A kick ass American weekend


The first time that I ever felt any national pride over a sporting event was the Miracle on Ice hockey team at the 1980 Winter Olympics. I was 11 years old, and giddy at the prospect of beating the big, bad Soviets at what appeared to be their own game.

Flash forward 35 years, to Sunday’s triumph of the U.S. National Women’s Team at the World Cup. Again, soccer doesn’t seem to really be America’s game, particularly since the rest of the world calls it “football” instead. But when America’s best matched up against the rest of the world, the Red, White, and Blue came out on top. A better way to cap off the 4th of July weekend cannot be imagined, at least in the sporting realm.

The proceedings in Soldier Field were also a pretty good capper, in the artistic realm. It was a great weekend for America, all the way around.

Doing my part for hockey


Baseball is always going to come first for me, in terms of sports interest. Other sports may get a momentary interest as well–as the NBA did in the Bird/Magic/Jordan era, but they’ll never be the game of my youth, or the sport I can talk to my family about. But since the off season still has another month to go until Opening day, I may as well see what else is going on.

The Olympics caught my attention for a brief moment this winter, and not because of the skating or the half pipe or anything like that. I found myself drawn to hockey, especially when the United States team beat the Russians. I reminisced for a bit about Lake Placid and the 1980 games, and hoped that the American team could do equally as well this time around. I realized then that the big bad enemy was no longer the Soviets, but the Canadians. When the women’s hockey team lost the goal medal to Canada, I challenged the men’s team to do better by beating or Northern neighbors. But alas, this did not happen. I then pointed out that it was win the final game and take the bronze medal, or lose and go home empty handed. The Americans chose the latter course, unfortunately.

It’s now a week after the Sochi games have ended. There’s no March Madness to follow yet, and the NBA is long past its resonance with me, and I know that there are many other endeavors that do not involve sports at all. But as a sports-centered American, I need to fill my attention with some sort of game involving athletic competition. I may move beyond this one day, but it hasn’t happened yet.

The NHL–the professional league of a sport I’ve never really been too interested in–staged an outdoor game at Soldier Field last night. I didn’t watch that much of it, and I didn’t even care too much about who wan the game, but I know a good event when I see one. The outdoors, the snow, the skyline of Chicago, and all the rest of it was as good a way as any to celebrate this terrible winter we’ve been dealing with this year. So I wrote a few words remarking on what a good thing it was for hockey, and for the NHL, and for the exposure it brought to the amazing city that I call home.

That’s more hockey writing in the past few weeks than I’ve ever done before, and likely more than I ever will do again. But it was fun while it lasted, this dalliance with a sport that’s a bit too North-woodsy for me.  Hopefully the Blackhawks will give me a reason to get back into it come June, even if baseball will be in full swing by then. I’ll be sure to write about it if that happens, too.

One week to go

It’s Friday night, and at this time next week Bruce Springsteen will be onstage at Wrigley Field. September once seemed far away, and now it’s almost here. It promises to be a rockin’ good time.

Earlier this week I had a piece published on ChicagoSideSports about how Springsteen will be the first artist to play at all four Chicago sports arenas: Soldier Field in 1985, the United Center beginning in 1999, U.S. Cellular Field in 2003, and now Wrigley Field in 2012. It’s worth pointing out that championship banners have since come to each of those first three venues, so that bodes well for Wrigley and the Cubs. As I wrote back in March, I believe in the Promised Land.

I was never a Deadhead, but….

Today would have been Jerry Garcia’s 70th birthday. Would have been, had he not been indulgent in the excesses available to a rock star. But he was a central figure in a highly successful band, and he brought a lot of joy to a lot of people, so what’s it to me or anyone else the way he lived his life? It’s nothing at all, really.

I saw the Grateful Dead perform live four times, twice in the 1980s at the Rosemont Horizon (they call it the Allstate Arena now) and twice in the 1990s at Soldier Field. The 1992 show stands out in my memory, because Jerry just seemed to go off on every song. I never considered him as a guitar player before that show, certainly not in the archetypal guitar god mode, but he quite literally blew me away that night.

I wasn’t into the Dead before the “Touch of Grey” thing happened in the late 1980s. I can’t suggest otherwise. When people like me started going to Grateful Dead shows, I’m sure that it was never again the same for those who had more time and mileage invested in the band than I did. I never acid-danced during a show, and never sold jewelry or stir-fry or anything else to get the gas money to get to the next show. I soaked up the scene in the parking lot and inside the concert venue, and that was quite enough.

The music stopped, at least for Jerry, after a show at Soldier Field in 1995. That’s 17 years ago now, meaning that anyone who can actually say they saw the band play live is at least in their late 30s, if not older than that. Their music lives on in bootlegs and concert films and satellite radio, but the experience of having been in the crowd during a Dead show is slipping into the past.

I went to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland for the first time this year, and on the top two floors, in a special rotating exhibit space, was a collection of Grateful Dead artifacts. I tried my best to explain it all to my teen-aged daughter, and we watched some footage of “Shakedown Street” that was playing on a screen, but I couldn’t escape the feeling of being old. It wasn’t so very long ago in my mind that we waited through a downpour–and a super-abbreviated opening set by Sting–for what turned out to be my final Dead show in 1993. But nineteen years have indeed passed by, whether I like that or not.

So I remember Jerry Garcia, and I’m glad that his musical gifts entered my life, if only for a few hours in concert, and a few minutes here and there on YouTube videos. I realize now that these kinds of artistic enhancements are a rare and precious commodity, and they appear more obvious in retrospect than when they are actually taking place. So thanks, Jerry, wherever you are nowadays. And just keep truckin’ on.

Madlock took it away

1976 was the first full year that I considered myself a Cubs fan. Watching the games on WGN every afternoon was something of an elixir for the eight-year old that I was at the time. The games were always in the sunshine at Wrigley Field, and the away games must have happened, but they were never quite the same. Baseball looked better in the daytime, then and now.

The emergence of Bruce Sutter as a go-to reliever was the biggest surprise of the season. The pitch he threw, the split-fingered fastball, looked like a magic trick the way it dropped out of sight. Sutter learned to throw it after having surgery on his arm to revive a flagging minor league career, and I suppose you could say that it worked. 1977 was the best it ever got with him, as far as I was concerned, but the end of 1976 showed what was in store for the future.

The best storyline of the season, though, unfolded on the very last day. Some of this I remember, and some of this is computer-aided. The value of using the internet to assist with personal memories is discussed here. It was a Sunday at Wrigley Field, the Bears were playing the Redskins at Soldier Field, and fewer than 10,000 fans had come out to watch two baseball teams who were collectively 64 games under .500.

The reigning National League batting champion, Bill Madlock of the Cubs, trailed Cincinnati’s Ken Griffey (Sr.) in the league batting race. To make matters worse, Griffey planned to sit out his team’s last two games against the Braves. The Reds were defending world champions, and their playoff date with the Phillies was already set. If Madlock wanted another batting title, he was going to have to earn it.

On the mound for the Expos that day was the late Woodie Fryman. Madlock’s first at bat was a bunt to third base, which he beat out for a hit. Madlock came up again in the third, and beat out an infield hit to key a 5-run Cubs rally. Madlock wasn’t going down without a fight.

Madlock came up again in the fourth, and became one of the last batters to face Expos reliever Chip Lang, who at age 23 might have believed a long big-league career awaited him. Madlock singled in Tarzan Joe Wallis (I love that name) from third base, and things got even more interesting in the batting race. Madlock now stood at .3372, which was just an eyelash behind Griffey at.3375. I remember hearing Madlock’s average articulated out to four decimal places, and thought it was strange, but I understand it now. Madlock still needed another hit.

In the bottom of the sixth inning, Madlock came up against the Expos’ Dale Murray. He would pitch in other big-league games, if you’re wondering. Madlock lined a single to right on the first pitch he saw, lifting his average to .3385. Madlock had taken the lead in the batting race away from Griffey. The fans at the game that day will probably never forget what they saw.

But everything wasn’t over yet. Madlock’s turn in the order came up again in the bottom of the eighth. A hit would have raised his average even higher, but an out would have dropped him back behind Griffey. So Madlock “pulled a Griffey” when Rob Sperring, a utility player with one more big-league season ahead of him, took the at-bat instead. Madlock’s work was done for day.

When word of the events in Chicago spread to Cincinnati, Griffey interrupted his planned weekend off to try and counter Madlock. He pinch hit in the bottom of the seventh, and again in the eighth, but struck out both times, effectively handing the batting title to Madlock. It was the first time a Cubs’ player had repeated as the league’s hitting leader.

Madlock would try for a third hitting crown the next season, but in someone else’s uniform. Cubs ownership balked at paying a two-time batting champion what he was worth, and so they traded him to San Francisco for Bobby Murcer (more on him later). In the years since, Bill Buckner and Derrick Lee have won batting titles for the Cubs, but neither one in such dramatic fashion. And the young kid that I once was–who was watching the game on WGN–had another reason to follow his new favorite team.