A Midsummer Night’s Classic, Revisited
I originally posted this story the day of the All-Star Game last year.
I sat in the stands for the 1989 All-Star Game in Anaheim – when Bo Jackson hit one of the longest home runs I’ve ever witnessed. I worked the 1990 All-Star Game at Wrigley Field and the 2003 All-Star Game at U.S. Cellular Field.
But my biggest All-Star memory took place in 1995. The game was taking place in Arlington, Texas – but I was at Soldier Field. Baseball, for that night, was not even a blip on my radar.
Please allow me to turn back the clock … to July 11, 1995.
* * * * *
Growing up, I never missed an All-Star Game.
The annual July affair was a must-see TV event for me – and the games were typically exciting to watch, waiting for my favorite Cubs to get into the game. And when a Cub did something special – like Bill Madlock recording the game-winning hit in 1975 – it was a magical moment for me. I’m sure it was magical for Madlock, too.
Once I joined the Cubs – first as an intern, then in a full-time role – that love for the All-Star Game intensified. In the pre-internet days, there was the excitement of getting to announce it to the world that a Cub had been selected. There were game notes to be researched and media guide information to be gleaned. While the game didn’t “count” officially, it was more than just an exhibition contest to me.
But all of that All-Star love came to a one-night stop when I got “the call” in 1995.
To make a short story long …
Back in the day, I was a Pearl Jam fan well before pretty much anyone I knew. I heard the band’s first album on a Montreal alternative college music station during a 1991 road trip – and I was hooked. The band’s popularity grew and grew, as did my affinity for their work.
One of my media relations counterparts – the legendary Jim Trdinich of the Pittsburgh Pirates – had a similar attraction for Pearl Jam. But in the category of “Six Degrees of Separation,” he was one step closer.
Jimmy T., as he’s known in baseball circles, had hit it off with George Webb – a lifelong Pirates fan who has the music version of the dream job I had with the Cubs. George is a jack-of-all-trades, under-the-radar member of Pearl Jam, serving as an equipment manager and taking care of the guitars and amps. George performs a multitude of behind-the-scenes roles for the band and has gone out of his way to take care of me over the years.
In late June during the 1995 season, the Pirates were in Chicago – and the subject of Pearl Jam came up in a conversation with me and Jimmy T. While I knew Pearl Jam was going to be playing at Soldier Field in a few weeks, it never dawned on me to actually go see them. They were playing the same night as the All-Star Game, for crying out loud. Did I mention that the All-Star Game was “must see” for me?
A couple days after the Cubs/Pirates series was over, I received a phone call from Mr. Trdinich. He told me that I was going to the Pearl Jam concert. He told me that George Webb would be giving me a call to let me know where to pick up the tickets. He told me I’d survive if I missed one All-Star Game.
And then the call came.
George introduced himself to me, told me he was leaving me two tickets and two backstage passes, and that I should come early to say hello to him. He also told me that Eddie Vedder was a huge Cubs fan – which I had known – and that Eddie wanted to meet me.
I played along. While I didn’t want to doubt George’s sincerity, I really didn’t think the lead vocalist for one of the biggest rock bands on the planet wanted to meet Chuck Wasserstrom.
So on Tuesday night, July 11, instead of watching the National League and American League face off in Arlington, TX, I headed off to Soldier Field with one of my Pearl Jam-loving Cubs co-workers, Jay Rand. We picked up the tickets and backstage passes without a problem, walked to the stage area without a problem, told security we were there to see George – and were escorted directly to him without a hitch. This was Pearl Jam. Nothing was going wrong.
George brought us to the stage to give us a tour of his area. He assured me that Mr. Vedder wanted to meet me – but, since Chicago was his hometown, Eddie had a lot of family members to tend to. He’d try to come over.
I could have been disappointed, but I really wasn’t. Seriously, did I really think he wanted to meet me?
And whatever disappointment I could have had would have been eliminated when George asked the ultimate question … Did we want to hang near him for the concert?
I could have been watching the All-Star Game on TV in my Evanston apartment. Instead, I watched Pearl Jam play just inches out of the crowd’s view. Eddie Vedder was closer to me than the mound is to the plate.
It … was … awesome. Pearl Jam played for a solid three hours. It was electric. A sold-out Soldier Field rocked. I felt like such a groupie, and I didn’t care.
I will never see a better show. It’s a similar feeling to watching the 4th of July in fireworks in Boston … along the Charles River … with the Boston Pops playing in the background. Once you’ve seen that, every other fireworks display pales in comparison.
At the end of the evening, George had the audacity to apologize that Eddie hadn’t come over to say Hi. He said Eddie would be giving me a call. I was on such a high from the show that I actually believed him.
* * * * *
Yeah, right. Eddie Vedder was going to call me.
The following Monday, the Cubs played a long, three-plus hour night game. It was a particularly tough loss because it was a tie game heading into the 9th inning; five runs later, we were staring at a 7-2 defeat.
After doing my normal postgame duties – which meant hanging around the clubhouse overseeing media activities for approximately 45 minutes – I returned to my desk in the media relations department. This would have been around 11 p.m. I had checked my messages before I headed to the clubhouse, so I was a bit surprised when my voicemail light was on.
At first, I ignored the message light and started working on the next day’s game notes. Then curiosity got the best of me – and I dialed my voicemail.
The following paraphrased message was waiting for me:
“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.”
I don’t know what the right word was … Surreal? Unreal? Stunned?
Whatever the case, I played back the message multiple times. It was hard to believe. It sounded like him, but it wasn’t really registering.
I finally got up, walked into my boss’ office and said, “I think Eddie Vedder left me a voicemail.” My boss, Sharon Pannozzo, then stated the obvious. “Are you going to call him back?”
I dialed the hotel and gave the alias name. The operator asked for my name – then immediately transferred me through. After one ring, I was on the phone with Eddie Vedder. Just like that, I was a groupie!
We talked for easily half an hour. I tried to act cool, but I’m sure I was stuttering and drooling all over the place. He talked about growing up in Evanston and taking the Howard “L” to Wrigley Field. He talked about Jose Cardenal being his hero when he was a kid. He talked about having to dress up – hat, wig, and sunglasses – and watch games in the bleachers to avoid getting noticed.
I struck up the nerve to ask if he wanted to watch a game from the press box with me – where I could supervise so that people would leave him alone. He said yes, and we picked a game date on the next homestand.
I would not refer to myself as being “star struck.” Heck, sometimes, I don’t even show a pulse. In the pre-7th Inning Stretch days, I had met plenty of celebrities – and fawning was not one of my characteristics. But this was different. This was the lead vocalist of one of the biggest rock bands in the United States. Eddie Vedder was coming to Wrigley Field to see his beloved Cubs – and he was going to be sitting next to me.
I wouldn’t believe the story myself, but plenty of media were there that afternoon to witness the blessed event. Eddie Vedder, spending a ballgame sitting between Chuck Wasserstrom and Les Grobstein – and trading Jose Cardenal stories. Eddie’s stories were of Cardenal being his boyhood hero. Mine were about seeing Jose multiple times at Gulliver’s Pizzeria on Howard Street in my old neighborhood. Lord knows what Les’ stories were about. It was a day where I introduced Eddie to Harry Caray and Andy MacPhail. It was a day where Eddie the Cubs fans got the chance to go into the Cubs clubhouse and meet the players.
Somehow, I managed to juggle hero worship and work.
I had a lot of awesome experiences during my 25 years with the Cubs. Most were baseball related. Some of it was family related. But this was oddly dreamlike.
Over the rest of my time with the Cubs, I saw Eddie Vedder and the guy who made it all happen – George Webb – from time-to-time in both musical and ballpark settings. I was able to introduce Eddie to a bunch of Cubs – including loyal reader Steve Trachsel – and I saw numerous concerts.
But nothing ever compared to that initial voicemail. It was the phone call that I never expected to receive.