"Where Have You Gone, Joe DiMaggio?"

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"Baseball is my life."

I remember reading that in a biography about the legendary Frank Robinson. He had written that motto onto his cherished baseball glove, according to his recollection, at about the age of 8, and he slept with that glove every night. That's around the age that I read his story, and he inspired me to do the same. I was already halfway there, as I had a habit of breaking in a new glove with a baseball in the pocket, lots of vaseline, and some dirt. I would put that new glove under my mattress, night after night, only allowing it the light of day to amuse myself while playing with my friends during the warm Chicago summer, but always right back under the mattress until it was broken in just right. Just like Frank did.

I even wrote "baseball is my life!" (I added an exclaimation point!) in permanent marker in the sweet spot of the web of my glove. Me and my man Frank were one in the same, except for one difference: He had talent, and I didn't. Not to his level, anyways.

AN INNOCENT BEGINNING

Baseball has been my life, though not in the way it was Mr. Robinson's. It has led and followed me through every moment, both triumphant and humiliating. I was a "latch-key" kid, raised by a single father who was often at work when I got out of school. 3:15 PM from elementary school, and home was a ten-minute walk from there. Except on game days. I could make the run in 3 minutes flat. I'd run straight to my neighbor "Donna's" house, and she'd make us grilled cheese sandwiches while we watched the last three innings of the game.

I learned so much from baseball in those days. I first loved watching Dave Kingman launch fastballs into the unsuspecting neighborhood, and a pudgy-looking Rick Reuschel throw darts. I admired Ivan DeJesus because, well, I'm not sure why, and one of my favorite players was Mike Vail, because his name was "Mike".

This newfound love led me into my backyard and our elementary school's crude fields to play, whenever possible. My brothers and friends and I would play until our fingers bled, and then do another 9 innings just to prove we could. That's where I perfected the "Marmol slider" with a whiffle ball. Enlistment in the structured Little League followed, and competition joined the hormones that were suddenly flooding my veins.

I learned. I learned about competition and camaraderie. I was envious of that thing that kid just did, and proud as hell when I did something better.

GROWING UP

I absolutely idolized baseball players. Billy Buck and Barry Foote were gods to me, and Thurmon Munson and Michael Jack Schmidt. I was raised in a very racist environment. Not my family, but my community. My small hometown was surrounded by Gary, IN, but there were no others allowed. I was so young I didn't know. It never hit me until much later that Bill Madlock was black. He was just a "Cub" to me, and one of my favorites.

I remember a young Mark Grace, in an interview on live TV, saying curse words that were too quick to bleep out. I was a teenager by this point, and using much worse language myself, but this was the first time I had heard them from my idols. "Wow", I thought to myself. "He talks like Grandpa." And the mystique was broken.

I learned. I learned that not everything was fair or right in the world, that not everything was as sanitised as my sheltered upbringing. But I still knew baseball was perfect.

THE BIG PLUNGE

Just as I was finishing high school, and preparing to enter the world all on my own, the "Bash Brothers" made their debut in Oakland. Wow! I was already hesitant about my new independence, and now these cyborgs were invading my baseball safe space. Jose Canseco hit 40 home runs and stole 40 bases. No one in the history of my baseball had ever done that before, and I had the backs of 10,000 baseball cards to prove it. No one.

Years went by, the players got bigger, and the records I so cherished from my innocence continued to fall. Maddux and Glavine did a commercial, famously claiming that "chicks dig the long ball." ESPN created a promo into their baseball highlight show depicting players that looked like Olympic bodybuilders blasting (literally) screaming baseballs into the abyss. Ratings were up, the missing World Series forgotten, and money was flowing.

On the North Side, we acquired a skinny little kid named Sammy Sosa. He had an arm, could hit a little bit, but he could run. He threw a little and hit a little and ran a little until he showed up one day and said BAM! He started launching baseballs WAY over Waveland. I was intrigued, and as a Cub fan, I was excited.

Sammy started to rake, and a legend was born. He was up to 40 homers that one season, about to break Maris's record, until he broke his wrist. No problem, we knew, Slammin' Sammy will be back, better than ever. We can rebuild him. Stronger. Faster. Then he returned, with the "Pop and the Hop".

Sosa went off, and Cubs fans swooned. I did too. The moonshots were mesmerizing; the numbers mind-numbing. He was doing things that no one in baseball history had done since, well, Mark McGuire had done two days before. What a show, and I knew it was all fake. But I couldn't turn away.

JFK's assassination. John Lennon. 9/11. There are monumental moments in life where you'll never forget where you were and what you were doing. I'll never forget where I was when Big Mac hit #62. I was at my favorite watering hole with a date I had been working on for two months (and her best friend). We were having wings and beers and planning a fine night. Neither were particularly big baseball fans, nor was anyone else in the bar that evening, but every TV was tuned to the Cubs vs. DirtyBirds baseball game. They turned off the jukebox and cranked the game volume. The bar went silent with every Mark McGwire AB. And then he did it. The place went wild, I could feel the vibrations throughout this non-baseball city, and I was in awe. Yet I felt dirty, because unlike all these newbie hipster fans, I knew baseball, and I knew how this happened.

Sosa went on to set records of his own, blasting 60+ bombs for what seemed like every season. 65? Slammin' Sammy laughed at it. 150 RBI? By July! The records fell, the crowds grew, and profits and ratings soared. Everything was good with baseball, except what wasn't with us baseball fans.

Sammy went on doing his show, running out to his adoring fans in right field, kissing and thumping and taking his position on the field marked by grass as bare as his soul, and we gushed. I watched live on TV as his bat shattered and the cork flew, and I honestly believed him for like 3 minutes as he explained it away as a mistake. This was a bat he used to put on a show for the fans, he explained. This wasn't Sammy Sosa, he pleaded, this was Slammin' Sammy. There's a difference. But was there?

Kerry Wood put an end to that question with a few well-placed baseball-bat whacks at Slammin' Sammy's "legacy".

I learned. I learned that the pure and innocent game of baseball, all the numbers and traditions I held dear, wasn't so pure after all. My beloved baseball hit me much like adult life had done, straight in the face with bills and reality and stuff.

MOVING ON

Baseball knew it was taking a hit with the ridiculous shenanigans taking place between the lines, so it was dragged, kicking and screaming, into cleaning itself up. The game came back to respectable norms, and reasonable stats were mostly restored. Sure, the ball was juiced and every other middle infielder was hitting 20 bombs, but it wasn't grotesque. Everything was getting back to normal, so something had to get out of whack. That's just the way our world works.

The Houston Astros stepped up, and kicked Pete Rose and the Steroid Generation to the curb. "Let me show you how to REALLY cheat!".

Good grief, this is bad, and we haven't scratched the surface. Many other teams, mind you, and maybe even yours. If I may put on my "old man yelling at a cloud" hat for a minute, everything is different. You used to be able to call a phone number and talk to a person. No more. You used to be able to manage an account with paper receipts. No more. You used to be able to trust the one true love from your childhood, the ever simple and pure baseball. No more. Technology has made everything better and easier, right?

Technological cheating takes everything to a whole new level of yuck. It threatens the game, the whole damn game, at another level. I'm old enough to remember boxing, and when it was a major force in the American sports scene. Boxing matches, and those participants who fought in them, were national treasures. But money got too involved, and the mob got too involved, and influence got too involved, and the sweet science all but died. I don't want that to happen to my beloved baseball.

The beauty of baseball, for it's adoring fans, lies in the unique. We don't have clocks. Baseball is chess to most other sports' checkers. As Yogi famously quipped: "Baseball is 90% mental; the other half is physical". Other sports rely much more heavily on one-on-one physical matchups. Can this wide receiver out-run that corner? Can that forward jump higher in this specific instance to grab a rebound over his counterpart? More basically, in boxing, can this dude knock that dude out? Baseball isn't so much those macho matchups. The closest we come, which happens about 300 times per game, is the pitcher vs. the hitter.

Stuff vs. bat speed. Deception vs. preparation. Guile vs. gall. That is baseball's mano a mano. If you screw with that, it's no longer a game of integrity.

I learned. I really didn't have to learn anymore, but I still learned. I've seen sports that I love, and once thought invincible by an entire nation, brought to it's knees and worse when it's integrity is questioned. I've learned that we can't simply depend on a steadfast core of support while tinkering so much that we may drive them away in pursuit of a new crowd. And I've learned that I want to trust my baseball and my records and my memories that I've held dear since my childhood.

WHAT HAVE I LEARNED?

I've learned what I've always known, and there ain't much more that needs to be dissected: I love baseball. Always have; always will.

I've learned that when life gets me down, I can lean on baseball. Speeding ticket? Schwarber's got me with an oppo double off the ivy. Customer shafting me on payment? Nah, did you just see that Hendricks' 2-seamer? Grandma died? Oof, that's a tough one. Might need to break out some Javy.

I know what I know, and I know I love baseball. I don't want to see it get "easier" the way the rest of the world is going. We don't need better ways to cheat. I have baseball etched in my brain, and it don't need updating, unless it's legitimate. Nolan Ryan K'd 5,714 batters, Hack Wilson drove in 191, Roger Maris smacked 61 in 1961, and Hammering Hank knocked out an astonishing 755.

I swear this is true, and don't you dare change it: I know Barry Bonds hit a bunch of HR's. I know it is something like 763, 764, 765. I swear I do not know. I have successfully incorporated a mental block in my baseball brain to not register that number. I will never look it up. Don't need to.

The Cubs play real games later this month. As of now, we are tied for first place.

GO CUBS!

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  • A beautiful piece of writing! I think you captured my feeling on the taint players have attempted to sully the great sport of baseball. Baseball is bigger than all that; it survived The Black Sox, Pete Rose, steroids and will survive high tech cheating. The mental asterisk is the recognition that certain things are unacceptable. As long as there is breath for those who “yell at clouds”, we’re good. And so is baseball.

    PS: Great banter yesterday with Bryant and Rizzo mic’d up. Just the way I imagined it.

  • In reply to IVYADDICT:

    Thanks, IVYADDICT. Believe it or not, I got into a little back-and-forth with an Astros fan on twitter last night, and just started writing out of the blue. It was easy.

  • Very well said... in a voice of disturbingly and hyperbolically detached, 21st Century America.

  • Well written. Brought back many memories. Can’t get behind the Vail love. I was more of a Biitner guy. They both could butcher a fly to right. I still laugh thinking of Larry looking for the ball that was under his hat. Classic.

  • You remember that?! So do I, but I could never find a replay, so I didn't know if I had just imagined it. What was it, a diving attempt and the ball rolled under his hat? The CF (I forget who now) or the 2B pointed it out. I watched that live as well.

    And I'll always remember how to spell his name. B-double I-double T-N-E-R. :)

  • In reply to Mike Pilbean:

    I looked for it on YouTube. Appears to be lost footage. I sure hope I’m wrong.

  • Larry pitched 1.1 innings in a blowout game in '77.
    I still remember the caption they used:

    Now piitching, Larry Biitner.

  • I love this piece. Mike, your childhood sounds similar to mine although I was a few years behind - I wasn't around for JFK. Racing home to watch the last few innings of a ballgame and playing ball in the park with my friends,... I almost thought you were writing about me. Especially since I grew up in Munster, Indiana a town which I am certain you are familiar with based on your description. Thanks for the memories and well done.

  • Thank you. I wasn't around for JFK either, just heard all the stories. I know Munster well, I'm from Hobart, IN.

  • In reply to Mike Pilbean:

    Awesome read. I enjoyed the article and the many responses referencing Biittner, Vail, Buckner, Kingman, Rueshel, DeJesus, etc. Mine were Jose Cardinal, Rick Monday, Jerry Morales, with Joe Pepitone being my 1st Cub Idol. I was 6 when our barber got me going with the Cubs and baseball as a whole. I too have no idea what any home run number is beyond 755. I still have a 75, Topps card with Hank, Ruth, and Mays as the all time leaders and tend to think these are still the leaders in that category. Thanks for the article. I truly enjoyed it.

  • In reply to Varmit County:

    755, 714, and 660. Those numbers roll off of my fingertips. The others, not so much.

  • In reply to Mike Pilbean:

    I had the 714 glove until high school. I reread this piece again and missed a bit the 1st time around. I could use most of this to describe my life to someone who doesn’t know me. Nicely done Sir.

  • In reply to Mike Pilbean:

    Can't forget 762

  • In reply to WaitUntilNextYear:

    I'll play along, "Jeopardy" style:

    "What is the combined career win totals of Greg Maddux, Rick Reuschel, and Rube Waddell? ".

  • In reply to Mike Pilbean:

    You can't ignore Barry Bonds all time HR record.
    It is a great achievement and will always be recognized.

  • In reply to WaitUntilNextYear:

    Yes, actually he can. So can I. And I do.

  • In reply to WaitUntilNextYear:

    How about 868?

  • In reply to hoffpauir6:

    "Yes, actually he can. So can I. And I do."

    Me too.
    Also, did anyone win the World Series in 2017?

  • In reply to hoffpauir6:

    You got me curious. Josh Gibson?

  • In reply to Mike Pilbean:

    Oh I believe......in Japan?

  • In reply to Mike Pilbean:

    I thought he may be referencing Oh, but I wouldn't consider Japanese players for the all-time HR king. Josh Gibson, a C in the Negro League, is recognized by many as the greatest HR hitter in American baseball history. Unfortunately, precise statistics aren't available. I've seen him listed anywhere from the low-800's to high-900's in total dingers.

  • In reply to Mike Pilbean:

    I mentioned that I wouldn't consider Japanese players in the NPB as HR leaders in American ball, but they have had to deal with ours. I was aware of our own Tuffy Rhodes equalling Oh's single-season HR in Japan, but wasn't aware of the whole story until now.

    It seems as though Rhodes was intentionally walked for several of the season's final games by an Oh-managed team to prevent him from breaking the patriotic record, and it wasn't the first time it had happened to a foreign-born player. In fact, Oh himself has quite the checkered past, including using a compressed-composite bat that was banned upon his retirement, that would place him well within the general theme of this article. Here's a good piece I just found, and I love how these simple discussions can expand our awareness:

    https://www.japantimes.co.jp/sports/2008/10/31/baseball/japanese-baseball/equaling-ohs-hr-record-proved-difficult/#.XmQdpmlMEew

  • In reply to hoffpauir6:

    ‘There’s more to me than you’ll ever know And I’ve got more hits than Sadaharu Oh.” -Hey Ladies-song by Beastie Boys

  • In reply to Oldno7:

    Good call. :)

  • In reply to Varmit County:

    Jerry Morales and that crazy long glove and the basket catch. Remember that stance with the bat held so high. We all copied that when swinging right handed and the Biittner leg kick swinging lefty. Hmm, might explain why my MLB dream died at 10. But we had a ton of fun on those days.

  • Whiffle ball musts, Joe Morgan chickin wing, Pete Rose shoulder peek, Jerry Martin wide stance, Brett one hand swing, and get into trouble with the basket catch on your little league team. Hope kids still do this stuff in thier friend backyard..,

  • In reply to Mike Pilbean:

    Just for "kicks", I was around for all of it. I, too, am a Hoosier from Gary, IN before there was a Munster, IN

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    Great piece of writing! So many similar memories...

  • In reply to Lars Holmberg:

    Thank you, sir.

  • The ones that this sinks into are the lucky few who grew up the same way valuing baseball.....and how it gets ingrained into us, along with the smiles that come when a tulip pokes through a remaining amount of snow or that first robin you see outside hopping around looking for a worm.....
    Really good writing Barley:)

  • In reply to Wickdipper:

    Thanks, Wick!

    I've mentioned before that I study the ivy on the walls early in the season, and that first pop of green leaves puts a huge smile on my face.

  • great article Mike. Brought back lots of memories. Keep them coming! Onward!

  • In reply to cubbybear7753:

    Thanks, cubbybear.

    We all like the deep dives and breakdowns of player stats and roster moves, spin rates and analytics. Sometimes it's nice to just remember why we all love this game so much and be entertained, especially after such a "blah" offseason.

    Go Cubs!

  • fb_avatar

    Mike, you are leading me down a lane so filled with with memories. I remember Mickey Mantle and Whitey Ford and going down to see him against Joel Horlen (sadly, my father was a Sox fan, my mother was the Cubs fan.) Kissinger and Beckert, Fergie and my favorite Greg Maddox, even some Kenny Hubbs. The great Roberto Clemente and how he stretched his neck left and right, or the dancing fingers of Ernie as he batted. Willie Mays and Willie Stargell.
    1969 and how that almost broke me, and going to Ohio U and Kent St in 1970, waking up to National Guardsmen, many my age, standing every 10 or 15 feet with bayonets drawn. But going there I got to see Mike Schmidt play his college ball as a SS.
    You're right about special numbers, and you can add 511 wins from Cy Young--a record that I know will never be broken. These are great memories that you made me think of with your piece and I thank you for that MP. One more. I took my then girlfriend to her first Cubs game and how beautiful Wrigley looked that day. She didn't really know baseball at all--at one point she asked who the men in black were and did they stand out there all the time? I said yes, those are the umpires and they do. We did go to a game in Kerry Wood's rookie year and that was a treat.
    Right now there are 5 and 6 and 7 and 8 year old kids who are looking at Rizzo and KB and Willson and Javy and will have the same memories all of us do. I hope so.

  • In reply to Jonathan Friedman:

    Your last paragraph is what it's all about. Baseball brings out the kid in me in ways nothing else in this world does. It feels good. I believe there are generations following in our footsteps, and I do everything I can to give the gift of baseball to the younger generations.

    Thanks, Mr. Friedman (I know, and you can call me Barley or BP. I prefer that as well). :)

  • Good read. Baseball needs to be true to itself. I wish the game had more of a baseball commissioner than a marketing one. Many kids today are creatures of the internet and will never care much about baseball anyway, but the ones that do will find it. Others will figure out that it is something of worth as they mature.

  • Cheers BP as it won’t let me reply to your comment.

  • fb_avatar

    I forgot one memory that really stands out--Andre Dawson giving a blank check to the Cubs because he really wanted to play in Wrigley Field.
    Thank you Andre!

  • We all miss John this time of year, with his first-hand reporting out of Arizona. That will never change. But our own Stephanie Lynn arrived in Mesa on Sunday, and she is kicking butt and taking pictures. More to come, but you can imagine what she went straight to upon arrival. Thank you, Stephanie.

    https://twitter.com/SRL590/status/1237075252762439680?s=19

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