Timing is everything. So it is with a lot of regret that I never saw Ernie Banks play.
His final year as a player was in 1971. The first time I watched a major league game was in 1972.
Officially, 491 players appeared in at least one game for the Cubs during my full-time employment with the Cubs. Hundreds more played for the club during my youth and my formative years.
Heck, the first baseball game I ever attended – Cubs vs. Mets, September 16, 1972 – included four future Hall of Famers in Billy Williams, Ron Santo, Willie Mays and Tom Seaver.
I got to watch and be around Ryne Sandberg, Greg Maddux and Andre Dawson as a front office staffer. I got to watch Roberto Clemente, Hank Aaron and Mike Schmidt beat up the Cubs as a kid in the Wrigley Field stands.
But I was one year too late in seeing Ernie Banks on the playing field.
Thankfully, I have seen Mr. Cub on tape many times. If you’re reading this far, you certainly can hear Jack Brickhouse’s voice as he made the call of Ernie’s 500th home run (exclamation points included for emphasis):
“That’s a fly ball deep to left! Back, back! That’s it, that’s it! Hey Hey! He did it! Ernie Banks got No. 500! A line drive shot into the seats in left! The ball tossed to the bullpen! Everybody on your feet! This is it! WHEEEEEE! Ernie Banks off Pat Jarvis. May 12, 1970. Second inning against the Atlanta Braves.”
I laugh every time I hear Mr. Brickhouse’s call.
The cool thing is, I got to see Ernie in person on so many occasions. He took the word “upbeat” to a new level. It wasn’t just the smile on his face. It was the personality that shined through every time you saw him.
He would pop his head into the Media Relations department whenever he was at the ballpark.
For many years …
Ernie: “Hey, how you doing? How’s the wife?”
Me: “I’m great. Still not married.”
Ernie: “Why not? You gotta get a wife.”
Followed in later years, of course, by …
Ernie: “Hey, how you doing? How are the kids?”
Me: “I’m great. Still don’t have children.”
Ernie: “Why not? You gotta get yourself some kids.”
I must have taken that advice to heart. How else would you explain the twins? “Let’s play two!”
One of my fondest memories of Ernie was talking to him around the time of the 2003 Cubs Convention. After he asked about my kids (I still didn’t have them, yet, but we were getting close), I told him about this neat Cubs Information Guide cover that was in the process of being designed. It was a black-and-white Photoshop combination of Ernie and Sammy Sosa – with both leaning on their bats and the Wrigley Field bleachers in the background. The original photos, of course, were taken over 30 years apart.
“Just make sure I have a bigger smile than Sammy,” Ernie said.
As much as Sammy might have tried, he could never top Ernie’s smile.
Ernie Banks was born on January 31, 1931. Even though it seems he’s still with us, he passed away a little over two years ago.
Today would have been his 86th birthday. Happy Birthday, Mr. Cub!
Last time out, the name Greg Maddux came up as part of a short story within the short story.
Thanks to the Maddux reference, there was some immediate feedback.
One loyal reader simply wrote: “Doggie.”
A second wrote: “There’s got to be a part two.” I’m not sure if that had anything to do with the mention of Maddux, but it works within the context of this story.
A third person – a former teammate of his – wrote: “Only Mad Dog could get away with calling you Wassermacher while keeping a straight face.”
It’s very apparent that the masses have spoken. You want Greg Maddux, then let’s write about Greg Maddux.
Writers Note: Actually, before I go on – thanks to the day and age we live in – I need to avoid any “alternative facts” on this site. The truth is, I did have a fourth emailer – Randy Bush, the Cubs’ assistant general manager – who noticed that I had mentioned him in the first paragraph of that story. He wrote: “Buy lunch – get a shout out … nice!” The 100% truth: Four people emailed me after that story, and you’ve seen the quotes. And … it’s now out there that I’ll give you free publicity if you buy me lunch.
Anyway … back to this post.
I had the luxury of seeing Greg Maddux at three different junctures of his career – as a 20-year-old coming up to the majors for the first time, as a grizzled 37-year-old coming back to his original organization to be the senior leadership voice of what could have been an amazing starting rotation, and in a post-playing career position when he was hired to serve as an assistant to Jim Hendry.
Through all the Wassermachers … and the sick jokes that can’t be told here – while keeping a poker face, even after the joke … and the warped one-liners … he never let go of the kid voice inside of him.
But he also was one of the hardest working, most cerebral adults I’ve ever come across. He didn’t become a professor of his craft without doing the prep work. He was using video way before it became the norm. He was using analysis way before it caught on. He figured out that changing speeds and throwing softer when in trouble was a much more effective approach than trying to blow the ball past the batter.
I’m not breaking new ground when I write that Maddux was the best pitcher I ever saw. Period. He was smart. He had a bulldog mentality. He was overly prepared. He had a game plan every time out – and he had the ability to both stick to it if things weren’t working right – and deviate from it when needed.
Some of my favorite baseball learning experiences took place in the Cubs’ video room during his second stint with the Cubs, as I listened to Maddux talk as he prepared for his next start. Sometimes, he was talking to me or others in the room. Often, he was talking back to the screen. He would watch video of his past matchups against the opponent’s hitters. He would watch video of those hitters in recent games to see if they were doing anything differently. He would take mental notes and written notes … lean up and drop something warped on the people in the room … and then continue on with his film study. And he almost always dropped a Not Safe For Website one-liner on you as he walked out of the room, a little smirk on his face.
When it was Maddux’s turn to pitch, you knew two things would happen. First, the game was going to be quick. Second, you knew your team had a really good chance of getting a “W.”
I still shake my head and smile when I look back at some of the numbers he put up:
And maybe my favorite stat, since laying down a bunt has become a lost art: 180 sacrifice bunts – in 1,812 career plate appearances. It doesn’t take much basic math to see that a pitcher successfully moved a baserunner over in 10 percent of his career trips to the plate. He also reached base via hit/walk/HBP 311 times and had a pair of sacrifice flies, so he helped his team offensively nearly 500 times.
Just for kicks, I took a look at the box score from Maddux’s September 2, 1986, big league debut – although he officially pitched for the first time on September 3 (only in Cubdom could that happen). The Astros/Cubs game on the 2nd was suspended in the 15th inning. It was resumed on September 3 with young Mr. Maddux was on the mound.
For the record – and again, only in Cubdom, could this happen – Maddux technically made his first major league appearance on September 2 as a pinch runner in the bottom of the 14th. So pitcher came after the hyphen – PR-P – in his first big league box score.
The Cubs’ starting lineup that day was Davey Martinez, Ryne Sandberg, Jerry Mumphrey, Keith Moreland, Leon Durham, Jody Davis, Chris Speier, Shawon Dunston and Jamie Moyer. Other Cubs appearing off the bench that day included Chico Walker, Thad Bosley, Manny Trillo, Terry Francona, Bobby Dernier and Ron Cey. How’s that for some name dropping?
By far, Maddux was the youngest player on the field during that game. He was just 20 years old – and it was just a little over two years since he had graduated high school. Heck, he was even younger than the Media Relations intern. I didn’t know it at the time, but I had a press row seat to the beginning stages of his Hall of Fame career.
And what a view it was.
I was driving toward Wrigleyville yesterday to meet a former Cubs colleague – Randy Bush – for lunch (he treated, so he better get a shout out in the opening paragraph. Thanks Randy!).
As I was heading south on I-94, a sports update was on the radio. The Rockies were closing in on a deal with free agent Greg Holland. The Athletics had signed free agent Adam Rosales. The Dodgers and Athletics had completed a trade. All of that was mentioned at the top of the sports update – before Super Bowl preparations.
It’s late January, and there is still plenty of activity going on.
In other words, it’s not like it used to be. And that’s OK.
I couldn’t help but think back to my baseball beginnings – when this was “The Calm Before the Storm” part of the year.
Back in my media relations days, the downtime in the calendar – and sometimes the only slow point of the year – was the last couple weeks of January and the first 10 days of February.
Up until around 2004 (I’ll get to that later on), the team was basically set by Christmas. You had your annual free agent feeding frenzy wrapping up at the Winter Meetings. You had trades taking place from the end of the World Series through the end of the calendar year. The rest of your smaller moves and ancillary acquisitions took place the first couple weeks of the new year. There was a general belief that players wanted to know who they would be playing for by the holidays; teams felt that way, too. There wasn’t a whole lot of transacting going on once the calendar flipped to January.
By the second half of January, the key first month events – the Cubs Caravan and the Cubs Convention – were off the plate. Also, since the team you were taking to spring training was already in place, the Media Guide – my yearly off-season baby – was getting its finishing touches and heading to the printer.
So other than trips to the printer in Waukegan to check on the Media Guide as it hit the press, this was the quietest stretch of the year.
Tick tock. Tick tock. Tick tock.
You sat and waited for nothing to happen.
You took whatever excitement you could get, breathlessly typing the press release announcing the date that the equipment truck would be leaving for spring training.
You took whatever excitement you could get, breathlessly walking around the TV crews showing up to film the equipment truck being loaded for spring training.
You counted down the days until you, too, were on that airplane to spring training.
And then you sat around and waited for something to happen at the beginning of training camp – when pitchers throw to catchers before the infielders and outfielders report. But that’s another story.
Why am I telling you all this? Because if you’re waiting and waiting – and waiting some more – for the season to start again, then I totally get how you’re feeling. To quote my inner Tom Petty, the waiting is the hardest part.
Truth-be-told, it’s mostly quiet on the Cubs front right now, too, just like in the good old days – although the excuse this year is World Series-related. Winning championships with a bunch of young core players tends to do that.
But I do have to say listening to all the activity on the radio reminded me that it wasn’t always quiet for me with during this time of the year. In fact, the baseball landscape was just starting to change after I moved to the Baseball Operations department.
During the 2003-2004 off-season, players weren’t signing as quickly as they had before. And it wasn’t just the lesser guys; some bigger name players were still on the board as spring training neared.
One in particular was still out there, a former Cubs Cy Young Award winner by the name of Greg Maddux.
Some agents had figured out that signing early wasn’t always in their clients’ best interests. If you wait, teams with need might be willing to spend more.
In the past, the perception was that teams were out of dough by Christmas – so you had to get that money early. That thought process was starting to be put to the test.
Maddux was allowed to leave the Cubs as a free agent after the 1992 season. He went to Atlanta for 11 years – where he “only” won 194 games and Cy Youngs two, three and four.
Meanwhile, the Cubs were only five outs away from getting to the World Series in 2003 (you might know that story). The rotation of Mark Prior, Kerry Wood, Carlos Zambrano and Matt Clement looked pretty young and pretty solid – but who wouldn’t want to add a proven veteran leader like Maddux?
The courtship of Maddux was legit, but it wasn’t a quick process. The typical off-season I was used to was changing, but the wooing process of Maddux dragged on and on.
Cue Tom Petty …
“The waiting is the hardest part
Every day you see one more card
You take it on faith, you take it to the heart
The waiting is the hardest part.”
January turned to February. February went from cold Chicago to sunny Mesa.
It was early evening mid-February as a sat in my rental home in Mesa – when I got the call from Jim Hendry.
“It’s done! Greg Maddux is a Chicago Cub. He said you should give him a call.”
I was with the Cubs when Maddux was called up to the majors. I was with the Cubs as he rose year-by-year from youngster to rotation ace to 20-game/Cy Young Award winner. And I was there all those years when he pitched in Atlanta – and he made fun of me every time he saw me.
I could only guess where that conversation would lead.
So it was with great delight when I picked up the phone and called him. If nothing else, I wanted to hear my name.
“Hey Wassermacher,” he said. “I have a new car, and I don’t trust this map system. How do I get there?”
Sometimes, the waiting was the best part.
I’m often asked to explain the type of work I did in my Cubs Baseball Operations days. “What did you do? Were you involved in making trades?”
Information Manager, I say. Collector-and-passer-on of information.
Most of the time, I’m hesitant to get into specifics. Either the work I did was proprietary in nature, or I didn’t feel that it was appropriate to pat myself on the back. It’s the general manager that makes the decisions. It was my job to get him as much info as possible so he could make the most educated decision possible for the ballclub.
Some of the moves were made strictly for financial reasons. Some of the moves were made for reasons the general public couldn’t know about.
Some moves turned out one-sided in our favor. Some turned out one-sided the wrong way. Most were somewhere down the middle.
Whether it was a player we acquired … or a player that was a pipe dream to obtain … or some player or team that we went down a road with, but the transaction never took place – every possible move was tens of hours of research and analysis.
Well, almost every move.
When I recently wrote about the near magic of 2008, I jogged a little note out of my memory bank. It’s one of those, “Hey, I can pseudo pat myself on the back for that one.”
It was during March of that year that we were hopeful of obtaining a veteran presence to supplement our outfield group. In plain English, we needed a platoon right-handed bat to magically fall into our lap.
In baseball, magic doesn’t happen when you need it to. When you have a need, that typically means you’re going to overpay to get it – if you can find it at all.
This one March morning, about a week before the end of spring camp, I was standing in the HoHoKam Park kitchenette shooting the breeze with assistant general manager Randy Bush. It was early – maybe 7:30ish – as we chatted in the front office section of the Cubs’ old spring training ballpark.
All of a sudden, my Blackberry buzzed with a breaking sports alert. The Toronto Blue Jays had just released Reed Johnson.
Showing my nimbleness and my ability to read and talk at the same time, I immediately was able to scan the alert and say out loud to Randy: “The Blue Jays just released Reed Johnson.”
You ask: “What did you do in Baseball Ops? Were you ever involved in player acquisitions?”
I respond: “This might have been the easiest thing I ever did.”
We were very familiar with Reed Johnson. Right-handed bat. Gritty outfielder who would run into a wall for you. Solid clubhouse presence. Veteran role player.
I had done my part to get the ball rolling when I read the text aloud to Randy. Talk about being at the right place at the right time.
Within minutes, Randy had relayed the information to Jim Hendry.
Within minutes, Jim had contacted Tim Wilken – the Cubs’ scouting director. Wilken had been a longtime member of the Blue Jays’ organization – and was the scouting director who selected Reed in the 1999 draft.
Within minutes, Tim tracked down Reed – calling him to let him know the Cubs would have interest in signing him.
Officially, Johnson was placed on unconditional release waivers. A couple days later when the waiver period expired and he cleared waivers, he signed with the Cubs. His impact on the team was immediately felt.
Again, I didn’t sign him. And I realize I didn’t do much – other than read a text. But being a part in an acquisition is, indeed, being a part. I’m pleased to say I was able to play the first part in this acquisition.
I was at the dentist’s office the other day for routine maintenance, and he asked me a question about my permanent false tooth.
The quick summary: I lost my real tooth as a seven-year-old when a cement stair came out of nowhere and tripped me – and I had a permanent tooth known as a Maryland bridge installed right before I started college. To non-dentists, the tooth looks normal – but the inside is a silvery black color.
“Your Maryland bridge is slowly showing some signs of age,” my dentist said. “Do you want to talk about doing something now, or do you want to wait until something happens to it?
“It’s probably fine, but you never know.”
Actually, I told him I do know. I have a story from my Cubs days to share, as anyone who knows me knows this could have only happened to me.
It was March 2000, and the Cubs were set to open the campaign against the New York Mets in Tokyo. I was part of the travel party going to Japan.
I’m not exactly the international traveler. Up to that point – and every trip since – I have never set foot outside of the U.S. or Canada. Flying on one of those real big planes was a new experience.
The Cubs flew on a charter from Phoenix to San Francisco – then traveled to Tokyo on a 747.
The players were on the upper level – yes, a plane with stairs! – and were sipping their Dom Perignons for the flight.
The important Cubs executives (ie: Andy MacPhail) sat in first class, far removed from the riff raff. Coaches traveling with family members and media sat in the back third of the plane. Other travel party members like me sat in business class.
Now, this was 2000 – not 2016. It was really cool to be in an airplane that had TV channels (I had a six-way seat/recliner with a personal pop-up TV screen), and meal service came every few hours with choices. The plane had a menu.
About an hour in to our 11-hour flight, the first meal was served. I don’t remember what it was, but it was good. And then the flight attendant offered dessert choices.
“How about a Haagen Dazs bar?
Sure, how about a Haagen Dazs bar. For a person with a false tooth, what could go wrong biting into a fudge-covered brick of ice?
So there I was, about 90 minutes into a flight to Tokyo, hearing and feeling a crunch inside my mouth that clearly wasn’t Haagen Dazs. I knew immediately that something wasn’t right. Ice cream doesn’t sound like that.
I asked my seatmate, the legendary Chip Caray, if my mouth looked right.
“You look fine,” Chip said with a straight face. And then, you could almost hear the drum roll. “Let’s get Jimmy. Hey Jimmy, come over here. You gotta see this.”
Jimmy was Jimmy Bank, the traveling secretary. If Chip was summoning Jimmy, I knew it was bad.
I had, in fact, broken off the front half of the tooth. I had not, however, broken through the whole bridge. Behind the fake tooth was this silver metal-like substance. I looked like Alfred E. Neuman. You know, the Mad Magazine “What Me Worry?” guy.
If you have a shiny gold tooth … you’re a star. A silvery black spot where there’s supposed to be a tooth … you’re Chuck Wasserstrom.
Our team physician, Dr. Stephen Adams, was on the flight. In his own inimitable way, he assured me that it didn’t look good and that I might live. He also said he’d look for a dentist once we were in Tokyo.
I survived the razzing on the flight. I was even invited upstairs for some Dom to wash away the mental pain.
Dr. Adams did as he said he would, finding a Tokyo dentist who would see me right away. Being that this was international, I was a little leery. He told me that Cubs insurance had to cover this, though, so I shouldn’t worry about it.
The first full day in Tokyo, he accompanied me to the dentist’s office – and we were greeted by two nice people who didn’t speak a word of English. I smiled … the dentist and his assistant saw the tooth and basically recoiled in horror … and Dr. Adams said, “Let’s get out of here. Have your own dentist take care of this.”
So there I was, toothless in Tokyo. I made sure to cover up my upper half of teeth while talking and smiling.
The rest of the week in Tokyo went without incident toothwise, and I did my best not to scare anyone. The Maryland bridge was eventually repaired when we returned to Chicago, which is another story – as I was in the dentist’s chair half a day after the 14-hour flight home. Thanks to the wonders of a body clock, let’s just say I didn’t need any anesthetic.
So, as I told my new dentist, what’s the worst thing that could happen? Exploding tooth? Been there, done it. At 35,000 feet.
With the buzz of a World Series championship still in the air, the Cubs will be traveling to the White House this week to meet President Obama.
I don’t care what your political affiliation is. Meeting the President of the United States of America – on his home turf, no less – is something few of us will ever get to do. It should be something the players, coaches and traveling party will never forget.
I’m not foreseeing any upcoming White House visits on my plate, so I’m not exactly speaking from experience here. But once upon a time, I was fortunate to meet a president at my home park, and it was an amazing experience.
Turning back the time machine, it was June 30, 1999 … the summer after the Summer of Sammy.
If you recall, it was during the month of June 1998 that Sammy Sosa exploded onto the national scene. He had been a solid major leaguer up to that point – heck, he hit 36 homers the previous campaign – but that June, he did something no player before or since has accomplished. Sosa homered 20 times during a single month in launching himself into the superstardom stratosphere. While the rest of the 1998 campaign became the Roger Maris chase – along with the Cubs’ run to the postseason – June is when it all started.
Somewhere over the next year, and please don’t ask how or why, Mr. Sosa had somehow connected with the most powerful man in the universe.
And President Clinton took time out from his busy schedule to visit Sammy at Wrigley Field.
I had heard whispers that this could be happening – but you never really know. Even before 9/11, presidential visits were kept pretty quiet.
To illustrate how quiet visits could be, let me take a step back for a moment – as this was not the first presidential visit to Wrigley Field during my Cubs lifetime.
Back in September 1988, during his “bucket list” as his presidency was winding down, President Reagan came to Wrigley Field. He wanted the opportunity to spend some time in the broadcast booth announcing a game, and his time in the booth with Harry Caray was legendary.
That was my first year with the Cubs. The presidential visit was on a need-to-know basis. I was a newbie, and I didn’t need to know.
A couple hours before the game, I was sitting in the press box setting up for the game. I was in a zone – and wasn’t paying attention to my surroundings. All of a sudden, there was a LARGE bomb-sniffing dog a little too close to my crotch.
Thankfully, I wasn’t packing.
After literally banging my head on the press box roof leaping out of my chair, the dog’s human partner said to me, “You’re good” – then walked away.
My breathing returned to a normal rate by the time President Reagan reached the broadcast booth a couple hours later. While I didn’t get the opportunity to meet him, he was directly in my eyesight the entire time he was on the air.
A decade later, little old me did get to meet the president.
That June afternoon, President Clinton arrived at the ballpark early in the game – and was there, sitting in an enclosed box, when Sosa connected off Milwaukee’s David Weathers for a 7th-inning shot that proved to be the game-winner in a 5-4 victory.
After the game, the president went to the Cubs clubhouse and walked from locker to locker, saying hello to every player and taking the time for individual pictures. The media was cordoned off – and I was amongst that throng, keeping them out of trouble.
The president completed his round, then a few Cubs staffers were invited down for pictures by Cubs general manager Ed Lynch.
All I kept thinking as I was waiting my turn was: “Don’t hyperventilate!”
Then, it was Chuck Wasserstrom’s time to step to the plate.
What’s it like to meet The American President? “The man is the leader of the free world. He's brilliant, funny, handsome. He's an above-average dancer.” Actually, I must send a shout out to my wife. That’s a line she loves to quote from the movie “The American President.”
Seriously, I was in awe. President Clinton said hello and asked my name. He asked what I did.
This … was … so … cool. He was very personable, very friendly. Come up with every synonym for charismatic that you can, and that’s what it felt like at that moment.
On top of that, he was a lot taller in person than I thought he would be.
When we were down with the chit chat, handshake and photo, President Clinton noticed a blue bound book in my hand and asked, “What’s that?”
“It’s my scorebook,” I said.
He then asked, “Can I see it?”
I couldn’t believe it. The president wanted to see my chicken scratch recording a baseball game. I opened up my scorebook to that afternoon’s game, and then – as he was scanning the page – I asked, “Can you please sign it?”
I had an opportunity to meet a lot of celebrities during my time with the Cubs – Bill Murray, Billy Crystal, Gregory Hines, John Goodman, to name drop a few – but generally didn’t act upon it for proof. Looking back, I obviously wish I had.
But on this day, I had the guts to ask the President of the United States of America for an autograph. It’s one of my keepers from my Cubs days – along with the photo.
There are a lot of things that you can take for granted, but meeting the president is something that will stick with you. I don’t know what Cubs players will be feeling when they meet the president, but in a way – I’ve been there.
Did you see the news the other day that Manny Ramirez is attempting a comeback?
An independent club in Japan – the Kochi Fighting Dogs of the Shikoku Island League Plus – announced that it had reached an agreement with the former big league outfielder. It’s on the Fighting Dogs official website if you want to read it (http://www.fighting-dogs.jp/en/news/2997).
I do believe in giving second chances – and I know he did a nice job working with hitters in the Cubs’ organization the last couple of years – but I have a tough time when I hear the name Manny Ramirez. If it wasn’t for Manny Ramirez, the success of 2016 might have taken place in 2008.
It might have … it could have … it didn’t.
If you recall, Ramirez – playing for the Los Angeles Dodgers – destroyed the Cubs during the 2008 Division Series. He went 5-for-10 in the Dodgers’ three-game sweep and hit a pair of monster homers. After the Dodgers had acquired him in a midseason trade with Boston, he had batted .396 with 17 homers and 14 doubles in only 187 at-bats.
Early the following year, he was hit with a 50-game suspension for using a performance-enhancing drug.
I’m not going to point fingers or say that the Cubs would have won the series if Ramirez wasn’t there, but it sure would have been an easier challenge.
Let’s face it, during my time with the Cubs, the best chance the team had to be a World Series club was in 2008. Yes, it almost happened in 2003 – but there wasn’t the feeling of “We’re No. 1” from the first day of camp. The ’02 Cubs had gone 67-95 and finished 30.0 games out of first place. That offseason, Dusty Baker was hired to manage the Cubs, and with him came a lot of optimism. But it’s not like he was hired with 100-win expectations right off the bat. The ’03 season turned into a wild ride, culminating in the Cubs’ winning the division the final Saturday of the regular season. But it did take until Game 161 to win the division, so there wasn’t the start-to-finish feeling of “this is our year.”
And then .. there was 2008. Please allow me to drop “we” and “our” into the conversation.
There was so much optimism when the team reported to spring training that season. The team was pretty much set from a division-winning campaign from the year before, and the “must-have” coveted player we wanted – Kosuke Fukudome – had indeed come our way.
And when Fukudome blasted a game-tying 9th-inning 3-run homer on Opening Day, it just screamed out that this would be our year. Of course, the fact that the Cubs then lost the season-opener in extra innings should have been some sort of warning sign.
Anyway, after a rough start to the regular season – the Cubs did lose three of their first four games – everything started to take shape as planned. A 4-2 first road trip. A 7-1 second homestand. By mid-May, sole possession of first place in the National League Central Division – a perch the team sat upon for the rest of the season.
Jim Hendry made a nice early season acquisition when Jim Edmonds was signed to fortify the outfield – a move coming just six weeks after he brought in Reed Johnson at the end of spring training. Then in July, the big in-season move was made – getting Rich Harden from Oakland – and everything was looking golden.
That 2008 team had a great chemistry. A strong offense was led by the veteran group of Fukudome, Edmonds, Johnson, Derrek Lee, Alfonso Soriano, Aramis Ramirez and Mark DeRosa. The young trio of Geovany Soto, Ryan Theriot and Mike Fontenot were growing into everyday big leaguers right before our eyes.
The starting rotation of Ryan Dempster, Ted Lilly, Harden and Jason Marquis was one of the best in the league. Kerry Wood had taken over as the closer and recorded 34 saves, while Carlos Marmol was one of the league’s most dominant set-up men.
The Cubs went a league-best 97-64 – their highest victory total since 1945 – and everything was looking really, really good.
And then came the Dodgers and Manny Ramirez – followed quickly by an early winter.
You can only go with the knowns, so you’re stuck with knowing that Manny Ramirez helped end what could have been a magical season. But it sure would have been nice to face L.A. without him.
As many of you may know, my wife was a Division I softball player.
As some of you may know, my daughters are still young enough to be able to play multiple sports – and fastpitch softball is at the top of the list for both girls. So I’m versed in being a softball dad.
As most of you probably don’t know, I actually got my softball start back in college as a student assistant in Missouri’s Sports Information department – and softball was the first sport I was allowed to handle on my own. Media guide … game notes … PA duties from behind the backstop … doing whatever needed to be done.
The point is, I have an affinity for the sport of fastpitch softball. So it was exciting last year to write for the Chicago Bandits’ yearbook and for their online site.
It also was an honor when Monica Abbott agreed to do a question-and-answer interview with me.
Abbott is a professional pitcher with the Scrap Yard Dawgs of the National Pro Fastpitch League and a former player for the Bandits. In 2016, she signed the first million-dollar contract in the history of the NPF – a contract believed to be the most lucrative paid by an American pro franchise to an active female athlete in team sports.
At the time she signed the contract, she was playing in Japan. If you’re a professional fastpitch player in the United States, the season is just over three months long. So when the opportunity arises to perfect your craft and get paid a suitable wage doing it, you jump at that chance – even if it’s over 5,000 miles away from home.
When I initially conducted the interview, the hope was I would be producing the Q-and-A for more important outlets than my site – and maybe I still can. Until then, I want to share her words with you.
Most importantly, I want to share her words with my daughters – and to let them know that athletic dreams can come true.
Chuck: You didn’t just wake up one morning and decide you wanted to be a role model for gender equality – or did you?
Monica Abbott: “I’ve been playing softball for as long as I can remember. I’ve had great examples of male athletes and female athletes my entire career. Growing up in my hometown … to the University of Tennessee … to playing on the USA team. Even a whole lot of coaches that talked to us and the kids on the team – talking about how valuable we are as athletes and how much of a voice we have. Coach (Mike) Candrea would always talk to us: ‘You have a voice. Athletes do have a voice. But they have to use it.’
“I had great examples. In the end, I have this amazing talent of pitching. And if this is the path God is choosing for me – with my talents – then I’m more than willing and very happy and honored to be that voice for so many others that can’t speak up.
“I never dreamed of not playing softball. I never had this dream of being in an office or being … I don’t know … a nurse or a doctor or a schoolteacher. That wasn’t me. I always dreamed of being a professional softball player.”
Chuck: What’s it like to be a voice for empowerment and change?
Monica: “It’s really awesome. I think a lot of people in America are ready for change. Especially athletes. Male athletes and female athletes that have played college sports. We all went through that same grind. A football player goes through that same grind as a women’s basketball player. A women’s softball player goes through that same grind as a men’s hurdler. We all go through it. It’s a unique step for athletes with the skills we all possess. That athletic prowess.
“I’m so happy that I can be this voice. I just hope that I can continue to be the voice for not only other players in softball and that they can rally around it – but also for female athletes, too. It’s important. It’s bigger than me.”
Chuck: Your name has been linked to other voices of empowerment like Billie Jean King and the U.S. women’s soccer team. How does that make you feel?
Monica: “I think that’s an honor. Billie Jean King changed the game for every female athlete from Title IX in women’s tennis. She was the first one. She was the brave one to step out and make a change. The Women’s Sports Foundation helped create that for everyone else – to be able to have the opportunity to also have a voice.
“It’s an incredible feeling. I just want to be the best voice and carry the torch as best as I can for everyone else. It is a really powerful statement and a really powerful message, and I know I have support all over the world. And that means a lot to me.”
Chuck: Who had the greatest influence in telling you that you should get paid the same as a male?
Monica: “I was a Lady Vol at Tennessee. In that athletic department, it was just as important to be a female athlete as it was to be a male athlete. I got to spend a lot of time with Pat Summitt and Coach Weekly – both Ralph and Karen. Even with the Women’s Sports Foundation with Jessica Mendoza and Ms. King herself. And able to talk about some of these issues. Again, just having some really great examples of people using their voice. In my case, it was more of when an opportunity presented itself. If I didn’t take this opportunity to sign this contract … if I didn’t capitalize … if I did not take this opportunity, what would I be doing? I go out and preach about this stuff. I needed to stand on my truths. I needed to hold myself accountable to myself in all aspects of my life, not just on the softball field. And if I was given this opportunity, I needed to be that voice for everyone else. The opportunity is not given to everyone. And I know that. And the person who gets that opportunity – their voice has to be heard.”
Chuck: What does it say that – at the time you signed the contract – you were overseas playing in Japan?
Monica: “I’ve been playing overseas for eight years. I’ve been over here for a long time because – like many other female sports – we can’t make a substantial living in America to be able to not have another job. So playing overseas has given me an opportunity to continue playing my career long after my early years.
“In 2008, I played in the Olympics – and then softball got voted out. That changed the entire forefront of our game. People didn’t know what to do. There were no Olympics. Companies didn’t know where to put their money. ‘Should we still sponsor athletes? Where is the growth in our sport going to be? Is the professional level going to stabilize? What’s going to happen?’
“Japan has a historic league that’s been around a long time. I had an opportunity to come here – and I was asked to play here after the 2008 Olympics. I had a chance to extend my career and continue to play.
“The Japan Softball League is owned by companies, so there is company based support. I play for Toyota Motor Corporation. Each company owns teams, and then the girls – once they retire from the softball team, they have a position within that company. They have an opportunity to pursue a career within the company they played for. So that’s a big difference.”
Chuck: While you were able to sign a big contract, you were the first to be able to do so. How do you think that now happens for other female athletes?
Monica: “The biggest thing here – now there is an opportunity. Coming out with a million-dollar contract – for a long time, that seemed impossible for a lot of female athletes. Now, it’s going to create dreams for 12-year-olds and 14-year-olds that they can make a million dollars, right? But then also the girls that are playing now, it will hopefully give them the confidence to be able to negotiate a salary for themselves.
“The league and the teams have to invest in their players and find ways to keep the girls employed year-round on the same team so that they can continue brand recognition throughout the year. Once you have a name, you have to have corporate sponsorships and TV and all of those things. It’s not just about girls salaries. It’s about creating a name and a brand of individuals throughout that team’s organization.”
Chuck: How tough was it for you to watch former teammates have to stop playing the game because, frankly, they couldn’t afford to keep playing?
Monica: “It’s so tough. There have been some great softball players – and better people – leaving and retiring because it’s too hard to train and have a full-time job in the offseason. They’re just as talented as myself – but at a different position. Whether it’s a shortstop, like Tammy Williams, or an outfielder like a Vicky Galindo. When you’re over 25, you have to make a choice to pursue a career in regular life or try to continue to play softball. It’s a tough choice and it’s tough to watch because there are so many talented people who had to finish too early. If they could stay in the game longer, the brand recognition for that player and for the team that the player is on grows. When that team’s brand recognition grows, the league grows. And when the league grows, you start to get more TV. And when you start to get more TV, you get more corporate sponsors. Everything becomes a bigger circle. So we need to keep players in the league longer to create a bigger brand name for the players – and that creates a bigger brand for that team.”
Chuck: As you look back, did you think the day would come where a softball player could land a million-dollar deal?
Monica: “I did not expect this. In my dreams, I always knew this could happen. I always believed it. A million-dollar deal – I always believed it would happen in our game. I know the pro league. I know softball. I know the Olympics. Softball as a sport is well worth the money and well worth the investment. The pro league is on its tipping point. It’s about to explode. Now it’s a question of who’s going to be involved. Who wants to be involved in it when it blows up and gets that much better.
“Why shouldn’t a woman get paid the same as a guy? You don’t grow up thinking that way – thinking that, ‘Hey, I’m not going to make as much because I’m a girl.’ I work just as hard. I’ve put in just as many hours.
“It’s exciting for a 12-year-old softball player to watch TV and see a softball player getting a big deal. That’s exciting. They should be excited. And their parents should be excited, too. That’s a good thing. That’s a great opportunity. Because if I can do it, they can do it, too. Did I get there by not practicing and not throwing strikes and not being consistent? No, I didn’t.”
Sometimes, you have to be reminded to cherish each and every day. There are no givens.
I got whacked across the face with that one yesterday afternoon when I heard that Stan Zielinski had passed away.
The unexpected news spread quickly. One text to me said “We just found out that Stan Zielinski died … We’re all in shock.” Another read “Can’t believe it Chuck. We lost one of the best today.”
Most of you don’t know who Stan was – and I think he kind of liked it that way. In a nutshell, Stan was a longtime baseball scout, and I had the honor of working with him for 10-plus years. Stan was a Chicago-area native, and he spent the last 15 seasons scouting for the Cubs. He was just 64 years old.
Scouts are a different breed; they truly are the lifeblood of baseball – especially so in an information-gathering era. They’re under-the-radar, doing everything they can to get data and info about potential players for their organization.
Scouting is not as simple as going out and watching ballgames. A scout has to track down all of the intangibles in figuring out what makes a player tick. A scout has to be willing to fight for his player, to let you know why he thinks/knows a player will succeed when others don’t feel the same way. A scout can be really good at his job, but – through circumstances not in his control – not have players selected by his organization due to different factors.
And there are different types of scouts. Some scouts excel at sizing up and projecting amateur players – both at the high school and college level (yes, there is a difference). Some scouts excel at covering professional players at the lower levels, during instructional league play and the Arizona Fall League. Some scouts excel at major league coverage, projecting player fits for trades or free agent signings.
Very few can do all of the above well. Stan, though, was one of the elite scouts – and shined at all of these facets. He did it for multiple organizations during his time in baseball. He did it for multiple regimes with the Cubs. And I was lucky enough to watch him do it from my information-gathering position in Baseball Operations. Stan was one of my favorites to work with.
What’s life like for an amateur scout? During the spring, Stan was all over the Midwest. For instance, his coverage responsibility was Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin, Iowa, Michigan, maybe another state or two. There are only so many days to see so many players – and deal with adverse weather conditions. So you’re always on the road, trying to get from one location to another – with a backup plan in case there’s rain here but not there. In order to do his job and do it right, he had to build up a tremendous rapport with high school coaches and college coaches – and of course the athletes and their families.
In the draft room, it was always fun watching Stan fight for the players he had scouted – and it wasn’t just over the high-round picks. If he could project and envision one of the kids in his area wearing a Cubs uniform, everyone in the room knew it. But that’s what a scout is supposed to do.
I worked with him regularly during the summer and fall – as one of my Baseball Ops jobs was to assist Jim Hendry and Randy Bush in obtaining info from scouts on the other 29 organizations. I spent countless hours on the phone with Stan. The information was outstanding. Getting the info never was easy.
Back in the day, which is so archaic now, I created spreadsheets and documents for the scouts to compile information for upper management. As good of a scout as he was with gathering info, he wasn’t the most tech savvy. Getting Stan to open an email, download an attachment, type info into the attachment, save the attachment, then email the attachment back to me was, shall we say, challenging. My office coworkers knew when I was going through one of those phone calls with Stan. I referred to it as being a hotline operator talking someone off the ledge.
I miss those phone calls. I will also fondly remember being on the receiving end of Stan’s neurotic phone calls about missing calls from Mr. Hendry: “Jim called me and didn’t leave a message. Is he mad at me?”
Stan was a trusted member of all of the scouting staffs he was a part of, and the Cubs organization and the scouting world lost a great one yesterday. He will be sorely missed.
What would you do if you were driving down the street and saw your face plastered on a newspaper box? Not plastered in a “Have you seen me?” sort of way – but on the front cover of a newspaper.
I can tell you what I did. I barely missed hitting a fire hydrant.
The date was October 3, 2003. For those of you who know me – just a few days before – my girls were born.
Life was moving at a lightning-quick pace for me. While both girls were fine despite being hatched a little early, they weren’t getting out of the hospital until they put on a few more ounces. I had a few extra days to fully soak things in.
Danielle and Nicole were born on September 30 – a Tuesday morning which also happened to be the first day of the Cubs’ 2003 National League Division Series against Atlanta. The next afternoon, I received a phone call from a writer with the RedEye, a Chicago Tribune publication aimed at an age group younger than I was then – and closer to the age my daughters are now. The writer had received a tip from a member of the Tribune’s sports department about my new fatherhood, as she was doing a story about people lives that were put on hold due to the Cubs’ somewhat unexpected trip to the playoffs.
As this reporter wrote in RedEye, “Some Cubs fans checking their calendars found weddings, anniversaries, vacations and other major life events on the same day as playoff games, causing swearing, rescheduling and scrambling to come up with ways to keep tabs on the games.”
And, of course, she had come across a certain Cubs media relations staffer who became a dad on the first day of the postseason.
Getting me to agree to talk about the babies was easy. Getting me to convince my wife that a photographer wanted to take a family portrait at the hospital was … well … not so easy.
In a moment of sedation, she said OK.
The next afternoon, a RedEye photographer joined Michelle, Danielle, Nicole and yours truly for a nice little photo shoot at Northwestern Memorial Hospital. To tell the truth, Michelle was going through multiple post-delivery issues – and was seeing stars on her own. The flash from the circa 2003 camera just added to her joy. The reality, though, was that the photographer was able to take some great shots. Nothing wrong with being faux famous and having paparazzi snapping away.
While the photographer was working the room, I received a phone call on my trusty flip phone. I don’t recall what the specific conversation was about, but I do remember who called. Cubs beat writer Carrie Muskat was on the line, and I walked around the room talking to her with the phone against my ear and little 4-pound Nicole fitting on my arm between the palm of my hand and my elbow.
Unbeknownst to me at the time, the photographer had captured the moment.
I didn’t officially work during the Division Series, spending most of the week at the hospital with Michelle and my daughters.
However, after the photo shoot, I went home for the night to get some clothes and prep the house for the arrival of the girls.
The next morning (Friday, October 3), I decided to stop at the ballpark on the way to the hospital.
I can’t speak for 2017, but back in 2003, RedEye honor boxes could be found in the Wrigleyville neighborhood.
So there I was, driving past Irving Park Road as I headed southeast on Clark Street – and there I literally was. In living color. Out of the corner of my eye … at a street corner newspaper box … from top-to-bottom … I saw Chuck Wasserstrom holding a baby.
And like one of those commercials featuring Mayhem, I veered sharply – and just missed hitting a fire hydrant. Obviously, I knew that I was appearing in the newspaper. Being selected for the cover, though, was very much a surprise.
After my heart rate returned to an acceptable level, I did my civic duty – blowing through a bunch of quarters. Cover models like me need the newspapers for our portfolios.
I don’t know if I helped or hurt RedEye sales that day. But on my way to bringing Michelle the paper, I fondly recall being stopped at the hospital reception desk with a “Hey, didn’t I just see you on the cover of the newspaper?”
Hi, this is Chuck. It’s been too long since you’ve heard from me.
I wish I could give you a good excuse for my absence. I can give plenty of excuses, but none qualify as “good.”
The reality is … I’ve tried to get my fledgling freelance career going and I’ve made some inroads. But the longer I avoided writing for myself, the more my wheels have been spinning on other fronts. I really, really need to be writing for me – and, in turn, for those of you who know me. Granted, writing for free does not help pay the mortgage, but it greatly helps getting the creative thoughts going.
I need to be writing more … and I need to be doing it every day.
So for the first time ever, I’ve actually made a New Year’s resolution. I need to write (at least) 500 words every day. There … I’ve typed it. Those words don’t necessarily have to be for this site, but I need to be writing and thinking and percolating every day. It’s OK if I just want to ramble every now-and-then to say “Hi” to all of you. Those 500 words have to come out of my fingers and brain every day.
Why the public resolution? If I want to write 500 words a day and don’t tell anyone, than I’m only accountable to myself. Sadly, I’ve figured out that self-accountability doesn’t work for me. I need to be accountable to others. Working out of the house isn’t the same as being in an office setting. By putting it in writing, now my family can ask “Did you write your 500 words today?” – so I better have already done that.
I’ll try to write as many baseball-related stories for this site as possible; let’s face it, that was my life for 25 years. But I will permit myself to veer in different directions about other musings on my mind as long as the sentences and paragraphs kinda/sorta run together.
What I learned in 2016 is that I can write. But we all know that was part of my background. What I didn’t grasp is that people actually read my writing. It’s easy to forget that the life I led was on the charmed side – and I can place myself in positions most people can only dream of.
That said, thanks to freelancing, I also had the opportunity to interview people for the various stories I’ve written over the last six-plus months. I got to share their stories – and that’s very exciting to me. So I will be doing a better job of blending my stories and their stories to get back to doing what I need to be doing. It’s sort of like riding a bicycle; I momentarily fell off – but now I’m getting back up and riding again. Anyone can do something the first time. But can you repeat? I can get back up. I know I can do this.
497 … 498 … 499 …
500. OK, that felt good. Real good.
I have to be accountable to myself and my family, but I consider you part of my accountability group, too. I’m writing for me AND you. Keep me honest. And don’t be afraid to shoot me suggestions.
Here’s to a Happy and Healthy 2017! Talk to you tomorrow.