The first time I headed east out of Mesa, I considered it a rite of passage. After that, I did everything I could to make it an annual pilgrimage.
Back in the old days, the Cubs had a very small office staff. During my time in Media Relations, it wasn’t until the very end that we had four full-time employees.
So for most of spring training, the department was a two-person operation.
Even after moving into Baseball Operations, the Cubs were a lean group.
The point is, during spring training, there wasn’t much time away from the office during daylight hours. Sure, most of your work days were completed in time to eat dinner at a normal time – unlike the regular season – but you couldn’t count on more than one or two off-days each spring.
But if I did get a day to get away, I knew where I was going … Tortilla Flat.
Although it sounds like a town that should have been in the movie “Cars” – you know, a suburb of Radiator Springs – Tortilla Flat was a half-day trip that just cleared my mind and reminded me of the beauty of Arizona.
Think back to the days of old HoHoKam Park and the mountain range behind rightfield. Those were the Superstition Mountains – and the home of Tortilla Flat.
I must have made the trip at least 15 times – avoiding highways every time. Head east out of Mesa on University Drive for about half an hour until reaching the town of Apache Junction … at the fork in the road, make a left turn and start going north to the Apache Trail. It was that simple.
The Apache Trail picked up right at the base of the mountain range. From there, a spectacular 15-to-20 mile two-lane road winding around and through the mountains – with nothing to see but mountains and cactuses/cacti (I’m not sure which word works best). If the car in front of you was going too slow – tough … there was no passing in these parts. If you have a fear of heights, don’t look down; you’re oftentimes riding along the side of a mountain. If you needed a break, there were ample scenic spots to pull to the side of the road, get out of the car, and see nature at its finest. And the best thing was – at least the last time I was there – the further you went along the Apache Trail, the less chance you had of having cell service.
I knew I was closing in on my destination once I started winding through Canyon Lake, where there was some semblance of humanity based on the number of parked cars and boat rides. A couple times, I did take that lazy river ride – when you would hear nothing but the chirping of birds. It was pure relaxation.
A little while later – cross the one-lane bridge, alternating with a car coming at you from the other direction – and you arrived at your destination … Tortilla Flat.
Tortilla Flat is this tiny little town with – and I’m not making this up – a population of seven people. Yes, seven – and they all claim they live there (thanks to loyal reader Mary Hellmann for letting me know about the town's newest addition). The town is literally a one-half block stretch on one side of the road – a restaurant, a gift shop, a country store and a post office. That’s it. The restaurant serves some of the best chili I’ve ever had – and if you order it right, it will make you sweat. For maximum sweatiness (isn’t that a great visual), try eating it while sitting outside on a bright sunshiny day.
After lunch, it was a foregone conclusion that I would walk over to the country store for either the prickly pear ice cream or just to look at the old-time candy or the awesome sounding BBQ sauces that you used to only be able to find in Arizona.
There would always be a little phone-free bonding time with nature – just to soak it all in.
Eventually, it was time to complete the trip and return to the home base. Head west … cross the one-lane bridge … go past Canyon Lake … wind through the mountains … don’t look down – it’s a very steep drop … and eventually get to Apache Junction for the rest of the ride back.
It’s hard to put the beauty of it into words. All mountains … peaks and valleys … all nature … no cell phone.
Most of my trips there, I went with family members. But if the schedule wasn’t right, it was a trip I could take by myself – just to soak it all in.
It’s a half-day trip I highly recommend.
I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed my time around Ron Santo. No one bled Cubs blue more than Ronnie.
And from wherever he was watching the 2016 World Series, no one screamed louder than Ron Santo did when the final out of Game 7 was recorded.
Today is his birthday. I first published this story on February 25 last year – and proudly share it again today.
Back in the day, one of the Cubs beat writers (who shall remain nameless to protect himself from himself) came up to me in the clubhouse and proudly said out loud to everyone within earshot: “Hey Chuck, you need a nickname!”
I replied with the only thing that came to mind: “Chuck is a nickname.”
The reality was … I didn’t need another nickname. The longer I was with the Cubs, the more name tags I wore.
Through it all, the one nickname that became the most sentimental to me – and the nickname only this person could have pulled off – was bestowed on me by Ron Santo: “Wasserstromi.”
I will swear on legal documents and stacks of Cubs media guides that Ronnie actually thought my name was Wasserstromi. One word, like Madonna. I have my doubts that he even knew I had a first name.
And only Ron could pull off a conversational sentence like this when – at a mall – my wife and I bumped into him while pushing the twins in a double stroller: “Hey Wasserstromi! Hey Michelle! Are those yours?”
Ronnie was larger than life to me. He was still the Cubs’ third baseman when I went to my first baseball game in 1972, and he was one of the first players who signed an autograph for me. As a grownup, I was lucky enough to be with him on Cubs Caravans, at restaurants, on airplanes, on bus trips after road games. No one was more passionate about the Cubs than Ron. No one – and I truly mean no one – took losses harder than him. You could see the pain on his face after a 7-1 loss … on September 15 … with the team 19.0 games out of first place.
And no one was happier when the Cubs won.
The best way to describe his passion for his Cubs – and, shall we say, his unique broadcast flair – came on the final play of a Cubs/Colorado Rockies game on August 7, 2001. I was down the hallway in the Wrigley Field press box, so I didn’t hear the live call of the play. But it was such a classic Santo moment, and the WGN Radio production team had the cassette for me the next day.
I’ll set the stage in five bullet points.
Now, here is Pat Hughes’ chaotic and frenetic call of that play – with Mr. Santo’s succinct analysis in the background.
Pat: “1-and-0 on Girardi. 4-4 tie in the 9th. And the pitch … Girardi lines one to leftfield … ”
Ron: “Yes … yes … come on, come on.”
Pat: “It’s a base hit … Gutierrez heading toward third, he’s going to try to score … The throw by Shumpert ... ”
Ron: “Ohhh … nooooooooo.”
Pat: “Gutierrez falls down … He gets back to second ... ”
Ron: “Ohhhhhhhh … nooooooooooooooo.”
Pat: “The throw to second – not in time … Now they’re running Girardi back toward first ... ”
Ron: “JEE-zus Christ.” Followed by silence.
Pat: “Girardi being run toward second … Now Gutierrez gets back to third … The throw to first for Girardi … He’s in a rundown … Gutierrez trying to score … The throw to the plate … He slides … He’s safe … ”
Pat: “Cubs win! Cubs win! Cubs win! Cubs win! Cubs win! Unbelievable play. Cubs win! The Cubs win!”
Ron: Sound of clap-clap-clap-clap behind Mr. Hughes … Well, at least I think it’s Ron in the background. There’s a very distinct sound in the background, the sound of someone standing up – with his hands clapping in front of a microphone.
Most of the “Ron Santo Stories” are well documented in books and movies, but my favorite personal moment with Ronnie didn’t take place in the public eye. It was just the two of us on September 28, 2003 – the Sunday morning after the Cubs swept a doubleheader against Pittsburgh to clinch the National League Central Division title.
I was sitting in the Media Relations department working on the postseason media guide when I heard the familiar “Hey Wasserstromi!” Ron was standing at the doorway. “Isn’t this great?!”
I got out of my chair and asked him what he was most excited about – the Cubs going to the playoffs or that his uniform number was getting retired. The Cubs were finally honoring him, and the pregame ceremony was a couple hours away.
“What do you think?”
His big smile broke out, and he got a little teary-eyed. “I’m excited about everything. This is my Hall of Fame. But it’s better than that, because this is my home. This is my ballpark. These are my people.”
We had one of those half-handshake/half-man hug moments, then he continued down the hall – looking for someone else to hug and share his joy.
Ron Santo was born on this day in 1940 and is sorely missed. Happy Birthday, No. 10!
It was March 30, 1992 – a date that is easy for me to remember (and if it doesn’t ring a Bell, read on) – and my aunt, uncle and their two sons were visiting Arizona during a spring break trip. That afternoon, they came to old HoHoKam Park to watch a Cactus League affair.
Truth be told, my uncle was – and still is – a huge White Sox fan. My cousins were raised Sox fans, too. So they came to soak up the atmosphere and the Arizona sun – since their beloved Pale Hose were still training in Sarasota, Fla, at that time.
I arranged for my younger cousin, who was 14 years old, to serve as the Cubs’ batboy for the day.
One of the perks of working in the position I was in was that I had access to arranging things like that. It was awesome to watch a kid’s face when you brought him into the clubhouse, introduced him to some players, and knew that he was about to embark on one of those quote-unquote memories that last a lifetime.
And sometimes those memories also were really, really special … for me.
On this particular afternoon, I was looking forward to a postgame dinner in Scottsdale with family members. The end of spring training was just days away, the sun was shining, and it was great to see my Sox-loving cousin picking up bats and running baseballs to the home plate umpire while donning a Cubs batting helmet.
So there we were, about to start the top half of either the 2nd or 3rd inning, when I looked up and saw my cousin jogging to the plate. I didn’t think anything of it, other than wondering why he was going to talk to the catcher and/or the home plate umpire with the Cubs defense on the field. On top of that, he wasn’t delivering extra baseballs to the umpire.
Just like that, instead of heading back to the dugout, I saw my cousin start jogging up the first base line toward the first base umpire. My jaw literally dropped. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. My bright, 14-year-old, Sox-loving cousin had fallen for a spring training prank.
I can’t say this any other way: My bright, 14-year-old, Sox-loving cousin was being sent from umpire to umpire looking for the key to the batter’s box.
It was a trick I’d seen pulled before on some unsuspecting kid eager to be there – but not one I was planning to see for dinner. I was trying to suppress laughter while realizing I’d have to explain to my aunt and uncle that I had nothing to do with this.
And then … the jog across the diamond from the first base umpire to the third base umpire. My cousin wasn’t in slow motion, yet the “Chariots of Fire” theme was ringing in my head.
After talking to the third base umpire, my cousin started back toward home plate – and stopped … suddenly … mid step. Light dawns on marble head. There is no key to the batter’s box.
The walk of shame back to the first base dugout was priceless. The cousin-caused delay of game was a good 60-to-90 seconds in the making.
By now, I’m thinking: Dinner is going to be outstanding.
About an inning later, the press box phone rang. It was Arlene Gill, the Cubs’ executive assistant to the general manager. “Come down here. Larry wants to see you.”
I immediately headed downstairs and outside the park to our front office trailer – which looked like the Partridge Family bus without the cool paint – and went to see general manager Larry Himes. He informed me the club had just traded George Bell to the White Sox in exchange for Sammy Sosa and Ken Patterson. He had this big grin on his face when he said Sosa’s name, telling me “you’re going to love this guy.”
The trade was to be announced after the game. I then went to write the press release and coordinate the timing of the announcement with my White Sox counterpart.
And now, for a break in this story.
The Sosa interview earlier this week also brought back memories of the Sosa/Bell trade for other people on the scene at HoHoKam Park that March afternoon. Two in particular even talked about it on Facebook – Ernie Zevallos, the facility’s head of security, and former Cubs athletic trainer John Fierro.
With their permission, I am including this exchange for your viewing and amusement pleasure:
Ernie Zevallos Brought back a lot of great memories.... I was there at the clubhouse door, when George Bell came out of the office pissed off... stormed into the clubhouse, grabbed his stuff and left... then came Sammy.... polite as can be... he was always good to me
John Fierro: Lol ...if you remember George sprained his ankle that day totally botching a fly ball. Larry Himes about had a cow when i told him I was taking George for x-rays. "It better not be broken, I just traded his ass"! I had both Larry and George pissed at me that day!
Now, back to the story.
After the game, I found my aunt, uncle and cousins on the concourse to tell them I’d be a little late for dinner due to the trade.
I don’t know who had the more stunned look: My cousin – still reeling from falling for the prank – or my uncle, after learning his team had traded away Sosa.
There was some good dinner conversation that night. Thankfully, I remembered to carry the batter’s box key in my pocket – just in case.
It was around 5:35 pm yesterday afternoon, and I was fumbling around to get out the door.
The phone was ringing, and a friend and longtime Cubs supporter’s name was flashing on my phone. I only had about 90 seconds to talk, but when Mark Smith calls – I answer.
Thankfully, there are at least a couple dozen Mark Smiths across the country, so I doubt anyone will be hitting this one up for Cubs tickets.
Anyway, I picked up the phone and immediately heard Mr. Smith’s dulcet tone: “Hey, you’re famous. I just saw your name go across the ESPN crawl.”
I didn’t have much time, as I was running late for a meeting. I promised him I’d call in a couple days – so Mark, if you’re reading this, I’ll be calling you back tonight or tomorrow!
I heard what he said, but I truly didn’t comprehend. A couple hours later, as I was driving home, it hit me.
I was on the bottom line … What just happened?
For the most part, I write on this site to share my stories of 25 years with the Cubs. From time-to-time, I reach out to former Cubs players to check up on them and see what they’re now up to – and have had great conversations over the last year with well-known names like Mark Prior, Kevin Tapani, Jon Lieber and Steve Trachsel – and some lesser-remembered guys like Lance Dickson, Micah Hoffpauir and Brooks Kieschnick.
I was very hopeful that Sammy Sosa would talk to me for a couple reasons. First, he hadn’t done many interviews in recent years. And second, he knew me – and knew I wouldn’t have a hidden agenda.
I’m not naïve. I knew when I landed the Sosa interview last week that there was a possibility that it would be newsworthy. During the course of the conversation, I saw that “possibility” was turning into “reality.”
But Tuesday morning, when I hit the “PUBLISH” button and the story was real and live, I was racing into unchartered territory.
I was about to go viral.
Well, let’s face it, Sammy Sosa was about to go viral. I was just along as the tag-team partner. If I’m mixing metaphors and sports, so be it – as it was that kind of day.
There was so much good that came out of February 21, 2017 … Sammy received a boatload of publicity … there were plenty of links to my story from all over the Internet … a heavy dose of social media … a massive amount of traffic driven to my site. And according to Google Analytics, over 7,200 people clicked on this site.
Of course, there was the expected blowback from people who want Sammy to say something specific about PEDs. As I noted before detailing the conversation, Sammy trusted me; that’s why he agreed to do the rare interview. The conversation did include the aforementioned PED subject matter. He just didn’t say what some of you out there wanted him to say. If I went all ambush interview on him – and I do know what an ambush interview is – he might not have spoken to me at all.
My biggest takeaway from the day: Whether the reaction was positive or negative, it was really interesting to see the amount of attention Sammy can still generate. The name “Sammy Sosa” might be a lightning rod, but he clearly is still very much a public figure – even though he’s lived a relatively private life during his post-baseball career.
For a good part of the day, Sammy Sosa was trending on Twitter. From mid-morning until late at night, people were sending me texts, emails, Facebook messages, Tweets. One-by-one, friends were letting me know my story was referenced in the Chicago Tribune … and in a Chicago Sun-Times breaking news alert … and on ESPN.com … and Yahoo Sports … and so on and so on.
Heck, it was with great amusement when one of my kids walked in the door after school shouting, “Hey Charles, you’re on my (Bleacher Report) Cubs Team Stream.”
Finally, there was that phone call: “Hey, you’re famous. I just saw your name go across the ESPN crawl.”
And, inevitably, a picture of the bottom line sent from a friend in Houston prominently mentioned beneath the photo.
My 15 minutes of fame might be over for now – at least until my next big scoop. And when that happens, I’ll be eager to share that story with you.
It was the final day of March 1992 when I talked to Sammy Sosa for the first time. He was just 23 years old, having been acquired the day before from the White Sox with pitcher Ken Patterson in exchange for veteran outfielder George Bell.
We were at the original HoHoKam Park, and Sosa was sitting on a weight bench in the hallway outside the locker room. The clubhouse at that old facility was too small to actually hold any training equipment within the locker room’s confines, forcing the creation of a makeshift weight room.
I introduced myself to this shy, quiet kid, and we immediately hit it off.
Little did I, or Sammy, or anyone else know what the future would bring: 609 home runs – including a club-record 545 as a Chicago Cub … seven All-Star Games … six Silver Slugger Awards … an epic 1998 battle with Mark McGwire, capped by a National League MVP Award … massive adoration and adulation.
Little did I, or Sammy, or anyone else know that his departure from the Cubs after the 2004 season would be remembered more than what he did during his 13 years with the club. Certainly, things could have been handled differently at the end by both sides. He had been a popular and important figure in baseball’s recovery from the 1994-1995 strike – yet he and the Cubs had a parting of the ways and haven’t been able to get back on the same page.
While Sammy has limited the number of interviews he has done in recent years, he agreed to talk with me for this site – and we spoke at length via Skype a few days ago.
Why did he agree to speak to me? In the words of Rebecca Polihronis, a former Cubs colleague of mine and a publicist for Sosa, “Sammy trusts you.” Sammy said that to me, too, during the course of the call.
By trust, he knew I wouldn’t twist his words. In turn, I trust the words he said to me.
Chuck: How are you doing? It’s been a long time.
Sammy Sosa: “I know, I know, my goodness. I always ask Rebecca (Polihronis) about you. When Rebecca talked to me about it, I definitely wanted to do the interview with you. I’m ready to answer some questions.”
Chuck: First off, I really appreciate getting this opportunity. It’s been way too long since we last talked. As I was putting my thoughts together for this interview, I realized it will be 25 years this March when I met you for the first time. It was old, old HoHoKam Park, and you were sitting on a bench in the fake weight room.
Sammy (laughing): “My goodness, 25 years. It feels like yesterday. The bench … I remember it.”
Chuck: So, tell me all about life after baseball. How have things gone for you?
Sammy: “I’m very happy, my man. I’ve got my family. I’ve been successful in different areas in everything I’ve done outside the lines. I retired about 10 years ago, and it feels like it was yesterday. A lot of people come to me everywhere that I go – and it feels like I’m still playing. So I’m good. For a lot of people, life after baseball has been a little bit of a struggle. For me, I’ve always said that as soon as I retired from baseball, I had a good life to live. That’s why I organized myself to be ready after I retired. It was a good thing that I surrounded myself with good people to help me be more successful in the decisions I was making. I have a few projects that I have right now in Panama; we’re building around 2,000 houses, and that project is moving very well. I have business in Europe, Hong Kong, Dubai. And I keep myself busy in the Dominican Republic, which is my homeland. I’ve been traveling a lot, doing a lot of stuff. I’m also in Miami a lot. I feel that from the time I retired until now, I really haven’t missed baseball – to tell you the truth. I’m very happy with what I’m doing. I’m my own boss (laughing). I don’t have to be at the ballpark at 10 o’clock tomorrow morning. I’m very happy. I’m comfortable. I’ve got a lot of good people around me. And you know, I believe in God – he’s my savior (pointing to the sky, as he did after his home runs).”
Chuck: I remember when all of your older kids were born. You were traded to the Cubs just before Keysha’s birth. How is everyone?
Sammy: “Keysha is now 24. Kenia, my second girl, is 22. Junior (Sammy Jr.) is 20. Michael is 19.”
Chuck: That’s hard to believe. They’re all grown up.
Sammy: “And Kalexy is 5 and Rolando is 2. I think Rolando is going to be the baseball player. I’m hoping for it.”
Chuck: You had the four older kids when you were in the middle of your playing career. They were little babies, and you were a baseball player – so you weren’t always around. What’s it like to be a father this time around for Kalexy and Rolando?
Sammy: “My wife and I had the first four. After a while, I said to Sonia, ‘In a few years, our kids are going to leave our house. So let’s see if we can have a couple more kids – so we’re not home alone. I don’t want to be fighting with you every day (a lot of laughing).’ The first four, I was never home much – 162 games … spring training … it was hard. After I retired, I now see a different world and a different life. I’m becoming a better man because I see my kids every day. I have a chance to hug them every day, to be there every day. Anytime I have a trip that I have to go out of town, it’s never for very long – and then I come back and I always stay home to play with them. I feel great, because the two little ones see me every day. I stay home to play with Kalexy and Rolando as much as I can.”
Chuck: When the younger two kids are both school age, will you spend more time in the Miami area?
Sammy: “Right now, we go between the Dominican Republic and Miami. I have everything set up (in Miami), because I want my kids to get their education here. There’s more opportunity here. When you have an education in the U.S., you have a better chance to get a better job. I have a team here; my wife has a nanny and a driver to take my kids to school.”
Chuck: It’s been 10 years since you last played, and you said you haven’t missed it. Do you ever think about getting back into baseball in any capacity?
Sammy: “You know, I’m a man of the future. I see a vision. I see opportunity. I’m not saying I won’t come back, because if you say that – if an opportunity came up you’d have to say ‘No.’ But right now, unless it’s something tremendous … something that I’d have to say ‘Wow’ … something that I feel comfortable with … maybe. In the meantime, the position that I’m in right now – and the team that I have – I’m great, I’m comfortable. I have to say, I don’t want to be a coach. It doesn’t mean that I can’t come back. But my desire to be on the field again is over. The only way I could come back is if I’d have an opportunity to buy a team one day. Yes, that is on my agenda. When that opportunity comes, I’ll be surrounded by my people. To be a coach, I don’t see myself doing that. Maybe with Rolando – when he grows up, and I think he has the potential to be a baseball player – definitely, I can do something with him. But right now, the ideas that I have and the projects that I have, I think I will be more successful outside the lines. Baseball – whether you struck me out or I hit a home run – was easy for me. In the business world, I get a little smarter every day. I have a big company in the Dominican Republic. I’m doing very well there, and that company has been very successful for me. That’s why, when I hear people ask if I want to go back to baseball to be a coach, I say, ‘The only way I’ll come back to baseball is to be the owner of a team.’”
Chuck: That said, would you like to be able to come back to Chicago to do the 7th-inning stretch or the Cubs Convention or things like that?
Sammy: “I never say ‘No’ to that. I owe something to the people – to the crowd in Chicago. For that, I would come back. But I’m not going to go up there and say, ‘I’m here. Please bring me back and give me a chance.’ No way. I’m not hungry. I have too much pride. They know where they can find me. They’re in their way; I am in my way. If they want to have a meeting – of course … I’m a gentleman. I’d never say ‘No’ to that. If one day it happens, I’d be happy. And if it doesn’t, we can talk again on Skype.”
Chuck: The way everything ended in 2004 didn’t have to happen. Are there things you could have done differently that would have made it easier to have a better relationship with the organization?
Sammy: “My relationship with the organization was great. The last day of the season, the last game, I asked (assistant trainer) Sandy Krum to talk to Mr. Dusty Baker and ask him if I could leave early. He said yes, that I could go. That was a mistake by me. I should have stayed there. It was the last game. My intention was to finish my career in Chicago. That was my intention all the way. I never wanted to leave Chicago. I should have handled that situation differently, yes indeed. I recognize my mistake. But look, I have my pride, and I know I had a tremendous career in Chicago. When nobody knew who Chicago was, I put Chicago on the map. Like you said, if I could have done it again, I would have done it differently. The only thing we cannot do is turn back time. We can’t do that. But hey, we have to move forward. I understand I made a mistake. I regret it, definitely, but I have to move on.”
Chuck: When I say 1998 – Sosa vs. McGwire – what kind of memories does that bring back for you?
Sammy: “You’re never going to see that again in your life … never. You’re never going to see the show Mark and I put on … never. You’re not going to see that excitement again. We were the ones bringing more fans to the stadium … I feel proud of what I did. The only thing is, they can say whatever they want to say about me. First of all, I’m clean. They don’t have a case on me. I never failed a drug test. Never in my life. But you know what – this is not my field anymore. I’d rather not be in the Hall of Fame and have a lot of money in my pocket than to be in the Hall of Fame and try to find money to pay my bills (laughing) … You saw me grow up, you saw how hard I was working. A lot of people say so many things, but I’m telling you – they have nothing on me. I’m not going to go out there begging, because they have no case. They had the Mitchell Report trying to find something, but they had nothing on Mr. Sosa.”
Chuck: Does it bother you that people continue to say you did something … and there’s no proof you did something … and there’s nothing you can do to disprove them? Do you feel you’ve been found guilty without any evidence?
Sammy: “Chuck, it’s like Jesus Christ when he came to Jerusalem. Everybody thought Jesus Christ was a witch (laughing) – and he was our savior. So if they talk (poop) about Jesus Christ, what about me? Are you kidding me?”
Chuck: How important is it for you to be able to say, “I came to the United States at 16-to-17 years of age with very little education, and I was able to become a successful businessman?”
Sammy: “When I left the Dominican Republic, the last thing my mother told me at the airport was, ‘My son, I know you have a very strong character. You have a very strong temper. The only thing I want you to do: Please take care of your bosses … they’re the ones who pay you the check.’ I took that like it was yesterday. I came to this country not knowing how to speak English, not having an education. I don’t say that I’m a genius now, but I understand the language. I write as much as I can. I know how to read. I do what I can. And one of the things that I feel most comfortable and happy about is that I came to this country and had all of those barriers in front of me – and I went over them. This country made me stronger. This country made me who I am. I keep saying I’m a patriot. I’m from the Dominican, but trust me, I love the U.S. – because this is a country that gave me an opportunity. I came here with no name, and I put my name on the map. This country has been great to me. I’m very proud to be here. My family has had a very good education. My kids are very smart.”
Chuck: The 2016 World Series … How did it feel seeing the Cubs playing for the championship – and watching it on TV?
Sammy: “The incredible thing … I’d been watching the last couple of World Series. And last year, not because it was the Chicago Cubs, but because it was the seventh game of the World Series – it was one of the greatest games I’ve ever seen. Wow, it was incredible. Chicago showed the world that they can do it, and I hope they can repeat. As soon as they hired the manager (Joe Maddon), I was very happy about it. That manager gives chances to the young players. He knows how to deal with the young players. He makes everybody comfortable. Many managers – they don’t know how to deal with people. Believe me, this manager has that gift. That’s why everybody wants to play for him, because the guy is great. That World Series was one of the greatest. Both teams fought to the last out. And when (Rajai) Davis hit that home run … my goodness, it was a little bit scary. But then after that, it was amazing. Unbelievable.”
Chuck: Wrigley Field … it’s not the same ballpark you played in after all the remodeling that has taken place. Would you like to go back to see what it looks like now?
Sammy: “Hey, if they send me an invitation, then I would definitely say ‘Yes.’ This is my house – no matter what happened (at the end). My numbers – nobody is going to take them from me. Not even Mr. Cub, Ernie Banks, hit that many home runs. And I did it with style (laughing). But if they invite me, why not? One day, if they invite me, a lot of people will be very happy about it.”
Chuck: I get that you want an invitation. I just want to know … Would you come back to Chicago to see the new Wrigley Field on your own, or do you have to be invited?
Sammy: “Look, if I don’t see it again, I’ll send my drone over there and I’ll watch it from my house. I won’t have to move (laughing).”
Chuck: But then you wouldn’t have the rightfield bleacher fans bowing and saluting you.
Sammy: “I understand what you’re saying. If one day they want to do something, I want to do it in style. If it’s going to happen, it’s got to be the right way. Don’t worry, one day they’re going to do it. I’m not in a rush.”
One year ago today on this very website, I wrote about my wife.
The story was a little personal, and I wasn’t sure how she would take it.
Suffice it to say, I didn’t find my clothes on the front lawn. The locks weren’t changed. My name is still on the joint accounts.
That said, I know better than to re-post the original story. If you want to see that narrative, you’ll have to click here: http://www.chuckblogerstrom.com/all-my-stories/this-buds-for-you.
That said (Part 2), it means it’s time for some fresh material – but this time, not as long and not so much in a mushy romantic Valentine’s Day sort of way. I avoided seeing the wrong side of a frying pan last year, and the plan is to go 2-for-2.
Consider this my Valentine’s Day greeting card – without Snoopy or Maxine, of course.
Life after baseball has been a rollercoaster, to say the least. But thanks to my wife, I’ve been able to get my sports fix without the daily grind of working in sports.
As you may or may not know, Michelle has sports ingrained in her in the same way I do, but from a completely different angle – she actually competed and did so successfully. Michelle was a three-sport athlete in high school and earned an athletic scholarship to Indiana State University to play softball at the Division I level. In turn, her professional work experience has extensively been in the sports realm – working for teams (Chicago Cubs, Chicago Rush), a statistical company (STATS LLC), a newspaper (Pro Football Weekly) and in youth sports as a soccer club administrator, a softball program coordinator and a softball coach.
Five days a week this winter, she’s out there with her program’s softball players making them better and taking her lumps. Name the body part, and it’s probably been bruised by a line drive or a short hop or a bouncing ball. She knows it’s part of the territory – and I know better than to question her reflexes.
While her own athletic background stands on its own, I contend her greatest contribution to sports was when she decided one child wouldn’t be enough for us – opting instead to hatch twins. I like to call it our “one quarter/two gumballs” plan.
Every ounce of athletic skill my children possess comes from Michelle – well, except for the awkward off-balance jump shots that defy the laws of gravity as they miss the backboard. That’s on me. My wife produced an intense catcher/goalie/point guard who can “game face” you with the best of them and an athletic pitcher/infielder/outfielder/midfielder/defender/play-wherever-you-tell-me who takes so much pleasure and pride out of playing stellar defense and setting up teammates to score.
It is so much fun to sit on the sidelines and cheer them in their athletic endeavors – and an awesome feeling to watch the three of them interact on the softball diamond. Seeing them play and develop and succeed is such a rush – and it feeds my sports appetite.
Would I feel the same way if they were dancers or musicians or participating in other non-sport activities? Of course … they’re my children. But to get the opportunity to see them have some modicum of success on the playing field is special. Michelle and the girls are so much better athletes than I ever was, and I’m so blessed to be able to brag about the three of them.
So before I do start getting mushy – and again, I want to go 2-for-2 … Happy Valentine’s Day to my three athletes!
Working for a cold-weather team like the Chicago Cubs brought a huge perk this time of year. Namely, being forced to travel to Arizona for spring training.
After months of fleece and parkas and head colds and sinus infections, a higher being lets you know that it’s time to step on an airplane and get the heck out of town for six-to-seven weeks (that higher being, of course, being your team president or general manager).
Thanks to the fine folks at United Airlines, life would be different 1,440 air miles away.
After your first couple of spring trainings, there’s a certain repetition that comes with it.
No matter the year, I flew out of O’Hare on the earliest flight I could get. It would be cold outside. It was still dark. It was the perfect way to get away.
No matter the year, when I arrived at Sky Harbor Airport in Phoenix, the sun would be out. The sky would be cloud-free. After a winter in Chicago, I would be allergic to rolling down the car windows, so I purposely put on the rental car air conditioner to make sure it worked properly.
And then I’d head east to Mesa … Superstition Mountains in front of me … heading to the spring training complex, looking for my first cactus of that given year.
I had more than 20 spring trainings in Mesa, and it changed so much over the course of time.
When I first started going to spring training, the present-day highway systems were still under construction – or a vision for the future. The 202 – the loop that takes you from the airport to central Mesa – was a work in progress. It was several spring trainings before I didn’t have to take surface streets to get out of the airport. And once the 202 opened, it was exciting every February to see how much further the road would go. It took almost 20 years for the road’s completion. Obviously, the rough Arizona winters make it tough to work year-round.
And then there was the 101. In 1990, the road’s development was just in its infancy. Getting from Mesa to Scottsdale – and then north to places like Carefree and Cave Creek – seemed like a day trip. But little-by-little, step-by-step, the road grew longer and longer. And the region got bigger and bigger. And the compressed Cactus League continued expanding and expanding.
Back in the day, most of the spring training activity centered on Phoenix, Scottsdale, Tempe, Mesa and Chandler – which was almost a hike. You’d have your day trip – or sometimes an overnighter – to Tucson. Then there would be the multi-day trek to Palm Springs and Yuma to take on the Angels and Padres.
And you’d have quaint spring training parks like old HoHoKam Park – designed for spring training use and not much more. During our time at old HoHo, we didn’t even have a permanent structure for the front office staff to work out of; the front office was housed in a trailer – with a half dozen small offices from which all baseball operations work took place.
Now, thanks to the different world we live in, there are huge multifunctional facilities spread out all over the valley. Things change, and it’s all good. But I look back fondly at the old days of Fitch Park – the minor league complex the Cubs practiced at before the start of spring training games – when you could walk from field to field and talk to the fans. There was something special about just walking around and saying “Hi” to people – even though I knew they were there to see the guys in uniform, not me. It was just a different time, a different era.
The first time I went to spring training, I was wide-eyed. About 48 hours in, you realize you’re going to be there another six weeks.
When you do the math, you realize that I spent roughly three full years of my life in Arizona thanks to spring training and organizational meetings – so I witnessed a lot.
Still, there was something fresh about heading there every spring.
I became a creature of habit. Get the rental car and head straight to Fitch Park to unpack my desk. Then, head straight to the rental condo to unpack my bags. By early evening, it was time see that first amazing sunset on the way to grocery shop – first at Basha’s, then at later years at the Walmart Supercenter.
By day two, it was time to plan the first of countless annual pilgrimages to my favorite restaurants: Don & Charlie’s, Carlsbad Tavern, Z Tejas, P.F. Chang’s – before it went national.
On day three, it was time for training camp to officially start. Spring training was underway.
And a few days in, just as repetition was starting to set in, there was always the lure of the Kohl’s Presidents Day Sale – for when the 30 shirts I’d pack for six-plus weeks weren’t deemed enough to get me through spring training.
All around the sport, pitchers and catchers report this week. It’s the first step in the commencement of the 2017 campaign – and the marathon that a baseball season is from start to finish.
And there’s nothing like walking out of the airport and taking in that first breath of fresh air after a long winter in Chicago. It’s a new beginning.
It was one of my favorite parts of the job.
One of the best parts of working in baseball is the beginning of spring camp and the freshness of a new campaign. I always traveled to Arizona believing hope was in the air – even when the realistic in me knew better.
It was always “Job No. 1” at the beginning of camp to introduce myself to the new players as they arrived at old Fitch Park. It was important that these players – those who had joined the organization over the off-season and the newbies who were in a big league camp for the first time – knew that they had someone to turn to if they had any questions. The way I looked at it: They were all human beings in different surroundings, and when it’s your first time in a new place, you’re not always comfortable right away. I relished the opportunity to be the answer man and help them feel comfortable.
Of all the kids I was able to help out, one who stands near the top of the list was Hee Seop Choi. If you’re a longtime Cubs fan, you certainly remember Hee Seop – a large, left-handed hitting first baseman from South Korea.
Sadly, Hee Seop’s claims to fame as a major leaguer were being injured in a collision with Kerry Wood – sending him to the hospital with a concussion – and getting traded to Florida for Derrek Lee. It’s too bad his Cubs time was short, because it would have been a fun ride had his career taken off – as Hee Seop was one of the nicest, most pleasant human beings to wear a Cubs uniform during my time with the club.
There certainly were language barriers, though, so I made sure he was my pet project during spring training 2001 – his first invitation to a major league camp.
From the first day he reported, I checked on him multiple times each day. Since he was a minor league player earmarked to spend the year at Triple-A, he did not have an assigned translator, so I made it a point to always be around if he needed help. During clubhouse access time when media could talk to the players, there were always bilingual Korean media members helping translate for their American media counterparts.
Whenever Hee Seop needed me, I was around. It wasn’t that I needed to lurk; I think he was just more comfortable knowing I was around.
Oftentimes, either before or after practice, Hee Seop would stop me in my tracks. He would be working on improving a sentence in English, or trying to learn the English name of a specific object he was pointing to. He was just a kid, but he was working very hard to fit into our culture.
Now that the scene is set … It was one of the final days at Fitch Park before the team moved six blocks up the street to HoHoKam Park for the start of Cactus League games, and Hee Seop was frantically trying to get my attention.
I heard someone yelling my name – “Chuck … Chuck” – and Hee Seop was waving his arms as if there was some sort of medical emergency.
I literally ran from one corner of the locker room to his spot, and he ducked down to look me straight in the eye. He was almost a foot taller than me – but now we were on the same level, and he had this serious look on his face.
“Look at them,” Hee Seop whispered about something going on directly behind me. “Please.”
I turned around and scoped the room to figure out what he was talking about. I thought for sure there was a TV crew filming him – or at least someone whose presence in the clubhouse was questionable.
I lined up so that I was at the same angle he was, and there were two Cubs pitchers talking – veteran Jason Bere, who had signed with the club over the off-season, and a kid in his first big league camp by the name of Jay Yennaco. Choi and Yennaco had been teammates in Double-A the year before, so it wasn’t like Hee Seop didn’t know who he was.
Bere was born in Cambridge, MA, and had spent his youth growing up around 25 miles north of Boston. Yennaco was born in Lawrence, MA – located near the Massachusetts/New Hampshire border – and was raised just up the road in Derry, NH.
It was just the two of them talking to each other – and their thick Boston accents came out. It was sounding like a Matt Damon/Ben Affleck scene in Good Will Hunting – just louder and thicker.
And as I honed in on their conversation, Hee Seop was trying to put the right words together. “What they saying? That’s not English language.”
I looked at Hee Seop and tried to stifle a laugh.
Then I turned back to Bere and Yennaco, just as one of them shouted “wicked smart” – pronounced “wickid smaht” – and lost it. Through my laughter, I admitted to Hee Seop I had no clue what they were talking about.
Turns out I needed a Bahston-to-English translator.
One year ago today, I took the plunge.
I put it out to the free world that I wanted to start writing again.
At first, it was solely for me – and for whatever readers wanted to join me for the ride.
Later, it moved on to some freelance opportunities … which led to more freelance opportunities. It’s quite a rollercoaster ride trying to make it as a freelancer, but the key is to keep writing and writing and writing some more.
One year ago, I put myself out there with my first story/post/blog – whatever you want to call it.
One year later, I take you back to where it all began.
Thank you so much for all of your support over Year No. 1! I can’t thank you enough.
* * * * *
I don’t listen.
OK, that’s not exactly true. I can safely say that I can be a really good listener. I’ve interviewed enough people to know that I can sit down without a script, carry on a conversation, and get the interviewee to start talking about things that matter to him or her. And then I can follow up with a question based on that response that shows that I was paying attention to what that person had just said, instead of reading a preconceived list of questions from a notebook pad.
You know what I mean. If you’re around someone who isn’t a good listener, and then … there goes a squirrel … and whatever you were just talking about went in one ear and out that same ear.
This isn’t a squirrel moment coming up. I’m just trying to connect some dots by using a circle instead of a straight line.
I’m a big fan of “Modern Family” reruns, since I can typically watch them in blocks and vegetate. One of my favorite storylines revolved around a wedge salad. Claire and Phil had a fight – Phil, of course, didn’t know why – because (after taking the advice of the legendary Skip Woosnam) Phil wanted Claire to partake in the deliciousness of a wedge salad. Claire had been trying for years to get Phil to try a wedge salad, and she was hurt because she believed that Phil didn’t listen to her and didn’t appreciate her opinions. Claire believed he didn’t have a problem taking suggestions from friends and strangers – even when those suggestions were the exact same thing that she had been telling Phil to do. In the end, Phil brought out a scrapbook full of changes he had made in his life based on Claire’s advice.
Well, this is a wedge salad moment in time for me. Not my only wedge salad, of course, and I’m sure there will be more of those lettuce skeletons coming.
For the last few years, my wife has suggested on numerous occasions that I should write a book. By numerous, I do mean more than once or twice. She swears she can get financing for me to write that great Wasserstrom novel. I put in nearly 25 years working for the Cubs – and was there for so many events and saw so many things that she thinks would be book worthy. Heck, when I first started there, people were still using typewriters, Wrigley Field didn’t have lights, and internet meant there was a foul ball off the screen behind the plate: “He fouled it in ter net.”
At any rate, I didn’t listen about sitting down and writing. And no, there aren’t any book thoughts swirling in my head right now.
Earlier this week, I ate lunch with a former Cubs co-worker at this place called The Little Goat Diner in the West Loop. I give a gratuitous tip of the cap to the restaurant, because it’s possible none of this would have taken place had I not tried something different – and let me tell you, that Sloppy Goat sandwich was tremendous. This friend suggested STRONGLY that I need to share my thoughts … that I’m a strong writer … that I have stories to tell … that I have plenty to offer a viewing audience.
She reminded me that I had blogged before a lot of people knew what blogging was. Back in 2000, I had one of those “trip of a lifetime” adventures – as the Cubs opened the season in Tokyo. While overseas and in a time when AOL ruled the world and smartphones weren’t attached to everyone, I was half a day away from all of my people in the central time zone. The only real way to communicate was through e-mail.
I took the opportunity to sit down every night and compose my daily experiences in a Dear Diary sort of way – and sent those thoughts to an e-mail group who I thought would be interested. One of the people on that distribution list was this “lunch meeting” friend, who turned my writings/musings into a two-page spread in the since-departed in-house VineLine magazine – complete with some of the stellar photographs I took with store-bought box cameras.
She suggested I start telling my stories. She said I could even go back in time and post the Japan stories again, just for the humor of it.
She’s right. I need to do this. I want to do this. I love sitting down and turning the scribblings in my head into thoughts on a keyboard – then turning those thoughts into words.
I have written hundreds -- maybe thousands -- of press releases (yes, I know they’re called news releases now) and plenty of feature articles. After a self-imposed hiatus while I pursued a different opportunity that wasn’t me, I’m quickly getting back into social media, and I’m doing a little Twitter (@C_Wasserstrom), dabbling into Instagram to largely troll what my daughters are posting (chuck.wasserstrom) and became possibly the last person to join Facebook (chuck.wasserstrom). I’ve really enjoyed getting to reconnect with people – and it has been truly awesome to hear directly from old acquaintances that I hadn’t seen or spoken to in years.
But those other channels only give me little nuggets of space. I have an ability to tell stories – be it from the past or what’s going on in my day-to-day world – and to tell these stories in a longer-form design. Write when I want … what I want … and forever long (or short) I want. I’m writing for and hopefully entertaining you, the reader, but I’m also writing for yours truly.
Note: If no one other than Chuck Wasserstrom is reading this other than me, myself and I, then I have to do a better job of selling Chuck. Metrics aren’t good if the only person clicking on the story is the author.
So this platform is my wedge salad. The plan is that my wife doesn’t get mad that I’m putting the voices in my head into written form solely at the suggestion of someone else (although I know she still wants that book, but I’m starting small).
Note No. 2: If you’re reading this and don’t really know much about me, my wife’s name is Michelle. If you also happen to be a reader of books that have actually been written, you might have heard of Crossing California, a novel with a main character named Michelle Wasserstrom. That character is not my wife. Someone else has profited off her name.
Anyway, welcome to my blog/journal/diary/musings/hobby/inner demons. I hope you enjoy the ride.
By the way, in case you read this far and did notice, I purposely did not name the person who encouraged me to get this started -- mainly to protect the innocent. If this takes off for me as planned, I’ll give her full credit – provided I also meet her exacting standards and provided she signs that disclosure agreement that I can use her name for the betterment of myself. If it doesn’t work out, I don’t want you to blame or shame her.
And, if this proves to be relaxing and fun and cathartic and a release of that inner me, I’ll also give due credit to that Sloppy Goat sandwich.
It’s a fine whine, but it is reality: In 25 years working in baseball, I never had the chance to see a World Series game live and in person.
Between my time with the Cubs and volunteering to assist the National League multiple times during the postseason, I worked plenty of playoff games – and had champagne poured on me on numerous occasions by players heading to the World Series. Some of those times, I even knew the players.
Let me tell you, when it’s someone you knew, that champagne didn’t smell too bad – because you were really excited for the opportunity they were getting. In other words, it was a former Cub heading to the World Series who was dousing me.
And when I had champagne poured on me by actual Cubs players after the Wildcard win in 1998 – and after clinching the division in 2003, 2007 and 2008 – that champagne smelled really, really swell.
Suffice it to say, I have plenty of great baseball memories I can tell – and laundry tips about what to do when you’re covered in champagne and want to save your clothes – but I never did get to that elusive World Series game.
The Super Bowl, though … that’s a crown jewel of an event that I did get to witness in person. And I was able to cross that off the bucket list as a 17-year-old high school senior. And I even brought my camera to the Miami Dolphins/Washington Redskins gridiron tilt in Super Bowl XVII.
Back in the glory days (cue either Bruce Springsteen or Al Bundy), I attended Mather High School on the far north side of the city. I was NOT an athlete, so unless I actually wanted to practice playing a musical instrument, it was important that I had an afterschool job.
For a couple years, I worked in the stockroom of a shoe store. That’s about all I’ll say about that.
The summer before my junior year, though, I got my big break – one that really started me on my dual journalism and sports career. Through connections that I don’t want to divulge (OK, my mom helped with the connection), I was able to land a part-time job at Pro Football Weekly – an Arkush Family-owned newspaper that was at the time located directly across the street from Mather High.
Pro Football Weekly was the first step in opening my eyes about the work done by professional teams and by media organizations. I can’t even begin to explain all the knowledge I collected from the Arkush brothers – Dan, Hub and Rick – along with the great staff they had assembled. Hopefully at some point I’ll do my due diligence and write about my PFW days.
During my second year there – in the fall of 1982 – the NFL had a work stoppage, which significantly shortened the season. After a few days of inactivity, PFW asked me to stay away until the resumption of play. (Note to Chuck: Don’t include that in any future stories about PFW).
I was brought back a couple months later, and several people there really felt bad that I had been laid off. A promise was made when I returned: We’ll make this right. Just trust us.
OK, I thought. What did I know? I was the little ol’ high school senior, just helping out after the school buzzer rang. They really didn’t owe me anything.
They kept reminding me that they were going to take care of me. But I wasn’t going to ask.
So I waited.
In early January, I finally got my answer. They were taking me with to Pasadena to be part of the Pro Football Weekly coverage. I would get to sit in the media scrums and tape the player sessions. I would get to go to the Super Bowl Week parties. And, while I wouldn’t officially be on duty for the game being played at the Rose Bowl, I would get to watch Super Bowl XVII from the stands.
I think it’s safe to say that I was OK with that. Miss a week of senior year to go to the Super Bowl? That was pretty sweet.
I wish I had done a better job of chronicling that week in my life. It was a blur – but certain events stand out.
The Super Bowl itself was memorable in numerous ways – mainly because of my end zone seat and the touchdowns that were scored coming right at me. Remember John Riggins’ fourth quarter fourth-and-inches run for a 43-yard touchdown? Ran right at me. Remember Fulton Walker’s 98-yard kickoff return? Ran right at me. Heck, even a touchdown pass to Jimmy Cefalo was close enough to me that I was able to take a snapshot of it.
I’m sure I’ll watch Super Bowl LI with interest Sunday night. But as big a spectacle as it will be, it can’t touch being there in person as a high school kid. Glory days, indeed.