Just recently, there was a lot of discussion out there. We need more night games! How could you expect us to win when we play so many games during the day?
Remember all the angst and torment? How could the Cubs even think about adding light standards to Wrigley Field?
I make myself sound real old with this next sentence. But we’re now on generations – yes, generations, with a plural “s” – that don’t know what it was like to play major league baseball solely during daylight hours.
Today – August 8 – is the anniversary. The date still rolls off the tongue … 8/8/88.
And I remember it like it was … well … 29 years ago today. Wow, I do feel old.
Wrigley Field managed to survive almost 75 full years without lights. It has managed to survive 28 with lights, so I guess night baseball didn’t ruin the venerable park.
It’s not possible to forget all the buildup to that night.
And how could I forget the sights and sounds of the ballpark?
And then the game started.
Thankfully, the powers-that-be for the Cubs had already selected August 9 as a night game – as an alternative date in the event August 8 was postponed. Mercifully, the powers-that-be in the meteorology division didn’t interfere with that affair, and the first official night game took place without a hitch.
Happy 29th Anniversary to night baseball at Wrigley Field. In the immortal words of the late, great Harry Grossman, “Let there be lights!”
I always carry around a little spiral notebook in my back pocket. You never know when you’ll have to leave yourself a reminder message.
Carrying around a notebook didn’t just start once the AARP membership card arrived in the mail. I’ve carried a notebook in my pocket literally for decades. The baseball life – where you’re pulled in multiple directions at the same time – didn’t allow for forgetting things because you were off doing something else.
Those spiral notebooks can get beat up pretty quickly unless they have a little protection. Starting in the summer of 2000, my little spiral notebooks have sat inside a black leather case. My initials – CW – are engraved on the outside.
Don Baylor gave me that leather case as a gift.
Right now, the leather case/spiral notebook isn’t in my back pocket. It’s on the table, next to my laptop.
I’m glancing at it over and over. I’m sad to have learned the news that Mr. Baylor passed away earlier today.
I have to admit that when Don Baylor was named the Cubs’ manager in late 1999, I didn’t know what to expect. He had that intimidating look size-wise, he had a reputation as being hard-nosed, and you couldn’t help but know the success he had as a ballplayer. That, and the fact he got plunked 267 times as a player, and you knew he had to be tough.
During my time in the Cubs’ Media Relations Department, I worked with the club’s managers on a daily basis. And I had a bunch of managers to work with. Don Zimmer. Jim Essian. Jim Lefebvre. Tom Trebelhorn. Jim Riggleman. Don Baylor. Bruce Kimm. Dusty Baker. That list doesn’t include interims nor the managers I worked with when I moved into Baseball Operations.
The manager/media relations relationship is rather unique. I liken it to doctor/patient or lawyer/client or husband/wife in that there’s a lot of privileged, confidential verbiage being shared.
Think about the types of situations where a Media Relations person could be sitting one-on-one with the manager. Right after a game, when the manager only had a few minutes to vent before talking to the media. Right after a media session, when the manager might have just been agitated. Right after the manager met with the player … or the GM … and had less than pleasant news.
I always believed that one of my best traits was that the managers knew they could trust me. If the skipper was unhappy with the GM or a specific player or anything in particular, he could speak to me knowing it wasn’t going anywhere.
As it turned out, Mr. Baylor was soft-spoken. He chose his words, utilizing a “think before you speak” mentality. He was a gentle giant.
Of all the managers I worked with, Don Baylor was the only one to make sure he met my wife – and to make sure his wife met my wife.
It was during spring training, and we all went to dinner at an upscale Italian restaurant in Scottsdale. Don and Becky insisted that Michelle and I forego beer and have wine instead.
I’m a team player, so arm-twisting wasn’t necessary for me. Somehow, even Michelle went the wine route for the evening.
To this day, thanks to Mr. Baylor, the only wine Michelle will consider drinking is Jordan.
It was during a road trip to Florida and Atlanta prior to the 2002 All-Star break that Don Baylor was replaced as the Cubs’ manager.
He was told early in the morning that his services were no longer needed. I didn’t get a chance to say goodbye.
I waited a couple days, then gave him a call to thank him for everything.
Near the end of our conversation, he said something to the effect of “Whenever you and Michelle have kids, make sure to let us know.”
After my girls were born, the lightbulb in my head reminded me to give him a call. Shockingly, I didn’t need the little spiral notebook as a reminder for that one.
I indeed called him, and we talked. About a week later, a package arrived with embroidered blankets for the girls. Think about it … a former MVP and Manager of the Year and multiple-time Silver Slugger Award winner thought enough to send my newborns a present. While the kids are now closing in on 14, those blankets are housed in a keepsake box.
After my Cubs days, I lost touch with Don Baylor for a while, but when I needed him earlier this year – he was there for me.
I wrote a lengthy series of stories for MLB Trade Rumors about the 1992 baseball expansion draft and the birth of the Colorado Rockies and the Florida Marlins.
I talked to a bunch of people for those stories: The general managers for both teams … the scouting directors for both teams … key players for both teams. I also talked to each team’s first manager.
Rene Lachemann, Florida’s first manager, called me backed about an hour after I left him a message.
Don Baylor, Colorado’s first manager, was a little harder to track down.
After multiple messages, he called me back. We set up a time for an interview, but we had to reschedule a couple times. There was even a brief hospitalization.
I knew he wasn’t doing well. I don’t think the magnitude of it all sunk in for me, though.
We spoke for about half an hour. We talked about his son and grandchildren. We mostly talked about his time with the Rockies. We talked about managerial strategy. We reminisced about old times. I could tell that he was getting tired as the conversation continued.
The plan was to talk later on in time about his life post-baseball. The hope was that his health would return.
Sadly, that day didn’t come.
I’m staring down again at the black leather case. It meant a lot to me before today. It means even more now.
My condolences to Becky, his family, and his many friends. He will be missed.
I’ve been busy working on a couple stories, so I wanted to share with you one of my previous posts that I hope you enjoy.
Handwritten “Thank You” notes are among my most prized possessions from my days with the Cubs.
I don’t know why. I’m guessing it’s because someone took the time out of their day to recognize that a human being did something nice for them.
I’m also guessing it’s because my handwriting is horrific. As my wife has told me from time-to-time, I have the handwriting of a serial killer. That’s probably why I tape record my interview subjects – as there’s little chance I’d be able to read my own writing.
Unfortunately, I didn’t keep all of the “Thank You” notes in one place – which makes it difficult when you know you want to tell a little tale about this one letter in particular.
It took a while – as it was actually in a lock box – but I found it.
Back in the day, one of the great perks of working for the Cubs was getting to meet lots and lots of interesting people – especially in the entertainment industry. Perhaps you’ve heard that the Cubs are somewhat popular?!
Anyway, through a friend of a friend, I was fortunate enough to meet Eddie Vedder, spend quality time with him on multiple occasions, and see him and the band perform many times.
In my Media Relations career, I would send him media guides and Season in Review end-of-season booklets.
In the fall of 2001, Eddie asked if I could send him an extra Season in Review. He was going to be spending a lot of time in Los Angeles with a friend of his who was a huge baseball fan. Eddie went on-and-on about his friend, and said this guy would read it cover-to-cover and get a big kick out of receiving it.
I didn’t think anything of it. Of course, I sent the extra book to Mr. Vedder to give to his friend. Happy to do it!
Honestly, while I list Pearl Jam at the top of my personal “music influencers” chart, I didn’t really connect the dots as to who influenced my music influencers. Eddie had told me the name of his friend that he was hanging out with, but that was the guy’s pseudonym. I didn’t put two-and-two together and track down the real name.
So when I received a letter a few weeks later … with a baseball as a return address label … and a postmark of Hollywood, CA … I had no idea of what I was about to open.
The lightbulb didn’t go on for me when I read the name of the sender on the address label – John Cummings. I just figured it was a random note from a fan asking for something. I had no idea that was the real life name of the New York-born musician who was one of the great guitarists of all-time.
It wasn’t an “Ask” note. It was a “Thank You” note from a huge Yankees fan. And when I saw the signature at the end of the letter, the goose bumps raise on my arms the same way now as when I read it for the first time in 2001:
Thanks for the “Season in Review.” It was a very good season for the Cubs. The Yankees need to make some changes, increase their on-base percentage and slugging but I’m sure they will. Eddie is working on his autograph 8 x 10 Cubs collection, he has about 400 different Cubs players. If there is ever any “Ramones” items you need let me know I’d be happy to help out. Thank you again for thinking of me.
I don’t know what’s more awesome – that Johnny Ramone sent me a Thank You note or that THE Johnny Ramone actually thought about writing me a Thank You note. In any case, I’m so glad I have it.
HEY?! HEY?! HEY?! HEY?! HEY?! WHAT IS GOING ON HERE?!
OK … that was too easy.
How do you write about Dennis Haskins – who you and I both know as Mr. Belding – and not go straight to his catchphrase?
Well, here’s the story behind the story.
Last year, I began writing for the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga’s Alumni Affairs department. On my first-ever trip to Chattanooga, I was invited to a ceremony honoring Haskins, a UTC alum, who was making a sizeable contribution to the university’s library – his scripts from the “Saved By The Bell” series.
Haskins played Mr. Belding, the principal on “Good Morning, Miss Bliss,” “Saved By The Bell,” and “Saved By The Bell: The New Class” from 1987-2000 – a run of nearly 250 episodes.
After the ceremony, I was introduced to Haskins. We exchanged pleasantries, we took a picture together (which I’m including for your viewing pleasure), and we started the process of setting up an interview – which we later did for UTC.
During ensuing conversations, I learned about his love of music – and his love of baseball. I knew at some point I would want to share that with you.
You see, he gets invited to attend minor league baseball games – as Mr. Belding. During summer months, he can be found on the Mr. Belding Minor League Tour, where he goes to minor league parks across the country and does autograph signings, VIP meet-and-greets, and the 7th-Inning Stretch. Playing a principal in a family entertainment show has the fans lining up to meet him.
We recently talked by phone; Dennis was in New York – the day after Mr. Belding attended a Hudson Valley Renegades game (Hudson Valley is a team in the Class-A New York-Penn League).
Thanks to Facebook and Twitter, I see you all over the place. Tell me about the Mr. Belding Minor League Baseball Tour.
Dennis Haskins: “I'm invited to go. It's a wonderful thing. The really nice thing for me is that ‘Saved By The Bell’ was family entertainment. Parents could let their kids watch and not worry about what was being said. It was enjoyable for kids and a good moral was portrayed every episode.
“And minor league baseball is family entertainment. I've been to over 90 ballparks, and every ballpark wants to make sure that not just, quote, ‘the fans’ – but the fans and their kids have a great time at the ballpark; that it's a whole experience for them. From having kids parade around the outfield before games and having first pitches thrown from a variety of people to in-game between-inning contests, it's really a fun time so families come back. Because as you well know, players come and go.
“I met a guy by the name of Erik Haag a long time ago, and he was the general manager of the Southern Illinois Miners baseball team in addition to some other stuff. And I was talking about a karaoke CD. His holding company had a record label, but he said ‘Why don't you come to the ballpark because I think the fans would like to meet you, and you can do karaoke afterward?’
“Well, Erik and I now have worked together for over nine years, and that's how it began, just randomly. But it's really been a wonderful relationship with me going to the ballparks and meeting the fans. Lines lasting from the 2nd through the 6th inning that you've got to cut off because I do the 7th-inning stretch with kids on the dugout. I let the kids sing, do it a la Harry Caray, ‘A one, a two, a three.’ And by the way, last night I was in Hudson Valley with Josh Caray, Harry Caray's grandson – who was doing the games. How about that? Anyway, it's just a wonderful, wonderful experience for me, too.
“You know, Chuck, how can you not enjoy having person after person after person walk up to you with a big smile on their face and telling you they’re glad to meet you? Telling you that you helped raise them. Telling me about their favorite episode.”
Of the places you’ve been able to visit, what's your favorite ballpark?
“You know, I can't pick. I'll tell you why. Because there are Triple-A ballparks that I can go into this year; for example, I’m going to Columbus for my fourth year in a row. Then there's A-ball like the (Hudson Valley) Renegades.
“There's a different level of competition at every ballpark, but the experience for the fans is the same. Regardless of what the physical plant is, everybody that I've met associated with minor league baseball loves the game. They love to be part of it, from the interns to the presidents of the clubs to the general managers. I mean, it's really something. It's really something to see, it really is.”
I know you sign autographs, you throw out the first pitch, you sing the 7th-Inning Stretch. Do you have any memorable stories to share?
“I have a pretty cool first pitch story that I like to tell. When Steve Gliner was down in Fort Myers, he brought me to down there for a Fort Myers Miracle game a few years ago; they were part of the Twins organization then. Paul Molitor was down there working for the organization, and he actually knew ‘Saved By The Bell,’ which blew me away.
“So I'm out throwing the first pitch, and everybody's waiting, and I bounced it. And that's the cardinal sin of throwing first pitches. And I said, ‘Give me the ball back,’ to the catcher. And I threw it again – and I threw a strike. So as I'm walking off the field, and as only Paul Molitor could say, he said to me, ‘Life's about second chances, son.’ It was just so nice of him. He's a Hall of Famer and he took the time to make me feel better for throwing two pitches, you know.”
When I was in Chattanooga I visited the legendary Engel Stadium. Growing up in Chattanooga, did you get to a lot of games there?
“Engel Stadium, when I was a young guy, was a Twins franchise. Harmon Killebrew came through and played there, but I did not get to see him play. But I was a member of Joe Engel's Knothole Gang. And for those of you that don't know, a knothole is what kids used to look through from the outfield so they could see the game without having to pay. So that was a cool thing.
“And cut to the '70s when the stadium wasn't being used anymore. It was used for ‘42,’ the Jackie Robinson story. So it's had some film work, but it wasn't being used. And Atlanta and Nashville had summer concert series they did for free, and I thought, ‘Why not us?’ And this kid, who was a member of the Knothole Gang, Dennis Haskins ... To cut a long story very short, I was in charge of this series of ‘Concerts in the Park,’ I had the keys to the stadium. I would open it up and I would close it down. Me and Engel Stadium; I get chills all over me, man. Just us. What an amazing thing to be in there by yourself with all those memories of people that had come and gone, all those hopes and dreams, all the fans that had come to the games. How can you not love that? I don't think I've told that to too many people.”
Major league game or minor league game: Which do you prefer to watch?
“Well, it's two different things. It's apples and oranges; it's not apples and apples.
“I've seen great games in minor league ball. I saw a three-pitcher no-hitter. I believe it was in Columbus.
“I went into a Double-A game in Reading where I saw a young man named Matt Rizzotti play. I heard that this young man had hit three home runs in four days. He suited up and wanted to take a picture with me. I said to him, ‘Hey, you think you can hit a home run for me?’ And he said, ‘Aw, man.’ But guess what? He hit a home run in the 7th inning, and everybody goes, ‘And the ball was Bye-bye Belding.’ It was out of here, you know? And it made the national sports news; it made the sports bar because I asked and he delivered.
“I thought, ‘I'm never going to get another chance to ask a ballplayer to hit a home run for me.’ It’s not quite the old story of the sick kid in bed dying and ‘I'll hit one for you.’ But I thought, ‘Why not ask?’ And son of a gun, he hit it.”
I'll stay on that topic for a moment. How important has Principal Richard Belding been to your life?
“One of the nice things is that most people say, ‘Mr. Belding’ when referring to the character. ‘Hey, Mr. Belding. Hey Mr. B.’ Because the writers made sure ... the role of the principal is the job he had. Mr. Belding was the character he was, and he'd always make sure to do what was best for the kids.
“I don't think I can put into words how important having played Mr. Belding is. Just today, I got to go see a young lady that's become a friend of mine who's on the Today Show, Dylan Dreyer. And then I got to go see S.E. Cupp, who is at CNN. And these things happened as a result of them liking my show and me liking theirs, and we kind of met each other. But those are things that would never have happened if I hadn't played Mr. Belding.
“I got to stand in the Oval Office of the White House years ago in the Clinton administration because of playing Mr. Belding on ‘Saved By The Bell.’ I was recognized in Bucharest, Romania, while I was there. This guy walks down the street and he looked at me and he pointed at me, and then he goes, ‘Teacher?’ Then he goes, ‘Principal.’ Because the first American TV show aired in Romania after the Ceausescu regime was overturned was ‘Saved By The Bell.’ I mean, you can't make this up.
“Just today leaving the CNN Building with S.E., she said, ‘Oh, I think somebody's recognized you.’ And this guy … he had this wonderful smile on his face and wanted to take a picture. And we did – and that is priceless to me. That's something you can't go, ‘OK, that's worth $10,000. OK, that's worth $500.’ No, that's worth an unbelievable amount of joy and love, and there's not a price on it.”
Final question: I know singing “Take Me Out To The Ball Game” at Wrigley Field is on your bucket list. How cool would it be to do the 7th Inning there?
“How could you top doing it at Wrigley Field with Harry Caray having been the legend ... every ballpark I go to, I do ‘Take Me Out To The Ballgame’ a la Harry Caray. ‘A one, a two, a three.’ And everybody knows right when to come in. It's baseball. I can't imagine anywhere better to do ‘Take Me Out To The Ballgame.’
“But I have to tell you, last night in Hudson Valley near Poughkeepsie, with 10 kids on that dugout singing their hearts out, some with the words, some not. You can't top that, either. I mean, those kids had an experience they'll never forget, and their families and the fans got to see kids singing ‘Take Me Out To The Ballgame’ at America's pastime, a baseball game.”
A Midsummer Night’s Classic, Revisited
I originally posted this story the day of the All-Star Game last year.
I sat in the stands for the 1989 All-Star Game in Anaheim – when Bo Jackson hit one of the longest home runs I’ve ever witnessed. I worked the 1990 All-Star Game at Wrigley Field and the 2003 All-Star Game at U.S. Cellular Field.
But my biggest All-Star memory took place in 1995. The game was taking place in Arlington, Texas – but I was at Soldier Field. Baseball, for that night, was not even a blip on my radar.
Please allow me to turn back the clock … to July 11, 1995.
* * * * *
Growing up, I never missed an All-Star Game.
The annual July affair was a must-see TV event for me – and the games were typically exciting to watch, waiting for my favorite Cubs to get into the game. And when a Cub did something special – like Bill Madlock recording the game-winning hit in 1975 – it was a magical moment for me. I’m sure it was magical for Madlock, too.
Once I joined the Cubs – first as an intern, then in a full-time role – that love for the All-Star Game intensified. In the pre-internet days, there was the excitement of getting to announce it to the world that a Cub had been selected. There were game notes to be researched and media guide information to be gleaned. While the game didn’t “count” officially, it was more than just an exhibition contest to me.
But all of that All-Star love came to a one-night stop when I got “the call” in 1995.
To make a short story long …
Back in the day, I was a Pearl Jam fan well before pretty much anyone I knew. I heard the band’s first album on a Montreal alternative college music station during a 1991 road trip – and I was hooked. The band’s popularity grew and grew, as did my affinity for their work.
One of my media relations counterparts – the legendary Jim Trdinich of the Pittsburgh Pirates – had a similar attraction for Pearl Jam. But in the category of “Six Degrees of Separation,” he was one step closer.
Jimmy T., as he’s known in baseball circles, had hit it off with George Webb – a lifelong Pirates fan who has the music version of the dream job I had with the Cubs. George is a jack-of-all-trades, under-the-radar member of Pearl Jam, serving as an equipment manager and taking care of the guitars and amps. George performs a multitude of behind-the-scenes roles for the band and has gone out of his way to take care of me over the years.
In late June during the 1995 season, the Pirates were in Chicago – and the subject of Pearl Jam came up in a conversation with me and Jimmy T. While I knew Pearl Jam was going to be playing at Soldier Field in a few weeks, it never dawned on me to actually go see them. They were playing the same night as the All-Star Game, for crying out loud. Did I mention that the All-Star Game was “must see” for me?
A couple days after the Cubs/Pirates series was over, I received a phone call from Mr. Trdinich. He told me that I was going to the Pearl Jam concert. He told me that George Webb would be giving me a call to let me know where to pick up the tickets. He told me I’d survive if I missed one All-Star Game.
And then the call came.
George introduced himself to me, told me he was leaving me two tickets and two backstage passes, and that I should come early to say hello to him. He also told me that Eddie Vedder was a huge Cubs fan – which I had known – and that Eddie wanted to meet me.
I played along. While I didn’t want to doubt George’s sincerity, I really didn’t think the lead vocalist for one of the biggest rock bands on the planet wanted to meet Chuck Wasserstrom.
So on Tuesday night, July 11, instead of watching the National League and American League face off in Arlington, TX, I headed off to Soldier Field with one of my Pearl Jam-loving Cubs co-workers, Jay Rand. We picked up the tickets and backstage passes without a problem, walked to the stage area without a problem, told security we were there to see George – and were escorted directly to him without a hitch. This was Pearl Jam. Nothing was going wrong.
George brought us to the stage to give us a tour of his area. He assured me that Mr. Vedder wanted to meet me – but, since Chicago was his hometown, Eddie had a lot of family members to tend to. He’d try to come over.
I could have been disappointed, but I really wasn’t. Seriously, did I really think he wanted to meet me?
And whatever disappointment I could have had would have been eliminated when George asked the ultimate question … Did we want to hang near him for the concert?
I could have been watching the All-Star Game on TV in my Evanston apartment. Instead, I watched Pearl Jam play just inches out of the crowd’s view. Eddie Vedder was closer to me than the mound is to the plate.
It … was … awesome. Pearl Jam played for a solid three hours. It was electric. A sold-out Soldier Field rocked. I felt like such a groupie, and I didn’t care.
I will never see a better show. It’s a similar feeling to watching the 4th of July in fireworks in Boston … along the Charles River … with the Boston Pops playing in the background. Once you’ve seen that, every other fireworks display pales in comparison.
At the end of the evening, George had the audacity to apologize that Eddie hadn’t come over to say Hi. He said Eddie would be giving me a call. I was on such a high from the show that I actually believed him.
* * * * *
Yeah, right. Eddie Vedder was going to call me.
The following Monday, the Cubs played a long, three-plus hour night game. It was a particularly tough loss because it was a tie game heading into the 9th inning; five runs later, we were staring at a 7-2 defeat.
After doing my normal postgame duties – which meant hanging around the clubhouse overseeing media activities for approximately 45 minutes – I returned to my desk in the media relations department. This would have been around 11 p.m. I had checked my messages before I headed to the clubhouse, so I was a bit surprised when my voicemail light was on.
At first, I ignored the message light and started working on the next day’s game notes. Then curiosity got the best of me – and I dialed my voicemail.
The following paraphrased message was waiting for me:
“Hey Chuck, this is Eddie. Thanks for coming out last week. I know it was a tough loss tonight, but if you get a chance, I’m staying at the ‘Xxxxxx’ Hotel. Call xxx-xxx-xxxx. Ask the operator for ‘Xxxx Xxxxxx’ – and she’ll transfer the call to me. I’ll be in town for the next week. I’d love to meet you.”
I don’t know what the right word was … Surreal? Unreal? Stunned?
Whatever the case, I played back the message multiple times. It was hard to believe. It sounded like him, but it wasn’t really registering.
I finally got up, walked into my boss’ office and said, “I think Eddie Vedder left me a voicemail.” My boss, Sharon Pannozzo, then stated the obvious. “Are you going to call him back?”
I dialed the hotel and gave the alias name. The operator asked for my name – then immediately transferred me through. After one ring, I was on the phone with Eddie Vedder. Just like that, I was a groupie!
We talked for easily half an hour. I tried to act cool, but I’m sure I was stuttering and drooling all over the place. He talked about growing up in Evanston and taking the Howard “L” to Wrigley Field. He talked about Jose Cardenal being his hero when he was a kid. He talked about having to dress up – hat, wig, and sunglasses – and watch games in the bleachers to avoid getting noticed.
I struck up the nerve to ask if he wanted to watch a game from the press box with me – where I could supervise so that people would leave him alone. He said yes, and we picked a game date on the next homestand.
I would not refer to myself as being “star struck.” Heck, sometimes, I don’t even show a pulse. In the pre-7th Inning Stretch days, I had met plenty of celebrities – and fawning was not one of my characteristics. But this was different. This was the lead vocalist of one of the biggest rock bands in the United States. Eddie Vedder was coming to Wrigley Field to see his beloved Cubs – and he was going to be sitting next to me.
I wouldn’t believe the story myself, but plenty of media were there that afternoon to witness the blessed event. Eddie Vedder, spending a ballgame sitting between Chuck Wasserstrom and Les Grobstein – and trading Jose Cardenal stories. Eddie’s stories were of Cardenal being his boyhood hero. Mine were about seeing Jose multiple times at Gulliver’s Pizzeria on Howard Street in my old neighborhood. Lord knows what Les’ stories were about. It was a day where I introduced Eddie to Harry Caray and Andy MacPhail. It was a day where Eddie the Cubs fans got the chance to go into the Cubs clubhouse and meet the players.
Somehow, I managed to juggle hero worship and work.
I had a lot of awesome experiences during my 25 years with the Cubs. Most were baseball related. Some of it was family related. But this was oddly dreamlike.
Over the rest of my time with the Cubs, I saw Eddie Vedder and the guy who made it all happen – George Webb – from time-to-time in both musical and ballpark settings. I was able to introduce Eddie to a bunch of Cubs – including loyal reader Steve Trachsel – and I saw numerous concerts.
But nothing ever compared to that initial voicemail. It was the phone call that I never expected to receive.
I have to be honest. I have never seen the play.
I watched a lot of baseball during my time with the Cubs. But during the bottom of the 9th inning on September 23, 1998, I was in the Milwaukee County Stadium third-base dugout tunnel – waiting for the game to be completed. I was too far back to see anything. I could hear the dugout and the stands, but I didn’t know what was going on.
All I knew was, when I went from the clubhouse to the tunnel, the Cubs had a lead. I could tell that there were two out. Then all of a sudden, the crowd got loud – but not in a home run sort of way – and Cubs personnel started exiting the dugout in a hurry. It didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that a one-time 7-0 Cubs lead had turned into a loss.
This was not good. There were only three games left in the regular season, and the Cubs were in a tight wild-card race.
Before manager Jim Riggleman addressed the media after the game, I had no choice. I had to ask him what happened. “I don’t know,” he said. “He dropped the ball.”
Everyone who saw the play knew what happened. A ball was hit to left field, and Brant Brown didn’t catch it.
After Riggleman talked, I made sure to keep an eye on Brant. He stood there and faced the music. He didn’t make excuses.
At the end of the day, so to speak, the Cubs made the postseason. It just turned out that a Game 163 needed to get played, but what’s wrong with a little drama?
I sincerely hope Brant is remembered for a whole lot more than that one defensive play. For me, when I hear the name Brant Brown, I think of all the big hits he had during that 1998 season. And what stands out are the back-to-back Fridays during a 10-game winning streak May 29-June 8. Brant ended both Friday afternoon affairs with extra-inning homers off lefties, hitting a 2-run 11th-inning homer off Atlanta’s John Rocker and a 12th-inning roundtripper off the White Sox’s Tony Castillo.
And best of all, Brant’s home run trots were of the sprint variety.
Who knows? If Brant didn’t end both of those games, maybe the Cubs would have lost one of them – and not gone to the postseason.
Brant was a key contributor to the Cubs all year, batting .291 with 14 homers in his most extensive big league action. He played for the Cubs from 1996-1998 and again in 2000. He also spent time with Pittsburgh and Florida.
Late last week, I caught up with Brant – who is now the Seattle Mariners’ minor league offensive coordinator. Yes … an offensive coordinator. We obviously talked about his time with the Cubs – and that one specific play – but I did ask him to describe his job to me at the beginning of our conversation.
The title “offensive coordinator” is a different term than a lot of people are used to seeing associated with baseball. Tell me about your role with the Mariners.
Brant Brown: “Instead of having a hitting coordinator, a baserunning coordinator and a bunting coordinator, which are all kind of offensive aspects – since I do all three of them – they just kind of tabbed it as offensive coordinator. I know it sounds footballish. When I say offensive coordinator, I get the eye sometimes, like ‘What?’ Then I'll just be like, ‘I’m in charge of scoring runs.’ I also do the outfield defense as well, so there are a few different things on my plate to help out the Mariners in our minor league organization.”
I know you began your coaching career in the Texas Rangers’ minor league system – and that Scott Servais was the person who hired you when he was in charge of that team’s player development department (Brown and Servais were Cubs teammates from 1996-1998). How did it all go down?
“I was actually in Bakersfield (Calif.) after my playing career, and I was running a facility there called the Bakersfield Swing – where we gave lessons. There was a place next to us where the kids could develop fitness and get treatment, and we had a couple travel teams. This one day, I went out to Sam Lynn Ballpark – which was the High-A California League affiliate of the Texas Rangers. Scottie was the farm director of the Rangers at the time, and I saw him there. We just got to talking. About that time, it was about my fourth year of running the facility. I just said, ‘Hey man, if anything ever pops up, I would love to interview for a position in professional baseball.’ I was ready to get elevated above the level where I was and get back into something that I loved.
“It just happened to work out. After that season, for whatever reason, they needed a minor league hitting coach. Scottie called me and got me together with their hitting coordinator, Mike Boulanger, and we talked. I flew out to Arizona and did some work before spring training and then I got hired. It was kind of nice to be able to live in the town that I was working in for my first two years, and then I ended up spending six seasons with the Rangers at multiple levels as a hitting coach.”
It must have been neat reuniting with a former teammate.
“Yeah. We were teammates for three years. We were locker mates for three years, so he was right next to me at home. Obviously, I got to know him well; I'm not going to say more than most, but we were side-by-side a lot of days for three years. We were both Packer fans so we had that in common. Actually, we went to a Packer game against the Bears after our playoff season of ’98. I really respected him. I got along with him, and it was just kind of a fortunate event to be able to run into him at that time and point in my life.”
Was there a point as players, just sitting around the clubhouse, that the topic of coaching after you were done playing came up?
“No. To be honest with you, I could always see Scottie as a manager, because most catchers – they're so involved with every aspect of the game. That's why they're usually so good at managing. You see a lot of them as managers. I never really had any thoughts of what I was going to do afterward. I did have a love of hitting. Even when we hit in the off-season, before video and breaking down of the swing was really a part of teaching hitting, my friends and I would always do it in the off-season. So I did have a passion for it. I just never really put it together until after my playing career was over.”
You mentioned the 1998 season. If you don’t mind, let’s get the elephant out of the way. Obviously, there was a dropped fly ball in Milwaukee. How long did it take to get over it? I know the reality was “no harm, no foul” – because the Cubs made the playoffs anyway.
“Yeah. You know, it was the most difficult time in my career for sure. To be honest, I don't really look back into my career a lot. I didn't really save a lot of stuff. I'm not really a dweller or someone that kind of opens up the yearbooks. I saved a couple things that I liked, but other than that, that's about it. But that was a really tough time. I mean, we were in the hunt. I know that we went to the playoffs anyway. As many questions as I got on it, I tried to play it off as, ‘Hey I got us an extra game in Chicago and made a lot of people a lot of money with that extra game and us winning that game.’ But it was a really tough time. It took me a long time to shake that off, and then I was traded (to Pittsburgh) that off-season.
“To be honest with you, I probably should've sought out some help because I had some issues with catching a fly ball after that – which I didn't really admit to anybody – and it really kind of cost me in Pittsburgh. It cost me my starting job in center field. They had to take me out. I had to take a couple games off, and then I ended up going to rightfield, kind of changing the angle. It afforded me the ability to get back on defense. I'm such a perfectionist, and it was really, really tough for me to let that go.”
You just said you should've sought help. Obviously, you’re able to talk about it. Does knowing that you needed to talk something out help you psychologically when you're working with minor league players?
“Yeah. If a kid is struggling, I make sure to let him know that it's better to talk about the problem than just to say that everything is OK. You can't really solve a problem unless you admit that there is one. In my coaching career, there have been a couple cases where the kids have had trouble with fly balls or whatever. I've kind of done a couple things drill-wise and skill-wise to help them get them through that because I was there. I just ended up solving the problem on my own. But it probably could've been a little bit expedited if I would have had some help.”
You played parts of five years in the majors. Looking back, what would you have liked to have known that you now know?
“I would probably say if there was a genie in a bottle … this is best case scenario for me. Put me right back in Chicago in ’98 right after the Philadelphia series in June where I had four home runs in two days. From that point on, if I could take what I know now, I think my career would've probably been a lot longer. The catch was a big incident for me; I never really recovered from my spiral with that.
“I had better numbers when I started than coming in and pinch hitting, but that would've also been something to go into because I’ve learned how to become a better pinch hitter or bench player. That comes from all this stuff that I talk about as a hitting coordinator with our guys – about controlling the zone. Laying off bad pitches and hitting good pitches. If I had known more about that, it probably would have helped me.
“I was kind of a high-energy guy. If I could've learned a little bit more about yoga and breathing and all this stuff I do now, I think things would definitely have been a little bit different. But, I get to use all those cases and scenarios to assist now and help the Mariners player development be the best that we can possibly be – and helping all these kids to make them better players and better people.”
Last question … what was the bigger major league highlight for you – the three-homer game against Philly or those back-to-back Fridays earlier in the year when you hit game-winning extra-inning home runs?
“Back in my old days, without thinking about things and kind of the right way of thinking, I would have definitely said the three home runs. That was awesome because it was one to each field. But the two walk-offs were just unbelievable. Especially hitting one off of John Rocker; I can't even remember seeing that baseball. They were both off of lefties.
“But truthfully, the point in which we beat San Francisco and we were able to run out on that field knowing that we won the wild-card game and we were going to the playoffs. For me, that would probably be the best moment. The people in the stands and the city afterward. That's definitely something that Chicago experienced more after winning the World Series last year, but it was just so nice for our players – to give back to the fans and the city of Chicago. To be able to put together a winning team. For me looking back, that would be the finest moment of my career.”
This is one of my favorite stories. Baseball and the 4th of July are an American tradition – and Ernie Harwell’s story of baseball as America’s game is the best way to share it.
* * * * *
“Baseball is the President tossing out the first pitch of the season. And a pudgy schoolboy playing catch with his dad on a Mississippi farm.”
I remember the start of that speech as if it happened yesterday. It was one of the coolest little talks I ever was part of.
It was the Sunday before the All-Star break in 2001, and the Cubs were finishing the first half in Detroit. Manager Don Baylor, one of the nicest guys I met in the game and the person who introduced me to Jordan wine, wanted to do something special for the team prior to the break.
Don had heard Ernie Harwell recite a poem he had written about baseball, and he reached out to the Hall of Fame broadcaster prior to our trip. He thought it would be a neat experience to have his players hear Harwell talk, especially since Ernie was nearing the end of his legendary career. Ernie, then 83, retired the following year.
“Baseball is a spirited race of man against man, reflex against reflex. A game of inches. Every skill is measured. Every heroic, every failing is seen and cheered – or booed. And then becomes a statistic.”
Due to playing in separate leagues, this was only the second time that the Cubs had traveled to Detroit for regular season games. Rumor has it that the Cubs had played World Series affairs against the Tigers, but that was way before my time.
During my previous trip to Detroit in 1998, a good word to use for the trek there was “chaotic.” Sammy Sosa and a large-and-growing media throng had come to town during his historic 20-homer June – and he didn’t disappoint, first tying then setting the major league record for homers in a month. His 18th homer of the month June 24 at old Tiger Stadium tied Rudy York’s August 1937 record, while his 19th roundtripper June 25 established a new standard (he finished the month with 20).
But this second trip to Detroit – this time at Comerica Park – became just as memorable for me.
“Baseball is a rookie (his experience no bigger than the lump in his throat) trying to begin fulfillment of his dream. It’s a veteran, too – a tired old man of 35 hoping his aching muscles can pull him through another sweltering August and September.”
Ernie, a very gracious man, was more than happy to talk to the team. He had initially published a piece in The Sporting News in 1955, and he continued to tweak his poem. He would recite his love affair with the sport whenever he could, in his wonderful Southern voice, mesmerizing the group in front of him.
I met Mr. Harwell for the first – and only – time that morning. Don had talked all week about how great the speech was going to be, and made it a point to bring me into his office to introduce me to Ernie.
As it was the last day before the break, there was no batting practice. Everyone was dressed in their road uniforms when Ernie entered the players’ portion of the clubhouse.
“Baseball? It’s just a game – as simple as a ball and a bat. Yet, as complex as the American spirit it symbolizes. It’s a sport, business and sometimes even a religion.”
This particular Sunday morning, I really needed to hear a baseball story. I had spent the better part of that weekend refereeing a battle between a coach and a beat writer over stupid stuff, and I needed an escape.
I needed to be taken back in time, and Mr. Harwell didn’t disappoint.
“The fairy tale of Willie Mays making a brilliant World Series catch and then dashing off to play stick ball in the streets with his teenage pals – that’s baseball. So is husky voiced Lou Gehrig saying, ‘I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth.’ ”
I remember listening to Ernie’s words – but not staring at him as he talked. Instead, I was off to the side, watching the faces of the players and coaches. Guys like Joe Girardi … and Eric Young … and Ricky Gutierrez … just hanging on his every word.
This was storytelling at its finest.
“Baseball is cigar smoke, hot roasted peanuts, Sporting News, Ladies Day, Down in Front, Take Me Out to the Ball Game, the Seventh Inning Stretch and the Star-Spangled Banner.”
When Ernie completed his speech, several players wandered over to thank him. Being the Southern gentleman that he was, he thanked them for listening to him talk.
The great Ernie Harwell then came over to me and asked, “So, was that OK?”
Was that OK? He could have done his speech in a Foster Brooks voice or as Elmer Fudd, and I would have said it was awesome.
At that point, Ernie started telling me that he always liked to write, but that he didn’t get to do it enough.
He then told me he had hard copies of his original poem at home – and he asked if I’d like a copy of it to pass on to anyone who wanted it.
I said "Yes," then gave him my business card with the ballpark address. He then went upstairs to the press box to finish preparing for that day's broadcast.
“Baseball is a man named Campanella telling the nation’s business leaders, “You have to be a man to be a big leaguer, but you have to have a lot of little boy in you, too.”
Ernie literally went home and put the check in the mail. A couple days later, an envelope arrived for me at Wrigley Field. It was a copy of his article, along with a hand-written note.
I didn’t keep a lot of mementos from my Cubs days, but one thing I did keep were the personalized notes. And I’m so glad I held on to them – especially when a Hall of Famer sends you a note.
“This is a game for America – this is baseball.
“A game for boys and for men.”
Yes, I know … I often talk about not having a lot of memorabilia. But when something is given to you out of the blue, does that count as memorabilia – or as a treasured keepsake?
One of my roughest years in baseball was 1994. It wasn’t just a rough year for me and the Cubs; it was a rough year for the whole sport. The Cubs weren’t very good – note to self: going winless at home in April is not cause for celebration – and a work stoppage was looming. Quite honestly, by the time the season came to a screeching halt in August, it was time for a mental break.
If you recall, the 1993 club was fairly decent and finished over .500 at 84-78. Once baseball resumed in 1995, that Cubs team went 74-70 and was in the wildcard race until the last few days of the campaign. But the 1994 season just plain old stunk. At times, it seemed as if people didn’t want to be there.
And then, one day, completely out of the blue, one person wasn’t going to be there anymore.
That date was June 13 – an off-day before a West Coast road trip. At that point in the season, the club was 23-37 and in last place in the N.L. Central – 11.5 games out of first. I can assure you, things weren’t going to get better the rest of that year.
There was a weird vibe in the building that morning; something didn’t feel quite right. Then the word trickled down to the Media Relations department … Ryne Sandberg was announcing his retirement.
Sandberg was only 34. True, he was struggling that season, but he’d been an All-Star in each of his previous 10 campaigns. He had won nine Gold Gloves. He had seven Silver Sluggers. For crying out loud, he was still Ryne Sandberg.
Like everyone else, I was stunned. But there was no time to go through the motions.
My routine the day the team was leaving to go out of town – and I wasn’t on a trip – included going to the clubhouse … saying Hi to the manager and coaches and checking in to see if there was anything they needed before heading on the road … saying Hi to the training staff … and getting the game notes done for the following day.
So I walked down to the Cubs clubhouse – and I was told Sandberg was already there in the training room. I walked in, and there he was – just talking and acting as if everything was normal.
I gave him a “hello” head nod and started to leave the training room. He said something to the effect of, “Hey. Hold on.”
Ryne followed me out of the training room. He asked me if I knew what was going on.
I had no choice. I answered “Yes and No.”
He knew what I meant. Ryne didn’t explain everything, but he told me he needed to retire for family reasons. Over the course of time, we all learned out what that meant. He also said to come see him after the announcement; he had something for me.
I wasn’t thinking memorabilia or anything like that. I was figuring he had something that needed to be returned upstairs. Actually, I wasn’t thinking much at all; I hadn’t mentally planned for a day without Ryne Sandberg on the team.
The next couple hours were an absolute blur. Press conference. One-on-one interviews. Constant thoughts transcribed on the back of the press release for notes ideas – as this was someone retiring who was someday heading to Cooperstown.
After the press conference, I walked back downstairs to a quiet home clubhouse. Ryne was going through some things in his locker. I wandered over to him to thank him for everything, and he handed me a brown shopping bag – rolled over multiple times at the top.
“Open this later on,” he said to me.
I made it all the way back to my desk before curiosity got the best of me.
Inside the brown paper bag was a Rawlings glove – with the red Rawlings label surrounded by a gold band.
On the side of the glove, a message simply read:
Thanks for everything.
I didn’t know what to say. I still couldn’t believe it was over.
Thankfully, it wasn’t totally over; he did return to play in 1996 and 1997. And when he announced in August 1997 that he was going to retire at the end of that season, it somehow felt right this time.
I do look at that Rawlings Glove all the time. I can’t help it; it sits atop the living room TV.
While the writing on the glove is faded now, his legacy as the best overall second baseman I’ve ever seen remains as strong as ever.
Has anyone seen the picture of me and ZZ Top?
Apparently, by asking that question in the form of a story, the glorious answer was “Yes.”
Late last week, I wrote of my longing for a missing photo I took with Billy Gibbons and Dusty Hill of ZZ Top back in the early 1990s. I’m 99-percent positive that framed photo is around the house somewhere, but its whereabouts have been a complete mystery to me.
While I don’t know where the original is hiding, at least I can now share a copy of it.
In what can also best be described as a mystery, for some unknown reason over the 16-plus years I’ve lived in this house, that photo – at least for a few moments – matriculated across the street. On top of that, for some other unknown reason, which I can only assume to be the awesomeness of the photo, my neighbor had the photograph on her kitchen counter and snapped a picture of my picture.
Thanks to the storage capabilities of her iPhone, I have some of my memories back.
Anyway, about an hour after posting that story and doing the social media thing via Facebook and Twitter, I received a text from my neighbor. It read: “I’m not exactly sure why … ” Attached to the text was the picture of yours truly sitting in the Wrigley Field third-base dugout being sandwiched by Gibbons and Hill.
When I clicked on the attachment, it was like hearing angels singing – except they were singing “Sharp Dressed Man.”
After I moved the photo over to my computer to (hopefully) save it for posterity, I couldn’t help but laugh. As I had written in the previous story: “It was a great photo – a smiling me with my two-inch thick glasses sandwiched between two guys in big black cowboy hats and indescribably long beards. There’s no other way to put it … I was super-nerd between two super-cool musicians.”
Now, from a jury duty perspective, the picture clearly shows no big black cowboy hats. Epic fail on my part. In fact, I think the hats they’re wearing can now best be described as the headwear found on the scalps of baseball scouts on a field near you. But the beards are long – tell me how to describe the length other than indescribably long – and trust me, my glasses were thick. I indeed was super-nerd between two super-cool musicians.
I publicly would like to thank my neighbor – THANK YOU! – but I’m maintaining her privacy and not mentioning the name. If she had this picture on her phone, I do wonder what other photos she might have on me. That makes for a whole different story.
If a picture is worth 1,000 words, how many words does it take to write about a picture that you can’t find?
Not quite 1,000, I can assure you. I’m guessing somewhere in the 750 range.
During my time with the Cubs – especially during my media relations days – I didn’t collect a ton of memorabilia. For some reason, I painted some high-and-mighty “professional decorum” label on myself. Sure, I have a few photos and some autographs, but I don’t have a museum to display.
The further removed I am from my time with the Cubs, though, I wish I hadn’t held myself up to that exacting standard. I realize most items you acquire go on to become clutter, but it would be nice to have a few more mementos of my time at Clark and Addison streets. Some would be fun just to show off to my kids. Some would definitely be worth sharing with all of you. And most importantly, some would be great story fodder – especially if it was artwork that could supplement the narrative.
I wish I had pictures of myself with Harry Caray … or Ernie Banks … or Ron Santo … or Jack Brickhouse. Too late for that.
I wish I had pictures of myself with some of the celebrities I crossed paths with over the years, like Billy Crystal and Gregory Hines and Bill Murray and Charlie Sheen and a host of others. Nope, I didn’t do the fanboy thing.
Granted, I do have some photos with some Sports Illustrated swimsuit models. Maybe I’ll trot out those beauty and the beast pictures at some point (by beast, I’m referring to me).
But … do you know what’s worse than not having physical memorabilia? Breaking down, asking to take a picture, knowing you have possession of the photo, and then not being able to find it. Aargh.
The exact year is sketchy, but I know it was in the early 1990s. This one morning before batting practice, a member of the Cubs’ marketing department told me that she was going to be escorting ZZ Top around. If I wanted to meet the band members, stop by the dugout during BP.
I couldn’t have gotten through my early years in college without MTV; growing up inside Chicago city limits, I had never actually had cable TV before I went away to college. And one of my favorite MTV groups was ZZ Top.
I know it’s supposed to be about the music and not the videos, but think about those songs: “Legs” … “Sharp Dressed Man” … “Gimme All Your Lovin’.”
I’d still watch those videos today if I knew how to work the TV remotes at home. Thinking about those guys in cowboy hats and long 12-inch beards. I still can’t just listen to “Cheap Sunglasses,” as my kids constantly get on me whenever I sing anything from the ’80s.
“When you get up in the morning and the light is hurt your head
The first thing you do when you get up out of bed
Is hit that streets a-runnin' and try to beat the masses
And go get yourself some cheap sunglasses”
As it turned out, the two bearded members of ZZ Top – Dusty Hill and Billy Gibbons – were indeed at Wrigley Field that particular day. Both were very friendly. Both stayed out of the way, opting to watch batting practice from the dugout.
I broke my vow and approached them, asking if it would be OK to take a picture with them. Of course, they agreed – and team photographer Steve Green took a picture of me with Hill and Gibbons. It was a great photo – a smiling me with my two-inch thick glasses sandwiched between two guys in big black cowboy hats and indescribably long beards.
There’s no other way to put it … I was super-nerd between two super-cool musicians.
That photo went on to infamy as the centerpiece of the Cubs’ holiday party slide show – with the emcee (I won’t sell him out) making some reference about my spending a Saturday morning sitting with a pair of Hassidic rabbis. Heck, it was a funny line! And if I had the picture to show you, you’d find it funny, too.
It’s been roughly 25 years since that photo was taken, and I wish I knew where it was. I know I had a framed copy of it back in my apartment days, but it’s whereabouts these days are unknown.
Hopefully one of these days that photo will magically reappear. And if it does, I'll surely share it.
Ironically, I’m fighting a cold right now, but I couldn’t resist a little self-deprecation. Here’s my little story of a game of catch – or lack thereof – on the hallowed grounds of Wrigley Field.
I need to let you in on a little secret: I never was a good athlete.
Just because I wasn’t a good athlete didn’t mean I wasn’t a wannabe. I loved playing baseball as a kid. I loved playing running bases either in our backyard or with the neighbors up the street. I loved playing fast-pitch behind Rogers School … or Boone School … or Clinton School. I couldn’t get enough of the game during the summer.
But I just wasn’t a good athlete. My parents may argue with me over that, but my wife and kids will nod their collective heads in agreement.
I made it through 99.999 percent of my Cubs career being an observer and not a participant. For me, sweating at work meant I was frantically running around because the club was about to make an announcement – or it was hot outside.
But that other 0.001 percent is the day I played the faux athlete role. It was a day that lives in infamy. Hopefully, you weren’t there to witness it.
It’s the day Bob Patterson made me play catch with him.
Patterson was a southpaw relief specialist for the Cubs from 1996-1998. The left-handedness gave us a natural bond. He was a “late in life” guy by baseball standards; he had his best big league success – and saw his most extensive action – at ages 37 and 38. He was a fun guy to talk to, and he always had something interesting to say.
This one Sunday morning in Chicago, Patterson and yours truly were sitting in the Wrigley Field dugout just shooting the breeze. There was no batting practice that day, and players were strolling into the ballpark at no great rate of speed.
Patterson was getting antsy; he had been on a roll of late, and he wanted to stay in a routine and play catch. He politely excused himself to go into the clubhouse to grab a teammate to throw with him.
About 90 seconds later, he returned to the dugout – alone. And he had two gloves with him.
At first, I didn’t think anything of it. Patterson was known as “The Glove Doctor” – and was a regular fixture on TV, sitting in the bullpen and working to repair someone’s glove.
This time, though, he tossed the second glove to me.
“Lefty, correct,” he said. “Let’s go.” And he was serious.
He was getting loose, and I was going to play the part of guinea pig.
I followed him down the third base line to the Cubs’ bullpen, and for the first few minutes, it was actually a routine game of toss. Picture this: Patterson, the crafty veteran, in his white uniform with blue pinstripes. Wasserstrom, now sweating profusely, in a collared shirt and khakis.
I did my best to not notice that the gates had now opened and fans were strolling into the park. Just catch the ball. Just get the ball back to him. Don’t do anything stupid.
I thought I was going to get through it unscathed. But as I’m well aware … don’t think; you can only hurt the ball club.
Just when I thought I could relax, Patterson threw his “out” pitch in my direction – which was some hybrid combination of screwball and changeup. It was like a mad butterfly was coming my way.
No, I didn’t duck. Worse … I whiffed.
The ball totally missed my glove. I’m not sure I was within a foot of catching it. I don’t think I could have smothered it. The ball rolled all the way to the leftfield corner, and fans by the bullpen snickered.
After retrieving the ball and somehow getting it back to him without tearing any cartilage, Patterson said he wouldn’t throw that pitch again. But he did. And it wasn’t pretty.
I reached and whiffed again. I didn’t even jog to retrieve the ball; I was even getting some boos.
I vowed I wouldn’t let another one by me. I dared him to throw another screwball/changeup/
whatever. The third time was the charm, as the ball completely missed my glove again while striking me in the right knee.
I took that as a moral victory and quit right there before I damaged my morale anymore.
And my playing career officially ended before it started. You have to know your limitations.
It was the logical offshoot of my last post about not judging a draft right away.
Actually, it was something I needed to take a little time to research – and accidentally got prodded into doing it by Steve Trachsel (thanks, Trax!).
Looking back, I’ve often wondered: What was the best Cubs draft during my time with the club?
I was involved in publicizing the club’s draft selections from 1988-2003. I sat in a draft room, or a pre-draft meeting, or represented the team at the draft, from 2004-2011. All-in-all, I was there in some way, shape or form without actually having any input into any of it.
In other words, this is a totally unscientific post.
I ended my last post by talking about the 1984 draft – which predated me. The Cubs selected Drew Hall with the third overall pick; he did make it to the majors, but with limited success. If you judge a draft by the achievements of the first-round pick, that draft wouldn’t have turned out very well.
However, Greg Maddux was selected by the Cubs in the second round and Jamie Moyer was picked in the sixth round. Between the two of them, 48 seasons in the majors and 624 wins. Pretty damn good draft, you’d have to say.
Time has shown that there were no Maddux/Moyer combos found in any Cubs draft classes during my time there.
But, to quote Mr. Trachsel – who commented on the ending of that story: “1991 wasn't too shabby either.”
Trachsel was correct. I took it as a challenge. So … which draft class was the best one during my time there?
The Class of ’91 became the early leader. Five of the club’s first eight picks reached the majors. First-rounder Doug Glanville spent nine years in the majors and had two stints with the Cubs. During his second tour of duty with the club in 2003, he had a big game-winning pinch-hit triple in Game 3 of the NLCS.
Fourth-round pick Terry Adams spent 11 years in the majors, appearing in 574 games. Fifth-rounder Ozzie Timmons saw big league time in parts of five seasons.
And then there were the back-to-back selections of Trachsel in the eighth round and Jon Lieber in the ninth round.
Trachsel went on to spend 16 years in the big leagues, winning 143 games – including the wildcard tiebreaker in 1998 that sent the Cubs to the postseason – and had seven double-digit victory seasons. Lieber spent 14 years in the majors, winning 131 games – including a 20-win campaign for the Cubs in 2001.
Not too shabby, indeed.
There was just one problem. While Lieber was selected in by the Cubs in 1991, he did not sign – electing to return to school for one more year. It turned out to be a good move on his part, as he was chosen by Kansas City in the second round of the 1992 draft. He was later dealt to Pittsburgh, where he spent five seasons before being acquired by the Cubs.
So, that kind of puts a red flag on that draft class for me.
1991 definitely became the measuring stick – with five players having substantial big league time and four doing that after being drafted/signed/developed by the organization.
As I looked through the ‘90s, I went through the names year-by-year. There were seasons with more players, but lesser substance. There might have been a player here or there who had comparable career numbers to Trachsel and Lieber, but not multiple people coming out of the same draft.
I purposely skipped 2001 at first – I knew that was going to be a good draft – and continued on through the next 10 years. Sorry, just didn’t see any classes comparable.
And then I looked at the 2001 draft. Truth-be-told, I knew that would be a tough one to beat. Baseball America’s Ultimate Draft Book, published last year, ranked the Cubs’ class as the best in that year’s draft.
Quite frankly, it was a solid draft. Mark Prior was picked second overall. We’ll never know what the end result might have been had he not gotten hurt, but the facts are the facts: In 106 major league starts, he went 42-29 with a 3.51 ERA and 757 strikeouts in 657.0 innings.
Fourth-rounder Ricky Nolasco is still in the majors – and is in his 12th big league season. Geovany Soto, the 11th-round selection, is now in his 13th big league campaign.
Third-rounder Ryan Theriot hit .281 in 899 games. Second-rounder Andy Sisco pitched in 151 games. Fifth-rounder Brendan Harris played in 529. Seventh-rounder Sergio Mitre pitched in 143 big league games.
Overall, 13 players selected by the Cubs that year saw big league time – including six who did not sign (topped by Khalil Greene and Tony Sipp).
If you count Lieber, the 1991 class wins. If you don’t count him since he didn’t sign with the club, the 2001 class wins.
So, I’m still in the same quandary. What was the best Cubs draft during my time with the club?
I’ve been very fortunate the past couple of months to talk to some of the best scouting directors in the game for MLB Trade Rumors.
I wrote a series of stories under the header of “Inside The Draft Room” which were lookbacks at some of the better drafts of the past 20 years. Not necessarily the best drafts – that is always a subjective discussion – but definitely some of the better ones.
I talked to a couple guys I used to work with – Tim Wilken and Jason McLeod. Sadly, neither was about a particular Cubs draft.
With Mr. Wilken, the story was about the 1997 Blue Jays draft. That year, “only” four of Toronto’s picks made it to the majors – but those four players (Vernon Wells, Michael Young, Orlando Hudson and Mark Hendrickson) – had a combined 50 years of big league service time.
With Mr. McLeod, the story was about the 2005 Red Sox draft – and a first-time scouting director having five picks between No. 23 and No. 47. All five of those selections, including Jacoby Ellsbury, Clay Buchholz, and Jed Lowrie, made it to the majors.
The other scouting directors I spoke to were people I had little-to-no prior contact with – and all were super to talk to. They couldn’t have been nicer. They were honest and forthright and allowed me to tell some great stories.
I spoke to Duane Shaffer, whose 1998 White Sox draft included the first four selections getting extensive big league time – and a 38th-rounder in Mark Buehrle who went on to be the best player selected in that year’s draft.
And there was a great conversation with Eddie Bane about the 2009 Angels draft – which included Mike Trout as the club’s SECOND first-round selection … at No. 25. That’s right … the best player in the game wasn’t even his own club’s first pick.
That, of course, led to a discussion with Tom Allison about the 2009 Diamondbacks draft – since Arizona had two first-round picks that year. The Diamondbacks passed on Trout but did select Paul Goldschmidt in the eighth round. The team had a stellar draft that year, but as revisionist history shows, Trout and Goldschmidt were “thisclose” to being teammates. Of course, if teams knew for sure what Trout and Goldschmidt would become, those two would never have gotten past the first few picks.
I talked to Damon Oppenheimer about the Yankees 2006 draft, which included Ian Kennedy and five current big league relievers in Mark Melancon, Dellin Betances, George Kontos, Zach McAllister and Dave Robertson. That bullpen – if kept together – is one most teams would covet.
Finally, I spoke to Logan White about the Dodgers 2002-2003 drafts. Those two drafts included a bunch of guys that knocked the Cubs out of the 2008 playoffs – James Loney, Jonathan Broxton, Russell Martin, Chad Billingsley and Matt Kemp. That was reason enough to talk to him.
So … what did I learn from all these conversations?
I learned the obvious: No matter how much work goes into it, the draft is largely a crapshoot based on the success (or lack thereof) of the No. 1 pick.
The baseball draft is not like the NFL draft or the NBA draft. Selected players are not major-league ready. So it’s all about projection. It’s all about acquiring as much information about each player. It’s all about continuous homework. It’s all about following your gut. It’s all about keeping your fingers crossed that the player stays healthy. It’s all about being lucky.
During my time with the Cubs, there wasn’t one draft where the scouting director wasn’t excited about the first-round pick. And some of those first-round picks went on to have successful big league careers. More often than not, though, there were a lot of post-draft letdowns.
I remember the excitement of selecting U.S. Olympian Ty Griffin in 1988 – my first year writing a draft selection press release – and the sadness when those expectations were never met.
And I remember the enthusiasm in thinking we found one in Lance Dickson in 1990 – only to have his career derailed by injuries just months after the draft.
And, of course, I remember the joy the day we selected Jon Garland in 1997 – and the quizzical feelings 13 months later when he was traded to the White Sox for Matt Karchner. Karchner was a serviceable reliever; Garland went on to spend 13 years as a major league starter, winning 136 games.
There is a reality in all this … a draft cannot be judged right away. And a draft cannot be judged solely on the first-round pick.
Case in point: One of the best drafts in Cubs history – if not THE best – took place in 1984. Sadly, scouting director Gordy Goldsberry is long gone; otherwise, I would have interviewed him for the series. The Cubs picked third that year, selecting Drew Hall – who would go on to record a 9-12 record with a 5.21 ERA in parts of five big league seasons.
The pessimist would say “Bad draft. That’s the best you could get out of the No. 3 pick?”
But you have to look past the first round – since some guy named Greg Maddux was taken in the second round and another guy named Jamie Moyer was picked in the sixth round. Between the two of them, 48 seasons in the majors and 624 wins. I guess you’d say the Cubs had a decent draft that year.
It was late July 1988, and I was a 22-year-old kid on my first big league road trip.
I was doing everything I could to take it all in, figuratively pinching myself and telling my inner self to play it cool – even though every little experience was so, so cool.
I had flown into Philadelphia to meet the Cubs – who were on an extended trek just prior to the first game under the Wrigley Field lights. My purpose, so to speak … I was taking over media relations activities from my boss, Ned Colletti, who then headed back to Chicago to finalize all media-related details prior to the historic unveiling of night baseball at Clark and Addison streets.
With all the renovations that have been done in recent years, it’s hard to remember that there used to be a time when all 81 home games were played in sunshine. OK, maybe not sunshine, but definitely without artificial illumination.
The Cubs first flew to Montreal en route to Phiadelphia. I then met the team there, overlapping with Ned for a couple games to get a quick tutorial on what you do when you’re on a road trip. I was a true newbie; I had to be shown every strand of the rope on how to do things. After he went back home, I traveled with the team from Philadelphia to Cooperstown to New York.
One of Ned’s biggest strengths as the media relations director was that he was a people-person – especially when it came to the newspaper writers. A lot of that came from the fact that he was a former beat writer himself, having covered hockey for a now-defunct newspaper in Philadelphia. Ned taught me right away to say hello and introduce myself to the other team’s beat writers and broadcasters. And since we were in his old stomping grounds of Philadelphia, he made sure to do a lot of intros on my behalf.
I still vividly recall, at the door of the Veterans Stadium press box, when Ned introduced me to Jayson Stark of The Philadelphia Inquirer. Even back then, Jayson was a legend to me. He had this great weekly Sunday baseball column chock full of news and notes that you couldn’t easily find in those dark ages – also known as the pre-internet era. Back in those days, Sunday was THE day of the week thanks to his notes column. You never knew what you were going to find, but there was definitely a combination of baseball human interest stories and humor.
So here I was … in Philadelphia … with the actual Inquirer in hand … and I was getting the opportunity to shake hands with the person who wrote one of my favorite weekly columns. There’s no other way to say it … I was meeting an idol.
Throughout my time with the Cubs – both in media relations and baseball operations – I talked to Jayson hundreds of times. After working in Philadelphia for 21 years, he moved on to ESPN in 2000 – where he was one of the preeminent writers when it came to chasing down rumors and facts. I could always count on hearing from him during key transaction periods like the trade deadline and the Winter Meetings. Most of the time, he asked the questions. It was my job to make sure not to steer him in a wrong direction.
At the same time, he had this awesome Rumblings and Grumblings column which became a must-read. For people like me who enjoyed trivia and the stories within the stories, his column was essential reading. He would often call just to check in – and sometimes, I was even able to tip him off to a story idea.
Unfortunately, when the ESPN layoffs hit in April, Jayson was one of the people whose services were no longer deemed necessary. I reached out to him then; sadly, I know how that feels.
We have talked a few times recently, and Jayson agreed to speak with me for an interview. That conversation was written for MLB Trade Rumors, and you can read the story by clicking here:
Hopefully one of these years, Jayson will be enshrined in the writers’ wing of the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. I hope you’ll check out the interview to learn a little bit more about Jayson and his love affair with the game of baseball.
It was an interesting off-shoot of the Joel Murray interviews that I recently did.
In the social media/internet world we live in, you don’t just post a story. You have to do whatever you can to publicize it – and that’s still a really weird feeling for me.
But in tweeting about the two stories being posted, I had some unexpected and awesomely interesting names from the acting community appear in my “Likes.”
There was Susan Sullivan … who played Kitty Montgomery on Dharma & Greg.
There was Jeff B. Davis, one of Joel’s cast mates from the Whose LIVE Anyway? improvisation tour.
There was David Pasquesi, who I saw perform at Second City and who has been in numerous movies – including Groundhog Day.
There was the coolest name ever – actor/director Bobcat Goldthwait – who showed up in my likes twice!
And then, there was Pat Finn, the actor who plays neighbor Bill Norwood on “The Middle” – one of my kids’ favorite shows.
A quick internet search showed he was the same age as me … he grew up in Evanston … he was a Cubs fan … and he went to the same high school as Joel Murray. Not only was he in “The Middle,” but he once had a recurring role in a series of Got Milk? commercials.
I reached out to Pat to see if he was interested in speaking with me for this site – and it was one of the easiest things I’ve ever done. He was just so … normal. Nothing Hollywood about him.
And it turns out we have a few things in common. His wife is from the Springfield area – just like mine. He took Driver’s Ed at Mather High School – my alma mater. I grew up on the Chicago/Evanston/Skokie border – not far from a bottling plant that he worked at growing up so he could make money to help pay for his Marquette University schooling.
We talked last week about a variety of subjects – including what it’s like to live in a Chicago sports community in Southern California – but I wanted to share this story.
Whenever I tell my kids I’m going to be doing an interview with someone, invariably, one of them tells me to say Hi for them to the person I’m going to be speaking to. I usually roll my eyes … “Yeah, right.” He or she “doesn’t know who you are.”
This time seemed different to me. This was one they were quite adamant about. “Tell the guy who plays Bill Norwood we said Hi.” Of course, I wasn’t going to ask the follow-up question, “Is the guy who plays Axl really that dumb?”
Pat seemed genuinely excited when I told him my girls knew who he was:
“Oh, that's so funny. That's so cool,” he said. “I'll tell you ... coming out here, I've been able to do a bunch of stuff, and there's things that I've turned down or things that I didn't feel were great – especially as a dad.
“When I'm on stage, it's rare that I swear. It's funny, I did an episode of ‘Two Broke Girls,’ which was a good gig and fun and they're super nice. But I didn't let my 14-year-old watch it because it's a pretty racy show.
“So on the flip of that, one of the creators of ‘The Middle,’ Eileen Hessler is from Deerfield. DeAnn Heline is from Ohio. They're both parents and married and amazing, super great people. I had done a TV show with them and it went really well. So, a couple of years later, ‘The Middle’ popped up and they were like, ‘Hey, we're trying to get you in on this.’ And I'm like, ‘That's great.’
“And then they just kind of wrote a part of a neighbor, which I jumped into. And it seemed like they liked it, so it's gone really well. It's nice to be part of a show that I'm proud of. I think it's a good, clean, funny show, and it's under the radar.
“But yeah, tell them I said ‘Hi’ as well.
“My daughters are 22 and 20, and then I have a son who's 14. For the last eight years, we'll sit on the couch all together and watch it. Maybe sometimes that happens with the big sporting events, but that type of things doesn't happen with regularity in most families. So it's cool to be able to watch a show like that with your family.
“Say ‘Hi' to your twins. That's awesome. I'm so happy that they're fans of the show. Tell them to have a great summer.”
It’s not only kids that recognize him. Finn talked about how the father of actor John Krasinski – one of the stars of “The Office” – reacted when he found out his son and Finn were appearing together in the movie “It’s Complicated.”
“This is such a Hollywood thing to say … I was working on a movie with John Krasinski, who I'm a big fan of; I think he's great,” Finn said. “We started talking about our families, about basketball and sports. Then he said, ‘Hey man, is there any way I can get a picture?’
“He said, ‘My dad's always like that's cool, that's cool, that's cool' when I tell him who I’m working with. I said I was working with you ...’ I did these commercials a few years for milk where I was in a giant milk carton. John was like, ‘My dad went nuts when he heard I was with you.’ I'm like, ‘Really?’ He goes, ‘Well, Meryl Streep was up there, too.’ I go, ‘So, it's Meryl Streep and the milk carton guy?’ But nevertheless, he was like, ‘Yeah. It was our favorite commercial. We can quote every line.’ That was hilarious.”
Finn told some great stories about how the Chicago-born actors tend to gravitate toward each other in Los Angeles. He also told the tale of how he became a youth sports coach.
“Gosh, we moved out here about 20 years ago, which seems crazy,” he said. “Moving out here, we really didn't know where to live. I was on a TV show with George Wendt; he's from the south side. And so we'd stay at his house which is in kind of what they call the Valley of L.A. The Valley is ... this kind of big area. And if the Valley seceded, it would be the fourth largest city in the country, that's how big it is. But it's like Santa Monica, Beverly Hills, all that. But the Valley was the most kid-friendly and the most Midwest to my wife and me.
“And then we just fell into a Catholic grammar school … it's a great school, and it kind of reminds me of St. Joe's (in Wilmette) where I grew up. There's people that have money, there are people who are scholarship, and everywhere in between, and everybody kind of chips in.
“There was a nun that was the principal, so at the open house they were like, ‘It's a waiting list to get in. Blah, blah, blah.’ And I'm like, ‘Shoot, in Chicago you've got connections.’ And here, I don't have any.
“So I went up and talked to the nun and she's smiling, and I'm like, ‘Oh, where are you from? I just got back from Kilkenny (Ireland) with the comedy festival.’ And she said, ‘Oh, my best friends were in Kilkenny.’ And we talked about that for a while and she said, ‘What do you have? A son or a daughter?’ I said, ‘I have a daughter right there, Cassidy.’ She goes, ‘Oh, she's the cherubim.’ I said, ‘Yeah, she's great.’ She goes, ‘Oh yeah, you're in.’ ‘But isn't there like a waiting list?’ ‘I like you; you're in.’ And I'm like, ‘Okay, great. That's awesome.’ So it worked out perfect.
“And then cut to fifth grade, she calls me in her office. My wife and I were room parents and PTO. She goes, ‘There's nobody to coach the girls.’ I'm like, ‘Oh, okay. What, do you call downtown and they send out a coach or the Archdiocese puts somebody on the bench with them?’ ‘Nope, nope. Somebody's got to volunteer.’ ‘Oh.’
“She said, ‘I was thinking you could do it.’ ‘I could do what?’ ‘I know you; you could play sports.’ ‘Yeah, I could play, but I've never coached girls’ basketball.’ She goes, ‘I'm asking you now.’ And all I thought about was I could have the most perfect life in the world, and then get to heaven and be like, ‘Um, you said no to a nun? Yeah. This isn't the stop. We don't take nun-noers.’
“I ended up coaching and, it was the greatest thing just because I grew up playing a lot of sports. But I think coaching was ... I'm sure my record is horrible at every sport that I coached, but I loved doing it.
“My dad used to coach us in hockey. I remember the first time I was coaching girls’ soccer, he said, ‘That's great you're coaching.’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ And he goes, ‘Hey, I've got a question.’ I said, ‘Yeah,’ and he goes, ‘Do you remember the score of any game?’ I said, ‘No, I really don't.’ I played soccer, football, basketball, rugby. And he goes, ‘Remember that. And now can you remember every coach you ever had?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, I think I do.’ And he goes, ‘Yeah, remember that more.’
“Which always kind of stuck, because I was like, ‘Yeah, you do. You remember the coaches, not the score.’ And my father said, ‘You know, you don't know if some kid's getting bullied or somebody's having a rough day or a tough time at school, or health issues or their parents are having problems, so it might be an hour, hour and a half out of their lives that they get to run around.’
“When you and I were kids, we played in the alley. There weren't adults there to mess it all up.
“This one time, I was talking to one of the moms who was an assistant coach, and we were talking the first day about coaching and why you coach, and then we sat on the bench. It was just a game and parents were going crazy, and I said, "I forgot to tell you. The other thing I like coaching, I get to sit here with the kids. I don't yell at games because these parents can be crazy.’ And she goes, ‘Oh yeah, it's nice over here.’ "
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.
It’s 10:30 am on Memorial Day Monday, and I’m sitting in front of a computer screen.
My kids are playing in a softball game right now. My wife is coaching at third base, probably offering encouragement to a batter – or joking around with some of the parents. Speaking of parents, mine are in the crowd, keeping up without getting yelled at by me.
And I’m at home, typing away.
This is a far different world than in my baseball days. I have a full-time 40-hour non-writing job. I have a full-time freelance writing job. And I have this little storytelling spot of mine, and it’s important to me to post once or twice a week.
Since I have to go to work soon, I was planning on transcribing an interview for MLB Trade Rumors and writing something Cubs-related (gee, what else is new) for this site.
But then, I knew their game was about to start – so I turned on the play-by-play on my Microsoft Surface so I could keep up while writing a story. And it’s the top of the first inning … Danielle starting the game in the pitcher’s circle and Nicole behind the plate in her catcher’s gear.
I tried writing, but I found myself watching and talking to my tablet … “Let’s go, Dan” … after she gave up a single to start the game.
I tried to construct some thoughts … I think I’ll talk about how the baseball season is a marathon, not a sprint, but my eyes keep wandering to the tablet.
Strikeout … strikeout … groundout … she got out of the inning.
OK, let’s make some headway on the writing. Everybody keeps asking me what’s wrong with the Cubs. My first inclination is to say I don’t know; I haven’t been there since 2012.
But the reality is, I kinda sorta think I understand what’s going on. I’ll never truly 100 percent know – as I would have loved to have been in a position to know what it’s like the year after winning the World Series. I had 25 seasons there and, of course, I never had that opportunity.
Now we’re in the bottom of the first. One out, runner on second. Nicole at the plate. RBI single to left, runner scores, we’re up 1-0.
Honestly, the only thing the Cubs need to be worried about right now is staying close. They’re just 1.5 games out of first place heading into Memorial Day.
There are 110-plus games remaining in the season. There’s a lot of time.
Up 1-0 top two. After giving up a leadoff single, Danielle fans three in a row.
Baseball is a tough enough game to play under normal circumstances. But for the 2017 Cubs, having won the World Series, EVERY team is gunning for them. You might like to take it one series at a time, but every opponent is coming right at you every single friggin’ day. It’s hard to have that lightbulb on for 162 games in a row.
And, don’t forget, last year, the Cubs played until November 1. Most teams were done a full month earlier. Throw in the postseason hangover, and most of the players lost a valuable amount of downtime. The mental part of baseball is never to be underestimated.
Up 2-0 heading into the third, but a rough inning takes place. Leadoff walks will do that to you. Three runs later, they find themselves trailing. I’m more stressed watching this on a tablet than I would be if I was there in-person. And yes, it’s a “we” when the team is winning and “they” when they’re losing. I can be a frontrunner when I want to be.
I’ve told anyone who’s asked me that the Cubs will be fine. My thought is the team will struggle until the All-Star Break … and then Joe Maddon will find the right words to kick them into gear. Remember, the team scuffled for about a month last year until just before the break. Then all of a sudden, the manager pushed the right buttons – and the team went on a tear. I’m going out on a limb and saying that will happen again.
Down by one in the bottom of the third. Two on, one out, Nicole at the plate. “Come on, Little One.” Single to center on a 3-1 pitch to load the bases.
Now, my phone is buzzing. All the breaking news alerts that Tiger Woods got arrested. Gotta look that story up online. My brain is literally all over the place, and I have to get dressed to go to work.
Hey … Nic’s now at third. A couple runs have scored. We’re leading again.
Anyway, like I’ll tell anyone, I would have loved to be in the position the Cubs are in now – having to fight through it the year AFTER being champions. It’s no different than what the Cavaliers went through during the NBA regular season; you’re always someone’s championship game. But look up, and the Cavaliers are now in the finals again.
Unfortunately, I do know what it’s like to go a full month into a season without a home victory (think 1994). I do know what it’s like to start a season 0-14 (think 1997).
Up 4-3 top of the fourth. New pitcher on the mound. Less stress for this dad; more stress for her dad.
And, of course, I know what it’s like to be up 3 games to 1 in a League Championship Series – but not cross the threshold to get to the World Series.
All of those other scenarios kind of suck, to be honest.
Being 1.5 games out of first place on Memorial Day, though, isn’t the worst thing in the world.
Watching your kids play on a computer screen is far worse.
Down 5-4, bottom half of the last inning – as the tournament has a strict “no new inning after 70 minutes” rule. Two runners in scoring position, two out, Dan at the plate. I’m tasting my liver right now. Big hit. Big hit. Big hit. Well, no big hit – but a walk; and during the at-bat, a run scored – tying the game. The winning run would then score moments later on an error. We win 6-5.
Next game in 20 minutes. But I’m out the door heading to work – which will be a lot less stressful than watching a game when I’m not there.
I initially wrote this story last year, but the subject matter is too good to not share again. The story itself is edited to reflect the current year. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed watching the events of those two days as they happened!
We’ve all heard the saying that a picture is worth 1,000 words.
But I’m going to test my theory that 1,000 words can be worth one picture. You’ll just have to read to the end of this story in order to see one of my favorite photographs – even though it’s been slightly doctored.
I have had a copy of the original photo for 16 years. But it’s one I’ve had to keep hidden in the vault – OK, actually a closet – since the girls were old enough to recognize what a swear finger is.
They’re now at the point where I can display it again, and they’ll laugh when they see the real photo. But the internet is a tricky place, even in 2017, so the edited version is what you get to see. But I think you’ll laugh at that picture, too.
Sixteen years ago this week, the photograph was snapped. Sixteen years ago this week, an amazing two-game stretch took place – as Jon Lieber and Kerry Wood fired back-to-back complete-game one-hitters.
The Cubs have been around since 1876, and that specific feat has only taken place one time – on May 24-May 25, 2001.
I could tell you the story of those games myself, but I couldn’t do it enough justice. So I tracked down Lieber and Wood to talk about those memorable consecutive afternoons at Wrigley Field.
May 24, 2001 … Cubs 3, Reds 0 … the lone hit off Lieber was a two-out 6th-inning single by Juan Castro
“That was probably the best game I ever pitched,” Lieber said. “I do remember the rain delay before the start of the game.
“I seemed like my normal self, and it was just one of those games where the Reds were very aggressive – they were swinging the bat early and quickly. There was a rain delay during the game. It happened right after I pitched the 4th inning. During the delay, (pitching coach) Oscar (Acosta) comes up to me and he said, ‘How do you feel?’ And I said, ‘I feel fine. There’s nothing wrong with me. Why?’ And he said, ‘That’s what I thought, because you’ve only got 20 pitches through 4 innings.’ That just blew me away.
“The game was delayed for about an hour and a half, and I think I shocked more people by going back out there for the 5th inning. I kept putting up the numbers, getting out of innings with low pitches. The next thing you know, I have this no-hitter going into the (6th) inning. There were two outs, and Juan Castro flipped a slider … I don’t think it was a terrible pitch, but it was enough for him to flip his bat out there and bloop it into rightfield. That was the story of my career. Any time I tried to finish something like that, I could never do it. Anyway, I moved on after losing the no-hitter.
“For me, even though I didn’t get the no-hitter, just to be able to face the minimum number of batters for a nine-inning game is pretty impressive, in my opinion.
“And then … Mr. Wood steps into the picture.”
For his part, Wood remembers Lieber being in a “zone” that day and having a double-digit pitch count.
“He was ridiculous,” Wood said. “But that was typical Liebs. He just went out there and, as quickly as he got the ball back, he was throwing it back to the catcher. He’d get in that zone. He had a bunch of games where he was under 90 pitches. It was pretty impressive. He took pride in that.”
May 25, 2001 … Cubs 1, Brewers 0 … the lone hit off Wood was a 7th-inning leadoff single by Mark Loretta
“Me and Lieber … we were two totally different pitchers,” Wood said. “We were in a rhythm there where we were all feeding off each other. We were all throwing the ball well.
“I remember Liebs was typical Liebs. He did his under two hours. He was locked in. Anytime somebody does something like that the day before you pitch, you want to do your best to follow it and emulate it. So it was a cool couple days.
“My game honestly doesn’t jump out as much. I know it was Milwaukee. I couldn’t tell you how many strikeouts I had. I couldn’t tell you any particular defensive plays that were made. I do remember me and Lieber throwing back-to-back against two different teams, but honestly I don’t have a whole lot of memory of who was on that team – as sad as that is.
“But I’m getting old. My memory is going,” he said with a laugh.
Wood is almost 40 years old now – and that’s not a typo on Kid K’s age – so he did have to ask how many pitches he threw that afternoon. The answer was 114.
“That was a low pitch count for me to go nine innings,” Wood said. “Liebs had a lot of balls put in play. I tended to have more foul balls and three-ball counts. Lieber didn’t walk anybody. So he kept his pitch count down regularly.”
Unlike the rainy wet conditions the day before, the sun was out that afternoon – and Lieber was in a great third-base dugout location for Wood’s gem.
“Man oh man oh man, did he put on a show,” Lieber said. “I saw Kerry pitch a lot of games, but that one just stuck out in my opinion. He was untouchable. That was as close to the 20-strikeout game – he was just that dominant. He was impressive. And his command – that was probably one of his best games. He should have had a no-hitter – he was just that dominant.
“For me, it was just another game. Wow, a one-hitter – OK. But then Kerry threw his game.
“Kerry and I did something pretty special … That was just a great moment to be part of. I didn’t get those chances very often to be in situations like that. Kerry was just on such a different level because of the type of pitcher he was. He could do something special almost every time out. It was incredible – and pretty neat to be part of something like that.”
May 26, 2001 … Wrigley Field third-base dugout … pregame … epic photo op
“Me and Liebs are pretty humble guys,” Wood said. “We didn’t think much of it. We were enjoying our day off.
“(Cubs team photographer) Steve Green came by before the next game. We were sitting next to each other, just kind of talking. He looked at us with his camera and said, ‘Hey you guys, put up a No. 1.’
“Me and Liebs looked at each other and we both gave Steve the finger at the same time.
“That’s one of my favorite pictures. I’ve got about 1,000 pictures from Steve, but that’s my favorite one – me and Lieber. I have it hanging up in the basement.”
Back in 1989, “Bleacher Bums” returned as a new production at the Organic Theater – which is within walking distance of Wrigley Field.
The powers-that-be putting the revival together reached out to the Cubs’ front office with a message something along the lines of, “Hey, if you want to come by, let us know. We’ll take care of you.”
I didn’t see the original production when it came out in the late 1970s, but the play was taped for PBS – and I loved it.
When the opportunity was offered to watch the new version, I jumped at the chance – not only because it was “Bleacher Bums,” but it featured a few people I’d seen. Dennis Farina, who was in “Crime Story” – and later a main character on “Law and Order” – was in it. Ron Dean, who was in the Steven Seagal classic “Above The Law,” was in it. And to top it off, Joe Mantegna – one of the original “Bleacher Bums” – was heavily involved. In fact, he was in attendance the night I was there.
But the actor who stood out for me was Joel Murray, who played the “idiot geek” Richie. He was funny as hell, and he was entertaining to watch.
Last time out, I wrote about Murray – a longtime Cubs fan – and his love of baseball and experiences as a golf caddy. If you missed it, here’s the story link:
Today … his time with “Bleacher Bums” …
How much fun did you have doing “Bleacher Bums?”
Joel Murray: “It was a great season (1989, a year the Cubs won the N.L. Eastern Division), and because we were in the cast, people would leave tickets at the box office for us. I might have seen 50 games that summer; it was crazy how often we went. You drank in the bleachers all day and then you go take a nap backstage – then you go do a show. I played Richie, kind of the idiot geek, and that was a role I didn't usually get to play. I originally auditioned for the cheerleader role and Joe Mantegna said, ‘Here. Read for this other thing.’ He gave me the part and it was great getting to work with Joe, who had done it originally. We had J.J. Johnston. We had Ron Dean. Jack Wallace used to hang out backstage. Dennis Farina.
“I mean, the stories these guys would tell were hysterical. Everybody was an ex-cop or an ex-con. Farina would tell these stories … ‘So we got this guy, I got my gun down this guy's throat and he's still lying to me, right? And the floor's so bumpy 'cause there's so many bodies under it, right? This guy finally starts talking.’ That's how stories would start. It was amazing for me to be a fly on the wall. I had a great time. Lou Milione played the blind guy and he and I had a lot of fun together. It was a great experience and The Organic was blocks from Wrigley.
“Later on when George Wendt came to do it, we'd get done with the show and I was putting up previews for the next Second City show. So I was doing the show and then going and doing the improv set at Second City, and I would put George Wendt on the back of my Vespa – and he had his leg in a cast. We would literally tie his leg to the crash bar on my Vespa and drive across to North and Wells to Second City, cutting up traffic on the sides. Anytime his heel would bottom-out, I could've shattered his leg – but we never did. But George and I both wanted to get to Second City, where we drank for free. He used to come watch the set and I used to come do it. It was a pretty exciting time.”
The play seemed so real to me. I could identify with the characters in the bleachers.
“The hard part was making the audience believe that there was a game going on and that we really were these people. But people knew their characters real well and that made us able to make it very real. Then we updated the script that year to include Mitch ‘The Pitch’ Williams and other people on the team. It was a lot of fun in that aspect.”
Obviously, it was a great cast of people to be working with.
“No kidding. I was very fortunate. J.J. Johnston … there was a scene at the end where he would poke me in the chest with his stubby fingers, and he would poke me all the way across the stage. Every night, without fail, my heels would be on the edge of the stage. He pushed me that far, right to the edge. He knew what he doing and it really worked. He was something else to work with.
“Dennis (Farina) was the greatest guy. Even when I moved out to Los Angeles, we'd go out and play golf together. He knew we were struggling actors and he was doing better, and he used to make some stupid bet on the last hole for like $100 or something like that; he would lose money to us every time on purpose, it seemed like.”
That must have been terrific for you.
“Yeah, for me. One other thing about the ‘Bleacher Bums’ was my brother Brian took over the J.J. Johnston role at the end. I opened it in May – in the beginning of baseball season – and I closed it New Year's Eve. I went away to do a Second City show in the middle of that – as well as get married and whatnot. But yeah, I came back and closed it up until New Year's Eve, I think was the last show. It was a hell of a run. It was a lot of fun. At the end, Brian and I got to do it together and he got to poke me across the stage. My heels would end up in the same spot, it seemed like.”
From a theater standpoint, had you worked with him before?
“At that point, I don't think so. We did go over once to do the Kilkenny Comedy Festival – and Bill, Brian, and I did a best-of-Second City with Dave Pasquesi and Linda Kash and Meagen Fay playing the other roles. That was pretty cool. We did Del Close's Hamlet, which not many people were ever able to put up and it ended in like a six-part harmony. It was phenomenal stuff. Brian was there, Billy was there, and I was there. It was really fun.”
On screen, have you done much with your brothers?
“No, just ‘Scrooged.’ We all worked the same leap day in whatever year that was, '88 or something. No, not much together. They haven’t given me a lot of work.”
You’re on an improv tour right now (with Whose LIVE Anyway). Do you feel like you're onstage all the time even when you're not on stage?
“No, I'm not one of those really funny people that's on a lot. I'm kind of dry. So yeah, I don't feel like I'm on. My son gives me grief because I'll converse with waiters and stuff and he's like, ‘Dad, why are you talking to him? You're just making him uncomfortable.’ I'm like, ‘I thought I was being humorous.’
“Anyway, thanks for the crowd response, son.
“I'm not ‘on’ that much, you know. I think a big deal with acting is the ability to enjoy the time off and not panic like a lot of people do. You have a good year as an actor, you've got 300 days off. You have a bad year you've got more days off. I like to enjoy my off time. I golf and I was able to coach all my kids in football, baseball, and basketball.
“You've got to not freak out all the time like some people do, because when you do go in for an audition you're so nervous and desperate that they can smell it. I like to go into an audition and give a vibe like ‘I'd really like to get back to the golf course right now. Thank you.’ “
If I got this right, you were the first voice of Chester Cheetah from the Cheetos commercials, correct?
“I was the voice of Chester Cheetah for eleven years. That basically bought my first house … it was a good gig.
“I must say, I’m not a fan of the new Chester. It's not sour grapes, it's just he's kind of a weird, mean, British guy now. There are too many Brits replacing American actors in the business to begin with, but I don't understand why you want a weird, mean Cheetah. I was a ‘Rhyming kitty in the heart of hip city until my common ease would surrender to the urge to but for the cheese.’ I was a cool cat. Now he's just weird. I don't know what they're doing with the Cheetos but I'm willing to go back at any time.”
Need a new house?
“Yeah, that was a good gig.”
It was really enjoyable getting to talk to you. Thanks to social media, you were fairly easy to track down.
“It's funny how people can get to you these days. My brother (Bill), nobody gets to him; he's got it figured out. Sometimes it's fun. I've actually gotten work off the internet, just strangers because I do this ... I always say when I'm golfing I take a picture like, ‘Looking for work.’ I've had people just contact me through Facebook messenger going, ‘If you're really looking for work, I've got this part in this movie you could do.’
“I'm like, ‘Yeah, okay.’
“It actually paid off a few times.”
Somewhere along the line last year, I noticed that actor Joel Murray had somehow come across my site. I don’t remember exactly how or why; I’m guessing it was around the time I wrote about the Kerry Wood 20-strikeout game, and that story got me a little bit of play.
As a character actor, you might not know Joel Murray, per se, but you probably do – from his work on television, in movies and on the stage. I’ve taken the liberty of 100% borrowing his IMDB.com mini biography for you:
Joel is a versatile writer-director-actor. The youngest of the nine Murrays is a veteran of over 250 sit-com episodes. He has been a series regular on the comedies Grand, Pacific Station, Love and War, Dharma and Greg and Still Standing. He has also recurred on the series Mike and Molly, My Boys and Two and a Half Men. On the dramatic side, Joel played Freddy Rumsen on AMC's Mad Men as well as Eddie Jackson on Showtime's Shameless. He recently starred in Bobcat Goldthwait's dark comedy, God Bless America. He can be heard playing Don Carlton in the Pixar prequel, Monsters University. He was also in 2011's Best Picture, The Artist. Joel has been in numerous films including One Crazy Summer, Scrooged, Long Gone, Hatchet, Lay the Favorite, Sophie and The Rising Sun, Mr. Pig, Bloodsucking Bastards, Lamb, and Seven Minutes. He can also be seen in the upcoming The Last Word. He studied improvisation with Del Close, among others, and was a founding member of Chicago's Improv Olympic. He enjoyed five years at The Second City in Chicago. He has been doing theater since the 4th grade, performed with the Remains and Organic Theatres Companies in Chicago and still performs frequently at the I. O. West in Los Angeles. Joel loves playing with Whose Live Anyway, playing golf and ordering scotch.
Not listed above …
Joel is currently touring with Ryan Stiles, Greg Proops and Jeff B. Davis in “Whose LIVE Anyway,” an improvised 90-minute show of games, scenes and songs.
I have talked to Joel a couple times over the past week. The conversation in this piece is about growing up a Cubs fan – and life as a caddy.
What's it like being a celebrity Cubs fan – but having to be one in Los Angeles and on the road?
Joel Murray: “This year I haven't gone to too many games, I must admit. Last year I went to games in about five different cities and Chicago, so I got to see a bunch of road games at different places. It was really fun. I've been the emcee for Theo Epstein's Hot Stove Cool Music thing for about five years – and five years ago he basically promised me, ‘This team is going to be really good in five years.’ He was dead right. I thought he had hit it after four but he said ‘Yeah, well maybe, but next year ...’ Sure enough it all came together and it was a magical year.
“I'm not your largest celebrity … I may displace the most water in a beaker compared to another celebrity, but I've got some ins. I got to sit in Atlanta right behind the dugout with my brothers and I got to sit in San Diego at the edge of the dugout; I was literally talking to David Ross during the game. So I've had some great seats and some great opportunities. I've hung out with Joe Maddon. And I have a little golf tournament – The Canal Shores Invitational up by the Wilmette/Evanston border – and the Ricketts brothers are both involved in that every year because they live in the neighborhood and they donate money to that course.
“So I have been able to weasel some pretty good tickets, although I did pay for all of them in the playoffs in the World Series. MLB doesn't give those away. I had the ability to purchase them, which was fantastic. I went to all three World Series games in Chicago. Before that, I did a little show called ‘Shrink’ on the Seeso network and we shot it in Chicago, so that allowed me to be in Chicago for most of October – so I got to see some playoff games that I wouldn't have gotten to living in Los Angeles. It was the storybook season that you've wished for your whole life, and when it came down to it – Game 7 – I was back in L.A.
“I could have gone to Cleveland with my brother – he gave away one ticket to a stranger – but my wife, after I had been gone for a month doing the Seeso thing, she's like, ‘No, you're coming home.’ So I watched it with my family from home. I was on the floor with practically a knife to my throat when it went to extra innings. That's kind of the way it had to be. The Cubs had to put you to the edge of suicide before they won it and it was pretty darn magical.”
You grew up on the ’69 Cubs. Please tell me about that.
“My father died in 1967, and my mom had to go back to work about '69. That summer, my sister had to babysit for me when I was out of school. We either went to the Wilmette Beach every day or we went to the Cub game. We used to be able to go down for $5. We could get two bleacher seats and the ‘L’ ride back and forth, and if we checked the couch cushions for quarters and get another fifty cents we could get a Ron Santo pizza. But back then you could bring your own lunch and you could bring your own thermos, so we packed a lunch and went. It was fabulous.
“We used to go out to O'Hare and meet the planes. You used to be able to meet the players coming right off the airplane and we both had our baseballs with all the signatures of the '69 Cubs on it. I think my sister still has hers. I believe I used mine in a game when we needed a ball. Oh well.”
Then you also would have grown up on Jack Brickhouse …
“Oh, yeah. Definitely. And Lou Boudreau, Milo (Hamilton).”
You and all of your brothers were caddies at Indian Hill Club (in Wilmette). What did you learn from doing that?
“Well, we learned it was a way to get cash quick and there were no taxes taken out. We learned subservience, how to be quiet and to speak when you're spoken to. We also learned that we wanted to be the guy golfing, not the guy carrying the bag – so it kind of taught you a little something about ambition as well. ‘I'll do this, but someday I'm going to be the guy in the stupid pants hitting the ball, not holding the flag.’ I don't know how we all got to Indian Hill; it was the only course that didn't tip. We could have gone over to Westmoreland (Country Club in Wilmette) or other courses where they paid you better, but the Indian Hill guys used to scout out the altar boys at St. Joe's – which was nearby – and they were like, ‘If this kid can get up and serve 6:15 mass, he's a guy that will get up and caddy.’ So they would tell you about this cash money business that they had that you could be a part of. We all got hooked on it … some more than others.
“My brother Ed was a caddy master; eventually he got a Chick Evans Scholarship to Northwestern, a caddy scholarship. Brian was more of a shag boy and worked in the clubhouse, shined shoes and did all kinds of things. He used to say, ‘I found out early I could make more money playing hearts and spades in the caddy shack than actually caddying.’ He was a good card player.
“I came along years after them but I enjoyed it. I enjoyed playing basketball outside with the guys before you got your loop. It was kind of a weird little 12-year-old fraternity.”
You were the youngest of nine kids. Was it an interesting dynamic for you having brothers quite a bit older than you?
“Yeah, I had some that were eighteen years older than me and I was always a little Murray – that was a given. But I had really cool hand-me-downs. I wasn't spoiled by being the baby, but I had my choice of the good stuff in the laundry room that didn't fit them anymore.
“I was always the little brother. I was always a little Murray. My father died at five and I immediately had four guys that thought that it was OK for them to slap me in the back of the head and tell me what to do. I guess I benefited from that and from watching their errors and accomplishments and things like that.”
I know you get asked about your brothers all the time but I do want to ask one question. Doing basic math, you had to be around 17 years old when “Caddyshack” came out. What was it like when you were watching your brothers on the big screen as Carl Spackler and Lou Loomis?
“I laughed my ass off. I saw it a couple times in a row.
“I actually was out with my brother Brian in New York one night and they were having a hard time finding somebody to play Spaulding. He knew I did theater and stuff and he said, ‘You'd be kind of perfect for Spaulding. Rich, spoiled kid we all grew up caddying for.’ And I said, ‘I am not going to be some femme actor like you clowns. I am captain of the football team. I'm going to play college ball.’ That's what I thought at that time. I could have maybe been Spaulding.
“My brother Johnny got to be in the movie; he was four years older than me. My brother Ed's in a little bit of it. And of course, Brian wrote it and was Lou Loomis and Billy did one week on that movie as Carl Spackler. It's still the best golf movie ever.”
What’s the best baseball movie you've seen?
“No question … ‘Long Gone’ with William L. Petersen, Virginia Madsen and Dermot Mulroney – because I was in it. We got to go down to Florida and play baseball for a month with a bunch of Chicago actors that Billy Peterson rounded up. We were there for the playoffs and the World Series while we were shooting the thing and it was so much fun. It was really great. I hit a single, double, and a triple off of Nardi Contreras one day … never had the home run power. I was a line drive hitter. That was the best time ever.
“Other baseball movie … I love ‘The Natural’ because I read the book as a kid.”
Since you live in Los Angeles, tell me how the Dodgers Stadium and Angel Stadium crowds compare to Wrigley Field.
“It's like going to Walmart as compared to going to a really good hardware store in a small town. Dodgers Stadium has a massive, massive parking lot. It's really hard to get there by public transportation of any kind. In Cubs wear, you're harassed the moment you get out of your car. There's no bar anywhere nearby; the closest bar, if you were to walk, would probably be three quarters of a mile, at least. It's a whole different thing. But I'll be going Friday the 26th to see the Cubs play the dreaded Dodgers.
“Angel Stadium is kind of similar but there is a bar at the edge of the parking lot. They've got you there. The Big A, if I had to choose one.”
It's still baseball though, correct?
“It's still baseball. It's beautiful when you get inside, but outside the whole getting there and afterwards is not anywhere close to as much fun as Wrigley.
“Wrigley is different inside now. I have no problem with the jumbotrons. I enjoy being able to see a replay or having Harry sing to me during the stretch. If a little bit of signage gets us better relief pitching and maybe one more starter, I'm fine with that.”
Well, look at last year. That's all you need to know.
“Right. Exactly. If we could hit up the Wrigleys for the hundred years of free naming rights for the ball park, we could get some more pitching, too. That would backdate some of those checks.
“And the merchandising, you see the Cubs stuff all over the country. Everywhere we go you see a lot of head nodding when I go out and I've got on the hat.
“It's just that head nod. Like yeah, we freaking did it.”
And at least we both know you’re not a front runner with it.
“Yeah, I'm not a band wagoner.
“I coached a Little League team that won the Tournament of Champions, which was from Torrance, California, all the way to Malibu … a bunch of teams, and we won the whole thing. It came down to, without fail, my worst player coming up to bat. We had been down 4-0. We came back, and it was now 4-3 and we got nothing going. Two outs, worst guy up and he draws a walk – and he runs down to first base like he had just hit a home run that would win the World Series because he didn't strike out to lose the season. And then the worst possible scenario … your son, the leadoff hitter, comes up. You're like ‘Oh geez, he's going to make the last out here.’
“He buried a triple that stuck in the corner. It didn't literally stick – but it stuck in the corner and he caught the other kid by second base. It was like this Rockwell painting … they came around third base at you. The first kid slid into the plate. The throw was high and the catcher missed the tag but held up his hand to show the ump that he didn't drop the ball, and my son slid in behind him like a toboggan and won the game while the guy was showing the ump his glove. It was complete pandemonium … everybody went crazy. I'm there with my clipboard and it was like absolute silence.
“I had the same exact feeling when the Cubs won and Kris Bryant threw the ball to first. It was just silence for me. This feeling of ‘Oh my God, we didn't blow it.’ The ultimate victory it turns out is just the lack of defeat. I didn't have this crazy elation, I just had this ‘Oh my God, we didn't blow it.’ It's like a Zen calmness as compared to elation. All is well.
“So anyway. I went into that story.”
You like talking about baseball, nothing wrong with that.
“I do. I do.”
Back in the day, one of the great perks of working for the Cubs was getting to meet lots and lots of interesting people – especially in the entertainment industry. Perhaps you’ve heard that the Cubs are somewhat popular?!
Heck, two of my most surreal phone calls were of the celebrity nature.
There was the voicemail left for me on my work line a week after Pearl Jam played Soldier Field in 1995, which went something like this: “Hey Chuck, this is Eddie. Thanks for coming out last week. I know it was a tough loss tonight, but if you get a chance, I’m staying at the ‘Xxxxxx’ Hotel. Call xxx-xxx-xxxx. Ask the operator for ‘Xxxx Xxxxxx’ – and she’ll transfer the call to me. I’ll be in town for the next week. I’d love to meet you.”
That was Eddie, as in Eddie Vedder. The “x’s” are there to protect the innocent.
And then there was the phone call from a guy in Southern California who called the Cubs’ Media Relations department to have a message relayed.
Chuck: “Media Relations office, this is Chuck speaking. How may I help you?”
Caller: “Hi, this is Ray Manzarek of The Doors. The Cubs are in Los Angeles and I was supposed to let Mark Grace know to leave me some tickets. I don’t know where the team is staying. Can you help me out?”
How do you not stare at the phone after that conversation ended?
Note to my readers: For the record, my most surreal phone call took place in my high school days, when a guy named Chuck Wasserstrom called my parents’ house looking to see if he was related to my dad. “Hello, my name is Chuck Wasserstrom.” Uh, my name is Chuck Wasserstrom. I don’t know if that call was more surreal or frightening. Anyway …
Looking back, I think I took it for granted how cool it was to meet some of the people I came across.
When a movie was filmed at Wrigley Field or in the vicinity, invariably, you’d bump into an actor – so I was able to meet big names like Billy Crystal and Gregory Hines when they were in town for “Running Scared” … and John Goodman when he was shooting “The Babe” … and a lot of the actors when “A League of Their Own” was at the ballpark.
Certainly, once the 7th-Inning Stretch tradition started, it was a given that you could meet TV and movie icons. I think I only went fanboy twice: When Dennis Franz was in the press box lunch room – he was Andy Sipowicz, for crying out loud – and when Joe Pantoliano was at a game.
Joe Pantoliano: “Why would you want my autograph?”
Chuck: “You're Guido the Killer Pimp.”
Once I got on the laptop this morning and started typing away, more and more names started to reappear in the memory part of the brain.
Meeting Geddy Lee of the rock group Rush … photo ops with President Clinton and Governor Blagojevich … receiving a handwritten note from Johnny Ramone … having John Cusack ask me in the Cubs clubhouse to see if Neve Campbell – his girlfriend at the time – was still waiting for him on the concourse. Sadly, she wasn’t. And I spent a lot of time looking for her.
There’s the time in the Dodger Stadium press box when my boss, Sharon Pannozzo, was standing up for a brief moment while the game was going on. A nasally/squeaky voice in the top row of the press box yelled, “Hey, down in front.”
Without looking, I said, “That sounded like Squiggy.”
Then I looked up. It WAS Squiggy. Actually, it was actor David L. Lander, who played Squiggy in “Laverne and Shirley.”
Of course, there’s the other side of the Dodger Stadium experience. During the Sammy years, there always were celebrities showing up in the Cubs’ clubhouse after a game. The visiting clubhouse itself wasn’t that big to begin with, so extra bodies weren’t exactly necessary. Throw in a loss, which was somewhat commonplace in L.A., and it made for some awkward celebrity sightings.
After one game, Charlie Sheen, Adam Rich (yes, Nicholas Bradford in “Eight is Enough”) and a third actor were in the clubhouse. The third guy couldn’t help notice that I was staring at him – as were several Cubs players. He wandered over to me and said: “I bet you’re thinking, what movie have I seen you in?” I kind of let my inner voice externalize itself. “Actually, I’m wondering what you’re doing in the clubhouse.” For the record, I never got his name – nor do I think I ever saw him in anything.
During my early years in Media Relations, the Cubs’ spring training ballpark was the old HoHoKam Park – which didn’t have actual offices. The front office was literally on wheels – an RV parked about 100 feet from the home clubhouse double doors.
The RV literally had enough room for a receptionist up front … a small media relations office shared by two … an office for the traveling secretary … and a back third for the general manager, the assistant GM and Arlene Gill – the executive assistant. You couldn’t see the people in the back without going to the back.
This one day after a game, I walked in and yelled something along the line of “Arlene, there’s a guy outside looking for you.”
I heard a somewhat quiet “She’s not here.”
I didn’t recognize the voice, so I walked to the back of the RV. There’s a guy standing there, and he calmly repeated, “She’s not here.”
“Uh, OK,” I said to Bill Murray. I didn’t quite know what else to say, other than “Thanks.”
I wish I could have had that moment back.
Bill’s older brother, Brian Doyle-Murray, is friends with legendary scout Gary Hughes. Thanks to Mr. Hughes, I met Brian a couple times during my Baseball Operations years. At least I was able to carry on a conversation with him that lasted more than a word or two.
Which brings me to Joel Murray – the youngest brother in the Murray family (he is the youngest of nine).
I had known of Joel Murray for a long time. I saw him perform on The Second City mainstage in the late ‘80s. I saw him in “The Bleacher Bums” at the Organic Theater. I had seen him in numerous television series. And I knew he was a big-time Cubs fan.
Through the miracle of social media, I reached out to him to see if he would be amenable to an interview – and he said yes.
Consider this story the prequel to the interview.
You know what … it’s still pretty cool when you come across celebrities.
It’s not often when all eyes were directed on me. I’m good with that.
And during my Cubs days, I usually made it a point to stay below the radar and steer clear of the cameras.
But 10 years ago, like it or not, I had a little live TV time. It was me – on ESPN2 – and all I had to do was look serious and print legibly. I don’t know if I’d list either as one of my strengths.
Back in 2007, Major League Baseball decided to televise the First-Year Player Draft live from Orlando, Fla. Although the actual drafting of players was technically done at each club’s “war room,” every team was asked to send representatives to the televised event.
For the first round of the draft, every club was instructed to call in its draft selection to the on-site club representative, who was using one of those old-fashioned helmet phones. The club rep wrote down the name of the pick on a piece of paper – which was then handed to an official MLB representative, who, in turn, delivered it to Commissioner Selig for announcement to the free world.
Like I said, all I had to do was look serious and print legibly.
For a few days before the draft, though, that didn’t seem easy to do. I figured I’d find a way to screw it up. Unless, of course, they purposely gave me the wrong name. The Cubs had the No. 3 overall selection, so I knew I was going to be on TV.
What was really terrifying was the company I was in. So help me, here are the first two paragraphs of the MLB press release that went out on May 27 – a week and a half before the draft:
Hall of Famers Robin Roberts, Tommy Lasorda, Jim Palmer and Dave Winfield are among the representatives who are scheduled to attend the 2007 First-Year Player Draft on behalf of their Major League Club, Major League Baseball announced today. The first day of the Draft, set for Thursday, June 7th at Disney's Wide World of Sports Complex in Lake Buena Vista, Florida, will be carried live on ESPN2 from 2-6 p.m., marking the first time that the Draft will be telecast.
Others scheduled to attend include Felipe Alou; Steve Blass; Ellis Burks; Enos Cabell; Andre Dawson; Dwight Evans; Dallas Green; Ken Griffey, Sr.; Willie Horton; Frank Howard; Barry Larkin; Chet Lemon; Tony Oliva; Terry Steinbach; Darryl Strawberry; Walt Weiss; Frank White; and Don Zimmer. Each Club will have representatives on-site in Florida.
And then …
A complete listing of each organization's representatives and front office attendees, subject to change, follows:
Arizona: Rico Brogna, Luke Wren
Atlanta: Paul Snyder, Ralph Garr, Kurt Kemp
Baltimore: Jim Palmer, Scott Proefrock
Boston: Dwight Evans, Ray Fagnant
Chicago Cubs: Chuck Wasserstrom
Chicago White Sox: Roland Hemond, Chet Lemon
Cincinnati: Ken Griffey, Sr., Jim Thrift
Cleveland: Ellis Burks, Robby Thompson, Steve Frohwerk
Colorado: Walt Weiss, Clarence Johns
Detroit: Al Avila, Willie Horton, Tom Moore
Florida: Andre Dawson, Manny Colon, Brian Bridges
Houston: Enos Cabell, Jay Edmiston
Kansas City: Frank White, Art Stewart
LA Angels of Anaheim: Demetrius Figgins, Dan Radcliff
LA Dodgers: Tommy Lasorda, Ralph Avila, Brian Stephensen
Milwaukee: Gord Ash, Tony Diggs, Wil Inman
Minnesota: Jim Rantz, Tony Oliva
NY Mets: Darryl Strawberry, Kevin Morgan
NY Yankees: Frank Howard, Mike Thurman
Oakland: Terry Steinbach
Philadelphia: Robin Roberts, Lee McDaniel, Dallas Green
Pittsburgh: Steve Blass, Trevor Gooby
San Diego: Dave Winfield, Randy Smith
San Francisco: Felipe Alou, Jack Hiatt, Steve Decker
Seattle: Dan Evans
St. Louis: John Mozeliak, Alan Benes
Tampa: Bay Dave Martinez, Don Zimmer
Texas: Jim Sundberg, Steve Buechele, Mel Didier
Toronto: Rob Ducey
Washington: Barry Larkin, Tim Foli
How out of place does that Chicago Cubs entry look?
Thankfully, smarter heads prevailed – and Bob Dernier was tracked down so I wouldn’t be considered the club dignitary. But I still was tasked with answering a telephone and writing down the draftee’s name with a TV crew in my face. It was the ultimate in multi-tasking.
I’d like to think I nailed it. The phone rang, and I didn’t drop it. The player name I was given – Josh Vitters – made its way from ear to paper. Vitters and his family were in attendance, and the camera went from me to the guy carrying the card to the Commissioner to Mr. Selig – and then to the Vitters family. And before the heartbeat slowed down, the Pittsburgh Pirates were on the clock.
I spent the rest of the first round ducking whenever the camera crew made its way around the room. I already had enough broadcast time for the day.
This Saturday (May 6) is the anniversary date of Kerry Wood’s 20-strikeout game.
I initially wrote this piece last year – and I know I couldn’t top it. I still get goose bumps when I think about that game, and I hope you sense my level of enthusiasm as I try to recreate the excitement for you.
I often get asked if I miss working in baseball.
The honest answer is “sometimes yes, most of the time no.” I miss it a little more now that I’m writing stories about the game – but I’m enjoy this little writing career way more than the baseball grind.
But I do admit to missing “the rush.”
I don’t often pat myself on the back or give myself credit, but if I was allowed to give a 10-second elevator pitch about my time in the Cubs’ Media Relations department, I would tell you with the utmost of confidence that I was good at proactively being ready when game “events” occurred.
For example, if a Cub hit a grand slam, I had the information ready for a press box announcement before the ball landed. Or if a player hit a 16th-inning home run, I was out of my seat and announcing to tell everyone within earshot that it was the latest homer in Cubs history – while the ball was still in flight.
There was nothing like the adrenaline rush of scrambling from TV booths to radio booths to telling the Cubs beat writers to press box microphones to let everyone know about a “first time it happened” moment or a “last time it happened” occurrence. The Cubs had been around 110 years before I got there; whenever something unusual happened, we weren’t exactly talking small sample size.
One of the greatest “rush” days I’ll ever experience took place 18 years ago today – May 6, 1998 – as this is the anniversary of Kerry Wood’a 20-strikeout game. If only I wore a mental Fitbit, my brain probably walked 100,000 steps that Wednesday afternoon.
Woody’s pitching performance was the most dominating I’ll ever see. Period. Think about it … He was a 20-year-old kid in just his fifth major league start – and he struck out 20 of the 29 batters he faced. Hard to believe, but just two starts back, he didn’t make it through the second inning in Los Angeles – and you couldn’t help but wonder if he was ready for all of this.
And on this day against the Houston Astros, he was a boy among men. This wasn’t a September Triple-A roster – and even if it had been, that wouldn’t negate the fact that he struck out 20 of 29. The Astros’ lineup that day featured Craig Biggio and Jeff Bagwell – and also included Moises Alou, Derek Bell and Ricky Gutierrez.
I certainly can’t say that I knew May 6 would be a record-setting day, but when Woody struck out the side in the top of the 1st inning and Houston’s Shane Reynolds followed with strikeout-strikeout-strikeout in the bottom half of the frame, you knew this might not be a typical ballgame.
After striking out the side in the 4th inning, Kerry had eight strikeouts. I could do the math; he was on an 18-strikeout pace. Most of the time, when you do math like that, the pitcher’s final pitching line only goes up by one or two. But Woody tossed that theory through the window by fanning all three batters in the 5th.
At that point, my daily scribble sheet was starting to see some pretty good scribblings.
I was slowly filling in the information I had access to via my own Cubs records collection and two major league record books I had in my press box cabinet. One-by-one, the numbers were written on paper … 12 … 13 … 14 … and up to 19. I had No. 20 staring me in the face in the Official Major League Baseball Record Book.
6th inning … one strikeout … now at 12.
7th inning … strikeout, strikeout, strikeout … 13, 14, 15. The last one tied Cubs nine-inning and rookie marks.
Whole sentences, written out neat enough for my boss – Sharon Pannozzo – to read on the in-house public address system.
8th inning … strikeout, strikeout, strikeout … 16, 17, 18.
By now, I was in constant contact with the famed Elias Sports Bureau – where they were just as much one step ahead in anticipation of Woody’s next strikeout.
No. 16 set the Cubs’ nine-inning record. No. 17 tied the major league rookie record and the Cubs’ overall record – done in a 15-inning outing. No. 18 established records for both.
Partial sentences, in hieroglyphic scribble, just legible enough for Sharon to hand me the mic and tell me to read it.
And then came the 9th inning …
Pinch-hitter Bill Spiers went down swinging for a seventh straight Kerry Wood strikeout – equalling another Cubs record. But who cared about that? It was strikeout No. 19 – tying a National League record accomplished only four previous times in 122 seasons.
Future Hall of Famer Craig Biggio was then cursed at after putting the ball in play and grounding out for the second out of the inning.
And up to the plate came Derek Bell, and all I could do was try not to hyperventilate. Woody quickly got to two strikes, and his curveball was dancing. Bell had no chance, going down swinging for strikeout No. 20 – tying a mark only reached before by Boston’s Roger Clemens.
I vividly recall running down to the field after the game to assist with the live postgame interviews – and Woody was visibly trembling. I had no idea if he had truly processed what had happened.
But more than anything, I’ll never forget the in-game rush of researching and tracking down and providing information as his strikeout total grew and grew.
On days like today, I do miss that rush.
This weekend, my Grandma Rose would have been celebrating her 100th birthday.
I wrote a letter to her last year that I posted on this site. I’ve made a few modifications to the original note to make it “current,” but I wanted to share the gist of her story again. I think she would have liked that. I know I do.
Dear Grandma Rose,
I’ve been thinking about you a lot lately.
I know … you’re not actually going to be reading this. In fact, you probably would have preferred texting – because that’s what the kids do. And you always liked bonding with the grandkids.
I hadn’t been exactly sure what brought about all these recent memories of you, other than the belief that you had been watching me from afar right now and played a part into steering me back toward writing.
You used to send me hand-written postcards all the time when I was a kid. I sort of remembered that, but last year, I came across some of those postcards. In fact, at that top of screen, I scanned one of them for you. Kind of funny, even back in 1973, you led off by asking me a baseball question. Even funnier was the Chas. Wasserstrom line – which appears on all of the postcards you sent me. But it was nice to see “Dear Chuckie” at the top of the postcard.
The postcards just sort of turned up. They were in a scrapbook-related box Dad gave me a few years ago when he was cleaning up part of the basement – and they were in my house.
I had done a lot of soul searching in recent years trying to figure out the next chapter in my life. Over the last year, the writing bug bit me in a huge way for the first time in a long time.
I always wondered where that writing bug came from. It’s not that Mom and Dad don’t write – but math and engineering aren’t exactly human interest/storytelling subjects.
Just like you used to brag about your family, I love bragging about my girls. You would have loved watching them play sports, even though I know sports weren’t your thing.
Thankfully, they get all their athletic genes from Michelle. I know you referred to her as “What’s her name?” It wasn’t meant to be mean; old age had already started creeping in. Heck, I wish your mind had stayed around longer to get to know her better. You would have really liked her, and she would have really liked you. She says all the time that little kids, old people and dogs really like her.
You know, it’s hard to believe you’ve been gone for over a decade. Sadly, I was there for your last breath. I won’t allow being there that day to be my last memory of you.
I’m sure I think of you a lot more these days because of where the girls are in school. I remember back in the day when you were sort of the official “field trip chaperone” because you could be – and because you wanted to be. You probably got more out of all of those museum tours than anyone in the class.
I also think of you a lot in years when I need to renew my driver’s license. I so remember that day back in 1981 (October 20, to be exact) when I was finally legal. After dumping Mom and Dad off at the house, I grabbed Pucci the Wingdog and headed over to your apartment to take you for a spin through the McDonald’s drive thru. I always knew how to woo the ladies.
Since you never learned to drive, you relied on the kindness of children and grandchildren to get you from place-to-place.
Somewhere along the way, you handed me an envelope. I don’t remember when, but I do recall you saying something along the lines of “Don’t open this now. Put it away.” You didn’t elaborate much, which was unusual, since talking was one of your core skills. The only thing you told me was that you had found something, but it would mean more when I was older.
I took the envelope, and then we probably started talking about important issues – like where we were going to eat. And then I forgot about it.
Magically … mysteriously … karma … whatever word you want to use, I found that envelope in a box in Mom and Dad’s basement. My guess is that I just threw it aside, but since Dad doesn’t throw anything away (Thanks Dad!), that white envelope with your unmistakable handwriting was there when I started looking for mementos that could supplement my musings.
I opened the envelope, and I found another envelope inside – an old parchment envelope.
Inside that envelope was a letter on old faded stationery. But it was more than “just a letter.” I discovered where my writing bug must have come from. Grandma, you instilled it in me way back when, and you must be making sure that it’s the path I’m following now.
It was a typed letter sent to you back in 1933 – just before your 16th birthday – from H.F. Harrington, the director of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern. You probably saw humor in that your last name was misspelled! But getting past that, it was a letter suggesting a career that you probably wish you would have gone into.
The second paragraph tells me exactly why you would have wanted me to see the letter now.
“Journalism is really a serial story, so that this first chapter will probably lead to further developments and achievements in your writing career. We hope that when you come to make a decision on the school of journalism where you may continue your work under competent supervision, you will consider the advantages of the Medill School of Journalism of Northwestern University.”
As I’ve returned to the passion that drove me to Missouri’s Journalism School in the first place, I’m guessing you’ve been involved in setting this course I’m now on. You have reenergized me. You have taken the steering wheel away from me to drive me in the direction you would have liked to have followed yourself.
I didn’t thank you enough for everything when you were physically around.
But wherever you are now, please know that you’re still playing a big role in who I am and what I do. Thank You!
I don’t know if I should sign this “Chuckie” or “Chas. Wasserstrom” – but in either case, you know who I am: Your grateful grandson.
Any time I have a chance to use this classic photo, I’m going to do it.
On the right, that’s Jim Hendry, the man who invited me to move from media relations into the baseball operations department – and gave me a diamond-side view to the inner workings of what it takes to put together a baseball team.
On the left, that’s Gary Hughes, the man who saw something in Jim to help launch his professional baseball career.
Gary – also known to his legion of fans as Boomer – has helped launch a bunch of careers and has been a friend to multitudes both inside and outside the game. I had the pleasure of working closely with him during my time in baseball ops, and he continues to be a sage source of advice and guidance for me.
How connected is Boomer in the industry? Mr. Hughes first began working in professional baseball in 1967. That’s 50 full years of service scouting for the San Francisco Giants (1967-72), New York Mets (1973-76), Seattle Mariners (1977), New York Yankees (1978-85), Montreal Expos (1986-91), Florida Marlins (1992-98), Colorado Rockies (1999), Cincinnati Reds (2000-02), the Cubs (2003-2011) and the Boston Red Sox (since 2012).
For those of you who don’t know him, his career honors include being selected by Baseball America as one of the Top 10 scouts of the 20th century. He also was inducted into the Professional Baseball Scouts Hall of Fame in 2008.
But it’s not because of baseball that I’m writing about Gary today. OK, it is about baseball, but more in the “What Could Have Been, But Wasn’t” category.
The NFL draft is coming up this week, and Gary kinda-sorta has a hand in it – as he has been directly connected to a pair of football executives: John Elway, executive vice president of football operations/general manager of the Denver Broncos, and John Lynch, the general manager of the San Francisco 49ers.
Hughes was involved in the signing of both to play baseball – as a Yankees scout in 1981 (Elway was selected in the second round with the 52nd overall pick) and as the Marlins’ scouting director in 1992 (Lynch was Florida’s second pick in the Marlins’ first-ever draft).
Elway was attending Stanford University en route to a Hall of Fame career with the Denver Broncos.
“John was eligible to be drafted in baseball as a sophomore, and we did not have a first-round pick; as we often did in those days, we signed a free agent,” Hughes said. The Yankees surrendered their first pick to the Padres as compensation for the signing of Dave Winfield. “I was in my third year as a full-time scout, and here I am talking to George Steinbrenner while the president, the scouting director, the player development director and the GM all sat there – listening to me talk to him.
“George was infatuated with the idea of drafting John Elway. I said to him, ‘We don’t have to take him this high; he’s probably going to play football. Nobody is going to take him this high.’
“And he said, ‘Yeah, but.’ And his ‘Yeah, but’ made sense.
“In those days, after the first and second round, the draft was shut down for a secondary phase for those who were passed over the year before or were drafted and didn’t sign. Mr. Steinbrenner said, ‘What will happen is, everybody will look at their board, and they’ll see how their boards have been beat up, and Elway will look awfully good to someone picking in the third round.’ He had a point there. Then he said, ‘So we’re going to take him.’
“And then he said, ‘He’s got to play baseball.’ And I said, ‘Whoa. Listen, I just got this job. I don’t want you to come back and say I said he’d play baseball only. There’s a very definite chance he’s going to play football.’ And he said, ‘Duly noted.’
“That took me off the hook. So we drafted him with our first pick.”
Due to the timing of when Elway and the Yankees agreed to terms, he didn’t play baseball until the following June with Oneonta in the New York-Penn League. He started his pro career 1-for-19, and when he left six weeks later to return to Stanford for football practice, “he was leading the team in every offensive category – including stolen bases,” Hughes said. “He showed power. He showed speed. It was exciting to see that he could do all that.”
A rightfielder, Elway batted .318 with four homers, 25 RBI and 13 stolen bases in 42 games for Oneonta.
After a stellar senior season at quarterback, it became evident that Elway could be the first player selected in the 1983 NFL draft. As has been well documented, he informed the Baltimore Colts before the draft that he wouldn’t sign with them if they drafted him first overall; they did, and he held his ground.
“Shortly thereafter, I took John and a couple other guys fishing,” Hughes said. “I was talking to him on the boat, and I asked him, ‘What are you going to do now?’
“He said, ‘If they don’t trade me, I’m going to play baseball.’
“I basically told him, ‘You’re full of baloney,’ or some such language. And he said, ‘I’m not kidding. I’m not playing for Baltimore. If they don’t trade me, I’m playing baseball.’
“Not much later after that, they traded him to Denver. The rest is history.”
How good of a baseball player could Elway have been?
“He could have had a long and successful career,” Hughes said. “The ability was there. He could run. He had power … a left-handed hitter with power at Yankee Stadium. He would have played a long time. Obviously, he had a good arm. He could play rightfield. It just didn’t work out for us. But I think George was happy with the outcome. He was happy that there were a lot of headline stories.”
Lynch’s story was, indeed, a completely different story. Like Elway, he attended Stanford. Unlike Elway, he quit football to concentrate on baseball.
“We drafted him, we signed him, and he goes out and ends up pitching the first game of the season (for Erie) – which made him the first pitcher in the history of the Florida Marlins’ organization,” Hughes said. A right-handed pitcher, Lynch made nine minor league starts in 1992-1993 for Erie of the New York-Penn League and Kane County in the Midwest League.
“Dennis Green was the football coach at Stanford – but then he left to become the coach of the Minnesota Vikings. When he left, Bill Walsh came back, and John came up to me and said, ‘I know I told you I quit, but I always wanted to play for Bill Walsh. Can I at least go back and play?’”
Walsh, a legendary coach, is best known for leading the 49ers to three Super Bowl championships.
“I said, ‘John, I can’t stop you from doing anything. We’ll see you next spring,’ Hughes said. “Well, next spring never occurred. He played, and Bill Walsh let the NFL people know just how good he was.”
A safety on the gridiron, Lynch was selected by Tampa Bay in the third round of the 1993 NFL draft. He went to nine Pro Bowls in 15 NFL seasons – and has been a finalist on the Pro Football Hall of Fame ballot four times.
“He had a strong arm. Obviously, he was a good athlete. He never really had a chance to develop to see how good he might have been,” Hughes said. “We were excited to get him. He threw hard. But we lost him to Bill Walsh.”