Last time out, I wrote about missing the 1995 All-Star Game in order to go to a Pearl Jam concert. Putting pleasure above business just wasn’t the norm during my Baseball Chuck days.
I ended the post on a cliffhanger, which allows me to quote myself:
“At the end of the evening, George had the audacity to apologize that Eddie hadn’t come over to say Hi. He said Eddie would be giving me a call. I was on such a high from the show that I actually believed him.
“I’ll tell you all about that the next time I write. Suffice it to say, there’s material for another story.”
It’s about time I did a two-part sequel, right? Indeed, there was material for another story.
* * * * *
Yeah, right. Eddie Vedder was going to call me.
The following Monday, the Cubs played a long, three-plus hour night game. It was a particularly tough loss because it was a tie game heading into the 9th inning; five runs later, we were staring at a 7-2 defeat.
After doing my normal postgame duties – which meant hanging around the clubhouse overseeing media activities for approximately 45 minutes – I returned to my desk in the media relations department. This would have been around 11 p.m. I had checked my messages before I headed to the clubhouse, so I was a bit surprised when my voicemail light was on.
At first, I ignored the message light and started working on the next day’s game notes. Then curiosity got the best of me – and I dialed my voicemail.
The following paraphrased message was waiting for me:
“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.”
I don’t know what the right word was … Surreal? Unreal? Stunned?
Whatever the case, I played back the message multiple times. It was hard to believe. It sounded like him, but it wasn’t really registering.
I finally got up, walked into my boss’ office and said, “I think Eddie Vedder left me a voicemail.” My boss, Sharon Pannozzo, then stated the obvious. “Are you going to call him back?”
I dialed the hotel and gave the alias name. The operator asked for my name – then immediately transferred me through. After one ring, I was on the phone with Eddie Vedder. Just like that, I was a groupie!
We talked for easily half an hour. I tried to act cool, but I’m sure I was stuttering and drooling all over the place. He talked about growing up in Evanston and taking the Howard “L” to Wrigley Field. He talked about Jose Cardenal being his hero when he was a kid. He talked about having to dress up – hat, wig, and sunglasses – and watch games in the bleachers to avoid getting noticed.
I struck up the nerve to ask if he wanted to watch a game from the press box with me – where I could supervise so that people would leave him alone. He said yes, and we picked a game date on the next homestand.
I would not refer to myself as being “star struck.” Heck, sometimes, I don’t even show a pulse. In the pre-7th Inning Stretch days, I had met plenty of celebrities – and fawning was not one of my characteristics. But this was different. This was the lead vocalist of one of the biggest rock bands in the United States. Eddie Vedder was coming to Wrigley Field to see his beloved Cubs – and he was going to be sitting next to me.
I wouldn’t believe the story myself, but plenty of media were there that afternoon to witness the blessed event. Eddie Vedder, spending a ballgame sitting between Chuck Wasserstrom and Les Grobstein – and trading Jose Cardenal stories. Eddie’s stories were of Cardenal being his boyhood hero. Mine were about seeing Jose multiple times at Gulliver’s Pizzeria on Howard Street in my old neighborhood. Lord knows what Les’ stories were about. It was a day where I introduced Eddie to Harry Caray and Andy MacPhail. It was a day where Eddie the Cubs fans got the chance to go into the Cubs clubhouse and meet the players.
Somehow, I managed to juggle hero worship and work.
I had a lot of awesome experiences during my 25 years with the Cubs. Most were baseball related. Some of it was family related. But this was oddly dreamlike.
Over the rest of my time with the Cubs, I saw Eddie Vedder and the guy who made it all happen – George Webb – from time-to-time in both musical and ballpark settings. I was able to introduce Eddie to a bunch of Cubs – including loyal reader Steve Trachsel – and I saw numerous concerts.
But nothing ever compared to that initial voicemail. It was the phone call that I never expected to receive.
Growing up, I never missed an All-Star Game.
The annual July affair was a must-see TV event for me – and the games were typically exciting to watch, waiting for my favorite Cubs to get into the game. And when a Cub did something special – like Bill Madlock recording the game-winning hit in 1975 – it was a magical moment for me. I’m sure it was magical for Madlock, too.
Once I joined the Cubs – first as an intern, then in a full-time role – that love for the All-Star Game intensified. In the pre-internet days, there was the excitement of getting to announce it to the world that a Cub had been selected. There were game notes to be looked up and media guide information to be gleaned. While the game didn’t “count” officially, it was more than just an exhibition contest to me.
But all of that All-Star love came to a one-night stop when I got “the call” in 1995.
To make a short story long …
Back in the day, I was a Pearl Jam fan well before pretty much anyone I knew. I heard the band’s first album on a Montreal alternative college music station during a 1991 road trip – and I was hooked. The band’s popularity grew and grew, as did my affinity for their work.
One of my media relations counterparts – the legendary Jim Trdinich of the Pittsburgh Pirates – had a similar attraction for Pearl Jam. But in the category of “Six Degrees of Separation,” he was one step closer.
Jimmy T., as he’s known in baseball circles, had hit it off with George Webb – a lifelong Pirates fan who has the music version of the dream job I had with the Cubs. George is a jack-of-all-trades, under-the-radar member of Pearl Jam, serving as an equipment manager and taking care of the guitars and amps. George performs a multitude of behind-the-scenes roles for the band, and has gone out of his way to take care of me over the years.
In late June during the 1995 season, the Pirates were in Chicago – and the subject of Pearl Jam came up in a conversation with me and Jimmy T. While I knew Pearl Jam was going to be playing at Soldier Field in a few weeks, it never dawned on me to actually go see them. They were playing the same night as the All-Star Game, for crying out loud. Did I mention that the All-Star Game was “must see” for me?
A couple days after the Cubs/Pirates series was over, I received a phone call from Mr. Trdinich. He told me that I was going to the Pearl Jam concert. He told me that George Webb would be giving me a call to let me know where to pick up the tickets. He told me I’d survive if I missed one All-Star Game.
And then the call came.
George introduced himself to me, told me he was leaving me two tickets and two backstage passes, and that I should come early to say hello to him. He also told me that Eddie Vedder was a huge Cubs fan – which I had known – and that Eddie wanted to meet me.
I played along. While I didn’t want to doubt George’s sincerity, I really didn’t think the lead vocalist for one of the biggest rock bands on the planet wanted to meet Chuck Wasserstrom.
So on Tuesday night, July 11, instead of watching the National League and American League face off in Arlington, TX, I headed off to Soldier Field with one of my Pearl Jam-loving Cubs co-workers, Jay Rand. We picked up the tickets and backstage passes without a problem, walked to the stage area without a problem, told security we were there to see George – and were escorted directly to him without a hitch. This was Pearl Jam. Nothing was going wrong.
George brought us to the stage to give us a tour of his area. He assured me that Mr. Vedder wanted to meet me – but, since Chicago was his hometown, Eddie had a lot of family members to tend to. He’d try to come over.
I could have been disappointed, but I really wasn’t. Seriously, did I really think he wanted to meet me?
And whatever disappointment I could have had would have been eliminated when George asked the ultimate question … Did we want to hang near him for the concert?
I could have been watching the All-Star Game on TV in my Evanston apartment. Instead, I watched Pearl Jam play just inches out of the crowd’s view. Eddie Vedder was closer to me than the mound is to the plate.
It … was … awesome. Pearl Jam played for a solid three hours. It was electric. A sold-out Soldier Field rocked. I felt like such a groupie, and I didn’t care.
I will never see a better show. It’s a similar feeling to watching the 4th of July in fireworks in Boston … along the Charles River … with the Boston Pops playing in the background. Once you’ve seen that, every other fireworks display pales in comparison.
At the end of the evening, George had the audacity to apologize that Eddie hadn’t come over to say Hi. He said Eddie would be giving me a call. I was on such a high from the show that I actually believed him.
I’ll tell you all about that the next time I write. Suffice it to say, there’s material for another story.
I was a diehard Cubs fan as a six-year-old, and I grew up a little over six miles from Wrigley Field.
I spent 25 years in the Cubs’ front office – and easily attended over 3,000 Cubs games.
I was with the Cubs for postseason appearances in five different seasons – making me a rarity in modern annals.
And my most “Kid in a Candy Store” moment in baseball, of course, took place at … U.S. Cellular Field.
Yep, you read that right. U.S. Cellular Field, home of the dreaded Pale Hose.
That “Kid in a Candy Store” event took place July 15, 2003, as part of the first All-Star Game that “counted” – as it was the first time the Midsummer Classic awarded home-field advantage to the winning league. On that blessed night, I spent the All-Star Game sitting in the first-base dugout.
The backstory: During the crown jewel events (All-Star Game, playoffs, World Series), Major League Baseball’s media relations personnel solicited assistance from club staffers. I had regularly volunteered to assist during the National League Championship Series, but I had never been asked to help during the All-Star Game.
In 2003, with the game in Chicago, I volunteered – and was scheduled to help out. But baseball life as a media relations assistant got in the way.
The day before the game, I never was able to get away from Wrigley Field. The Cubs were close to consummating a trade for an outfielder, and I was stuck at my desk – waiting for the green light that the deal took place. It was a vigil I had been through before; you wait hour after hour for a trade to take place, but at the last minute – nothing.
The non-trade worked out OK. Two weeks later, Jim Hendry was able to trade for an outfielder (Kenny Lofton) and a third baseman (Aramis Ramirez) – which turned out quite nicely.
Anyway … I arrived at U.S. Cellular Field on July 15 not knowing if MLB still had a use for me. Somehow, a volunteer assignment wasn’t filled the day before. Since there was so much lineup movement during the game, FOX wanted to know player changes as early as possible so the TV truck personnel could stay on top of things. I was actually asked if I wanted to sit in the dugout and be the person calling the changes up to the press box.
It was one of those offers that even I couldn’t refuse. Do you want to sit in the dugout for the game? Think about it … I literally was given a Costanza-like job to be the assistant to the bench coach.
So there I was, artfully dodging TV cameras as I shadowed Dusty Baker and Dick Pole around the National League dugout. When a call went to the bullpen to get a pitcher up, I was calling that up to the press box. When the typical All-Star mass substitutions were being puzzled together in the dugout, I was notifying the proper authorities.
In return for the actual seven minutes of work I did all night, I got to be in a dugout for an All-Star Game. When players bounced around in the dugout, there I was – an ear to listen when they wanted to talk. It was like a speed-networking event; when a player sat down next to me and started to talk, I had to be ready to converse like sitting in a dugout was a normal activity for me. Forget the fact that I had already spent many years in the game; I had to refrain from pinching myself when guys like Barry Bonds and Todd Helton and Richie Sexson just sat down next to me and start chatting. It was a neat feeling when former Cubs like Luis Gonzalez and Rondell White were introducing me around to others. And it felt normal when Kerry Wood and Mark Prior were harassing me.
And it seemed so Cubs-like in the bottom of the 8th inning when Eric Gagne, who at that point in time was the preeminent National League closer, gave up a 2-out, 2-run homer to Hank Blalock to give the American League the 7-6 victory.
The 2003 season turned out to be my last year in the media relations office – culminating in being five outs away from not having home-field advantage in the World Series. I never got a chance to be at a Fall Classic game.
Looking back, watching the All-Star Game from the dugout became my personal World Series.
I know, I know … I haven’t written for this site a whole lot lately. I’ve kinda sorta let work get in the way.
I’m in the process of writing some new (and hopefully good!) material that I’ll be trotting out soon.
For now – and I hope you don’t mind – I’m doing a “re-run” of a piece I wrote early in my blogging career. It’s actually timely, as this story took place leading up to the All-Star break. It’s about my awesome little encounter with the great Ernie Harwell.
* * * * *
“Baseball is the President tossing out the first pitch of the season. And a pudgy schoolboy playing catch with his dad on a Mississippi farm.”
I remember the start of that speech as if it happened yesterday. It was one of the coolest little talks I ever was part of.
It was the Sunday before the All-Star break in 2001, and the Cubs were finishing the first half in Detroit. Manager Don Baylor, one of the nicest guys I met in the game and the person who introduced me to Jordan wine, wanted to do something special for the team prior to the break.
Don had heard Ernie Harwell recite a poem he had written about baseball, and he reached out to the Hall of Fame broadcaster prior to our trip. He thought it would be a neat experience to have his players hear Harwell talk, especially since Ernie was nearing the end of his legendary career. Ernie, then 83, retired the following year.
“Baseball is a spirited race of man against man, reflex against reflex. A game of inches. Every skill is measured. Every heroic, every failing is seen and cheered – or booed. And then becomes a statistic.”
Due to playing in separate leagues, this was only the second time that the Cubs had traveled to Detroit for regular season games. Rumor has it that the Cubs had played World Series affairs against the Tigers, but that was way before my time.
During my previous trip to Detroit in 1998, a good word to use for the trek there was “chaotic.” Sammy Sosa and a large-and-growing media throng had come to town during his historic 20-homer June – and he didn’t disappoint, first tying then setting the major league record for homers in a month. His 18th homer of the month June 24 at old Tiger Stadium tied Rudy York’s August 1937 record, while his 19th roundtripper June 25 established a new standard (he finished the month with 20).
But this second trip to Detroit – this time at Comerica Park – became just as memorable for me.
“Baseball is a rookie (his experience no bigger than the lump in his throat) trying to begin fulfillment of his dream. It’s a veteran, too – a tired old man of 35 hoping his aching muscles can pull him through another sweltering August and September.”
Ernie, a very gracious man, was more than happy to talk to the team. He had initially published a piece in The Sporting News in 1955, and he continued to tweak his poem. He would recite his love affair with the sport whenever he could, in his wonderful Southern voice, mesmerizing the group in front of him.
I met Mr. Harwell for the first – and only – time that morning. Don had talked all week about how great the speech was going to be, and made it a point to bring me into his office to introduce me to Ernie.
As it was the last day before the break, there was no batting practice. Everyone was dressed in their road uniforms when Ernie entered the players’ portion of the clubhouse.
“Baseball? It’s just a game – as simple as a ball and a bat. Yet, as complex as the American spirit it symbolizes. It’s a sport, business and sometimes even a religion.”
This particular Sunday morning, I really needed to hear a baseball story. I had spent the better part of that weekend refereeing a battle between a coach and a beat writer over stupid stuff, and I needed an escape.
I needed to be taken back in time, and Mr. Harwell didn’t disappoint.
“The fairy tale of Willie Mays making a brilliant World Series catch and then dashing off to play stick ball in the streets with his teenage pals – that’s baseball. So is husky voiced Lou Gehrig saying, ‘I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth.’ ”
I remember listening to Ernie’s words – but not staring at him as he talked. Instead, I was off to the side, watching the faces of the players and coaches. Guys like Joe Girardi … and Eric Young … and Ricky Gutierrez … just hanging on his every word.
This was storytelling at its finest.
“Baseball is cigar smoke, hot roasted peanuts, Sporting News, Ladies Day, Down in Front, Take Me Out to the Ball Game, the Seventh Inning Stretch and the Star-Spangled Banner.”
When Ernie completed his speech, several players wandered over to thank him. Being the Southern gentleman that he was, he thanked them for listening to him talk.
The great Ernie Harwell then came over to me and asked, “So, was that OK?”
Was that OK? He could have done his speech in a Foster Brooks voice or as Elmer Fudd, and I would have said it was awesome.
At that point, Ernie started telling me that he always liked to write, but that he didn’t get to do it enough.
He then told me he had hard copies of his original poem at home – and he asked if I’d like a copy of it to pass on to anyone who wanted it.
I said "Yes," then gave him my business card with the ballpark address. He then went upstairs to the press box to finish preparing for that day's broadcast.
“Baseball is a man named Campanella telling the nation’s business leaders, “You have to be a man to be a big leaguer, but you have to have a lot of little boy in you, too.”
Ernie literally went home and put the check in the mail. A couple days later, an envelope arrived for me at Wrigley Field. It was a copy of his article, along with a hand-written note.
I didn’t keep a lot of mementos from my Cubs days, but one thing I did keep were the personalized notes. And I’m so glad I held on to them – especially when a Hall of Famer sends you a note.
“This is a game for America – this is baseball.
“A game for boys and for men.”