Friday, September 2, 2016

Chasing the Pennant: My relationship with the Cubs (and the White Sox and the Pirates)

Well it looks like the Cubs are going to do it this year. As I write this they are 87/47 with only the Cardinals (elimination number 14) and the Pirates (elimination number 12) having any remote possibility of overtaking them to win the National League Central. While winning the league championship is not a certainty, it is a strong possibility. This got me to thinking about Chicago baseball and my relationship with the Cubs. Along the way I will necessarily have to bring in the Pirates since I've lived in Pittsburgh for over half of my life.

I grew up in Highland Park on the North Shore of Chicago in the 50s and 60s. Like every kid I knew in grade school I loved to play baseball. At least I loved to play baseball in concept. My usual position in games at Ravinia school or in pick up games at the park at Beech and St. Johns next to the railroad retirement home was "left out". Well not really, that's just a bad joke I tell. But I was not a particularly good hitter and an even worse fly ball catcher, so I spent a lot of time in the outfield hoping that nothing would be hit to me. But, hey, hey, I was there.

I also enjoyed going to major league baseball games. As a denizen of the North Shore I was supposed to be a Cubs fan but for the first 10 to 12 years of my life I was a Chicago White Sox fan. Although this included 1959 when the Sox won the pennant and Daley-hack Fire Commissioner Robert Quinn set off Chicago's air-raid sirens (in the height of cold war jitters) to celebrate, this was not the reason.

Rather, I was a White Sox fan was because the Cubs did not play any night games in those days. In fact night games at Wrigley were impossible in that era since it did not have any lights. Why did that matter? In a word "golf". My Dad was an avid golfer his whole life. He would rather take me to less convenient Comiskey Park for a night game than to Wrigley for a day game and have to give up his time on the golf course.

My father belonged to a city club in downtown Chicago, the Standard Club. In the day this was a great club where we would meet my Dad in the bar for snacks (and drinks for him and Mom) before going to dinner if we were downtown. The club had a lot of family events including, as I recall, a holiday celebration, complete with Santa to keep all of us (Jewish) kids happy. One of the other events they had every year was a "Father and Son night at the ballpark". This night would start with a picnic-style dinner in the dining room complete with fried chicken. After dinner we'd get on buses and have a police escort to Comiskey Park. At the end of the game we'd ride the buses back to the club and head home.

As I got older we stopped going to the Father/Son nights and I became more of a Cubs fan. I'd occasionally be taken there as part of a friend's birthday celebration or for some other occasion. I don't have any particular memories of having a preference for one ball park over the other. There was nothing particularly special about "the friendly confines" to me. (Though as I grew older it became clear to me that Comiskey was a dump.)

Just prior to my 18th birthday, my friend Alfie and I made the trip to Wrigley on our own. The highlight of this visit was that I had my first illegal beer (an "Old Style") at this game.

During my undergraduate years at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh I pretty much forgot about baseball. In fact I only made it to one game at Forbes Field even though it was block from the campus (if you ever see the original "Angels in the Outfield" CMU, then known as Carnegie Tech, is visible over the left-field fence.) In 1970 I was sweating getting into the Ph.D. program in Computer Science at CMU. I had a lot of grad student friends and they knew I was a wreck and practically kidnapped me to a game. The following Fall (as a first year graduate student!) I went to my first game at Three Rivers Stadium. Over the years in Pittsburgh I would occasionally go to other games there, and no doubt went to additional games at Wrigley when visiting Chicago, but nothing particular stands out because I was not really much of a fan in that era.

After a six year interlude between 1976 and 1982 when I lived first in Chicago and then in silcon valley (and never went to a game in either place), I returned to Pittsburgh apparently for good and started going to the occasional game. I'd make a point to get to a game or two every year when the Pirates played the Cubs and I am happy to say that I was present at Three Rivers Stadium on September 24, 1984, the night that the Cubs clinched a playoff berth for the first time in the modern era. I was rooting for the Cubs every inning.

One year in the late 1980s I was lamenting the fact that when I did want to go to a game all I could get was crap seats in an upper level. I was complaining to a friend about this and he mentioned that he and two other friends had season tickets behind third base and that I was welcome to use one of his for some game. To me seeing a game from somewhere between third and first base and low down is a significantly different (better) experience than seeing it from any other location. The following year a bunch of friends and I split a partial season ticket ourselves.

Just after I met my now wife Barbara in 1989 we were visiting my parents in Chicago and decided to go to a Cubs game on a Wednesday afternoon. I called for tickets and was informed that they had standing room or obstructed view seats only. I was bummed. (And not bleacher bummed either.)

Back in Pittsburgh, I went to a game against the Expos on the spur of the moment. Three Rivers was so big and the Pirates were so mediocre at the time that it was seldom difficult to get a ticket of some sort. So I went to the stadium and was heading to the home plate box office when I was stopped by an older gentleman (call him Milt because I believe that was his name) who asked me if I needed one ticket. He looked too nice for it to be a scam and he offered the ticket at face value telling me that I'd be sitting next to him...he had two tickets but his partner couldn't make the game. The seat ended up being in the first row, right against third base, a terrific place to watch the game. Even better were the stories that Milt told me about his years watching the Pirates. He'd had the seats we were sitting in as well as equivalent seats at Forbes Field stretching back to the 1930s. He told about getting hit by a foul ball and breaking his collar bone one year. He told about knowing many senior people in baseball. He was fascinating to listen to. I told him my story of not being able to get into a Cubs game and he said "next time you want to see the Cubs give me a call and I'll get you in."

The next year I was in Chicago visiting my father in the hospital. He was doing well so my cousin Jimmy and I decided to go to the Cubs game. I remembered Milt back in Pittsburgh and gave him a call. The next thing I knew we had house seats just behind home plate compliments of Jim Frey, the Cubs General Manager, at no charge. Getting these great seats for nothing made me extremely uncomfortable. The next time I wanted seats Jim Frey was no longer the GM but the Cubs were playing the Cardinals and Joe Torre provided the seats. When I asked Milt how I could pay for the seats he suggested that I send Joe a box of premium golf balls...which I did...along with a copy of my favorite baseball novel, If I Never Get Back by Darryl Brock.

That same season three of us decided to split a pair of tickets for the complete season (27 games each.) The seats were in the third row just to the right of home plate. I've maintained those same seats since then...transitioning to first row seats at PNC Park when it eventually opened.

In recent years my cousin Jimmy has managed to obtain Cubs/Pirates tickets at Wrigley from a high school friend of his who has a set of truly excellent seats at Wrigley (though not as good as those that Jim Frey gave us) and has treated me to a game most every summer except this year and last (as the Cubs got hot again.) Wrigley still has some magic for me (though I haven't seen it since they put up the new scoreboard), but PNC Park actually has it beat in my book. I know that is sacrilege for a Chicagoan but I invite all of my friends to join me and see what I mean.

I've become a Pirates fan, but one with a soft spot in my heart for the Cubs. Generally I will still root for the Cubs but not when the Pirates interests are involved. Since it is clear this year that the Pirates have no chance (in spite of still having not been eliminated at this point) I have become a Cubs fan again (especially if they can help the Pirates by winning games that help the Pirates in their quest for a wild card slot -- yet again.) If, for some reason, the Pirates actually make it to post season I will root for the Pirates but I will have no problem ultimately rooting for the Cubs should that come to pass.

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