Jose can you see it?

cardenal

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

Wrigley

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.

Ronny, Kong, and the Bull

As with previous months, I was fortunate enough to be included on the mlb.com/blogs list of top fan blogs for the month of March. It’s an honor to be in the company of so many passionate baseball fans, and it’s good that all of us have a place to learn about who else is doing this. I always take making the list as an opportunity to write something related to the number I get, and this month it’s the number 10.

The Cubs retired the number 10, to honor Ron Santo, near the end of the 2003 season. Unlike Santo’s Hall of Fame induction, which will happen posthumously this summer, he was alive to enjoy this honor that was bestowed upon him. This Cubs fan, and doubtless a few others, were gratified when Santo finally got the call to Cooperstown last winter, but were equally peeved that he didn’t live to see it happen. But many Cubs fans will be on hand to let the surviving hall of famers know how beloved Santo was, and still is.

I don’t have any recollection of Ron Santo as a player. He played during my lifetime, but I wasn’t yet aware of him when he retired after a season with the White Sox in 1974. I date the beginning of my baseball fandom to the 1975 season, so Santo as a player, and I as a fan, were ships passing in the night.

If Ron Santo had retired to the golf course, and maybe an occasional autograph signing or Cubs Convention appearance, then he probably would have been the equivalent of Don Kessinger or Randy Hundley, who were both long-time Cubs that I had heard of, but don’t have any emotional attachment to. But to paraphrase Robert Frost, Ron Santo chose a different path, and that made all the difference.

Beyond his impressive career statistics, Ron Santo was unique among major league players. He was a Type 1, insulin-dependent diabetic who hid his condition through most of his career. He believed that if his condition became widely known, he would have been forced to retire. I can’t imagine having to carry around a secret of a deadly disease, the way Santo did.

In retirement, Santo turned his notoriety as a ballplayer into a radio broadcasting career, and a role as a spokesman for raising money for JDRF. Every time a Cubs player drew a walk, for years and years and years, Santo would remind us radio listeners that Walgreens would make a donation to JDRF and his Walk for the Cure. As the brother of a Type 1 diabetic, I am very appreciative of the way Santo used his position to raise both awareness and money  for research to cure this terrible disease.

As a result of Santo’s efforts, as a broadcaster and a fundraiser, he endeared himself to a new generation of Cubs fans. Listening to Cubs games on the radio–as I’m doing right now–still isn’t the same without hearing his voice. That will change with time, I’m sure, but heading into the second season following his death in late 2010, I’m still hoping I’ll hear his voice somehow.

After Santo retired, a series of Cubs players wore Santo’s number 10, including Dave “Kong” Kingman in the late 1970s, and Leon “Bull” Durham in the 1980s. I have some recollections of these two players, and perhaps I’ll share them here at a later date. But for now, I appreciate Ron Santo, I’m relieved that he finally received the Hall of Fame honors that he deserves, and I’m grateful to have an opportunity to reflect on the importance of number 10 for a Cubs fan.

and I believe in the Promised Land

Over the nine months I’ve been writing this blog, I’ve written more posts about the Chicago Cubs than any other topic. But I have other favorites, too, and Bruce Springsteen’s music is definitely on that list. This is the first time I’ve been able to fuse the two subjects together, and I’m excited to be doing this, so here goes:

The first–and so far, the only–Springsteen concert that I’ve seen was at the United Center in Chicago back in 2007. I went with my sister, and we had a great time, both at the show and in the perfect fall weather that bookended it. Lately, I’ve been listening to a bootleg of the show that I found online. My favorite song from that show–and possibly my favorite Springsteen song of all–is one called the Promised Land. The concept in the title goes back thousands of years, but I can relate to it as a Cubs fan in the 21st century.

The Israelites in the Hebrew Bible wandered through the desert, looking for a land that they had been promised. I’m not religious–13 years of Catholic school notwithstanding–but I’ve been wandering about my whole life. And the absence of anything to show for that hasn’t diminished my belief that it’s still out there. For some reason, it’s only become stronger over the years.

Bruce Springsteen played at Fenway Park in Boston for two nights back in September of 2003. For the first night’s show, he and his band played The Promised Land as the 17th song and before the first encore started. But for the second night’s show, he didn’t play it at all. Every show has a different setlist, and sometimes songs don’t get played. But the year after those two Springsteen concerts, the Red Sox finally did get to their promised land, after eight decades of wandering through baseball’s desert.

Did that song finally help to get the Red Sox over the hump? It sounds like a goofy thing to say, but is it any goofier than a ground ball rolling through Leon Durham’s legs in 1984? Or the almost unbeatable Mark Prior blowing a 3-run lead in 2003? Or the persistent belief that one man and his goat have effectively cursed the team for over 60 years? It’s certainly worth a shot to find out if there’s anything to playing this song live in a star-crossed baseball venue. Perhaps it has worked once, already.

After reports, rumors, and speculation, it’s now official that Bruce Springsteen will be coming to Wrigley Field this fall. He played in the Uptown Theater once upon a time, and Soldier Field back in the 80s, but this is the first time he’ll be at Wrigley Field. I hope to get tickets, but even if I don’t I’ll try to find a listening party in the Wrigleyville area. Bruce and his band will be heard up and down Clark Street, when the time comes. (NOTE: I attended the first of the two shows, and wrote about it in various places online.) 

In trying to get ahead of that curve, I humbly suggest to Bruce Springsteen, and to everyone else reading this, that The Promised Land would be an essential addition to a Wrigley Field setlist. Not only is it a fantastic song–one that calls on the power of an unshakable belief in something–but it could also be the portent of something great to come for the Cubs. (NOTE: The song was the first one played at the second Wrigley Field show in 2012, and not the first show that I attended. But at least it was played.) 

I’d like nothing more than to argue about whether or not this made any difference, after it finally takes place. And so I’m laying down this marker now because, as Tug McGraw once said, you just gotta believe.

(NOTE: The video presented above was filmed in 2016, four years after I wrote this post. The original video was removed for copyright grounds, but this one’s really good, too. They all are, I’m sure.)

Welcome Back Buckner

I want to preface this by saying that I don’t think Bill Buckner will ever be a Hall of Famer, even though is career was longer and more productive than many current Hall of Famers. His .289 lifetime batting average, for instance, is higher than that of Eddie Murray, Ryne Sandberg, and Carl Yastrzemski. But the truth is, he never won any MVP awards or World Series rings. And there’s also the matter of that ground ball in New York…

And so, with Buckner’s status as a non-Hall of Famer established, I’m going to open a hypothetical debate about which cap he would wear if he were accorded this honor. I maintain–1986 World Series or not–that Buckner would wear a Chicago Cubs cap upon his never-going-to-happen induction. On behalf of all Chicago Cubs fans, I’m claiming Bill Buckner as one of ours.

The Hall of Fame hasn’t been good to the Cubs over the past few years. I’m leaving Ron Santo’s lifetime snub out of this, but it will be a bittersweet day for all Cubs fans when Santo finally gets his due next summer. The induction of Bruce Sutter in 2006 was the first slap at Cubs fans, since he pitched more seasons, won more games, and recorded more saves with the Cubs than he did with the Cardinals. He won the World Series with the Cardinals in 1982, but he won his only Cy Young Award with the Cubs in 1979. The two cancel each other out, in my mind. It’s still hard to accept that a Cubs star like Sutter could be enshrined in Cooperstown wearing a Cardinals cap.

But Andre Dawson’s induction in 2010 hurt even worse. Dawson played more seasons in Montreal than he did in Chicago, but he also prolonged his career in the late 1980s and early 1990s with the Cubs, and would not have made the Hall of Fame without the six seasons he played on the North side. And Cubs fans, myself included, revered Dawson like no other player. The Expos franchise had folded up and gone away by 2010, so the handful of Expos fans who cared to notice his induction was dwarfed by the large contingent of Cubs fans who were insulted by the Hall of Fame’s decision to show “the Hawk” wearing an Expos hat.

Which brings us to Bill Buckner. He played more seasons in Chicago than in Boston. He played as many seasons with the Cubs as with the LA Dodgers (eight in both cases) and he had more hits with the Cubs than any other team. He also won his only batting title with the Cubs in 1981. It’s a combination of that one terrible moment in the World Series, and the usual overbearing Boston behavior, that has made Buckner a Red Sox player in the public’s mind. In truth–by any measurement someone might wish to put forward–he’s a Cub more than anything else.

I can almost hear Boston fans, among others, saying “OK. You can have Buckner. Why are you fighting for him, anyway?” The reason is that he’s just been hired as a hitting instructor in the minor leagues by the Cubs organization. Even if he’s not a face of the franchise, like Ernie Banks or Billy Williams, it’s still a homecoming of sorts. I wish that he hadn’t been traded away at the start of the 1984 season, to clear the way for Leon Durham and his costly error during the playoffs against the Padres. But Durham was younger, and hit for more power than Buckner did, and the decision looked like a good one all season long, until Tim Flannery hit the ground ball that opened up the floodgates for San Diego.

So welcome back, Billy Buck. Teach young Trevor Gretzky, and young Shawon Dunston, Jr. and all the other prospects who are coming under your tutelage. Show them how to hit a curve ball, how to work the count, how to get on base and help the team. The organization was smart to bring you back into the fold after all these years.

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.