I initially wrote this story last year, but the subject matter is too good to not share again. The story itself is edited to reflect the current year. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed watching the events of those two days as they happened!
We’ve all heard the saying that a picture is worth 1,000 words.
But I’m going to test my theory that 1,000 words can be worth one picture. You’ll just have to read to the end of this story in order to see one of my favorite photographs – even though it’s been slightly doctored.
I have had a copy of the original photo for 16 years. But it’s one I’ve had to keep hidden in the vault – OK, actually a closet – since the girls were old enough to recognize what a swear finger is.
They’re now at the point where I can display it again, and they’ll laugh when they see the real photo. But the internet is a tricky place, even in 2017, so the edited version is what you get to see. But I think you’ll laugh at that picture, too.
Sixteen years ago this week, the photograph was snapped. Sixteen years ago this week, an amazing two-game stretch took place – as Jon Lieber and Kerry Wood fired back-to-back complete-game one-hitters.
The Cubs have been around since 1876, and that specific feat has only taken place one time – on May 24-May 25, 2001.
I could tell you the story of those games myself, but I couldn’t do it enough justice. So I tracked down Lieber and Wood to talk about those memorable consecutive afternoons at Wrigley Field.
May 24, 2001 … Cubs 3, Reds 0 … the lone hit off Lieber was a two-out 6th-inning single by Juan Castro
“That was probably the best game I ever pitched,” Lieber said. “I do remember the rain delay before the start of the game.
“I seemed like my normal self, and it was just one of those games where the Reds were very aggressive – they were swinging the bat early and quickly. There was a rain delay during the game. It happened right after I pitched the 4th inning. During the delay, (pitching coach) Oscar (Acosta) comes up to me and he said, ‘How do you feel?’ And I said, ‘I feel fine. There’s nothing wrong with me. Why?’ And he said, ‘That’s what I thought, because you’ve only got 20 pitches through 4 innings.’ That just blew me away.
“The game was delayed for about an hour and a half, and I think I shocked more people by going back out there for the 5th inning. I kept putting up the numbers, getting out of innings with low pitches. The next thing you know, I have this no-hitter going into the (6th) inning. There were two outs, and Juan Castro flipped a slider … I don’t think it was a terrible pitch, but it was enough for him to flip his bat out there and bloop it into rightfield. That was the story of my career. Any time I tried to finish something like that, I could never do it. Anyway, I moved on after losing the no-hitter.
“For me, even though I didn’t get the no-hitter, just to be able to face the minimum number of batters for a nine-inning game is pretty impressive, in my opinion.
“And then … Mr. Wood steps into the picture.”
For his part, Wood remembers Lieber being in a “zone” that day and having a double-digit pitch count.
“He was ridiculous,” Wood said. “But that was typical Liebs. He just went out there and, as quickly as he got the ball back, he was throwing it back to the catcher. He’d get in that zone. He had a bunch of games where he was under 90 pitches. It was pretty impressive. He took pride in that.”
May 25, 2001 … Cubs 1, Brewers 0 … the lone hit off Wood was a 7th-inning leadoff single by Mark Loretta
“Me and Lieber … we were two totally different pitchers,” Wood said. “We were in a rhythm there where we were all feeding off each other. We were all throwing the ball well.
“I remember Liebs was typical Liebs. He did his under two hours. He was locked in. Anytime somebody does something like that the day before you pitch, you want to do your best to follow it and emulate it. So it was a cool couple days.
“My game honestly doesn’t jump out as much. I know it was Milwaukee. I couldn’t tell you how many strikeouts I had. I couldn’t tell you any particular defensive plays that were made. I do remember me and Lieber throwing back-to-back against two different teams, but honestly I don’t have a whole lot of memory of who was on that team – as sad as that is.
“But I’m getting old. My memory is going,” he said with a laugh.
Wood is almost 40 years old now – and that’s not a typo on Kid K’s age – so he did have to ask how many pitches he threw that afternoon. The answer was 114.
“That was a low pitch count for me to go nine innings,” Wood said. “Liebs had a lot of balls put in play. I tended to have more foul balls and three-ball counts. Lieber didn’t walk anybody. So he kept his pitch count down regularly.”
Unlike the rainy wet conditions the day before, the sun was out that afternoon – and Lieber was in a great third-base dugout location for Wood’s gem.
“Man oh man oh man, did he put on a show,” Lieber said. “I saw Kerry pitch a lot of games, but that one just stuck out in my opinion. He was untouchable. That was as close to the 20-strikeout game – he was just that dominant. He was impressive. And his command – that was probably one of his best games. He should have had a no-hitter – he was just that dominant.
“For me, it was just another game. Wow, a one-hitter – OK. But then Kerry threw his game.
“Kerry and I did something pretty special … That was just a great moment to be part of. I didn’t get those chances very often to be in situations like that. Kerry was just on such a different level because of the type of pitcher he was. He could do something special almost every time out. It was incredible – and pretty neat to be part of something like that.”
May 26, 2001 … Wrigley Field third-base dugout … pregame … epic photo op
“Me and Liebs are pretty humble guys,” Wood said. “We didn’t think much of it. We were enjoying our day off.
“(Cubs team photographer) Steve Green came by before the next game. We were sitting next to each other, just kind of talking. He looked at us with his camera and said, ‘Hey you guys, put up a No. 1.’
“Me and Liebs looked at each other and we both gave Steve the finger at the same time.
“That’s one of my favorite pictures. I’ve got about 1,000 pictures from Steve, but that’s my favorite one – me and Lieber. I have it hanging up in the basement.”
Back in 1989, “Bleacher Bums” returned as a new production at the Organic Theater – which is within walking distance of Wrigley Field.
The powers-that-be putting the revival together reached out to the Cubs’ front office with a message something along the lines of, “Hey, if you want to come by, let us know. We’ll take care of you.”
I didn’t see the original production when it came out in the late 1970s, but the play was taped for PBS – and I loved it.
When the opportunity was offered to watch the new version, I jumped at the chance – not only because it was “Bleacher Bums,” but it featured a few people I’d seen. Dennis Farina, who was in “Crime Story” – and later a main character on “Law and Order” – was in it. Ron Dean, who was in the Steven Seagal classic “Above The Law,” was in it. And to top it off, Joe Mantegna – one of the original “Bleacher Bums” – was heavily involved. In fact, he was in attendance the night I was there.
But the actor who stood out for me was Joel Murray, who played the “idiot geek” Richie. He was funny as hell, and he was entertaining to watch.
Last time out, I wrote about Murray – a longtime Cubs fan – and his love of baseball and experiences as a golf caddy. If you missed it, here’s the story link:
Today … his time with “Bleacher Bums” …
How much fun did you have doing “Bleacher Bums?”
Joel Murray: “It was a great season (1989, a year the Cubs won the N.L. Eastern Division), and because we were in the cast, people would leave tickets at the box office for us. I might have seen 50 games that summer; it was crazy how often we went. You drank in the bleachers all day and then you go take a nap backstage – then you go do a show. I played Richie, kind of the idiot geek, and that was a role I didn't usually get to play. I originally auditioned for the cheerleader role and Joe Mantegna said, ‘Here. Read for this other thing.’ He gave me the part and it was great getting to work with Joe, who had done it originally. We had J.J. Johnston. We had Ron Dean. Jack Wallace used to hang out backstage. Dennis Farina.
“I mean, the stories these guys would tell were hysterical. Everybody was an ex-cop or an ex-con. Farina would tell these stories … ‘So we got this guy, I got my gun down this guy's throat and he's still lying to me, right? And the floor's so bumpy 'cause there's so many bodies under it, right? This guy finally starts talking.’ That's how stories would start. It was amazing for me to be a fly on the wall. I had a great time. Lou Milione played the blind guy and he and I had a lot of fun together. It was a great experience and The Organic was blocks from Wrigley.
“Later on when George Wendt came to do it, we'd get done with the show and I was putting up previews for the next Second City show. So I was doing the show and then going and doing the improv set at Second City, and I would put George Wendt on the back of my Vespa – and he had his leg in a cast. We would literally tie his leg to the crash bar on my Vespa and drive across to North and Wells to Second City, cutting up traffic on the sides. Anytime his heel would bottom-out, I could've shattered his leg – but we never did. But George and I both wanted to get to Second City, where we drank for free. He used to come watch the set and I used to come do it. It was a pretty exciting time.”
The play seemed so real to me. I could identify with the characters in the bleachers.
“The hard part was making the audience believe that there was a game going on and that we really were these people. But people knew their characters real well and that made us able to make it very real. Then we updated the script that year to include Mitch ‘The Pitch’ Williams and other people on the team. It was a lot of fun in that aspect.”
Obviously, it was a great cast of people to be working with.
“No kidding. I was very fortunate. J.J. Johnston … there was a scene at the end where he would poke me in the chest with his stubby fingers, and he would poke me all the way across the stage. Every night, without fail, my heels would be on the edge of the stage. He pushed me that far, right to the edge. He knew what he doing and it really worked. He was something else to work with.
“Dennis (Farina) was the greatest guy. Even when I moved out to Los Angeles, we'd go out and play golf together. He knew we were struggling actors and he was doing better, and he used to make some stupid bet on the last hole for like $100 or something like that; he would lose money to us every time on purpose, it seemed like.”
That must have been terrific for you.
“Yeah, for me. One other thing about the ‘Bleacher Bums’ was my brother Brian took over the J.J. Johnston role at the end. I opened it in May – in the beginning of baseball season – and I closed it New Year's Eve. I went away to do a Second City show in the middle of that – as well as get married and whatnot. But yeah, I came back and closed it up until New Year's Eve, I think was the last show. It was a hell of a run. It was a lot of fun. At the end, Brian and I got to do it together and he got to poke me across the stage. My heels would end up in the same spot, it seemed like.”
From a theater standpoint, had you worked with him before?
“At that point, I don't think so. We did go over once to do the Kilkenny Comedy Festival – and Bill, Brian, and I did a best-of-Second City with Dave Pasquesi and Linda Kash and Meagen Fay playing the other roles. That was pretty cool. We did Del Close's Hamlet, which not many people were ever able to put up and it ended in like a six-part harmony. It was phenomenal stuff. Brian was there, Billy was there, and I was there. It was really fun.”
On screen, have you done much with your brothers?
“No, just ‘Scrooged.’ We all worked the same leap day in whatever year that was, '88 or something. No, not much together. They haven’t given me a lot of work.”
You’re on an improv tour right now (with Whose LIVE Anyway). Do you feel like you're onstage all the time even when you're not on stage?
“No, I'm not one of those really funny people that's on a lot. I'm kind of dry. So yeah, I don't feel like I'm on. My son gives me grief because I'll converse with waiters and stuff and he's like, ‘Dad, why are you talking to him? You're just making him uncomfortable.’ I'm like, ‘I thought I was being humorous.’
“Anyway, thanks for the crowd response, son.
“I'm not ‘on’ that much, you know. I think a big deal with acting is the ability to enjoy the time off and not panic like a lot of people do. You have a good year as an actor, you've got 300 days off. You have a bad year you've got more days off. I like to enjoy my off time. I golf and I was able to coach all my kids in football, baseball, and basketball.
“You've got to not freak out all the time like some people do, because when you do go in for an audition you're so nervous and desperate that they can smell it. I like to go into an audition and give a vibe like ‘I'd really like to get back to the golf course right now. Thank you.’ “
If I got this right, you were the first voice of Chester Cheetah from the Cheetos commercials, correct?
“I was the voice of Chester Cheetah for eleven years. That basically bought my first house … it was a good gig.
“I must say, I’m not a fan of the new Chester. It's not sour grapes, it's just he's kind of a weird, mean, British guy now. There are too many Brits replacing American actors in the business to begin with, but I don't understand why you want a weird, mean Cheetah. I was a ‘Rhyming kitty in the heart of hip city until my common ease would surrender to the urge to but for the cheese.’ I was a cool cat. Now he's just weird. I don't know what they're doing with the Cheetos but I'm willing to go back at any time.”
Need a new house?
“Yeah, that was a good gig.”
It was really enjoyable getting to talk to you. Thanks to social media, you were fairly easy to track down.
“It's funny how people can get to you these days. My brother (Bill), nobody gets to him; he's got it figured out. Sometimes it's fun. I've actually gotten work off the internet, just strangers because I do this ... I always say when I'm golfing I take a picture like, ‘Looking for work.’ I've had people just contact me through Facebook messenger going, ‘If you're really looking for work, I've got this part in this movie you could do.’
“I'm like, ‘Yeah, okay.’
“It actually paid off a few times.”
Somewhere along the line last year, I noticed that actor Joel Murray had somehow come across my site. I don’t remember exactly how or why; I’m guessing it was around the time I wrote about the Kerry Wood 20-strikeout game, and that story got me a little bit of play.
As a character actor, you might not know Joel Murray, per se, but you probably do – from his work on television, in movies and on the stage. I’ve taken the liberty of 100% borrowing his IMDB.com mini biography for you:
Joel is a versatile writer-director-actor. The youngest of the nine Murrays is a veteran of over 250 sit-com episodes. He has been a series regular on the comedies Grand, Pacific Station, Love and War, Dharma and Greg and Still Standing. He has also recurred on the series Mike and Molly, My Boys and Two and a Half Men. On the dramatic side, Joel played Freddy Rumsen on AMC's Mad Men as well as Eddie Jackson on Showtime's Shameless. He recently starred in Bobcat Goldthwait's dark comedy, God Bless America. He can be heard playing Don Carlton in the Pixar prequel, Monsters University. He was also in 2011's Best Picture, The Artist. Joel has been in numerous films including One Crazy Summer, Scrooged, Long Gone, Hatchet, Lay the Favorite, Sophie and The Rising Sun, Mr. Pig, Bloodsucking Bastards, Lamb, and Seven Minutes. He can also be seen in the upcoming The Last Word. He studied improvisation with Del Close, among others, and was a founding member of Chicago's Improv Olympic. He enjoyed five years at The Second City in Chicago. He has been doing theater since the 4th grade, performed with the Remains and Organic Theatres Companies in Chicago and still performs frequently at the I. O. West in Los Angeles. Joel loves playing with Whose Live Anyway, playing golf and ordering scotch.
Not listed above …
Joel is currently touring with Ryan Stiles, Greg Proops and Jeff B. Davis in “Whose LIVE Anyway,” an improvised 90-minute show of games, scenes and songs.
I have talked to Joel a couple times over the past week. The conversation in this piece is about growing up a Cubs fan – and life as a caddy.
What's it like being a celebrity Cubs fan – but having to be one in Los Angeles and on the road?
Joel Murray: “This year I haven't gone to too many games, I must admit. Last year I went to games in about five different cities and Chicago, so I got to see a bunch of road games at different places. It was really fun. I've been the emcee for Theo Epstein's Hot Stove Cool Music thing for about five years – and five years ago he basically promised me, ‘This team is going to be really good in five years.’ He was dead right. I thought he had hit it after four but he said ‘Yeah, well maybe, but next year ...’ Sure enough it all came together and it was a magical year.
“I'm not your largest celebrity … I may displace the most water in a beaker compared to another celebrity, but I've got some ins. I got to sit in Atlanta right behind the dugout with my brothers and I got to sit in San Diego at the edge of the dugout; I was literally talking to David Ross during the game. So I've had some great seats and some great opportunities. I've hung out with Joe Maddon. And I have a little golf tournament – The Canal Shores Invitational up by the Wilmette/Evanston border – and the Ricketts brothers are both involved in that every year because they live in the neighborhood and they donate money to that course.
“So I have been able to weasel some pretty good tickets, although I did pay for all of them in the playoffs in the World Series. MLB doesn't give those away. I had the ability to purchase them, which was fantastic. I went to all three World Series games in Chicago. Before that, I did a little show called ‘Shrink’ on the Seeso network and we shot it in Chicago, so that allowed me to be in Chicago for most of October – so I got to see some playoff games that I wouldn't have gotten to living in Los Angeles. It was the storybook season that you've wished for your whole life, and when it came down to it – Game 7 – I was back in L.A.
“I could have gone to Cleveland with my brother – he gave away one ticket to a stranger – but my wife, after I had been gone for a month doing the Seeso thing, she's like, ‘No, you're coming home.’ So I watched it with my family from home. I was on the floor with practically a knife to my throat when it went to extra innings. That's kind of the way it had to be. The Cubs had to put you to the edge of suicide before they won it and it was pretty darn magical.”
You grew up on the ’69 Cubs. Please tell me about that.
“My father died in 1967, and my mom had to go back to work about '69. That summer, my sister had to babysit for me when I was out of school. We either went to the Wilmette Beach every day or we went to the Cub game. We used to be able to go down for $5. We could get two bleacher seats and the ‘L’ ride back and forth, and if we checked the couch cushions for quarters and get another fifty cents we could get a Ron Santo pizza. But back then you could bring your own lunch and you could bring your own thermos, so we packed a lunch and went. It was fabulous.
“We used to go out to O'Hare and meet the planes. You used to be able to meet the players coming right off the airplane and we both had our baseballs with all the signatures of the '69 Cubs on it. I think my sister still has hers. I believe I used mine in a game when we needed a ball. Oh well.”
Then you also would have grown up on Jack Brickhouse …
“Oh, yeah. Definitely. And Lou Boudreau, Milo (Hamilton).”
You and all of your brothers were caddies at Indian Hill Club (in Wilmette). What did you learn from doing that?
“Well, we learned it was a way to get cash quick and there were no taxes taken out. We learned subservience, how to be quiet and to speak when you're spoken to. We also learned that we wanted to be the guy golfing, not the guy carrying the bag – so it kind of taught you a little something about ambition as well. ‘I'll do this, but someday I'm going to be the guy in the stupid pants hitting the ball, not holding the flag.’ I don't know how we all got to Indian Hill; it was the only course that didn't tip. We could have gone over to Westmoreland (Country Club in Wilmette) or other courses where they paid you better, but the Indian Hill guys used to scout out the altar boys at St. Joe's – which was nearby – and they were like, ‘If this kid can get up and serve 6:15 mass, he's a guy that will get up and caddy.’ So they would tell you about this cash money business that they had that you could be a part of. We all got hooked on it … some more than others.
“My brother Ed was a caddy master; eventually he got a Chick Evans Scholarship to Northwestern, a caddy scholarship. Brian was more of a shag boy and worked in the clubhouse, shined shoes and did all kinds of things. He used to say, ‘I found out early I could make more money playing hearts and spades in the caddy shack than actually caddying.’ He was a good card player.
“I came along years after them but I enjoyed it. I enjoyed playing basketball outside with the guys before you got your loop. It was kind of a weird little 12-year-old fraternity.”
You were the youngest of nine kids. Was it an interesting dynamic for you having brothers quite a bit older than you?
“Yeah, I had some that were eighteen years older than me and I was always a little Murray – that was a given. But I had really cool hand-me-downs. I wasn't spoiled by being the baby, but I had my choice of the good stuff in the laundry room that didn't fit them anymore.
“I was always the little brother. I was always a little Murray. My father died at five and I immediately had four guys that thought that it was OK for them to slap me in the back of the head and tell me what to do. I guess I benefited from that and from watching their errors and accomplishments and things like that.”
I know you get asked about your brothers all the time but I do want to ask one question. Doing basic math, you had to be around 17 years old when “Caddyshack” came out. What was it like when you were watching your brothers on the big screen as Carl Spackler and Lou Loomis?
“I laughed my ass off. I saw it a couple times in a row.
“I actually was out with my brother Brian in New York one night and they were having a hard time finding somebody to play Spaulding. He knew I did theater and stuff and he said, ‘You'd be kind of perfect for Spaulding. Rich, spoiled kid we all grew up caddying for.’ And I said, ‘I am not going to be some femme actor like you clowns. I am captain of the football team. I'm going to play college ball.’ That's what I thought at that time. I could have maybe been Spaulding.
“My brother Johnny got to be in the movie; he was four years older than me. My brother Ed's in a little bit of it. And of course, Brian wrote it and was Lou Loomis and Billy did one week on that movie as Carl Spackler. It's still the best golf movie ever.”
What’s the best baseball movie you've seen?
“No question … ‘Long Gone’ with William L. Petersen, Virginia Madsen and Dermot Mulroney – because I was in it. We got to go down to Florida and play baseball for a month with a bunch of Chicago actors that Billy Peterson rounded up. We were there for the playoffs and the World Series while we were shooting the thing and it was so much fun. It was really great. I hit a single, double, and a triple off of Nardi Contreras one day … never had the home run power. I was a line drive hitter. That was the best time ever.
“Other baseball movie … I love ‘The Natural’ because I read the book as a kid.”
Since you live in Los Angeles, tell me how the Dodgers Stadium and Angel Stadium crowds compare to Wrigley Field.
“It's like going to Walmart as compared to going to a really good hardware store in a small town. Dodgers Stadium has a massive, massive parking lot. It's really hard to get there by public transportation of any kind. In Cubs wear, you're harassed the moment you get out of your car. There's no bar anywhere nearby; the closest bar, if you were to walk, would probably be three quarters of a mile, at least. It's a whole different thing. But I'll be going Friday the 26th to see the Cubs play the dreaded Dodgers.
“Angel Stadium is kind of similar but there is a bar at the edge of the parking lot. They've got you there. The Big A, if I had to choose one.”
It's still baseball though, correct?
“It's still baseball. It's beautiful when you get inside, but outside the whole getting there and afterwards is not anywhere close to as much fun as Wrigley.
“Wrigley is different inside now. I have no problem with the jumbotrons. I enjoy being able to see a replay or having Harry sing to me during the stretch. If a little bit of signage gets us better relief pitching and maybe one more starter, I'm fine with that.”
Well, look at last year. That's all you need to know.
“Right. Exactly. If we could hit up the Wrigleys for the hundred years of free naming rights for the ball park, we could get some more pitching, too. That would backdate some of those checks.
“And the merchandising, you see the Cubs stuff all over the country. Everywhere we go you see a lot of head nodding when I go out and I've got on the hat.
“It's just that head nod. Like yeah, we freaking did it.”
And at least we both know you’re not a front runner with it.
“Yeah, I'm not a band wagoner.
“I coached a Little League team that won the Tournament of Champions, which was from Torrance, California, all the way to Malibu … a bunch of teams, and we won the whole thing. It came down to, without fail, my worst player coming up to bat. We had been down 4-0. We came back, and it was now 4-3 and we got nothing going. Two outs, worst guy up and he draws a walk – and he runs down to first base like he had just hit a home run that would win the World Series because he didn't strike out to lose the season. And then the worst possible scenario … your son, the leadoff hitter, comes up. You're like ‘Oh geez, he's going to make the last out here.’
“He buried a triple that stuck in the corner. It didn't literally stick – but it stuck in the corner and he caught the other kid by second base. It was like this Rockwell painting … they came around third base at you. The first kid slid into the plate. The throw was high and the catcher missed the tag but held up his hand to show the ump that he didn't drop the ball, and my son slid in behind him like a toboggan and won the game while the guy was showing the ump his glove. It was complete pandemonium … everybody went crazy. I'm there with my clipboard and it was like absolute silence.
“I had the same exact feeling when the Cubs won and Kris Bryant threw the ball to first. It was just silence for me. This feeling of ‘Oh my God, we didn't blow it.’ The ultimate victory it turns out is just the lack of defeat. I didn't have this crazy elation, I just had this ‘Oh my God, we didn't blow it.’ It's like a Zen calmness as compared to elation. All is well.
“So anyway. I went into that story.”
You like talking about baseball, nothing wrong with that.
“I do. I do.”
Back in the day, one of the great perks of working for the Cubs was getting to meet lots and lots of interesting people – especially in the entertainment industry. Perhaps you’ve heard that the Cubs are somewhat popular?!
Heck, two of my most surreal phone calls were of the celebrity nature.
There was the voicemail left for me on my work line a week after Pearl Jam played Soldier Field in 1995, which went something like this: “Hey Chuck, this is Eddie. Thanks for coming out last week. I know it was a tough loss tonight, but if you get a chance, I’m staying at the ‘Xxxxxx’ Hotel. Call xxx-xxx-xxxx. Ask the operator for ‘Xxxx Xxxxxx’ – and she’ll transfer the call to me. I’ll be in town for the next week. I’d love to meet you.”
That was Eddie, as in Eddie Vedder. The “x’s” are there to protect the innocent.
And then there was the phone call from a guy in Southern California who called the Cubs’ Media Relations department to have a message relayed.
Chuck: “Media Relations office, this is Chuck speaking. How may I help you?”
Caller: “Hi, this is Ray Manzarek of The Doors. The Cubs are in Los Angeles and I was supposed to let Mark Grace know to leave me some tickets. I don’t know where the team is staying. Can you help me out?”
How do you not stare at the phone after that conversation ended?
Note to my readers: For the record, my most surreal phone call took place in my high school days, when a guy named Chuck Wasserstrom called my parents’ house looking to see if he was related to my dad. “Hello, my name is Chuck Wasserstrom.” Uh, my name is Chuck Wasserstrom. I don’t know if that call was more surreal or frightening. Anyway …
Looking back, I think I took it for granted how cool it was to meet some of the people I came across.
When a movie was filmed at Wrigley Field or in the vicinity, invariably, you’d bump into an actor – so I was able to meet big names like Billy Crystal and Gregory Hines when they were in town for “Running Scared” … and John Goodman when he was shooting “The Babe” … and a lot of the actors when “A League of Their Own” was at the ballpark.
Certainly, once the 7th-Inning Stretch tradition started, it was a given that you could meet TV and movie icons. I think I only went fanboy twice: When Dennis Franz was in the press box lunch room – he was Andy Sipowicz, for crying out loud – and when Joe Pantoliano was at a game.
Joe Pantoliano: “Why would you want my autograph?”
Chuck: “You're Guido the Killer Pimp.”
Once I got on the laptop this morning and started typing away, more and more names started to reappear in the memory part of the brain.
Meeting Geddy Lee of the rock group Rush … photo ops with President Clinton and Governor Blagojevich … receiving a handwritten note from Johnny Ramone … having John Cusack ask me in the Cubs clubhouse to see if Neve Campbell – his girlfriend at the time – was still waiting for him on the concourse. Sadly, she wasn’t. And I spent a lot of time looking for her.
There’s the time in the Dodger Stadium press box when my boss, Sharon Pannozzo, was standing up for a brief moment while the game was going on. A nasally/squeaky voice in the top row of the press box yelled, “Hey, down in front.”
Without looking, I said, “That sounded like Squiggy.”
Then I looked up. It WAS Squiggy. Actually, it was actor David L. Lander, who played Squiggy in “Laverne and Shirley.”
Of course, there’s the other side of the Dodger Stadium experience. During the Sammy years, there always were celebrities showing up in the Cubs’ clubhouse after a game. The visiting clubhouse itself wasn’t that big to begin with, so extra bodies weren’t exactly necessary. Throw in a loss, which was somewhat commonplace in L.A., and it made for some awkward celebrity sightings.
After one game, Charlie Sheen, Adam Rich (yes, Nicholas Bradford in “Eight is Enough”) and a third actor were in the clubhouse. The third guy couldn’t help notice that I was staring at him – as were several Cubs players. He wandered over to me and said: “I bet you’re thinking, what movie have I seen you in?” I kind of let my inner voice externalize itself. “Actually, I’m wondering what you’re doing in the clubhouse.” For the record, I never got his name – nor do I think I ever saw him in anything.
During my early years in Media Relations, the Cubs’ spring training ballpark was the old HoHoKam Park – which didn’t have actual offices. The front office was literally on wheels – an RV parked about 100 feet from the home clubhouse double doors.
The RV literally had enough room for a receptionist up front … a small media relations office shared by two … an office for the traveling secretary … and a back third for the general manager, the assistant GM and Arlene Gill – the executive assistant. You couldn’t see the people in the back without going to the back.
This one day after a game, I walked in and yelled something along the line of “Arlene, there’s a guy outside looking for you.”
I heard a somewhat quiet “She’s not here.”
I didn’t recognize the voice, so I walked to the back of the RV. There’s a guy standing there, and he calmly repeated, “She’s not here.”
“Uh, OK,” I said to Bill Murray. I didn’t quite know what else to say, other than “Thanks.”
I wish I could have had that moment back.
Bill’s older brother, Brian Doyle-Murray, is friends with legendary scout Gary Hughes. Thanks to Mr. Hughes, I met Brian a couple times during my Baseball Operations years. At least I was able to carry on a conversation with him that lasted more than a word or two.
Which brings me to Joel Murray – the youngest brother in the Murray family (he is the youngest of nine).
I had known of Joel Murray for a long time. I saw him perform on The Second City mainstage in the late ‘80s. I saw him in “The Bleacher Bums” at the Organic Theater. I had seen him in numerous television series. And I knew he was a big-time Cubs fan.
Through the miracle of social media, I reached out to him to see if he would be amenable to an interview – and he said yes.
Consider this story the prequel to the interview.
You know what … it’s still pretty cool when you come across celebrities.
It’s not often when all eyes were directed on me. I’m good with that.
And during my Cubs days, I usually made it a point to stay below the radar and steer clear of the cameras.
But 10 years ago, like it or not, I had a little live TV time. It was me – on ESPN2 – and all I had to do was look serious and print legibly. I don’t know if I’d list either as one of my strengths.
Back in 2007, Major League Baseball decided to televise the First-Year Player Draft live from Orlando, Fla. Although the actual drafting of players was technically done at each club’s “war room,” every team was asked to send representatives to the televised event.
For the first round of the draft, every club was instructed to call in its draft selection to the on-site club representative, who was using one of those old-fashioned helmet phones. The club rep wrote down the name of the pick on a piece of paper – which was then handed to an official MLB representative, who, in turn, delivered it to Commissioner Selig for announcement to the free world.
Like I said, all I had to do was look serious and print legibly.
For a few days before the draft, though, that didn’t seem easy to do. I figured I’d find a way to screw it up. Unless, of course, they purposely gave me the wrong name. The Cubs had the No. 3 overall selection, so I knew I was going to be on TV.
What was really terrifying was the company I was in. So help me, here are the first two paragraphs of the MLB press release that went out on May 27 – a week and a half before the draft:
Hall of Famers Robin Roberts, Tommy Lasorda, Jim Palmer and Dave Winfield are among the representatives who are scheduled to attend the 2007 First-Year Player Draft on behalf of their Major League Club, Major League Baseball announced today. The first day of the Draft, set for Thursday, June 7th at Disney's Wide World of Sports Complex in Lake Buena Vista, Florida, will be carried live on ESPN2 from 2-6 p.m., marking the first time that the Draft will be telecast.
Others scheduled to attend include Felipe Alou; Steve Blass; Ellis Burks; Enos Cabell; Andre Dawson; Dwight Evans; Dallas Green; Ken Griffey, Sr.; Willie Horton; Frank Howard; Barry Larkin; Chet Lemon; Tony Oliva; Terry Steinbach; Darryl Strawberry; Walt Weiss; Frank White; and Don Zimmer. Each Club will have representatives on-site in Florida.
And then …
A complete listing of each organization's representatives and front office attendees, subject to change, follows:
Arizona: Rico Brogna, Luke Wren
Atlanta: Paul Snyder, Ralph Garr, Kurt Kemp
Baltimore: Jim Palmer, Scott Proefrock
Boston: Dwight Evans, Ray Fagnant
Chicago Cubs: Chuck Wasserstrom
Chicago White Sox: Roland Hemond, Chet Lemon
Cincinnati: Ken Griffey, Sr., Jim Thrift
Cleveland: Ellis Burks, Robby Thompson, Steve Frohwerk
Colorado: Walt Weiss, Clarence Johns
Detroit: Al Avila, Willie Horton, Tom Moore
Florida: Andre Dawson, Manny Colon, Brian Bridges
Houston: Enos Cabell, Jay Edmiston
Kansas City: Frank White, Art Stewart
LA Angels of Anaheim: Demetrius Figgins, Dan Radcliff
LA Dodgers: Tommy Lasorda, Ralph Avila, Brian Stephensen
Milwaukee: Gord Ash, Tony Diggs, Wil Inman
Minnesota: Jim Rantz, Tony Oliva
NY Mets: Darryl Strawberry, Kevin Morgan
NY Yankees: Frank Howard, Mike Thurman
Oakland: Terry Steinbach
Philadelphia: Robin Roberts, Lee McDaniel, Dallas Green
Pittsburgh: Steve Blass, Trevor Gooby
San Diego: Dave Winfield, Randy Smith
San Francisco: Felipe Alou, Jack Hiatt, Steve Decker
Seattle: Dan Evans
St. Louis: John Mozeliak, Alan Benes
Tampa: Bay Dave Martinez, Don Zimmer
Texas: Jim Sundberg, Steve Buechele, Mel Didier
Toronto: Rob Ducey
Washington: Barry Larkin, Tim Foli
How out of place does that Chicago Cubs entry look?
Thankfully, smarter heads prevailed – and Bob Dernier was tracked down so I wouldn’t be considered the club dignitary. But I still was tasked with answering a telephone and writing down the draftee’s name with a TV crew in my face. It was the ultimate in multi-tasking.
I’d like to think I nailed it. The phone rang, and I didn’t drop it. The player name I was given – Josh Vitters – made its way from ear to paper. Vitters and his family were in attendance, and the camera went from me to the guy carrying the card to the Commissioner to Mr. Selig – and then to the Vitters family. And before the heartbeat slowed down, the Pittsburgh Pirates were on the clock.
I spent the rest of the first round ducking whenever the camera crew made its way around the room. I already had enough broadcast time for the day.
This Saturday (May 6) is the anniversary date of Kerry Wood’s 20-strikeout game.
I initially wrote this piece last year – and I know I couldn’t top it. I still get goose bumps when I think about that game, and I hope you sense my level of enthusiasm as I try to recreate the excitement for you.
I often get asked if I miss working in baseball.
The honest answer is “sometimes yes, most of the time no.” I miss it a little more now that I’m writing stories about the game – but I’m enjoy this little writing career way more than the baseball grind.
But I do admit to missing “the rush.”
I don’t often pat myself on the back or give myself credit, but if I was allowed to give a 10-second elevator pitch about my time in the Cubs’ Media Relations department, I would tell you with the utmost of confidence that I was good at proactively being ready when game “events” occurred.
For example, if a Cub hit a grand slam, I had the information ready for a press box announcement before the ball landed. Or if a player hit a 16th-inning home run, I was out of my seat and announcing to tell everyone within earshot that it was the latest homer in Cubs history – while the ball was still in flight.
There was nothing like the adrenaline rush of scrambling from TV booths to radio booths to telling the Cubs beat writers to press box microphones to let everyone know about a “first time it happened” moment or a “last time it happened” occurrence. The Cubs had been around 110 years before I got there; whenever something unusual happened, we weren’t exactly talking small sample size.
One of the greatest “rush” days I’ll ever experience took place 18 years ago today – May 6, 1998 – as this is the anniversary of Kerry Wood’a 20-strikeout game. If only I wore a mental Fitbit, my brain probably walked 100,000 steps that Wednesday afternoon.
Woody’s pitching performance was the most dominating I’ll ever see. Period. Think about it … He was a 20-year-old kid in just his fifth major league start – and he struck out 20 of the 29 batters he faced. Hard to believe, but just two starts back, he didn’t make it through the second inning in Los Angeles – and you couldn’t help but wonder if he was ready for all of this.
And on this day against the Houston Astros, he was a boy among men. This wasn’t a September Triple-A roster – and even if it had been, that wouldn’t negate the fact that he struck out 20 of 29. The Astros’ lineup that day featured Craig Biggio and Jeff Bagwell – and also included Moises Alou, Derek Bell and Ricky Gutierrez.
I certainly can’t say that I knew May 6 would be a record-setting day, but when Woody struck out the side in the top of the 1st inning and Houston’s Shane Reynolds followed with strikeout-strikeout-strikeout in the bottom half of the frame, you knew this might not be a typical ballgame.
After striking out the side in the 4th inning, Kerry had eight strikeouts. I could do the math; he was on an 18-strikeout pace. Most of the time, when you do math like that, the pitcher’s final pitching line only goes up by one or two. But Woody tossed that theory through the window by fanning all three batters in the 5th.
At that point, my daily scribble sheet was starting to see some pretty good scribblings.
I was slowly filling in the information I had access to via my own Cubs records collection and two major league record books I had in my press box cabinet. One-by-one, the numbers were written on paper … 12 … 13 … 14 … and up to 19. I had No. 20 staring me in the face in the Official Major League Baseball Record Book.
6th inning … one strikeout … now at 12.
7th inning … strikeout, strikeout, strikeout … 13, 14, 15. The last one tied Cubs nine-inning and rookie marks.
Whole sentences, written out neat enough for my boss – Sharon Pannozzo – to read on the in-house public address system.
8th inning … strikeout, strikeout, strikeout … 16, 17, 18.
By now, I was in constant contact with the famed Elias Sports Bureau – where they were just as much one step ahead in anticipation of Woody’s next strikeout.
No. 16 set the Cubs’ nine-inning record. No. 17 tied the major league rookie record and the Cubs’ overall record – done in a 15-inning outing. No. 18 established records for both.
Partial sentences, in hieroglyphic scribble, just legible enough for Sharon to hand me the mic and tell me to read it.
And then came the 9th inning …
Pinch-hitter Bill Spiers went down swinging for a seventh straight Kerry Wood strikeout – equalling another Cubs record. But who cared about that? It was strikeout No. 19 – tying a National League record accomplished only four previous times in 122 seasons.
Future Hall of Famer Craig Biggio was then cursed at after putting the ball in play and grounding out for the second out of the inning.
And up to the plate came Derek Bell, and all I could do was try not to hyperventilate. Woody quickly got to two strikes, and his curveball was dancing. Bell had no chance, going down swinging for strikeout No. 20 – tying a mark only reached before by Boston’s Roger Clemens.
I vividly recall running down to the field after the game to assist with the live postgame interviews – and Woody was visibly trembling. I had no idea if he had truly processed what had happened.
But more than anything, I’ll never forget the in-game rush of researching and tracking down and providing information as his strikeout total grew and grew.
On days like today, I do miss that rush.
This weekend, my Grandma Rose would have been celebrating her 100th birthday.
I wrote a letter to her last year that I posted on this site. I’ve made a few modifications to the original note to make it “current,” but I wanted to share the gist of her story again. I think she would have liked that. I know I do.
Dear Grandma Rose,
I’ve been thinking about you a lot lately.
I know … you’re not actually going to be reading this. In fact, you probably would have preferred texting – because that’s what the kids do. And you always liked bonding with the grandkids.
I hadn’t been exactly sure what brought about all these recent memories of you, other than the belief that you had been watching me from afar right now and played a part into steering me back toward writing.
You used to send me hand-written postcards all the time when I was a kid. I sort of remembered that, but last year, I came across some of those postcards. In fact, at that top of screen, I scanned one of them for you. Kind of funny, even back in 1973, you led off by asking me a baseball question. Even funnier was the Chas. Wasserstrom line – which appears on all of the postcards you sent me. But it was nice to see “Dear Chuckie” at the top of the postcard.
The postcards just sort of turned up. They were in a scrapbook-related box Dad gave me a few years ago when he was cleaning up part of the basement – and they were in my house.
I had done a lot of soul searching in recent years trying to figure out the next chapter in my life. Over the last year, the writing bug bit me in a huge way for the first time in a long time.
I always wondered where that writing bug came from. It’s not that Mom and Dad don’t write – but math and engineering aren’t exactly human interest/storytelling subjects.
Just like you used to brag about your family, I love bragging about my girls. You would have loved watching them play sports, even though I know sports weren’t your thing.
Thankfully, they get all their athletic genes from Michelle. I know you referred to her as “What’s her name?” It wasn’t meant to be mean; old age had already started creeping in. Heck, I wish your mind had stayed around longer to get to know her better. You would have really liked her, and she would have really liked you. She says all the time that little kids, old people and dogs really like her.
You know, it’s hard to believe you’ve been gone for over a decade. Sadly, I was there for your last breath. I won’t allow being there that day to be my last memory of you.
I’m sure I think of you a lot more these days because of where the girls are in school. I remember back in the day when you were sort of the official “field trip chaperone” because you could be – and because you wanted to be. You probably got more out of all of those museum tours than anyone in the class.
I also think of you a lot in years when I need to renew my driver’s license. I so remember that day back in 1981 (October 20, to be exact) when I was finally legal. After dumping Mom and Dad off at the house, I grabbed Pucci the Wingdog and headed over to your apartment to take you for a spin through the McDonald’s drive thru. I always knew how to woo the ladies.
Since you never learned to drive, you relied on the kindness of children and grandchildren to get you from place-to-place.
Somewhere along the way, you handed me an envelope. I don’t remember when, but I do recall you saying something along the lines of “Don’t open this now. Put it away.” You didn’t elaborate much, which was unusual, since talking was one of your core skills. The only thing you told me was that you had found something, but it would mean more when I was older.
I took the envelope, and then we probably started talking about important issues – like where we were going to eat. And then I forgot about it.
Magically … mysteriously … karma … whatever word you want to use, I found that envelope in a box in Mom and Dad’s basement. My guess is that I just threw it aside, but since Dad doesn’t throw anything away (Thanks Dad!), that white envelope with your unmistakable handwriting was there when I started looking for mementos that could supplement my musings.
I opened the envelope, and I found another envelope inside – an old parchment envelope.
Inside that envelope was a letter on old faded stationery. But it was more than “just a letter.” I discovered where my writing bug must have come from. Grandma, you instilled it in me way back when, and you must be making sure that it’s the path I’m following now.
It was a typed letter sent to you back in 1933 – just before your 16th birthday – from H.F. Harrington, the director of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern. You probably saw humor in that your last name was misspelled! But getting past that, it was a letter suggesting a career that you probably wish you would have gone into.
The second paragraph tells me exactly why you would have wanted me to see the letter now.
“Journalism is really a serial story, so that this first chapter will probably lead to further developments and achievements in your writing career. We hope that when you come to make a decision on the school of journalism where you may continue your work under competent supervision, you will consider the advantages of the Medill School of Journalism of Northwestern University.”
As I’ve returned to the passion that drove me to Missouri’s Journalism School in the first place, I’m guessing you’ve been involved in setting this course I’m now on. You have reenergized me. You have taken the steering wheel away from me to drive me in the direction you would have liked to have followed yourself.
I didn’t thank you enough for everything when you were physically around.
But wherever you are now, please know that you’re still playing a big role in who I am and what I do. Thank You!
I don’t know if I should sign this “Chuckie” or “Chas. Wasserstrom” – but in either case, you know who I am: Your grateful grandson.
Any time I have a chance to use this classic photo, I’m going to do it.
On the right, that’s Jim Hendry, the man who invited me to move from media relations into the baseball operations department – and gave me a diamond-side view to the inner workings of what it takes to put together a baseball team.
On the left, that’s Gary Hughes, the man who saw something in Jim to help launch his professional baseball career.
Gary – also known to his legion of fans as Boomer – has helped launch a bunch of careers and has been a friend to multitudes both inside and outside the game. I had the pleasure of working closely with him during my time in baseball ops, and he continues to be a sage source of advice and guidance for me.
How connected is Boomer in the industry? Mr. Hughes first began working in professional baseball in 1967. That’s 50 full years of service scouting for the San Francisco Giants (1967-72), New York Mets (1973-76), Seattle Mariners (1977), New York Yankees (1978-85), Montreal Expos (1986-91), Florida Marlins (1992-98), Colorado Rockies (1999), Cincinnati Reds (2000-02), the Cubs (2003-2011) and the Boston Red Sox (since 2012).
For those of you who don’t know him, his career honors include being selected by Baseball America as one of the Top 10 scouts of the 20th century. He also was inducted into the Professional Baseball Scouts Hall of Fame in 2008.
But it’s not because of baseball that I’m writing about Gary today. OK, it is about baseball, but more in the “What Could Have Been, But Wasn’t” category.
The NFL draft is coming up this week, and Gary kinda-sorta has a hand in it – as he has been directly connected to a pair of football executives: John Elway, executive vice president of football operations/general manager of the Denver Broncos, and John Lynch, the general manager of the San Francisco 49ers.
Hughes was involved in the signing of both to play baseball – as a Yankees scout in 1981 (Elway was selected in the second round with the 52nd overall pick) and as the Marlins’ scouting director in 1992 (Lynch was Florida’s second pick in the Marlins’ first-ever draft).
Elway was attending Stanford University en route to a Hall of Fame career with the Denver Broncos.
“John was eligible to be drafted in baseball as a sophomore, and we did not have a first-round pick; as we often did in those days, we signed a free agent,” Hughes said. The Yankees surrendered their first pick to the Padres as compensation for the signing of Dave Winfield. “I was in my third year as a full-time scout, and here I am talking to George Steinbrenner while the president, the scouting director, the player development director and the GM all sat there – listening to me talk to him.
“George was infatuated with the idea of drafting John Elway. I said to him, ‘We don’t have to take him this high; he’s probably going to play football. Nobody is going to take him this high.’
“And he said, ‘Yeah, but.’ And his ‘Yeah, but’ made sense.
“In those days, after the first and second round, the draft was shut down for a secondary phase for those who were passed over the year before or were drafted and didn’t sign. Mr. Steinbrenner said, ‘What will happen is, everybody will look at their board, and they’ll see how their boards have been beat up, and Elway will look awfully good to someone picking in the third round.’ He had a point there. Then he said, ‘So we’re going to take him.’
“And then he said, ‘He’s got to play baseball.’ And I said, ‘Whoa. Listen, I just got this job. I don’t want you to come back and say I said he’d play baseball only. There’s a very definite chance he’s going to play football.’ And he said, ‘Duly noted.’
“That took me off the hook. So we drafted him with our first pick.”
Due to the timing of when Elway and the Yankees agreed to terms, he didn’t play baseball until the following June with Oneonta in the New York-Penn League. He started his pro career 1-for-19, and when he left six weeks later to return to Stanford for football practice, “he was leading the team in every offensive category – including stolen bases,” Hughes said. “He showed power. He showed speed. It was exciting to see that he could do all that.”
A rightfielder, Elway batted .318 with four homers, 25 RBI and 13 stolen bases in 42 games for Oneonta.
After a stellar senior season at quarterback, it became evident that Elway could be the first player selected in the 1983 NFL draft. As has been well documented, he informed the Baltimore Colts before the draft that he wouldn’t sign with them if they drafted him first overall; they did, and he held his ground.
“Shortly thereafter, I took John and a couple other guys fishing,” Hughes said. “I was talking to him on the boat, and I asked him, ‘What are you going to do now?’
“He said, ‘If they don’t trade me, I’m going to play baseball.’
“I basically told him, ‘You’re full of baloney,’ or some such language. And he said, ‘I’m not kidding. I’m not playing for Baltimore. If they don’t trade me, I’m playing baseball.’
“Not much later after that, they traded him to Denver. The rest is history.”
How good of a baseball player could Elway have been?
“He could have had a long and successful career,” Hughes said. “The ability was there. He could run. He had power … a left-handed hitter with power at Yankee Stadium. He would have played a long time. Obviously, he had a good arm. He could play rightfield. It just didn’t work out for us. But I think George was happy with the outcome. He was happy that there were a lot of headline stories.”
Lynch’s story was, indeed, a completely different story. Like Elway, he attended Stanford. Unlike Elway, he quit football to concentrate on baseball.
“We drafted him, we signed him, and he goes out and ends up pitching the first game of the season (for Erie) – which made him the first pitcher in the history of the Florida Marlins’ organization,” Hughes said. A right-handed pitcher, Lynch made nine minor league starts in 1992-1993 for Erie of the New York-Penn League and Kane County in the Midwest League.
“Dennis Green was the football coach at Stanford – but then he left to become the coach of the Minnesota Vikings. When he left, Bill Walsh came back, and John came up to me and said, ‘I know I told you I quit, but I always wanted to play for Bill Walsh. Can I at least go back and play?’”
Walsh, a legendary coach, is best known for leading the 49ers to three Super Bowl championships.
“I said, ‘John, I can’t stop you from doing anything. We’ll see you next spring,’ Hughes said. “Well, next spring never occurred. He played, and Bill Walsh let the NFL people know just how good he was.”
A safety on the gridiron, Lynch was selected by Tampa Bay in the third round of the 1993 NFL draft. He went to nine Pro Bowls in 15 NFL seasons – and has been a finalist on the Pro Football Hall of Fame ballot four times.
“He had a strong arm. Obviously, he was a good athlete. He never really had a chance to develop to see how good he might have been,” Hughes said. “We were excited to get him. He threw hard. But we lost him to Bill Walsh.”
This is the third installment in my impromptu mini-series about Billy Blitzer.
You can read the initial story here: http://www.chuckblogerstrom.com/all-my-stories/it-coulda-happened-it-shoulda-happened-it-did.
You can read the second story here: http://www.chuckblogerstrom.com/all-my-stories/the-book-of-blitzer-chapter-2.
Billy Blitzer was rattling off the names of players he signed who made it to the major leagues. He’s had a dozen, which is a lot coming out of his “cold weather” region (New York/New Jersey/New England area) – including first-round picks Shawon Dunston, Doug Glanville and Derrick May.
The conversation soon turned to “his guy.”
“You’re fortunate if you sign players that play in the big leagues. But you’re very fortunate if you sign a player that you’re specifically associated with,” Blitzer said. “For years, whenever I walked into the park, people would say ‘There’s the scout who signed Shawon Dunston’ – especially in New York. But then, as the years went by, as I go around the country – even among baseball guys – I hear ‘There’s the scout who signed Jamie Moyer.’
“Scouts used to kid me, because when they’d have to see a soft-tossing lefty, they’d tell me, ‘It’s all your fault. If you hadn’t signed that kid, we wouldn’t have to bother seeing this other kid pitch.’ Jamie became the figure for people to have to write reports about … a soft-tossing lefty. And his name would go on people’s reports. Being the person who signed Jamie, they’d ask me, ‘What did you see in him?’”
1984 is well known in Cubs annals, as it was the year the Cubs went to the postseason for the first time since World War II.
While I can still envision watching Rick Sutcliffe strike out Pittsburgh’s Joe Orsulak to send the Cubs to the playoffs, that wasn’t the only success for the Cubs that year – as the scouting department drafted a duo that went on to record 624 major league victories.
As Blitzer succinctly sized it up, “What a draft that was … Greg Maddux in the second round and Jamie Moyer in the sixth. You can’t do better than that.”
Blitzer was all-in on Moyer from the first time he saw the left-handed pitcher on the St. Joseph’s University baseball team. Moyer was not the type of pitcher scouts were typically drawn to – a soft-tossing southpaw who pitched in a northern cold-weather area.
Blitzer ignored the fastball velocity when he scouted Moyer. He looked at the total picture. “What I saw was pitchability. I just had a gut feeling. Every time I’d see this guy go out and pitch, he’d do everything he could to get hitters out. He just had a feel for what he was doing and a feel for his craft, and I was just drawn to him.”
The scout followed the pitcher from afar, watching him work and doing his behind-the-scenes due diligence in learning about background and makeup.
That spring, Moyer went 6-5 with a 1.82 ERA in 12 games for St. Joseph’s, completing seven of his 10 starts. He’s still a legend there; he’s on the cover of the university’s 2017 baseball record book.
“I submitted my report on Jamie, and (scouting director) Gordy (Goldsberry) called me up,” Blitzer recalled. “He said, ‘You know, I just read your report. You seem to have a real good feel for this kid. Tell me about him.’ And I did. And I verbally told him what I felt about him, what I saw in the kid. (Cross-checker) Frank DeMoss then went in and saw him – and Frank took a liking to him, too. We just went from there.”
Moyer was aware scouts were at his games, but he paid little-to-no attention to it.
“I knew there were scouts, but they didn’t really talk to you – and I didn’t really have any conversations with any of them,” Moyer said. “At that point, I didn’t know who Billy Blitzer was.
“Right before the draft, miraculously … I lived in a house with a bunch of other students and we had a pay phone. Somehow, he got that phone number. The pay phone rang, and someone said, ‘Hey Jamie, phone call for you.’ I went over, and this guy says, ‘Hi, I’m Billy Blitzer with the Chicago Cubs, and I’ve been watching you. We’re interested in you.’ We had some small talk, and then he asked, ‘What’s it going to take to get you out of school?’ It was my junior year. I laughed. I was green. I couldn’t talk. ‘I don’t know.’ I’m thinking, just hand me a contract and I’ll sign it. I wanted to play pro baseball.
“That conversation kind of ended. There were no guarantees. Fortunately, Billy wrote me up well enough.”
The draft was held in early June. While Blitzer wasn’t physically in the Cubs’ draft room, DeMoss – his regional cross-checker – was. “Frank was the one who spoke up for Jamie – but Gordy already knew,” Blitzer said. “Gordy knew that Jamie was my gut guy. I’ll tell you, there were only two scouts that really liked him – myself and a scout with the Phillies. Thank God we got him.”
Moyer was selected in the sixth round – the 135th overall pick in that year’s draft.
“Billy called me in Harrisonburg, Virginia. I was playing for the Harrisonburg Turks in the Shenandoah Valley League,” Moyer said. “I had been there about a week, and I might have pitched in part of one game. The draft came, and it wasn’t like it was today – a TV show and everything on the internet. Back then, there was just a baseball draft.
“So I got a phone call where I was staying in Harrisonburg. ‘Hey Jamie, this is Billy Blitzer of the Chicago Cubs. Just wanted to let you know we drafted you in the sixth round.’ As you can well imagine, I almost dropped the phone on the floor. I was ecstatic. I’m like ‘OK. What do I do? Where do I go?’ I was going 100 miles per hour.
“And Billy goes, ‘Slow down. Take your time. Get yourself back home. Give it a couple days. When you get home, I’ll drive down. I’ll meet your parents. I’ll sit down and we’ll discuss things.
“A couple days later, I got home, and that’s the first time I met him face-to-face.”
Let’s call this “The Art of the Negotiation – Billy Blitzer style.”
Moyer: “Billy had his little brief case, and he walked into our house. He was very kind, very respectful. And he just chatted with me and my parents – and told us about the organization. He gave us his little shtick.”
Blitzer: “In those years, there were no negotiations with the front office; it’s not like it is now. You had one phone call to make. And when you made that one phone call and asked for extra money, that was it. You couldn’t ask for a couple thousand dollars, then call the front office back later on and ask for a couple thousand more on top of that. That was a no-no. You had one call.”
Moyer: “He asked, ‘Do you want to sign?’ Of course I did.”
Blitzer: “I can still picture this … we sat at the kitchen table. I’m at one end of the table, Jamie’s opposite me. His mother was on my right. His father was on my left. And I offered him $10,000.”
Moyer: “I’m like, ‘Oh boy.’ My parents said, ‘It’s your decision. We’ll support you however you want.’”
Blitzer: “I tell him I had one phone call to make. Now, we’re talking back-and-forth, and I said to him, ‘OK, if I make that one phone call, will you sign for $12,000?’ And when he looked like he would do it, he starts hemming and hawing.”
Moyer: “Welllllll … can you give me a little more money?”
Blitzer: “He says to me, ‘I think it will have to be $15,000.’ I said, ‘Thinking is no good.’ I went to stand up; I put my hands on the table, and said, ‘I don’t think you know what you want. I’m not making that phone call. I’m leaving …’”
Moyer: “He closed his brief case and said, ‘I just need to let you know … if I leave your house and you don’t sign, I may never come back.’”
Blitzer: “As I said ‘I’m leaving,’ an arm reaches across the table. It was Jamie’s mother. She grabs my right arm and said, ‘Mr. Blitzer, don’t get excited. Don’t leave. He’ll sign.’ I look across the table and said, ‘Are you going to sign, or am I wasting my time here?’ Jamie says, ‘Don’t leave. I’ll sign, I’ll sign. Make the phone call.’”
Moyer: “He gets on the phone with Gordy, and they start talking. Then he gets off the phone and says, ‘Well, you know, we can give you a little bit more money, but I don’t know how much further we can go than that.’”
Blitzer: “I made the phone call, Gordy gave me an extra $3,000, and we agreed on $13,000.”
Moyer: “Well … I signed, and a day or two later I flew out to Arizona for the mini spring training. That was 1984; in 2012, I was done.”
Blitzer: “Can you imagine signing a guy in the sixth round for $13,000? And then he goes on to win 269 games. But that’s the way it was back then. He wanted to play, and I knew he wanted to play.”
Moyer: “It’s funny. I kept in touch with Billy; we have a very good relationship. I would see him when I was playing, whether I was with the Cubs or other teams during my career. I’d go to New York, and we’d go out to dinner and things like that. And we’d go back and discuss when he came to the house and all that kind of stuff.”
Blitzer: “We’ve been close ever since. Really nice family. Really nice people. Like I said, I’ve always been considered part of the family ever since that day.”
Jamie Moyer, on Billy Blitzer …
“Who do think was the first guy I called when the Cubs won the World Series? Billy Blitzer. And this guy was crying on the telephone. How awesome is that? If there’s somebody that bleeds Cubs blue, it’s Billy Blitzer."
I started with the Cubs as a media relations intern back in 1986. On my third day on the job, Jamie Moyer joined the team after being recalled from Triple-A. In my first “official” act as a Cubs intern, I got to help him carry his luggage and equipment to the clubhouse. That’s what interns do.
Two days later – on Monday, June 16 – Moyer made his major league debut, working 6.1 innings and earning the win over the Philadelphia Phillies 7-5. He not only defeated his hometown team, but he was opposed by Steve Carlton – who was in the twilight of his career (he would pitch through 1988).
Now, think about that matchup for a moment.
Moyer pitched for the Cubs from 1986-1988 before being traded to Texas as part of the infamous Rafael Palmeiro deal. He had his greatest success in Seattle, recording a pair of 20-win seasons (as a 38-year-old and as a 40-year-old) and going to the 2003 All-Star Game. At the age of 45, he was a 16-game winner for Philadelphia – and got to celebrate when the team of his youth won the 2008 World Series.
As I said, I met Jamie the first time he walked into Wrigley Field as a member of the Chicago Cubs, helping him drag his luggage and baseball equipment through the ballpark’s concourse. I joke that it was my first official act. Realistically, my first official act took place about 45 minutes after his major league debut, when – in the Cubs clubhouse – Jamie called me over; he wanted me to find his dad and bring him to the locker room. Reuniting a father and son after the son’s first big league win is an awesome moment to rewind in my head.
I recently spoke to Jamie for the series of stories I’ve been doing on legendary scout Billy Blitzer – the scout who signed Moyer. You’ll get to read the scout/player piece later this week.
After talking about Billy, we talked about various subjects – including the many things Jamie witnessed over a professional career that spanned from 1984-2012.
What was it like being a dad when baseball was your vocation?
Jamie Moyer: “I tried to be involved when I could, but my family understood what I was doing and where I was. I was supporting a family, and this job took you away seven months of the year. In the off-season, you had to work out and stay in shape. I had leeway, but we had a lot of great experiences through the opportunity of me playing baseball. I took my boys to the ballpark when they were little. I took them as they got bigger. I took them when they were in high school and in college. It’s been a family experience.
“When I was with the Phillies, any time we had a clinching game – as we got towards the end of the game, our boys came down to the clubhouse and put a uniform on. When that third out was made, they were in the dugout with their dad, and we celebrated … and we celebrated with teammates … and we celebrated in the clubhouse. That’s something really special that I had with my boys. You can take all the money and the notoriety and all that, but we had that special bond. I was also able to celebrate with the rest of my family and my parents.
“I would have loved to go to the World Series with every organization I was in, but if I could pick one, it happened in a magical way. It happened in 2008 in Philadelphia, where I was raised. I went to college there. My parents were there; they were able to witness it. My sister was there. My family was there. It was pretty special. In 1980, the Phillies had won their last World Series. I was a senior in high school, and I skipped school to go to that parade. Then in 2008, I was in the parade, going down Broad Street. Pretty cool.”
That would have to be No. 1 among your career highlights.
“Oh, yeah. But I feel like for me personally, I have a lot of highlights. My first major league start … Wrigley Field. And who was it against? The Philadelphia Phillies and Steve Carlton, my idol. That was pretty magical. Witnessing Nolan Ryan’s 300th career win; that was an unbelievable milestone. I’ve had the good fortune to play with some other 300-game winners: Randy Johnson, Greg Maddux. I played against Tom Glavine. Honestly, when are we going to see another 300-game winner?
“So to have the opportunity to be a witness to that … and I witnessed two of Nolan Ryan’s no-hitters. I witnessed his 5,000th strikeout; that’s a pretty big number. I was a teammate of Cal Ripken’s when he broke Lou Gehrig’s streak. I mean, some pretty monumental things in the game – and I had the good fortune to be there. I’ll always appreciate and respect that – because those feats were not easy to accomplish. And I was just a small, small, small piece of it.
“I was on the team that played the first night game at Wrigley Field. Pretty cool. And I was fortunate enough to play on an all-star team that went to Japan. Again … pretty cool.”
The longevity of it certainly helped. But you had your own accomplishments, too.
“Personally, being a 20-game winner twice was pretty special. I won 20 and 21, and it wasn’t an easy feat. But I didn’t do it alone. I had teammates that allowed me to accomplish that. They caught the ball, they threw the ball, they hit the ball. They ran bases. They played every day. They played hurt. And then, two years ago, I was elected into the Seattle Mariners Hall of Fame. I never expected something like that to happen to me.
“Back in 1984, if you would had asked me, ‘Do you think you’ll play until your 49 years old?,’ I probably would have said ‘Yeah, I’d love to.’ But you know, not until I played with guys named Charlie Hough and Nolan Ryan in Texas, and saw them at their ages – in their 40s and still playing – that’s when I started thinking, ‘Man, someday I hope I can do that.’ I enjoyed it. I loved the game. I had passion for the game. I loved being around it. I loved the challenges. Sometimes, the challenges were pretty tall, but you figured out a way to get through it. Being around guys like that … you watched them get through it. You watched how they worked. You watched how they were as teammates. You can really learn a lot by using your eyes and your ears, and that’s what I learned how to do as I went through my career.
“As I got older, I became far more appreciative of opportunities and playing and teammates and coaches. That comes from maturity. I’m not tooting my own horn … it’s reality. I could have been a knucklehead and just closed my eyes to all of it and just said, ‘The heck with everybody else. It’s all about Jamie.’ But I didn’t view it that way. It takes 25 guys and a coaching staff and an organization. It goes from the parking attendants to the players to the front office to the fans to the ownership. And then you have to have a community that supports it.”
It’s been five years since you last played. Do you miss putting on a uniform?
“Yes and no. I went up to Seattle for Opening Day, and it was a lot of fun. It brings back a lot of great memories. It brings back a lot of warm fuzzy feelings. But then you start thinking about the travel and the soreness and the stiffness and the aches-and-pains and being away from family. I’m a little bit older, and I realize my body can’t do it anymore. My mind says, ‘Oh yeah, let’s do it.’ But my body says, ‘Yeah, you go do it. But we’ll sit here and watch.’ I know that I can’t, but I do miss it. I do miss seeing the guys. When I went to Seattle, I saw some ex-teammates. We laughed and joked and had a good time. We reminisced. But that’s kind of where it stops and starts.”
Tell me about all your kids.
“Dillon is 25. He’s out of baseball now and working in real estate in Seattle (note: Dillon, a former infielder, played four years of minor league ball). Hutton is 23, and he’s in Double-A with the Anaheim Angels. He’s in Mobile, Alabama, right now (note: Hutton, a second baseman, was the Angels’ 7th-round pick in the 2015 draft). Timoney is 21, and she’s going to graduate from St. Mary’s College in South Bend in December. And Duffy is 19. She’s currently a sophomore at Santa Clara University, where she plays soccer.
“McCabe is 13 and he’s in seventh grade. Grady is 12 and she’s in seventh grade. Katilina is just turning 11 and she’s in fourth grade. Yenifer is 10 and she’s in fourth grade.
“So we have two out of college, two in college and four in elementary school.”
I know you still keep in touch with Jay Blunk (a former Cubs intern who is now an executive vice president with the Chicago Blackhawks). When you first reached the majors, you shared an apartment with him. In this day and age, how often do you think a major league player shares an apartment with a media relations intern?
“Yeah, how about that? Crazy. I don’t know if that’s happening too often. And now he’s a world champion. He’s a hockey specialist, and he doesn’t know which end of the stick to hold. But it was great. I enjoyed meeting Jay and our relationship and the fun we’ve had over the years. Jay is a great guy.”
For me, it’s hard to believe for as long as your career was, you only spent a short amount of time in Chicago. But a whole lot of people remember you from your time here.
“I really enjoyed Chicago. The fans … Wrigley Field. We obviously didn’t play the way we would have liked to have played. We played like many of the other teams played for over 100 years. But it was fun to watch the World Series last year, watching from afar and seeing the excitement – and seeing the city take it in.
“And my old teammate, who got called up to the majors with me – Dave Martinez – he was the bench coach. How cool was that? And another teammate, Chris Bosio, is the pitching coach. I played with Chris in Seattle.”
You played long enough, it’s sort of like “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon.”
“Yeah, there are a lot of connections. But when you play for 20-some years, it’s going to happen. That’s the fun part about it.”
It was my last organizational meetings with the Cubs … early 2012 … Mesa, Arizona.
The new regime was in its first year of running the Cubs. There were a lot of new faces in these meetings.
But at one point, Theo Epstein asked Billy Blitzer – one of the elder statesmen of the Cubs, having been in the organization since 1982 – to get up in front of the group and talk.
After an impassioned speech from the heart, “I put my left hand in the air and I said to everybody, ‘Look, no ring. I have nothing to show for this. I’ve been here 30 years; I have no ring on my finger,’” Blitzer said. “’You people have to help me put a ring on this finger and your own fingers, because I don’t have another 30 years to give.’ When I said that, the entire room exploded.”
The last time I wrote about Billy Blitzer, I might have accidentally lied to you.
My initial blueprint was to drop a few short nuggets about Billy – a scout in his 35th year with the Cubs – as an appetizer to an extended story about him.
The more I’ve thought about it, I realized it would be impossible for me to write a piece about Billy in the 2,500-word range – which is on the longer side for keeping someone’s attention. Heck, I can’t keep some of Billy’s stories to 2,500 words.
So I’m veering from my original plan, opting instead to writing several chapter-like pieces about Mr. Blitzer. This way, I can give his stories justice – and you’ll get a better opportunity to read about him and enjoy some of the tales about this man’s career and livelihood.
You can read the earlier story here: http://www.chuckblogerstrom.com/all-my-stories/it-coulda-happened-it-shoulda-happened-it-did.
I hope you enjoy reading about how Billy got his start in the game and with the Cubs.
The year was 1975. Like most students in college, Billy Blitzer was trying to figure out what he would be doing for his vocation.
He was a student at Hunter College – located in the Upper East Side of Manhattan – and he was playing baseball. He also was coaching a sandlot team that summer.
As fate would have it, one day, while coaching this sandlot team, a scout happened to come by and sat down next to Billy.
“I didn’t know who he was. He was just an old man sitting next to me,” Blitzer said. “I say old man, but I’m probably older now than he was then. But to me, he was an old man.
“We started chatting, and he says to me, ‘What are you doing here?’
“I said, ‘I’m going to coach the next game.’
“He said, ‘I’m going to watch.’
“OK. I didn’t care … he could watch. When the game was over, he came over to me while I was packing the equipment. He said, ‘I want to talk to you.’
“I said, ‘About what?’
“He says to me, ‘Well, my name is Ralph DiLullo, and I’m a scout with the Major League Scouting Bureau.’
“I said, ‘What’s that?’ That was the first year the Bureau started. I didn’t know what the Bureau was; nobody did. And he explained to me what it was. Then I said, ‘Oh, you want to talk to me about my shortstop?’ I said that because my shortstop ended up playing in the big leagues. He had a cup of coffee with the Brewers; his name was Willie Lozado.
“And he says, ‘No, I want to talk to you about you. You’re coaching kids your own age.’ I was only two years older than these kids. ‘You seem to know what you’re doing. I want you to give me your phone number. I’m going to call you. I’m going to find out when you’re playing next week, and we’re going to sit at a game together.’
“I said, ‘Why?’
“He said, ‘Don’t worry. Just give me your phone number. I’m going to call you.’
“I went home and told my parents what had happened. I said, ‘I don’t know if this guy is on the level or if he’s a nut or whatever.’
“He called me, I went down and met him, and he was pointing things out to me on the field … what to look for. And he said to me, ‘You’re going to run a tryout camp in Brooklyn. I’m going to run it, but you’re going to invite all the players. And then you’re going to help me in Jersey when I run my camps and this and that.’ That’s how I started.
“But the ironic part is … Ralph DiLullo, before he went to work for this new Major League Scouting Bureau, worked for the Chicago Cubs for 25 years. Ralphie signed Bruce Sutter and Joe Niekro. He was a very prominent scout.”
When DiLullo left to go to the Bureau, the Cubs didn’t hire anybody to serve as the amateur scout in the region, opting instead to use information provided by the Bureau scouts in that area – DiLullo and former Cub Lennie Merullo, who was based in New England. If a Bureau report indicated there was a player worth checking out, Cubs cross-checker Frank DeMoss would run up and down the East Coast.
DiLullo continued to mentor Blitzer – who went on to spend his first seven years of scouting with the Bureau. It gave him an opportunity to hone this craft at a young age – and to start to make a name for himself.
“A lot of scouts used to be afraid to come into New York City. They’d come in packs; they’d come in groups,” Blitzer said. “So I went to work for the Bureau. My first four years, I was an associate. Then they hired me under contract. I had New York, Long Island and Westchester. And in the short time I was under contract, I found Bobby Bonilla and Devon White and Johnny Franco and Frank Viola and B.J. Surhoff and Walter Weiss. There were others, but those were the big, big names. Scouting directors from different organizations started telling their scouts, ‘You better get into New York City. This kid is coming up with players.’
“When I came up with Weiss, I remember a scout from a club saying to me, ‘Where are you finding these guys? We never come up here.’
“I said, ‘You’ll be coming up here from here on in.’
For those of you not familiar with the Major League Scouting Bureau, Blitzer wasn’t the one who eventually signed those players. His job with the Bureau was akin to being a bird dog. He went into the trenches and flushed out the talent through his Bureau reports – which went to all the major league teams. It was up to individual teams to decide if they wanted to come in and see for themselves.
But the talent he was uncovering speaks for itself.
“You see, I wasn’t afraid to go into a lot of places, because I grew up in New York City,” Blitzer said. “And I played on a lot of these fields. And the team that I coached in the Youth Service League – that’s where Shawon Dunston was my bat boy when he was a kid, ironically; that’s how I had my in with the Dunston family when the Cubs were trying to sign him.
“But I wasn’t afraid to go into these places. A lot of these kids on my team played in these leagues in tough areas and they would tell their coaches, ‘Listen, Billy Blitzer is coming up. Make sure you keep an eye on him and nothing happens to him.’ You know, South Bronx, places like that back then were tough areas to go into. And I went in and I found players.”
And one of those players – Dunston – he literally watched grow up.
In 1982, the first year of the new Dallas Green regime, the Cubs had the No. 1 overall selection in the country.
With a new hierarchy in place, more scouts were added, and for the first time since the Ralph DiLullo years, the Cubs utilized a full-time area scout in the New York area named Gary Nickels.
Shawon Dunston, an infielder at Thomas Jefferson High School in Brooklyn, was at the top of the Cubs’ draft list. As a senior, he batted .790 and went 37-for-37 in his steal attempts. The Cubs wanted all the background and makeup information they could get on him, and Blitzer became a valuable resource.
Blitzer was still working for the Major League Scouting Bureau that June, and, prior to the draft, the Cubs sent a letter to the Bureau asking for permission to have Blitzer go out with Nickels to negotiate a contract with Dunston and his family.
“Like I said, I knew Shawon since he was 11 years old,” Blitzer said. “Mel Zitter, who ran the Youth Service League, and I taught him how to play.
“When it came to negotiate the contract, I’ll never forget. Gary and I went into the house on the Saturday before to start to talk to them. The draft is Monday. Gary and I go in, it was a rainy kind of day, and the Dunstons had the old Game of the Week on NBC on – and who’s playing that day, the Chicago Cubs.
“Gary and I sat in the Dunston’s home and read the entire contract to them. It was the old standard contract, and we read it paragraph after paragraph and explained the entire thing. It took us a couple hours. At the end, Gary pretty much made an offer to the family – and they said that everything would be OK.”
These were definitely different times. Think about it. A high school kid who could go No. 1 overall in the draft, and the area scout was in the family’s home for a face-to-face money meeting.
“Because Shawon could be the No. 1 pick in the draft from the No. 1 media capital in the world, people were calling his home. People were calling my home to see if this was going to happen,” Blitzer said. “So what we did … Gary planned for all of us to go into Manhattan and stay in a Sheraton Hotel, and he registered the rooms under different names. Gary and I were in one room and the Dunstons had a suite.
“But on that Sunday morning, I pick up the New York Daily News, and Dick Young – who was the big columnist at the time – had quotes in his column from a scout by the name of Dutch Deutsch. Dutch was the scout who signed John Candelaria and Willie Randolph. Well, Dutch comes out in Dick Young’s column and says ‘Shawon Dunston is the best player to come out of the New York area since Carl Yastrzemski.’”
Yastrzemski, who was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1989, was from Long Island.
“I see that in Sunday’s paper and I’m going, ‘Uh oh. We can be in trouble,’” Blitzer said. “I was supposed to meet Gary at a McDonald’s near the Dunston house, then we were going over to the house. Then Gary was going to go into the city and get the rooms, and I was going to wait in the Dunston house while his mother and his sister were going to the beauty parlor – because there was going to be a press conference on Monday at the commissioner’s office after he was drafted.
“Gary and I go into the house, and it was like we walked into a refrigerator. They were really cold, because they felt we were cheating them; we weren’t giving them enough money. And I could see there was a problem, so I said, ‘Mr. Dunston, let’s go into the other room. Just you and I. We need to talk.’
“Mr. Dunston and I went in and spoke, and I explained to him what was going on. I said, ‘You can’t listen to everything in the newspaper. You don’t realize how important it is that Shawon goes first in the country. If the Cubs don’t take him and he goes second or third, he might never be remembered. But he’ll always be remembered as the first pick. That will mean more for him down the line. Endorsements, things like that. It doesn’t mean anything right now.’ He agreed with me, and we walked out. He said to Gary, ‘OK, we still have a deal.’
“So Gary leaves to go into Manhattan. Now remember, there’s no cell phones. I’m hanging around the Dunston house, waiting until his mother and sister come back from the beauty parlor. I had a little Chevy Nova, and I drive all of them into Manhattan. I go to the Sheraton where I think that Gary is – because that’s where the Baseball Writers (Association of America) have their dinner. I drive in, I pay for the parking in the hotel. Before we had left, Gary had called the house and told us what room he was in. He had all the keys.
“So we go up to the room with our overnight bags, I knock on the door, and somebody who doesn’t speak English opens the door. I’m thinking, maybe he gave us the wrong room.
“So we all go down to the front desk, and I give them the assumed name that he checked in under. The guy at the front desk says, ‘There’s nobody at this hotel by that name.’ I said, ‘There has to be. He’s in the Sheraton. I spoke to him.’ He said, ‘There’s another Sheraton four or five blocks away. Let me call over there.’ Sure enough, that was it.
“Now I’m not taking my car out of this Sheraton because I’ve just paid for the parking. It’s not cheap in New York.
“So here we, the Dunstons and Billy Blitzer, walking down Broadway with our suitcases to go to the other Sheraton.
“The next day, Shawon was drafted – of course. We had the news conference; Gary handled everything. And the rest is history.”
Dunston made his major league debut in 1985 and played for 18 years, batting .269 in more than 1,800 games. He was a two-time National League all-star and went to the World Series in 2002 in his final big league season.
Does Blitzer ever think about what might have been if Ralph DiLullo hadn’t shown up that one day … or if Shawon Dunston was born a year older – making him draft-eligible before the Dallas Green era started in Chicago?
“Yes. I tell people Billy Blitzer wouldn’t exist in the world of baseball. I probably would have been a coach some place.
“People always say, ‘How did you get in? Usually it’s people that played.’ And I tell them, ‘The fickle finger of fate touched me on the shoulder.’ If Ralph DiLullo doesn’t sit next to me at that park, probably none of this ever happens. It was just something that was meant to me.”
As for being in the right place at the right time with Dunston, “That’s how I met Gary Nickels,” Blitzer said. “Who’s to say I wouldn’t have met him? But really, that’s how we got close. Gary had to do his homework and get as much information as he could about Shawon, and I was the perfect person.
“When we all went through this, there was no job promised to me or anything. That came after. They just saw the way I handled myself and they saw my track record. They read my reports from the Bureau. Here I was a young scout, but I had seven years’ experience already. I’m still a young man, and I had success. So I was the right person for Dallas’ group. He wanted a mix of young scouts and older scouts.”
With the Cubs opening the season in St. Louis and Milwaukee, I couldn’t help but think about old Busch Stadium and Milwaukee County Stadium.
I say that because there’s just something about the older cathedrals. That’s why all the work being done on Wrigley Field is magnificent; there’s something grand about modernizing the structure while keeping its charm alive.
Now in the case of old Busch Stadium, charm isn’t the first word I’d use to describe it. In reality, the ballpark had more than its share of great moments. While it wasn’t a St. Louis original – in fact, it was one of the multipurpose late 1960s cookie cutters – it still created a lot of memories for me. Unfortunately, most of them were bad.
When I think of old Busch Stadium, I think of a lot of last at-bat losses … and a lot of Cardinals little ball with bunts and repeated successful hit-and-run at-bats where they would nickel-and-dime you to death … and Mark McGwire hitting home run No. 62 in 1998 to surpass Roger Maris’ single-season record .
But I also think of playing in a ballpark smack dab in the middle of downtown … and staying in a hotel directly across the street from the ballpark … and seeing my brother, who went to St. Louis for med school and never left … and the Missouri Bar and Grille, a famous baseball hangout just blocks away from that area.
Thanks to the hotel-to-ballpark proximity, it was at the Marriott that the following humorous event took place.
Harry Caray – and this was probably the only time I ever saw him going to the ballpark early on the road – stopped me before I left for the stadium and said that his driver knew a shortcut. He told me to hop in the car with them. Remember, you could see the ballpark from the hotel’s side entrance; it was directly across the street. I knew this ride could be interesting.
I repeat this again – the hotel was directly across the street. Imagine the corner of Clark and Addison, looking across at the Cubby Bear. It was that close.
I got in the car with Harry on the hotel’s curb side. The driver looked around, backed up around 100 feet, then pulled forward to the other side of the road and let us out. That was the shortcut. We were in the car less than a minute.
Anyway … old Busch Stadium was where I had one of my great fandom days.
September 23, 1984. I was in my sophomore year at Missouri, and the Cubs were closing in on the National League East Division title – their first foray into the postseason since 1945. A group of us made the 125-mile pilgrimage from Columbia to St. Louis for a Sunday afternoon Cubs/Cardinals doubleheader. I don’t have to go into great detail, but it was one of those days that had special meaning. In Game 1, Steve Trout went the distance in an 8-1 win. In Game 2, Dennis Eckersley pitched the Cubs to a 4-2 victory. The Cubs left St. Louis with a magic number of 1 – and Rick Sutcliffe memorably closed it out the next night in Pittsburgh.
Meanwhile, Milwaukee County Stadium was where I had my first beer at a baseball game. So of course it’s one of my favorite baseball venues.
It was the summer of 1983. It was only a few weeks after I graduated high school. Using basic math, that meant I was 17.
Three of us drove up to Milwaukee for the weekend – as my friend wanted to show off Marquette University, where he would be going to school.
We took in a ballgame at County Stadium, and on my pregame trip to the concession stand, I placed a food order. The guy taking my order then asked, “Do you want a Miller with that?”
I thought he was joking. I played along and said yes. And then he filled up a large cup for me.
Needless to say, warm night/cold beer was a nice combination. I’m still waiting to be ID’d.
For the most part, the Cubs played well during my work trips to County Stadium – notwithstanding the famous Ron Santo “Oh nooooooo!” when Brant Brown misplayed a fly ball in 1998. It wasn’t the torture chamber that old Busch Stadium seemed to be.
County Stadium had an old-time feel to it, even though it was built in the 1950s. There was something about pulling up and seeing all the tailgaters … and the smell of the brats on the grill … and the Secret Sauce – so secret that the ingredients are listed on the bottle … and the first iteration of Chicago Cubs North fans in the crowd. Even back in the day, it was like being home away from home.
The new Busch Stadium is a really nice facility. Miller Park really grew on me. Both locations are just steps away from the old facilities. But in the memory bank, it’s hard to replace the parks that guys like Eddie Mathews and Warren Spahn and Bob Gibson and Ozzie Smith called home.
Some of the best storytellers in the world sit behind their laptops and craft stories in small words and abbreviations and with lots of punctuation – or no punctuation at all. They write stories so that the people reading them can visualize what they are saying.
I’m talking about baseball scouts who, in writing scouting reports on players, have to paint a picture with their words – and in lingo that their bosses can understand.
When they’re not behind the computer screen, they’re behind the home plate screen – watching games and watching practices and watching players in their warmup routines. It’s where a scout learns about players – their makeup, how they interact, how they act, how they dress, how serious they appear. Those mental notes formulate the stories that are told to the front office – and the stories they share with others.
Last week, I caught up with the legendary Billy Blitzer – a longtime Cubs scout who was about to depart Florida after spending a month in spring training. I’m working on a longer-form story about Blitzer – pronounced Blit-zuh in his native Brooklynese – who is beginning his 35th season with the Cubs and his 42nd overall as a scout.
This year, making that trip to spring training was a big deal for multiple reasons. Blitzer has fought some major health issues the last two years – and he’s now much better, thankfully. Also, there’s that tiny little two-word moniker that he finally gets to wear – World Champion.
As we were talking, and he was regaling me with story after story after story, it became evident that a smaller “What Could Have Been … What Should Have Been” piece could be written – using mostly just his words to tell those stories.
What could have been … the direction the Cubs’ farm system was heading during the Dallas Green years.
What should have been … up 3 games to 1 with a lead in Game 6 of the 2003 NLCS.
And finally … winning the World Series in his 34th year in the organization.
Blitzer will be back at it later this week when his in-season professional coverage begins.
I’ll be back at it with another Blitzer story soon. But until then, to whet the appetite, I’ll call this a Billy Blitzer prequel in three parts.
It Coulda Happened …
Not to take away anything from Theo, Jed and the current group, but it’s well known that the Cubs’ arrow was pointed upward when I started with the organization as an intern in 1986 – and the curse could have been lifted years ago. The operative words are “could have.”
Tribune Company purchased the team from the Wrigley Family in 1981 and installed Dallas Green as the general manager. The team came close to the Promised Land in 1984 – going up 2 games to 0 in the best of 5 NLCS against San Diego – and had an extended run at clicking on their draft selections. Consider this list of players selected from 1982-1987, and think how things might have played out if they had been kept together – along with a certain second baseman named Ryne Sandberg who was acquired by Green early in his GM tenure:
“It’s a shame that Dallas just passed away,” Blitzer said. And now I’ll let Mr. Blitzer take it from here.
“When I first came in, I was a young scout. I felt at the time that Dallas had us going in the right direction – and that eventually, we would have won. Gordy Goldsberry was the scouting director, and we were drafting very well. We had young players – and then just like that, Dallas was out. Jim Frey came in and traded away a lot of those young players. Every time you change regimes, it’s a new game plan, and we couldn’t get our footing.
“After Dallas got let go from us – even though he later was the manager of the Mets and the manager of the Yankees – I had never spoken to him again until a couple years ago. He was working with the Phillies as an advisor, and this kid, Aaron Nola – who was their No. 1 pick – was making his professional debut for the Clearwater Phillies in Lakeland (Florida), and I was covering the Phillies organization. I was in the ballpark, and Dallas comes walking in with Charlie Manuel.
“I see him, and I walk right over toward him. As I got closer, Dallas sees me – and in his big, booming voice – he yells out, ‘Billy Blitzer, I haven’t seen you in years.’
“And I said, ‘Dallas, I’ve seen you through the years from the stands, but I don’t go down on the field and bother anybody.’
“Then I put my hand out and said, ‘I’d like to shake your hand and thank you.’
“We shook hands, and he said, ‘Thank me for what?’
“I said, ‘Dallas, I’m still with the Cubs, and I’ve been here for over 30 years. And I want to thank you for hiring me.’
“And he said, ‘Well, Gordy knew what he was doing.’
“I said, ‘But you were the GM, and you had to give the OK to hire me. And I’ve made a career out of it here. And from the bottom of my heart, I want to thank you.’
“I got a little choked up as I said it to him. And he kind of got choked up, too, because he knew I really meant it. With him just passing away, it means a lot to me that I was able to say that to him.
“I just feel that if Dallas had been given more time, we would have won. We’ve had a lot of good people here. Some people did it the right way. Other people … I didn’t think did it the right way, and I don’t know how much hope there was for us to win.”
It Shoulda Happened …
I think it’s safe to say that if you’ve read this far, you remember the 2003 NLCS. The Cubs had taken a 3-games-to-1 lead over the Florida Marlins before dropping Game 5.
In Game 6, the Cubs were leading 3-0 in the top of the 8th inning – five outs away from the World Series. That was as close as they got … until 2016.
Anyway … during his spring coverage this March, Blitzer had a chance meeting with the leftfielder who was involved in the infamous foul ball incident.
“I’m sitting behind the plate in the next-to-last row of the scout section, toward the end of the aisle, Blitzer said. Like a good storyteller, he gave all the pertinent facts. “There were a couple empty seats behind me when the game was about to start, then two people sat down.
“I turned around, and one of them was Moises Alou. I don’t know Moises – he’s never met me, and I never met him – but I recognized him. I have to give him a lot of credit. Throughout the game, people kept coming over to him asking for his autograph, asking him to pose for pictures. They didn’t wait until the end of the inning. They were just disruptive. There’s no way he could have watched any of the game.
“In about the sixth inning, a guy sitting a couple rows in front of us happens to turn around and realizes that Moises is sitting there. The guy gets up, walks up to him – and he says, ‘Mr. Alou, you were a great player, but you should have caught that ball.’ He says it just like that, then turns around and goes back to his seat.
“Now I’m watching this whole thing. When the guy walked away, Moises put his head down. Then he looked up at me. Six innings, we hadn’t said one word to each other.
“He looked at me and said, ‘That’s all I’ll ever be remembered for … that I should have caught that ball.’
“So I said to him, ‘Yeah, you and me both.’
“He said, ‘What do you mean, you and me both?’
“I said, ‘I’m with the Chicago Cubs. I’ve been here for 35 years. All I’ve had to listen to were two things – you not catching that ball and the ball going through Leon Durham’s legs.”
And then – please try to mentally visualize the New York accent here – Blitzer said: “But I don’t have to listen to that anymawhhhh, becawz we finally wuhn.’
“He patted me, smiled and said, ‘I’m really happy for you.’
“He spoke to me after that. I told him, ‘I’ve had to listen to that, also. You’re not the only one.’
“It’s like the monkey’s off my back – not only my back, but everybody’s back. The things I had to listen to for 34 years. All the jokes about the Cubs and everything else. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate it that we won. And that I’m finally getting a ring.”
It Did …
In 34 years with the Cubs, Blitzer has pretty much seen everything and done everything.
Starting in the early hours of November 3, 2016 – New York time – he has for the first time experienced what it’s like to be a champion.
“It really was nice in spring training,” he said. “On the night we won, within seven minutes, I had 100 texts or emails from people all around the country … people that know me. And here in spring training, I’ve run into other scouts. When they first saw me, it was ‘Congratulations. Hey, world champion.’ It was really nice to hear, but the one thing that really hit me … whenever I met these people, the first thing they’d say to me was, ‘You know, when your team won, you were the first person we thought of.’ They know I’ve been here so long.
“Not many people stay with one team for so many years. And when I walk in the ballpark, it’s ‘The Chicago Cubs are here.’ It’s not ‘Billy Blitzer’s here’ … it’s ‘The Chicago Cubs are here.’
“And then there’s the other thing. Everybody was asking me, ‘When are you getting your ring? When are you getting your ring?’ I say, ‘The players get it April 12. I’m sure we’ll get it right after.’
“All the scouts that have gotten rings before tell me, ‘You better have a box of tissues, because you’re going to start to cry when you get it.’ And I know I will. When we won, I broke down and cried. Even now, when I watch videos of us winning, and I watch videos of people in Chicago, I get all choked up. Every time I see it – and it hasn’t stopped yet. It means that much to me.
“I’ve thought about it. If I had gotten the ring early in my career, it wouldn’t mean as much as it does right now. Because I’m towards the end of my career. I’ve scouted 42 years, 35 with the Cubs. You think about all the games I’ve been to. All the hotels. All the miles. All the bad food you’ve eaten through the years. You always dreamed. You always hoped that your team could win. Coming towards the end of my career, it means so much more – because you realize how much has gone into it through the years. To finally achieve it."
The 2017 baseball season officially commences this Sunday. With the thought of real baseball just hours away, it’s time for my annual speech about what Opening Day means to me.
Granted, I never started a season coming off winning a World Series. During my baseball life, every Opening Day to me was a “Wait ‘til this year moment” – at least until it was time to start looking toward next year.
What is Opening Day?
Opening Day is a day of hope. It doesn’t matter what your record was the year before … or what your club did (or didn’t do) over the offseason … or what happened during spring training. Winning the Cactus League doesn’t come with a parade route.
Opening Day is a moment in time. It’s really just one day. Everybody is 0-0. And then it quickly becomes a reality check. If your team really isn’t very good, there are 161 more of these games to follow.
Opening Day is a day when I literally kissed the ground, whether I was in Chicago or on the road – as I finally was released from that purgatory known as spring training. Don’t get me wrong, the people in Arizona were great year after year. But spring training, from start-to-finish, becomes a whole lot of Groundhog Day and watching paint dry all rolled into one package. It’s a long time away from your own bed. It’s a long time away from family and friends. And no matter how nice the new spring training facilities have become, nothing beats the feel of walking onto the diamond of a big league ballpark on Opening Day – especially a cathedral like Wrigley Field.
Opening Day is a day to remember Ron Santo’s toupee. One of my all-time Ron Santo moments was the infamous Shea Stadium “Opening Day Fire” of 2003 when Ron’s hairpiece nestled against an overhead heating unit and started smoking. The irony of it all: Ron’s least favorite city and least favorite ballpark (remember 1969?), and this was the location where his hairpiece started smoldering. To top it off (no pun intended), Steve Stone was in attendance to witness the blessed event. I wish I had a recording of his word-for-word account, as I bumped into Stoney outside the visiting TV booth just seconds after it happened. Steve’s quick recap featured something along the lines of: “Hey Chuck, if it smells like dead squirrel, go check the bathroom. Ron’s hair just caught fire. It looks like someone took a divot out of his forehead.”
Opening Day is a day to reflect back on all the third basemen who tried to fill Santo’s shoes. From Santo’s last year with the Cubs (1973) until Aramis Ramirez’s arrival in a mid-season trade 30 years later, a mind-boggling 18 different players were season-opening starters at third base for the Cubs – Bill Madlock (1974-1976), Steve Ontiveros (1977-1980), Ken Reitz (1981), Ryne Sandberg (1982), Ron Cey (1983-1985), Manny Trillo (1986), Keith Moreland (1987), Vance Law (1988-1989), Luis Salazar (1990), Gary Scott (1991-1992), Steve Buechele (1993-1995), Jose Hernandez (1996), Kevin Orie (1997-1998), Gary Gaetti (1999), Shane Andrews (2000), Bill Mueller (2001), Chris Stynes (2002) and Mark Bellhorn (2003).
Opening Day is a meteorologist’s delight. It’s a time when the Chicago weather typically is beautiful for the home opener, followed by a 30-degree temperature drop the next day.
Opening Day is a day to show off a farmer’s tan. After six-plus weeks under the Arizona sun, your exposed parts brown very nicely. I haven’t been in Mesa since 2012 – but my right wrist continues to feature the white watch line accrued from my 20-plus spring trainings in the Valley.
Opening Day is a reminder of how quickly things can change. Thanks to re-reading my diary last year from the Cubs’ season-opening trip to Japan in 2000, I found the game notes I wrote for the media. How about this nugget … only six players from the Cubs’ 1998 25-man National League Division Series postseason roster were members of the 2000 25-man Opening Day roster — Felix Heredia, Matt Karchner, Kevin Tapani, Mark Grace, Henry Rodriguez and Sammy Sosa (Kerry Wood and Glenallen Hill began 2000 on the disabled list). The Division Series and Opening Day were less than 18 months apart.
Opening Day is a snapshot. The players getting introduced in pregame ceremonies just happen to be the 25 players on the active roster that day. Every year, you headed to spring training in mid-February. The reality was – after all that time – the only non-injury battles that really mattered for the start of the season were for the 23rd, 24th and 25th spots on the Opening Day roster. And those guys rarely made it through April.
Opening Day is a pinnacle day – a day that can’t be taken away from those that were part of the festivities. No matter what, Tarrik Brock, Cole Liniak and Danny Young can always say they were on a major league Opening Day roster (2000 in Tokyo). Hector Villanueva can always say he was an Opening Day starter at catcher (1992). Jim Bullinger, who struggled as a minor league infielder, was a major league Opening Day starting pitcher (1995). Jose Nieves was the Opening Day starter at shortstop in Japan in 2000.
Opening Day is a day to reminisce about Tuffy Rhodes. For one magnificent afternoon in 1994, the baseball gods smiled upon Tuffy and watched him go deep three times off Doc Gooden. Tuffy peaked as a Cub that afternoon; heck, he hit only five more big league homers in 94 more games in ’94 and none in 23 games in 1995. But he went to Japan in 1996 and became a baseball god there, hitting 464 homers in 13 seasons overseas.
Opening Day is a day that winds up being – no matter how you try to avoid it – the excuse for the way the rest of the season goes. I can’t help but think of April 5, 2010, when the Cubs scored three times in the top of the 1st inning in Atlanta – only to have the Braves put up a six-spot in the bottom half of the frame. Just like that, the “gut punch” season began. Three straight winning seasons, including division championships in 2007 and 2008, quickly became a distant memory.
Opening Day is a day that puts a smile on my face. I remember Jerome Walton, fresh out of Double-A, trying to contain his excitement prior to the 1989 Opening Day festivities. Mesa ’89 was the last spring training I missed until 2013. I remember getting the big bear hug from Jerome prior to the season opener. I had met Jerome for the first time at the Cubs Convention in January; his agent brought him into Chicago for the convention, and then inexplicably left Jerome at the event. It might not have been a big deal, except that Jerome was staying at his agent’s place that weekend. Not only was it Jerome’s first trip to Chicago, but he didn’t have his agent’s address. That Friday night in January, I volunteered to help Jerome find his agent’s condo. It only took about two hours of driving, literally going block-by-block until landmarks started ringing bells for him. If I only had thought of driving past The Second City and Pipers Alley 90 minutes earlier … sigh. But it created a great bonding moment. And Jerome went on to have a stellar 1989 campaign – winning the National League Rookie of the Year Award.
Late last March, I reached out to former Cubs first-round pick Lance Dickson to write a “Catching Up With” type of story for this site.
I always liked Lance, even though our common time with the Cubs was way too short. He was intelligent with a good sense of humor – and he was a left-handed starter, which was something the Cubs had been desperately missing.
Lance was drafted in 1990 out of the University of Arizona and made three major league starts later that year – the only three he would ever make. Injuries bit him, one after another, and I’d see him in spring training every year while he tried to rehab his way back. Finally, in 1995 at the young age of 25, he had to say goodbye to his playing career.
His vocation after the game of baseball has been wildly successful – and it was under that guise that I reached out to him a year ago to tell his story. And it was during our conversation that he threw a curve at me.
It’s a story worth sharing again.
The original story ran March 25, 2016. I’ll give you an update at the end.
When you know you’re going to be interviewing someone for a story, it is incumbent that you do your homework and that you’re thoroughly prepared. There’s nothing worse than getting blindsided by something you should have known about.
And when you’re interviewing someone you haven’t talked to in 20-plus years, it is imperative that you do extra research. In this instance, I did … or at least I thought I did.
Thanks to the internet, I periodically have checked up on Lance Dickson – who had a meteoric 1990 on the mound and basically disappeared off the face of the baseball world soon after that. I knew he really hadn’t disappeared; in fact, he was quite successful in the business world.
I recognized that when I reached out to him, it was to tell his story in a positive way. Plain and simple, he didn’t need me telling him he was snake bit after he reached the majors. He certainly has heard his name as part of the “first-round bust” and “he must be flipping burgers” discussions. After being selected by the Cubs as the 23rd overall pick in the 1990 draft, he made minor league stops in Geneva (NY), Peoria (IL) and Charlotte (NC) before reaching the majors just two months after the draft. But it wasn’t his grand plan to make three big league starts, get hit by a comebacker, and never see a major league mound again. It wasn’t his grand plan to have a strong 1991 Triple-A first half ended by a broken right foot. It wasn’t his grand plan to injure his left shoulder the following year, something he couldn’t overcome. He kept trying to come back, but his baseball career was over in 1995 – at the age of 25.
When we did talk yesterday afternoon, I was planning on mostly staying away from baseball. His post-playing career success was much more interesting to me.
But what I learned as the conversation went on startled me. And it’s something I wasn’t prepared for – as the only way I would have been ready for it would have been if I Googled certain specific keywords. Life has thrown him some curves off the field, too.
This isn’t a story about baseball. This is a story about resiliency.
Well, actually, this is a lot about baseball.
Dickson, as a 20-year-old junior for the University of Arizona in 1990, threw seven complete games in 16 starts while fanning 141 batters in 119.2 innings. The southpaw was rewarded by the Cubs with a first-round selection in the June draft.
And that was just the beginning.
“That whole year was quite a whirlwind,” Dickson recalled. “Being picked in the first round, then showing up in Mesa to get ready to go to the Finger Lakes of Geneva … and then Peoria … and then Charlotte … and then Chicago. I was in four different cities in 10 weeks. I lived out of a suitcase that whole summer. I’d thrown a whole season in college, and then 11 starts in the minor leagues, and then I got called to the big leagues.”
He was on a Double-A road trip in early August when he received a call from his pitching coach – Rick Kranitz – who told Dickson to “Pack your bags. You’re going to the big leagues,” he said. “It was pretty surreal.
“I didn’t see it coming. I didn’t know anybody. It was my first year in the organization. I didn’t know the personnel, the pitching staff. I was pitching really well. I was very much locked in and felt like I was going to win every game that I was pitching. But I did not see it coming.”
He headed to Chicago, making the first of his three major league starts August 9 against St. Louis.
“I focused on not getting caught up in terms of where I was and the fact that I was 20,” he said. “It was 60 feet, six inches. There’s the catcher. There’s the hitter. There’s the umpire. It’s the same scene that I’ve seen 1,000 times. I think I did stay focused in what my job was. So it didn’t seem like it was a fog or a dream at all. It was a surprise, no question about that. It was exciting. It was awesome.”
And in a snap, the dream turned into a nightmare. In his third big league start, he was struck in the knee by a one-hop comebacker – which ended his season. The injury bug had taken its first bite. Moving forward, it was one injury after another.
“My baseball career … there’s no bitterness. No anger. I don’t like how it ended for me. But I couldn’t control it,” he said. “I couldn’t stay healthy. It’s that karma deal. I’d make fun of people in the training room in college. ‘Get out of the training room. Get on the field. Let’s go.’ Then all of a sudden I’m on the early bus and in the training rooms for literally my entire career with the Cubs. That was not planned. I had a different plan for how my career would go. It didn’t go that way. So you can be bitter and feel sorry for yourself, or you can pick yourself up, dust yourself off and get after the next chapter of life. I chose the latter.”
With his baseball career prematurely cut short in 1995, Dickson returned to Tucson to finish his undergraduate degree in business at the University of Arizona. He was just like the rest of us; he didn’t know what he was going to do with his life, and he was a few years older than his classmates.
He wound up in the one place he never figured he’d be. Tucson.
“It was the last place I wanted to be,” Dickson said. “I was coming back here to finish school. I was speaking to my agent, who was in San Diego – where I’m from – and I was making plans to go back home and maybe go to law school. I think you have to if you’re going to be an agent in terms of mediation and all that stuff. So I was contemplating what my next move into the real world was going to be. I was considering working with my agent. I did not anticipate staying in Tucson at all.”
Instead, Tucson became a big component of his elevator pitch.
“Life’s good. I’m the chief operating officer here in Tucson at a mortgage bank,” he said. “I’ve been here for over 20 years, right after my career ended. I came back to Tucson to finish my schooling and stayed here as a result of catching on with a mortgage bank and learning this business. I’m doing pretty well in it as both a loan officer and then moving up the ranks in the company. Now, I’m a partner and the COO. The company is Nova Home Loans.
“I needed a real job after my baseball career. I interviewed with this company. It felt good. I felt like I could do that – provide financing for folks who needed a home loan. Most everyone needs what I’m selling in terms of loans and interest rates and the service I provide. It seemed to be an easier sell to me than typical widgets that people sell, like cell phones or whatever the product is. This was selling money. I felt like I could do pretty well in it. So I started part-time as I went back to school, and it turned into full-time. I started doing really well in this business. I’ve been ranked among the Top 200 loan officers in America for 16 straight years, so it’s been a really good business for me. I started moving up the leadership ranks 10 years ago. I’ve been the chief operating officer here for eight. So it worked out. There certainly isn’t any reason now for me to leave Tucson. My business is here. My kids are here.”
He talked about how his baseball career, albeit brief, helped prepare him for the business world.
“Anyone who played high-level sports and is in high-level business will tell you what you already have heard 1,000 times – there are absolute parallels between the two,” Dickson said. “How to win. How to lose. How to lead. How to follow. How to be a team player. All of those principles are just as much business as they are sports. I treated this like a sport. This was just my new sport. I looked around and saw who was doing what and how they were getting it done. And I felt like I could compete – and it’s worked out.”
Dickson acknowledged that, at times, he was sad about how his baseball career turned out. And mad, too. It didn’t go anything like his entire career before professional baseball. He just couldn’t stay on the field.
“I had never been hurt before in my life,” he said. “I never missed a start at U of A. I’d never been hurt. To break my foot … to go through the three shoulder surgeries … it was really, really frustrating. Coming back here and refocusing on what I needed to do in order to get a real job certainly put my focus on my life and business and whatever I needed to do now that baseball was over.”
Business was going to be his career path. Coaching at any level above Little League was not an option.
“I didn’t want to be in coaching,” Dickson said. “I didn’t want to be around baseball, because my baseball career just didn’t go the way I wanted it to. I wanted to be around business and just turn the page, if you will, and focus on other things.
“I got immersed in this business. Got married. Started a family.”
He went on-and-on about his daughter, Samantha, a 16-year-old sophomore already looking at big-name colleges like Stanford, Vanderbilt and Duke. He spoke glowingly about his two sons – Jack (14) and Luke (8).
“My daughter is in the National Honor Society and she plays high school volleyball,” Dickson said. “My boys are great little students and great little young men and human beings. I coached my oldest son through Little League. He’s playing club baseball now and will play high school baseball. I’m now coaching my youngest son and I’ll coach him through the balance of his Little League career.”
And then, as he talked about his children, he dropped the bombshell that my research hadn’t uncovered for me.
“Unfortunately, five years ago, my wife died suddenly,” Dickson said. “I’m a single dad. She was perfectly fit. Perfectly healthy. Never even a cavity. She had a massive pulmonary embolism in the middle of the night.”
Cristian Dickson. Mother of three. She passed away March 6, 2011, at the age of 40. This month marked the five-year anniversary of her sudden passing.
“My kids are really, really special. They’re great kids,” Dickson said. “They were 10, 8 and 3 when this happened. Their whole world was completely turned upside down. But they’ve bounced back. They’ve gained a strong footing in terms of where they are. They’re doing wonderfully. They’re healing wonderfully from something that was pretty devastating.
“You see the stories. It happens every day. How did that happen to a marathon runner? She had run a 10K just the week before. Fit … healthy … the last person I would have expected something like that to happen to. No health issues ever. Literally, not a cavity. I used to make fun of her. ‘Can’t you just get a cavity? Just be normal.’ It’s crazy how the world is and what the big guy’s plan is. That was a serious curveball for my family. But … you know … it wasn’t the first and it won’t be the last in terms of what you see on a daily basis. Unfortunately, my family went through it.”
With what the Dickson family had to deal with five years ago, there isn’t a place for a “Why Me” when it comes to a baseball career that truly ended before it started. There are far more important things to worry about.
“It’s been a busy world, in particular the last five years – kind of wearing the mom and dad hat,” he said. “And I’m in charge of 800 employees. I’m very grateful and blessed for all I have. But it’s a very busy time – and my children, of course, are my first priority. The combination of life at home and life at work makes life really, really busy. But really great. And really rewarding.
“I’m doing well in my world. I like my world. I’m grateful and blessed. I’m happy – I truly am. It’s a good life. We’ve learned a lot of life lessons along the way in terms of what’s truly important and what’s really not. I think when you go through a sudden tragedy like that, it’s cliché – I know that – but you just recalibrate your perspective of what’s important and what’s not important.
“I’ll have a random somebody say something online like, ‘What happened to that guy?’ And then somebody commented back that I was probably flipping burgers somewhere. I get a good laugh out of that.”
It’s a year later when we caught up, and all is drama-free in the Dickson household. Thankfully, no bombshells were dropped on me during the conversation.
Lance is the Chief of Operations at Nova Home Loans, and the company continues to do very well.
“Work is great. We’re busy. We’re growing organically. We don’t like to acquire any assets or any companies, things like that. We kind of do it brick by brick,” he said. “We have 910 employees, and we ended up funding $3.5 billion in business last year.
“We’re pretty proud of those numbers. We’ve become a pretty large regional player out West.”
His daughter, Samantha, is now a high school junior and looking at colleges. While her dream school is Stanford – and she has a GPA and an SAT score that puts me to shame – dad and daughter know that might not be the academic destination.
“My daughter has not settled on a school yet,” Dickson said. “She’s looked at Duke and Vanderbilt. She’s got an academic scholarship to the University of Washington. She was accepted into the Honors College at the University of Oregon. And she’s looking at Cal-Berkeley. I don’t know where she’s going to go.
“Stanford … that’s her dream. But we’re all realistic. Stanford has a 4.8 percent admission rate. Less than one in 20 who apply get in – and, by the way, all 20 have the same grades and scores she does. That’s her dream – no question, that’s the bucket list school – but we’re trying to be realistic.”
And he still gets to spend plenty of time around a baseball field with his two sons. Jack, 15, is now a high school freshman, and Luke is about to turn 10.
“My freshman made the JV team but broke his leg. So that was a bummer. He just got out of a cast last week; he broke his leg two and a half months ago,” Dickson said. “He’s a little blue collar. He’s a boy that has to work hard. My little guy, who’s going to be 10, you see in him … things come easy to him. It’s way too early to tell, but he’s got a chance, I think.
“My 15-year-old worked so hard to make that JV team, then to break his leg that first week of practice … that was a setback. But he’s been through worse setbacks, as we know.
“In perspective, it’s a little bump in the road. But we’ll get through it. We always do.”
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.