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! 

I was once a Cardinals fan

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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

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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.

Requiem for a Sosa jersey

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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.