General

Snapshots from a Croatian vacation

CroatiaFrom the Saturday, July 1, editions of The Daily Journal (Kankakee, Ill.) and The Times (Ottawa, Ill.) …

The WISCH LIST

Curling along the shoreline across the Adriatic from Italy, Croatia’s Dalmatian Coast lies 5,000 miles from Chicago. But growing up as a Bulls fan during the 1990s, it seemed in some ways like it was only 1.8 seconds away.

That’s a Toni Kukoc reference for you youngsters.

(Look it up.)

Ever since Kukoc – aka, the “Croation Sensation” – joined the Bulls in 1993, the season after Michael Jordan retired for the first time, and then went on to play a key role during the team’s second “Three-Peat” run, I’ve known of his hometown: Split. But I never imagined then that one day I’d actually visit Kukoc’s homeland, or find the once war-torn nation to be filled with such remarkable natural beauty and man-made magic.

Last week, however, my wife and I did just that when we spent a week vacationing along Croatia’s breathtaking southern coast making stops in the ancient cities of Split, Hvar and Dubrovnik. Along the way, we saw a few things.

Chicago connections

Every time a Croatian cabbie, doorman or tour guide asked where we hailed from, their response to mine was basically the same: “Chicago! Toni Kukoc! He still has a home there!”

That he does, as since 2015 Kukoc has worked as special advisor to Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf. Beyond basketball, the Croatians we met also knew of Chicago for its nickname (“The Windy City”), the Cubs and even the Bears.

Blissfully, not a soul invoked the name of Al Capone.

Playing ‘Game of Thrones’

If anything has put Croatia on the global map these days, it’s dragons.

Fictional ones, of course.

General

Chicago’s ‘606’ remains a (public) work in progress

In advance of its opening in 2015, the advertising signage around Chicago promoting The 606 – the ballyhooed new elevated park winding 2.7 miles through the city’s Northwest Side atop a defunct freight line – promised to “Raise More Than Your Heart Rate.”

But two years later, I find it still fails to make my pulse quicken.

This past Tuesday – 6/06, get it? – was the anniversary of Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s $95 million public works project named for Chicago’s ZIP Code prefix. Built atop the abandoned tracks that follow the path of the Bloomingdale Trail, The 606 slices through the Bucktown, Wicker Park, Humboldt Park and Logan Square neighborhoods traditionally filled with middle- and working-class families, and in more recent years an influx of hipsters.

It was originally sold as Chicago’s version of New York’s High Line, which transformed dilapidated train tracks on Manhattan’s West Side into a spectacular outdoor space built for long strolls and filled with great people-watching and breathtaking city views. Having visited the High Line, I was excited about that type of venue opening within two miles of my condo in West Lakeview. But when I first visited The 606 shortly after its debut, I was disappointed to discover just how stark it was. Trees and plants along the trail were still spindly and squat. Sedges and prairie grasses weren’t yet planted in many spaces. And the path felt a lot more paved than it did plush.

General

Cubs’ roller coaster stays steady

TheoFrom the Saturday, May 20, editions of The Daily Journal (Kankakee, Ill.) and The Times (Ottawa, Ill.) …

The WISCH LIST

A lot has changed since the Chicago Cubs finally won the World Series last fall after 108 years of flopping, but one thing hasn’t.

The ability of their fans to stress out.

With the reigning champs off to a less-than-spectacular start this season, my social media timelines have seen their share of hyperventilation (“Trade Rizzo!” “Bench Schwarber!” “Fire Arrieta!”) from those who seem to take little solace in what happened in Cleveland last November.

In some ways, that’s actually refreshing as it shows that no matter how much some things may change, there are others we can count on besides just death and taxes. I’ve said myself this month that something seems to be missing with the Cubs in 2017, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be found. Baseball, after all, is the ultimate sports marathon. You can’t get too caught up with the sprints.

But with that said, I wanted to take a moment today to share a few sports observations and thoughts that have been racing through my head this week.

In Theo We Trust

Last Sunday, the New York Yankees announced that Aroldis Chapman was headed to the disabled list for up to a month with an inflamed rotator cuff in his pitching arm. My first reaction upon seeing the news?

Once again, Theo Epstein knows what he’s doing.

General

The sky is again the limit for Illini basketball

BradJosh

From the Saturday, March 25, editions of The Daily Journal (Kankakee, Ill.) and The Times (Ottawa, Ill.) …

The WISCH LIST

Lou Henson came close. Bruce Weber came even closer.

And if Lon Kruger or Bill Self had stuck around Champaign longer, well, either of them very well may have done it.

It, of course, is winning a national championship at the University of Illinois – something that’s eluded the Fighting Illini basketball program despite an impressive resume that includes 40 NCAA Tournament wins (22nd all time) and five Final Four appearances (tied with five other schools for 9th).

In fact, of the 21 schools ahead of Illinois on the all-time list, only Oklahoma (with 41 wins) hasn’t cut down the nets for a national championship. So, when Illinois athletic director Josh Whitman said last week about Illini hoops, “We have a basketball program that we all expect to compete for Big Ten and national championships year in and year out,” he wasn’t just blowing smoke.

He was just speaking the truth.

I’ve long argued that there’s no excuse for the flagship school of the fifth most populous state in the nation (that’s Illinois) to be an annual also-ran instead of a perennial power – especially when it comes to our state’s trademark sport.
So, it’s great to see Illinois with an AD who not only believes that about basketball, but also isn’t afraid to say it. And I believe that authentic passion greatly helped Whitman snare a basketball coach who also aims sky high.

“I dream big,” said Brad Underwood, who Whitman poached from Oklahoma State with a six-year, $18 million contract. “Winning a national championship is something that can happen here.”

It absolutely can. Illinois, after all, is among the handful of basketball programs that has everything it needs to win a national title, from the facilities and financial resources to the in-state talent and fan support. As proven by its four coaches prior to Groce, all it needs is a truly good leader to truly contend.

And I believe that the Illini now has one of those in Underwood.

General

Where to find authentic Irish culture in Chicago

Chief

From the Saturday, March 18, editions of The Daily Journal (Kankakee, Ill.) and The Times (Ottawa, Ill.) …

The WISCH LIST

It feels like we celebrated St. Patrick’s Day for a week.

Because, well, we did.

Chicago holds its annual St. Patrick’s Day festivities – parade, bagpipers, green river and whatnot – on the Saturday prior to the holiday. So, considering that March 17 fell on a Friday this year, city’s Irish eyes have been smiling since last weekend. We need some shuteye after that stretch.

But now that St. Patrick’s Day is finally over and every bar from River North to Wrigleyville has stopped pretending that it’s an “Irish” pub because its bartenders wore green and slung some pints of Guinness, you may be interested in knowing where you can get a truly authentic taste of Ireland in Chicago.

Arguably the nation’s most Irish city, with more than 200,000 citizens of Irish descent (the most of any ethnic group) and 12 Irish mayors (out of 55), there are a number of options. Here are some of the best.

Irish American Heritage Center

Located in the Irving Park neighborhood at 4626 N. Knox Ave. on Chicago’s Northwest side, the Irish American Heritage Center describes its mission as “to nurture and strengthen Irish culture and heritage through programs emphasizing Irish music, literature, drama, traditional dancing, fine arts and the constructive contributions of the Irish and Irish-Americans.”

It’s about as close as you can get to experiencing the Emerald Isle without a plane ticket to Dublin. The center features a museum, school, archives, art gallery, library and theater group and is your destination if you want to learn more about the Irish heritage.

Visit irish-american.org for more information.

General

Summertime magic during Cubs spring training

Sloan

From the Saturday, March 11, editions of The Daily Journal (Kankakee, Ill.) and The Times (Ottawa, Ill.) …

The WISCH LIST

It’s 1,700 miles from Wrigley Field to Sloan Park in Mesa, Ariz.

But when you’re sitting in the sunshine at the Spring Training Home of the Cubs watching baseball with a cold beer in hand, it feels like you’re just a few feet from summertime in Chicago.

And that feels awfully good.

Last weekend, my wife and I joined a few friends for a pair of spring training games at Sloan Park and we came away very impressed with the facility opened in 2014 – and not just because the ballpark’s scoreboard informed us game time on Saturday that the temperature was 78 vs. 37 in the Windy City.

Bordered by streets named Waveland and Sheffield, and with Chicago Dogs for sale in the grandstands with Hot Doug’s available in the outfield, Sloan Park delivers many a subtle nod to Wrigley. But it also has its own distinct flavor, and is considerably more family-friendly than the Cubs’ baseball cathedral back home at Clark and Addison.

The spacious lawn spanning the outfield at Sloan provides a great place for families to spread out, while the play area directly behind features a bounce house and a miniature wiffle ball field that allow kids to romp within shouting distance of their parents. For adults, food trucks serving fare from local Arizona vendors, wide concourses offering great vantage points of the field from every angle, and a large covered beer garden beyond right field are all great treats.

Heck, spring training itself is a treat. And it’s the perfect prescription for the winter blues, whether you’re a Cubs fan, Sox fan, Cardinals fan or otherwise.

Stand and (Don’t) Deliver

One pleasant surprise at Sloan Park took place on Saturday when the beer garden bartenders stopped serving drinks, shouted “National Anthem!” and stood at attention as the “Star-Spangled Banner” was sung.

In a sports climate stoked with controversy last year by former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s refusal to stand for the national anthem, it was refreshing to see patriotism – and respect – on such prominent display at Sloan Park.

Major talent in minors

Against the Dodgers last Saturday, I saw reigning National League MVP Kris Bryant blast his first home run of the spring – a grand slam, no less.

But he wasn’t even the player I was most impressed with during my two-day stint watching the Cubs. Rather, the most attention-grabbing performances came via prospects Eloy Jimenez and Jeimer Candelario.

Only 20 years old, the 6-foot-4, 205-pound Jimenez blasted an eighth-inning home run on Friday vs. the Reds, showing why he is the Cubs’ top-ranked prospect. On Saturday, the 23-year-old Candelario rapped out a single, double and triple, looking like a guy who could potentially swipe the team’s final roster spot from Tommy LaStella or Matt Szczur.

Whether outfielder Jimenez or infielder Candelario make the bigs this season or not, the Cubs’ minor-league cupboard is far from bare in regards to position players.

Armed and Ready?

While position players may remain a strength for the Cubs’ farm system, pitching does remain a question mark for the franchise going forward. There remains a dearth of young impact arms in Cubs camp, and that could be an issue this season if the team’s starters suffer any injuries after a remarkably healthy 2016.

In that regard, prospects such as Jimenez and Candelario could end up being most valuable as potential trading chips.

Grin and Wear It

An underrated highlight of spring training are the T-shirts.

My favorites were worn by a Cincinnati fan, whose shirt read “I’m with Pete … Give me $200 on the Reds,” and another donned by a Cubs fan.
Its message: “Live Life like you’re down 3-1.”

General

Illini fans deserve better basketball – and they’ll get it

GroceWhitman
University of Illinois athletic director Josh Whitman (left) will make his decision on the fate of fifth-year basketball coach John Groce at season’s end.

From the Saturday, Feb. 18, editions of The Daily Journal (Kankakee, Ill.) and The Times (Ottawa, Ill.) …

The WISCH LIST

A Twitter friend of mine calls it BFS.

Battered Fan Syndrome.

And Illini Nation is suffering from it. Badly.

After watching Illinois football tumble from Rose Bowl heights to Tim Beckman and seeing the basketball program slide from national runner-up to perennial NIT candidate, Illini fans collectively have been so beaten down over the past dozen years that many have convinced themselves that they don’t even deserve actual coaching competency and sports success.

With Illini hoops coach John Groce slogging his way through yet another lost season, it’s gotten to the point on social media where almost daily I find myself giving pep talks to fans who are far more blue than orange. Despite the fact that Josh Whitman boldly fired football coach Bill Cubit – on his first day as Illinois athletic director, mind you – and stunned the nation by replacing him with Lovie Smith, many fans still don’t believe that Whitman will even fire Groce, let alone replace him with a top-level coach.

I find all of that to be absolute nonsense.

Because, throughout its history, Illinois never has had difficulty hiring a good basketball coach. But former athletic director Mike Thomas sure did.

I’ll just leave that at that.

This defeatist mindset has become so ingrained among many Illini fans that this week a student columnist for the Daily Illini campus newspaper wrote, “You can complain, boo and tweet all you want. Yell until your lungs get sore and type as fast you can to get #FireGroce trending. But it isn’t going to do anything because John Groce isn’t going anywhere.”

General

Time for Illini basketball to wake up or move on

JG

From the Saturday, Jan. 14, editions of The Daily Journal (Kankakee, Ill.) and The Times (Ottawa, Ill.) …

The WISCH LIST

I’m tired.

Tired of bubble teams. Tired of apathy towards a program – and a sport – that I love. And tired of once-demanding fans settling for mediocrity.

Basically, I’m tired of being tired about the tired state of Illini basketball.

As Illinois prepares for its game today vs. Maryland at State Farm Center, the program stands at a crossroads. Fifth-year coach John Groce wants to convince us (or perhaps himself) that it’s headed one way – “We took a step in the right direction,” he said on Wednesday after beating Michigan 85-69 – while much of Illini Nation sees a program that’s stuck in neutral at best.

Or at worst is headed further into the abyss or irrelevancy.

What I see is a team that at 12-5 overall, 2-2 in the Big Ten, may indeed be better this season than it was last year (15-19, 5-13), but is far from as good as it should be. Five years into any coach’s tenure at Illinois, the program should be fully established, not still scrapping just to be in the conversation for the NCAA Tournament, which Illinois inexcusably hasn’t even reached since 2013.

With a healthy, veteran roster this was supposed to be season that Groce proved himself. At least, that’s what his supporters told us. As the Illini have struggled, however, some have resorted to arguing that it’s next season when the Illini will really bust out once its highly ranked recruiting class arrives.

At this point, Illinois has stolen the Cubs’ “Wait ’til Next Year” refrain, and while many fans believe Groce simply needs to reach the NCAA Tournament to ensure his job status for 2018, I don’t.

Merely making the Big Dance as a bubble team wouldn’t be an achievement, it would be a disappointment. To earn another year, I think Groce needs to make the NCAA tournament comfortably ­– and win a game.

General

Wisch Lists are for New Year’s

2017From the Saturday, Dec. 31, editions of The Daily Journal (Kankakee, Ill.) and The Times (Ottawa, Ill.) …

The WISCH LIST

Wish lists are for Christmas.

But Wisch Lists? Well, just like every year, they’re for New Year’s.

Here as we sit on the edge of 2017, I’m looking back at a calendar year that was marked by global instability, a deeply bitter presidential election and the deaths of enough stars to fill a Hollywood sidewalk, if not an entire block.

But, at the same time, I’m looking back at a year that in which I got a new full-time job, embarked upon an epic 40th birthday adventure to Ireland and London with my lovely wife, and relished neither last nor least a Chicago Cubs World Series championship that was truly the stuff that dreams are made of.

In other words, 2016 was a mixed bag, just like every year. And as we step off that edge to New Year’s Eve, here’s what I hope is in the mix for 2017.

I Wisch that Muhammad Ali, Prince, Carrie Fisher, Debbie Reynolds, Alan Thicke, David Bowie, John Glenn, Jose Fernandez, Nancy Reagan, Arnold Palmer, Gordie Howe, Florence Henderson, Garry Shandling, Gene Wilder, Harper Lee, Garry Marshall, Merle Haggard, Craig Sager, John Saunders, Alan Rickman, Anton Yelchin and several others could have stayed with us longer.

I Wisch that Fidel Castro could have left us sooner.

I Wisch for more patience from fans for University of Illinois football coach Lovie Smith, and less for basketball coach John Groce.

I Wisch that Illini hoops hadn’t sunk to the point where simply making the NCAA Tournament seems like an achievement. At Illinois, it isn’t. It’s a baseline.

General

Could Cubs and Sox be on a future October collision course?

cubs-sox-logos-together-thumb-500x304-136101

From the Saturday, Dec. 10, editions of The Daily Journal (Kankakee, Ill.) and The Times (Ottawa, Ill.) …

The WISCH LIST

This past spring, when both the Cubs and the White Sox were flying high atop their divisions with first-place records, I established myself in this column as Chicago’s official party pooper.

“Excuse me if I’m not rooting for a Cubs-Sox World Series this season,” I wrote on May 21. “Why? Well, as you might have heard, the Cubs haven’t won a World Series in a while. And if ever they’re to do so  – this season, or some day  –  the team will have to overcome enormous pressure.

“I’d rather not add the drama of playing the Sox on top of that. Nor do I wish to see Cubs fans suffer the humiliation of being denied a championship by the Sox, or Sox fans suffer the indignation of handing the Cubs their first crown in 108 years. I don’t think either would be great for Chicago.”

I then added, however, “What would be [great] is a Cubs-White Sox clash after both franchises have a recent title under their belt.”

Now that the Cubs did win their first championship in 108 years, I couldn’t agree more with, well, myself. Having seen both the North Side and South Side having enjoy titles in this century, I’m all for enjoying a future all-Chicago Fall Classic.

If the White Sox’s freshly launched youth movement pans out at all like the Cubs’ plan, who knows, we may end up seeing one in the not-too-distant future.