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It’s all over the Chicago media that the Cubs announced major renovation and restoration plans for Wrigley Field.
The announcement came during yesterday’s Cubs Convention at the Sheraton in Chicago. The Cubs are calling the upgrade a “restoration” as much as a “renovation” because they are restoring some of the older, often elegant elements of the ballpark that have long since been replaced by unfortunate quick fixes, like the chain link fence that currently wraps a good portion of the ballpark along Addison and Clark. The fencing will be replaced by wrought iron grill work and railings. Take a look at the second and third stories of the facade to the left of the windows in the zoomed-in image below.
That’s how the ballpark looked decades ago! A major throwback improvement! Look to the right of the trees in the photo below, taken around 1930 …
The same wrought iron design with the upper concourse behind the seats open with iron railings! Nice. Compare that to what it looks like today:
Not so nice. The cheap chain link fencing and hideous concrete panels will be gone! Yay! This is especially nice for people like Admin and Wife of Admin who pass the ballpark almost every day. We’re all for it looking nicer, and more like the historic ballpark that it is.
What’s going to happen to the inside of the park? I don’t think the changes sacrifice the basic Wrigley Field look at all. The ballpark has evolved constantly over the years. Here’s what it looked like just after it opened as Weeghman Park in 1914 (the Cubs moved there from the West Side in 1916) …
Take a look at 20 renderings of the plan at BleedCubbieBlue.com (click here) supplied to them by the Cubs. Ironically, as of this morning the Cubs’ own website had only 6 images posted, so don’t bother going there. All in all it looks pretty good to me, although they might be planning for too many restaurants and concession stands. If everyone sits around in all those eateries inside the ballpark, many of them looking out onto the streets, who’s going to be left in the seats to watch the games?
Now if they would just get rid of that ugly Toyota sign. Doesn’t fit into the new plans visually. Never fit into the ballpark in the first place.
AND … does this mean they’re going to stop hanging those atrocious player-photograph-banners around the marquee at the beginning of the season?? We can only hope.
(Admin note: Read Part I by clicking here.
The usher replied: ”off 2day. can’t get away til after 4.”
I texted back: ”meet for a drink?”
“Not near ballpark. Lincoln Square?”
“Tiny Lounge. Leavitt just south of Montrose.”
“Know it. C U @ 4 30.”
I had a couple hours to kill so I brought the laptop and the shoe upstairs to the ushers’ room and did a little research. At 4:00 I rummaged around and found a brown plastic Jewel Food Stores bag, put the shoe in it, and left Wrigley Field for Tiny Lounge.
A lone patron sat at the bar. On a normal week night it would start filling up about 5:30, but this was the day after Christmas so I didn’t expect it to get too crowded at all.
We like Tiny because the employees are friendly, the decor clean and simple, the drinks good, Half Acre’s Daisy Cutter beer fresh (the brewery is down the street), and there are no TVs.
Ollie was alone behind the bar. “Hey!” he said. “Just you today?”
“Meeting someone,” I replied. “[Wife of Admin] is working.”
“Need a booth?”
“No. We’ll need better light. Maybe a table by the window.”
“Don’t think so.”
I settled into one of the black tall boy chairs and stared out the window at the 5-point intersection of Montrose, Lincoln, and Leavitt. Foot traffic was light. The Golden Angel parking lot across the street had three cars parked up close to the restaurant entrance a quarter block south. A familiar figure appeared from the Lincoln Avenue side of the building and cut across the lot. I powered up my laptop.
As Ollie placed my pint glass on the table, the usher ordered a Hemingway. I reached to the floor and brought up the Jewel bag. ”Look at this,” I said pointing to the ghost of a name faintly visible on the leather on the inside of the shoe.
“Claf …” said the usher.
“Claflin.” I turned my laptop so he could see the screen.
“This ad appeared in a 1906 issue of Sporting Life magazine,” I began. “The Claflin family established itself as shoemakers in Boston during the first half of the 19th Century. Waldo Claflin moved to Philadelphia and set up shop for himself on Chestnut Street. In 1882 Waldo invented the classic baseball shoe featuring cleats and laces and soon established a niche business. By the turn of the century Claflin Baseball Shoes were the Nike of the era. Cy Young himself wore them.”
“So it’s very likely that a young Fred Merkle, when brought up to the Giants in 1907, would invest in a pair of good baseball shoes.”
“A pair. Where’s the other shoe?” I sipped my beer, keeping my eyes on the usher.
“It must be in the ballpark somewhere.” His drink arrived. He fired it down in three gulps. “Merkle was dropped from the Cubs abruptly in 1920. He would have cleaned out everything except things he meant to leave behind, or forgot.”
“And you think he left the shoes behind deliberately.” I paused. “As a kind of relic over which he could declare his curse on the Cubs? Like a rosary? Anyway, you don’t even know for sure that the shoe was Merkle’s.”
“The letters had slipped behind the shelf and behind the shoe. They were there together. I don’t think he somehow missed them in his hurry to leave.” He turned the shoe over in his hand. “And after all, what better symbol of his misery? These are the shoes that should have touched second base at the Polo Grounds on September 23, 1908.”
“What now? Will the Cubs blow up the shoe like the Bartman ball? It would be just another PR stunt. No one really believes in a curse.”
He smiled and wrapped the shoe in the Jewel bag. Standing up he said, “I have to turn this and the letters in to management now.”
I reached into my pocket and pulled out the memory stick. “Here,” I said, handing it to him. “The transcripts and translations. You don’t think the Cubs are going to do anything about this, do you?”
“They brought the priests in, didn’t they?”
“That was before the Ricketts owned the team.”
He shrugged, put a twenty dollar bill on the table and left. “I’ll be in touch.”
It didn’t take the Cubs long. Two days later the bling of my cell phone woke me. “Gate K. Now.”
I showered and threw on khaki’s and my own blue Cubs jacket so I would fit it more easily. Where a week before the concourse was empty, this day it was bustling with construction workers and heavy machinery.
The usher appeared from the left. “They’re ripping the ballpark apart,” he said. “Oh, they’ll say they’re fixing it up. Maybe. But as they do they’re looking for that shoe.” I looked on in disbelief. “Did you see the outside?” I shook my head “no.” He led the way out through Gate K, through the players’ parking lot to the main entrance. “They are going to dig down to what Weeghman Park looked like in 1917.”
“Keep me posted,” I said, and went home.
That night I awoke with a start. “Bury!” I said aloud. Wife of Admin rolled over and looked at me like I was nuts. “Bury,” I repeated. I got up and found my cell phone.
“Read letter translate. Merkle dad said ‘bury.’”
The response came almost immediately. “At ballpark now. Work going on round clock. Will go over ‘bury’ with boss.”
Because of prior commitments, I couldn’t make it to the ballpark until two days later. The Cubs, once again, hadn’t wasted any time.
This is how the field normally looks:
This is how it looked that morning:
They had completely replaced the turf only four years ago. Publicly the Cubs said they needed to redo the field because rock concerts had ruined the grass. But the entire field??
We won’t know if the Cubs ever find the shoe. The usher, my only contact, was laid off and accepted a package that will only pay him if he maintains his silence. All we can do is wait and watch the Cubs and hope that … I can’t even write the words.
But maybe this former Cub, and former New York Giant, first baseman will have the last word after all … forever.
Happy Holidays from Addison Street, Chicago.
(Admin note: Read Part I by clicking here.)
I stared at the photograph, recognizing Merkle immediately from seeing dozens of pictures of him as a New York Giant.
I’ve never seen a shot of him smiling. And why should he smile? After the infamous September 23, 1908, game he was forever after known as “Bonehead” Merkle. He never lived the running mistake down. Johnny Evers, however, the Cub second baseman who initiated the sequence of events that resulted in Merkle being called out at second that fateful evening, had every reason to smile.
His Cubs went on to win the National League pennant and then the 1908 World Series. He even wrote a book about it (with Chicago sports writer Hugh Fullerton) called Touching Second. His legend lives on in the Hall of Fame. Merkle’s name lives on only in infamy.
“Why are you showing me these letters?” I asked the usher.
“Somebody needs to translate them and transcribe them.”
“But if you give them to the Hall of Fame, or the Chicago History Museum, or the …”
“In good time. In good time,” he said. “But first I must know what’s in them.” When I didn’t reply he took the bundle from me and sat on a stair.
“Fred Merkle had an excellent stay with the Cubs,” he began. “He hit .278 over four years and arguably led them to the 1918 World Series. That year he started every game at first base.”
“You know a lot about the Cubs and Fred Merkle,” I offered.
“For an usher you mean?”
“Most of us do this for the love of the Cubs and this ballpark. You’ve noticed that a lot of us qualify for Social Security. The little bit we get paid helps supplement that, but we’d do the work for free, just to be here every day.”
“What did you do before you were an usher?”
“I have a PhD in anthropology. I taught at Indiana University in Bloomington for over forty years.”
“Ah,” I said. “That explains your interest in the letters.”
“To a degree,” he replied. “And it’s no doubt the reason I like to wander around the ballpark and snoop into forgotten corners. But it’s more than that.” He paused to regroup his thoughts. “In 2011 the Chicago History Museum acquired papers that shed light on the investigation of the 1919 Black Sox scandal.”
“I know,” I said. “I read them.” He raised his eyebrows in surprise. “A colleague who lives in Omaha asked that I verify some facts that were to be included in a book. My wife and I went to the History Museum library and worked through the documents. More than once.”
“Then you know what [White Sox pitching ace Ed] Cicotte said about how they got the idea to throw the series.”
“He talked to several Cubs who said they got paid off by gamblers to lose the 1918 series to Boston. The Cubs were angry that they didn’t get paid promised bonuses for winning the pennant.”
The usher nodded. “Never proven. And Merkle’s name has never, to my knowledge, been mentioned in connection with the alleged bribery. In fact, he had a solid series both on the field and at the plate.”
“So did Shoeless Joe Jackson in 1919,” I replied, referencing the White Sox outfielder often considered one of the best in baseball history but nonetheless banned from baseball for his part in the 1919 scandal. “But I don’t mean to accuse Merkle of deliberately booting plays or making outs in 1918.”
“Here’s the strange thing, though,” said the usher, leaning forward. “After the 1918 series, Merkle had a pretty good year in 1919 and then hit .285 in 1920, one of his best hitting years. He was 31 years old. During the investigations into gambling and baseball that led to the Black Sox Scandal, he was called in to testify. No one knows what he said or perhaps revealed, but he was suddenly let go by the Cubs and disappeared from baseball for four years in the prime of his life!”
“And you think these letters might shed light on what happened.”
“Yes. And you are the one to do the work. You just said that you already have experience researching historic documents.”
“Those were in English!”
He scowled. “Not a good response in 2012. You are familiar with Google Translate I trust?”
“Of course. What do you propose?”
“Use the employee I.D. I gave you. Bring a laptop down here and transcribe these documents. As an anthropologist I appreciate the need to minimize the amount of handling they will tolerate before disintegrating. They must not leave this space before their contents are recorded. The danger of them being destroyed is too great.”
“I have a job.”
“You have vacation time perhaps? It won’t take you long.”
As it turns out my job didn’t last much longer. I was doing freelance photography for a local company and ran out of products to shoot more quickly than I had planned. So I had plenty of time to climb down the old metal stairs and work on the letters.
14 May, 1917.
“Mein Sohn, ich bin froh zu hören, die Dinge gut laufen, so weit in Chicago. Aber Sie dürfen nicht zulassen, die Vergangenheit zu verletzen Ihre Lebensgeister.”
“My son, I am happy to hear things are going well so far in Chicago. But you must not let the past hurt your spirits.”
Most of the correspondence was of this nature, a father concerned with the welfare of his son during the years after a national humiliation. I dutifully transcribed, with the help of Google Translate, each letter, and made it through all but the last few envelopes by Christmas weekend.
I returned to Wrigley Field the morning of December 26. A light snow had fallen Christmas Eve, blanketing the field and softening the sounds of the city.
There were no special events scheduled that week so I had the ballpark to myself. I trudged down the dark metal stairs and set up my laptop. Luckily, Wrigley Field wifi was still working fine.
4 October, 1920.
“Die Nachrichten über die White Sox ist sehr schlecht. Ich vertraue darauf, dass die Übel dieser Stadt haben meinen Sohn nicht verändert.”
“The news about the White Sox is very bad. I trust that the evils of that city have not changed my son.”
10 October, 1920
“Es ist ein neues Team mit verschiedenen Spielern und einem neuen Stadion. Tun Sie Ihr Bestes. Verbergen der Vergangenheit.”
“It is a new team with different players and a new stadium. Do your best. Bury the past.”
14 October, 1920. The last correspondence.
“Ich verstehe nicht, warum du diese Dinge an Sie gesendet werden soll. Sie sagen, sie sind Pech. Sicherlich können Sie kaufen ein neues Paar.”
“I do not understand why you want these things sent to you. You say they are bad luck. Surely you can buy a new pair.”
More mundane details of life. There was nothing in the Merkle letters that would interest the Chicago Cubs, let alone the Chicago History Museum, or the Hall of Fame. Not even the signatures because all of the correspondence were from Merkle’s father. There wasn’t even a Fred Merkle autograph to be had for sale to a collector.
I saved the last translation to my laptop and backed it up on a memory stick. Pulling the stick out of the USB port, I glanced at the metal shelves.
And that’s when it hit me.
The shoe. There was only one shoe on the shelf. Where was its mate? Merkle’s father wrote about bad luck and a pair of something. Bad luck for whom and a pair of what?
I texted the usher and told him to meet me at Gate K as soon as possible.
Part III coming soon …
Who is this Cubs player?
A chill wind blew in from the north woods, the kind that cuts right through your North Face coat, Wrigley Field 1914 hoodie, and authentic font personalized Cubs T-shirt, to shiver your bones and numb your skin. It rolled down Clark Street and punched me in the face at Addison as I approached the entrance to the Cubs Store that ate half of the McDonald’s parking lot, directly across the street from the famous red marquee. I was there shopping for Christmas gifts. The wind created a fierce suction that held the door closed as if blocked by an unseen, preternatural pressure system that had joined forces with the arctic tempest.
A kindly clerk in his mid-twenties pushed from the other side. Helping customers get through the door seemed to be his only job for the day because the store was dead empty, a strange situation given the season. He wore a pair of jeans, a Cub T-shirt that matched the one hidden under my hoodie, and a permanent, corporate-friendly grin. “Hello!” he chirped. “Welcome to the Cubs Store. Let us know if there’s any way we can help!”
(Cubs Store under construction before the 2012 season. Or maybe “being assembled” is a better description as it resembles nothing more than a child’s building blocks project gone horribly bad.)
We? I looked around the store and saw his fraternal twin, a young woman, smiling the same smile as she fluffed and buffed what I thought was a pretty thin assortment of Cubs memorabilia and clothing. Immediately discouraged, I nodded at the kid and stepped in. It looked more like a wholesale showroom, the kind you used to see in the Merchandise Mart before the Mart started kicking out the merchandise — light inventory of a small selection of goods as if they were displaying a preview of what would be coming out next spring.
Just as I was about to decide to walk east on Addison to one of the more established souvenir shops, a loud wooshing sound told me that the kid at the door was being made useful again by another customer. I glanced in that direction and paused. A stocky man of close to seventy stood stiffly in an official Wrigley Field usher’s uniform — Cubs khaki cap and matching khaki trousers, puffy regulation Cub-blue insulated winter jacket, and Cubs employee identification card hanging from a Cub-blue lanyard. He also wore earmuffs and thin black cotton gloves.
“Do you sell hand warmers?” he asked after the doorman mouthed his obligatory welcome.
As the store clerk muttered a heartfelt, disappointed negative, the usher looked up and caught my eye. We recognized each other immediately. “SRO,” he said. “You’re the lad who stands at the top of aisles 205-206 and writes that blog.”
(At this juncture I must issue a disclaimer that this usher was neither Tom nor Margaret, usher friends who have appeared often in this blog. I remembered this gentleman as being perhaps the only usher who asked that I not publish his name or picture, a request I have honored over the course of four seasons, and will continue to honor now.)
“So you’re the other one who reads it,” I quipped, my usual response to comments about either the blog or the book. He didn’t laugh but stared at me for a long moment. “Looks like you’re working today,” I said to break the awkward silence. “Cubs in the postseason after all?” He didn’t laugh at that either. He took one step forward and stopped, squinting his eyes as if making a decision, perhaps convincing himself to do something that he should forget about altogether.
“Please,” he said, sounding exhausted. “Come with me.” He turned and stared at the kid, who only stared back, eyes wide, corporate smile gone. I approached the door and joined the usher. The kid forced the door open to a rush of piercing cold air.
Instead of crossing the street and proceeding to Wrigley Field’s main entrance, the usher led me north on Clark. The ballpark looked stark and lonely across the triangle lot between the street and the third base line exterior wall.
We bent over at least 60 degrees and held tightly to the brims of our hats as we fought the wind to make our way north to Waveland Avenue. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a second lanyard with a card. “They won’t check closely,” he said, “but for today you’re Philip Marten.”
I took the identification card and looked at a mug shot of a guy at least fifteen years older than me with no beard. “Should I shave first?” I asked. He made no reply. “What if this guy Marten shows up?”
“He won’t,” he said. “He died.” We entered at Gate K, across from the fire station. The security guard made sure we had lanyards but didn’t care about much else. He wanted to get back to his paper cup of steaming hot McDonald’s coffee.
What am I doing? I asked myself. Where is this usher taking me? I can get into a lot of trouble, AND I gotta get back to work soon.
I paused and thought a moment, and then replied to myself.
You’re getting into Wrigley Field during the off-season when you shouldn’t be there at all. Go with it, dork!
The concourse under the third base grandstand was empty, but clear.
We turned right and climbed the ramp toward aisle 206 as if it were a normal game day, lacking only Bob, our friendly scorecard vendor, and 35,000 of our closest friends. The weather was perfect for opening day; maybe a little warm.
Halfway up the usher turned left and led me down a narrow catwalk that looked down onto the concourse. A couple of 10-foot metal tables stood with randomly scattered folding chairs. The usher sat in one and motioned for me to sit in another.
“What do you know about all the different curses?” he asked.
“The curses?” I replied. “As in the goat?” He nodded. “There’s also the curse from God because there used to be a seminary on this land and He or She don’t like guys playing a hedonist, capitalist game on consecrated ground. But they’ve had the owners of Billy Goat’s parade a whole herd of goats onto the field over the years, and a bunch of exorcist priests sprinkled holy water all over the joint to make God happy and maybe smile on the Cubs. Nothing changes. Good PR for Billy Goat’s, though.” He nodded again and smiled. “There’s another one?”
“Think a moment. It was a big part of your book.”
“You read my book? So you’re the other guy … sorry.” Another smile.
“I should say, he was a big part of your book.”
“Ryan Dempster? But I already wrote that his pre-season prediction that the Cubs would win the World Series sealed their fate in 2008.”
He shook his head. ”Not 2008.” He looked and me and waited for the obvious to sink into my addled brain.
He smiled and sat back in his chair, rocking on the two back legs.
“Follow me.” He stood and walked toward a door to my right. We entered a dark room with more scattered chairs and empty hooks along one wall. At the back of the room he paused. “Welcome to the ushers’ room. There are a few of us working special events this month, so I’ve been at the ballpark pretty regularly with plenty of down time to get myself in trouble. I found this by accident last week.” He pointed to a small hole in the wall. “It’s a keyhole.”
I made a cursory inspection of the wall. The keyhole had been painted over until recently.
“It’s not a secret room or anything as mysterious as that,” he said. “Just abandoned and forgotten. I brought in a flashlight the other day.” He pulled a bulky, high-powered yellow hand device out of his back pocket, and pushed firmly on the wall. It opened onto a dark stairwell with rusted iron steps leading down. I followed him through the door.
“We are adjacent to the fans’ elevator. You know the one.”
I know it very well. The 200-level doors are at the top of aisle 205, just to the left of where we stand in SRO.
“We are also above the location of the old clubhouse before all the remodeling that’s been done over the years, the latest in 1984,” the usher explained. “These stairs were used by maintenance staff to get up and down through the structure quickly without having to use the ramps. The contractors used the stairwell shaft to install the elevator in 1996, but because of where it needed to open in the grandstand, they expanded the space out in the other direction. They didn’t bother to remove these stairs, though. Saved a couple of bucks, I imagine.”
We arrived at the bottom. He stopped and directed the light onto a wall of old, dusty metal shelves. He reached up to the top and took something down. “It looks as though players and trainers used this space to store random equipment and supplies over the years. They removed most of the stuff at some point, but missed a couple of things. I found old rolls of medical tape, a belt, an ancient baseball shoe with spikes on its sole, couple of rubber tubes, and these.”
He handed me a stack of yellowed documents tied together by decomposing twine.
“They were jammed between one of the shelves and the wall,” he said as I turned the bundle over in my freezing hands.
“Shouldn’t you give this to management?” I asked.
“Sure. Eventually. But they’re busy with winter meetings and trades and all of that ‘rebuilding the team’ baloney. They’ll nod and smile and say thanks and put them in an archive somewhere. I want to know what’s in those letters, especially since I read the name on the top envelope.”
Hr. Carl Merkle, Weeghman Park, Chicago.
The return address read “E. Merkle, Toledo, Ohio.”
“But,” I protested. “Merkle’s name was Fred. And his family was from Wisconsin.”
“I looked into it,” said the usher. “His birth name was Carl Frederick Rudolph Merkle. He changed it to Frederick Charles Merkle. His father’s name was Ernest. AND, they had moved to Toledo when Carl Frederick was very little. He made his baseball name first in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and southern Michigan.”
“What does the ‘Hr.’ stand for?”
“Open the top letter.” I very carefully untied the twine and pulled the delicate, translucent top letter from its envelope. The writing was in a very old European cursive style, and it was in German. “The ‘Hr.’ stands for ‘Herr,’ which is German for ‘Mister,’” said the usher. “Merkle’s father was an immigrant from Germany. They are addressed here because Fred Merkle, the New York Giant whose running gaff in 1908 made it possible for the Cubs to win their last ever World Series, ended up on the Cubs and played first base here from 1917 until 1920. And of course you know that Wrigley Field was called Weeghman Park until about 1919.”
He reached into the inside pocket of his Cubs jacket and handed me the photograph of hapless Frederick Charles Merkle that you see at the top of this blog.
Part II coming soon …
We usually stand near the left field line elevator, at the last ramp that leads directly down to Gate K and Waveland Avenue. During this second-to-last home stand we returned because we always have the most fun in SRO at the top of aisle 206. Always find someone interesting. Here’s who was there this week …
We didn’t get his name, but noted that in spite of the cheery pink color of his sign, he didn’t look too happy. Why should he? He’s been alive for 102 of the 104 years of the Cubs’ rebuilding program. Do we believe in the most current edition? Why should we? We remember Leo the Lip, Jim Frey, 1989, 1998, “In Dusty We Trusty” (watch out Cincinnati!), and Sweet Lou.
When this poor guy was born, the Cubs played here:
They couldn’t be accused of being a North Side team because this field was located at what is now Polk, Wood, Taylor, and Wolcott (at the time called Lincoln), on the West Side, well south of Madison. A psychiatric institute was located just beyond the left field wall. The West Side Grounds didn’t have lights. Neither did any other ballpark in the Major Leagues, which weren’t called MLB at the time. No game had been televised or even broadcast on the radio. The first radio broadcast of a baseball game was eleven years in the future.
This guy was president of the United States …
Legend has it that he got stuck in the White House bathtub and so had a new one installed that could fit four normal sized men. The part about getting stuck is maybe legend. The big bathtub part of the story is true.
There have been seventeen more Presidents since Taft and since our 102-year-old fan was born.
There have been two World Wars and countless other wars, police actions, and interventions; and countless euphemisms coined to describe wars when politicians don’t want to use the word.
The Titanic sunk two years after his birth.
No currently existing ballpark was built yet.
Talking movies were more than a decade and a half away. The film-making capital of America was arguably … Chicago! But Charlie Chaplin would not make his first film at Essanay on Argyle near Clark on the North Side for five more years!
The NFL didn’t exist, and wouldn’t for ten more years. The “Monsters of the Midway” were the football teams of the University of Chicago. They were disbanded twenty-nine years later.
Their abandoned stadium, Stagg Field, was used as a laboratory and was the site of the first sustained nuclear reaction, which led to the creation of the atomic bomb. Now THERE’s a Monster of the Midway!
The population of the world in 1910 was about 1.7 billion. Today it’s about 7 billion. Cubs attendance in 1910 was 526,152. In 2012 it will be somewhere between 2,800,00 and 2,900,000 (below 3,000,000 for the first time since 2003).
But you get the point. Wait ’til next year.
One more thing. Our 102-year-old fan stayed for the whole game. Here we see him waiting for the elevator as Steve Goodman’s “Go Cubs Go” echoed through the long empty stands.
It was a hazy night at the ballpark. The wind blew in from beyond the bleachers, bringing with it … a lake-effect fog?
No! It was enough smoke from a dozen rooftop barbeques across Sheffield and Waveland to blacken the sun and darken the moon on an otherwise beautiful night at the old ball yard.
Harper arrived ready for action!
Chat around the ballpark was all about Darwin Barney and his streak of error-free games. If he played a clean game tonight he would break the all-time National League record for a second baseman of 113 games without a fielding mess-up! He hadn’t made an error since April. Since there has been absolutely nothing worth cheering about this year, except for the Cubs’ weird winning record in July (won 15, lost 10 – if they had played that well all season they’d be in contention for a wild card spot, and be only 9 percentage points behind the Reds for first place in the NL Central), Cub fans embraced the chance for something, anything, to celebrate.
Harper flew to her seat in anticipation of a fun evening at Wrigley Field.
Pen in hand, she was ready to keep score, so Admin just turned his card over to her.
(Photo by Son of Admin)
And then it happened. An attempted steal … the ball gets by Castro and rolls toward center field. The runner gets up and heads for third. Out of nowhere Barney appears, fields the ball and throws to third. It looks like the runner is going to be out by a mile! But the ball skips by Cub third baseman Valbuena.
“Oh no!” cried Admin. “Did that bounce in to Valbuena? There goes the streak on a fluke play!”
Sure enough, the scoreboard posted E4, an error on the second baseman, Barney. Bye bye record book!
“No way,” protested Harper. “I saw the play. That throw was perfect. It hit Valbuena’s mitt on the fly. I’m scoring it E5.”
(Photo by Son of Admin)
“But Harper …” began Admin.
She cut me off. “Gimme your cell phone. I’m calling the official scorer!”
After talking to the press box she said, “You’ll see it in the replay when we get home …”
Sure enough, Harper was right and they changed the scoring to E5, an error on the third baseman. Barney’s accomplishment was confirmed!
“Nice going, Harper,” said Admin.
“No problem,” she said. “You can’t beat fun at the old ball yard …
… and years from now when fans talk about Darwin Barney and how he broke the record, I can say, ‘I was at that game.’”
Admin has woefully neglected this blog of late. There is a reason, but no excuse.
However, last week, while being served wickedly fantastic adult beverages by our friend Tona Palomino, master of the bar at Trenchermen on North Avenue, we heard a story that just begged to be posted. We stood sipping a “Desperate Vesper” (you gotta try one!) chatting with Andy whom we know both through friends in our old Edgewater neighborhood, and, coincidentally enough, through my job.
We chatted about this and that, and then Andy began telling this wonderful tale of a lost baseball mitt. His story especially resonated with yours truly because I, too, once had a mitt that had become like an appendage to my left hand, and lost it to an unknown thief on my own baseball team! But that’s another story. Andy’s is much more uplifting, and so as we wait for the Cubs to get on with their 104-year-long rebuilding program, I present it here, adapted from a note Andy sent to his family …
I recently broke my foot when I was back in Des Moines walking my aunt’s family dog Sofie down the boulevard that runs in front of my mother’s house. It was late at night and I took a bad step on uneven pavement. That bad step resulted in me inverting my foot, breaking my fifth metatarsal, and being prescribed a walking boot and a heavy dose of inactivity. This event had a cascading effect in my mind which resulted in me being rather down and sour. My attitude was probably a result of spending a little too much time reflecting on how it could be possible that I broke my foot on the very same day that my Dad died 5 years ago. Also, I was really piling on myself by thinking about how my summer was now handicapped, in disbelief as to how simple the event was that led to me breaking my foot.
My sulking migrated into comfort by daydreaming about my childhood. I just so happened to break my foot in just about the very same location where as a child I use to spend a lot of time outdoors. I thought about countless hours of baseball games on that very same boulevard and how much I missed my long lost baseball glove. As a way to pick myself up I decided that in the very near future, when I was back on my own two feet, I was going to run more and play catch again like I did so many times on the boulevard.
Since I could not really address the running part of my promise I decided to start with my commitment to playing catch. In order to do that I was going to need to find a baseball glove that was similar to my lost mitt. Growing up I was initially a very reluctant owner of a Kirk Gibson baseball glove, but by my late teens a very proud owner of the glove. I decided that I was going to find a vintage Kirk Gibson mitt like the one I used during so many Beaverdale Little League games, break it in while my foot healed (putting it under a couch, running it over, rubber banding a baseball inside) and play catch when my foot felt better. The starting point to accomplish this for a hobbled man was really only one place. I was going to hit up eBay and find a Kirk Gibson glove, new or used, similar to the one that I had in my Beaverdale Little League days, and break it in.
You might not remember or have ever known that Kirk Gibson was a long-time Detroit Tiger who became best-known for one very famous home run in the 1st game of the 1988 World Series. Hobbled by stomach illness, a bad knee, and a bad hamstring, Kirk Gibson (now with the Dodgers) was inserted to pinch hit by Tommy Lasorda in the 9th inning with his team down 4-3. On the 3-2 pitch from Dennis Eckersley he knocked a backdoor slider over the right field fence to win the game. This would be his only appearance in that World Series and his final game at that level.
I knew none of this when it came time around 1990 to sign me up for Little League. A very clear memory for me is when Mom and Dad brought my brother Pat and I to the sporting goods store to buy our gloves. Pat was the first one to the rack and got the large Barry Bonds glove (I remember Mom telling Pat his glove was too big), and I got what I thought at the time was a nobody Kirk Gibson. Kirk Gibson was not what all the other boys at Holy Trinity had. I was disappointed. At the time you could not find two guys bigger than Jose Canseco and Darrell Strawberry, so all the boys were either a Canseco or a Strawberry. I wanted one of those gloves but I ended up with this nobody Kirk Gibson glove. The only thing that comforted me in my failure to obtain the “cool glove” was that Dad thought the world of Kirk Gibson. Before he hit his famous home run he had played 12 very successful seasons with the Detroit Tigers (Dad’s favorite team), won a World Series in 1984, had a reputation as a hard worker, and was a Tigers team leader for a decade.
Here is his famous Home Run:
Sometime in the early 2000’s I asked Mom where my glove was. After looking around for some time she could not find it. I asked her repeatedly over the next few years to find the glove, as if she hadn’t tried hard enough the first time. But each time she came up empty. I unfairly fit my mom’s failure to find my glove into the same category as her throwing Dad’s Tiger baseball cards out when they moved from our West Des Moines apartment to our house in Des Moines. I thought she had thrown it out or, worse, given it to someone only to have it never returned. I spent the next 4 years childishly upset with her in the same way I behaved when she failed to buy me a Canseco or Strawberry glove. I did in time resign myself to the idea that it was never coming back and there was nothing I could do about it. For that, Mom, I am very sorry.
Thinking all of this, deciding to buy a new glove, and going on eBay took less than 5 minutes. The very first glove to come up in my search was a Kirk Gibson glove with autographs on it just like my old glove. The seller had said “there are signatures on this that could come off with some ink remover” and “needs a little work”. As I was looking at this glove my memory started flashing back in a photographic manner. The signatures on the glove were in the very same places that my glove had signatures, autographs of players I saw play in Iowa Cubs games in Des Moines. As I was looking at this Kirk Gibson autographed glove a very sharp chill ran up my back. This glove was my glove and it did not make any sense because the owner of the glove lived in Texas.
I purchased the glove that second through the “Pay Now” option and received a note from the seller that it shipped that Monday afternoon.
A couple of days later, as I was gimping down my stairs I saw that my landlord had placed a package at the bottom of the steps. I opened it up, took the padding out, unwrapped the tissue paper, and saw something I thought was lost into the ether of the early 2000’s – my old glove. I sent the following message to the seller to confirm:
I recently purchased a Kirk Gibson Wilson glove from you. I have to ask you how you came into this glove. Was it something that you purchased at a thrift store? I hope that this is not coming off accusatory because that is not my intention. You see, I have this very strange feeling that this is my childhood glove that has been missing for close to 9 years. Growing up I had a Wilson Kirk Gibson glove that I used for Little League ball. During the summer I used to attend Iowa Cubs games with my glove and have players autograph the glove just like the one I received. Additionally, the glove shows some signs of being gnawed on and, well, that’s something that I used to do while being bored in the outfield. If this is my glove it has made quite a journey. I have been to Texas twice in my life and I have never lived outside of Omaha, Des Moines, Ames, or Chicago.
Any help would be much appreciated. Right now I am very confused that this has happened to me.
Here is the seller’s response:
That’s quite a story & really interesting. I don’t remember for sure where I picked it up as I always look for them at estate sales & here where we live in Central Texas we travel about a 150 mile radius so it could have come from Gatesville, Waco, Marble Falls or even Abilene. Only other possibility is I was in Omaha last May & hit a lot of neighborhood garage sales in the Papillion-Millard area & I might have gotten it there. I wished I could be of more help than I am but I just don’t remember. Did you find the lacing needle?
My theory is that I lost this glove in Omaha where I lived in 2004 and played on a softball team. That’s the only explanation I can reach. Its current existence in my possession is a combination of tragic, unfortunate, and wild events. I was so baffled by its presence and its ride back to me that last night I slept with it in my arm as if I were a child.
I know that this all seems a little impossible but this glove is mine and, to me, I’m looking at my old friend. This glove and I spent many cold February practices together only to have that lead into many freezing cold March and April games. I have used it as a muzzle to warm my face while I pray to the baseball gods for a quick 3-up-and-3-down inning. I did this many times, year after year, as a way to get myself and my sub 80-pound frame back into the comfort of the dugout and to the hot cocoa that awaited me. We have fielded grounders, caught fly balls, played catch, moved, and grown up together. I once had to be admitted to the hospital because my glove was too slow to catch a wicked grounder that bounced up and knocked me square in the nose. I don’t know where I go from here, but I am glad that something very important to me has completed its improbable journey back onto my left hand.
I believe in baseball and I believe in Kirk Gibson.
A. James Tomka
Thanks, Andy. A great baseball story. I believe I’ll check eBay for an old Nellie Fox mitt, circa 1959.
We get to the bleachers once a year because of charity tickets being sold WAY under normal bleacher face value. The money goes to a school or a charity, which is great.
Finding our usual center field seats — rather our normal 1970s era seats — we settled in with a beer and a brat and prepared our scorecards.
There were a lot of youngsters in the crowd, including a group of about ten fans in their twenties just to our right.
I noticed a puff of smoke.
“Oh no!” I exclaimed to Wife of Admin. ”They’re not smoking are they?” … thinking, where’s security? Gotta stop this now! Also thinking, well, we used to smoke cigars in the ballpark!
Then we caught a wiff of the smoke. “I think it’s reefer,” I said to Wife of Admin.
“Hmmm. Yeah. I think you’re right.”
“It’s okay then.”
We looked around and saw that there were a lot of empty seats.
But the announced attendance was over 38,000! Ha! But it ended up being okay because Admin won the attendance pool.
It was twenty degrees colder if you walked up to the beer guy under the scoreboard. Here’s the view from there …
Our friend Ryan Dempster just didn’t have it. (Don’t believe he’s our friend? Read the Epilogue to Waiting for the Cubs.) The Padres got out to a 2-0 lead. It looked hopeless based on how few runs the Cubs have scored this year. But they kept getting on, and actually getting a few guys in. Then in the 8th Campana pinch ran for Poop Johnson who had poked a clutch 2-out single. Campana then stole second … and third, in rapid succession. Castro hit him in on a totally gutsy, amazing infield single to third. He slid into first and could have injured himself and been out for the season, but as far as we know he’s okay. But the game was tied 6-6!
Some have wondered how we can tolerate standing room, our usual Wrigley Field denizen, with all the people walking in front of us throughout the game. Gotta tell you that our pot-smoking friends to our right in the bleachers kept climbing over us, going and coming with no end of beers and other cocktails of dubious color. It can be an annoyance no matter where you sit, or stand.
Back to the game. How about this for a view …
It’s Darwin Barney trotting home after hitting his ninth inning walk-off game-winner into the left field bleachers. Here’s what the bleacher crowd looked like as it happened …
Now, there are those of you (maybe those of us) who would say that it’s no big deal because the Padres stink, too. But it was fun. Way fun. We stayed for the playing of Steve Goodman’s song.
Then we went home and cooked steak!