In the spring of 1988, I was finishing second grade with the knowledge that this 'school thing' was going to get worse.
I can't pinpoint this moment of epiphany, but I was positive that a slide was coming. More importantly, that it was not going to get easier until school was finished for good. In my seven year old mind, that was going to be sometime around 35 years of age.
My personal world of 1988 felt heavy. Many people talk of their childhoods and the lack of responsibility, and the feeling of being free, but I was absolutely miserable. I was living the hell of being the youngest of four kids, my parents seemingly fought every single night, and I was getting fatter by the day.
In second grade, I ballooned to 80 pounds. I remember this because our gym teachers had us organize ourselves by weight one day in one of the more traumatizing moments of my childhood.
That was neat.
While my belly welcomed a new world of sweatpants and athletic-related t-shirts, my want to be a sports-centered man of the times continued to grow.
I had finished my first year of t-ball in a manner that was semi-respectable. I hit the ball. I fielded it occasionally. A plusses for everybody, right? Right.
I was looking forward to the Summer of 1988 being drenched in baseball. Unfortunately for me, my parents missed the sign-up date for the season. It was devastating. I was stuck. No games, no team, no post-game fruit boxes...the summer was gonna be hell.
Without anybody to play with I used my uncle's backyard two blocks away. His yard was probably only 100 x 100. For an eight year old kid with a bat and a tennis ball, it was enough.
That summer I would spend hours in my uncle's backyard playing imaginary home run derby with myself. I pulled out my 1988 sticker book and found all the players who hit over 20 home runs in 1987. Each player would be seeded in a bracket-style tournament. This was where people showed up to see Larry Sheets battle it out with Matt Nokes for an imaginary home run qualifier that nobody cared about! Catch the excitement!
The game was simply me just tossing a ball to myself, and seeing if I could hit it over the fence. If so, I'd have to go get it, come back, and add up the tallies...Trust me, this was fun.
Around 4:30 p.m. my Uncle Fred would arrive and pitch soft toss. We'd do this for an hour until he had to cook dinner, and then I'd hop on my bike back home. If I was lucky, he'd let me stay, and we'd get to talk baseball over dinner.
Many of these days in 1988 were lonely. I didn't have many friends. Honestly, I can't think of many people that wanted to hang out with me at the time. That was fine with me. If I had my baseball cards, my sticker books, and somewhere to hit a ball I was just fine.
The Cubs 0f 1988 were my team, and they were the soundtrack to one of the hotter summers on record. 1988 was the year of the drought, and also the year of Cubs transition. The Cubs had young stars like Rafael Palmeiro, Greg Maddux, Mark Grace, and Damon Berryhill while they said goodbye to Keith Moreland, Bob Dernier, Leon Durham, and Jody Davis. The memories of '84 were being washed away by the moment.
While the Cubs had four batters finish in the top 10 in batting average in 1988, they unfortunately had a bullpen rife with inept arms. Management decided it was a good idea to sign Goose Gossage as the closer. Gossage managed to save only 13 games, while seemingly blowing 37. If it wasn't Goose blowing it, it was usually Frank DiPino or the vacant brain of Drew Hall. It was common for me to start my mock baseball games in the backyard with the Cubs leading 3-2, only to have Gossage blow it in the 9th 5-3.
The season of '88 played out similarly to the campaign of '87. The Cubs played fairly well in the first half under new manager Don Zimmer, going 44-36 before tapping out in July. The heat of the summer melted the Cubs again. The Cubs would get some respite from the summer heat when lights finally arrived on August 8th; but the team would continue playing only 18-25 night games per year until the 21st century.
My dad and I attended one game that year: a 101 degree thriller against the future World Series Champion Los Angeles Dodgers that, lucky for us, went into extra innings. 1988 was the Year of the Pitcher, and the Dodgers were a microcosm of what the year represented: great starting pitching, flawless defense, and timely hitting. The Dodgers started Alfredo Griffin at shortstop; he of the .199 batting average variety. It didn't matter. The Dodgers won the game 3-2, before acing the Mets and Athletics in the playoffs.
While the Cubs weren't going to solve any of my problems of summer, maybe the backyard could.
I can't remember who won the Mythical Backyard Home Run Derby of 1988, but I do know that it got me through another lonely year. The good news was that 1989 was on the horizon, and I would definitely be playing that summer.
1989, little did I know, would change everything in my baseball world.