By Rick Firfer
What a difference a year can make. The 2016 baseball season brought us a virtual wire-to-wire championship performance by the Chicago Cubs, a wholly unexpected occurrence when the season began. Contrast that with the expectations of Cubs fans when the 2017 season began, a season everyone was certain would bring another World Series championship to Chicago. Talk about disappointment.
As Cubs fans are now coming to understand, Fall baseball at Wrigley Field is as exciting as baseball can get, if for no other reason than that for so long it just did not happen. But here they were, for the third year in a row playing for a chance to be a World Series team.
Two years ago, the New York Mets stymied the Cubs’ reach for glory, but last year the Dodgers could not stop them and we all know what happened after that. This season, however, the Dodgers had loaded up with some hungry talent and the Cubs players were simply, inexplicably drained of energy. This was going to be a difficult match-up for the defending champions.
Sure enough, the Dodgers steamrolled through the Cubs in the first two games, which were played in Los Angeles. But there was still hope because the Cubs were coming back to Wrigley for the next two games, and maybe more.
Game 3 of the NLCS was going to be played on a beautiful, crisp October evening in Chicago. So, for the second year in a row, out to Wrigley went this intrepid reporter to chronicle for Sports Collectors Digest readers the Cubs versus Dodgers, Postseason, Part Two.
Last year, the experience was electric. The first two games were at Wrigley and they ended up being split by the two teams. The energy displayed by Cubs fans for both games really could not be adequately described, easily matching the frenzy and excitement that would later be displayed during the World Series played against the Cleveland Indians. The players on both teams tried to conduct themselves with professional stoicism and calm, but their overall demeanor gave them away. Every one of the Cubs and Dodgers players was like a little kid in a candy store, but never forgetting the magnitude of what was at stake.
This year, the excitement was still there, but it was more tempered, as if the kids had grown up and now knew that eating too much candy would give them a tummy ache. The excitement was more measured. When we talked with the players last year, there was more of a “Gee Whiz” kind of a response to our questions. This year, the responses were more thought out and to the point. The players on both sides definitely felt they belonged in this series, having worked hard to get there. No one thought they had gotten there through dumb luck.
One of the players we talked to at the NLCS last year was Andre Ethier, a key veteran for the Dodgers. We asked him at that time whether he was a collector, and he said yes. But Ethier was being pulled in several directions at once, so he did not have the time to give us any meaningful insight into his collecting habits. This year we pulled him aside again and asked the same questions, and this year he was able to give us better answers.
Ethier said that his focus was on collecting signed bats from select teammates and others whose careers he follows and for whom he has great respect. He said he treasures those bats and keeps them in special bat racks that he has at home. In return for those bats, Ethier says he generally obliges the other players with autographs or any equipment they might reasonably desire.
One of Ethier’s greatest collecting memories involves his kids and a player that everyone admires, Bryce Harper. Ethier related that he had brought his two sons to a game between the Dodgers and the Nationals and he was walking with them through the players’ tunnel before the game when one of his sons, a huge Harper fan, pointed out that Harper was about to walk by them. So Ethier urged his son to go over and say hello. His son did him one better when he went over to Harper. He said hello and then asked Harper for one of his bats. Somewhat taken aback, Harper acknowledged the boy but then kept walking. No bat. Bummer.
Imagine Ethier’s surprise then, when a little later two signed Bryce Harper bats were delivered to him in the Dodgers’ locker room, one for each of his sons. Ethier could not figure out what happened until he learned later that Harper’s father had witnessed the encounter between Harper and Ethier’s son and instructed Harper to send those bats over. Or else. Ethier’s sons are older now, but to this day they still have and treasure those bats, according to Ethier.
Another Dodgers player who was happy to talk about collecting was Curtis Granderson. Granderson, one of the nicest and happiest players in the game, is likely on the tail end of his career, but he treasures the friendships and the memories he has made during that long and winding career.
Granderson is a Chicago native who attended the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) and has given much back to the city and his alma mater. In fact, Granderson donated to UIC the money that it used to completely rebuild its baseball stadium not too long ago. The stadium is now named for him.
What does Granderson collect? Team photos. But not just any team photos. He collects and mounts on his walls at home photos of each of the teams he has played on. That way, he can look at those photos and remember the guys, the plays, the triumphs and the disappointments he has experienced along the way.
Granderson said he does not need bats and balls to show his kids so they will understand what he did in his career. He just needs to show them the photos and tell them the stories that those photos evoke to make the impression on them that he wants to make. How to be a champion, that is.
Other players with whom we had the chance to briefly chat were Yasiel Puig, Rich Hill and Yu Darvish. Unfortunately, in the case of Puig and Darvish the language barriers were too great to overcome, so banter was kept to a minimum and there was no chance to talk collecting.
It was also striking to see how different those two players were. Puig seemed to be a friendly, fun-loving guy, at least with the people he knows. His pre-game workouts were fun to watch. Darvish, on the other hand, seemed to be a very serious, straight-forward kind of guy. One who answers questions briefly and directly through an interpreter. He did get somewhat animated, however, when he answered a question about his feelings when he took a walk with the bases loaded to knock in a run In Game 3 of the NLCS.
Rich Hill is, and always has been, a classy guy, from the time he first entered the major leagues as a Chicago Cub, right through his current comeback tour with the Dodgers. Hill and I briefly revisited an experience we once shared at Wrigley Field late in his rookie season.
Hill had just finished his pre-game warm-ups and was minding his own business when I walked up to him and asked if he would be kind enough to pose for a photo with the guy who was scheduled to throw out the ceremonial first pitch that night. Hill was about to politely decline when I mentioned that the “guy” in the photo with him would be U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, possibly the greatest living fan of the Chicago Cubs. At that point it became unnecessary to ask Hill again. He simply jogged over to where Stevens was standing and smiled broadly for the photo.
As a courtesy, I later gave copies of that photo to both Stevens and Hill. Hill said that he still has the photo somewhere around his house. I then told Hill about a trip I made to Washington a few years later to be sworn in as a member of the bar of the U.S. Supreme Court and was invited into Justice Stevens’ chambers for a brief reunion. One of the first things I noted in Stevens’ chambers was a framed copy of the photo with Hill hanging on the wall. Talk about a thrill.
As the 2017 NLCS came to a close, and not a happy one for the Cubs, the Dodgers players were obviously in a celebratory mood. Most interesting, however, was the demeanor of the Cubs manager, Joe Maddon. Maddon is one of those unflappable guys who seems to react the same whether he is winning or losing. He never gets too high or too low, just taking it all in and hoping his sometimes unorthodox moves will prove successful in the end.
He is the kind of guy you find yourself pulling for no matter what your loyalties may be. He just radiates warmth. Last year, his moves proved successful and Cubs fans were all happy for him and the team. This year, it just did not break in his favor. But you know what, at the end all he wanted to talk about was what a great effort his players had given him, and how important it was to start looking ahead at all the possibilities 2018 might bring for him, his team and all their wonderful fans. That is why Maddon will never have to pay for his own drinks in Chicago, ever again.
Rick Firfer is a freelance contributor to Sports Collectors Digest.