Baseball’s an inherently cruel game, the ultimate sport of failure, grinding down the toughest of men. By those standards, Bill Buckner was made of cast iron, as if he had an impenetrable barrier against the hurricane winds that could have blown him apart.
Bill Buckner (in left) photo joins Fergie Jenkins at his autograph table at Sloan Park in Mesa, Ariz. on March 6 of this season. Buckner (right) was one of the most telegenic and productive Cubs of his era despite a gimpy left ankle.
One of the most popular and enduring Cubs of the last quarter of the 20th century, Buckner could have been crippled by a bad, surgically-repaired left ankle that required extensive treatment before and after games. Yet after missing chunks of the season in his first two years (1977-78) with the Cubs, Buckner rarely missed games, winning the 1980 NL batting title, until he was traded to the Boston Red Sox two months into the fateful 1984 season.
Then, after re-establishing himself at Fenway Park, Buckner was pilloried like few others in baseball history for allowing a potential game-ending Mookie Wilson grounder to go through his legs and allow the New York Mets to pull out Game 6 of the World Series. Raised from the dead , the Mets went on to snare Game 7 and extend Boston’s baseball neurosis another 18 years.
Amazingly, Leon Durham – the man who replaced Buckner at first for the Cubs – let a similar ball through the wicket in the deciding Game 5 of the 1984 NLCS against the Padres in San Diego. But Bull never got the guff from title-starved Cubs fans going forward. Buckner vitriol went to an unprecedented level. The man bent. He was human. But true to his form, he did not break.
Memories of Buckner’s steadfastness flowed on Memorial Day when his death at 69 from Lewy Body Dementia was announced. The debilitating disease that slowed body and mind still did not stop Billy Buck from enjoying the baseball life. As recently as spring training, he joined Hall of Famer Fergie Jenkins, his Cubs teammate in 1982-83, and other ex-Cubs in greeting fans at Sloan Park in Mesa, Ariz.
“He was moving around very slowly,” Jenkins said. “His hands shook from time to time. But he took photos and signed autographs. Bill still wanted to be a part of the baseball family and scene. Pete LaCock went and picked him up every day.”
Lee Arthur Smith and Harold Baines cannot be more unlike as personalities.
To say Big Lee is raucous, riotous and ribald is putting it mildly. Stick around the man-mountain of a Giants roving minor-league pitching coach even a few minutes, and you’re likely to be doubled over in laughter. If Smith keeps the discourse to a hard-R rating, he’s keeping it clean by his standards. Good ol’ country hardball was his ticket to the majors. Despite his numerous big-league travels, he still identifies as a Cub and desires to be enshrined as a Cub.
Baines? He’s known to everyone as Harold, we almost forget his last name. Baines used one or two words where a sentence might have been appropriate. Chicago radio talk-meister Les Grobstein once rated Harold practically his worst interview, and not because of any Dave Kingman-style hostility. He just didn’t fill up sound bites for mic jockeys. And, like Big Lee, Harold put on a slew of uniforms, yet is as loyal a White Sox figure as they come with his number retired and statue in the outfield.
New Hall-of-Famer Baines always a fan favorite shows off his 2005 ring
Smith and Baines are now bound forever by pending induction into the Hall of Fame. Despite their contrasting personal styles, their links did not begin with the uncommon dual voting-in Dec. 9 by the Today’s Game Era Committee, the latest incarnation of the Hall of Fame Veteran’s Committee. That panel went many long years without choosing anyone while frustrating Ron Santo, only opening the door with a guilty conscience posthumously for Santo. To wave in two at one time is an old-school CBS-Radio net-alert bulletin.
Smith and Baines were both recruited from off-the-main-road small towns by fellow Hall of Famers. Buck O’Neil found Big Lee in tiny Castor, La., making him the No. 2 Cubs draft choice in 1975. Bill Veeck himself discovered Baines in Easton, Md., on the state’s quaint Eastern Shore where Baseball’s Barnum had established his getaway home. Harold was picked No. 1 by the Sox in the 1977 draft.
Some kind of middle ground in apparel must exist between Andre Dawson‘s funeral suit for his family business and the T-shirt and trunks for the youth swimming program that bears his Hall of Fame name in west suburban Lombard.
Like a Cubs uniform?
Andre Dawson is starting his first year as a Cubs ambassador.
In an under-publicized manner, Dawson has indeed worn the Cubs uniform officially for the first time in 26 years in spring training, and hopes to do so again sometime this season for Cubs minor leaguers. Add in more brightly-colored business casual wear for meeting fans and sponsors in other duties as a new team ambassador, and you have the perfect balance in the life of one of the most respected Cubs in history.
“Let’s say I’m all over the place,” Dawson, tracked down in Chicago the other day, said of his 2018 schedule. His base is hometown Miami, but much of his heart is in the city that he claims vaulted him into Cooperstown via six memorable Cubs seasons from 1987 to 1992. Mention that he’d spend even more time in Chicago if the temperature did not drop below 50 and he’d not have to wear anything heavier than a windbreaker, and Dawson breaks into a knowing laugh.
He was cast aside in the off-season, along with fellow Hall of Famer Tony Perez, as a Miami Marlins special assistant by budget-slashing Fish boss Derek Jeter. Regrets are few because Dawson can now work for the Cubs — a longtime goal — while still tending to the funeral home he operates with wife Vanessa and two uncles, earning him national profiles such as respected baseball scribe Bob Nightengale in USA Today:
Count me among the childhood critics of eventual Hall of Famer Ron Santo, getting upset when he hit into a double play with crucial ducks on the pond, or made an error with his frequent Gold Glove at third.
But like so many others five decades ago, I didn’t have all the information at hand. Santo was playing at a perennial All-Star level with Type 1 diabetes that he could not accurately monitor with medical instruments before or during games. He developed educated guesswork when diabetic symptoms began to come on, quaffing a candy bar and/or a can of Coke for an instant sugar fix. Sometimes, though, the symptoms arrived quickly. They may have affected his vision or his physical reactions temporarily and thus in turn cut down on his performance.
Ron Santo (left) already dealt with the effects of Type 1 diabetes on his career when he posed with Vince Lloyd and Ernie Banks in the early 1960s.
As Fergie Jenkins noted, Santo could not have grown speed in his legs — slowness being his only physical drawback. But some of those double-play grounders may have been slashed through the infield without the diabetic impact on Santo’s reactions.
Imagine a Santo with a modern day medical monitors, being able to head off symptoms at the pass. Cubs closer Brandon Morrow, former Cubs outfielder Sam Fuld and ex-Bears quarterback Jay Cutler were not hampered in their careers through modern medical monitoring of their Type 1, called “juvenile diabetes” in Santo’s time.
You can tell the players without a scorecard under Joe Maddon, but you better keep a sharp eye where they’ve shifted defensively in the field.
An accompanying Chicago Baseball Museum story details the historic defensive brilliance of Albert Almora, Jr. in center field. But at any time, Almora, Jr. could be flanked in the outfield by former MVP Kris Bryant, a pretty good defensive third baseman. Or by energetic starting catcher Willson Contreras, taking a break from behind the plate. Bryant has played every position on the field except second and catcher.
Bill Melton’s mood had improved considerably by the time this photo was taken, compared to the days he broke his nose playing third base and got shifted to right field.
Under Maddon, Ben Zobrist plays anywhere, and will continue to do so as long as he’s a Cub. Javy Baez is a wizard at second base, but you’ll also see him at shortstop and maybe even third. About the only Cub who is safe at his natural position is first baseman Anthony Rizzo. But he had batted leadoff, and if Maddon got some kind of brainstorm to play Rizzo in, say, left field, the affable team leader would be game.
Notice that none of these players are Hall of Famers, yet, or has led the NL in homers. Apparently, being able to take your glove anywhere, under duress or via an ill-advised management decision, toughens you up. That’s what Chicago baseball historical (sometimes hysterical) annals show.
Some of the top achievers in the town’s history have played well out of position, and if you remind present-day fans who haven’t done a forensic research of the game, they won’t believe you when informed of their on-field wanderings.
Ernie Banks in left field and third base. Ron Santo at shortstop, second and left field. Billy Williams at first base. Bill Melton in right field. Carlton Fisk in left. And Kenny Williams, GM of the only Sox team to win the World Series since 1917, survived a trial by fire playing Melton’s old natural position at third after being a good center fielder.
Albert Almora, Jr.: Silky. smooth. Gliding. Graceful.
Throw any superlative out there. All apply to Albert Almora, Jr.’s defensive skills in center field.
Almora Jr.’s glovework at his position is the best I’ve witnessed in five decades watching the Cubs.
Albert Almora, Jr.
Better than Brock Davis turning on a final burst of speed to make up for a slow jump, finally engaging in a sprawling, diving catch in Wrigley Field.
Better than “Tarzan” Joe Wallis playing shallow, then going back…back…back…back and hopefully not running out of room before he hits the ivy and unforgiving bricks behind the foliage.
Better than Gentleman Jim Hickman, his spirit willing but the legs a bit too heavy, trying to flag down a Jay Alou triple picking up speed on the artificial turf in the right-center gap in the Astrodome.
A stereotype used to be floated that one did not needed a truly great defensive center fielder in cozy Wrigley Field. Oh, yes you did. You need a good one anywhere, including old Thillens Stadium. Someone athletically gifted. Definitely a take-charge, smart guy. And someone who craves mastering the position rather than marking time or having doubts because the Cubs needed another bat in the lineup, sacrificing some defense in the process.
Almora’s arrival was welcomed. Now if he can prove beyond a shadow of a doubt he can hit tough righties, he’ll be a lock for years to come, and one of the best in baseball.
He doesn’t look like he’s laboring when he makes a sensational catch, such as the moment the other week when he almost effortlessly drifted back and in one motion leaped to steal a Tyler Flowers homer over the fence in Atlanta. That’s the standard you see from Almora, Jr., and the standard he expects from himself.
Almora, Jr. legitimately talks a great game. He is pleasant and welcoming. The other day he spoke on sports-talk radio of his love of deep-sea fishing in his native Miami, prompted by his father’s gig as a commercial fisherman. He was an easy conversationalist when we checked him out as a 19-year-old Class A player at Kane County in 2013, just a year after he ranked as the first No. 1 draft pick of the Theo Epstein regime. His words then apply to his striving now to lock down the regular’s job in center.
“I want to be a player known as going hard every day,” summed up Almora then. “You can’t have four hits every day. It ’s a sport of failure. But you can control how you play and your actions, and that’s what I want to be known for.”
A great defensive center fielder should be a true ball hawk. He should not be straining every last bit of sinew to race to meet the ball in the gap, above the wall or sinking in front of him. Willie Mays and Curt Flood had that extra sixth-sense. I believe Almora, Jr. is cut from the same cloth — take off in stride the moment the ball is hit, and smoothly arrive at its descent point.
The position requires more than just raw speed. I mention the 1970-71 vintage Davis above. An original Houston Astro, Davis got some renown as a four-month Cubs regular in ’71 making those diving catches and exciting Jack Brickhouse on the call. But I believe if he had Almora Jr.’s gifts, Davis would have lasted a lot longer in the majors. Fastest man on the Cubs? Davis was 0-for-6 stealing bases in ’71.
How appropriate Tommy John and Nancy Faust get inducted into the Baseball Reliquary’s Shrine of the Eternals together in Pasadena, California on July 22.
Nancy Faust is set to be honored by Baseball Reliquary’s Shire of Eternals
Lefty John was the savvy White Sox starting rotation veteran for whom rookie team organist Faust played appropriate theme music in 1970, trying to provide some entertainment for a lost 106-defeat season.
And even 48 years later, Faust — who always ad-libbed theme songs for her players — came up with John-oriented songs that she likely would have played for the tiny crowds at her center-field organ at old Comiskey Park.
“I probably played ‘Big Bad John’ or the theme for ‘Tommy,'” said Faust, the latter for the then-recent rock opera from “The Who.” “Or maybe ‘Hang Down Your Head, Tom Dooley.'”
“I couldn’t be more honored to be on the same (induction) ceremony with Tommy John.”
The West Coast audience likely will associate John much more with his groundbreaking elbow ligament reconstruction surgery by Dr. Frank Jobe in 1974 instead of his original Sox tenure. But they’ll sure know about Faust, whom the Baseball Reliquary described as “the most famous ballpark organist in the last half century.”
Still blonde, perky, and youthful, the far north suburban Mundelein resident at nearly the same time originated the seventh-inning singalong with Harry Caray and the playing of “Na Na Na, Hey Hey, Kiss Them Good-Bye” when a Sox opposing pitcher was pulled from the game. Her 41 seasons at the organ at two ballparks, ranging from that horrible ’70 season to the World Series champions in 2005, was a true pinpoint of joy in Chicago baseball history
Dave “Baby” Cortez crafted “The Happy Organ,” the first instrumental to hit No. 1 on the Billboard Top 100 charts in 1959. But “Baby” still had nothing on Faust in full keyboard throttle.
Faust was so popular she was the No. 3 vote-getter in the Reliquary’s version of the Hall of Fame. The top three gain entry into the Shrine of the Eternals. John got 44 percent, the recently deceased Rusty Staub 29 percent, and Faust 26.5 percent. And how delicious was it that the cheery Faust beat out the second runner-up: Leo Durocher at 25 percent. At 23 years-old Faust was up-and-coming in 1970 while Durocher should have still been going at 64, his sclerotic managing eight miles north wasting a fine collection of future Hall of Fame Cubs.
Baseball honors should not be limited to just the Hall of Fame or post-season writers’ awards votes. The Baseball Reliquary is a nonprofit, educational organization https://www.baseballreliquary.org dedicated to fostering an appreciation of American art and culture through the context of baseball history. The West Coast-based Reliquary gladly accepts the donation of artworks and objects of historic content, provided their authenticity is well-documented.
A grant from the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors through the Los Angeles County Arts Commission supports the Reliquary, which is affiliated with the Whittier College Institute for Baseball Studies. The Institute, the first humanities-based research center of its kind associated with a college or university in the United States, is a partnership between Pasadena-based Baseball Reliquary and Whittier College.
Thus honored by this prestigious academic institution, Faust joins some fellow White Sox eternals with whom she was associated in her long career.
John was traded at the 1971 winter meetings for Dick Allen, an enshrinee. She had no shortage of inspiring songs to play for the 1972 American League MVP. She would play “Jesus Christ Superstar” when Allen came to bat. Faust also played for fellow Eternal Minnie Minoso in his brief comebacks in 1976 and 1980. Ditto for Bo Jackson when he played for the Sox despite hip-replacement surgery in the early 1990s. Bill Veeck, who masterminded the Caray-Faust seventh-inning combo, is a member. Jimmy Piersall, Caray’s partner in their guerilla-theater-of-the-air presentation under Veeck, has been inducted.
The old upper-deck organ loft at Comiskey Park, where Nancy Faust could make eye contact with Harry Caray in the broadcast booth for their seventh-inning singalongs.
Amazingly, a second Veeck drew votes in this year’s balloting. Mike Veeck, Bill’s son and instigator of the famed Disco Demolition promotion-gone-bad, drew 17.5 percent of the votes.
Our own CBM Founder, Dr. David Fletcher was the winner in 2005 of the Baseball Reliquary’s Hilda Award for his work trying to get MLB to reinstate banned Sox third baseman Buck Weaver. Named in memory of legendary Brooklyn Dodgers baseball fan Hilda Chester, the Hilda Award was established in 2001 by the Baseball Reliquary to recognize distinguished service to the game by a baseball fan.
You wish Faust could play at the Pasadena ceremony. But at 70, she likely hits the keyboard only for her family these days. She is mostly retired, only playing for specific events that suit her. In 2006, she began cutting back her South Side schedule to day games only before leaving the Guaranteed Rate Field organ booth for good in 2010.
“I wanted to quit when I was still good,” she said. “I want the memories to be good. Forty-one years was a long time.”
Faust played Sunday home games for the Class-A Kane County Cougars for a couple of years, but even that gig is in the rear-view mirror as she wanted her Sundays free.
Now she travels around the Midwest and winters in Arizona with husband Joe Jenkins. She played at the Cactus League kickoff luncheon at a Phoenix hotel in February. At home in Lake County, the animal-lover tends to beloved full-sized female donkey Mandy and miniature donkey Gigi on the couple’s five-acre spread.
It’s always great to be remembered,” Faust said. “You like to think you made a difference in people’s lives. I am most humbled and pinch myself to have had the career I did. I feel fortunate my life took me in the direction it did. If I had any notoriety, it’s because I’m a good musician. Hopefully my fingers spoke for themselves.
Ron Kittle the 1983 American League Rookie of the Year. Ron Kittle the strongman who belted rooftop homers at old Comiskey Park. Ron Kittle the ultimate self-deprecating White Sox ambassador.
All now pale thanks to social media and his own ongoing diary for Ron Kittle, the devoted “parent” to his beloved “Harley Pooch” soft-coated wheaten terrier. Anything that preceded him in his rise to the Sox from Wirt High School in Gary, Ind. now must take a back seat to the story of the eternal boy and his dog.
Harley Pooch and devoted dad Ron Kittle at their favorite ballpark.
The scores of followers of Kittle’s Facebook site got to love the furry Harley, not Kittle’s foil in any way, but the star of the show. By the time Kittle’s better half appeared in most of his posts, he was slowed from an old injury in which he jumped up for joy one day and landed awkwardly on his back. But as winter grimly hung on in April, Harley Pooch’s health began to fail. His back legs were paralyzed, he lost his appetite and was incontinent.
Any veteran dog parent is initially in denial and tries veterinary intervention. Yet in the back of one’s mind the outcome looms. The process to end a pet’s life never gets easier, and one feels like a jerk even though it’s the right thing to do. So one Monday Kittle relayed the sad news on Facebook he had to terminate Harley’s suffering, though only after some two-way chatting as only a boy and his dog could do.
Kittle said he had his “talk” with Harley. In turn, he surely tapped into the “aura” — not proven by science quite yet — that perceptive pet owners know exists involving humans and dogs. After all, aren’t dogs employed to sniff out cancer and warn of coming epileptic seizures? Taken further, just because dogs can’t speak human language does not mean they can’t communicate clearly. Kittle got the message from Harley it was all right to let him go.
Before and after the tough call, Kittle got the word that Harley had an impact on everyone who interacted with Kittle. He was the people’s dog.
“I got well over 5,000 comments and messages,” said Kittle. “I got back to everybody.”
Cubs fans getting picky when they attend games at Wrigley Field warrants the attention of Tom Ricketts and Crane Kenney. And even Theo Epstein should take a peek.
Perception of the availability and cost of your Cubs tickets is affecting the total gate so far this year, compared to the wire-to-wire sellout present-day President of Cubs business operations Kenney experienced as Tribune Co.’s viceroy for the team in 2008.
Crane Kenney should have a good memory of why tickets to all games went quickly in 2008 compared to unsold seats in 2018.
The sight of the bleachers, the traditional “cheap seats,” only partially filled on an 80-plus degree spring afternoon the other day against the Colorado Rockies should raise the eyebrows of the Cubs’ top brass. StubHub listed bleacher seats for as little as $10. No internal Cubs promotion would ever dare go that low.
For the season, the Cubs have had reams of unsold seats. The tickets sold for the Rockies game were listed at just under 33,000, but the actual crowd count was lower. Three other games have had listed attendances in the 29,000 range. One was the Thursday, April 12, game against the Pirates with the game-time temperature around 70. I attended that game with senior season-ticket holder Carol Haddon. I took a quick trip to the upper deck. That seating area was empty. These listed attendances — seats sold have been the official crowd counts for decades now — meant many thousands of tickets were not purchased at all.
Meanwhile, at both April 12 and subsequent games, scores of prime box seats in the “Club 1914” area were unoccupied. Go back 10 years, and would you see a close-up seat between the dugouts empty?
Now, 29,000 or 33,000 with thousands of no shows is still light years distant from the cozy 3,000 or 4,000 early- and late-season gatherings of the 1970s, when Ronnie “Woo Woo” Wickers’ chants of “Fanzone, Woo!” would reverberate across the sections of empty seats. However, when applied to what has developed as the game’s flagship franchise only one year after the eternally-deferred World Series title, then some questions must be asked.
Are Cubs fans getting very picky about when they bust their entertainment budgets to attend a game at Wrigley Field? Does it have to be 60s through 80s perfect — excellent weather, an attractive opponent, a weekend or summer weekday? Is there a perception Cubs tickets are too expensive — even though the Rockies game was a 2010s bargain — and hard to get? Are fans tastes changing with so many other less expensive things to do — and the hypnotic rapture of smart phones always available?
When rationalizing pundits say we just endured the coldest April in memory, the adults are not on vacation yet and the kids are still in school, there is simple history to enlighten them. April always has been inclement in Chicago — it is just by what degree and whether gloves are still necessary. The workforce was never in big vacation mode in the first full spring month. And while the final day of school has been creeping backwards over the decades — I remember the third week of June in Chicago public schools — that joyous dismissal time has not yet moved into April yet.
They talk about a buzz in the ballpark the day Kerry Wood threw a 20-K masterpiece to earn baseball immorality 20 years ago.
Yet even though Jerome Holtzman proscribed “no cheering in the pressbox,” a complementary buzz also enveloped the Wrigley Field pressbox on May 6, 1998 as Kerry Wood effortlessly mowed down a powerful Houston Astros lineup.
Kerry Wood always kept a level head about himself after his 20-K game, turning down invitations to appear on “The Tonight Show.”
With Wood and mound opponent Shane Reynolds breezing through the batting orders with a blizzard of strikeouts, this was going to be an on-time dinnertime for writers working a day game.
My vantage point was the third row of the pressbox, in my fifth season covering the Cubs for the Times of Northwest Indiana daily newspaper. Through much of that time, I had monitored strikeout wunderkind Wood’s progress with a countdown to his big-league debut.