The Real Ernie Banks

By Larry Teren

The first name of Ernest was written on his birth certificate but we all called him Ernie. Few were blessed with the distinction of everyone hearing a nickname and knowing right away whom was meant. Ernie had reached that special honor fifty years earlier. Now he was just used to being old and dealing with it. The past glories were warm memories but didn’t do much to make life any easier. It didn’t matter how famous or beloved he was when he reached eighty and its health issues. The adjustments to pain and lower expectations to the joy of living were a daily challenge once the alarm clock sounded. Continue reading “The Real Ernie Banks”

“Where Have You Gone, Jackie Robinson…”

By Larry Teren
simon&garfunkel
Remember the Simon and Garfunkel song “Where have you gone Joe Dimaggio” from the late 1960’s? It was sort of an anthem for baby boomers weighing in on the changing of the guard from the 1950’s rock and roll culture to the hippie drug craze. Dimaggio retired from playing ball with the New York Yankees  in 1951 after a World War II shortened career grabbed away some reachable goals in the annals of baseball records. He had another fifteen minutes of fame in the mid-50’s as one of Marilyn Monroe’s husbands. Joe kept his iconic status burning in the 60s and 70s with Mr. Coffee commercials as well as the annual trek to Monroe’s grave site to lay a garland of flowers on her tombstone.

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Loyalty is a Two-Way Street

Recently the manager of the Chicago White Sox decided to part ways with the organization he coached for eight years. He pushed the issue in the last week of the season. Rather than wait until it was over and then press his demands, he made for a disruptive situation. Apparently, it was his goal to leave if certain conditions were not met because he had an ace up his sleeve, or maybe next to the lineup card in his back pocket. He knew that there was an offer on the table from the Florida Marlins to become their new manager. In fact, it had been reported that the Florida people begged Chicago to release the manager the previous year so that he could switch organizations.

But, my disdain is not for the ex-manager of the Chicago White Sox. He did the smart thing. He knew he was being forced out regardless. He played his hand to his advantage and got what he wanted. This is the realization of the American Dream. Never mind the fact that the ex-manager was born and raised in Venezuela.

The aggrandizement comes with players on the Chicago Cubs who decided to make some public statements as reported in one of the daily newspapers. Supposedly, the third baseman who had been with the club for eight and a half years expressed a desire to play for Florida and its new manager. This was said before the season was over. When someone in baseball management expresses desire about a player on another team signing with them next year while the current year is still in play, that is called tampering and the team is subject to a fine. But, I guess it is not so the other way around.

What made it worse is that the third baseman allegedly said that he expected the Cubs to officially extend to him to play out his option year at the agreed-upon 16 million dollars. He said it was a formality so that in case he decided to not accept the option and defect, they would then get compensation for him signing as a free agent elsewhere. But, what if he decided to grab the offer? Who wouldn’t want to grab a new one year contract for 16 million? Apparently, not him because he wanted a multi-year contract. I doubt if anyone would give him anywhere near that yearly figure for an extended period of time due to his age, knack for getting injured, and the fact that he was not a top-tier quality player. Okay, there are always the New York Yankees rocking the boat- but they have a Mr. Rodriguez playing third base.

There is also the first baseman who played in Chicago for just this past year. He is a self-confessed .230 hitter with the ability to mix a lot of strikeouts with 25 to 30 home runs a year along with half-decent defensive capability. No one else wanted him at his asking price of 10 million a year but the Cubs got him when he agreed to defer half the pay to the following year when he could be already gone to another team.

The first baseman also expressed a keen desire to play for Florida next year. This after he had several times expressed how he wanted to die a Cub. But, that was before Mr. Guillen was hired by Florida. Again, what irks a baseball fan is when a player makes these comments to newspaper reporters before the season is over.

I would love to hear that these two ballplayers made statements off the record or were misquoted or suffer from short term memory lapses. Anything. In the meantime, these are the reasons that as I get younger, I lose loyalty and adoration to professional athletes.

I Stopped Wearing My Cubs Cap

Yesterday I stopped wearing my Chicago Cubs baseball cap. It’s true that is was dirty and getting a little worn. But, there was a statement to be made. After all, the warranty on blind loyalty expires after about fifty years, right?

It doesn’t mean that I will start rooting for that (cough) other team on the South Side. I just can’t. It would be like voting for a Democrat for President. Truth be told, though, I took the Democrat Ballot in the last national primary three years ago because I did what any true blue Chicago suburbanite would have done- voted for the person I wanted to face the Republican candidate in the national elections that November.

I’ll sit on the sidelines while this disgrace of a major league team goes through the totally embarrassing motions of playing out the remainder of the schedule. In my heart, I know they’ll win it at some point in this century, even if not this decade.

When Mark Cuban showed strong interest in purchasing the Cubs two years ago, I along with all the real fans were excited because he was as much as fan as the rest of us. He was willing to make significant changes to put the entire organization into a winning attitude. But, he took one look at the asking price, the non-willingness of the former owners to budge and the realization that the team was no where near the perceived value. At the time, I thought that the club was over-valued by two hundred million dollars. Now I hear that the debt is more like four hundred million. So, why bother to take on such an investment? As had been done with other ball clubs in the past few years, the Cubs should have been allowed to go into bankruptcy and let the creditors, banks and courts find someone at a more reasonable price to take on this giant mess.

But, greed, ego and stupidity get in the way. I read where the club management acknowledges that attendance is down about 8 percent, which supposedly translates into three thousand less per game.
However, that does not tell the real truth. There has been many games where less than half the official attendance was actually sitting in the park. True, the weather has been bad. The sale of seat regardless if occupied does count but it also means less money to be made on concessions.

Management had a chance to hire a popular ex-Cub who is also a hall-of-famer as well as a winning manager at the minor league level. Instead, it felt an obligation to give the job of manager to a perennial minor league coach with little big league credentials and charisma to offer to the fans.

If I had a chance to meet the Cub owners, I’d break out in that classic early 1960’s Allan Sherman hit parody, “You Went the Wrong Way, Old King Louie.”

Now, at least for the time being, I wear a black cap with white trim- yes-a little dorky looking, that is emblazoned with the word Ottawa in the front. A neighbor whose parents live there brought it back to me on their last vacation a couple of months ago. I hear it has something to do with hockey, whatever that is.

Now, if someone wants to buy me a new Cubs cap, it has to be all-wool, not the cheap stuff. I’ll hold onto it even if I don’t wear it because you never know. Hey, c’mon- didn’t Sherman also write words such as, “wait a minute, it’s stopped raining. Mother, father kindly disregard this letter”?

Religious Atheists

The world is one big pyramid scheme. There has to have been one go-to guy who started this mess and delegated others to continue its supervision. That’s where we all get into fighting each other- trying to convince others that our go-to guy is THE guy. Or gal, excuse me. Religion is the set of rules by which we let others know that our god is better than some others.

Then again, it can be that we all actually believe in the same go-to guy, it’s just that we all look at him (or her) from different angles. Remember that game we played as a kid, “telephone”? The one where a bunch of us sat in a circle and one after another whispered into the next person’s ear a secret. By the time it got down to the last person, somehow the secret message was totally changed from its original. So, it is possible that the original message has become garbled through time and we are all chasing the same Biblical tale.
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Bleeding Cubbie Blue

If you don’t live around Chicago the expression, “die hard” is likely associated with a Bruce Willis movie. Otherwise, in the Windy City environs it refers to a person who needs to be put out of his or her misery- a Cubs fan. There is no logical explanation as to why a mature adult is willing to subject himself to yearly disappointment, abject failure and unrequited dreams of popping champagne after the last game of the World Series.

Cubs fidelity is genetic. My mother is a Cub fan; ergo, I am, too. My father was agnostic. He knew that there were major league baseball players on the city’s North Side but wasn’t sure why he should care. He held little interest in sports in general. It was Ma who taught me how to catch and hit a ball. Ma’s first Cub hero was Bill Nicholson back in 1930’s and 40’s. My allegiance didn’t germinate until the 1960’s. That’s when I took to revering Billy Leo WIlliams, the sweet swinging lefty from Alabama. (Lefties got to stick together.)

My first visit to Wrigley Field, perennial shrine of the Cubs, was in the early 1960’s. Ma and I sat on the first base side which was also where the visitor’s dugout was located. Ma conveniently pointed out to me opposing players as they stood on the on deck circle. Guys such as Jerry Lynch, Smokey Burgess, natural born Cub killers. It seemed like every guy who picked up a bat owned Cub pitching. If Mr. Wrigley told the general manager to go out and trade for a Cub killer, you could be sure that the guy would hit .220 for the time he spent with the Boys in Blue.

When I was eleven or twelve I had to give up my bedroom so that an older sister didn’t have to share with two other sisters and could have her own privacy. I was shifted to the dining room and slept on something that looked like a cot at night and resembled a couch during the day. To assuage my feelings I was allowed to pick a reasonably priced present. I chose a Cubs baseball uniform. That summer, even as I grew out of it, I proudly wore that uniform as many times as possible when I went to play ball with friends.

Until the late 1960’s there was not much to cheer about the Cubs. The most humiliating event was in 1965 as I listened late at night to my portable radio while in bed. Sandy Koufax of the Dodgers undressed my boys one by one systematically and pitched a perfect game. It seemed as if the announcer was presiding over a funeral in his glum description of each Cub batter muttering to himself while walking back to the dugout. There came a point where I didn’t care if the Cubs won or even scored. Just get one person on base, dammit!

I got my revenge the following year (like I was part of the squad). A buddy’s father was a cab driver who knew Barney Sterling, the Cubs official photographer. He wrangled a few tickets out of him and treated us to a very special Sunday afternoon, September 25, 1966, the day before my fourteenth birthday. We sat seven rows up from the backdrop to home plate. All that separated us from getting whacked by a 100 mile an hour fastball was netting.

Koufax and Ken Holtzman were dueling on the mound. Holtzman was being talked about as the next great lefty when Koufax would retire. Holtzman achieved his own fame several years later immediately after being traded by the Cubs. He helped the Oakland Athletics win three World Series in a row. Naturally.

Koufax and Holtzman both did not allow any hits into the seventh inning. Holtzman eventually outlasted the great Dodger and won 2-1. It was to be Koufax’s last lost in a regular season game. He retired after the World Series.

Like Woody Allen’s Zelig, I was there in person when several other noteworthy events took place at the North Side ivy-covered ballpark. Opening day 1969, I mulled leaving the park in the ninth after the bums blew a three-run lead despite a two homer performance by Ernie Banks. Slowly inching from the third base side of the stands toward the Addison Street section to the south, I looked around to make sure there were no Andy Frain ushers close by and casually sat in an empty seat just to the left behind home plate. The Phillies took the lead by a run in the top of the eleventh. Quickly, there was one man on and one man out for the Cubs in the bottom half of the inning. I got up and started to head towards the stairs anticipating the usual game-ending double play.

Pinch hitter Willie Smith, not known for his muscle power, came to bat. In an instant, his bat launched the ball into the right field bleachers. Just like that the game was over. The Cubbies had won out and it started a euphoric roller coaster ride. The talented group of young men- the entire infield went to the All-Star Game as well as Williams in the outfield- were managed by the legendary Leo ‘the Lip’ Durocher. They just had to win it all. It ended in deep despair not just for the players but also for a million and one half fans who were taken for the usual sucker ride.

On Sunday, September 8, 1985, I was at Wrigley the day Pete Rose tied Ty Cobb’s all-time hits record. Recently some baseball historians became convinced that Cobb’s record was overstated by one. So it was possible that I did see the record breaker. At that time, Pistol Pete was managing the Cincinnati Reds so he also controlled the lineup. The record-tying hit came early in the game and then it started to rain. Play was held up for quite a while. We left early because the rain delay took too long. We also figured Pete would anyway pull himself out so that he could get the chance to break it before his own home crowd two days later in Cincy. Pete did stay in the game when play resumed so that the commissioner wouldn’t get on his back. But, he did not get another hit that long afternoon. Stan Musial got his 2,000 and 3,000 hits at Wrigley Field back in the 1950’s even though he played his entire career for the St. Louis Cardinals.

Ironically, that same Sunday was the beginning of the NFL football season. The Bears were playing Tampa Bay. I looked up at the Wrigley Field scoreboard and noticed that the Bears were losing 28-14 at half time. I thought that it was also going to be a long football season. The Bears turned it around in the second half of the game and went on to win 38-28. It also turned out to be their most memorable season with a record of 15-1 and won the Super Bowl in a blowout 46-10.

More recently, I attended a night game where the Bear’s Superbowl coach Mike Ditka rushed upstairs to take his turn at singing “Take Me Out to The Ball Game” during the seventh inning stretch. Mike was winded and also rushed through the song off-key. The fans in the stands looked at each other not wanting to believe that “Da Coach” had embarrassed himself.

Another crazy night was when one of Ditka’s players from the 1985 Super Bowl Winners, Steve “Mongo” McMichael, was also asked to do the seventh inning cheering. Over the loudspeaker microphone, he threatened to beat up the home plate umpire who had made a couple of questionable calls. And he wasn’t kidding. He was quickly escorted from the ball park or the Cubs were told that they would have to forfeit the game.

I wasn’t at the ballpark for other “great” moments in Cubbie Baseball such as the “Bartman Ball” episode in the 2003 playoffs or the following year when Sosa uncorked a wild bat. They are mere pebbles in the sands of time that flow the mystique of Cub anguish. But, I wouldn’t have it any other way. Or Ma will take away my allowance.