The Cubs’ 2016 Graveyard

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Some people, in my neighborhood and in other places, turn their front lawns into faux graveyards at this time of year. So with Halloween upon us and the Cubs still playing meaningful baseball, here’s a look at some of the fake styrofoam tombstones that the Cubs could plant at Wrigley Field this year:

The Cardinals’ reign as NL Central champions: The St. Louis Cardinals have been the bullies of the division for some time, going all the way back to Albert Pujols’ days with the team. Wainwright, Molina, and all the rest have won and won and won again, and were trying to be the first team to ever win the Central division four years in a row. The Cubs laid waste to that, and controlled their division from Day 1 of the season.

The Giants’ beliEVEN thing: Winning the World Series in 2010, 2012, and 2014 was a nice pattern to be in for Giants fans, and when their team won the Wild Card came this year they thought the pattern would repeat itself this year. The Cubs had other ideas, though.

The Billy Goat Curse: Oh, that curs’ed goat. The reason–some would have us believe–for the Cubs’ decades worth of World Series absence is the old story of a goat that was denied entry into the 1945 World Series. A man who brings a goat to a baseball game has no mystical powers of any sort, but people talked about it, anyway.

1969? Billy goat curse.

1984? Billy goat curse.

2003? Billy goat curse.

But the Cubs finally laid that one to rest and made the World Series. May we never hear about that goat again.

So the one thing left to do is scratch the 108-year itch and win the World Series. The Cubs have to beat Korey Feldman tonight, or find themselves in a Series of elimination games. They’ll come around tonight, I hope, and even the Series up with three games left to play. It’s been a great, cemetery-making run this year, and it’s not over yet.

Something Old, Something New

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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 Cardsconclave.com (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 HistoryBuff.com  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.

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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

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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! 

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

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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

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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

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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.

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.

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.

It was about as close to perfect as I could ever hope to find.

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 baseball-almanac.com, 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 Baseball-Almanac.com, 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!

Re-learning the lesson of 1986

As exciting and incredible as this year’s World Series was, there was a lesson to be taken from it by anyone who was paying attention. In a nutshell, it’s that the game isn’t over until the final out is made.

In football, you can take a knee to run out the clock. In basketball, you can dribble around in the backcourt until the horn sounds. I don’t know enough about hockey to give an example of how to kill time, but I’m sure it exists. But in baseball, that final out–that final strike, even–needs to be recorded before the celebration can begin. And until that happens, the other team still has a glimmer of hope, no matter what the scoreboard says.

In this year’s World Series, the Rangers needed just one strike to win the championship on two separate occasions, and both times they came away empty. If they come back next season and complete the championship, it won’t sting quite so much. But if this was their one moment, and they begin to fall off from championship-level play in 2012 and beyond, it will be the moment that will forever live in infamy, for the Rangers and their fans.

Similar instances happened not once, but twice in the 1986 post-season, and both times involved the Boston Red Sox. The first came in the ALCS, when the California Angels (as they were known back then) were ahead of the Red Sox 3 games to 1, and were playing at home with a chance to win the pennant in front of their home fans. Baseball was still a year or two away from the ninth-inning only closer, and the results of this game may have had some role in bringing it about.

The Angels had a 5-2 lead going into the top of the ninth inning. The math for the Angels was pretty simple: get three outs, before the opponents score three runs (or more).  The starter for the Angels, Mike Witt, was sent out to the mound to finish the job.  He had thrown 106 pitches already, but a three-run lead must have seemed fairly safe to Angels’ manager Gene Mauch. This would have been Mauch’s first trip to the World Series as a manager, and the franchise’s first trip, as well. It must have on everyone’s mind in the ballpark that day.

But Witt gave up a hit to Bill Buckner, struck out Jim Rice, and then, on the 119th pitch he threw, surrendered a two-run homer to Don Baylor. Mauch left Witt in to retire the second out, and then went to his bullpen for the final out. Instead of going to his closer, Donnie Moore, Mauch turned to Gary Lucas. Lucas came in to close out the Red Sox and win the pennant, but his first pitch hit the Angels’ batter, Rich Gedman. Mauch then brought in Donnie Moore, who inherited a mess that was not of his own making. He came in to face Dave Henderson, who was 0-for-the entire series to that point.

Moore got ahead in the count 1-2, before Henderson took ball two, and then fouled off the next two pitches.  On the fourth two-strike pitch that he saw from Moore, Henderson hit a home run that gave the Red Sox a one-run lead. The Angels still had a chance, and they plated a run in their half of the ninth inning to tie the score. With the bases loaded and one out, and the pennant-winning run just 90 feet away, both Doug DeCinces and Bobby Grich failed to get the run home. If they had, chances are that nobody would remember Donnie Moore’s name. But that’s not how it played out.

Moore also pitched the tenth and 11th innings for the Angels, and in the 11th he gave up a sacrifice fly to–who else?–Dave Henderson to score what turned out to be the winning run. There were still two games left to play, but they were to be played in Fenway Park. The Red Sox beat the shell-shocked Angels in both games, and the Angels’ first pennant had slipped away from them.

In the World Series, however, the shoe was on the other foot. With Boston one strike away from winning the title in Game 6, and Ray Knight in an 0-2 hole against Calvin Schiraldi, Knight singled to keep the Mets’ rally going. The Mets would win the game in the next at-bat, when Mookie Wilson came up and….you probably know the rest.

Donnie Moore’s life spun out of control after 1986, as he was mercilessly booed by Angels fans every time he came in to pitch. He wound up taking his own life in 1989, less than three years after giving up the Henderson home run. Calvin Schiraldi was in the same circumstance as Moore was, but he didn’t meet with the same fate. He pitched another six  seasons, and is now a baseball coach in Austin, Texas.

Time will tell as to how Neftali Feliz (who needed just one more strike in the ninth inning of Game 6) and Scott Feldman (who needed one last strike in the 10th inning of Game 6) are treated by the Rangers fans. Hopefully they will continue on with their pitching careers, and contribute to the Rangers’ success in the post season in years to come. And they, as well as everybody else who was paying attention last fall, will appreciate anew the need to get that final strike to end the game.

Disrespecting Albert no more

When it comes to Albert Pujols and his willingness to leave St. Louis, it turns out I was right. I’m not always right, but on this one I was dead on. There really wasn’t any chance that Albert was going to sign with the Cardinals again, World Series or no World Series. After all those years in St. Louis, now he’s off to the American League.

As a Cubs fan, I loved the idea of seeing Albert playing half of his games at Wrigley Field next year. He would be in the 55-65 home runs and 15o-175 RBI range every year, with even a serviceable back-up hitter behind him (which, admittedly, the Cubs don’t have right now). The Pujols jersey would have been an immediate success in Wrigleyville, as I’m sure the sports stores in LA are selling them at a brisk pace as I type this.

The big market teams were the only ones that really had a shot to land him in the first place, and I took the view that the Cubs’ status as the one big market team in the Cardinals’ division meant something. But perhaps the idea of playing so many games in St. Louis over the years didn’t appeal to him too much. Or, more likely, the Cubs didn’t put enough money on the table.

But the American League angle is important. Take a look at somebody like Jim Thome, who stopped playing first base regularly at age 33, but has been able to extend his career many more seasons by DH’ing. Pujols is now 31, so he may have a season or two as a first baseman still in him, but he’s going to take the Thome route before too long.

And I’m also thrilled that he’s out of the National League. There will be an interleague game with the Angels here and there, and those could become a big deal as far as getting a ticket, but Albert has hurt the Cubs regularly over the years (two certain games in St. Louis last summer spring immediately to mind), and so I’m happy to be rid of him. Perhaps we’ll see him in the World Series at some point, but his role in my baseball universe has just dropped tremendously.

At Thanksgiving, I went to my parents’ house in Cardinals country. There seemed to be a feeling that the Cardinals’ latest championship had somehow pushed Albert toward staying with the team. This was delusional, in my mind, for the simple fact that the Cardinals were paying Matt Holliday more money than Albert Pujols. That’s a clear sign of disrespect, in my eyes.

The prevailing view that I encountered was a feeling that Albert’s made enough money already, and St. Louis is a great organization with great fans and great history, and it wouldn’t make sense for him to leave. I tried to bring the others around to my way of thinking, which is that if you’re the best–in anything–your pay should reflect this. Was Matt Holliday the best player on the Cardinals? Most people would say no to this, and yet he somehow made more money than Albert Pujols did last year. It doesn’t matter if he makes $100 or $100 million, I promise you he knows what the score was on that front.

If I’m the Angels’ owner, I give Albert my word that no player on my team will ever make more money than him while he’s on my roster. If Albert makes $25 million and I have another player coming in with huge credentials, I tell him that I can go no higher than $23 or $24 million, lest I offend my franchise player and future Hall of Famer. I hate that the numbers are that big, but the impact would be the same, regardless of the amount.

So the Cardinals, fresh off a remarkable October triumph, now have to fill a hole that they haven’t had in a long time.The money that they saved by not getting Pujols will help to restock their club with other players, but Opening Day 2012 is going to seem very strange to Cardinals’ fans, with LaRussa and Pujols now out of the picture. It surely presents an opening for the Cubs, so long as Theo and his wise men are smart about which players to add (or subtract, as the case may be). Spring training can’t get here soon enough for me.