That June day more than twenty-two years ago began cloudless and hot, the Cubs and Cards, both doing all right at the time, poised to clash for short-term bragging rights in the ongoing saga of their regional rivalry. When that Saturday started—clear, humid, but breezy—neither team had a very impressive record. The pennant wasn’t at stake, not, as I can best recollect, when I awoke alone in my apartment in the eighth month of my marital separation, glad about the sun and looking forward to being with my two children again.
At the time, my boy was seven, a player of the game. My girl was just three, her tee-ball career a few years off. Before I left their mother, I woke up Saturdays, some of them like this one, with my daughter’s silent, smiling little face and almond-shaped eyes a rising sun inches from my nose. That morning no daughter dawned before me, but my mood lightened when I remembered that I’d be seeing her and her brother soon.
My son, the player, was more intense. At one game he was stationed at shortstop, but when a ball was hit to right field, he’d run there. When his third baseman teammate fielded a grounder, my boy had to duck to dodge the throw to first. “You don’t stay in your zone,” I warned him, “and one day you’ll get hit upside the head.” The phrase amused him, and I used it and anything else that could make him laugh as often as I could. I liked how his laugh was rarely cruel, as the laughter of six- to ten-year-olds can be, and animated his entire face.
There I was in a one-bedroom apartment instead of my three-bedroom
house–no children’s voices sounding around me, a July-hot
sun beating through the undressed windows of my bare living room.
But a line from Cubs’ announcer Harry Caray, his roots sunk deep
in both Chicago and St. Louis, struck the theme for being together
again with my kids: “Ah, ya can’t beat fun down at the old
ballpark.” More fun, for sure, than dealing with the dirty
dishes and laundry that seemed to amass now that I was single again.
It was my second Cubs contest that year. The first I arranged so my kids could get to know my girlfriend’s thirteen-year-old daughter. The afternoon was overcast—or overdetermined. Dully, the Cubs lost to Houston in that one, and my attempt to encourage friendships between my kids and my girlfriend’s daughter met more or less the same fate.
But this Saturday, things were different already. “Cubs! Cards! Kids!” I exclaimed as my son and daughter clambered excitedly into my car. A historic diamond rivalry on a sunny, steamy, summer day—what American dad—or kid—wouldn’t feel as psyched as I did? From Wrigley’s upper deck along its first base side, fans could see white sails and speedboats crisscrossing Lake Michigan, the water tinged with a perfect Cubbie blue.
The Cards’ field rises beside another body of water central to the Midwest, the Mississippi. A Cubs-Cards contest always expresses both the historic rivalries and interconnectedness of two great mid-American cities, just as a Red Sox–Yankees tilt expresses both the rivalries of Boston and New York and their interconnectedness on the Atlantic. For Chicagoans, for Midwesterners, though, no Cubs-Phillies, much less Cubs-Houston game has the same meaning. And it is, I have learned as a transplant from the East, the duty of Chicago, St. Louis, Des Moines, Omaha, Gary, and Peoria dads to teach their children about such things.
I picked my kids up at the house where they lived with their mother, where I used to live. (“All separating partners experience a reduced standard of living,” I remembered my divorce lawyer saying.) But the custodial transfer was exceptional that day. "Your child support isn’t enough," their mother often told me in front of them. I learned to take my lawyer’s advice at such moments, listening silently and making decisions later. But for reasons I still don’t know, she had no such remarks for me that day.
I’d packed turkey, mustard, and mayo sandwiches in a lunch bag, with an apple for dessert or if we got thirsty, and we drove to Wrigley in my non-air-conditioned Honda hatchback, windows open, wind blowing in our faces. My son later told me, “Dad, whenever we said we were thirsty when we young, you told us to have an apple. Apples don’t quench your thirst.”
Walking as fast as we could from the car to our first-come-first-served Wrigley bleacher seats, we passed lines of tour buses, chartered not only from St. Louis, but from Des Moines, Omaha, and other towns in Illinois, Iowa, Indiana, and Missouri. We got in line behind the bleachers at 10:30 for a 1:05 start, and bought our tickets–five dollars apiece, I recall. We took our seats, just above the sun-baked concrete in Wrigley’s right field stands. My son was the only one of us wise enough to bring a hat. He wore his—perhaps the canary yellow one from his first Little League team—with the brim folded into an upside-down U. It would keep his nose from getting sunburned, but not his cheeks.
We didn’t know at that moment, but this was to be Da Game, the one that Ryno (Sandberg) tied in the bottom of the tenth with a dinger, his second in two innings. The game that reportedly made Harry Caray weep after the second Ryno-hit: “Might be, could be, it is! A HOME RUN! HOLY COW!” The game that once over, triggered talk of Cubs playoff contention. We witnessed (and I mean in the biblical sense) one of the greatest baseball games ever played.
One or maybe two outs and the bases loaded in the bottom of the eleventh. As we three watched, I was torn. I longed with all my baseball fan might for Cubs to untie the score (stay?), yet feared the hell to pay from my estranged spouse if I didn’t get kids back to suburbia by deadline (go?). “It’s after 4:30,” I remember thinking, “With Wrigleyville traffic, I might not get ‘em home ‘til after 6."
I shut down the thought by glancing at my kids. I recently learned that pre-adolescent girls favor purple more than any other color. On that June afternoon my daughter wore a favorite of both of ours, a deep lavender short-sleeve top with a ruffled scalloped collar. Both she and my son were focused with unusual maturity on the game and the setting, an engaged, SRO crowd. Here a sea of Cubbie blue hats and shirts, there a pond of Cardinal red, jerseys accented with that classic yellow bat. Purple, blue, the green of the in- and outfields, yellow, red. For more than thirty thousand fans, the colors were part of the spectacle purchased with the ticket. For me, they were more: reminders of the rainbows my daughter drew so often back then whenever I brought out paper and crayons for the three of us. I never told her, but her rainbows meant a promise fulfilled to me.
For reasons neither she nor I can remember, she suddenly stood
up as the enemy hurler flung the ball to Cubs pinch hitter Dave
Owen. He slashed a line drive to the right side. At that instant,
the whole ballpark joined her to their feet, Cubs fans to urge the
ball up, up, above the rising glove arm of the Cards’ second baseman
and then down to the right center field grass in front of the onrushing
outfielder to produce that majestic game-winning hit.
In the din, I screamed in delight at my beaming daughter, “You did it!” I bent down to take hold of her shoulders. “How did you know he would do that?! You stood up before he even hit it!”
She only kept smiling silently. My son, his thin right arm pumping the air, jumped up and down, shouting “Yeah, yeah, yeah!” Fans shook our hands. Total strangers offered high fives. We all got sunburned. “Your father did it again,” their mother said when she saw their red cheeks and arms. But I took my children to the game that made them baseball fans to this day.
Dave Owen was later sent down to the minors, traded, and never again came close to replicating the moment his hit entered Cubs heaven. Sandberg’s accomplishments are what most Cubs fans remember about Da Game. But I swear my little girl knew something about Owen’s at-bat before any other Cubs fan did that afternoon. She knew with the pitch that in a few seconds Jo-dee, Sarge, or the Penguin, the Red Baron, Smitty, one of the “Killer Ds”-Denier or Durham–or nicknameless Larry Bowa or Keith Moreland would score and Harry would bellow, “CUBS WIN! CUBS WIN! CUBS WIN!” once again.
My now adult children and I attended another major league game last year. At an extended family gathering some months later, my son publicly thanked me for teaching him to love baseball. And last Father’s Day, my daughter bought me a picture frame that holds six images. Three are cut-outs from the promotional team poster fans received as they entered the park that day. The other three are photos of my kids and one of my daughter and me. My arm embraces her now broader shoulders in that shot. Behind us the green of center field extends to the infield ground. Beyond that you can see home.