65th birthday conjures up lifetime of sports memories

SHARE 65th birthday conjures up lifetime of sports memories


For the Sun-Times

AARP, the American Association of Retired Persons, has been carpet-bombing my mailbox since I turned 40, it seems. I’ve unashamedly been paying senior prices for movie tickets for a while now, and the nice young lady at the sandwich shop routinely applies the senior discount to my bill without ever asking my age.

So this transition to senior-citizen status has been a gradual process, although reality hit home with a thud when the odometer clicked over to 65 the other day. How did that happen? I was once a young up-and-comer in my field. Now I’m the oldest guy in most press boxes I enter.

I won’t be scaling Mount Everest, swimming the English Channel or running with the bulls in Pamplona soon, but I feel pretty good. Or, ‘‘Not bad for an old man,’’ as Frank Cunningham, my irascible former boss at Red’s Drive Inn, would put it.

I stopped counting at 26, which prompted some quizzical looks when my kids aged past me into their 30s. ‘‘We’re Catholic,’’ I’d explain, ‘‘and we believe in miracles. So chalk it up to a miracle and credit me after I’m gone.’’

As if sainthood were ever in the offing.

I got into the newspaper biz because I loved to read, I liked to write and I loved sports enough to want in on the games. I knew early on I wouldn’t get there as a player — not good enough. I had a paper route as a kid, and I was fascinated by the datelines, the bylines, the whole news-gathering process. I’d fall asleep listening to a ballgame from the West Coast, and an account of that game would appear in the paper I’d leave at your doorstep. How does that happen?

I delivered the Tribune, but I devoured the Daily News. There was Mike Royko, of course, but it was Ray Sons and his gifted crew of sportswriters who spoke to me. That was the lineup I wanted to crack. I was out in California paying some dues when the paper folded. I was crushed.

I caught a break winding up at Marquette for college. Some lesser, cheaper alternatives seemed more realistic, but a Latin teacher/fill-in guidance counselor named Tom Forrer thought Marquette was the best fit and practically insisted I go there. Turned out to be a life-shaping experience. Covering Al McGuire surely made you appreciate reporting. And I met Rick Majerus, who became a lifelong friend. Great coach, better person. I miss him every day.

Bill Walsh would be No. 1 on the list of coaches I’ve encountered. I learned a lot of baseball watching Roger Craig and Tony La Russa and a lot of baseball history, good and bad, from Frank Robinson. But Whitey Herzog was the absolute master at making a team’s myriad parts add up to a formidable whole.

Favorite story? The 2005 White Sox, mainly because I know how much it meant to so many people I care about.

Michael Jordan would be my top performer, though Joe Montana rates a mention because I never saw him have a bad game. I hold my nose when I say it, but Barry Bonds was the premier ballplayer of my era, though George Brett and his hell-on-wheels verve better embodied the game as it should be played.

Having said that, one of the coolest things I’ve seen on a ballfield involved an obscure pitcher named Bill Laskey, who won 43 games in six seasons, five of them with the Giants. Pitching for his big-league life as a rookie, the gangly 24-year-old trailed the Cardinals 1-0 on a pleasant St. Louis evening in June 1982. Joaquin Andujar was blowing the Giants away, so Laskey knew he was toast if he gave up another run, and you would have passed him the jelly after Ozzie Smith singled, stole second and took third on a throwing error to open the Cardinals’ eighth.

Laskey wasn’t a fireballer on his best days, but he somehow muscled up and blew his best fastball past Willie McGee, Keith Hernandez and George Hendrick, striking out the side on 14 pitches and stranding Ozzie. Where did that come from? In the mind’s eye, it’s as vivid a memory as if it happened yesterday, even if it went into the books as a loss for Laskey.

Shoulder trouble would strike the next season, and Laskey would be out of baseball by 1988. But he’ll always have that memory.

So will I. I’ve got a million of them. I’ve been blessed.

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