Through Both Lenses: EAMUS CATULI

Posted: July 26, 2012 by Mauricio Rubio Jr. in Columns, Sports, Through Both Lenses
Tags: , , , , , , ,

by: Mauricio Rubio Jr.
email: mr@99sportsproblems.com
twitter: @MRubio52

This is part III of a IV part series on Chicago baseball through my eyes. Here are Parts I and II.

Family Secrets

I never knew my grandfather as a White Sox fan until the last stages of his life. You see, growing up I only saw my grandfather watch Cubs games. This has been explained to me in several ways, which I always felt fell short of the truth. It’s easy to peg my grandfather as a simple man if you just looked at the facts of his life without experiencing any of them. He was a carpenter, he raised a family, a very successful and loving family at that, he was loyal and he loved his life. There’s a complexity to him that I never understood until I got older. I took a lot of his wisdom for granted, and looking back in hindsight, I can see that he was anything but simple. In previous posts I outlined how my grandfather was, in his own way, a big White Sox fan. He was, at his heart, a historian and perhaps that’s why I am so drawn to the past. As the layman historian he used to drop facts on me all the time. They were always on a wide array of topics. By trade he was a carpenter, to me (and the rest of the family, I’m sure) he was a sage. He told me once that he used to be young, reckless, and dumb. I can’t really imagine the last two parts.  He was smart, he was compassionate, he was a socialist that liked Reagan, a Catholic with big family values that loved Bill Clinton, he spoke with an accent but he had an incredible command of the intricacies and nuances of the English language.

In short, Abuelo was a badass, and I seriously doubt he was capable of hating a sports team. Sure, the White Sox moved to cable and he wasn’t about paying for TV, so it made sense that he stuck with the Cubs who stuck with WGN. I’ll maintain that he enjoyed both the Cubs and the White Sox, albeit at different stages in his life.

So, when I would cross from the air-conditioned back half of the house into the sauna that was the front room/”Master Bedroom,” I would hear Harry Caray announcing a Cubs game. I never hated them. I wasn’t aware that you were supposed to hate them. I didn’t know about the light/dark side because, well, grandpa watched them, so how bad could they be?

I’d find out soon enough.

Flirting with the dark side.

I stayed home on May 6, 1998. I forget the excuse, but I remember the reason. The Cubs were trotting out some pitcher whose career would come to define Cubdom for a generation, for better and worse. I was young, only 12, and I didn’t appreciate it the way that I would have if had happened in my 20’s. Kerry Wood is a polarizing figure in Chicago, for both sides of town. There is a faction that despises Kid-K, and I get that. He never lived up to what could have been and perhaps more importantly he is/was a symbol of all that was wrong with Cubbiedom.

I can’t hate the man. While he wasn’t the only reason I crossed the Sox-Cubs battle line, he was a major part of the eventual shift. You see, on May 6, 1998, Kerry Wood was, for 9 innings, the most dominant sunuvabitch that ever took the mound. I didn’t realize it then, I wouldn’t realize it until much later when I heard Steve Stone say that not even the ’27 Yankees would’ve hit Kerry Wood, but that man put on the pitching performance of my lifetime. I haven’t seen anything quite like that. 

[youtube http://youtu.be/RB3mcrWY6GM]
This video is both everything that is great and awful about Cubdom

Kerry Wood struck out 20. It wasn’t a perfect game, he gave up a hit (fuck you, Kevin Orie) and hit a batter, but to this day, I’ve never seen a pitcher fool batters that way. That video shows the final pitches of strikeouts, what you’re missing is how he set those guys up all day. I’ve watched the replay recently, and it was beautiful to watch him set up guys with tailing fastballs and finish them with a slider from hell.

Just like that, in the span of 9 innings, I was hooked. Sosa really just drew the line in. A lot of people came back to baseball because of the great, fake HR chase of ’98. I came back in full swing because I was ready to. Truth be told, I missed baseball a lot. It so happened that the Cubs were infinitely more fun than the White Sox that year. I grew to learn new names, a new branch of history, a new side of baseball that I wasn’t aware of. I traded the Black and Gray for Blue and Red, and I thought that 1998 was how it was going to be every year for the Cubs.

I was a kid, and kids are stupid about things like that. Kids take things for granted, they don’t understand the importance of certain events, or how special a one year run is. That’s fine, kids are supposed to be stupid about things like that because they’re too busy being kids. As a stupid kid, I even figured it would be fine to wear my brand new Marshall’s Cubs hat to my grandfather’s house as my Uncle, the White Sox superfan that lives in Austin (not Houston as I previously stated) was visiting. Why would he hate the Cubs?

What is that on your head?

I was an idiot. My personal introduction into the battle of Cubs vs. Sox was initiated by the look of bewilderment and disappointment that my Uncle Ruben gave me when I walked in wearing a blue hat with a red C on it. I walked into the same house where he let me recreate John Paxson’s shot with using a nerf ball and the oven timer, where we played wiffle, where he brought home baseball card packs and comic books for me, wearing enemy colors and I had no idea.

It is such an awful and quiet thing to fall…but far more terrible is to admit it.

The silence lasted for 2 seconds before he launched into me. I don’t remember exactly what was said, and it wasn’t profane or angry, it was genuine disappointment. For some reason, I was allowed to survive that ordeal, albeit as a baseball outcast. I learned a lot in those few months, as Sammy and Mac were launching meaningless home run after meaningless home run. I learned that there is a real hatred between some White Sox fans and some Cubs fans. I learned that once you cross over, you can never come back. I learned that I didn’t really want to either, that I was happy to be a Cubs fan, but most of what I learned was in hindsight. No one is ever really happy about being a Cubs fan. We cherish the high moments, sure, but for the most part being a Cubs fan is about pain. I’ve felt that pain, but it’s nowhere near the same level as others have felt it.

The pain is generational, it is inherent, it has delivered for 100+ years and will continue to do so for at least another 5. I didn’t know any of that. I didn’t know that I would become ostracized. I didn’t know that the Cubs didn’t have a prayer against the Braves that year. I didn’t know that wearing the other colors opened me up for all the jabs that would come later.

I should have.

Abuelo, the White Sox fan.

For about 2 years I got to watch Cubs games with my grandfather. It would be a sweltering summer day, they would be on in the afternoon, and I would brave the heat of his room to sit at the foot of the bed and watch Sammy and friends bash their way to a Wild Card berth. He was the one that educated me on Greg Maddux and the unfortunate defection that was to be blamed on Cubs management. He let me know about Mark Grace and Rod Beck. He gave me a crash course on Cubs history during those days. I was in church when the Cubs finally relented and lost game 3 to the Braves. I figured they would improve next year and be back. Like I said, I was a kid and took these things for granted.

1999 was utterly forgettable and should have been a sign of things to come. I was still a Sosa fan, so I followed his success and cheered him on. I followed the home run race in 1998 very closely. Somewhere I have a video tape of the line shot to left field that McGwire hit to beat Maris. I remember that the Maris family was in the house for it, and I remember him crying and hugging the family. I remember it was the Human Rain Delay, Steve Trachsel that gave up #62, I remember Sosa coming in and celebrating with Mark, and I remember being happy that I saw history. I thought I was watching a living legend in 1999 and that was enough to carry me through the year.

My grandfather was diagnosed with cancer at some point in 2000. Andrew Welebir said that I have a steel trap mind, and for the most part that’s true, but for me, 2000 was a blur. I don’t recall the exact dates of when stuff happened, I just remember the events, the hushed voices of the adults as they talked about what to do next. The stories of what had happened to my grandfather recently. My memories of my grandfather are herculean. He used to play catch with me bare handed. He had massive hands and he was apparently a great baseball player in Mexico. He knew how to do everything around the house. I learned that from pitching in every so often over the summer. He was crafty with a bit of a mean streak, he used to grease up the guard rails in front so that the kids wouldn’t sit on them. He put nails on top of our wooden fence so no one would try to jump it. Once, somebody blocked our garage so that my mother couldn’t park in it. Well, he went to the car, popped the hood somehow, and punched holes in the radiator with a screw driver. Another time my grandmother sent me to give him his coffee, which he took black with sugar. I was 4 and I couldn’t find him. So, I saw that the ladder was out, which meant that he was on the roof of our 3 story house. Naturally I left the coffee below and climbed the ladder after him to tell him that his coffee was there. All 3 stories. They say that he panicked at first, but I doubt it. He got me back to safety, unhurt, and never made a big deal about it. He was smart, crafty, and he had a huge heart. He had a deep voice that was laced with 50 years of cigs, and in the end that was his undoing.

I wasn’t alarmed until I heard that he fell from a ladder. Grandpa never falls from a ladder. He skin color changed. He stopped moving as well. My entire family had scattered to different parts of the US, and everyone started flying back in. Everything after that, was a blur. I remember the long nights of visits as relatives I hadn’t seen in years came pouring into the house to say their last goodbyes.

There wasn’t much happiness during that time. The one, shining beacon that I recall about September of 2000 is that grandpa got to watch a White Sox game with his boys, Ruben and Pablo. Now, there are many lessons to be taken from that time, and as I grow older I think about that period from time to time. The one that I will talk about here is that for my family baseball will always be the bind that ties us together. I had flirted with becoming a Sox hater, and as stupid as it sounds, that moment stopped it. That probably sounds stupid, that I took solace in such a small event, but that’s what my refuge was. He was happy for a moment, and so were they.

My grandfather passed shortly before midnight on September 10, 2000 and was declared dead on the 11th. Those are the only two dates I recall from that year.

The Aughts

In 2001 my Uncle Ruben was in town and we went to a White Sox game. The Cubs were off to a hot start that year and I casually mentioned to him that all they had to do was win 2 of every 3 games and they’d be on their way to 108 wins.

“That won’t happen, if the Cubs win 108 games I’ll give you 100 bucks.”

I didn’t get 100 dollars that year, but that was the first Cubs team that I learned to appreciate in the same way I appreciated the 1991-1993 White Sox. You see, that team managed to win 88 games using smoke and mirrors. That was the year Lieber won 20 games and Julian Tavarez fooled everyone for half a season. It was the Fassero-Farnsworth-Flash year, when the bullpen was looking to be fairly automatic. That was the year Bill Mueller twisted his kneecap in St. Louis and the year the Cubs traded for Fred McGriff. I recall a lot about that team because, well, I loved that team, and in retrospect they weren’t anything special. Ron Coomer was the third baseman after Mueller (pronounced, Miller) went down. In 2009 I recognized Coomer at a Jewel in the Gold Coast. What he was doing there, I do not know, but I know I saw him and was about to approach him before I realized that I could ID Ron Coomer, 1/2 of the least athletic corner infield tandem in baseball history (Matt Stairs is the other half).

I remember a lot of hope building in July before having it dashed away by the end of August. Julian Tavarez and Jason Bere struggled down the stretch, Kevin Tapani was pretty useless by then, and the infield defense was completely exposed. Tavarez was sinker reliant and you just can’t survive with bad IF defense.

2001 will be remembered for 9/11, and I was sitting in religion class, talking about the Qur’an when the assistant baseball coach came into the classroom to tell us that someone had flown planes into the World Trade Center in New York. Half the school went home, I was part of the half that stayed. My mother worked downtown at the time and they evacuated her building. When I got home we stared in disbelief at the images that were on the TV.

Baseball was suspended for a while before resuming again, one week later, as Sammy Sosa went running out to right field sporting the dual flag look, my painful lesson in Cubs futility continued. The slow march to a third place finish was complete, but I figured that this was a year that they could improve upon and that they would compete in 2002, because I clearly didn’t learn anything in 1999.

2002 was a building block year, however. The team was awful, save for the pitching rotation that featured Kerry Wood, Matt Clement, and some kid named Mark Prior. On May 22, 2002, Prior debuted as a professional, and once again I fell in love with a Cubs pitcher. He fanned 10 and the most enduring image of that night is the MARKKKKKKKKKK sign out in right field.

As bad as the offense was, the pitching showed a lot of life. 2003 was an odd off-season. My uncle Ruben, who had been in exile in Texas, was coming back to Chicago for a work project. The Cubs were predicted by some to win 90 games. Others predicted that they would lose 90 games. In typical baseball fashion, you really couldn’t predict what happened next.

Heartbreak

You always remember the firsts; the first kiss, your first real relationship, the first time you made love. The scars that are left after your first heartbreak are perhaps more visible than any other first. My heart still hadn’t broken as a Cubs fan. I was too young and their failures were too minor. Sure, they had lost to the Braves in 98, but I don’t think anyone expected them to win that series. They choked down the stretch in 2001 and failed to play good ball in 2002. These things don’t matter in the long run when it came to baseball. If 2001 was the first team I enjoyed, 2003 will forever be my first love.

Dusty Baker took over for Don Baylor, and if you loved good, smart, aggressive baseball, that was the team to love. It was our introduction to a power rotation of Wood, Prior, Clement, and Zambrano. The team was fun, it had personality, it had drama, and it had a spectacular finish to the regular season. Clement had a following that year, fans wore fake goatee’s to his starts as an homage to his particularly excellent chin hair. Zambrano came into his own that year, Wood was healthy and sometimes dominant, but the show was Prior.

I missed the Maddux years, so to date that’s the best pitcher I’ve seen over a full year in a Cubs uniform. The “it” pitch that year was the slurve and Prior had it. Down the stretch he was pure dominance. He won 10 straight decisions, put up a 0.69 ERA in August, held opposing batters to a .409 OPS that month, and led the Cubs into the playoffs. There are memorable moments, the Kenny Lofton trade, the Aramis Ramirez trade (which also netted them Randall Simon who famously hit a member of the Brewers sausage race with a bat), Tuffy Patterson’s opening day, Sosa’s corked bat, and of course, the Shawn Estes start.

That year wasn’t so much about dates and events as it was about the total package. That team felt right. They looked like they had the pieces to compete with anyone, and they did. I thought I was seeing a preview of the World Series when the Yankees came to town that year, and the Cubs took 2/3. The symbolic victories were everywhere that year, and heading into the playoffs I figured that they would roll right on through and win the whole damn thing.

That year was a lesson in ghosts and dates. They haven’t been to the World Series since 1945, they hadn’t won a postseason series since 1908, it went on and on. The most memorable Sun Times sports page was a picture of Wood-Prior-Clement-Zambrano with the headline, “Ghostbusters.” I believed it. They won a hard-fought NLDS against the Braves before taking a commanding 3-1 lead over the Marlins in the NLCS. I figured that Aramis Ramirez hit the most important home run in Cubs history in game 4, and in game 5 some kid named Josh Beckett blanked the Cubs, ensuring the Cubs would win the NLCS at home.

I remember the conversation I had with Uncle Ruben the day of that game. We were in the car and I said “We’re finally going to see a World Series in Chicago.” He nodded in agreement, what else could he say? It was Prior-Wood back to back. There was no way they Cubs would lose that series.

Your moments of deepest despair usually occur when there is a sliver of hope. It’s one thing to be beaten soundly into submission. It is a completely different thing to see the finish line, to see the goal, the summation of a cities hopes and dreams, and then be beaten soundly. I was at my high school girlfriends house, in her living room, watching Luis Castillo warm up in the on-deck circle. Prior was in cruise control, and the game was in hand. I was counting outs, wondering what it would be like to see the weight of 90 years of frustration be lifted. I wanted to be at Wrigley, to be there in that moment, to celebrate with strangers. I wanted to hear the ghosts be exorcised, I wanted to hear Wrigley strain under the weight of 44,000 people celebrating at once as a curse was being lifted. I wanted to live in that moment.

Being a Cubs fan is about pain. Real, baseball pain. You will never be comfortable in any game situation, as much as you put up the front that you don’t believe in curses, a part of you does. Your baseball soul has withstood so much, yet you feel like there is still much to endure. I got that lesson that night, as I saw a team collapse under the weight of a symbolic play in left field. When Alou slammed his glove, I knew it was over. I knew that they would play tight from there on in, and I slowly realized what it was to be a Cubs fan.

What secret dreams men hold in their heart aren’t divulged until the realization of that dream. There is no crying in baseball, yet if it were to ever happen, if the Cubs were to ever win a World Series, I would weep like a child. That is the dream that I hold in my heart, at the bottom of my baseball soul, I just want to see one. I thought I would that year, and when it all came crashing down, when the cameras cut to a crowd in disbelief, when you could hear the players in the dugout as 44K went silent, my baseball heart broke in a way that I didn’t think was possible. I looked at my then girlfriend, I said I was ok, and I walked home.

When I got home it finally hit that this was going to happen again and again.

When I got home, I cried like a baby.

Part IV, the finale, will be out tomorrow.

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Comments
  1. Tio Paulie says:

    Moe, I get so much from reading these stories, thank you.
    But I still can’t forgive you for being a CUBS fan. Reading over your stories, I was reminded of some of my earliest memories, both at Comiskey Park. The first one was that I was being held in my Tio Chava’s arms and I started to cry when the fireworks show started. Comiskey Park’s power was shut off with only the emergency lighting for the entrances to guide the way. Then giant BOOMS and CRASHES and holy hell came raining down. I held on to Tio so tight and wanted to go home, this was the summer of 1970 or 71.
    The other memory involves your abuelo, he came home from work one day and told me that he was going to the game and I could go with him if I got ready ASAP. While he sat down to wolf down his dinner, I scrambled to no success to find my shoes. Crafty that I was I decided I wasn’t going to miss out on Sox game, so I walked down to the garage and opened the back passenger door to his Ford Station Wagon, light blue in color, and sat down in the backseat and just waited for him to take me. Next thing I remember I’m awaken by the same thunderous explosions that made me cry a couple years earlier, but this time I knew exactly what it was. Someone from the Sox hit a homer and the scoreboard went off, I didn’t know who hit it or what inning it was. All I knew was that I had missed my opportunity to go to the game. Between the time I sat down in the back of the Ford and the fireworks, I had fallen asleep, landed on the back floorboard, driven to the ballpark and your grandfather didn’t even know he had a stowaway. There I was stuck inside the family sedan, that was now parked deep inside a sea of cars (now lot C), trying to make sense of it all. Here I was no shoes, missing the ballgame and I was 3 years old.
    Couple of innings came and went, I saw people laughing as they walk through the parking lot, I would immediately duck so no one would see me. Then finally I saw a figure coming toward me, from a distance I recognized his walk, his body shape, even his clothes, it was a-Pa, he had left the game early to get a jump on the crowd and leaving before the game ended. I sprang from the back seat to the front driver’s seat waiting for him the open up the door. When he did open the door he started asking me questions about what was I doing in the car? Was anyone with me? How did I get here, etc…. I don’t remember answering any of his questions, all I knew was that my little adventure to sneak off to the game didn’t quite work out as well as I hope for.
    Many years later I’m in my mid 20’s and I was curious to my father’s take on the story. He recounted that he indeed left early and walking up to the Ford, and to his surprised he saw me jumping up and down on the seat. He was so surprised to see me and puzzled that he did a complete loop around the car looking for one of my tio’s to pop-up. He was convinced that one of the Tio’s was playing a practical joke on him, using me as a prop to mess with him. He said I did answer his question and I recounted everything that happened. On the way back home I sat in the front seat all the way to 25-O-5 house, he carried me all the way back up the stairs, again no shoes. At the time all I wanted to know from him was when was the next Sox game and if we planned on going?

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