis Cardinals, where he became their ace pitcher and a leader in their clubhouse. He was an All-Star and a 20-game winner. His future in St. Louis looked very bright, indeed.

Darryl Kile was scheduled to start a game for the Cardinals in Wrigley Field against the Cubs in June of 2002. But he suffered a heart attack and died in his sleep in a hotel room in Chicago, a little more than ten years ago. This had happened just a week after the Cardinals had also lost their long time radio announcer, Jack Buck. Such a devastating 1-2 punch is something I’ve never experienced as a Cubs fan, and I’m sure that Cardinals fans still remember it today.

Nearly ten years had gone by between when the picture on the front of the card was taken (in August of 1991) and the sudden, completely unexpected death of Darryl Kile, again in Chicago. And another ten years have passed since that day, when Joe Girardi told the gathering of Cardinals and Cubs fans that the day’s scheduled game would not be played.

So two decades after Darryl Kile delivered a pitch in Wrigley Field, which was captured on film and put onto the front of a 1993 baseball card, the image emerged from a plastic bag and into my hands, on a Halloween night in Chicago. There’s really no way that this could have been an accident. Darryl Kile was a professional athlete, presumably in excellent physical condition, and he died of a heart attack at age 33. I can’t explain it, but I am going to take something away from it.

I never met Darryl Kile, but his Halloween baseball card reminds me, and I will in turn remind you, that life is very short. We’d like for it to go on for a long time, but it doesn’t always work out that way. I’ve written about death many times in this space, because it makes me appreciate life just that much more.

So as Halloween draws to a close, I’m happy to still be on the good side of the divide between the living and the dead. And I hope that you, dear reader, will take a moment to be appreciative of this, as well.

A scary Halloween

In another life, I used to be a schoolteacher on the South side of Chicago. For the first couple of years that I taught, our school was located in the shadows of three abandoned high-rise buildings, collectively known as the Lakefront Properties. They sat in a neighborhood known as North Kenwood-Oakland, along Chicago’s lakefront (hence the name) between 39th and 43rd Street.

One year, on Halloween, I got it in my head that some students wanted to vandalize my car. I really had no reason for thinking this, but fear can cause you to do some things you might not otherwise do. So instead of parking in the teacher’s lot that day, I parked on the other side of the abandoned high-rises and walked through them to get to school. It was the only time I ever did this, but it was a chilling experience, just the same.

What I saw, walking through the courtyard of buildings that hadn’t been occupied in over a decade, was very unremarkable. In fact, there was nobody on the outside of these buildings at all. And if anyone was on the inside, I never knew it. So the physical presence of anyone or anything in those abandoned buildings was thankfully not an issue.

But I had a very strange inner feeling as I made my way through these buildings. I could sense the despair and frustration that once pervaded the buildings. It wasn’t known as “The Low End” for nothing. When I emerged on the other side, in the place that I would have normally parked my car anyway, I realized that public housing was no way to live. I had seen nothing more than a few abandoned buildings, in broad daylight, but I could imagine what this had done to the people who had lived in the buildings, for any amount of time.

The buildings were imploded together on a bright, sunny morning in 1998. I likened it to the moment where the Titanic struck the iceberg, at least as far as the school was concerned. The school was shut down, and the building itself was demolished not long after that.

New construction has since filled in this space, and I went back there a few years ago, looking for any sign of what had once stood on that spot. I found none, and understood that was probably the point. For those living there now, there has never been any public housing, let alone high-rises that stood deserted for many years, in that area. But it was there once, and I walked through it. I was only trying to avoid having eggs thrown at my windshield, but I would up bearing witness to what a bad idea these high-rises really were, instead. May no one ever have to live in those conditions again.

A little too close

Halloween is supposed to be a night where the line between the dead and the undead is blurred a little bit. But this year, with at least 50 deaths caused by Hurricane Sandy, and millions without power and facing a clean-up from after the storm, I can understand how some might not embrace the concept of Halloween quite so fully. All the best to those impacted by the storm.

A Halloween tradition

One of the ways I once knew it was Halloween season, other than the changing leaves, was the annual showing of It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown on TV. In the days before VCRs and DVDs and TiVo and On Demand, you had one chance to see it every year, and so whenever it was on, I was there to watch it. And most of the kids I knew were the same way.

I don’t know when it’s shown on TV anymore, but I have to imagine that it’s on one of the networks at least once every year. But the ability to watch it any time has changed the experience, somehow. Not so much for me, but certainly for my two daughters. In a few days Halloween will be over, and I hope we’ll sit down to watch it once. And If we do, it will only be because I begged and pleaded for it to happen.

There’s also a Charlie Brown exhibit opening this week at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago. It won’t be the same as it was watching TV back in the 1970s, but hopefully it will be enough.

A flash of inspiration

A few years ago, I was working as an editor for a large educational publisher. For Halloween, there was a costume contest held in one of the conference rooms in the afternoon. The safe route in a situation like this is to not dress up at all, and let others run the risk of embarrassing themselves. It’s something like singing karaoke in a bar: funny to watch other people try to do it, but a different story altogether when you’re the one behind the microphone.

I liked these people I worked with, though, and I wanted be a part of the contest, without overdoing it or calling too much attention to myself. So I played it safe and dug out an old black felt hat, similar to the red and white striped “Cat in the Hat” style that was popular about a decade ago.  Mine was solid black, though, and it was clearly meant to pay homage to Abraham Lincoln.

The Literature books that we were in the process of putting together had materials from a variety of authors, including Lincoln. His Gettysburg Address, besides being a brilliant explanation of what was at stake in the Civil War, is brief enough that students will read it without telling you how boring it is. This makes it ideal for inclusion in any textbook to be placed in a high schooler’s hands.

I took my hat to work that day, and put on a solid black sweater that I wore all day long. I figured that I would put on the hat, stroll down to the meeting room and, if not win the contest, at least feel like I was a part of the festivities.

As the day wore on, however, I got a sense that things wouldn’t be that simple. A casual sampling of what others had done revealed that clever plays on words were the order of the day. A colleague dressed entirely on orange, with a green hat atop her head, was going as a “caret,” while another was going as “falling action” (which entailed making a motion as she would tumble to the ground). And worse yet, it appeared that no other literary figures would be in attendance. I knew that my Lincoln “costume” wasn’t going to go over very well.

What to do, what to do?  I went back to my desk and put my thinking cap on. And not my black felt hat, either. But I did stare at it for awhile, wondering if I should just stuff it into a desk drawer and go to the contest wearing my black sweater, acting like that was just what I wore to work that day. Problem solved, right?

But then it hit me. I could still make it fly, but first I’d have to do some prep work. Fortunately, there was still a little time.

At lunchtime, I went to a drugstore in the building next door. It was late October and the Holidays were right around the corner, so I found a strand of blinking Christmas tree lights that would do just fine. Then I went back to the building I worked in to pick up some Chinese takeout, a pair of chopsticks, and a few straws. I went back to my desk and got to work.

I’ve never been able to use chopsticks effectively, but I wasn’t going to use them to eat. Instead, I wanted them to poke some holes into my black felt hat. You’ve gotta break some eggs if you want to have an omelette, right?

I assembled the straws into the shape I wanted, but I needed some way to fasten what I had done onto the hat. I made a visit to the supply room and procured a handful of brass fasteners, which could be twisted so that they would hold everything together. Then, when I thought I had everything the way I wanted it, I made a nervous trip to the part of the floor where the restrooms were. This entailed leaving the office and waking past the elevators, where I was certain that somebody would see me. What this would mean, I wasn’t sure. But I didn’t want anyone to know what I was up to.

I went into the restroom, which was thankfully empty, and tried on my creation. It looked OK, but a couple of mirror-aided adjustments were in order. If anyone had come in at that time, they probably would not have any idea of what I was up to. But it was a nervous few minutes, anyway.

I finished up, exited the restroom, and went back to my desk. My afternoon coffee that day contained the added flavor of success.

When the time for the contest arrived, I grabbed my handiwork and headed on my way. I didn’t think I would win, but I felt confident that I had done enough to make an impact on my colleagues. That was all I really wanted, anyway.

The meeting room had some munchies and drinks set out, for people to mingle a bit before the contest started. I grabbed a cookie and some juice, and talked with some of my colleagues for a bit. We were all happy to have a momentary respite from the crazy, irrational deadlines that we often lived under. And the deadlines would still be waiting there for us when the afternoon’s festivities were over.

The contest started, and everyone taking part had to get up in front of the others to see if anyone could guess what their costume was. When it was my turn, I walked to the nearest outlet, plugged in, and said a line that I’d wanted to say ever since I first heard Linus say it in the Charle Brown Christmas special:

“Lights, please?”

One of my colleagues standing near the light switch indulged my request. It was daytime, but the lights had been on, just like they always are in an office. The room got moticeably darker, and I waited for a second or two for the lights to take effect. Needless to say, I had everyone’s attention at that point.

I pointed at my hat and asked my colleagues what they saw. Three straws had been stuck together with some tape, and then surrounded by the flashing lights I had bought earlier in the day. Immediately, several of my colleagues recognized it as the letter A.

“Very good,” I said. “Now, what is this letter A doing?”

“Flashing,” one of my colleagues ventured.

“Keep guessing,” I said.

“Blinking,” another called out.

“Right! So put them together,” I invited.

“Blinking A” someone said. It was a moment that I recognized from my days as a teacher. They were close, but still needed just a nudge to get to where I wanted them to go. An editorial term seemed to be the way to do this.

“Transpose the two and then tell me what you get,” I told them.

“A blinking.” I looked at who said it, and then pointed at my hat.

“Ayy blinkin!” I could almost feel the light bulbs turning on in the minds of those in the room. If there had been more moments like that when I was teaching high school social studies, I never would have left the classroom to do anything else.

From my colleagues’ reaction, I could tell that my gambit had worked. The idea, and the work required to bring it into being, had happened in just over an hour’s time. Everything should come together so fast.

I didn’t win the prize for best costume (and I honestly can’t remember which one did), but I did accomplish the things that I wanted to do: keeping the Lincoln motif, while giving my creativity a workout. I think Lincoln himself would have been impressed with the results.

Remembering the Donut Lady

Taking my kids out for trick-or-treating made me think about when I was the one out trick-or-treating, over 30 years ago. We would get those Ben Cooper costumes in a box (I was the Road Runner for two years running–sorry!), and one year I had a broken leg but made sure to have my cast removed on October 31 so that I could join in the festivities. I was a devoted foot soldier in the trick-or-treat army.

We would walk around the streets of my neighborhood in Jerome, Illinois before going off to see one grandma or the other (sometimes both in the same evening). I always asked to do some trick-or-treating in their neighborhoods and was always told no. My treat gathering was confined to the two or three blocks surrounding where I lived.

There was the usual assortment of chocolate bars and Smarties and those orange and black-wrapped peanut butter things that were always the last thing eaten from the bag. But what I remember the most was one older lady in a house on the street that intersected with mine. Every year she would hand out a glazed donut in a wax bag, folded over and stapled shut. I always wanted to eat this donut, but was never allowed to by my parents. It seemed like a waste of a perfectly good donut  (three donuts, if you count my younger brother and sister’s too), but their word was law and out the donuts went out when we did the big goodies sort at the end of the evening.

I’m sure that whoever the donut lady was, she’s since passed on because this happened decades ago. But I remember her now, and I appreciate the efforts she made for my siblings and I and all the other neighborhood kids over the years. Her unique offerings to us every Halloween were never as fully appreciated as I wanted them to be, but they are fondly remembered, just the same.