Sunday, August 29, 2010

A Pair of Fond Farewells

It's been a bad year for Cubs fans. Predictably, the Cubs have been out of the division race since Opening Day. Unpredictably, they've spiraled into the depths of the NL Central, with only the lowly Quadruple-A Pirates to break their epic fall. It seems like only yesterday when the Wrigley faithful watched the Cubs win 97 en route to the best record in the National League (though, to be fair, it also seems like only yesterday when we watched them lose 96 games en route to the worst record in the National League).

In light of this season's brutal doom spiral, it was no surprise when the fire sale began. First, Lilly and Theriot went west to the Dodgers for Blake DeWitt. Then Fontenot was off to San Francisco. But the big one, the one that really hurt this die hard's heart, was when Derrek Lee was traded to the Atlanta Braves on August 18th.

Obviously, Lee was having a down year. Actually, that's an understatement: Derrek Lee was on pace for his worst full season ever. His power and on-base skills seemed to evaporate completely during the early goings. His speed has long since abandoned him. And his strikeout totals were up. But it's tough for this fan to forget 2005, and 2009, and 2007. It's tough to see Derrek Lee walk up to the plate, a picture of class and calm, and not believe that this is the at-bat that will turn things around. But mostly, it's tough to lose such a great player and such a great man, regardless of the slump that has been his 2010.

* * *

I got the news from my friend Keith Larson:

lee to atlanta

Three simple words--short even by text message standards. But they hit me right in the gut. Sure, losing Lilly, Theriot, and Fontenot had hurt. Ted Lilly was, year-in and year-out, our most dependable (and best or second best) starter and a joy to watch if you're a fan of a good curve ball (I am). Ryan Theriot was exactly the sort of scrappy, 110% effort ballplayer a scrappy, 110% non-ballplayer like me can love unashamedly. And Mike Fontenot--well, Mike was a heartbreaker. His partial seasons made him look like the second baseman of the future, and the Theriot-Fontenot LSU connection was too good not to love. But Mike never seemed to be able to put it all together for a full season, and wound up being a good utility guy instead of the anchor at second many of us were hoping he'd become.

But Derrek Lee was my favorite Cub.

Keith knew this. We'd had the "favorite Cub" discussion early on. His was Aramis Ramirez. I certainly understand his position. I have never seen a human being swing one object at another object harder than Aramis Ramirez swings a bat at a ball when their are fewer than two strikes and runners on base. Keith often calls baseball a chess match, and I think there's a lot to be said for that analogy. But Aramis Ramirez brings a battle axe to a chess match. It's a joy to watch. But the beauty of Rami's approach is that, when he's on at the plate (which, over the course of his career, has been most of the time), he doesn't swing that axe at stupid pitches. He makes pitchers nibble (difficult) or come right at him (dangerous).

But my favorite Cub was Derrek Lee. When the Cubs signed him before the '04 season, I went nuts. Few of my Cubs fan friends knew why. Sure, they'd seen D-Lee "crush" in the '03 NLCS.* But Marlins, then as now, rarely attracted national attention, so where I saw a slick-fielding, hard-hitting big man with 20+ SB speed, they saw...some guy they'd never heard of until he helped transfer the misplaced loathing of the Cubs faithful from a billy goat and a black cat to a poor guy named Bartman.

*It's funny, because no matter how many times I look at Derrek Lee's ugly line from the '03 NLCS--.188/.235/.344 with a meaningless homer and a pair of doubles--I can't stop thinking and, sometimes, saying that Lee killed us in that series. That's the word I've used: "killed." And my Cubs fan friends never call me out on that statement. In fact, most of them agree with me! And yet, he did nothing of the sort. Our pitchers kept him off balance the whole series. He struck out eight times and hit into a pair of double plays. He only collected six hits, and half of them were in losing efforts. Derrek Lee didn't kill us in that series. But his two run double off of Mark Prior in that disastrous eighth inning of Game 6 killed us in a very real way, nonetheless, a way we're still feeling--and talking about--seven years later.

Getting Derrek Lee in the Great Marlin Fire Sale of '03-'04 felt like a form of closure for me, I guess. And when D-Lee put up a .278/.356/.504 line while digging enough balls out of the dirt to make Aramis Ramirez look like a Gold Glover to enough of my friends for it to be annoying, all while going about his business with a quiet dignity and professionalism that sometimes seems like a lost art in modern free agents (that's right, it's a "damned kids and their music" argument!), it was settled: #25 was The Man in Chicago as far as I was concerned.

* * *

Keith came to Chicago with his girlfriend Sara in the fall of 2009. They had moved together from Portland when Sara got into grad school in the Flatlands. Keith loves Portland. Whenever the city came up in conversation, he'd tell me about how perfect it is geographically: "90 minutes to the beach, 90 minutes to the mountains." Or how easy it is to get to Mariners games: "The Amtrak literally drops you off next to the stadium; you can't even park that close!" Within hours of friending me on Facebook, Keith had sent me links to local Portland farmers markets that "put anything here in Chicago to shame." Keith loves Portland.

But Keith also loved Sara, and he's loved the Cubs for as long as he can remember, so he came to Chicago to be with his lady.

Unfortunately for Keith, it was a rough year with both his beloveds. Things with Sara didn't work out, and the Cubs quickly spiraled into oblivion. But he decided that, while he was here, he'd nevertheless be sure to go to as many games at Wrigley as possible. Based on the number of Wrigleyville doormen and ticket takers who know him by name, I think it's safe to say that he was successful in that endeavor.

* * *

Keith and I didn't see much of one another this summer. I had quit my gig at the bar in his neighborhood that had given us a default hangout place and time every week, and had then spent most of the summer traveling from one wedding and/or miscellaneous adventure to the next. But on Thursday, August 19th, we found ourselves at Wrigley Field for only our second game together this season, a heartbreaking loss to the San Diego Padres. It had been a month to the day since we'd gotten together to talk baseball (our last--and first--game together had been on July 19th when the Astros were in town), and we spent virtually the entire game talking baseball, oblivious to the fans around us.

That is, until one of those fans turned around and said, "You two should host your own talk show."

Keith and I were mortified. In that instant, we'd both realized that we had basically spent an entire ballgame talking about the game we were watching, the game in general, the year so far (from rookie-of-the-year candidates to Griffey and his contemporaries' Hall of Fame cases/legacies) name it. And we'd done this while sitting directly behind a pair of 50-something women who probably just wanted to enjoy a Thursday afternoon game in peace.

But as it turned out, they had been enjoying our baseball talk almost as much as we had. "It's been very interesting," the first woman told us when we began to apologize. "I didn't know a lot of the stuff you were talking about."*

*Among that "stuff": that Derrek Lee had killed us in the '03 playoffs. I deserve to be slapped.

"Just don't talk that much when our friend [can't remember her name] is here," added the second woman. "She'll kill you." They laughed.

At the end of the game, we said goodbye to our new ballpark friends and made our way to the exits, sure of two things: that we would absolutely love to host a radio show together (Keith later told Sara the story, and she agreed wholeheartedly with the Wrigley ladies, so we'd have at least three listeners), and that we needed to return the next day for Derrek Lee's first game as an Atlanta Brave, and first game as a visitor in Wrigley since he killed us in '03.

* * *

The funny thing is, I'd never have been there for D-Lee's swan song if Keith hadn't wandered into the Bird's Nest after work on Tuesday, December 8th of last year. Keith had never been to the Bird's Nest, even though he'd lived down the street for over a month. But for whatever reason, he chose that night to wander in for a nightcap. And on that night, ESPN reported that Curtis Granderson, former UIC standout, reigning All-Star center fielder, and general class act (seriously, check out would be going to the Yankees.

"Goddamned Yankees," I growled at a television for what felt like the thousandth time.

And that's how I met Keith. Keith is the sort of guy who can strike up a conversation with anyone at any time in any situation. It's admirable--and enviable. That night, he'd pulled up a barstool a couple seats down from me and was watching the report with equal interest. And he struck up a conversation. We spent the next few High Lifes lauding the merits (on-field and off) of Granderson, lambasting the Evil Empire in the Big Apple, and talking baseball, Chicago--the important stuff.

And as the weeks went on and the 2010 season came closer, we lamented the lack of initiative the front office seemed to be showing (did Hendry & Co. seriously think we were that close to contending that they could sit on their thumbs?). We made grand plans for Opening Day (thwarted when we had the wrong day of the week and I had to work). And on a weekly basis, we raised our glasses and waxed poetical and statistical* about the game we loved.

*I didn't know it, but early on in our friendship, Keith was as amazed by my historical baseball knowledge as I was by his ability to keep up with Cubs farmhands I knew almost nothing about. When I met Sara for the first time, Keith did the standard introductions, then nonchalantly turned to me and said, "Hey, by the way, when was it that Hack Wilson had his crazy season again?" "1929," I told him. "The year he drove in 191 and set the RBI record. One of the three best hitting seasons by a Cub ever, right up there with Hornsby's '29 and Sosa's '01." Keith turned to Sara. "See?" It seemed I had been successfully shown off.

The fact is, we'd had our own radio show since the day we met. We just hadn't been told until those two ladies did so at the Padres game.

* * *

Aisle 36. Row 8. Seats 3 and 4. We'd never sprung for such good seats before (though Keith had found them for half the box office price). But this was Derrek Lee. This was a tribute to, as Keith put it, "a seven year love affair."

The couple next to us were season ticket holders. Like most season ticket holders, they were curious about the unfamiliar faces sitting next to them, and we struck up a conversation while we watched the Braves "warm up,"* hoping to spot Derrek before the game got going and get a gauge on his emotions. But when we finally spotted Big D, he was placid as always, and spent most of his time chatting with young phenom Jason Heyward. ("Listen to him, kid," I said to nobody in particular. "He's exactly what you can become, albeit sooner in your career and hopefully without a derailing wrist injury.") We should have known.

*Seriously, I hope Jair Jurrjens did his real warm up before we got to the stadium. Otherwise, that was the most half-assed warm up routine I've seen this side of a 13-year-old. Trust me: if you're capable of throwing a baseball--or any object, for that matter--you're capable of kicking above your waist while doing Frankensteins!

When the starting lineups were announced, Derrek Lee (hitting cleanup and playing first base for Atlanta) got more cheers from the Wrigley crowd than anyone on either team. "This bodes well for his first at bat," I said. Keith agreed.

When Omar Infante led off the inning with a double, it was tough (and confusing) not to be a bit excited. "Looks like we'll see Lee this inning," Keith said.

And when Derrek Lee stepped to the plate with two outs and a runner on third in the top of the first inning, 39,345 people, ourselves included, waited just long enough for the last syllable of his name to fill the stadium before the roar of Cubs fans thanking Derrek for 6+ years in blue and Braves fans welcoming their newest player became absolutely deafening. Keith was pointing at people who were still sitting and yelling at them to stand up; I'm not sure they could hear him. Ryan Dempster stepped off the mound.

Derrek Lee stepped out of the box. He put his bat under his arm, took off his helmet to wipe his brow with his forearm, and then tipped the helmet in an understated gesture of thanks to the crowd. It was classy all around. It was exactly the way Derrek Lee will be and should be remembered here in the Windy City.

When Lee flied out on a well-hit ball to left field, the crowd went just as wild on his trip back to the dugout (albeit the wrong dugout for most of us fans) as this did on his trip to the plate. Derrek Lee would go 0-for-4 in the game with 2 strikeouts, and only 1-for-11 in the series, though he walked three times and hit a 3-run double in a 16-5 Game 3 rout. And he would receive a standing ovation in his first at bat of each game.

* * *

Keith and I sat on his steps for the last time on Thursday, August 26th, 2010. I had his old (and my new) microwave at my feet, and we were trying to hail a cab so that I could get it home. I'd joked that it would look like I'd just robbed Keith's place. Keith joked that he'd chase the cab when I got in.

And, as always, we found ourselves talking baseball: Who's going to replace Lou? Where will Maddux and Sandberg be in the organization next year? How was it that we were 0-for-3 at Wrigley together and suddenly the Cubs had strung together a 3-game win streak?

And we also said our goodbyes. Keith continued to tell me about the food in Portland. I made him promise he'd get a beer at Bent River in Rock Island, IL on his way west. And Keith, ever the gentleman, chased down a cab for me while I hustled after him with a microwave in my arms.

* * *

It's been a bad year for Cubs fans. But this Cubs fan has had his share of sweet to go with the bitter thanks to comrades-in-arms like Keith. And so, to Mr. Lee and Mr. Larson, old friend and new, I tip my cap and bid you both a fond farewell from the Windy City.