Feelin’ Weasley

I recently got back from a few days at Universal Studios in Orlando. The main attraction at Universal is the Harry Potter section of the Islands of Adventure park. The park opened at 9 AM when we were there, but since we were staying on the property, we were able to get in an hour early. Nearly all of the people who availed themselves of this option made a beeline for the Potter section of the park. And with good reason, since it does a very credible job of bringing J.K. Rowling’s work to life. The people who put this together really did it right.

I bring this up as a background for something that occurred to me today. I’ve read the Harry Potter books, and seen maybe half of the movies, so I’m generally aware of the characters and their stories. One of the primary characters, Harry’s friend Ron Weasley, came to my mind as I was putting up some pictures of old Chicago Cubs players at work today.

Rowling’s world of Hogwarts and Hogsmeade and Diagon Alley and all the rest works so well because it was invented out of thin air. Like Baum’s OZ, and Tolkien’s middle-earth, it draws you in and makes you want to believe it exists, even when you know that it doesn’t. A world of muggles, or munchkins, or hobbits seems much more interesting than the world that we actually inhabit, and so reading these books is a way–the only way, really–of spending some time there.

A major element of Harry Potter’s world is the invented game of Quidditch. Harry’s friend Ron is a big fan of the worst Quidditch team of all, the Chudley Cannons. They’re a terrible team that never wins anything, but Ron Weasley supports them, anyway. It’s a bit like Charlie Brown and his favorite baseball player, the inept (yet fictional) Joe Shlabotnik. Players like Shlabotnik, and teams like the Cannons, somehow have a following in the worlds they inhabit, even though they’ve given their fans nothing to get very excited about. And so it is with the Chicago Cubs and their long-suffering, yet still very real, fans.

I thought about this as I was putting up three pictures of Cubs players from the 1977 team at my desk at work today. The three were Jerry Morales, George Mitterwald, and Gene Clines. The 1977 Cubs were in first place halfway through the season, and they led me a younger and more naive version of myself to believe that great things would happen that year. But they fell apart in August and September, and finished far out of the running in their division.

Had this late-season collapse been a sign of things to come in the decades ahead, I might have switched my team allegiances back to the St. Louis Cardinals, who are much the preferred team in the town where I grew up. But the bond had been forged, despite (or maybe even because of?) the team’s losing ways. Unlike the Cardinals, I could watch the Cubs’ games on TV, and I liked hearing the way that Jack Brickhouse called a game on WGN. He talked about Waveland Avenue and Sheffield Avenue as places that, like Hogwarts, I wanted to believe actually existed.

It would be a decade before I went to these places myself, and confirmed their existence on the North side of Chicago. But in the meantime, the Cubs became my version of the Chudley Cannons. They lost all the time, and that’s never an easy thing to cope with, but when you love a team, and the game that they play, their losses somehow strengthen that bond, rather than dissolving it.

Should anything ever happen to chase the ghosts of Jerry Morales and all of the other Cubs from the past away, well, that will be a fine day, indeed. May I live long enough to see it. I sometimes think that Ron Weasley’s Cannons will win a championship before my Cubs will. And if you were to tell me the Cannons don’t really exist, my reply is that’s exactly my point.

He was more important than I realized

The most important players, emotionally, don’t have to be the best ones on the field. Steve Carlton, for instance, was one of the best pitchers of the modern era, but he means nothing to me personally. He never played for my team, and I never saw him play in person. Those seem to be the great dividing lines between the players I care about and the ones I don’t.

Using those criteria, Mike Garman is a player of great importance to me. I acquired his 1976 Topps card, and a handful of others, in a trade with a colleague, and I was especially happy to get this card because he was in a Cubs uniform for the 1976 season, which was my first full season of being a Cubs fan. I was seven years old when the season started, and eight when it finished. It’s better to start young, I suppose.

Whenever I acquire any baseball cards, there are only two categories: Cubs players and everybody else. The Garman card was in the “good” category, and so I flipped his card over and began looking at his stats on the back. What I noticed right away was that, for the previous season, he had been a member of the St. Louis Cardinals. This intrigued me, since the first big league game that I ever went to was in St. Louis in July of 1975.

My father drove down to Busch Stadium from our home near Springfield, Illinois, which was about an hour away. Taking me along with him changed my life, even if I was too young to appreciate that just yet. All I knew is that my Dad was taking me with him, and that felt real good.

As a young kid, I had never been in a crowd that big before. The bustle of the ballpark, and the sight of the peanut and beer vendors making their rounds, and the roar of the crowd for Lou Brock (it sounded just like “Boooo” until my dad explained it to me) was strangely fascinating. Tom Seaver was pitching for the Mets, and it was the first game of a doubleheader. Life was just great.

I didn’t have too many insights on the game just yet, but I remembered that the Cardinals won the first game and everyone was yelling and cheering about that. If that had somehow been my initiation ritual into Cardinals fandom, I would have probably been much happier over the years. The hand of fate (and the voice of Jack Brickhouse) were still a few months in the future, but both would arrive in my life before the summer was over.

It wasn’t until I got the Mike Garman card that I realized how significant he had been in that first ballgame I ever attended. With the help of Retrosheet and Baseball-Reference.com, I have been able to reconstruct what the seven-year old saw but didn’t really understand just yet.

The Cardinals that year had the National League’s premier relief pitcher in Al Hrabosky, the “Mad Hungarian.” He was so good that he finished 3rd in the National League Cy Young balloting, and 8th in the MVP voting as well. He wasn’t a ninth-inning closer in the Mariano Rivera mold, because that role hadn’t yet evolved within baseball. Relievers came on in the 6th, 7th, 8th, or 9th inning, as needed, and got the outs needed to finish the game. Hrabosky came on in the 8th inning to protect the Cardinal’s lead, and he had a two-run lead to work with in the ninth inning.

Hrabosky proceeded to load the bases, and manager Red Schoendienst had seen enough. He brought Mike Garman in to face future Cubs slugger Dave Kingman. Kingman was good for 30+ home runs a season in those days, but he was also the same .230 hitter that he would remain throughout his career. With the bases loaded and the game on the line, Kingman was either going to strike out or hit the ball into the Mississippi River. Garman got him to strike out, and then he retired Del Unser on a comebacker, and the game was over. Garman got the save, both in a statistical and a metaphorical sense, and the home crowd ended up happy.

There wasn’t any way that either us involved with the trade knew of Mike Garman’s heroics on that day. And yet, out of all the random cards either selected for the trade or not, his was one of the ones that was included. I didn’t understand the outcome of the game on that day, but I did realize that a baseball game was a great experience to have. And I haven’t stopped having them since.

Many thanks to Josh Wilker at Cardboardgods.net for randomly choosing the card that led me to this important–at least for me– discovery.

Reconstructing an old memory

As a kid who wore glasses from an early age, I identified with ballplayers who wore them, too. One of the most prominently spectacled players was Jeff Burroughs, who had a long career in the majors, with most of it spent in the American League. For some reason, though, I have a partial memory of him from my childhood. The memory goes like this:

It’s a Saturday afternoon, and I’m in my parents living room watching a Cubs game on WGN. I’m dressed for church, because we would sometimes go to mass at 4 PM on Saturday to fulfill our weekly obligation. And that’s all it ever was in my family; we went to mass once a week for school, and once on the weekend. And we went on the holy days too. But it was never something we wanted to do, and I always saw it as a pointless exercise. That must explain why I haven’t been a Catholic for thirty years.

But all that is beside the point. I remembered having a Cubs game on, and the game ended in the bottom of the ninth when Jeff Burroughs let a routine ground ball go through his legs in left field. I remember thinking that I could have made that play, but somehow he missed it. I then turned off the TV, and we went to mass like we had done a hundred times before, and would continue to do until I went away to college and stopped going altogether.

With just that sketchy bit of information–Jeff Burroughs, left field, and a game at Wrigley that ended on an error, I wanted to see if I could reconstruct the game to find out exactly how old I was at the time. And as it turns out, it took less than 5 minutes to accomplish this.

I started off by using baseball-reference.com to determine which seasons Burroughs played in the National League, which turned out to be 1977 through 1980. The only National League team he played for was the Braves, so I was already able to establish the Cubs’ opponent on that day.

From there, I was able to eliminate 1977 as a possibility, since he played in right field only that year. In 1978, he was moved over to left field, where he played for the remainder of his time in Atlanta. The next step was to look for one run games in Chicago that ended in the Cubs’ favor, which eliminated all games from 1978. I was getting closer.

From there, I was able to identify the date of the game as Saturday, July 21, 1979. Jackpot. I was eleven years old at the time. From there, it was a simple matter of pulling up the retrosheet boxscore for the game, and filling in the early-40s me on what the eleven-year old me had witnessed and largely forgotten about.

The Cubs went into the ninth inning of that game behind 2-1. Mike Lum, who would one day come to the Cubs for the final season of his career in 1981, hit a pinch hit home run off of Mike Krukow to break a 1-1 tie and provide the  slimmest of all margins to Braves’ reliever Gene Garber. Garber had pitched the 8th inning already, and was in line for the win if he could get the final three outs.

In modern baseball, the ninth-inning closer would have been ready to go out and get the last three outs to save the win for Garber. But that practice didn’t begin until Tony LaRussa, Dennis Eckersley and the Oakland A’s of the late 1980s. Garber was already in the game, and it was his game to finish out.

The Cubs pushed the tying run across in the bottom of the ninth, when Dave Kingman came through with a pinch single to score Miguel Dilone. The words “Kingman” and “single” don’t always get used in the same sentence, but this was clearly an exceptional day at Wrigley Field. The Cubs’ next batter was Scot Thompson.

My neighbor across the street at that time was also named Scott, but his name had two t’s at the end, as did every other Scott I had ever met or heard about, with the exception of Scot Thompson of the Cubs. If you ever get stuck for a word in Scrabble, “scot” with one t means a form of taxation. It’s where the term “scot-free” comes from.  So don’t say you didn’t learn anything today.

Scot Thompson delivered a single into left field, the ball rolled through Burroughs’ legs, Kingman came around to score, and the game came to a happy end for the 28,000 in attendance that day. Every game the Cubs won was a “thriller” to Jack Brickhouse, but this one legitimately fit the bill. And I have to believe that the ending of the game made mass more tolerable that evening, too.

The internet helped me to fill in some of the blanks about that game, turning a vague memory into something a bit more clear. The time or effort that it would have taken me to research this game in the pre-internet age would have probably prevented me from taking any action about this. And the results, now that I know them, wouldn’t have justified the time expenditures, either. But the internet is a great thing, isn’t it?

#Cubs now 36 losses away from the historic #DoubleTriple

The Cubs lost again tonight, but Albert Pujols got his 2,000th hit. I hope he picks up another 1,500 or so in a Cubs uniform in the years ahead. I can dream, can’t I?

1975 Detroit Tigers

Expansion team: No

Overall record: 57-102

# of win streaks of 3 games or more: Three

Manager(s): Ralph Houk

Hall of Famers on roster: None

100 loss seasons since: 1989; 1996; 2002; 2003

Pennant wins since: 1984 (World Series winner); 2006

1975 was the year I will always point to as the year I became a baseball fan. I bought my first baseball cards that year, and the 1975 Topps design is still my personal favorite, with the two toned color scheme, and the team name in another color on the top. Classic. I had the Hank Aaron card pictured above, but I wouldn’t learn about what made Aaron so important until several years later. I love the abbreviation inside of the baseball, too. The idea of a DH is too ingrained to make that necessary anymore.

1975 was also the year of my first baseball game. My dad took me to a Cardinals-Mets doubleheader in St. Louis, where I saw Tom Seaver pitch, and Lou Brock steal a base. The fans all started yelling “Lou!” but they sounded like boos to my seven year-old ears. There was some sort of a fashion show between games, where this retractable runway popped up from the playing surface. It seemed a little weird, but whatever. I loved it just the same.

One afternoon in late September, I was changing the channels after school (which was done manually in those days) and I saw a baseball player pulling into third base after hitting a triple. I remember the announcer saying that it was the first time in history that someone had gone 7-for-7 in a nine-inning game. The player was Rennie Stennett of the Pittsburgh Pirates. The final score of the game was 22-0. And the venue was Wrigley Field in Chicago. Life was never again the same for me after that. Jack Brickhouse, and afternoon games at Wrigley Field, and WGN broadcasts all began to cast their spell on me, and all these years later, here I am. Emotionally scarred, yes, but just as dogged as ever in my loyalty to my team, to the game, and to the city I now call my home.

The 1975 World Series was about as good as it gets. But this blog is about losing, and there was one team in 1975 that hit this magic number. But, a mere nine years later, the Tigers were as dominating a team as I’ve ever seen. So turnarounds do happen.

The Tigers ended the first month of the 1975 season in first place. But they took a 17-3 pounding on May 1, and that began a painful five month stretch to end the season. They won nine games in a row at some point, but they also lost 19 in a row. Even this year’s Mariners team can’t relate to that. The Mariners themselves were still a few years away, but another round of expansion was already being discussed.

This trip through the 70s will undoubtedly continue as the weekend in St. Louis drags on.