The 2017 baseball season officially commences this Sunday. With the thought of real baseball just hours away, it’s time for my annual speech about what Opening Day means to me.
Granted, I never started a season coming off winning a World Series. During my baseball life, every Opening Day to me was a “Wait ‘til this year moment” – at least until it was time to start looking toward next year.
What is Opening Day?
Opening Day is a day of hope. It doesn’t matter what your record was the year before … or what your club did (or didn’t do) over the offseason … or what happened during spring training. Winning the Cactus League doesn’t come with a parade route.
Opening Day is a moment in time. It’s really just one day. Everybody is 0-0. And then it quickly becomes a reality check. If your team really isn’t very good, there are 161 more of these games to follow.
Opening Day is a day when I literally kissed the ground, whether I was in Chicago or on the road – as I finally was released from that purgatory known as spring training. Don’t get me wrong, the people in Arizona were great year after year. But spring training, from start-to-finish, becomes a whole lot of Groundhog Day and watching paint dry all rolled into one package. It’s a long time away from your own bed. It’s a long time away from family and friends. And no matter how nice the new spring training facilities have become, nothing beats the feel of walking onto the diamond of a big league ballpark on Opening Day – especially a cathedral like Wrigley Field.
Opening Day is a day to remember Ron Santo’s toupee. One of my all-time Ron Santo moments was the infamous Shea Stadium “Opening Day Fire” of 2003 when Ron’s hairpiece nestled against an overhead heating unit and started smoking. The irony of it all: Ron’s least favorite city and least favorite ballpark (remember 1969?), and this was the location where his hairpiece started smoldering. To top it off (no pun intended), Steve Stone was in attendance to witness the blessed event. I wish I had a recording of his word-for-word account, as I bumped into Stoney outside the visiting TV booth just seconds after it happened. Steve’s quick recap featured something along the lines of: “Hey Chuck, if it smells like dead squirrel, go check the bathroom. Ron’s hair just caught fire. It looks like someone took a divot out of his forehead.”
Opening Day is a day to reflect back on all the third basemen who tried to fill Santo’s shoes. From Santo’s last year with the Cubs (1973) until Aramis Ramirez’s arrival in a mid-season trade 30 years later, a mind-boggling 18 different players were season-opening starters at third base for the Cubs – Bill Madlock (1974-1976), Steve Ontiveros (1977-1980), Ken Reitz (1981), Ryne Sandberg (1982), Ron Cey (1983-1985), Manny Trillo (1986), Keith Moreland (1987), Vance Law (1988-1989), Luis Salazar (1990), Gary Scott (1991-1992), Steve Buechele (1993-1995), Jose Hernandez (1996), Kevin Orie (1997-1998), Gary Gaetti (1999), Shane Andrews (2000), Bill Mueller (2001), Chris Stynes (2002) and Mark Bellhorn (2003).
Opening Day is a meteorologist’s delight. It’s a time when the Chicago weather typically is beautiful for the home opener, followed by a 30-degree temperature drop the next day.
Opening Day is a day to show off a farmer’s tan. After six-plus weeks under the Arizona sun, your exposed parts brown very nicely. I haven’t been in Mesa since 2012 – but my right wrist continues to feature the white watch line accrued from my 20-plus spring trainings in the Valley.
Opening Day is a reminder of how quickly things can change. Thanks to re-reading my diary last year from the Cubs’ season-opening trip to Japan in 2000, I found the game notes I wrote for the media. How about this nugget … only six players from the Cubs’ 1998 25-man National League Division Series postseason roster were members of the 2000 25-man Opening Day roster — Felix Heredia, Matt Karchner, Kevin Tapani, Mark Grace, Henry Rodriguez and Sammy Sosa (Kerry Wood and Glenallen Hill began 2000 on the disabled list). The Division Series and Opening Day were less than 18 months apart.
Opening Day is a snapshot. The players getting introduced in pregame ceremonies just happen to be the 25 players on the active roster that day. Every year, you headed to spring training in mid-February. The reality was – after all that time – the only non-injury battles that really mattered for the start of the season were for the 23rd, 24th and 25th spots on the Opening Day roster. And those guys rarely made it through April.
Opening Day is a pinnacle day – a day that can’t be taken away from those that were part of the festivities. No matter what, Tarrik Brock, Cole Liniak and Danny Young can always say they were on a major league Opening Day roster (2000 in Tokyo). Hector Villanueva can always say he was an Opening Day starter at catcher (1992). Jim Bullinger, who struggled as a minor league infielder, was a major league Opening Day starting pitcher (1995). Jose Nieves was the Opening Day starter at shortstop in Japan in 2000.
Opening Day is a day to reminisce about Tuffy Rhodes. For one magnificent afternoon in 1994, the baseball gods smiled upon Tuffy and watched him go deep three times off Doc Gooden. Tuffy peaked as a Cub that afternoon; heck, he hit only five more big league homers in 94 more games in ’94 and none in 23 games in 1995. But he went to Japan in 1996 and became a baseball god there, hitting 464 homers in 13 seasons overseas.
Opening Day is a day that winds up being – no matter how you try to avoid it – the excuse for the way the rest of the season goes. I can’t help but think of April 5, 2010, when the Cubs scored three times in the top of the 1st inning in Atlanta – only to have the Braves put up a six-spot in the bottom half of the frame. Just like that, the “gut punch” season began. Three straight winning seasons, including division championships in 2007 and 2008, quickly became a distant memory.
Opening Day is a day that puts a smile on my face. I remember Jerome Walton, fresh out of Double-A, trying to contain his excitement prior to the 1989 Opening Day festivities. Mesa ’89 was the last spring training I missed until 2013. I remember getting the big bear hug from Jerome prior to the season opener. I had met Jerome for the first time at the Cubs Convention in January; his agent brought him into Chicago for the convention, and then inexplicably left Jerome at the event. It might not have been a big deal, except that Jerome was staying at his agent’s place that weekend. Not only was it Jerome’s first trip to Chicago, but he didn’t have his agent’s address. That Friday night in January, I volunteered to help Jerome find his agent’s condo. It only took about two hours of driving, literally going block-by-block until landmarks started ringing bells for him. If I only had thought of driving past The Second City and Pipers Alley 90 minutes earlier … sigh. But it created a great bonding moment. And Jerome went on to have a stellar 1989 campaign – winning the National League Rookie of the Year Award.
Late last March, I reached out to former Cubs first-round pick Lance Dickson to write a “Catching Up With” type of story for this site.
I always liked Lance, even though our common time with the Cubs was way too short. He was intelligent with a good sense of humor – and he was a left-handed starter, which was something the Cubs had been desperately missing.
Lance was drafted in 1990 out of the University of Arizona and made three major league starts later that year – the only three he would ever make. Injuries bit him, one after another, and I’d see him in spring training every year while he tried to rehab his way back. Finally, in 1995 at the young age of 25, he had to say goodbye to his playing career.
His vocation after the game of baseball has been wildly successful – and it was under that guise that I reached out to him a year ago to tell his story. And it was during our conversation that he threw a curve at me.
It’s a story worth sharing again.
The original story ran March 25, 2016. I’ll give you an update at the end.
When you know you’re going to be interviewing someone for a story, it is incumbent that you do your homework and that you’re thoroughly prepared. There’s nothing worse than getting blindsided by something you should have known about.
And when you’re interviewing someone you haven’t talked to in 20-plus years, it is imperative that you do extra research. In this instance, I did … or at least I thought I did.
Thanks to the internet, I periodically have checked up on Lance Dickson – who had a meteoric 1990 on the mound and basically disappeared off the face of the baseball world soon after that. I knew he really hadn’t disappeared; in fact, he was quite successful in the business world.
I recognized that when I reached out to him, it was to tell his story in a positive way. Plain and simple, he didn’t need me telling him he was snake bit after he reached the majors. He certainly has heard his name as part of the “first-round bust” and “he must be flipping burgers” discussions. After being selected by the Cubs as the 23rd overall pick in the 1990 draft, he made minor league stops in Geneva (NY), Peoria (IL) and Charlotte (NC) before reaching the majors just two months after the draft. But it wasn’t his grand plan to make three big league starts, get hit by a comebacker, and never see a major league mound again. It wasn’t his grand plan to have a strong 1991 Triple-A first half ended by a broken right foot. It wasn’t his grand plan to injure his left shoulder the following year, something he couldn’t overcome. He kept trying to come back, but his baseball career was over in 1995 – at the age of 25.
When we did talk yesterday afternoon, I was planning on mostly staying away from baseball. His post-playing career success was much more interesting to me.
But what I learned as the conversation went on startled me. And it’s something I wasn’t prepared for – as the only way I would have been ready for it would have been if I Googled certain specific keywords. Life has thrown him some curves off the field, too.
This isn’t a story about baseball. This is a story about resiliency.
Well, actually, this is a lot about baseball.
Dickson, as a 20-year-old junior for the University of Arizona in 1990, threw seven complete games in 16 starts while fanning 141 batters in 119.2 innings. The southpaw was rewarded by the Cubs with a first-round selection in the June draft.
And that was just the beginning.
“That whole year was quite a whirlwind,” Dickson recalled. “Being picked in the first round, then showing up in Mesa to get ready to go to the Finger Lakes of Geneva … and then Peoria … and then Charlotte … and then Chicago. I was in four different cities in 10 weeks. I lived out of a suitcase that whole summer. I’d thrown a whole season in college, and then 11 starts in the minor leagues, and then I got called to the big leagues.”
He was on a Double-A road trip in early August when he received a call from his pitching coach – Rick Kranitz – who told Dickson to “Pack your bags. You’re going to the big leagues,” he said. “It was pretty surreal.
“I didn’t see it coming. I didn’t know anybody. It was my first year in the organization. I didn’t know the personnel, the pitching staff. I was pitching really well. I was very much locked in and felt like I was going to win every game that I was pitching. But I did not see it coming.”
He headed to Chicago, making the first of his three major league starts August 9 against St. Louis.
“I focused on not getting caught up in terms of where I was and the fact that I was 20,” he said. “It was 60 feet, six inches. There’s the catcher. There’s the hitter. There’s the umpire. It’s the same scene that I’ve seen 1,000 times. I think I did stay focused in what my job was. So it didn’t seem like it was a fog or a dream at all. It was a surprise, no question about that. It was exciting. It was awesome.”
And in a snap, the dream turned into a nightmare. In his third big league start, he was struck in the knee by a one-hop comebacker – which ended his season. The injury bug had taken its first bite. Moving forward, it was one injury after another.
“My baseball career … there’s no bitterness. No anger. I don’t like how it ended for me. But I couldn’t control it,” he said. “I couldn’t stay healthy. It’s that karma deal. I’d make fun of people in the training room in college. ‘Get out of the training room. Get on the field. Let’s go.’ Then all of a sudden I’m on the early bus and in the training rooms for literally my entire career with the Cubs. That was not planned. I had a different plan for how my career would go. It didn’t go that way. So you can be bitter and feel sorry for yourself, or you can pick yourself up, dust yourself off and get after the next chapter of life. I chose the latter.”
With his baseball career prematurely cut short in 1995, Dickson returned to Tucson to finish his undergraduate degree in business at the University of Arizona. He was just like the rest of us; he didn’t know what he was going to do with his life, and he was a few years older than his classmates.
He wound up in the one place he never figured he’d be. Tucson.
“It was the last place I wanted to be,” Dickson said. “I was coming back here to finish school. I was speaking to my agent, who was in San Diego – where I’m from – and I was making plans to go back home and maybe go to law school. I think you have to if you’re going to be an agent in terms of mediation and all that stuff. So I was contemplating what my next move into the real world was going to be. I was considering working with my agent. I did not anticipate staying in Tucson at all.”
Instead, Tucson became a big component of his elevator pitch.
“Life’s good. I’m the chief operating officer here in Tucson at a mortgage bank,” he said. “I’ve been here for over 20 years, right after my career ended. I came back to Tucson to finish my schooling and stayed here as a result of catching on with a mortgage bank and learning this business. I’m doing pretty well in it as both a loan officer and then moving up the ranks in the company. Now, I’m a partner and the COO. The company is Nova Home Loans.
“I needed a real job after my baseball career. I interviewed with this company. It felt good. I felt like I could do that – provide financing for folks who needed a home loan. Most everyone needs what I’m selling in terms of loans and interest rates and the service I provide. It seemed to be an easier sell to me than typical widgets that people sell, like cell phones or whatever the product is. This was selling money. I felt like I could do pretty well in it. So I started part-time as I went back to school, and it turned into full-time. I started doing really well in this business. I’ve been ranked among the Top 200 loan officers in America for 16 straight years, so it’s been a really good business for me. I started moving up the leadership ranks 10 years ago. I’ve been the chief operating officer here for eight. So it worked out. There certainly isn’t any reason now for me to leave Tucson. My business is here. My kids are here.”
He talked about how his baseball career, albeit brief, helped prepare him for the business world.
“Anyone who played high-level sports and is in high-level business will tell you what you already have heard 1,000 times – there are absolute parallels between the two,” Dickson said. “How to win. How to lose. How to lead. How to follow. How to be a team player. All of those principles are just as much business as they are sports. I treated this like a sport. This was just my new sport. I looked around and saw who was doing what and how they were getting it done. And I felt like I could compete – and it’s worked out.”
Dickson acknowledged that, at times, he was sad about how his baseball career turned out. And mad, too. It didn’t go anything like his entire career before professional baseball. He just couldn’t stay on the field.
“I had never been hurt before in my life,” he said. “I never missed a start at U of A. I’d never been hurt. To break my foot … to go through the three shoulder surgeries … it was really, really frustrating. Coming back here and refocusing on what I needed to do in order to get a real job certainly put my focus on my life and business and whatever I needed to do now that baseball was over.”
Business was going to be his career path. Coaching at any level above Little League was not an option.
“I didn’t want to be in coaching,” Dickson said. “I didn’t want to be around baseball, because my baseball career just didn’t go the way I wanted it to. I wanted to be around business and just turn the page, if you will, and focus on other things.
“I got immersed in this business. Got married. Started a family.”
He went on-and-on about his daughter, Samantha, a 16-year-old sophomore already looking at big-name colleges like Stanford, Vanderbilt and Duke. He spoke glowingly about his two sons – Jack (14) and Luke (8).
“My daughter is in the National Honor Society and she plays high school volleyball,” Dickson said. “My boys are great little students and great little young men and human beings. I coached my oldest son through Little League. He’s playing club baseball now and will play high school baseball. I’m now coaching my youngest son and I’ll coach him through the balance of his Little League career.”
And then, as he talked about his children, he dropped the bombshell that my research hadn’t uncovered for me.
“Unfortunately, five years ago, my wife died suddenly,” Dickson said. “I’m a single dad. She was perfectly fit. Perfectly healthy. Never even a cavity. She had a massive pulmonary embolism in the middle of the night.”
Cristian Dickson. Mother of three. She passed away March 6, 2011, at the age of 40. This month marked the five-year anniversary of her sudden passing.
“My kids are really, really special. They’re great kids,” Dickson said. “They were 10, 8 and 3 when this happened. Their whole world was completely turned upside down. But they’ve bounced back. They’ve gained a strong footing in terms of where they are. They’re doing wonderfully. They’re healing wonderfully from something that was pretty devastating.
“You see the stories. It happens every day. How did that happen to a marathon runner? She had run a 10K just the week before. Fit … healthy … the last person I would have expected something like that to happen to. No health issues ever. Literally, not a cavity. I used to make fun of her. ‘Can’t you just get a cavity? Just be normal.’ It’s crazy how the world is and what the big guy’s plan is. That was a serious curveball for my family. But … you know … it wasn’t the first and it won’t be the last in terms of what you see on a daily basis. Unfortunately, my family went through it.”
With what the Dickson family had to deal with five years ago, there isn’t a place for a “Why Me” when it comes to a baseball career that truly ended before it started. There are far more important things to worry about.
“It’s been a busy world, in particular the last five years – kind of wearing the mom and dad hat,” he said. “And I’m in charge of 800 employees. I’m very grateful and blessed for all I have. But it’s a very busy time – and my children, of course, are my first priority. The combination of life at home and life at work makes life really, really busy. But really great. And really rewarding.
“I’m doing well in my world. I like my world. I’m grateful and blessed. I’m happy – I truly am. It’s a good life. We’ve learned a lot of life lessons along the way in terms of what’s truly important and what’s really not. I think when you go through a sudden tragedy like that, it’s cliché – I know that – but you just recalibrate your perspective of what’s important and what’s not important.
“I’ll have a random somebody say something online like, ‘What happened to that guy?’ And then somebody commented back that I was probably flipping burgers somewhere. I get a good laugh out of that.”
It’s a year later when we caught up, and all is drama-free in the Dickson household. Thankfully, no bombshells were dropped on me during the conversation.
Lance is the Chief of Operations at Nova Home Loans, and the company continues to do very well.
“Work is great. We’re busy. We’re growing organically. We don’t like to acquire any assets or any companies, things like that. We kind of do it brick by brick,” he said. “We have 910 employees, and we ended up funding $3.5 billion in business last year.
“We’re pretty proud of those numbers. We’ve become a pretty large regional player out West.”
His daughter, Samantha, is now a high school junior and looking at colleges. While her dream school is Stanford – and she has a GPA and an SAT score that puts me to shame – dad and daughter know that might not be the academic destination.
“My daughter has not settled on a school yet,” Dickson said. “She’s looked at Duke and Vanderbilt. She’s got an academic scholarship to the University of Washington. She was accepted into the Honors College at the University of Oregon. And she’s looking at Cal-Berkeley. I don’t know where she’s going to go.
“Stanford … that’s her dream. But we’re all realistic. Stanford has a 4.8 percent admission rate. Less than one in 20 who apply get in – and, by the way, all 20 have the same grades and scores she does. That’s her dream – no question, that’s the bucket list school – but we’re trying to be realistic.”
And he still gets to spend plenty of time around a baseball field with his two sons. Jack, 15, is now a high school freshman, and Luke is about to turn 10.
“My freshman made the JV team but broke his leg. So that was a bummer. He just got out of a cast last week; he broke his leg two and a half months ago,” Dickson said. “He’s a little blue collar. He’s a boy that has to work hard. My little guy, who’s going to be 10, you see in him … things come easy to him. It’s way too early to tell, but he’s got a chance, I think.
“My 15-year-old worked so hard to make that JV team, then to break his leg that first week of practice … that was a setback. But he’s been through worse setbacks, as we know.
“In perspective, it’s a little bump in the road. But we’ll get through it. We always do.”
Earlier this year, I received an interesting email response from Tim Dierkes – the creator and owner of the independently owned baseball website MLB Trade Rumors. I had written a few stories for mlbtraderumors.com last year, and I was looking forward to getting some early season writing opportunities.
Tim said he was planning on increasing the number of original articles on the MLBTR site and had an attention-grabbing thought for me. He wanted to gauge my interest in doing a longer-form oral history piece, saying that he enjoyed reading articles in which the author gained access to everyone involved. “With your connections, I wonder if you could retell an interesting trade or free agent signing from a bunch of points of view like that. Does anything like that seem possible?”
The more I read, the more I envisioned a neon “Open” sign in my brain.
“Off the top of my head,” he wrote, “what about the story about how Jim Hendry signed Ted Lilly from the hospital room? I know that was covered a bit at the time, but you could probably snag Ted Lilly and Jim Hendry fairly easily, plus you could try to get Ted's agent … and anyone else relevant to the story.”
What about the Jim Hendry/Ted Lilly story? Heck, I was right in the middle of it all week. I saw Jim fighting all of us who tried to get him to see a doctor. I watched as he went through rolls of Tums – and even took some of my prescription Prilosec. I was purposely asked by Jim to hide in his hotel room (which was attached to the main suite) while he conducted business with agents – just in case he needed more 7 Up or antacid tablets. I was there that Wednesday morning when Jim told me he was afraid the night before that if he closed his eyes, he wouldn’t wake up. For two days, he was convinced he had gall stones; he never let on to anyone how awful he was feeling. We were all stunned when we found out there was a heart issue.
And then when we all found out that the Cubs landed Lilly while Mr. Hendry was attached to an EKG was … well … that was so Jim.
Writing that story was too large of an endeavor to do for my own site. But the thought of putting it together under the MLBTR banner – in an oral history format, no less – was all the incentive I needed.
From the time I started conceptualizing the story through this week – when the article was posted on MLBTR – I spent more time on this piece than any research project I did in school. And it was a lot more enjoyable than any school project, too!
I’m going to link you to the story at the end of this post. But I need to do some “Thank You” notes.
First off, a big “Thanks” to Tim Dierkes for providing the nudge to write this story – and for allowing it to appear on the MLBTR site.
And, of course, I need to thank the people I interviewed for the story who were so gracious in both their time and recollections:
I realize … the story is lengthy. So grab something to drink – along with a snack or a sandwich. I hope you enjoy reading the oral history of the Ted Lilly/Jim Hendry signing as much as I enjoyed putting it all together.
Please click here for the MLB Trade Rumors story link:
When I watched the Cubs jumping around and hugging after winning the World Series last November, I have to admit I had some mixed emotions.
The fan in me – the one who attended his first Cubs game as a six-year-old in 1972 – was jumping around and celebrating with them.
The former Cubs employee in me walked that tightrope between elation for the people I knew who still worked for the team and the despair for all the people like me who weren’t around there anymore.
But I have to tell you … as I watched all the guys in Cubs uniforms celebrating the drought-breaking championship last November 2, my eyes started tearing up with excitement when I saw Lester Strode on my TV screen. I still get goose bumps when I think about it.
As much as anyone, Lester Strode is my direct link to the good old days. He’s a Cubs survivor. He’s been through the good and the (oftentimes) bad.
And after 28 years coaching in the Cubs’ organization – nearly half his life – Lester is about to be getting a World Series ring.
My first year as a full-time member of the Cubs’ Media Relations office was 1988 – which coincided with Lester Strode’s final year as a player.
Near the end of that year, I remember Bill Harford – the Cubs’ director of minor league operations – calling me into his office to give me the list of coaching assignments for the following year. That list included Strode.
“I guess I was fortunate or blessed and in the right place at the right time,” said Strode – who made 18 relief appearances for Triple-A Iowa that year. “I was actually released (he had been on St. Louis’ Louisville roster) and was headed home when a good friend of mine, Bill Harford – who now has passed away – happened to give me a phone call. He asked me if I was still interested in playing. He offered me a job as a reliever at the Triple-A level. I didn’t know what was going to happen once that season ended.
“Near the end of the season, he came into town and asked me if I would be interested in coaching. He got that hint from our pitching coordinator, Jim Colborn. I got to know Jim during that little time I was around in ’88. He was working with a pitcher in the outfield, and I just happened to throw my two cents in there – and I actually got the guy to do what Jim had been trying to get him to do. I guess he passed that along to Bill. ‘We might have a teacher here in the organization.’
“So at the end of the season, Bill actually offered me two jobs: To continue to pitch in the organization at the Triple-A level, or to take a coaching job. At that time, reality had set in. I wasn’t pitching as well as I had in the past. I knew my career was going the opposite way. I knew this was another opening in the game of baseball, so I decided to take advantage of this opportunity. I told Bill I would love to coach, and he gave me the job.
“In 1989, I started out in Wytheville, Virginia. And then – just like a player – as I learned and understood what my job was as a coach, and as I was making progress in that area, I moved as a player moved.”
Think about the road he has traveled …
“From Day One, when Bill Harford gave me that opportunity … I always looked at it as what you make out of an opportunity,” Strode said. “You know, as a player, I wanted to make it; I wanted to succeed. No excuses, but there were some health issues. And as I look back and be honest with myself, I’m no different than other guys … I didn’t work hard enough to succeed. I had all the talent in the world. But I’ve learned a lot as a coach; for the most part, you’re not going to be rewarded for not giving 100 percent. No matter how blessed you are or how talented you are, you have to be all in when you’re trying to achieve a goal. I think I learned that as a player, and it prevailed for me as a coach. I put a lot of time and effort in trying to be the best coach possible – both on the field and off the field as well.”
Thankfully for Strode, despite all the different managers the Cubs have had over the past decade, he has only had to work with two pitching coaches – Larry Rothschild and Chris Bosio.
“I worked under Larry Rothschild for quite a long time and had an excellent experience understanding how to handle major league pitchers and how to deal with them day-in and day-out. He was one of my biggest mentors,” Strode said. “Now I’m working with Chris Bosio, and we just clicked. I try to be open-minded with whomever I’m working with and try to understand who they are and how they like to go about their business. Chris and I have now been together more than five years. It’s a great working relationship, a great friendship, and we’ve done some great things here for the organization – getting the pitchers ready to perform each and every day as we go through the season.”
And what is his role as bullpen coach? There is so much more to it than sitting there with a clipboard or a spiral notebook.
“The job has changed compared to how it was 20 years ago,” Strode said. “There was a time where the bullpen coach was a guy who had never been a pitching coach or a guy who had never caught. They just looked at it as a guy who answered the phone when it would ring, get someone up, make sure they got their arm ready, and let’s get him into the game.
“It’s changed quite a bit over the years. Now, I actually feel like I’m still a pitching coach. And that’s why I like working with guys like Larry and Chris Bosio … they have the utmost respect for me, knowing that I’ve been a pitching coach and a pitching coordinator. I’ve had experience at the major league level as far as working with major league pitchers. They respect the fact that I’m a guy that understands the ins-and-outs of pitching. They’ve allowed me to continue to be a pitching coach even though my title is bullpen coach – and stay sharp in that area. When it comes to strategy, when it comes to working with the pitchers – whether it be mechanically or talking to them about situations, the mental phase of the game – I’m just as much a part of that as the pitching coach is. The relievers need just as much attention in the bullpen as the starters do in the dugout.
“I always have my scouting book in my hand once I’m up and a pitcher is getting ready. It’s not just getting your arm loose and getting your pitches ready. What situation is he going into? Who is he going to be facing? Can the guy run and steal a base? Is he a first-pitch aggressive hitter, or is he patient? All those different points come into play down in the bullpen. I’m getting them ready physically and mentally, so they can go out there and execute no matter what the situation may be. There is strategy going on and mental preparation going on while they’re getting loose. I try to be very detailed and precise about the information I give them. I don’t want to fill their mind with too much. Just give them some detailed information that can give them direction and help them understand what they’re preparing for.”
No matter how you spin it, when you’re a baseball lifer, it’s all about the pursuit of the ring.
I’m beyond excited for Lester Strode – now beginning his 30th year in the Cubs’ organization and his 29th as a coach. When that ring ceremony takes place next month, I’ll be living vicariously through him.
“I’m looking forward to that ring ceremony. It’s going to be the highlight of my whole career, to be honest with you,” he said. “I thought last year was big – we won it … the celebrating – but the fact that we get that ring kind of seals the whole deal.
“There was a moment after we won that I just thought about all the people that helped me achieve my goal. A lot of people that I felt like winning this thing … they were a part of it. They are a part of me, and they made my career much easier because they supported me. I’m talking about co-workers, friends I’ve made over the course of my career. My thoughts are going to be shared with them as I receive that ring.
“I’m glad I’m able to express these moments with the people who mean a lot to me. I want to let them know the ring isn’t just for me … it’s for all of us. They’re right there with me, and they’ll always be a part of my life.”
Through various freelance writing opportunities, I’ve had the chance to reconnect with quite a few people from my baseball days in recent months – and it’s been great to catch up and see what people are up to.
I’m in the process of researching and writing a longer magazine-style piece for one of my clients (I’ll be sure to help direct you there when the story is complete), and I had the opportunity this week to chat with Lou Piniella.
Piniella was the Cubs’ manager from 2007-2010, leading the team to a pair of National League Central Division titles and earning Manager of the Year honors in 2008. He is now a senior advisor to baseball operations with the Cincinnati Reds, serving that organization in a consulting capacity.
He sounded great over the phone, and I thought you’d like to hear how he’s doing.
Looking back, tell me about your time with the Cubs …
Lou Piniella: “When I was hired, team president John McDonough told me, ‘We want to win now.’ And we did. We won a couple divisions, which the Cubs hadn’t done in a long time. We just didn’t do anything in the postseason.
“My first year, we won our division – but with only 85 wins. The second year, we won the most games in the majors with 97. After a couple years, we had to start undoing some of the things that we had done from a payroll standpoint. We had to drop our payroll the next few years.
“When the Ricketts family bought the team, they had priorities. They wanted to fix the farm system, which I thought was a very wise move. They needed to get the new complex in Mesa, Arizona, done – which they did. And they wanted to fix up the ballpark – and they have spent a lot of money on the park. Those were their priorities when they took over. And they’ve done a wonderful job.
“I enjoyed my four years in Chicago, I really did. It’s a wonderful city. And the Cubs are a storied franchise. I’m happy that I was a part of it for four years.”
You had a good working relationship with the Ricketts family …
“Truthfully, I knew they were going to be successful. I really did – the reason being the passion they have for it. It didn’t surprise me that they’ve been successful. It took a little while – five or six years since I was there – but they finally won a world championship. Good for them. I’m happy for them. They’re good people.
“But you know, the Ricketts family did it the right way. They took the time to build up a farm system. They brought in Theo and his staff. And they hired Joe Maddon.”
Tell me about Wrigley Field …
“Managing at Wrigley Field, I’ve always likened it to playing the British Open. The wind can be blowing out to start the game and blowing straight in by the fifth inning. You have to adapt to it.
“I recognized that the ballpark … you think of it as a power park, but I always felt that really good athleticism would win there. And that’s basically what the Cubs have now – really good athleticism. They have power, too, but athleticism really comes into play.”
On what he’s doing nowadays …
“I do a little consulting work for the Reds. I help out (manager) Bryan Price and his coaching staff some. And I also do some work with (executive advisor) Walt (Jocketty) and Dick Williams, the general manager. I’m not fully involved, but when I’m asked, I give my opinions. I enjoy it. It keeps me watching some baseball.
“I also get to spend a lot of time with my family. I’m back here in Tampa, where I was born and raised. My wife, Anita, makes it easy for me. We’ve got the grandkids and the kids all within 10 minutes of us. We get together often. And then I play some golf, which I enjoy, and do some fishing. I’m truly blessed.”
Last time out, I talked to Mike Greenberg about his early days in Chicago radio, and it got me thinking about my early days working with the Chicago media.
In particular, it brought back memories of watching games in the old press box.
Granted, I began my last post with the following paragraph – and yes, I’m quoting myself here: “When I started with the Cubs as an intern in 1986, the main press box was positioned where the mezzanine suites are now located – about halfway up the stadium directly behind the home plate screen. As part of Wrigley Field renovation for the 1990 All-Star Game, the press box was relocated to its present location – about halfway up to the clouds, attached to the underside of the roof. It’s the 800 level as far as seating is concerned.”
Back in the day, the Wrigley Field press box provided the ultimate view for watching baseball. I worked out of this tiny little two-row press box with almost no amenities – unless you counted the grill guy flipping greasy burgers in the far right-hand corner of the second row as an amenity. If you needed to use a bathroom, you had to leave the press box and walk along the concourse, hoping none of the people in the seats below recognized you.
And you had to be paying attention when pitches were thrown. The press box was in direct line of screaming line drives. I learned to duck on every foul ball straight back no matter what the trajectory was. There was a certain badge of honor in getting your head out of the way before a line drive dented the wall behind you. I guess there was a certain badge of honor if the ball hit you, too, but I never won that prize.
When I said that was the ultimate view, consider where the Cubs baseball operations people watch games from now. Same spot. Real amenities. And a much higher screen that blocks foul balls lined straight back.
The TV booth – with Harry Caray, Steve Stone and Jack Rosenberg – sat off in the distance on the concourse level down the third-base line. If you needed to get a message to them, off you ran.
Just to the left of the main press box sat the radio booth, which was manned by DeWayne Staats, Vince Lloyd and Lou Boudreau when I started out. If I ever brain cramped during a home game and didn’t know what inning we were in (it was a manual scoreboard, you know), the crowd re-booted me after the third and sixth innings – when Harry flipped from TV to radio, and then back. Everybody below would be screaming at Harry as the legendary broadcaster switch spots, moving from booth to booth.
But it was in the main press box that I spent almost all of my time and where I was introduced to the legends of my game: the sports writers. Not only sports writers like Jerome Holtzman … and Joe Goddard … and Dave van Dyck … and Fred Mitchell … and all the people I later traveled with on road trips that I’m afraid to start listing in fear that I’ll miss a name.
The press box also is where I first spent time with The Sports Writers.
Remember the old Sunday sports talk show on WGN Radio? Ben Bentley, the moderator. Bill Gleason … Bill Jauss … Rick Telander … Joe Mooshil. A bunch of sports writers just sitting around talking sports. How cool was that concept? And thanks to the Wrigley Field press box, people like that were right in front of me – saying the same types of things in person as they did on the radio. I was just a kid, and I was in awe.
It’s so hard to describe the media world that existed back then. Newspapers still ruled the press box – with hard-and-fast deadlines that couldn’t be altered. There weren’t Internet editions of anything, as it was a medium that didn’t exist. Neither did smart phones, for that matter. Cell phones were still far from commonplace. Laptops were still in their infancy.
When I started, I reported game action for Sports Ticker. As in ticker from a ticker tape parade. As in ticker from a ticker tape machine. As in, I’m been around long enough to remember working next to a ticker tape machine – and watching breaking sports news come over in long, one-sentence strips of paper. Ticker tape was Morse Code, Version 2.0.
That quaint two-row press box was uncomfortable as a facility, but it was wonderful to call your workplace. I can still smell those greasy burgers.
It’s long overdue, but I do need to give a big shout out – although a Jerome Holtzman “doff of the chapeau” seems more appropriate – to the fine work done every single day by the Cubs beat writers: Bruce Miles, Carrie Muskat, Gordon Wittenmyer, Mark Gonzales, Paul Sullivan (I know, Sully’s a columnist, but he’s a beat guy at heart), Patrick Mooney and Jesse Rogers.
It’s not easy writing every day. It’s not easy finding fresh story topics very day. It’s not easy finding people who will talk to you every day. But they do … they’ve all been doing it for a long time … and they’re all good at it.
“I've Always Said Harry Caray Was My First Friend in Chicago – Even Though I Never Met Him” … A Conversation with Mike GreenbergRead Now
When I started with the Cubs as an intern in 1986, the main press box was positioned where the mezzanine suites are now located – about halfway up the stadium directly behind the home plate screen. As part of Wrigley Field renovation for the 1990 All-Star Game, the press box was relocated to its present location – about halfway up to the clouds, attached to the underside of the roof. It’s the 800 level as far as seating is concerned.
My press box HQ was located in radio row, which made for some interesting times. The media landscape was starting to shift away from newspapers, especially in Chicago. Sports talk radio, once reserved for weekends, was becoming the social media of its day.
In 1992, WSCR – The Score – came on the scene as a daytime-only AM radio station geared solely to sports. And with all of the day games the Cubs played at home, The Score quickly became relevant – especially in the Wrigley Field press box.
There were three spots to the right of my press box seat – and way back when, they were reserved for Les Grobstein, WBBM Radio, and WSCR. And one of the first update people to man the microphone for The Score was a kid by the name of Mike Greenberg.
Earlier this week, I talked to Mr. Greenberg – co-host of ESPN’s “Mike and Mike” morning show since 2000 – about his days working in Chicago and in the Wrigley Field press box.
Chuck: I promise you I won’t ask if it was a thrill to be sitting three seats away from me, but I enjoy telling people I used to sit right near you when you were starting out. When you look back at the beginning of your career, the media landscape was changing with the emergence of sports talk radio. Can you tell me about your early roots, landing at WMAQ Radio right out of Northwestern University and then being part of The Score?
Mike Greenberg: “Absolutely. When I got out of college, I landed a job as a production assistant at WMAQ Radio. I was immediately begging to do anything they’d allow me to do in the sports department – which was very little. But on Saturdays, they gave me the job of keeping the scoreboards for the sports anchors – who at that time were Ron Gleason, Tom Greene, Steve Olken and George Ofman. Especially on college football Saturdays, there was a lot to keep track of. So I would just sit with them and keep track of scoreboards and update little notes and things like that for them. I loved doing that. And then during the week I would do the regular production assistant jobs.
“I had the opportunity to do a few things that caught Ron Gleason’s eye – just by constantly asking to be allowed to do things. Then I got the stereotypical lucky break. Ron got the job as program director of the fledgling all-sports station – The Score. He remembered that I was dedicated and tried hard and did all sorts of things, and he hired me to be on the staff. I was one of the original producers they hired there, and I worked primarily on the afternoon drive show – which was, at that time, Dan McNeil and Terry Boers. They called it ‘The Heavy Fuel Crew’ show, and it was great. I learned a tremendous amount about broadcasting and radio from that show, particularly from working for Dan.
“At the same time, I just begged for opportunities to be allowed to do stuff on the air. One of the things I did was volunteer after my shift; I would produce the shows … they would end … and in those days the station only had a daytime signal. We would go off the air when it went dark. The show would be over – and it would be 6 o’clock. So I volunteered to go to the night games for the Bulls and the Blackhawks, just go over there and do interviews and bring back tape. I would do a little 45-second voicer that would air in the morning on Tom Shaer’s show.
“It went well enough that Tom recommended to Ron that when the Bulls started making their run into the playoffs, that we should start covering them daily. To his everlasting credit, Tom said, ‘You should give this Greenberg kid a chance to do it.’ I was 24 years old, and they sent me on the road with the Bulls. It was the greatest experience ever, and it went well. When that run ended, they let me cover baseball during the summer and the Bears up in Platteville and during the season. That became my job – just covering the local teams. I did that at The Score for three and a half years before being hired by CLTV. That was incredible. I had a great time, and part of that was covering the Cubs.
“I didn’t cover as much baseball as I did football and basketball, but I certainly was there. I obviously remember sitting in that press box a few seats away from you and (media relations director) Sharon Pannozzo. I will say that when I went back the first time when they invited Mike (Golic) and me to sing the Seventh Inning Stretch, I walked right into that press box and I just stood there and looked into the booth from the angle where I used to watch Harry Caray and Steve Stone. I just let it sort of sink in that now, incredibly, I was going to be the one standing in there singing. It was without question one of the great thrills of my career.”
When you did come out to Wrigley Field for baseball, being that The Score was a daylight-only station at the time, that had to be one of your first introductions to live radio, correct?
Greeny: “I would say the overwhelming majority of live shots I did were from the Wrigley Field press box for exactly that reason … they were afternoon games. So I’d be there calling in from the press box – and overcoming the dirty looks that I’d be getting from all the writers I was bothering by being live on-the-air for 45 seconds, or whatever it was. Those would have been among the very first live shots I did in my life – from the press box at Wrigley Field.”
If memory serves right, you had to be very careful of what you said during those live shots – because you couldn’t interfere with the rightsholders of those broadcasts.
Greeny: “Correct, and that’s still the case. You cannot do play-by-play. If they put me on the line … let’s say Andre Dawson hit a home run, and one second later, they put me on the air. I could say ‘Guys, on the strength of an Andre Dawson home run, the Cubs have taken a 2-0 lead.’ What I could not say is, ‘Guys, as we speak, Andre Dawson has just hit a two-run homer.’ It was a subtlety to the difference, as I understood it, between doing what would be constituted to doing live play-by-play and just doing a report of the things that had happened. To my recollection, I don’t think we ever had problems with that. We had other problems, but that wasn’t one of them.”
Those were the early vestiges of social media – as sports talk emerged. Especially in Chicago, that was new … sports during the middle of the day.
Greeny: “What’s funny to me is that because I was part of that, I have always thought of myself as being part of the outsiders in media – because that’s what we were. And the reality is that – right now – there is no more mainstream media in the sports world than we are. Then blogs came along, and now social media and Twitter have changed everything. But in those days, we really were the outsiders.
“We were driven by the opinions of our talk show hosts – particularly the more controversial ones like Mike North and people like that. They would upset the players, the coaches and whoever else – and they weren’t there like the writers were in the press box or in the locker rooms afterwards. So I definitely suffered a lot of little slings and arrows. I don’t mean that to say I minded it; it was part of the job.
“But I remember a day that Andre Dawson was furious about something that was said on our station – and he was asking everybody, ‘Who’s here from The Score? Who’s here from The Score?’ And I went slinking, crawling over to (media relations director) Sharon Pannozzo and said, ‘Listen, someone has to tell him that while he’s mad, it’s not me he’s mad at.’ To me, he was a pretty scary dude. Andre Dawson was not the kind of guy you wanted mad at you. I think for the most part, people got that, but it definitely was a new concept.
“The controversial people prior to that had been newspaper columnists; at that time, it was Bernie Lincicome and Bob Verdi – and Jay Mariotti had just arrived in town. But all of a sudden, the primary controversial opinion shapers became the talk show hosts. And I was sort of on the front line of relations with the different teams and the players, so I heard a lot of it – for sure.”
In some ways, that had to help you as your career progressed. It sort of put you into a PR type of mode. It had to help you be able to smooth your way into being able to talk to athletes.
Greeny: “I think that in covering sports, for me, that time was invaluable. I’m not a former player, so having been out there (as a sports reporter) for seven years – being in clubhouses, being at practices, being at spring training – I got an up close and personal look at what it actually takes to do this stuff. So I think I have a better understanding of that than most fans – which is all I really am at the end of the day when it comes to sports. I have training as a journalist, but I don’t have training as a sports person – or I wouldn’t have if I hadn’t had those seven years, so that was invaluable.
“I also think that being there and seeing the way the opinions affected the people that were involved, it gave me an understanding … you’re not just talking into a microphone and letting the chips fall where they may. The stuff you say actually does affect people, and it does impact people, and it sometimes hurts people a lot. So I hope that it has made me a little more sensitive to – or a little more careful about – not criticizing people without justification. And hopefully not criticizing people personally – and seeing the line between what’s fair, which is reasonable criticism about a person’s performance, and unfair, which is unreasonable criticism of a person’s character. A person misplaying a fly ball to rightfield is not an indication of poor character.”
Including your time at Northwestern, you spent 11 years in Chicago before heading to ESPN. Were there any particular people you looked up to or tried to emulate?
Greeny: “There were plenty of people. First and foremost, I’ve always said Harry Caray was my first friend in Chicago – even though I never met him. When I got to Northwestern, I didn’t know anybody there. I was far away from home. I was lonely. And I quickly discovered that on Channel 9, the Cubs played every single day – and they had this announcer named Harry Caray who was phenomenal. It didn’t make any difference what the score of the game was, if they were winning or losing, or who they were playing. He was just incredibly entertaining to listen to, and I loved Harry. I was in the same room with him a number of times, and I think I shook his hand a time or two, but I certainly couldn’t say that I knew him at all – and I would have loved to.
“As I went on in the business, I learned an enormous amount directly from working with people. The people I would say jump immediately to mind … I owe Tom Shaer an enormous debt of gratitude. He and Ron Gleason are the two people who believed in me and gave me chances to do stuff that I couldn’t prove I could do – because I had never done them. If they hadn’t, I don’t know what would have ever happened. But those guys gave me great opportunities. So did Jeff Joniak, who’s now the voice of the Bears. He gave me my first on-air job.
“I learned a lot from Mike North. What I learned from him was the courage that it takes just to be yourself. When we went on the air, Mike North was immediately a lightning rod; people were yelling and screaming and criticizing him. I can’t tell you how many times different executives came in and told him he needed to do this, he needed to do that, he needed to change the way he did things. And he just said, ‘No. I’m going to stick to the way I believe this should be done.’ And he believed it himself. As a consequence, he wound up having enormous success. Whether you loved Mike or you hated him, no one ignored him. And that was solely because he didn’t listen to other people telling him what he should be doing. I always remembered that.
“The other one was Dan McNeil. As a pure ‘fundamentals of the medium’ talk show host, he was the best radio talk show host I’ve ever heard. There’s no question that everything I’m doing, I learned from Dan: The pacing … the use of sound. Our show has changed a lot now because we’re on TV, but in the earliest days when we were a pure radio show, almost all of the fundamentals that I learned were from being the producer for Dan McNeil. There are many others, but those are the first few who jump immediately to mind.”
Final question for you … when you get back into town, do you still head to Buffalo Joe’s (an Evanston restaurant across the street from Northwestern’s campus)?
Greeny: “Oh yes. My senior year at Northwestern, I lived in an apartment on Clark Street (in Evanston) – above what used to be called J K Sweets. I was just in Evanston recently with my son and took him to his first Northwestern basketball game – which was great – and we went to Buffalo Joe’s. I said to him, ‘I think my senior year in college, I averaged eating seven meals per week at Buffalo Joe’s.’ For every time I did not eat dinner there, I would add a lunch. There were just as many days that I ate there twice as there were zero days. I loved Buffalo Joe’s, and my mouth still waters sometimes at the thought of it.”
For the longest time, I had been wanting to write a story about a player who came so, so close to reaching the majors – but never got the call.
It had to be the right kind of story. If I had to choreograph it, I wanted someone who:
As luck would have it, a couple weeks ago – thanks to social media – I reconnected with Ty Wright, a former Cubs minor league outfielder/current Cubs minor league hitting coach.
Out of the blue (I’ll call it cosmic karma), Wright invited me to connect with him through Facebook. He was just the type of player I was thinking of profiling when – just a couple days later – I received a Facebook message telling me that it was Ty’s birthday.
Obviously, some higher being – a Facebook higher-up, no doubt – was on the same page as me. Here’s your guy. Tell his story.
I sent Ty a message wishing him a Happy Birthday. I also asked if we could talk.
First off, a little background.
Ty Wright was drafted by the Cubs in the seventh round of the 2007 amateur draft after a stellar four-year collegiate career at Oklahoma State University. Wright was a three-time all-Big 12 Conference selection and was the most recent .400 hitter in school history – batting .405 as a senior. He was inducted into the Oklahoma State Cowboys Baseball Hall of Fame this January.
He spent seven years in the Cubs’ minor league system, and if you take a glimpse at his statistics, the numbers look pretty good: A career .292 average with a .352 on-base percentage and a .429 slugging percentage. He had a high contact rate, striking out only 369 times in nearly 2,800 plate appearances. And then there’s the info that really stood out: Appreciable time at Triple-A Iowa (58 games in 2010 … 46 in 2011 … 68 in 2012 … 66 in 2013). It’s less than a five-hour car ride from Des Moines to Chicago – and it’s a car ride Wright was never asked to make.
The truth is, this story is quite the norm. The heavy majority of minor league players will never get the call. But the majority don’t spend parts of four years at Triple-A, either.
Wright saw action in 238 games at that level from 2010-2013 … never got the call … and never complained.
“It’s a very interesting story when you think about it. Maybe some people can grasp it, but some people can’t,” Wright said. “When I look back, I know you have to take the good with the good and the bad with the bad … and move on.”
Sometimes, you’re not swinging the bat well when the major league club is looking for a bat.
Sometimes, you’re swinging a hot bat, but so are the players at the big league level.
Sometimes, an injury at the big league level doesn’t happen, or a trade doesn’t take place. For a player evolving into a career minor leaguer, it’s all in the timing – and the forces just never aligned for him.
“Did I ever think I was getting called up? Maybe in my last year (in the minors),” Wright said. “I never really thought ‘I’m so good, I think I should be called up.’ Obviously, I didn’t know what was going on behind the scenes. I could only control what I was doing and what I was thinking. All the years I played, it was always the chase. It was always the drive.
“There was a point my last year when I was doing really well and there was an injury to a Cubs outfielder. Everybody knew they were going to call up an outfielder. I was hitting the ball really well, I was playing good defense, I was doing everything that I possibly felt I could do to put my name in the running to possibly get that call – and it was not my name that got called up. I know for me, right then and there, that’s when the doubt came in a little bit. ‘Why was it not me? What did I do wrong?’
“But I never felt sorry for myself. I just tried to push myself to be the best baseball player I could be in every phase of the game. I didn’t get called up. It happens. I think it’s something a lot of minor leaguers have to face eventually. Even though that little bit of self-doubt came in there, when I was on the field – just like anything you do in life that you really enjoy and love – sometimes all the bad goes away when you stepped foot on the field. I just kept thinking, ‘Alright, it didn’t happen now. You just have to keep going. We’ll see what happens.’ You just go out and enjoy playing the game that you love.”
What happened next was a year of Independent ball, playing for the Somerset Patriots in the Atlantic League. It was still baseball, but it also was the real world. The salary was low, and when you’re playing Indy ball, you’re also responsible for your own insurance. He and his wife, Maggie, had a 2-year-old son. The realities of life were weighing heavily on him.
The playing chapter in his life was about to close. The next chapter was about to begin.
Halfway through his season in Somerset, Wright received a text message from Marty Pevey – the Iowa Cubs manager.
Pevey texted him a message along the lines of, “Hey, are you interested in coaching? The Cubs are going to have several openings for next year. I think you’d be great. I think you’d really love it. There’s a lot of people who thought you would be a coach when you’re done. It’s a great opportunity if that’s something you’d want to do.”
Wright talked to Pevey, then visited with his former Triple-A skipper after both of their seasons had come to a close.
“On his way home from Independent ball, he swung through Atlanta and we talked,” Pevey said. “He was a guy that, as a player, he wanted to help young guys. I knew that – with his experience and knowledge and education and baseball acumen – he would be a guy that would help us become a championship organization.
“As a player, first and foremost, Ty was a great teammate. And he was not greedy at all. He was a guy who was a giver. He was great in the clubhouse. He was always there for the young guys. When I had Ty, he was an older player, and I appreciated that. I appreciated the guy that … sure, he wanted to play in the big leagues, but he also wanted to be a Cub. We had a rapport, and he was a guy that I could always count on. I felt that he was a guy we needed to keep in the organization.”
Wright returned home, and he and Maggie discussed the future. While she was happily entrenched as a middle school teacher and coach, he was – for the first time – mentally preparing himself for what was next after playing the game of baseball. “After talking to my wife and kind of thinking about it, I was like, ‘You know what, if the opportunity comes for me to be able to go back to the Cubs organization and coach, that is definitely something I want to do.’ And then I had to wait.”
In November, he got the call. It wasn’t “The Call” all minor league players dream about, but it was one he gladly accepted.
Wright was offered a job as a minor league coach, and he was heading back to his original organization.
“I haven’t looked back. I’ve enjoyed the ride since then,” he said. “I think for me, it became really, really intriguing after I got hired – and I went to my first organizational meeting. You always had this idea of what a coach is really like. I played football, basketball, baseball and track in high school. I had a ton of different coaches. And then obviously, coaches in college and professional ball. All of us – we’ve had a ton of coaches, so we have this idea of what a coach is.
“But when I went to the organizational meetings my first year and Joe Maddon – who was in his first year with the Cubs – when he talked, and he talked for about 45 minutes, my mind was absolutely blown. I remember telling Maggie after listening to him that I am absolutely going to love this job. Ever since that day, I’ve been in pursuit of everything he was talking about.
“Joe Maddon absolutely is somebody I look up to. Not just because he is my organizational manager, but because he didn’t make it to the big leagues (as a player). Maybe there’s a little piece of him that drove him in coaching to get to the big leagues … I don’t know. But I think that anytime you have somebody that maybe has gone through what you’re going through – and we’re all in this together – that’s somebody that you admire. And you study their ways and study the way they do things.”
At the ripe old age of 32, Wright is now starting his third season as a minor league coach – progressing to Single-A Myrtle Beach this year.
He arrived in Mesa last week, leaving Maggie and sons Cal (5 years old) and Clyde (1) behind until Maggie’s middle school goes on spring break.
It’s part of the life of being a coach, “but I absolutely love where I’m at with the Cubs right now, and I love being part of the organization,” he said.
For the one-time outfielder/present-day coach, saying hello to the new season meant saying goodbye to a whirlwind stretch that started with being part of a World Series championship and culminated with his induction into the Oklahoma State Hall of Fame. And right in the middle: Returning to his college campus to get his degree in University Studies.
“I wore a cap and gown – and Cal got to see it. That was really cool,” Wright said. “My wife really stamped that in my brain. At first, I did not want to go up to Stillwater and walk the stage to get my diploma; I just wanted to graduate and be done with it. But that was something my wife and my mom wanted me to do. And my wife wanted me to do that so that Cal might remember seeing his dad walk across the stage to get his college degree.
“You know, this whole offseason was incredible … World Series, Hall of Fame, college degree. What a lot of people don’t really know is I’ve been a serious Cubs fan since I was a little kid. My grandpa (Mike Mills) was from Chicago, and he brought me up as a Cub fan. I’ve been a fan since I was a little kid. I’ve shed some tears, like many people have.”
He’s not kidding. I looked up Wright’s Oklahoma State media guide bio from his senior year. In the personal section, it reads “dream job is to play for the Chicago Cubs.”
While he didn’t get to play in Cubs pinstripes on Wrigley Field, Wright has been able to keep it all in perspective.
“In many ways, I’m living my dream – first as a player and now as a coach,” he said. “You can package it all together.”
Can it really be 30 years since The Hawk soared into Mesa – and into the collective hearts of Cubs fans everywhere?
It was early March 1987, and I had already completed my first internship with the Cubs’ Media Relations department. By this time, I was in my senior year at the University of Missouri awaiting a second Cubs internship – this time of the 13-week summer variety.
I remember where I was when I heard the news, sitting in my one bedroom Tiger Village apartment in Columbia, Mo. – squinting at my 12-inch TV. I had woken up to the reports that Andre Dawson’s agent had offered the Cubs a blank contract. I watched ESPN with amazement at the possibility that Dawson – The Hawk … free-agent outfielder … multiple-time All-Star … longtime Montreal Expos stalwart – could possibly be Cubs-bound.
I knew my bosses in Media Relations, Ned Colletti and Sharon Pannozzo, would be busy dealing with the speculation – so I didn’t want to bother them. I also knew if I called the Chicago office, I might get some gossip. I called … was told to hold tight … and sat on pins-and-needles waiting for final word.
Back in the day, ESPN was social media. Forget Facebook and Twitter. There wasn’t Internet. There wasn’t round-the-clock sports talk radio. If you weren’t sitting in front of the TV watching ESPN, you might be out of luck in finding out sports news until the next day’s newspaper was at your door step. But as a journalism school student, I was blessed with the opportunity to go to the Columbia Missourian newsroom, hop on a computer terminal, and keep waiting for any news the wire services would provide.
So I waited … and waited … and waited some more … and then: BREAKING NEWS: DAWSON TO SIGN WITH CUBS.
There’s an adage: No cheering in the press box. That probably should translate to a newsroom, too, but I know I screamed “YESSSSSS” when that AP story flashed in front of my eyes.
I’m not going to lie. Andre Dawson’s scowl made me nervous around him for a couple years. He never growled at me. He never said anything mean to me. He just always seemed to have his game face on.
If I had to guess, it only took me four-plus years before I made him smile. And he was one of the greatest players I worked with – both on the field and off.
I started feeling comfortable around him in 1989 – a year the Cubs won their second division title in six seasons (remember when that was big news?!). That year, I took on postgame clubhouse duties for home games – meaning I opened the clubhouse to media after the game and had supervisory responsibilities. Dawson had an up-and-down season – although he rebounded quite nicely in ensuing campaigns – as his surgically repaired knees were giving him all sorts of issues (more on that later).
Anyway, in 1989 (and 1990 and 1991 and 1992), Andre had enough big moments that he often had media members wanting to speak with him after a game. So we worked out a plan. I would open the clubhouse to the media … walk halfway through the clubhouse, right across from Dawson’s locker … make sure to say “Andre’s at his locker” as media would go running by to get to the manager’s office … and watched as 99-to-100 percent ignored me and would continue on. If no one stopped, I nodded my head to him and said “Bye” … and watched him walk to see the athletic trainers for his 45-to-60 minute postgame work.
To repeat: He was always at his locker when media entered the clubhouse. He would always be at his locker, waiting for them to stop. After media flew by, he’d go to have work done on his knees. Then, I’d take the heat as select members of the media would grouse because they needed Andre’s quotes for their stories – reminding me they were on deadlines.
“I told you he was at his locker when you came in,” I’d say.
“I needed to get Zim,” I’d be told – as if manager Don Zimmer would be out of the clubhouse 15 minutes after the game ended.
“You could have stopped to talk to Andre first. Zim wasn’t going anywhere,” I’d reply.
Rinse, lather, repeat. It happened all the time.
And then, 45-to-60 minutes later, out would hobble Andre – slowly taking one painful step after another.
About those knees …
I never saw anyone work harder to get on the playing field than Hawk. His knees were shot. Bone on bone. But he gutted his way through it every day.
To put it in perspective, our traveling secretary, Peter Durso, had a rule for road games: The bus leaves one hour after the game; NO exceptions. No exceptions, that is, unless Andre had trouble moving postgame. When that happened, the bus waited for him.
Coming from me, I can’t accurately describe what Andre went through in order to compete. So I turned to former Cubs athletic trainer John Fierro, who worked with the future Hall of Famer during Dawson’s six seasons in a Cubs uniform.
“I remember the day he first showed up in camp like it was yesterday. I’ll never forget him walking in and signing autographs and everybody going crazy down by the fence,” Fierro said. “We had played against him, but at first glance, when he walked in … what a specimen he was. Obviously, we knew his history and had researched him beforehand. I talked to (Expos trainer) Ron McClain, and he said Andre will be a lot of work – probably two hours before the game and an hour or so after the game – but you’ll never enjoy a player any more than you will with this guy. So we knew a little bit going in.
“His first day in, we sat down kind of like an interview, and I said ‘Give me the dirt.’ I knew what he had based on his medical history. ‘What do I have to do to get you ready?’ We went down a list of what he had been doing, and (assistant trainer) Dave Cilladi and I devised a plan of action that we would do – incorporating what he had been doing and adding some new ideas. The plan varied day-to-day.
“The hardest thing with him was to try to talk him into a day off. He didn’t want to take them. Basically, we had to reach an understanding – especially on turf. Out of three games, he would have to take one off in order for us to get any kind of longevity out of him. He did agree to that.
“A typical day was him coming in, whirlpool for 15-to-20 minutes, come into our room and work to get him ready. He was bone on bone, and you can’t massage bone and make it feel better. So we tried to keep the upper and the lower – the thigh and the calf – as loose as we could. Massage, then stretching, then some mobilization for his knees. Then some exercises. Then he’d go in the gym and ride the bike for 20 minutes or so, just to get the blood flowing. He’d come back in, then we would tape him up – both knees, every single day, right before batting practice. He would go out for batting practice, come back in, and we’d cut the tape off. Do another whirlpool, a little more stretching, back up on the table for Round 2 of taping. The one thing we didn’t compromise on was that he had a specific way that he needed them taped for comfort, so we followed that. That’s what we did for as long as he was there.
“After the game, he’d come in and cut the tape off. He’d always walk into the training room with a full box of fan mail and/or 25-pound dumb bells. We would do another cool down massage on his legs. We would hook up some stim to calm the knees down – or ice – and the whole time we were doing that, he’d either be doing biceps curls and lifts or signing fan mail. Then we’d all go home and repeat again tomorrow.
“One thing I want to say … he never wanted pain medicine. I know he was playing in pain; there’s no question about that.
“I can’t really describe the pleasure of being around him on a daily basis. He was inspiring. He was frustrating … frustrating because there was only so much Dave and I could do for him to help with the pain. Seeing the results were probably the most rewarding of all the things we do. When you’re in my position, you want to help somebody make a difference. With Hawk, on a daily basis, this guy made a difference. He was special.”