Thursday, December 30, 2010

The Wrigley Bowl

This week the Illinois Fighting Illini and Northwestern Wildcats are playing in their respective bowl games, which are supposed to be the pinnacle of a good season. But Illinois and Northwestern already had their season's biggest game when they played each other in last month's Wrigleyville Classic--the first football game at Wrigley Field in 40 years. It was an electric atmosphere, and I remember it like yesterday.

When I first heard that my alma mater, Illinois, would be playing against Northwestern at Wrigley Field, it seemed like the perfect way to wake this sleeping rivalry. I had been to their 2008 game in Dyche Stadium and came away very disappointed; not only had the Illini failed to show up and earn their bowl eligibility, but the stadium wasn't even 70% full. What should have been a home game for Northwestern was instead a lackluster crowd split at about 50/50. Plus that day was cold. If I have to watch the Illini fritter away their bowl hopes against their rivals, it only adds insult to injury watching it happen while turning into an icicle.

The best college football rivalries with rich traditions are games like Ohio State-Michigan, Alabama-Auburn, Florida-Florida State, Texas-Oklahoma, Army-Navy, and so on. From a national perspective, Illinois-Northwestern is about as interesting as a UConn women's basketball game. (Apologies to Geno Auriemma.) When I was sitting in a frigid Dyche Stadium in 2008, there were six signs hanging for the seasons that Northwestern had gone to bowl games. While I knew Northwestern's 100-plus years of football history wasn't exactly filled with glorious conquests, I had forgotten that their grand total of bowl appearances as of 2008 was only six. I couldn't help but chuckle to myself at the time, although by game's end with the Illini's butts' kicked and mine frozen, there wasn't anything left to laugh about.

But everything changed when it was announced that the Illinois-Northwestern game was coming to Wrigley Field. The mystique of Wrigley meant that the rivalry would get some much-needed energy.  Finally, people other than diehard Illini and Wildcat fans would care about the game, even if only to see football played on a national baseball landmark.

On the day of the big game I hopped on the Purple Line train at Evanston's Dempster Street station and headed south. You always overhear the darnedest things on CTA trains. This time it was some guy with a big cello telling a stranger about his upcoming gig, how it would be the first time his father would see him with his new band and his hopes of making him proud; oh, and that he was dating two women--one of whom coincidentally happened to be a mutual friend of the stranger. Of course, cello guy asked him to keep this info secret. 

At the Howard Street Station I switched to the Red Line train. On the other track I could see the Holiday train with Santa's sleigh and toys, a quintessential Chicago tradition. Once on the Red Line, I had to stand and people were packed in like sardines. A woman and her two children were sitting practically beneath me. The kids, no more than ten and seven years old, were swearing regularly with f-bombs. Their mother had no problem with this and in fact joined in.

More and more people kept piling into the train at each stop. It was an uncomfortable ride that saw personal space invaded, but I was still in a good mood. Earlier in the day I had watched ESPN's College GameDay on TV. The whole crew was in Wrigleyville for the broadcast and the place was already buzzing. Chris Fowler, Kirk Herbstreit, Lee Corso, and Desmond Howard always do a great job, but today they seemed to have a little more excitement in their voices. They also had Erin Andrews join them on the set for a while. When Ernie Banks ("Mr. Cub") led them all in the singing of Take Me Out To The Ball Game, it was a memorable moment.

GameDay also took a behind-the-scenes look at historic Wrigley Field. They showed the surprisingly small, cramped conditions of the locker rooms with a dearth of shower heads and a narrow, winding hallway where the players would have to walk single file for about 90 seconds to reach the playing field.  Think about that for a moment: Walking a minute-and-a-half through a narrow, dimly lit tunnel just to make it from the locker room to the field.

And of course GameDay covered the last-minute rule change. Due to the brick wall being way too close to the east end zone, the teams' offenses would have to head toward the west end zone for the entire game. Erin Andrews gave an in-depth report from the dangerous east end zone; and then ESPN went to their other sideline reporter to cover the slightly safer west end zone. (I think it's just a coincidence that I remember Erin Andrews' name but not the other guy reporting on the sidelines, whoever he was.)

C'mon guys. What would have been so dangerous about playing in this end zone?

Finally we reached the Addison Street stop. I got off, along with practically everyone else. Fans dressed in the dueling colors of orange and purple were everywhere. It was a bottleneck trying to get down the stairs and out of the station. My plan was to go west on Addison, but that would have been like trying to swim against a strong ocean current. Instead my path was pushed north along Sheffield Avenue where the masses headed toward the giant party known as "Wildcat Way," where tents, games, souvenirs, and a cover band playing rock songs entertained a sea of humanity. I finally latched onto a trash can and pulled myself out of the rapid waters near a bar called Murphy's Bleachers. With so many people passing by, I barely had enough room to tweet. The atmosphere felt like a bowl game.

Across the street from Murphy's is Harry Caray's statue. During preparations for the Illinois-Northwestern game, the statue was cracked. Some caring fan decided to help remedy the situation with a band-aid.

I took the scenic route around the stadium, soaking in the atmosphere. Finally I met up with Westy, a college friend who had gotten me the ticket. After going through Wildcat Way again (this time I literally rubbed elbows with Northwestern's marching band as we plowed our way through the crowd), we entered the stadium 

The Chicago Cubs painted their famous marquee purple in honor of Northwestern for the game. There was a steady stream of people going through here before the game to have their photos taken in front of it. Oh, the memories...

When we first got to our seats, Wrigley's old school scoreboard showed Michigan as being up big on Wisconsin. That was surprising since it would be a big upset. But the scoreboard operator had indeed mixed up their scores and soon took those numbers down to reverse them. As darkness fell, the lights' glare on the scoreboard made it more difficult to read. Wrigley also doesn't have a big video monitor to see replays. All of these things, while frustrating at times, add to Wrigley's charm.

Our seats were fortunately here in the west end zone, so we go to see most of the action. In the east end zone someone held a sign that read, "Wrong Way."

A few empty seats were visible in the stadium and on the rooftops, but the place was packed and much livelier than what I had witnessed in Evanston two years earlier. The crowd was about 60-40 in favor of Northwestern. Our seats were in a Northwestern section, which was fine. Northwestern fans tend to be tame. They have more important things to worry about than their football team, so they're well behaved. And really, I wouldn't want to get into a putdown contest with them, because eventually it would devolve into Northwestern fans chanting "Puuuublic schooool." How can you top that putdown? (If anyone knows, please enlighten me.)

As for the game itself, the Illini got off to a hot start and rarely looked back. Mikel Leshoure rushed for an Illini record 330 yards in the 48-27 win. Although, Northwestern fought valiantly and the game was still in doubt heading into the 4th quarter. 

By the time the game had ended, night had fallen. It's hard to explain, but there's something magical about the way Wrigley's green grass glows at nighttime under the lights. It was a special moment to savor the Illini victory; a moment that was soon ended when some guy fell over backwards and smacked his head hard. Apparently he had gotten the bright idea to better admire the scene while standing on his seat -- and then it folded in on him. He said he was fine, and I hope that's true. I also hope he wasn't an Illini fan.

One of the oddities of this game's look was the wide open space in left field. I'm kinda surprised they didn't put temporary seats here to make even more money. At least all that extra green grass was pretty.

After walking south to Belmont to avoid the crowds at Addison, I found myself back on the Red Line heading north. The train was packed again, but this time I managed to snag a seat. Right in front of my nose was a purple leather glove with diamond-like stones in it, gripping the pole for support. The glove belonged to a woman in her 50s--obviously a rich Northwestern alum. She was part of a group of three couples, all about the same age. They were making plans to get off at Davis Street (in Evanston) for dinner. Someone complimented her on the gloves, and she replied that they were from Italy.  

A guy in this Northwestern group, I'll call him the "Ringleader," started asking others in the group some playful yet personal questions. One of the women declined to answer his question, citing that it was too much like the Newlywed Game and this was to a "public place." It was all in good fun. Then they looked out at the "Five Guys" burger place and started wondering out loud if there was also one in Evanston. I happened to know that there is, but there wasn't really room for me to turn around and talk to them, so I just listened as they pondered aloud. Some said there was, others said there wasn't. Finally the Ringleader asked one of the women, "Have you ever had a 'Five Guy?'" This then uncomfortably segued into the differences between men and women when it comes to fantasizing about ... ahem... more than one. This group of Northwestern fans, led by the talkative Ringleader, were having a good time discussing all sorts of subjects, including jokes about what anyone else in Chicago could have possibly been doing today other than being where all the action was at Wrigley Field. 

Then the train stopped at Jarvis, near the end of the Red Line. I couldn't see what happened, and I dare not turn around for fear of making eye contact with a mad man. But I heard what happened. As it turns out, I wasn't the only person who had grown tired of these clowns for the past half hour. Someone walked up to the Ringleader and went on an expletive-filled tirade, mentioning something about "going on and on about a silly game" and "if I ever catch you doing it again, I'll run across the field and..." I'm not going to repeat what the man said he'd do to the Ringleader, but I will say that if I'm ever sent to jail, he's the last person in the world I'd want as my cellmate. After he got off the train, there was dead silence. Before the door shut, I turned around to finally catch a glimpse of him. He was a big man dressed in a long dark coat and wearing a yellow beret. Yes, I said yellow beret. He was still facing the train, his face stone-cold serious, a dead ringer for an angry Ving Rhames.

A few stops later I made it back to Dempster and walked home. It had been a perfect autumn day for football. (Perhaps a little chilly in the second half after the sun went down, but that's football.) One of the things I'll most remember from that day in Wrigleyville was its festive and historic feel. On three different occasions I overheard various people use the exact phrase: "This is a once-in-a-lifetime experience." 

Maybe it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. But if they do decide to play football at Wrigley again, that would be fine by me.

Monday, December 13, 2010

MLB Trivia: The 20-20-20-20 Club

In major league baseball, if a player can hit 20 homers, 20 triples, 20 doubles, and steal 20 bases in a season, then he is said to have joined the "20-20-20-20 Club." Only four players in the history of the game have accomplished this feat. The first two were Frank Schulte (1911) and Willie Mays (1957). Amazingly, the last two guys to accomplish the feat did so in the same year: Jimmy Rollins and Curtis Granderson in 2007.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

MLB Hit Parade: December 2010

December 30

KID K HOME FOR THE HOLIDAYS: Welcome back, Kerry Wood.

JENKS AND THE WHITE SOX are like a bad divorce. Don't let the door hit you on the way out, Bobby Jenks.

December 16

BOB FELLER: The New York Times remembers the late Hall of Fame pitcher and WWII vet:
Joining the Indians in 1936, Feller became baseball’s biggest draw since Babe Ruth, throwing pitches that batters could barely see — fastballs approaching 100 miles an hour and curveballs and sinkers that fooled the sharpest eyes. He was Rapid Robert in the sports pages. As Yankees pitcher Lefty Gomez was said to have remarked after three Feller pitches blew by him, “That last one sounded a little low.”

YOU DECIDE! Take a look at this year's Hall of Fame ballot and list your picks here.

December 12

CARL CRAWFORD AND THE UNSTOPPABLE SOX: This article is a perfect example of the enthusiasm surrounding Carl Crawford's signing with the Red Sox. But I'm not sure why the Red Sox receive praise for this while the Nationals are panned for the Jayson Werth signing. Both contracts are huge money over seven years for players who are relatively high risk. In some ways, the Crawford signing could be higher risk because so much of his game depends on speed -- and that can be taken away with an injury. I hope Crawford works out for the Red Sox, but it could be Ken Griffey Jr. all over again, minus the home town discount.

ALBERT PUJOLS: Could the Cubs go after Phat Albert in 2012? My hunch is no, but hey, it's fun to think about!

December 7

PAUL KONERKO talks have hit an impasse. Lots of White Sox fans are worrying about this, but let's wait and see. You want Konerko, but only at the right price. Let's not forget his disappointing 2007-2009 years, or the fact that he tends to play his best in contract years. (UPDATE: White Sox have re-signed Konerko. Looks like the right move to me, especially considering that his teammates and the fan base love him.)

PAYING THEIR RESPECTS: Wrigley turned into a Ron Santo shrine.


Chicago finally has a star basketball player in town again. It's only been 12 years. BTW, where can I buy that poster of Rose dunking on Oden?

Friday, December 3, 2010

Remembering Ron Santo

Many memories of Ron Santo have been flooding my mind today. Whether I was in high school doing homework on a Sunday afternoon, driving home late one October night to catch the end of a playoff game, or waiting in my car for a wedding to start on a hot July day, I can still hear Santo's voice expressing his passion for the Cubs.

If I were to describe Santo as a Cubs' radio analyst, I'd have you picture the most rabid sports fan you know. The type of fan who has a blind and undying love for the team and its players; and nearly lives and dies with the team's every play. That was Ron Santo. He was the ultimate Cubs' fan in the booth. 

But Ron Santo was also a great baseball player. How great? Well, some people think it's up for debate. Santo wasn't voted into the Hall of Fame during his lifetime, but many people say he should have been. One of those people is ESPN's Jayson Stark, who makes a strong case on his blog. Here's an excerpt from his book, The Stark Truth: The Most Overrated and Underrated Players in Baseball History:
Ron Santo was almost certainly the greatest all-around third baseman of his time. Name ANY other third baseman from the 1960s you would rather have run out there than Santo. Maybe Brooks Robinson, if you ate a lot of crabcakes. And there's a case to be made for Ken Boyer, a similar player whose Cardinals teams at least finished first once in a while. But I'd still take Santo. Of the 23 third basemen who got to the plate 3,000 times during Santo's 15 seasons, he led all of them in homers, RBIs, runs scored, extra-base hits, walks and times reaching base. Only Dick Allen and Eddie Mathews outslugged him -- but Allen was so awful defensively, he had to be moved to first base, and Mathews was done as a full-time player by the mid-'60s. Finally, let's put Santo's eight straight seasons of at least 25 homers and 90 RBIs in perspective. From the end of World War 2 through the end of Santo's career, only two players at ANY position had streaks longer than that: Willie Mays and Hank Aaron. This was not an age where 40-homer, 125-RBI seasons were as prevalent as bad sitcoms. So the only fair way to evaluate Santo's numbers is from the perspective of HIS time, not our time.

Ron Santo might not be in Cooperstown yet, but he's already in Cub Nation's Hall of Fame. He's been there a long time, and we won't forget his legacy.