Every Valentine’s Day becomes more special for me. It’s a time to be grateful and thankful for the family I have. With each passing year, it becomes harder to remember the solitude of being on my own, without a roommate, and dateless because of all the hours I spent at work.
While the headline might have made you thought about beer or Harry Caray, this February 14 story is about my wife, Michelle. This is about our becoming an “item” 21 years ago – during Valentine’s Day week in 1995. This is about the woman I affectionately call Bud.
By the time she finishes reading this little tribute, I do fear what she’ll be calling me. Maybe I’ll get future fodder out of that. Or maybe I’ll drive her into starting her own blog. Stay tuned.
First, though, a little backstory – and a lot of whining.
Working in professional baseball is tough on a personal level. Very, very tough. If you work in certain departments like Media Relations and Baseball Operations, it can be 24/7/365 tough. And for the scouts in the trenches, living out of hotels and cars for weeks at a time, it’s worse.
Baseball hours are not 9-to-5 – ever. In season, you lose all your weekends. Most of your midweek nights are shot. You miss family events. You don’t get to see friends very often. Your life is the team you’re affiliated with.
I never worked in other professional leagues, so it’s unfair to throw a blanket over everything and say the baseball life is worse than anyone else has it – but you can’t convince me that other sports have it rougher than their baseball counterparts. Baseball is a 162-game regular season … plus a 30-plus game exhibition season … and if that’s not enough, you have a keep-your-fingers-crossed mentality that you’re also going to be a postseason participant. You have no summer vacation. You give up your weekends. You give up a lot of nights. Most of your winter is toast, as that’s when you’re in the player acquisition business for the following season.
I don’t know what’s worse – being single and working in baseball, or being married with kids and working in baseball.
It was a stomach-turning feeling for me to miss so many events in my girls’ early lives. I missed music shows. I missed their entire first season of AYSO soccer (I know, that could be considered a blessing in disguise). Factually speaking, during my last full year with the Cubs in 2011, between spring training and regular season trips and the barrage of out-of-town meetings after the season – I was physically out of town 13 full weeks.
I know, cue the violin. There are plenty of you who have to travel all the time and miss all kinds of activities. Think of the airline miles and hotel points you receive.
If I’m going to complain about the life, then why did I stay in it? That’s a fair question.
Working for a baseball team, no matter what your role, is solely about one thing – getting that ring. Obviously, that was a quarter of a century waste of my time if “the ring” meant a successful run. But you kept coming back because of all the perks that most other professions don’t have.
No, I didn’t get that World Series ring, but after moving into the Baseball Operations department, I did receive championship rings whenever one of the Cubs’ minor league teams won a league title. I had the chance to meet and get my picture taken with President Clinton. I had my crotch sniffed by a German shepherd on bomb patrol the day President Reagan visited Wrigley Field. I was the person who drove Ryne Sandberg home after he won the 1990 Home Run Derby and Greg Maddux back to O’Hare after his 1992 Cy Young Award press conference (yes, taking Mad Dog through a McDonald’s drive-thru was a perk, as he bought me fries). I was there to help break in up-and-coming radio guys like Mike Greenberg and Andrew Siciliano when they were just cutting their teeth in the business. And yes, playing any part in helping the young ones succeed WAS a perk for me.
That barely scratches the surface. And over time, the stories will be “outed” from my brain to my laptop keys.
But the greatest perk of my Chicago Cubs career was meeting my future wife at Wrigley Field. Yes, I’m talking about Michelle – not wife No. 2 (unless this blog goes over rather poorly).
As I wrote a few paragraphs back, if you’re single and putting in the maniacal hours we all were putting in, there was little to no time for dating.
In 1993, Michelle joined the team as an intern in the Baseball Operations department. It wasn’t very long before we hit it off as friends.
She was different. She knew and understood the game from the players’ perspective. She had come to the Cubs after spending her college days at Indiana State University where – as a Division 1 scholarship athlete – she played catcher, shortstop and outfield as a four-year starter on the Sycamores’ softball team. She didn’t take spit from anyone – which might be her biggest strength and biggest weakness. And she understood what the 24/7/365 sports life was.
We kind of danced around a relationship for a long time. People in the building thought we were going out when we 100% were not. This wasn’t a friends-with-benefits hook up.
But everything changed in February 1995. At this point, you might as well cue the Bonnie Raitt music …
“People are talkin', talkin' 'bout people,
I hear them whisper, you won't believe it.
They think we're lovers kept under cover,
I just ignore it but they keep sayin' we...
Laugh just a little too loud,
Stand just a little too close,
We stare just a little too long.
Maybe they're seein', somethin' we don't darlin'.”
It started with a tough Saturday night for me at a ‘70s Party – where I was hit on by someone of the gender that I prefer wouldn’t hit on me. After the party, a group of us went to the Smart Bar – a goth-like venue beneath the Metro right down the street from Wrigley. And it happened again, another guy hitting on me (not that there’s anything wrong with it; that’s just not my preference).
I was a little bit freaked that night. Michelle and I had a long conversation about it when I drove her home, but nothing noteworthy took place. For what it’s worth, I did track down a picture of my outfit from that evening. You’ll have to go to the bottom of this post to see it. Tell me, what person male or female would have found me “hit-on-able” that night?
The following Saturday (February 11, to be exact), I was helping Michelle with the final project she needed to complete her master’s. This would be a good time to reach out to the taxpayers of the great state of Indiana and say “Thank You” for putting Michelle through school – which brought us together.
It might have been the joy and excitement of getting the paper finished, but things were different that night between us. Once the project was done, I went for it … first kiss … I ducked … but she didn’t punch me.
Once more, Bonnie Raitt …
“Let's give 'em somethin' to talk about
How about love?”
That’s when we officially became an item. Of course, everyone in the building thought we had been going out for a year, so no one cared.
We did our thing at our own pace for five and a half more years. We were in the process of buying a house when the “M” word came up for the first time. She didn’t want to be listed as “Spinster” on the paperwork as we prepared to close on the house. The conversation went something like this:
Michelle: “I really don’t want to be called a spinster.”
Me: “Would you rather have the last name of Blanco or Wasserstrom?”
Michelle: “Blanco. Your last name is too long.”
Me: “I know. Been there, done it. What happens if we decide to get married later on?”
Michelle: “We’d have to fill out the paperwork all over again. That’s going to be a pain in the ass.”
Me: “Well then, Wasserstrom or spinster?”
Michelle: “Gun to my head, Wasserstrom.”
Me: “OK then, let’s get married.”
Five days later, after going through the metal detector, there we were in the lovely Skokie Courthouse – doing the “I do” thing with the honorable Jerry Orbach presiding. Judge Jerry Orbach – not Lennie Briscoe Jerry Orbach.
My Tiny Valentine
Our girls are now of the age where I think they kinda sorta comprehend where their Mom came from. As they close in on their teenage years (shoot me now), I want them to understand who Mom is and what she’s done.
She might be 5-foot-2 soaking wet … from a town that only had one stoplight when she was growing up … and she managed to play four varsity seasons in three sports while earning a college scholarship.
She’s one of the toughest people I know … overcoming a horrific ankle injury in 1997 that still causes her ankle to stiffen up pretty much every day … and enduring a 26-plus hour labor before her doctor finally went in and yanked the kids out before she hit him with a restraining order.
She’s an athlete … still getting in the trenches and helping young softball catchers with blocking drills and release times.
She’s put up with me through all of it, from the steadiness of a paycheck during the Cubs years to the what-the-heck-happened-to-Chuck black hole that I’ve finally started clawing myself out of.
Michelle is my personal PR project. She won’t brag about herself, so I get to. Her name can still be found in a half dozen single-season and career all-time Top 10 lists at Indiana State – and she hasn’t played there in 25 years. How cool is that?!
She batted .301 as a college senior during an era when .301 was pretty damn good. Sadly, the midget only walked five times in 128 plate appearances, but she has been known to say that you don’t walk off the island.
I was able to reach out to a friend of mine with the Missouri Valley Conference … who put me in touch with the right people in the Indiana State athletic department … who helped track down some information and pictures. I thank all of you very, very much for the assistance. And, best of all, I was able to obtain the wonderful photo of the “non-walker” in action. Way to keep your eye on the ball!
So, to the mother of our children … the one who loves the young and the old – and deals with the in-betweeners only if she has to … the neighborhood dog whisperer … and the person who has stuck with me through thick and thin (although I do worry that Michelle will repay me for this blog with a heavy pressurized pillow over my head) ... I’ll wrap this up in the bestest non-mushiest fashion that I can:
Happy Valentine's Day To My Best Friend,
The Guy You Saw Dressed Like This – But You Didn’t Walk Away