Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Rino is still god -- and launch the Shawn-O-Meter

The power of television to make the world smaller cannot be understated. For one thing, it can make a girl from Warrenton, Ga., who not only had never been to Chicago but didn't know anyone from Chicago and didn't know anyone who had ever been to Chicago, into a Chicago Cubs fan.

Yes, my Braves have always had my greatest loyalty. I was taught to pull for them by my grandfather, who despite his sheet-metal-plant worker's paycheck and his dislike of expense on himself, was one of the first people I knew in Warrenton to subscribe to cable television -- all so he could watch the Braves games without bad weather disrupting the signal from what used to be Channel 17 out of Atlanta.

But the coax cable that carried the Braves games to Warrenton also carried the Cubs games on WGN, and especially in those pre-lights days at Wrigley Field, the two teams' games rarely overlapped. In summertime, I could watch the Cubs on WGN in the afternoon and then watch the Braves that evening.

It's the mid-1980s from which my Cubs memories are strongest. While I got my Braves loyalty from my grandfather, but when I think of the Cubs, I remember watching with my dad. He was police chief then and, about four days a week, he reported for his shift very, very early in the morning and got off at 1 or 2 in the afternoon. "Ryno is God" was one regular Bleacher Bum sign we loved to chuckle at -- of course, that's in reference to Ryne Sandberg, the second baseman who was the Cubs' major star of that era; he's now in Cooperstown (.289 career batting average, 282 HRs). And there was another, the "Shawon-O-Meter," a frequently appearing sign that sought to keep track of the offensive exploits of a younger player, shortstop Shawon Dunston (.269 career batting average, 150 HRs).

The Cubs' manager of that time was Don Zimmer, who would later be one of Joe Torre's helper-coaches in the Yankee dugout, maybe most famous for his awkward attempt at fistcuffs with Pedro Martinez, which got him impersonated on the next broadcast of Saturday Night Live. (By Horatio Sanz, as I recall.)  I tend to think that's more public exposure than any bench coach had ever gotten in the history of all baseball.

I remember Mark Grace was the first baseman. And one of our favorite players was the catcher, Joe Girardi, who has since replaced Torre as skipper of the Yankees.

My memory may be fuzzy on this, but I remember watching Girardi perform a tremendous feat one day, one that -- sadly -- I never did see written about by the baseball press when Girardi was hired in New York.

Girardi started the game at his normal position, catcher. As the game progressed, some other Cubs players had to be stricken from the game, and Girardi was called on to fill in elsewhere on the field -- I want to say he subbed for one of the infielders, but he might have been in the outfield. Then, as innings passed, the Cubs confronted another staffing dilemma, and Girardi was dispatched to the mound to pitch. I remember Harry Caray saying Girardi had broken a major league record for most positions played in a single game.  I think he may actually have gotten a batter out as pitcher, but I'm not certain of that. (Any baseball savants out there remember this? Am I mis-remembering?)

Needless to say, Harry Caray was as much a part of watching a Cubs game as the players on the field. (An interesting, and sometimes funny, thing to do: When the Braves played the Cubs, sometimes my dad and  I would turn on two TVs, one tuned to the Cubs' broadcast on WGN, and the other tuned to the Braves' broadcast on TBS, where the play-by-play announcer was Harry's son, Skip Caray.) I also remember that the WGN broadcast team seemed as intent on finding attractive young women in the stands displaying their cleavage as they were interested in the progress of the game.

I bring all this up because I finally got to see the Cubs play, live and in person, last night -- in Houston, against the hapless Astros. Rino is a minor league manager now, and Minute Maid Park doesn't quite exude the vibe that I imagine comes fromf the bleachers at Wrigley Field, but it was good to finally see them play. They won, 7-1, on a night when the Astros, not the Cubs, looked like the doormat of the National League.

Wouldn't Steve Goodman be proud?

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