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By Ourselves

By Dan Long

I am writing this from my apartment right behind the left field foul pole as I wait for batting practice to begin on an almost cloudless Saturday morning. Watching the hustle and bustle of the workers, seeing the anticipation of the fans already waiting in line three hours before game time, it makes me think of the day I came here by myself for the first time.

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Hey, Hey by Will Byington
There we were. It didn’t matter whether the Cubs were good or bad, or who they were playing, or what the weather was like. We were going to see our favorite team, in the coolest of places, and we were going by ourselves.

I’d been waiting for this day a long time. For years we’d visit my favorite place, six kids in tow, making our once or twice yearly pilgrimage to where baseball was king and played right there in a city neighborhood.

And that was awe-inspiring to a kid growing up in a farm community some 70, but seemingly millions, of miles from the big city. So the few family trips to the big place were always a treat. Sure, we always sat far, far away from the action, bringing our lunches (peanut butter and jelly since I hated everything else), maybe getting a vendor’s Pepsi. But some day I knew I would come to this hallowed place and sit up close to the action. Now I had my chance.

I was going to Wrigley Field and I was going to sit in the box seats. Box seats. No parents, no crappy rides in cramped cars with too many family members to remember, no sitting in overpriced parking lots waiting three hours so we could leave. Just me and a buddy on a summer afternoon, going to the place we always wanted to see. By ourselves.

We were 13, barely teens, and for some reason our parents trusted us. I couldn't imagine parents today letting their children go on such a Huck Finn adventure into the big city, but times were different then. We rode the Chicago North Western into the city, then hopped on the El. Once on the El, the trip should have been a breeze. We'd gotten off at Addison, and should have been looking up at the Wrigley scoreboard. But it was the wrong Addison stop. We'd taken the Brown Line instead of the Red and had to hoof it a ways to get to our destination.   

Eventually we made it and took our box seats down the left field line near the Cubs bullpen. We wanted just one thing, the one thing every kid who goes to a baseball game wants. We wanted to snag a foul ball and take it home.

Be careful what you wish for. During batting practice we were open targets. We found ourselves ducking to protect ourselves. At one point, Cubs reliever Donnie Moore even gave us a “Look out!” warning. But we didn't get the ball. It plunked some kid in the row behind us and his mom won the scrum under our seats. So close, but still no ball. I was sure that we were going to strike out and go home empty-handed.

But then the baseball gods smiled upon me minutes later when slugger Greg "Bull" Luzinski hit a screaming liner. It was headed my way. There was no way I was going to blow a second chance. This one was mine. I was one of the better Little Leaguers in my town, and I could handle a line drive coming my way – even without a mitt. No problem.

I reached one hand out over the brick wall and SMACK, the ball hit my bare hand but then bounded away onto the field and ended up near the warning track at the left field wall. I'd missed it. Just about all of the fans nearby asked if I was okay. They'd heard that painful sound. But, to me, the real sting was losing the ball that should have been mine.

Two golden opportunities had been blown. I was all but certain that I'd never be given a third shot. Until a soft pop-up off the bat of Sam Mejias landed in the section with the folded-up seats next to us. The race was on. I ran. And when I got there, I couldn't believe it, but I was the first one there. I bent down and yanked it out from underneath the seat. Finally, I had a ball. I'd redeemed myself for the Luzinski error.

And the game hadn't even begun. This was all batting practice. My buddy John and I congratulated ourselves and showed off our ball to anyone who would look at it. 

The thing about getting a ball is that it gives you not only a sense of pride but also a new purpose. It's no longer just enough to have gotten the ball. You want it autographed. I suppose it's greedy, but it's only natural for a kid to see the white of that baseball and start thinking of all the room for signatures on it.

I wasn't having much luck until journeyman catcher Barry Foote gave the nod and I tossed him the ball to sign. Then I saw young Cubs reliever Bill Caudill stretching on the side. He didn't show much interest in my request for his autograph but eventually he caved in and I tossed him the ball. Problem was, I misjudged the distance and the toss was a good four to six feet behind him. As it rolled away from my intended target, a Phillies player (I don’t remember who) picked up the ball and was ready to toss it back to the infield. Nnnnooooooo! This was the end of my life as I knew it. We all dream of getting that foul ball and I had lived that dream, gotten the ball signed, and now I was watching it being thrown away.

My heart was sinking fast, but then Caudill saved the day and my ball. He got it from the Phillie, signed it and tossed it back. I would forever be a fan of Bill Caudill, who would go on to become an All-Star closer for the Seattle Mariners. 

It's funny, but I don’t even remember who won that game. Sometimes it's not the game that is important but what can happen to a 13-year old kid at that game. I'll never forget that game, or that ball, or Bill Caudill.  It was one of the most memorable games of my life, even though there was nothing memorable about the game itself.

Since then, I've been fortunate to snag a lot more balls at games. It helps to have a roommate who works for the Cubs and gets me into some of the best seats in the park. Every time I sit in one of those prized seats, I look around to see where the kids are, the kids that look like I did on that one memorable day. I don't need the ball any more. I'd rather see the look on a kid's face when I put it in his glove. I know that feeling, because I once felt it, and there aren't many better feelings for a young baseball fan.

I think of that day every day there’s a ballgame and try never to take this for granted. Most every other team -- save for Boston and a few others – built their parks in far-away mall-type areas accessible via many expressways. People have to drive for hours to go to a place in the middle of nowhere. I live 460 feet from home plate. I can actually see some of the field during the games without ever leaving my living room. It’s a pretty incredible sight. 

Everybody asks me, Doesn’t it get old living there with all the hassles, the parking situation, and the drunks stumbling around after the games? Doesn’t it bother me?

I still have the ball…

Dan Long has spent the better part of the last 20-some years working as a sports, music and web journalist for various outlets in Chicagoland; he still does freelance work. Since moving to the city proper in May of 1989, he's never lived more than a mile from Wrigley Field so he knows what it's like to live and die the life of a Cubs fan many times over. Dan is coordinating a Cubs crawl that takes place June 28 ( www.cubcrawl.com).

Posted on Tuesday, June 10, 2008 at 11:00PM by Registered CommenterLovable Losers Literary Revue in , | Comments8 Comments | References3 References

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