Way back in the day, the Cubs played their spring games at old old HoHoKam Park in Mesa, AZ – not to be confused with newer old HoHoKam Stadium, which was my spring training “home away from home” from 1997-2012.
Old Old HoHo was, shall we politely say, quaint. Much closer to a cemetery than a ballpark needs to be, there was a small parking lot, a no-frills grandstand, and a detached trailer for the 8-to-10 front office personnel who were Mesa-based for six weeks. That was our glamorous lifestyle. For me, the best part was being able to brag about having a desk inside a detached trailer, as in “You know you’re a redneck when your office is on wheels.”
The facility was even “quainter” inside the ballpark shell. Directly behind home plate, the top row of seats was directly in front of the open air press box. If fans stood up, you couldn’t see. If you were deep into a conversation, a fan sitting right in front of you would often stand up and interject. And since this was 1990-something, electricity wasn’t prevalent yet in Arizona – so there were barely any electrical outlets or an in-house public address system to make announcements.
Most of the time, you dealt with it. There were more important things to whine about when you’re “stuck” in the Valley of the Sun.
But most of the time didn’t include weekend home games when WGN-TV was broadcasting games live – when WGN was WGN, and Harry Caray, Steve Stone and Arne Harris ruled the landscape.
Harry wasn’t overly fond of old HoHoKam – and who could blame him. He was a creature of habit; he had his pregame routine, and there wasn’t much space for him to get his work in. During exhibition games, fans were always standing up in front of him to get his attention.
Harry was good with taking care of kid requests. He was real good with female fans. Most male fans, he took care of. And then there was Ronnie “Woo Woo” Wickers.
I won’t say that Harry always had issues with Ronnie, but Harry wasn’t a Ronnie booster in Mesa. Woo Woo was always trying to get on television. It was great for TV, but not for the Hall of Fame broadcaster.
I wish I could remember the year, but there was a weekend game in the mid-1990s that stands out as my greatest spring training story ever. For whatever reason, Harry wasn’t the happiest of campers that afternoon, and the crowd in front of him was less than cooperative. Despite his constant pleading that they sit down so he could see the game, Harry was fighting a losing battle.
A couple innings in, through the sea of fans, came that sound you just didn’t want to hear that day: “Cubs Woo! Cubs Woo! Harry Woo! Harry Woo!”
When Ronnie Woo Woo gets started, there is no stopping him. How he got to Arizona every spring, I have no idea. How he got to Tokyo for the Cubs/Mets 2000 season opener is an even bigger question.
On this particular day, Ronnie was coming through “loud and clear” on the WGN-TV microphones. It was hot in the press box, there was barely any wind cooling us off, and Harry was just not in a good mood. After a while, he had enough, and he marched over to my perch.
A normal conversation with Harry typically started with “Heyyyyyy ……. Chuuuuuuck.” When the “Hey” wasn’t there, he was serious – and there was no small talk. It meant I should do what he wanted me to do. Now.
“Chuuuuuuuck,” he said. “Keep him away from me. I don’t care what you do. Keep him out of here.”
Through all his whistling sounds, about five feet in front of us in the top row of the stands, Ronnie must have heard every other word Harry said. He started walking to the press box gate.
Mesa, circa 1994, was still the Old West. Things were very different in Arizona than they were in Chicago. The cops in Mesa WERE the cops on the TV show of that name.
With that in mind, if Harry wanted Ronnie Woo Woo kept away from him – then I better be doing my job.
I raced to the one (and only) press box entrance, beating Ronnie there by a good 30 seconds. It gave me time to prep the Mesa police officer guarding the entrance.
I made it very clear that Harry did not want Ronnie getting near him. I told him that Ronnie could not enter the press box – and that I didn’t care what the officer did as long as he kept Ronnie away from Harry.
By this point, Ronnie was quickly approaching the press box. I politely tried to shoo him away. If he had followed directions, this would not have been a story.
“Ronnie, Harry does not want you up here.”
“Harry loves me!,” he said.
“No Ronnie, he couldn’t have been more clear. You’re not getting up here.”
“Harry wants me on TV,” Ronnie said as he put his hand on the press box gate, swung it open and started to take his first step into the box.
Then it got surreal – as Ronnie knew what was happening before I did.
The police officer’s weapon was parallel to my left ear – and pointing directly at Ronnie’s head. Ronnie slowly and cautiously slinked backwards, and he quietly went away without putting up a fight.
I turned to the cop and said, “You know I was kidding about that, right?”
Without blinking an eye, the officer said: “Yeah, but I wasn’t kidding. I can’t stand that chirping.”
Needless to say, Ronnie stayed away from Harry the rest of that spring.