Earlier this year, I received an interesting email response from Tim Dierkes – the creator and owner of the independently owned baseball website MLB Trade Rumors. I had written a few stories for mlbtraderumors.com last year, and I was looking forward to getting some early season writing opportunities.
Tim said he was planning on increasing the number of original articles on the MLBTR site and had an attention-grabbing thought for me. He wanted to gauge my interest in doing a longer-form oral history piece, saying that he enjoyed reading articles in which the author gained access to everyone involved. “With your connections, I wonder if you could retell an interesting trade or free agent signing from a bunch of points of view like that. Does anything like that seem possible?”
The more I read, the more I envisioned a neon “Open” sign in my brain.
“Off the top of my head,” he wrote, “what about the story about how Jim Hendry signed Ted Lilly from the hospital room? I know that was covered a bit at the time, but you could probably snag Ted Lilly and Jim Hendry fairly easily, plus you could try to get Ted's agent … and anyone else relevant to the story.”
What about the Jim Hendry/Ted Lilly story? Heck, I was right in the middle of it all week. I saw Jim fighting all of us who tried to get him to see a doctor. I watched as he went through rolls of Tums – and even took some of my prescription Prilosec. I was purposely asked by Jim to hide in his hotel room (which was attached to the main suite) while he conducted business with agents – just in case he needed more 7 Up or antacid tablets. I was there that Wednesday morning when Jim told me he was afraid the night before that if he closed his eyes, he wouldn’t wake up. For two days, he was convinced he had gall stones; he never let on to anyone how awful he was feeling. We were all stunned when we found out there was a heart issue.
And then when we all found out that the Cubs landed Lilly while Mr. Hendry was attached to an EKG was … well … that was so Jim.
Writing that story was too large of an endeavor to do for my own site. But the thought of putting it together under the MLBTR banner – in an oral history format, no less – was all the incentive I needed.
From the time I started conceptualizing the story through this week – when the article was posted on MLBTR – I spent more time on this piece than any research project I did in school. And it was a lot more enjoyable than any school project, too!
I’m going to link you to the story at the end of this post. But I need to do some “Thank You” notes.
First off, a big “Thanks” to Tim Dierkes for providing the nudge to write this story – and for allowing it to appear on the MLBTR site.
And, of course, I need to thank the people I interviewed for the story who were so gracious in both their time and recollections:
I realize … the story is lengthy. So grab something to drink – along with a snack or a sandwich. I hope you enjoy reading the oral history of the Ted Lilly/Jim Hendry signing as much as I enjoyed putting it all together.
Please click here for the MLB Trade Rumors story link:
When I watched the Cubs jumping around and hugging after winning the World Series last November, I have to admit I had some mixed emotions.
The fan in me – the one who attended his first Cubs game as a six-year-old in 1972 – was jumping around and celebrating with them.
The former Cubs employee in me walked that tightrope between elation for the people I knew who still worked for the team and the despair for all the people like me who weren’t around there anymore.
But I have to tell you … as I watched all the guys in Cubs uniforms celebrating the drought-breaking championship last November 2, my eyes started tearing up with excitement when I saw Lester Strode on my TV screen. I still get goose bumps when I think about it.
As much as anyone, Lester Strode is my direct link to the good old days. He’s a Cubs survivor. He’s been through the good and the (oftentimes) bad.
And after 28 years coaching in the Cubs’ organization – nearly half his life – Lester is about to be getting a World Series ring.
My first year as a full-time member of the Cubs’ Media Relations office was 1988 – which coincided with Lester Strode’s final year as a player.
Near the end of that year, I remember Bill Harford – the Cubs’ director of minor league operations – calling me into his office to give me the list of coaching assignments for the following year. That list included Strode.
“I guess I was fortunate or blessed and in the right place at the right time,” said Strode – who made 18 relief appearances for Triple-A Iowa that year. “I was actually released (he had been on St. Louis’ Louisville roster) and was headed home when a good friend of mine, Bill Harford – who now has passed away – happened to give me a phone call. He asked me if I was still interested in playing. He offered me a job as a reliever at the Triple-A level. I didn’t know what was going to happen once that season ended.
“Near the end of the season, he came into town and asked me if I would be interested in coaching. He got that hint from our pitching coordinator, Jim Colborn. I got to know Jim during that little time I was around in ’88. He was working with a pitcher in the outfield, and I just happened to throw my two cents in there – and I actually got the guy to do what Jim had been trying to get him to do. I guess he passed that along to Bill. ‘We might have a teacher here in the organization.’
“So at the end of the season, Bill actually offered me two jobs: To continue to pitch in the organization at the Triple-A level, or to take a coaching job. At that time, reality had set in. I wasn’t pitching as well as I had in the past. I knew my career was going the opposite way. I knew this was another opening in the game of baseball, so I decided to take advantage of this opportunity. I told Bill I would love to coach, and he gave me the job.
“In 1989, I started out in Wytheville, Virginia. And then – just like a player – as I learned and understood what my job was as a coach, and as I was making progress in that area, I moved as a player moved.”
Think about the road he has traveled …
“From Day One, when Bill Harford gave me that opportunity … I always looked at it as what you make out of an opportunity,” Strode said. “You know, as a player, I wanted to make it; I wanted to succeed. No excuses, but there were some health issues. And as I look back and be honest with myself, I’m no different than other guys … I didn’t work hard enough to succeed. I had all the talent in the world. But I’ve learned a lot as a coach; for the most part, you’re not going to be rewarded for not giving 100 percent. No matter how blessed you are or how talented you are, you have to be all in when you’re trying to achieve a goal. I think I learned that as a player, and it prevailed for me as a coach. I put a lot of time and effort in trying to be the best coach possible – both on the field and off the field as well.”
Thankfully for Strode, despite all the different managers the Cubs have had over the past decade, he has only had to work with two pitching coaches – Larry Rothschild and Chris Bosio.
“I worked under Larry Rothschild for quite a long time and had an excellent experience understanding how to handle major league pitchers and how to deal with them day-in and day-out. He was one of my biggest mentors,” Strode said. “Now I’m working with Chris Bosio, and we just clicked. I try to be open-minded with whomever I’m working with and try to understand who they are and how they like to go about their business. Chris and I have now been together more than five years. It’s a great working relationship, a great friendship, and we’ve done some great things here for the organization – getting the pitchers ready to perform each and every day as we go through the season.”
And what is his role as bullpen coach? There is so much more to it than sitting there with a clipboard or a spiral notebook.
“The job has changed compared to how it was 20 years ago,” Strode said. “There was a time where the bullpen coach was a guy who had never been a pitching coach or a guy who had never caught. They just looked at it as a guy who answered the phone when it would ring, get someone up, make sure they got their arm ready, and let’s get him into the game.
“It’s changed quite a bit over the years. Now, I actually feel like I’m still a pitching coach. And that’s why I like working with guys like Larry and Chris Bosio … they have the utmost respect for me, knowing that I’ve been a pitching coach and a pitching coordinator. I’ve had experience at the major league level as far as working with major league pitchers. They respect the fact that I’m a guy that understands the ins-and-outs of pitching. They’ve allowed me to continue to be a pitching coach even though my title is bullpen coach – and stay sharp in that area. When it comes to strategy, when it comes to working with the pitchers – whether it be mechanically or talking to them about situations, the mental phase of the game – I’m just as much a part of that as the pitching coach is. The relievers need just as much attention in the bullpen as the starters do in the dugout.
“I always have my scouting book in my hand once I’m up and a pitcher is getting ready. It’s not just getting your arm loose and getting your pitches ready. What situation is he going into? Who is he going to be facing? Can the guy run and steal a base? Is he a first-pitch aggressive hitter, or is he patient? All those different points come into play down in the bullpen. I’m getting them ready physically and mentally, so they can go out there and execute no matter what the situation may be. There is strategy going on and mental preparation going on while they’re getting loose. I try to be very detailed and precise about the information I give them. I don’t want to fill their mind with too much. Just give them some detailed information that can give them direction and help them understand what they’re preparing for.”
No matter how you spin it, when you’re a baseball lifer, it’s all about the pursuit of the ring.
I’m beyond excited for Lester Strode – now beginning his 30th year in the Cubs’ organization and his 29th as a coach. When that ring ceremony takes place next month, I’ll be living vicariously through him.
“I’m looking forward to that ring ceremony. It’s going to be the highlight of my whole career, to be honest with you,” he said. “I thought last year was big – we won it … the celebrating – but the fact that we get that ring kind of seals the whole deal.
“There was a moment after we won that I just thought about all the people that helped me achieve my goal. A lot of people that I felt like winning this thing … they were a part of it. They are a part of me, and they made my career much easier because they supported me. I’m talking about co-workers, friends I’ve made over the course of my career. My thoughts are going to be shared with them as I receive that ring.
“I’m glad I’m able to express these moments with the people who mean a lot to me. I want to let them know the ring isn’t just for me … it’s for all of us. They’re right there with me, and they’ll always be a part of my life.”
Through various freelance writing opportunities, I’ve had the chance to reconnect with quite a few people from my baseball days in recent months – and it’s been great to catch up and see what people are up to.
I’m in the process of researching and writing a longer magazine-style piece for one of my clients (I’ll be sure to help direct you there when the story is complete), and I had the opportunity this week to chat with Lou Piniella.
Piniella was the Cubs’ manager from 2007-2010, leading the team to a pair of National League Central Division titles and earning Manager of the Year honors in 2008. He is now a senior advisor to baseball operations with the Cincinnati Reds, serving that organization in a consulting capacity.
He sounded great over the phone, and I thought you’d like to hear how he’s doing.
Looking back, tell me about your time with the Cubs …
Lou Piniella: “When I was hired, team president John McDonough told me, ‘We want to win now.’ And we did. We won a couple divisions, which the Cubs hadn’t done in a long time. We just didn’t do anything in the postseason.
“My first year, we won our division – but with only 85 wins. The second year, we won the most games in the majors with 97. After a couple years, we had to start undoing some of the things that we had done from a payroll standpoint. We had to drop our payroll the next few years.
“When the Ricketts family bought the team, they had priorities. They wanted to fix the farm system, which I thought was a very wise move. They needed to get the new complex in Mesa, Arizona, done – which they did. And they wanted to fix up the ballpark – and they have spent a lot of money on the park. Those were their priorities when they took over. And they’ve done a wonderful job.
“I enjoyed my four years in Chicago, I really did. It’s a wonderful city. And the Cubs are a storied franchise. I’m happy that I was a part of it for four years.”
You had a good working relationship with the Ricketts family …
“Truthfully, I knew they were going to be successful. I really did – the reason being the passion they have for it. It didn’t surprise me that they’ve been successful. It took a little while – five or six years since I was there – but they finally won a world championship. Good for them. I’m happy for them. They’re good people.
“But you know, the Ricketts family did it the right way. They took the time to build up a farm system. They brought in Theo and his staff. And they hired Joe Maddon.”
Tell me about Wrigley Field …
“Managing at Wrigley Field, I’ve always likened it to playing the British Open. The wind can be blowing out to start the game and blowing straight in by the fifth inning. You have to adapt to it.
“I recognized that the ballpark … you think of it as a power park, but I always felt that really good athleticism would win there. And that’s basically what the Cubs have now – really good athleticism. They have power, too, but athleticism really comes into play.”
On what he’s doing nowadays …
“I do a little consulting work for the Reds. I help out (manager) Bryan Price and his coaching staff some. And I also do some work with (executive advisor) Walt (Jocketty) and Dick Williams, the general manager. I’m not fully involved, but when I’m asked, I give my opinions. I enjoy it. It keeps me watching some baseball.
“I also get to spend a lot of time with my family. I’m back here in Tampa, where I was born and raised. My wife, Anita, makes it easy for me. We’ve got the grandkids and the kids all within 10 minutes of us. We get together often. And then I play some golf, which I enjoy, and do some fishing. I’m truly blessed.”
Last time out, I talked to Mike Greenberg about his early days in Chicago radio, and it got me thinking about my early days working with the Chicago media.
In particular, it brought back memories of watching games in the old press box.
Granted, I began my last post with the following paragraph – and yes, I’m quoting myself here: “When I started with the Cubs as an intern in 1986, the main press box was positioned where the mezzanine suites are now located – about halfway up the stadium directly behind the home plate screen. As part of Wrigley Field renovation for the 1990 All-Star Game, the press box was relocated to its present location – about halfway up to the clouds, attached to the underside of the roof. It’s the 800 level as far as seating is concerned.”
Back in the day, the Wrigley Field press box provided the ultimate view for watching baseball. I worked out of this tiny little two-row press box with almost no amenities – unless you counted the grill guy flipping greasy burgers in the far right-hand corner of the second row as an amenity. If you needed to use a bathroom, you had to leave the press box and walk along the concourse, hoping none of the people in the seats below recognized you.
And you had to be paying attention when pitches were thrown. The press box was in direct line of screaming line drives. I learned to duck on every foul ball straight back no matter what the trajectory was. There was a certain badge of honor in getting your head out of the way before a line drive dented the wall behind you. I guess there was a certain badge of honor if the ball hit you, too, but I never won that prize.
When I said that was the ultimate view, consider where the Cubs baseball operations people watch games from now. Same spot. Real amenities. And a much higher screen that blocks foul balls lined straight back.
The TV booth – with Harry Caray, Steve Stone and Jack Rosenberg – sat off in the distance on the concourse level down the third-base line. If you needed to get a message to them, off you ran.
Just to the left of the main press box sat the radio booth, which was manned by DeWayne Staats, Vince Lloyd and Lou Boudreau when I started out. If I ever brain cramped during a home game and didn’t know what inning we were in (it was a manual scoreboard, you know), the crowd re-booted me after the third and sixth innings – when Harry flipped from TV to radio, and then back. Everybody below would be screaming at Harry as the legendary broadcaster switch spots, moving from booth to booth.
But it was in the main press box that I spent almost all of my time and where I was introduced to the legends of my game: the sports writers. Not only sports writers like Jerome Holtzman … and Joe Goddard … and Dave van Dyck … and Fred Mitchell … and all the people I later traveled with on road trips that I’m afraid to start listing in fear that I’ll miss a name.
The press box also is where I first spent time with The Sports Writers.
Remember the old Sunday sports talk show on WGN Radio? Ben Bentley, the moderator. Bill Gleason … Bill Jauss … Rick Telander … Joe Mooshil. A bunch of sports writers just sitting around talking sports. How cool was that concept? And thanks to the Wrigley Field press box, people like that were right in front of me – saying the same types of things in person as they did on the radio. I was just a kid, and I was in awe.
It’s so hard to describe the media world that existed back then. Newspapers still ruled the press box – with hard-and-fast deadlines that couldn’t be altered. There weren’t Internet editions of anything, as it was a medium that didn’t exist. Neither did smart phones, for that matter. Cell phones were still far from commonplace. Laptops were still in their infancy.
When I started, I reported game action for Sports Ticker. As in ticker from a ticker tape parade. As in ticker from a ticker tape machine. As in, I’m been around long enough to remember working next to a ticker tape machine – and watching breaking sports news come over in long, one-sentence strips of paper. Ticker tape was Morse Code, Version 2.0.
That quaint two-row press box was uncomfortable as a facility, but it was wonderful to call your workplace. I can still smell those greasy burgers.
It’s long overdue, but I do need to give a big shout out – although a Jerome Holtzman “doff of the chapeau” seems more appropriate – to the fine work done every single day by the Cubs beat writers: Bruce Miles, Carrie Muskat, Gordon Wittenmyer, Mark Gonzales, Paul Sullivan (I know, Sully’s a columnist, but he’s a beat guy at heart), Patrick Mooney and Jesse Rogers.
It’s not easy writing every day. It’s not easy finding fresh story topics very day. It’s not easy finding people who will talk to you every day. But they do … they’ve all been doing it for a long time … and they’re all good at it.
“I've Always Said Harry Caray Was My First Friend in Chicago – Even Though I Never Met Him” … A Conversation with Mike GreenbergRead Now
When I started with the Cubs as an intern in 1986, the main press box was positioned where the mezzanine suites are now located – about halfway up the stadium directly behind the home plate screen. As part of Wrigley Field renovation for the 1990 All-Star Game, the press box was relocated to its present location – about halfway up to the clouds, attached to the underside of the roof. It’s the 800 level as far as seating is concerned.
My press box HQ was located in radio row, which made for some interesting times. The media landscape was starting to shift away from newspapers, especially in Chicago. Sports talk radio, once reserved for weekends, was becoming the social media of its day.
In 1992, WSCR – The Score – came on the scene as a daytime-only AM radio station geared solely to sports. And with all of the day games the Cubs played at home, The Score quickly became relevant – especially in the Wrigley Field press box.
There were three spots to the right of my press box seat – and way back when, they were reserved for Les Grobstein, WBBM Radio, and WSCR. And one of the first update people to man the microphone for The Score was a kid by the name of Mike Greenberg.
Earlier this week, I talked to Mr. Greenberg – co-host of ESPN’s “Mike and Mike” morning show since 2000 – about his days working in Chicago and in the Wrigley Field press box.
Chuck: I promise you I won’t ask if it was a thrill to be sitting three seats away from me, but I enjoy telling people I used to sit right near you when you were starting out. When you look back at the beginning of your career, the media landscape was changing with the emergence of sports talk radio. Can you tell me about your early roots, landing at WMAQ Radio right out of Northwestern University and then being part of The Score?
Mike Greenberg: “Absolutely. When I got out of college, I landed a job as a production assistant at WMAQ Radio. I was immediately begging to do anything they’d allow me to do in the sports department – which was very little. But on Saturdays, they gave me the job of keeping the scoreboards for the sports anchors – who at that time were Ron Gleason, Tom Greene, Steve Olken and George Ofman. Especially on college football Saturdays, there was a lot to keep track of. So I would just sit with them and keep track of scoreboards and update little notes and things like that for them. I loved doing that. And then during the week I would do the regular production assistant jobs.
“I had the opportunity to do a few things that caught Ron Gleason’s eye – just by constantly asking to be allowed to do things. Then I got the stereotypical lucky break. Ron got the job as program director of the fledgling all-sports station – The Score. He remembered that I was dedicated and tried hard and did all sorts of things, and he hired me to be on the staff. I was one of the original producers they hired there, and I worked primarily on the afternoon drive show – which was, at that time, Dan McNeil and Terry Boers. They called it ‘The Heavy Fuel Crew’ show, and it was great. I learned a tremendous amount about broadcasting and radio from that show, particularly from working for Dan.
“At the same time, I just begged for opportunities to be allowed to do stuff on the air. One of the things I did was volunteer after my shift; I would produce the shows … they would end … and in those days the station only had a daytime signal. We would go off the air when it went dark. The show would be over – and it would be 6 o’clock. So I volunteered to go to the night games for the Bulls and the Blackhawks, just go over there and do interviews and bring back tape. I would do a little 45-second voicer that would air in the morning on Tom Shaer’s show.
“It went well enough that Tom recommended to Ron that when the Bulls started making their run into the playoffs, that we should start covering them daily. To his everlasting credit, Tom said, ‘You should give this Greenberg kid a chance to do it.’ I was 24 years old, and they sent me on the road with the Bulls. It was the greatest experience ever, and it went well. When that run ended, they let me cover baseball during the summer and the Bears up in Platteville and during the season. That became my job – just covering the local teams. I did that at The Score for three and a half years before being hired by CLTV. That was incredible. I had a great time, and part of that was covering the Cubs.
“I didn’t cover as much baseball as I did football and basketball, but I certainly was there. I obviously remember sitting in that press box a few seats away from you and (media relations director) Sharon Pannozzo. I will say that when I went back the first time when they invited Mike (Golic) and me to sing the Seventh Inning Stretch, I walked right into that press box and I just stood there and looked into the booth from the angle where I used to watch Harry Caray and Steve Stone. I just let it sort of sink in that now, incredibly, I was going to be the one standing in there singing. It was without question one of the great thrills of my career.”
When you did come out to Wrigley Field for baseball, being that The Score was a daylight-only station at the time, that had to be one of your first introductions to live radio, correct?
Greeny: “I would say the overwhelming majority of live shots I did were from the Wrigley Field press box for exactly that reason … they were afternoon games. So I’d be there calling in from the press box – and overcoming the dirty looks that I’d be getting from all the writers I was bothering by being live on-the-air for 45 seconds, or whatever it was. Those would have been among the very first live shots I did in my life – from the press box at Wrigley Field.”
If memory serves right, you had to be very careful of what you said during those live shots – because you couldn’t interfere with the rightsholders of those broadcasts.
Greeny: “Correct, and that’s still the case. You cannot do play-by-play. If they put me on the line … let’s say Andre Dawson hit a home run, and one second later, they put me on the air. I could say ‘Guys, on the strength of an Andre Dawson home run, the Cubs have taken a 2-0 lead.’ What I could not say is, ‘Guys, as we speak, Andre Dawson has just hit a two-run homer.’ It was a subtlety to the difference, as I understood it, between doing what would be constituted to doing live play-by-play and just doing a report of the things that had happened. To my recollection, I don’t think we ever had problems with that. We had other problems, but that wasn’t one of them.”
Those were the early vestiges of social media – as sports talk emerged. Especially in Chicago, that was new … sports during the middle of the day.
Greeny: “What’s funny to me is that because I was part of that, I have always thought of myself as being part of the outsiders in media – because that’s what we were. And the reality is that – right now – there is no more mainstream media in the sports world than we are. Then blogs came along, and now social media and Twitter have changed everything. But in those days, we really were the outsiders.
“We were driven by the opinions of our talk show hosts – particularly the more controversial ones like Mike North and people like that. They would upset the players, the coaches and whoever else – and they weren’t there like the writers were in the press box or in the locker rooms afterwards. So I definitely suffered a lot of little slings and arrows. I don’t mean that to say I minded it; it was part of the job.
“But I remember a day that Andre Dawson was furious about something that was said on our station – and he was asking everybody, ‘Who’s here from The Score? Who’s here from The Score?’ And I went slinking, crawling over to (media relations director) Sharon Pannozzo and said, ‘Listen, someone has to tell him that while he’s mad, it’s not me he’s mad at.’ To me, he was a pretty scary dude. Andre Dawson was not the kind of guy you wanted mad at you. I think for the most part, people got that, but it definitely was a new concept.
“The controversial people prior to that had been newspaper columnists; at that time, it was Bernie Lincicome and Bob Verdi – and Jay Mariotti had just arrived in town. But all of a sudden, the primary controversial opinion shapers became the talk show hosts. And I was sort of on the front line of relations with the different teams and the players, so I heard a lot of it – for sure.”
In some ways, that had to help you as your career progressed. It sort of put you into a PR type of mode. It had to help you be able to smooth your way into being able to talk to athletes.
Greeny: “I think that in covering sports, for me, that time was invaluable. I’m not a former player, so having been out there (as a sports reporter) for seven years – being in clubhouses, being at practices, being at spring training – I got an up close and personal look at what it actually takes to do this stuff. So I think I have a better understanding of that than most fans – which is all I really am at the end of the day when it comes to sports. I have training as a journalist, but I don’t have training as a sports person – or I wouldn’t have if I hadn’t had those seven years, so that was invaluable.
“I also think that being there and seeing the way the opinions affected the people that were involved, it gave me an understanding … you’re not just talking into a microphone and letting the chips fall where they may. The stuff you say actually does affect people, and it does impact people, and it sometimes hurts people a lot. So I hope that it has made me a little more sensitive to – or a little more careful about – not criticizing people without justification. And hopefully not criticizing people personally – and seeing the line between what’s fair, which is reasonable criticism about a person’s performance, and unfair, which is unreasonable criticism of a person’s character. A person misplaying a fly ball to rightfield is not an indication of poor character.”
Including your time at Northwestern, you spent 11 years in Chicago before heading to ESPN. Were there any particular people you looked up to or tried to emulate?
Greeny: “There were plenty of people. First and foremost, I’ve always said Harry Caray was my first friend in Chicago – even though I never met him. When I got to Northwestern, I didn’t know anybody there. I was far away from home. I was lonely. And I quickly discovered that on Channel 9, the Cubs played every single day – and they had this announcer named Harry Caray who was phenomenal. It didn’t make any difference what the score of the game was, if they were winning or losing, or who they were playing. He was just incredibly entertaining to listen to, and I loved Harry. I was in the same room with him a number of times, and I think I shook his hand a time or two, but I certainly couldn’t say that I knew him at all – and I would have loved to.
“As I went on in the business, I learned an enormous amount directly from working with people. The people I would say jump immediately to mind … I owe Tom Shaer an enormous debt of gratitude. He and Ron Gleason are the two people who believed in me and gave me chances to do stuff that I couldn’t prove I could do – because I had never done them. If they hadn’t, I don’t know what would have ever happened. But those guys gave me great opportunities. So did Jeff Joniak, who’s now the voice of the Bears. He gave me my first on-air job.
“I learned a lot from Mike North. What I learned from him was the courage that it takes just to be yourself. When we went on the air, Mike North was immediately a lightning rod; people were yelling and screaming and criticizing him. I can’t tell you how many times different executives came in and told him he needed to do this, he needed to do that, he needed to change the way he did things. And he just said, ‘No. I’m going to stick to the way I believe this should be done.’ And he believed it himself. As a consequence, he wound up having enormous success. Whether you loved Mike or you hated him, no one ignored him. And that was solely because he didn’t listen to other people telling him what he should be doing. I always remembered that.
“The other one was Dan McNeil. As a pure ‘fundamentals of the medium’ talk show host, he was the best radio talk show host I’ve ever heard. There’s no question that everything I’m doing, I learned from Dan: The pacing … the use of sound. Our show has changed a lot now because we’re on TV, but in the earliest days when we were a pure radio show, almost all of the fundamentals that I learned were from being the producer for Dan McNeil. There are many others, but those are the first few who jump immediately to mind.”
Final question for you … when you get back into town, do you still head to Buffalo Joe’s (an Evanston restaurant across the street from Northwestern’s campus)?
Greeny: “Oh yes. My senior year at Northwestern, I lived in an apartment on Clark Street (in Evanston) – above what used to be called J K Sweets. I was just in Evanston recently with my son and took him to his first Northwestern basketball game – which was great – and we went to Buffalo Joe’s. I said to him, ‘I think my senior year in college, I averaged eating seven meals per week at Buffalo Joe’s.’ For every time I did not eat dinner there, I would add a lunch. There were just as many days that I ate there twice as there were zero days. I loved Buffalo Joe’s, and my mouth still waters sometimes at the thought of it.”
For the longest time, I had been wanting to write a story about a player who came so, so close to reaching the majors – but never got the call.
It had to be the right kind of story. If I had to choreograph it, I wanted someone who:
As luck would have it, a couple weeks ago – thanks to social media – I reconnected with Ty Wright, a former Cubs minor league outfielder/current Cubs minor league hitting coach.
Out of the blue (I’ll call it cosmic karma), Wright invited me to connect with him through Facebook. He was just the type of player I was thinking of profiling when – just a couple days later – I received a Facebook message telling me that it was Ty’s birthday.
Obviously, some higher being – a Facebook higher-up, no doubt – was on the same page as me. Here’s your guy. Tell his story.
I sent Ty a message wishing him a Happy Birthday. I also asked if we could talk.
First off, a little background.
Ty Wright was drafted by the Cubs in the seventh round of the 2007 amateur draft after a stellar four-year collegiate career at Oklahoma State University. Wright was a three-time all-Big 12 Conference selection and was the most recent .400 hitter in school history – batting .405 as a senior. He was inducted into the Oklahoma State Cowboys Baseball Hall of Fame this January.
He spent seven years in the Cubs’ minor league system, and if you take a glimpse at his statistics, the numbers look pretty good: A career .292 average with a .352 on-base percentage and a .429 slugging percentage. He had a high contact rate, striking out only 369 times in nearly 2,800 plate appearances. And then there’s the info that really stood out: Appreciable time at Triple-A Iowa (58 games in 2010 … 46 in 2011 … 68 in 2012 … 66 in 2013). It’s less than a five-hour car ride from Des Moines to Chicago – and it’s a car ride Wright was never asked to make.
The truth is, this story is quite the norm. The heavy majority of minor league players will never get the call. But the majority don’t spend parts of four years at Triple-A, either.
Wright saw action in 238 games at that level from 2010-2013 … never got the call … and never complained.
“It’s a very interesting story when you think about it. Maybe some people can grasp it, but some people can’t,” Wright said. “When I look back, I know you have to take the good with the good and the bad with the bad … and move on.”
Sometimes, you’re not swinging the bat well when the major league club is looking for a bat.
Sometimes, you’re swinging a hot bat, but so are the players at the big league level.
Sometimes, an injury at the big league level doesn’t happen, or a trade doesn’t take place. For a player evolving into a career minor leaguer, it’s all in the timing – and the forces just never aligned for him.
“Did I ever think I was getting called up? Maybe in my last year (in the minors),” Wright said. “I never really thought ‘I’m so good, I think I should be called up.’ Obviously, I didn’t know what was going on behind the scenes. I could only control what I was doing and what I was thinking. All the years I played, it was always the chase. It was always the drive.
“There was a point my last year when I was doing really well and there was an injury to a Cubs outfielder. Everybody knew they were going to call up an outfielder. I was hitting the ball really well, I was playing good defense, I was doing everything that I possibly felt I could do to put my name in the running to possibly get that call – and it was not my name that got called up. I know for me, right then and there, that’s when the doubt came in a little bit. ‘Why was it not me? What did I do wrong?’
“But I never felt sorry for myself. I just tried to push myself to be the best baseball player I could be in every phase of the game. I didn’t get called up. It happens. I think it’s something a lot of minor leaguers have to face eventually. Even though that little bit of self-doubt came in there, when I was on the field – just like anything you do in life that you really enjoy and love – sometimes all the bad goes away when you stepped foot on the field. I just kept thinking, ‘Alright, it didn’t happen now. You just have to keep going. We’ll see what happens.’ You just go out and enjoy playing the game that you love.”
What happened next was a year of Independent ball, playing for the Somerset Patriots in the Atlantic League. It was still baseball, but it also was the real world. The salary was low, and when you’re playing Indy ball, you’re also responsible for your own insurance. He and his wife, Maggie, had a 2-year-old son. The realities of life were weighing heavily on him.
The playing chapter in his life was about to close. The next chapter was about to begin.
Halfway through his season in Somerset, Wright received a text message from Marty Pevey – the Iowa Cubs manager.
Pevey texted him a message along the lines of, “Hey, are you interested in coaching? The Cubs are going to have several openings for next year. I think you’d be great. I think you’d really love it. There’s a lot of people who thought you would be a coach when you’re done. It’s a great opportunity if that’s something you’d want to do.”
Wright talked to Pevey, then visited with his former Triple-A skipper after both of their seasons had come to a close.
“On his way home from Independent ball, he swung through Atlanta and we talked,” Pevey said. “He was a guy that, as a player, he wanted to help young guys. I knew that – with his experience and knowledge and education and baseball acumen – he would be a guy that would help us become a championship organization.
“As a player, first and foremost, Ty was a great teammate. And he was not greedy at all. He was a guy who was a giver. He was great in the clubhouse. He was always there for the young guys. When I had Ty, he was an older player, and I appreciated that. I appreciated the guy that … sure, he wanted to play in the big leagues, but he also wanted to be a Cub. We had a rapport, and he was a guy that I could always count on. I felt that he was a guy we needed to keep in the organization.”
Wright returned home, and he and Maggie discussed the future. While she was happily entrenched as a middle school teacher and coach, he was – for the first time – mentally preparing himself for what was next after playing the game of baseball. “After talking to my wife and kind of thinking about it, I was like, ‘You know what, if the opportunity comes for me to be able to go back to the Cubs organization and coach, that is definitely something I want to do.’ And then I had to wait.”
In November, he got the call. It wasn’t “The Call” all minor league players dream about, but it was one he gladly accepted.
Wright was offered a job as a minor league coach, and he was heading back to his original organization.
“I haven’t looked back. I’ve enjoyed the ride since then,” he said. “I think for me, it became really, really intriguing after I got hired – and I went to my first organizational meeting. You always had this idea of what a coach is really like. I played football, basketball, baseball and track in high school. I had a ton of different coaches. And then obviously, coaches in college and professional ball. All of us – we’ve had a ton of coaches, so we have this idea of what a coach is.
“But when I went to the organizational meetings my first year and Joe Maddon – who was in his first year with the Cubs – when he talked, and he talked for about 45 minutes, my mind was absolutely blown. I remember telling Maggie after listening to him that I am absolutely going to love this job. Ever since that day, I’ve been in pursuit of everything he was talking about.
“Joe Maddon absolutely is somebody I look up to. Not just because he is my organizational manager, but because he didn’t make it to the big leagues (as a player). Maybe there’s a little piece of him that drove him in coaching to get to the big leagues … I don’t know. But I think that anytime you have somebody that maybe has gone through what you’re going through – and we’re all in this together – that’s somebody that you admire. And you study their ways and study the way they do things.”
At the ripe old age of 32, Wright is now starting his third season as a minor league coach – progressing to Single-A Myrtle Beach this year.
He arrived in Mesa last week, leaving Maggie and sons Cal (5 years old) and Clyde (1) behind until Maggie’s middle school goes on spring break.
It’s part of the life of being a coach, “but I absolutely love where I’m at with the Cubs right now, and I love being part of the organization,” he said.
For the one-time outfielder/present-day coach, saying hello to the new season meant saying goodbye to a whirlwind stretch that started with being part of a World Series championship and culminated with his induction into the Oklahoma State Hall of Fame. And right in the middle: Returning to his college campus to get his degree in University Studies.
“I wore a cap and gown – and Cal got to see it. That was really cool,” Wright said. “My wife really stamped that in my brain. At first, I did not want to go up to Stillwater and walk the stage to get my diploma; I just wanted to graduate and be done with it. But that was something my wife and my mom wanted me to do. And my wife wanted me to do that so that Cal might remember seeing his dad walk across the stage to get his college degree.
“You know, this whole offseason was incredible … World Series, Hall of Fame, college degree. What a lot of people don’t really know is I’ve been a serious Cubs fan since I was a little kid. My grandpa (Mike Mills) was from Chicago, and he brought me up as a Cub fan. I’ve been a fan since I was a little kid. I’ve shed some tears, like many people have.”
He’s not kidding. I looked up Wright’s Oklahoma State media guide bio from his senior year. In the personal section, it reads “dream job is to play for the Chicago Cubs.”
While he didn’t get to play in Cubs pinstripes on Wrigley Field, Wright has been able to keep it all in perspective.
“In many ways, I’m living my dream – first as a player and now as a coach,” he said. “You can package it all together.”
Can it really be 30 years since The Hawk soared into Mesa – and into the collective hearts of Cubs fans everywhere?
It was early March 1987, and I had already completed my first internship with the Cubs’ Media Relations department. By this time, I was in my senior year at the University of Missouri awaiting a second Cubs internship – this time of the 13-week summer variety.
I remember where I was when I heard the news, sitting in my one bedroom Tiger Village apartment in Columbia, Mo. – squinting at my 12-inch TV. I had woken up to the reports that Andre Dawson’s agent had offered the Cubs a blank contract. I watched ESPN with amazement at the possibility that Dawson – The Hawk … free-agent outfielder … multiple-time All-Star … longtime Montreal Expos stalwart – could possibly be Cubs-bound.
I knew my bosses in Media Relations, Ned Colletti and Sharon Pannozzo, would be busy dealing with the speculation – so I didn’t want to bother them. I also knew if I called the Chicago office, I might get some gossip. I called … was told to hold tight … and sat on pins-and-needles waiting for final word.
Back in the day, ESPN was social media. Forget Facebook and Twitter. There wasn’t Internet. There wasn’t round-the-clock sports talk radio. If you weren’t sitting in front of the TV watching ESPN, you might be out of luck in finding out sports news until the next day’s newspaper was at your door step. But as a journalism school student, I was blessed with the opportunity to go to the Columbia Missourian newsroom, hop on a computer terminal, and keep waiting for any news the wire services would provide.
So I waited … and waited … and waited some more … and then: BREAKING NEWS: DAWSON TO SIGN WITH CUBS.
There’s an adage: No cheering in the press box. That probably should translate to a newsroom, too, but I know I screamed “YESSSSSS” when that AP story flashed in front of my eyes.
I’m not going to lie. Andre Dawson’s scowl made me nervous around him for a couple years. He never growled at me. He never said anything mean to me. He just always seemed to have his game face on.
If I had to guess, it only took me four-plus years before I made him smile. And he was one of the greatest players I worked with – both on the field and off.
I started feeling comfortable around him in 1989 – a year the Cubs won their second division title in six seasons (remember when that was big news?!). That year, I took on postgame clubhouse duties for home games – meaning I opened the clubhouse to media after the game and had supervisory responsibilities. Dawson had an up-and-down season – although he rebounded quite nicely in ensuing campaigns – as his surgically repaired knees were giving him all sorts of issues (more on that later).
Anyway, in 1989 (and 1990 and 1991 and 1992), Andre had enough big moments that he often had media members wanting to speak with him after a game. So we worked out a plan. I would open the clubhouse to the media … walk halfway through the clubhouse, right across from Dawson’s locker … make sure to say “Andre’s at his locker” as media would go running by to get to the manager’s office … and watched as 99-to-100 percent ignored me and would continue on. If no one stopped, I nodded my head to him and said “Bye” … and watched him walk to see the athletic trainers for his 45-to-60 minute postgame work.
To repeat: He was always at his locker when media entered the clubhouse. He would always be at his locker, waiting for them to stop. After media flew by, he’d go to have work done on his knees. Then, I’d take the heat as select members of the media would grouse because they needed Andre’s quotes for their stories – reminding me they were on deadlines.
“I told you he was at his locker when you came in,” I’d say.
“I needed to get Zim,” I’d be told – as if manager Don Zimmer would be out of the clubhouse 15 minutes after the game ended.
“You could have stopped to talk to Andre first. Zim wasn’t going anywhere,” I’d reply.
Rinse, lather, repeat. It happened all the time.
And then, 45-to-60 minutes later, out would hobble Andre – slowly taking one painful step after another.
About those knees …
I never saw anyone work harder to get on the playing field than Hawk. His knees were shot. Bone on bone. But he gutted his way through it every day.
To put it in perspective, our traveling secretary, Peter Durso, had a rule for road games: The bus leaves one hour after the game; NO exceptions. No exceptions, that is, unless Andre had trouble moving postgame. When that happened, the bus waited for him.
Coming from me, I can’t accurately describe what Andre went through in order to compete. So I turned to former Cubs athletic trainer John Fierro, who worked with the future Hall of Famer during Dawson’s six seasons in a Cubs uniform.
“I remember the day he first showed up in camp like it was yesterday. I’ll never forget him walking in and signing autographs and everybody going crazy down by the fence,” Fierro said. “We had played against him, but at first glance, when he walked in … what a specimen he was. Obviously, we knew his history and had researched him beforehand. I talked to (Expos trainer) Ron McClain, and he said Andre will be a lot of work – probably two hours before the game and an hour or so after the game – but you’ll never enjoy a player any more than you will with this guy. So we knew a little bit going in.
“His first day in, we sat down kind of like an interview, and I said ‘Give me the dirt.’ I knew what he had based on his medical history. ‘What do I have to do to get you ready?’ We went down a list of what he had been doing, and (assistant trainer) Dave Cilladi and I devised a plan of action that we would do – incorporating what he had been doing and adding some new ideas. The plan varied day-to-day.
“The hardest thing with him was to try to talk him into a day off. He didn’t want to take them. Basically, we had to reach an understanding – especially on turf. Out of three games, he would have to take one off in order for us to get any kind of longevity out of him. He did agree to that.
“A typical day was him coming in, whirlpool for 15-to-20 minutes, come into our room and work to get him ready. He was bone on bone, and you can’t massage bone and make it feel better. So we tried to keep the upper and the lower – the thigh and the calf – as loose as we could. Massage, then stretching, then some mobilization for his knees. Then some exercises. Then he’d go in the gym and ride the bike for 20 minutes or so, just to get the blood flowing. He’d come back in, then we would tape him up – both knees, every single day, right before batting practice. He would go out for batting practice, come back in, and we’d cut the tape off. Do another whirlpool, a little more stretching, back up on the table for Round 2 of taping. The one thing we didn’t compromise on was that he had a specific way that he needed them taped for comfort, so we followed that. That’s what we did for as long as he was there.
“After the game, he’d come in and cut the tape off. He’d always walk into the training room with a full box of fan mail and/or 25-pound dumb bells. We would do another cool down massage on his legs. We would hook up some stim to calm the knees down – or ice – and the whole time we were doing that, he’d either be doing biceps curls and lifts or signing fan mail. Then we’d all go home and repeat again tomorrow.
“One thing I want to say … he never wanted pain medicine. I know he was playing in pain; there’s no question about that.
“I can’t really describe the pleasure of being around him on a daily basis. He was inspiring. He was frustrating … frustrating because there was only so much Dave and I could do for him to help with the pain. Seeing the results were probably the most rewarding of all the things we do. When you’re in my position, you want to help somebody make a difference. With Hawk, on a daily basis, this guy made a difference. He was special.”
The first time I headed east out of Mesa, I considered it a rite of passage. After that, I did everything I could to make it an annual pilgrimage.
Back in the old days, the Cubs had a very small office staff. During my time in Media Relations, it wasn’t until the very end that we had four full-time employees.
So for most of spring training, the department was a two-person operation.
Even after moving into Baseball Operations, the Cubs were a lean group.
The point is, during spring training, there wasn’t much time away from the office during daylight hours. Sure, most of your work days were completed in time to eat dinner at a normal time – unlike the regular season – but you couldn’t count on more than one or two off-days each spring.
But if I did get a day to get away, I knew where I was going … Tortilla Flat.
Although it sounds like a town that should have been in the movie “Cars” – you know, a suburb of Radiator Springs – Tortilla Flat was a half-day trip that just cleared my mind and reminded me of the beauty of Arizona.
Think back to the days of old HoHoKam Park and the mountain range behind rightfield. Those were the Superstition Mountains – and the home of Tortilla Flat.
I must have made the trip at least 15 times – avoiding highways every time. Head east out of Mesa on University Drive for about half an hour until reaching the town of Apache Junction … at the fork in the road, make a left turn and start going north to the Apache Trail. It was that simple.
The Apache Trail picked up right at the base of the mountain range. From there, a spectacular 15-to-20 mile two-lane road winding around and through the mountains – with nothing to see but mountains and cactuses/cacti (I’m not sure which word works best). If the car in front of you was going too slow – tough … there was no passing in these parts. If you have a fear of heights, don’t look down; you’re oftentimes riding along the side of a mountain. If you needed a break, there were ample scenic spots to pull to the side of the road, get out of the car, and see nature at its finest. And the best thing was – at least the last time I was there – the further you went along the Apache Trail, the less chance you had of having cell service.
I knew I was closing in on my destination once I started winding through Canyon Lake, where there was some semblance of humanity based on the number of parked cars and boat rides. A couple times, I did take that lazy river ride – when you would hear nothing but the chirping of birds. It was pure relaxation.
A little while later – cross the one-lane bridge, alternating with a car coming at you from the other direction – and you arrived at your destination … Tortilla Flat.
Tortilla Flat is this tiny little town with – and I’m not making this up – a population of seven people. Yes, seven – and they all claim they live there (thanks to loyal reader Mary Hellmann for letting me know about the town's newest addition). The town is literally a one-half block stretch on one side of the road – a restaurant, a gift shop, a country store and a post office. That’s it. The restaurant serves some of the best chili I’ve ever had – and if you order it right, it will make you sweat. For maximum sweatiness (isn’t that a great visual), try eating it while sitting outside on a bright sunshiny day.
After lunch, it was a foregone conclusion that I would walk over to the country store for either the prickly pear ice cream or just to look at the old-time candy or the awesome sounding BBQ sauces that you used to only be able to find in Arizona.
There would always be a little phone-free bonding time with nature – just to soak it all in.
Eventually, it was time to complete the trip and return to the home base. Head west … cross the one-lane bridge … go past Canyon Lake … wind through the mountains … don’t look down – it’s a very steep drop … and eventually get to Apache Junction for the rest of the ride back.
It’s hard to put the beauty of it into words. All mountains … peaks and valleys … all nature … no cell phone.
Most of my trips there, I went with family members. But if the schedule wasn’t right, it was a trip I could take by myself – just to soak it all in.
It’s a half-day trip I highly recommend.
I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed my time around Ron Santo. No one bled Cubs blue more than Ronnie.
And from wherever he was watching the 2016 World Series, no one screamed louder than Ron Santo did when the final out of Game 7 was recorded.
Today is his birthday. I first published this story on February 25 last year – and proudly share it again today.
Back in the day, one of the Cubs beat writers (who shall remain nameless to protect himself from himself) came up to me in the clubhouse and proudly said out loud to everyone within earshot: “Hey Chuck, you need a nickname!”
I replied with the only thing that came to mind: “Chuck is a nickname.”
The reality was … I didn’t need another nickname. The longer I was with the Cubs, the more name tags I wore.
Through it all, the one nickname that became the most sentimental to me – and the nickname only this person could have pulled off – was bestowed on me by Ron Santo: “Wasserstromi.”
I will swear on legal documents and stacks of Cubs media guides that Ronnie actually thought my name was Wasserstromi. One word, like Madonna. I have my doubts that he even knew I had a first name.
And only Ron could pull off a conversational sentence like this when – at a mall – my wife and I bumped into him while pushing the twins in a double stroller: “Hey Wasserstromi! Hey Michelle! Are those yours?”
Ronnie was larger than life to me. He was still the Cubs’ third baseman when I went to my first baseball game in 1972, and he was one of the first players who signed an autograph for me. As a grownup, I was lucky enough to be with him on Cubs Caravans, at restaurants, on airplanes, on bus trips after road games. No one was more passionate about the Cubs than Ron. No one – and I truly mean no one – took losses harder than him. You could see the pain on his face after a 7-1 loss … on September 15 … with the team 19.0 games out of first place.
And no one was happier when the Cubs won.
The best way to describe his passion for his Cubs – and, shall we say, his unique broadcast flair – came on the final play of a Cubs/Colorado Rockies game on August 7, 2001. I was down the hallway in the Wrigley Field press box, so I didn’t hear the live call of the play. But it was such a classic Santo moment, and the WGN Radio production team had the cassette for me the next day.
I’ll set the stage in five bullet points.
Now, here is Pat Hughes’ chaotic and frenetic call of that play – with Mr. Santo’s succinct analysis in the background.
Pat: “1-and-0 on Girardi. 4-4 tie in the 9th. And the pitch … Girardi lines one to leftfield … ”
Ron: “Yes … yes … come on, come on.”
Pat: “It’s a base hit … Gutierrez heading toward third, he’s going to try to score … The throw by Shumpert ... ”
Ron: “Ohhh … nooooooooo.”
Pat: “Gutierrez falls down … He gets back to second ... ”
Ron: “Ohhhhhhhh … nooooooooooooooo.”
Pat: “The throw to second – not in time … Now they’re running Girardi back toward first ... ”
Ron: “JEE-zus Christ.” Followed by silence.
Pat: “Girardi being run toward second … Now Gutierrez gets back to third … The throw to first for Girardi … He’s in a rundown … Gutierrez trying to score … The throw to the plate … He slides … He’s safe … ”
Pat: “Cubs win! Cubs win! Cubs win! Cubs win! Cubs win! Unbelievable play. Cubs win! The Cubs win!”
Ron: Sound of clap-clap-clap-clap behind Mr. Hughes … Well, at least I think it’s Ron in the background. There’s a very distinct sound in the background, the sound of someone standing up – with his hands clapping in front of a microphone.
Most of the “Ron Santo Stories” are well documented in books and movies, but my favorite personal moment with Ronnie didn’t take place in the public eye. It was just the two of us on September 28, 2003 – the Sunday morning after the Cubs swept a doubleheader against Pittsburgh to clinch the National League Central Division title.
I was sitting in the Media Relations department working on the postseason media guide when I heard the familiar “Hey Wasserstromi!” Ron was standing at the doorway. “Isn’t this great?!”
I got out of my chair and asked him what he was most excited about – the Cubs going to the playoffs or that his uniform number was getting retired. The Cubs were finally honoring him, and the pregame ceremony was a couple hours away.
“What do you think?”
His big smile broke out, and he got a little teary-eyed. “I’m excited about everything. This is my Hall of Fame. But it’s better than that, because this is my home. This is my ballpark. These are my people.”
We had one of those half-handshake/half-man hug moments, then he continued down the hall – looking for someone else to hug and share his joy.
Ron Santo was born on this day in 1940 and is sorely missed. Happy Birthday, No. 10!
It was March 30, 1992 – a date that is easy for me to remember (and if it doesn’t ring a Bell, read on) – and my aunt, uncle and their two sons were visiting Arizona during a spring break trip. That afternoon, they came to old HoHoKam Park to watch a Cactus League affair.
Truth be told, my uncle was – and still is – a huge White Sox fan. My cousins were raised Sox fans, too. So they came to soak up the atmosphere and the Arizona sun – since their beloved Pale Hose were still training in Sarasota, Fla, at that time.
I arranged for my younger cousin, who was 14 years old, to serve as the Cubs’ batboy for the day.
One of the perks of working in the position I was in was that I had access to arranging things like that. It was awesome to watch a kid’s face when you brought him into the clubhouse, introduced him to some players, and knew that he was about to embark on one of those quote-unquote memories that last a lifetime.
And sometimes those memories also were really, really special … for me.
On this particular afternoon, I was looking forward to a postgame dinner in Scottsdale with family members. The end of spring training was just days away, the sun was shining, and it was great to see my Sox-loving cousin picking up bats and running baseballs to the home plate umpire while donning a Cubs batting helmet.
So there we were, about to start the top half of either the 2nd or 3rd inning, when I looked up and saw my cousin jogging to the plate. I didn’t think anything of it, other than wondering why he was going to talk to the catcher and/or the home plate umpire with the Cubs defense on the field. On top of that, he wasn’t delivering extra baseballs to the umpire.
Just like that, instead of heading back to the dugout, I saw my cousin start jogging up the first base line toward the first base umpire. My jaw literally dropped. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. My bright, 14-year-old, Sox-loving cousin had fallen for a spring training prank.
I can’t say this any other way: My bright, 14-year-old, Sox-loving cousin was being sent from umpire to umpire looking for the key to the batter’s box.
It was a trick I’d seen pulled before on some unsuspecting kid eager to be there – but not one I was planning to see for dinner. I was trying to suppress laughter while realizing I’d have to explain to my aunt and uncle that I had nothing to do with this.
And then … the jog across the diamond from the first base umpire to the third base umpire. My cousin wasn’t in slow motion, yet the “Chariots of Fire” theme was ringing in my head.
After talking to the third base umpire, my cousin started back toward home plate – and stopped … suddenly … mid step. Light dawns on marble head. There is no key to the batter’s box.
The walk of shame back to the first base dugout was priceless. The cousin-caused delay of game was a good 60-to-90 seconds in the making.
By now, I’m thinking: Dinner is going to be outstanding.
About an inning later, the press box phone rang. It was Arlene Gill, the Cubs’ executive assistant to the general manager. “Come down here. Larry wants to see you.”
I immediately headed downstairs and outside the park to our front office trailer – which looked like the Partridge Family bus without the cool paint – and went to see general manager Larry Himes. He informed me the club had just traded George Bell to the White Sox in exchange for Sammy Sosa and Ken Patterson. He had this big grin on his face when he said Sosa’s name, telling me “you’re going to love this guy.”
The trade was to be announced after the game. I then went to write the press release and coordinate the timing of the announcement with my White Sox counterpart.
And now, for a break in this story.
The Sosa interview earlier this week also brought back memories of the Sosa/Bell trade for other people on the scene at HoHoKam Park that March afternoon. Two in particular even talked about it on Facebook – Ernie Zevallos, the facility’s head of security, and former Cubs athletic trainer John Fierro.
With their permission, I am including this exchange for your viewing and amusement pleasure:
Ernie Zevallos Brought back a lot of great memories.... I was there at the clubhouse door, when George Bell came out of the office pissed off... stormed into the clubhouse, grabbed his stuff and left... then came Sammy.... polite as can be... he was always good to me
John Fierro: Lol ...if you remember George sprained his ankle that day totally botching a fly ball. Larry Himes about had a cow when i told him I was taking George for x-rays. "It better not be broken, I just traded his ass"! I had both Larry and George pissed at me that day!
Now, back to the story.
After the game, I found my aunt, uncle and cousins on the concourse to tell them I’d be a little late for dinner due to the trade.
I don’t know who had the more stunned look: My cousin – still reeling from falling for the prank – or my uncle, after learning his team had traded away Sosa.
There was some good dinner conversation that night. Thankfully, I remembered to carry the batter’s box key in my pocket – just in case.
It was around 5:35 pm yesterday afternoon, and I was fumbling around to get out the door.
The phone was ringing, and a friend and longtime Cubs supporter’s name was flashing on my phone. I only had about 90 seconds to talk, but when Mark Smith calls – I answer.
Thankfully, there are at least a couple dozen Mark Smiths across the country, so I doubt anyone will be hitting this one up for Cubs tickets.
Anyway, I picked up the phone and immediately heard Mr. Smith’s dulcet tone: “Hey, you’re famous. I just saw your name go across the ESPN crawl.”
I didn’t have much time, as I was running late for a meeting. I promised him I’d call in a couple days – so Mark, if you’re reading this, I’ll be calling you back tonight or tomorrow!
I heard what he said, but I truly didn’t comprehend. A couple hours later, as I was driving home, it hit me.
I was on the bottom line … What just happened?
For the most part, I write on this site to share my stories of 25 years with the Cubs. From time-to-time, I reach out to former Cubs players to check up on them and see what they’re now up to – and have had great conversations over the last year with well-known names like Mark Prior, Kevin Tapani, Jon Lieber and Steve Trachsel – and some lesser-remembered guys like Lance Dickson, Micah Hoffpauir and Brooks Kieschnick.
I was very hopeful that Sammy Sosa would talk to me for a couple reasons. First, he hadn’t done many interviews in recent years. And second, he knew me – and knew I wouldn’t have a hidden agenda.
I’m not naïve. I knew when I landed the Sosa interview last week that there was a possibility that it would be newsworthy. During the course of the conversation, I saw that “possibility” was turning into “reality.”
But Tuesday morning, when I hit the “PUBLISH” button and the story was real and live, I was racing into unchartered territory.
I was about to go viral.
Well, let’s face it, Sammy Sosa was about to go viral. I was just along as the tag-team partner. If I’m mixing metaphors and sports, so be it – as it was that kind of day.
There was so much good that came out of February 21, 2017 … Sammy received a boatload of publicity … there were plenty of links to my story from all over the Internet … a heavy dose of social media … a massive amount of traffic driven to my site. And according to Google Analytics, over 7,200 people clicked on this site.
Of course, there was the expected blowback from people who want Sammy to say something specific about PEDs. As I noted before detailing the conversation, Sammy trusted me; that’s why he agreed to do the rare interview. The conversation did include the aforementioned PED subject matter. He just didn’t say what some of you out there wanted him to say. If I went all ambush interview on him – and I do know what an ambush interview is – he might not have spoken to me at all.
My biggest takeaway from the day: Whether the reaction was positive or negative, it was really interesting to see the amount of attention Sammy can still generate. The name “Sammy Sosa” might be a lightning rod, but he clearly is still very much a public figure – even though he’s lived a relatively private life during his post-baseball career.
For a good part of the day, Sammy Sosa was trending on Twitter. From mid-morning until late at night, people were sending me texts, emails, Facebook messages, Tweets. One-by-one, friends were letting me know my story was referenced in the Chicago Tribune … and in a Chicago Sun-Times breaking news alert … and on ESPN.com … and Yahoo Sports … and so on and so on.
Heck, it was with great amusement when one of my kids walked in the door after school shouting, “Hey Charles, you’re on my (Bleacher Report) Cubs Team Stream.”
Finally, there was that phone call: “Hey, you’re famous. I just saw your name go across the ESPN crawl.”
And, inevitably, a picture of the bottom line sent from a friend in Houston prominently mentioned beneath the photo.
My 15 minutes of fame might be over for now – at least until my next big scoop. And when that happens, I’ll be eager to share that story with you.
It was the final day of March 1992 when I talked to Sammy Sosa for the first time. He was just 23 years old, having been acquired the day before from the White Sox with pitcher Ken Patterson in exchange for veteran outfielder George Bell.
We were at the original HoHoKam Park, and Sosa was sitting on a weight bench in the hallway outside the locker room. The clubhouse at that old facility was too small to actually hold any training equipment within the locker room’s confines, forcing the creation of a makeshift weight room.
I introduced myself to this shy, quiet kid, and we immediately hit it off.
Little did I, or Sammy, or anyone else know what the future would bring: 609 home runs – including a club-record 545 as a Chicago Cub … seven All-Star Games … six Silver Slugger Awards … an epic 1998 battle with Mark McGwire, capped by a National League MVP Award … massive adoration and adulation.
Little did I, or Sammy, or anyone else know that his departure from the Cubs after the 2004 season would be remembered more than what he did during his 13 years with the club. Certainly, things could have been handled differently at the end by both sides. He had been a popular and important figure in baseball’s recovery from the 1994-1995 strike – yet he and the Cubs had a parting of the ways and haven’t been able to get back on the same page.
While Sammy has limited the number of interviews he has done in recent years, he agreed to talk with me for this site – and we spoke at length via Skype a few days ago.
Why did he agree to speak to me? In the words of Rebecca Polihronis, a former Cubs colleague of mine and a publicist for Sosa, “Sammy trusts you.” Sammy said that to me, too, during the course of the call.
By trust, he knew I wouldn’t twist his words. In turn, I trust the words he said to me.
Chuck: How are you doing? It’s been a long time.
Sammy Sosa: “I know, I know, my goodness. I always ask Rebecca (Polihronis) about you. When Rebecca talked to me about it, I definitely wanted to do the interview with you. I’m ready to answer some questions.”
Chuck: First off, I really appreciate getting this opportunity. It’s been way too long since we last talked. As I was putting my thoughts together for this interview, I realized it will be 25 years this March when I met you for the first time. It was old, old HoHoKam Park, and you were sitting on a bench in the fake weight room.
Sammy (laughing): “My goodness, 25 years. It feels like yesterday. The bench … I remember it.”
Chuck: So, tell me all about life after baseball. How have things gone for you?
Sammy: “I’m very happy, my man. I’ve got my family. I’ve been successful in different areas in everything I’ve done outside the lines. I retired about 10 years ago, and it feels like it was yesterday. A lot of people come to me everywhere that I go – and it feels like I’m still playing. So I’m good. For a lot of people, life after baseball has been a little bit of a struggle. For me, I’ve always said that as soon as I retired from baseball, I had a good life to live. That’s why I organized myself to be ready after I retired. It was a good thing that I surrounded myself with good people to help me be more successful in the decisions I was making. I have a few projects that I have right now in Panama; we’re building around 2,000 houses, and that project is moving very well. I have business in Europe, Hong Kong, Dubai. And I keep myself busy in the Dominican Republic, which is my homeland. I’ve been traveling a lot, doing a lot of stuff. I’m also in Miami a lot. I feel that from the time I retired until now, I really haven’t missed baseball – to tell you the truth. I’m very happy with what I’m doing. I’m my own boss (laughing). I don’t have to be at the ballpark at 10 o’clock tomorrow morning. I’m very happy. I’m comfortable. I’ve got a lot of good people around me. And you know, I believe in God – he’s my savior (pointing to the sky, as he did after his home runs).”
Chuck: I remember when all of your older kids were born. You were traded to the Cubs just before Keysha’s birth. How is everyone?
Sammy: “Keysha is now 24. Kenia, my second girl, is 22. Junior (Sammy Jr.) is 20. Michael is 19.”
Chuck: That’s hard to believe. They’re all grown up.
Sammy: “And Kalexy is 5 and Rolando is 2. I think Rolando is going to be the baseball player. I’m hoping for it.”
Chuck: You had the four older kids when you were in the middle of your playing career. They were little babies, and you were a baseball player – so you weren’t always around. What’s it like to be a father this time around for Kalexy and Rolando?
Sammy: “My wife and I had the first four. After a while, I said to Sonia, ‘In a few years, our kids are going to leave our house. So let’s see if we can have a couple more kids – so we’re not home alone. I don’t want to be fighting with you every day (a lot of laughing).’ The first four, I was never home much – 162 games … spring training … it was hard. After I retired, I now see a different world and a different life. I’m becoming a better man because I see my kids every day. I have a chance to hug them every day, to be there every day. Anytime I have a trip that I have to go out of town, it’s never for very long – and then I come back and I always stay home to play with them. I feel great, because the two little ones see me every day. I stay home to play with Kalexy and Rolando as much as I can.”
Chuck: When the younger two kids are both school age, will you spend more time in the Miami area?
Sammy: “Right now, we go between the Dominican Republic and Miami. I have everything set up (in Miami), because I want my kids to get their education here. There’s more opportunity here. When you have an education in the U.S., you have a better chance to get a better job. I have a team here; my wife has a nanny and a driver to take my kids to school.”
Chuck: It’s been 10 years since you last played, and you said you haven’t missed it. Do you ever think about getting back into baseball in any capacity?
Sammy: “You know, I’m a man of the future. I see a vision. I see opportunity. I’m not saying I won’t come back, because if you say that – if an opportunity came up you’d have to say ‘No.’ But right now, unless it’s something tremendous … something that I’d have to say ‘Wow’ … something that I feel comfortable with … maybe. In the meantime, the position that I’m in right now – and the team that I have – I’m great, I’m comfortable. I have to say, I don’t want to be a coach. It doesn’t mean that I can’t come back. But my desire to be on the field again is over. The only way I could come back is if I’d have an opportunity to buy a team one day. Yes, that is on my agenda. When that opportunity comes, I’ll be surrounded by my people. To be a coach, I don’t see myself doing that. Maybe with Rolando – when he grows up, and I think he has the potential to be a baseball player – definitely, I can do something with him. But right now, the ideas that I have and the projects that I have, I think I will be more successful outside the lines. Baseball – whether you struck me out or I hit a home run – was easy for me. In the business world, I get a little smarter every day. I have a big company in the Dominican Republic. I’m doing very well there, and that company has been very successful for me. That’s why, when I hear people ask if I want to go back to baseball to be a coach, I say, ‘The only way I’ll come back to baseball is to be the owner of a team.’”
Chuck: That said, would you like to be able to come back to Chicago to do the 7th-inning stretch or the Cubs Convention or things like that?
Sammy: “I never say ‘No’ to that. I owe something to the people – to the crowd in Chicago. For that, I would come back. But I’m not going to go up there and say, ‘I’m here. Please bring me back and give me a chance.’ No way. I’m not hungry. I have too much pride. They know where they can find me. They’re in their way; I am in my way. If they want to have a meeting – of course … I’m a gentleman. I’d never say ‘No’ to that. If one day it happens, I’d be happy. And if it doesn’t, we can talk again on Skype.”
Chuck: The way everything ended in 2004 didn’t have to happen. Are there things you could have done differently that would have made it easier to have a better relationship with the organization?
Sammy: “My relationship with the organization was great. The last day of the season, the last game, I asked (assistant trainer) Sandy Krum to talk to Mr. Dusty Baker and ask him if I could leave early. He said yes, that I could go. That was a mistake by me. I should have stayed there. It was the last game. My intention was to finish my career in Chicago. That was my intention all the way. I never wanted to leave Chicago. I should have handled that situation differently, yes indeed. I recognize my mistake. But look, I have my pride, and I know I had a tremendous career in Chicago. When nobody knew who Chicago was, I put Chicago on the map. Like you said, if I could have done it again, I would have done it differently. The only thing we cannot do is turn back time. We can’t do that. But hey, we have to move forward. I understand I made a mistake. I regret it, definitely, but I have to move on.”
Chuck: When I say 1998 – Sosa vs. McGwire – what kind of memories does that bring back for you?
Sammy: “You’re never going to see that again in your life … never. You’re never going to see the show Mark and I put on … never. You’re not going to see that excitement again. We were the ones bringing more fans to the stadium … I feel proud of what I did. The only thing is, they can say whatever they want to say about me. First of all, I’m clean. They don’t have a case on me. I never failed a drug test. Never in my life. But you know what – this is not my field anymore. I’d rather not be in the Hall of Fame and have a lot of money in my pocket than to be in the Hall of Fame and try to find money to pay my bills (laughing) … You saw me grow up, you saw how hard I was working. A lot of people say so many things, but I’m telling you – they have nothing on me. I’m not going to go out there begging, because they have no case. They had the Mitchell Report trying to find something, but they had nothing on Mr. Sosa.”
Chuck: Does it bother you that people continue to say you did something … and there’s no proof you did something … and there’s nothing you can do to disprove them? Do you feel you’ve been found guilty without any evidence?
Sammy: “Chuck, it’s like Jesus Christ when he came to Jerusalem. Everybody thought Jesus Christ was a witch (laughing) – and he was our savior. So if they talk (poop) about Jesus Christ, what about me? Are you kidding me?”
Chuck: How important is it for you to be able to say, “I came to the United States at 16-to-17 years of age with very little education, and I was able to become a successful businessman?”
Sammy: “When I left the Dominican Republic, the last thing my mother told me at the airport was, ‘My son, I know you have a very strong character. You have a very strong temper. The only thing I want you to do: Please take care of your bosses … they’re the ones who pay you the check.’ I took that like it was yesterday. I came to this country not knowing how to speak English, not having an education. I don’t say that I’m a genius now, but I understand the language. I write as much as I can. I know how to read. I do what I can. And one of the things that I feel most comfortable and happy about is that I came to this country and had all of those barriers in front of me – and I went over them. This country made me stronger. This country made me who I am. I keep saying I’m a patriot. I’m from the Dominican, but trust me, I love the U.S. – because this is a country that gave me an opportunity. I came here with no name, and I put my name on the map. This country has been great to me. I’m very proud to be here. My family has had a very good education. My kids are very smart.”
Chuck: The 2016 World Series … How did it feel seeing the Cubs playing for the championship – and watching it on TV?
Sammy: “The incredible thing … I’d been watching the last couple of World Series. And last year, not because it was the Chicago Cubs, but because it was the seventh game of the World Series – it was one of the greatest games I’ve ever seen. Wow, it was incredible. Chicago showed the world that they can do it, and I hope they can repeat. As soon as they hired the manager (Joe Maddon), I was very happy about it. That manager gives chances to the young players. He knows how to deal with the young players. He makes everybody comfortable. Many managers – they don’t know how to deal with people. Believe me, this manager has that gift. That’s why everybody wants to play for him, because the guy is great. That World Series was one of the greatest. Both teams fought to the last out. And when (Rajai) Davis hit that home run … my goodness, it was a little bit scary. But then after that, it was amazing. Unbelievable.”
Chuck: Wrigley Field … it’s not the same ballpark you played in after all the remodeling that has taken place. Would you like to go back to see what it looks like now?
Sammy: “Hey, if they send me an invitation, then I would definitely say ‘Yes.’ This is my house – no matter what happened (at the end). My numbers – nobody is going to take them from me. Not even Mr. Cub, Ernie Banks, hit that many home runs. And I did it with style (laughing). But if they invite me, why not? One day, if they invite me, a lot of people will be very happy about it.”
Chuck: I get that you want an invitation. I just want to know … Would you come back to Chicago to see the new Wrigley Field on your own, or do you have to be invited?
Sammy: “Look, if I don’t see it again, I’ll send my drone over there and I’ll watch it from my house. I won’t have to move (laughing).”
Chuck: But then you wouldn’t have the rightfield bleacher fans bowing and saluting you.
Sammy: “I understand what you’re saying. If one day they want to do something, I want to do it in style. If it’s going to happen, it’s got to be the right way. Don’t worry, one day they’re going to do it. I’m not in a rush.”
One year ago today on this very website, I wrote about my wife.
The story was a little personal, and I wasn’t sure how she would take it.
Suffice it to say, I didn’t find my clothes on the front lawn. The locks weren’t changed. My name is still on the joint accounts.
That said, I know better than to re-post the original story. If you want to see that narrative, you’ll have to click here: http://www.chuckblogerstrom.com/all-my-stories/this-buds-for-you.
That said (Part 2), it means it’s time for some fresh material – but this time, not as long and not so much in a mushy romantic Valentine’s Day sort of way. I avoided seeing the wrong side of a frying pan last year, and the plan is to go 2-for-2.
Consider this my Valentine’s Day greeting card – without Snoopy or Maxine, of course.
Life after baseball has been a rollercoaster, to say the least. But thanks to my wife, I’ve been able to get my sports fix without the daily grind of working in sports.
As you may or may not know, Michelle has sports ingrained in her in the same way I do, but from a completely different angle – she actually competed and did so successfully. Michelle was a three-sport athlete in high school and earned an athletic scholarship to Indiana State University to play softball at the Division I level. In turn, her professional work experience has extensively been in the sports realm – working for teams (Chicago Cubs, Chicago Rush), a statistical company (STATS LLC), a newspaper (Pro Football Weekly) and in youth sports as a soccer club administrator, a softball program coordinator and a softball coach.
Five days a week this winter, she’s out there with her program’s softball players making them better and taking her lumps. Name the body part, and it’s probably been bruised by a line drive or a short hop or a bouncing ball. She knows it’s part of the territory – and I know better than to question her reflexes.
While her own athletic background stands on its own, I contend her greatest contribution to sports was when she decided one child wouldn’t be enough for us – opting instead to hatch twins. I like to call it our “one quarter/two gumballs” plan.
Every ounce of athletic skill my children possess comes from Michelle – well, except for the awkward off-balance jump shots that defy the laws of gravity as they miss the backboard. That’s on me. My wife produced an intense catcher/goalie/point guard who can “game face” you with the best of them and an athletic pitcher/infielder/outfielder/midfielder/defender/play-wherever-you-tell-me who takes so much pleasure and pride out of playing stellar defense and setting up teammates to score.
It is so much fun to sit on the sidelines and cheer them in their athletic endeavors – and an awesome feeling to watch the three of them interact on the softball diamond. Seeing them play and develop and succeed is such a rush – and it feeds my sports appetite.
Would I feel the same way if they were dancers or musicians or participating in other non-sport activities? Of course … they’re my children. But to get the opportunity to see them have some modicum of success on the playing field is special. Michelle and the girls are so much better athletes than I ever was, and I’m so blessed to be able to brag about the three of them.
So before I do start getting mushy – and again, I want to go 2-for-2 … Happy Valentine’s Day to my three athletes!
Working for a cold-weather team like the Chicago Cubs brought a huge perk this time of year. Namely, being forced to travel to Arizona for spring training.
After months of fleece and parkas and head colds and sinus infections, a higher being lets you know that it’s time to step on an airplane and get the heck out of town for six-to-seven weeks (that higher being, of course, being your team president or general manager).
Thanks to the fine folks at United Airlines, life would be different 1,440 air miles away.
After your first couple of spring trainings, there’s a certain repetition that comes with it.
No matter the year, I flew out of O’Hare on the earliest flight I could get. It would be cold outside. It was still dark. It was the perfect way to get away.
No matter the year, when I arrived at Sky Harbor Airport in Phoenix, the sun would be out. The sky would be cloud-free. After a winter in Chicago, I would be allergic to rolling down the car windows, so I purposely put on the rental car air conditioner to make sure it worked properly.
And then I’d head east to Mesa … Superstition Mountains in front of me … heading to the spring training complex, looking for my first cactus of that given year.
I had more than 20 spring trainings in Mesa, and it changed so much over the course of time.
When I first started going to spring training, the present-day highway systems were still under construction – or a vision for the future. The 202 – the loop that takes you from the airport to central Mesa – was a work in progress. It was several spring trainings before I didn’t have to take surface streets to get out of the airport. And once the 202 opened, it was exciting every February to see how much further the road would go. It took almost 20 years for the road’s completion. Obviously, the rough Arizona winters make it tough to work year-round.
And then there was the 101. In 1990, the road’s development was just in its infancy. Getting from Mesa to Scottsdale – and then north to places like Carefree and Cave Creek – seemed like a day trip. But little-by-little, step-by-step, the road grew longer and longer. And the region got bigger and bigger. And the compressed Cactus League continued expanding and expanding.
Back in the day, most of the spring training activity centered on Phoenix, Scottsdale, Tempe, Mesa and Chandler – which was almost a hike. You’d have your day trip – or sometimes an overnighter – to Tucson. Then there would be the multi-day trek to Palm Springs and Yuma to take on the Angels and Padres.
And you’d have quaint spring training parks like old HoHoKam Park – designed for spring training use and not much more. During our time at old HoHo, we didn’t even have a permanent structure for the front office staff to work out of; the front office was housed in a trailer – with a half dozen small offices from which all baseball operations work took place.
Now, thanks to the different world we live in, there are huge multifunctional facilities spread out all over the valley. Things change, and it’s all good. But I look back fondly at the old days of Fitch Park – the minor league complex the Cubs practiced at before the start of spring training games – when you could walk from field to field and talk to the fans. There was something special about just walking around and saying “Hi” to people – even though I knew they were there to see the guys in uniform, not me. It was just a different time, a different era.
The first time I went to spring training, I was wide-eyed. About 48 hours in, you realize you’re going to be there another six weeks.
When you do the math, you realize that I spent roughly three full years of my life in Arizona thanks to spring training and organizational meetings – so I witnessed a lot.
Still, there was something fresh about heading there every spring.
I became a creature of habit. Get the rental car and head straight to Fitch Park to unpack my desk. Then, head straight to the rental condo to unpack my bags. By early evening, it was time see that first amazing sunset on the way to grocery shop – first at Basha’s, then at later years at the Walmart Supercenter.
By day two, it was time to plan the first of countless annual pilgrimages to my favorite restaurants: Don & Charlie’s, Carlsbad Tavern, Z Tejas, P.F. Chang’s – before it went national.
On day three, it was time for training camp to officially start. Spring training was underway.
And a few days in, just as repetition was starting to set in, there was always the lure of the Kohl’s Presidents Day Sale – for when the 30 shirts I’d pack for six-plus weeks weren’t deemed enough to get me through spring training.
All around the sport, pitchers and catchers report this week. It’s the first step in the commencement of the 2017 campaign – and the marathon that a baseball season is from start to finish.
And there’s nothing like walking out of the airport and taking in that first breath of fresh air after a long winter in Chicago. It’s a new beginning.
It was one of my favorite parts of the job.
One of the best parts of working in baseball is the beginning of spring camp and the freshness of a new campaign. I always traveled to Arizona believing hope was in the air – even when the realistic in me knew better.
It was always “Job No. 1” at the beginning of camp to introduce myself to the new players as they arrived at old Fitch Park. It was important that these players – those who had joined the organization over the off-season and the newbies who were in a big league camp for the first time – knew that they had someone to turn to if they had any questions. The way I looked at it: They were all human beings in different surroundings, and when it’s your first time in a new place, you’re not always comfortable right away. I relished the opportunity to be the answer man and help them feel comfortable.
Of all the kids I was able to help out, one who stands near the top of the list was Hee Seop Choi. If you’re a longtime Cubs fan, you certainly remember Hee Seop – a large, left-handed hitting first baseman from South Korea.
Sadly, Hee Seop’s claims to fame as a major leaguer were being injured in a collision with Kerry Wood – sending him to the hospital with a concussion – and getting traded to Florida for Derrek Lee. It’s too bad his Cubs time was short, because it would have been a fun ride had his career taken off – as Hee Seop was one of the nicest, most pleasant human beings to wear a Cubs uniform during my time with the club.
There certainly were language barriers, though, so I made sure he was my pet project during spring training 2001 – his first invitation to a major league camp.
From the first day he reported, I checked on him multiple times each day. Since he was a minor league player earmarked to spend the year at Triple-A, he did not have an assigned translator, so I made it a point to always be around if he needed help. During clubhouse access time when media could talk to the players, there were always bilingual Korean media members helping translate for their American media counterparts.
Whenever Hee Seop needed me, I was around. It wasn’t that I needed to lurk; I think he was just more comfortable knowing I was around.
Oftentimes, either before or after practice, Hee Seop would stop me in my tracks. He would be working on improving a sentence in English, or trying to learn the English name of a specific object he was pointing to. He was just a kid, but he was working very hard to fit into our culture.
Now that the scene is set … It was one of the final days at Fitch Park before the team moved six blocks up the street to HoHoKam Park for the start of Cactus League games, and Hee Seop was frantically trying to get my attention.
I heard someone yelling my name – “Chuck … Chuck” – and Hee Seop was waving his arms as if there was some sort of medical emergency.
I literally ran from one corner of the locker room to his spot, and he ducked down to look me straight in the eye. He was almost a foot taller than me – but now we were on the same level, and he had this serious look on his face.
“Look at them,” Hee Seop whispered about something going on directly behind me. “Please.”
I turned around and scoped the room to figure out what he was talking about. I thought for sure there was a TV crew filming him – or at least someone whose presence in the clubhouse was questionable.
I lined up so that I was at the same angle he was, and there were two Cubs pitchers talking – veteran Jason Bere, who had signed with the club over the off-season, and a kid in his first big league camp by the name of Jay Yennaco. Choi and Yennaco had been teammates in Double-A the year before, so it wasn’t like Hee Seop didn’t know who he was.
Bere was born in Cambridge, MA, and had spent his youth growing up around 25 miles north of Boston. Yennaco was born in Lawrence, MA – located near the Massachusetts/New Hampshire border – and was raised just up the road in Derry, NH.
It was just the two of them talking to each other – and their thick Boston accents came out. It was sounding like a Matt Damon/Ben Affleck scene in Good Will Hunting – just louder and thicker.
And as I honed in on their conversation, Hee Seop was trying to put the right words together. “What they saying? That’s not English language.”
I looked at Hee Seop and tried to stifle a laugh.
Then I turned back to Bere and Yennaco, just as one of them shouted “wicked smart” – pronounced “wickid smaht” – and lost it. Through my laughter, I admitted to Hee Seop I had no clue what they were talking about.
Turns out I needed a Bahston-to-English translator.
One year ago today, I took the plunge.
I put it out to the free world that I wanted to start writing again.
At first, it was solely for me – and for whatever readers wanted to join me for the ride.
Later, it moved on to some freelance opportunities … which led to more freelance opportunities. It’s quite a rollercoaster ride trying to make it as a freelancer, but the key is to keep writing and writing and writing some more.
One year ago, I put myself out there with my first story/post/blog – whatever you want to call it.
One year later, I take you back to where it all began.
Thank you so much for all of your support over Year No. 1! I can’t thank you enough.
* * * * *
I don’t listen.
OK, that’s not exactly true. I can safely say that I can be a really good listener. I’ve interviewed enough people to know that I can sit down without a script, carry on a conversation, and get the interviewee to start talking about things that matter to him or her. And then I can follow up with a question based on that response that shows that I was paying attention to what that person had just said, instead of reading a preconceived list of questions from a notebook pad.
You know what I mean. If you’re around someone who isn’t a good listener, and then … there goes a squirrel … and whatever you were just talking about went in one ear and out that same ear.
This isn’t a squirrel moment coming up. I’m just trying to connect some dots by using a circle instead of a straight line.
I’m a big fan of “Modern Family” reruns, since I can typically watch them in blocks and vegetate. One of my favorite storylines revolved around a wedge salad. Claire and Phil had a fight – Phil, of course, didn’t know why – because (after taking the advice of the legendary Skip Woosnam) Phil wanted Claire to partake in the deliciousness of a wedge salad. Claire had been trying for years to get Phil to try a wedge salad, and she was hurt because she believed that Phil didn’t listen to her and didn’t appreciate her opinions. Claire believed he didn’t have a problem taking suggestions from friends and strangers – even when those suggestions were the exact same thing that she had been telling Phil to do. In the end, Phil brought out a scrapbook full of changes he had made in his life based on Claire’s advice.
Well, this is a wedge salad moment in time for me. Not my only wedge salad, of course, and I’m sure there will be more of those lettuce skeletons coming.
For the last few years, my wife has suggested on numerous occasions that I should write a book. By numerous, I do mean more than once or twice. She swears she can get financing for me to write that great Wasserstrom novel. I put in nearly 25 years working for the Cubs – and was there for so many events and saw so many things that she thinks would be book worthy. Heck, when I first started there, people were still using typewriters, Wrigley Field didn’t have lights, and internet meant there was a foul ball off the screen behind the plate: “He fouled it in ter net.”
At any rate, I didn’t listen about sitting down and writing. And no, there aren’t any book thoughts swirling in my head right now.
Earlier this week, I ate lunch with a former Cubs co-worker at this place called The Little Goat Diner in the West Loop. I give a gratuitous tip of the cap to the restaurant, because it’s possible none of this would have taken place had I not tried something different – and let me tell you, that Sloppy Goat sandwich was tremendous. This friend suggested STRONGLY that I need to share my thoughts … that I’m a strong writer … that I have stories to tell … that I have plenty to offer a viewing audience.
She reminded me that I had blogged before a lot of people knew what blogging was. Back in 2000, I had one of those “trip of a lifetime” adventures – as the Cubs opened the season in Tokyo. While overseas and in a time when AOL ruled the world and smartphones weren’t attached to everyone, I was half a day away from all of my people in the central time zone. The only real way to communicate was through e-mail.
I took the opportunity to sit down every night and compose my daily experiences in a Dear Diary sort of way – and sent those thoughts to an e-mail group who I thought would be interested. One of the people on that distribution list was this “lunch meeting” friend, who turned my writings/musings into a two-page spread in the since-departed in-house VineLine magazine – complete with some of the stellar photographs I took with store-bought box cameras.
She suggested I start telling my stories. She said I could even go back in time and post the Japan stories again, just for the humor of it.
She’s right. I need to do this. I want to do this. I love sitting down and turning the scribblings in my head into thoughts on a keyboard – then turning those thoughts into words.
I have written hundreds -- maybe thousands -- of press releases (yes, I know they’re called news releases now) and plenty of feature articles. After a self-imposed hiatus while I pursued a different opportunity that wasn’t me, I’m quickly getting back into social media, and I’m doing a little Twitter (@C_Wasserstrom), dabbling into Instagram to largely troll what my daughters are posting (chuck.wasserstrom) and became possibly the last person to join Facebook (chuck.wasserstrom). I’ve really enjoyed getting to reconnect with people – and it has been truly awesome to hear directly from old acquaintances that I hadn’t seen or spoken to in years.
But those other channels only give me little nuggets of space. I have an ability to tell stories – be it from the past or what’s going on in my day-to-day world – and to tell these stories in a longer-form design. Write when I want … what I want … and forever long (or short) I want. I’m writing for and hopefully entertaining you, the reader, but I’m also writing for yours truly.
Note: If no one other than Chuck Wasserstrom is reading this other than me, myself and I, then I have to do a better job of selling Chuck. Metrics aren’t good if the only person clicking on the story is the author.
So this platform is my wedge salad. The plan is that my wife doesn’t get mad that I’m putting the voices in my head into written form solely at the suggestion of someone else (although I know she still wants that book, but I’m starting small).
Note No. 2: If you’re reading this and don’t really know much about me, my wife’s name is Michelle. If you also happen to be a reader of books that have actually been written, you might have heard of Crossing California, a novel with a main character named Michelle Wasserstrom. That character is not my wife. Someone else has profited off her name.
Anyway, welcome to my blog/journal/diary/musings/hobby/inner demons. I hope you enjoy the ride.
By the way, in case you read this far and did notice, I purposely did not name the person who encouraged me to get this started -- mainly to protect the innocent. If this takes off for me as planned, I’ll give her full credit – provided I also meet her exacting standards and provided she signs that disclosure agreement that I can use her name for the betterment of myself. If it doesn’t work out, I don’t want you to blame or shame her.
And, if this proves to be relaxing and fun and cathartic and a release of that inner me, I’ll also give due credit to that Sloppy Goat sandwich.
It’s a fine whine, but it is reality: In 25 years working in baseball, I never had the chance to see a World Series game live and in person.
Between my time with the Cubs and volunteering to assist the National League multiple times during the postseason, I worked plenty of playoff games – and had champagne poured on me on numerous occasions by players heading to the World Series. Some of those times, I even knew the players.
Let me tell you, when it’s someone you knew, that champagne didn’t smell too bad – because you were really excited for the opportunity they were getting. In other words, it was a former Cub heading to the World Series who was dousing me.
And when I had champagne poured on me by actual Cubs players after the Wildcard win in 1998 – and after clinching the division in 2003, 2007 and 2008 – that champagne smelled really, really swell.
Suffice it to say, I have plenty of great baseball memories I can tell – and laundry tips about what to do when you’re covered in champagne and want to save your clothes – but I never did get to that elusive World Series game.
The Super Bowl, though … that’s a crown jewel of an event that I did get to witness in person. And I was able to cross that off the bucket list as a 17-year-old high school senior. And I even brought my camera to the Miami Dolphins/Washington Redskins gridiron tilt in Super Bowl XVII.
Back in the glory days (cue either Bruce Springsteen or Al Bundy), I attended Mather High School on the far north side of the city. I was NOT an athlete, so unless I actually wanted to practice playing a musical instrument, it was important that I had an afterschool job.
For a couple years, I worked in the stockroom of a shoe store. That’s about all I’ll say about that.
The summer before my junior year, though, I got my big break – one that really started me on my dual journalism and sports career. Through connections that I don’t want to divulge (OK, my mom helped with the connection), I was able to land a part-time job at Pro Football Weekly – an Arkush Family-owned newspaper that was at the time located directly across the street from Mather High.
Pro Football Weekly was the first step in opening my eyes about the work done by professional teams and by media organizations. I can’t even begin to explain all the knowledge I collected from the Arkush brothers – Dan, Hub and Rick – along with the great staff they had assembled. Hopefully at some point I’ll do my due diligence and write about my PFW days.
During my second year there – in the fall of 1982 – the NFL had a work stoppage, which significantly shortened the season. After a few days of inactivity, PFW asked me to stay away until the resumption of play. (Note to Chuck: Don’t include that in any future stories about PFW).
I was brought back a couple months later, and several people there really felt bad that I had been laid off. A promise was made when I returned: We’ll make this right. Just trust us.
OK, I thought. What did I know? I was the little ol’ high school senior, just helping out after the school buzzer rang. They really didn’t owe me anything.
They kept reminding me that they were going to take care of me. But I wasn’t going to ask.
So I waited.
In early January, I finally got my answer. They were taking me with to Pasadena to be part of the Pro Football Weekly coverage. I would get to sit in the media scrums and tape the player sessions. I would get to go to the Super Bowl Week parties. And, while I wouldn’t officially be on duty for the game being played at the Rose Bowl, I would get to watch Super Bowl XVII from the stands.
I think it’s safe to say that I was OK with that. Miss a week of senior year to go to the Super Bowl? That was pretty sweet.
I wish I had done a better job of chronicling that week in my life. It was a blur – but certain events stand out.
The Super Bowl itself was memorable in numerous ways – mainly because of my end zone seat and the touchdowns that were scored coming right at me. Remember John Riggins’ fourth quarter fourth-and-inches run for a 43-yard touchdown? Ran right at me. Remember Fulton Walker’s 98-yard kickoff return? Ran right at me. Heck, even a touchdown pass to Jimmy Cefalo was close enough to me that I was able to take a snapshot of it.
I’m sure I’ll watch Super Bowl LI with interest Sunday night. But as big a spectacle as it will be, it can’t touch being there in person as a high school kid. Glory days, indeed.
Timing is everything. So it is with a lot of regret that I never saw Ernie Banks play.
His final year as a player was in 1971. The first time I watched a major league game was in 1972.
Officially, 491 players appeared in at least one game for the Cubs during my full-time employment with the Cubs. Hundreds more played for the club during my youth and my formative years.
Heck, the first baseball game I ever attended – Cubs vs. Mets, September 16, 1972 – included four future Hall of Famers in Billy Williams, Ron Santo, Willie Mays and Tom Seaver.
I got to watch and be around Ryne Sandberg, Greg Maddux and Andre Dawson as a front office staffer. I got to watch Roberto Clemente, Hank Aaron and Mike Schmidt beat up the Cubs as a kid in the Wrigley Field stands.
But I was one year too late in seeing Ernie Banks on the playing field.
Thankfully, I have seen Mr. Cub on tape many times. If you’re reading this far, you certainly can hear Jack Brickhouse’s voice as he made the call of Ernie’s 500th home run (exclamation points included for emphasis):
“That’s a fly ball deep to left! Back, back! That’s it, that’s it! Hey Hey! He did it! Ernie Banks got No. 500! A line drive shot into the seats in left! The ball tossed to the bullpen! Everybody on your feet! This is it! WHEEEEEE! Ernie Banks off Pat Jarvis. May 12, 1970. Second inning against the Atlanta Braves.”
I laugh every time I hear Mr. Brickhouse’s call.
The cool thing is, I got to see Ernie in person on so many occasions. He took the word “upbeat” to a new level. It wasn’t just the smile on his face. It was the personality that shined through every time you saw him.
He would pop his head into the Media Relations department whenever he was at the ballpark.
For many years …
Ernie: “Hey, how you doing? How’s the wife?”
Me: “I’m great. Still not married.”
Ernie: “Why not? You gotta get a wife.”
Followed in later years, of course, by …
Ernie: “Hey, how you doing? How are the kids?”
Me: “I’m great. Still don’t have children.”
Ernie: “Why not? You gotta get yourself some kids.”
I must have taken that advice to heart. How else would you explain the twins? “Let’s play two!”
One of my fondest memories of Ernie was talking to him around the time of the 2003 Cubs Convention. After he asked about my kids (I still didn’t have them, yet, but we were getting close), I told him about this neat Cubs Information Guide cover that was in the process of being designed. It was a black-and-white Photoshop combination of Ernie and Sammy Sosa – with both leaning on their bats and the Wrigley Field bleachers in the background. The original photos, of course, were taken over 30 years apart.
“Just make sure I have a bigger smile than Sammy,” Ernie said.
As much as Sammy might have tried, he could never top Ernie’s smile.
Ernie Banks was born on January 31, 1931. Even though it seems he’s still with us, he passed away a little over two years ago.
Today would have been his 86th birthday. Happy Birthday, Mr. Cub!
Last time out, the name Greg Maddux came up as part of a short story within the short story.
Thanks to the Maddux reference, there was some immediate feedback.
One loyal reader simply wrote: “Doggie.”
A second wrote: “There’s got to be a part two.” I’m not sure if that had anything to do with the mention of Maddux, but it works within the context of this story.
A third person – a former teammate of his – wrote: “Only Mad Dog could get away with calling you Wassermacher while keeping a straight face.”
It’s very apparent that the masses have spoken. You want Greg Maddux, then let’s write about Greg Maddux.
Writers Note: Actually, before I go on – thanks to the day and age we live in – I need to avoid any “alternative facts” on this site. The truth is, I did have a fourth emailer – Randy Bush, the Cubs’ assistant general manager – who noticed that I had mentioned him in the first paragraph of that story. He wrote: “Buy lunch – get a shout out … nice!” The 100% truth: Four people emailed me after that story, and you’ve seen the quotes. And … it’s now out there that I’ll give you free publicity if you buy me lunch.
Anyway … back to this post.
I had the luxury of seeing Greg Maddux at three different junctures of his career – as a 20-year-old coming up to the majors for the first time, as a grizzled 37-year-old coming back to his original organization to be the senior leadership voice of what could have been an amazing starting rotation, and in a post-playing career position when he was hired to serve as an assistant to Jim Hendry.
Through all the Wassermachers … and the sick jokes that can’t be told here – while keeping a poker face, even after the joke … and the warped one-liners … he never let go of the kid voice inside of him.
But he also was one of the hardest working, most cerebral adults I’ve ever come across. He didn’t become a professor of his craft without doing the prep work. He was using video way before it became the norm. He was using analysis way before it caught on. He figured out that changing speeds and throwing softer when in trouble was a much more effective approach than trying to blow the ball past the batter.
I’m not breaking new ground when I write that Maddux was the best pitcher I ever saw. Period. He was smart. He had a bulldog mentality. He was overly prepared. He had a game plan every time out – and he had the ability to both stick to it if things weren’t working right – and deviate from it when needed.
Some of my favorite baseball learning experiences took place in the Cubs’ video room during his second stint with the Cubs, as I listened to Maddux talk as he prepared for his next start. Sometimes, he was talking to me or others in the room. Often, he was talking back to the screen. He would watch video of his past matchups against the opponent’s hitters. He would watch video of those hitters in recent games to see if they were doing anything differently. He would take mental notes and written notes … lean up and drop something warped on the people in the room … and then continue on with his film study. And he almost always dropped a Not Safe For Website one-liner on you as he walked out of the room, a little smirk on his face.
When it was Maddux’s turn to pitch, you knew two things would happen. First, the game was going to be quick. Second, you knew your team had a really good chance of getting a “W.”
I still shake my head and smile when I look back at some of the numbers he put up:
And maybe my favorite stat, since laying down a bunt has become a lost art: 180 sacrifice bunts – in 1,812 career plate appearances. It doesn’t take much basic math to see that a pitcher successfully moved a baserunner over in 10 percent of his career trips to the plate. He also reached base via hit/walk/HBP 311 times and had a pair of sacrifice flies, so he helped his team offensively nearly 500 times.
Just for kicks, I took a look at the box score from Maddux’s September 2, 1986, big league debut – although he officially pitched for the first time on September 3 (only in Cubdom could that happen). The Astros/Cubs game on the 2nd was suspended in the 15th inning. It was resumed on September 3 with young Mr. Maddux was on the mound.
For the record – and again, only in Cubdom, could this happen – Maddux technically made his first major league appearance on September 2 as a pinch runner in the bottom of the 14th. So pitcher came after the hyphen – PR-P – in his first big league box score.
The Cubs’ starting lineup that day was Davey Martinez, Ryne Sandberg, Jerry Mumphrey, Keith Moreland, Leon Durham, Jody Davis, Chris Speier, Shawon Dunston and Jamie Moyer. Other Cubs appearing off the bench that day included Chico Walker, Thad Bosley, Manny Trillo, Terry Francona, Bobby Dernier and Ron Cey. How’s that for some name dropping?
By far, Maddux was the youngest player on the field during that game. He was just 20 years old – and it was just a little over two years since he had graduated high school. Heck, he was even younger than the Media Relations intern. I didn’t know it at the time, but I had a press row seat to the beginning stages of his Hall of Fame career.
And what a view it was.
I was driving toward Wrigleyville yesterday to meet a former Cubs colleague – Randy Bush – for lunch (he treated, so he better get a shout out in the opening paragraph. Thanks Randy!).
As I was heading south on I-94, a sports update was on the radio. The Rockies were closing in on a deal with free agent Greg Holland. The Athletics had signed free agent Adam Rosales. The Dodgers and Athletics had completed a trade. All of that was mentioned at the top of the sports update – before Super Bowl preparations.
It’s late January, and there is still plenty of activity going on.
In other words, it’s not like it used to be. And that’s OK.
I couldn’t help but think back to my baseball beginnings – when this was “The Calm Before the Storm” part of the year.
Back in my media relations days, the downtime in the calendar – and sometimes the only slow point of the year – was the last couple weeks of January and the first 10 days of February.
Up until around 2004 (I’ll get to that later on), the team was basically set by Christmas. You had your annual free agent feeding frenzy wrapping up at the Winter Meetings. You had trades taking place from the end of the World Series through the end of the calendar year. The rest of your smaller moves and ancillary acquisitions took place the first couple weeks of the new year. There was a general belief that players wanted to know who they would be playing for by the holidays; teams felt that way, too. There wasn’t a whole lot of transacting going on once the calendar flipped to January.
By the second half of January, the key first month events – the Cubs Caravan and the Cubs Convention – were off the plate. Also, since the team you were taking to spring training was already in place, the Media Guide – my yearly off-season baby – was getting its finishing touches and heading to the printer.
So other than trips to the printer in Waukegan to check on the Media Guide as it hit the press, this was the quietest stretch of the year.
Tick tock. Tick tock. Tick tock.
You sat and waited for nothing to happen.
You took whatever excitement you could get, breathlessly typing the press release announcing the date that the equipment truck would be leaving for spring training.
You took whatever excitement you could get, breathlessly walking around the TV crews showing up to film the equipment truck being loaded for spring training.
You counted down the days until you, too, were on that airplane to spring training.
And then you sat around and waited for something to happen at the beginning of training camp – when pitchers throw to catchers before the infielders and outfielders report. But that’s another story.
Why am I telling you all this? Because if you’re waiting and waiting – and waiting some more – for the season to start again, then I totally get how you’re feeling. To quote my inner Tom Petty, the waiting is the hardest part.
Truth-be-told, it’s mostly quiet on the Cubs front right now, too, just like in the good old days – although the excuse this year is World Series-related. Winning championships with a bunch of young core players tends to do that.
But I do have to say listening to all the activity on the radio reminded me that it wasn’t always quiet for me with during this time of the year. In fact, the baseball landscape was just starting to change after I moved to the Baseball Operations department.
During the 2003-2004 off-season, players weren’t signing as quickly as they had before. And it wasn’t just the lesser guys; some bigger name players were still on the board as spring training neared.
One in particular was still out there, a former Cubs Cy Young Award winner by the name of Greg Maddux.
Some agents had figured out that signing early wasn’t always in their clients’ best interests. If you wait, teams with need might be willing to spend more.
In the past, the perception was that teams were out of dough by Christmas – so you had to get that money early. That thought process was starting to be put to the test.
Maddux was allowed to leave the Cubs as a free agent after the 1992 season. He went to Atlanta for 11 years – where he “only” won 194 games and Cy Youngs two, three and four.
Meanwhile, the Cubs were only five outs away from getting to the World Series in 2003 (you might know that story). The rotation of Mark Prior, Kerry Wood, Carlos Zambrano and Matt Clement looked pretty young and pretty solid – but who wouldn’t want to add a proven veteran leader like Maddux?
The courtship of Maddux was legit, but it wasn’t a quick process. The typical off-season I was used to was changing, but the wooing process of Maddux dragged on and on.
Cue Tom Petty …
“The waiting is the hardest part
Every day you see one more card
You take it on faith, you take it to the heart
The waiting is the hardest part.”
January turned to February. February went from cold Chicago to sunny Mesa.
It was early evening mid-February as a sat in my rental home in Mesa – when I got the call from Jim Hendry.
“It’s done! Greg Maddux is a Chicago Cub. He said you should give him a call.”
I was with the Cubs when Maddux was called up to the majors. I was with the Cubs as he rose year-by-year from youngster to rotation ace to 20-game/Cy Young Award winner. And I was there all those years when he pitched in Atlanta – and he made fun of me every time he saw me.
I could only guess where that conversation would lead.
So it was with great delight when I picked up the phone and called him. If nothing else, I wanted to hear my name.
“Hey Wassermacher,” he said. “I have a new car, and I don’t trust this map system. How do I get there?”
Sometimes, the waiting was the best part.
I’m often asked to explain the type of work I did in my Cubs Baseball Operations days. “What did you do? Were you involved in making trades?”
Information Manager, I say. Collector-and-passer-on of information.
Most of the time, I’m hesitant to get into specifics. Either the work I did was proprietary in nature, or I didn’t feel that it was appropriate to pat myself on the back. It’s the general manager that makes the decisions. It was my job to get him as much info as possible so he could make the most educated decision possible for the ballclub.
Some of the moves were made strictly for financial reasons. Some of the moves were made for reasons the general public couldn’t know about.
Some moves turned out one-sided in our favor. Some turned out one-sided the wrong way. Most were somewhere down the middle.
Whether it was a player we acquired … or a player that was a pipe dream to obtain … or some player or team that we went down a road with, but the transaction never took place – every possible move was tens of hours of research and analysis.
Well, almost every move.
When I recently wrote about the near magic of 2008, I jogged a little note out of my memory bank. It’s one of those, “Hey, I can pseudo pat myself on the back for that one.”
It was during March of that year that we were hopeful of obtaining a veteran presence to supplement our outfield group. In plain English, we needed a platoon right-handed bat to magically fall into our lap.
In baseball, magic doesn’t happen when you need it to. When you have a need, that typically means you’re going to overpay to get it – if you can find it at all.
This one March morning, about a week before the end of spring camp, I was standing in the HoHoKam Park kitchenette shooting the breeze with assistant general manager Randy Bush. It was early – maybe 7:30ish – as we chatted in the front office section of the Cubs’ old spring training ballpark.
All of a sudden, my Blackberry buzzed with a breaking sports alert. The Toronto Blue Jays had just released Reed Johnson.
Showing my nimbleness and my ability to read and talk at the same time, I immediately was able to scan the alert and say out loud to Randy: “The Blue Jays just released Reed Johnson.”
You ask: “What did you do in Baseball Ops? Were you ever involved in player acquisitions?”
I respond: “This might have been the easiest thing I ever did.”
We were very familiar with Reed Johnson. Right-handed bat. Gritty outfielder who would run into a wall for you. Solid clubhouse presence. Veteran role player.
I had done my part to get the ball rolling when I read the text aloud to Randy. Talk about being at the right place at the right time.
Within minutes, Randy had relayed the information to Jim Hendry.
Within minutes, Jim had contacted Tim Wilken – the Cubs’ scouting director. Wilken had been a longtime member of the Blue Jays’ organization – and was the scouting director who selected Reed in the 1999 draft.
Within minutes, Tim tracked down Reed – calling him to let him know the Cubs would have interest in signing him.
Officially, Johnson was placed on unconditional release waivers. A couple days later when the waiver period expired and he cleared waivers, he signed with the Cubs. His impact on the team was immediately felt.
Again, I didn’t sign him. And I realize I didn’t do much – other than read a text. But being a part in an acquisition is, indeed, being a part. I’m pleased to say I was able to play the first part in this acquisition.
I was at the dentist’s office the other day for routine maintenance, and he asked me a question about my permanent false tooth.
The quick summary: I lost my real tooth as a seven-year-old when a cement stair came out of nowhere and tripped me – and I had a permanent tooth known as a Maryland bridge installed right before I started college. To non-dentists, the tooth looks normal – but the inside is a silvery black color.
“Your Maryland bridge is slowly showing some signs of age,” my dentist said. “Do you want to talk about doing something now, or do you want to wait until something happens to it?
“It’s probably fine, but you never know.”
Actually, I told him I do know. I have a story from my Cubs days to share, as anyone who knows me knows this could have only happened to me.
It was March 2000, and the Cubs were set to open the campaign against the New York Mets in Tokyo. I was part of the travel party going to Japan.
I’m not exactly the international traveler. Up to that point – and every trip since – I have never set foot outside of the U.S. or Canada. Flying on one of those real big planes was a new experience.
The Cubs flew on a charter from Phoenix to San Francisco – then traveled to Tokyo on a 747.
The players were on the upper level – yes, a plane with stairs! – and were sipping their Dom Perignons for the flight.
The important Cubs executives (ie: Andy MacPhail) sat in first class, far removed from the riff raff. Coaches traveling with family members and media sat in the back third of the plane. Other travel party members like me sat in business class.
Now, this was 2000 – not 2016. It was really cool to be in an airplane that had TV channels (I had a six-way seat/recliner with a personal pop-up TV screen), and meal service came every few hours with choices. The plane had a menu.
About an hour in to our 11-hour flight, the first meal was served. I don’t remember what it was, but it was good. And then the flight attendant offered dessert choices.
“How about a Haagen Dazs bar?
Sure, how about a Haagen Dazs bar. For a person with a false tooth, what could go wrong biting into a fudge-covered brick of ice?
So there I was, about 90 minutes into a flight to Tokyo, hearing and feeling a crunch inside my mouth that clearly wasn’t Haagen Dazs. I knew immediately that something wasn’t right. Ice cream doesn’t sound like that.
I asked my seatmate, the legendary Chip Caray, if my mouth looked right.
“You look fine,” Chip said with a straight face. And then, you could almost hear the drum roll. “Let’s get Jimmy. Hey Jimmy, come over here. You gotta see this.”
Jimmy was Jimmy Bank, the traveling secretary. If Chip was summoning Jimmy, I knew it was bad.
I had, in fact, broken off the front half of the tooth. I had not, however, broken through the whole bridge. Behind the fake tooth was this silver metal-like substance. I looked like Alfred E. Neuman. You know, the Mad Magazine “What Me Worry?” guy.
If you have a shiny gold tooth … you’re a star. A silvery black spot where there’s supposed to be a tooth … you’re Chuck Wasserstrom.
Our team physician, Dr. Stephen Adams, was on the flight. In his own inimitable way, he assured me that it didn’t look good and that I might live. He also said he’d look for a dentist once we were in Tokyo.
I survived the razzing on the flight. I was even invited upstairs for some Dom to wash away the mental pain.
Dr. Adams did as he said he would, finding a Tokyo dentist who would see me right away. Being that this was international, I was a little leery. He told me that Cubs insurance had to cover this, though, so I shouldn’t worry about it.
The first full day in Tokyo, he accompanied me to the dentist’s office – and we were greeted by two nice people who didn’t speak a word of English. I smiled … the dentist and his assistant saw the tooth and basically recoiled in horror … and Dr. Adams said, “Let’s get out of here. Have your own dentist take care of this.”
So there I was, toothless in Tokyo. I made sure to cover up my upper half of teeth while talking and smiling.
The rest of the week in Tokyo went without incident toothwise, and I did my best not to scare anyone. The Maryland bridge was eventually repaired when we returned to Chicago, which is another story – as I was in the dentist’s chair half a day after the 14-hour flight home. Thanks to the wonders of a body clock, let’s just say I didn’t need any anesthetic.
So, as I told my new dentist, what’s the worst thing that could happen? Exploding tooth? Been there, done it. At 35,000 feet.
With the buzz of a World Series championship still in the air, the Cubs will be traveling to the White House this week to meet President Obama.
I don’t care what your political affiliation is. Meeting the President of the United States of America – on his home turf, no less – is something few of us will ever get to do. It should be something the players, coaches and traveling party will never forget.
I’m not foreseeing any upcoming White House visits on my plate, so I’m not exactly speaking from experience here. But once upon a time, I was fortunate to meet a president at my home park, and it was an amazing experience.
Turning back the time machine, it was June 30, 1999 … the summer after the Summer of Sammy.
If you recall, it was during the month of June 1998 that Sammy Sosa exploded onto the national scene. He had been a solid major leaguer up to that point – heck, he hit 36 homers the previous campaign – but that June, he did something no player before or since has accomplished. Sosa homered 20 times during a single month in launching himself into the superstardom stratosphere. While the rest of the 1998 campaign became the Roger Maris chase – along with the Cubs’ run to the postseason – June is when it all started.
Somewhere over the next year, and please don’t ask how or why, Mr. Sosa had somehow connected with the most powerful man in the universe.
And President Clinton took time out from his busy schedule to visit Sammy at Wrigley Field.
I had heard whispers that this could be happening – but you never really know. Even before 9/11, presidential visits were kept pretty quiet.
To illustrate how quiet visits could be, let me take a step back for a moment – as this was not the first presidential visit to Wrigley Field during my Cubs lifetime.
Back in September 1988, during his “bucket list” as his presidency was winding down, President Reagan came to Wrigley Field. He wanted the opportunity to spend some time in the broadcast booth announcing a game, and his time in the booth with Harry Caray was legendary.
That was my first year with the Cubs. The presidential visit was on a need-to-know basis. I was a newbie, and I didn’t need to know.
A couple hours before the game, I was sitting in the press box setting up for the game. I was in a zone – and wasn’t paying attention to my surroundings. All of a sudden, there was a LARGE bomb-sniffing dog a little too close to my crotch.
Thankfully, I wasn’t packing.
After literally banging my head on the press box roof leaping out of my chair, the dog’s human partner said to me, “You’re good” – then walked away.
My breathing returned to a normal rate by the time President Reagan reached the broadcast booth a couple hours later. While I didn’t get the opportunity to meet him, he was directly in my eyesight the entire time he was on the air.
A decade later, little old me did get to meet the president.
That June afternoon, President Clinton arrived at the ballpark early in the game – and was there, sitting in an enclosed box, when Sosa connected off Milwaukee’s David Weathers for a 7th-inning shot that proved to be the game-winner in a 5-4 victory.
After the game, the president went to the Cubs clubhouse and walked from locker to locker, saying hello to every player and taking the time for individual pictures. The media was cordoned off – and I was amongst that throng, keeping them out of trouble.
The president completed his round, then a few Cubs staffers were invited down for pictures by Cubs general manager Ed Lynch.
All I kept thinking as I was waiting my turn was: “Don’t hyperventilate!”
Then, it was Chuck Wasserstrom’s time to step to the plate.
What’s it like to meet The American President? “The man is the leader of the free world. He's brilliant, funny, handsome. He's an above-average dancer.” Actually, I must send a shout out to my wife. That’s a line she loves to quote from the movie “The American President.”
Seriously, I was in awe. President Clinton said hello and asked my name. He asked what I did.
This … was … so … cool. He was very personable, very friendly. Come up with every synonym for charismatic that you can, and that’s what it felt like at that moment.
On top of that, he was a lot taller in person than I thought he would be.
When we were down with the chit chat, handshake and photo, President Clinton noticed a blue bound book in my hand and asked, “What’s that?”
“It’s my scorebook,” I said.
He then asked, “Can I see it?”
I couldn’t believe it. The president wanted to see my chicken scratch recording a baseball game. I opened up my scorebook to that afternoon’s game, and then – as he was scanning the page – I asked, “Can you please sign it?”
I had an opportunity to meet a lot of celebrities during my time with the Cubs – Bill Murray, Billy Crystal, Gregory Hines, John Goodman, to name drop a few – but generally didn’t act upon it for proof. Looking back, I obviously wish I had.
But on this day, I had the guts to ask the President of the United States of America for an autograph. It’s one of my keepers from my Cubs days – along with the photo.
There are a lot of things that you can take for granted, but meeting the president is something that will stick with you. I don’t know what Cubs players will be feeling when they meet the president, but in a way – I’ve been there.
Did you see the news the other day that Manny Ramirez is attempting a comeback?
An independent club in Japan – the Kochi Fighting Dogs of the Shikoku Island League Plus – announced that it had reached an agreement with the former big league outfielder. It’s on the Fighting Dogs official website if you want to read it (http://www.fighting-dogs.jp/en/news/2997).
I do believe in giving second chances – and I know he did a nice job working with hitters in the Cubs’ organization the last couple of years – but I have a tough time when I hear the name Manny Ramirez. If it wasn’t for Manny Ramirez, the success of 2016 might have taken place in 2008.
It might have … it could have … it didn’t.
If you recall, Ramirez – playing for the Los Angeles Dodgers – destroyed the Cubs during the 2008 Division Series. He went 5-for-10 in the Dodgers’ three-game sweep and hit a pair of monster homers. After the Dodgers had acquired him in a midseason trade with Boston, he had batted .396 with 17 homers and 14 doubles in only 187 at-bats.
Early the following year, he was hit with a 50-game suspension for using a performance-enhancing drug.
I’m not going to point fingers or say that the Cubs would have won the series if Ramirez wasn’t there, but it sure would have been an easier challenge.
Let’s face it, during my time with the Cubs, the best chance the team had to be a World Series club was in 2008. Yes, it almost happened in 2003 – but there wasn’t the feeling of “We’re No. 1” from the first day of camp. The ’02 Cubs had gone 67-95 and finished 30.0 games out of first place. That offseason, Dusty Baker was hired to manage the Cubs, and with him came a lot of optimism. But it’s not like he was hired with 100-win expectations right off the bat. The ’03 season turned into a wild ride, culminating in the Cubs’ winning the division the final Saturday of the regular season. But it did take until Game 161 to win the division, so there wasn’t the start-to-finish feeling of “this is our year.”
And then .. there was 2008. Please allow me to drop “we” and “our” into the conversation.
There was so much optimism when the team reported to spring training that season. The team was pretty much set from a division-winning campaign from the year before, and the “must-have” coveted player we wanted – Kosuke Fukudome – had indeed come our way.
And when Fukudome blasted a game-tying 9th-inning 3-run homer on Opening Day, it just screamed out that this would be our year. Of course, the fact that the Cubs then lost the season-opener in extra innings should have been some sort of warning sign.
Anyway, after a rough start to the regular season – the Cubs did lose three of their first four games – everything started to take shape as planned. A 4-2 first road trip. A 7-1 second homestand. By mid-May, sole possession of first place in the National League Central Division – a perch the team sat upon for the rest of the season.
Jim Hendry made a nice early season acquisition when Jim Edmonds was signed to fortify the outfield – a move coming just six weeks after he brought in Reed Johnson at the end of spring training. Then in July, the big in-season move was made – getting Rich Harden from Oakland – and everything was looking golden.
That 2008 team had a great chemistry. A strong offense was led by the veteran group of Fukudome, Edmonds, Johnson, Derrek Lee, Alfonso Soriano, Aramis Ramirez and Mark DeRosa. The young trio of Geovany Soto, Ryan Theriot and Mike Fontenot were growing into everyday big leaguers right before our eyes.
The starting rotation of Ryan Dempster, Ted Lilly, Harden and Jason Marquis was one of the best in the league. Kerry Wood had taken over as the closer and recorded 34 saves, while Carlos Marmol was one of the league’s most dominant set-up men.
The Cubs went a league-best 97-64 – their highest victory total since 1945 – and everything was looking really, really good.
And then came the Dodgers and Manny Ramirez – followed quickly by an early winter.
You can only go with the knowns, so you’re stuck with knowing that Manny Ramirez helped end what could have been a magical season. But it sure would have been nice to face L.A. without him.
As many of you may know, my wife was a Division I softball player.
As some of you may know, my daughters are still young enough to be able to play multiple sports – and fastpitch softball is at the top of the list for both girls. So I’m versed in being a softball dad.
As most of you probably don’t know, I actually got my softball start back in college as a student assistant in Missouri’s Sports Information department – and softball was the first sport I was allowed to handle on my own. Media guide … game notes … PA duties from behind the backstop … doing whatever needed to be done.
The point is, I have an affinity for the sport of fastpitch softball. So it was exciting last year to write for the Chicago Bandits’ yearbook and for their online site.
It also was an honor when Monica Abbott agreed to do a question-and-answer interview with me.
Abbott is a professional pitcher with the Scrap Yard Dawgs of the National Pro Fastpitch League and a former player for the Bandits. In 2016, she signed the first million-dollar contract in the history of the NPF – a contract believed to be the most lucrative paid by an American pro franchise to an active female athlete in team sports.
At the time she signed the contract, she was playing in Japan. If you’re a professional fastpitch player in the United States, the season is just over three months long. So when the opportunity arises to perfect your craft and get paid a suitable wage doing it, you jump at that chance – even if it’s over 5,000 miles away from home.
When I initially conducted the interview, the hope was I would be producing the Q-and-A for more important outlets than my site – and maybe I still can. Until then, I want to share her words with you.
Most importantly, I want to share her words with my daughters – and to let them know that athletic dreams can come true.
Chuck: You didn’t just wake up one morning and decide you wanted to be a role model for gender equality – or did you?
Monica Abbott: “I’ve been playing softball for as long as I can remember. I’ve had great examples of male athletes and female athletes my entire career. Growing up in my hometown … to the University of Tennessee … to playing on the USA team. Even a whole lot of coaches that talked to us and the kids on the team – talking about how valuable we are as athletes and how much of a voice we have. Coach (Mike) Candrea would always talk to us: ‘You have a voice. Athletes do have a voice. But they have to use it.’
“I had great examples. In the end, I have this amazing talent of pitching. And if this is the path God is choosing for me – with my talents – then I’m more than willing and very happy and honored to be that voice for so many others that can’t speak up.
“I never dreamed of not playing softball. I never had this dream of being in an office or being … I don’t know … a nurse or a doctor or a schoolteacher. That wasn’t me. I always dreamed of being a professional softball player.”
Chuck: What’s it like to be a voice for empowerment and change?
Monica: “It’s really awesome. I think a lot of people in America are ready for change. Especially athletes. Male athletes and female athletes that have played college sports. We all went through that same grind. A football player goes through that same grind as a women’s basketball player. A women’s softball player goes through that same grind as a men’s hurdler. We all go through it. It’s a unique step for athletes with the skills we all possess. That athletic prowess.
“I’m so happy that I can be this voice. I just hope that I can continue to be the voice for not only other players in softball and that they can rally around it – but also for female athletes, too. It’s important. It’s bigger than me.”
Chuck: Your name has been linked to other voices of empowerment like Billie Jean King and the U.S. women’s soccer team. How does that make you feel?
Monica: “I think that’s an honor. Billie Jean King changed the game for every female athlete from Title IX in women’s tennis. She was the first one. She was the brave one to step out and make a change. The Women’s Sports Foundation helped create that for everyone else – to be able to have the opportunity to also have a voice.
“It’s an incredible feeling. I just want to be the best voice and carry the torch as best as I can for everyone else. It is a really powerful statement and a really powerful message, and I know I have support all over the world. And that means a lot to me.”
Chuck: Who had the greatest influence in telling you that you should get paid the same as a male?
Monica: “I was a Lady Vol at Tennessee. In that athletic department, it was just as important to be a female athlete as it was to be a male athlete. I got to spend a lot of time with Pat Summitt and Coach Weekly – both Ralph and Karen. Even with the Women’s Sports Foundation with Jessica Mendoza and Ms. King herself. And able to talk about some of these issues. Again, just having some really great examples of people using their voice. In my case, it was more of when an opportunity presented itself. If I didn’t take this opportunity to sign this contract … if I didn’t capitalize … if I did not take this opportunity, what would I be doing? I go out and preach about this stuff. I needed to stand on my truths. I needed to hold myself accountable to myself in all aspects of my life, not just on the softball field. And if I was given this opportunity, I needed to be that voice for everyone else. The opportunity is not given to everyone. And I know that. And the person who gets that opportunity – their voice has to be heard.”
Chuck: What does it say that – at the time you signed the contract – you were overseas playing in Japan?
Monica: “I’ve been playing overseas for eight years. I’ve been over here for a long time because – like many other female sports – we can’t make a substantial living in America to be able to not have another job. So playing overseas has given me an opportunity to continue playing my career long after my early years.
“In 2008, I played in the Olympics – and then softball got voted out. That changed the entire forefront of our game. People didn’t know what to do. There were no Olympics. Companies didn’t know where to put their money. ‘Should we still sponsor athletes? Where is the growth in our sport going to be? Is the professional level going to stabilize? What’s going to happen?’
“Japan has a historic league that’s been around a long time. I had an opportunity to come here – and I was asked to play here after the 2008 Olympics. I had a chance to extend my career and continue to play.
“The Japan Softball League is owned by companies, so there is company based support. I play for Toyota Motor Corporation. Each company owns teams, and then the girls – once they retire from the softball team, they have a position within that company. They have an opportunity to pursue a career within the company they played for. So that’s a big difference.”
Chuck: While you were able to sign a big contract, you were the first to be able to do so. How do you think that now happens for other female athletes?
Monica: “The biggest thing here – now there is an opportunity. Coming out with a million-dollar contract – for a long time, that seemed impossible for a lot of female athletes. Now, it’s going to create dreams for 12-year-olds and 14-year-olds that they can make a million dollars, right? But then also the girls that are playing now, it will hopefully give them the confidence to be able to negotiate a salary for themselves.
“The league and the teams have to invest in their players and find ways to keep the girls employed year-round on the same team so that they can continue brand recognition throughout the year. Once you have a name, you have to have corporate sponsorships and TV and all of those things. It’s not just about girls salaries. It’s about creating a name and a brand of individuals throughout that team’s organization.”
Chuck: How tough was it for you to watch former teammates have to stop playing the game because, frankly, they couldn’t afford to keep playing?
Monica: “It’s so tough. There have been some great softball players – and better people – leaving and retiring because it’s too hard to train and have a full-time job in the offseason. They’re just as talented as myself – but at a different position. Whether it’s a shortstop, like Tammy Williams, or an outfielder like a Vicky Galindo. When you’re over 25, you have to make a choice to pursue a career in regular life or try to continue to play softball. It’s a tough choice and it’s tough to watch because there are so many talented people who had to finish too early. If they could stay in the game longer, the brand recognition for that player and for the team that the player is on grows. When that team’s brand recognition grows, the league grows. And when the league grows, you start to get more TV. And when you start to get more TV, you get more corporate sponsors. Everything becomes a bigger circle. So we need to keep players in the league longer to create a bigger brand name for the players – and that creates a bigger brand for that team.”
Chuck: As you look back, did you think the day would come where a softball player could land a million-dollar deal?
Monica: “I did not expect this. In my dreams, I always knew this could happen. I always believed it. A million-dollar deal – I always believed it would happen in our game. I know the pro league. I know softball. I know the Olympics. Softball as a sport is well worth the money and well worth the investment. The pro league is on its tipping point. It’s about to explode. Now it’s a question of who’s going to be involved. Who wants to be involved in it when it blows up and gets that much better.
“Why shouldn’t a woman get paid the same as a guy? You don’t grow up thinking that way – thinking that, ‘Hey, I’m not going to make as much because I’m a girl.’ I work just as hard. I’ve put in just as many hours.
“It’s exciting for a 12-year-old softball player to watch TV and see a softball player getting a big deal. That’s exciting. They should be excited. And their parents should be excited, too. That’s a good thing. That’s a great opportunity. Because if I can do it, they can do it, too. Did I get there by not practicing and not throwing strikes and not being consistent? No, I didn’t.”