The Front Row
Friday, October 10, 2008 at 01:51PM
Lovable Losers Literary Revue in Memoir

By David Southwell

They are the perfect present for a Cubs fan, two front-row seats on the wall of the Cubs bullpen. But they are more than that. When you have to “know someone” in order to procure a product or a service, the gift takes on larger proportions. And like a family heirloom, I treasured the tickets to the front-row seats each and every year since I first met a work colleague 20-some-odd years ago and who shared them with friends and family over the course of a glorious 82-game season at Addison and Clark.

 Watching a big-league baseball game from Club Box 21, aisle 8, row 1, is like a midsummer daydream. You can read the labels on Kerry Wood’s uniform. You can see the scratches in the bullpen’s catcher’s blue shin guards. You can tell how hot it is by how far the sweat has permeated the bill of Carlos Marmol’s cap. You can tell that Bobby Howry has shaved, and baby-faced rookie Jeff Samardzija doesn’t seem to need to.

The pitchers warming up in the bullpen look impressive enough in their neatly pressed uniforms, but their fastballs give them an air of awe. They make an incredible sound, ripping through the wind with a mighty phhht, then splatting against the thick leather glove of the catcher with a thud of a mallet.

When the bullpen phone rings in its dulcet tone, you feel induced to pick it up just to be polite. The brown bricks are crisp and well maintained. They will snag loose garments. And the gray top of the cement wall stays cool even on the hottest days, begging you to set your cool beer down, drawing a warning from the usher every time.

I’d been taking in one game a year from these seats since the late 1980s after I met Toni Ginnetti, a fellow writer at the Chicago Sun-Times. Her family owned the tickets for decades, and she would let the staffers buy them at face value - a real treat, even for the most jaded sportswriter, which I would later become.

We made lots of memories in seats 105 and 106. During my childhood, my mom was the kind of Cubs fan who loaded the old station wagon with kids from the neighborhood and watched us like a hen with her chicks as we huddled for warmth in the chilly shade of the grandstands early in April. For my 10th birthday I was adamant that I the only thing I wanted was to sit in the box seats. My family couldn’t afford to take me and my four brothers, so mom took just me and man, did I feel special. The Cubs were playing the Giants. There was Willie Mays, Jim Ray Hart and Tito Fuentes. Fergie Jenkins, Bill Hands, Ron Santo. I never knew a game could be so special. You could see the intensity in the players’ faces. And my favorite player, Cubs catcher Randy Hundley, gave me a knowing smile and nod from the on-deck circle when I chanted his name.

Many years later it was special to return that favor and take my mom, who was slowed by Multiple Sclerosis, to the first-row seats. One day after the Cubs had just acquired Goose Gossage from San Diego, he plopped down right in front of us. I noticed the scoreboard in centerfield flashed that the Padres had given up six runs in the fifth inning. I nudged mom and whispered. Goose turned to us with his fearsome Fu Man Chu moustache and smiled “ I saw that”.

When Luke was barely 3 years old, Antonio Alfonseca, the six-fingered “octopus” handed him a bullpen ball. When he was four, his gift ball was from the bullpen coach. Every year he brings home an old, tattered ball and puts it in a hallowed place on his dresser along with the scorecards I keep of the games we share in our special seats.

Each year I would remind Luke to pay attention during the game because this was such a great place to catch a foul ball, especially when left-handed hitters were at bat. And each year my mind flashed a thought reminding myself that maybe I’d finally catch my first foul ball.

Last year Jimmy Rollins of the Phillies hit a hard liner down the left-field line that bounded off the tarp, then the top of the wall, and just beyond my reach into the hands of Cubs relief pitcher Carlos Marmol. The crowd urged him to “give it to the kid” He did. It sits on the dresser with the blue “bruise” from the tarp.

In the past couple years the seats had become quite a luxury. I realized they were worth way more than the face value, which had gone from the $30 range to upward of $60, and if I could only get them once, I’d give them to my dad. They had become his annual birthday gift. His most treasured gift at that.

He loved those seats. After mom died in 2000, I went to a few games with my dad, but then I started my own family and I’d just give them to him in a card with some thoughtful phrase inside, so he could take whomever he chose. And I’d always try getting a game around his August 5th birthday.

This year when I phoned him early in the season to select a date; he sounded sluggish. He survived colon cancer two years ago, but now his lymph nodes were under attack and he looked and sounded older and more fragile. He said he might not be able to use the tickets this year. My heart sank, but I cheerily said that he’d be feeling better in no time.

He didn’t. We shared as much as we could in phone bites of the Cubs great start to the top of the National al League in 2008, but it would be the first year in eight decades that Dad wouldn’t get to Wrigley. He died June 12. He was almost 78.

When I called Toni with the news, she said I could continue our tradition with Luke. It didn’t matter what day of the week or time of day the game was, we just would be delighted to go to any game, against any foe. She said she’d get back to me with an available date.

Two days later she called and had a Tuesday afternoon game against the Astros available…on August 5. I gulped. “That would be perfect,” I said, “ it’s dad’s birthday.”

We readied ourselves early that morning. Luke and I donned our blue Cubbie blue tank tops and made sure we arrived early to soak in the sun and sounds of the front row.

I sat in seat 105 and put Luke in 106 to protect him in case a hard liner was hit our way. The trainer for the Chicago Black Hawks, Pavel, was sitting next to me with his 8-year-old boy, who had brought his glove just in case. I didn’t urge Luke to bring his mitt; I figured I could stop anything hit our way if I was to be so lucky. But I never was in 47 years, so what was to break that spell?

Luke was in the midst of his first year of coach-pitch little league and I could tell he was really understanding the game. He was asking questions like “why is the coach not in his white box” and I was teaching him the positions on the scorecard. He even declined an ice cream to stay and watch the game.

And in the 5th inning of that game on August 5, he asked if we were going to get a ball. I leaned in and asked Sean Marshall, the Cubs lanky lefthander, if he could give Luke a ball, but he said he couldn’t do that during a game.

From out of nowhere I blurted, “that’s OK Sean, I’m going to catch one myself.”

What fueled such false bravado, I don’t know. Maybe dad was channeling. Maybe he knew something. Maybe he was there in spirit.

Just then Pavel and his son get up and leave for the restroom and we’re afforded a wider berth. The Cubs are down to the bottom of the lineup and there are two outs with the pitcher Rich Harden up at the plate. You can feel the restlessness in the crowd. Then the left-handed hitting Harden swipes a fastball high into the air and it’s coming right at us. I maneuver slightly right into the space where Pavel should be and instincts seize the moment. I’ve caught a million fly balls since my dad first started playing “catch” with me as a child, and this one is heading right my way. The wind seems to be blowing it right to our seats. It’s tailing toward us like someone up the sky is gently steering it toward us.

Adrenaline is coursing through my very being as I lean back slightly to snatch the ball. At the last moment I feel another pair of hands trying to grasp my treasure of a lifetime. The hard horsehide smacks my left palm and I use my right hand to tear it away from the intruder.

A clean catch! I let out a magnificent yell and present the ball to the screaming crowd. Then I turn to Luke. He’s looking at me like I’m the latest Marvel superhero. His eyes are shining. His smile, missing one tooth on the bottom, beams. I see something special in him that moment. I see my dad in those bright, brown eyes as I hand him that sphere of leather. And I look up into that glorious, sun-kissed blue sky and realize that something surreal was going on here. Someone had to have a hand in this. And a tear rolled down my cheek as I softly said, “Thanks Dad.”

Musically challenged, David Southwell’s fondest childhood memories of the Cubs involve Carmen Fanzone playing the National Anthem on his trumpet and Manny Trillo humming Take Me Out To the Ballgame in Spanish. His masochistic tendencies started early, walking five miles home down Addison Street after games because he spent his bus fare on Ron Santo pizzas. During one of his first visits to Wrigley Field he saw his favorite Cub, Randy Hundley, hit a warning track fly out with the tying and winning runs in scoring position to end the game. His most important lesson learned as a Cubs fan came in 6th grade when a freckle-faced girl he met at the roller rink picked him up on Opening Day with eight of her girlfriends. His friends wouldn’t join them in the bleachers, so they froze in the chilly grandstands while Southwell learned that losing is OK, as long as you get a suntan.

Article originally appeared on Lovable Losers Literary Revue (http://www.lovablelosersliteraryrevue.com/).
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