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Picking Sides

By Donald G. Evans

Rich Harden. I’m still getting used to this idea. I was in the car, listening to sports radio, when the announcement came. In Chicago, it was presented as a breaking news story, like we’d just won the war or scientists had discovered a cure for cancer. As I played with the AM tuner, nearly every station, sports-oriented or otherwise, carried details of the newly completed trade. Rich Harden.

richharden.jpgHere’s what I knew about Rich Harden: he wasn’t Dan Haren. The two pitchers appeared on my baseball radar around the same time, and since they were both A’s with basically the same last name, give or take a “d”, I confused them. The A’s rarely orbit into my baseball hemisphere, so the Harden-Haren thing carried on quite a while. This was back around the time the Cubs were not winning the 2003 World Series.

Rich Harden. With a “d.” And a “Rich” instead of a “Dan.”

Sports radio personalities across the dial were giddy with the news. Fans from Bucktown to Bloomington called into shows to voice their opinions, all more or less slight revisions of: this guy’s great so long as he isn’t hurt, besides we gave up squat to get him. One caller did express disapproval of the trade, inspiring a sports show host to shout him down with an incredulous, venomous tirade.

danharen.jpgNone of that really gets at the source of my ambivalence. It’s just the fact: Rich Harden. One day he’s in A’s green and gold; the next day he’s in Cubbie blue. One day Matt Murton is standing in left field next to Reed Johnson, the next day Matt Murton’s gone. One day I’m eagerly awaiting Sean Gallagher’s next start; the next day I’m blowing him kisses.

When I was a kid, we played pickup games in Blackhawk Park, all day sometimes in the summer. If there were enough guys around, we’d field a whole team, but more often we’d play right field and pitcher’s hand out. We mostly played lob league. The way it worked, once we had enough guys we’d pick sides. Two captains would volunteer or be anointed to pick, then we’d throw the bat (fists and fingers) for first choice.

Picking sides was a momentous occasion. You wanted to be on a good team; you wanted to be on a team with your friends; you wanted to be on a team in which you believed. You wanted to play against a team of guys you could truly hate.

Roger Glisson was my best friend and also the best athlete our age in the neighborhood. It was the intersection between friendship and skill that you sought in a teammate. He was tall, lanky and strong; even as a 10-year-old veins popped out of his forearm. He had scars on his lip and over one eye, and a competitive fire that probably explained the scars.

You had to get Roger with the first pick.

Vince Santana would usually last until the second pick: he could run like the wind, had uncanny hand-eye coordination, could hit, and was a good, nice guy. We could pick up Phil Zmich in the middle rounds: he had some holes in his game but was a decent all-around player, lived down the block from Roger, and was one of the funniest guys around. We’d snag Ray Fabris, who walked to school with us every day and had surprising pop in his bat, late.

We didn’t always get everybody we wanted, and sometimes got guys we definitely did not want, but once sides were picked, late-arriving players excepted: that was it. These were Our Guys. Roger hitting a home run over the back park bench thrilled me nearly as much as though I’d done it myself. Vince turning a pop out into a home run filled me with admiration. Ray diving for a grounder sparked my pride. This was my team, and in order to love the whole you had to also love the parts.

Sometimes, during those long summer days, we’d get pounded. Maybe the other team had better players, maybe we were off and they were on, maybe luck factored into it. When the game ended, we’d hear the inevitable cry, “Same teams?” But that was us, not the conquerors. We wanted another shot, with Our Guys. We wanted to do better, with Our Guys. We wanted to dig deeper within ourselves, play better, do all we knew we were capable of, with Our Guys. We wanted to beat that punk Lennie and that burnout friend of Roger’s brother and, for different reasons, our friend Tommie Harrison, with Our Guys. We wanted to win a fair fight, and sometimes we would. With Our Guys.

Rich Harden. He is, based on Major League Baseball’s formula governing these things, one of Our Guys, but it doesn’t feel that way, not really. Not yet. The trade deadline has become a mockery of justice: excellent players get swapped for potentially excellent players, thus making (in the short term, anyway) good teams better and bad teams worse. Bye-bye middle class.

It’s a mad scramble. We launch guys like Greg Maddux, Jon Garland, and Alex Gonzalez, and we pick up guys like Cesar Izturis, Randall Simon, and Kenny Lofton. We lose a Paul Assenmacher; gain a Karl Rhodes. We get Rick Sutcliffe; we lose Joe Carter.

Ernie Broglio was acquired at the trade deadline.

Matt Karchner was going to be a nice addition to the bullpen during that 1998 run.

Do you remember how absolutely bonkers everybody was in 2004 when we got NOMAR?

Last year it was Jason Kendall—MY GOD! A catcher—FINALLY!

It’s an exciting process, don’t get me wrong. In a real rare case, like with Aramis Ramirez and Rick Sutcliffe, we get a guy who helps us in the short term and stays long enough to be considered a genuine Cub. Mostly, though: we’re just shuffling the deck.

We’re saying, “Pick new sides!” The chemical formula of the team has been altered, such that it wipes out what has gone before. While we might retain aspects of whatever it was that led us to where we are now, we’ll never recover that chemical formula whole. Not only now, but for years to come.

What would the Cubs have done with Lou Brock, Jon Garland or Joe Carter playing in Wrigley for virtually their entire careers? We’ll never know. What would have happened in 2004 had the Cubs NOT gotten Nomar? We’ll never know. Had Jason Kendall not been on last year’s playoff roster, might Geovany Soto have started Game 3 and perhaps made a difference? We’ll never know.

Rich Harden. Just last weekend, he lost to the White Sox and I didn’t care, one way or another. I was more concerned with Sean Gallagher and Sean Marshall and Rich Hill and Jon Lieber, all Our Guys who I felt, given the proper chance and a little luck, could get on a roll that ended with us in the World Series.

Rich Harden’s in Cubbie Blue now, and that makes me care a little. But there’s no history to my caring, no context. He’s a stranger. He might help, he might hurt, but either way it’s going to take some getting used to.

Donald G. Evans, author of Wrigleyville sports gambling novel Good Money After Bad, is the Lovable Losers emcee. His stories have appeared in StoryQuarterly, Pinyon Review, The Journal and Narrative Magazine, among others, and he will soon have a story appearing in the Xavier Review.

Posted on Saturday, July 12, 2008 at 07:21AM by Registered CommenterLovable Losers Literary Revue | Comments9 Comments

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