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The first of a two-part series from the infamous Bleacher Preacher.
In the summer of 1945, when I was eight-years-old, my dad took me to my first ballgame at beautiful Wrigley Field. A short time later, when the Cubs clinched the National League pennant, I asked my dad to take me to the World Series. He told me I was too young, but he made me a promise: He would take me the next time! Needless to say, I am still waiting.
To be honest, I did not think of post-season play for the Cubs this year until the last few days of the season. I have a Moses complex: I fear I'll never get to the Promised Land. But once the Cubs made the playoffs, I thought this could be the year.
See, a funny thing happened as this season came down to the wire. Many teams went in the wrong direction and, oddly enough, the Cubs were not one of them.
* * *
I must admit that I am not the fan I used to be, looking at the box scores in the papers every morning to see what happened the night before. I can't tell you the names of all the ballparks or the managers anymore, let alone who's who in baseball these days. I have always been looking for some kind of closure for my dad's promise made 62 years ago, but the high cost of going to a Major League Baseball game has kept me away most of the time. It seems that not too long ago, there were fixtures in every ballpark . . . known as Everyday Fans! However, like at so many sports and entertainment venues, the little guys have been priced out of going to the ballpark even at the face value of a ticket.
During the Great Depression, my dad was able to escape the bad times by taking in a movie or a game . . . not anymore! I recall the many times he would come home from work, and say to me to get some of my friends . . . we're going out to the bleachers! Today, a person would have to file for bankruptcy to do the same thing, or at least stop at the ATM machines sprinkled inside and outside all ballparks.
But it was really something that happened in San Francisco back in 1980 that changed my life for the next 27 years. I was watching TV in my Alpine Terrace Street apartment - channel-surfing at the top of an hour - when I stumbled across a production of Bleacher Bums at the Chicago Organic Theater on PBS. The tagline: "NOT A 3-ACT PLAY, BUT A NINE-INNING COMEDY!" The stage set looked familiar because it was the Wrigley Field bleachers. I found myself cheering for the good guys and even stood up during the 7th-inning stretch to sing "Take Me Out To The Ball Game" because the play had no intermission. I honestly felt the play was written just for me!
The following day, as luck would have it, I was reading the want ads in the San Francisco Examiner, as it was one of my pastimes to look for jobs I did not want, when I noticed an ad for actors at the Zephyr Theater for their production of Bleacher Bums. I called the producer and told them I was not an actor, but Cubs junkie and Chicagoan-In-Exile" who would love to get involved.
I was hired to flack. It was a six-week run that ran for more than a year. A baseball strike that year made it the only game in town, and we were selling out the 99-seat theater every night. I was able to get local sportscasters to their shows from our set. We eventually moved to the 350-seat Little Fox Theater.
The Bill Veeck in me came out. I made the lobby into The Friendly Confines West, and had our ushers decked out in Andy Frain uniforms. We sold Chicago-style hot dogs in the lobby and, over time, attracted luminaries such as Willie McCovey and Curt Flood.
But the highlight of the run was the time I talked the Giants into having Bleacher Bum Sunday at Candlestick Park on September 5,1981. At first, they balked. Then I reminded the Giants that whenever the Cubs came to town, there were as many Cubs fans in the stands as Giant fans. It was also the last time that Jack Brickhouse was coming to the Bay Area as the Cubs announcer. I created special Hey! Hey! Awards for him and Giant batting instructor Hank Sauer, a former Cubs slugger.
I was the emcee, the Bleacher Bum cast sang the national anthem, and we all sang "Take Me Out To The Ball Game" from the field during the 7th-inning stretch. That night, many of the Cubs came to the play, including Brickhouse, Lou Boudreau and Mike Krukow. Afterwards, we went to Pizzeria Uno for Chicago pizza.
When the run of the play ended, I continued doing tie-in promotions for Pizzeria Uno whenever the Cubs or Bears were in town.
* * *
In 1984, the Cubs opened up the season at the 'Stick. I was promoting a restaurant on Pier 39 and was able to get four Cubs players to eat there after the game. One of them was a kid named Sandberg. I remember looking at him and saying to myself, "This is a ballplayer?"
When the Cubs got hot that year, I created the "Dallas Green for President" headquarters and persuaded 50 delegates from the Democratic National Convention to wear "Green for President" buttons in Moscone Center. After the convention, the 1984 MLB All-Star game took place and my "HOW DO I SPELL BELIEF? C-U-B-S!" sign became the team's battle cry.
I originally called myself the "Bleacher Creature," but a Detroit fan informed me that there was a whole section with that name at Tiger Stadium. I went back to the kitchen table and renamed myself "The Bleacher Preacher." When the Cubs looked like they might make my dad's promise a reality, I decided to spend the last month of the season in the Friendly Confines' cheap seats.
On my first day back I wound up on the front page of the Chicago Sun-Times and became a media whore. I was interviewed for local and national TV news and featured in a Sports Illustrated article. I even wound up with my "HOW DO YOU SPELL" sign on the Punky Brewster show!
The Cubs made the playoffs that year, of course, and started the post-season with a bang, winning their first two games against the Padres. The Cubs only had to win one of the next three games to make it to the World Series (this was when there were just two divisions in each league and no wild card). I actually had World Series tickets.
We all know what happened next. My tickets went unused. The Cubs lost three straight.
The Cubs would fall in the playoffs to the Giants in 1989, the Braves in 1998, and the Marlins in 2003.
And so, this year, when I found myself at a downtown rally to celebrate the Cubs' return to the playoffs, it was a familiar feeling.
Part 2: The Bleacher Preacher returns to Wrigley Field.
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