It’s hard to believe, but this is the Sweet 16th anniversary of the Cubs’ 2000 season-opening trip to Japan. To commemorate the blessed event, I found the original unedited Chuck Wasserstrom day-by-day recap – which turned out to be my original blog. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it back then – and reading it now. Apparently, I was funny back in the day!
This is the third and final installment of my retro posting. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed reminiscing about the trip.
March 29, 2000 (Day 6 Recap): Sunnyside Up In The Big Egg …
It’s really late here in Tokyo as I recap the day, but I’m under deadline pressure now (I’ll explain a bit later).
As you probably already know, we won the season opener 5-3 over the Mets. It was nice to get at least one regular season win out of this trip, as an 0-2 start would have made for a very, very long trip.
In case you were wondering, the “cute” nickname they have for the Tokyo Dome is “The Big Egg.” But anyway …
Before I give you a couple tidbits from this evening, I thought I’d share my morning activity. Because of this series, the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo hosted a reception today in honor of some of the celebrity Americans making the trip to Japan. So a few of us tagged along which honored America’s own Mike Piazza and, of course, Sammy Sosa.
It was a neat experience, as I had never been to a U.S. Embassy before. I met Tom Foley, the U.S. ambassador to Japan, who formerly was the Speaker of the House (and not the Tom Foley who was formerly a middle infielder with the Reds and the Expos). Others in attendance including Hall of Famers Billy Williams, Ernie Banks, Hank Aaron, Lou Brock and Tommy Lasorda.
After the reception, which also included a buffet lunch and a nice dessert bar (best cheesecake I’ve had in Japan!), I went to the ballpark — and basically ran around for the next 9 hours. That brings about the question, can you legally run around with your head cut off like a chicken inside the Big Egg?
Once we got closer to game time, it was nice to have real gameday duties to do again. And one of the things I was scheduled to do was the in-house P.A. in the press box.
Approximately 40 minutes before first pitch, though, the in-house P.A. — which didn’t work for the two exhibition games — still wasn’t working. That’s when MLB gave my boss (Sharon Pannozzo) a gift to give to me — a bull horn to make announcements. Big mistake on their part. That also clinched that the in-house P.A. would work.
In the interim, though, I got to walk to the press box shouting “Konnichiwa” over the bull horn. Then, since we had a lineup change, I had the chance to use the device in the press box. This bull horn was the Mercedes Benz of bull horns, too! It was like giving a kid a book of matches. Of course, I probably woke up the electrician in the process.
The way the press box was set up, though, the official scorer (Bob Rosenberg) was 1 1/2 rows away from me. He literally had to send signal flares down toward me for me to make the announcements. At least I had the foresight to beg and grovel to the umpiring crew to signal all changes to me since there is no phone communication to the dugouts.
A couple last thoughts for tonight about the Big Egg … While it is absolutely uncommon for booing to occur at baseball games in Japan, that practice did occur when Sammy Sosa walked twice. Also, just so you know, when they do the wave here, it goes from left-to-right — just like in the States.
That’s all for now. Sayonara.
P.S. — As for the first-line mention of deadline pressure … It seems that my diary has been picked up by our publications department for Vine Line. I hope they have the guts to run my first-day “ass spray” line. As part of the diary, our team photographer, Steve Green, followed me around part of the day. It’s the first time I’ve had my very own paparazzi stalker. Or, as one of our coaches asked, “What’s the singular of paparazzi?” I’m sure you’ll all be looking forward to my Jaws Kiel smile.
March 30, 2000 (Day 7 Recap): The True Japanese Shrine …
We treated the Japanese people to one of the finest elements of America this evening — a four-hour extra-inning game. As I’m sure you’re aware, we lost, but at least we got out of here with one victory.
Before I tell you about my day, a travel tip for you — Don’t bruise a heel when you’re on the road!! Teeth … you can survive without. But when you hurt your heel and insist on going on long walks …
Another travel tip, Tokyo style. The best way to get around the trains is to travel in a flock. I don’t know why, since none of us can read the maps. But at least you seem to get where you want to go.
Anyway, I started my day with the nice breakfast buffet on the New Otani’s second floor. It’s very Americanized — so much so that tater tots and carrots have been part of my daily breakfast. I did get bold and try the Japanese version of Raisin Bran, which actually tastes like kibble.
After breakfast, a group of us headed for one of the Japanese shrines every visitor must see — the Pokemon Center. Yes, Virginia, Pokemon does exist here. Apparently, you have to go to this mecca to purchase the manna. I promise, no more made-up cliches.
I know just as much about Pokemon as my grandmother does (Hi Grandma!!), but this craze does exist. When the group got there, all you saw was this huge line going halfway down the block. Being ugly Americans, though, we bartered our way to the front of the line. Which leads me to …
I waffle-faced a little kid today!
The Pokemon Center is approximately the size of the players’ area in a clubhouse. Not a bad size for 40-60 people, but not quite big enough for double that amount. Unfortunately, keep multiplying up for an approximate number of people in this place.
Pokemon Center was like the train ride back from Tokorozawa, only with shorter people. And these children were just as unruly as their American counterparts.
One such future politician slammed into the side of me as he was running around. The reflex action (yes, I sometimes have reflexes) caused the bucket in my hand to bounce off his face. He had a little waffle mark, but he kept going. I don’t think I even slowed him down.
I think it’s safe to say that Pokemon Center had as much Pokemon-related paraphernalia as there is out there, although I can’t read Japanese. Since I was picking up stuff for others, I spent almost 12,000 yen — mostly on trading cards (I don’t think they have stale bubble gum in the card packs, though).
After the train ride back to the hotel area, I returned to the noodle shop I was at for lunch earlier this week. My Japanese is getting better, as I was able to order beef-u and rice-u — and please bring the fork-u. I believe those are three of the ten English words spoken in that establishment.
After returning onto hotel property, I finally got a chance to roam through the New Otani’s famous outdoor garden. That, of course, leads me to …
I stepped on a big fish today!
This garden had everything you’d picture of a Japanese garden — men trimming trees, carefully groomed bushes, flowers, waterfalls, and of course, big fish.
Fish the size of the children at Pokemon Center live in a small lake-like area. To cross the area at one point, you need to walk from rock to rock to rock — with about one-foot water gaps in between the rocks. I was taking pictures of the fish from one of the rocks, and I stepped aside to let some people by. As you can figure, Charlie Tuna had a human briefly standing on his back. The fish was fine. My shoe got wet.
Before heading to the ballpark, I stopped by a one-hour photo center in the hotel. They have this neat little thing here in which if you are willing to wait three hours for the film to develop, they will deliver it to your room — for a price less than if you want the pictures within the hour. As promised, my photos were waiting for me when I returned from the Tokyo Dome — along with a thank you for choosing them to develop my film. Can’t beat that!
I feel that I need to thank a few people for their help at the ballpark — most notably the umpiring crew and my press box translator. I spent more time talking to the umpires the last few days (Randy Marsh, Angel Hernandez, Ron Kulpa and Marty Foster) than I probably did over the course of the last five years.
Then there’s Nobuhisa “Nobbie” Ito, who translated every P.A. announcement in the press box into Japanese. Nobbie is the coordinator of international relations for the office of the baseball commissioner in Japan. He went to college in the U.S. at Ohio University — and had an internship with a minor league club in Boise, home of the Boise State University blue football field. This was his first time ever speaking into a microphone or assisting as a translator. I did my best to Westernize him in two nights.
That just about wraps up this installment — which probably is the end of the diary for me. We have an early morning workout tomorrow, then I’ll probably just come back to the room and get some work done. We need to leave for the airport four hours before our 7 p.m. flight (I hope that’s enough time), and then I get my first course in time travel — as we “technically” land more than three hours before we took off.
Assuming this is the final chapter of my Tokyo trip, I want to thank you for reading. I hope you received at least a fraction of the fun reading it as I had typing it.
For now, Oyasuminasai (good night), and Sumimasen, nihongo was wakarimasen (Sorry, I don’t speak Japanese).
See you soon.
Editors Note: No fish or small children were harmed during the typing of his journal entry. However, a heel is still bruised
I had this great thought bubble that – if I could reminisce about my adventures in Japan and get people to read 16-year-old stories – wouldn’t it be great to tell the stories of someone who spent several years there and not just one week?
And as I was thinking about who I should reach out to about baseball in Japan, a great Facebook post came across my timeline last week – a very simple "Man I sure do miss me some Korean BBQ." Talk about karma.
After I laughed, I instant messaged Micah Hoffpauir to let him know I would love to talk to him – something along the lines of “Hey Micah! I would love to talk to you!” Which was quickly followed by his response of “I would love for you to do a story!”
You have to love when no begging, groveling or arm-twisting is needed.
Hoffpauir spent the 2011-2013 seasons playing for the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters after spending eight pro seasons in the United States – including parts of three with the Cubs from 2008-2010.
When I caught up with him a few days ago, I immediately started with the Korean BBQ angle. I have to admit, Korean BBQ sounded good.
“Korean-style BBQ is a really neat environment,” Hoffpauir said. “You go to a restaurant, you sit at a table, and in the middle of the table is an open grill. You order pieces of meat and they're usually in bite-sized portions. They cook them at the table, and they have meat, vegetables, fish, shrimp – anything you can think of. And obviously, they have rice and noodles. Overall, a really neat experience – and very good food."
Hoffpauir, who now works in marketing for Grace Hospice in his native Texas (“It’s for terminally ill people who need end-of-life care … it’s an absolute blessing to see people being taken care of … it’s been a very humbling experience to see the way people are cared for), first reached the big leagues in 2008. He wasn’t exactly on the fast track, as he was in his seventh professional season – and his fourth as a Triple-A regular.
Near the end of the 2009 season, a scout approached him about playing in Japan – putting overseas thoughts in his head for the first time. During the 2010 campaign, the Cubs traded Derrek Lee to Atlanta in-season, and Hoffpauir platooned with Xavier Nady during the final six weeks of the season. It was during that time that he talked about his big league future with general manager Jim Hendry.
“Jim and I had a little conversation, kind of what his thoughts were,” Hoffpauir recalled. “We just felt I wasn’t going to get a shot to start in Chicago. At my age, I started thinking about doing the most to help my family’s future. My agent said there was probably interest in Japan, so we reached out to a couple teams. They decided they wanted to pursue me a little bit with the blessing of the Cubs – and Jim let me go there.”
Some guys go overseas and it's a one-and-done – or they don't even survive one year. Hoffpauir signed a one-year contract with a player option for a second year – which is quite unusual by Japanese standards – and returned to Asia for a third season. He played in exactly 300 Japanese Pacific League games.
“You've probably seen the movie Mr. Baseball, where Tom Selleck is sitting in the dugout – and everything is very serious,” Hoffpauir said. “It's business; it’s not a game. It's about winning games. If you are losing the game, nothing is funny.
“There was this one day in spring training when one of our young players, Sho Nakata, missed a bunt sign. In the States, if you miss a sign, they're going to fine you, or someone says ‘Hey dude, pay attention.’ Well, Sho missed a sign – and again, this is spring training – and we're all sitting in the dugout after the game – and they’re talking about it. First of all, I have no idea what they're saying. My interpreter is whispering things in my ear as I need to know them. All of a sudden, the coach calls Sho up in front of everyone. He's standing there, and the coach is there – and he completely changes his voice. I could tell there's anger there, that he's upset. He starts talking to Sho, then all of a sudden the guy just thumps him on the forehead hard. It made this loud ‘THUMP’ sound. It hurt. Of course, my reaction was ‘’WHOA.' It was crazy. I've never seen anything like that. I said to my interpreter, ‘What the heck is going on here?’ He said the guy missed a sign, and that was his punishment. I looked at him and said, ‘Listen, if I miss a sign and that happens to me, we’ll be rolling around in the dirt out there.’ He laughed. I said, ‘I'm serious. I can't do that.’ He said that would never happen to me, that things were different for me. I had to understand their culture was different. I said, ‘Perfect. As long as he knows he can't do that to me.’ “
Hoffpauir played with some big-name teammates during his three years with the Cubs, but none could have approached the level of Yu Darvish, who had reached “rock star” status in Japan by the time the two were teammates in 2011 (Darvish came to the States in 2012 to pitch for Texas). Hoffpauir talked about a poll he saw that year naming Darvish as the second most recognizable person in Japan – and that the pitcher couldn’t go anywhere without being swarmed.
“What an awesome guy to get to watch play, and to watch his off-the-field routine and the things he goes through,” he said. “I’ve played with guys who work hard, but I’ve never played with an individual who works as hard as that guy does. Very, very, very intense. Very impressive workouts. Very intent on being the best. He was dead set determined to be the best. I don’t see that changing. Very impressive human being.”
Hoffpauir was able to bring his young family with him overseas all three years, which certainly helped create a bonding experience for his family.
“In the States, after games, you sit down in the clubhouse and talk about the game and about frustrating things that are going on,” he said. “Over there, you don’t.
“You have one or two guys on the team who spoke English. For us, they were pitchers. In Japan, pitchers don’t have to stay for the whole game if they’re starting pitchers. So they got their workout in and stayed for a couple innings – like spring training – and then they went home. After the game, I didn’t have anybody to talk to. So I’d go home and sit with my wife. She heard a lot more about baseball in the three years over there than the eight when I was in the States. We really grew closer together. And our kids got to experience some things that most people don’t get to do. It was really an awesome experience.”
And, of course, with limited English spoken there, Hoffpauir said he had his share of “lost in translation” moments. He said those moments for him and the other U.S.-born players took place “every day. Every day for all of us from the States. If you ever get to talk to Matt Murton, ask him about ‘lost in translation.’
“You have to understand Japanese baseball. If you’re hitting well and doing well, you’re never questioned. But as soon as your average gets below where it’s supposed to be or you haven’t hit a home run in a while, then they start asking if other things are affecting you. Matt made an error in the outfield – he overthrew somebody. And the pitcher asked him, ‘Why did you do that?’ Like he chose to make this error. And Matt’s like, ‘What do you mean, why did I do that?’ When he questioned the pitcher, it was funny – because the press made it into a New York scandal.”
As much as he enjoyed his time in Japan, nothing quite compares to getting told you’re going to the big leagues. For Hoffpauir, that came in the form of a phone call – in familiar surroundings.
“We were in Round Rock, Texas, which made it even cooler since my family was there,” Hoffpauir said. “(Manager) Pat Listach called me one morning and asked if I was in my hotel room. I’m like, ‘Yeah man, what’s up?’ He said he had to talk to me.
“My wife is in the room with me. I got off the phone, and she asked, ‘What’s wrong?’ I said I didn’t really know. She asked who it was on the phone … and I told her … and I said he wants to come to our room – and it was just weird. There were only a couple things that could be. We thought the worst. We were concerned. I had just come back from an injury. “He ended up calling me back and said, ‘Hey, I’ve got to get to the field. You’re going to the big leagues.’ I was like, what? ‘You’re going to the big leagues. Get yourself to the field and get your stuff together. You’re going to Chicago.’ I’m like … OK.
“I get off the phone and my wife says, ‘What is it?’ And I said, ‘He just told me I’m going to the big leagues.’ First thing you know, she starts boo-hooing. Then we start calling our family. And I’m sure people in the hotel could hear my family up and down those halls screaming ‘Yeah! Yeah!’ I flew into Chicago that afternoon and went to Mike Fontenot’s house and slept on the couch. I got up the next morning and went to the field. We were playing the Pirates. I got a pinch hit at-bat in the 7th inning, and they changed pitchers. They brought in John Grabow, and he could have thrown beach balls up there and I would have swung and missed them. I couldn’t do anything … I was as nervous as I’ve ever been in my life.
“After that game, we flew back to Houston to play the Astros. The second day in I got to start against Shawn Chacon and got my first big league hit in front of my family and tons of friends. I could not have written a better story.”
It’s hard to believe, but this is the Sweet 16th anniversary of the Cubs’ 2000 season-opening trip to Japan. To commemorate the blessed event, I found the original unedited Chuck Wasserstrom day-by-day recap – which turned out to be my original blog. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it back then – and reading it now. Apparently, I was funny back in the day!
This is the second installment of my first-ever retro series. And it’s even a trilogy!
March 27, 2000 (Day 4 Recap): Pearl Vision by Day, Giants Fiasco by Night …
Monday morning/early afternoon …
After not having much of an appetite my first couple days here, I finally was hungry this morning. After brewing myself a cup of the in-room coffee (tastes kind of like Starbucks — but stronger) and reading the Daily Yomiuri, an English newspaper, I headed to one of the many coffee shops located in this hotel. They had a great Western-style buffet, as I had an omelette, pancakes and tater tots for the unbelievably low price of 2887 yen (approximately $28).
A group of 16 of us then went to The Yonamine Company, a highly recommended store for pearls located in the Roppongi section of Tokyo. The store is operated by Japanese Hall of Famer Wally Yonamine, who also played football in the United States for the San Francisco 49ers in the early 1940s, and his wife, Jane. The store specializes in pearls and gives discounts to celebrities. Thankfully, right now I’m considered one!
Jane gave about a half hour lecture on the different types of pearls (yes, I paid attention for a few minutes), explaining the difference between oysters, mussels, and the ligaments the pearls can come from. She then basically sat back and watched as we all spent money. She has designed/sold jewelry to a lot of celebrities, as evidenced by the pictures she and her husband have in the store from people named Hillary Clinton, Elizabeth Taylor, Brooke Shields and nearly every major leaguer who has been in Japan over the past decade.
Her shop was on the fifth floor. After we left, the elevator stopped at the fourth floor — into a dentist’s office. I did my Jed Clampett smile for a dental assistant who was trying to get on the elevator. She smiled back — and backed right off the elevator!
After that little excursion, I went to lunch with one of our beat writers, Bruce Miles of the Daily Herald. I would have settled for McDonald’s, but he talked me into being an explorer. We eventually wound up at a place where the only English anywhere was the restaurant’s website address (www.ramia.net/torigen/ — if you want to try and tell me where I was!!). The word “noodles” apparently translates well into Japanese, as I received a huge bowl of chicken noodle soup. At least I think it was chicken. It was outstanding, though, and we might go back if we can. As strange as it was to be a foreigner, though, my afternoon was made when the chef, who didn’t speak English, thanked me in Japanese for coming to the restaurant (I was able to understand some of the words). I bowed and dropped an “arrigato” and a “konnichiwa” on him. He laughed and said, “Adios.”
On the way back to the hotel, I got to stop at the Golden Arches. Sprite tasted very good.
Now it’s off to the ballpark. Talk to you soon.
* * * * * *
Monday Night …
I could sit and write and complain about the fine folks at Major League Baseball who sucked all the joy of Japan out of me, but I’ll hold off for now. (I don’t want to waste a good whine session too early in the trip).
OK, I will bitch about one thing. MLB “pressured” the Yomiuri Company into keeping the fans quiet for the game so that they wouldn’t be a distraction. Surprisingly enough, a quiet, subdued crowd in a domed stadium makes for a boring evening.
Anyway, we had a crowd of about 45,000 for the exhibition game against the Yomiuri Giants — and we lost 6-0. Their two stud players, Hideki Matsui and Yoshinobu Takahashi, each homered.
I found it interesting that the Yomiuri jerseys solely had English on them (team name, team nickname, player’s name). If you were a player and didn’t know how to read English, how would you know which jersey was yours?
I also found it interesting that during the Giants’ batting practice, they had two batting cages next to each other — meaning two batters were hitting at the same time. Of course, with the extended BP, guys with uniform numbers in the 100s were needed to complete the BP sessions.
If you’re getting up at 4 a.m. Chicago time Wednesday to watch the game, here are some things you might find interesting about the Tokyo Dome:
While I didn’t understand most of the in-house advertising, one ad did jump out (so to speak) — as it featured a trio of Japanese Budweiser frogs.
That’s it for now. Tomorrow, we play the Seibu Lions in Tokorozawa, which is 45 miles from here — an anticipated 2 1/2-hour bus ride. Talk to you later.
March 28, 2000 (Day 5 Recap): What a Long Strange Trip It’s Been …
In case you didn’t already know, I hadn’t gone to Tokorozawa before. And just so you know, I believe the English translation for Tokorozawa is “You Ain’t F***ing Getting There In A Hurry.”
Tokorozawa, the home of the Seibu Dome, is roughly 18-20 miles outside of downtown Tokyo. The bus ride to the ballpark was a wonderful 2 hours, 40 minutes. With that in mind, I’m dividing my day into the Tokorozawa Trilogy.
1. The Bus Ride
In all seriousness, Tokorozawa is at most 20 miles from this hotel. In double seriousness, it took us 2 hours, 40 minutes to get there this morning.
The highway was nauseatingly stop-and-go. Once we got off, there’s only one road you can take into town — and there’s only one lane going in each direction.
The following are things I wanted to ask our non-English speaking busdriver (but didn’t) on the Road To Tokorozawa:
2. The Seibu Dome
You haven’t seen anything like this place.
The Seibu Dome, the home of the Japanese Pacific League’s Seibu Lions, is literally a spaceship hovering directly over the park. Outside of a few cement cylinders, the dome sits about 25 feet above the top row of seats — as the gap between the two is open air. People near the top rows have to get rained upon despite being in a “domed” park.
When you walk into the Seibu Dome, you had to walk down 7 flights of stairs to get to the clubhouse level. Then, if you were like me and had to go to the press box, you had to walk around 10 flights up.
This park has its nuances. The manager/coaches office is about 10 feet by 10 feet with a coat rack. The office is located directly behind home plate and has blinds, but if you don’t close the blinds all the way, people looking in could see coaches getting dressed/undressed. The main clubhouse wasn’t much bigger. For that matter, neither was the press box. The press box was enclosed, just like Cincinnati’s Riverfront Stadium.
One of the weirdest things I’ll probably ever see took place in the 4th inning. Through 3.0 innings, Cubs pitcher Scott Downs had a perfect game. While Chicago radio personality Les Grobstein was doing his no-hit pool among the American media, the Japanese media were conducting their no-hit pool — in the rock/paper/scissors variety. I hadn’t seen that since Hebrew school — and very few of the Japanese media looked Jewish. By the way, Kazuo Matsui broke up the no-no with a 1-out double in the 4th.
We won the game 6-5, rallying to score 3 runs in the 9th on a Mark Grace homer and a Damon Buford 2-out, 2-run homer.
3. You're Out Of Your Mind If You Thought We Were Busing Back
Thanks to the bus ride to Tokorozawa, and the thought line that a 2:40 bus plus a 3-hour game plus a 2:40 bus would almost equal the time necessary to fly back to Chicago, most of us — players, staff, media — took the train back to Tokyo. I’ve been on New York subways during rush hour before, but this was something absolutely unbelievable.
As we were leaving the Seibu Dome, the pre-rain fog was rolling in through the dome’s gap, giving the ballpark a very surreal feel. The group of us — probably 50 in total — walked through the rain to the Tokorozawa train stop, which is located about 1 block from the ballpark.
The last train from Tokorozawa to Tokyo leaves at 7 p.m. As a group, we just barely made it. In Japanese society, that’s not good enough, as the rule seems to be — if they can breathe, keep shoving more in. Police literally keep pushing people into trains until there no longer is the possibility of movement.
The first train, which we were on for five minutes, was tolerable. The second train — a 30-minute ride — was less so. As that train’s doors opened, a huge rush of screaming people came pushing and shoving all those in front of them into the train. Thoughts of The Who at Riverfront Stadium entered my mind as I was flying forward with my roughly 80 pounds of equipment that I travel to ballgames with. You hear how orderly the Japanese are, but this is something that could never happen in New York without fatalities. I now know how sardines and blocking dummies feel.
We had to make one more train change, which was slightly more orderly. In total, though, the three trains got us from Point A to Point B in 1 hour, 5 minutes, so there was an up-shot to all of it.
The regular season finally starts Wednesday night (or Wednesday morning for most of you). I’ll talk to you then.
P.S. — For those of you who have asked, I will not have anything done to my tooth until I get back home. Our team doctor advised me against it, since the dentist he talked to seemed a little too eager to drill without knowing what the problem was.
Also, the next time you’re in Japan, you have to try Pocky Chocolate. They are thin pretzels covered in milk, white and strawberry chocolate. As the box says, they’re “The Super Snack.”
It’s hard to believe, but this is the Sweet 16th anniversary of the Cubs’ 2000 season-opening trip to Japan.
Sixteen years ago today, I spent my first full day in Tokyo. The night before, the Cubs landed in Japan for the first-ever regular-season games outside of North America. I’m still not sure how the combined time of the two flights (13 hours) equaled leaving Mesa early on a Friday morning and landing in Tokyo late Saturday afternoon. Of course, the direct return flight from Tokyo to Chicago had us leaving Friday evening … spending 14 hours in the air … and landing in Chicago Friday afternoon. Time travel rules!
Anyway, to commemorate the blessed event, I found my daily dairy – which turned out to be my original blog. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it back then – and reading it now. Apparently, I was funny back in the day!
I’ll post this in three parts over several days this week. Enjoy!
The Japan Itinerary – March 2000
March 25, 2000 (Days 1 and 2 Recap): Toothless in Tokyo …
Hello from Japan!
Sorry it’s taken a while to write, but apparently AOL can only be used between certain hours.
As I write this, it’s 10:15 p.m. Saturday night (7:15 a.m. in Chicago). I woke up Friday morning in Mesa, Ariz., at 4 a.m. (which translates to 8 p.m. here), so it’s been a 26-plus hour day for me. Anyway …
After our early start, we flew to San Francisco on a charter — then traveled to Tokyo on a 747. If you haven’t been in a Tokyo-bound 747 before, what can I say but ‘Wow.’ I had a 6-way seat/recliner with a personal pop-up TV screen — and I was in business class. I sipped on some Dom Perignon, and got to look down upon Alaska – as we traveled really far north, went past the international date line, then went south along the Pacific coast until landing in Japan. The 11-hour flight didn’t seem so bad.
I did have one tiny little mishap, though, and anyone who knows me knows that this could only happen to me. Approximately two hours into the trip, I bit down on a Haagen Dazs ice cream brick and shattered the front half of my false tooth. The only pain is in the self-deprecating humor. I do have that Deliverance/Alfred E. Neumann look going for me, though, as the inside of the tooth is silvery black. Check back later on my trip to the Japanese dentist.
Once we landed at Narita Airport, we pretty much coasted through customs and immigration. The coasting ended, though, when we bused to downtown Tokyo. Narita Airport is exactly 60 kilometers from downtown (which by my math should be around 40 miles), yet the bus ride took a solid 2 1/2 hours. So about the only thing I can say I’ve seen in Tokyo thus far is traffic. And they drive on the wrong side of the road here, too, which probably explains why no one moves.
The jet lag, I survived. The bus lag — that still exists.
The hotel we’re staying at, the New Otani, appears to be the size of the Merchandise Mart. There are 100-plus stores here and nearly 20 restaurants. However, at this point in time when I am typing this, no one can tell me how to access AOL.
I have already taken to some of the Japanese culture thanks to some of the hotel’s amenities. I’m sitting here drinking Oolong tea, wearing an extremely comfortable karate-like kimono robe and listening to a Japanese alternative music station (they just played a Japanese cover of an Aerosmith song).
Most of the room controls are located in one wall panel. The panel, which is located near the headboard of the bed, draws the curtains, regulates air conditioning and room lighting and has six radio station buttons to choose from (I’m sticking with the music one, though). I can also activate the Do Not Disturb sign by pressing a button on that console.
There’s not much TV to choose from. The only English stations are CNN International and BBC — although you can get The Golf Channel, the Playboy Channel and the Pioneer Karaoke Channel through the pay-TV menu.
One last thing to tell you about is the toilet. Not only is it heated, but you can squirt your bottom with water as part of the cleansing process. I guess it’s true that you haven’t lived until you’ve been “ass sprayed.”
Anyway, enough with today’s rambling. We have a workout at 10 a.m. tomorrow morning in preparation for our four days of games. I plan to explore after that, so hopefully I can enlighten (or bore) you with more info the next time I write.
For now, Sayonara!
Editors Note: I was told on Sunday morning that the reason AOL didn't work when I tried earlier was because I didn't plug the phone line into the right outlet. Apparently, the fax/modem line is located INSIDE a drawer by this desk
March 26, 2000 (Day 3 Recap): Pokemon Doesn’t Exist …
Day #2 in Japan (this was the first real day to see anything here, and it was quite an interesting day).
First thing’s first — you have got to avoid the jet lag. Surprisingly enough, since I can get jet lag on the St. Louis-to-Chicago trip, I survived this first day quite nicely. I stayed up until 11:15 last night and slept until 7 a.m. — with just a brief wakeup around 4 a.m. Most of the people in the traveling party got 6-7 hours of sleep, but that also had them up for good around 5 a.m. So, in recap, I haven’t adjusted to the time for the better part of 34-plus years in the States, but I could do it in one night here. It must be the sumo blood in me!
The club had a 10 a.m. workout at the Tokyo Dome this morning. The Tokyo Dome, which is modeled on Minneapolis’ Metrodome (I’m afraid to ask why), is known as The Big Egg. It was obnoxiously loud today during the workout. From what I understand, the exhibition games tomorrow night against the Yomiuri Giants and Tuesday against the Seibu Lions will resemble big-time rivalry college football crowds, with fans standing the entire game … bands playing … music on the P.A. The press box is “outdoors,” as it’s in the middle of the crowd. I’ll have a great view for the festivities.
They had Kid’s Day festivities as part of the workout, as the first 10,000 children to show up at the Dome were allowed in for free. It was nice to see all the kids in uniforms — with real stirrups being worn.
In fact, you can tell how much the kids revere baseball in this country — much better than back home. On the bus ride to-and-from the ballpark, we passed quite a few Little League games. We also passed a Denny’s, several McDonald’s and a couple 7-11’s, but I felt like a foreigner by not seeing a Starbucks at every intersection.
After we got back to the hotel, I went off by myself and took a nice long two-hour “observational” walk. It was really very fascinating — and quite humbling – because the further I got from the hotel, the less communicating I was able to do. Every employee I’ve met in this hotel speaks some level of English. Go a couple blocks from here, though, and it’s another world. Consider the fact that there’s a population of around 30 million here, and you realize just how small Chicago is.
During my walk, I took a trek along a Central Park-ish path and saw kids training in martial arts, archery and tennis — and of course, a Little League game. It’s amazing to watch 9-10 year olds throwing curve balls and doing the Hideo Nomo hitch.
The park let off at Kojimachi, a street that resembles Michigan Avenue — just much longer. Among the things I noticed during this part of the walk:
After returning to the hotel, I went with a group of people to the Akihabara district — the electronics district of Tokyo. If you have a picture in your mind involving Tokyo, this was it. It was like walking around Las Vegas — only with a lot more neon lighting and a lot more glitz. We went in a few stores, as I saw some unbelievable flat screen TVs and some amazing DVD players. Outside of some souvenirs, the only thing I bought was a transistor radio — which is the size of a credit card and can fit in your wallet.
A few of us then took the subway back to the hotel. The train was absolutely spotless.
Tonight, the Yomiuri Shimbun Company threw a reception for both the Cubs and the Mets at the Akasaka Prince hotel. It was your basic finger food reception, although there might actually have been fingers involved, as most of the food was unidentifiable. And they didn’t even have a shrimp boat, which was quite disappointing. I think I ate meat, but I can’t be too sure.
As you can probably guess, I am enjoying myself — and I’m trying to soak in as much as I can in a short time. After a day full of little head-nod half bows, arrigatos (“Thank You”) and konnichiwas (“Good Day”), I’m now signing off. Thanks for reading!
When you know you’re going to be interviewing someone for a story, it is incumbent that you do your homework and that you’re thoroughly prepared. There’s nothing worse than getting blindsided by something you should have known about.
And when you’re interviewing someone you haven’t talked to in 20-plus years, it is imperative that you do extra research. In this instance, I did … or at least I thought I did.
Thanks to the internet, I periodically have checked up on Lance Dickson – who had a meteoric 1990 on the mound and basically disappeared off the face of the baseball world soon after that. I knew he really hadn’t disappeared; in fact, he was quite successful in the business world.
I recognized that when I reached out to him, it was to tell his story in a positive way. Plain and simple, he didn’t need me telling him he was snake bit after he reached the majors. He certainly has heard his name as part of the “first-round bust” and “he must be flipping burgers” discussions. After being selected by the Cubs as the 23rd overall pick in the 1990 draft, he made minor league stops in Geneva (NY), Peoria (IL) and Charlotte (NC) before reaching the majors just two months after the draft. But it wasn’t his grand plan to make three big league starts, get hit by a comebacker, and never see a major league mound again. It wasn’t his grand plan to have a strong 1991 Triple-A first half ended by a broken right foot. It wasn’t his grand plan to injure his left shoulder the following year, something he couldn’t overcome. He kept trying to come back, but his baseball career was over in 1995 – at the age of 25.
When we did talk yesterday afternoon, I was planning on mostly staying away from baseball. His post-playing career success was much more interesting to me.
But what I learned as the conversation went on startled me. And it’s something I wasn’t prepared for – as the only way I would have been ready for it would have been if I Googled certain specific keywords. Life has thrown him some curves off the field, too.
This isn’t a story about baseball. This is a story about resiliency.
* * * * * *
Well, actually, this is a lot about baseball.
Dickson, as a 20-year-old junior for the University of Arizona in 1990, threw seven complete games in 16 starts while fanning 141 batters in 119.2 innings. The southpaw was rewarded by the Cubs with a first-round selection in the June draft.
And that was just the beginning.
“That whole year was quite a whirlwind,” Dickson recalled. “Being picked in the first round, then showing up in Mesa to get ready to go to the Finger Lakes of Geneva … and then Peoria … and then Charlotte … and then Chicago. I was in four different cities in 10 weeks. I lived out of a suitcase that whole summer. I’d thrown a whole season in college, and then 11 starts in the minor leagues, and then I got called to the big leagues.”
He was on a Double-A road trip in early August when he received a call from his pitching coach – Rick Kranitz – who told Dickson to “Pack your bags. You’re going to the big leagues,” he said. “It was pretty surreal.
“I didn’t see it coming. I didn’t know anybody. It was my first year in the organization. I didn’t know the personnel, the pitching staff. I was pitching really well. I was very much locked in and felt like I was going to win every game that I was pitching. But I did not see it coming.”
He headed to Chicago, making the first of his three major league starts August 9 against St. Louis.
“I focused on not getting caught up in terms of where I was and the fact that I was 20,” he said. “It was 60 feet, six inches. There’s the catcher. There’s the hitter. There’s the umpire. It’s the same scene that I’ve seen 1,000 times. I think I did stay focused in what my job was. So it didn’t seem like it was a fog or a dream at all. It was a surprise, no question about that. It was exciting. It was awesome.”
And in a snap, the dream turned into a nightmare. In his third big league start, he was struck in the knee by a one-hop comebacker – which ended his season. The injury bug had taken its first bite. Moving forward, it was one injury after another.
“My baseball career … there’s no bitterness. No anger. I don’t like how it ended for me. But I couldn’t control it,” he said. “I couldn’t stay healthy. It’s that karma deal. I’d make fun of people in the training room in college. ‘Get out of the training room. Get on the field. Let’s go.’ Then all of a sudden I’m on the early bus and in the training rooms for literally my entire career with the Cubs. That was not planned. I had a different plan for how my career would go. It didn’t go that way. So you can be bitter and feel sorry for yourself, or you can pick yourself up, dust yourself off and get after the next chapter of life. I chose the latter.”
With his baseball career prematurely cut short in 1995, Dickson returned to Tucson to finish his undergraduate degree in business at the University of Arizona. He was just like the rest of us; he didn’t know what he was going to do with his life, and he was a few years older than his classmates.
He wound up in the one place he never figured he’d be. Tucson.
“It was the last place I wanted to be,” Dickson said. “I was coming back here to finish school. I was speaking to my agent, who was in San Diego – where I’m from – and I was making plans to go back home and maybe go to law school. I think you have to if you’re going to be an agent in terms of mediation and all that stuff. So I was contemplating what my next move into the real world was going to be. I was considering working with my agent. I did not anticipate staying in Tucson at all.”
Instead, Tucson became a big component of his elevator pitch.
“Life’s good. I’m the chief operating officer here in Tucson at a mortgage bank,” he said. “I’ve been here for over 20 years, right after my career ended. I came back to Tucson to finish my schooling and stayed here as a result of catching on with a mortgage bank and learning this business. I’m doing pretty well in it as both a loan officer and then moving up the ranks in the company. Now, I’m a partner and the COO. The company is Nova Home Loans.
“I needed a real job after my baseball career. I interviewed with this company. It felt good. I felt like I could do that – provide financing for folks who needed a home loan. Most everyone needs what I’m selling in terms of loans and interest rates and the service I provide. It seemed to be an easier sell to me than typical widgets that people sell, like cell phones or whatever the product is. This was selling money. I felt like I could do pretty well in it. So I started part-time as I went back to school, and it turned into full-time. I started doing really well in this business. I’ve been ranked among the Top 200 loan officers in America for 16 straight years, so it’s been a really good business for me. I started moving up the leadership ranks 10 years ago. I’ve been the chief operating officer here for eight. So it worked out. There certainly isn’t any reason now for me to leave Tucson. My business is here. My kids are here.”
He talked about how his baseball career, albeit brief, helped prepare him for the business world.
“Anyone who played high-level sports and is in high-level business will tell you what you already have heard 1,000 times – there are absolute parallels between the two,” Dickson said. “How to win. How to lose. How to lead. How to follow. How to be a team player. All of those principles are just as much business as they are sports. I treated this like a sport. This was just my new sport. I looked around and saw who was doing what and how they were getting it done. And I felt like I could compete – and it’s worked out.”
Dickson acknowledged that, at times, he was sad about how his baseball career turned out. And mad, too. It didn’t go anything like his entire career before professional baseball. He just couldn’t stay on the field.
“I had never been hurt before in my life,” he said. “I never missed a start at U of A. I’d never been hurt. To break my foot … to go through the three shoulder surgeries … it was really, really frustrating. Coming back here and refocusing on what I needed to do in order to get a real job certainly put my focus on my life and business and whatever I needed to do now that baseball was over.”
Business was going to be his career path. Coaching at any level above Little League was not an option.
“I didn’t want to be in coaching,” Dickson said. “I didn’t want to be around baseball, because my baseball career just didn’t go the way I wanted it to. I wanted to be around business and just turn the page, if you will, and focus on other things.
“I got immersed in this business. Got married. Started a family.”
He went on-and-on about his daughter, Samantha, a 16-year-old sophomore already looking at big-name colleges like Stanford, Vanderbilt and Duke. He spoke glowingly about his two sons – Jack (14) and Luke (8).
“My daughter is in the National Honor Society and she plays high school volleyball,” Dickson said. “My boys are great little students and great little young men and human beings. I coached my oldest son through Little League. He’s playing club baseball now and will play high school baseball. I’m now coaching my youngest son and I’ll coach him through the balance of his Little League career.”
And then, as he talked about his children, he dropped the bombshell that my research hadn’t uncovered for me.
“Unfortunately, five years ago, my wife died suddenly,” Dickson said. “I’m a single dad.
“She was perfectly fit. Perfectly healthy. Never even a cavity. She had a massive pulmonary embolism in the middle of the night.”
Cristian Dickson. Mother of three. She passed away March 6, 2011, at the age of 40. This month marked the five-year anniversary of her sudden passing.
“My kids are really, really special. They’re great kids,” Dickson said. “They were 10, 8 and 3 when this happened. Their whole world was completely turned upside down. But they’ve bounced back. They’ve gained a strong footing in terms of where they are. They’re doing wonderfully. They’re healing wonderfully from something that was pretty devastating.
“You see the stories. It happens every day. How did that happen to a marathon runner? She had run a 10K just the week before. Fit … healthy … the last person I would have expected something like that to happen to. No health issues ever. Literally, not a cavity. I used to make fun of her. ‘Can’t you just get a cavity? Just be normal.’ It’s crazy how the world is and what the big guy’s plan is. That was a serious curveball for my family. But … you know … it wasn’t the first and it won’t be the last in terms of what you see on a daily basis. Unfortunately, my family went through it.”
With what the Dickson family had to deal with five years ago, there isn’t a place for a “Why Me” when it comes to a baseball career that truly ended before it started. There are far more important things to worry about.
“It’s been a busy world, in particular the last five years – kind of wearing the mom and dad hat,” he said. “And I’m in charge of 800 employees. I’m very grateful and blessed for all I have. But it’s a very busy time – and my children, of course, are my first priority. The combination of life at home and life at work makes life really, really busy. But really great. And really rewarding.
“I’m doing well in my world. I like my world. I’m grateful and blessed. I’m happy – I truly am. It’s a good life. We’ve learned a lot of life lessons along the way in terms of what’s truly important and what’s really not. I think when you go through a sudden tragedy like that, it’s cliché – I know that – but you just recalibrate your perspective of what’s important and what’s not important.
“I’ll have a random somebody say something online like, ‘What happened to that guy?’ And then somebody commented back that I was probably flipping burgers somewhere. I get a good laugh out of that.”
It’s been pretty cool reconnecting with some of the unique personalities I worked with during my quarter century with the Cubs – as I’m on a mission to track down players I worked with to talk about their playing days and find out what they’re up to now.
A few days ago, I caught up with Jon Lieber – a 20-game winner for the Cubs during his 2001 All-Star campaign. Lieber pitched in the majors from 1994-2008 – and was a Cub from 1999-2002 and in 2008.
Chuck: Jake Arrieta won 22 games last year and was a Cy Young Award winner. Greg Maddux won 20 games in 1992 and was a Cy Young Award winner. You won 20 in 2001 and got nothing for it. Are you bitter?
Lieber: “No, not at all.”
Chuck: I was kidding there. But do tell me about your memories of your 20-win season.
Lieber: “It was just a season where I felt like I started figuring things out. Maturity wise, I felt like I was more in control of the game as the season went on. I think the guys that surrounded me on the team, in the lineup or on the bench; they definitely contributed to me winning 20 games. It just wasn’t me. A lot of things have got to factor in that. Your offense. Your defense. You have to have a good team around you to win a lot of ball games. As far as winning the Cy Young, that would have been great, but there’s no doubt in my mind that the three guys that were ahead of me – (Randy) Johnson, (Curt) Schilling and Matt Morris were more deserving than I was. No question about it.”
Chuck: One thing I remember – heck, anybody who watched you would remember – was that you were known for quick games and low pitch counts.
Lieber: “I’m a firm believer that when you keep your defense on its toes and you get them into the batter’s box, that’s all they want to do. They want to hit and score runs. That was always my goal throughout my career – to get the guys on-and-off the field as quick as possible. Obviously, being smart out there while I’m pitching was the key. I wanted to get off the field as quick as possible. Looking back now, I think a big success in my career is that I wasn’t afraid to pitch to contact. I was very simple in my approach in my games. I was basically a two-pitch pitcher throughout my career – fastball , slider. I took a lot of pride in being able to locate on both sides of the plate and being able to throw strikes and get ahead of hitters. I think that’s what makes the games go fast. You put the guys you’re facing into a defensive count, and they’re going to swing more likely. It’s going to lower your pitch count. The game’s going to be much faster.”
Chuck: One of your career highlights had to be pitching in the 2001 All-Star Game. Looking back 15 years later, what was that like for you?
Lieber: “It was great. It was unbelievable. It was something you always dream of as a little kid. When you’re in the background, you put yourself in those moments. Here it is, I’m finally living it at 31 years old. I’m taking it all in. That was the greatest thing – the guys on the team. I remember Curt Schilling, and I lockered next to him, he said, ‘Man, get as much stuff signed and you can, because you never know if you’re going to make it back to one of these. That was probably the best advice going in, because I was a little gun shy. I probably wouldn’t have asked for anything. I’m very thankful that I did. I really savor those items. I hope to hand them down to my kids. Looking back at it, I’ve got stories to tell about it. It seems like it just happened yesterday. But now we get to the game time situation, and that’s all the stuff I want to forget. I get out there, and the first two hitters (Derek Jeter and Magglio Ordonez) hit home runs off me … I’m thinking this is going to be embarrassing. I knew a lot of people were watching this game, but I was able to wiggle my way out of it, just giving up the two solo shots. Wish it could have been better, but it’s definitely something I’ll never forget.”
Chuck: I’m going to go back one year to 2000. We opened the season in Japan, and you were selected to make the Opening Day start. What was that like for you?
Lieber: “Man, that was exciting. Making the trip overseas where games counted. And then all of a sudden you find out you’re going to get the first game that actually means something. That doesn’t happen every day. I took a lot of pride in that. I was excited. That was the first time in history that those games actually counted and meant something, so it was a great opportunity. I had a blast. I hadn’t been there before. It was a lot of fun. I wish I had the opportunity to do it again.”
Chuck: Kevin Tapani – mentor or bad influence?
Lieber: “Mentor. No question.”
Chuck: With you, I wasn’t sure which way you’d answer that!
Lieber: “Definitely a mentor. Tap, what can I say? He was the first guy to really step up and make me feel welcome. The funny thing is, the way he comes across, he’s got that dry sense of humor. You didn’t know if he was serious or not. Or if he was playing a joke on you. Looking back now, I’m so thankful that I had the opportunity to play with him, to get to know him for those three years. Tap was one of the best teammates I ever had the pleasure of playing with. I wish I’d stay in better touch with him. It’s very rare to come across people like Tap. He was just one of a kind. He was a very special person, a great teammate, and a great guy to hang out with.”
Chuck: My favorite post-Cubs Jon Lieber story was ripped directly from the Deadspin.com headlines. I vividly remember tapping into the site during spring training (in 2007), and there was a story there titled “Jon Lieber Has A Big-Ass Truck.” It seems you had a little truck that stood 9 feet, 2 inches tall.
Lieber: “I was in Philadelphia, and I remember it like it was yesterday. I was sitting around with Tim Worrell, a great teammate, and he pulls out this magazine. He shows me this site that makes these trucks in Georgia. We both were like, ‘That’s awesome. Let’s call them.’ I make the phone call. The guy said, ‘I’ll bring one over. I’ll let you look at it. I’ll let you drive it. So he does, and I fell in love with it. I look back now, it was a stupid purchase. I wish I wouldn’t have done it. My wife sat there and said, ‘Please don’t do this. Please don’t do this. Please don’t do this.’ It was in one ear and out the other. It was just a toy. But we had a lot of fun in this toy. It had all the bells and whistles. It had an authentic train horn. When I say authentic, I could blow that horn, and people two miles away would think there was a train close by. It was one of those impulsive buys that I wish I wouldn’t have done. You can’t take it back. It is what it is. I had it for about three years before selling it in 2010 … The truck actually had a tractor trailor motor in it. This thing had some horsepower. The gas mileage was actually pretty good. The truck got 10-to-12 miles per gallon. It could turn on a dime. It could park in-between two cars. It could almost do it all. It was a lot of fun”
Chuck: The article said it originally cost $211,000. Is that correct?
Lieber: “It was actually closer to $256,000. Then again we’re over the $200,000 mark, so it really doesn’t matter.”
Chuck: What are you doing now?
Lieber: “I have four children. I’m really involved with the kids. We purchased a bunch of property here in Mobile (AL) about 15 years ago. I’m into residential development now. I got involved about four years ago and pulled the trigger on it about two years ago. We’ve developed this neighborhood just outside of Mobile. We’re just taking it a little bit at a time.”
Scouts tell great stories. Veteran scouts tell really great stories. When you scout for as long as Gary Hughes has, you move into that elite category – Master Storyteller.
Boomer, as he is affectionately called, has been a scout since 1967 – making this year 50 in the profession for him. These days, he’s a major league scout with the Boston Red Sox. I had the joy of working with him for nearly a decade with the Cubs – as he was one of Jim Hendry’s top lieutenants. I always liked to think of myself as Mr. Hendry’s big toe; if that was actually true, then Boomer was Jim’s right hand.
There aren’t too many grownups out there who go by Boomer – heck, out of deference, I usually call him Mr. Hughes. We caught up a couple days ago, and I asked for the refresher on how he got his nickname.
“When I first started with the New York Yankees,” Mr. Hughes recalled, “I was with our scouting director who was also the player development director. His name was Jack Butterfield. We were in Oakland, and I was just an area scout, and we had a guy who was going to crosscheck my players who lived in Southern California. He was an ex-big league player named Bob Nieman. And Bob was a big guy for nicknames. Burly Bob Nieman. So I walked in with Jack Butterfield. And as Bob’s getting up, he looks at me and he goes, ‘Wally’ – since I had a mustache.
“I said ‘No.’ I knew what he was doing. I didn’t have any idea that he was a nickname guy or any of that stuff, but I did know he was trying to call me Wally based on my mustache. Wally the Walrus, or whatever. So then he says, ‘How about Boomer?’ I said that would be fine. And that’s where it all started.”
I could always count on Mr. Hughes … OK, Boomer … to help me out whenever I was in need of assistance. He’s been a big supporter of my budding writing career, and he was there for me as usual when I called him the other day.
I wanted to hear his version of a famous story about Fig Newtons. I also wanted to learn more about his friendship with Jim Hendry. They have been through the baseball wars together – spending three years in the Florida Marlins’ organization (1992-1994) and nearly 10 full seasons with the Cubs.
When Jim had his heart-related issues at the Orlando winter meetings in December 2006, we all looked to Boomer for guidance.
“That’s one of the scariest things I’ve been around,” he said. “I can say all these nice things about Jim, but he’s pigheaded, too. He’s there and he’s working on a free agent signing of Ted Lilly. He thought all of that stuff was way more important than his health.
“He told me, ‘I’m not feeling good. I haven’t slept much.’
“I said, ‘You’ve got to go to the doctor. Let’s go. You’ve got to get there.’
“He said, ‘No, I have too much to do.’ But he didn’t have too much to do. And he probably wouldn’t have had anything to do if a doctor hadn’t gotten involved in it.
“He went to the hospital. He’s sitting on a gurney with tubes stuck in him. And he’s talking to Ted Lilly’s agent finalizing the free agent acquisition. And here he is in a hospital gown with all kinds of tubes sticking out of him, and the last thing he was worried about was himself.”
I asked Boomer what the initial impetus was for him to hire Jim for his first professional job – as a scout and minor league manager with the Marlins in 1992. Boomer talked about it mostly being Jim’s personality, but that he had been intrigued with Jim’s handling of his Creighton University baseball teams.
“I didn’t know him that well when I brought him over to the Marlins,” he said. “My Number 1 scout, Orrin Freeman, knew Jim a lot better than I did and he recommended him. And I had always been very, very impressed when I’d seen his teams play. We were acquaintances at the time; we weren’t really good friends. But obviously, it developed into a very good friendship.”
And it was during their early years together when the friendship developed – and following story took place. Sit back and – using your eyes – listen to a scout spin a yarn. I have heard Jim’s version of this story many times. But this was Boomer’s time to tell his side of the story.
“The first year I brought him in for the draft … I think it was the 1993 draft … I only brought three guys in, and they were my crosscheckers. And we would make calls to all of the area scouts, and they’d give them time on the phone – and we’d interview the scouts about the players. But I never brought in any of the area scouts.
“Jim was the area scout and, by that time, it was becoming pretty apparent that he was special. He was the area scout in south Florida, so I brought him in just to give him a little work to do. I told him just be in the room. If we have something for you to do – like move around the names on the board – we’ll tell you. But you’re not allowed to talk or say anything unless we ask you something. And we’re not going to be asking you a lot of questions.
“So he was in the room, and he was there for four or five days prior to the draft. David Dombrowski was the general manager. And that was at a time when we were trying to get everybody in better physical condition.
“So now the draft is going on, and it’s come to a round where he has a lot of players up on the board. He was sitting in the back of the room where we told him to sit. If we need you, we’ll let you know.
“I call him up to the front of the room. The time in the draft is coming up where he thinks he’s going to get one of his players. He’s thinking I’m going to ask him about one of his guys.
“So he comes up to the front, and he thinks I’m asking about a player. Instead, I told him, ‘I hate to do this, but all of us are busy doing stuff, and you’ve become the guy we can send out if we need anything, and we’re out of cookies.’ Again, it was a healthy thing, we were eating fat-free Fig Newtons.
“So I said, ‘Jim, will you please go down to the store and pick up some more of those fat-free Fig Newtons? The guys like them, and you’re the only guy here we can send out.’
“He said ‘Sure,’ being the good soldier that he was.
“Around that time, he had a chance to go back into college ball. Miami had lost its head coach, Ron Fraser – who was a legendary guy – and they talked to Jim about coaching there. Jim had said no, he wanted to stay in scouting and in professional baseball. He thought there was potential there for him, which obviously there was.
“Anyway, now he’s walking around a Publix supermarket with a grocery cart full of fat-free Fig Newtons. He was madder than heck at me for having him do it. He never once showed that he was upset or mad about it or anything like that. He came back, and everybody got the fat-free Fig Newtons.
“It was years later before he ever complained to me about it.
“I remember him saying, ‘Do you know what you did to me? You sent me out there for cookies.’ ”
“And I said, ‘Well … we needed them.’ ”
“Baseball is the President tossing out the first pitch of the season. And a pudgy schoolboy playing catch with his dad on a Mississippi farm.”
I remember the start of that speech as if it happened yesterday. It was one of the coolest little talks I ever was part of.
It was the Sunday before the All-Star break in 2001, and the Cubs were finishing the first half in Detroit. Manager Don Baylor, one of the nicest guys I met in the game and the person who introduced me to Jordan wine, wanted to do something special for the team prior to the break.
Don had heard Ernie Harwell recite a poem he had written about baseball, and he reached out to the Hall of Fame broadcaster prior to our trip. He thought it would be a neat experience to have his players hear Harwell talk, especially since Ernie was nearing the end of his legendary career. Ernie, then 83, retired the following year.
“Baseball is a spirited race of man against man, reflex against reflex. A game of inches. Every skill is measured. Every heroic, every failing is seen and cheered – or booed. And then becomes a statistic.”
Due to playing in separate leagues, this was only the second time that the Cubs had traveled to Detroit for regular season games. Rumor has it that the Cubs had played World Series affairs against the Tigers, but that was way before my time.
During my previous trip to Detroit in 1998, a good word to use for the trek there was “chaotic.” Sammy Sosa and a large-and-growing media throng had come to town during his historic 20-homer June – and he didn’t disappoint, first tying then setting the major league record for homers in a month. His 18th homer of the month June 24 at old Tiger Stadium tied Rudy York’s August 1937 record, while his 19th roundtripper June 25 established a new standard (he finished the month with 20).
But this second trip to Detroit – this time at Comerica Park – became just as memorable for me.
“Baseball is a rookie (his experience no bigger than the lump in his throat) trying to begin fulfillment of his dream. It’s a veteran, too – a tired old man of 35 hoping his aching muscles can pull him through another sweltering August and September.”
Ernie, a very gracious man, was more than happy to talk to the team. He had initially published a piece in The Sporting News in 1955, and he continued to tweak his poem. He would recite his love affair with the sport whenever he could, in his wonderful Southern voice, mesmerizing the group in front of him.
I met Mr. Harwell for the first – and only – time that morning. Don had talked all week about how great the speech was going to be, and made it a point to bring me into his office to introduce me to Ernie.
As it was the last day before the break, there was no batting practice. Everyone was dressed in their road uniforms when Ernie entered the players’ portion of the clubhouse.
“Baseball? It’s just a game – as simple as a ball and a bat. Yet, as complex as the American spirit it symbolizes. It’s a sport, business and sometimes even a religion.”
This particular Sunday morning, I really needed to hear a baseball story. I had spent the better part of that weekend refereeing a battle between a coach and a beat writer over stupid stuff, and I needed an escape.
I needed to be taken back in time, and Mr. Harwell didn’t disappoint.
“The fairy tale of Willie Mays making a brilliant World Series catch and then dashing off to play stick ball in the streets with his teenage pals – that’s baseball. So is husky voiced Lou Gehrig saying, ‘I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth.’ ”
I remember listening to Ernie’s words – but not staring at him as he talked. Instead, I was off to the side, watching the faces of the players and coaches. Guys like Joe Girardi … and Eric Young … and Ricky Gutierrez … just hanging on his every word.
This was storytelling at its finest.
“Baseball is cigar smoke, hot roasted peanuts, Sporting News, Ladies Day, Down in Front, Take Me Out to the Ball Game, the Seventh Inning Stretch and the Star-Spangled Banner.”
When Ernie completed his speech, several players wandered over to thank him. Being the Southern gentleman that he was, he thanked them for listening to him talk.
The great Ernie Harwell then came over to me and asked, “So, was that OK?”
Was that OK? He could have done his speech in a Foster Brooks voice or as Elmer Fudd, and I would have said it was awesome.
At that point, Ernie started telling me that he always liked to write, but that he didn’t get to do it enough.
He then told me he had hard copies of his original poem at home – and he asked if I’d like a copy of it to pass on to anyone who wanted it.
I said "Yes," then gave him my business card with the ballpark address. He then went upstairs to the press box to finish preparing for that day's broadcast.
“Baseball is a man named Campanella telling the nation’s business leaders, “You have to be a man to be a big leaguer, but you have to have a lot of little boy in you, too.”
Ernie literally went home and put the check in the mail. A couple days later, an envelope arrived for me at Wrigley Field. It was a copy of his article, along with a hand-written note.
I didn’t keep a lot of mementos from my Cubs days, but one thing I did keep were the personalized notes. And I’m so glad I held on to them – especially when a Hall of Famer sends you a note.
“This is a game for America – this is baseball.
“A game for boys and for men.”
It’s been a few years, but most of my St. Patrick’s Days celebrations were spent in Arizona – so I’ve had my share of green beer.
I can’t say any specific St. Paddy’s Day festivities were overly remarkable, but hanging out at a Mill Avenue bar in Tempe – just blocks from Arizona State University – always provided a lot of scenery.
Honestly, I was more excited about spending Valentine’s Day eve in Mesa-area Super Walmarts. That … was … entertaining.
If I wanted to be green on St. Patrick’s Day, I could have eaten corned beef cooked by a Ho. There was just something about feasting on corned beef prepared in the HoHoKam Park press dining room that didn’t sit well with me.
My favorite “almost St. Patrick’s Day” celebration didn’t take place in the Mesa metropolitan area.
Back in the day – or in this case, 1992 – the Cubs and their Phoenix-area Cactus League brethren went on overnight excursions to Yuma and Palm Springs. The San Diego Padres spent half the spring in the Valley of the Sun and half in lovely Yuma, Arizona. The California – yes, California – Angels spent half the time in the Phoenix area before heading off to Palm Springs.
Yuma was an interesting place, right there on the United States/Mexico border. As legend has it, there was a little stretch where – if you were heading east and you rolled down your car window – your fingertips would be in Mexico.
At least back then, Yuma was a horseshoe. Pull into town heading west … make a left turn … then make another left turn – and pull out of town heading back east. One chain restaurant after another after another, and then you were gone.
When teams traveled to Yuma, they were guaranteed to play games – since rain was never part of the forecast. As it was roughly a four-hour trip from Mesa, extra games were scheduled to make it worth your while. We’d get there to play a “B” game so the minor leaguers could get some action in … then play a regularly scheduled night game … then play an afternoon game the next day. Three games in 24 hours, then continue on your merry way to Palm Springs.
It was beyond a night-and-day difference, as Palm Springs was the “get away from Hollywood” glamour home for many in the entertainment industry. Hey look – there’s a Bob Hope golf course! Gene Autry, the Angels’ owner, was almost guaranteed to be at a spring game. And if you didn’t see him, a boulevard with his name on it ran adjacent to the ballpark.
So here we were in Palm Springs in 1992, a few days after St. Patrick’s Day, and a group of the “peripherals” – trainers, strength coach, low-level PR guy – happened to walk into a bar where several players had already set up shop for the evening. Not a good thing for a lightweight like me.
And on this night, the Miss Palm Springs competition was taking place at this bar. There was plenty of alcohol flowing, and the players were taking care of the support staff. Again, not a good thing for a lightweight.
Several players made it their mission to make sure I had a good time.
I make it a point not to sell out players unless the story merits it to avoid name-dropping, but I’m selling out Paul Assenmacher here. Paul, being left-handed, thought it would be a good idea for Chuck to do multiple Jagermeister shots. I can barely handle multiple Miller Lites.
The rest of the night was … I guess … a blur, maybe? I have no idea, other than hair will grow on your tongue if you drink enough Jager shots.
Please don’t ask me who won Miss Palm Springs. I know I missed the swimsuit portion of the competition, as the bar was moving on me. I’m guessing the winner was blonde and tan.
Please, don’t ask me how I got back to the hotel. I really have no idea.
What I do know is that I was quite green the next morning. I did learn a lesson about Gene Autry Boulevard – in that the hotel and ballpark were a couple miles apart, and I needed every step of the boulevard and every breath of fresh air possible for my brain cells to recover.
I just remember thinking that if I didn’t make it to the yard, my epitaph would have included the words “Wasserstrom, Assenmacher and Jagermeister.” Not exactly an Irish-sounding pub.
On paper, I understand why Adam LaRoche wants to have his son, Drake, around him. As a father, there’s a short window of time before your kids are grown up.
On paper, I understand why the White Sox don’t think every day should be “bring your kid to work day.”
But honestly, from 1,400-plus miles away, I’m way beyond stunned at watching the LaRoche situation play out. If you’re willing to walk away from $13 million, then I’m squarely in your corner.
Adam LaRoche is the son of a former major league player – as his dad, Dave, spent 14 years in the majors. Dave’s last year as a player was 1983; his first year as a coach was 1984. It’s pretty safe to say that Adam LaRoche grew up in a baseball clubhouse.
Do I think Cal Ripken Jr. grew up as a person and a baseball player in a clubhouse? Yes I do. Do I think Ken Griffey Jr. grew up as a person and a baseball player in a clubhouse? That’s also a yes. What about sons of players I worked with, like Brian McRae and Gary Matthews Jr.? Yes and yes. Or Eric Young Jr., who I was fortunate to see many times during his dad’s two years with the Cubs? Definitely a yes.
The argument that “a kid can be there some of the time, but not all the time,” is only valid if the kid is a problem – and other players are saying the kid is a problem. The clubhouse belongs to the players, and – trust me – they know how to police themselves. If Adam LaRoche is as respected among his teammates as I believe he is, and if Drake LaRoche is the great kid that everyone says he is, then what’s the issue?
Baseball is not normal. It’s not a Monday-to-Friday, 40-to-50 hours per week job. Yes, the players get paid extremely well. But they don’t get to lead a “normal” life from roughly Valentine’s Day through October 1 (or longer for the postseason teams).
How many companies in this country have a child around every day that some would say shouldn’t be there? And I’m not talking about a 14-year-old kid minding his own business. I’m referring to a kid who is hand-delivered a job after high school or college because of a well-placed parent. Guess what, it happens. And those kids probably don’t do half of what baseball sons do.
The baseball sons who were in the Cubs’ clubhouse all the time earned their keep. They helped the equipment guys do laundry. They helped shine shoes. They shagged fly balls during batting practice.
Most of the kids were sons of coaches – who weren’t making big money. With rare exception, the kids were great kids. I wanted to see them every day to say Hi.
Baseball is a family game, right?
Heck, just the other day, I was having lunch with an old acquaintance. This guy is a sports entrepreneur who lives and breathes sports. He makes his living off sports. And he started the conversation saying something along the lines of, “I don’t know how you did it.”
And he elaborated on his thought process. “There’s no amount of money that could get me to work in a baseball front office … I can’t imagine the stress level a general manager and his staff have … I couldn’t do that to my wife and my family.”
It’s funny. I just had the same type of conversation with Steve Trachsel. After I completed my interview with Trax a few days ago, I turned off the tape recorder and we talked for a few more minutes.
He talked about his upcoming marriage to his fiancée, Rebecca. Although he has two teenagers, he was excited about starting another family.
The whole conversation was interesting, because it’s a reminder that players are human beings, too. And the baseball life takes its toll on families.
And it’s interesting that – on the record – Mr. Trachsel talked about how hard it would be to get back in the game after having been out of it, telling me that his fiancée is interested in his pursuing a baseball career. Off the record, he talked about a “failed” broadcast attempt before centering on the “people don’t understand” area – where being away from the family just kills you inside.
Another former Cub, Terry Adams, echoed those sentiments in a comment about the story (after, of course, taking a dig at the notoriously slow Trachsel).
“Trax always pitched on getaway days. It was tough! He is absolutely correct about getting back in the game. Wives have no idea the time it consumes and the travel away from family.”
It’s not just wives. Your whole identity can get locked into working in the sport.
When my Cubs days ended, I didn’t look for another big league opportunity. With a family and young children, I didn’t need that life anymore. The nights … the weekends … the being “there” physically, but being “somewhere else” mentally because of something going on at work … the inability to ever escape the grind, since the baseball season actually is harder during the off-season than the day-to-day of in-season.
Baseball can be tremendously tough on a family. I was lucky, because my wife worked in pro sports and understood the life. The reality is that I saw too many good people have their family lives spin out of control because Dad wasn’t around very much.
My last full year with the Cubs (2011), I was away from the Chicago area 13 full weeks – a full one-fourth of the year. As much as I loved what I was doing workwise, was it really worth it?
Why did I do it as long as I did? I worked for the frickin’ Chicago Cubs, that’s why. I wasn’t just living my dream; I was living many people’s dream lives. When you’re part of it, the rest of the world can oftentimes be floating on the periphery.
But then you’re not there anymore, and you can reflect. And this is what I realized right away … All the hotel points and my annual awesome Cactus League farmer’s tan will never cancel out the fact that I missed my girls’ first season of AYSO soccer – as I wasn’t available to get there any Sunday. I missed their second grade music show, as I was already in spring training. I was out of town when they first began reading, and all I could do was listen to their excitement on the phone when they called me to tell me about it. I was on the road when they decided they were done with diapers and that they were big girls now – and toilet-trained themselves. On that one, all I could do was listen to the excitement on the phone when my wife called me to tell me about that.
In the grand scheme of things, my daughters don’t care that I wasn’t around for those events. But I did. As they close in on their teenage years, they probably don’t want me around as much as I am now. But they don’t get to make that choice … I do.
And no team should be making you choose between baseball and your family.
I had the opportunity to work with a lot of players during my time with the Cubs – and by a lot, I mean A LOT. I did some research yesterday afternoon, and a grand total of 491 players appeared in at least one game for the Cubs from Opening Day 1988 through August 14, 2012. And that number doesn’t include the players I only spent quality time with in spring training, the minor leagues or during my intern years.
Some players I knew a lot better than others – specifically, starting pitchers and left-handed middle relievers. Starting pitchers typically had extra time on their hands a few days of the week. Left-handed relievers tended to be, well, left-handed – so there were some excellent southpaw bonding opportunities.
As I’m now writing and telling stories, I’ve started reconnecting with some of the unique personalities I worked with during my quarter century with the club. I thought it would be pretty cool to let you know what they’re up to now – and to talk about their playing days.
A few days ago, I caught up with Steve Trachsel, who pitched in the majors from 1993-2008 – and wore a Cubs uniform from 1993-1999 and in September 2007.
Chuck: When you came up, you looked like you had a little bit of an edge to you. But when I was with you away from the field, you were fine; you didn’t exhibit that same type of personality. Did you purposely try to have an edge on the field?
Trax: “I really didn’t realize it. I know there was a conscious effort to leave whatever happened at the ballpark, leave it there. I didn’t want to take it home with me. Obviously, sometimes that was harder than others. Mostly over big losses, that type of thing. If I could leave it at the ballpark, it always seemed to make the rest of my life a little bit easier. I don’t know if it was a competitive edge-type thing while I was on the field. On days I pitched, after the game, I could be there a good couple hours before I could leave to be sure that I left as much there as possible.”
CW: You came up at a time when being a college pitcher was in vogue, and you came up pretty quick.
Trax: “Yeah, two and a half years. The big thing I had to deal with early on was being touted as Greg Maddux’s replacement, which was a little unfair. That’s someone you couldn’t replace. Especially then, since he was continuing to get better and became a Hall of Famer. Being 22 years old and getting tagged with that was a little difficult to handle.”
CW: When you came back in 2007, you seemed a lot more comfortable in your skin at that point in your career. Obviously, there’s a big difference between coming up at 22 and being a veteran 36-year-old.
Trax: “Oh yeah, definitely. I’d been around a long time. My role had changed at that point of my career. Being 22, I was just trying to establish myself. My career was on the upswing. In 2007, I could see the end of my career coming. I was just trying to stretch it out as long as I could. It was another opportunity to be in the playoffs in 2007, even though I knew it was more of an insurance policy. It was something I tried to take full advantage of and enjoy as much as I could, knowing there was a good chance it would be my last opportunity.”
CW: Speaking of playoffs, for me – the greatest moment watching you pitch – was Game 163 in 1998 (Trachsel pitched 6.1 shutout innings in a 5-3 victory over San Francisco in the Wild Card tiebreaker). In your own words, tell me what it was like being there, as it was a different atmosphere that night.
Trax: “It was almost indescribable. I would have to say, without having been in a World Series, I’d like to think that’s what the atmosphere is like for every game. Being in Chicago, where it had been so long since they’d been to the playoffs. Harry had passed that year. It was a one game win-or-go home type situation. The absolute electricity the entire day. There was this constant buzz everywhere you went around the city. You couldn’t turn on the TV or the radio. It was all everyone was talking about. The pure excitement of the entire moment is definitely one of the highlights of my career. One of the biggest games I’ve not only been able to participate in, but to witness.”
CW: When you say buzz, you could audibly hear buzzing. It was like there were locusts all over.
Trax: “And it was everywhere. Around Wrigleyville, it was crazy. Downtown was crazy. And then you get to the ballpark. I still remember this ginormous Harry Caray balloon floating out beyond the leftfield wall. Even more than a buzz, there was this electricity going off everywhere.”
CW: I have to ask about this. You heard about it. You were painfully slow to watch. Was that a conscious decision, or was that something you might have had even in your Little League days?
Trax: “It definitely wasn’t from Little League. Definitely, not conscious. Since I’ve retired, I’ve gone through the painful process of moving all the tapes that my parents had of me pitching from VHS to DVD, and I could consciously see as I was doing them that … the games earlier in my career, I was able to fit a couple games on a DVD. But later in my career, only one would fit. Obviously, early in my career, I wasn’t working slowly. Somewhere around year four, five, six – games started getting longer for some reason. I know going back and thinking about them, the games definitely felt like they were moving really quickly – at least in my head. I know by the time I got to New York, there was a definite conscious decision to try to speed back up again – both by my coaches and by myself. Going back and watching my tapes after the games. I realized how long it actually was between pitches. So there was actually a definite decision with (Mets pitching coach) Charlie Hough – where I asked him to use a stopwatch in between. It started in one of the spring training games. We tried to make it a focal point in my head of how much time was going on. I got better later in my career. But there was probably a good five-year period where my infielders probably thought it was painful for them. I know it was painful for some umpires as well. There would be comments made by them beforehand – especially the guys behind the plate. ‘Oh God, I’ve got Trachsel’s game.’ ”
CW: You liked to wear your hat low. Was there any reason you didn’t want people to see anything other than your eyes?
Trax: “It was a focus thing. I tried to block out the crowd, or anything above, or behind the dugout when I was coming off the field. Just trying to narrow my focus as much as I could. It was easy for me to block it out sound-wise. But visually, I tried to keep it out. I remember the first time I was in Montreal, Shawon Dunston pulled me aside a day or two before and said, ‘Hey, try not to be distracted.’ I guess there were TVs in the Stadium Club behind home plate. I know he was conscious about them. He said every once in a while, a ground ball would come out of the TV and he would lose it. He mentioned to me that other pitchers said that the TVs distracted them. It might not have started there, but I pulled the hat down low, so that everything beyond the umpire was blocked out while I was on the mound. It was easier for me to just concentrate on the glove.”
CW: Looking back now on your career, if there were things you could have done differently, what would you have done? Or are you comfortable with how your career played out?
Trax: “I’m sure there’s stuff I would have done different. If I had worked quicker, I probably would have had some better defense. My style probably helped my defense get relaxed and on their heels a little bit. At the time, it wasn’t a focus of mine. But now going back, I can see where that would have helped everybody. I would have liked to have gotten to know guys better. I always felt with as many players moving in and out, I didn’t want to have to face a friend – so that’s something I always battled with. I probably would have gotten more memorabilia signed from guys I played with for my own personal stuff. Other than that, being a mid-round starting pitcher, I think being around 15 years – I did pretty well.”
CW: You made over 400 starts, you had close to 150 wins. Is there ever a point where you kind of pinch yourself and say “I can’t believe I got that opportunity?”
Trax: “A little bit. Not too much. Opportunity wise, I put a lot of work in. I knew, once I got to Double-A, seeing some of the guys I played against … who had similar type stuff … and had been called up to the big leagues and were succeeding … I knew that as long as I stayed healthy, that I would get an opportunity. I just wanted to make sure that when I got that opportunity, I was at the top of my game and that I was focused. Luckily, I was able to stay healthy for a very long time, so I think that really helped out a lot. When I was drafted, I was a small skinny kid. I wasn’t done growing. I kind of sprouted late, and I think that’s what really helped me out.”
CW: Final question … What are you doing now, and do you have plans to try and get back in the game?
Trax: “Right now, mostly taking care of the kids. My son (Brendan) is playing freshman baseball. So that’s going six days a week right now. He’s 15. He’s the same size I was my senior year of high school, and he’s just a freshman, so I’m kind of curious to see how that’s going to turn out for him. My daughter (Lauren) is 13 and in competition dance. She’s doing that six days a week as well. So I’m putting a lot of miles on the car driving around to their events. I just got engaged in October. So we’re working on trying to plan a wedding and round two of family. As far as getting back into the game, I know it’s really difficult to get back in once you’ve been out. I don’t know if I’d want to do the travel that would be required. I know my fiancée (Rebecca) says that she would like to see me get back in, but I don’t think she knows the extent of what it takes out of a family when you’re going through all that. I think if I did get back in, it would be more along the lines of helping out with the high school or that type of stuff.”
What’s the most exciting live event you’ve been fortunate to witness?
I’m talking about the “I can’t believe what I just saw” moment. Something that stands up to the test of time. An “I was so lucky to be there” instant that still gives you the chills years later. One of those events that has 30-for-30 written all over it.
A couple days ago, I was talking to someone about a possible freelance writing assignment. I hadn’t spoken with this person before, so I tracked down his bio online to learn a little bit about him. And I found out one of his life highlights was that he was at Three Rivers Stadium for Franco Harris’s “Immaculate Reception” in 1972. How cool would it be to say you were there for that?
I know I have an unfair advantage over most people when asking the “top moment” question. I’ve been to thousands of sporting events, and there have been countless moments I can talk about. But for the purpose of being there live, I’m eliminating the games I was working from the discussion – since I was paid to be there. That automatically eliminates the Kerry Wood 20-strikeout affair … the Bartman game … the Hank Blalock game-winning 2-run homer off Eric Gagne that gave the American League the victory in the first All-Star Game “that mattered” … anything/everything that took place during the Sammy Sosa/Mark McGwire home run chase.
As a 10-year-old, I was at Mike Schmidt’s four-homer game at Wrigley Field in 1976. That was both cool and not cool.
I was at Super Bowl XVII in 1983 – when John Riggins had his famous 4th quarter, 4th-and-inches 43-yard touchdown run to lead Washington past Miami. That was really cool (don’t tell my Dolphins-loving wife, though). Not as cool as participating in an “Up With People” halftime celebration that day, but cool nonetheless.
In 1995, I was backstage when Pearl Jam played Soldier Field. There were 50,000 people watching, and I was less than 50 feet from Eddie Vedder. I can’t wait to share that story.
On a softball field on a beautiful Saturday last June, my “pitcher kid” threw a no-hitter and my “catcher kid” cleared the leftfielder twice for two more triples than this Wasserstrom ever had. I get goose bumps thinking of it.
None of those moments compare to the Franco Harris catch, but if I ever do a bio of myself, I’m happily listing “Sat in the nosebleeds for Bo Jackson’s 1989 All-Star blast” on that profile.
I started full-time with the Cubs in January 1988. One month later, the Chicago City Council approved the proposal allowing the Cubs to add lights to Wrigley Field. Shortly after that, it was announced that the 1990 All-Star Game would be played at The Friendly Confines.
I had never been to one of baseball’s jewel events, so I thought it would be a good idea to attend the 1989 All-Star Game and get the feel of the Midsummer Classic. So me and the posse – also known as Dr. Scott and Uncle Al – headed off to Anaheim. We were just happy to be there, so the seat location –upper deck, rightfield corner, literally next to the foul pole – was inconsequential.
After a tremendous pregame show – including the introduction of Cubs all-stars Ryne Sandberg, Andre Dawson, Mitch Williams and Rick Sutcliffe – the National League pushed across two runs in the top of the 1st inning.
In the bottom of the 1st, my favorite childhood Cub – Rick Reuschel – took the mound for the National League. Reuschel, then 40 years old and in his 17th big league season (he pitched through 1991), was just a wonderful pitcher to watch – mainly because he relied totally on deception and didn’t look like much of an athlete. Thanks to his size, he was known as “The Whale” during his early years with the Cubs. He graduated to “Big Daddy” during the latter half of his career – and was in the midst of a 17-win season with the Giants in 1989.
So here we were. Reuschel on the mound – and Bo Jackson coming to the plate. Big Daddy, the aging hurler, facing Bo – who knows how to make his presence felt. Bo was already a star on both the MLB field and the NFL gridiron, and he was a national phenomenon.
Up in the nosebleeds, we were soaking in the atmosphere. There was a buzz in the air, but no one knew what was about to happen. But we were a captive audience.
First pitch, low. Ball one.
Reuschel, being the quick worker that he was, got the ball back from catcher Benito Santiago and almost immediately went into his half-windup.
The pitch … super quick swing … and the next thought was … Holy Sh*t.
Bo didn’t just touch the ball with his bat. He mangled it. He destroyed it. It didn’t matter that we were sitting three-quarters of a stadium up, over 100 yards away from home plate. The bat hit the ball, and it made this tremendous, almost indescribable sound. You didn’t believe what you just saw or heard.
“THWACK” is a descriptor for it, but in billboard-sized letters. There are line drive homers. There are towering shots. This one was different. It had that sound.
“THWACK” … Like a missile, the ball rocketed halfway up the centerfield embankment. Bo was credited with a 448-foot home run, but the line drive was still rising when it “landed.” It took just three seconds for the ball to get from his bat to the black tarp in centerfield. From up high, you knew immediately that it was out of the park; it was just a matter of how far – and if the people in the bleachers were going to be safe. From our rightfield perch, it was a thing of beauty.
I know Wade Boggs followed Jackson’s blast with a home run of his own, and I know the American League won the game, but the rest of the night was a total blur. Frankly, the game didn’t matter. All anyone was talking about was Bo’s blast.
It was immaculate in its own way. And I was there to see it.
Way back in the day, the Cubs played their spring games at old old HoHoKam Park in Mesa, AZ – not to be confused with newer old HoHoKam Stadium, which was my spring training “home away from home” from 1997-2012.
Old Old HoHo was, shall we politely say, quaint. Much closer to a cemetery than a ballpark needs to be, there was a small parking lot, a no-frills grandstand, and a detached trailer for the 8-to-10 front office personnel who were Mesa-based for six weeks. That was our glamorous lifestyle. For me, the best part was being able to brag about having a desk inside a detached trailer, as in “You know you’re a redneck when your office is on wheels.”
The facility was even “quainter” inside the ballpark shell. Directly behind home plate, the top row of seats was directly in front of the open air press box. If fans stood up, you couldn’t see. If you were deep into a conversation, a fan sitting right in front of you would often stand up and interject. And since this was 1990-something, electricity wasn’t prevalent yet in Arizona – so there were barely any electrical outlets or an in-house public address system to make announcements.
Most of the time, you dealt with it. There were more important things to whine about when you’re “stuck” in the Valley of the Sun.
But most of the time didn’t include weekend home games when WGN-TV was broadcasting games live – when WGN was WGN, and Harry Caray, Steve Stone and Arne Harris ruled the landscape.
Harry wasn’t overly fond of old HoHoKam – and who could blame him. He was a creature of habit; he had his pregame routine, and there wasn’t much space for him to get his work in. During exhibition games, fans were always standing up in front of him to get his attention.
Harry was good with taking care of kid requests. He was real good with female fans. Most male fans, he took care of. And then there was Ronnie “Woo Woo” Wickers.
I won’t say that Harry always had issues with Ronnie, but Harry wasn’t a Ronnie booster in Mesa. Woo Woo was always trying to get on television. It was great for TV, but not for the Hall of Fame broadcaster.
I wish I could remember the year, but there was a weekend game in the mid-1990s that stands out as my greatest spring training story ever. For whatever reason, Harry wasn’t the happiest of campers that afternoon, and the crowd in front of him was less than cooperative. Despite his constant pleading that they sit down so he could see the game, Harry was fighting a losing battle.
A couple innings in, through the sea of fans, came that sound you just didn’t want to hear that day: “Cubs Woo! Cubs Woo! Harry Woo! Harry Woo!”
When Ronnie Woo Woo gets started, there is no stopping him. How he got to Arizona every spring, I have no idea. How he got to Tokyo for the Cubs/Mets 2000 season opener is an even bigger question.
On this particular day, Ronnie was coming through “loud and clear” on the WGN-TV microphones. It was hot in the press box, there was barely any wind cooling us off, and Harry was just not in a good mood. After a while, he had enough, and he marched over to my perch.
A normal conversation with Harry typically started with “Heyyyyyy ……. Chuuuuuuck.” When the “Hey” wasn’t there, he was serious – and there was no small talk. It meant I should do what he wanted me to do. Now.
“Chuuuuuuuck,” he said. “Keep him away from me. I don’t care what you do. Keep him out of here.”
Through all his whistling sounds, about five feet in front of us in the top row of the stands, Ronnie must have heard every other word Harry said. He started walking to the press box gate.
Mesa, circa 1994, was still the Old West. Things were very different in Arizona than they were in Chicago. The cops in Mesa WERE the cops on the TV show of that name.
With that in mind, if Harry wanted Ronnie Woo Woo kept away from him – then I better be doing my job.
I raced to the one (and only) press box entrance, beating Ronnie there by a good 30 seconds. It gave me time to prep the Mesa police officer guarding the entrance.
I made it very clear that Harry did not want Ronnie getting near him. I told him that Ronnie could not enter the press box – and that I didn’t care what the officer did as long as he kept Ronnie away from Harry.
By this point, Ronnie was quickly approaching the press box. I politely tried to shoo him away. If he had followed directions, this would not have been a story.
“Ronnie, Harry does not want you up here.”
“Harry loves me!,” he said.
“No Ronnie, he couldn’t have been more clear. You’re not getting up here.”
“Harry wants me on TV,” Ronnie said as he put his hand on the press box gate, swung it open and started to take his first step into the box.
Then it got surreal – as Ronnie knew what was happening before I did.
The police officer’s weapon was parallel to my left ear – and pointing directly at Ronnie’s head. Ronnie slowly and cautiously slinked backwards, and he quietly went away without putting up a fight.
I turned to the cop and said, “You know I was kidding about that, right?”
Without blinking an eye, the officer said: “Yeah, but I wasn’t kidding. I can’t stand that chirping.”
Needless to say, Ronnie stayed away from Harry the rest of that spring.
Friday was already a sad day for me. I’ll get to why in a bit, but the day ended when I learned of the passing of Shannon Forde.
As I’m sure many of you know by now, Shannon was a member of the New York Mets’ media relations department – and she was one of the great people in the game. Baseball is a unique industry, and you get to meet a lot of wonderful humans who don’t care about the long hours … or the nights … or the weekends. They do it for the love of the game.
And Shannon loved the game and the people who were part of the game. She had a warm personality and a great laugh, and she was particularly helpful to media relations staffers from visiting teams. Beyond being helpful and making sure whatever you needed was waiting for you, she always made you smile.
I lost my Cubs job in August 2012. Shannon was diagnosed with cancer in August 2012. I have nothing to complain about.
Shannon was a behind-the-scenes/under-the-radar type, but she was far from it. And the past few days have proven it. As sad as I am about her passing, it’s awesome to read the tributes written about her. She was obviously beloved by those who worked with her.
Shannon was just 44 years old. She left behind a husband and two young children. I shed a few tears when I learned the news late Friday night. I hope she knew how much she was loved.
In one of the worst coincidence-days ever, I was driving to a meeting Friday morning in Evanston – and I was heading down a familiar route, getting off the Edens Expressway at Dempster and heading east toward the lake.
And as I drove through Skokie and continued toward the downtown Evanston area, memories of Kevin Foster popped into my head. I drive that road all the time, but I hadn’t thought of Kevin in quite some time.
Kevin pitched for the Cubs from 1994-1998. He was a nice guy, a reflective type who went to Evanston High School and attended Cubs games as a youngster.
But that’s not why I was thinking of him. During his time with the Cubs, I lived in Evanston – just a couple miles from the house he grew up in. And despite being a big league player, he still lived at home. And yours truly, the little media relations staffer, got to drive him home after the road trips I went on. He’d always ask that day before, “You going with us? Dropping me off at home, right?!”
I’m guessing I drove him home 8-to-10 times. He would talk about taking the train to Wrigley Field as a kid, just like I did. He would talk about his family, how close he was with them, about how they kept him grounded, about why he didn’t see a reason to move out. He wondered how often he’d get home cooking if he moved out.
And he often talked about looking forward to the days after baseball. There were so many things he wanted to do that the money he was making might allow him to do. There were places he wanted to travel to. The world was in front of him.
Arm injuries derailed his career, and his major league career ended for good in 2001. In October 2008, just six months after being diagnosed with renal cell carcinoma, he was gone – at just 39 years old … leaving behind four sons.
Through my time in baseball, I was fortunate to come across so many wonderful human beings. Sadly, too many have been taken from us far too soon.
It’s not right that Kevin Foster wasn’t around to see his children grow up.
But if I can twist it and put a happy spin on it, I’d rather do it that way – in a “Rock and Roll Heaven” fashion, the song popularized by The Righteous Brothers.
Wherever Kevin might be right now, I envision Frank Castillo also being there, quietly watching in a corner, a little bit of a smirk on his face, soaking everything in. Quietly watching … very quietly watching, but with assassin’s blood. He drowned while swimming in 2013 – at the age of 44.
I see Jeremi Gonzalez getting ready to pull a practical joke on some unsuspecting teammate – or pulling the “No habla ingles” on someone when he fully understood everything. And I mean everything. He had his own agent fooled for years. He was 33 when he was struck by lightning in 2008.
I see Jessie Hollins, who overcame a rough upbringing, finally having some peace. He drowned at the age of 39 in 2009.
There’s Rod Beck, beer can in hand, just enjoying the moment. He died in 2007 at age 38. The cause of death was drug related.
Dave Smith, cigarette in hand, quietly observing everything in front of him before dropping a well-timed one-line quip. He died of a heart attack (in 2008) at 53.
I see the coaches who lived long and exciting lives and had wonderful years with their grandchildren – but I also see coaches who too died way too young – like Larry Cox (who died at the age of 42 after suffering a heart attack) and Oscar Acosta (killed in a car accident at age 49).
Two of my old Cubs colleagues are there in the background, blending in. That’s what behind-the-scenes people do. Kathy Tomasetti with her big booming laugh, smiling ear-to-ear because I’m talking about her. Mike Hill, rolling his eyes because I’m talking about him. I expect that he’ll shoot me one of those “you can’t pass that around at work” e-mails.
I came across a lot of people in baseball, and that’s what made that world so special. Baseball players are real people, too. These are some of the people I wish you would have had the chance to know. They all need to be remembered.
Right off the bat, if you’re expecting a “Chuck Talks About His Cubs Days” baseball story – you’ve come to the right place. But sometimes life events get in the way, and I have one of those to share. I’ll return to the baseball “beat” tomorrow with the story I was planning to share today.
Yesterday was an awesome day for me on the personal front – and personal isn’t the correct word. Community or neighborly would be better word choices, but I’m sticking to personal.
For those of you who don’t know my background, I worked for the Cubs from 1988-2012 – spending 16 years in the Media Relations department and nine years in Baseball Operations. I saw a lot of things over those 25 years.
During all that time, though, I never watched an 11- or 12-year-old playing baseball where I would have been bold enough to say: “That kid’s a future major leaguer.” From the “eye test” perspective, I wouldn’t predict anything with middle school baseball players. Too much can change.
But there was this kid down the block who was just a soccer-workaholic. There would be this large “thud … thud … thud” sound at dusk, and you knew his garage door was taking a pounding from line drive kicks. There would be a “tick … tick … tick … tick” sound, and you knew this kid was dribbling his soccer ball … off his foot or other body parts … while not letting the ball touch the ground … and walking around the block while doing it … for what seemed like hours.
My wife and I talked about it all the time. I would say things along the lines of: “I don’t know enough about soccer, but if he keeps it up, he’s going to be a professional player.” Seriously, what did I know about soccer back then? And now, while living the travel soccer parent dream, every game I go to – someone there vocally reminds everyone within earshot that his/her child is going to be, at a minimum, an Olympian.
I’m positive that this kid – who I’m still calling a kid even though he’s 22 – did all his soccer training on his own when he was home. He went outside and worked … and worked … and worked at soccer instead of honing couch potato skills. He never had to be told to practice or to do his homework. As far as I know, the only thing he had to be told to do was to come down the block to my house whenever he needed help tying his tie for a high school dance.
We live in a great neighborhood, and as a collective group, we watched him play in high school – and we were elated when he was offered a full ride to play soccer at Northwestern. We watched him play in college – and we were ecstatic for him and his family when the Chicago Fire signed him to a homegrown player contract in December.
But it didn’t hit home until it became real. Yesterday, it became real.
My family happened to be going to the Chicago Fire season opener. My goalie daughter’s team won a Fire-sponsored tournament in January, and her team was being honored with a “wave to the crowd” halftime announcement and a group picture after the match. You can see I’m starting to figure the sport out since I said match, not game. However, I’m still calling the sport soccer.
Driving to Toyota Park, the thought obviously was there – would the neighbor kid get to play? Wouldn’t it be cool if we saw him on the pitch?
We picked up our tickets from the soccer team manager and had to check out the gift shop. As we passed the register, we bumped into the kid’s family. Mom Elsa – a little teary eyed: “I’m not getting a uniform with his name on the back until I see that he’s really out there.” Dad George at the cash register, a week’s worth of salary spent on blankets and Fire apparel – looking a bit dazed in a “Is this a dream?” sort of way.
His parents knew he had made the cut for the day’s action; he was on the active roster for the match.
There aren’t any nosebleed seats at Toyota Park, but some seats are a little further away from the Fire bench than others. During the match, every time someone got up to get loose, you’d immediately ask “Is that him?”
With around 20 minutes remaining in regulation (not to mention stoppage time), he took off all his warmup gear. He went to the area where the sideline official stood. He was going to check in. And the ball never went out of play.
For 10 excruciating minutes, the ball NEVER went out of play. The kid went back-and-forth to the bench area, probably giving his Mom a heart attack every time he moved. If it was an excruciating 10 minutes for me, I can’t imagine the emotions his parents were feeling.
And in the 81st minute, the ball finally deflected off a foot and over the sidelines. Fire midfielder Razvan Cocis’ day was done.
And then the PA announcement, both in English and Spanish. The neighbor kid who I’ve known since he was 6 or 7, Joey Calistri – number 15 on his back – was making his professional debut.
I took the best picture I possibly could of Joey running out. To say I’m not the best photographer doesn’t say much. To say my hands were shaking out of excitement – that’s my excuse.
The Fire lost 4-3, but the score didn’t matter to me. I saw this kid out there – and he’s not a kid anymore -- big shoulders, body filled out. He’s listed at 5’10” and 160 pounds, but I’ve written hundreds of bios – and liberties often were taken with height and weight. If you didn’t know Joey, nothing he did looked like someone making his debut. He looked like he belonged.
Check that. Joey Calistri did belong on that pitch. He worked his butt off to get there. He earned it.
We were heading north after the Toyota Park experience for my girls’ indoor soccer Sunday night – and that’s a totally different story.
I almost choked up in the car as we talked about Joey. I know I said, “At some point tonight, Elsa or George is going to say, ‘I can’t believe this is really happening?’”
One of my daughters asked, “What do you mean?” And I babbled.
“It’s hard to explain, but now it’s real. It wasn’t an exhibition game. He made his pro debut. He’s a (expletive deleted) professional player. Joey had this dream, this goal, and he worked at it and worked at it and it’s real. He made it. And it’s awesome. No one can ever take this away from him.”
And as a neighbor down the block, no one can take the memory of watching him run onto the pitch away from me. Way to go Joey!
What inspires you? What drives you to do things that make you feel real good about yourself?
My return to writing has been very inspirational to me. Taking a series of words and stringing them together into sentences, paragraphs and long-form storytelling has lifted me into creative and self-confidence levels that I haven’t felt in years.
And I get inspiration from my daughters. They inspire me every single day. They’re so much better athletes than I ever was. They’re so much smarter than I ever was. They do things with computers and technology that cause me to ask, “How did you do that?” And they’re so much more advanced. Heck, I didn’t even learn how to type until I was midway through high school.
True inspiration comes in many forms. It’s like a magnet; you can get pulled to it from helping those around you.
Back in February, I learned of a volunteer opportunity to assist eGirl Power – a 501(c)(3) nonprofit program established to empower girls to improve their confidence, self-esteem, and reach their full potential. The key objectives of eGirl Power are to inspire, educate, and empower tween and teenage girls – and prepare them for college and career success.
But eGirl Power doesn’t stop just there. The program exists to raise awareness of gender equality issues.
So, let’s think about this. I have two tween daughters. There’s a program with a mission focused solely on gender equality and girls education. I can become involved in a cause that can – and will – benefit both of my children. Where can I sign up?
Today, I’m proud to officially let all of you know that I have been chosen to counsel eGirl Power (http://www.egirlpower.org) in a public relations campaign. In the coming months, eGirl Power will be releasing a book … and a graphic novel … and a 3D movie … for the purpose of raising awareness and supporting gender equality and girls education. And I get to play my part by generating publicity.
On top of that, there’s a really cool component to all of this. The eGirl Power team members I’m assisting are the same people who brought the world Project Pay It Forward (http://projectpayitforward.org) and the documentary of the same name with a sole purpose: To highlight individuals who regularly pay it forward to others. I get to feel their passion first-hand. How awesome is that?!
I now get to work with these amazing people – led by Amy Mintz, the Founder, Board Chair and President of the organization – who are so passionate about this project. Their mission for tween and teenage girls:
eGirl Power helps girls identify and recognize their unique skills, showing how these special talents can be translated into potential college majors and careers that enhance their strengths and help them reach their full potential. The program works to improve self-esteem and boost confidence -- important key factors for future professional success.
A lack of confidence is found to detrimentally affect females not just in the classroom, but in the workforce as well. Women are fighting for equality and opportunities that weren’t offered before, and they are turning the tide. More than half of the workforce is comprised of women -- and they are receiving more college degrees than men. Yet, they represent only five percent of the chief executives of the largest companies in the United States. While women have the competence to compete for top-level jobs, often their confidence is the factor holding them back.
I’m proud to be working with eGirl Power, and I’ll be leaning on you – my network – to help raise awareness and spread the word.
I am so inspired by this program and this cause. What inspires you?
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Once upon a time, I had the dream job of dream jobs. I worked in the Media Relations department for the Chicago Cubs. And I had 16 wonderful years working in that department, starting with being a point of contact with the media when helicopters airlifted the lights onto Wrigley Field in 1988 to getting “thisclose” to reaching the World Series in 2003.
Media Relations for a sports team is the publicity arm, but I was most assuredly not needed to generate publicity. People came to Wrigley Field no matter how the on-field product was producing.
Media Relations for the Cubs was truly Crisis Communications. When you work for the Cubs, everything is a crisis. Some situations truly are crisis – Sammy Sosa’s exploding bat, for instance, or cracks in the Wrigley Field foundation causing cement to drop on the seats. But working for the Cubs’ Media Relations office also meant you had to deploy the Crisis Communications team when Kerry Wood might (or might not) have a blister.
But my Crisis Communications stories pale in comparison to those of a friend of mine, David Prosperi – a Cubs season ticketholder. You see – and this gives me goose bumps as I type it – David was steps away when his boss (White House press secretary Jim Brady) and President Reagan were shot.
David and I have lunched together several times over the past few years, but his past never came up; he’s been more worried about helping me out. He doesn’t wear his past on his sleeve, and he doesn’t talk about “being there” very much. We sat down last week, and I was able to convince him that his story is better than mine.
David is a Chicago-area guy, and he grew up a Cubs fan – although his sports passion is college basketball. That, and the fond sports memories his three now-adult children provided for him.
“I remember my Dad and I would sit in the bleachers, and the cost was one quarter,” he said. “One of my first games was looking at the back of Richie Ashburn, who played centerfield for the Phillies. We were sitting in the seats that today are blocked out by the ivy. There weren’t big crowds, but it was sports. It was great. I loved being in that atmosphere.”
He was passionate about sports, but his calling was in the public relations realm. His career path took him to the “Reagan for President” Campaign, which he joined in October 1979. He was a press aide for the then-California governor, who – on his way to Hollywood – had previously spent time as an Iowa-based radio broadcaster of Cubs games recreated live from telegraph accounts.
“A guy named Mike Deaver hired me, and Mike asked me to travel with the governor from L.A. to Phoenix for a speech,” David said. “I sat next to the Governor in first class. He looked at me and jokingly said, ‘Hey, do your parents know what you’re doing right now?’
“It was hard not to hit it off with President Reagan. He was a gentleman who was very comfortable in his own skin. He treated everybody the same, whether you were the CEO of a major company or the guy who was sweeping the hallway at the end of the day. That’s what I really admired about him – the respect he held for everyone. And how he didn’t think of himself as a big deal. He didn’t feel that he was any more important than the next person.”
Stories about President Reagan's affinity for the Cubs are well known. One of his bucket list items at the end of his presidency was to broadcast a game live at Wrigley Field – which he did October 1, 1988. I only got as close to him as the police detail German shepherd would allow me. David wasn’t there – as he was Dan Quayle’s press secretary during his campaign run for Vice President.
But the stories of his broadcast past were often a topic of conversation.
“This one time on a plane, he was talking about his early experiences and how he would broadcast games from the WHO Studio in Des Moines based on the ticker tape that they would get of the games,” David recalled. “And I remember distinctly one story where he was laughing and said, ‘I’m broadcasting the game from the ticker tape, and the ticker tape stopped.’
“Governor Reagan looked at me and said, ‘It was amazing how many foul balls this one batter hit until the ticker tape started again – when they could pick up on what was happening in the game. It was a very funny story about how he came up with all these different ways the ball was being fouled off by the batter. He was able to keep things going until the ticker tape kicked back in again.”
The campaign trail obviously was a success, as Ronald Reagan was inaugurated as the 40th President of the United States on January 20, 1981.
David was brought to the White House as an assistant press secretary under Jim Brady – a huge Cubs fan who grew up in downstate Illinois. David and his White House colleagues operated differently than today. Back in the early 1980s, there was no internet nor cell phones, and 24-hour news outlets were a work in progress. For these media relations practitioners, the only way you could get a news release to media outlets was via a fax machine – unless you could hand-deliver it to them.
Brady was a master at working with the media, and taught his staffers well.
“We used to call Jim ‘The Bear’ because he was a big guy,” David said. “Really good sense of humor. Really good appreciation for the role of the media in politics. And an equally good appreciation for what you needed to do as a press secretary – to make sure that your messages could get out in the most effective way.
“You didn’t have 24-hour cable TV. You had three networks and, at that time, an upstart cable network in Atlanta. So if you could manage ABC, CBS and NBC, that was the best way to control the news – and Jim was quite good at it. If not for the assassination attempt, I think Jim Brady would have gone down as one of the best White House press secretaries of all time.”
Which leads to that date – March 30, 1981. Just 69 days into the presidency.
Where were you on that day? David was yards away.
My words won’t do this justice. The story, in David’s words.
“The speech took place at the Washington Hilton, and the President was coming back out through what was called the ‘President’s Entrance.’ I was with the press pool in the motorcade, so I was standing to the left of the motorcade near one of the press vehicles with a reporter named Judy Woodruff, who at the time was with NBC News (today, she is the co-anchor and managing editor of the PBS NewsHour).
“Judy came up to me and said, ‘Can you take me up to Jim Brady?’ And Jim was part of the group that was coming out with the President. So we started to walk up the left side of the motorcade when I heard a pop. It sounded like a balloon pop. Then there was a small lull … and then there were five more pops. I knew then that someone was firing a weapon. Instinctively, I ducked and I pulled down Judy with me. The next thing I know, the motorcade is taking off, cars are whizzing by me, and as the last car whizzes by, you see Officer (Thomas) Delahanty from the Washington, D.C., police force down on the ground. He was shot. Tim McCarthy, the Secret Service agent who stood up when everybody else ducked and took a bullet in his stomach – he was on the ground. And then there was Jim Brady, lying face down on the ground.
“A friend of mine, who was a White House advance man – Rick Ahearn – was kneeling next to Jim and holding a handkerchief to his head. Rick yelled at me and said, ‘Do you have a handkerchief?’ I had a handkerchief that my grandmother had given me, and I threw it at Rick. Then I ran inside to call the White House. No cell phones at the time, so fortunately I had an AT&T credit card for the pay phone – because that was the only phone that was available inside the hotel. I raced in and used the credit card and called the White House press office and told them the President was shot at and Jim Brady was hit. Larry Speakes took the call, and that’s how the White House found out – before the Secret Service even told them.
“I said the President was shot at – because I wasn’t aware at that time whether the President was shot. Jerry Parr, the Secret Service agent who pushed the President into the limousine – he wasn’t aware if the President was shot. He knew they had been shot at.
“In the immediate aftermath, you had the Sam Donaldsons of the world yelling at everybody and asking questions. ‘Was the President shot? Was the President shot?’ I said, ‘I can’t confirm that.’
“We did not have any Crisis Communications training prior to that. You were literally flying by the seat of your pants.”
He has had a successful career since then, but like I told you – his story is better than mine.
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