Sweet Home Ditka-go

Ditka

It’s Mike Ditka’s city, and I just happen to live in it.

Last Spring, I celebrated Chicago’s annual season of hope by writing out a list of all the reasons I could think of for why Chicago was not only a baseball town, but the best baseball town in all the land. It was a labor of love, and when I saw the piece on ChicagoSide’s web page, I was as happy as I can be. The artwork was a Chicago flag, with baseballs superimposed over the four red stars. It was quite a sight to behold.

And, just to make the story even sweeter, the story was picked up to run in the Chicago Sun-Times. For a kid who grew up delivering newspapers to the houses in my neighborhood for six years, it was a dream come true. The thrill of going down to the local 7-11 and buying a stack of them for whoever might want to see it was a special treat, along with thumbing through the paper, looking for the place where the article would appear.

It made sense, with the Sun-Times being laid out as it is with the Sports in the back, to flip it over and work from the back cover in. But I reasoned that working from the front cover back would stretch the moment out just a little bit longer.

On the front cover of the paper that day was a picture of Roger Ebert, on what turned out to be the day that he passed away. Of all the stories that my grandchildren will half-ignore some day in the future, appearing in Roger Ebert’s newspaper on the day that he died will probably be the very first one. It will always be a special honor to be able to say that.

As I worked my way through the local stories, and the opinion pieces, and the classified ads, I began to get excited. The back end of the sports section was coming up soon, and unless some malfunction had come up, I was going to be in it somewhere. The suspense was quite a thrill.

And then I came to it, on a two-page spread between pages 66 and 67. “Second to None” the headline blared, along with a large color image of Babe Ruth calling his shot in the 1932 World Series at Wrigley Field. The most storied moment in all of baseball history happened not in New York, or Boston, or St. Louis, but right here in Chicago. And all of Chicago was going to read about it, too.

Space limitations were such that only the first 50 reasons could appear on the two pages that day. The other 50 reasons were available on the ChicagoSide website, and my hope is that at least a few of those who saw the story in print made their way to the web site as well.

But what came after the teaser at the end of the piece was an unmistakable reminder of the true pecking order of sports in this town. For despite my attempts to raise the public’s consciousness of this city’s baseball history, the lower right corner told me—and anyone else who was paying attention—who really calls the tune around here.

“Mike Ditka: Player, Coach, Legend” read the ad, which also included a quote from da Coach and a website for DitkaSteaks.com. I appreciated the irony of a Mike Ditka ad placement on the baseball story I had written. I felt a little bit like Luke Skywalker in the first Star Wars movie, when Han Solo tells him “Don’t get cocky!” For no matter what excitement the piece brought to me personally, I was reminded—and always will be—that Mike Ditka casts a shadow in this town that nobody else can match.

Congratulations on the number retirement, Coach, and thanks for all the memories through the years.

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Outrageousness?

I post this video because this is how I want to remember Jim McMahon. He was the leader of the 1985 Bears, who took football to heights that it would never reach again for me. A team that, for three or four months in late 1985 and early 1986, had the world by the tail. And Chicago still hasn’t gotten over them, all these years later. They were something that we’ll never see the likes of again.

So it was with great sadness that I read about the mental decline of Jim McMahon in Sports Illustrated today. The head injuries have taken their toll, to the point where he seems to be like a child, needing to have supervision so that he doesn’t leave his house unattended. He was once the equivalent of Superman, and now he lives with episodes where he sits alone in terrible pain. It’s heartbreaking, really.

Dave Duerson and Junior Seau are high-profile players who recently killed themselves, rather than live with this type of pain. Head injuries robbed them of lives after football. It was an occupational hazard for them, and for everyone who plays a game with such risks. They chose to play the game, and they accepted the glory that came their way as a result. But the price now seems to be awfully high.

There is research being done about the dangers of head injuries in football. But the game itself seems like it’s never been more popular than it is now. You can design better helmets and changes the rules of the game, but the human body isn’t designed to withstand that type of abuse. It’s a terrible lesson to learn, but it’s an even worse lesson to ignore.

There’s no magic cure for what is ailing Jim McMahon and the other ex-football players who share his pain. Mike Ditka, McMahon’s old coach, is raising awareness of the plight of ex-players, but the players themselves will have to live with these after-effects for the rest of their days. It’s a real tragedy.