BY NEIL HAYES
For the Sun-Times
Jay Johnstone played for eight major-league teams during his 20-year career, so he’s frequently invited to anniversary celebrations and reunions.
But the Cubs Convention this weekend is special for the former outfielder.
“I’d walk back to come to that thing,” he said. “It’s really great, seeing those guys from the 1984 Cubs. We were like brothers. We all got along maybe because none of us liked Jim Frey. We just let him think he was the manager. Nobody ever said he was the smartest manager in the world.
“I have [three] World Series rings. I’m OK in that respect, but I would have loved to have gone to the World Series with the Cubs.’’
Leave it to Johnstone, who was almost as well known for his clubhouse shenanigans as for his play on the field, to speak his mind. What else would you expect from someone who was mentored by Jimmy Piersall when they were with the Angels?
“He was really, really beneficial in helping me with outfield defense and what to look for and how to watch guys swing,” Johnstone said of the outspoken ex-White Sox broadcaster. “When I played in Chicago, he told me to always watch guys take batting practice because players liked to go out and party in Chicago. If you saw someone not hitting it sharply, you know they had a few drinks the night before. If he’s hitting it sharply, he got his rest. He gave me a lot of tips that people don’t think about.”
Johnstone has co-authored three books, including two best-sellers, appeared in the movie “The Naked Gun” and worked as a broadcaster and businessman.
But what he’s doing now is more satisfying. His Southern California-based company, SporThings and More, organizes fundraisers and provides sports memorabilia for charities.
A former Marine who played for the Sox in 1971 and ’72, Johnstone also serves as national spokesman for Hope4Heroes, which raises money for wounded troops.
“We set up celebrity softball games and get funds for guys who need to be taken care of,” he said. “We had a game last year where there were 12 or 14 guys with prosthetic legs, and you should have seen those guys run. You can see the smiles and happiness on their faces because even though they may be missing a limb, they can get out and do something fun.”
Johnstone still follows the game and knows how excited Cubs fans are about the offseason acquisition of ace Jon Lester and the young core of impact players that they hope will serve as a foundation for a World Series run in coming years.
He also offers fair warning for prospects who haven’t played at Wrigley Field yet.
“Wrigley Field is the hardest ballpark in history to play in,” he said. “So many things can go wrong that people don’t realize. There are [lots of] doors in the outfield where a ball could hit and go either way. There’s the brick wall, and the ivy sticks are so sharp in the spring that one time I backed into the wall and had to get stitches.”
It’s no surprise that Johnstone’s favorite Wrigley memory has nothing to do with baseball.
“I like to play pranks,” he said. “One time, guys played a prank on me and sent a lady who must have weighed 300 pounds with a funny hat and a wide skirt to sing me a song during the seventh-inning stretch,” he said. “The crowd and the fans down the left-field line were laughing hysterically. There was nothing I could do. The game was held up while she sang me the telegram. I had to put my glove over my mouth, I was laughing so loud.”
Contact Neil Hayes at email@example.com or at neilhayeswriter.com.