Something Old, Something New


It’s been a quiet February on the blog front. The enthusiasm I once had for doing this has ebbed, and I like sleeping at night, too. But I recently had my annual Cubs preview posted on (has it really been five years of doing that? Time flies!) and I had a piece that I reconstructed from a post in this space published on  It looks like the kind of website I’ve been wanting for a long time. May other stories make their way onto that site soon.

There’s a few things I want to say about life, and hopefully I’ll have time for it soon enough. But for now I just wanted to plug my writing a little bit, and remind myself that I still enjoy doing it.

Time for some baseball memes

SchwarbtemberI’ve made a few memes before, and posted them in this space. I enjoy the opportunity they offer for some creative expression. So it was only a matter of time before I made some for the Cubs, I suppose.


And there’s still some time to catch the Cardinals in the division race, too. This is Cardinals manager Mike Matheny. I can see some fear in his eyes. for sure.

I love this time of year, for once.

September Redux


Making predictions, or at least trying to divine what the future may hold, is a tricky business. The end result can either make one appear to be prophetic or stupid. That’s the peril of hazarding a guess about something that hasn’t happened yet, and might not ever happen at all.

The Chicago Cubs have been my principal muse, ever since I started writing this blog in the summer of 2011. They put the blue in my batting helmet.  And blue has been an apt metaphor for the sadness and frustration that has come from following a losing baseball team for forty years.

Even when the Cubs win in the regular season–and it has happened a few times over the years–they find some way to make it hurt even worse in October, when the playoffs come around. And the World Series? I see it every year on television, but never once have I taken an active role in cheering on my team in it.

Three years ago, the Cubs were in a terrible state. They had decided to rebuild the franchise by jettisoning their highest-priced players (Carlos Zambrano, Aramis Ramirez, Alfonso Soriano, and so on) in favor of developing younger talent, instead. It wasn’t something I wanted to see, because losing isn’t fun. Believe me when I say that.

At the beginning of the final month of a lost season back in 2012, I reminisced about an unusual September of success in 2003, when Dusty Baker was managing the Cubs. That was twelve years ago, which in a player’s years is a lifetime. The aforementioned Ramirez is the only player from that team still playing at the major league level, and at age 37 his career is winding down. But for a fan, twelve years can disappear in the blink of an eye.

So I used a happy memory from a rare good season for the Cubs to help me get through a particularly bad season. And at the end of the piece, I tried to strike a hopeful note when I wrote this sentence:

But the memory of that September from almost a decade ago lives on,

sustaining me in the hope that a similar September will come along someday,

and then give way to an even more glorious October.

Today the Cubs are trying to sweep a three-game series from the Cardinals in St. Louis. They’re six-and-a-half games behind the Cardinals in their division, with just three-and-a-half weeks left in the regular season. But they’re surging at the right time, as September comes around.

This year appears to be the September I was hoping for, when I wrote that post from three years ago. This time it appears that I’m prophetic, or at least partially so; the glories of October have yet to be determined. But for now, I plan to dance as much as I can in the coming weeks.

Go Cubs! 

I was once a Cardinals fan

Can't go there anymore, April 14

Forty years ago, I was a fan of the St. Louis Cardinals. My dad took me to my first baseball game–a doubleheader against the Mets at the old Busch Stadium in St. Louis–in late July of 1975. It was the most exciting thing I had yet experienced in life, and the result was a love for baseball that continues to this day.

My time as a Cardinals fan was brief, however. I found the Cubs and Wrigley Field on a TV broadcast in late September of 1975, and they have been my choice team ever since. I couldn’t watch the Cardinals on TV in those days, and that was enough to shift my loyalties to the team from the north.

Had I remained a Cardinals fan, which there are more of than Cubs fans in the city I grew up in, life would be different, I’m sure. The Cardinals are accustomed to winning, and their success makes them the red yang to the Cubs’ blue yin.

This season could offer more of the same, as the Cardinals have the best record in the game, and the Cubs are trying to chase them down over the last six weeks of the season and into the playoffs. However it turns out, I’ll always look back at that short two-month period in 1975 as an example of how life can bring about changes.

And with that in mind, go Cubs!

A story I’ve wanted to tell for a long time


I first had an inkling of the recent story that I wrote for ChicagoSideSports when I read Mitchell Nathanson’s The People’s History of Baseball in 2011. Much like Howard Zinn’s work for history in general, Nathanson challenged the traditional “Baseball as America” narrative in many ways.

I realized, as I was reading the book, that much of what I believed about the sport I have always loved was simply not true. I believed them because I wanted to believe them, or the people who see baseball as the for-profit industry that it is had told to to me that way.

One of Nathanson’s contentions was that race sometimes played a role in the trades that were made between teams. I made a mental note of this, and a few weeks later, as I was paging through a coffee table book titled–ironically enough–Baseball as America, I found a statement that I would have totally missed, had I not read Nathanson’s book. But after reading his book, it made perfect sense. I wrote something about that realization in this space, but painted in general terms, because I didn’t yet know the full story.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Lou Brock trade, which happened in June of 1964. The recent 50th anniversary of the Beatles’ appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show demonstrates how we, as a society, love our anniversaries. 48 years after the Brock trade doesn’t feel like the right time to talk about the trade, but 50 seems just right. And any year after 50, well, it will be old news by then. It’s old news now, but a small window to revisit what happened has opened up, and I took the opportunity to walk through it.

I decided to research the Cubs in the years leading up to 1964, in terms of African American players on their roster. And what I found was intriguing. The Cubs embraced integration rather slowly at first, but by the start of 1964 they had more black players (and there’s a reason why I use that term) than they ever had before. And that’s exactly the reason why the trade happened the way that it did.

I love living in Chicago, but race is never far from the surface in this city. It fact, it’s rarely off of the surface in the first place. So finding a racial angle for this trade really shouldn’t be surprising. Disappointing, yes, but not surprising. And by pointing out what that angle is, I hope that the generations of baseball fans who accepted incompetence on the Cubs’ part as the reason for the trade will at least consider it to be something more than that.

The term “revisionist history” came to my mind several times as I was writing this piece. I realized that people have been conditioned, literally from the day after the trade was made, to believe certain things. And people won’t cast aside these beliefs, just because somebody like me says something to the contrary. But at the same time, history is not a static thing, by any measure. Society changes over time, and new evidence comes to light, and a different interpretation inevitably arises as a result.

If anyone takes a new understanding of what happened away from this piece, I will be very pleased. And if anyone else determines that I’m full of crap, and what they’ve always believed is still the truth, I can live with that, too. And–the most likely of all results–if 99% and more of all humanity does not have their life impacted by this story, that’s just fine, too. At least I’ll have added a new perspective to an old story. And isn’t that what history is all about?

Taking down the Cardinals, for a change


Last year, the Cubs played a weekend series in St. Louis where they scored one run, in the second inning of the Friday game, and that was it. I sent out a tweet saying that it was the worst series I had seen in more than 35 years as a Cubs fan. It was brutal to watch it.

So this year, when the Cubs take the first of a three-game weekend series with the Cardinals in St. Louis, I felt the need to celebrate a little bit, at the Cardinals’ expense. Here’s the piece. And if they want to win one or both of the remaining games this weekend, I think we’ll see another piece, as well.

Link to a post on ThroughTheFenceBaseball


The first half of the baseball season came to a close on Sunday night. Actually, it’s just a bit more than 50 percent through the season, but psychologically it’s halfway over. In truth, it’s been over since the middle of April, but schedules have to be honored and rituals have to be adhered to. So shall it be from now through the end of September, and possibly into October if the playoffs are compelling enough. I’m pretty sure they will be, too.

The Cubs had a chance to take a series from the Cardinals and head into the All-Star break with some momentum. But, fittingly enough, their bullpen gave it away on Sunday night, and now there’s a few off days coming up. In the meantime, I’ll be happy to write about things other than this team that’s been frustrating me for decades now. And then, come the weekend, I’ll be back at it again, telling the world of my miseries. Such is life, at least for me. And I’m not complaining, either. At least not for a few days, anyway.

Requiem for a Sosa jersey


It seems like a long time ago, but I can remember exactly when I got my first Cubs jersey, in June of 1998. It was a birthday gift, upon the occasion of turning a round number somewhere between 21 and 50 (but much closer to 21). The decision of which player’s name and number to have on the back of the jersey came down to two: Kerry Wood’s number 34, and Sammy Sosa’s number 21.

Kerry Wood was still a rookie, but he had caught the attention of the baseball world with his 20-strikeout performance against the Houston Astros the previous month. He followed it up with thirteen more Ks in his next outing, and the sky truly seemed to be the limit for what he could accomplish. All double-entendres aside, sporting a Wood jersey seemed like a chance to get in on the ground floor of something truly special.

And then there was Sammy Sosa. He had come over from the White Sox in 1992, before shifting over to right field and making Andre Dawson expendable. I loved Dawson, more than any other Cubs player before or since, but Sammy had more upside than the Hawk did in the early 1990s. He was consistently a 35-40 home runs and 100+ RBI player, and his star was definitely on the rise.

So I had to weigh the hot young rookie against the proven veteran in making my decision. There was also an element of the offensive star who was going to be in the lineup every day, against the pitcher who only took to the mound once or twice a week. I could still wear the Wood jersey if he wasn’t pitching that day, but I was reasonably certain that Sosa—who had played in all 162 games in the 1997 season—would be in the lineup whenever I found myself in the stands at Wrigley Field.

In the end, I decided that Sosa’s 21 trumped Wood’s 34. And I was instantly validated in the decision, when Sosa joined Mark McGwire in the chase for Roger Maris’ home run record. It was a summer that none of us who love baseball will ever forget, as Sammy and Big Mac put the focus back onto baseball in a way that it had not been since before the 1994 players’ strike. Baseball was on everybody’s minds, and Sammy’s hops and kisses to the camera and curtain calls at Wrigley Field were a central part of that experience.

When I went to the Field of Dreams movie site during the summer of 1998, I wore my Sosa jersey and a Cubs hat. A young boy of perhaps four or five came up to me, starry-eyed, and asked me if I played for the Cubs. I smiled at him and said, in my best TV commercial delivery, “only on this field, kid.” And I made a point of doing the tap-your-heart, touch-your-lips, blow-a-kiss, make-the-peace-sign gesture that was to become Sammy’s shtick for many years after that. The assembled baseball pilgrims ate it up, just like we all did back then.

Over the years Sammy grew into a baseball phenomenon, and I wore my Sosa jersey all over the place. I wore it out to Coors Field, and saw Sammy hit a homer in the Rocky Mountain air in 1999. A few weeks later, I wore it on my first and only visit to the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, where artifacts from the previous year’s home run chase were on display. I wore it to a Mets game in Shea Stadium, and a game against the White Sox at what was then New Comiskey Park. I wore it among the mob of Cubs fans who made Turner Field in Atlanta into Wrigley Field South during the 2003 playoffs. I wore it to work on the day of the Game Six meltdown against the Marlins, and had it on while all of that eighth-inning unpleasantness was unfolding that evening. I wore it as I watched Game Seven the following night, hoping against hope to have it on when the Cubs won the pennant. But it was not to be.

Through it all, I kept wearing my Sosa jersey. Whenever I went to a Cubs game, the jersey went along for the ride. And then, on the final day of the 2004 season, everything changed. Sammy left Wrigley Field in a huff, and his reign as the top dog in the Cubs’ clubhouse was suddenly over. He was traded to the Orioles the following spring, and never again set foot on a baseball field in Chicago, on either side of town.

After seven glorious seasons, my Sosa jersey wasn’t so grand anymore. It wasn’t like Ryne Sandberg’s 23 jersey, or Ron Santo’s number 10, or a hundred other permutations that can be seen inside Wrigley Field, and up and down Clark Street on game day. No, Sammy had become a pariah, and wearing a pariah’s jersey isn’t such a good idea. Still, it was the only jersey that I had, so I had to suck it up and move on.

For the first couple of seasons post-Sosa, the Cubs went into a tailspin and my interest in going to Cubs games waned as a result. Rock bottom came in 2006 when, for the first—and so far, the only—time, I sat out an entire season at Wrigley Field. The Sosa jersey hung on a hanger, banished to the the furthest depths of my closet. I had decided to carry on with my life.

And then the number 21 started coming back. First Jason Marquis wore it, and then Milton Bradley and then, in 2010, Tyler Colvin began mashing homers while wearing number 21. Finally, there was a 21 worth crowing about, a little bit.

I pulled my Sosa jersey out of mothballs and decided that it could be repurposed on Colvin’s behalf. I set about snipping the letters off the back of the jersey, which I didn’t realize would be such a time-consuming chore. By the time I had removed the first “S” from Sosa, I realized that the red dye had bled through onto the white jersey beneath. Even if I removed all the other letters, a phantom “SOSA” would still remain. I was stuck with Sammy, whether I liked it or not.

Later that summer, my father and I attended a Cubs-Cardinals game on a miserably hot day in St. Louis (Q: What’s the only thing more unbearable than July in St. Louis? A: August in St. Louis). Whenever and wherever the Cubs and the Cardinals get together, the fans have to represent their team. There was no way I was going to St. Louis without all the Cubs gear I could find, which included my old Sosa jersey. But I had hatched out a plan before I went.

I took some gray duct tape and covered up the spot where the phantom “S” still remained, and left the “O” in place. I covered up the second “S” and the “A” in OSA, and then covered over the gray tape with blue tape to spell out “COLVIN.” My father shook his head at the sight of my makeshift Colvin tribute–which is on full display in the picture above–but I was pleased to be supporting the Cubs’ cause. The tape only lasted a few minutes in the brutal St. Louis humidity, but it’s the thought that counts.

During the 2011 season, when the Cubs played in Fenway Park for the first time since the 1918 World Series, I was fortunate enough to be in attendance at the Friday night game. And again, I had nothing else to wear besides my old Cubs jersey. Boston fans told me, on more than one occasion, that “OSA sucks” but I took it all in stride. I was happy to be there that day, even though the Cubs got smoked on the field. that evening

The final public appearance of the Sosa jersey came during a Cubs-Cardinals game with my Dad and one of my brothers last September at Wrigley Field. Cardinals fans were out in force, predictably, and so I again felt the need to reply in kind. It was a cold, rainy day, and I wore my jersey beneath a blue zippered jacket, which accomplished two things: it allowed me to show my support for the boys in blue, while also covering up the name and number of the Cubs’ he-who-must-not-be-named.

A new Cubs jersey found its way under our tree last Christmas, and I was a happy guy when I opened it up. Now it’s out with the old, and in with the new, even if the new version doesn’t have a name and number on the back. This could end up being the final Cubs jersey I’ll ever have, and the lesson of the Sosa jersey is that the names on the back will come and go, but the name on the front of the jersey is the one that matters most.

A Halloween reminder

It’s Halloween night in Chicago. Earlier in the evening, I was at the house of some friends of long standing. They’re possibly the best people that I know, and we were spending some time together, along with our kids and with some other families, on about the most special night of the year for kids. When else can you dress up in a costume, walk around from door to door, and get candy from complete strangers? When you’re a kid, it’s a day that you look forward to all year long.

The weather was good, and many kids were out, chasing after sweet things while they still had the chance. The candy bowl was being taxed again and again, by superheroes and princesses and all manner of imagination come to life.

The first Halloween costume I can remember was a football player when I was about four or five years old. I wore a little football jersey, carried a toy football around, and had some burnt cork smeared under my eyes to make me look like a player. I thought it was the greatest thing in the world, even without the candy. I had other costumes over the years, but I never forgot how much fun it was to be a kid at Halloween.

The candy had dropped to dangerously low levels, and it was still relatively early in the evening. There was no let-up in the stream of kids that could be expected. Action had to be taken, so I hopped in my car, drove to the nearest Dollar Tree store, and did an adult version of trick-or-treating. In other words, money changed hands and I had what was needed to keep the kids coming by the house.

On my way to the checkout, as I sometimes do in Dollar Tree stores, I picked up an assortment of thirty baseball cards inside a small plastic bag. Every bag has at least one story that could be told, if I can recognize it and then find the time to tell it. And tonight’s bag was no different. In fact, it was actually about the best one I’ve come across so far. This is a story that must be told this evening. What better way is there to spend the final hour of Halloween?

I was flipping through the cards, looking for something interesting, when I came to a card of Darryl Kile. And not just any Darryl Kile card, but one that shows him delivering a pitch in Wrigley Field. I always keep an eye out for cards that include Wrigley field shots, and you’d be surprised at how many of these cards there are. Or maybe not, given the beauty of Wrigley’s ivy and brick interior. Wrigley Field for baseball cards seems to be like the fake backgrounds that are used in photographers’ studios. Anything you put in front of it has a decent chance of looking good.

Darryl Kile pitched in the majors for many years. He went from the Astros to the Colorado Rockies, and then on to the St. Louis Cardinals, where he became their ace pitcher and a leader in their clubhouse. He was an All-Star and a 20-game winner. His future in St. Louis looked very bright, indeed.

Darryl Kile was scheduled to start a game for the Cardinals in Wrigley Field against the Cubs in June of 2002. But he suffered a heart attack and died in his sleep in a hotel room in Chicago, a little more than ten years ago. This had happened just a week after the Cardinals had also lost their long time radio announcer, Jack Buck. Such a devastating 1-2 punch is something I’ve never experienced as a Cubs fan, and I’m sure that Cardinals fans still remember it today.

Nearly ten years had gone by between when the picture on the front of the card was taken (in August of 1991) and the sudden, completely unexpected death of Darryl Kile, again in Chicago. And another ten years have passed since that day, when Joe Girardi told the gathering of Cardinals and Cubs fans that the day’s scheduled game would not be played.

So two decades after Darryl Kile delivered a pitch in Wrigley Field, which was captured on film and put onto the front of a 1993 baseball card, the image emerged from a plastic bag and into my hands, on a Halloween night in Chicago. There’s really no way that this could have been an accident. Darryl Kile was a professional athlete, presumably in excellent physical condition, and he died of a heart attack at age 33. I can’t explain it, but I am going to take something away from it.

I never met Darryl Kile, but his Halloween baseball card reminds me, and I will in turn remind you, that life is very short. We’d like for it to go on for a long time, but it doesn’t always work out that way. I’ve written about death many times in this space, because it makes me appreciate life just that much more.

So as Halloween draws to a close, I’m happy to still be on the good side of the divide between the living and the dead. And I hope that you, dear reader, will take a moment to be appreciative of this, as well.

Blue: It’s a color so cruel

I borrowed the title to this post from a song on the Fine Young Cannibals’ debut album from 1985. How I wish they had recorded more than just the two albums they did. And if you haven’t ever heard anything they did besides “She Drives me Crazy” and “Good Thing,” do yourself a favor and seek this one out. It’s worth the trouble.

I was listening to this CD on the way to work today, when one track buried in the middle of the track list came to my attention. “Blue” was a reference to Margaret Thatcher and her government in the UK, so I have no illusions that the band wrote this song with baseball in mind. But as a Cubs fan–who is once again on the outside looking in at baseball’s postseason–I gave their song an entirely different meaning.

The great thing about art is it can mean different things to different people, and one’s own interpretation is always the right one. Roland Gift thought he was singing about his hometown of Birmingham, and what Margaret Thatcher’s government was doing to it. But to me, in a car on a highway outside of Chicago, he was referencing the Cubs and all of their failures over the years.

There is never a good month for being a Cubs fan. April and May are OK because the baseball season is back, and June and July are nice when the beer is flowing and the sun is shining down on Wrigley Field, but August and September are rarely what a fan wants them to be. And October, quite simply, is the worst month of all.

Having to watch as all of the other teams in baseball make good memories for their fans is one thing. Today, for example, is the 35th anniversary of Reggie Jackson and his three home runs in the 1977 World Series. Yankees fans must have more good October memories than everybody else put together.

But the Red Sox have something, the Dodgers have something, the Cardinals have memories as fresh as this week, and every team in baseball has something to hang their hats on at this time of the year. And what do we Cubs fan have? Bupkus. Actually, bupkus suggests there are no October memories at all. I do have some October memories, but all of them are ultimately bad ones. So whatever the word for less-than-bupkus is, that’s what there is for the Cubs in October.

1984, 1989, 1998, 2003, 2007, and 2008 are the only post-season baseball that the Cubs have participated in. And unless you’re past 70 years old (and I can’t imagine anyone at that age reading my blog), you haven’t got any more October memories than I do.

Every one of those years started off with “Yeah, we’re in the playoffs and this will be the year, at last!” And every one of them has ended in defeat, before getting to the World Series and that fancy trophy that the Cubs have never played for, let alone hoisted for themselves. And the other 30+ years where the team has missed the playoffs? Usually, the end of the season can’t come soon enough

After October ends, and a champion is crowned, there’s three months that go by without any baseball at all. There’s speculation about free agent signings and all of that, but no games on the field to consider. It’s like being on crutches, to keep weight off of the sprained or broken ankle and give it time to heal. November through January serve that same purpose, at least when it comes to baseball.

And then in February Spring Training begins, and the cycle repeats itself all over again. It’s as if the previous year’s disappointment has been packed up and put with all of the other years of failure. After all these years as a Cubs fan, I know this drill all too well.

The next two weeks will be tough, especially as the Cardinals continue to play well. I don’t root against them, or any other team, but I also can’t help envying them to some extent.

How does it feel to watch a baseball game involving my team, being played on or after October 18? Maybe I’ll know the answer to that some day but for now, all I can do is lament my team’s color and the matching feelings that it always gives me in October.

UPDATE: The picture of the blue Wrigley Field above either comes from 1962 or 1965, on the basis on when the Dodgers were in town on the days listed on the marquee. I never knew it had been blue before, but I like it, actually. It’s more in keeping with the team’s colors than the Cardinals red is.

There’s no perfect word

Last night’s baseball game between the Cardinals and the Nationals defies an easy description. It was a comeback for the ages, and an affirmation that no sport–no human endeavor, really–can surpass baseball for sheer drama. People will snicker at such a suggestion, but I don’t care. Nothing outside the realm of life and death could have been more compelling than the game that was played last night.

I wrote a piece for TTFB where I tried to take an angle that nobody else would, and I think I may have done that. The old baseball cards above relate to that story.

There will be lots of words applied to last night’s game, and to the playoffs as a whole. They’ll all be fitting, but none are really up to the task of describing what happened. Searching for that one word is a satisfying challenge, all by itself. Perhaps one day I’ll find it, and write about it when I do. But for now, this is the best I can do: Wow!

Approaching perfect

How often does anything truly perfect come along? I would suggest that perfection is an ideal, more than it can ever be a reality. The perfect day, in my mind, would involve being at a baseball game, preferably at Wrigley Field. I found myself there on a Friday afternoon, along with my father and my younger brother. So far, so good.

There was work going on at the office on a Friday, but that old saying about how a lousy day at the beach still beats a great day at work is exponentially more true of a day at the ballpark. Even a rainy, cold, gray day like the one that we had.

Wrigley Field is the ballpark that every new stadium is constructed  towards. Nobody will ever say “build me the next Coors Field,” even though it is a lovely ballpark in its own right. No, every park hopes to recreate Wrigley Field in some way. And even if they come reasonably close it will be a grounds for some celebration. But the blueprint for a baseball stadium is, and shall always remain, at the corner of Clark and Addison streets in Chicago.

Our panoramic view of the field, the scoreboard, the ivy on the outfield wall, and the scene as a whole, had one vertical imperfection. It would have been possible, I suppose, to see that as a problem. But again, perfection isn’t possible. The pole was something to be taken into account as the game unfolded, but it wasn’t enough to take away from the day itself. Not even close.

To top all this off, the Cubs won the game, and provided a moment of incredible drama and joy by tying the game up in the bottom of the ninth inning. The game of baseball had decided to reveal itself not in a lopsided blowout, but in a close game with a dramatic finish over the team that I’d rather beat before any other team. That just couldn’t have been any better than it was.

So to recap: Family, baseball, Wrigley Field, drama, and victory, all in the same place. The rainy weather and a large pole were there, too, but on the whole I couldn’t ask for anything more than what I got. In fact, it was about as close to perfect as I could ever hope to find.

Going beyond special

Baseball is very important to me, and has been for as long as I can remember. My guess is that by holding onto the game as I have since early childhood, I remind myself of who I am and where I come from. And yesterday’s experience was a very potent affirmation of this.

My Dad paid for three tickets so that he and I and my youngest brother could attend a Cubs-Cardinals game at Wrigley Field yesterday. The tickets were purchased back in March, and September seemed like a long way away back then. But the time passed by, and eventually the day arrived and we went to the game. Taking a Friday off work is always nice, but going to a baseball game with your dad and your brother is about as good as it gets.

The competition between the Cubs and the Cardinals something that you’d have to be from the Midwest to understand.But it’s very real, and it goes back all the way to 1892. Every year, Cardinals fans come north to cheer for their team, and Cubs fans return the favor by traveling south to see their team. Anyone who appreciates baseball, but hasn’t experienced the divided loyalty in the stands of a Cubs-Cardinals game, hasn’t got a full picture of what baseball can be.

As sometimes happens on a late September afternoon in Chicago, yesterday was rainy and cold. Our seats were out of the rain, but we watched the umbrellas come out and the ponchos go on and off, as the rains came and went. But it never rained hard enough to stop the game. It’s late in the season, and the chance to make up a rained out game later on are all but gone, so these games are going to be played. And I’m glad that it was.

We had a great view, except for a support beam that seemed to be placed with the sole  purpose of obscuring the pitcher and the batter at the same time. Once it was adjusted to, it wasn’t a problem, but I do think that the only way that U.S. Cellular Field and all of the other new parks in baseball have improved upon Wrigley is that they don’t have support beams blocking anyone’s view. In every other measure, though, Wrigley Field is the best ballpark I’ve ever been in, or ever will be.

So the game’s oldest rivalry was being played out on its finest stage. The weather wasn’t ideal, but everything else was. The Cubs are trying to avoid 100 losses for the year, and the Cardinals are trying to get back into the playoffs and defend their title. So the game had more meaning on the Cardinals side than it did on the Cubs’. And, for the first 8 and a half innings, I treated it as such. The game was great, but there’s nothing to play for, so who cares if the Cardinals win or the Cubs win?

The seventh inning stretch was fun, with the “root, root, root” line drawing the same competition  between the fans on both sides that it always does. And both sides could probably claim victory on this front, too. Cardinals fans will say they were louder than the home team’s fans, and Cubs fans will claim to have out shouted those visitors. May that part of the game never be any different than it is.

It came to the ninth inning, and the Cardinals brought in a closer to finish the Cubs out. The Cubs were behind by two runs, and I asked my dad if he wanted to go. I’ve seen this ending far too many times, where the other team puts down the Cubs in order and the game ends on a sour note. But he asked, rhetorically, why leave before the game was over? And he was right about that. The importance of getting that last out is something the Cardinals taught to the Rangers, and all the rest of the world, last year in the World Series. So we decided to stay.

The Cubs put a runner on base, but they also made two outs. The game came down to Darwin Barney, the Cubs’ second baseman. The Cardinals fans came to their feet, sensing a victory that would put them one step closer to making the playoffs. As if to counter their advantage, the Cubs fans got to their feet as well.

The Cardinals fans started chanting “Lets go, Cardinals!” and, as a matter of principle, I and the rest of the Cubs’ fans countered by saying “Cub-bies” as they were saying “Cardinals.” They had the upper hand, do doubt about it, but it was still our house, and I felt duty bound to remind them of this.

The count ran to 1-2 on Barney and, like the Rangers in Game six of last year’s World Series, the Cardinals needed just one more strike to win the game. I pulled out my cellphone, which on its last legs as the battery was flashing red, and took a picture of what I thought would be the winning pitch for the Cardinals.

Barney made contact with the pitch, and the ball headed out toward left field. The wind had been blowing in all day, and Barney isn’t a slugger by any means, so it seemed like a fly ball that would end the game. And then something remarkable happened: the ball carried into the bleachers. The game wasn’t over. The Cardinals hadn’t won, after all.

The sheer exuberance of the moment was more than I was ready for. I threw my hands into the air, yelled as loud as I could, and ran down to start high-fiving people I didn’t know. It was just like the Cardinals in the World Series, where  the Cubs crawled out from a two-out, two-strike, ninth inning hole to stave off defeat. It wasn’t the World Series, but it didn’t feel like an ordinary game, either.

Barney’s home run didn’t actually win the game, but it did tie it up. And the game went into extra innings, where the Cubs prevailed in the eleventh. It would have been a shame for the Cubs to come back like that and not win, and I was thrilled when they pulled out the victory. The Cubs had been spoilers, and that had never felt so good to me as it did in that moment.

So the wonder of baseball has been proven once again. I would have remembered the game fondly no matter what the final outcome was, because spending a day at the ballpark with my family is a special thing (and running into an old friend from grade school and high school was an added surprise, too). But throw in a dramatic turn of events, which then led to an unexpected victory for my team, and the day went well beyond being special.

Family, baseball, and winning on the same day. What more can anyone ask for? Sunshine, I suppose. But that would make me greedy, wouldn’t it?

Nothing beats baseball

Wow! What a game at Wrigley Field today! I was fortunate enough to be there, and to stay until Darwin Barney came through with a 2-out, 2-strike, 2-run home run in the ninth inning to tie the score. Not since the Michael Jordan era has sports been that exciting for me.

It’s been a down year for the Cubs, but throwing a wrench in the Cardinals fans playoff hopes was about as sweet as it gets.

Cubs win!

Frustration bubbles over

Photo from BleedCubbieBlue

When I think about the end of this baseball season, I’m not happy. The playoffs are not coming to the North side of Chicago, for the fourth year in a row. But I wasn’t expecting them to, so that’s not a big disappointment.

What really gets me is the goal that the team seems to have adopted for the rest of this season. This piece from ThroughThe FenceBaseball gets at it better than I could right now.

I’ll be at tomorrow’s game in Wrigley, probably wishing that I still drank the way I once did. I’ll just have to find some other way of coping with all of those Cardinals fans that will undoubtedly be in the stands. And I’ll probably get some ideas to write about, too. I guess there’s no way to beat that.

The Cardinals and the Cubs

I grew up about a hundred miles away from St. Louis, Missouri. Chicago was 200 miles away, and seemingly in a different world. So when I came to Chicago, as people from all over the midwest do, I had an adjustment to make. I was a Cubs fan already, but I had to recalibrate my baseball animosity away from the Cardinals and onto the White Sox instead.

There’s no good reason why the White Sox should occupy a larger place in the Cubs’ fans thought processes than the Cardinals. The Cardinals are in the National League, as the Cubs are, and more often than not, the Cardinals are the team that the Cubs have to get past in order to win their division. And for every year when the Cubs can beat the Cardinals, there are several more years where they can’t.

Cubs fans like me find it much easier to hate on the White Sox, while ignoring the Cardinals. Sox fans are our neighbors, our colleagues, and the people we generally share this part of the world with. This Chicago-centric view of baseball won’t ever change, but it at least needs to be recognized.

So the world champion Cardinals are coming to town this weekend, with every game important for their playoff chances. The Cubs can only try to play the spoiler, and hope to edge closer to their goal of at least 63 wins for the season. I’m expecting to see a lot of red in Wrigley Field for the game this afternoon.

Feelin’ Weasley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Don’t look back, something might be gaining on you

Today (July 7) is Satchel Paige‘s birthday. It’s a day to honor a man who I wish I had known more about in my youth.

I’ve written before, going all the way back to the first thing I ever put in this space, about the Springfield Redbirds, who were once the triple-A affiliate of the St. Louis Cardinals. When they began playing in my hometown of  Springfield, Illinois in 1978, I was not quite ten years old.

Over the course of the next four seasons, a very high-quality baseball game could regularly be found in the summertime, about 20 minutes away from my house. I didn’t fully appreciate this quite yet, but over time it has come to mean a great deal. Baseball matters to me in a way that no other sport ever has, or ever will. I can only conclude that the Redbirds played a role in this process.

In 1980, the third year that the Redbirds were in town, and the year they won the championship of the American Association, they hired Satchel Paige in the figurehead role of Vice President. By that time he was a Hall of Famer, the highest honor that the majors could bestow on him.

But Paige was also a living legend, having pitched–by his own recordkeeping–for 250 teams, in 2,500 ball games. He claimed to have won 2,000 games, and pitched anywhere from 20 to 100 no-hitters. The barnstorming nature of teams in the pre-integration era didn’t provide accurate records, so the actual numbers probably depended on what mood he was in on any given day. But no one doubts that he was a dominant pitcher, and perhaps the greatest one who ever threw to a hitter from a pitcher’s mound.

I remember going to a game once in 1980 and asking him if he would sign a program for me. He obliged this request, and I kept it with my things at home. It was a special thing to me, but I must admit that, as the years went by and that program somehow vanished. And so it goes.

Satchel Paige made his first big-league appearance at the age of 42, well beyond the age of most productive players. And his final appearance came in 1965, just a few years before I was born. He pitched three shutout innings for the Kansas City A’s, at the age of 59. It’s a record that will probably never be broken.

Satchel Paige died in Kansas City in 1982. His Springfield job was the last stop in a professional baseball career that spanned across seven decades. He’s known as perhaps the greatest player, in the most important position, in the best sport that I’ve ever known. I’m happy to have crossed paths, no matter how briefly, with such an important figure in the game’s history. I wish I had held on to that program, though.

A Redbird who made good

I got very lucky as a kid growing up in Springfield, Illinois. There were a few reasons for this, but one that I didn’t fully appreciate at the time was that a smallish city of 100,000 souls somehow had a triple-A baseball team. It was a quirk of fate, really, but I didn’t know anything about that back then. I appreciate it now, though.

The team was called the New Orleans Pelicans in 1977, and was owned by a man named A. Ray Smith. Smith had his team playing in the New Orleans Superdome, which I have to imagine had an infinite seating capacity for a minor-league team. But he wanted more, and for some reason he thought he could find it in a town nestled in between Chicago and St. Louis. And so, just before I turned ten years old, the Pelicans migrated north and became the Springfield Redbirds.

The first season that the Redbirds were in town, one of the team’s pitchers was named Aurelio Lopez. I didn’t know his back story then, but he was the MVP of the Mexican baseball league the previous year, while the Pelicans were playing in New Orleans. His services were then purchased by the St. Louis Cardinals, who sent him to Springfield for a couple of months and then called him up to the majors.

Anything having to do with Mexico seemed strange and exotic back in the 1970s, and Lopez fit that bill. But before too long, he was gone, among the first of a raft of big leaguers I was able to see back then. For them, Springfield was just a stepping stone for bigger and better things.  It’s been that for me, as well.

After the 1978 season ended, Lopez was traded to the Detroit Tigers. He stayed with the Tigers for many seasons in the 1980s, where he was dubbed “Senor Smoke” by Tigers fans. He missed out on the Cardinals’ World Series teams of the 1980s, but he won a championship with Detroit in 1984. And to this day, I’m sure some people still remember “Senor Smoke” with great affection. It’s a great nickname, after all.

After Lopez retired from the game in 1987, following a couple of seasons with the Houston Astros, he returned to his hometown of Tecamachalco, Mexico. He was elected the mayor of the town, which is located in east-central Mexico. He was likely the most well-known figure in the town, and life had to be pretty good for him, at least  until it literally came crashing to a halt. On the day after his 44th birthday, he was killed when the car he was driving overturned. As I have said many time in this space, life is indeed short.

Yesterday was the day after my own 44th birthday. I thought about Aurelio Lopez, and how he must have seen and done things in his life that I can only imagine. Perhaps the only way that my life exceeds his is in longevity. But in the end, that’s really the most important metric, isn’t it?

He threw the first pitch

I’ve written about the first baseball game I ever attended here. It was the summer of 1975, I was seven years old, and my dad drove me down to St. Louis to see a doubleheader between the Cardinals and the New York Mets. I remember a few things from that day, but the baseball end of it is a bit hazy. I didn’t know anything about the game at that point in my life, but I was eager to learn. Fortunately, there’s now online sources to assist me in reconstructing what I saw that day.

I remember that Tom Seaver, who was just about the best pitcher there was in 1975, was pitching for the Mets in Game 1 of the doubleheader. But what I couldn’t remember, because I didn’t know, was who pitched against him in that game. And the answer, according to, is Lynn McGlothen, who later pitched for the Cubs but in 1975 was a Cardinals starter. He couldn’t know it then, but he was in the middle of the best three-year run of his career in St. Louis. In fact, he defeated the great Tom Seaver on that day. He must have been a pretty good pitcher in order to do that.

McGlothen came to the Cubs during the 1978 season, and he was a starter for the team in 1979 and 1980. He was traded to the White Sox in 1981, and his career came to an end with the Yankees in 1982. In his 11-year career, he threw 41 complete games, which is more than all but two active major-leaguers can say.

But the most shocking thing about Lynn McGlothen was that he died more than a quarter-century ago, and I never heard anything about it. Granted, I wasn’t paying much attention to anything in the summer of 1984, but when the trailer he was living in in his home state of Louisiana caught fire and took him along with it, there was no mention of it anywhere that I could tell. The Cubs themselves sure never mentioned it. He was only two years out of the game, and five years removed from this card, and only 34 years old. Life is indeed very short.

So if I was in the stands before the first pitch was thrown in St. Louis back in 1975–and I have to believe that I was–then the first pitch of a baseball game that I ever witnessed in my life was thrown by Lynn McGlothen. That’s pretty amazing, now that I think about it. Kudos to websites like, which allow for memories to be reconstructed like this. I’m sure this won’t be the last time I ever do something like this.

It’s a nature shot and a baseball card

One of my favorite things in life is something unexpected. I wrote something for another blog a couple of years ago about going to an airport one day and being unexpectedly greeted by a live blues performance. It made the blues sound that much better, knowing that an airport baggage claim area is just about the last place you would ever expect to find it.

I feel the same way about the above baseball card. Reed Johnson has been an outfielder for the Cubs for several seasons now, including a period last year where the emptiness of the bleachers led to an abundance of birds in the outfield at Wrigley Field. The problem cleared up as the season went along, in part because the weather warmed up and bigger crowds started coming to the park, and in part because the team deployed loud noisemakers after the games to scare the birds off.

But whoever went out to Wrigley Field to take pictures of ballplayers last season captured this issue in the shot shown above. And whoever at the Topps Company got to decide which Reed Johnson image was going to grace his card this year chose what could be the most natural image I’ve ever seen on a baseball card. There are three birds, against the green ivy on the outfield wall, along with a ballplayer in blue, who seems to be oblivious to the company that he had as he tracked a flyball. It’s just a great shot, and my congratulations go out to the people who made it happen: the photographer, the photo editor, and the outfielder.

The Skip Shumaker rally squirrel card may have received all of the attention for this year’s baseball card set–never mind that Shumaker is hardly even in the shot–but I like this one better. But then again, I’m a Cubs fan. What would you expect me to say?

Signs of Spring

Yesterday I listened to a Cubs game on the radio. A spring training game, but still enough to get me thinking about the impending season. I don’t know (and don’t much care) if the Cubs won the game or not, but just knowing that the season is in the pipeline, so to speak, is enough.

And I bought some tickets to an actual game last Friday. The day that the single-game tickets go on sale at Wrigley Field is an annual ritual, which brings the baseball season that much closer to being a reality. There’s only one game that I have for now (on September 21st against the Cardinals), but it’s enough for me. Others may follow in the months ahead.

And, finally, warm weather and sunshine are here this weekend. It now feels like baseball weather. There’s probably one last surprise snowstorm on the way, but Winter now appears to be in retreat.

These next three weeks will be difficult, but they’ll go by and then all will be right with the world.

Everyone’s in camp now

The Cubs apparently now have all their players in spring training, so the start of the season keeps getting closer.

I offered my opinions on the Cubs this year for a Cardinals site, and they were published today. I was assuming at the time that the Brewers would be without Ryan Braun for the first 50 games of the season, but I didn’t see his suspension being overturned, either.

The only thing I’ll say about that situation, having listened to what Braun said today, is that the “collector” who let Braun’s sample, and others, sit for 44 hours before taking them in to Fed Ex shouldn’t have his job any longer. But it’s over with, and now it’s time to move on.

Some of my writing will appear in other places online soon. I’ll provide links as soon as I can.

The pivotal year

I was walking my dog this morning when I noticed a penny in the street. It was in the crease between the actual street and the asphalt lump that rises to form a speed bump. Speed bumps are prevalent in my neighborhood, and they’re irritating but, like squirrels, they continue to exist without regard to my opinions about them.

As I have done before, I looked at the date stamped on the penny to see if there wasn’t something to be said about that year. And the year I saw, 1975, would have to be considered a very significant–if not the most significant–year in my life, at least so far as baseball is concerned. At the start of that year, the six-year old me had no interest in the game, but by the end of that year, the seven-year old me had an attachment to it that won’t leave me until I take my final breath. That’s how pivotal the year was for me.

It began in the spring, when I convinced my parents to sign me up for a baseball team in the Khoury League. Most of the kids on the team were my classmates at school, and this was a chance to see them outside of school, as well. I learned about the rules of the game, and swung a bat for the first time in my life. It was a feeling of departure from toys and childish things. Grown-ups played baseball, and now I was doing it, too. That was very important to me.

I also began collecting baseball cards, as kids did back then. The first time that I ever walked into a store, all by myself, and bought a pack of Topps baseball cards was an empowering moment. I wouldn’t have let either of my seven-year olds do such a thing, but it was a different time back then. Nobody knew what a UPC code was, for instance. You could probably walk around the store with a cigarette, if you wanted to. And a little kid could take some pocket change up to the cashier and walk away with pictures and statistics for ballplayers he had never heard of before. What could be any better than that?

There wasn’t much in the way of baseball coverage on TV, which was my primary window to the wider world in those days. There was the Saturday Game of the Week on NBC, and I started watching that. My father realized that I was old enough to appreciate the game in person, so he bought tickets for a double-header in St. Louis against the Mets in July. I remember my dad and his brother, my Uncle Mike, using a pocket schedule and the Cardinals’ pitching rotation to determine who the pitchers were going to be that day. It was something worth looking forward to.

The first day I ever went inside a major league ballpark, it felt like a switch had been thrown. The crowd, the noises, the commotion, the vendors, the whole scene was exhilarating for me. The Cardinals won the first game, and lost the second one, but I left feeling that something had revealed itself to me. It’s not a regular feeling to have, especially when you’re that young. But I felt it on that day.

The next big step in my baseball progression was discovering the Cubs and WGN Channel 9. I have written about that game here, and the call of Jack Brickhouse and the visuals of Wrigley Field acted as a 1-2 puch for me. This team played the same game that the Cardinals did, but they were on TV every day and the Cardinals weren’t. The sale had been made, as far as my baseball loyalties ran.

The final touch on my conversion to baseball came in October. Watching Luis Tiant pitch, and seeing the Big Red Machine do its thing, and understanding that these games meant more than the regular season games did, all brought the game home to me. It wasn’t summertime anymore, but baseball games were still going on, anyway. The long rain delay between Game five and Game six made me want to see the game that much more when it did come back. And then there was Game six….

I’m certain that I wouldn’t have been able to stay up to watch Carlton Fisk’s home run off the left field foul pole. But I remember being told that if Boston won, there wouldn’t be any more baseball until spring. I didn’t want that to happen, and I was relieved when there would be one more game the next day. Game sevens ever since have been special for me, especially because they’re so rare.

The end of the 1975 baseball season left me excited for the 1976 season. There’s always going to be a next year, and this year’s games are just about to start. The wheel keeps on turning, as it has since I was seven years old. I’ll be the first to admit that baseball is not life, but it does help to shape its contours. And there’s nothing else quite like that for me.

2011 in review

The year is coming to a close, and everyplace you can think of seems to take this opportunity to do a retrospective on the year gone by. I’ll join the crowd for this one time, and look at what happened in 2011 for the subject that I write about the most: Cubs baseball.

The biggest developments of 2011–as far as I’m concerned– were the birth of this blog (back on June 11) and the dismissal of Jim Hendry in July (although we weren’t informed of it until August). Trailing behind that was the hire of Theo Epstein, which indicated to me (and others, I’m sure) that the Ricketts family was serious about winning the World Series. That has become the white whale of Cub fandom, especially over the last decade. The teams that we either empathized with for losing (Boston, San Francisco) or just plain don’t like (St. Louis, that other team across town) has won their championship, and here we are, forced to watch Catching Buckner on ESPN, and blowing a late September game in St. Louis so the Cardinals can make the playoffs and go all the way to the title. Theo and his team have just one goal (sorry, Chicago Blackhawks, but it fits for us, too). And we all know what that is.

As far as the team itself, I did a year end report card piece for Baseball Digest, and I wasn’t very kind at all. Other than Starlin Castro, what did we really have last year? Sean Marshall pitched well, but he’s gone now. There was Carlos Zambrano’s meltdown, Matt Garza unable to break .500, Carlos Pena’s underperformance, a starting rotation in shambles, and Marlon Byrd writhing in pain at home plate in Fenway Park. The Fenway experience was neat, but the only victory in that series was the throwback game on Saturday, and it only happened because the Red Sox gave the game away. If I missed anything positive, please let me know. And yes, Ron Santo did finally make it into the Hall of Fame. But it’s sad when the most notable player on your team hasn’t set foot on the field in over 30 years.

The bottom line for 2011, like every year in my lifetime, and my father’s lifetime as well, was that the season ended without the Cubs being victorious. My maternal grandfather was born in 1909, and he lived his whole life without seeing it, too. I don’t think that he was actually a Cubs fan, though. My paternal grandfather was born in Chicago in 1894, so he would have been a teenager when the Cubs were in their heyday. There were no tales from the west side to tell me about (the team didn’t move to the Northside until 1916), because he died several years before I was born. So I, like most other Cubs fans, have nothing to go on. And that really sucks.

I have dreamed of the day when the white W flag is raised at Wrigley Field after a World Series game. No one has ever seen that, as far as I know, and it will be great once it happens. But until then, everything else is just noise.

Happy Next Year, Cubs fans!