Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Grounded at Wrigley Field

Lately I've been listening to sports radio quite a bit. We are in the midst of spring training for Major League Baseball so it is the current hot topic. The gossip today was about Barry Bonds and a new book coming out that will apparently reveal details about his use of performance enhancing drugs. Sports Illustrated will have excerpts from the book, which of course will spur more speculation/accusations and result in sales of this book.

I am on the side that believes anyone who cheats is a cheater and anyone who breaks the law is a criminal. And anyone who does either in professional sports should not be invited into that sports hall of fame. Unfortunately I believe that cheating will continue to happen and athletes will continue to find new ways of avoiding detection.

With all the negative talk about going on today I'd like to take a moment to look at the real soul of baseball. What it is all about...


One of my best friends is John Stutz. We met on our first day of first grade and became friends.

During the summer between seventh and eighth grade we spent most of our time goofing off either at the beach or going to Cubs games. We were both die hard Cub fans. Still are.

I don't remember what he did, but one day I called John to make plans to go to Wrigley to see the Cubs play only to find out that he had been grounded. Though both of his parents were out he was told not to leave the house until they got home from work. They wouldn't really know if he left the house, but trusted him to do as told. So of course we went to the game.

We figured we would keep a close eye on the clock and be able to get back to his house before either his mom or dad got home. The game started at 1:05 pm. If the game went quickly we could stay and watch the whole game. If it dragged on we agreed that we would have to leave before the end in order to get John home on time.

We called Tom Graziano to see if he wanted to go with us. He was in.

We hopped on the "L" at the end of the line in Wilmette, changed trains at the Howard stop and got to the park in plenty of time to get first row seats in the right field bleachers. We were there for batting practice.

During BP Leon Durham, aka "The Bull" cranked out a few shots into the right field bleachers. A few came close by, but not close enough that we could participate in the scramble to grab the loose balls. We settled into our seats confident that should a home run be hit our way we would be close enough to maybe snag the ball.

It was a good game. At the start of the bottom of the eighth inning the cubs were down a run. With a runner on base The Bull stepped up to the plate. We were ready. Sitting from right to left, smallest to tallest in the first row of the right field bleachers was Tom, me and John. We were ready.

On the third pitch The Bull smacked a deep drive right at us. It was going to be a home run and it was coming exactly to where we were sitting. Actually it was going straight at Tom. He stood up, got his hands in the air in anticipation of catching the ball. He had a huge smile on his face. This was his ball!

But this was a home run ball. No rules apply here. It's anyone's ball! I leaned over a bit to move Tom aside. This was going to be mine!

John was not to be outdone. He leaned over on me to move me AND Tom out of the way. But just as the ball was about to land in his hands John lost his balance and ended up tripping us all up. John reached back for the ball as he fell on me and Tom. We would up in a piled up heap on the guy sitting next to Tom, just as the ball swooshed by. We missed it!

The guy right behind us got the ball! Tom gave me grief for pushing him, I passed that on to John for shoving me but John was really upset for two reasons. First because he tripped and missed the ball. Second because he realized that we had to have been on TV as Leon Durham's home run would be on the game highlight reel.

The Cubs ended up winning. As soon as the game was over we jumped on the first train back up North. We gave each other a lot of ribbing on the way home for missing the ball. It was all good. I remember John being a little nervous about the time. We had to get back to his house asap before his folks got home.

Thankfully we all lived within a few blocks of the "L". Tom headed home while John and I cruised over to his house. We got there in plenty of time. Now it was a matter of making sure his dad did not catch the highlights. And of course as soon as he got home, John's dad sat down in the TV room to catch the game highlights. This got tricky.

As planned as soon as the game highlights came on John and I stood up in front of the TV set to block the view. I have no idea what we said or what rationale we used for standing in front of the TV. I only know that as John stood there babbling something to distract his dad, I turned and caught a glimpse of the TV screen. There we were. Three bumbling fools tripping over each other to catch the ball, only to end up missing it completely. Our fifteen minutes of fame and we couldn't even share it with our parents.

Thankfully John didn't do anything to get grounded again that summer. We went to lots of games, but never caught a home run ball. Still haven't ever caught one.

But that summer and the home run fiasco was a good time. We had a ball anyway.

I don't know if Leon Durham took performing enhancing drugs to hit more home runs or if the ball was "juiced" that year either. What I do know is that baseball is more than a game. It is more than the players. It is more than the statistics.

Whether it is a game of catch in the backyard, stickball in the street, little league or big league games, baseball is and always has been about spending time with friends. I cannot wait for opening day.

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