I was talking baseball a couple days ago before my kids' softball game, and I was asked how well I knew Dallas Green. I admitted I didn’t know Dallas that well; I was an intern, he was an intimidating presence.
He then asked me, “Did you work with Don Zimmer?” I told him, “I learned everything I needed to know about baseball the first time I sat down with Zim.”
I want to share this story with you again.
“You’re never late if you’re early.”
I was only a couple weeks into my full-time Cubs 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.
My rookie year was so long ago that Wrigley Field was still lights-free – at least until I got there. During my first month on the job, I went on my first Cubs Caravan, went 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 Arizona. 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; he didn’t put my bag with the other luggage going on the Cubs’ charter. That might be story worthy.
I could write about the Hall of Fame Game experience, in which a certain Cubs player spent the game in the dugout wearing a gorilla mask. That could be story worthy.
I could fill you in on the team almost missing the game’s first pitch. That is story worthy.
This Thursday morning (August 4, 1988), for the first and only time during my media relations career, I took the second 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 – especially for an afternoon game – 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 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?,” he asked (I left out a couple F-bombs that were actually part of his question).
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 attendant 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.