Keep your eyes on Fergie Jenkins

The 80-year-old Hall of Famer remains invested in the game and in charities, such as Club 400.

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Ferguson Jenkins won 284 games, including 167 with the Cubs.

Ferguson Jenkins won 284 games, including 167 with the Cubs.

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

LAS VEGAS — Runners had been in scoring position for both games when it had mattered most, at the very end, but nobody could produce a clutch hit.

Two defeats for Fergie Jenkins.

“We lost 17-16, then 10-8,” he said. “We needed one more hit.”

His first two games as a professional player, for the Phillies’ Class-D Miami Marlins in 1962? His first two games as a Cub, in 1966?

No. This was Jan. 25, at the faux Wrigley Field here at the Field of Dreams complex.

Late the next morning, as the other two teams battled in the Club 400 charity fantasy camp and a chill blew in from right field, Jenkins settled into the comfortable indoor seating area and snack bar behind home plate.

The 80-year-old Cubs legend laughed easily and frequently, but he also spoke about these games as if they mattered, as if his roster of weekend warriors, in their 40s and 50s, would expect nothing less.

“They want to compete,” Jenkins said. “It takes willpower to push their bodies a little farther. They see me try to coach them in the correct ways, to try to win the ‘inner’ part of the game.”

He had tried conveying fundamental aspects of the game, like hitting the proper cutoff man from the outfield, not swinging at eye-high or ankle-low pitches from the machine.

“It’s a little tough,” Jenkins laughed.

That day, though, something clicked. They executed. Jenkins and co-coach Ed Lynch guided their band of middle-aged misfits to the fantasy championship.

EASING BURDENS

Stewart McVicar started Club 400, a takeoff on Wrigley Field’s center-field sign, in 2014, and he has taken the fantasy baton from founder and former Cubs catcher Randy Hundley.

At $2,500 per camper, nearly everything but airfare is covered.

Lee Smith and Bob Dernier coached one team, the other was overseen by Ray Burris and John Mallee, a graduate of Mount Carmel, Chicago State and UIC.

Every coach possessed a Cubs connection.

McVicar, 49, operates an HVAC business in Lake in the Hills, where the 2,300-square-foot basement of his nearby home serves as a shrine to the franchise and Club 400’s headquarters.

Jenkins cut his usual such fee considerably. He has been in McVicar’s grand basement, as have Andre Dawson, Anthony Rizzo and other former Cubs, team owner Tom Ricketts and other athletes.

In April 2021, Nicole Geu sought aid for close friend Heather Howiler, a Naperville teacher with a terminal illness. Geu found an ally in McVicar, who deals directly with people to avoid typical red-tape delays.

Within 48 hours, Heather had four choice seats to a Cubs game. She appeared on the big screen. Players strolled by to chat, sign autographs, take photos.

“For a few hours she wasn’t a cancer fighter, she was a Cubs fan,” Geu said. “It meant the world to her.”

Five weeks later, Howiler died. Her memory lives in Geu’s Honoring Heather program, and Geu now does accounting and public-relations work for Club 400.

Thirty-five Club 400 events have raised more than $750,000, and McVicar welcomes donations and sponsorships.

“You can ease burdens,” he said. “It’s about Cubs fans helping Cubs fans. I didn’t know how it would go, trying to get players to come to events in my basement. Now, they want to come to us.”

THE WINNER

Fergie Jenkins never took competition for granted. At 16, in his hometown of Chatham, Ontario, a Phillies scout dropped by the ice rink to watch him play hockey.

The scout first asked him why he was so violent? Jenkins replied that he was a defenseman, so he’d prevent anyone crossing that blue line from scoring, either with his stick or his 6-4 frame, even more imposing on skates.

He also spent three seasons playing hoops with Fred “Curly” Neal, Meadowlark Lemon and Jackie Jackson on the Harlem Globetrotters.

“I had a chance to portray certain aspects of what I was capable of doing, and I was capable of playing several different sports.”

He laughed.

“As long as I didn’t get hurt.”

He won 284 major-league games, and the National Baseball Hall of Fame made him immortal in 1991.

From 1967 through ’72, a much different and durable era, he completed 140 games for the Cubs, recording 127 triumphs. Since 1998, only six pitchers have recorded at least 10 complete games in a season.

“Pitchers are protected, for some reason,” Jenkins said. “If you’re in great shape, why should you protect an athlete?”

Meantime, every offseason, the powers keep tweaking the game Jenkins adores. This year there’s a pitch clock, the bases are bigger and two infielders must occupy either side of second base.

“The timing part I dislike. The pitcher sets the tempo; that belongs to him. We don’t need a clock in baseball.”

The robot ump being implemented in every Triple-A park doesn’t inform Jenkins that it’s imminent for the majors.

“I don’t think it’ll get to the big leagues. I just think that the umpire is correct 99% of the time. Replay has helped, in some respect. But I enjoy seeing an ump call balls and strikes.”

Always, Jenkins insisted, the reward is winning.

“And you win as a team, not an individual.”

It was as true in 1962, at Class-D Miami, as it was on a rough patch of grass in Las Vegas in late January.

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