Once again proving that I’m open to differing viewpoints at the Juice Blog, I have let another Cub fan write a piece about the team I generally loathe. Throw-in that this person often condemns my political stances and you would think I must be a masochist for allowing him prime real-estate to share his memories at my site. Well his idea of reminiscing about the first MLB game he had attended was a great idea that I would like to become a regular feature here. Of course, being one of those smartest and most provocative people in the Toaster comment section was another reason I looked forward to what he had to offer.
J.G.Pyke is a doctor of education and works in faculty development for a large public university in the southeast. He has been reading this website since its previous incarnation, wherever that was hosted and whatever it was called. His right-leaning/libertarian rants earn him the ire of many Juice Blog readers, but he would gladly share a couple of pints with anyone here and have a fine time, indeed.
By J.G. Pyke
The first MLB game I ever went to…a parlor game we all can play
Mine was August 1979 at Wrigley Field. The Padres were in town, and marijuana smoke filled the air. The one-two punch of it being the 70s and also being in Chicago ensured that moustaches were everywhere, from Rollie Fingers on the field to the fat guys in the next row…
Growing up in the south suburbs of Chicago, my earliest baseball memories are watching the Cubs on WGN. I’d come home after school and watch some day baseball, which somehow escaped my mom’s edict of "no daytime TV." I was a third generation Cubs fan, and my dad absorbed Cubs knowledge like a sponge–and was happy to exude it, too. They have broken his heart so many times that he ostensibly follows the Sox a little more nowadays, but I know he secretly keeps the Cubs as his #1 team. Watching sports with my dad was always filled with lessons, from learning new, semi-profane puns (e.g., "Brick Jackhouse") to full blown tapestries of obscenity that still hang over Lake Michigan (to paraphrase Shep).
So when my cousin Kevin from San Diego came to visit us in the summer of ’79, I was truly delighted when my dad took off work on a Friday to drive my brothers, cousin, and I to see the Cubs play the Padres. It was a bright, sunny day, not too hot, and we had no idea what we were in for. My dad had been a fan of the "Bleacher Bums" play, which was still an obscure concept except to those in Chicago, so he bought us bleacher tickets. They weren’t the coveted item back then as they are now: they were the cheap seats, where the "real fans" sat. Now it seems quite the opposite. (Gimme upper deck reserved any day.)
We all brought our gloves, of course, and we sat in left field. My cousin Kevin was pretty excited, too, because I think he had never been to a Padres game. He told us about his favorite players: Rollie Fingers, Dave Winfield, and Gaylord Perry. We told him about ours: Dave Kingman, Bill Buckner, Ivan DeJesus. I had liked the Reuschel brothers, too, who always seemed to get into a bench-clearing brawl with the Pirates–but this Cubs team, sadly, was down to only one Reuschel by 1979.
The Cubs were having a pretty decent year. They were nine games above .500; Kingman was on fire; and Bruce Sutter and his split-finger fastball (or as neighborhood wag Bill Larson called it, the "flip-finger fasball") were a sensation. I remember learning about saves that day, my dad remarking that "Sutter could get 40 saves this year!" The way he said it, it sounded like an unattainable milestone.
I also learned about what the flags meant (divisional standings), and I can still remember exactly what the scoreboard sounded like when the numbers were changed.
That year, Buckner was probably the biggest star on the team, if not Dave Kingman. Kong was having a career year (.288/.343/.613, won the HR crown with 48 that year), so sitting in LF was a treat for us. We watched the players warm up before the game. A few jogged by and signed autographs for fans who dropped balls down to them on the field. Guys like Dennis Lamp and even Gaylord Perry were happy to oblige.
The Cubs’ uniforms back then looked more or less like they do now, but the Padres had those brown ones with the yellow sleeves. Many players on both teams looked pretty shaggy, what, with all the afros, facial hair, and general 1979-ness about them. The folks in the bleachers fared no better in this regard.
The most memorable of the bleacher denizens was a trio that sat right in front of us. They began drinking Old Style early and often (I counted over 30 empty paper cups late in the game). One of these guys was the most vocal, as we would soon find out. A small, heavy-drinking shirtless guy in bluejeans, requisite moustache, raspy voice from smoking too much, and a Cubs hat. They drank and laughed and drank some more. Just before the game started, they lit up a joint, making no effort to conceal it. Flagrant is an understatement. But being the 70s, it was fine. My cousin and older brother inhaled noisily and comically through their noses in an exaggerated effort to catch some sidestream smoke wafting our way.
The whole day was an extremely visceral experience, and I can somewhat relate to those who dismiss Wrigley as a party. Being a child, this was all new to me, and I remember the sights, sounds, and smells more than the game itself. But I do remember a few things about the game. The Padres took an early lead and led most of the game. I also remember Kingman going 0-fer and getting harangued mercilessly by the drunk guys in front of us, especially the shirtless guy. "Hey, Kingman! You’re a woman! You’re a p*ssy!" And then he would give Kingman the finger, with conviction. Every time between innings, Kingman was greeted thusly.
Finally, at one point, a well-meaning young woman, a hippie-ish 20-something, came over and spoke softly to the drunks. "You know, you really shouldn’t say things like that. You might make him feel bad." They tried to keep a straight face but her cause was lost.
The best heckling that day, however, was reserved for the Padres LF, Jerry Turner. It was merely a chant, a sing-songy ditty, that repeated v-e-r-y slowly and hypnotically: "Turrrrrn-er ooooooo-ver. Turrrrrn-er ooooooo-ver." We joined in, having absolutely no idea what it meant. My dad laughed his ass off, though, and remembers that chant vividly to this day.
As the Cubs started to mount a rally late in the game, the Cubs RF Mike Vail was caught stealing at 2B. All of Wrigley immediately erupted into the obligatory, "Bull sh*t! Bull sh*t!" chant. Again, to a 9-year-old, this was highly "adult" stuff I was participating in. My older brother and I expressed exasperation that "Dilone would have beat that out." That had been a running joke for us that summer (and we still say it sometimes now), that the speedy Miguel Dilone possessed superhuman speed. He had swiped 50 bags for the A’s the year before, and we were convinced that any grounder that resulted in a Cub being thrown out at first base could be answered with the same mantra, "Dilone would have beat that out." Dilone did get a chance to pinch run in the game. It didn’t amount to anything, but at least we got to see him play.
Most exciting of all, though, was watching the Cubs score 3 in the 7th and 5 in the 8th to go ahead 9-5. Turner did hit a solo dinger in the 8th, which was the last time the Padres scored. For those of us in LF, we almost felt culpable for that HR, like we had egged on Turner to shut us up with his bat. Sutter came into the game in the 9th and got the save (30). We left Wrigley elated from a Cubs win. Final score, 9-6.
After sweeping the Pads that weekend, the Cubs finished the season by going 13-28 and ending up besting only the hated Mets in the final standings. Sutter never got his 40th save that year (37, best in MLB that year and one shy of John Hiller’s record of 38), but he did go on to do some great things elsewhere, or so I hear. I mean, besides giving up home runs to Ryne Sandberg. (Go Cubs!)
I have been to many games at Wrigley since then. I have seen better teams, and better games–and many of them have dissolved somewhere into my memory banks. But I will always remember my first Cubs game.
Scott’s Note: If you have a longer-form piece on this subject or a different one on baseball, feel free to email me with the idea. If I think it fits the style of writing that goes on here, I would love to post it at the Juice Blog. Thanks.