The blog of Chicago-based freelance writer David Johnsen.
Tuesday, December 22, 2009
Baseball & Bicycling
Holy Cow! by Harry Caray with Bob Verdi - Caray is my all-time favorite broadcaster so when I saw this for $2 at Half Price Books, I couldn't pass it up. It's from 1989, a year that would prove memorable yet ultimately -- inevitably -- disappointing for the Chicago Cubs. Many Cubs fans also may have been disappointed with this book since most of it describes Caray's earlier years broadcasting in St. Louis and for the White Sox, but I enjoyed it. Longtime Chicago Tribune sports columnist Verdi stays true to the sportscaster's inimitable voice; I could easily imagine Caray telling these stories from an adjacent bar stool. I only wish there were more tales about the late-night carousing for which he was famous (the Mayor of Rush Street). This book could have been 100 pages longer without wearing out its welcome.

Tour de France/Tour de Force: A Visual History of the World's Greatest Bicycle Race by James Startt - I got the original hardcover edition of this when it came out and read almost half as evidenced by the bookmark, a lunch receipt from January 2001. This summer I saw the paperback "100-Year Anniversary Edition"* in the bargain bin at the local Borders. I was pretty sure I already had the book, but I couldn't remember. After all, I hadn't looked at it in eight years. Since it was only $1.00, I went ahead and bought it. When I got home, I found the hardcover edition and started reading the softcover where I had left off (conveniently, the page numbers match up). When I finished, I went back through the final pages of the hardcover edition just to see how much Startt had updated (very little, it turns out).** Tour de France/Tour de Force combines a photo-packed coffee table book with a fact-filled historical narrative of the Tour. Unfortunately, its ostensibly chronological organization is flawed. The author highlights a famous champion and then describes the Tours of that champion's era. The confused reader gets redundant chapters essentially telling the same story but with different details included. Aside from that, this book is a decent introduction to the history of the Tour de France with lots of quality photographs, many taken by the author.

Current tally: 94 books finished, 86 books acquired

* The Tour de France started in 1903, but it was not held during the World Wars. Although the "100-Year Anniversary" Tour was in 2003, the 100th Tour has not been run yet.

** For the purposes of Book Challenge 2009, the paperback counts as "acquired" this year but the two editions count as only one "finished."

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Saturday, July 12, 2008
Farewell to a Boyhood Hero
I was saddened last night to learn that baseball player Bobby Murcer died. Everyone remembers him as a Yankee, but I remember him as a Cub.

My first sports memories are from the late 1970s. Baseball was my favorite, and in my family there was -- and is -- only one team that matters. Murcer played for the Cubs for only two and a half seasons, 1977-1979, but those were critical years for me, a brief time when athletes were heroes (I think I started to become cynical around fifth grade). I remember Murcer as the Cubs' leading home run hitter in 1977. In fact, his 27 homers were more than twice as many as anyone else on the team hit.

Then the Cubs got Dave Kingman. I think I liked him better than Murcer mostly because we shared a name, the sort of thing that matters to an eight-year-old. Kingman had a great year in 1979, leading the National League in home runs, runs batted in, runs scored, and slugging percentage. Now I know everybody hates Kingman, but I was too young to understand it then.

In mid-1979, Murcer was traded back to the Yankees, where he finished a solid career. Since that was long before inter-league play*, he disappeared from my world except on Topps baseball cards (this columnist's Murcer memories began when mine ended). I didn't even know he became a broadcaster until I read his obituary. By all accounts, he was a great guy, a Yankee legend, and he will be missed.

* Except for the World Series, of course, but that's unknown territory to a Cubs fan.

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Tuesday, May 13, 2008
And People Think City Cyclists Are Crazy?
No, this is crazy: today I saw a guy roller-blading down Lincoln Avenue while pushing a double-wide baby stroller. Sheesh, somebody ought to call DCFS or something.

Another observation: I was eating a leisurely lunch at Costello Sandwich & Sides while reading a great book (so far, at least), Ogallala Blue by William Ashworth. The Cubs game was on the overhead TV in the corner. Occasionally, I looked up from my book to see the Cubs beating the tar out of the San Diego Padres. Having been emotionally scarred as a child by the 1984 National League Championship Series, I still love to see the Cubs whip them, even though that slimy bastard Steve Garvey is long gone. But I digress.*

Anyway, over the two hours that I was there (I told you it was leisurely!), I saw at least half a dozen women wearing Cubs jerseys or t-shirts come in to buy sandwiches. Strangely, every one of them sat at a table outside instead of sitting inside where they could watch the game. Granted, it was a beautiful day, but still. I couldn't imagine my mom -- a real Cubs fan** -- choosing a little sidewalk sunshine over a good Padre pummeling.

* I'll make this a footnote to avoid digressing even more. In 8th grade, I had a history teacher who would use that phrase several times an hour. The word digress will forever remind me of him, as will any mention of the Civil War -- he was a reenactor, and he'd often wear his uniform to class.

** My definition of a real Cubs fan: someone who goes to Wrigley Field to watch the game, not to get drunk on ridiculously overpriced beer.


Sunday, May 28, 2006
Bastard of the Day
With my love of alliteration, it gives me great pleasure to name Barry Bonds the Bastard of the Day. Congratulations to the Shooter of Steroids for overtaking the Sultan of Swat. If Babe Ruth were alive today, he'd put you over his knee and give you the spanking you deserve -- right on your needle tracks.

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Wednesday, January 11, 2006
Cubs on a Roll
Last year second baseman Ryne Sandberg made it into the Baseball Hall of Fame. This year relief pitcher Bruce Sutter is the only man deemed worthy to enter the Hall. I'm just old enough to remember Sutter as a Cub during the early years of my baseball card collecting days. Too bad he went to the Cardinals when I was ten years old, although the Cubs didn't fare too badly since he was soon replaced by Lee Smith, another strong closer. While people wondered which baseball cap Sutter would be wearing in Cooperstown (sorry, it'll be the Redbirds), Chicago Tribune columnist Phil Rogers summed up the moment nicely: "For once, Chicagoans and their St. Louis friends can cheer the same result."

Who's next? Outfielder Andre Dawson, who finished fourth in the balloting this year, has a shot next year, although it will be hard to gain votes with so many writers voting for newly eligible Cal Ripken Jr., Tony Gwynn, and Mark McGwire. Ripken could be a unanimous choice -- they might as well print the ballots with an "X" in the box next to his name -- and Gwynn should make it easily, but I wonder whether there will be some backlash against McGwire due to drug controversy. Whatever happens, Dawson may have to wait until at least 2008.

So when will the Cubs get a third baseman into the Hall? The veterans don't vote again until 2007, so let's hope This Old Cub, Ron Santo, can hang on until then and finally get what he deserves.


Thursday, October 20, 2005
Don't Stop The Heavin'
Here is my two-word review of Chicago's first World Series in more than four decades: Don't care.

I was born a Cubs fan. While I'm not one of those people whose favorite teams are the Cubs and whoever is playing the White Sox, South Side baseball means nothing to me. Whatever tiny bit of appeal it had disappeared when the wrecking ball brought down the old Comiskey Park. That place had some character, sort of like a gritty, seedy, rotting version of Wrigley Field. The new ballpark is devoid of character; even Bruce Springsteen couldn't give it any spirit (especially from my vantage point in the upper deck). The park's nickname since a corporate sponsor took over, "the Cell," just makes me think of prison, not a place I want to go (though I once visited Stateville in Joliet on a college field trip, coincidentally during the last season the Sox played at the old Comiskey).

But even worse than the generic, soulless venue is the team's latest choice of music. "Don't Stop Believin'" by Journey? Yuck. Journey was one of my parents' favorite bands in the early 1980s. My parents generally had decent taste in music, but I couldn't stand Journey then and I can't stand them now. And to think that I was criticizing the Cubs for still using Van Halen's "Jump"--the Journey song is even older! How about "Don't Stop The Bleedin'?" If Steve Perry got cut onstage, that's what I would have said. Not that I would have been anywhere near a stage with Journey on it. I'm just kidding; I don't really wish any ill will on Perry personally, although I would quickly change my mind if he showed up at my house to perform an extended version of "Lovin', Touchin', Squeezin'"--even my dad faded that song out halfway through the interminable "na-nas" when he recorded the LP onto a cassette tape.

There is only one thing at all redeeming about the White Sox choosing this song. While most of us associate Journey with San Francisco ("my city by the Bay"), "Don't Stop Believin'" was written by Perry, Neal Schon, and Chicago native Jonathan Cain. Despite this connection with Chicago, however, the song still sucks. Thanks a lot, MTV.

UPDATE 10/21/2005 - Famous Chicago radio guy and Sox fan Steve Dahl agrees. But at least it isn't disco!

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Wednesday, September 21, 2005
Corgan: Wrigley Music Reeks
A Cubs fan asked former Pumpkin Smasher Billy Corgan about the music they play at Wrigley Field. I haven't been to the ballpark in several years, but I can't believe they are still playing Van Halen's "Jump." They've been doing that for what, two decades now? That song just reminds me of the awful collapse of 1984, when the Cubs were up 2-0 in the NLCS and lost three in a row to the Padres. It's like an anthem for crushed hopes. Even worse, the last few times I went there it seemed like the highlight of the afternoon for many fans was "Y.M.C.A.," which is even older and cheesier. Corgan had a good suggestion:
How about playing songs by Chicago artists? Every city I go to plays songs by their local artists. The theme song for the Boston Red Sox is `Dirty Water', a song by the '60's group The Standells about the River Charles (and other sundry goings-on). It is absolutely criminal how bad the music is that is played at Wrigley Field. Discounting myself from this idea, how about nine innings worth of Chicago blues, Cheap Trick, Styx, etc. Instead we get passe hits and out-of-touch classics.
Okay, maybe nine innings of Styx isn't such a great idea, but there is plenty of Chicago music that could be played. On the other hand, I never went to a baseball game in lieu of listening to the radio anyway. They should dump the canned music entirely and let the organist go wild. Did you know that the Cubs were the first team in major-league baseball to have an organist back in 1941? The Cubs are also the only team that still plays introductions on the organ when players come to the plate. The best reason to see a game at Wrigley is for the nostalgia (though many inexplicably go there just to get drunk on high-priced, low-quality beer). The organ is nostalgic. The canned tunes are garbage.

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Friday, September 03, 2004
Desecrating Baseball's Hallowed Bricks
I suppose it was inevitable that the Cubs would try to place advertising on the bricks behind home plate at Wrigley Field. After all, at least one television station already superimposes their own computer-generated ads on the wall during broadcasts. Still, the overt commercialization of sports has been a major factor in driving me away from them.

The team complains that player salaries keep going up, so they need more revenue. This is a problem that Major League Baseball must resolve. Let's face it, nobody deserves a million dollars a year for any kind of work, especially in sports. I will allow that if someone is willing to pay it, then they should get it (this is capitalism, after all), but I can't see why the owners are willing. Salary caps make a lot of sense. Tell the players they can't make more than, oh, $1.5 million a year (rather generous, I think). If they don't like that, they can always go work at McDonalds or Wal-Mart like people who can't hit or pitch do. I'm amazed that the average American sports fan tolerates this whacked-out salary scale, especially when the teams want to wallpaper the ballpark with advertising to support it (read
Jim Hightower or Naomi Klein, and you'll discover just how much advertising has infiltrated our every activity).

Wrigley Field's traditional look is a huge draw in these days of bland, antiseptic stadiums. I don't think it is wise for the Tribune Company (owners of the Cubs) to desecrate the ballpark by selling off its nostalgic value to the highest bidder. Allowing ads behind home plate is the beginning of a slide down a slippery slope that will someday see the ivy ripped from the centerfield wall, replaced by assorted corporate logos.

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