Bear Down and Get Some Runs, best-of: May 13, 2005

May 13, 2005

I come downstairs after doing some reading, and my dad is sitting in the TV room.

The pain of the '69 collapse was too great for my mother to bear.
The pain of the '69 collapse was too great for my mother to bear.

“Did you see what we rented?”

“No. What?”

“The Santo movie. This Old Cub.”

“Oh sweet!”

“Have you seen it?”

“No.”

“You wanna watch it with us?”

“For a little bit while I eat. I called Luke because I felt like going out to play some catch, but he can’t find his glove and he needs a new one anyways, so we’re going to go out and get him a glove. But I was going to eat something first.”

“Well as soon as your mother gets off the phone, I’m turning it on.”

“Cool.”

This Old Cub is a documentary about Ron Santo. It was written and directed by his son, Jeff Santo, and looks at Santo’s life with the Cubs, from his playing career to his broadcasting career. It also looks at Santo’s lifelong battle with diabetes, a battle that has taken both of his legs, and while it focuses on Santo’s life, career, and positive spirit, the real heart of the movie is Santo the Cubs fan. Santo’s love for life, upbeat attitude, and faith that everything will turn out all right is what makes him so beloved by Cubs fans. Because of his attitude, Santo is the ultimate Cubs fan, the epitome of what being a Cubs fan is all about.

The movie also takes time to chronicle the tragic season of 1969, in which the Cubs spent nearly the entire season in first place before suffering the most dramatic late season collapse in sports history. 69 is a taboo number for all kids, but in our household it had nothing to do with sex. If you thought living through last season’s final week was bad—in case you’ve forgotten, the Cubs beat the Reds 12-5 on the last Monday of the season to push their Wild Card lead over Houston to a game and a half, and then proceeded to lose six of their final seven games to fall out of the playoff race—try living through the last month and a half of the 1969 season:

NL East Standings after August 14, 1969:

Cubs up nine games on the Cardinals and ten games on the Mets.

Final NL East Standings:

Cubs back eight games of the Mets.

For those of you scoring at home, that’s an unprecedented eighteen game swing between the Mets and the Cubs over a month and a half. I grew up hearing stories about that ’69 season. Anytime I was upset that the Cubs were losing, my parents told me about 1969 to show me that I didn’t know what losing was. And anytime I was happy that the Cubs were winning, my parents told me about 1969 to show me that with the Cubs, it can all change in a heartbeat. The 1969 Cubs were on track to become one of the greatest teams in Chicago sports history. Instead, they became the single greatest sports tragedy in the history of Chicago, and possibly, just possibly, in the history of mankind. They turned into a symbol of this city’s Murphy’s Law mentality.

But they had another meaning in my house. In my house, the ’69 Cubs were the best illustrator of my parents’ differing attitude towards sports. My dad is a realist. When he talks about the ’69 season, he sees the obvious tragic aspect, but he doesn’t live in that pain. He has fond memories of the team, of Banks, Williams, Santo, and Leo the Lip, of Fergie Jenkins and Ken Holtzman, of Randy Hundley and Glenn Beckert and Don Kessinger. He turned 19 in the middle of that summer, and from the stories I’ve been told and the time I’ve spent talking baseball with him, it seems that the ’69 Cubs marked the end of my dad’s childhood. The early seeds of that team were planted when my dad was a boy, and he tells stories about sitting out in the bleachers to watch his heroes play ball. He tells stories of Ernie Banks standing outside of the stadium and not leaving until every kid had left with an autograph and a smile. My dad grew up on the North Side, and attended Mather High School, and among my favorite stories of his are from his days at Jamieson Grammar School, where he wrote for the Jamieson Journal.

CHARLIE: I wrote for the school paper, the Jamieson Journal, and because we were editors my friend Sammy Wolf and I would have to go down to the printer to pick up the papers and bring them back for the school. There may have been someone else, but I just remember Sammy Wolf. The printer was down on Belmont, which is 3200, and we were at 5600, so we would take a bus south to Belmont but we’d get off at Addison instead and catch a few innings. We’d buy a couple of tickets and catch a few innings.

How much were tickets?

Well…I think good seats were about a buck and a quarter, maybe a little bit more. Bleachers were about eighty cents. We sat in the bleachers. I remember the programs cost fifteen cents each, so whatever it was it wasn’t a lot. So we’d watch a few innings, and then we’d walk from the park to the printer, pick up the papers, maybe two hundred or so for the whole school, and we’d each carry two bundles of papers to the train, and take the El back to school. We usually missed most of the day. And they never really figured out why it took us so long to pick up the papers. (laughs.)

So, you did this once a week?

Oh no. No, no. Once a month. Yeah. The paper came out once a month, and the season started in April, so April, May, June…we got out of school around the middle of June.

And then did you go again when school started up in August?

No, probably not. The school year didn’t start until after Labor Day, so by that time there wasn’t much left in the season. So it was really just at the beginning of the season and the end of the school year. Definitely eighth grade, probably seventh grade too. So, wow… (pauses, thinking.) It was probably only, you know, four, five, six times in my whole life that we did that.

For my dad, the ’69 Cubs were a great team that, like most Chicago teams, just didn’t make it. It was rough while it happened, but now when he looks back on that season, it’s a snap of the fingers and a “that’s the way it goes sometimes,” but mostly it’s the last great memory of a Cub team that he watched growing up, a team that was together for the better part of his childhood and teenage years. Banks retired in 1971, but 1969 was his last full season. Santo hung ‘em up in ’74 after one unmemorable season with the White Sox. Billy Williams—“Sweet Billy,” as my parents always say—was with the team until ’74, and two years later manager Leo Durocher left. By the time the Cubs were back on top in 1984, it was a different team, and a different life for my dad. He’d finished school, fully experienced the Sixties, and was now a family man, back in Chicago, with a wife and two kids. The Durocher-led Cubs never had another season filled with as much promise as they did in 1969, and while there was pain in the outcome, my dad remembers that season as the most memorable year of his childhood team.

For my mom, however, it’s a different story. Mention the ’69 Cubs to my mom, and you’ll get a pained expression, followed by moans and groans and other nearly inaudible sounds. My mom is an optimist, and a very emotional person, and when she experiences something it stays with her. This was evident in many ways throughout my childhood, and it manifested itself in sports in a few places.

The first was in her dislike for Tony Gwynn, who she held personally responsible for the 1984 Cubs’ collapse in the NLCS. Whenever my brother or I would get one of his baseball cards in a pack, we’d give it to my mom as a “present” and watch as she flipped out. Finally though, towards the end of Gwynn’s Hall-of-Fame career, I convinced my mom to let him off the hook, because all he did was play well, and in a world of jerks and cheaters Tony Gwynn was one of the all-time classy and nice guys who played the game with respect and dignity and intelligence.

She also had it in for Isiah Thomas after he led the Pistons off the court before the end of Game 4 in ’91. “I don’t care how nice a guy he is, or how good a player he is, or if he was just really upset because they were swept. You don’t walk off the court like that. It’s bad sportsmanship.” She has since forgiven Isiah as well.

But the ’69 Mets were the worst, and anytime the Cubs are playing the Mets my mom is a little bit uneasy. While we joked about Tony Gwynn, I learned early on never to joke about the New York Mets. I was probably about eight or nine years old, and I had gotten into some kind of a stupid eight or nine-year-old fight with my parents, and in an act of rebellion I declared that I would now be a fan of the New York Mets.

I’ll never forget my mom’s reaction. She turned towards me, slowly, and said without any trace of fun: “There are some things in life that you don’t joke about.” She turned her back, and walked away. I got the point pretty quickly.

And so it was when This Old Cub turned to the summer of ’69 that my mom shivered and left the room. “I already lived this once. I don’t need to watch a movie about it.”

My dad and I stayed though, watching clips of Mr. Cub and Sweet Billy and the greatest Cub third baseman of all-time, Ron Santo. During the film, there were interviews with famous Chicagoans who told stories about the ’69 team. Bill Murray was working at the concession stand at Peter Jans Golf Course in Evanston, and said that he was mad that he was of an age where he had to have a job. He said that there were days when he’d close up early so that he could listen to the games on his own. Dennis Franz said that he was shipping out to Vietnam that summer, and was really upset that after waiting so long for a team like that one, that he’d have to be off in a country far away. Dennis Farina was a Chicago police officer at the time, and said that when asked about an assignment, cops would say that they “had it covered like Santo at third.” William Petersen spoke about the team and how much he loved those players, and when it came to the part about 1969, he just started mumbling, unable to come up with words. And finally Gary Sinise, who said that he quit his summer job just to be able to watch the Cubs that season.

I watch a bit more of the movie with my dad, and then I leave and go out to pick up Luke, grabbing my glove from my room and tossing it in my car. The Cubs are playing the Washington Nationals, and I listen to the last few innings on 720. When I pull up to Luke’s house, he comes out, and flips it to AM 1000 to hear the White Sox.

“Hey. Knock it off.”

“What? I want to hear the Sox game.”

“Wait for a commercial.”

But he can’t, so while we drive to Dick’s Sporting Goods store in Glenview, we flip back and forth between the two games, catching bits of both. We get into the store, and head straight to the baseball section to pick out a glove for Luke.

Now picking out a baseball glove is not like picking out a pair of shoes. There are similarities—shoes must fit right, and you want to get a pair that you like, since you’ll be wearing them every day—but there is one aspect to picking out a glove that just isn’t present in picking out a pair of shoes. While shoes have to fit right, they don’t have to feel right. With a glove, the feel is as important as the fit. How does one determine the right feel? Well, it’s hard to say, because it’s an indefinable feeling, which, I suppose, is why it’s the feel, and not the fit. The fit is about your hand; does the glove physically fit your hand in the way that it should, not too loose, not too tight. When you pick out a glove, the fit is easy to figure out, and of course you only consider gloves that have the right fit. Once you’ve got a glove that fits, then you see how it feels, because the right feel cannot be determined just from looks. The feel is emotional. The feel is about putting on a glove, and instantly being brought back to your days as a little leaguer, when your glove was an extension of your body, the most important part of your uniform, the one item that you most depend on to play the field. That’s where the feel comes from. Sometimes you’ll be playing a pick up game, and someone won’t have a glove, so they’ll borrow one from the other team. I’ve done that before. It happens. When you take a glove that’s not yours, it may fit right, but it’s just a tool. You trot out to the field wearing this foreign object on your hand, and you start pounding it and pushing it in an attempt to get the feel right. Then, the next time you’re playing ball with your own glove, you immediately feel the difference. It’s like jumping into your own bed for the first time after a vacation. “Ahhhh,” you say, sinking in. “My bed.” Sure, you’ve been sleeping in a bed, in a rectangular structure with blankets and pillows that serve a function of allowing you to get a comfortable and restful sleep, but it hasn’t been your bed, and then when you finally get a chance to jump into your bed…that’s the same as a glove. It just has a feel.

When we find the baseball section, Luke starts trying on gloves. Outfielders gloves, infielders gloves, bigger pockets, smaller pockets, Rawlings, Wilson, Louisville Slugger—“I wouldn’t buy a Louisville Slugger glove if I were you. They make bats. What do they know about gloves? It’s the kind of glove that Edgar Martinez would probably buy if he ever had to wear a glove.”—and as he’s trying them on he tosses them to me to see what I think. Each glove he tosses to me, I try it on, give it a few punches to break it in, and then toss it back.

“There’s no names on any of these.”

“I know. I think they stopped doing that.”

“Seriously?” He frowns. “That sucks.”

“Yeah. When I bought my glove, I was looking for one with a signature, but I couldn’t find one, so I just signed it Glenallen Hill.”

“Funny,” he says, as he tries on another. “I don’t remember who my old glove was signed by. You?”

“Dave Righetti. Old Yankee.”

“Oh yeah. I remember that glove. Whatever happened to that?”

“I retired it. It’s in the basement.”

He tosses me another glove, and I try it on, give it a few punches, and then I pick up a ball from the basket and start throwing it into the pocket.

“What do you think about this one?” Luke asks, holding another one up.

“Eh, I don’t know. I would never buy a black glove,” I say, as I bend the top of the glove that I’m holding to improve its pocket. “I like gloves that are dirt colored. Nothing too dark, nothing too light.”

“This one feels good,” he says, as he pushes his fingers into one.

“What is it?”

“Rawlings.” He pounds the pocket a bit. “Here. Gimme a toss.”

He backs up, and I throw the ball to him. He throws it back, and continues to break in his glove, and then I reach into the glove I’m holding and throw the ball back, and I continue to pound on the pocket, pretending I’m at second base at James Park, waiting for the next pitch, hoping for a grounder, and I throw it back to him, and I push down on the tops of the fingers, getting the glove loose, like I would out in the outfield, wondering if a ball would ever come my way, and then I throw it back to him, and he throws it back to me, and as I’m pushing and pounding and getting my fingers comfortable…

“Dude, I might have a problem here.”

“What?”

“This glove…I kind of like this glove.”

“Oh yeah?”

“Yeah.” And I continue working it in, throwing the ball into the pocket before throwing it back to Luke. “I really like this glove.”

“Oh yeah?”

“Yeah, dude…I really like this glove.”

“But you already have a glove.”

“I know. But what if it’s the wrong glove. I mean, it feels right, but what if it only feels right because I haven’t felt the right one yet. What if this is my glove?”

“Your one true glove.”

“My one true glove.”

He thinks for a second. “You might have a problem there.”

“I know! Here,” I say, motioning to him, “throw it back.”

He tosses me the ball, and I catch it, and it feels really good. Really good.

“Oh man, dude. This glove feels really good.”

“This one’s feeling good too,” he says, as I throw it back to him. “I think I’m gonna get it. It feels right.”

“Cool.”

“Let’s go.”

“OK, but…well, hold on.” I’m still feeling the glove, imagining my days at James Park. “Just, just one second.”

“Dude, you’re not going to buy a second glove.”

“ Well, just hold on.”

“How much is it?”

“I don’t know. There’s no price.”

“I’m gonna buy mine, and when I do you can have them do a price check.”

“Fine.”

We walk up to the counter, but I don’t take my hand out of the glove. Luke buys his new glove, and a ball, and a three-quarter lengths White Sox shirt. When she’s done ringing up Luke’s stuff, she looks at me.

“Is that all?” she asks, pointing to my glove.

“Well, kind of. Can you do a price check on it?”

“Sure.” She swipes it. “$75.06.”

“Oh.” I think for a second. “Here’s the thing. I didn’t come here with the intention of buying a glove. I have a glove. I came to help him pick out a glove. But in doing so, I kind of fell in love with this glove. Do you see what I’m saying?”

“I guess so.”

“However, I really can’t afford to drop 75 bucks on a glove, particularly a second glove. It’s just too much money.”

“OK.”

“But I really want this glove.”

“What were you looking to spend?”

“Forty.”

“I’m sorry, I can’t do that.”

“Come on dude,” Luke says. “Honestly, you don’t have enough money to buy a second glove.”

“I know.”

“And you already have a glove.”

“I know.”

“And don’t you like your glove?”

“Yeah. I really like it.”

“So say goodbye to this glove, and let’s go play catch. You’ll feel better once you pick up your own glove.”

And with that we left, but I couldn’t help wondering if I had just left my one true glove behind.

When we get into the car, the Sox game is over. They were losing, but they came back to get the win, and we head back into Evanston while listening to postgame. Just east of Sheridan Road, down by the lake, there’s a turf field that the Northwestern Girls Lacrosse team practices on. It’s left open and lit at night, and people go there to play football, soccer, ultimate, or lacrosse. There’s a soccer game going on when we get down there, so we go to the grass field next to it and start playing catch. Luke is right: as soon as I put my fingers in my glove, I feel better, and though we start about twenty feet apart, we quickly move back so that we can both throw as far as we can. We throw high pop ups, and grounders, and bouncers, and line drives. We catch pop flies and then throw quickly to the other person, who catches the ball and swipes “home plate” to tag out the invisible runner. We throw balls that slip out of our hands, sending the other person chasing after it, and once we’ve chased after it we wind up and throw it back as far as we can, sometimes sending the other person running again. The grass is damp, and there are a few thin areas where a bit of mud has collected, and as the ball gets slicker we wipe it off on our shirts to dry it, and then wipe our hands on our shorts to dry them. The ball flies back and forth, wet and dry, and we field grounders with the urgency that comes from playing the infield, and we camp out under high pop flies and catch them with the laziness that comes from playing the outfield, and bask in the moment when all the attention is on you before you throw the ball back to the infield and return to your lonely post in right field. We do this for about a half hour, not talking, just playing catch, back and forth, from one person’s hand to the other person’s glove, and then back again, and just as we did in Little League, we stay close enough to maintain a game of catch but far enough away to be daring.

Then, after a while, we move in, and toss from about twenty feet away so that we can talk. Like me, Luke is a lifelong camp person, though his camp is Came Echo, the camp where he met Meghan, which then allowed her to meet me. Each summer after camp we get home and exchange stories, first as campers, then as counselors. Camp Echo, Camp North Star, Camp North Star, Camp Echo, traditions, games, songs, whatever. I’ll be back in Hayward this summer, but last we talked, Luke was up in the air about Echo.

“So, I’ve been meaning to ask you. Have you decided what you’re doing this summer?”

“I don’t think I’m going back.”

“No?”

“No. I’m applying to a few bars for a bartender or waiter job.”

“So no more Echo?”

“Not this summer.”

“Why not?”

“A few reasons. Camp has always been kind of a stressful job—I mean, it’s fun, obviously, but it’s also kind of stressful because I want to give the kids the best summer possible. School was always then very relaxing, because there was work to be done, and I just had to do it. That was it. Camp was fun, but it was stressful because I really wanted to do a good job for the campers. But then this year, school was really hard, and I’ve been working so hard with my homework and with student teaching, and getting ready to look for jobs, I just want something this summer that’s mindless and easy.”

He throws me the ball. I catch it.

“Yeah. I can see that.”

“And then there’s, well, there’s something else too.”

“What?”

“Well, a lot of people don’t get this, but you will. I’m tired of missing the White Sox season.”

I smile.

“Oh. Yeah, I know.”

“I mean, when you’re at camp, you’re so disconnected. You’re so…distant. You get the scores and all, and you know how the team’s doing, but you’re just not there.”

“Yeah. It’s different.”

“Right. So I watch the team in April and May, and then I go to camp, and then I come back in the middle of August and there’s all of these nicknames I don’t know about and all of these plays I haven’t seen, and I’m look ‘That’s cool,’ but I’m so out of it.”

I throw the ball back to him, and he catches it.

“And so I’ve been thinking about that, and with the Sox playing like they’re playing, I mean, it’s a long shot, but still, what if this is the year, ya know? What if this is it? What if this is the year that I’ve been waiting for? The year that all Sox fans would be talking about forever, and I’m gonna miss it? That would totally suck to be up in Michigan for the whole thing. Ya know man?”

“I know.”

“I mean, Sven’s out in Germany right now, and I was thinking about that, and thinking about how much of the season he’s going to miss, and how much that would suck for him, and I just decided that I didn’t want to go through with that.”

He throws the ball to me, and I catch it.

He continues: “I told that to a few people from camp, and they didn’t get it. They said that I could follow the Sox from camp and that all I’d be missing was the middle of the season. ‘What’s the big deal?’”

“They don’t get it.”

“Nope. They don’t get it.”

We throw around for a little while longer, and then, when our arms are tired and the ball is too dirty to wipe off and the tips of our index fingers are pushed in from rubbing against the laces of the ball, we decide to pack it up. Meghan is getting off of work and hanging out at her bar with her friends Lorrie and Swami—all three of them are Echo people with Luke—so Luke and I decide to meet them there after we go home and clean up. I drop Luke off at his house, and he walks inside, new glove in hand.

“Thanks for coming with. It was good to have someone there helping me.”

“No problem. It was fun. How does your glove feel?”

“Great. Yours?”

I smile. “Great. Am I picking you up?”

“No. I’ll meet you there.”

“OK. See you soon.”

“Peace.”

“Peace.”

My house is quiet when I get inside. It’s Friday night, and my folks are out, and I head up to take a shower and change clothes. I go into my room to toss my glove on my futon, and then I look at it, all dirty and dusty, with “1908” written in marker on one side and “Go Cubbies” on the other. One of the knots is coming loose, and I pull it tight, adjusting the fingers and making sure that everything is smooth. Then I set it back down on the futon, face up. Perfect. I get dressed, head out, and meet Meghan, Luke, and the girls at Prairie Moon.

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