And the Cubs’ Magic Number is… Oh Brother, Here We Go Again!!!

There’s magic in words, some of it black magic. Words can carry with them painful connotations derived and held onto from past experiences, like the name of the guy your high school sweetheart dumped you for, or the title of the song that was playing while she did it. Words and songs and phrases can transport you to another time and another age when the wounds were fresh, carrying with them the association of loss, of dashed hopes, of long-forgotten pains that float to the top when you hear them again.

For me, one of those phrases has been popping up a lot lately. It’s on the Facebook feed and in the newspapers and bandied about by news anchors as if it were some joyous thing to be celebrated, but I know better. I’ve been here before.

I wasn’t yet twelve years old at the time, though that milestone was approaching. Summer had been sweetened by an emerging appreciation of curls and curves and perfume scented breezes. The buzz of pre-pubescent ardor hummed a constant current through the days img_20160912_223524916and nights.

I got where I needed to be on bicycle, usually with a mitt dangling from the handlebars. The truth is, there were few places I needed to be. There’s a freedom at that age that isn’t experienced again in life. From grass-cutting-job-days to nights at the neighborhood pool to little league games, it was summer with a capital ‘S’, free and easy and dusty and fun. I teetered there on the edge of boy and teen, those childish things not yet put away, but their days certainly numbered.

The summer of 1984 was a magic summer, complete with its own magic number.

img_20160912_223501775From birth I was a Catholic, a Chicagoan, and a Cub Fan. Sitting here now at forty-three years old, eleven years doesn’t seem very long, but in 1984, eleven years was a lifetime. In that lifetime, I’d taken a lot of flack for being a Cub fan. Back then, the White Sox, those South Side Hitmen of the 70’s, the Winnin’ Ugly Division Champs of ’83, they were the city’s team. The Cubs were the team of old ladies in floppy hats and shirtless beer-guzzling men who could somehow get to the ballpark in the middle of the afternoon on a daily basis while everyone else was at work, the ones


Lee Elia & me Wrigley Field 1983

Lee Elia famously referred to the summer before as the “dumb fifteen motherf*ckin’ percent that come out to day baseball”.
My team had been the loveable losers, a dominant force during the first half of the twentieth century and near perennial basement dwellers throughout the second half.

There was the lore of that magical 1969 season passed down by elders who’d been alive to witness it. I’d heard the stories of Banks and Williams and Santo and Hundley and Jenkins. Of the unstoppable boys of summer. It was more a cautionary tale though than a fairy tale; something from the mind of the brothers Grimm rather than

images-5Disney. Those unbeatable Cubbies took a headfirst downhill tumble late in the season. The ’69 Cubs not making the post-season was a nearly statistical impossibility and yet it had happened. They’d been on top of the world and then they fell and they fell hard and they lost and that’s when we, the collective we, started hating the Mets.

Prior to that magical and cursed year, there wasn’t much of which to brag until you counted backwards to 1945.


Steve Goodman on a Wrigley rooftop singing                                  A Dying Cub Fan’s Last Request                                   (Sadly Goodman passed away before the ’84 playoffs began)

As Steve Goodman wrote in his song, “the law of averages says anything will happen that can, but the Cubs haven’t won a National League pennant since they year we dropped the bomb on Japan”. If eleven years is a lifetime, thirty-nine years was practically prehistoric. Hitler and Nazis for real not just in the Raiders of the Lost Ark, the Soviet Union was on our side, back before the Bridge Over the River Qui was a whistling tune, and back when Japan had an Emperor and would send Kamikaze pilots to crash into American warships, before they were our source for Sony TV’s and Donkey Kong. Not only had my parents not yet been born, but my grandparents were still young enough to have natural hair color and their own teeth! That may as well have been three days after the crucifixion of Christ as far as I was concerned.

alg-cat-jpgBut these were the color television, MTV, Cold War days of 1984. Ghostbusters and Indiana Jones were in the movies, Van Halen was on the radio, and about two-thirds of my wardrobe consisted of Cubs free giveaway t-shirts – Cub emblem on the front, some form of Vienna Beef ad on the back or better yet, a bold announcement declaring the shirt was courtesy of Old Style beer. I went nowhere without my dingy, sweat-stained, plastic-snap adjustable Cubs cap on my head. At the time I was going for an all-American-leave-it-to-beaver-Bad-News-Bears kind of look. Sadly, what I had was more of a Eugene-from-Grease-when-he-was-on-Punky-Brewster kind of look. In any event, the Cubs were on top, and for the first time in my short life, it was cool to be a Cub fan.

Harry & Me

Hall of Fame broadcaster Harry Caray & Me 1985


Actor Eddie Deezen (Eugene in Grease & Eddie on Punky Brewster) here with George Gaynes. See the similarity?

By September, the bandwagon was overflowing. Lakeview was hopping and day-baseball was all the rage. Ryne Sandberg was the star of the show while Harry Caray sang the praises of Jody-Jody Davis to the tune of Davy Crockett, Leon ‘The Bull’ Durham covered first and swung one heck of a bat, while veterans Ron ‘the Penguin’ Cey, and Larry Bowa rounded out the animal infield. And on the mound, dominating baseball was the Red Barron himself, Rick Sutcliffe. No more were ‘we’ the loveable losers. No more were we just old ladies in floppy hats and unemployed drunks. Nope, the Cubs were on top and the nation was watching. Suddenly Cub fans came out of the woodwork. Everyone from Hollywood superstars to President Reagan came out of the closet with their hidden Cub fandom. Lakeview became Wrigleyville, the Cubs became America’s team, and Sox fans became quiet and bitter.

That’s when I learned about the magic number, what it meant and how it worked. ‘Magic Number’, that’s the phraseimages-2, the one that’s been bandied about so much as of late. That summer, when I’d first learned of it, it was the Mets and the Cubs again. I followed the magic number as it dwindled. Those Mets weren’t going to get ‘em this time around. And on a imagesSeptember night, 3 months before my family owned our first VCR, my Cubbies clinched the NL Eastern Division and a spot in the post-season for the first time since “we dropped the bomb on Japan”. It wasn’t the National League pennant, but it was something special, and the way the Cubs were playing,
1984 was going to be the year Chicago got to the World Series again. Even the other side of town hadn’t been there since ’59. The doldrums were over. The skies had cleared. The curse had been lifted. The streams had been crossed and Gozer the Traveler had been sent packing. The sun shone over Wrigley Field once more. A wide-eyed romance with fall baseball bloomed in a little boy too naïve to know to be wary of romance and its many pitfalls. They would win. It was almost certain. Everyone said so. Ths-l225ey were magic.

October baseball at Wrigley Field!  First game – win at home!!!
Second game – win at home!!! One to go and it was on to the Series. No bombs this year and the world would watch on their Japanese TV’s.

images-1And, just like in ’45, it was shaping up to be a battle against the Tigers. In fact, in 1908, the last time the Cubs had won the World Series it was against the Detroit Tigers. The Cubs had faced the Tigers 4 times in their 10 visits to the World Series, twice beating them and twice losing to them. It was clearly a matter of destiny.

And then it happened.   Reality struck and it struck hard delivering a blow that would knock the breath from young lungs. San Diego took three in a row and the newspapers declared the magic number to be 1985.   Which of course it wasn’t. They went images-4back in ’89, again in ’98, ’03, ‘07 and ’08. But none were as magical as that 1984 season, even the dreaded ‘Bartman year’ of ’03 when they weren’t just one game away, but only five outs away from heading to that elusive World Series. 39 years had become 58 years, and yet somehow 1984 was better, more exciting. One could argue it was my age. At 11 years old, everything is more exciting, but that’s only a part of it.

What had changed by ’03 was that it wasn’t my first time around this block. I was a virgin no longer. I’d been in love and had had my heart broken, more than once. I’d tasted the bitterness of love that rises when the sweetness dissolves. I’d been pushed aside by one who was supposed to be destiny. When wounds heal, the scar tissue toughens the once tender heart.

That night, the night of the Bartman game, I was standing in the beer garden of the Piano Man bar at Clark and Grace, about a block north of Wrigley Field, watching the game with co-workers. It was the seventh inning and the Cubs were up 3-0. My friend, a woman from 2003-what-a-yearMichigan who was new to this Cubs thing, turned to me and said, “I thought you’d be more excited. Why aren’t you excited? They’re winning.” I replied, “Because I’ve been here before. It’s still too early to get excited.” At the end of the 7th, we made our way south to Waveland and Clark where the beer gardens of Bernie’s tavern and whatever bar was on the opposite corner that year had merged as spectators jammed Waveland Avenue to catch a glimpse of one of the nearby TV’s and hear the roar of the crowd from the ballpark behind us.

Again, the air was electric. I cracked open that door of hope just enough to let a sliver of light in. It was pretty late in the game now. Was it too early still? Top of the 8th, three run lead, one out. Maybe this time was different.


In his defense, he wasn’t the only one to reach for the ball, he was just the unlucky one to touch it.

Then, from high above, someone with a giant vacuum sucked all the air out of the neighborhood. Bernie’s was silent. The other bar was silent. Waveland Avenue was silent and that ballpark, spilling over with fans, was silent. It unfolded slowly and painfully. Eight runs later and I knew we were done, not just for the game, but also for the year. There was still another chance, a game seven, but you could feel it, a tangible thing – loss. Again.

She’d done it to me again. She keeps breaking my heart, but I can’t let her go.

What do you say about a guy who keeps going back to the same woman expecting different results only to have her crush him time and again? Hopeless romantic or simple idiot? Optimist or Fool? I don’t know. She’s done it to me before. But maybe this time will be differeunknown-4nt. This time she really does love me. This time we’re going to make it, we’re going to be happy, I just know it. It’s not like it was before; she’s changed. Happy day!

Yeah, they’re good. Best team in all of baseball and have been since April. Dominant pitching, a lights-out closer, and bat after bat after bat that you just can’t pitch around. If Bryant don’t get you, Rizzo will, and almost assuredly with Fowler on base.

And so, as the magic number dwindles down to zero, I wiunknown-2ll venture into this post-season in much the same way I venture into any romantic relationship – with trepidation, cautious optimism, and a nagging sense of impending doom.

But really, this time is different. She’s come back to me, and she’s changed. Really, we’re going to be happy this time.

Well… we’ll see.

Oh brother, here we go again.



Farewell Wrigley Field, It’s Been A Great 100 Years

At 41 years old, I still get a thrill when I wind through the dimly lit, chill of the ancient concourse and ascend the concrete stairs to emerge in the warm sunlight, welcomed by blue skies, green grass, red brick and emerald ivy. The majestic scoreboard perched atop the center field bleachers towers over the cathedral, keeping watch like the bridge of a sailing ship about to take us for a voyage where time dissolves and timelessness envelopes me along with the smell of fresh peanuts and stale beer. I can’t help but smile. I am at once 41, 24, 16, 10, and 4 years old. I have grown up with her, and over the past few decades, we’ve both changed some, but at heart, we are both the same – for now.

My dad would take me to games when I was small. It was the late 1970’s. He worked security there and, with a single bleacher ticket for me, he would escort me to the far left corner of the back row of the right field bleachers and sit me there. If I needed anything, I was to see the women who ran the concession stand directly behind me. (They usually slipped me free gum – Wrigley’s of course) I sat there alone, surrounded by the Bleacher Bums, the ones Lee Elia would lash out at a couple of years later. Dad would check on me and bring me a pop and a hot dog. I was in heaven. Wrigley Field would become my favorite place to go.

After a few years, I was grouped with other boys and released into the upper deck, where there were plenty of empty seats. We yelled, we booed, we undoubtedly annoyed anyone near us, and we had a blast.

Soon I was able to hop the bus and buy my own ticket with grass cutting money. Big Gulps and hot dogs were cheaper at 7-11, so my friend and I would stop there, load up, and find a slab riser in center field to claim as our own. We’d stretch out and take in the game. I got my first whiff of marijuana sitting there.

At 16, I got my first real job there.

She’s seen me from boyhood, through my teens, into adulthood, and eventually fatherhood. I have made friends, found romance, learned how the real world works, how the Chicago-way works, been thrilled and had my heart broken in and around that ballpark, and have shared its joy with each of my three kids. Wrigley Field has been special to me. It is with a heavy-heart that I now must say farewell to that grand old lady. She’s not being torn down, but the changes that will made this off-season is enough to alter the very soul of her in a way that I’m afraid will never be undone.

Time marches on they tell me and the only constant is change. Well that’s what’s made her so special, even with superficial changes over the years, they’ve never quite dissolved her charm and timelessness. This time, we aren’t so lucky

They’re putting a jumbotron in her. Why not some Groucho glasses on the Mona Lisa as well? They claim it is the only way the Cubs and their loyal fans will ever see a World Series. I say their bologna has a first name and it’s J-U-M-B-O. Here’s why…

I would take the Congress-Douglas from Jeff Park to Addison then transfer to the 151 Addison bus. The Congress-Douglas line is now known as the Blue Line and it originates, or terminates however you wish to view it, at O’Hare Airport. Travelers flying into O’Hare can ride the rails into the neighborhoods and downtown. One day on my way to work, I got off the ‘L’ and walked across to the bus stop when a man approached me. “How do I get back to O’Hare?” he asked. “You get back on the same train you just got off of but going in the opposite direction,” I told him. Seemed logical and obvious to me. “I just flew in from San Francisco,” he went on to say which explained why the logical and obvious evaded him. “I flew in to see Wrigley Field and I’m flying right back out again after the game.”   Think about that for a second. He didn’t fly from California to Chicago because he’s a Cub fan, or to see a great ballgame. The Cubs were not playing the Giants that day either so it wasn’t to see his team play. He “flew in to see Wrigley Field”. Those were his exact words. How many people do you think have flown across the country to see Miller Park or Camden Yards or U.S. Cellular Field? Few I’m sure. Yankee Stadium, Fenway Park, old Tigers Stadium, and Wrigley Field. That’s about it.

I know, I know. Yankee Stadium has been rebuilt, Tiger Stadium is no more, and yes Fenway has a Jumbo-Tron and has for a while. And that only bolsters my point. Even those other iconic ballparks aren’t what they once were, what baseball once was. That makes Wrigley Field that much more unique.

People have flocked to Wrigley Field to see a baseball game for the past two decades because it’s Wrigley Field. Because it is a bridge to the past, a link from son to father to grandfather to great-grandfather. To experience Wrigley Field is to catch a glimpse of what previous generations experienced when going to a game. It’s not a stadium, it’s not complex, it’s a ballpark. It looks like a ballpark, it sounds like a ballpark, it smells like a ballpark, but most importantly it feels like a ballpark.

It is listed among Frank Lloyd Wright houses as must-sees when visiting the city. On any given afternoon, even in the dead of winter, you will see someone standing at the corner of Clark and Addison snapping pictures of Wrigley Field. They aren’t doing that at the United Center. They aren’t doing that at Soldier Field (and they weren’t even before the spacecraft landed in it). They aren’t doing that at the Cell. And they aren’t doing it at Wrigley Field because they’re Cub fans. At least not all of them.

If the ballpark has been the draw more so than the team that plays there, how does it follow that to have a good team play there, you have to change the ballpark?

The reality is though, they’re going to go ahead with the plans. They’re going to turn the area around Wrigley Field, commonly known as Wrigleyville (a term I have hated since the yuppies deemed it so in the late 1980’s) into a mall. They will take away that neighborhood feel that exists outside the ballpark and inside they will remove that link, that bridge to the past. Wrigley Field will, starting next season, be just another baseball stadium. It will be indistinguishable to Camden Yards or Citi Field or Busch Stadium. Bricks and ivy will still be on the outfield wall, sure, but that is already starting to look more like a replication than an original. The hand-operated scoreboard will still sit in center field, but it will lose its majesty, after being dwarfed by the big screen TV in left field.

It’s been a slow death. It started in 1988 with the necessary addition of lights. I was against it at the time, but I will admit I had an awful lot of fun nights at Wrigley Field, some I can remember, others I cannot.

That first season I worked there was the first full season with night games. As I rolled empty beer kegs down the upper deck ramps, the saxophone player serenaded from the sidewalk below and the city was alive, a living breathing thing, and that bridge opened up. Close your eyes, breath in deep, and listen. It could be 1989 or it could be 1945. Not much different than it would have been like had Mr. Wrigley installed the lights he’d sacrificed for the war effort. And so, I accepted them.

Then came the skyboxes and that ugly freaking press box in the upper deck behind home plate. The Tribune Company couldn’t have designed a more out of place looking addition to the park if they had hired a blind monkey with a seizure disorder to draw up the plans. The skyboxes themselves though, fit in nicely; hanging where the old press box used to be.

In the following years, little changes here and there occurred, but nothing outrageous. I’m not unrealistic about change. Change has been necessary over the years. Change is why Wrigley Field is still here for us to enjoy after 100 years of existence. If money hadn’t been spent and renovations been done over the years, it would’ve been knocked down long ago. But there is a way to make changes, to update the park while remaining true to the structure.

Do the Cubs need a new clubhouse? Definitely. Is there desperate need for more restrooms? By God YES! Should they include some advertising in the park? By all means, yes. It’s been done before, and if done well, could be made to fit in while still standing out. Do they need a new, larger press box? Indeed, fix what was never right to begin with. But do they need a Jumbo-Tron? Absolutely not.

There are necessary changes that can be done while retaining the charm and the heart of the place. And then there is that awfulness. A giant flashing light-show on a flatscreen. The death knell. The nail in the coffin of baseball’s last vestige of a time gone-by. The bridge to baseball’s hey-day (or Hey Hey day if I may) will be closed. No orange cones and barricades, just a big flashing sign that says, “Guess which virtual running hot dog will win the race.” Because, according to the ownership, this is what has kept us from winning a World Series, no Big-Screen hot dog races between innings.

We didn’t have one in 1984 when we came so close. Nor in 1989, 1998, 2003, 2008. We’ve had more opportunities in this modern age with this ballpark than in the 39 years between 1945 and 1984. We’ve come close. Have had good teams. Have been in contention. Have had the talent. Someone has to lose; unfortunately that someone has been the Cubs. It was not for a lack of spending money though. Money was spent and revenue came in without a Jumbo-Tron. I know, this family doesn’t have the resources the Tribune Company had, nor is it as wealthy as the Wrigley family was. But is the answer to destroy your most valuable asset?

Ballplayers come and go, and no team ever really has a dynasty. The Yankees didn’t make the playoffs last year despite all the money they bring in and put out. The closest team to dynasty status is the St. Louis Cardinals, a small market team whose spending, according to, was less in 2013 than nine other teams including the White Sox, Red Sox, Phillies, and Toronto. As of September 23, 2014, Boston and Philadelphia are last in their respective divisions, while the White Sox are below .500 and in fourth place, and the Blue Jays two games above .500, third in their division. In 2014, the Cardinals spent less than twelve other teams including the Texas Rangers who are dead last in their division, the Arizona Diamondbacks who are dead last in their division, and the Cincinnati Reds who are only 3.5 games ahead of the Cubs in the NL Central. Spending big doesn’t always result in winning as we have so brutally learned over the years.

In 2009 and 2010, the Cubs spent more on salaries than every team in baseball except the Yankees and the Red Sox. They finished ’09 second in their division, but with a very average record of .516 and couldn’t secure a playoff spot. The results in 2010 were dismal. They finished fifth in their division with a .463 average, but drew over 3 million fans, 7th in all of baseball, ahead of Texas, Tampa, Cincinnati, San Francisco and Atlanta, all playoff teams that season. So what did the Cubs have that those teams didn’t? Wrigley Field. Many of those 3 million were there to see baseball at Wrigley Field, to cross that bridge to baseball past. To soak up the history, the tradition, the endangered aura that exists nowhere else but there, in that cathedral.

It seems to me the key to winning is more about spending wisely than spending big. The Cubs have been doing that in recent years with young acquisitions and the development of their farm system. Gone are the days of dropping millions on the Milton Bradleys of the game. It also seems to me that to make it through the lean years between good teams, it’s nice to have something besides the product on the field to bring in revenue. The Cubs have that in Wrigley Field. It draws fans even when the team stinks. When there is no star slugger whose jerseys fans clamor to buy, you still have merchandise (t-shirts, sweatshirts, hoodies, hats, signs, flags, posters, postcards) featuring the star that never leaves, never retires, never gets injured, and never corks a bat – Wrigley Field. As evidenced this past season when the major attention and marketing was given to her 100th Anniversary as there was very little to market on the field. She not only bridges past to present, but present to future by alone bringing in revenue while the team rebuilds the roster. With the right custodians, she’ll continue to do so for several years to come.

This is not the right custodian. He doesn’t get it. He is not a Chicagoan. He found the team when all the other transplants found the team. When the white-flighters returned from the ‘burbs to revisit the team and the city they’d forsaken when both needed them most. When the Superstation brought the beauty of Wrigley Field to the farm fields of Central Illinois and Iowa and Indiana and Nebraska and Colorado before there was a team in Denver. After one winning season brought the Cubs national attention and TV and movie stars made being a Cub fan cool. That’s when this owner found the Cubs, when the bandwagon was already crowded. After the other yuppies had jumped on board with the out-of-towners. In the time when the blue collar Cub fans were being pushed out with the old ladies and the kids to make room for pink polo collared men with mobile phones and feathered hair, their siliconed lady friends, and the frat boys with their sorority girls. When that so very non-Chicago accent could be heard declaring into cell phones across the park, “Oh my gawd, guess where I am … Wreglay.”

He came with them.

When they took over the park and the neighborhood. When the suburban raised children of the white-flighters demanded their first grown-up apartment be in ‘Wreglayville’. Post-skyboxes, post-bleacher expansion, post-box seat expansion, post-rooftop monetizing.

He is one of them.

It’s no surprise he would be at the helm when Old Style beer is booted from the park and a Jumbo-tron is to rise above it.

He is one of them.

The outsiders who make me feel I have a better connection with those others from the numbered streets wearing black and white than I do with those adorning red, white, and Cubbie blue.

I think he is their leader.

“I want to be able to see replays,” they cry.

“Then stay home,” I answer.

“It’s the only way we can have a World Series,” they demand.

“Bullshit!” I reply.

“Any other owner would do the same thing,” some lament.

“That doesn’t make it right,” I declare.

“They have to move into the twenty-first century,” they assert.

“What does that have to do with a Jumbo-Tron?” I ask.

What we generically call jumbotrons today have been a part of baseball since 1980. Wrigley Field is the only professional sports arena to not have one. You can either view that as a child would, “everyone else has one why not us?” or as a person of intelligence and forethought who realizes that that is what makes the place so special. That is what you’ve been marketing when the team is bad.

The last time Wrigley was the ‘only one without’ was during the 1980’s fight over lights. That issue affected not only the Cubs, but all of baseball and the networks that covered them. The team couldn’t avoid installing lights any longer. The jumbotron affects only them, and with the proper business acumen, it wouldn’t be an issue. It is the easy way out. A child’s perception and solution.

And so it has come to pass. The view from the grandstands of the old girl will be forever changed, and with it, so will the notion of what it is to be a Cub fan. What I grew up with will breathe its last breath tomorrow and then silently slip into the past.   In 2015, when fans ascend the stairs and transition from shadow to light, they’ll not be overcome by the natural colors of blue sky, green grass and red brick, but rather by the flashing LED colors of a two-story television screen, and odds are, a still mediocre team on the field.

My prediction for the future of Cubs baseball is that they will finally win a World Series Championship when I no longer care.

Rest in peace old girl and thank you for the memories.

Me as Pirates batboy 1986 with Tony Pena

Me as Pirates batboy 1986 with Tony Pena

More wrigley pics

The old Bleachers

More wrigley pics 86

Bob Denier chasing a fly ball. No lights, no skyboxes, no ugly press box in the upper deck.


This view will be gone.

IMG_20140404_090328487_HDR IMG_20140404_104227885 Wrigley in the '80's Me as Pirates batboy 1986

Opening Night 8-8-88 rain

8/8/88 Rain

Opening Night 8-8-88 Marquee

First Night Game 8/8/88 Before the rain began

Harry & Me

Harry Carey and me

Some shots through the years.More wrigley pics 2

HEY KID, DO YOU KNOW THE SIGNS? (The Day I Became A Chicago Cub)

Okay, with all the changes and news surrounding the Cubs this week, the news that Don Zimmer has past away in Florida at age 83, is by far the saddest.

When I was 12 years old in the fall of 1985, Don Zimmer was the third base coach for the Cubs. I had an opportunity to be the fill-in bat boy for the Cubs for a day while the regular bat boy was in school at St. Ben’s.  I was told to arrive at 10am. Well, the game doesn’t start until 1:20, and there isn’t much for a fill-in bat boy to do for those hours leading up to the game. So I was sat on a stool and told to sit tight until it was time to dress in my pinstripes. I did. Time passed. Players came in. The stereo was turned on. Ryne Sandburg walked by me. I sat quietly afraid to get in the way, but anxious to put on my Cub uniform and run out on the field.

I must have looked bored because from across the room I saw an old bald man beckon me over with his finger. He sat sprawled in a folding chair, wearing his own Cub uniform, and waiting like a kid to go do something fun on the field rather than sit in the clubhouse. I stood in front of him and he asked me my name. I told him. He introduced himself, which was unnecessary because he was Don Zimmer, and I knew who he was.

“Do you know the signs, kid?” he asked me. “No,” I replied. With a brush of the bill of his cap and a sweep of his hand across his chest, he went on to show me the third base coach signs for steal, bunt, swing away, etc.

He was a pro. A major league coach. He was an important man one season out from barely missing the World Series. He was already a baseball legend. He didn’t have to give me the time of day. But he did. He saw a nervous, awed, and somewhat bored kid sitting for hours quietly in a folding chair surrounded by his baseball heroes and not getting in the way or bothering anyone and he engaged that boy. Made him feel for a moment that he was a part of the team. One of the guys. He taught me the secret signs that only the Cubs knew, and now I did too. For that day, I was a Cub. Not because I wore their uniform. Not because I ran out onto Wrigley Field from the Cubs dugout. Not because Rick Sutcliffe sent me to the second base umpire to retrieve the key to the batter’s box. But because Don Zimmer… Popeye… showed me the secret signs.

I don’t remember what the exact signs were. But I remember watching him teach them to me. More importantly, I remember how I felt when he showed them to me, not like I was in the way, but like I belonged. I will forever be grateful to him for that.

Rest In Peace Don Zimmer, and thank you for making this little boy a Cub.