It’s 10:30 am on Memorial Day Monday, and I’m sitting in front of a computer screen.
My kids are playing in a softball game right now. My wife is coaching at third base, probably offering encouragement to a batter – or joking around with some of the parents. Speaking of parents, mine are in the crowd, keeping up without getting yelled at by me.
And I’m at home, typing away.
This is a far different world than in my baseball days. I have a full-time 40-hour non-writing job. I have a full-time freelance writing job. And I have this little storytelling spot of mine, and it’s important to me to post once or twice a week.
Since I have to go to work soon, I was planning on transcribing an interview for MLB Trade Rumors and writing something Cubs-related (gee, what else is new) for this site.
But then, I knew their game was about to start – so I turned on the play-by-play on my Microsoft Surface so I could keep up while writing a story. And it’s the top of the first inning … Danielle starting the game in the pitcher’s circle and Nicole behind the plate in her catcher’s gear.
I tried writing, but I found myself watching and talking to my tablet … “Let’s go, Dan” … after she gave up a single to start the game.
I tried to construct some thoughts … I think I’ll talk about how the baseball season is a marathon, not a sprint, but my eyes keep wandering to the tablet.
Strikeout … strikeout … groundout … she got out of the inning.
OK, let’s make some headway on the writing. Everybody keeps asking me what’s wrong with the Cubs. My first inclination is to say I don’t know; I haven’t been there since 2012.
But the reality is, I kinda sorta think I understand what’s going on. I’ll never truly 100 percent know – as I would have loved to have been in a position to know what it’s like the year after winning the World Series. I had 25 seasons there and, of course, I never had that opportunity.
Now we’re in the bottom of the first. One out, runner on second. Nicole at the plate. RBI single to left, runner scores, we’re up 1-0.
Honestly, the only thing the Cubs need to be worried about right now is staying close. They’re just 1.5 games out of first place heading into Memorial Day.
There are 110-plus games remaining in the season. There’s a lot of time.
Up 1-0 top two. After giving up a leadoff single, Danielle fans three in a row.
Baseball is a tough enough game to play under normal circumstances. But for the 2017 Cubs, having won the World Series, EVERY team is gunning for them. You might like to take it one series at a time, but every opponent is coming right at you every single friggin’ day. It’s hard to have that lightbulb on for 162 games in a row.
And, don’t forget, last year, the Cubs played until November 1. Most teams were done a full month earlier. Throw in the postseason hangover, and most of the players lost a valuable amount of downtime. The mental part of baseball is never to be underestimated.
Up 2-0 heading into the third, but a rough inning takes place. Leadoff walks will do that to you. Three runs later, they find themselves trailing. I’m more stressed watching this on a tablet than I would be if I was there in-person. And yes, it’s a “we” when the team is winning and “they” when they’re losing. I can be a frontrunner when I want to be.
I’ve told anyone who’s asked me that the Cubs will be fine. My thought is the team will struggle until the All-Star Break … and then Joe Maddon will find the right words to kick them into gear. Remember, the team scuffled for about a month last year until just before the break. Then all of a sudden, the manager pushed the right buttons – and the team went on a tear. I’m going out on a limb and saying that will happen again.
Down by one in the bottom of the third. Two on, one out, Nicole at the plate. “Come on, Little One.” Single to center on a 3-1 pitch to load the bases.
Now, my phone is buzzing. All the breaking news alerts that Tiger Woods got arrested. Gotta look that story up online. My brain is literally all over the place, and I have to get dressed to go to work.
Hey … Nic’s now at third. A couple runs have scored. We’re leading again.
Anyway, like I’ll tell anyone, I would have loved to be in the position the Cubs are in now – having to fight through it the year AFTER being champions. It’s no different than what the Cavaliers went through during the NBA regular season; you’re always someone’s championship game. But look up, and the Cavaliers are now in the finals again.
Unfortunately, I do know what it’s like to go a full month into a season without a home victory (think 1994). I do know what it’s like to start a season 0-14 (think 1997).
Up 4-3 top of the fourth. New pitcher on the mound. Less stress for this dad; more stress for her dad.
And, of course, I know what it’s like to be up 3 games to 1 in a League Championship Series – but not cross the threshold to get to the World Series.
All of those other scenarios kind of suck, to be honest.
Being 1.5 games out of first place on Memorial Day, though, isn’t the worst thing in the world.
Watching your kids play on a computer screen is far worse.
Down 5-4, bottom half of the last inning – as the tournament has a strict “no new inning after 70 minutes” rule. Two runners in scoring position, two out, Dan at the plate. I’m tasting my liver right now. Big hit. Big hit. Big hit. Well, no big hit – but a walk; and during the at-bat, a run scored – tying the game. The winning run would then score moments later on an error. We win 6-5.
Next game in 20 minutes. But I’m out the door heading to work – which will be a lot less stressful than watching a game when I’m not there.
I initially wrote this story last year, but the subject matter is too good to not share again. The story itself is edited to reflect the current year. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed watching the events of those two days as they happened!
We’ve all heard the saying that a picture is worth 1,000 words.
But I’m going to test my theory that 1,000 words can be worth one picture. You’ll just have to read to the end of this story in order to see one of my favorite photographs – even though it’s been slightly doctored.
I have had a copy of the original photo for 16 years. But it’s one I’ve had to keep hidden in the vault – OK, actually a closet – since the girls were old enough to recognize what a swear finger is.
They’re now at the point where I can display it again, and they’ll laugh when they see the real photo. But the internet is a tricky place, even in 2017, so the edited version is what you get to see. But I think you’ll laugh at that picture, too.
Sixteen years ago this week, the photograph was snapped. Sixteen years ago this week, an amazing two-game stretch took place – as Jon Lieber and Kerry Wood fired back-to-back complete-game one-hitters.
The Cubs have been around since 1876, and that specific feat has only taken place one time – on May 24-May 25, 2001.
I could tell you the story of those games myself, but I couldn’t do it enough justice. So I tracked down Lieber and Wood to talk about those memorable consecutive afternoons at Wrigley Field.
May 24, 2001 … Cubs 3, Reds 0 … the lone hit off Lieber was a two-out 6th-inning single by Juan Castro
“That was probably the best game I ever pitched,” Lieber said. “I do remember the rain delay before the start of the game.
“I seemed like my normal self, and it was just one of those games where the Reds were very aggressive – they were swinging the bat early and quickly. There was a rain delay during the game. It happened right after I pitched the 4th inning. During the delay, (pitching coach) Oscar (Acosta) comes up to me and he said, ‘How do you feel?’ And I said, ‘I feel fine. There’s nothing wrong with me. Why?’ And he said, ‘That’s what I thought, because you’ve only got 20 pitches through 4 innings.’ That just blew me away.
“The game was delayed for about an hour and a half, and I think I shocked more people by going back out there for the 5th inning. I kept putting up the numbers, getting out of innings with low pitches. The next thing you know, I have this no-hitter going into the (6th) inning. There were two outs, and Juan Castro flipped a slider … I don’t think it was a terrible pitch, but it was enough for him to flip his bat out there and bloop it into rightfield. That was the story of my career. Any time I tried to finish something like that, I could never do it. Anyway, I moved on after losing the no-hitter.
“For me, even though I didn’t get the no-hitter, just to be able to face the minimum number of batters for a nine-inning game is pretty impressive, in my opinion.
“And then … Mr. Wood steps into the picture.”
For his part, Wood remembers Lieber being in a “zone” that day and having a double-digit pitch count.
“He was ridiculous,” Wood said. “But that was typical Liebs. He just went out there and, as quickly as he got the ball back, he was throwing it back to the catcher. He’d get in that zone. He had a bunch of games where he was under 90 pitches. It was pretty impressive. He took pride in that.”
May 25, 2001 … Cubs 1, Brewers 0 … the lone hit off Wood was a 7th-inning leadoff single by Mark Loretta
“Me and Lieber … we were two totally different pitchers,” Wood said. “We were in a rhythm there where we were all feeding off each other. We were all throwing the ball well.
“I remember Liebs was typical Liebs. He did his under two hours. He was locked in. Anytime somebody does something like that the day before you pitch, you want to do your best to follow it and emulate it. So it was a cool couple days.
“My game honestly doesn’t jump out as much. I know it was Milwaukee. I couldn’t tell you how many strikeouts I had. I couldn’t tell you any particular defensive plays that were made. I do remember me and Lieber throwing back-to-back against two different teams, but honestly I don’t have a whole lot of memory of who was on that team – as sad as that is.
“But I’m getting old. My memory is going,” he said with a laugh.
Wood is almost 40 years old now – and that’s not a typo on Kid K’s age – so he did have to ask how many pitches he threw that afternoon. The answer was 114.
“That was a low pitch count for me to go nine innings,” Wood said. “Liebs had a lot of balls put in play. I tended to have more foul balls and three-ball counts. Lieber didn’t walk anybody. So he kept his pitch count down regularly.”
Unlike the rainy wet conditions the day before, the sun was out that afternoon – and Lieber was in a great third-base dugout location for Wood’s gem.
“Man oh man oh man, did he put on a show,” Lieber said. “I saw Kerry pitch a lot of games, but that one just stuck out in my opinion. He was untouchable. That was as close to the 20-strikeout game – he was just that dominant. He was impressive. And his command – that was probably one of his best games. He should have had a no-hitter – he was just that dominant.
“For me, it was just another game. Wow, a one-hitter – OK. But then Kerry threw his game.
“Kerry and I did something pretty special … That was just a great moment to be part of. I didn’t get those chances very often to be in situations like that. Kerry was just on such a different level because of the type of pitcher he was. He could do something special almost every time out. It was incredible – and pretty neat to be part of something like that.”
May 26, 2001 … Wrigley Field third-base dugout … pregame … epic photo op
“Me and Liebs are pretty humble guys,” Wood said. “We didn’t think much of it. We were enjoying our day off.
“(Cubs team photographer) Steve Green came by before the next game. We were sitting next to each other, just kind of talking. He looked at us with his camera and said, ‘Hey you guys, put up a No. 1.’
“Me and Liebs looked at each other and we both gave Steve the finger at the same time.
“That’s one of my favorite pictures. I’ve got about 1,000 pictures from Steve, but that’s my favorite one – me and Lieber. I have it hanging up in the basement.”
Back in 1989, “Bleacher Bums” returned as a new production at the Organic Theater – which is within walking distance of Wrigley Field.
The powers-that-be putting the revival together reached out to the Cubs’ front office with a message something along the lines of, “Hey, if you want to come by, let us know. We’ll take care of you.”
I didn’t see the original production when it came out in the late 1970s, but the play was taped for PBS – and I loved it.
When the opportunity was offered to watch the new version, I jumped at the chance – not only because it was “Bleacher Bums,” but it featured a few people I’d seen. Dennis Farina, who was in “Crime Story” – and later a main character on “Law and Order” – was in it. Ron Dean, who was in the Steven Seagal classic “Above The Law,” was in it. And to top it off, Joe Mantegna – one of the original “Bleacher Bums” – was heavily involved. In fact, he was in attendance the night I was there.
But the actor who stood out for me was Joel Murray, who played the “idiot geek” Richie. He was funny as hell, and he was entertaining to watch.
Last time out, I wrote about Murray – a longtime Cubs fan – and his love of baseball and experiences as a golf caddy. If you missed it, here’s the story link:
Today … his time with “Bleacher Bums” …
How much fun did you have doing “Bleacher Bums?”
Joel Murray: “It was a great season (1989, a year the Cubs won the N.L. Eastern Division), and because we were in the cast, people would leave tickets at the box office for us. I might have seen 50 games that summer; it was crazy how often we went. You drank in the bleachers all day and then you go take a nap backstage – then you go do a show. I played Richie, kind of the idiot geek, and that was a role I didn't usually get to play. I originally auditioned for the cheerleader role and Joe Mantegna said, ‘Here. Read for this other thing.’ He gave me the part and it was great getting to work with Joe, who had done it originally. We had J.J. Johnston. We had Ron Dean. Jack Wallace used to hang out backstage. Dennis Farina.
“I mean, the stories these guys would tell were hysterical. Everybody was an ex-cop or an ex-con. Farina would tell these stories … ‘So we got this guy, I got my gun down this guy's throat and he's still lying to me, right? And the floor's so bumpy 'cause there's so many bodies under it, right? This guy finally starts talking.’ That's how stories would start. It was amazing for me to be a fly on the wall. I had a great time. Lou Milione played the blind guy and he and I had a lot of fun together. It was a great experience and The Organic was blocks from Wrigley.
“Later on when George Wendt came to do it, we'd get done with the show and I was putting up previews for the next Second City show. So I was doing the show and then going and doing the improv set at Second City, and I would put George Wendt on the back of my Vespa – and he had his leg in a cast. We would literally tie his leg to the crash bar on my Vespa and drive across to North and Wells to Second City, cutting up traffic on the sides. Anytime his heel would bottom-out, I could've shattered his leg – but we never did. But George and I both wanted to get to Second City, where we drank for free. He used to come watch the set and I used to come do it. It was a pretty exciting time.”
The play seemed so real to me. I could identify with the characters in the bleachers.
“The hard part was making the audience believe that there was a game going on and that we really were these people. But people knew their characters real well and that made us able to make it very real. Then we updated the script that year to include Mitch ‘The Pitch’ Williams and other people on the team. It was a lot of fun in that aspect.”
Obviously, it was a great cast of people to be working with.
“No kidding. I was very fortunate. J.J. Johnston … there was a scene at the end where he would poke me in the chest with his stubby fingers, and he would poke me all the way across the stage. Every night, without fail, my heels would be on the edge of the stage. He pushed me that far, right to the edge. He knew what he doing and it really worked. He was something else to work with.
“Dennis (Farina) was the greatest guy. Even when I moved out to Los Angeles, we'd go out and play golf together. He knew we were struggling actors and he was doing better, and he used to make some stupid bet on the last hole for like $100 or something like that; he would lose money to us every time on purpose, it seemed like.”
That must have been terrific for you.
“Yeah, for me. One other thing about the ‘Bleacher Bums’ was my brother Brian took over the J.J. Johnston role at the end. I opened it in May – in the beginning of baseball season – and I closed it New Year's Eve. I went away to do a Second City show in the middle of that – as well as get married and whatnot. But yeah, I came back and closed it up until New Year's Eve, I think was the last show. It was a hell of a run. It was a lot of fun. At the end, Brian and I got to do it together and he got to poke me across the stage. My heels would end up in the same spot, it seemed like.”
From a theater standpoint, had you worked with him before?
“At that point, I don't think so. We did go over once to do the Kilkenny Comedy Festival – and Bill, Brian, and I did a best-of-Second City with Dave Pasquesi and Linda Kash and Meagen Fay playing the other roles. That was pretty cool. We did Del Close's Hamlet, which not many people were ever able to put up and it ended in like a six-part harmony. It was phenomenal stuff. Brian was there, Billy was there, and I was there. It was really fun.”
On screen, have you done much with your brothers?
“No, just ‘Scrooged.’ We all worked the same leap day in whatever year that was, '88 or something. No, not much together. They haven’t given me a lot of work.”
You’re on an improv tour right now (with Whose LIVE Anyway). Do you feel like you're onstage all the time even when you're not on stage?
“No, I'm not one of those really funny people that's on a lot. I'm kind of dry. So yeah, I don't feel like I'm on. My son gives me grief because I'll converse with waiters and stuff and he's like, ‘Dad, why are you talking to him? You're just making him uncomfortable.’ I'm like, ‘I thought I was being humorous.’
“Anyway, thanks for the crowd response, son.
“I'm not ‘on’ that much, you know. I think a big deal with acting is the ability to enjoy the time off and not panic like a lot of people do. You have a good year as an actor, you've got 300 days off. You have a bad year you've got more days off. I like to enjoy my off time. I golf and I was able to coach all my kids in football, baseball, and basketball.
“You've got to not freak out all the time like some people do, because when you do go in for an audition you're so nervous and desperate that they can smell it. I like to go into an audition and give a vibe like ‘I'd really like to get back to the golf course right now. Thank you.’ “
If I got this right, you were the first voice of Chester Cheetah from the Cheetos commercials, correct?
“I was the voice of Chester Cheetah for eleven years. That basically bought my first house … it was a good gig.
“I must say, I’m not a fan of the new Chester. It's not sour grapes, it's just he's kind of a weird, mean, British guy now. There are too many Brits replacing American actors in the business to begin with, but I don't understand why you want a weird, mean Cheetah. I was a ‘Rhyming kitty in the heart of hip city until my common ease would surrender to the urge to but for the cheese.’ I was a cool cat. Now he's just weird. I don't know what they're doing with the Cheetos but I'm willing to go back at any time.”
Need a new house?
“Yeah, that was a good gig.”
It was really enjoyable getting to talk to you. Thanks to social media, you were fairly easy to track down.
“It's funny how people can get to you these days. My brother (Bill), nobody gets to him; he's got it figured out. Sometimes it's fun. I've actually gotten work off the internet, just strangers because I do this ... I always say when I'm golfing I take a picture like, ‘Looking for work.’ I've had people just contact me through Facebook messenger going, ‘If you're really looking for work, I've got this part in this movie you could do.’
“I'm like, ‘Yeah, okay.’
“It actually paid off a few times.”
Somewhere along the line last year, I noticed that actor Joel Murray had somehow come across my site. I don’t remember exactly how or why; I’m guessing it was around the time I wrote about the Kerry Wood 20-strikeout game, and that story got me a little bit of play.
As a character actor, you might not know Joel Murray, per se, but you probably do – from his work on television, in movies and on the stage. I’ve taken the liberty of 100% borrowing his IMDB.com mini biography for you:
Joel is a versatile writer-director-actor. The youngest of the nine Murrays is a veteran of over 250 sit-com episodes. He has been a series regular on the comedies Grand, Pacific Station, Love and War, Dharma and Greg and Still Standing. He has also recurred on the series Mike and Molly, My Boys and Two and a Half Men. On the dramatic side, Joel played Freddy Rumsen on AMC's Mad Men as well as Eddie Jackson on Showtime's Shameless. He recently starred in Bobcat Goldthwait's dark comedy, God Bless America. He can be heard playing Don Carlton in the Pixar prequel, Monsters University. He was also in 2011's Best Picture, The Artist. Joel has been in numerous films including One Crazy Summer, Scrooged, Long Gone, Hatchet, Lay the Favorite, Sophie and The Rising Sun, Mr. Pig, Bloodsucking Bastards, Lamb, and Seven Minutes. He can also be seen in the upcoming The Last Word. He studied improvisation with Del Close, among others, and was a founding member of Chicago's Improv Olympic. He enjoyed five years at The Second City in Chicago. He has been doing theater since the 4th grade, performed with the Remains and Organic Theatres Companies in Chicago and still performs frequently at the I. O. West in Los Angeles. Joel loves playing with Whose Live Anyway, playing golf and ordering scotch.
Not listed above …
Joel is currently touring with Ryan Stiles, Greg Proops and Jeff B. Davis in “Whose LIVE Anyway,” an improvised 90-minute show of games, scenes and songs.
I have talked to Joel a couple times over the past week. The conversation in this piece is about growing up a Cubs fan – and life as a caddy.
What's it like being a celebrity Cubs fan – but having to be one in Los Angeles and on the road?
Joel Murray: “This year I haven't gone to too many games, I must admit. Last year I went to games in about five different cities and Chicago, so I got to see a bunch of road games at different places. It was really fun. I've been the emcee for Theo Epstein's Hot Stove Cool Music thing for about five years – and five years ago he basically promised me, ‘This team is going to be really good in five years.’ He was dead right. I thought he had hit it after four but he said ‘Yeah, well maybe, but next year ...’ Sure enough it all came together and it was a magical year.
“I'm not your largest celebrity … I may displace the most water in a beaker compared to another celebrity, but I've got some ins. I got to sit in Atlanta right behind the dugout with my brothers and I got to sit in San Diego at the edge of the dugout; I was literally talking to David Ross during the game. So I've had some great seats and some great opportunities. I've hung out with Joe Maddon. And I have a little golf tournament – The Canal Shores Invitational up by the Wilmette/Evanston border – and the Ricketts brothers are both involved in that every year because they live in the neighborhood and they donate money to that course.
“So I have been able to weasel some pretty good tickets, although I did pay for all of them in the playoffs in the World Series. MLB doesn't give those away. I had the ability to purchase them, which was fantastic. I went to all three World Series games in Chicago. Before that, I did a little show called ‘Shrink’ on the Seeso network and we shot it in Chicago, so that allowed me to be in Chicago for most of October – so I got to see some playoff games that I wouldn't have gotten to living in Los Angeles. It was the storybook season that you've wished for your whole life, and when it came down to it – Game 7 – I was back in L.A.
“I could have gone to Cleveland with my brother – he gave away one ticket to a stranger – but my wife, after I had been gone for a month doing the Seeso thing, she's like, ‘No, you're coming home.’ So I watched it with my family from home. I was on the floor with practically a knife to my throat when it went to extra innings. That's kind of the way it had to be. The Cubs had to put you to the edge of suicide before they won it and it was pretty darn magical.”
You grew up on the ’69 Cubs. Please tell me about that.
“My father died in 1967, and my mom had to go back to work about '69. That summer, my sister had to babysit for me when I was out of school. We either went to the Wilmette Beach every day or we went to the Cub game. We used to be able to go down for $5. We could get two bleacher seats and the ‘L’ ride back and forth, and if we checked the couch cushions for quarters and get another fifty cents we could get a Ron Santo pizza. But back then you could bring your own lunch and you could bring your own thermos, so we packed a lunch and went. It was fabulous.
“We used to go out to O'Hare and meet the planes. You used to be able to meet the players coming right off the airplane and we both had our baseballs with all the signatures of the '69 Cubs on it. I think my sister still has hers. I believe I used mine in a game when we needed a ball. Oh well.”
Then you also would have grown up on Jack Brickhouse …
“Oh, yeah. Definitely. And Lou Boudreau, Milo (Hamilton).”
You and all of your brothers were caddies at Indian Hill Club (in Wilmette). What did you learn from doing that?
“Well, we learned it was a way to get cash quick and there were no taxes taken out. We learned subservience, how to be quiet and to speak when you're spoken to. We also learned that we wanted to be the guy golfing, not the guy carrying the bag – so it kind of taught you a little something about ambition as well. ‘I'll do this, but someday I'm going to be the guy in the stupid pants hitting the ball, not holding the flag.’ I don't know how we all got to Indian Hill; it was the only course that didn't tip. We could have gone over to Westmoreland (Country Club in Wilmette) or other courses where they paid you better, but the Indian Hill guys used to scout out the altar boys at St. Joe's – which was nearby – and they were like, ‘If this kid can get up and serve 6:15 mass, he's a guy that will get up and caddy.’ So they would tell you about this cash money business that they had that you could be a part of. We all got hooked on it … some more than others.
“My brother Ed was a caddy master; eventually he got a Chick Evans Scholarship to Northwestern, a caddy scholarship. Brian was more of a shag boy and worked in the clubhouse, shined shoes and did all kinds of things. He used to say, ‘I found out early I could make more money playing hearts and spades in the caddy shack than actually caddying.’ He was a good card player.
“I came along years after them but I enjoyed it. I enjoyed playing basketball outside with the guys before you got your loop. It was kind of a weird little 12-year-old fraternity.”
You were the youngest of nine kids. Was it an interesting dynamic for you having brothers quite a bit older than you?
“Yeah, I had some that were eighteen years older than me and I was always a little Murray – that was a given. But I had really cool hand-me-downs. I wasn't spoiled by being the baby, but I had my choice of the good stuff in the laundry room that didn't fit them anymore.
“I was always the little brother. I was always a little Murray. My father died at five and I immediately had four guys that thought that it was OK for them to slap me in the back of the head and tell me what to do. I guess I benefited from that and from watching their errors and accomplishments and things like that.”
I know you get asked about your brothers all the time but I do want to ask one question. Doing basic math, you had to be around 17 years old when “Caddyshack” came out. What was it like when you were watching your brothers on the big screen as Carl Spackler and Lou Loomis?
“I laughed my ass off. I saw it a couple times in a row.
“I actually was out with my brother Brian in New York one night and they were having a hard time finding somebody to play Spaulding. He knew I did theater and stuff and he said, ‘You'd be kind of perfect for Spaulding. Rich, spoiled kid we all grew up caddying for.’ And I said, ‘I am not going to be some femme actor like you clowns. I am captain of the football team. I'm going to play college ball.’ That's what I thought at that time. I could have maybe been Spaulding.
“My brother Johnny got to be in the movie; he was four years older than me. My brother Ed's in a little bit of it. And of course, Brian wrote it and was Lou Loomis and Billy did one week on that movie as Carl Spackler. It's still the best golf movie ever.”
What’s the best baseball movie you've seen?
“No question … ‘Long Gone’ with William L. Petersen, Virginia Madsen and Dermot Mulroney – because I was in it. We got to go down to Florida and play baseball for a month with a bunch of Chicago actors that Billy Peterson rounded up. We were there for the playoffs and the World Series while we were shooting the thing and it was so much fun. It was really great. I hit a single, double, and a triple off of Nardi Contreras one day … never had the home run power. I was a line drive hitter. That was the best time ever.
“Other baseball movie … I love ‘The Natural’ because I read the book as a kid.”
Since you live in Los Angeles, tell me how the Dodgers Stadium and Angel Stadium crowds compare to Wrigley Field.
“It's like going to Walmart as compared to going to a really good hardware store in a small town. Dodgers Stadium has a massive, massive parking lot. It's really hard to get there by public transportation of any kind. In Cubs wear, you're harassed the moment you get out of your car. There's no bar anywhere nearby; the closest bar, if you were to walk, would probably be three quarters of a mile, at least. It's a whole different thing. But I'll be going Friday the 26th to see the Cubs play the dreaded Dodgers.
“Angel Stadium is kind of similar but there is a bar at the edge of the parking lot. They've got you there. The Big A, if I had to choose one.”
It's still baseball though, correct?
“It's still baseball. It's beautiful when you get inside, but outside the whole getting there and afterwards is not anywhere close to as much fun as Wrigley.
“Wrigley is different inside now. I have no problem with the jumbotrons. I enjoy being able to see a replay or having Harry sing to me during the stretch. If a little bit of signage gets us better relief pitching and maybe one more starter, I'm fine with that.”
Well, look at last year. That's all you need to know.
“Right. Exactly. If we could hit up the Wrigleys for the hundred years of free naming rights for the ball park, we could get some more pitching, too. That would backdate some of those checks.
“And the merchandising, you see the Cubs stuff all over the country. Everywhere we go you see a lot of head nodding when I go out and I've got on the hat.
“It's just that head nod. Like yeah, we freaking did it.”
And at least we both know you’re not a front runner with it.
“Yeah, I'm not a band wagoner.
“I coached a Little League team that won the Tournament of Champions, which was from Torrance, California, all the way to Malibu … a bunch of teams, and we won the whole thing. It came down to, without fail, my worst player coming up to bat. We had been down 4-0. We came back, and it was now 4-3 and we got nothing going. Two outs, worst guy up and he draws a walk – and he runs down to first base like he had just hit a home run that would win the World Series because he didn't strike out to lose the season. And then the worst possible scenario … your son, the leadoff hitter, comes up. You're like ‘Oh geez, he's going to make the last out here.’
“He buried a triple that stuck in the corner. It didn't literally stick – but it stuck in the corner and he caught the other kid by second base. It was like this Rockwell painting … they came around third base at you. The first kid slid into the plate. The throw was high and the catcher missed the tag but held up his hand to show the ump that he didn't drop the ball, and my son slid in behind him like a toboggan and won the game while the guy was showing the ump his glove. It was complete pandemonium … everybody went crazy. I'm there with my clipboard and it was like absolute silence.
“I had the same exact feeling when the Cubs won and Kris Bryant threw the ball to first. It was just silence for me. This feeling of ‘Oh my God, we didn't blow it.’ The ultimate victory it turns out is just the lack of defeat. I didn't have this crazy elation, I just had this ‘Oh my God, we didn't blow it.’ It's like a Zen calmness as compared to elation. All is well.
“So anyway. I went into that story.”
You like talking about baseball, nothing wrong with that.
“I do. I do.”
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?!
Heck, two of my most surreal phone calls were of the celebrity nature.
There was the voicemail left for me on my work line a week after Pearl Jam played Soldier Field in 1995, which went something like this: “Hey Chuck, this is Eddie. Thanks for coming out last week. I know it was a tough loss tonight, but if you get a chance, I’m staying at the ‘Xxxxxx’ Hotel. Call xxx-xxx-xxxx. Ask the operator for ‘Xxxx Xxxxxx’ – and she’ll transfer the call to me. I’ll be in town for the next week. I’d love to meet you.”
That was Eddie, as in Eddie Vedder. The “x’s” are there to protect the innocent.
And then there was the phone call from a guy in Southern California who called the Cubs’ Media Relations department to have a message relayed.
Chuck: “Media Relations office, this is Chuck speaking. How may I help you?”
Caller: “Hi, this is Ray Manzarek of The Doors. The Cubs are in Los Angeles and I was supposed to let Mark Grace know to leave me some tickets. I don’t know where the team is staying. Can you help me out?”
How do you not stare at the phone after that conversation ended?
Note to my readers: For the record, my most surreal phone call took place in my high school days, when a guy named Chuck Wasserstrom called my parents’ house looking to see if he was related to my dad. “Hello, my name is Chuck Wasserstrom.” Uh, my name is Chuck Wasserstrom. I don’t know if that call was more surreal or frightening. Anyway …
Looking back, I think I took it for granted how cool it was to meet some of the people I came across.
When a movie was filmed at Wrigley Field or in the vicinity, invariably, you’d bump into an actor – so I was able to meet big names like Billy Crystal and Gregory Hines when they were in town for “Running Scared” … and John Goodman when he was shooting “The Babe” … and a lot of the actors when “A League of Their Own” was at the ballpark.
Certainly, once the 7th-Inning Stretch tradition started, it was a given that you could meet TV and movie icons. I think I only went fanboy twice: When Dennis Franz was in the press box lunch room – he was Andy Sipowicz, for crying out loud – and when Joe Pantoliano was at a game.
Joe Pantoliano: “Why would you want my autograph?”
Chuck: “You're Guido the Killer Pimp.”
Once I got on the laptop this morning and started typing away, more and more names started to reappear in the memory part of the brain.
Meeting Geddy Lee of the rock group Rush … photo ops with President Clinton and Governor Blagojevich … receiving a handwritten note from Johnny Ramone … having John Cusack ask me in the Cubs clubhouse to see if Neve Campbell – his girlfriend at the time – was still waiting for him on the concourse. Sadly, she wasn’t. And I spent a lot of time looking for her.
There’s the time in the Dodger Stadium press box when my boss, Sharon Pannozzo, was standing up for a brief moment while the game was going on. A nasally/squeaky voice in the top row of the press box yelled, “Hey, down in front.”
Without looking, I said, “That sounded like Squiggy.”
Then I looked up. It WAS Squiggy. Actually, it was actor David L. Lander, who played Squiggy in “Laverne and Shirley.”
Of course, there’s the other side of the Dodger Stadium experience. During the Sammy years, there always were celebrities showing up in the Cubs’ clubhouse after a game. The visiting clubhouse itself wasn’t that big to begin with, so extra bodies weren’t exactly necessary. Throw in a loss, which was somewhat commonplace in L.A., and it made for some awkward celebrity sightings.
After one game, Charlie Sheen, Adam Rich (yes, Nicholas Bradford in “Eight is Enough”) and a third actor were in the clubhouse. The third guy couldn’t help notice that I was staring at him – as were several Cubs players. He wandered over to me and said: “I bet you’re thinking, what movie have I seen you in?” I kind of let my inner voice externalize itself. “Actually, I’m wondering what you’re doing in the clubhouse.” For the record, I never got his name – nor do I think I ever saw him in anything.
During my early years in Media Relations, the Cubs’ spring training ballpark was the old HoHoKam Park – which didn’t have actual offices. The front office was literally on wheels – an RV parked about 100 feet from the home clubhouse double doors.
The RV literally had enough room for a receptionist up front … a small media relations office shared by two … an office for the traveling secretary … and a back third for the general manager, the assistant GM and Arlene Gill – the executive assistant. You couldn’t see the people in the back without going to the back.
This one day after a game, I walked in and yelled something along the line of “Arlene, there’s a guy outside looking for you.”
I heard a somewhat quiet “She’s not here.”
I didn’t recognize the voice, so I walked to the back of the RV. There’s a guy standing there, and he calmly repeated, “She’s not here.”
“Uh, OK,” I said to Bill Murray. I didn’t quite know what else to say, other than “Thanks.”
I wish I could have had that moment back.
Bill’s older brother, Brian Doyle-Murray, is friends with legendary scout Gary Hughes. Thanks to Mr. Hughes, I met Brian a couple times during my Baseball Operations years. At least I was able to carry on a conversation with him that lasted more than a word or two.
Which brings me to Joel Murray – the youngest brother in the Murray family (he is the youngest of nine).
I had known of Joel Murray for a long time. I saw him perform on The Second City mainstage in the late ‘80s. I saw him in “The Bleacher Bums” at the Organic Theater. I had seen him in numerous television series. And I knew he was a big-time Cubs fan.
Through the miracle of social media, I reached out to him to see if he would be amenable to an interview – and he said yes.
Consider this story the prequel to the interview.
You know what … it’s still pretty cool when you come across celebrities.
It’s not often when all eyes were directed on me. I’m good with that.
And during my Cubs days, I usually made it a point to stay below the radar and steer clear of the cameras.
But 10 years ago, like it or not, I had a little live TV time. It was me – on ESPN2 – and all I had to do was look serious and print legibly. I don’t know if I’d list either as one of my strengths.
Back in 2007, Major League Baseball decided to televise the First-Year Player Draft live from Orlando, Fla. Although the actual drafting of players was technically done at each club’s “war room,” every team was asked to send representatives to the televised event.
For the first round of the draft, every club was instructed to call in its draft selection to the on-site club representative, who was using one of those old-fashioned helmet phones. The club rep wrote down the name of the pick on a piece of paper – which was then handed to an official MLB representative, who, in turn, delivered it to Commissioner Selig for announcement to the free world.
Like I said, all I had to do was look serious and print legibly.
For a few days before the draft, though, that didn’t seem easy to do. I figured I’d find a way to screw it up. Unless, of course, they purposely gave me the wrong name. The Cubs had the No. 3 overall selection, so I knew I was going to be on TV.
What was really terrifying was the company I was in. So help me, here are the first two paragraphs of the MLB press release that went out on May 27 – a week and a half before the draft:
Hall of Famers Robin Roberts, Tommy Lasorda, Jim Palmer and Dave Winfield are among the representatives who are scheduled to attend the 2007 First-Year Player Draft on behalf of their Major League Club, Major League Baseball announced today. The first day of the Draft, set for Thursday, June 7th at Disney's Wide World of Sports Complex in Lake Buena Vista, Florida, will be carried live on ESPN2 from 2-6 p.m., marking the first time that the Draft will be telecast.
Others scheduled to attend include Felipe Alou; Steve Blass; Ellis Burks; Enos Cabell; Andre Dawson; Dwight Evans; Dallas Green; Ken Griffey, Sr.; Willie Horton; Frank Howard; Barry Larkin; Chet Lemon; Tony Oliva; Terry Steinbach; Darryl Strawberry; Walt Weiss; Frank White; and Don Zimmer. Each Club will have representatives on-site in Florida.
And then …
A complete listing of each organization's representatives and front office attendees, subject to change, follows:
Arizona: Rico Brogna, Luke Wren
Atlanta: Paul Snyder, Ralph Garr, Kurt Kemp
Baltimore: Jim Palmer, Scott Proefrock
Boston: Dwight Evans, Ray Fagnant
Chicago Cubs: Chuck Wasserstrom
Chicago White Sox: Roland Hemond, Chet Lemon
Cincinnati: Ken Griffey, Sr., Jim Thrift
Cleveland: Ellis Burks, Robby Thompson, Steve Frohwerk
Colorado: Walt Weiss, Clarence Johns
Detroit: Al Avila, Willie Horton, Tom Moore
Florida: Andre Dawson, Manny Colon, Brian Bridges
Houston: Enos Cabell, Jay Edmiston
Kansas City: Frank White, Art Stewart
LA Angels of Anaheim: Demetrius Figgins, Dan Radcliff
LA Dodgers: Tommy Lasorda, Ralph Avila, Brian Stephensen
Milwaukee: Gord Ash, Tony Diggs, Wil Inman
Minnesota: Jim Rantz, Tony Oliva
NY Mets: Darryl Strawberry, Kevin Morgan
NY Yankees: Frank Howard, Mike Thurman
Oakland: Terry Steinbach
Philadelphia: Robin Roberts, Lee McDaniel, Dallas Green
Pittsburgh: Steve Blass, Trevor Gooby
San Diego: Dave Winfield, Randy Smith
San Francisco: Felipe Alou, Jack Hiatt, Steve Decker
Seattle: Dan Evans
St. Louis: John Mozeliak, Alan Benes
Tampa: Bay Dave Martinez, Don Zimmer
Texas: Jim Sundberg, Steve Buechele, Mel Didier
Toronto: Rob Ducey
Washington: Barry Larkin, Tim Foli
How out of place does that Chicago Cubs entry look?
Thankfully, smarter heads prevailed – and Bob Dernier was tracked down so I wouldn’t be considered the club dignitary. But I still was tasked with answering a telephone and writing down the draftee’s name with a TV crew in my face. It was the ultimate in multi-tasking.
I’d like to think I nailed it. The phone rang, and I didn’t drop it. The player name I was given – Josh Vitters – made its way from ear to paper. Vitters and his family were in attendance, and the camera went from me to the guy carrying the card to the Commissioner to Mr. Selig – and then to the Vitters family. And before the heartbeat slowed down, the Pittsburgh Pirates were on the clock.
I spent the rest of the first round ducking whenever the camera crew made its way around the room. I already had enough broadcast time for the day.
This Saturday (May 6) is the anniversary date of Kerry Wood’s 20-strikeout game.
I initially wrote this piece last year – and I know I couldn’t top it. I still get goose bumps when I think about that game, and I hope you sense my level of enthusiasm as I try to recreate the excitement for you.
I often get asked if I miss working in baseball.
The honest answer is “sometimes yes, most of the time no.” I miss it a little more now that I’m writing stories about the game – but I’m enjoy this little writing career way more than the baseball grind.
But I do admit to missing “the rush.”
I don’t often pat myself on the back or give myself credit, but if I was allowed to give a 10-second elevator pitch about my time in the Cubs’ Media Relations department, I would tell you with the utmost of confidence that I was good at proactively being ready when game “events” occurred.
For example, if a Cub hit a grand slam, I had the information ready for a press box announcement before the ball landed. Or if a player hit a 16th-inning home run, I was out of my seat and announcing to tell everyone within earshot that it was the latest homer in Cubs history – while the ball was still in flight.
There was nothing like the adrenaline rush of scrambling from TV booths to radio booths to telling the Cubs beat writers to press box microphones to let everyone know about a “first time it happened” moment or a “last time it happened” occurrence. The Cubs had been around 110 years before I got there; whenever something unusual happened, we weren’t exactly talking small sample size.
One of the greatest “rush” days I’ll ever experience took place 18 years ago today – May 6, 1998 – as this is the anniversary of Kerry Wood’a 20-strikeout game. If only I wore a mental Fitbit, my brain probably walked 100,000 steps that Wednesday afternoon.
Woody’s pitching performance was the most dominating I’ll ever see. Period. Think about it … He was a 20-year-old kid in just his fifth major league start – and he struck out 20 of the 29 batters he faced. Hard to believe, but just two starts back, he didn’t make it through the second inning in Los Angeles – and you couldn’t help but wonder if he was ready for all of this.
And on this day against the Houston Astros, he was a boy among men. This wasn’t a September Triple-A roster – and even if it had been, that wouldn’t negate the fact that he struck out 20 of 29. The Astros’ lineup that day featured Craig Biggio and Jeff Bagwell – and also included Moises Alou, Derek Bell and Ricky Gutierrez.
I certainly can’t say that I knew May 6 would be a record-setting day, but when Woody struck out the side in the top of the 1st inning and Houston’s Shane Reynolds followed with strikeout-strikeout-strikeout in the bottom half of the frame, you knew this might not be a typical ballgame.
After striking out the side in the 4th inning, Kerry had eight strikeouts. I could do the math; he was on an 18-strikeout pace. Most of the time, when you do math like that, the pitcher’s final pitching line only goes up by one or two. But Woody tossed that theory through the window by fanning all three batters in the 5th.
At that point, my daily scribble sheet was starting to see some pretty good scribblings.
I was slowly filling in the information I had access to via my own Cubs records collection and two major league record books I had in my press box cabinet. One-by-one, the numbers were written on paper … 12 … 13 … 14 … and up to 19. I had No. 20 staring me in the face in the Official Major League Baseball Record Book.
6th inning … one strikeout … now at 12.
7th inning … strikeout, strikeout, strikeout … 13, 14, 15. The last one tied Cubs nine-inning and rookie marks.
Whole sentences, written out neat enough for my boss – Sharon Pannozzo – to read on the in-house public address system.
8th inning … strikeout, strikeout, strikeout … 16, 17, 18.
By now, I was in constant contact with the famed Elias Sports Bureau – where they were just as much one step ahead in anticipation of Woody’s next strikeout.
No. 16 set the Cubs’ nine-inning record. No. 17 tied the major league rookie record and the Cubs’ overall record – done in a 15-inning outing. No. 18 established records for both.
Partial sentences, in hieroglyphic scribble, just legible enough for Sharon to hand me the mic and tell me to read it.
And then came the 9th inning …
Pinch-hitter Bill Spiers went down swinging for a seventh straight Kerry Wood strikeout – equalling another Cubs record. But who cared about that? It was strikeout No. 19 – tying a National League record accomplished only four previous times in 122 seasons.
Future Hall of Famer Craig Biggio was then cursed at after putting the ball in play and grounding out for the second out of the inning.
And up to the plate came Derek Bell, and all I could do was try not to hyperventilate. Woody quickly got to two strikes, and his curveball was dancing. Bell had no chance, going down swinging for strikeout No. 20 – tying a mark only reached before by Boston’s Roger Clemens.
I vividly recall running down to the field after the game to assist with the live postgame interviews – and Woody was visibly trembling. I had no idea if he had truly processed what had happened.
But more than anything, I’ll never forget the in-game rush of researching and tracking down and providing information as his strikeout total grew and grew.
On days like today, I do miss that rush.
This weekend, my Grandma Rose would have been celebrating her 100th birthday.
I wrote a letter to her last year that I posted on this site. I’ve made a few modifications to the original note to make it “current,” but I wanted to share the gist of her story again. I think she would have liked that. I know I do.
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 last year, I 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. Over the last year, 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.
You know, it’s hard to believe you’ve been gone for over a decade. 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. 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 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 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.