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Austin Chronicle Coach's Corner

By Andy "Coach" Cotton

AUGUST 17, 1998:  As if looking for long-lost innocence, I've been pondering the hard and steady drain of baseball from my sports consciousness. I dismiss the obvious - today's rent-a-team philosophy, the strike, and the perpetual, self-destructive bungling of the game's "management" as only contributing factors - because it began long before that. Anyone who liked sports and grew up in America, circa the 1950s, was a baseball fan. From 1960, back to the turn of the century, baseball was all there was. This helps explain the sappy, soft-focus father-son reminiscences of sportswriters from my generation. From before I could walk, I too was escorted weekly to Wrigley Field or Comiskey Park by literally everyone in my family: Mom, Dad, aunts, uncles, and both sets of grandparents. By the time I was two, I sported my very own complete Cub uniform - hey, it wasn't my idea - complete with blue and red stirrups, hose, belt, pants, jersey, and hat. I grew up a rabid Cub fan, and that, sportsfans, is a sorry thing indeed, something not to wish on your worst enemy.

As horrid as the Cubs have been most of the century, the Cubs of the 1950s were as motley and somnambulant a bunch of athletes as have ever been gathered in one city wearing the same uniform. "Whoooooops," Jack Brickhouse, Voice of the Cubs for 40 years, would say every time a foul ball went up the net behind home plate and "boom" when it fell to the ground. "Whoops, boom" epitomized the namby-pamby sissies that were the Cubs of the Fifties.

As the Fifties receded into the hopeful Sixties, I grew older, but no wiser. I understood that this was a bunch of long-term losers, but after a decade of this abuse, I clearly identified with - and was, indeed, now strongly attracted to - people and things with something very wrong brewing just beneath the surface. I snuck off to games, raced home to catch the last inning on TV, or tuned in on a little transistor radio. But it's been over 30 years now since I've lived in Chicago, and that absence, more than anything, has killed off my interest. Of course there's been terrible, painful heartbreak along the way. The ghoulish collapse of '69. An even more painful choke in the '84 LCS against San Diego, the least worthy National League pennant winner in 50 years. Knee surgery without anesthetic is what it was.

I snapped; couldn't take it any more. I decided the Cubs didn't deserve me as a fan. And they don't. However, I made this decision from Austin, now almost two decades removed from Chicago. For me, being a baseball fan is an organic kinda thing; something to nurture every day. It demands daily attention, like I gave it when I was in high school. I have no trouble following the Bears or Bulls from afar, but they're a different animal. Pro football is an elitist game. Tickets were scarce in '59, and they're scarce today. I didn't go to my first Bear game until I was 15. Football will always be a television game. What's the difference what city you're watching it in? I've got my Bear season ticket on Direct TV. And basketball? In 1960, without television, the NBA barely existed.

I discovered yesterday, to my dismay I must admit, that the sick, sick Cub fan still lurks. I watched most of the Cub-Cardinal game on Fox. It's the first Cub game I've watched in years. Despite being astounded at the terrible, half-assed job Tim McCarver does on the telecast, I slowly found myself drawn in.

It was not a normal August game for the Cubs, which is to say, the game still meant something. They're fighting for a wild card spot. By the seventh inning, my heart was pumping. I was yelling encouragement at various Cubs, calling them "son" since I had no idea who they were. (When did I get older than these guys?) Anyway, it ended as it always did. They blow a lead. Some kid hits a two-run pinch-hit home run in the 12th to give Chicago a win - except that St. Louis still must bat. Maybe, I hope, things are different now. The Cub "closer" enters the game. A soft, little-league grounder rolls gently beneath the legs of the shortstop. Long-repressed memories surface. The closer gets two guys out, including striking out Mark McGwire. Then he goes to two strikes on a guy who has today broken a Cardinal record for the most strikeouts in a single game. I knew what was about to happen - and it did. Home run. Tie game. A few innings later, the Cubs lose.

All the old buried feelings of betrayal surfaced. I was pissed off the rest of the day and night. Don't tell me about any glasses being half full. Still, it's clear a fan is still in there ... somewhere. Baseball is, in spite of itself, a good game, but not from 1,000 miles away.

Parting Shots: Have you noticed that the home run pace of McGwire et al. has slowed considerably? McGwire, in fact, is the only one still ahead of Maris' pace as I write this, and just barely at that. With 45 games remaining, McGwire must hit a homer every three games, which sounds a lot easier than it is. Maris, with Mickey Mantle hitting behind him, hit a barrage of homers in September, usually a time when fatigue and injuries catch up with everyone.

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