Thursday, July 14, 2011


Wife Susie and I visited New York in early June, sopping up the sights and sounds of the big city for a week and then heading west to Buffalo for a few days with son Andrew, who lives there. The trip reminded me that, despite its many pleasures, few places are more uncomfortable than Gotham when the temperatures top 90. I also learned that Buffalo is a lot more interesting than I suspect most people suspect.

Along the way, Andrew in tow, we stopped in Cooperstown to see the Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. It was my third time there, the first coming as a 12-year-old with my parents in 1950 and the second, with my own children, in 1980. If the progression continues my next visit will come around 2040, but I’m not taking bets I’ll make it.

They say—correctly-- that you visit the Hall to relive baseball’s past but wind up reliving your own. It’s a wonderful place, full of the relics of the sport whose roots run deepest into American soil and soul. It’s in out-of-the-way Cooperstown—30 miles from any major road—because baseball is said to have been invented there, in 1839, by Abner Doubleday. That all three of those claims have been debunked takes nothing away from the red-brick shrine or its bucolic setting.

The place I toured last month was quite different from the one I’d seen 30 (and 60) years before. I recall the old Hall as a messy sort of place, its mountains of memorabilia unartfully arrayed in store-window-type enclosures along dim corridors. Now its displays are much-better lighted, labeled and framed—more “user-friendly” in the current phrase.

That’s good in a way, but in a way not. Unlike the updated Hall, which telegraphs its punches, the old place had the capacity to surprise and, in doing so, delight. I remember coming across, unaware, things like Ty Cobb’s cracked little glove or Shoeless Joe’s battered bat, and thinking how their haphazard display added to their allure. When something is too neat the “Wow!” factor dissipates.

The visit also clarified something I’ve been telling hardheaded Pete Rose fans for years-- that while their hero does not have a plaque in the Hall (baseball bars him from the sportswriters’ ballot for his crimes against the game) he is amply represented in photo and film, and his records are celebrated. No amount of grousing can obscure the fact that bad-boy Pete is getting his due immortalitywise, maybe and then some.

As one strolls the Hall, the current game naturally comes to mind, as does the question of which active players someday will be honored in its galleries. It’s fashionable to declare that today’s players lack the grittiness of those of days past, and that the game’s talent level generally ain’t what it used to be, but once it comes to list making many names present themselves.

A half-dozen of the current performers, I think, qualify as first-ballot shoo-ins when their playing days are done, if they can keep their noses clean. By my order of distinction they are Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Omar Visquel, Albert Pujols. Ichiro Suzuki and Pudge Rodriguez. That, of course, assumes that Visquel and Rodriguez eventually will retire as active players, which they may not.

After that comes some present and recent-day stars that might be called the asterisk group because of their links with revelations of steroid use, which is to say cheating. ARod is on it, along with the recent retirees Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa, Manny Ramirez and Roger Clemens. There’s nothing keeping them off the Hall ballot when they are five years removed from the fields, but there’s also nothing to require that the writer-electors vote for them.

To date (and happily), juicers haven’t fared well with the scribes, with the bloated slugger Mark McGwire never topping 24% of the vote in his four years of eligibility (75% is needed to elect) and Rafael Palmeiro, a 500-homer, 3,000-hit guy who normally would have been an easy “yes,” getting just 11% in 2010, his first year. Some of the above-named fellas might fare better than those two; one could argue that Bonds was a Hall-caliber player before he turned to the needle. Chances are, though, that they’ll all have to sweat to get in no matter what their accomplishments were.

Finally, there’s a larger category of players who are still cooking, showing Hall potential but having borderline stats or lacking the large body of excellent work usually required for admission. Vlad Guerrero is on it, along with Jim Thome, Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Joe Mauer, Ryan Braun, Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Tim Lincecum.

Before some of them get in—mainly the pitchers—standards might have to change. Halladay is the best current-day starting pitcher but checks in with 180 wins over an already-long career of 14 seasons. Lee, the second best, has just 111 in 10. Five-man rotations and managers’ quick hooks have changed the parameters for pitching greatness. Still, it makes you wonder how Greg Maddox and Randy Johnson won 300 plus, doesn’t it?

Friday, July 1, 2011


It’s no news that the 162-game baseball regular season is too long by any reasonable standard. It’s also no news that it never will get shorter, no matter how many new layers of playoffs are added. That’s because the schedule is guided by the dictates of commerce, not competition, and reducing it would violate the first rule of business, which is that you can’t make any money if the store isn’t open.

For the followers of some teams, though, the schedule can be too short. One of those usually is my Chicago Cubs, who again this season are out of it even though the campaign is only about half completed. Yogi said (or is said to have said; Joe Garagiola invented many of the so-called Yogiisms) “It’s never over ‘til it’s over,” but he was mistaken.

Fact is, the Cubs have been OOI from the outset this year, and I could have written this piece any time since opening day. I’ve attended their spring training games in Mesa, Arizona, for, maybe, 25 years now, and I’ve never seen Cubdom as dispirited as it was this March, or for better reason. No amount of the innate optimism that is a requisite for being a Cubs’ fan could survive the sloppy play and dead-ass decorum the team displayed during its vernal exercises. To think that would change with the start of serious hostilities would have been delusional.

Expectations were low to begin with coming off last year’s 75-87 won-lost record, and weren’t helped by the team’s naming Mike Quade to succeed Lou Piniella as manager. With an inflated and unproductive payroll leaving little room for roster maneuver, a new manager with some pizzazz might have helped rouse the faithful, but Quade had gathered so little celebrity in his 35-plus years in the game that many couldn’t pronounce his name (it’s kwa-dee). At the rate he’s going he’ll be gone before they can.

General Manager Jim Hendry’s bad personnel decisions brought about the current mess. Alas, they didn’t end with the Major League club. That was apparent as soon as the team needed to fill early-season openings created by the sort of injuries every team has. The best Hendry could do to fill a starting-pitching hole was to dredge up the veteran punching bag Doug Davis, and his first outfield call-up was Luis Montanez, a 29-year-old minor-league lifer whose upside was negligible. If Montanez is the best the farm system can offer, our epic title drought only will continue.

I’m sure that by now you’re thinking “enough, already.” Cubs’ fans’ laments are old stuff and I can’t pretend that mine adds much to the genre. This time, however, I offer a solution as well as a complaint. It comes by way of Eddie Cohen, a pal from our long-ago days at Roosevelt High School.

As those who know him can attest, Eddie is a Cubs’ fan without peer. He is venerable, with his allegiance dating from the 1940s. He is knowledgeable, able to call your Ransom Jackson and raise you a Peter LaCock. His good nature and cheerfulness are legendary, despite the blows regularly delivered by the objects of his baseball affections.

But along the way Eddie also acquired some wisdom, and put it to use. His epiphany came in 1997 when the Cubbies, despite a lineup that included Ryne Sandberg, Sammy Sosa and Mark Grace, opened the season with a 14-game losing streak that killed hope aborning. “I was miserable,” Eddie recalls. “I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t eat.”

He adds” OK, I ate, but I didn’t enjoy it much.”

From this depth of despair Eddie founded Cubs Anonymous, a 12-step program to cure Cubs addiction. He opened a website and, for a relative pittance, offered t-shirts, membership cards and bumper stickers to those in need. He even convened a meeting in which CA members confessed their failures and professed their determination to overcome them, although an excess of laughter discouraged repeats of such sessions.

Eddie laughed along because—of course—CA was meant to be fun, but he says the venture helped put his misery into perspective and allowed him to better roll with the punches. You, too, can share his improvement by going to and clicking on “join.” There you can peruse and contemplate the 12 steps and learn how following them will improve your life.

The website often is balky, so if you can’t make it work you can send $14 to Eddie at Apparel Resources, 1125 Lake Cook Rd. #208, Northbrook, Ill., 60062, and he’ll mail you a handsome CA t-shirt.

It’ll turn heads when you wear it at Wrigley Field.