Some of the best storytellers in the world sit behind their laptops and craft stories in small words and abbreviations and with lots of punctuation – or no punctuation at all. They write stories so that the people reading them can visualize what they are saying.
I’m talking about baseball scouts who, in writing scouting reports on players, have to paint a picture with their words – and in lingo that their bosses can understand.
When they’re not behind the computer screen, they’re behind the home plate screen – watching games and watching practices and watching players in their warmup routines. It’s where a scout learns about players – their makeup, how they interact, how they act, how they dress, how serious they appear. Those mental notes formulate the stories that are told to the front office – and the stories they share with others.
Last week, I caught up with the legendary Billy Blitzer – a longtime Cubs scout who was about to depart Florida after spending a month in spring training. I’m working on a longer-form story about Blitzer – pronounced Blit-zuh in his native Brooklynese – who is beginning his 35th season with the Cubs and his 42nd overall as a scout.
This year, making that trip to spring training was a big deal for multiple reasons. Blitzer has fought some major health issues the last two years – and he’s now much better, thankfully. Also, there’s that tiny little two-word moniker that he finally gets to wear – World Champion.
As we were talking, and he was regaling me with story after story after story, it became evident that a smaller “What Could Have Been … What Should Have Been” piece could be written – using mostly just his words to tell those stories.
What could have been … the direction the Cubs’ farm system was heading during the Dallas Green years.
What should have been … up 3 games to 1 with a lead in Game 6 of the 2003 NLCS.
And finally … winning the World Series in his 34th year in the organization.
Blitzer will be back at it later this week when his in-season professional coverage begins.
I’ll be back at it with another Blitzer story soon. But until then, to whet the appetite, I’ll call this a Billy Blitzer prequel in three parts.
It Coulda Happened …
Not to take away anything from Theo, Jed and the current group, but it’s well known that the Cubs’ arrow was pointed upward when I started with the organization as an intern in 1986 – and the curse could have been lifted years ago. The operative words are “could have.”
Tribune Company purchased the team from the Wrigley Family in 1981 and installed Dallas Green as the general manager. The team came close to the Promised Land in 1984 – going up 2 games to 0 in the best of 5 NLCS against San Diego – and had an extended run at clicking on their draft selections. Consider this list of players selected from 1982-1987, and think how things might have played out if they had been kept together – along with a certain second baseman named Ryne Sandberg who was acquired by Green early in his GM tenure:
“It’s a shame that Dallas just passed away,” Blitzer said. And now I’ll let Mr. Blitzer take it from here.
“When I first came in, I was a young scout. I felt at the time that Dallas had us going in the right direction – and that eventually, we would have won. Gordy Goldsberry was the scouting director, and we were drafting very well. We had young players – and then just like that, Dallas was out. Jim Frey came in and traded away a lot of those young players. Every time you change regimes, it’s a new game plan, and we couldn’t get our footing.
“After Dallas got let go from us – even though he later was the manager of the Mets and the manager of the Yankees – I had never spoken to him again until a couple years ago. He was working with the Phillies as an advisor, and this kid, Aaron Nola – who was their No. 1 pick – was making his professional debut for the Clearwater Phillies in Lakeland (Florida), and I was covering the Phillies organization. I was in the ballpark, and Dallas comes walking in with Charlie Manuel.
“I see him, and I walk right over toward him. As I got closer, Dallas sees me – and in his big, booming voice – he yells out, ‘Billy Blitzer, I haven’t seen you in years.’
“And I said, ‘Dallas, I’ve seen you through the years from the stands, but I don’t go down on the field and bother anybody.’
“Then I put my hand out and said, ‘I’d like to shake your hand and thank you.’
“We shook hands, and he said, ‘Thank me for what?’
“I said, ‘Dallas, I’m still with the Cubs, and I’ve been here for over 30 years. And I want to thank you for hiring me.’
“And he said, ‘Well, Gordy knew what he was doing.’
“I said, ‘But you were the GM, and you had to give the OK to hire me. And I’ve made a career out of it here. And from the bottom of my heart, I want to thank you.’
“I got a little choked up as I said it to him. And he kind of got choked up, too, because he knew I really meant it. With him just passing away, it means a lot to me that I was able to say that to him.
“I just feel that if Dallas had been given more time, we would have won. We’ve had a lot of good people here. Some people did it the right way. Other people … I didn’t think did it the right way, and I don’t know how much hope there was for us to win.”
It Shoulda Happened …
I think it’s safe to say that if you’ve read this far, you remember the 2003 NLCS. The Cubs had taken a 3-games-to-1 lead over the Florida Marlins before dropping Game 5.
In Game 6, the Cubs were leading 3-0 in the top of the 8th inning – five outs away from the World Series. That was as close as they got … until 2016.
Anyway … during his spring coverage this March, Blitzer had a chance meeting with the leftfielder who was involved in the infamous foul ball incident.
“I’m sitting behind the plate in the next-to-last row of the scout section, toward the end of the aisle, Blitzer said. Like a good storyteller, he gave all the pertinent facts. “There were a couple empty seats behind me when the game was about to start, then two people sat down.
“I turned around, and one of them was Moises Alou. I don’t know Moises – he’s never met me, and I never met him – but I recognized him. I have to give him a lot of credit. Throughout the game, people kept coming over to him asking for his autograph, asking him to pose for pictures. They didn’t wait until the end of the inning. They were just disruptive. There’s no way he could have watched any of the game.
“In about the sixth inning, a guy sitting a couple rows in front of us happens to turn around and realizes that Moises is sitting there. The guy gets up, walks up to him – and he says, ‘Mr. Alou, you were a great player, but you should have caught that ball.’ He says it just like that, then turns around and goes back to his seat.
“Now I’m watching this whole thing. When the guy walked away, Moises put his head down. Then he looked up at me. Six innings, we hadn’t said one word to each other.
“He looked at me and said, ‘That’s all I’ll ever be remembered for … that I should have caught that ball.’
“So I said to him, ‘Yeah, you and me both.’
“He said, ‘What do you mean, you and me both?’
“I said, ‘I’m with the Chicago Cubs. I’ve been here for 35 years. All I’ve had to listen to were two things – you not catching that ball and the ball going through Leon Durham’s legs.”
And then – please try to mentally visualize the New York accent here – Blitzer said: “But I don’t have to listen to that anymawhhhh, becawz we finally wuhn.’
“He patted me, smiled and said, ‘I’m really happy for you.’
“He spoke to me after that. I told him, ‘I’ve had to listen to that, also. You’re not the only one.’
“It’s like the monkey’s off my back – not only my back, but everybody’s back. The things I had to listen to for 34 years. All the jokes about the Cubs and everything else. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate it that we won. And that I’m finally getting a ring.”
It Did …
In 34 years with the Cubs, Blitzer has pretty much seen everything and done everything.
Starting in the early hours of November 3, 2016 – New York time – he has for the first time experienced what it’s like to be a champion.
“It really was nice in spring training,” he said. “On the night we won, within seven minutes, I had 100 texts or emails from people all around the country … people that know me. And here in spring training, I’ve run into other scouts. When they first saw me, it was ‘Congratulations. Hey, world champion.’ It was really nice to hear, but the one thing that really hit me … whenever I met these people, the first thing they’d say to me was, ‘You know, when your team won, you were the first person we thought of.’ They know I’ve been here so long.
“Not many people stay with one team for so many years. And when I walk in the ballpark, it’s ‘The Chicago Cubs are here.’ It’s not ‘Billy Blitzer’s here’ … it’s ‘The Chicago Cubs are here.’
“And then there’s the other thing. Everybody was asking me, ‘When are you getting your ring? When are you getting your ring?’ I say, ‘The players get it April 12. I’m sure we’ll get it right after.’
“All the scouts that have gotten rings before tell me, ‘You better have a box of tissues, because you’re going to start to cry when you get it.’ And I know I will. When we won, I broke down and cried. Even now, when I watch videos of us winning, and I watch videos of people in Chicago, I get all choked up. Every time I see it – and it hasn’t stopped yet. It means that much to me.
“I’ve thought about it. If I had gotten the ring early in my career, it wouldn’t mean as much as it does right now. Because I’m towards the end of my career. I’ve scouted 42 years, 35 with the Cubs. You think about all the games I’ve been to. All the hotels. All the miles. All the bad food you’ve eaten through the years. You always dreamed. You always hoped that your team could win. Coming towards the end of my career, it means so much more – because you realize how much has gone into it through the years. To finally achieve it."