Last Sunday’s old-timers’ game at Wrigley Field took place under a freshly scrubbed bright blue sky. The old pros cavorted in the sunlight with the carefree attitude of puppies at play, so that the inevitable questions–Is that Walt “No-Neck” Williams or Carlos May in right field? What’s Bob Gibson doing at third base? Did Don Kessinger commit that error?–were, for the most part, rhetorical. We were feeling unusually charitable toward these old-timers, perhaps because the presence of Bill Buckner, Gary Matthews, and Oscar Gamble in such a game humbles any local baseball fan of a decent age who harbors delusions of immortality, but for the most part because I felt akin to the old stars, who were struggling to do something they used to do almost by rote.
The old-timers’ game was the appetizer for what one friend of ours used to call an Abner Doubleday–those serendipitous occurrences when the Cubs and White Sox are both in town. Yet this, in fact, was a triple day, with the Wrigley Field old-timers followed by the Cubs’ game with the Houston Astros, followed–in the evening–by the White Sox playing host to the New York Yankees. When Doubledays were rare, and we were fresh out of school, we used to attend them as a matter of course. Now that we’re employed in the workaday world, and Doubledays–with the mixed-up computerized schedule making for more liberal-minded policies–are more common, we’ve kind of fallen out of the habit. Yet last Sunday was an opportunity we couldn’t pass up: an especially rare Sunday Doubleday, with both the Cubs and Sox in town and the Sox the ESPN Sunday-night game of the week. We dismissed all doubts about whether we were still capable of two games (three this time, actually, although the old-timers’ exhibition was only three innings, and we got there late to boot) in two locations in one day, and we set off, stopping at the local greasy spoon for a couple of cigars on the way.
We’re long past testing our maturity–or lack thereof. The idea of attending a Doubleday just to do it for old times’ sake wasn’t appealing. The Cubs’ scheduled starter, Greg Maddux, was a major selling point, however. The Cubs’ season has been a disappointment, but Maddux–in the free-agent year of his contract–has been an inspiration. In 25 games going into Sunday, he had amassed 23 decisions, going 14-9, leading the National League in innings and opponents’ batting average and in the top three in wins and earned run average. He had pitched poorly only once all season; in his nine losses, the Cubs had scored a total of six runs, getting shut out in six of his starts. Always professional and sometimes spectacular, he labored, as Henry James once wrote lovingly about one of his characters, in that country of the blue. We had taken to seeing Maddux every chance we could, and had seen, most recently, his ten-strikeout game against the New York Mets (in which he fanned the last man to reach double digits) and another, more routine, eight-strikeout 5-2 affair against the same New Yorkers.
After the National League old-timers had dispatched the Americans 4-3, and the world’s worst blues band–the Cheddarfield Milkers or the Dairyland Aces or some such name–flogged its way through a short set on the field (“That’s not a groove,” said one of our companions for the day, “it’s a rut”), Maddux appeared on the mound, confident and at ease as always, with his grizzled, unshaven face and a faded blue T-shirt hanging out from his right sleeve, almost as if it were a symbol of his impending free agency. (He is earning $4 million this season and has already rejected a multiyear deal at $5 million per.) Maddux settled in to work, allowing only two hits and no walks in the first five innings.
This could easily have become a somnolent game. The Astros, like the Cubs, are struggling this year, and were in the midst of a 28-day road trip, brought on by their owner’s leasing the Astrodome to the Republicans for this week’s convention (they needed three weeks just to set up). The Astros should have looked ragged, but they rose up behind their rookie starter, Brian Williams, after he worked out of a bases-loaded, one-out jam in the first inning, allowing only one run.
The Cubs threatened time and again after that but didn’t score. As he was on the mound, Maddux at the plate was the picture of professionalism in the midst of ineptitude. Three times he laid down one-out sacrifice bunts, all in the same spot down the first-base line. Two times the runner died at second, the third time at third. In the top of the sixth, however, he finally got some support from his teammates–this time in the field.
Maddux opened with an atypical leadoff walk to the number-eight hitter, Eddie Taubensee. Then, after getting two strikes on pitcher Williams, he allowed him to sacrifice Taubensee to second. Leadoff hitter Craig Biggio slapped one toward left field that Cubs shortstop Rey Sanchez dove for and nabbed, holding the runner at third. It was a clutch play that shouldn’t even have been thought of in a game between two also-rans. Steve Finley followed with a sharp bouncer to the right of first baseman Mark Grace. He snared it, made a split-second decision against going for the double play, and fired home to get Taubensee. Maddux then nicked Jeff Bagwell on his ample Steve Garveyesque forearm, loading the bases. (“Damn!” Maddux seemed to say, with a sharp shake of his head.) But he got cleanup hitter Eric Anthony to pop up down the left-field line, and Sanchez chased it down with a fine running catch, and the Astros’ only significant rally of the day was over.
Most of our season-ticket neighbors had sold their seats for the day. In their place were reserved but slightly more hungry fans–including a family of six, with four kids between 2 and 6, in the row in front of us–and by the ninth inning, after the Houston threat, we were all howling for Maddux to finish his shutout. He did, retiring the last 7 men, and 10 of the last 11, and we exited secure in the knowledge that this would probably be the best ball game we’d see all year.
Like the old-timers who no longer slide into second to break up double plays, we walked home and had dinner between trips, eschewing the direct route down the Jackson-Englewood el line. Then we drove to Bill Veeck Stadium shortly before game time, parking in a spot we learned about from a coworker, a spot so convenient and so secret that we won’t even release it to loyal readers. Sorry. Then, on the walk over, we bought bleacher seats from a scalper for just about face value and walked over and in, into the functional, distinctly unbeautiful Veeck, with the abundance of food stands and the ugly blue trim. This was the first time we’d sat in the bleachers here, and we were impressed with the volume of the sound system–especially the chain saw sound effects that go with the “Tools of the Trade” ad on the JumboTron–and with the difference in the breeds of fan from the Wrigley upper deck to the Veeck bleachers.
The Veeck is filled with immense guys with macrame mustaches and zits on the back of their necks; big-hair babes with satin warm-up jackets; blue-eyed, blank-stare guys wearing Walkman headsets no doubt tuned to the game; men with sparse beards and their caps on backward; bleary-eyed dads; and–last but not least–stumbledown teens talking about being arrested in Milwaukee for underage drinking. In short, it’s hoi polloi, and I loved it–aside from the loudness of that chain saw, that is, and the airline advertisements whenever anyone caught a foul fly and (and this was especially annoying) the blatant advertisement for a Hollywood movie during one of the breaks between the middle innings.
The one similarity between the two parks was another family of six–this time with four kids between 6 and 12. In the late innings, the mom and the daughter returned from the snack bar with ice cream, and the boys peered wide-eyed around their dad like raccoons in an old Disney short, plotting how they could get some. (It should be pointed out the family was white.)
Where the Cubs game threatened early to be somnolent and proved otherwise, this game was somnolent from the outset, from the presence of Carlton Fisk behind the plate to the managing strategy–or lack, again, thereof. Both teams seemed willing to wait around for someone to loft one up into the nonexistent breeze and into the bleachers. All the game’s runs came on homers.
Former White Sox pitcher Shawn Hillegas carried a no-hitter into the fifth inning when, with two outs, he had some sort of problem that summoned his manager, Bucky Showalter, to the mound. The next batter, the eminently unthreatening Lance Johnson, homered to right field. Hillegas got out of that inning, but in the next–after Chicago’s Kirk McCaskill had surrendered a homer to New York’s Danny Tartabull–George Bell hit a three-run homer to left after Hillegas was rash enough to walk Frank Thomas in front of him. That was the scoring.
Roberto Hernandez relieved McCaskill, with his motion all broad shoulders and torque to the waist. But although he struggled in the ninth, the game failed to rouse the fans the way Maddux’s masterpiece had. In fact, fans began to whistle to one another, back and forth across the field, like birds at the end of the day. Pastoral, poetic thoughts drifted through the mind, such as
Throws turbocharged slantses
Hard-thrown low slantseses
and the like. It was getting late. Twenty-one innings of baseball will do that to the brain.
Then White Sox manager Gene Lamont summoned Scott Radinsky to finish the game. He came jogging in across left field while “Bohemian Rhapsody” played on the public-address system and a metalhead Radinsky fan seated alongside the Chicago bull pen thrashed her blond locks against the railing in front of her. It was a beautiful image; she even made the JumboTron. Then Radinsky got the last two guys out, and the game was over.
We walked out to our car while a waning moon rose over Stateway Gardens, and drove home alongside a wide swath of moonlight on the lake, thinking of Greg Maddux–of his motion, that familiar low crossing of the hands over the head, almost as if he were pulling on a T-shirt, and the crisp kick into a straight-legged stride down the mound–and for those moments, on Lake Shore Drive, before we arrived home, we didn’t realize how tired and old we were.