Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Fair Weather - Memories From My Inner Cubs Fan

My grandfather spent much of his retirement watching Cubs games on WGN. His comfy armchair faced a 19 inch black and white television in his apartment on Rascher Avenue, less than three miles from Wrigley Field. He went to games occasionally, but mostly opted for Jack Brickhouse’s play-by-play in his “box seat” just off of Clark Street. It came with a kitchen, a refrigerator stocked with Schlitz beer and a private bathroom.

My wife’s grandmother took her and her sibs to Cubs games, where they sipped her home-brewed unsweetened Kool Aid and built lasting memories. Maybe my grandfather didn’t like other people’s children. Or maybe he overdid it with the Schlitz at the games and grandma intervened to shield us from that lasting memory. Or did they only serve Hamms at Wrigley? Well, when you’re out of Schlitz, you’re out of beer…

Although he never took me to a game, he did bring me a pin that he got at the ballpark on Ernie Banks Day in 1964. I still have it. I knew that Ernie was a legendary player, and I recall six years later filming his 500th home run with a super 8 movie camera pointed at an instant replay on TV. As you might imagine, the quality is awful. You can barely read “Hey Hey” flashing at the bottom of the screen. My dad thought Ernie was pretty special.

My dad loved the Cubs. I associate his fatal heart condition with the colossal disappointment now known to sports historians as simply 1969. He played baseball as a young man and taught me the basics in our small back yard in Park Ridge. Recently my son thanked me for passing on those skills to him and my daughter Melissa. Eric was playing on a Tucson team recently where he noticed a severe lack in the areas of throwing, catching and hitting. You’re welcome Eric and Melissa. Thanks Dad!

The truly strange thing that occurred at my father’s funeral will hopefully not be repeated at mine. Please consider this the eulogy-equivalent directive of a living will. The minister who was recruited (drafted you might say) to say a few words at Dad’s service interviewed us for a few minutes the day before. I guess we mentioned sports, because it became the epitaph for my father’s life.

“Carl, lover of baseball.”

My mom, sister and I did double takes at each other, grief-stricken, appalled, and on the verge of a much needed uncontrollable burst of laughter. What the heck?!

Autographed Twice - Click to Enlarge

But back to Park Ridge and more pleasant memories. My then living dad surprised me one evening in 1965 by suggesting that we go meet Ron Santo at the grand opening of his new pizzeria. I was ten and Santo was 25. Both of us were children, I realize now that I look back, sprinting toward home in my third 25. But he was a celebrity, a baseball star, a golden glove and a genuinely nice guy. We would later find out that he was already suffering the effects of insulin-dependent diabetes, but that night he came out of the kitchen at Santo’s, smiling and wiping the flour from his pizza-making hands on a dusty white apron.

“Are you a Cubs fan?” he asked me. The Cubs hat and jacket were subtle clues. I went speechless, nodding my head in a repeat of the silent Santa experience I’ve written about earlier in this blog. Hmmm. Santa. Santo. Vastly different heroes for sure.

He personalized an autographed photo of himself crouching and ready to scoop up a ground ball at third, and a miniature souvenir baseball bat that I will bequeath and not sell on eBay.

“Hey Glenn, come on out here” he shouted, looking back over his shoulder at the kitchen door. Glenn Beckert pushed through the swinging doors, also up to his elbows in white powder. He signed a photo for me as well. I was star-struck. Short of Ernie Banks coming out of the kitchen, I was face to face with two thirds of one of the greatest infield combinations in the game. Santo to Beckert to Banks for the double play. Amazing!

Years later I brought Ron’s old photo to an autograph event at a local Target store.

“Oh, look how I used to sign my name,” commented the much older Santo, signing the image for a second time.

So life continued for the beleaguered Cubbies. We grew older and a bit more despondent. Along came 1984. And then a series of “next years.” And then a brief period known for steroid-driven, Sosa-crushing home runs and broken records throughout baseball. It was exciting, but ended abruptly on June 4, 2003 with a corked bat, an eight game suspension and our departure as a family of followers to the Chicago White Sox.

Ironically, the Sox manager at the time, Ozzie Guillen, has been quoted as saying, “Everyone cheats in baseball. You’re not cheating if you don’t get caught.” Cheating or not, the Sox took the World Series two years later. It was a short wait for a big win in a family of very excited new fans, especially when compared with the Cubs. My father, lover of baseball, was born in 1911 and lived his entire life without enjoying a Cubs World Series win.

But now it’s 2016. There’s something in the air again. Curses be damned, the new Cubs don’t even seem to be aware they’re not supposed to be succeeding in the playoffs. It’s the kind of magical, crazy energy we felt last year. And in the words of one of my kids’ coaches at a tournament years ago, spoken with a smile and a shrug,

“Somebody’s got to win…”

A recent limo ride to O’Hare airport found us in the back seat of a car driven by a very pleasant and talkative older man. He made the usual small talk, then asked us if we were Cubs fans. We explained our position to the clearly disappointed driver, who proceeded to reveal that his son plays for the Cubs.

“Kyle Hendricks,” he said, glancing in the rear view mirror for a reaction.

That we had never heard of this potential Cy Young candidate spoke clearly to our ignorance of the modern Cubs team. We wondered if our driver was just making things up, but later saw him on a post-game sports show, down on the field with his arm around Kyle’s shoulder after a particularly amazing playoff performance.

Holy Mackerel!

So for now, whether you prefer the Sox or the Cubs, Chicago has a team in the playoffs, and they really need our support. Let us all cross our fingers and repeat the pledge for one our fine city's baseball teams:

I pledge allegiance to the Cubs
And the generations of Chicagoans
Who stand by their heroes in Wrigley Field
Ron Santo, Ernie Banks
With bleacher bums and ivy
Hey! Hey!

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