I’ll start this out by letting you know I was being interviewed for a Podcast the other night.
Yes, your first thought is probably the same as mine … if someone paid Chuck $1 every time he was interviewed for a Podcast, he’d now be up to $1.
At any rate, while I was potentially babbling through some Podcast answer that had nothing to do with the question, I started to tell a cautionary tale.
It’s a big “What If” for me. What if the plans being developed in the Dallas Green era were allowed to be played out?
It’s something I think about from time-to-time. It’s easier to block out meetings I wasn’t privy to.
But I remember where I was when the Associated Press bulletin came out saying the Cubs had called a major news conference. And I just did not have a good feeling.
It was October 1987, and I was on a four-day job interview in Boise for a sports desk position with the Idaho Statesman. If they had upped their offer, my entire future would have been different.
Before I had left for Boise, I had called “my people” in the Cubs media relations office – since I had just finished my second internship there just a few months before. At that point, I was two months away from being offered a full-time position with the team.
The Cubs were in a managerial search, and I had called to be nosy. I was told nothing was imminent.
As I sat in the newspaper sports department talking to potential future colleagues, the AP bulletin came out – and the immediate speculation among the group was that the Cubs had hired their next manager. A lot of names were thrown around. I just sat there and listened and didn’t weigh in; something didn’t seem right to me.
As I said, I had just checked in a few days before with people in the know – and I was told the managerial search was going to take some time. Dallas wasn’t going to make a quick decision in the same vein as the Gene Michael hiring the year before. In fact, while Dallas had brought the Cubs and Wrigley Field back to life in a very short period of time – and totally revamped the farm system – he hadn’t found true success in any of his managerial hires.
Truth be told, I didn’t know Dallas that well. As an intern – and a quiet one at that – I was THE low man on the totem pole, and he didn’t know me. Heck, I was too short for him to see me.
Dallas was tall (standing 6-foot-5), he was gruff, and you literally felt his presence when he walked down the hall past the media relations office. Not only did his every step make a booming sound, but – because of his height and the low ceiling – the light coming in from the hallway would get muted for a brief second in the same way the sun disappears when its blocked by a cloud. In other words, you knew when he was coming or going.
So when the news came out later that day that Dallas had resigned over “philosophical differences” with Tribune Company, I wasn’t surprised.
As happens in baseball, once the top guy leaves, someone new comes in – and most (if not all) of the top guy’s trusted posse soon find themselves replaced.
While I never would have spent quality time with Don Zimmer if Jim Frey hadn’t taken over … and might never have been around some of the nicest people I had the opportunity to meet like Dick Balderson and Chuck Cottier and Jose Martinez … and might never have lived the Mitch “Wild Thing” Williams experience … I can’t help but wonder what might have been had the Dallas Green plan played out.
Everyone says they’re going to rebuild a farm system. But think about the players who came into the system during his years in Chicago. Think about the pieces left behind when Dallas left:
What if that group was kept together … and grew together … and gelled together.
I would have liked to have seen what might have happened.
I’ve talked before about how written “Thank You” notes are among my most prized possessions from my days with the Cubs.
I don’t know why. I’m guessing it’s because someone took the time out of their day to recognize that a human did something nice for them.
I’m also guessing it’s because my handwriting is horrific. As my wife has told me from time-to-time, I have the handwriting of a serial killer. That’s probably why I tape record my interview subjects – as there’s little chance I’d be able to read my own writing.
Unfortunately, I didn’t keep all of the “Thank You” notes in one place – which makes it difficult when you know you want to tell a little tale about this one letter in particular.
It took a while – as it was actually in a lock box – but I recently found it!
* * * * *
One of these days, I’m going to write about my experiences with Eddie Vedder and Pearl Jam – and the influence their music has had on me for 25 years.
This isn’t one of those days, exactly. This is the story of an Eddie-inspired action that led to my receiving one of the best “Thank You” notes I’ll ever be able to write about.
Back in the day, one of the great perks of working for the Cubs was getting to meet lots and lots of interesting people – especially in the entertainment industry. Perhaps you’ve heard that the Cubs are somewhat popular?!
Anyway, through a friend of a friend, I was fortunate enough to meet Eddie, spend quality time with him on multiple occasions, and see him and the band perform many times.
In my Media Relations career, I would send him media guides and Season in Review end-of-season booklets.
In the fall of 2001, Eddie asked if I could send him an extra Season in Review. He was going to be spending a lot of time in Los Angeles with a friend of his who was a huge baseball fan. Eddie went on-and-on about his friend, and said this guy would read it cover-to-cover and get a big kick out of receiving it.
I didn’t think anything of it. Of course, I sent the extra book to Mr. Vedder to give to his friend. Happy to do it!
Honestly, while I list Pearl Jam at the top of my personal “music influencers” chart, I didn’t really connect the dots as to who influenced my music influencers. Eddie had told me the name of his friend that he was hanging out with, but that was the guy’s pseudonym. I didn’t put two-and-two together and track down the real name.
So when I received a letter a few weeks later … with a baseball as a return address label … and a postmark of Hollywood, CA … I had no idea of what I was about to open.
The lightbulb didn’t go on for me when I read the name of the sender on the address label – John Cummings. I just figured it was a random note from a fan asking for something. I had no idea that was the real life name of the New York-born musician who was one of the great guitarists of all-time.
It wasn’t an “Ask” note. It was a “Thank You” note from a huge Yankees fan. And when I saw the signature at the end of the letter, the goose bumps raise on my arms the same way now as when I read it for the first time in 2001:
Thanks for the “Season in Review.” It was a very good season for the Cubs. The Yankees need to make some changes, increase their on-base percentage and slugging but I’m sure they will. Eddie is working on his autograph 8 x 10 Cubs collection, he has about 400 different Cubs players. If there is ever any “Ramones” items you need let me know I’d be happy to help out. Thank you again for thinking of me.
I don’t know what’s more awesome – that Johnny Ramone sent me a Thank You note or that THE Johnny Ramone actually thought about writing me a Thank You note. In any case, I’m so glad I have it.
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.
I recently caught up with Brian McRae – who played for the Cubs from 1995-1997.
Chuck: When I look back on your time with the Cubs, I remember somebody who would have knocked over a wall to score. You brought a certain intensity and fire to the field.
B-Mac: “I just learned to play the game a certain way at a young age. Being around baseball with my father with the Reds in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s – and then when he got traded to the Royals – those teams played with a certain type of energy … enthusiasm … effort. They weren’t the most talented teams, but their players always played hard. That’s how I grew up – try to outwork people and try to bring the most energy to the ballpark every day.”
Chuck: Your dad, Hal, played until 1987 – which was only three years before your major league debut. You really didn’t get a chance to NOT grow up in baseball. Was there ever a chance you wouldn’t go into the family business?
B-Mac: “We played in some spring training game together in 1986 after the Royals had won the World Series in 1985. He retired in 1987, and I got to the big leagues in 1990. I actually liked playing football better than baseball growing up. Instead of going to Kansas and getting beat up in football, I decided to take the safer sport. Football was something that I liked to do because nobody expected me to be good at it – because my dad was a baseball player. It seemed everything I did in baseball was expected. I didn’t get the credit for working hard and developing my skills in baseball. In football, I got a little bit more enjoyment out of it. I enjoyed playing it in high school because it wasn’t the sport my dad played. My accomplishments in football were because of what I did.”
Chuck: Looking back, any regrets that you didn’t go the football route?
B-Mac: “No. I wasn’t going to be an NFL player. I was going to maybe be a decent college football player; that would have been about it. They told me I would have a chance to play football and baseball in college. As you know, if you go to a four-year school on a football scholarship, they’re going to make you play football the whole time. And that was probably what was going to happen. I don’t regret it. In the minor leagues, maybe I regretted it a little bit. Instead of the 80,000-90,000 watching college football games, there were 8 or 9 people watching some of my minor league games.”
Chuck: Growing up, what was it like being the son of a major league baseball player? Your dad was young when you were born – so you were old enough to know what you’re dad did for a living.
B-Mac: “I didn’t think it was anything different from what other parents did when I was young. I thought that my dad went to work, my mom went to work – she was a school teacher – and I didn’t think it was anything different. I started hearing it when I got to middle school – and people started to make a big deal about my dad playing ball and games being on TV. I just thought my dad had a unique job where he got to work and play baseball. His hours were not normal; I didn’t get to see him as much as I would have liked. But that was the way he took care of the family. My dad just had weird hours and his job was outside.”
Chuck: What was it like when your dad brought you with him on “Bring Your Kid to Work Day?”
B-Mac: “I was allowed to be bat boy, ball boy, and work in the clubhouse. I did all those things once I got to be around 8, 9, 10 years old. That was something that was a joy for me. If I did well in school, then I was able to tag along. My spring break – I got to spend at the ballpark with my dad. Get up early in the morning … go to the ballpark … work there … then I could hit in the cage and take ground balls and fly balls and do things like that. It was my incentive to do well in school. If I did well, I could hang out with a big league team – and be bat boy or ball boy or shine shoes or pick up jocks or wash clothes. I thought that was such a cool thing to do.”
Chuck: I’m going to jump over to your Cubs days. You really won me over in one of your first games as a Cub. In fact, you single-handedly won a game late. You hit a ball up the middle off the pitcher’s glove – then stretched it into a double. You then stole third and came around to score when the catcher threw the ball into the leftfield corner. Do you remember plays like that?
B-Mac: “I remember it was during my first series there. I just remember it was cold. The big thing I remember about playing there early in the year – and one year it was like that until June – was how cold it was. To complain about it wasn’t going to do you any good. You just had to deal with it. Even though Kansas City and Chicago aren’t that far in proximity, the temperature difference was huge – especially early in the year. So I always wanted to not let the temperature affect me. I didn’t wear long sleeves; I wore short sleeves all the time during the cold weather to mentally tell myself that this is not bothering me. Just trying to do as much as possible to stay energized and not worry about the weather. Just keep the focus on baseball – and not the wind or cold or sleet or rain … all the things we had to deal with in April and May in Chicago.”
Chuck: But in the middle of the year, you wore long sleeves.
B-Mac: “Yeah, that was an option. I liked to sweat. Once I broke my first sweat in the long sleeves, it cooled me down – and I wasn’t sweating much anymore. I found it worked just as well as having something cold on my arms during that time of the year. I didn’t really see it as making me feel any worse than you already were. I remember the summer of ’95 when they had the power outages because it was so hot, and we had a night game against the Reds when the heat index was something like 115 – The long sleeves cooled me off and I felt pretty good.”
Chuck: Then to top it off, you punched little holes in your baseball cap.
B-Mac: “I’d do that and with my T-shirts, too. Give it some circulation. The uniforms you wear aren’t always conducive to playing in the heat, so you have to do some things with your undergarments or your cap to try to keep cool and let the heat go. Heat rises out of your head. If you have that hat on, it makes your head boil. So I’d poke little holes in there.”
Chuck: I remember you walking around the clubhouse all the time in a T-shirt that read “I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead.” Is that still how you operate?
B-Mac: “I sleep now. I’m close to 50 years old. When I got to the big leagues, they told me I’d be there for two weeks. I wanted to make sure that I got the most out of those two weeks in the big leagues, and that’s how I went about the 10 years I played in the majors. They told me two weeks. Ten years later, I was still there. I wanted to make sure that I took advantage of everything that I could take advantage of as a big league player. I enjoyed my friends coming to visit me and my family getting to see me play. I enjoyed traveling to different cities. I wanted to enjoy everything. I liked the day games in Chicago, because that forced me to get my rest a little bit. It forced me to make a schedule and stick to it. I’m a morning person. I didn’t like sleeping in. I liked getting up and walking around the city, checking things out. I enjoyed Chicago and seeing the museums. Playing the day games allowed me to do more – because after games I could still check things out at a decent hour.”
Chuck: We talked multiple times during your Cubs career about your post-baseball days. You seemed to have an idea back then of what you wanted to do.
B-Mac: “I was hoping I could do something in the game – but not as stressful as playing the game. I played 15 years – five years in the minor leagues and 10 years in the big leagues – and the style of play that I played was rough on my body. I never was on the DL. I didn’t spend much time not playing. So I beat up my body. By the time I got done playing at 33, I was beat up mentally and physically – but I still wanted to be around the game. I was hoping I could be a broadcaster – then later on go back and coach when I was older. I started to prepare myself for those days while I was still playing – especially in Chicago, doing some of the broadcast work and seeing the other side. Seeing if that was something that I could do … if it was something I enjoyed … and if I was any good at it.”
Chuck: And you tried your hand at broadcasting for a while.
B-Mac: “I enjoyed it, but I like being at the ballpark. With ESPN, they wanted me to do more studio work. I just thought that wasn’t for me. I like doing games. I like being around the players. I like being around the atmosphere. I figured that when I’m older, I can do studio stuff. I enjoy everything that comes with being around the ballpark. After ESPN, I worked for mlb.com – and that allowed me to be around the park. Then I did some Royals broadcasts – about 30-to-35 games and some trips. Those were things that I liked doing. It wasn’t every day. It was enough to keep me around. In 2008, mlb.com merged with the MLB Network, so all the guys working for mlb.com got reassigned to do other things. Then the Royals Network got bought out. When all that happened, my broadcasting opportunities were slim – and that’s when I started coaching summer baseball. I liked it. I then thought about going back to school – which I did. I’m now back in school at Park University – and I get to coach there. For the last five years, my main focus has been finishing school and coaching a little bit.”
Chuck: Nowadays, along with Park University you are the program director for the Kansas City Sluggers Baseball Program, a travel organization. Give me your elevator pitch about the KC Sluggers.
B-Mac: “We have 20 teams at all age groups that play all summer and spring. We have around 300 kids in our organization. Since I’ve been involved, we’ve had four kids drafted – and three are playing minor league ball right now. The goal is to get them into college. I want to ensure that kids in the area have a place to play no matter what their skill level is. There are 1,600 colleges at every level from Division I to junior college and NAIA that play baseball. If you want to continue to wear a baseball uniform for a few more years after your high school career, I’ll find some places where you can still play and get an education.”
Chuck: Are you enjoying it?
B-Mac: “Yes, I do. I enjoy it. The big thing is when kids come back to Kansas City – or we correspond through text and email – and they tell me what’s going on with their life. And they talk about how much fun they had, and how much they learned in summer ball. It wasn’t about baseball, per se, but about things they had to deal with in life. That’s the biggest thrill for me.”
It sounds like the start of one of those jokes in the vein of “A priest, a rabbi and a frog walk into a bar … “
A vegetarian Jew from Tuscaloosa who attended a Catholic high school in Memphis goes to a Passover Seder in Arizona – and doesn’t even win for best story.
Like I’ve often said (OK, I’ve said it once or twice) … if you can’t spend a Passover with your family, you might as well celebrate the holiday with Jimmy Bank and Jose Bautista.
For those of you who don’t know what Passover is, I stole liberally from Passover For Dummies in order to best explain the holiday in less than eight days:
What Is Passover and How Is It Celebrated?
“Passover is both the most-celebrated Jewish holiday of the year and the holiday voted most likely to elicit a groan. People groan when they consider Passover's dietary requirements. They groan when they think of all the preparations. They even groan when they remember how much they overate during Passover last year.
“But the real irony behind the moaning, groaning, and kvetching is that in some ways this is exactly what you’re supposed to feel at this time of year. Passover is a celebration of spring, of birth and rebirth, of a journey from slavery to freedom, and of taking responsibility for yourself, the community, and the world. However, strangely enough, none of this taking of responsibility gets done without groaning. It was with groaning that the Hebrews expressed the pain of their ancient enslavement in Egypt more than 3,300 years ago. It was with groaning that they called attention to their plight. So groan, already!
“The Torah states that Jews are to observe Passover for seven days, beginning on the 15th of the Jewish month Nisan (usually in April). The first night always includes a special Seder (ritual dinner). Plus, traditional Jews outside of Israel don’t work on either the first two or the last two days of the seven-day period. Outside of Israel, Jews celebrate a second Seder on the second night of Passover.
“You can think of Passover as honoring the renewal of the sun (it’s always on the first full moon after the Vernal Equinox), or a time to step firmly into springtime. You can also think of Passover as celebrating the Jewish people’s “birth certificate” and “Declaration of Independence.” Or you can think of it as memorializing something that God did for the Jews 3,300 years ago.”
Based on its yearly placement on the calendar, Passover sometimes started during spring training. Passover 1994 was one of those times.
1994 was Jimmy Bank’s second year with the Cubs as the team’s traveling secretary. Hard to believe, but back in those days, Mr. Bank was quiet and reserved.
Jimmy was interested in going to a Seder for the holidays, and he asked if I would join him if he could find one – since he didn’t want to go alone. I groaned (see above) and answered in the affirmative.
Jimmy was Tuscaloosa born-and-raised before moving to Memphis when he was 10. Although Memphis has a large Jewish population, he attended Christian Brothers High School, “where literally a quarter of the school was Jewish,” he recalled. “My senior class president was an Orthodox Jew. It was great because we never went to school on the Jewish holidays, the Catholic holidays, and the civil holidays. We never went to school at Christian Brothers. They wouldn't have tests or assignments or any of that around the holidays when they knew we'd be absent.”
When Passover started during spring training, Jimmy would look for a host family. Back in March of 1994, Jimmy somehow came across a woman nicknamed “Schatzi,” pronounced “Schottzie” – like the famous St. Bernard owned by infamous Cincinnati Reds owner Marge Schott. That’s a whole different story.
And Schatzi … if you’re reading this, I hope I’m spelling your name correctly.
Anyway, Schatzi invited Jimmy and any of his Cubs cohorts to her house for Passover. He told her that I would be joining him. He also said that he was going to reach out to a Cubs player about coming with us.
I’m sure they were excited about the thought of a player spending the holiday with them. But imagine the family’s surprise when we showed up with Jose Bautista – a Dominican Jew.
“I was in Pittsburgh on the High Holy Days (in the fall of 1993),” Bank said. “I would always try to find a temple in the town to go to. I’m pretty sure it was Dan Simonds, our bullpen catcher, who was with me – and we went to a service. It must have been an Orthodox temple. We sat down, and there was not a word of English in the prayer book or in the service.
“The next day we’re in the clubhouse talking about it. Jose Bautista walks by and hears us talking about it, and says, ‘Thanks for inviting me.’ And we started laughing. I said we were talking about going to a Jewish religious service. And he said, ‘I’m Jewish.’ And we laughed. And he pulled out his Star of David that he was wearing. That’s how I find out he was Jewish. And then he told me his story of a Jew living in the Dominican Republic.”
Bautista’s mother was Israeli. His father was Dominican.
“He was raised Jewish and his children were raised Jewish,” Bank said. “He was very proud of his Judaism.”
I don’t recall specifics about the Seder itself, because I was just enjoying watching this family watching Jose. Like Jimmy, I remember observing the family’s curiosity when we showed up at the house.
“I'm trying to pick the right word here,” Bank said. “They were not taken aback, but they were surprised that we were bringing a Dominican Jew with us.”
I remember more about Jose telling stories than the Seder itself.
Jimmy said what sticks out for him was when we went around the table reading out of the Haggadah (prayer book), Jose could read Hebrew.
“I do remember he did have a little trouble reading English, but he could read Hebrew,” he said. “It was easier on him with the Hebrew than English. You could tell he had read Hebrew in front of people before.”
I remember Schatzi and her family being great hosts, and I'm glad Jimmy not only saved photos from that evening – but he provided them for me to share.
“I just remember we were there and we had a good time,” Bank said. “It was different – and it was fun.”
Let’s face it … I typically don’t remember what I had for lunch the day before. Heck, where I ate lunch the day before often gets lost in some tiny corner of my brain.
But baseball moments have always had a tendency to stick to my cerebellum, or cerebrum, or cerebral cortex, or whatever part of the brain retains memory (if it’s science-related, those things typically get lost, too).
What makes baseball different from the other major sports is that it’s an individual game wrapped in a team sport. Every single pitch is batter vs. pitcher – or pitcher vs. batter. On any given day, something dramatic could happen. Every single game can create its own little story.
When I heard of Milt Pappas’ passing yesterday, I couldn’t help but think back to September 2, 1972. Yes, I remember the date. It’s one of those baseball things.
That was sort of a “Wonder Years” summer for me. I was just six years old, but baseball had begun mesmerizing me. Back then, there were only five real channels on TV in Chicago – 2, 5, 7, 9 and 11. You could mess around with the dial and try to find 32 and 44 – but there would have to be a reason to do it.
That was the summer of fighting with my brother over the one TV in the house. There were only so many kid shows to watch, although “Electric Company” was kind of cool. I wanted baseball.
And every Cubs home game was on Channel 9 … with Jack Brickhouse … in the afternoon. After summer camp, I’d race into the house and watch the last few innings when the team was in town. And if it was a glorious Saturday, I could watch a game from start to finish – either a Cubs game on WGN or the national Saturday afternoon NBC Game of the Week with Curt Gowdy and Tony Kubek.
On Saturday, September 2, 1972, the Cubs were at Wrigley Field to play the San Diego Padres and their ugly mustard yellow uniforms. I had a chance to watch a Cubs game from “Leadoff Man” to “The 10th Inning Show,” with a lot of running into the backyard to let everyone know what was going on – whether they wanted to hear it or not.
We all know the game story. Pappas not only had a no-hitter – he had a perfect game. Two outs … 3-2 pitch … perfect game on the line … and umpire Bruce Froemming didn’t raise his right hand on a borderline pitch.
I can still remember Brickhouse’s words as Pappas got ready to deliver the pitch: “Perfect game on the line … No-hitter on the line … Watch it.”
Pure magic … “Watch it.” Those words still resonate with me today.
And then … the pop up to one of my favorite early Cubs – Carmen Fanzone – to seal history.
“It’s a no-hitter for Pappas. A no-hitter for Milt Pappas.”
Hard to believe, but in the thousands of baseball games I have been to, I never have seen a no-hitter live. There were a few close encounters ended in the ninth inning – Jose Guzman, Alex Fernandez, Dan Spillner – but none crossed the finish line like it did that afternoon in 1972.
Two Saturdays later, I didn’t watch a game on TV. Instead, my Dad and my neighbors took me on my first excursion to Wrigley Field. Walking up the stairs from the concourse – and seeing the green cathedral sprawled in front of me – I was officially hooked. It didn’t hurt that the Cubs beat the Mets 18-5.
I talked to Milt Pappas several times through the years. To the end, he was bitter about not getting the call on the 3-2 pitch. I just wish I had thanked him for giving a little kid the sheer enjoyment of watching the drama unfold – and reeling me even more into becoming a baseball fan.
There was a period of time during my media relations days where you could typically find me at some rock concert on a weekend night.
I was reminded of that last night, when I saw awesome performances from Dina Bach and Callaghan at this cool music venue in Evanston called Space. If you’ve never been there, figure out a time to go … the acoustics were amazing.
Both Dina and Callaghan sang great songs of their own, but on the way home, I couldn’t get Callaghan’s rendition of “Purple Rain” out of my head. In this day and age, if you hear a song and want to hear it again, just go to the internet.
That got me thinking about the good old days. Back in the day before iPods – heck, I’m talking 10 years before iPods – you learned your music through FM radio and MTV.
Thanks to baseball, I had the chance to do a lot of travel. Thanks to baseball, I had the chance to do a lot of work in hotel rooms – passing time until it was time to head to the ballpark. Thanks to baseball, I had to leave hotel rooms to help kill time.
Back in 1991, I learned of the existence of a new band called Pearl Jam thanks to a college alternative radio station in Montreal that rotated between English and French songs. That’s a whole different story.
The following year, back in Montreal again, I found the same station on the hotel clock radio – and once again heard a song with Eddie Vedder’s voice. This time, though, I was positive it wasn’t a Pearl Jam song. And on top of that, there was another voice sharing the lead vocals.
The song stuck in my head – and was on constant rotation. If you ever went to a baseball game at Olympic Stadium, where silence ruled the world, you know something can get into your head and never have reason to leave.
The next day, I had one of my rare WTF moments. I was determined to find out who recorded that song.
I went to the front desk and, being the ugly American, I asked for directions to a college record store. I asked in English, which was my downfall. The desk clerk looked at me blankly. It didn’t dawn on me that if I was checking out, he would have been able to ask me for money to pay incidentals.
Sadly, the only French I remembered from high school was ouest (west), est (east) and il neige (it’s snowing). So after the blank stare down, I used the only phrase I could think of – McGill University. That, he understood. He pulled out a train system map and highlighted how I could get from the hotel to the largely English-speaking campus.
Somehow, I navigated my way to the McGill area and found a record store on the outskirts of campus. Then it hit me … How the heck was I going to describe the song in my head?
I went into the store and went for it – which meant I looked as confused as I possibly could. The student behind the counter had no clue what I was talking about, but I must have been animated enough in telling my story. Another employee magically appeared with a cassette tape. The song I couldn’t get out of my head – “Hunger Strike” – was on a Temple of the Dog cassette. She started raving about it … You have to buy the album … the only radio stations who knew of this song were college alternative radio stations. I came this far. Of course, I was buying the cassette.
Of course, I didn’t have a tape player with me in Montreal, so the song was stuck in my head for the remainder of the road trip.
As I was listening to the Harry Caray Cracker Jack game for my last story, I couldn’t help but laugh again – after Steve Stone said I resembled a puppet – when Harry started his sinister chuckling line of “Heh heh heh heh heh … Boy, they got to you, I can see. They got to you. What did it cost them Arne?”
If you were fortunate enough to watch a Cubs game on TV from 1982-1997, it’s very likely you couldn’t go nine innings without hearing the phrase “Hey Arne” – followed by a conversation in which the viewer only knew that Harry was talking to Arne – and Arne was talking back, at least on air.
Arne Harris was the behind-the-scenes magician as producer/director of Cubs television, but he had a big on-screen role as the unseen party that Harry conversed with.
These one-sided conversations might have been nothing more than a few words starting with “Hey Arne” – or a whole soliloquy about some event, or somebody in the stands, or some thought bubble that just popped into Harry’s head. For the record, there’s a button a broadcaster could push to talk to the director, but that’s not how Harry operated. And Arne probably preferred viewers thinking it was a one-way conversation – just for the humor in it.
I can’t imagine how many Cubs viewers in the ’80s and ’90s thought of Arne Harris in the same way people thought of Vera, the never seen wife of Norm Peterson on Cheers – or Maris, the name without a face married to and divorced from Dr. Niles Crane on Frasier.
While Arne truly was a character, he really did exist. I was reminded of that not only in Harry’s words – but from a couple comments after the Cracker Jack story was posted. I even joked around with one of the “commenters” – some guy named Chip who claims he’s related to Harry – and all these images of Arne came flooding back into my mind.
Arne was just as much of a “one-name guy” as Harry was. If you walked into a TV truck and asked for Mr. Harris, you would be told there was no one there with that name.
Arne was this wonderful man who loved all things about the ballpark experience, period. He was a visual storyteller. He wanted the fans on WGN to feel as if they were at the game, too.
The game itself was part of the production – and no one loved bases-loaded situations more than Arne, so he could show runners leading off third, second and first. But he also loved his hat shots – so showing Chuck Wasserstrom in a Cracker Jack hat was right up Arne’s alley. He loved the sail boats on Lake Michigan … the CTA trains passing by the bleachers … the bikini shots during the summer months. It was part of the Wrigley Field experience.
Being the master that he was, he also knew when to use them. There was never the three-second bounce from player-to-player-to-player-to-player-etc. when the game was on the line. Pitcher … Batter … Period. Cubs games were reality TV, and Arne knew drama.
But it was the “away-from-the-yard” images of Arne that really stick with me. He could pack for a two-city road trip with one carry-on bag. He was a white pants/white shoes guy – even after Labor Day. He reminded me on team flights that peanut butter and jelly tasted better than airline food. He knew the hotel-to-ballpark routes – and made sure the cabdrivers didn’t take some tourists the long way. And I can still hear his “Bmmm Bmmm Bmmm” staccato sound he made when he was deep in thought.
The TV truck was his home, but it was on the road where Arne was royalty – and it was good to be with the king. I made a lot of trips to Houston during my Cubs media relations years – and on every Texas excursion Arne made sure we lunched at a place called Shuckers Sports Bar in the Westin Galleria. It didn’t matter which member of the wait staff greeted us; they all knew Arne’s oyster order before he sat down.
Twice on trips to Atlanta, I was lucky enough to tag along with him on trips to Friedman’s Shoes. Despite the store’s name, this shoe store is a big-and-tall shoe store – not a short-Jew-from-Skokie shoe store. And by big-and-tall, I mean this is where your garden variety 7-foot-tall person shops. It’s floor after floor of shoes for people with size 27 feet. But Arne walked in there and had salespeople tripping over themselves to sell him a pair of white shoes.
It’s hard to believe, but it’s been 15 years since Arne Harris directed a Cubs game. The thought of “Hey Arne” still makes me smile.
Did you know I once was a guest star on a reality TV show?
No, I’m not talking about being in the background for a split second during an episode of “Undercover Boss.”
I’m talking about true “reality TV” – when WGN was WGN … and Harry was Harry … and you never knew what he might say during a live telecast.
And on this given day – June 16, 1993, to be exact – I was asked if I would do something potentially embarrassing to me.
Cracker Jack was celebrating its 100th anniversary, and all the Cracker Jack powers-that-be were at Wrigley Field that afternoon. I was asked, with just a bit of arm-twisting, if I would be OK putting on the Cracker Jack sailor hat and wearing it around the press box for the first couple innings of the game. The WGN cameras would show me on TV … Harry Caray and Steve Stone would get a good laugh at my expense … they would then talk about the deliciousness of caramel corn and peanuts and Cracker Jack’s 100th anniversary celebrating … and everybody would be happy.
I agreed to do it, as long as I got to keep the hat. Sometimes, you gotta do what you gotta do. If it’s good for the ratings, who was I to argue?
Seriously, other than people making fun of me, what harm would it do if I wore Sailor Jack’s hat?
Let’s just say my confectionary military career lasted all of one inning.
Sometimes, you have to let the story tell itself.
I’ll set the stage for you. Cubs vs. Marlins at Wrigley Field on this fine June 16, 1993, afternoon. Bottom of the first inning. One out. Jose Vizcaino stepping up to the plate.
Arne Harris, in the TV truck, with the Cracker Jack execs nearby, saying something like, “Hey, now’s a good time to put the camera on the press box. Look for Chuck in the sailor hat.”
Harry and Steve, take it away …
Harry: “There’s Sharon Pannozzo, the publicity director of the Cubs. And her assistant.”
Steve: “Chuck Wasserstrom. He looks kind of like a puppet today with that hat.”
Harry: “I don’t know what the big deal about Cracker Jack is. Did you ever go buy a pack of Cracker Jack thinking you’d get a prize and find no prize in the box?”
Mr. Stone starts laughing
Harry: “Here’s the pitch … That might not sound important to some people, but when you’re a little kid, especially from humble origin, and they cheat you out of a prize … ”
Sound of bat hitting ball.
Harry continues on: “There’s a bouncing ball, second baseman has it, Barberie over to first … It’s hard to think in laudatory terms of the product.”
Steve: “I think there was an occasional box of Cracker Jack that found no prizes for the little Harry Caray many years ago.”
Harry: “You got that right. And boy, when a box of Cracker Jack to me meant a lot of money … Two out, and here is Sandberg … ”
Harry: “Heh heh heh heh heh … Boy, they got to you, I can see. They got to you. What did it cost them Arne? … Here’s the pitch, bounced foul … That’s the most asinine marketing I’ve ever heard of … One ball, one strike … These guys say, ‘Well, you sing about Cracker Jack.’ I said, ‘I only sing it because it’s in the song’ … Here’s the pitch, fouled back … And I wouldn’t be a bit surprised, even to this day, some youngsters buy a box of Cracker Jack and don’t find a prize in the box … One ball, two strikes, two out … If you’re going to talk about our congressmen being crooked … Here’s the pitch, fouled out of play … Why not talk about commercial products that don’t do what they represent to do … One ball, two strikes, two out … Baseball to me is apple pie, hot dogs, beer or soda pop – depending on your age, a nice juicy hot dog, sitting out at beautiful Wrigley Field, watching Ryne Sandberg face Luis Aquino – and going down swinging on a wicked curve ball … 1, 2, 3 … at the end of one, Florida leads 1-0.”
Cue the commercial.
When the top of the second inning started, the Sailor Jack hat was out of sight.
It’s been pretty awesome 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 Dennis Rasmussen – who pitched professionally for 15 seasons, albeit briefly with the Cubs in 1992. Dennis, a 6-foot-7 left-hander, was a super nice guy to be around – and he was one of the first former players to reach out to me after my Cubs time had ended. After his playing days were over, he went from minor league pitching coach into the investment business – before remarrying and becoming involved in his wife’s family business.
Today, Dennis is the Chief Burger Flipper at the Dairy Grille in Charlevoix, Michigan. That title was too good for me to resist. I knew I had to see what he was up to.
Chuck: How does one become a Chief Burger Flipper?
Rass: “I was coaching in 1998 with the Red Sox organization in Ft. Myers, and there was a left-handed pitcher that I was mentoring named Terry Hayden. He played five years in the minor leagues with the Red Sox and the Reds and ended up having Tommy John surgery. Anyway, we stayed in touch, and I came up to visit him 10 years later in 2008. We came up to Northern Michigan … we toured around. I’d never been up here in Charlevoix, so I saw his family and the Dairy Grille. The last night I was in town, I went out with his sister, Renee. We were both single. We started talking. After about a year, we started dating long distance. In 2010, I moved up here – and we later got engaged. A couple years later, we got married. Since I was now retired from the investment business, my father-in-law said, ‘What do you think about taking over the family business? My brother-in-law and I took it over. This is the 47th year in business. Uncle Jim Hayden started it. My father-in-law and mother-in-law then ran it for 24 years. This is now our third year. So I flip burgers and sling ice cream for six months of the year in a beautiful resort town in Northern Michigan on Lake Michigan.”
Chuck: I’m assuming that this wasn’t what you thought you’d be doing after your baseball career.
Rass: “All I did growing up was play sports and travel. I really didn’t work. I had a couple odd jobs during the summer, so it kind of came full circle. The funny thing was, as soon as it happened, my brothers – who had worked through high school – said, “It’s about time you got a real job and did something that we did back in the day when we were younger.” I’m doing the same things now that they did – and I’m in my 50s.”
Chuck: Do you look at this as a job?
Rass: “No, it’s our business. My brother-in-law and Renee – it’s really their business. I work for them. I’m up here five out of the six months. It works out great. I’m here until mid-June. We opened up this year on April 1 and had one of our biggest days ever. This is kind of a tradition up here. It’s a sign of spring. Everybody looks forward to the Dairy Grille. We take it seriously. We always open the end of March, beginning of April. We close the third Sunday of every September.”
Chuck: How do you spend the other half of the year?
Rass: “We live in Detroit. My stepson, Hayden, is a hockey player and a baseball player. As a freshman this year in high school, he made the varsity hockey team. He practices or has a game six days a weeks. When I get back to Detroit, I’ll play in a couple celebrity golf tournaments. The rest of the time, we’re going to hockey practice or hockey games – following him around.”
Chuck: Any chance you lace up the hockey skates?
Rass: “Oh no. Never. No. I went to Creighton University on a basketball scholarship and also played baseball there. I was drafted in 1980 and played until 1995. We were together in 1992 with the Cubs – when we first met. I retired in 1995, then went into the investment business for 10 years. Met Renee, we got together – and here I am in Michigan. I couldn’t be happier. I love it up here. It’s a resort town. I’ve made a lot of friends over the last three-plus years. I host a Major League Baseball alumni golf tournament/youth clinic each summer. We raise a bunch of money and get some former big leaguers up here and expose the local community to the players. It’s a lot of fun. I’m kind of the resident celebrity chief burger flipper.”
Chuck: It’s hard to believe you only pitched in three games with the Cubs. It seems like you had a longer career in Chicago. You had a nice long career, and you’re very personable, so it just feels like I spent a lot more time around you.
Rass: “Exactly. I sure wish I had spent more time there. It’s actually a great story how I wound up there. I was in Baltimore’s organization in Rochester (in 1992), and my contract said I could ask for my release if I was in Triple-A on June 1, which I did. I knew the Padres were playing a get-away day game in Wrigley Field against the Cubs – and I had spent the last four years in San Diego – so I drove all night to Chicago so I could meet the Padres manager for breakfast. I got there after driving all night and saw Greg Riddoch. I told him I was healthy and that I’d like to throw for him. He said, ‘Rass, I’d love to have you throw, but we have a lot of young guys and I don’t have any room.’ Then I saw Syd Thrift, the assistant GM of the Cubs, sitting in a corner of the restaurant having breakfast with an agent. I went over there, interrupted him, and he goes, ‘Wow, we were just talking about you. Meet me at the stadium. Do you have all your stuff?’ I said yes, and went to Wrigley. I waited for a couple hours, and all the players are coming through and wondered why I was there with my bag. The clubhouse guy gave me a uniform and I threw on the side. They called my agent, and they sent me to Iowa. I was there for two starts, then got called up when the late Frank Castillo got injured. After that was over, which was about six weeks, I got released. I drove across I-80 to Omaha, where I had made my off-season home. I called the Royals, signed with them, pitched in Triple-A. I then got called up to the Royals near the end of the season and pitched really well … and ended up getting a contract for the following season. You just never know. If you can still pitch, you persevere and find a way – especially as a left-hander.”
Chuck: It doesn’t hurt to have a good attitude, too.
Rass: “I always did. I was a professional, and I just loved to play the game.”
Chuck: Not that many people can say they had three careers. You had the baseball career, including coaching, before doing investments. Now you have the family business to run.
Rass: “I’ve been very fortunate. I love to tell stories about sports and baseball and basketball … I wouldn’t have changed a thing. This career keeps me young. It keeps me in shape. I don’t have time to rest. We’re open seven days a week, 11 in the morning until 9 at night. I get going around 9 am. It’s busy. You’re running around with young kids, keeping an eye on them and making sure they stay safe – and have fun along the way. It’s a training environment where they have an opportunity to grow. You mentor them; for most of them, it’s their first job. And to be able to see them save enough money in salary and tips to buy their first car … it’s very rewarding.”
“You’re never late if you’re early.”
I was only a couple weeks into my professional career when Don Zimmer said that to me over breakfast the Saturday morning of the 1988 Cubs Convention. I showed up a few minutes early for the meeting, but Zim was already at the restaurant waiting.
Thanks to this week’s trip to Chattanooga, I’ve been thinking about my first year full-time with the Cubs quite a bit. My rookie year was so long ago that Wrigley Field was lights-free – at least until I got there. Within my first month on the job, I’d been on my first Cubs Caravan, gone to my first Cubs Convention, had Cubs fans watch me eat breakfast with Zim, and was within shouting distance of the bigwigs down the hall when they learned that the Chicago City Council had approved lights at Wrigley Field. There would be night baseball on the north side of Chicago later that year.
Once spring training arrived, I knew – as a newbie – that I would be in Chicago while all the action was taking place in Mesa. But instead of it being a quiet six weeks, I got to experience media relations first-hand – as I worked directly with the media on items pertaining to the installation of lights. And as the spring went on, I had the opportunity to be the media’s point of contact – which meant that I got to stand in the Wrigley Field parking lot next to Yum Yum Donuts while a helicopter swirled over my head lifting light standards onto the roof.
My reward for not having a helicopter land on me: Road trip!
Back in the day, letting a 22-year-old kid serve as your team’s media relations representative was not the norm. But my boss, media relations director Ned Colletti, knew he and assistant director Sharon Pannozzo needed to be in Chicago during the days leading up to the first night game. The amount of media requests for Opening Night was unprecedented. As it turned out, 556 media members were in attendance for the inaugural Wrigley Field night game – which at that time made it the most widely covered non-jewel event in major league history.
So Ned put the plan into place. I would meet him in Philadelphia during the Cubs’ road trip leading up to the 8/8/88 homestand – and he’d show me the ropes. The plan really was pretty simple: Meet the team in Philadelphia … travel with them to the Hall of Fame Game in Cooperstown … and continue on to New York. That was a neat little trio for one’s first trip.
Fortunately for me, there aren’t stories to tell if I keep things simple.
I could talk about my suitcase being left behind at the Philadelphia hotel – because the bellman thought I was kidding about working for the Cubs and didn’t put my bag with the other luggage going on the Cubs’ charter. But I’m not going to do that here.
I could write about the Hall of Fame Game experience, in which a certain Cubs player spent the game in the dugout wearing a monkey mask. But this isn’t the time.
I could fill you in on the team almost missing the game’s first pitch. That’s the direction I’m going.
This Thursday morning (August 4, 1988), for the first and only time during my media relations career, I took the later bus from the hotel to the ballpark. There were always two busses to the yard – one that went very early and usually included the manager, coaches, training staff and any players who wanted to get there early – and the other leaving about 2½ hours before first pitch. Back in 1988, most players were good with taking the second bus.
And on this day, only four or five players took the early bus. It was the last day of a 10-day trip … the team had played the night before … and Zim had cancelled batting practice. As long as everyone was at Shea Stadium about 90 minutes before first pitch, all was good.
Bus #2 left at the scheduled time. We managed to go about a block in the first 15 minutes, as the parking lot known as Manhattan was even slower than usual.
We finally got off the island and were making slow but steady progress when the bus started hissing. All of a sudden, players started yelling that there was smoke coming out the back of the bus. To make matters worse, a couple “high character” players activated smoke bombs on the bus to prove their point. How they knew to bring them, I don’t know. It didn’t amuse the bus driver.
The bus sort of went into lurch mode before the driver realized that the bus actually had smoke billowing out the back. He finally had the presence of mind to pull over and examine the back of the bus. After about 30 seconds of serious inspection, he came back on and told our traveling secretary, Peter Durso, that there was smoke coming out the back of the bus.
“No kidding,” is what a politically correct Mr. Durso said. For the record, Peter – a native New Yorker – was not using politically correct words. “What are you going to do?”
You could hear the wheels spinning in the driver’s head before he said, “I should probably call the bus company.”
He did – and was told that it would take at least an hour to get another bus to our location.
“We don’t have an hour,” Durso told him. “Unless the bus catches on fire, let’s go.”
“But ... “ the driver started to say.
“Let’s go … now!” Durso ordered.
So away we went. Slowly. Like 15 MPH slow. With full play-by-play coming from the back of the bus.
Every five minutes, I looked at my watch – and 10 minutes had passed by. We were cutting it a little too close.
The bus ride should have taken a maximum 30-45 minutes. On this day, we had left at 10:30 am for a 1:05 pm game. Due to our little issues, our smoking bus didn’t pull up to Shea Stadium until right around noon.
And that’s when things got interesting.
Because we had gotten to Shea Stadium so close to game time, the gate we were supposed to drive through was now locked. A savvy Shea Stadium parking attendance ordered our driver to get in the line with all of the other busses – also known as tour groups. The line was long.
Durso started arguing with the parking attendant. “We’re the Cubs … we’re the team you’re playing … there’s no game unless we get into the park.”
Peter was as diplomatic as he was going to get. The parking attendant wasn’t letting us get around the line.
Peter told the bus driver to pull around all the busses and had him drive the bus another 75 yards or so. Then, he told the driver to speed up and crash through the fence. He casually reminded the driver we were very late.
The bus driver wasn’t Keanu Reeves. He wasn’t going to smash through a fence.
Peter told him again to do it. The driver said no.
Peter screamed, “I’m firing you. I’m firing your bus company. I’m firing New York. Get off the bus. I’ll ram through the fence.”
The driver walked down the steps, and Mr. Durso got behind the wheel.
Thankfully, by now, a New York cop was quickly approaching the bus. Faster than you can say “WTF,” he got on the bus, looked around, said “WTF” – and realized we truly were the Chicago Cubs. He got Peter out of the driver’s seat, told the driver to get back on the bus, and “tour guided” us around all the tour groups and straight over to where we should have been dropped off over an hour before. By this point, it was roughly 45 minutes before first pitch.
Players literally sprinted to the clubhouse. As everyone entered the room, the image of Don Zimmer standing in the middle of the clubhouse with his arms folded and steam coming out of his ears was priceless.
Needless to say, I learned my lesson. From that point in time, I always took the early bus. You know, you’re never late if you’re early.
I was sitting at O’Hare Airport a couple days ago just watching the people go by.
It’s hard to believe, but I was about to get on an airplane for the first time since early 2013. And it was the first time I was departing on a “road trip” since I left for spring training in February 2012.
Gratuitous plug here … I was traveling to visit with a client. I indeed WILL write for money! I enjoy telling my stories here, but I have mouths to feed. Please contact me for all your content needs. Remember, content is king!
OK, back to the trip. It’s a different day than the last time I traveled. Somehow, I was able to get from the “departing the taxi” portion of my day to the “I cleared security” phase in 18 minutes. At a busy O’Hare. During morning rush, no less. Times sure have changed. I didn’t have to partially disrobe to get through the security checkpoint. Heck, I didn’t have to pull out my laptop or empty everything out of my pockets – include comb and pens.
For someone who used to fly charter and never go through the terminal, this wasn’t bad at all.
And then I entered the Terminal 3 Food Court, and all I could think was “Best Food Court Ever.” Wow, I sound like such a rookie. The thoughts of my first road trip in baseball are starting to float through my head.
I got to the gate and started my people-watching experience in earnest. I quickly figured out that the first 100 people to get on a plane use the airline app on their smartphones to board – and everybody else uses a physical boarding pass. Who knew? I, of course, was prepared to go either way.
That brings about a naïve little question … Why do people jockey in line to be the first person on the airplane – when you already know you’re sitting in seat 1A?
I haven’t been on a plane in a long time. Thank goodness they still spend a full minute explaining how to put on a seat belt, as I had forgotten that you have to grab the strap and pull tight.
A few thoughts/musings …
My friendly pilot must have been in a hurry to get here. We landed 30 minutes early, which meant sitting on a tarmac for 30 extra minutes. I guess that’s why you’re supposed to fly the speed limit.
In order to get there that fast, we must have flown fast – as the landing was a tick on the hard side. You knew you were coming in hot when you can feel the brakes being applied before the wheels touched down. Now that I’m a travel writer, too, I have to be reminded that commercial planes can’t stop on a dime no matter how hard the pilot tries.
Actually, the landing reminded me of one from my Cubs days. We were flying into Utica for the Hall of Fame Game – as Utica was the closest airport to Cooperstown. Apparently, no one had warned the pilot that Utica has an extremely short runway. He started his descent, then pulled up and circled. He started a second time, then pulled up and circled again. Obviously, he wasn’t too confident about landing this puppy in one piece.
The third time, he went for it. We landed so hard that oxygen mask compartments flew open when we hit the ground.
I’m doing a lot of this typing between flights, as my trip continues on to Chattanooga. A few more thoughts:
This is a new career, yet I can’t help but reminisce about my first baseball road trip. Come back in the next day or two, as I’ll be working on that tale on my return flight home.
Until then, I get to hang with Principal Richard Belding! It’s a brand new world out there.
Channeling my inner Ernie Harwell. If only he were still around to tell the story of Ron Santo’s toupee in his Southern-charm voice …
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 didn’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 you literally kiss the ground, whether you were in Chicago or on the road – as you finally were 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 cathedrals like Wrigley Field.
Opening Day is a day to remember Ron Santo’s toupee. One of the all-time Ron Santo moments was the infamous Shea Stadium “Opening Day fire” in 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 place his hairpiece started smoldering. To top it off, Steve Stone was in attendance. 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, you’re 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 many spring trainings.
Opening Day is a reminder of how quickly things can change. Thanks to re-reading my diary last week 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).
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. My Japan retro series brought back memories of Tarrik Brock, Cole Liniak and Danny Young – remember them?
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, Brock, Liniak and Young can always say they were on a major league Opening Day roster. 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. And it’s not just players I’m thinking about. I can’t imagine what was going through the head of Bobby Dickerson – who I worked with regularly during his time in the Cubs’ farm system from 2002-2009 – on Opening Day 2013. He was added to Baltimore’s major league coaching staff that year after spending 27 years as a minor league player/instructor/coach/manager.
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 his 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. Note to self, maybe I need to track Mr. Walton down to see how he’s doing.
Opening Day is a day to say “Welcome to Opening Day.” So … Welcome to Opening Day!
Dear Grandma Rose,
I’ve been thinking about you a lot lately.
I know … you’re not actually going to be reading this. In fact, you probably would have preferred texting – because that’s what the kids do. And you always liked bonding with the grandkids.
I hadn’t been exactly sure what brought about all these recent memories of you, other than the belief that you had been watching me from afar right now and played a part into steering me back toward writing.
You used to send me hand-written postcards all the time when I was a kid. I sort of remembered that, but I recently came across some of those postcards. In fact, at that top of screen, I scanned one of them for you. Kind of funny, even back in 1973, you led off by asking me a baseball question. Even funnier was the Chas. Wasserstrom line – which appears on all of the postcards you sent me. But it was nice to see “Dear Chuckie” at the top of the postcard.
The postcards just sort of turned up. They were in a scrapbook-related box Dad gave me a few years ago when he was cleaning up part of the basement – and they were in my house.
I had done a lot of soul searching in recent years trying to figure out the next chapter in my life. Hard to believe it’s only been two months, but the writing bug bit me in a huge way for the first time in a long time.
I always wondered where that writing bug came from. It’s not that Mom and Dad don’t write – but math and engineering aren’t exactly human interest/storytelling subjects.
Just like you used to brag about your family, I love bragging about my girls. You would have loved watching them play sports, even though I know sports weren’t your thing.
Thankfully, they get all their athletic genes from Michelle. I know you referred to her as “What’s her name?” It wasn’t meant to be mean; old age had already started creeping in. Heck, I wish your mind had stayed around longer to get to know her better. You would have really liked her, and she would have really liked you. She says all the time that little kids, old people and dogs really like her. When Michelle sees Auntie Florence, she’s really good with her. Yes, your sister is still kicking! She hasn’t gotten any taller, though.
You know, it’s hard to believe you’ve been gone for close to 11 years. Sadly, I was there for your last breath. I won’t allow being there that day to be my last memory of you.
I’m sure I think of you a lot more these days because of where the girls are in school. I remember back in the day when you were sort of the official “field trip chaperone” because you could be – and because you wanted to be. You probably got more out of all of those museum tours than anyone in the class.
I also think of you a lot in years when I need to renew my driver’s license. And 2016 is one of those years. I so remember that day back in 1981 (October 20, to be exact) when I was finally legal. After dumping Mom and Dad off at the house, I grabbed Pucci the Wingdog and headed over to your apartment to take you for a spin through the McDonald’s drive thru. I always knew how to woo the ladies.
Since you never learned to drive, you relied on the kindness of children and grandchildren to get you from place-to-place.
Somewhere along the way, you handed me an envelope. I don’t remember when, but I do recall you saying something along the lines of “Don’t open this now. Put it away.” You didn’t elaborate much, which was unusual, since talking was one of your core skills. The only thing you told me was that you had found something, but it would mean more when I was older.
I took the envelope, and then we probably started talking about important issues – like where we were going to eat. And then I forgot about it.
Magically … mysteriously … karma … whatever word you want to use, I recently found that envelope in a box in Mom and Dad’s basement. My guess is that I just threw it aside, but since Dad doesn’t throw anything away (Thanks Dad!), that white envelope with your unmistakable handwriting was there when I recently started looking for mementos that could supplement my musings.
I opened the envelope, and I found another envelope inside – an old parchment envelope.
Inside that envelope was a letter on old faded stationery. But it was more than “just a letter.” I discovered where my writing bug must have come from. Grandma, you instilled it in me way back when, and you must be making sure that it’s the path I’m following now.
It was a typed letter sent to you back in 1933 – just before your 16th birthday – from H.F. Harrington, the director of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern. You probably saw humor in that your last name was misspelled! But getting past that, it was a letter suggesting a career that you probably wish you would have gone into.
The second paragraph tells me exactly why you would have wanted me to see the letter now.
“Journalism is really a serial story, so that this first chapter will probably lead to further developments and achievements in your writing career. We hope that when you come to make a decision on the school of journalism where you may continue your work under competent supervision, you will consider the advantages of the Medill School of Journalism of Northwestern University.”
As I’ve returned to the passion that drove me to Missouri’s Journalism School in the first place, I’m guessing you’ve been involved in setting this course I’m now on. You have reenergized me. You have taken the steering wheel away from me to drive me in the direction you would have liked to have followed yourself.
I didn’t thank you enough for everything when you were physically around.
But wherever you are now, please know that you’re still playing a big role in who I am and what I do. Thank You!
I don’t know if I should sign this “Chuckie” or “Chas. Wasserstrom” – but in either case, you know who I am: Your grateful grandson.
Kevin Tapani is one of the most normal human beings I came across during my baseball days, because there’s nothing about him that screamed baseball player.
I’m not talking about physique. I’m talking about basic human being. You couldn’t help talking to him, since he was just as likely to start the banter as anyone else in the clubhouse. And it didn’t matter if it was his day to pitch. He just liked to stay loose and relaxed. Some pitchers didn’t like if you looked at them on the day they pitched. Tap walked around looking to initiate conversations.
When I called Tap to talk about his playing days, there was no reason to “script” anything out. I had a few bullet points, but the rest was never going to be a question-and-answer session. It was an unscripted conversation – just like in the good old days at 1060 W. Addison. I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.
Chuck: When I tracked you down to set up this interview, you said you recently found some old Kangaroo Court paperwork. What did you unearth?
Tap: “I looked through it, and it’s either really boring or it’s not fit for print. There’s not a lot of middle ground with it.”
Chuck: Most people may not be familiar with the phrase “Kangaroo Court.” Why don’t you explain what it was – and you’re role in it.
Tap: “Kangaroo Court was a way for players to be policing players – and making it fun. It’s not where you complain about what somebody’s doing. For instance, you know a guy is going to the back of the weight room every day after batting practice and gets on his cell phone for 15 minutes instead of doing what he’s supposed to be doing. Another player can write him up, say what it is, and the judge will go and fine you ‘x’ amount because it’s outside of what we want you to do as a team. It’s kind of different from front office rules or Major League Baseball rules. It’s the team’s way of policing how they want things done. It could be the type of clothes you wear to a home game, or something really outdated, or wearing something with a logo from a former team. It helps prevent having big blowups and players having hard feelings with what other players are doing. It gets everyone together on a regular basis. My role was the court reporter. People would come to me with any problem, grievance or claim. I would write them down, and when we held court, I would present the defendant and the accuser to whoever was the judge. The judge would take it from there and decide what the punishment was. Then I would record it and make sure it was all taken care of. A lot of times, if there were money fines, the money would go to periodic team get-togethers on the road.”
Chuck: Being court reporter kept you from getting fined, right?
Tap: “No. I think a lot of times it made me more of a target. A lot of times guys didn’t know they were being brought up on charges until they’re in court. So there wasn’t a tip off. In some ways, you become a little bit of a target for a few things.”
Chuck: I don’t know how you could ever be considered a target.
Tap: “I didn’t see it, either. But it happens. Certain guys would look at things a little differently than me and you would.”
Chuck: I recently talked to Jon Lieber and I told him I’d be calling you. He said to let you know he’s never changed his phone number.
Tap: “He just doesn’t answer his phone, and his voicemail is always full. You’ve experienced that, haven’t you?”
Chuck: Not since yesterday.
Tap: “He’s letting the people talk to him again?”
Chuck: Well, I left him a message and he hasn’t called back.
Tap: “But there was room to actually leave a message? I kind of figured I wasn’t even in his contacts list because I figured if he just saw my name but didn’t leave a message, he’d figure out to call back. I realize I haven’t gotten that far with him.”
Chuck: I have a couple important questions to really get this going. And I was reminded of this the other day when I was talking to your wife. As she was handing the phone off, she referred to you as Tap. Are you in trouble if she calls you Kevin?
Tap: “Ah, yeah. Something’s different if she calls me that. I really don’t have anyone who calls me that. I guess my parents do, but that’s OK since they named me. Other than that, I don’t know of anyone else that does call me Kevin.”
Chuck: Sticking to nicknames, how did you come to name me Bulldog?
Tap: “I think your way of policing the media probably brought that on a little bit. You were a fierce obstacle for them to try and cross.”
Chuck: Whatever worked …
Tap: “It was effective. We started to notice it when you had somebody cross the line – someone like (editor’s note: he named a certain writer here, but I’m leaving it to the imagination) – and he would continue on, even though you told him this wasn’t going to happen right now or the player doesn’t have time. And then he’d continue and try anyway. Pitchers have a lot of free time, so we’re just able to sit back and watch this and see what happens. The Bulldog would be turned loose on him, and (unnamed writer) would be heading out and keep an ongoing conversation that no one wanted to be listening to.”
Chuck: You’re making me ask this next question earlier than I thought I would. It applies here because it ties in to that writer. You’ll know why after you answer the question. I want you to think back in time … July 20, 1998 … Turner Field, Atlanta … Denny Neagle on the mound … bases loaded … Kevin Tapani at the plate. What happened next?
Tap: “I got the grand slam. And that was before either (Mark) Grace or (Sammy) Sosa had hit one, correct?”
Chuck: That would be correct.
Tap: “All I could think of is … being a pitcher, I never took it as being insulting. But all the hitters, when they do something good, always talk about pitchers being stupid. That was the one time I came back to the dugout thinking the same thing, because he threw me a 3-2 changeup. Right into my bat speed. He slowed it down enough so that I was right on time with it. If he throws a fastball for a strike, it’s probably over. He tried to trick me. But throwing a changeup to a guy with a slow bat … from a pitcher’s view, that was dumb.”
Chuck: And you took advantage of it.
Tap: “But it was a weird sensation. You’d think hitting your first grand slam would be pretty exciting, but all I could think about running the bases was how I’d hate to be the guy on the mound who just gave it up. I couldn’t really smile or do a Kirk Gibson around second base. I didn’t want to celebrate or anything when I got back to the dugout. I wanted to go up the tunnel and yell something up there. But not where a pitcher could hear it, because that would be the last thing I’d want to have happen to me.”
Chuck: Here’s my reference to the writer you were talking about. The last Cubs pitcher to hit a grand slam before you was Burt Hooton in 1972 in my first-ever baseball game. And he hit it off Tom Seaver.
Tap: “That’s impressive. I’m actually disappointed that Denny didn’t get into the Hall of Fame – so that I’d be able to tell my grandkids about that someday.”
Chuck: There’s still time.
Tap: “Hopefully the Veterans (Committee) will vote him in. I’m rooting for him. He was a former teammate with the Twins, too. We spent a little time together … It’s one of those things where now you wish you had a few more reunions. Certain guys you’d like to be able to say, ‘Remember that time.‘ This might be one of them.”
Chuck: You did a lot of mentoring as a pitcher, whether you intended to or not. What was it like working with players like Jon Lieber and Kerry Wood – especially with what I’d call ‘dead time’ for the starting pitchers?
Tap: “It’s really helpful when you have guys that get along, and certain staffs seem to come together – where each guy has a certain role or is able to push the others. I don’t know if you call it competition with each other, but what each one is doing seems to make the other ones a little better. We had that with that staff in Chicago with Jason Bere and Woody and Lieb. I was the old guy in the group. We all got along really well. We pushed each other, and it was a competitive staff. Even the relievers – we were close knit. We didn’t have the egos or attitudes. It was about trying to win games or put the team in aposition to win.”
Chuck: You added the cerebral side to it.
Tap: “I’ve never been accused of that.”
Chuck: You definitely have a dry sense of humor. Lieber said he never was sure if you were telling the truth. He said you kept him off guard, which he thought was good.
Tap: “I always tell the truth. I kind of scratch my head and wonder sometimes – looking at it from the other side. I don’t know what might not be good advice to do or leading them the wrong way. I don’t know where that comes from.”
Chuck: Probably because people aren’t used to others who always tell the truth.
Tap: “I know, even now coaching high school baseball, I get that from a few of the players who have graduated and come back. They go, ‘When you said to do this, we didn’t know if you were serious or just messing with us.’ I kind of think there’s a certain point where you have to be relaxed to perform well, and you can start taking things too seriously. Grinding down on things doesn’t help. Some personalities, it does help – but you need a little break every once in a while. Pitchers have a lot of down time, a lot of hours and time to kill.”
Chuck: You carry yourself that way. You weren’t any different with front office people or media.
Tap: “For whatever it is, I’d like to see it from the other side. My wife says it to me a lot – that you kind of look at things a little bit differently, and I’m not always sure where you’re coming from on this. Then she just leaves the room. I’m not sure what that actually means – or if it’s good or bad.”
Chuck: You do look at things differently. I’m going to drop a couple of words on you that you were successfully able to drop into radio interviews – “whelmed” and “horts.”
Tap: “What were those two words?”
Tap: “Oh yeah. Instead of being overwhelmed or underwhelmed. Just being whelmed. Once again, I think that just goes into the boredom of being a starter. I think a few guys used it to try and mix in that word to see if anyone would pick it up and think – what is he talking about? I seemed to enjoy it, because a lot of interviews get to be kind of routine or clichés. I think most guys did it.”
Chuck: Your interviews stood out, because you dropped those type of words in the proper place in an interview – and you could pull it off with a straight face. The other word I know you dropped in once was “horts.”
Tap: “Can you spell that?”
Chuck: H-o-r-t-s. As in there wasn’t anybody else with you, so you didn’t have a cohort.
Tap: “I was just a ‘hort.’ I forgot about that one. The origin of words is what it comes back to. I was a wordsmith.”
Chuck: Changing subjects here. You didn’t play high school baseball in Escanaba, Michigan, as your school didn’t have a team. As a result, do you look at baseball a little differently – since you never would have gone through the “burnt out” factor at any point growing up?
Tap: “It really helped my overall health. Not being a physical specimen by any means, I didn’t have the height, the angle, the leverage, the things you really look for. The only thing I really had going for me was body control. You can really see it in a lot of guys who were big name college players. When I was playing at a smaller mid-major (Central Michigan University) that got to compete against a lot of the good teams, we were successful for the conference we were in. But you saw there was a definite step up to the really elite programs and to the elite pitchers. Then you’d see those same pitchers in the minor leagues, and a lot of them were already on their way down – and I was still working to try to get to a peak. So I think it helped me overall. It got to a point where, when I had the opportunity to see if I could make it in the big leagues, I was really healthy – and the ability started to peak at that time, too.”
Chuck: Can you talk about growing up in an area where baseball wasn’t king? You played other sports, but you didn’t go through the normal wear-and-tear that pitchers go through.
Tap: “When you realize how little baseball I actually played, it’s amazing that I ever played at that level. I don’t think you can recommend it to anybody today and think they’re actually going to get there. Before I got to college, I don’t think I played more than 25 games in any summer. Even walking on when I went to Central – I wasn’t recruited for that. I played football and basketball in high school. Our football team won the state championship. I was the quarterback and the starting safety. Because we won it and I was the quarterback, people had at least heard of me and thought I was an athlete. So that helped a little bit with baseball. When I went to Central, I went to a baseball tryout and did alright. I was asked if I wanted to come out for baseball, and I said ‘Sure.” That was kind of it. Then I was in class for about two weeks in the fall, and I got a phone call in my dorm room. The coach said he thought I was going to come out, and I said when baseball starts in the spring – I’ll be there. I didn’t know college baseball had started two weeks before that. I had no idea what I was getting myself into. So I showed up in sweat pants – and everybody else was in uniform. I wound up making the team and being the team’s fourth starter my freshman year. I stayed in school four years. By my senior year, I was ready to compete at the professional level.”
Chuck: Now, you’re coaching a high school team (Providence Academy in Minnesota). How does your own unique experience help you as a coach?
Tap: “It’s funny. It’s not only the coaching stuff. Because I played, a lot of people ask me to speak to college groups and for banquets – things like that. Most of it seems to be with the idea that I’d be gung-ho about playing baseball 12 months a year. ‘The more you do, the better you’ll be’ sort of thing. Then I tell my actual story … Professionally, the season ends in October. Sometimes, it’s the end of the month. Sometimes, it’s the first couple days of the month. As professionals, you’d put the gloves and bats away for a few months and pick them up again in January – and some guys don’t do it until February. You can’t just keep going. Today, some guys – all they’re doing is baseball. At least with coaching our kids at the high school, we try to find some sort of balance. More baseball doesn’t necessarily make you a better baseball player. I think playing high school football – and having to take care of yourself and understanding mentally and physically what you needed to do to push yourself out of your comfort zone – that helped me as much in baseball as much as playing baseball did. It was a completely different experience. It really helped in footwork and stuff like that. I really encourage our kids to play other sports. I had this one kid – he was 6 feet, 230 pounds – and I talked him into going into cross country in the fall. I told him it would help his body control and that he’d shed a few pounds. He didn’t look like any other cross country runner out there, but he competed hard. By his senior year, the cross country coach thought of naming him a captain because his attitude was so good. And he really benefitted from it. He came back and said the same thing; he realized he was able to do some things that he couldn’t do before. He had looked at me cross-eyed when I first brought it up. He had three other guys go into it with him to try it. One of the kids was a nervous kid, and was actually the best conditioned for cross country. I remember their first meet, I got a text from one of the other guys saying that this kid had pulled off the trifecta. I said, ‘What is that?’ He said the kid threw up before, during and after the race. But the kid went back and kept doing it. I give the kid a lot of credit.”
Chuck: Your own children are past the high school years (one is in the working world, two are in college), but you’re still coaching. Do you still enjoy it?
Tap: “I’m not a particularly good game coach because I don’t get a kick out of doing something strategy-wise to try and win a game. So I’m glad this year that I’m back as an assistant coach. I really enjoy the practice-type stuff where you help a kid get better. It’s a better role for me. I just work with the kids and help out where I can. That stuff I enjoy. You get to know the kids and really get some good relationships there – even though they let me know the difference in age. For a while, I thought I was keeping up and doing OK with them. But some of the comments I get on occasion – they let you know that I’m an old guy.”
Chuck: But then you can break out a World Series ring and show them who’s in charge.
Tap: “None of them were born when that happened. I don’t think that carries a whole lot of weight. Maybe they’d want to wear it to school for a day.”
Chuck: I could talk more, but I’ve got plenty of stuff here.
Tap: “Good luck putting that together. And if Lieb ever calls you back – share my number with him. Even if he doesn’t want to call, ask him if he’d put the number into his phone – so if I do call him, he’d know it was me. I’d just like to know if he’s caller ID’ing me or ignoring me because he doesn’t recognize the number.”