Road trip to Cooperstown: A Haul of Fame

Today’s column from the Kankakee Daily Journal and The (Ottawa, Ill.) Times

Road trip to Cooperstown: A Haul of Fame

The WISCH LIST

July 31, 2010

From the tip of Maine to the base of Baja, it’s pretty much accepted as gospel these days that professional football has surpassed Major League baseball as America’s favorite sport.

But earlier this week, during the haul home from a fantastic trip to Cooperstown for former Cubs MVP Andre Dawson’s Hall of Fame induction, I found myself pondering this:

Can you imagine the demand for baseball tickets if MLB teams played only 16 games a season?

The waiting list at Wrigley Field alone would extend for centuries.

(During which the Cubs probably still wouldn’t have won.)

As “The Hawk” said last Sunday during his classy induction speech, “There’s nothing wrong with baseball … There never has been.”

Even if its players aren’t, baseball is still America’s most perfect sport. And Cooperstown bills itself as “America’s Most Perfect Village.”

It gets no argument from me. If you’re a baseball fan and haven’t yet visited Cooperstown, do it. Just plan the trip and go. You can thank me later.

1 Percent ilk

More than 17,000 men have played Major League baseball, but just 203 of them (a mere 1 percent) have been enshrined at the Hall of Fame since its establishment in 1936. That’s an average of 2.7 inductions a year.

The Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, meanwhile, has inducted 139 players since 1959 – also an average of 2.7 per year – while the Pro Football Hall of Fame has enshrined 260 since 1963, an average of 5.5.

Baseball’s Hall of Fame is the most cherished by fans. In 2008, 301,755 visitors entered Cooperstown, compared to 196,351 for the Football Hall of Fame. The Basketball Hall of Fame, mired in a budget crisis, has not publicly released recent attendance figures.

21-Team Salute

The lawn at Sunday’s induction ceremony was dominated by Cubs, Cardinals and Expos fans in attendance to celebrate Dawson and former St. Louis (and Kansas City) manager Whitey Herzog.

But Cooperstown draws baseball lovers from all over, and I counted fans of at least 21 franchises among the estimated crowd of 10,000. The only teams I didn’t see represented were the Angels, Diamondbacks, Giants, Indians, Mariners, Padres, Rangers, Rockies, Twins … and White Sox.

Guess you guys are waiting for Frank Thomas to become eligible in 2014.

The same year that ex-Cub Greg Maddux will be.

Now that could be an interesting Induction Day in Cooperstown.

Baseball, Bonjour!

One of the most interesting parts of last weekend was seeing all the Montreal Expos fans roaming around – and listening to them.

A sizable number of devotees of Les Expos – who left Montreal in 2005 to become the Washington Nationals – were chattering in French as they explored the Hall of Fame.

On the lawn before Sunday’s induction, I approached a group of Expos fans to ask them whom they root for these days.

“Honestly, I root for whomever I’m betting on, or for my fantasy league guys,” explained Dave, a 29-year-old Montreal native and former Expos season ticket holder. “If anything, the Nationals are the one team that I root against … We’re baseball fans. We’re purists. We like the National League and seeing pitchers hit. And we miss the Expos.”

One of Dave’s friends then asked me what I thought about Dawson entering the Hall of Fame as an Expo.

“I think he should be going in as a Cub,” I said.

Why?

“Well, for one thing, because the Cubs are still around,” I replied.

Flashing a sheepish grin, Dave confessed: “This is too good for us.”

Ah, but it’s also fitting.

Only the Cubs could get beat by a team that no longer exists.

I’m Cooperstown-bound and Down

Today’s column from the Kankakee Daily Journal and The (Ottawa, Ill.) Times

I’m Cooperstown-bound and Down

The WISCH LIST

July 24, 2010

On this date in 1960, Lou Piniella was 16 years old, Andre Dawson six and Charlie Grimm 61.

And this weekend, I have all three on my mind.

Let me tell you why.

Adieu, Sweet Lou

On Tuesday afternoon, when the news broke that Cubs manager Lou Piniella was calling it quits, “The Heckler” – Wrigleyville’s version of “The Onion” – posted a spoof story online featuring the headline: “Piniella coming out of retirement to manage remainder of 2010 season.”

Say what you will about Lou’s fading fire, he will be missed.

The big question now burning in Chicago, of course, is who will succeed him. No candidate intrigues more than Hall of Famer Ryne Sandberg, who has morphed into an unlikely firebrand as the manager of the Triple-A Iowa Cubs.

But does Sandberg have the chops for Wrigley? Or does he not?

According to my sources, there isn’t a clear consensus either way in the Cubs front office.

If the franchise opts to focus on marketing as it transitions from veterans to kids, then Sandberg is a lock. And, undoubtedly, Ryno is the fans’ sentimental choice, which means that anyone hired who isn’t him will be under a particularly intense microscope.

However, one veteran Chicago baseball scribe I know told me last month that Cubs broadcaster Bob Brenly, who managed the Arizona Diamondbacks to a World Series championship in 2001, would be his preference to replace Piniella.

“He’s got the chops, and he’s strong enough and personable enough to deal with anything,” he said of Brenly.

HOF: Hawk of Fame

Of all sports, none captures my imagination quite like baseball.

That said, this season it’s barely been able to even capture my attention.

The Cubs stink, which is a state of summertime affairs that impacts my daily mood as much as the sunshine.

And, yes, White Sox and Cardinals fans, your teams are at the top of your divisions.

I know. I’ve heard.

This weekend, though, everything changes. Baseball moves back to my forefront, as right now – like, this very minute – I’m on the road to Cooperstown, N.Y., with my dad and brother. On Sunday afternoon, we’ll be in attendance when former Cubs MVP Andre Dawson is inducted into the Hall of Fame.

For us, the trip to Cooperstown is a celebration of The Hawk (one of my all-time favorites), baseball (our family’s No. 1 sport) and life, as my father, Joe – who has been fighting non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma since March – learned two weeks ago that he’s in complete remission.

Actually, never mind the Cubs. That victory was the only one I needed this summer.

Grimm Reality

ABC has that ridiculous Reality TV show, “Wife Swap.” But did you know that 50 years ago the Cubs tested out the managerial version?

It was no less ridiculous.

As the 1960 season approached, former Cubs skipper Charlie Grimm – 11 years removed from managing at Wrigley – was coaxed out of retirement for one last shot at guiding the team to the World Series.

It misfired.

Less than a month in, the Cubs were a meager 6-11, prompting owner P.K. Wrigley to make the novel move of removing Grimm and replacing him with Lou Boudreau, the team’s play-by-play radio announcer. Grimm, who had broadcasting experience, then took Boudreau’s place in the booth.

Really.

That experiment didn’t work, either, as the Cubs went 54-83 the rest of the season, after which Boudreau headed back to radio and Grimm into the sunset.

Considering the backgrounds of both Brenly (former manager) and Piniella (former TV analyst), the Cubs could have done the same thing in 2010.

Imagine that.

When Chicago’s gone Hollywood

Today’s column from the Kankakee Daily Journal and The (Ottawa, Ill.) Times

When Chicago’s Gone Hollywood

The WISCH LIST

July 17, 2010

Oprah and Optimus.

In Chicago, only the Queen of Daytime Television and the King of the Transformers seem to swing enough sway to shut down the Magnificent Mile for a days-long stretch.

Last September, it was Winfrey closing off North Michigan Avenue to celebrate the 24th season premiere of her eponymous show. And now, this weekend, Optimus Prime’s Autobots (and the evil Decepticons) have taken over the Mag Mile for the filming of “Transformers 3.”

With Chicago Gone Hollywood as a shooting location for “The Dark Knight,” “The Break Up” and a slew of other films in recent years, I thought I’d share with you today a few outtakes from the city’s rich movie-related past that you might not already know.

The man behind the Man Behind the Curtain

Featuring ornate statues of the Tin Man, Scarecrow, Cowardly Lion and, of course, Dorothy and Toto, Oz Park is tucked in the heart (and, I suppose, the brains and courage) of Chicago’s bustling Lincoln Park neighborhood.

More than a century ago, though, L. Frank Baum – the author of “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” – lived just a few miles west of the area.

In 1891, after the failure of his newspaper in Aberdeen, Dakota Territory (tough business back then, too), Baum moved his wife and four sons to Chicago, where he took a job reporting for the Evening Post.

Nine years later, Baum published his legendary book, which later became a legendary movie starring Judy Garland in 1939, two decades after the author’s death.

Disney’s Original World

Walter Elias Disney might have made his name in California and Florida, but the founder of Mickey’s entertainment empire started in the Windy City.

On Dec. 5, 1901, Walt Disney was born in a home at 2156 N. Tripp Avenue on Chicago’s West Side. In 1906, his family moved to Marceline, Mo., but then headed back to Chicago in 1917. That year, Walt began his freshman year at McKinley High School and enrolled in night courses at the Chicago Art Institute.

Today, the Walt Disney Magnet School sits along the lakefront at 4140 N. Marine Drive in the city’s Uptown neighborhood.

Downlow on the Uptown

Speaking of said neighborhood, Chicago’s Uptown Theatre is something else.
Or, at least, it used to be.

Located on the corner of Lawrence and Broadway avenues, the Uptown opened its doors on Aug. 18, 1925, billed as boasting “An Acre of Seats in a Magic City.” Following a 200-float parade and a grand ball, more than 12,000 people stood in line hoping to be part of the first audience in the mammoth, 4,381-seat filmhouse.

In the decades after, however, the Uptown – listed on the National Historic Registry – fell into disrepair and has been closed to audiences since 1981. It’s estimated that $40 million is needed to bring it back up to code.

Since ’81, though, the Uptown has been used as a location for movies, including “Backdraft” and “Home Alone 2,” which turned the theater’s lavish five-story lobby into a giant New York toy store.

Birth of The Stooges

Everyone knows the Three Stooges. What many don’t know, though, is that the legendary slapstick trio originally got together in Chicago.

In 1925, brothers Moe and Shemp Howard met violinist-comedian Larry Fine at Rainbo Gardens, a popular entertainment destination in Uptown, where Fine was working as a Master of Ceremonies. Impressed, the Howard brothers invited Fine to join their Vaudeville troupe.

In 1932, Curly, the youngest Howard brother, replaced Shemp as a Stooge, and comedic film history – as well as countless eye gouges – was born.

The tastiest ‘Corner’ in Chicago

Today’s column from the Kankakee Daily Journal and The (Ottawa, Ill.) Times

The tastiest ‘Corner’ in Chicago

The WISCH LIST

July 10, 2010

It’s estimated that more than 6,000 restaurants dot the streetscapes of Chicago, so to truly “taste” the city you need to do a whole lot more than spend an afternoon in Grant Park each summer.

However, one only has so much time – and allotted calories.

To use both wisely, it’s worth taking a trip to the city’s Avondale neighborhood, home to a wildly popular burger joint that offers truly unique eats and an unrivaled edginess.

Kuma’s Corner, located on the corner (duh) of West Belmont and North Francisco avenues, isn’t just a restaurant.

It’s an experience.

And, last week, to navigate it for the first time, I brought along with me a tour guide: My 24-year-old buddy Danny, who likes to say that he’s been keeping me in the loop on all things burgers and hot dogs since 1986.

It was last summer that Danny turned me on to Hot Doug’s, Chicago’s hot dog hotspot where devotees regularly wait more than an hour just for a fancy frankfurter.

This time around, I asked Danny to show me Kuma’s, which with its cult following and quirky fare can be considered Hot Doug’s hamburger counterpart, albeit with one big difference.

Its devotees regularly wait more than two hours to eat.

“It’s not always that long,” Danny explained as we stood on the sidewalk outside Kuma’s, biding ours. “A couple times, I’ve gotten here on a Saturday right when it opens at 11:30. But then you’re inhaling a massive burger at 11:45 a.m.

“The rest of your day is shot.”

Established in 2005, Kuma’s Corner is actually celebrating its fifth anniversary today with a block party (trust me, you’re better off visiting another time). And since opening, it has become famous both for the taste of its giant burgers and the fact it names them after heavy metal bands – an edgy trait complemented by Kuma’s hipster clientele and a wait staff that features more tattoos than an NBA roster.

“I always feel like the least cool person here,” Danny said.

Glance over the menu and you’ll see an array of burgers such as the Judas Priest (bacon, bleu cheese dressing, apples, walnuts and dried cranberries) and the Pantera (roasted poblano pepper, bacon, cheddar and Monterey Jack cheeses, house-made Ranchero sauce and tortilla strips) that are billed as the best in Chicago.

“It they aren’t,” Danny said, “I don’t know what is.”

On the Tuesday evening that Danny and I visited Kuma’s, our wait for a table (a half-hour) was short by its standards. In the summertime, Kuma’s back patio is opened, which was where we sat after slipping past the restaurant’s stunningly small grill (hence the lengthy waits).

Sitting outside offers a more serene atmosphere than Kuma’s cozy interior, where diners squeeze around tables and along the bar, serenaded by a steady stream of heavy metal tunes.

“My mom likes coming here, not because she enjoys heavy metal music,” Danny explained. “But she can tolerate it, because the food is so good.”

Which was why I came. And as a Kuma’s rookie, I chose to indoctrinate myself with the Kuma Burger, an enormous hunk of juicy ground beef served on a pretzel bun with bacon, cheddar cheese and a fried egg.

Yes, an egg.

Danny, meanwhile, chose the Lair of the Minotaur (you can’t get that at McDonald’s), a burger featuring caramelized onions, pancetta, brie and sliced bourbon-soaked pears.

Our meals were a mess, but truly wonderful ones. And I left Kuma’s convinced that the restaurant’s wait, indeed, is worth it.

But bring a book.

Why Michael Jordan doesn’t matter

Today’s column from the Kankakee Daily Journal and The (Ottawa, Ill.) Times

Why Michael Jordan doesn’t matter

The WISCH LIST

July 3, 2010

The guy’s legend remains larger than life, his image is bronzed for posterity at the House that He Built, and he’s still – and likely always be – regarded as the greatest to ever play his sport.

But Babe Ruth doesn’t scare a soul anymore.

So, why should Michael Jordan?

That’s the question I’ve been pondering the past few weeks as I’ve weighed the reasons why uber-free agent LeBron James should sign a contract with the Chicago Bulls this summer – and why he shouldn’t.

There may be plenty of good reasons why James should shun Chicago – actually, I can think of 30 million of them (the amount of money that Cleveland can pay him above any other team) – but I’ve also come to the conclusion that His Airness should not be one of them.

Because Michael Jordan doesn’t matter.

At least, he shouldn’t. Not to LeBron. Not in the way many think he should.

Now, before you try to punch me with a fistful of NBA championship rings or send Mars Blackmon to heckle me at work, allow me the chance to explain.

Of course, Michael Jordan matters. In the landscape of Chicago sports, no athlete has ever mattered more. And it’s unlikely that anyone ever will.

Jordan – with that wagging tongue, those aerial acrobatics and, of course, the six championship rings – turned himself into an icon nonpareil during the 1980s and ’90s while transforming the Chicago Bulls into a global brand recognized from Berlin to Basra to Beijing.

A dozen summers after Jordan last donned a Bulls jersey, his shadow still looms large over the United Center. And during the past month, that’s left many asking why LeBron James would want to stand in it.

But what I’ve instead come to wonder is why he wouldn’t.

Because, for a player as great as LeBron, the specter of Michael Jordan shouldn’t be viewed as a curse. It should be viewed as a blessing.

Consider this: In 2004, before his career was irreparably tarnished and his Hall of Fame candidacy (almost certainly) destroyed by admitted steroid use, Alex Rodriguez was well on his way to being considered one of the greatest baseball players of all-time. Maybe the greatest.

In an attempt to attain such a lofty stature (and championships), A-Rod wanted to join – not run away from – the team that the greatest of all-time, Babe Ruth, called his own for 15 seasons. That’s because, over time and many titles, the Yankees have become something truly special in professional sports: A franchise of legends that, in turn, attracts legends.

The seven World Series rings that Ruth won and the best-ever reputation he built in the Bronx didn’t intimidate Rodriguez. Instead, A-Rod was almost certainly drawn to New York at least in part because of those things.

Playing for the Yankees just meant more than playing for anyone else.

Love them or hate them, the Yankees are baseball’s undisputed Gold Standard. And by coming to Chicago, LeBron James could potentially make the Bulls the same. He could turn them into the NBA’s version of the Yankees.

Or, at the very least, the Lakers and Celtics, two franchises that in Kobe Bryant, Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Jerry West, Larry Bird and Bill Russell boast probably six of the 10 greatest basketball players of all-time, yet don’t seem to scare any current players away.

You’ve never heard anyone saying that Kobe should have left Los Angeles to make his mark because Magic and Kareem had already made theirs there. Really, even mentioning such a thing sounds ridiculous. It should sound the same way in Chicago, too.

Winning as a Laker has hardly diminished Kobe’s legacy. Rather, it has enhanced it. That’s because the Yankees, Lakers and Celtics are all special franchises. The Chicago Bulls could be. They can be more than just Michael Jordan.

And LeBron James is the one who could accomplish that.

If he decides to sign with Chicago, LeBron has the unique opportunity to not just make himself legendary, but to potentially make a franchise truly legendary, as well.

Chances like that don’t come along very often. And for a guy looking to leave a legacy, well …

That’s one for the history books, Babe.