Tuesday, August 05, 2014

A Boy's Dream

"Yeah, I was in the show. I was in the show for 21 days once - the 21 greatest days of my life. You know, you never handle your luggage in the show, somebody else carries your bags. It was great. You hit white balls for batting practice, the ballparks are like cathedrals, the hotels all have room service, and the women all have long legs and brains."-- "Crash" Davis, "Bull Durham"

When I was about 7 or 8 years old, around 1968-1969, the baseball bug bit me. My family lived in Albany Park, a very ethnically mixed neighborhood on Chicago's north side. My friends in the neighborhood were a grab bag of ethnicities, nationalities and religions. Until just a few years before, Albany Park was populated mostly by Jewish people, mostly of Russian heritage. As they began the move to the suburbs-- a pattern that has remained to this day in this neighborhood no matter the ethnic groups-- new groups were moving in: baptists from Appalachia, Maronites from Lebanon, Irish, Hungarians, Polish and the first few Hispanic people. You name it, we had it

The one thing we all had in common was baseball. Our own little form of baseball. We played in the alley with a deflated playground ball-- it was the great leveler. The difference between the greatest hitter and the worst was pretty narrow. And speaking of narrow, we played in an alley. Our bases were utility poles, cracks in the concrete and by-the-way, watch out for the dogshit!

By 1971, my family had followed the Great American pattern that was emerging, and had moved to the suburbs for a split-level ranch and better schools. But I still loved baseball. In September of 1971-- specifically, September 11, 1971, I finally went to my first baseball game. It was my beloved Cubs versus the St. Louis Cardinals. 

I remember, to this day, nearly 43 years later, so much about the game. Juan Pizzaro pitched for the Cubs. Joe Torre, who was usually a catcher, was playing third base. Lou Brock, whom the Cubs had traded in 1964 to the Cardinal for pitcher Ernie Broglio, in what is considered to one of the worst and most lopsided trades in baseball history, was playing for the Cardinals. In all, I saw four future Hall of Famers play that day-- Billy Williams and Ron Santo for the Cubs, and Lou Brock and Joe Torre for the Cards. To my lasting regret, another future Hall of Famer, "Mr. Cub," Ernie Banks, was not playing that day; he retired about two weeks later. 

But my most memorable moment came with a player who I greatly admired-- a guy who was never going to make it into the Hall of Fame: Paul Popovich. 

Popovich had been one of the few bright spots in the infamous and heartbreaking end of the 1969 Cubs season. He was nicknamed "Supersub" for his ability to fill in ably at any infield position. He was only a lifetime .233 hitter, but he seemed to have a knack for getting the "clutch" hits-- hits right when they were badly needed. 

Popovich hit 14 home runs over his entire career (mostly with the Cubs) from 1964 to 1975. One of those home runs was that day, in the course of the Cubs' 7-0 victory: it was the one and only grand slam that Popovich hit in his career.

I never got to play little league ball, though I dreamed, as a little boy, of playing in the Bigs and hitting a grand slam. Instead, I grew up, went to college, moved back into the city and became a teacher, and then a nurse, and raised a son who is a baseball fan. We saw many games at Wrigley and he played six years of little league, something I hadn't gotten to do. He even pitched in his league championship his last year. He's 20 now, and in college. He told me a couple of days ago that he considers that pitching in the little league championship when he was in eighth grade to be the greatest memory of his childhood. 

A couple of weeks ago, the great pitcher Greg Maddux was inaugurated into the Baseball Hall of Fame. I saw him pitch many times, and during Maddux' second stint with the Cubs, my son saw him pitch. But for every Greg Maddux, there are hundreds of Paul Popoviches-- journeyman players who are talented and hard-working enough to make it to the major leagues, but who will never make it to the Hall. And for every Paul Popovich, there are 1000 little boys who can only dream of making it to "the show." To me, to see Paul Popovich living his dream-- and mine-- that afternoon in 1971, that will always be my favorite moment I ever witnessed in baseball. Except, of course, seeing my boy pitch in a little league championship.