They say baseball is just a game, a game played by thousands of youngsters across the nation each spring and summer.
Starting at age 5, baseball was my first love. The passion for the game was passed down from my grandpa to my dad and on down the line.
It wasn’t too long until 2:20 p.m. on a daily basis became my favorite time to be alive. Everyday after school, my grandfather, better known as “Jack” around town, picked me up from school and we headed for the local park. He would hit me ground balls and fly balls, balls in the gap and ones I’d have to track over my shoulder. When it was time for infield practice, things went the same way. He hit me slow rollers, hot shots, we worked on the backhand, throwing on the run and turning two.
Every second my grandfather and I spent together on a baseball field was heaven, including the time one of the hot shots took a bad hop and knocked out a front tooth. Let’s just say my mother and grandmother weren’t the happiest people that evening, but one misplaced pebble could never stop my grandpa and I from returning the next day.
Through all the ground balls, fly ball snagging and batting practice, there was a small faction of the family that wasn’t too fond of this daily, often twice-daily routine. And to those people — my baby sister Brianne — and my little cousins, hey, it’s hard to take batting practice or ground balls without someone to catch.
Those afternoon sessions were immediately followed by cold drinks and what became my second favorite past-time with my grandpa, watching Chicago Cubs baseball on WGN.
In the days before Wrigley Field had lights, Cubs baseball on WGN became mandatory daily viewing. Harry Caray became my Cubbies grandfather figure and his sidekick Steve Stone served as a long-lost uncle.
My first memories of watching baseball came on those humid summer afternoons in the mid-to-late 1980s. For a guy born in the summer of 1982, by the time I was 5, I just assumed Shawon Dunston, Ryne Sandberg, Greg Maddux, Andre Dawson and Mark Grace were all distant members of the family.
My grandpa and I watched as the ground ball against the Padres rolled between Leon Durham’s legs.
I remember vividly where I was in the fall of 2003 when the infamous “Bartman” incident happened. A senior at Ohio University, I was clear across the country that night on a trip with my parents to the Sonoma Valley in California.
When Bartman interfered with Alou, the first person I called was grandpa back in Ohio. Who cares about a time change, I knew he was up and we discussed the game well into the night.
My grandpa, also known as “Cubs Man” by the license plate on his pickup truck, was thrilled when the Cubs signed Theo Epstein as general manager five years ago.
“Maybe he can win one for the Cubs like he did for the Red Sox. He broke that curse,” my grandpa and I both imagined.
Theo got the boys on track almost immediately, acquiring Jon Lester, drafting Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant, and we could see a winner shaping up right in front of our eyes.
However, my grandpa’s health wouldn’t allow him to witness in person this remarkable Cubs season, although I’m sure he’s sharing a cold Bud with Harry in the press box.
My grandfather passed away in December 2014. Last year the young Cubs made a run but fell short in the NLCS.
But, this season was different. Since opening day, the Cubs have had the best team and manager (Joe Maddon) in baseball and the swagger to back up being the World Series favorite.
I sent a tweet to my cousin Jerry in early April. I couldn’t believe the Cubs were gonna win the World Series and my grandpa wouldn’t be here to see it.
And this is where baseball is not just a game. It’s more than a game. Much more.
I felt like I’ve talked to my grandpa just as much over the past six months of Cubs baseball as I did when we would watch the games together. Although, I’m sure he has a better seat and doesn’t get quite as nervous.
I’ve made the short trek out state Route 134 to the Port William Cemetery countless times to talk baseball with my grandpa and it just feels good.
When the Cubs traded for Aroldis Chapman earlier this season, of course I headed to Port to see what “Cubs Man” thought. When the Cubbies fell down 2-1 to the Dodgers in the NLCS, a trip out 134 reassured me the Cubs had been the best team all season and they would again be fine. It’s funny how much my grandpa seems to know from that seat in the sky.
When the Cubs finally clinched the NL pennant, which meant they were going to the World Series for the first time since 1945, the connection to my grandfather went well beyond my boundaries. The outpouring of well wishes across social media flooded my pages. My dad’s, too.
From Florida to California and all in between, people reached out to say “I’m glad the Cubs won. Made me think of your dad/grandpa.” One Facebook post stood out in particular, “I was rooting for the Cubs just because of your grandpa. He was such a good man.”
And this was just to make it to the World Series. What if they actually won?
In true Cubs fashion, the North-Siders lost their first two home games, Games 3 and 4, and found themselves in a 3-1 hole in the Fall Classic to the Indians.
It was time for another trip on route 134. My grandpa and I needed to discuss what was going on, but this time we had a newcomer to our Port William baseball chats, my 3-year old son Brycen. It was a little chilly and rainy that day so Brycen remained in the car as I walked over and said the most obvious statement I’ve ever uttered, “Down 3-1, gotta win tonight.”
My grandpa probably just uttered “No kidding, I’ve really taught you a lot after all these years.”
Before I left I knelt down and set what Brycen and I have named “Cubs guy” beside my grandfather’s headstone.
Of course, Brycen didn’t miss a beat and asked why I was leaving Cubs guy? Won’t he be scared? Cubs guy always rides with us, which is true because it was a small Cubs doll given to me by my grandfather years ago.
With tears in his eyes due to his worry for leaving Cubs guy, I convinced Brycen that he would be OK and that we would come back the next day to check on him.
That night, Rizzo homers, Lester gets a win and Cubs trailed 3-2 with the series heading back to Cleveland.
Now came the tough part. Convincing Brycen of a little thing called superstition in baseball and the fact that Cubs guy would be just fine enjoying a few more Indian Summer nights in the Port William Cemetery. Finally, Brycen obliged. Finally.
So then comes Tuesday night, Bryant rips a bomb in the first inning, Addison Russell drills a grand slam and all of a sudden the series is tied at three games apiece.
The Cubs are one win from the World Series.
On Wednesday afternoon, the day of Game 7, Brycen and I made our regular trip to Port William to check on Cubs guy and talk to Cubs Man. Cubs guy was fine. We had a brief word with Cubs Man and waited anxiously all day for that first pitch of Game 7.
Game 7 in itself was an emotional roller coaster, beginning with the very first batter of the game when Dexter Fowler hit a lead-off home run. Later, when Aroldis Chapman surrendered a game-tying home run to light-hitting Rajai Davis in the 8th inning, every Cubs fan on the planet had the “here we go again” feeling in the pit of their stomach.
However, just as they had shown all season long, THIS Cubs team was different. Despite the adversity of blowing a three-run lead just four outs from a title, the “lovable losers” got off the mat and regained the lead in the top of the 10th inning.
At 12:39 a.m. Thursday morning, play-by-play announcer Joe Buck exclaimed, “and the Cubs are one out away.” I will never forget that final out for so many reasons. Mike Montgomery was summoned from the bullpen to record the only out he needed. Bryant fielded a slow roller and when he threw across the diamond to Rizzo, emotions exploded.
We’ve always heard that baseball is America’s pastime. Nothing is as pure and innocent as a young boy or girl playing catch in the backyard. Baseball, and in particular Cubs baseball, helped shape a great part of my childhood. Countless summer afternoons watching the Cubbies on WGN and standing and singing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” with Harry Caray all came rushing back to me. There will be no more talk of 1908. There will be no more “wait until next year.”
I umpire youth baseball games throughout the Midwest each summer and hear quite frequently that “baseball is just a game.”
I disagree. As I stood in my living room at 12:48 a.m. on Nov. 3 with a tear streaming down my cheek and feeling the presence of my grandpa beside me for the last four and a half hours, you’d be hard-pressed to convince me that baseball is just a game.
For me and my grandpa, baseball is a love, a passion, a common bond that will never be broken. It took the Cubs more than 115 years to finally win a World Series. For the joy I felt and the connection with my grandpa that has overcome me the past month of playoff baseball, the wait was well worth it.
Brycen and I made the familiar trip down 134 to the Port William Cemetery just hours after the final out was recorded to check on Cubs guy. Much to Brycen’s delight, Cubs guy was fine, a little damp, but none the worse for wear. We picked him up and put him in his normal place in my backseat and the world — at least Brycen’s world — felt like it was back to normal.
To Cubs Man, my best friend and the man who introduced me to the greatest game on Earth, they finally did it.
The Cubbies, the lovable losers, won the World Series.
Reach Blake Haley via email [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @BeeLakeH