I need to let you in on a little secret: I never was a good athlete.
Just because I wasn’t a good athlete didn’t mean I wasn’t a wannabe. I loved playing baseball as a kid. I loved playing running bases either in our backyard or with the neighbors up the street. I loved playing fast-pitch behind Rogers School … or Boone School … or Clinton School. I couldn’t get enough of the game during the summer.
But I just wasn’t a good athlete. My parents may argue with me over that, but my wife and kids will nod their collective heads in agreement.
I made it through 99.999 percent of my Cubs career being an observer and not a participant. For me, sweating at work meant I was frantically running around because the club was about to make an announcement – or it was hot outside.
But that other 0.001 percent is the day I played the faux athlete role. It was a day that lives in infamy. Hopefully, you weren’t there to witness it.
It’s the day Bob Patterson made me play catch with him.
Patterson was a southpaw relief specialist for the Cubs from 1996-1998. The left-handedness gave us a natural bond. He was a “late in life” guy by baseball standards; he had his best big league success – and saw his most extensive action – at ages 37 and 38. He was a fun guy to talk to, and he always had something interesting to say.
This one Sunday morning in Chicago, Patterson and yours truly were sitting in the Wrigley Field dugout just shooting the breeze. There was no batting practice that day, and players were strolling into the ballpark at no great rate of speed.
Patterson was getting antsy; he had been on a roll of late, and he wanted to stay in routine and play catch. He politely excused himself to go into the clubhouse to grab a teammate to throw with him.
About 90 seconds later, he returned to the dugout – alone. And he had two gloves with him.
At first, I didn’t think anything of it. Patterson was known as “The Glove Doctor” – and was a regular fixture on TV, sitting in the bullpen and working to repair someone’s glove.
This time, though, he tossed the second glove to me.
“Lefty, correct,” he said “Let’s go.” And he was serious.
He was getting loose, and I was going to play the part of guinea pig.
I followed him down the third base line to the Cubs’ bullpen, and for the first few minutes, it was actually a routine game of toss. Picture this: Patterson, the crafty veteran, in his white uniform with blue pinstripes. Wasserstrom, now sweating profusely, in a collared shirt and khakis.
I did my best to not notice that the gates had now opened and fans were strolling into the park. Just catch the ball. Just get the ball back to him. Don’t do anything stupid.
I thought I was going to get through it unscathed. But as I’m well aware … don’t think; you can only hurt the ball club.
Just when I thought I could relax, Patterson threw his “out” pitch in my direction – which was some hybrid combination of screwball and changeup. It was like a mad butterfly was coming my way.
No, I didn’t duck. Worse … I whiffed.
The ball totally missed my glove. I’m not sure I was within a foot of catching it. I don’t think I could have smothered it. The ball rolled all the way to the leftfield wall, and fans by the bullpen snickered.
After retrieving the ball and somehow getting it back to him without tearing any cartilage, Patterson said he wouldn’t throw that pitch again. But he did. And it wasn’t pretty.
I reached and whiffed again. I didn’t even jog to retrieve the ball; I was even getting some boos.
I vowed I wouldn’t let another one by me. I dared him to throw another screwball/changeup/whatever. The third time was the charm, as the ball completely missed my glove again while striking me in the right knee.
I took that as a moral victory and quit right there before I damaged my morale any more.
And my playing career officially ended before it started. You have to know your limitations.