Part 1 – Steve Sobaski Shares His Baseball Memories

Written by Steve Sobaski

February 11, 2022

As I begin this piece, I find myself gazing out my window this afternoon, viewing what nature and a skittish groundhog hath wrought upon us. Six more weeks of winter. Which makes me recall the days of my youth in Chicago when snow, surely an order of magnitude deeper, and wind chills of Arctic proportion made trudging to and from school a challenge. Especially given that that trudge was uphill both ways.

The thing that made these winters always a bit easier to take, though, was the anticipation that the calendar brought. Looking forward to Valentine’s Day and the holidays of Lincoln’s and Washington’s birthdays was great. Several days off of school and a candy binge to tide one over between Christmas and Easter. But what was greater to me, was that it meant pitchers and catchers would soon be reporting to spring training camp. The Grapefruit and Cactus Leagues would soon begin the annual cycle of professional baseball anew. And with it the hope that the spring and summer might bring a World Series or even a playoff- bound team to the Windy City.

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Of course, this is Chicago that we’re talking about circa 1960’s and 1970”s. Home of the Northside Chicago Cubs and Southside Chicago White Sox. Teams not known for their winnings. The only playoff teams in Chicago were just visiting. In fact, in my youth, there had been one World Series team since my birth. The 1959 “Go Go White Sox” White Sox, under mad Hall of Fame owner Bill Veeck who faced off against the Los Angeles Dodgers, only to lose the series in 6 games.

At five years of age, I was too young to recall the panic that overtook the city as the Chicago Fire Department Commissioner blew all of the fire horns in town to celebrate the clinching of the American League pennant that year. It being the depths of the Cold War and, well, this was winless Chicago after all, many Chicagoans mistook this as a warning that nuclear attack was imminent. In hindsight, “Duck and cover” would have been a good replacement for the seventh inning stretch at most Chicago ball games.

No, I didn’t really take much interest in baseball until 1963 when my Dad, a pressman at the Chicago Tribune, brought home a copy of the White Sox 1963 yearbook, “Operation White Sox.” In it were bios of every player and stats – lots of stats. To this day I think my love of numbers and statistics, skills I later employed as a biologist and database administrator for the State of Illinois, began with this book and, later, the back of baseball cards. Speedy Venezuelan shortstop and Hall of Famer Luis Aparicio soon became my favorite player. Not a power hitter like Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, or Hank Aaron, but his clutch hitting, ability to steal bases, and agility in the field seemed like skills that I could aspire to.

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That said, those skills were reaaallly slow in developing for me. I had one season of organized ball in my youth as a Pee Wee League outfielder. In 1964 my season plate appearances culminated in two singles, two walks, two hit-by-pitchers and countless outs. My WAR would like be somewhere south of -10. Still, my love of playing the game of baseball grew through pickup games in our city streets, whiffle ball with class mates and later playing softball. Chicago-style. Which meant using a 16” Clincher softball, which was a beast to field new. Most kids, including me, had any number of sprained fingers during the summer because you NEVER played with a mitt. However, once broken in, those balls went from impossible to catch to impossible to hit. A fly ball to the outfield would be a victory for any hitter.

Over those youthful years of following baseball, I learned lifelong skills like “patience is a virtue”, “tomorrow is another day”, “never count your chickens until they’re hatched”, and be gracious in winning, always be humble, and. yes, the power of superstition. Never speak of a developing no hitter or how someone has never lost a game pitching in a given ball park. In 1969 I learned the lesson of always keep your hopes realistic.

That year the Cubs had a historic great beginning to the season. By August 16th they were nine games over their closest rivals in the newly formed National League East Division, the New York Mets, and World Series fever gripped Chicago. The local food chain Jewel weekly gave out glossy photos of Cub stars with the purchase of groceries. The great Ernie Banks didn’t seem so masochist when repeating his famous motto “Let’s play two today.” Or “three” if a doubleheader was scheduled. Yes, hope sprang eternal for their first trip to the World Series since 1945, and maybe even their first World Series victory since 1908.

It was at this moment in time, August 26th to be exact, that I went to my first major league game with friends, an afternoon (as was always the case in those days) game between the Cubs and the Pete Rose/Tony Perez/Johnny Bench Cincinnati Reds. The day was great. I got to witness the first major league start for outfielder Oscar Gamble, who later went on to fame as a White Sox as one of their 1977 “Southside Hitmen.”. I “enjoyed” a Ron Santo Pro Pizza. Not real Chicago pizza, but, hey, it had the endorsement of a future Hall of Famer.

I even got doused with beer on my back thanks to an excited fan leaping up to watch a fly ball hit toward the ivy-covered walls of Wrigley Field for a long out. That scent of stale Schlitz on my shirt? That required some splanin’ later with my Mom at laundry time. As the game went into later innings, I noticed on the great green manual Wrigley Field scoreboard that the White Sox were miraculously beating the Boston Red Sox.

By the end of the game at Wrigley, the White Sox were victorious and the teenager in me gave into hope and rebellion against being a trendy Cub fan and decided, if I had to declare an allegiance within Chicago ball clubs, the Sox would be my team. Of course, what followed in the weeks to come was an awful finish for the White Sox (next to last in the new AL West division) and a historic collapse of the Cubs. Maybe it was the curse of the owner of Billy Goat’s tavern (of SNL Cheezburga fame), William Sianas, for not being permitted to bring in his goat to attend Game 4 of the Cubs 1945 World Series. Or maybe it was the black cat that jetted out of the Cubs dugout at Shea Stadium the night of September 9th. Either way, the Cubs tumbled from being 9 games up in first place in  mid-August to finishing 8 games out of first behind the Miracle Mets.

Take home lesson for me? Karma will kill those who don’t respect a good superstition. Don’t believe me? The Cubs defied all odds and finally won a World Series in 2016. Their first in 108 years. What has transpired since? It may be mere coincidence but climate change? Deep political division in the U.S.? Covid?!? Yeah, I’m blaming you Cubs. You have to respect baseball superstition. In hindsight witnessing such a brutal dashing of hopes and expectations built the kind of character that I needed to make transitioning this new Michigander to following Detroit professional sports during the current millennium a whole lot easier.

Fast forward some 45 years and I receive a call from one of my best friends down in Austin, Texas, a heritage biologist with Texas Parks and Wildlife. Frank Thomas, the pride of the Chicago White Sox in the 1990s and early 2000s has been elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame, joining Tom Glavine, Gregg Maddux, Bobby Cox, Joe Torre, and past/future White Sox manager Tony La Russa in the Class of 2014 inductees. My friend insisted it was time for a road trip to upstate New York. “Gotta see the Big Hurt get his ring.” I was intrigued, but this felt like a totally guilty pleasure for me as I would be abandoning my family for the first time in my memory for extended “me time”.

Fortunately, my very wonderful wife gave the trip a thumbs up. If you ever feel the urge to search for a fountain of youth and you’re any sort of baseball fan, Cooperstown is your destination. Setting foot in the Baseball Hall of Fame dropped those 45 years off of me and I stood wide eyed at countless displays devoted to every aspect of the game. I saw players HOF plaques displayed, most of whom I hadn’t thought of since my childhood. There was Luis Aparicio, Nellie Fox, and Carlton Fisk from the Sox. Ernie Banks, Ron Santo, Billy Williams, Fergie Jenkins from the Cubs. Even my favorite announcer of all-time Harry Carey. Ho-ly Cow. Even better than this, though, was an event being staged the evening prior to the induction ceremony on Sunday.

The Hall hosted its fifth annual “Parade of Legends” where 51 Hall of Fame players returned to help celebrate the weekend, riding in downtown Cooperstown in a flotilla of Fords. I marveled at seeing, in the flesh, giants of the game like Willie Mays, Sandy Koufax, Bob Gibson, Lou Brock, Al Kaline, and Hammerin’ Hank Aaron. Better yet, though, was what I witnessed at the end of the parade. Cal Ripken Jr. stood and chatted with fans and signed autographs for a good hour while the other players exited into the Hall for a reception. That show of graciousness and love of the game is something that will stick with me forever.

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Finally, about the Tigers. Thanks to an Albion College Day promotion at Comerica, my whole family got to experience my joy of baseball on Sept. 14, 2019. I explained to my daughters that it was wise to keep their expectations low as the game featured Gabriel Ynoa of the Baltimore Orioles vs. Daniel Norris of the Tigers. Two teams with the worst records in the entire Major Leagues, with starting pitchers who ended the season with a combined record of 4-23. For me, I was really excited to see Miguel Cabrera. The game attendance was listed at 17,760, some 46% of capacity. However, if you ever wanted an introduction to social distancing, this was the game to be at.

The park is beautiful yet seemed immense and cavernous with all of the empty seats. The game was a tight affair going into the 8th inning. The Tigers clung to a 2-0 lead. Then things got interesting, thanks, primarily, to the bullpens of each team. Baltimore took a 3-2 lead on a Trey Mancini, bases-clearing, homer in the 8th. You could sense the air going out of the ballpark as rapidly as fans streamed to the exits. Then, with two outs in the ninth, facing the Orioles closer Mychael Givens, Victor Reyes hit a home run to send the game into extra innings. Electrifying!

The game continued through a number of relievers into the 12th inning when the Orioles regained the lead on a single, a steal, a walk, and another single. “Small ball” baseball at its best. Again, the Tigers backs were against the wall, the basement wall. Fortunately, maybe it was because he was a native of Flint, Orioles reliever Paul Fry decided to make things interesting. Harold Castro opened the bottom of the twelfth with a walk. Following a Jeimer Candelario strikeout, Castro advanced to third on a Travis Demeritte double. The Orioles then opt to intentionally walk Dawel Lugo to load the bases, setting up the potential for a double play to escape the inning and go home with a win. The tying run – 90 feet from home. The winning run on second. My family is swept up in the tension.

At this juncture the Orioles bring in journeyman reliever Paul Eades to close out the game. In all of 2019 Eades will see only 11 innings of work between the Twins and the Orioles. So, this was a big moment for him and the O’s. What followed next was nothing short of amazing. Eades proceeded to walk Tiger Brandon Dixon, with nary a pitch close to the strike zone, forcing in Castro to tie the game. The now very sparse crowd is glued to the edge of their seats. Sadly, they have no other option, as all of the concessions closed after the ninth inning.

John Hicks then steps to the plate. He treats me to something unbelievable. A play that I had not witnessed in my then 56 years of following baseball. Hicks drills a ball into the stands for a walk off grand slam home run. Holy Cow!! And I escaped without a beer being dumped on my back. For two doormat teams of the MLB, it was the most fun that I’ve ever had at a ball game. And my younger daughter, the only truly Michigander amongst us, remains a Tigers fan to this day.

So, yes, here staring at the frozen, well, now thawing, tundra of Albion, I’m looking forward to another year of baseball, another year of hope for the Tigers and the White Sox, and more fun enjoying the challenge of competing in fantasy baseball. To quote the political writer and lifelong Cub fan George Will, “”Baseball, it is said, is only a game. True. And the Grand Canyon is only a hole in Arizona. Not all holes, or games, are created equal.”

About the writer:

Steve Sobaski is a retired biologist, database administrator, and geographic information specialist with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources and The Nature Conservancy. He’s a 17-year resident of Albion with his wife Sheila and their two daughters. When not navigating the challenges of participating in rotisserie fantasy baseball, he enjoys learning the art of creating craft, bean to bar, chocolate at the Yellowbird Chocolate Shop; as well as being active on the board of the Friends of the Albion District Library and assisting the Albion Community Foundation and AYSO youth soccer. You may also occasionally catch him around town blowing harp at the Blues at the Bohm or serving up eclectic grooves with the band Good Thang Goin’.

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