Thursday, September 29, 2011

"As Good as It Gets"

     Bo Jackson’s role as a glib celebrity pitchman in countless TV commercials tended to make people forget that he was not a cartoon character but a shy, modest man who was grateful for the gifts nature had given him. Jackson was an All-Star in both the NFL and Major League Baseball—a unique achievement—until a 1991 football injury left him with an artificial hip.
     His career seemed to be over, and when Jackson appeared at the White Sox’ spring training camp in 1993, few observers gave him much of a chance to make the team. “I have a little hitch in my giddy-up,” Jackson admitted, but he had put himself through a tortuous rehab program and claimed to be getting better every day. Jackson made the team, thus fulfilling a promise made at his mother’s deathbed several months before.
     Jackson’s first at-bat of the year (and first in 18 months) came in the home opener at new Comiskey Park on April 9. He belted the second pitch he saw over the right-field wall for a home run. The crowd of 42,775 went wild, calling him out of the dugout after he had circled the bases. “The only thing I could think of at that time was my mother,” Jackson said after the game. “I made myself a promise after she passed that when I got back in the game and got my first hit, I was going to give that ball to her.” He had the ball bronzed, inscribed, and affixed to his mother’s tombstone.
     Although the Sox lost to the Yankees, it was a stirring start to what would prove a storybook season on the South Side. After a listless three months in which they flirted with the .500 mark, the Sox stormed through the second half to open up a comfortable lead over the Texas Rangers heading down the stretch. First baseman Frank Thomas, Jackson’s football teammate at Auburn University, was having the greatest offensive season in White Sox history and would soon receive the first of back-to-back MVP awards.
     By September 27, the White Sox were poised to clinch the American League West title. On this crisp Monday evening, the Sox’ Wilson Alvarez and Seattle’s Dave Fleming dueled through five and a half scoreless innings. In the bottom of the sixth, Ellis Burks led off with a single. Craig Grebeck followed with a bunt single, and the crowd of 42,116 began to stir. But Fleming settled down and retired the next two Sox hitters. Then Jackson stepped into the batter’s box. Sensing the dramatic possibilities, the fans came to their feet cheering and waving a sea of white socks over their heads. Fleming approached Bo carefully, and the count went to 3-and-0. Given the green light, Jackson swung at the next offering and hit a sky-high drive to left field.
     “I thought it was a pop-up,” Jackson said. But the ball kept soaring up and out, up and out, until it finally landed beyond the wall for a three-run homer. “It was amazing,” said the Sox’ Lance Johnson. “I thought Bo missed it and popped it up, but the left fielder went back, back, back until he just ran out of real estate.”
     “That,” Seattle manager Lou Piniella said, “is one strong man.”
     Bo’s blow gave the Sox a lead they never relinquished as they won 4-2 to wrap up the division title. It was a miracle finish not only for Jackson, but also for Alvarez, who had returned from the minors in August to win his last seven starts.
     After the game, the champagne-soaked Jackson went back out to the field to thank Sox fans for their support. Few had left, although the game had been over for half an hour. Jackson jogged around the field, waving a white sock of his own at the delirious fans. “This is as good as it gets,” he said. “The most fun I’ve had as a professional athlete.”

Reprinted from Heydays: Great Stories in Chicago Sports
(c) by Christopher Tabbert.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

The Day Before the Day

     On September 27, 1938, the newspapers and the radio were full of news about the Munich Conference, where Great Britain and France were in the process of handing Czechoslovakia over to Nazi Germany. A second world war was not yet regarded as inevitable.
     At Wrigley Field, only the National League pennant hung in the balance. Under recently appointed player/manager Gabby Hartnett, the Cubs had surged from far back in the standings to draw within striking distance of the league-leading Pittsburgh Pirates.
     The Cubs had won seven in a row and 17 of their last 20 to advance within a game and a half of the Pirates, who were also surging, having won eight of their last 10. “If we win five of our remaining seven games,” said Pittsburgh manager Pie Traynor, “it doesn’t matter how many the Cubs win.”
     For the opener of the three-game series that will all but decide the pennant, the Cubs turned to Dizzy Dean. Several years earlier, Dean had said, “Anybody who’s had the pleasure of seeing me play knows that I am the greatest pitcher in the world.” Indeed, he averaged 24 wins a year for five years beginning in 1932.
     But the Dizzy Dean who was acquired from St. Louis before the 1938 season was just a shadow of his former self. In the previous summer’s All-Star Game, a line drive had shattered the little toe on his left foot. Because the Cardinals were in a tight pennant race, Dean had continued to pitch, altering his delivery to favor the broken toe. He had ruined his arm in the process.
     For the Cubs, Dean was able to pitch only occasionally, but he always gave his team an honest effort—and a full house. He had not started in five weeks when Hartnett gave him the ball for this “must” game. “In a spot such as this,” Warren Brown wrote, “Dizzy Dean was perfectly at home. Here was a park packed with popeyed fans. Here was a game on which the entire season might depend. If you had asked Dean—and many did—what he thought about being put on such a spot, Diz had but one answer: ‘Gabby’s getting smarter every day. Who else would he pick to beat these guys but old Diz?’”
     “His arm was hurting him badly,” teammate Phil Cavarretta recalled. “The thing I remember best watching this man pitch, his presence on that mound encouraged us to go out there and play hard. Watching him pitch was an inspiration. You could see the man was suffering out there. You’d say, ‘My God, let’s go out and win it for Diz.’”
     Getting by on guts and guile, Dean held the Pirates scoreless for eight and two-thirds innings before running out of gas. As he left the field, a tumult of cheers rang down from the standing-room-only crowd of 42,238. “It was an incredible performance,” said Cavarretta. Dean’s teammates congratulated him in the dugout, but he was disgusted that he hadn’t been able to finish.
     With the Cubs clinging to a 2-0 lead and the tying runs on second and third, the ubiquitous Bill Lee relieved Dean. Lee had logged a complete-game victory just 24 hours earlier, and won would end up 22-9 for the season with a league-leading 2.44 earned run average and nine shutouts. If the Cy Young Award had existed in 1938, Lee would have won it. As it was he finished second in voting for the Most Valuable Player award.
     Pirates catcher Al Todd was up to bat. Lee's first offering to Todd was a wild pitch, scoring one run and moving the tying run to third. Then, with the crowd roaring its approval, he struck out Todd—the only strikeout of the game on either side—to narrowly preserve a 2-1 victory. It was Dean’s seventh win of the year against only one loss.
     The Cubs were now only a half game behind the Pirates, and the stage was set for perhaps the most dramatic game ever played at Wrigley Field. That game featured Hartnett's unforgettable “Homer in the Gloamin’,” which put the Cubs in first place to stay.

Reprinted from Heydays: Great Stories in Chicago Sports
(c) by Christopher Tabbert

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Jim Finks: Just What the Doctor Ordered

     At a Bears game in 1973, George S. Halas, Jr., son of the franchise's legendary founder and a respected football executive in his own right, turned to his dad and said, "I am so sick of this!" By "this," the man known as Mugs meant the Bears' recent history of losing, which was about to extend to five consecutive sub-.500 seasons.
     Thirty-seven years ago today, on September 13, 1974, the Halases did something about it. They hired the Bears' first general manager other than Papa Bear himself--and the man they chose for the job proved to be exactly what the doctor ordered.
     He was Jim Finks, and he had just concluded a ten-year stint in a similar role with the Minnesota Vikings, which resulted in Super Bowl appearances after the 1969 and 1973 seasons and the NFL Executive of the Year award in '73.
     The Bears opened the 1974 season two days after Finks was hired, with a team that did not yet have his fingerprints on it. They beat the Detroit Lions in the opener, but soon reverted to form and finished 4-10 (giving them a dismal record of 24-59 for the past five years).
     Finks had spent the season evaluating the Bears' coaches and players, and he delivered his verdict shortly after clock ticked down on a season-ending 42-0 loss at Washington. Head coach Abe Gibron was sent packing, and so were a good many of his players. Jack Pardee took over as head coach, and Finks and his staff set about planning for the 1975 draft.
     The first player that Finks drafted for the Bears, with the fourth overall pick in 1975, was the immortal Walter Payton. Long-time starters Mike Hartenstine, Virgil Livers, Revie Sorey, and Bob Avellini also were products of that same draft.
     During his years with the Bears, Finks never missed on a first-round pick. After Payton, his other first-rounders were Dennis Lick, Ted Albrecht, Dan Hampton, Al Harris, Otis Wilson, and Keith Van Horne. One, Hampton, has joined Payton in the Hall of Fame, and the others were all starters for lengthy periods of time.
     Alas, neither Mugs Halas (who died in 1979) nor his dad (who died in 1983), was around to celebrate when Finks's rebuilding project culminated in the 1985 world championship. Finks saw his efforts come to fruition, but he was no longer employed by the Bears at the time. He had resigned in 1982 after Papa Bear hired head coach Mike Ditka without consulting him.
     After his time with the Bears, Finks served briefly as president of the Cubs, then signed on as general manager of the New Orleans Saints, where he remained from 1986 until 1993. Finks narrowly lost out to Paul Tagliabue when NFL owners selected a new commissioner in 1989.
     Finks was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1995, a year after he passed away at the age of 66. His contributions to the game of football and his reputation as both a brilliant executive and a gentleman live on.