For the Cubs, nothing’s been accomplished yet

image

On this day off between the end of the regular season–where the Cardinals played all 162 games–and the postseason–where the Cardinals will watch it on TV like the rest of us–a few thoughts are in order.

That dig at the Cardinals sounds a bit petty, but the truth is I’m glad the teams will not meet in the postseason. The Cubs finally ended the Cardinals’ three-year run on top of the NL Central in 2016, and there’s no possibility of a rematch from last season, either. So enjoy the offseason for a change, Cardinals Nation.

Winning 103.5 games in the regular season was a feat I haven’t seen before, and may not ever see again. It was wonderful seeing triple digits in the win column, because they showed up on the other end of  the spectrum back in 2012, when Theo Epstein and his crew began the Cubs’ rebuild.

Bringing them all back for the next five years feels like a move that will cement the Cub’s legitimacy on the field, for as far as the eye can see. And the construction along Clark Street, to go with upgrades inside the ballpark itself, is another sign that everything is on the upswing near Clark and Addison Streets. “Ebullient” is not too strong a word to describe where this Cubs fan is at, two and a half seasons after being disgusted with everything they stood for. After all, everything changes in life.

The new facilities and the dynamic team on the field are designed to make the turnstiles spin and the cash registers ring for years to come, and that’s a great thing. But the ultimate prize hasn’t been achieved yet.

Division titles are great, and it’s the one sure way to punch a team’s ticket into the postseason. But this is also the sixth division title that I’ve seen as a Cubs fan, and all of the previous go-rounds in October haven’t ended well.

Again, 100+ wins in the regular season is a great feat, which I’m grateful to have experienced. Not since 1910 have the Cubs won so many times. And after three and a half seasons of losing-by-design, the wins now have a sweetness that I didn’t know about before. But it’s not the end of the journey, either.

A point could be made that winning the National League pennant and getting to the World Series would represent progress from 2015, and that would technically be true. But it also means that

  • we’ll hear about 1908 incessantly, in case we haven’t already, and
  • David Ross wouldn’t go into retirement with the ring his teammates want him to have, and
  • White Sox fans can harp on 2005 for one more season, and–most importantly of all-
  • an unknowable set of Cubs fans who are with us today will go to their graves without knowing what winning a championship feels like.

With all this in mind, the time is now, and Next Year is going to arrive this year. Because until that happens, Theo and his team haven’t accomplished a thing.

Advertisements

Inside the Ricketts Square

img_2387

My daughter, who’s in 8th grade in a Chicago public school, took biology a year ago. She was exposed to genetics and the Punnett Square, which brought back lots of old memories, and not necessarily fond ones, as I tried once again to understand alleles and dominant and recessive traits.

However, I apparently remember enough of genetics to have an analogy for what lies ahead in November of this year. It’s either going to be an amazing month, a terrible month, or something in between. And the Punnett Square helps to explain why.

This morning I came across an interesting story about the Ricketts family, and particularly Todd Ricketts. The family fortune comes from Joe Ricketts, who founded Ameritrade and has done very well as a result.

The family used their fortunes to buy the Chicago Cubs, and have been pouring money into the renovation of Wrigley Field, and the acquisition and destruction of many properties surrounding the ballpark on Clark and Addison streets. By the time they get finished, Wrigley will be the anchor for a high-end district the likes of which I’m sure Chicago hasn’t seen before. And none of this is a bad thing, if it keeps Wrigley Field and the Cubs in Chicago where they’ve always been.

But now, the family’s competing interest in politics will be considered. According to the story I saw, Todd Ricketts is offering to be the act as a cash collector for the Donald Trump campaign, through a group that is able to collect large sums of money without having to disclose who their donors are. Think of it as Trumpin’ on the downlow. When somebody wants to give Trump lots of cash without having to admit it to anyone else, Todd Ricketts is apparently their guy.

So November is going to bring two resolutions, in quick succession. The Cubs are hopefully going to finally go all the way and win the World Series, which I’ve been waiting for over three decades by now. When it finally happens, life won’t ever be quite the same for me again. And I very much want that to happen. We’ll know by November 2 if that’s the case.

And then just a few days later–November 8, to be exact–we’ll find out if Donald Trump is going to be president or not. That’s something I definitely don’t want to happen, as the world will disappear in flames and smoke if Trump wins. I get terrified enough just typing those words out on the computer.

So I’m thinking of November as a Punnett Square-type month, having to do with the outcomes of the Ricketts family and their twin interests in baseball and electoral politics. The Ricketts Square, as I’m calling it, has to do with the Cubs being dominant and winning (referred to on the square as C) or being recessive and losing (as signified by c). And yes, everything short of a World Series title will be considered as c to me, and many other Cubs fans, as well.

Since the Ricketts family is collecting money for Donald Trump, they also have an interest in whether he is dominant and wins (represented by a T) or is recessive and loses (as indicated as t). So there are four possible outcomes, which will be discussed below.

The Ricketts-preferred outcome is for both the Cubs and Trump to win, as represented by CT on the square. For somebody like me, that would result in a week’s euphoria over the Cubs, followed by the most profound “Oh Shit!” moment I can imagine.

The preferred outcome in my world is Cubs winning and Trump losing, represented by Ct on the square. The baseball celebrations of early November would then carry on into infinity, at least for me.

But it’s the other two results that could be most interesting. A Cubs loss, followed by a Trump loss, is represented as ct on the square. And as devastating as a Cubs loss could be, the following week would bring some good news, at least. It probably wouldn’t be enough to lift the clouds of disappointment, but as a human living on planet earth, I would feel at least a little bit better.

The final possibility is almost too gruesome to imagine: The Cubs fall short in the postseason, but a split is salvaged when Trump wins the White House a week later. This is shown as cT on the square, and would be a consolation prize for the Ricketts family, but a devastating development for the world that we all live in.  May this outcome never come to pass.

Anyone who has read this far and wants to have an issue with this will say “What about Laura Ricketts? Doesn’t she raise money for the Democrats?” and I will acknowledge this is true. Whether she raises any secret money from undisclosed donors is something I don’t know, but I’m willing to suggest there is more Republican sentiment within the family than not, and the two sides do not cancel each other out.

So October will be the prelude, and early November will bring the resolution. We’ll have to see how it goes, and perhaps by then the actual Punnett Square will make its way into my daughter’s vocabulary. The only thing there is to do now is wait and hope, while searching for a glimpse of that elusive red ivy at Wrigley Field.

 

Right Now

IMG_1226

I must be one of the few people who prefers the Sammy Hagar era of Van Halen over the David Lee Roth incarnation of the band. I’ve written about Sammy before, and his solo work and the songs he wrote and sang for Montrose are great examples of what rock and roll sounds like. Dave, on the other hand, has a couple of clownish videos to his credit as a solo act.

The piano intro to Van Halen’s Right Now sets a tone of immediacy and urgency, as the opening lyrics suggest.

Don’t wanna wait ’til tomorrow

Why put it off another day?

So much of my personal energy is tied up in the Chicago Cubs. One glance at the things I’ve written for this blog and many other websites confirms this fact. Baseball is my game and Chicago is my home, and the Cubs have sustained me on things other than success since I was a very young child.

But games are played to have winners and losers, and this is finally the year when the Cubs win everything. There’s no division title, as I predicted in several places last spring, but the biggest prize of all–the World Series championship–is still out there, waiting to be had.

Right Now! There’s no tomorrow

Right Now! Come on, it’s everything

Right Now! Catch that magic moment,

Do it right here and now!

First there’s a game to win on Wednesday night, and the Cubs will have to take the game away from Pittsburgh on their home field. It will be done, though. I’m close to being able to explain why, too. Details are coming soon in this space, I hope.

So many Cubs fans have already waited so long, and so many others couldn’t hang on to get to this point in time. Were the Cubs to come up short this season, a few more Cubs fans wouldn’t make it to next year’s opening day, let alone the postseason. I think about them as much as I think about myself when I say that the winning has to happen this year.

“Next Year” is for losers and fools, and I’d like to believe I’m in neither category. To partially steal a idea from Justin Timberlake, Yesterday is history, tomorrow’s a mystery, and today is ours for the taking. There’s no day but Today. Let’s do it Right Now. It really does mean everything.

Baseball’s hold on me

baseballDaVinci

Over the past 24 hours, three baseball-themed pieces that I wrote have appeared online. The deal between Pearl Jam and Fox Sports for the upcoming World Series was discussed in a piece on ThroughTheFenceBaseball, a memory from the 2003 Cubs season appeared on FiveWideSports, and a vision of how 2003 might have ended differently appeared on ChicagoSideSports. Writing about baseball is something of an elixir for me, even when the subjects are difficult to relive sometimes.

There were also two amazing, 1-0 games in the playoffs yesterday. My TV-less ways meant that I didn’t see either one, but I’m still aglow this morning with the power this game has to captivate us. And rather than get it to it any more than that, I’ll just sit back and wait for the next game to begin. What a great time of year this is.

Can’t do it

image

I took this picture of a copy of the Chicago Tribune–from the day after the White Sox won the World Series in 2005– to send it in to a memorabilia appraisal TV show I read about online. I have no illusions that it has any monetary value. And yet, as a hardcore Cubs fan, a paper like this for my team would be more valuable than I could ever quantify. I hope to see one someday.

When this paper came to my door back in 2005, I couldn’t open it up. I knew what the news was, and I wasn’t even upset by it. But to take the paper out of the bag was an emotional bridge I could not cross. So until the Cubs reach that same point, that plastic bag isn’t going anywhere.

Ballpark in winter

The World Series could end today, and then baseball will officially shut down and head into its long offseason. But the season’s been over for many months already for the Chicago Cubs.

All that stuff about player development and building for the future is empty happytalk that might sell some season tickets for next year, but the truth is that the scoreboard is empty–save for some concert announcement for next summer–and the field itself is nothing but a big sand pit.  The ballpark is now a deserted shell; It’s an empty, hollow, lifeless place.

There’s just one big league ballpark in use today, and another one on standby if needed, but Wrigley Field is boarded up for the winter, as usual. There’s nothing anyone in the Cubs organization can say to change that, either.

I love Wrigley Field, and the game that is played there 81 times a year, but the October hollowness has really gotten old.

Looking beneath the fold

Last weekend, I found myself in the position of having to explain the Cubs and their 2003 collapse in the playoffs to a young fan who didn’t know anything about it. I’ve written about this before, from many different angles, but writing is so much more preferable to me than speaking. It’s always been that way: I don’t make eye contact very well, I mumble, my thoughts get jumbled up, my tongue doesn’t function as well as my brain wants it to. It’s a confidence thing, I’m sure.

When I was teaching, and had no choice but to overcome this on a daily basis, I found that a visual aid–or a prop, as I thought of it–could make a point better than I could on my own. And so, to explain what happened to the Cubs that year, I pulled out a Chicago Tribune front page dated October 15, 2003. It was the day after Moises Alou and that foul ball down the left field line.

I explained how the Cubs were ahead, and had just five more outs until the pennant was won. I described how Mark prior was a robot that year, seemingly unbeatable every time he went to the mound. I explained how people were ready, both inside Wrigley Field and out, to yell and scream and celebrate like they never had before. And then, in the course of one half-inning of play, it all came apart. And it hasn’t been close to that point ever since.

I saved that newspaper, as I did a lot of them during the 2003 postseason, because I was expecting great things to happen that fall. I wanted to keep them, as tangible proof that yes, it really did happen for the Cubs, after decades of waiting for it. It felt like a lifetime of waiting was finally going to be over.

The young Cubs fan, who seemed to be intrigued by the story I was telling him, looked at the picture and noticed something interesting. It was below the newspaper’s fold, and I had never noticed it before because all of the action takes place above the fold, which runs through Moises Alou’s torso and is visible above if you look at it the right way.

It was only after the paper was opened up all the way that this revealed itself to him, and only after he spotted it that I saw it too. He pointed to a fan with a blue Cubs jacket, a smile on his face, and his arms spread wide apart, and asked me “Why is this guy so happy?” I looked at him, and right away I understood the reason for his big smile.

Everyone in the park at that moment, and around the outside of the park, and watching on TV felt exactly as he did, at least until that ball twisted toward the stands. This guy was looking for a TV camera, oblivious to what was unfolding just a few feet away from him. I’m certain that, in five minutes’ time, he wasn’t nearly as happy as he was in that moment.

If only that exuberance, captured surreptitiously and preserved in a newspaper for all time, could return again. Almost nine years have now gone by, and life has moved on for all of us. The Cubs are finishing up yet another season that hasn’t quite turned out the way we wanted it to.

I still have some more baseball seasons left in me, I hope, and one of them might end up the way that I thought that the 2003 season would. And if it does, perhaps this old newspaper won’t be worth looking at, anymore. Hope springs eternal.

So it’s come to this

I wrote an earlier post about how I had no NCAA brackets to consult this year. The Final Four has now been set, and there are no VCU-type cinderella stories this year. Louisville, Kansas and Kentucky are among the entrenched elite of college basketball, and even the team that wears scarlet and gray has had more than its share of success over the years. So it’s one more weekend without baseball, and then on to the baseball season, at last.

I don’t want to do this, but I’m pulling for that school that comes from Columbus, Ohio to win it all (I can’t even bring myself to say their full name, or that silly “the” that comes in front of it). It’s the only Big Ten school left standing, and since the SEC has a hammerlock on the college football scene, everyone else has to grab what little bit of glory is left over.

The Big Ten Network, which I don’t have anymore after canceling cable TV, has been effective at making all of the Big Ten schools feel like part of something, well, Big. It’s a big dust-up between all the schools during the regular season, but then it’s time to close ranks and pull for the conference standard-bearer when the other schools and conferences are involved.

I employed a similar philosophy last fall, when I begrudgingly went on the record as favoring the Cardinals over the Rangers in the World Series.  It’s quite easy to hate on the State, particularly after the football scandal that erupted last year, but the truth is  I want to have a rooting interest for the games next weekend.

Since I’m lacking a good reason to pull for any of the other schools playing in New Orleans next week, I’ll  pull for the Buckeyes. But I won’t like it, not one little bit. And I’ll be much happier once it’s over, when baseball season will be just a few days away.

and I believe in the Promised Land

Over the nine months I’ve been writing this blog, I’ve written more posts about the Chicago Cubs than any other topic. But I have other favorites, too, and Bruce Springsteen’s music is definitely on that list. This is the first time I’ve been able to fuse the two subjects together, and I’m excited to be doing this, so here goes:

The first–and so far, the only–Springsteen concert that I’ve seen was at the United Center in Chicago back in 2007. I went with my sister, and we had a great time, both at the show and in the perfect fall weather that bookended it. Lately, I’ve been listening to a bootleg of the show that I found online. My favorite song from that show–and possibly my favorite Springsteen song of all–is one called the Promised Land. The concept in the title goes back thousands of years, but I can relate to it as a Cubs fan in the 21st century.

The Israelites in the Hebrew Bible wandered through the desert, looking for a land that they had been promised. I’m not religious–13 years of Catholic school notwithstanding–but I’ve been wandering about my whole life. And the absence of anything to show for that hasn’t diminished my belief that it’s still out there. For some reason, it’s only become stronger over the years.

Bruce Springsteen played at Fenway Park in Boston for two nights back in September of 2003. For the first night’s show, he and his band played The Promised Land as the 17th song and before the first encore started. But for the second night’s show, he didn’t play it at all. Every show has a different setlist, and sometimes songs don’t get played. But the year after those two Springsteen concerts, the Red Sox finally did get to their promised land, after eight decades of wandering through baseball’s desert.

Did that song finally help to get the Red Sox over the hump? It sounds like a goofy thing to say, but is it any goofier than a ground ball rolling through Leon Durham’s legs in 1984? Or the almost unbeatable Mark Prior blowing a 3-run lead in 2003? Or the persistent belief that one man and his goat have effectively cursed the team for over 60 years? It’s certainly worth a shot to find out if there’s anything to playing this song live in a star-crossed baseball venue. Perhaps it has worked once, already.

After reports, rumors, and speculation, it’s now official that Bruce Springsteen will be coming to Wrigley Field this fall. He played in the Uptown Theater once upon a time, and Soldier Field back in the 80s, but this is the first time he’ll be at Wrigley Field. I hope to get tickets, but even if I don’t I’ll try to find a listening party in the Wrigleyville area. Bruce and his band will be heard up and down Clark Street, when the time comes. (NOTE: I attended the first of the two shows, and wrote about it in various places online.) 

In trying to get ahead of that curve, I humbly suggest to Bruce Springsteen, and to everyone else reading this, that The Promised Land would be an essential addition to a Wrigley Field setlist. Not only is it a fantastic song–one that calls on the power of an unshakable belief in something–but it could also be the portent of something great to come for the Cubs. (NOTE: The song was the first one played at the second Wrigley Field show in 2012, and not the first show that I attended. But at least it was played.) 

I’d like nothing more than to argue about whether or not this made any difference, after it finally takes place. And so I’m laying down this marker now because, as Tug McGraw once said, you just gotta believe.

(NOTE: The video presented above was filmed in 2016, four years after I wrote this post. The original video was removed for copyright grounds, but this one’s really good, too. They all are, I’m sure.)

A contrarian’s view on Kerry Wood

The annual Cubs Convention started today in Chicago, and the team made a big splash by signing (re-upping, really) Kerry Wood for a one year, $3 million deal for 2012. There’s a club option for another year, not a player option like the kind Ryan Dempster was given, so at least that’s progress. And it wouldn’t surprise me if a large part of the club option depends on whether he goes on the DL at some point during the season. I certainly don’t want this to happen, but his track record (I think he averages more than one trip to the DL a season) suggests it should be anticipated in some way.

From what I gathered on Twitter, the Wood signing set off waves of cheering at the convention. And for the life of me, I don’t understand why. I am as emotionally attached to Kerry Wood as any other Cubs fan, and I want to see him along for the ride when the Cubs finally do go all the way. But there’s no evidence to suggest that will happen.

Kerry Wood struck out 20 batters in a nine-inning game, an amazing feat that will be talked about for decades to come. But it happened in 1998, more than a dozen seasons ago. And in the intervening years, Wood has piled up both strikeouts and wear and tear on his arm. With more than a dozen trips to the DL under his belt, it seems prudent to assume that these ways will continue into 2012. My rosy-colored glasses, such as they are, can’t imagine Kerry Wood going a full season without some time being missed.

And, more importantly than that, the Cubs have been talking at length about their new way–the “Cubs Way”– going forward as a franchise. It’s what allowed Dale Sveum to get the manager’s job over long-time Cub favorite Ryne Sandberg. Sandberg’s going to be managing against the Cubs someday, all because of the prevailing sense of a new way of doing things as a franchise.

The Wood signing departs from this new feeling in a big way. It’s like busting out the old REM albums on vinyl, just to see if they’ll still sound as good as they once did. It feels good to do it–it feels comfortable more than anything else–but it ultimately doesn’t get you to where you need to go. Where you’re dying to go, even.

Theo Epstein has said that the Cubs will be paying for future performance, rather than for past performance as they have done over the past few years. So is $3 million for a middle reliever/set-up man worth it? I guess that will determine whether or not the club option is picked up next year.

Lastly, I know it’s painful to bring this up, but Wood’s postseason performances have been spotty over the years. He was great for the Yankees in 2010, so perhaps we’ll get that again. But the 2003 NLCS saw Kerry Wood lose the decisive Game seven, and nearly lose Game three in that series as well. Many years ago, to be sure, but all there is to go on, as well.

I’ve said before that the veteran leadership on a team–which Wood will certainly be called on to provide–needs to have past World Series champions somewhere in the mix. The Cubs didn’t have any such players before re-signing Wood, and they still don’t have any now. I hope this won’t be an issue, but the answer won’t be known for a few months, at least.

First, last, and always, I want the Cubs to succeed. But I’m honestly having a hard time seeing how this signing fits into it. It feels good on an emotional level, but that needs to be translated into results on the field, as well.

Quarterly Report #2

image

As with the previous three months of this year, I am putting down some thoughts at the end of the fourth quarter. The drama of the fourth quarter typically makes it the most exciting part of a football game and, even though baseball is my primary milieu for this blog, the same can be said of the past three months here at BlueBattingHelmet.

The fourth quarter of 2011  gave us all a scintillating month of baseball in October, capped off by the most exciting World Series I’ve ever seen, or possibly will ever see in my lifetime. I did my best to keep up by writing 79 posts that month. I remember thinking, in the midst of it, that I couldn’t keep that pace up, and I wrote 47 posts in November, and this is my 48th–but not necessarily final–post of December. That’s a total of 174 posts in a three month period, or just under two posts per day. If my goal was to create some content–and it was–then I would say I accomplished this.

Perhaps as a result of the new content, the number of page views for this blog increased every month of this quarter. I included a picture of the graph from WordPress on this subject. The actual numbers don’t matter, and I deliberately left those out of the picture above. Whether each horizontal line stands for ten views or ten million views is beside the point. The point is that growth is happening, and it’s encouraging to see.

There were other good things this quarter, such as joining the Baseball Bloggers Alliance (BBA) and submitting two pieces for publication on Baseball Digest‘s website. I was also honored to appear on MLB.com’s list of top fan blogs for October (#12) and November (#9).

The highlight of the quarter for me, though, was writing a piece to commemorate the birth of a child to a friend from college and his wife. I once read somewhere that a child represents a vote for the world to continue. My votes in this regard have already been cast, but I’m happy that someone I know is still going to the polls, so to speak. Such a momentous event deserved more than a “like” on Facebook or a congratulatory Tweet, and this blog gave me a forum to say something truly meaningful. And if I never write another word in this space, that post would be legacy enough for this humble blog.

I want to wish all readers of this blog a Happy Next Year, which is something that Cubs fans like me have been waiting their whole lives for. I’d like nothing better than to share that experience in this space. And my next quarterly report will come right around Opening Day. Hope springs eternal.

He’s officially gone

A number of years ago, I was participating in a fantasy baseball draft and I picked an unknown (at least to the people taking part in the draft) third baseman named Aramis Ramirez. I pronounced it AIR-uh-miss, and nobody said anything to the contrary.

A few months later, in the middle of the season, the Cubs made a trade with Pittsburgh, and Ramirez came to Chicago. I learned that the right way to pronounce his name was Uh-RAH-miss.

He helped lead the Cubs to a division title in 2003, so his career in Chicago got off to a great start. For the first time since Ron Santo left in the 1970s, the Cubs had a reliable third baseman (I’m not sure why Bill Madlock was never considered one) AND Cub fans got to quit hearing stories about the Cubs’ lack of a reliable third baseman. It was a win-win for all parties involved.

Ramirez had some decent years playing in Chicago–and made a lot more money than he would have made in Pittsburgh–but he never took the team into the World Series. It’s not entirely his fault, but he did disappear at times when the Cubs needed him to lead the way.

So after declining a guaranteed one year deal with the Cubs for next season, Ramirez instead chose to sign with Milwaukee for a three-year deal worth $36 million. The fact that the Brewers are in the Cubs’ division means he’ll come to Wrigley many times in the three years ahead. Some Cubs fans could cheer him when he does, but there will be plenty who will boo him instead, seeing his departure as a betrayal of some sort.

As for me, I’ll probably just go back to calling him AIR-uh-miss and move on. We were never going to win with him around, anyway. It’s best to just turn the page.

It will be worth the wait

image

Christmas is certainly a unique time of year. The holidays bring out a side of people that remains hidden for most of the year. Maybe its the snow, or the gift giving, or the reflection that accompanies the end of another year here on earth. Whatever it is, we all need at least a couple of weeks off from all the crap that comes with everyday life.

Against that backdrop, we received word of Ron Santo’s Hall of Fame election earlier this week. I was in the general vicinity of Wrigley Field on the day it was announced, and so I went over to pay my respects. There were flowers at the base of Santo’s newly-minted statue, along with notes of congratulation. I tried to explain to eight year old daughter about the things he did as a player and an announcer, and the money he helped to raise for Juvenile Diabetes research.

We then walked along Addison Street, and came to the marquee along Clark Street that proclaimed the news to all passersby.The weather was a bit chilly, but the people in the area, myself included, didn’t mind it at all. There was a happy convergence of the holiday season with the feeling that a long wait had finally been rewarded.

We Cubs fans know about waiting. Most of us have waited all our lives to see a World Series involving our team. Some of us, like Ron Santo, might not live to see those dreams realized. But still we keep the faith, knowing that when it finally does happen, there will be a collective catharsis for those who are around to see it: Banks, Williams, Jenkins, Kessinger, and countless others who have worn the uniform, or cheered for those who did. And hopefully I won’t need to explain that to anyone.

Mascot musings

Today was a much nicer day here than it could have been for mid-November, and my eight-year old was at Toyota Park in the suburbs for the annual Girls on the Run event. It’s a nice field, and I’m sure the soccer team (or is it a club?) likes that it doesn’t have to share space with an American football team. The 5K run began outside the stadium but ended up at the finish line inside the stadium. All in all, it was a very well-run event.

After the race began, I went inside to find a spot near the finish line. There was some downtime as the runners were out on the course, and the antics of the White Sox mascot (his name is Southpaw, apparently) and the Chicago Fire’s mascot (I think his name was Sparky) kept the crowd amused. They were also there at the finish line to high-five the runners as they finished the race, just in case being on the Jumbotron at the finish line wasn’t enough of a thrill.

My thoughts are never very far from baseball and the Cubs, so I got to thinking about their mascot-free status. The Cubs are more bound to their tradition than any team I can think of, and this probably extends to mascots as much as–maybe even more than–anything else. Some cute, little Cub E. Bear, or whatever they would end up calling it, just isn’t going to happen. And I’m not saying that I want it to.

And yet…

What a great outreach tool Southpaw is for the White Sox. It’s the offseason now, and baseball might be far from a lot of people’s minds, but there’s some guy inside the costume, getting paid a few bucks to ham it up, pose for pictures with little kids, and generally give the impression the White Sox are trying to spread their recognition to the next generation of fans. It also makes the Cubs look more disconnected from the general population, at least some of whom are bound to be baseball fans.

The lady sitting a few rows behind me yelled out to the mascot “Is that what Ozzie’s new job is?” but heckling a mascot seemed like a petty thing to do. And I realize that the Cubs have issues that extend far beyond mascots. But it was a bit strange to see the White Sox getting all of the attention, while the Cubs seem to be content with just sitting it out in this arena.

The Topps Opening Day baseball card set this year contained an insert card for each of the teams that have a mascot, and most big league teams do already have one. This, again, is not to argue that one should be created, just for the sake of keeping up with the White Sox or anyone else. But it is also something that I would not have considered before today.

Would I like for the Cubs to roll out a macot? Probably not. Is it anywhere close to being as important to me as winning a World Series? No way. But is it something that could help to bring the Cubs into the hearts and minds of the next generation of fans who, let’s face it, don’t have either a winning tradition or a Jack Brickhouse-type of an announcer to draw them in? It could be.

The Cubs have been marketed masterfully over the years, with Beanie Baby giveaways and Barbie Doll giveaways and lots of others that I can’t think of right now. They were far ahead of the MLB curve in this respect. But the guy responsible for that is with the Blackhawks now, and putting up new statues outside of Wrigley Field every year is already getting old. Is Ronnie Woo-Woo next?

If the team wants to move toward a more family-oriented experience at the ballpark, like the South Side already has, and many other Major League teams already offer, as well as minor-league teams out in the suburbs, they could do a lot worse than paying attention to what’s out there already. Or they can just win the World Series instead.

Number 12, and rising

When I started this blog last summer, it was in its own little isolated world. But the internet is like a vast ocean, and I wanted to find a way of gaining exposure to all of the other users out there, bloggers and otherwise. So one day in August I wrote a piece explaining why I should be considered for inclusion on the MLB blogs page.

Even though I had only written a handful of posts by then, I could already see that baseball would be my primary muse. So instead of fighting it, I embraced it. Hemingway once advised to write about what you know, and as much as anything else that’s what I wanted to write about.

Summer vacation came to an end, and school started back up for my kids and life’s patterns returned as well. And I discovered the statistics that can tell how many views your blog gets every day. It was kind of fun to know, but it wasn’t really too important, because I’m just doing this for fun, anyway.

And then one day in the middle of September, I noticed an upward spike in traffic. I was intrigued, and so I clicked on the “referrers” section of the stats page and discovered that mlb.com/blogs was sending people my way. It was an exciting feeling, and I watched as the page views number kept climbing throughout the day. By the end, the number of page views far exceeded anything that had come before. They dropped off a bit the next day, but by two days later they weren’t much above where they had been originally. I decided that it was fun while it lasted.

But I also realized that, if anyone was ever going to find their way to my blog, I’d better create some content for them to read. So I went on a writing bender, which hasn’t really let up since.  By the end of September, I had made the monthly leaderboard at MLB’s blog page at #28 on the “Fans’ list. I was happy to see my blog’s name in print (it was a “The new phonebooks here!” moment for me), and it encouraged me to see what a full month of being on someone’s radar screen could do.

October was an outstanding month, mostly because the playoffs were going on. October baseball and I haven’t always been close over the years, but I embraced this year’s postseason with everything I had, and it repaid me beyond my wildest dreams. Any true baseball fan couldn’t help but get caught up in what was going on, Yankees or no Yankees. And in the end, we’ll all tell our kids and our grandkids about how the Rangers were one strike away–twice–and couldn’t close the deal. And we’ll remember why the absence of a game clock makes baseball a sport of infinite possibilities.

I wrote about the games as they were going on, and I threw in some other topics, too. If I can’t do that, then I might as well quit writing this altogether. But that won’t happen anytime soon. This forum that I’ve created for myself has invigorated me in a way I would not have thought possible six months ago.

At the end of October, the traffic to this page had exceeded the total of the first three and a half months combined. The actual numbers don’t really matter, but the dramatic increase told me something was going right. The highwater mark for page views, which was set when MLB first started sending people my way in September, has since been passed many times, and the daily number is routinely higher than that now. All of which is humbling and gratifying at the same time.

Today, the MLB blogs page released their October leaders chart, and I’m now sitting at number 12 on the Fans list. So far as I can see, I’m the highest Cubs page on the list, so I feel as if I’m carrying the banner for my Northside brethren in some way. There are several Cubs blogs out there that are better than mine, but since I’m in this particular arena, that’s the landscape I’m looking out at right now.

The number is nice, but it isn’t going to change anything here. I’ve created lots of new content over the past month or so, and there’s a lot more that remains to be said, but the frenzy of October is probably going to ease up a bit in the weeks and months ahead. It is the baseball offseason, after all, and there will be other topics to mine instead. And mine them I shall. But in the meantime, thanks for staying with me for this and any other posts that you may read, in the past or in the future. It humbles me greatly.

So why the picture of Antonio Alfonseca above? I like the relaxed and happy smile on his face, but I have another reason for choosing him to head this post. Look at the title, and leave me a comment if you know. I’ll be sure to send you some fun things if you do.

W is for World Series

It’s sometimes difficult to remember What life was like before the internet. We’re so accustomed to it now, that it almost doesn’t seem possible that We ever got along without it. But somehow We did it. And this is is a story from back in those days.

In the early 1990s, from 1991 to 1994, I lived in a high rise building in the Lakeview neighborhood of Chicago. The building had 17 stories, and I lived on the side of the building that faced north. Since I lived on one of the upper floors, I had a view of Wrigley Field out my Window. Whenever there was a network broadcast of a game played at Wrigley, I could see the blimps circling overhead, or Watch the small airplanes that would circle the park with a message of some kind trailing behind it.

In those days, after I would get home from Work in the evening, my first ritual Would be to grab a pair of binoculars, head over to the window, and look in the direction of Wrigley Field. Most home games were played in the afternoon back then, and the game Would usually be over by the time I got home. At the conclusion of the game, the Cubs Would run a White flag with a blue W on it up the flagpole if they won, or a blue flag with a White L on it up the flagpole When they lost. It was the best Way of finding out the result of that day’s game.

The day game at Wrigley is reserved for Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays anymore. Games at home on Mondays through Thursdays are almost entirely night games, making a ritual like this unnecessary. And having the internet at Work means that day games can be followed as they happen, and there is no suspense about What the outcome of the game is anymore. So I guess that’s progress.

The Cubs still continue with this post-game ritual, even if the need for it isn’t What it once Was. And the team now markets White shirts with a blue W on them, and uses the image as part of their current marketing campaign. It cuts both Ways, though, as I ran into a blue flag with a White L on it in Busch Stadium last year, being Waved by exuberant Cardinals fans to taunt Cubs fans like myself.

The practice of running up a flag after each home game began in the 1940s, although I haven’t been able to find a specific date for When this actually began. This could mean that there hasn’t been a flag run up following a World Series game for 61 seasons, if at all, since the last Cubs World Series appearance happened in 1945.

We all know that W stands for “Win,”  but could it one day stand for “World Series” too? This is just one more reason for daring to dream big with the new regime coming in. After all, We’ve Waited long enough.

Adding another digit

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Get ready for a huge number

At the start of this season, when it became clear that Albert Pujols and the Cardinals were not going to agree on a contract before the season, the thought of number 5 in a contract year was absolutely horrifying. The best player of his generation–and maybe of any generation–trying to put up numbers to show what his value might be? And if you were watching the World Series tonight, you saw that on full display.

Exactly how much will Albert Pujols be able to command on the open market this offseason? Do you think he settles for less to resign with the Cardinals, knowing how badly they have been underpaying him for a decade? That won’t happen, and it shouldn’t.

Think about it this way: Albert isn’t even the highest-paid player on his own team. That title goes to Matt Holliday, and has for a couple of seasons now. Albert and Chris Carpenter are on about the same pay scale, but Carpenter pitches every fifth day, while Albert plays every day at first base. Do you think that’s the way it should be? I sure don’t.

Let’s say that Albert is worth twice what he’s getting now. Can the Cardinals still afford Carpenter, or Holliday, or even Lance Berkman or Yadier Molina if they’re paying him that much? The answer is of course not. St. Louis can put other pieces around him, and they have, because he’s  so dramatically underpaid. And now it’s time to pay the man what he’s worth.

The presence of Prince Fielder on the free agent market might complicate things a bit.  Why pay Albert $25 million, when I can get Prince for $20 million and fill another roster spot with some good talent with the savings? I understand that thinking, and I think there will be a race to be the winner of the second-best first baseman derby. But there is no mistaking who the biggest prize of all will be, as soon as this World Series is over.

And the Theo watch continues

As the World Series gets going, the big story in the rest of baseball is what’s going to happen with Theo Epstein and the Cubs. The Red Sox apparently want some things, and the Cubs are going to have to cough some prospects up. Maybe they’re close to getting it done, any maybe they’re not. But it has to get done at this point.

So when it gets finalized, and the press conference is conducted, the real work of building a championship team can commence. We’ve already waited so damn long, and some longtime fans won’t live to see the championship finally happen. But Theo Epstein, and whoever else he brings to Chicago with him, isn’t being brought here for any other reason. He knows it, we know it, and anyone with even a passing familiarity with baseball knows it too.

On the World Series pregame show tonight, they did a piece about Albert Pujols and what he means to St. Louis and what happens if he leaves after the season is over. And AJ Pierzynski decided that Paul Konerko was in a similar situation in 2005, after the White Sox did that thing they did. I’m not going to put it into words, but you know what it was. I found myself inventing a new phrase, which can be shortened to STFUAJ. But at least he has an experience like that to talk about. And ex-Cub Eric Karros steered him away to another topic, thankfully.

We Cubs fans have nothing to say, to anyone, when it comes to the World Series. It’s been that way for as long as anyone who isn’t in their 70s can remember. And it will be up to Theo Epstein to find some way to end this.

An open letter to Theo Epstein

Hello Theo,

I hope it’s OK if I call you by your first name. I actually don’t even know if it’s short for Theodore or something else. For all I know, you may not even like to be called that. I read somewhere that Abraham Lincoln hated to be called “Abe.” If there’s something else you’d rather go by, please accept my apologies.

I must tell you that I’m very excited that you’re coming to Chicago. If this makes its way to you somehow, thanks for taking the time to read this over. I’m sure you’re very busy.

I have family in Boston, and the World Series titles you brought to them meant a great deal. They also meant a great deal to you, I’m sure. Ending the long championship drought for your hometown team must have been an unbelievable feeling. And then to follow it up with another title must have been even better. Kudos to you for such a great accomplishment.

I know that leaving Boston will be hard for you. But if there was ever a bigger challenge than winning in Boston, winning with the Cubs is it. It’s been said many times that whoever wins here in Chicago will be remembered forever, and I’m glad to see that you’re willing to accept that mantle. You’ve already proven something to me (and hopefully to others) just by taking that step.

I’m writing this to you, and allowing the whole world to read it, because I want to help you to achieve this goal.  I have followed this team for as long as I can remember, stretching all the way back to the mid 1970s. The Cubs were my team then, and they’ll always be my team in the future, and anything I can do to help them succeed, I’ll gladly do it.

Unfortunately, we Cubs fans are twisted in some sense. It’s like we’ve been locked away in a dungeon for a very long time, and given just enough to survive, but never enough to really flourish.  We’ve heard about success, and have even watched while others have tasted it, but it’s never been within our grasp. I get that. I understand. As I’m sure you once understood it, too.

If there’s anything I can do to help you succeed, please feel free to send me an email at BlueBattingHelmet@gmail.com. Thanks so much for reading this, and please accept my best wishes for your success in Chicago.

Most sincerely yours,

Rob Harris

Founder and Executive Editor

BlueBattingHelmet.wordpress.com

Theo Epstein and Maximum Yang

Last weekend, I picked up a book  called The Tao of Baseball at, ironically enough, a church rummage sale. I had read the Tao of Pooh many years ago, and that was the extent of my exposure to Taoist thought. But I’m always up for learning something about baseball, so I gave this one a read.

Taoism is probably best identified by the white and black symbol shown in the image above. The idea is that the white is Yang, or the things that might be considered as desirable. The black is Yin, or the things that you don’t want to have. Candy on Halloween is Yang, while a bloated feeling from eating too much of it is Yin.

Yin and Yang combine to form the Tao, which can be translated as the Way of all things. A glass of water can be hot (let’s call that Yang) or cold (that will be Yin), or else it’s going to be somewhere in between, with the two forces balancing themselves out to some degree.

So let’s apply this understanding to baseball for a moment. Winning a ballgame is Yang, while losing a ballgame is Yin.  A game can’t end in a tie, and so this must always be the result of every single game. Winning enough games to earn a division title or a wild card berth to the playoffs is Yang, while missing the playoffs altogether is Yin.

Winning the World Series is the highest level of Yang available, and Theo Epstein achieved this not once, but twice, thus overcoming the historic Yin of the Boston Red Sox.   And that’s what the Cubs are expecting him to achieve by bringing him to Chicago.

Speaking as a Cubs fan–who has drank from the cup of Yin far more often than he has sampled any Yang–I can say that the Cubs’ Yang needs to be made as great as it possibly can be in the years ahead. I wish Theo Epstein the best in taking us to that place we all want to be someday.

Here’s why I want Theo Epstein on the North Side

I remember the 2004 trade involving Nomar Garciaparra very well. “No-mah” was revered in Boston, and I was stunned that the Red Sox gave him up. And yet, just a couple months after trading him away, the Red Sox finally broke through and won the World Series. And there’s not a Red Sox fan alive who would choose having Nomar over winning the World Series.

Did the Red Sox win because they traded away Garciaparra? Of course not. But Theo Epstein knew the risk involved with trading such a popular player, and he pulled the trigger anyway. That’s the kind of moves I want to see him make when he comes in to take over the Cubs’ operations.

The difference in Chicago is that none of the veteran players here are especially popular with the fans. Soriano’s reviled because of all the money he’s due and not earning, the Carlos Zambrano show seems to have run its course already, and Aramis Ramirez clearly wants out and I, for one, will be glad to see him go.

I expect there will be a short learning curve for the National League style of play, and perhaps a playoff berth in 2012 is too much to ask. But win and win now seem to be what he would be brought to Chicago to do. He’s done it in Boston, and there’s no reason to believe that it can’t also be done here in Chicago.

The important caveat to this is that “winning” does not stop at division titles or even wins in the playoffs. No, anything short of winning the World Series will not count as winning for Theo Epstein and Terry Francona. The Cubs have won division titles, and even a wild card berth many years ago, but then were swept out of the playoffs. And every other franchise has won a World Series by now, except for Texas (that may happen this year), Seattle, and Montreal/Washington (but I don’t really count them, for some reason). The clock ticks louder with each passing year, and I hope everyone understands this before they come to Chicago.

I thought of him as my Grandpa

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Whatever it takes

I read an article online today about an interesting possibility that I had not considered. The article is here, but basically the idea is that if the Cubs hired Walt Jocketty, the former General Manager of the St. Louis Cardinals, he would in turn hire Tony LaRussa, who would convince Albert Pujols to sign as a free agent. The possibilities briefly sent my mind spinning, but now I’ve had a few moments to digest it.

I don’t think this will happen. I know that Pujols will be the free agent prize of a generation this offseason, and the Cubs would need to commit lots of cash to bring him in. We’re talking nine digits worth, with the first of those digits being a 3. If I could command that type of money, I would do it. And in all likelihood, so would you. Albert Pujols will be able to command that type of money, if not from the Cubs than certainly from someplace else.

But putting Pujols aside for a moment, the prospect of Tony LaRussa managing the Cubs is intriguing. He started off here in Chicago, on the South side, as the manager for the White Sox at the tail end of the 1970s. Yes, he has been doing it for that long. He’s been Manager of the Year in both leagues, has won multiple pennants in both leagues, and–most importantly–has won the World Series in both leagues. The man’s a winner, pure and simple. He’s exactly what the Cubs need.

Yes, he’s been the Cardinals manager for a long time, which has earned him a place of disdain in my heart, and those of many other Cubs fans, too. The epic five-game series in Chicago, at the start of September 2003, was but one example of LaRussa being a schmuck. When the Cubs won 4 of those 5 games, though, everything seemed to fall into place that year. LaRussa’s team was the hurdle, and for once the Cubs were able to overcome it.

I love the Cubs, and have since I was a little kid, but the one thing I want more than anything else in baseball is to see the them winning the World Series. Not only getting to the World Series, but winning it. LaRussa has already done that, and  if he’s the guy to do it for the Cubs, I’ll gladly go along with it.

I wanted to title this post “I’d cheer for the devil himself” and insert a picture of LaRussa. That would send a bad message, like LaRussa is the devil himself, so I went another direction with the title. But the feeling is sincere. If Sarah Palin could manage the Cubs to a World Series win, I’d even pull for her. But she doesn’t have LaRussa’s resume of baseball success.  She’d probably quit halfway through the season, anyway.

Lou Piniella and Dusty Baker had some managing success before coming to the Cubs, but both of them were beaten down and run out of town without so much as a single World Series appearance. And I can’t imagine that this would happen to LaRussa. So I say to the Cubs, spend the money for Pujols and LaRussa, and Jocketty too. Nothing matters but a World Series title, in my mind at least. And if it all happens this way, I’ll be the loudest person at the victory parade.

Hats off to the champions

I am not an NBA fan. I remember the Bird and Magic era in the 1980s, and the Jordan era in Chicago is looking better and better as time goes by. But the sport itself doesn’t interest me that much. Certainly not like baseball does, and probably not as much as football, either. And there are no other sports even in this discussion.

With that being said, the Dallas Mavericks won their first NBA title tonight. Winning a title is something that, as a Cubs fan, I never have experienced, and by now don’t I know if I ever will. So when a team like the Mavericks–who played in the NBA for 30 years before winning a championship–finally breaks through into the winner’s circle, I’m happy for them, of course. But I’m more than a little bit jealous, too.

Since 1975, when I first started following the Cubs, they have not only failed to win a World Series, but they haven’t even played in a single World Series. Do you want to take a guess at how many of the other teams playing in the majors in 1975 can say the same thing? Zero. Z-E-R-O. Not a single one. (NOTE: The Montreal Expos/Washington Nationals are not being counted in this sense. My blog, my rules. Sorry.) 

I’m not even going to address the issue of teams that did not exist in 1975 but have still played in, and even won, the World Series. That’s entirely too painful. But it sure doesn’t help to know that they are out there.

The Cubs this year–with their sinister union of  bloated payroll and outlandish ticket prices–are just a game or two away from being the worst team in all of major league baseball. And yet, somehow, their manager seems to think that Cubs fans will come to the ballpark and pay their money to support this team. Sorry bub, but it won’t happen. Not for me, anyway.

There are thousands and thousands of happy Dallas Mavericks fans tonight, Mark Cuban being first and foremost among them. But there are also hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Cubs fans who are watching the Mavericks celebrate and asking themselves “Why don’t I get to feel that way?” And until that question gets answered, don’t expect to see me at Wrigley Field.