The Chicago Cubs, Lou Gehrig, First Pitches and Marathon Swimming

Question:  What on earth do the Cubs and Lou Gehrig have to do with A Long Swim?

Answer:  The Cubs organization has asked if I would throw out the ceremonial first pitch at a game on June 25th.

Throwing a pitch at Wrigley Field is a little boy’s dream come true.

I grew up in Dundee, Illinois, in the 1960s and 1970s.  It was a time when Dundee was evolving from a farm town to a suburb; an Interstate just a few miles away that had been built connected Chicago to Rockford, and all of the old-timers knew that it was only a matter of time before the bucolic life they had known would change.

Dundee represented a terrific opportunity for my folks.  My father was a young veterinarian who had trained to be a dairy cattle specialist, but who knew the suburban sprawl would cause his practice to trend over to dogs and cats.  He was right.  My mother ran the business side of his practice.  She was tremendous.  It was a great environment for my sisters and me to grow up.

Dundee is about 40 miles from Chicago, so it was close enough if you wanted to go to a fancy restaurant or hear the symphony, but it was far enough that doing so was a hassle.  Chicago had its sports teams, and everyone in Dundee embraced them as our own.  Everyone knew the Bears’ teams of the mid-1960s, and the Blackhawks when Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita were the toast of the town.  Both of those teams have come full circle now, and we have had a wonderful run with the Bulls.  Perhaps best of all, people all around the world hear “Chicago” and reflexively say “Michael Jordan” now instead of “Al Capone.”

For anyone who followed baseball, though, the Chicago Cubs were the living end.  Dundee people knew all the statistics, and talked about their favorite players by their first names.  There was a family in town who named their dogs Ernie (for Banks), Ronnie (for Santo) and Fergie (for Jenkins).  The Cubs were broadcast on WGN every summer afternoon (there were never night games at Wrigley Field in those days) only to have the team succeed in tearing out the hearts out of every person in the whole timezone with their collapse in 1969.  If only it hadn’t been the Mets that won it all…

Over the years, being a Cubs fan has been trying; they haven’t won a World Series in more than a century, and for every Ernie there have been a hundred nameless and faceless players that have worn the uniform.  “Long suffering” is the prefix so often used in reference to Cubs fans but, ironically, there is no greater experience than going to a Cubs game at Wrigley Field.

Wrigley Field celebrates its 100th anniversary this year, and the “Friendly Confines” have never been friendlier.  Wrigley Field is a shrine to baseball, with its ivy-covered walls, its smells of fresh grass, hot dogs and peanuts, and its neighborhood charm.  The first time we took one of our kids there, we walked out of the tunnel and when he saw the expanse of brilliant green grass on the field, his first words were, “Am I dreaming, or is this really real?”  Wrigley Field does that to people.

Fast forward through so many “wait ‘til next years,” and the Cubs heard about A Long Swim, the Manhattan Island Marathon Swim, and the Triple Crown from the fabulous PR person at the Les Turner ALS Foundation.  It all fit together, and I will be on the mound at 5:45 in the afternoon on June 25th.  I am hopeful that the exposure will drive in some donations.  The timing couldn’t be better, too, as the game is scheduled for the evening before we fly to New York for the Manhattan swim.

Throwing out a pitch is a pretty daunting task; after all, I know I can swim 28 miles, but can I actually throw a baseball 60 feet, six inches?  When I swim, no one ever watches.  When I throw the baseball, there could be 38,000 people watching.  Yikes.

I wanted to see how other people had handled the pressure, so I went to YouTube.  It isn’t pretty.  As soon as you type in “First Pitch,” the search engine automatically goes to “First Pitch Fail” (volumes 1 – 4, and I am not joking), “First Pitch Embarrassment” and even “First Pitch Broken Leg.”  Apparently, the honor of being asked to throw a ceremonial pitch is only memorable if the pitcher humiliates himself by either (1) dribbling the ball across the grass in the general direction of home plate, or (2) sailing it over the backstop.  Both are greeted with gales of laughter and hundreds of thousands of hits on YouTube, the archive of our generation.

Whether I dribble it, sail it, or put it right down the strike zone, it doesn’t really matter.  What matters is that people hear about Lou Gehrig’s disease and decide to do something about it.  For that, I willingly submit to YouTube.  But wish me luck anyway.

Five weeks to go before the Manhattan swim.  Lake Zurich is up to 64 degrees now, so it looks like we are headed to Lake Michigan this weekend for some colder water.

See you at the beach.  I will report back.

Here’s a look at horrible first pitches.