In Alaska, at this time of year, my thoughts turn to bears.
With Fish and Game folks like Larry Lewis getting out and about touting their bear-resistant trash receptacles to help keep soon to be waking bruins out of urban backyards, I awake from my own form of slumber and again set my defenses against grizzled marauders.
As I look out the dining room window I start thinking about putting away my bird feeder. That’s about the only bait near my house that might lure in the spring bear known to wander the neighborhood.
This sort of thought process is not innate to me as it might be to some Native Alaskans. I grew up in Chicago. That being said, however, I was born a Cubs fan ... as well as a Bears fan.
In that sense, this time of year, my thoughts have always turned to bears -- at least Cubby bears.
I wonder, “Will this be the year?” Almost as quickly, the familiar chant: “Maybe next year” quells any expectations.
My thoughts drift to my father’s unfaltering loyalty to the Cubbies. Poor guy ... he was born the year after the Cubs won the World Series title, he lived into his 80s and in his entire lifetime, the Cubs never presented him with the opportunity to venture up to the friendly confines of Wrigley Field to witness a world championship game.
So far, my fate hasn’t been much more promising. I was born a few years after the Cubs’ last National League pennant.
The way things are going, I am likely not going to see a Cubs pennant, much less a world championship in my lifetime.
I feel somewhat blessed in that the baseball gods split up the leagues a dozen or so years back into divisions. I have acquired a few Cubs T-shirts emblazoned with such boasts as “National League Wild Card” and “Central Division Champs.”
Like many Cubs fans in my age group, little guesswork was needed in the old days to figure out why the Cubbies never quite reached the top of the pile.
The franchise was always centered on one big stick and no battery. That, it seemed, was always enough to fill the relatively small stadium.
I remember Hank Sauer, Ernie Banks, Billy Williams, Ron Santo, Ryne Sandberg, Andre Dawson ... Kickin’ back in the bleachers and watching their spheres soar over, heading toward Waveland or Sheffield avenues was as good as a summertime fireworks show. (They’re much more spectacular down there where the night skies in July are dark.)
If by some fluke, the Cubs accidentally acquired a standout pitcher -- think Rick Rueschel, Fergie Jenkins, Bruce Sutter, Lee Smith, Greg Maddux -- management seemed bent on trading the hurler as quickly as possible for yet another batsman.
Then something weird happened.
The Cubs wound up with two great pitchers at the same time: Mark Prior and Kerry Wood.
Cubs fans -- myself included -- were turned on their heads. We started learning terms like “middle reliever,” “closer,” “winning season.”
“Holy cow,” as Harry Caray would have said.
About three years ago, it seemed the two moundsmen might actually allow the North Siders to end one of the longest dry spells between championships in all of baseball.
Of course, the curse of the billy goat reared its ugly head at 1060 W. Addison yet again; some overzealous knucklehead reached out for a souvenir and instead hauled in the earnest, if not frail, winning spirit of the Cubbies, plunging them back into the unheralded depths of despair I’ve come to expect.
Hope lingered the following year and the next as Wood and Prior were both listed on the starting roster, but it didn’t take long for me to realize the injury-plagued pitchers can’t usually stay healthy through April.
April. April. Heck, that’s today.
But wait, Prior was sent back to the minors last week, and lo, Wood is on the disabled list.
The Cubs’ first game is tomorrow. Their home opener is a week later, and already the two star pitchers are gone.
Not to worry, though, over the winter, we got Lou Piniella to manage the team.
I know this guy’s as sharp as a button.
Here’s what he said after Wood pitched one inning last Sunday, giving up three hits including a two-run homer:
“He wasn’t as sharp today, obviously.”
Maybe next year.
Phil Hermanek is a reporter for the Peninsula Clarion.
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