Wrigley Field

Buckner plowed through pain of ankle, vitriol over World Series gaffe

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.”

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Cubs fans getting picky about when they attend games at Wrigley Field?

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.

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Where’s Players Association to mitigate dangerous cold-weather playing conditions?

Even top baseball management realizes major leaguers needed a playing conditions advocate.

Some 15 years ago I approached then-Cubs president Andy MacPhail in the Wrigley Field pressbox cafeteria after researching the four consecutive doubleheaders his team played Friday through Monday over the Labor Day weekend at home in 1967.

Manager Leo Durocher, quickly morphing into a slave driver, started Don Kessinger, Glenn Beckert, Billy Williams, Ron Santo, 36-year-old Ernie Banks and Adolfo Phillips in all eight games. Catcher Randy Hundley started seven of the eight contests, and came into the eighth late for backup Johnny Stephenson via a double-switch.

Barbaric, right?

“That’s why you needed the Players Association,” MacPhail said of the country’s now-most powerful union, in 1967 getting acquainted with new executive director Marvin Miller, whom I rated in a book the fourth-most impactful “game changer” in baseball history.

From left, Players Association chief Tony Clark, Lt. Gen. Stephen J. Townsend and Commissioner Rob Manfred before the Fort Bragg Game in 2016. Clark needs to reach across the table to Manfred to establish a baseline of safe playing conditions.

So, that’s why I wonder where Miller successor many-times-removed Tony Clark was when teams played in, again, barbaric conditions over the past two weeks in the extended winter of April 2018?

Worst of all was the now-infamous Saturday, April 14, literally slipshod Cubs’ 14-10 victory over the Braves at Wrigley Field, coming back from an early 10-2 deficit. The conditions were quasi-Arctic, so cold, wet and miserable baseballs were literally squiring out of players’ hands. The risk of serious injury was greatly heightened. Football fans in December at most northern stadiums sat through better conditions.

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In 48th year as Cubs season ticket holder, Haddon soldiers on through Wrigley Field future shock

No matter what unusual sights she witnessed or good people she encountered, Carol Haddon made her seat right next to the Cubs dugout appointment viewing, as she has done from three different locations at Wrigley Field since 1971.

A honor on the field would not be as impactful as an invitation to sit with Wrigley Field’s 75-year-old Grand Lady on Thursday, April 12, to take in the unique atmosphere of the 104-year old ballpark from her front row and (off-) center vantage points.

Carol Haddon in her new seat next to the enlarged Cubs dugout on April 12, 2018.

But as we met during a 70-degree noontime, we both could see we’re not in 1971 anymore. Or 1969, when now-Glencoe, Ill. resident Haddon zipped down from Skokie via the Yellow and Red Lines and got choice game-by-game seats from a friendly box office. So friendly, in fact, that on cold days she’d be welcomed into the office for a “hot toddy.”

And we seem a century removed from Haddon and mother Ruth Stern journeying all the way from the Chatham neighborhood on the far South Side via bus and Jackson Park L in the mid-1950s to see the Cubs and their matinee idols on Ladies Day. An afternoon at Clark and Addison, even in those losing years, seemed so stress-free compared to dad Rudolf Stern’s childhood in Dusseldorf, Germany. He had gotten out just in time prior to the onset of the Holocaust.

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45,777 jammed Wrigley Field for Cubs’ 1978 home opener like few other first games

I wish time travel worked in real life to go back to a favorite Cubs home opener.

I’d beam back to 1978 Omaha and invite the teen-age Tom Ricketts to cut high school and fly to Chicago for one day to attend a Cubs home opener.

Tom Ricketts (right) would have had a different perspective on the mob scene at Wrigley Field had he been old enough to attend SRO games played by (from left) Fergie Jenkins, Randy Hundley and Rich Nye — and the record-busting 1978 home opener.

Ricketts would understand the Cubs’ fan mentality even better, get at its roots, than on his 21st century daily excursions all around Wrigley Field to chat with paying (a lot) customers dressed in team garb, enjoying their once- or twice-annual outing as if it were a rock concert.

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