The year that still haunts me

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2003 should have positive associations for me. It was the year that my younger daughter was born, and if there’s one thing in life I enjoy more than anything else, it’s being a dad. She’s going to become a teenager this summer, and looking at her now is a daily reminder that 2003–in human terms–was a long time ago.

And yet I have to admit that 2003 has a hold over me. As I was out walking the dogs this morning, I spotted a penny on the sidewalk. Sometimes the year stamped on the penny reminds me of other stages in my life, and I’ll add a few words about that year here. But today’s penny was from 2003, and it reminds me of some things I’d rather not think about.

In the five years that I’ve been writing this blog, I’ve written about Mark Prior and Moises Alou, Dusty Baker and Pudge Rodriguez, Sammy Sosa and Brian Banks. And I’ve analyzed Luis Castillo’s foul ball down the left-field line over and over again.

After decades of waiting for the Cubs to win the World Series, I felt that 2003 was finally going to be the year I saw it. Every Cubs fan felt that way, too. Watching it all fall apart in a half-hour’s time on a Tuesday night was excruciating. And the only way to ever make it go away is to–as Eddie Vedder put it–actually Go all the way.

2016 is looking really good so far, much more so than 2003 was looking at this point.On this day in 2003 the Cubs were in first place, but a few days later they had fallen to third place, where they remained until early September of that season. So there’s still a long way to go.

The Cubs’ present four-game losing streak isn’t enjoyable, but there’s not much doubt in my mind that they’ll win their division by a comfortable margin. They’re too good a team to do otherwise, I hope. And then the business of finally vanquishing the ghosts of 2003, and 1984, and any other near-miss season in our collective lifetimes can begin in earnest.

Jose can you see it?

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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.

Bringing 62 back

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When I was a kid, Roger Maris’ 61 home runs in a single season seemed like an unbreakable record. Even getting to 50 was nearly unheard of, and nobody even came close to 61 until the mid 1990s. But then Ken Griffey Jr. came close a couple of times, and Mark McGwire seemed to threaten the number with some hot starts to a season.

And then in 1998 it all came crashing down. McGwire was there, as usual, but Sammy Sosa came into the picture as well, and the two seemed to drive each other to new heights. And when McGwire finally broke the record on 9/8/98 with a line drive that just cleared the fence in St. Louis, the unbreakable record had finally fallen.

I was teaching when the 1998 home run chase was going on, and in my classroom I had a picture of Mark McGwire, and some red construction paper, and his home run count posted in large black numbers. And on the other side of the room, I had a picture of Sammy Sosa, and some blue construction paper, and his home run count, also posted in large black numbers. It was my side-by-side tally board, and updating it was something I looked forward to doing every day. Both players were in uncharted territory, home run-wise, so I was doing my humble little bit to get in on the fun.

But Sosa and McGwire, and then Barry Bonds, began a four-year assault on Maris’ record. Bonds broke it once, McGwire twice, and Sosa three times. And then the party was over. McGwire admitted steroids use, Sosa was reported to have failed a drug test in 2003, and Bonds, well, if you believe his story about flaxseed I have some really good season tickets in that nice ballpark out in San Francisco available to sell you.

But it was all revealed as a mirage, and in the 12 seasons since 2001, nobody has come close to hitting 62 homers in one season. That’s just fine with me. Like a field that sometimes goes unplanted in order to refresh  the soil, 62 homers has had enough time to go back to being an impressive, and even an improbable, amount of home runs for a single season.

And so, with this, the 62nd post I’ve written in this space in January of 2013, I’m willing to declare that Maris’ record has been restored, at least in my eyes. Let a player make a run at 61 home runs again, and it will be as if that four-year home run explosion from 1998 to 2001 never happened in the first place.  And what better way to rebuke baseball’s Steroid Era than to ct as though it never existed in the first place?

Sammy Sosa and the ghosts of 2003

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With Sammy Sosa on the Hall of Fame ballot for the first time this year, the annual debates about who should be inducted–or not inducted–have commenced. The proprietor of The Hall of Very Good asked me to make a case for or against Sammy Sosa, and the piece appears here.

I came out as forcefully as I could against Sosa’s election, on the grounds that he was one of the central figures of the Steroid Era, and this alone is enough to disqualify him. But I also hold the way that Sammy left town against him. On the last day of the 2004 season he quit on the team, left the park early, and got his radio smashed by a still-unnamed teammate. He was traded to the Orioles in the offseason, and never set foot on a baseball field in Chicago again.

So there were the steroids and the issue of quitting on his team. But there’s another piece to the equation that I didn’t even consider, until after I saw the piece I had written online. Is it possible that I might view Sammy’s candidacy differently if 2003 really had been the year that the Cubs won the World Series? Kerry Wood and Mark Prior got all the attention, but the number three hitter in the lineup everyday was good old number 21. Didn’t that count for something?

There was a moment, in Game 7 of the NLCS against the Marlins, where Sammy could have saved the day. The Cubs were trailing by a run in the bottom of the fifth inning, and the Marlins had just brought Josh Beckett into the game on short rest, after he had pitched a shutout against the Cubs in Game 5. When Sosa came to the plate with two outs and nobody on base, every Cubs fan wanted to see him take Beckett deep and tie up the game.

But instead of working the count, or even taking a pitch to force Beckett to work a little bit, Sammy swung at the first pitch and flied out to right field. Had he put one in the bleachers to tie the game–as he had already done in Game one of the series, he would have helped to swing the momentum back the Cubs’ way. But it was not to be, and Beckett worked through the sixth, seventh, and eighth innings, to effectively seal the win for the Marlins. Sosa had a chance to make himself a hero, but he didn’t take advantage of it.

Would I now support Sosa for the Hall of Fame, if things had gone differently back in 2003 or 2004? Sadly, I won’t get to know the answer for certain, but I have to think that I would. Seeing the Cubs play in the World Series, to say nothing of actually winning it, is something I never have seen, and may never see before the inevitable occurs. The sour taste left by 2003 is something I hold against a lot of people, and Sammy Sosa is included in that group. He’s probably even at the head of line.

Since Moises Alou, Eric Karros, Aramis Ramirez, and a dozen other players from that team either aren’t yet on the Hall of Fame ballot–or never will be on it in the first place– Sammy Sosa’s candidacy is the time to let those feelings of disappointment out. Those are the breaks, I’m afraid.

The Virtual Sammy Sosa

I was recently at a place called WonderWorks in Orlando, Florida. It’s the type of a hands-on science workshop that I wish existed when I was a kid. Maybe then I wouldn’t have such an aversion to science, or at least I wouldn’t keep my distance from it quite so much.

One of the exhibits they had was a pitching machine that offered people a chance to throw at a screen that featured either Derek Jeter (the most popular choice, from what I saw while waiting in line), Bobby Abreu (and a few anti-Yankees types chose to face him), or Sammy Sosa. As a long-time Cubs fan, Sosa was the obvious choice.

When my turn finally came, I cranked up my best fastball and threw it toward where the Virtual Sammy stood, waiting. The speed gun registered the pitch at 53 miles per hour, which seemed about 15-20 miles slower than what I thought I could throw. Most people probably wildly overestimate their abilities in this regard.

The screen I was throwing at not only measured the speed of the pitch, but it also determined if the pitch was a ball or a strike. The first pitch was declared a ball. The next two pitches were also called balls, although I did nudge the speed up to 55 MPH for one of them. It felt like I had to contort my shoulder to do it, though. Professional pitchers must put an extraordinary amount of stress on their arms to throw a ball in the 80s and 90s.

The count on the Virtual Sammy was now 3-0. Another ball and I would have walked him, ending the at-bat and my turn at the machine. I had to put this one in there. I did, and virtual Sammy swung, made contact, and promptly began making his way around the bases.

When I was a Cubs fan back in the 1990s and early 2000s, the Real Sammy did that a lot. And a number of the home runs were late in a game, when the Cubs were typically so far behind that a ninth inning home run meant about as much to the outcome of a game as his imaginary home run off of me did in the WonderWorks in Orlando.

So as I watched the Virtual Sammy rounding the bases, as the Real Sammy did so many times during his career in the majors, I took the extra ball that I had in my hand and chucked it at the screen. None of the Real Sammy’s home runs, during all of those years where he was on top of the heap for big league sluggers, came during the World Series. The Real Sammy got his individual numbers, and even won the National League’s MVP award once, but he never took his team–which, for much of his career, was also my team–into the World Series. That’s indicative of someone who never led his team to glory in what is, after all, a team game.

With my turn over, I debated whether or not to get back into the line. But I decided against it, knowing that the other two players meant nothing to me, and surrendering a second home run to the Virtual Sammy was the last thing I wanted to do. The Virtual Sammy’s homer, like the hundreds of others that the Real Sammy hit on a baseball field, amounted to nothing, when all was said and done.

That brief moment of catharsis, which I found by throwing a ball at the Virtual Sammy’s image while it was rounded the bases, felt better to me than anything that the real Cubs have done on the field in 2012. And that’s a sad commentary on the start of the Theo Epstein era in Chicago, isn’t it? But I suppose that’s a piece for another day.

It’s all changed but the love

This picture above was taken back in 1999. Since I hadn’t yet switched to digital photography back then, this image exists as a physical photograph. From time to time, I use this forum as a way of transferring a few of these photographs into digital form by running them through a scanner, and then posting them online with a few words of commentary. My goal is to have these pictures live on in cyberspace, so that when the photograph itself is lost or discarded, the story behind it will continue.

In 1999, my older daughter was born on Easter Sunday, Opening Day for the baseball season, the day that Daylight Savings Time kicked in, and the actual date, itself. So she has four birthdays that we recognize, since the date of those first three things changes from year to year. We like doing that, and I think that she does, too.

One of the first days after we got to bring her home from the hospital, there was an election held in Chicago. it was actually a run-off election, since the primary had identified the two top aldermanic candidates and required a run-off, since neither of the top two had gained a majority the first time around. We moved out of that ward within a year, and bought a house in another ward, but at the time we had no idea what the future would hold. There was an election going on, and my wife and I are civic-minded people, so voting just seemed like the thing to do.

We bundled our little one up, put her in the stroller with a fleece covering on the top for added warmth, and set off to the polling place inside the local library branch in order to vote. The library branch in the picture was about two blocks from our condo, and the picture was taken outside of that branch. We liked that library branch a lot, and we definitely lost that when we moved to a different neighborhood with an older and more run-down library branch. But no regrets, because we love the house, and whatever the nearest public library branch is wouldn’t ever determine where we live, anyway.

The Cubs jersey that I had on was given to me as a birthday gift in 1998, when the Sammy Sosa home run race with Mark McGwire was just taking off. I remember what an exciting time that was, and I would do the whole chest-tapping routine that Sammy Sosa once did. I even did it when we visited the Field of Dreams in Iowa that summer.

A young boy of about four or five saw me, in the Sosa jersey and the Cubs hat I was wearing, and asked me if I played for the Cubs. I smiled at him and replied “Only in this place.” It was the first time that I remember thinking that being a parent might be fun. And my experience has shown that it absolutely is fun. More fun than anything else has ever been for me.

I bring that story, and all the other ones surrounding this picture, up because almost everything about it is different now. We don’t go to that library anymore, because we don’t live in that ward (but are still in Chicago, itself). The stroller isn’t needed, because its occupant now runs and dances and can get herself wherever she wants to go. The jersey itself isn’t worn, because Sammy Sosa left Chicago and I have no desire to be affiliated with him anymore.

But there is one thing from this picture hasn’t changed. The man seen in the picture still loves the unseen little one inside the stroller, and still thinks that having her in his life makes it better and more interesting. She’ll be embarrassed if she ever sees this, because she’s at that stage in life right now, but that’s OK.

One day, hopefully, she’ll find herself in a place similar to mine, and her feelings of embarrassment will take a backseat to her desire to express her other feelings. Perhaps she’ll understand that things like condos and library branches and ballplayers will come and go in life, but love is something that can outlast them all. That’s the hope, at least.

Bill Clinton at the ballpark

I live in Chicago, and by now I’m used to the Secret Service helicopters flying over my house whenever the President or his family are in town. The military helicopters are usually the ones I hear, and they’re always gone in a flash. I’m sure that’s a good thing for keeping the President safe.

So tonight I heard the helicopters and assumed there was an Obama fundraiser of some sort going on. But it turned out that former President Bill Clinton is in town, addressing a conference of Nobel Peace laureates. And it got me to thinking about a previous time that I had seen him, within the confines of Wrigley Field during the final years of his presidency.

1999 was a memorable year in several respects. My oldest daughter was born on Opening Day in April (the Cubs’ first games were played in Japan that year), and life hasn’t been the same since. I was also teaching at the time, and when the end of the school year rolled around in June, we headed out west in our newly-leased Subaru to show off our little one.

We drove to Colorado, where my sister-in-law lived at the time, and one of the things we did there was attend a Rockies-Cubs game in Coors Field. Sammy Sosa was in his monster years back then, and he hit a home run at the game we were at. We then came back to Chicago for a few days, before heading east to introduce relatives in New York to the little one.

That eastern trip led us to ballgames in Tiger Stadium (the final season before they tore it down), and Jacobs Field (on her three month birthday, she went to her fourth big league game), and to the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York. It was the joy of fatherhood during a summer filled with baseball. If baseball is my drug, I nearly overdosed on it that summer.

But back home in Chicago, between the western and eastern trips, we took in a game at Wrigley Field. I remember chasing after a ball in the stands, baby in hand, and securing the ball. It wasn’t until later that I realized how stupid I had been. But the highlight of the game came in the late innings, when we learned that President Bill Clinton was also in attendance at the game. I didn’t know about this in advance, perhaps because the Secret Service had, well, not exactly made it public knowledge.

I remember that he was in one of the sky boxes, and I didn’t really get to see him very well. But seeing a baseball game in the company of a sitting president, even for just a few innings, is something that not everyone gets to do.

The years have flown past since then, and getting my daughter to a baseball game today would probably require tranquilizers of some sort. Or maybe the promise of lots of concessions during the game. But it’s a story I’ll always have for the telling, whether it’s here on my blog or to anyone who will listen to it.

While the Cubs are in town now, I don’t think that a baseball game is on Bill Clinton’s agenda. But if it is, there will be lots of people–whether they love or hate Bill Clinton personally–who could tell a story similar to mine. And hopefully they’d recall it with the same relish that I have here.

Is there a better place to encounter a President–sitting or otherwise–than at a baseball game? If there is, please tell me what that place might be.

Remembering the Hawk

One of the themes running through the “Don’t Blame Steve” song and video is admiration for Andre Dawson (or “Hawk Dawson” as he’s referred to in the video). Dawson only played six seasons in right field at Wrigley Field, or roughly half as long as Sammy Sosa’s tenure there. But believe me when I say that Sosa never would have anything close to the outpouring of love that Dawson received in the picture above.

I first saw Andre Dawson play near the beginning of the 1987 season, shortly after his escape from Montreal. After 11 seasons playing on artificial turf, he left and signed for a minimal amount to play on grass and in sunshine. The Cubs got a bargain as Dawson turned in an MVP season, while playing for a last place team. But he wanted to be in Chicago, and the fans picked up on that right away.

When Andre Dawson would play catch in the outfield between innings, every throw was a laser beam. I’ve been told that Dwight Evans, who had a legendary throwing arm, was the same way in Boston. I would watch Dawson throw and tell myself that if his throws are like that during warmups, what would a throw look like when it counts? I’m not sure that I ever found out, but it wasn’t for a lack of trying.

I never made it to the bleachers at Wrigley as much as I wanted to in college, but I always planned my spring schedule with baseball in mind, more so than academics. And the right field bleachers were always the place to be. There were more seats there than in left field, but right field was also where the Hawk played. To sit somewhere else would have felt disrespectful.

The salaam, where fans bow with both arms extended as a sign of reverence or respect, originated with Cubs fans and Andre Dawson. It was extended to Sammy Sosa in the late 1990s, but I for one wasn’t comfortable with that. That was a Dawson thing, and Sosa seemed to be usurping it on some level. But the legend of Sammy and the Hop washed those misgivings away, unfortunately.

Dawson left Chicago just before the the 1993 season. He played two seasons in Boston, and then two years with his hometown Florida Marlins. It was as a Marlin that he retired after the 1996 season. He played in only three complete games that season, all of them in April, and his role was essentially that of a late-inning pinch hitter when the Marlins came to Wrigley in late  September of that year.

I wasn’t going to miss that day for anything. I somehow found myself in Wrigleyville, instead of at work, and made my way to the bleachers in right field. I’m near the top of the picture, just to the left of the headless bikini top. This picture appears in the book Baseball as America. I whole-heartedly joined in the love and respect that was rained down on the Hawk that day. I heard the speech that he gave that day, and the one he gave at Cooperstown upon his Hall of Fame induction in 2010 (although sadly not in person that time), and I can confidently state there hasn’t been a player since then that I’ve admired so much.

The surprise for me isn’t that I’m writing about Andre Dawson now, but that I’ve already written so much in this space without discussing him. Consider that oversight to be corrected.

Shows what I know

Hall of Fame voting results were released today, and Barry Larkin was elected (easily, I might add) while Jeff Bagwell–the only player I selected on the BBA‘s ballot– fell significantly short of the 75% needed for induction. For the record, Bagwell’s 56% means he needs to make up some significant ground over the next 13 seasons. But he’s moving in the right direction, at least.

Congratulations to Barry Larkin, and next year’s ballot (with Bonds, Clemens, Sosa, Piazza, and Biggio all appearing for the first time) should be a real doozy. I’m looking forward to it already.

Hanu-Cubs, Night 4

As with the previous nights of this festival of Jewish Cubs players, we begin with the music of Steve Goodman. For more about this song, and Steve Goodman generally, click here.

The profile of Dave Roberts is here. Sam Fuld is here, and Ken Holtzman is here. Tonight’s post will focus on the winningest active Jewish pitcher in the majors, Jason Marquis. He wasn’t drafted by the Cubs, and isn’t with them anymore, (he’ll be with the Minnesota Twins next season, if you’re curious) but he spent two seasons with the Cubs in 2007 and 2008.

The thing I’ll always remember about Jason Marquis is that he wore number 21, which Sammy Sosa also wore during his heyday in Chicago. Sosa left after the 2004 season, and his number (which he wore because it was Roberto Clemente’s number) lay unused for a couple of seasons thereafter. But like the big dirt spot out in right field at Wrigley Field–which, it was said, was there to tell Sammy where to stand during the game–the stigma of  “Sammy’s number” was eventually papered over, and Marquis was the first to wear it post-Sosa. Others to wear #21 since have included Milton Bradley and Tyler Colvin.

There’s an irony to the number that Marquis wore, as there so often is. When Sammy Sosa left the game, he was within reach of 600 career home runs. The situation with the Cubs fans–which was fueled by his walking out on the final day of the 2004 season–was such that the milestone would not come in a Cubs uniform. After a season in Baltimore, and another season out of the game, Sosa came back with the Texas Rangers in 2007. He did hit his 600th homer, in an interleague game against the Cubs, off of Marquis, who was wearing his old number at the time. You can’t make this stuff up.

Marquis was signed for three years with the Cubs, but was traded away to the Rockies after only two seasons on the North Side. The Cubs were but one stop on Marquis’ major league journey, and I wish him well in the years to come (especially when he’s in the American League).

There are four nights left in this series, and another pitcher will be profiled tomorrow night. The full Marquis appears below:

As always, thanks for reading. See you tomorrow night.

Baseball’s first professional player

In 1936, the first ballots for the newly-created Baseball Hall of Fame were mailed out for voters to consider. As with modern Hall of Fame balloting, there were two ways to be elected: the Baseball Writers Association of America (or BBWAA) was allowed to vote for contemporary players from the 20th century, while the Veteran’s Committee was allowed to vote for 19th century players. The writers chose five players that year, while the veteran’s committee chose none.

Of the players on the Veteran’s committee ballots (and there were sixty in all), twenty-three got a single vote. None of those twenty-three were inducted in 1936, but in the years since, five of those twenty-three have been enshrined in Cooperstown. What this says to me is that the lack of initial support does not close the door to enshrinement. Sometimes a good case just needs to be made on a player’s behalf.

I bring this up because I recently participated in an exercise put together by Graham Womack at Baseball: Past and Present. He has what is now an annual listing of the 50 best baseball players not in the Hall of Fame. Of course, he and I–and all of the others who participated–aren’t actual Hall of Fame voters, but we all love the game enough to consider which players the Hall of Fame voters may have missed. Or to think about it another way, it’s like playing fantasy baseball with retired players.

When the results of the voting were announced, I wanted to see what the collective wisdom of 86 baseball fans could come up with. Ron Santo was on the list, but during the process of the voting he was selected by the actual Veteran’s Committee, and rightly so.  But of the 50 players that were identified in the voting I participated in, only a handful of them played before 1950, and only two played before 1900. So Don Mattingly and Albert Belle made the list, because the voters can remember when those players actually played the game, but players who died before the voters were born received scant recognition, or none at all.

This isn’t surprising, really. If somebody was to ask me the best World Series ever played, I would list 2011 at the top of the list, followed by 1991 and then by 1975. Notice how those three series all fell within my lifetime, and during the period that I actually followed baseball. Does that mean that none of the World Series played before I was born (and there were dozens of them) was among the best ever? I wouldn’t make that claim at all. It’s just that I didn’t see them happen, and I probably wouldn’t consider any of them to be better than the ones that I have seen.

If I went back and looked at all of the games and all of the series that have been played since the first World Series was played in 1903, I’m sure that I could find a few to rival–and probably even surpass– anything that I have seen. But human nature tends to narrow “history” down to “what I have experienced in my lifetime.” So making a case for a ballplayer who played 100 years before I was even born will be a tall order. But I’m willing to give it a shot.

I’ve been to Cooperstown and the Baseball Hall of Fame once in my life, in the summer of 1999. The Sosa and McGwire home run chase had taken place the season before, and many of those two player’s uniforms, equipment, and so forth were on display. As it turns out, that might be the closest either of them comes to being in Cooperstown, but I digress.

Baseball is a statistics-driven game, and always will be. However, this can only take a person so far in evaluating a player, especially one who played a century and a half ago. There are other intangibles that can–and should–come into play when evaluating the impact a player has had on the game. For example, a player named Candy Cummings was enshrined in Cooperstown in 1939, after receiving no votes at all on the 1936 Veterans’ Committee ballot, because he is credited with inventing the curveball. Imagine what baseball would be like without the curveball. It would certainly be a different game from the one that I know and love.

So there is precedent for a player to be elected to the Hall of Fame for something other than the stats they amassed on the field. I believe that Curt Flood should–and hopefully one day will–be similarly enshrined, since he challenged the Reserve clause that kept players in indentured servitude to the same team for nearly a century. Flood lost his challenge, and his playing career as well, but he has since been vindicated, because players can now offer their services to the highest bidder. Every professional player today owes a debt of gratitude to Curt Flood.

So, too, does every professional ballplayer owe a debt to Lipman Pike. This is because, in the earliest days of organized baseball, professionalism was officially banned from the game. The National Association of Baseball Players, which was founded in 1857, was dedicated to amateurism. However, if you want the best, you should expect to pay for it, and baseball talent is no different from anything else in this regard.

In 1866, The Athletic Club of Philadelphia was considered to be one of the very best baseball teams. They were also thought to be paying players as much as $20 for their services. The actual number would be significantly higher if adjusted into today’s dollars, but the idea here isn’t about how much they were getting paid. It’s that they were getting paid in the first place.

Baseball was already on its way to becoming more than something that men of leisure did in their free time. It was a business, the way we know it today and have always known it to be. But the business of paying players for their services didn’t sit so well with the guardians of the game. So they began investigating the Athletics, and singled out three players (one of them being Pike) as examples of how the Philadelphia team was violating the amateur nature of the game.

It’s unclear whether the target of this investigation was the Athletic club or the players themselves. But Lipman Pike, as a star player in those days, would have been a prime example if the NABBP was determined to make their point about amateurism. His career as a player hung in the balance, and he must have felt that he dodged a bullet, once the Association decided to drop its investigation of him.

The issue of professionalism continued to strike at the heart of what baseball was becoming, but once Pike was allowed to carry on as he was, it amounted to a tacit admission that baseball players would indeed be paid for their services. Pike probably wasn’t the first player who was paid for his services, but he was the first to be allowed to do so openly. For that reason, in my mind at least, he can rightfully be considered as baseball’s first professional player.

In 1866, the NABBP was reorganized as the National Association of Professional Baseball Players, and the minor change in wording (simply adding the word “professional” to the existing name) is quite telling. It also began the first recorded league in baseball history. If you want to put your finger down on a point in history where the game became a fully professional endeavor, this is the moment. And Lipman Pike (along with the other two Athletic players, whose names aren’t readily available in the internet research I have done for this piece) had more to do with this than any other player.

When you visit to the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, you won’t find any amateur players enshrined there. The only way to make it there, as a player, is to make it to the major leagues and perform at the highest level. There are displays and exhibits about the game of baseball itself outside of the professional realm, as well there should be. Baseball is much more than the events that transpire on the field at Wrigley Field and the other major league ballparks. But once you accept the fact that Joe DiMaggio, and Kirby Puckett, and Honus Wagner, and all of the others in the Hall of Fame were paid for their services like any other professional should be, you must also recognize that somebody had to once make that possible.

Baseball began as a game, and has evolved into one of the best-known industries in America. And there needs to be some way of explaining the linkage between the two. Lipman Pike was a fine player in his own right, but I’m making the case here for him as the “missing link” between baseball as a game, and baseball as a business. For that reason, above any statistical analysis that could be presented here, I am stating here that Lipman Pike should be inducted into the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.

Jeff Bagwell for the Hall of Fame

As a member of the Baseball Bloggers Alliance (or BBA for short), I recently participated in their annual Hall of Fame voting process. I don’t have one of the writer’s votes for the election that determines who will actually be enshrined at Cooperstown, but like everyone who loves the game, I do have an opinion. So my ballot results will be shared and defended here.

There were several names on the ballot (somewhere between 10 and 20, I think), but Jeff Bagwell was the only one who deserves a plaque in the Hall of Fame. And since there’s only one affirmative vote here, I’ll have a greater chance to get at the issues surrounding his candidacy. As for the others (Don Mattingly, Jack Morris, Vinny Castilla and some others I can’t recall right now), someone else can take up their cause. Bagwell’s is the only one I’ll be addressing here.

First, the negatives about Bagwell. The overriding topic–and Bagwell’s not the only one this will apply to–is how to address the Steroid era. Mark McGwire is at the leading edge of these players, but Palmiero, Bonds, Sosa, Clemens, and many others will be coming up in the coming years. The five year “sorting out” period is beginning to expire, and the matter of what to do with these players and their inflated numbers over the years will be coming to the fore.

Jeff Bagwell was on the Hall’s ballot last year, and he only received 41% of the votes cast, which is well short of the 75% needed to get in. So he’s back on the ballot again this year. I would hope that the writers who didn’t think he deserved  “first-year” induction have had their say, and that his number rises nearer to the percentage that he needs. I would be surprised if he doesn’t at least break 50% this year.

Those who suspect Bagwell was using the juice during his career have only that: suspicion. There is no failed test (as in the case of Ryan Braun, Alex Gonzalez, Rafael Palmiero, and Manny Ramirez), no admission of guilt (as with McGwire, Canseco,  Giambi), and no court proceedings (as with Bonds and Clemens) to confirm what they suspect to be true. There is no presumption of innocence in these proceedings, because this is not a legal matter. As a result, some people will probably never give him the benefit of the doubt in this regard.

If that’s the case, and withholding a Hall of Fame ballot is meant as an indictment of the entire Steroid era, will that standard also be applied to Jim Thome one day? Or Ken Griffey, Jr.? What about Frank Thomas? They will all likely end up in the same place that Bagwell now finds himself. Do you tell one or more of these players they’re in, while also telling Bagwell that he has to pay the price for your suspicions? There isn’t too much justice there, in my view.

Absent any proof that Bagwell used PEDs, I think you have to give him the benefit of the doubt. Or you have to make a blanket rule that will keep all other sluggers from the Steroid era out, regardless of whether or not there is any evidence to prove they actually did anything wrong.

The second knock against Bagwell is his lack of winning a championship. Worse, he seemed to be conspicuously absent during the post-season, when his team needed  him the most. His lifetime average of .226 in the postseason certainly played a big part in his team’s failure to win so much as one World Series game against the White Sox in 2005 (and it’s quite painful for a Cubs fan to write those words). A 2-4 series record in Houston’s NLDS appearances will doubtlessly be held against him in, as his job was to carry the team in October, and he failed to do this more often than not.

A final knock that I can think of is the length of his career. Fifteen seasons in the majors is not inconsiderable, but among recent inductees, only Kirby Puckett had a shorter career. Another two or three seasons would probably have cemented his place in Cooperstown, but anyone who saw him practically sitting on a stool as he batted at the end of his career knows that it wasn’t going to happen that way.

So what are the positives about Bagwell’s career? The first is that he had a sustained period of excellent offensive production  between 1993 and 2004. In fact, his 1994 season deserves some special notice here.  Every baseball fan knows that was the strike year, and the last six weeks of the regular season–and eventually the playoffs–were cancelled. Bagwell finished first in RBI, second in average (behind Tony Gwynn) and second in home runs (behind Matt Williams).  I grant you that catching Gwynn wasn’t likely to happen, but he trailed Williams by four homers with more than a month still to play in the regular season. Catching Williams in home runs wasn’t beyond the realm of possibility.

But something else pops out about that season. He led the league comfortably in over a dozen statistical categories. He won the RBI title with 20 more than his nearest competitor (that would be Matt Williams). His slugging percentage was nearly 70 points higher than Williams’ was.  He truly left the rest of the National League in his dust that year.

Bagwell slumped a bit, by his standards, after the strike ended in 1995, but starting in 1996 he peeled off eight straight seasons with at least 30 home runs and 98 RBI per season (and usually many more than that in both categories).  McGwire, Sosa, and Bonds would set all of the home run records, but each of them will have a mark against their name when it comes to Hall of Fame voting. Bagwell, as I said before, has no such mark against him. Throwing those three hitters’ achievements into question makes Bagwell’s numbers seem all the more impressive.

Separating the sheep from the goats, and the juicers from the non-juicers, will not be an easy task in the years ahead. However, the fact that Jeff Bagwell went on an extended hitting tear and–not inconsequentially–was also one of the game’s brightest stars during the difficult post-strike period of the mid-1990s and early 2000s, are enough to warrant his enshrinement with the game’s best in Cooperstown next summer.

Adding another digit

I’m watching the World Series now, and I want to squeeze this one in before the game’s over so I can do my post-game review, so here goes…

In 1996, Sammy Sosa was having a very good year. Not the herculean, gargantuan, 66 homers and 160 RBI seasons that he would put up a few years later, but a great season nonetheless. As he stepped into the batter’s box in the first inning of a game in late August–more than a month away from the end of the season–he was sitting at 40 homers and 99 RBIs.

The first three hitters of the game had all walked (I’ve forgotten who the pitcher was by now, and this isn’t the time to look it up), and the pitcher was having some trouble getting the ball over the plate. So Sammy stepped in and…took one off his hand. The run that came across was his 100th RBI of the season, but he earned it the hard way.

Sammy stayed in the game for a few more innings, and eventually came out in the third or fourth inning. After the game, it was announced that he had broken a bone in his hand, and was finished for the season. But at least he got that 100th RBI before he left.

Adding a digit is usually a good thing. Lots of big league pitchers can throw 98 or 99 miles an hour, but you can count on one hand the number that can reach 100. It’s the same with RBIs. 99 RBIs might be an excellent season, but that 100th one, whenever it comes, turns it into something special.

And so it is with this post. I set up this blog last June, not knowing what it would turn into or how long it would last. As I wrote more and more, and let out some of the ideas that had been buried inside my head for way too long, I realized that this could have some staying power. So I went back and created a spreadsheet of all my posts, with their name, date, title, and word count. A bit geeky, I know, but also a bit like wearing a pedometer around all day long. You won’t know if you’ve hit 10,000 steps for the day unless you bother to keep track of them all.

Somewhere in this post will be the 100,000th word I’ve written for BlueBattingHelmet. I’ve only scratched the surface of what I can write, but I also know that adding the next digit–which will be at one million words–is a long way down the road. Perhaps I’ll write a book once I get to that milestone.

But I think that 100,000 words is a pretty good start. And if you’ve read even a few of those words, I thank you for doing so. I’ll keep writing these posts, whether anybody reads them or not, but I’ll always be aware that somebody, somewhere, could find a few of the words I’ve written and learn something new. Or think about something in a new way. Or just escape whatever is bothering them, if only for a moment or two. Any of those outcomes would be just fine with me.

Don’t overlook that first game

Reliving ballgames from the past is a bit like watching Titantic and hoping the boat won’t sink. The boat’s always going to hit the iceberg, and panic is always going to ensue, and that band will always keep playing with the chaos around them. Watch it again and again if you like, but those things are just always going to be there.

And so it is with me and the 2003 NLCS. The recent ESPN documentary, Catching Hell, was bad on many levels, but perhaps the cruelest bit of all was the very final scene were “Alou” finally makes the catch on that foul ball down the third base side. I don’t know what the point of that shot was, but life just doesn’t happen this way. You can’t make a credible documentary about a factual event and then change the final outcome. You might just as well show Joe Jackson coming out of the cornfield.

In any best-of-seven series, winning the first game is crucial in establishing momentum. For each of the ten years before 2003, the team that won Game one of the NLCS had then gone on to capture the pennant. Looking at how Game one was won and lost in 2003 is futile, but I’m about to do it anyway. Come on along if you’re so inclined.

The Florida Marlins were the wild card entry into the playoffs, and so the Cubs, as a division winner, got to host Game one of the series. Carlos Zambrano was pitching for the Cubs, and he was staked to an early four-run lead. Zambrano gave it all back and more in the third inning, and the game see-sawed all the way to the ninth inning.

In the bottom of the ninth, Sammy Sosa hit a dramatic two-run homer to tie the game and force extra innings. Joe Borowski pitched a scoreless tenth inning, and for the 11th inning, Dusty Baker turned to Mark Guthrie. Guthrie was a veteran middle reliever, in his second tour of duty with the Cubs.

The first batter Guthrie faced was Mike Lowell. Lowell had broken his wrist, and thus lost his starting third base job, in late August of that year. Coming off the bench as a pinch hitter was a new role for him, but one that he evidently took to quickly enough. Guthrie hung a 2-2 fastball, and Lowell sent it to the bleachers in centerfield, giving the Marlins a lead they would not relenquish.

After taking the loss in Game one, Guthrie came back and pitched one inning of mop-up duty in Game two, but he did not pitch again in the series. In fact, it was the final pitching outing of Guthrie’s career. No one can say whether this home run had any impact on Guthrie’s career after 2003, but clearly Dusty Baker had lost confidence in him. Otherwise, Guthrie might have pitched at some point in Games three through seven of the series.

The Cubs came back from the opening defeat to win the next three games, and they had the Marlins on the ropes until Josh Beckett shut them out on two hits in Game five. If the Cubs had captured Game one, it’s possible that Beckett wouldn’t have had another chance at the Cubs. The series would have then been over in four games.

Coulda, woulda, shoulda. It’s all conjecture, and none of it changes what actually happened. But it’s also worth remembering that plenty of things did happen in the series before the eighth inning of Game six, even though ESPN would rather fixate on Moises Alou and the foul ball he didn’t catch, at least not in real life.

The unique nature of Game 163

This is my 163rd post on this blog, and I wanted to spend a few moments ruminating on the most unusual game in all of baseball.

The baseball regular season is a very predictable thing, in the sense that a team travels around from city to city, plays 2 or 3 or sometimes 4 games in one place, and then moves on to the next city. Aside from three days off in July for the All-Star break, a few Mondays or Thursdays here and there, and the occasional rainout, there isn’t much to interrupt that over the course of six months during a year.

Sometimes, there’s a tie at the end of 162 games. And baseball can’t abide ties, so something has to be done to break the tie. That’s where Game 163–the odd duck of all baseball games–comes in.

The three major sports leagues in the U.S.A. all do things a little bit different. Football is a one-off every week, where one team travels to another city and plays a game. There is no follow-up, it’s just one and done. A visiting player may get a chance to play another game in that city, if they survive in the league long enough, but it’s very likely that the game is a one-time thing for them (“That time I played in Cleveland,” for example). The playoffs are the same way: One game and out. On to the next city, if you win, or done for the season, if you don’t.

Basketball does it a bit differently. They use a traveling around model, like the NFL does, but they return to the same city a couple of times during the regular season. An NBA player gets to play in Cleveland, or Atlanta, or San Antonio at least a couple different times in a season, for each season that they’re in the NBA. And the playoffs are a series of games, so that each individual game counts for something, and there isn’t a “win or go home” situation unless there’s a Game seven.

Baseball does it a different  way. Since the team plays games almost every day, they don’t travel to a city just to play one game and then move on. Rather, they play, as mentioned before, anywhere from 2 to 4 games games in the same place. There’s talk in baseball of a team “winning the series” during the regular season, but over the course of 162 games, no three- or four-game series can mean too much. And the playoffs are when “winning the series” matters, but baseball players are conditioned to play games in a series, anyway.

But a tie after 162 games means that all bets are off. It means that one team will travel to another city to play a single game, like the NFL and NBA regular seasons, and that the winner of that game gets to keep playing, while the loser is done for the year. There’s no other situation like that in baseball. That’s what makes it so special.

I was lucky enough to go to a Game 163 once. In 1998, the Cubs and the Giants finished the season tied for the Wild Card (which was still a relatively new thing back then), and so a one-game playoff was held at Wrigley Field. Sammy Sosa got another game to try to catch Mark McGwire in home runs. He needed four, but didn’t hit any. Scottie Pippen threw out the first pitch. The Bulls were still the kings of Chicago sports, even after the Jordan era had come to a premature end. Bill Murray sang “Take me out to the Ballgame” with a passion that probably hasn’t been seen  from any of the singers since then. And my wife and I had been to the doctor that day, where we heard our daughter’s heartbeat for the first time. It was a special day all the way around.

And the Cubs won the game, too. A jouneyman player named Gary Gaetti hit a flyball to the outfield that somehow made it into the bleachers, and the park exploded in a way I had never seen before, and doubt I’ll ever see again. The Giants had a rally going in the ninth inning, and I ran out of room on my scorecard for all the pitchers that were brought in to try to end it for the Cubs, but the late Rod Beck came in and got it done. Mayhem ensued, because the 1990s were a very bad decade for the Cubs, and making it to the playoffs, by the slimmest of margins, was cause for a wild celebration.

The team played the Atlanta Braves in the first round of the playoffs, and was swept in three games (it was a best-of-three back then, instead of best-of-five as it is now). So we all got worked into a frenzy, only to be let down at the end. It made Game 163 seem like a very hollow victory.

The next summer, after my daughter had been born and my wife and I drove east to introduce her to family in New York, we drove past Yankee Stadium. Even from the highway, I could see the ring around the top of the Stadium that read “26 World Championships,” which included the World Series win from the previous season. So the Cubs’ fans like myself, who got so worked up over winning a Wild Card spot in the playoffs, seemed kind of silly in the face of all the Yankees’ success.

The game itself was a great experience, the way any single, win-or-go-home playoff game is supposed to be. And I would have much rather won the game than lost it that night. But it left me–and I would imagine many others–feeling unfulfilled, especially in light of how the playoffs turned out. The team wasn’t able to build on that success in the next year, either. Sammy kept on hitting his home runs, but it would be several more disappointing seasons until the Cubs made the playoffs again.

Thinking back on that game, with the dozen or so years of life experience that have followed since then, I understand that a triumph one day doesn’t mean anything in the days that follow it. The Braves were a better team than the Cubs were (they won the World Series the year after that one, I believe) and they sure showed it.

The Tribune company owned the Cubs for two decades, but they never brought the team to the level that the Yankees were at. The Ricketts family hasn’t shown much so far, but they’re still cleaning up the mess of a franchise that the Cubs were back then. They’re going in a new direction now, and I’m hoping that the fleeting celebration of the 1998 Wild Card playoff game pales in comparison to what happens when the Cubs finally do, as Eddie Vedder once predicted, “go all the way.”

I thought of him as my Grandpa

Jack Brickhouse was my surrogate grandfather from 1975 to 1981. He’s the reason why I turned away from the Cardinals, which was no small thing for a young boy living in the Cardinals’ town of Springfield, Illinois.

And as I got older, and the Cubs replaced the mild-mannered Jack with the more bombastic Harry Caray in 1982, the Cubs have always been with me:

When my first “real” job made me miss watching the now-legendary “Sandberg Game” in 1984, I made sure my little brother gave me all the details later on that night.

When I was in college in the late 1980s, I routinely planned my springtime courses so that my afternoons were always free.

On the night that the Cubs turned on the lights–8/8/88–I met a co-ed who later became my wife. We were married on 8/8/92.

When we bought a  condo on Kenmore Avenue in 1996, I would tell people that if Sammy Sosa finally hit the ball a mile, it would land in my front yard.

When Jack Brickhouse died in 1998–a few months after Harry Caray did–I went to his spot on the Cubs’ “Walk of Fame” outside of Wrigley Field to pay my respects. I lit a candle, placed a blue flower on his plaque, and thanked him for what he had done. It was a moment I won’t forget.

Following the Cubs for practically my whole life has not been easy. I don’t know what salt in the wounds feels like, but it can’t be any worse than watching the White Sox and the Cardinals win the World Series in consecutive years. And watching every other team, except my own and the Expos/Nationals, make it to the World Series hasn’t been easy, either.

Despite all this, I’ve never reconsidered my loyalty to the Cubs. If they ever do win the World Series, I’ll go search out Jack Brickhouse (there’s now a statue of him on Michigan Avenue). And if I don’t live long enough to see that happen, all of my memories will have been enough.

Dusty left him in too long, twice

I’ll never forget the 2003 playoffs. The way it ended is something that I might never recover from. I’ve posted about that before in this space. But there are some good memories from it, too. I was scheduled to go to Atlanta on a business trip, and lo and behold, the Cubs were going to be playing there the very week I would be in town. I took that as a sign that I was doing something right with my life.

Wearing my Sammy Sosa jersey–back when I would still do such a thing– while walking through the Atlanta airport was another good memory. So was getting ready for work on Monday, and hearing “Seats are still available” on the radio. It struck me as odd that the games weren’t sellouts, but Braves fans had gotten blase’ about simply making it to the playoffs by that point. And walking through the streets of Atlanta with thousands of fellow Cubs fans after the Cubs won Game one of that series is something I’ll always remember fondly.

But the best memory of all happened at the outdoor bar known as ‘Turner Beach” after the Cubs lost game two. A Braves fan was telling me that the Cubs stink and, instead of putting my head down and walking away as I might normally do, I decided to give it right back to him. I told the Braves fan that when the series returned to Chicago for Game three, his team would be facing Mark Prior, which meant they had no chance. I proceeded to make up Prior’s stat line for the game–something like 7 2/3 innings, three hits, two runs (at most), eight strikeouts, one walk–and then walked away, supremely confident that Prior would indeed deliver a stellar performance. And that’s exactly what he did.

The terrible irony of 2003 is that as much as Prior carried the team on his back–along with fellow starting pitcher Kerry Wood–he was the one on the mound when everything started to unravel during Game six. He didn’t give up all of the eight runs that cost his team the game and, eventually, a spot in the World Series, but the chain of events started while he was on the mound.

It didn’t have to be that way. The previous start that Prior made during that series was Game two, where he earned the victory but went much deeper into the game than he had to. It’s all hindsight now, and I know what they say about hindsight being 20/20, but Prior was badly mismanaged by manager Dusty Baker all season long, and it eventually caught up to the Cubs in Game six.

Mark Prior, over the course of his first full major league season in 2003, made 30 starts and threw an amazing 3,401 pitches for the regular season. That’s an average of 113 pitches per start,  which once wasn’t a big deal, but now is the cause for some serious alarm. Not only can it lead to arm injuries for the pitchers, but it can also cause them to simply run out of gas, which is exactly what happened to Prior in Game six against the Marlins that terrible evening almost eight years ago.

Back to Game two for a moment. The Cubs jumped out to an 8-0 lead after three innings, and they extended their advantage to 11-0 after five innings. Starting pitchers must throw five innings to qualify for a win, and had Prior been removed from the game at that point, he would have thrown a mere 73 pitches. But, for reasons that only Dusty Baker can explain, Prior went out to the mound in the sixth inning (throwing 21 more pitches), the seventh inning (10 more pitches) and the eighth inning (12 more pitches before being taken out of the game).

Yes, Prior was young, nearly unhittable, and in possession of the best pitching mechanics anyone had ever seen, but throwing 43 additional pitches–on the heels of throwing an excessive number of pitches already in the regular season and the playoffs–didn’t serve too much purpose in a game that was so far out of the Marlins’ reach.

In Prior’s next start, the ill-fated Game 6, Prior threw 102 pitches through the first seven innings. For a team with an established setup man, that’s the time to take your starter out of the game. By turning it over to the bullpen, you get a fresh arm to face the hitters, and a look from the new pitcher that the batters on the other team haven’t seen before. Regardless of whether or not Prior was beginning to tire after seven innings, the top of the Marlins order–Juan Pierre, Luis Castillo, and Ivan Rodriguez–was coming up in the eighth inning, and they had each faced Prior three times already. I wonder if Dusty Baker considered that fact before he sent Prior out to start the eighth inning.

The foul ball episode, which happened while Luis Castillo was at bat, didn’t change a thing about the outcome of the game. By the time Ivan Rodriguez singled home the Marlins’ first run, Prior had thrown 22 more pitches and was seeing the game starting to slip away. His last, best hope to escape the jam he was in fell by the boards when Alex Gonzalez booted a bouncing ball that could have been a double play.

And yet the Cubs still had a two run lead. Baker let Prior face still another batter–future Cub Derrick Lee, and Prior’s 126th pitch of the night resulted in a game-tying,  season-changing double to left field. Prior was finally removed from the game, but by then the damage had already been done. We know how it ended up, and it wasn’t pretty.

With the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, it seems that any of the Cubs relievers should have come in for the sixth inning of Game two against the Marlins, or the game should have been turned over to a setup reliever for the eighth inning of Game six. We won’t ever know how these moves might have worked out, but I promise they wouldn’t have been any worse than the results we did get.

My blue hat’s off to Jim Thome

This won’t be a pleasant topic to address. There isn’t any physical pain or suffering involved, only mental anguish on my part. And of course it has to do with being a Cubs fan. What a great life I might have if baseball didn’t matter to me, or I was a fan of a team that actually won on occasion. But that’s not the world I live in.

First off, hitting 600 home runs in the major leagues is an awesome achievement. It’s averaging 30 home runs over a 20 season period, which is almost impossible to wrap one’s mind around. A few have done it before, but you could count them on both hands. And that by itself says a lot.

I’ve seen Jim Thome play in person, and I’ve seen him hit home runs. The ones I saw, like most of the ones he hit, didn’t just barely clear the fence. Rather, they seemed to disappear from sight. I saw him hit a homer (on TV) that went all the way out of Jacobs Field in Cleveland. So the total distance on all those home runs would be a staggering number, if anyone has bothered to calculate it.

A long career like his should be celebrated, especially in this terrible era of steroids in the majors. Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, Barry Bonds, Rafael Palmiero, Alex Rodriguez, Manny Ramirez, and so many other “sluggers” have been revealed as frauds and cheaters. If Thome went anywhere near PEDs or HGH or any of the stuff that helped those other guys, I haven’t heard about it. Today, as I write this, Thome is known to be clean. And that’s worth noting.

After Thome’s talents had outgrown Cleveland’s ability to pay him, Thome was a free agent back in late 2002 and early 2003. I made the case, as emphatically as I could on the Cubs.com bulletin boards, that he should be signed by the Cubs. Whatever the contract terms might be, it would be worth it because of what he would bring. Home runs, yes, but also clubhouse leadership. A counterweight against the player that was being referred to as SamMee. And having a Thome jersey in blue would have been completely badass.

But the Cubs were sold on a young (read: cheap) prospect named Hee Seop Choi. They thought he might blossom into the kind of power hitter that Thome already was. So they stood pat and told Thome to look elsewhere. So he signed with Philadelphia and hit 47 home runs in 2003. I will always think of that year as the year that might have been it, not because of Steve Bartman, but because of Jim Thome.

Hee Seop Choi fizzled out, and the Cubs had other players taking turns at first base throughout the playoffs. But with a rock like Thome in the lineup everyday, they could have gone places where they didn’t end up going. It’s all hindsight now, but I look at Thome and can’t help thinking about what could have been with him in blue.

Instead, I have him shown here in black. White Sox wear. Completely unacceptable, in my eyes. He hit his 500th homer in a Sox uniform, and I’m sure he’ll have fond memories of playing in Chicago. It’s just on the wrong side of town, from my perspective.

All that aside, I congratulate him for having a brilliant career, and doing it in a way that has restored my faith in baseball and its superstar players.