Yesterday was an awesome day for me on the personal front – and personal isn’t the correct word. Community or neighborly would be better word choices, but I’m sticking to personal.
For those of you who don’t know my background, I worked for the Cubs from 1988-2012 – spending 16 years in the Media Relations department and nine years in Baseball Operations. I saw a lot of things over those 25 years.
During all that time, though, I never watched an 11- or 12-year-old playing baseball where I would have been bold enough to say: “That kid’s a future major leaguer.” From the “eye test” perspective, I wouldn’t predict anything with middle school baseball players. Too much can change.
But there was this kid down the block who was just a soccer-workaholic. There would be this large “thud … thud … thud” sound at dusk, and you knew his garage door was taking a pounding from line drive kicks. There would be a “tick … tick … tick … tick” sound, and you knew this kid was dribbling his soccer ball … off his foot or other body parts … while not letting the ball touch the ground … and walking around the block while doing it … for what seemed like hours.
My wife and I talked about it all the time. I would say things along the lines of: “I don’t know enough about soccer, but if he keeps it up, he’s going to be a professional player.” Seriously, what did I know about soccer back then? And now, while living the travel soccer parent dream, every game I go to – someone there vocally reminds everyone within earshot that his/her child is going to be, at a minimum, an Olympian.
I’m positive that this kid – who I’m still calling a kid even though he’s 22 – did all his soccer training on his own when he was home. He went outside and worked … and worked … and worked at soccer instead of honing couch potato skills. He never had to be told to practice or to do his homework. As far as I know, the only thing he had to be told to do was to come down the block to my house whenever he needed help tying his tie for a high school dance.
We live in a great neighborhood, and as a collective group, we watched him play in high school – and we were elated when he was offered a full ride to play soccer at Northwestern. We watched him play in college – and we were ecstatic for him and his family when the Chicago Fire signed him to a homegrown player contract in December.
But it didn’t hit home until it became real. Yesterday, it became real.
My family happened to be going to the Chicago Fire season opener. My goalie daughter’s team won a Fire-sponsored tournament in January, and her team was being honored with a “wave to the crowd” halftime announcement and a group picture after the match. You can see I’m starting to figure the sport out since I said match, not game. However, I’m still calling the sport soccer.
Driving to Toyota Park, the thought obviously was there – would the neighbor kid get to play? Wouldn’t it be cool if we saw him on the pitch?
We picked up our tickets from the soccer team manager and had to check out the gift shop. As we passed the register, we bumped into the kid’s family. Mom Elsa – a little teary eyed: “I’m not getting a uniform with his name on the back until I see that he’s really out there.” Dad George at the cash register, a week’s worth of salary spent on blankets and Fire apparel – looking a bit dazed in a “Is this a dream?” sort of way.
His parents knew he had made the cut for the day’s action; he was on the active roster for the match.
There aren’t any nosebleed seats at Toyota Park, but some seats are a little further away from the Fire bench than others. During the match, every time someone got up to get loose, you’d immediately ask “Is that him?”
With around 20 minutes remaining in regulation (not to mention stoppage time), he took off all his warmup gear. He went to the area where the sideline official stood. He was going to check in. And the ball never went out of play.
For 10 excruciating minutes, the ball NEVER went out of play. The kid went back-and-forth to the bench area, probably giving his Mom a heart attack every time he moved. If it was an excruciating 10 minutes for me, I can’t imagine the emotions his parents were feeling.
And in the 81st minute, the ball finally deflected off a foot and over the sidelines. Fire midfielder Razvan Cocis’ day was done.
And then the PA announcement, both in English and Spanish. The neighbor kid who I’ve known since he was 6 or 7, Joey Calistri – number 15 on his back – was making his professional debut.
I took the best picture I possibly could of Joey running out. To say I’m not the best photographer doesn’t say much. To say my hands were shaking out of excitement – that’s my excuse.
The Fire lost 4-3, but the score didn’t matter to me. I saw this kid out there – and he’s not a kid anymore -- big shoulders, body filled out. He’s listed at 5’10” and 160 pounds, but I’ve written hundreds of bios – and liberties often were taken with height and weight. If you didn’t know Joey, nothing he did looked like someone making his debut. He looked like he belonged.
Check that. Joey Calistri did belong on that pitch. He worked his butt off to get there. He earned it.
We were heading north after the Toyota Park experience for my girls’ indoor soccer Sunday night – and that’s a totally different story.
I almost choked up in the car as we talked about Joey. I know I said, “At some point tonight, Elsa or George is going to say, ‘I can’t believe this is really happening?’”
One of my daughters asked, “What do you mean?” And I babbled.
“It’s hard to explain, but now it’s real. It wasn’t an exhibition game. He made his pro debut. He’s a (expletive deleted) professional player. Joey had this dream, this goal, and he worked at it and worked at it and it’s real. He made it. And it’s awesome. No one can ever take this away from him.”
And as a neighbor down the block, no one can take the memory of watching him run onto the pitch away from me. Way to go Joey!