Tagged: photography

Lancaster and the Cal League All Star Game

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It’s been a long time. A really long time since I’ve made my presence known here. For that I apologize. I haven’t been to a baseball game in almost a year, and while i have looked for alternative avenues to write about, they proved to be much fewer and far between than I had hoped.

While my medical conditions that have held me back have not exactly abated I am making it a priority to find things to write about. This is assuming that some of you took pity on me and stayed subscribed or otherwise didn’t forget about this silly blog. If that applies to you, please accept my heartfelt thanks.

Now that we have finished up with the housekeeping let’s get to the good stuff. Long time readers may remember a few years ago when Lauren and I visited The Diamond in Lake Elsinore for the Class-A California-Carolina All Star Game. Since then the format has changed and both the Cal League and the Carolina League host their own insular All Star games. In the Cal League, that means the host alternates between the North and South divisions. Last year, the first of this new format, the game was hosted in Visalia, which was a bit too far for us to attend, but this year the game was to be held in Lancaster, which is only 1.5-2 hours away from home, plus more importantly is the home of our favorite radio broadcaster, our friend Jason Schwartz.

I was planning to purchase our tickets online, but kept putting it off for some unknown reason when I got an email from Jason. He asked if we were planning to attend and then offered that if we were to go we could do so as his guests, with him covering the cost of our tickets and parking. Obviously I leapt at this offer. I also made the decision that we would not want to try to drive home after the game, so I booked a hotel for the night and provide us with a much-needed mini-vacation.

On the Tuesday of the game we spent the morning running errands before grabbing a gourmet fast food lunch at McDonald’s and hopping on the freeway to drive up into the desert. The drive was uneventful, albeit hot since the air-conditioner in the car was on the fritz. We avoided most traffic and only had one unexpected stop, which deposited us at “The Hangar” about 15 minutes after the gates opened.

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A hangar needs a plane, right?

We had assumed that the pre-game “FanFest” would operate like the last game we attended, At that game the two teams took turns taking batting practice and sitting in a gauntlet signing autographs. It seems that for this game, both teams were signing at the same time, so some tough choices needed to be made, Since most of my focus was to be on players from the South team we began to hustle over to where they were–at least in as much as I can hustle these days without my wheelchair–when we were waylaid by a third line hugging the wall of the concourse.

Coming into the game we knew that Roberto Alomar was being inducted into the Cal League Hall f\of Fame and would be having a short autograph session following the ceremony. According to the literature I had gotten his autograph session was to begin at 6:30. The time was currently 4:30. There was already a relatively hefty line and if I know anything about these sorts of events, it was only going to get worse while we met the current All Stars.

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All Star starting lineups

While there were some Padres and Angels All Stars–rather Storm and 66’ers All Stars–I wanted to get autographs from, none were earth-shattering to me and as Alomar was my main quarry in the world of autographs for the night, I made the executive decision to join the line. Lauren was starting to fade in the heat so I let her go off and explore the various concession stands for some sort of cold treat. Sadly, all she was able to wrangle up was a cold bottle of water, but it was certainly better than nothing at the point of consumption.

While she was gone, an older man joined the line behind me and began talking briefly as to what the current time was and when the autograph session was due to begin. I passed along what I knew and he said, somewhat sadly that he didn’t think he’d be able to wait because he had heat-related health issues and had been hospitalized twice in the past year for heat stroke,

I decided to hedge my bets with karma and do my good deed for the day. I informed him that I too had heat issues that resulted in brief hospitalizations, so I could relate. I then offered to let him go find some shade or air-conditioning and come and join Lauren and I closer to the actual autograph time. He seemed rather appreciative and toddled of to cooler pastures.

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At some point while all of this was going on, somehow a man and his adult son managed to cut in front of us in the line. Honestly? Not the world’s biggest deal, especially because there was something developmentally stunted with the son, but when the son was having a fit about the large family in front of us having kids coming and going and “cutting”–a crime that he had done several times himself–Lauren and I had to laugh.

The father started talking to me on one of these sojourns by the son. Whether just due to boredom or if he was trying to appear extra friendly to avoid a conflict about line positions I couldn’t say, but we had a pleasant chat. He found out where I used to work (and Lauren still does) and told me that he was a regular visitor and there all the time. I was able to tell some fun work stories and he seemed to enjoy them, while Lauren just tried to melt into the background.

The pre-game festivities, including a home run derby, the Hall of Fame induction and the throwing of the first pitch were beginning to occur and I was coming to the realization that we wouldn’t be in attendance for any of them, or–in all reality–the start of the game.It didn’t matter. I was getting to meet one of my all-time favorite players. Hopefully.  If the line moved like it was supposed to do.

My older friend joined us at this point of the wait, since the sun had dipped behind the stadium and we were mostly in a temperate shade. He then regaled me with stories of his life as a baseball fan and autograph collector. Many, many stories. Some of which may have even been true. I think my error is the acknowledgment that I know who these obscure baseball players from decades ago are. I should just pretend to be like the man who, after asking me what the line was for, told me he had never heard of Roberto Alomar, but if the line was for Pedro Guerrero he would have been in it right away. Sometimes I’m sorry that I speak the language.

After approximately 45 minutes of hearing these tales, somehow the line cutters in front of us connected with the man so we had a nice double-play, getting rid of both of them in one fell swoop. By this time we were rapidly approaching and passing the supposed 6:30 start time with no sign of Mr. Alomar .The young man In front of us began to slowly–and then rapidly–freak out. Having not spoken to me at all the entire time I was in line, he turned to me and said if we didn’t get an autograph he would demand to see the supervisor’s supervisor and have his dad hold them while he beat them with my cane. I was not sure what to say at that point so I just slowly backed away as far as I could.

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Robby with me and my fly-away hair

Luckily at this point Alomar had appeared “After signing for all the fat cats upstairs” said the line cutter father. Despite Alomar posing for photos as well as signing, the line moved very quickly. At this point, he was not the most talkative guy I’ve encountered as I told him I was a long time fan, since he started his career as a Padre and I was just the right age to start remembering players at that point. The important thing is he signed a ball for me and Lauren–albeit in Sharpie–and posed for a few photos with me.

Jason had interviewed him at a luncheon earlier in the day and assured us that he was a really nice guy. Coming from a background where I used to get comments at work if I didn’t constantly have a smile on my face, I can understand that maybe something happened in his personal life, or maybe it was just a long day. Either way, he provided more than I had hoped for.

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Mmmm…baseball nachos!

We had been keeping up with the game by listening to Jason’s broadcast that got piped out to the concourse and made our way to the seats just to the right of home plate, essentially right below his radio booth. It was the 4th inning and the North was already leading the South 4-0. That put a slight damper on the crowd, many of whom were clad in the replica SoCal jerseys that were given away that night.

One thing that was not affected by the score was my appetite. While waiting for the autograph we were stationed across from one of the concession booths and that didn’t help matters. The last time we visited The Hangar the food was rather sub-par and I was hoping that 4 years later things would have changed for the better. I realize that generally when one wishes for such things they tend to get worse by tenfold. Thank you to the big JetHawk in the sky that they didn’t only stay static, they got a lot better! n addition to a basic hot dog I had been tempted by a “Build Your Own Tots” option where they provided a base layer of tator tots and then it was customizable with 3 toppings. My hesitation was a fear that the order would be TOO big and I’d get halfway through before having to tap out. I was pleasantly surprised when Lauren returned to me with a small cardboard boat–the kind hot dogs are often served in–with the tots inside. The size was perfect, and I must say my choice of toppings–cheddar cheese, sour cream and bacon–were amazing.

I wish there were more unique options at The Hangar, but the tots were certainly a great start. By the way, I mentioned my hunger earlier? That’s why there are no photos. I was that desperate for the food. I can imagine most readers are familiar with hot dogs and tator tots. Now just imagine sour cream, cheese and bacon on your vision of tots. Theater of the mind!

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By this point it was about the 6th inning and we had a text from Jason saying to come up to the booth to visit at any time. We figured to head up in about the 8th inning and catch the end of the game with him. I was paranoid, asking how we’d get up there without proper credentials. He reminded me that this was the California League and no one would hassle us. He was 100% right.

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The man, hard at work.

When we reached the booth it was still the top of the 8th and Jason was broadcasting so we sat down quietly to wait for the inning break to visit. We spent the rest of the game in the booth, trying to be as invisible as possible while the game was going on. As the game came to an end and Stockton’s Dairon Blanco won the MVP various members of other Cal League media teams and the Lancaster front office popped in to congratulate Jason and he was so gracious to introduce us to each of them as if we were more than just his friends who happen to run a blog.

We celebrated the end of the craziness that was preparing for the game and then Jason walked us out where we proceeded to continue talking for another 30 minutes or so before heading over to the Oxford Inn and Suites, the hotel I had reserved.

It was significantly better than the vile motel we stayed at in Arizona, with its assorted health and decency violations. The room was exactly what we needed, we felt safe staying there and leaving our car outside PLUS there was a free breakfast in the morning with a waffle bar.

We are looking to do this trip once a season from now until Jason moves on to a different team (or retires!) and this will likely be the place that we stay for those mini vacations.

One last note. On the drive up Lauren saw a sign for the Vasquez Rocks. This is an iconic area most noted for its use in “Star Trek”, but was used in Hollywood productions from “The Muppet Movie” to “Blazing Saddles.” We, of course had to stop. The drive to the parking lot closest to the rocks took about 10 minutes (Vasquez Rocks is a County Park) followed by a brief hike. I was unable to make the hike and since Lauren was alone without water there was not much exploration of the area, but maybe next time.

I know I havent written too much about the ballpark up in Lancaster but I reviewed it relatively recently and the only real change I noticed was the improvement of the food. I did truly have a wonderful time at a point where I needed something like this All Star game to look forward to.

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Jason, Lauren and me in the booth. We were all pretty happy right about now.

I also want to give a special thanks to Jason Schwartz and his generosity and hospitality. His friendship means a lot. While I don’t anticipate a return to Lancaster this season, Jason may just make a return to these pages in the not too distant future! Look for that and remember…

Keep Trippin’ Baseballs!

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Trout Fishing

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They call him the GOAT, but he doesn’t even have a hit!

Somehow, in my quest to visit as many minor league ballparks in this great land of ours, I have been neglectful. Within 2 hours of my home lie 4 teams in the High-A California League and I have only officially covered 1. This is wrong and I seek to remedy this injustice as soon as possible, starting with the Inland Empire 66ers, based out of San Bernardino, formerly known as the San Bernardino Spirit. This was also to be my first baseball game of the year. In July. For a man who loves the game and considers a ballpark to be his comfort place.

Please allow a slight detour as I explain why.

Longtime readers of the blog have probably figured out that my health has not been the greatest over the past few years. In late 2016 I was diagnosed with kidney disease right as my Cubs were charging into the World Series. I had to go to a center and receive a dialysis treatment 3 days a week. That adds up.

Then, this spring, my doctors decided that I was able to continue my dialysis at home. The good part was not having to travel to the center several times a week. The bad part was that this type of dialysis took about 8 hours and sapped my energy. I could barely find it in me to eat, let alone go out to a game, surrounded by people in an environment that I have always considered to be high energy for myself.

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Dialysis Boy

Recently I was approved for a dialysis machine, that allows me to do the entire treatment overnight as I sleep. It is much less intense and I mostly feel good afterwards when I wake up. This allows me a return to a relatively normal schedule, which means that one of the first things I wanted to do was get out to the ballpark!

My lovely wife, Lauren, and I picked a day off of work for her and began planning a game. Initially we were going to return to Lancaster to see the Jethawks, but shortly before gamely I started hearing some interesting rumors. It seemed that the injured, Mike Trout was getting ready to start his rehab and would begin working out with the 66ers.

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Mike Trout’s first 66’ers at-bat

There were no guarantees that he would play right away but I’m a gambling man and bought 2 tickets for the first date that the Angels said would be his earliest return. I figured he would at least be working out with the team so we could watch him hit in batting practice and who knows? Maybe he’d be up for signing autographs.

Mike is a great signer at home in Anaheim, literally minutes away from my home, but luck has never been with me when he is signing and I’ve always missed out. A smaller ballpark, like San Manuel Stadium, home of the 66ers seemed to provide a much better opportunity.

So Lauren and I packed up baseballs, camera gear and a pretty sweet mix CD by me and headed up to San Bernardino. Along the way we stopped in to the Inland Empire’s favorite fast food, Baker’s Drive-Thru, and grabbed a couple of burgers for lunch.

I was afraid that the detour to Baker’s might throw off our timing to reach the ballpark, but we got there approximately 45 minutes before they were set to open the gates, which was an hour prior to first pitch.

It seems others had heard about the return of Mr. Trout (who the Angels had confirmed WOULD be playing that night.) There was a sea of #27 Angels jersey in the line, which appeared to be at least 100 people deep. By the time the gates opened, that number had at least tripled.

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Our Entry

After getting my bag checked I hobbled down to the third base side of the park and joined a mass of humanity with the same dreams of getting an autograph from Mr. Trout as I did. Having been in guest control in a former life I truly felt bad for the usher who was trying to keep the aisles clear for people who actually had tickets in the general vicinity. He was very kind and never lost his cool, so props to Darrell of the 66ers!

We stood. And we waited. Not only had Mike not come out by approximately 20 minutes to game time, but suddenly there was the announcement that strikes fear into the heart of all stadium autograph seekers.

“At this time we ask that you please return to your assigned seats.”

Honestly, I would have, but I was literally stuck in a mob of people with no way out. Darrell was not pleased that no one was leaving. I’m sorry Darrell!

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The mass of humanity stressing out poor Darrell

By this time Mike had come out and after signing autographs for the Little League team that was being honored on the field, headed down the left field line to warm up.

With the announcement having been made and the fact that it was mere minutes from the first pitch I figured I would have to chalk this up to a ‘close but no cigar’ encounter, but I was still trapped next to the dugout in a hot, sweaty mass of humanity.

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Geez, the guy hitting 3rd doesn’t even have an average

And then it happened. Mike came down to our little section and began signing. He mostly hit up the kids, but I’m not ashamed to say that I was able to hand over my baseball and get it back signed. I didn’t push, I didn’t cheat and I didn’t screw over any kids. I was pretty pleased with my quarry. Anything else that happened this night would be mere icing on the cake.

I found Lauren who had cooled down with a shave ice while I was Trout fishing and we got a lemonade to cool me down and found a nice shaded picnic area in which to relax. We rested and I rushed down to try to get some photographs of Mike’s first at-bat.

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Mike gets some signs

In addition to being Mike Trout Day (unofficial) it was a celebration of SPAM’s 80th birthday (official). I love SPAM. Lauren likes SPAM. It seemed natural that we would enjoy some of the SPAM-centric snacks available. I was getting hungry again, so Lauren went exploring and reported back with the specialty SPAM menu.

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OK, so it wasn’t that EXACTLY, but close!

I felt that the “Grilled Cheesy Bacon Melt,” described as “Thick slabs of griddled Texas Toast loaded with bacon, cheese, more bacon and even more cheese!” with an addition of diced SPAM would hit the spot and the SPAM musubi would also be a nice treat.

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I suppose this menu is slightly more accurate

This is the point where the wheels fall off of our lovely adventure.

It seemed to me that Lauren had been gone a while, like 3 innings at least, and I was beginning to worry when my fast dying cell phone buzzed at me and I got a text saying “Still waiting.” She made it back to me shortly thereafter, and was obviously not happy.

We don’t know why, but it took over 40 minutes to make my sandwich. There was no warning that this was going to be an issue, and most appallingly, there was no apology for the wait afterwards. Not even an obviously false one. In addition, the musubi and bottle of water we ordered was given to her upon paying. The water had 40 minutes to warm up and the musbui had the same amount of time to cool down and slightly congeal. Lauren was not the only one with this problem. There were several others at the stand livid about the treatment and many cancelled their orders and demanded refunds.

I understand that this is a Class-A ballpark. I understand that the SPAM items are a specialty and that the high school kids in the concession stands are probably not overly familiar with them. I do NOT understand where an “I’m sorry for your wait” or even some indication that what was happening was unacceptable was never offered. I’m not saying offer a discount or comp the food or anything like that. However, a bit of human decency is not difficult to muster up and, to me, seems like an automatic response.

This experience cast a very negative light over our whole time at the ballpark and will likely color any future visits; but it doesn’t matter to the concessionaires. They’re just high school kids working for minimum wage and couldn’t care less if their attitudes cost the team, or at least their concession stand, customers. It was just a shame.

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SPAM and cheese and bacon. AMERICA!

That being said, the sandwich was delicious. Tons of orange American cheese melted on standard white bread with little jewels of bacon and SPAM sprinkled throughout and decorating the top. I destroyed the thing. Might have considered another if I thought I could get it before the game ended.

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SPAM musubi. After the photo the seaweed was quickly removed

The musubi was a bit of a disappointment. As stated earlier, it had gotten cold and the rice began to solidify as the SPAM was disintegrating into a cold grease bomb. We were only able to eat a few bites. The warm water was wet and that was all we asked of it, though a cool drink would have been nice.

We decided to leave the picnic area at this point and look around the stadium itself. It was a nice little ballpark that to me was very reminiscent of an MLB Spring Training facility.

As we walked past one particular point of the concourse there was a line of people, probably 40-50 deep. Lauren asked me what was going on, and I was stumped for a minute and then my brain clicked.

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Mikey likes it!

“They are out here waiting for Mike Trout to leave after the game!” I said. Considering that he was only at that point coming up for his final at-bat and then would have to shower, get ready to go and likely handle some media requests, those folks were in for a long wait. I hope they did well.

The team store was nice. It had a pretty decent selection of things, including a Mike Trout 66ers shirsey, but my wife says I have too many t-shirts already (I do) and nothing else in the store particularly struck my fancy. There were some nice hats, but at the price point, I’m not sure I would have gotten the value out of wearing them, so we left the shop empty-handed. I was also surprised to not see any game-used items for sale. Usually team shops will have a bucket of cracked game-used bats and maybe a few other items, but there were none to be found.

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Good night, San Manuel Stadium!

It was at about this time that we decided to head out, so we took a few last photos and headed to the car.

Overall, I achieved what I came to do and the ballpark itself was nice and had a very strong community vibe. A lot of the fans seemed to know each other and spent a lot of time visiting with each other and catching up on life. There was a very positive energy that I enjoyed.

Sadly the food incident really did color the entire evening, but we are willing to revisit San Manuel Stadium, perhaps on a normal weeknight when one of the greatest players in the MLB isn’t in town and see what kind of experience we have then.

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Mike connects!

I’m hoping to be able to add some more entries on here soon, so until next time, keep trippin’ baseballs!

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The prize!

As always, my full complement of photos can be found here
Addendum as of Friday morning. After I contacted the 66ers with my concern they reached out to me and not only apologized for the behavior of the employees, but gave a reasonable explanation as to why the food took so long (They knew it would be time-consuming so it was scheduled on a Wednesday night,which is traditionally slow…and then Mike Trout happened.) They invited us back to a game to get a full experience and I will look forward to taking them up on that. Thank you, 66ers for your prompt and satisfying customer service. 

2017 Cubs Convention Recap

When I was a freshman in high school I somehow convinced my mother that if I achieved a certain GPA my reward should be a trip in the middle of January, away from the mild clime of southern California to attend the Cubs Convention that I’d been hearing about all summer on WGN. What a Cubs Convention was, I didn’t really know, but if it involved the Cubs I knew I wanted to be there.

Harry Caray and me at my first Cubs Convention. January 1997

That first convention was a whirlwind. I met Harry Caray, Ron Santo, Ernie Banks and many more great Cub legends and had them all sign my Cubs branded baseball as my mom snapped away with a disposable camera to preserve the memories. I loved every minute of it, not counting the sub-zero temperatures and every winter I long to go back.

I’ve attended three more times since my initial Con, and only this year have I gotten a companion willing to attend a second time. I try not to take it personally.

While each Convention has been different, this year provided some new bumps in the road. First, the obvious. The Cubs are the reigning World Series champions. Yay! Which leads to opportunists and bandwagon fans. Boo! It also leads to the Cubs selling more admissions than in years past according to many of the team employees I spoke with. The Convention-related areas of the Sheraton Hotel were a teeming mass of humanity the entire weekend, which leads into bump number two. Due to medical issues, I don’t move around very well these days, which necessitated my acquisition of a wheelchair for the weekend. While most people were very helpful, there was a select portion of the conventioneers who were completely oblivious to the fact that I was trying to travel through the common areas. That got very old very quickly. Overall, these were minor quibbles and I feel like the Convention was probably my most successful yet. Had you asked me about it on Friday night, my opinion might have been a bit more bleak.

2017 Cubs Convention

Opening Ceremonies weren’t scheduled to begin until six in the evening, with Con registration beginning at noon. Since Fridays are still workdays for most people, Lauren and I figured that we could relax, make our way from our hotel to the Sheraton (a ten to fifteen minute trip at the longest) by mid-afternoon and still beat most of the crowd. A glance at Twitter upon waking soon told me that was not going to happen. Supposedly by ten in the morning a line was forming for the Opening Ceremony and growing longer by the second. This blew my mind. While I had never been at the very front for the Ceremony in the past, I had always been able to walk in and find a viewing spot with minimal waiting around. While the prospects of getting a spot weren’t quite as dire as I had been led to believe, we still needed to register for the Convention before we could even think of doing anything else. After forty-five minutes or so, we had officially logged our attendance and gotten our SWAG bags and weekend schedules. We went to the Cubs Charities room and browsed some game-used merchandise, but nothing really caught my eye. We did, however, donate money and got a “mystery autograph” baseball. While I didn’t quite hit the lottery and get a Kris Bryant autographed ball, I did get one signed by several players from the AAGPBL, the women’s baseball league started in WW2 and featured in “A League of Their Own” that I’ve become pretty attached to.

AAGPBL signed ball.

AAGPBL signed ball.

I was still wary of waiting in line for the Opening Ceremony with several hours to go and no guarantee of admission, so Lauren and I wandered around deciding what to do next. We met Bill Buckner and didn’t even mention 1986 and purchased our Convention shirts, since the last time we had attended they sold out before we got them. We decided that we were willing to skip the Ceremony that night and instead get dinner and return for the “autograph hunt” immediately following. Once again, it seemed like we would be ahead of the crowd, since certainly most of them would be attending the ceremony. Once again we were wrong.

According to the misleading information on the schedule, the autograph hunt was to be in the same area that we had registered earlier. On returning from dinner we saw that we weren’t the only ones prioritizing the autograph hunt, so he stuck ourselves in what seemed to be a ragtag line well over an hour before the hunt was due to begin. In spite of the fact that our line mates asked the ushers in the area several times about how the line was formed, how the hunt would work and even the fact that we were in a line to begin with, no one seemed to have any answers as to what exactly was going on and kept repeating that no one had told them anything. This was the most egregious to me, having a very strong customer service background. You can’t just say that you are ill-informed and expect that to be the end of discussion. You need to find a way to get the information you require.

As the scheduled time for the hunt came and went, our line mates began leaving as well, and eventually, even my eternally optimistic self gave up too. There was one final show/panel going on as we left, but there was a very early autograph signing the next morning we wanted to attend, and honestly, I felt so defeated by the rest of the day that I didn’t want to try to do anything else that night. I was ready to swear off of the Convention, now that the Cubs had become the “it” team, it felt like they had forgotten the long-time fans who had always supported them.

We were up almost before dawn the following morning in the hope of getting to attend a meet and greet with the recently retired David Ross and were at the Sheraton well over an hour before the session was to begin. We were trying to navigate our way down to the area that the meet and greet was being held when a man associated with the Convention saw that we needed help and escorted us not only to the elevator, but to the meet and greet area as well. We chatted the whole way over and discussed our disappointment about everything that had, or had not, transpired the night before. As we began to approach our destination, the escort asked which of the meet and greets we were hoping to attend. We told him and he said he would see if he could help us. The curse of the bad Con employee struck again as the woman manning Ross’ line screeched to our new friend that David Ross’ line was full and there was no way that we were getting in that line. He didn’t seem bothered and told us to hold tight for a moment.

He disappeared but returned a few minutes later and told us to follow him and not draw attention to ourselves. We did and he snuck us through a “behind the scenes” area and put us in the very front of the David Ross line. We were astounded, as there were people waiting in the line who had been there since eleven pm the night before. Our new friend next handed me his card and said if I had any trouble getting into any of the panels that day to text him and he would help us. As it turns out, our friend was the hotel manager. We thanked him profusely then and every time we saw him for the rest of the weekend.

Grandpa Rossy!

Grandpa Rossy!

David Ross was wonderful, showing up early, thanking us for being there to see him and taking photos and signing autographs, including signing my baseball as “Grandpa Rossy!” All of the trials and tribulations of the previous night were forgotten and a new day dawned for the Cubs Convention.

Sasquatch sighting at the Eugene Emeralds booth

Ron Santo’s bat

Obviously this all took significantly less time than I had originally assumed, so we were able to see many of the booths and exhibitions while we waited for the first panel we were interested in, which included prolonged visits with all of the Cubs minor league teams and enjoying their amenities, as well as taking the opportunity to swing an actual game-used Ron Santo bat at the Louisville Slugger booth.

We had absolutely no problem getting into the panels we wanted to see, as there was a designated wheelchair section that provided a great view. We saw a panel hosted by Joe Maddon and the coaches, one with Kyle Hendricks, Carl Edwards Jr., Mike Montgomery and Wade Davis and the amazing “Cubs All Star Infield” with Kris Bryant, Addison Russell, Ben Zobrist and Anthony Rizzo.

MVP--and newlywed-- Kris Bryant

MVP–and newlywed– Kris Bryant

The nice thing about the panels is the opportunity to see the players as human beings and see their personalities emerge. All of the guys in question are character-first guys and very personable, which makes it fun and easy to root for them. During the All Star Infield panel, I noticed on Twitter that Anthony Rizzo’s charity was selling opportunities for a meet and greet with him, so Lauren volunteered to go and look into it for me. Unfortunately, it was $300 and at the time I couldn’t make myself pull the trigger. Looking back and having spent less at the Convention than I had budgeted for, I do somewhat regret not doing it.

Broadcaster and moderator, Len Kasper

Broadcaster and moderator, Len Kasper

In my SWAG bag from the day before I had won a spot in an autograph signing with Edwards Jr. and we headed to that next. Edwards was pleasant enough, but very quiet and didn’t really provide a chance for a photo so that was a bit of a bummer. At this point, the Convention was beginning to die down, so we did one lap of the sales floor and then headed out for some Chicago deep-dish pizza for dinner.

Even in a wheelchair and not walking very much at all the Convention wore me out every day. We didn’t stay until closing any of the three days and I was still exhausted when we got back to our hotel every night. It may have been the exhaustion that helped make this such a personally successful Convention, however. I realized from the start that I wasn’t going to be able to see everything and do everything, so I had to make conscientious decisions about the things I really wanted to experience and didn’t need to stress myself–and Lauren– out by trying to do every single thing. It was different for me, but overwhelmingly easier.

World Champions

World Champions

The final half-day of the Convention arrived and we had only one thing we needed to accomplish. Seeing the World Series trophy. It had been on display all weekend for people to take photos, but the line was consistently an hour wait or longer. We hoped with Sunday being a slower, more low-key day, the line for the trophy would reflect that…and it sort of did. We ended up waiting just under an hour to see it in the bizarre makeshift tent that had been setup in the parking garage of the hotel. The tent was fine, but it was a bit chilly and the single heater I noticed wasn’t quite warming the tent enough. Nor was the combined body heat of dozens of Cubs fans.

Future Hall-of-Famer, Lee Smith

Future Hall-of-Famer, Lee Smith

After we thawed out a bit we went to the Charity room again and met one of the all-time great closers, Lee Smith. He is a big man but sounds like “Boomhauer” from “King of the Hill.” He is a genuinely nice man, and it is honestly a crime that he is not yet in the Baseball Hall of Fame.

While we finished up with Smith I saw on Twitter that Cubs organist, Gary Pressy, was in the hotel lobby giving away some of the bobbleheads of himself that the Cubs gave away at a game the previous summer. We found him and lucked out and got one. He even signed it for us. With that, the Convention was pretty much over. There was some area with apparently tons of wiffle ball sets because–I’m not joking–we saw families walking through the hotel lobby all carrying 5-6 sets apiece. I want to know why one family needs 25 wiffle ball bats.

Overall, I’d give this World Champions edition of the Cubs Convention a solid B+. The first night was really hard and I questioned if I’d ever come to another one, but Saturday’s meeting with David Ross helped redeem that and there were very few, if any, issues from then on out.

Big trophy

Big trophy

The Cubs created the idea of a winter fanfest and still host the largest and greatest of them all, though most–if not all–teams do something in the same vein. I’m proud to have been able to go this year after having one, if not two, planned convention trips have to be cancelled in recent memory. Remember, pitchers and catchers report to Spring Training in less than a month!

Until next time, keep tripping baseballs!

Storming The All Stars

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In honor of the advanced Class A California League celebrating it’s 75th anniversary, the Lake Elsinore Storm hosted the annual California versus Carolina League All Star Game this past Tuesday, the 21, at the Diamond in Lake Elsinore and Lauren and I were fortunate enough to attend.

We had tried to get to the game last summer when it was hosted in Rancho Cucamonga, but my prolonged hospital stay following our horrific car accident endured that we missed it, despite having tickets. When I saw that the 2016 game was being held in Southern California for an unprecedented second straight year I marked the date on my calendar and bought tickets as soon as they went on sale.

Lauren and I took just over an hour to drive to Lake Elsinore and arrived shortly after the gates had opened for the pre-game FanFest. We had no idea what FanFest entailed, but thought it would be fun to try and get some autographs, especially since the Cubs were sending several members of their Advanced A team, the Myrtle Beach Pelicans to the event.

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Most of the ballpark was open to fans and there was a “Fun Zone” available, but the main draw for the FanFest was the chance to meet and get autographs from some of baseball’s future stars. The players from the Carolina League had the first set of autograph sessions, meeting fans for an hour while the California League players took batting practice, and then the leagues switched roles.

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Upon first arriving, we were not entirely sure what was going on, so Lauren went ahead of me on a scouting mission, while I held my ground in what seemed to be the longest of the lines formed around the concourse of the ballpark. Our instincts were right, as it turned out, we were in line to meet 3 of the 4 Pelicans players, including top prospect, Ian Happ, and pitchers, Zach Hedges and Jake Stinnett. Despite the line looking fairly intimidating, we did not wait more than 30 minutes or so and the wait was amusing, with mascots from many of the teams represented at the game wandering the concourse and interacting with fans. I even got a kiss and a beard scratch from Thunder, the Storm’s fuzzy green dog mascot.

When we reached the table with the players they could not have been more gracious. They signed autographs with a smile and gave in for any specialized requests. I got a chance to talk very briefly to Hedges about the fact that we had gone to the same college and Stinnett complimented me on my Pelicans t-shirt (journalistic objectivity be damned.) My one regret for the whole interaction was the fact that for some reason I didn’t ask for a photo with them, which I’m sure they would have willing obliged.

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By the time we had finished collecting our things, the Carolina players were about to head down to batting practice, so Lauren and I headed to the team store to see if there was any specialty All Star game merchandise. We lasted only a few minutes in the jam-packed store and didn’t see anything that particularly struck our fancy so we headed down to our seats, a row behind the visitor’s dugout.

Lauren headed back up to the concourse for some snacks, since we still had about 2 hours until the pre-game festivities would begin and returned with some standard ballpark fare; some nachos, hot dogs and a cold lemonade, all of which were tasty, if unremarkable.

I always enjoy watching batting practice, though in retrospect, I should have sought out some of the California League All Stars for their meet and greet sessions, but the benefits of resting my legs and relaxing for a little bit cannot be overstated.

The pre-game festivities began with a local band doing some *interesting* covers of ’80s rock songs and that was followed up with a helicopter from the local hospital landing on the field and delivering Thunder to the game. The pre-game also featured the induction of the initial class of the California League Hall of Fame, with all of the inductees present to receive the honor in person, which meant fans got to see Jose Cruz, Jr., Storm hitting coach, Xavier Nady, 500 home run club member, Gary Sheffield and MLB Hall of Famer, Rickey Henderson.

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Following the Hall of Fame presentation was the introduction of the All Stars. All of the non-starters were driven to their respective baselines by a parade of classic cars. A Navy parachutist carrying the American flag landed on the field and the game was underway.

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A player for the Lynchburg Hillcats, an Indians farm team, and San Diego native, Greg Allen, got on base as the leadoff hitter and proceeded to steal 2 straight bases and come in to score. The Carolina League never looked back and the game felt like significantly more of a blowout than the score of 6-4 would indicate.

The Carolina All Stars always seemed to have something cooking on offense, and when the pitching allowed men on base, they seemed to get out of it with little to no pressure, until the 9th inning when Potomac Nationals pitcher, Evan Phillips gave up 3 runs and left with men on base. Even then, Pelican starting pitcher, Trevor Clifton came in to slam the door on the attempted comeback and nail down a save.

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Clifton wasn’t the only Pelican to have a great showing at the game, however. While Happ was hitless, he had 2 good at-bats and looked good at second base, which is a relatively new position for him, as a converted outfielder. Both Hedges and Stinnett pitched hitless innings, and Hedges turned a particularly gorgeous double play. Speaking of Hedges, I mentioned earlier that he and I both attended the same college, located about an hour away from the Diamond, and the Zach Hedges fan club was in full force at the game. During his inning pitched, I think we heard the loudest and most enthusiastic cheers during the whole game, including any for local Storm players. It made for a fun environment…particularly for this Pelican fan.

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I’d be remiss not to mention some of the other stars of the game, including the previously mentioned Greg Allen, who in addition to his 2 stolen bases managed to score 3 times, his teammate in Lynchburg, Bobby Bradley, who hit a monster home run and game MVP, Andrew Stevenson from Potomac, who hit 2 triples in a ballpark that seems far too cozy to give up too many extra base hits. If you are looking for some Cal League players to keep your eyes out for, I’d suggest looking at High Desert 2nd baseman Travis Demeritte, who is second in all of the minor leagues in home runs and hit a loud double in the game, San Jose  shortstop CJ Hinojosa who had 2 RBI and his teammate, reliever Rodolfo Martinez who was lighting up the radar gun in the mid-90s.

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I love going to minor league games and seeing some of these talented players so early in their careers. It gives me a sense of pride, a “I saw them first” baseball hipster vibe, and attending the All Star game just heightened that feeling. The Cubs, Giants and Indians (Hillcats) seem to have quite a bit of talent coming up through their systems and it will be nice one day to be able to say “I saw them when…”

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Until next time (…and I promise it won’t be long!)

Keep Trippin’ Baseballs!

 

 

 

Cubs on Pace for 162-0!

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Let me make this clear. The Angels are my second favorite team in baseball. Most years I will root for them to go 162-0. This year, however, I was pulling for a 158-4 record and the first two games of the season were two of my anticipated and hoped for losses. And they try to tell me that dreams don’t come true.

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We arrived to Angel Stadium shortly before the gates opened and parked literally right next to the home plate entrance. The stadium lot is only $10 this season, either due to more parking now that the Amtrak station moved down the road or the fact that the Angels were tired of getting undercut by nearby businesses renting out spaces in their parking facilities. I was prepared to pay up to $20 due to my lack of mobility and discomfort walking the half mile from the outlying parking options, so to see the price at half of the cost to park at Disneyland, I was elated.

The aforementioned lack of mobility discouraged me from heading to the first base side of the ballpark, where the Cubs dugout was, to seek autographs or baseballs and Lauren and I headed straight to our seats above the bullpens. I spent much of the pre-game as close to the field as I could get, watching the Cubs take batting and fielding practice, watching Jon Lester warm up and chatting with fellow Cub fans.

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The interesting thing about the pre-game activity was the fact that Manny Ramirez was hanging out in left field with Jorge Soler and Kyle Schwarber and even shagging a few baseballs himself. No one called to him for autographs or baseballs, and I wonder if no one recognized him, or if people just didn’t care. I tend to think it was the former.

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While I didn’t notice any of the Cubs signing autographs at all during the pre-game, I later heard that Jake Arrieta was shagging baseballs in the outfield, pulling a pen from his back pocket, signing the ball and tossing it into the stands, which I happen to love. Post-game I saw the bullpen guys throw at least a half-dozen baseballs into the crowd, so the early reports of the Cubs being not so fan friendly on the road seem to me to be a few jilted autograph dealers upset that maybe the players weren’t signing a dozen baseballs for every fan who asked.

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While I was watching the Cubs get ready, Lauren did a reconnaissance mission of our seating area so that we could plan our food for the evening. I like nothing better than a basic hot dog at the ballpark, but sometimes it’s nice to branch out. We opted for the burger bites, which are essentially White Castle sliders, minus the onions. They were topped with a sweet “thousand island-esque” sauce that was fine, but really, I could take it or leave it. They were served in a bucket with fries that were average ballpark fries. Overall, I’d get them again.

In the same vein, later in the game we shared a sticky sweet strawberry “rum-a-rita” in a lurid shade of red and the basic Angel dog. Both items will easily be repeated as the season goes on.

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The game was great, as Jon Lester was dealing against an anemic Angel offense and the Cubs bats must have brought some of the heat of Las Vegas with them when the came to Anaheim. Home runs by Matt Szczur, Dexter Fowler and one-half of the Bryzzo Souvenir Company as well as a pure hustle double by David “Grandpa” Ross highlighted the offensive onslaught.

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There was a very curious moment in the top of the second inning when Angel pitcher, Andrew Heaney threw one pitch to Anthony Rizzo, stepped off the mound and disappeared into the dugout. I wasn’t sure whether he had been caught doing something illegal to the baseball, but I never saw the umpire gesture that he had been tossed from the game, and immediately jumping on Twitter, learned that he was dealing with a nosebleed. I don’t know if there is any correlation at all, but the Angels placed him on the disabled list today with a muscle strain. Not a good thing for a franchise that is already very thin in the pitching department.

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Lester pitched 7 strong innings and only allowed 4 hits, which marks a significantly better start than his first Cub start last season. Later, Trevor Cahill, Travis Wood and Pedro Strop all made appearances out of the bullpen and all looked very sharp.

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As I said, we were seated right above the bullpens, in an area with a few fairly vocal groups of Cub fans, including a drunk man in a Cubs onesie and two of my favorite people from work, Shaun and Arvin. I really want the Cubs hockey-style sweatshirt that Arvin was showing off.

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We left the game with little to no hassle and as we sat in the parking lot of the Big A I plugged in my iPhone and played “Go Cubs, Go” since the Angels didn’t have the common courtesy to play it for us after the “W.”

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Thank you Angels for the 2-0 start. You can start winning now. At least until you head out to Wrigley later this summer! As usual, a gallery of game photos can be found right here.

Until next time,

Keep Tripping Baseballs!

Cubs Are Exhibitionists in Anaheim

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While I don’t fully understand the reasons that the Cubs would play an exhibition game on the day before they open the season against the team with whom they are going to play to start the aforementioned season I cannot complain too much. The fairly ill-conceived game provided me with two opportunities to see my Cubs in my town, since tickets to the actual opening day were selling for slightly more than I was willing, or able, to pay. Adding to that, the fact that the exhibition was taking place on a beautiful Sunday afternoon and I was sold on the idea.

The crowd for the game was significantly less than I had anticipated, possibly due to the fact that the two teams were playing “for real” the following day, and there was a healthy number of Cub fans in attendance, many located on the first base side close to the Cubs dugout.

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The thing that irritated me a bit was the fact that while Joe Maddon started the same lineup that will be starting on Opening Day, the Angels didn’t even bother with trotting out the regulars, even for a few innings. Mike Trout and Albert Pujols were both conspicuously MIA.

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The ballpark appears much the same as it has over the past few years with no real notable additions or subtractions, either aesthetically or in relation to food offerings, which is a bit of a shame.

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All of that being said, however, it was great to get back out to a baseball game, and while the end result of a Cubs loss is never a good thing, Kyle Hendricks pitched well and struck out more than a batter an inning and the Bryzzo boys crushed a pair of home runs adding to one from Addison Russell. Albert Almora showed his amazing defensive skills, as well.

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I will also be attending game two, featuring Jon Lester and hopefully seeing the Cubs head to Arizona with a 2-0 record!

As always, the full gallery of photos can be found here.

Until next time,

Keep Tripping’ Baseballs!

Happy 100th Birthday, Weeghman Park! I Mean, Cubs Park! I Mean, Wrigley Field!

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Today was going to be an early start for us, not only because the game started at 1:20 and not only because we were trying to get to Wrigley as soon as it opened, in order to get our limited edition giveaway jerseys and birthday cupcakes, but because our time was 2 hours earlier than Chicago time. So much for sleeping in on vacation.

It was worth it for us, though. Not only would it be a beautiful, albeit frigid, day at the Friendly Confines, but today was to be the day that the Cubs were officially celebrating the 100th birthday of Weeghman Park/Cub Park/Wrigley Field, making it the 2nd oldest ballpark in the MLB, second only to Boston’s Fenway Park.

We decided to partake in the hotel’s free continental breakfast, which, for the most part, consisted of hard boiled eggs and min boxes of cereal, in order to get something in our bellies before hitting the ballpark. Given it’s convenient location and low price point, it seemed like most of the guests of the hotel were there for the big game, with Cubs jerseys abounding in the tiny dining room. The meager offerings and crowded room made this the one and only time that we partook of the breakfast on-site.

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We made our way the half mile to Wrigley and got there approximately an hour before the gates were to open. We were not the first ones there. Not by a long shot. The crowds filled the sidewalks around Wrigley, much to the chagrin of the local Chicago cops, who kept trying to move the lines our of the public walking areas, with limited success. This was particularly frustrating to Lauren and I, as our jobs require a great deal of crowd control, and we felt like we could have handled the daunting task, probably with much less effort than was being exhorted by the Fuzz.

The atmosphere was festive around the park, however and despite, the initial rush of the gates at opening, people were fairly courteous and I didn’t see anyone get trampled. Jerseys and cupcakes in hand, we found our way to the seats to relax and take obscene amounts of photos before the game and festivities were to begin.

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In case it isn’t blatantly obvious, I am a photography enthusiast and enjoy taking my camera to baseball games, in hopes of getting that perfect shot, or at least documenting my adventures.and, of course, I had my camera at the game. Since I was documenting the jerseys, the cupcakes and some of the more close-up details of the pre-game, I didn’t have my telephoto lens on my camera and in one of the more generous acts that I have witnessed, the older gentleman who was sharing our row offered to let me borrow his long lens to take some shots on my camera. It was a very sweet act, and once I had assured him that I was covered, he had me take some photos of him and his wife in the seats, in exchange for taking some of Lauren and me. It was a gesture that was truly appreciated.

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Before we knew it, it was time for the pre-game celebration to begin, which kicked off with the Northwestern marching band taking the field and performing, as would have been done at the original opening, as well as an introduction of representatives of the very few owners that the Cubs had endured in the 100 years of the ballpark, as well as Commissioner Bud Selig (who, I will note was soundly booed…at least by me) and the first pitch was thrown out by Sue Quigg, the great grandniece of Charles Weeghman, who built what we know as Wrigley Field.

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Following the first pitch was a parade of Wrigley Field dignitaries to take the field. The lineup began with former Chicago Bears, Gayle Sayers and Dick Butkus, in memory of the Bears residence at Wrigley Field through the 1970 season. Next out, representing the Cubs were second baseman, Glenn Beckert (a personal favorite of mine) and pitcher, Milt Pappas. They were followed by catcher, Randy Hundley, outfielder, Gary “Sarge” Matthews and reliever, Lee Smith.

The next representative were the most heartbreaking for me, as 2 of Ron Santo’s grandchildren emerged from the dugout wearing #10 jerseys and took their grandfather’s place standing at 3rd base. Ron is one of my all-time favorite Cubs and human beings, for all that he did to support type-1 diabetes research and the kindness with which he once treated a geeky 11-year old kid at a Cubs Convention upon learning that the kid was a diabetic as well. I’d be lying if I were to say that the tears were’t starting to stream at this point.

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Next out was fan favorite, Ryan Dempster and then the Hall of Famers started to make their appearances. Andre Dawson came out in his #8 to thunderous applause and was followed immediately by Ferguson Jenkins. Billy Williams was next and last, but certainly not least, was Mr.Cub, the embodiment of Wrigley Field and the eternal optimism of Cub fans, Ernie Banks, as the ballpark absolutely exploded. The men held their positions for a few minutes for photos and shots from the TV crews as the National Anthem played and then exited through the dugout. It was a great tribute, despite missing a few names who should have been there. Pre-game literature stated that Kerry Wood was going to be in attendance and despite commitments to other teams, I would have loved to see my favorite Cub, Ryne Sandberg and newest Hall of Famer, Greg Maddux at the ceremony, as well.

Another glaring omission. and one that has been debated to death on the internet, was slugger Sammy Sosa. Sammy has been MIA from any Cub event since his disastrous departure at the end of the 2004 season. If baseball has accepted back both Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire into coaching and instructional roles, there is certainly room for Sammy to come back for appearances at Wrigley Field and the annual Cubs Convention. It’s been over a decade and most of the wounds have healed.

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For this historic game, the Cubs were wearing Chicago Federals jerseys and the Arizona Diamondbacks were wearing the uniforms of the Kansas City Packers, the ChiFeds first opponents. The jerseys looked great and even the PA announcements referred to the teams as the Federals and the Packers. It was a small, but nice, detail to add to the festivities.

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As the game was about to begin, we grabbed an Italian beef sandwich, the specialty cocktail a “1910s Weeghman Park Old-Fashioned” and our birthday cupcakes and settled in for what was sure to be a solid Cubs victory. Sidenote: the cupcakes were from a local grocery store called Jewel-Osco and they were delicious enough for us to actually find a Jewel-Osco the following day and purchase more.

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The game started well enough, with Jeff Samardzija once again pitching brilliantly, and the Cubs offense scoring 5 runs, which would normally be enough to seal the win, especially given that Samardzija only gave up 2 runs over 7.1 innings, but this was a Cubs celebration, and somehow, happily ever after, always seems to elude them. After Hector Rondon came in to finish the 7th with nary a mark on his record, Dick Butkus, Fergie Jenkins, Billy Williams and Dutchie Caray, the widow of Harry, sang the 7th inning stretch, and the wheels started to come off.

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Pedro Strop, who is normally a very consistent deliver managed to give up a total of 4 runs, including 3 that were unearned and James Russell gave up 1, to blow the save, there was a certain feeling in the ballpark air. A feeling of dread. Our fairy tale ending, of the Cubs winning on the 100th anniversary of Wrigley Field was not to be had.

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I try to be the eternal Cubs optimist and never give up, but as this game spun out of control I was reminded of the old joke:

“An optimist says the glass is half full. A pessimist says it’s half empty. A Cubs fan looks at the glass and wonders when it’s going to tip over.” The 8th inning. The glass tipped over at the 100th anniversary game in the 8th inning. Given all of the hype and excitement over the festivities and celebration, this was basically the most Cub-like thing that the team could have done in memoria.

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The wind was out of our sails as we joined the multitude trudging out of the ballpark and found our way back to the hotel. We were optimistic, though. The Cubs and DBacks (no longer Packers and ChiFeds) had another glorious day game the following afternoon and we had very good seats. What can I say, I’m ever the foolish optimist.

After we rested at the hotel for a bit we found a local Scottish pub, the Duke of Perth, about a mile from our lodgings in the beautiful Lakeview neighborhood and enjoyed some of the most delicious pub food that we had ever tasted. We, then settled in to our room to warm our frigid little bodies and get ready for the adventures of the following day.

Once again, the full collection of today’s photos can be found here.