General

Devin Hester’s playbook is ridiculous

On Wednesday — when he should have been at training camp — the Chicago Bears’ kick-returner-extraordinaire-slash-wide-receiver-in-training Devin Hester was instead on the horn with the Chicago Tribune, telling reporter Vaughn McClure, “I can’t go out and play this year making $445,000.

“Come on, man.”

After all, that would be … ahemridiculous.

Now, while I think most people can eke out a living on $445K (I’m pretty sure I could), I also do think that Hester is underpaid by current NFL standards.

Then again, if you get paid by the plays you memorize, maybe not …

Because, also in today’s Trib, Bears writer David Haugh writes that, “Offensive coordinator Ron Turner revealed Wednesday the Bears only asked Hester to learn four routes last season because of his multiple duties.”

That bit of news prompted my buddy Ryan (a Bears season ticket holder, not the architect of the “46” defense) to react this morning by firing off the following e-mail :

Four Routes??? How hard can this position be???

I’d imagine his four routes were …

1.) Devin — Go Deep

2.) Devin — Run 15 yards and turn around

3.) Devin — Run 10 yards and turn left

4.) Devin — Run 10 yards and turn right

To which, I’d add …

Yeah, but he also had to remember which end zone the Bears were facing.

I mean, come on, man.

General

My visit to see “The Dean”

In October 2005, the White Sox were rolling through the Major League Baseball playoffs.

And I was, well, rolling my eyes at it all while working the late shift at the Tribune Tower.

Manning the phone for the paper’s Metro desk, my chief duty from 5 to midnight each night was to keep tabs on murder and mayhem in Chicago.

On one evening, however, as it became apparent that the Sox were almost certainly going to win the World Series, I did a bit of moonlighting for the Trib’s sports department.

And it left me with one of my more memorable Tribune experiences.

That evening, the sports staff was simultaneously covering the Series and putting together a commemorative book for the Sox’s impending championship, so things were hectic.

As a result, around 11 p.m., I was plucked from Metro, ordered to hustle down to the parking lot behind the Tower and take a company car up to Evanston.

My mission was to pick up and deliver back to Chicago the foreword for the commemorative White Sox book that was written by a retired sports reporter who wasn’t too keen on e-mail.

That reporter?

None other than Jerome Holtzman, the longtime Tribune and Sun-Times baseball writer, who passed away Monday at the age of 81.

Known as “The Dean” in baseball circles, Holtzman was a sportswriting titan who invented the “save” statistic, earned a spot in Cooperstown and was named by Bud Selig as Major League Baseball’s first official historian after retiring from the newspaper biz in 1998.

On Tuesday, Holtzman’s remarkable career — and his troubles with those pesky computers — were detailed in the Trib through a collection of his colleagues memories.

As a former sportswriter myself and lifelong admirer of Holtzman, whose stories I’d read at the breakfast table while growing up in Bourbonnais, I was thrilled with the little assignment.

And as I weaved my way along Sheridan Road in Evanston, looking for Holtzman’s home in the dark and the rain, I remember thinking how every time I had ever seen the man on TV or in a photograph he was always wearing suspenders.

Finally, once I found Holtzman’s darkened home and knocked quietly on the door, the Hall of Famer appeared, type-written foreword in hand and clad in a pair of dark slacks, a white T-shirt …

And suspenders.

I loved it.

Still do.

Rest in peace, Jerome.

And, you know, if you get a chance to bend God’s ear, ask if he could maybe cut the Cubs a break this year.

Lord knows, they need it.

General

Batman, Hockey and The Price of a Hot Dog

It got plenty Dark at Navy Pier IMAX last Knight.

And I enjoyed every minute of the new Batman flick.

All 150 of them.

Smacking his lips and screwing with the mind, Heath Ledger was creepy-funny-incredible as the Joker. Gotham District Attorney Harvey Dent was “Believable.” And the rest of the film’s cast — along with its deft script and deeper-than-you’d-think dialogue — was utterly captivating.

Not to mention, haunting.

“The Dark Knight” is one of those few movies that lingers, and leaves you still thinking about it the next day.

And, really, what more can you ask from any form of entertainment?

Gotham: My Kind of Town

As great as the actors were in the “The Dark Knight” — and they were great, indeed — no role in the film stood out more than the Windy City’s turn as Gotham City.

The majesty of Chicago — the city I consider to be the best in the world (yeah I’m biased, so what?) — was played up to the hilt throughout the movie, especially when viewed on the IMAX’s sprawling 58-foot-tall screen.

And making things even more enjoyable for me were the many shots of “Gotham” taken along the stretch of Wacker Drive in Chicago’s Loop where I work each day.

I look forward to “The Dark Knight” coming out on DVD just so I can hit pause on the Chicago city scenes and get an even fuller appreciation of its gorgeous streetscapes and skyline.

Chicago rocks.

As a result, Gotham does too.

Hockey’s New Year’s Daze

When I first heard the rumor months ago that the Chicago Blackhawks were hoping to play a regular-season hockey game outdoors at Wrigley Field, I thought it was a stroke of genius.

After all, for a city that often doesn’t seem to remember the Blackhawks even exist, what better way to jog the memory than to play a game at the ballpark no Chicagoan can ever forget?

(Don’t deny it, White Sox fans.)

The siren song of Wrigley is the ideal bait for the NHL to attract that casual fan (such as myself) it so desperately needs if pro hockey ever hopes to grow.

And get its games off the Versus network.

(Sheesh.)

Last week, the NHL officially announced that at noon on Jan. 1, 2009, the Blackhawks will indeed host the defending NHL champion Detroit Red Wings at the Friendly Confines. The news prompted sports columnists far and wide to gush about how wonderful the whole thing will be.

And, sure, it could have been. It should have been.

But, in my opinion, the Blackhawks and the NHL pucked this one up.

Big-time.

Because, why — really, why? — would you ever schedule a juicy hockey game such as this one for noon on New Year’s Day, a date on the calendar that’s eternally owned, lock, stock and barrel, by college football?

It just makes no sense. None at all.

The simple fact is, all the people who the NHL wants to convince that hockey is just as cool as football will, you know, already be watching football that day.

Or actually off at a football game in Florida or California.

Sure, the hockey game at Wrigley will sell out (most likely with a vast majority of die-hard hockey fans who don’t need to be sold on the sport). And, I don’t doubt that the atmosphere at the ballpark will be electric (how could it not be?).

But by foolishly attempting to compete with New Year’s Day bowl games (a fight that hockey couldn’t win with an army of goons), the Blackhawks and the NHL really dropped the puck on this one.

What should have been a wonderfully unique opportunity to promote hockey to all of America will instead end up being relegated to a diversion most people flip on for a few minutes during a football game’s halftime and TV timeouts.

Honestly, what was wrong with scheduling Wrigley on Ice for Saturday, Jan. 3 — a date that’s bowl game-free?

Suggested 2009 New Year’s Resolution for the NHL:

Don’t schedule marquee games on New Year’s Day.

The Price of a Hot Dog

Last week, I posted a blog entry about a humorous sign I saw a homeless man holding in as he sat with a cardboard box containing a handful of pennies. It read:

“Senator Obama is campaigning for change … So am I.”

Several Wisch List readers contacted me about the amusing placard, which got me thinking about the many encounters that I’ve had with Chicago panhandlers over the years.

As you can probably imagine, working in the Loop, I’m asked for money more times each day than a loan shark.

When I go to lunch, four guys ask me for change. When I come back from lunch, the same four guys ask me for change.

Most of the requests are mundane, but occasionally they’re clever. And my general rule of thumb is that if a panhandler can make me smile or laugh, I’ll pony up a little bit.

To me, a chuckle is worth something.

It certainly was about 9 years ago when my buddy Ryan and I were out in Wrigleyville late one night when Ryan was approached by a charismatic homeless gent with an intriguing proposition.

“I’ll bet you the price of a hot dog,” the man said to Ryan as he sidled up alongside us, “that I can tell you how many kids your daddy had.”

“Okay,” Ryan said, his curiosity piqued. “You’re on.”

The man proceeded to look Ryan up, look him down and then shout out:

“None! Your momma had all the kids!”

Ryan paid up.

General

Spellbound

Forwarded by my mother (a retired English teacher) to me (a “semi-retired” journalist) …

Spell Chequer

Eye halve a spelling chequer,
It came with my pea sea,
It plainly marques four my revue
Miss steaks eye kin knot sea.

Eye strike a key and type a word
And weight four it two say
Weather eye am wrong oar write
It shows me strait a weigh.

As soon as a mist ache is maid
It nose bee fore two long
And eye can put the error rite
Its rarely ever wrong.

Eye have run this po em threw it
I’m shore your pleased two no
Its letter perfect in it’s weigh,
My chequer tolled me sew.

General

Campaigning for change … literally

Sign seen today on the Michigan Avenue Bridge (held by a homeless man in front of a box of scattered pennies):

“Senator Obama is campaigning for change … So am I.”

I gave the guy a buck.

I respect clever panhandling.

Music

Misheard Lyrics: Yellow Ledbetter

Ever wonder what the heck Eddie Vedder is saying in Pearl Jam’s unintelligible ballad “Yellow Ledbetter”?

Well, wonder no more.

But just remember one thing: Potato Wave.

Baseball

My Dad: A Little League Big Shot

When it comes to my family’s baseball gene pool, I ended up in the shallow end.

With a pair of water wings.

Whereas I didn’t hit my growth spurt or figure out how to really hit a baseball (keep your head down!) until it was far too late, my younger brother, John, was a perennial youth league all-star and an all-conference performer during high school.

And my dad?

Well, he was all-everything.

My Pop, throwing filth

During college in the 1960s, my father, Joe, excelled as a pitcher at Kankakee High School and then Illinois State University. Excelled so well, in fact, that after earning his sheepskin from ISU he was plucked out of the Major League draft by the San Francisco Giants and dispatched to a minor league gig in Medford, Ore., where he lived out his dream.

Spending his days spinning curveballs under the Oregon and Idaho sun, my dad competed against the likes of future Major Leaguers such as Ron Cey and Doyle Alexander, the latter of which he defeated when Alexander was a peach-fuzzed 17-year-old making his minor league debut for the L.A. Dodgers.

With the Giants, my dad played alongside teammates that included George Foster, who won the 1977 NL MVP with the fabled “Big Red Machine,” and Leo Mazzone, who rose to fame as pitching coach for the 1990s Atlanta Braves featuring Maddux, Smoltz and Glavine.

Unfortunately, for my dad, his own career came to an abrupt halt when midway through his second season in Medford he injured his pitching elbow and never recovered.

“I needed Tommy John surgery,” my dad has said many times. “They just didn’t have it yet.”

If they did, it might be known as “Joe Wischnowsky” surgery today.

Nevertheless, despite the sour end to his playing days, my dad came home with plenty of sweet stories from the final years of his baseball career.

Although it’s always been the beginning that’s fascinated me the most.

Because, 50 years ago this summer, my then 12-year-old dad first broke onto the hardball scene in a starring role for one of the greatest Little League teams to emerge from the Land of Lincoln.

Ever.

In 1958, my father’s Kankakee Jaycees All-Star team’s incredible postseason run led them from small-town Illinois to Williamsport, Pa., and, ultimately, to a berth in the title of game of the Little League World Series, where they faced the defending world champions from Moneterrey, Mexico.

In the U.S. Championship game prior to the title bout against the Mexicans, my dad took the mound against a Gadsden, Ala., featuring a flame-throwing pitcher by the lyrical name of Mackey Moats.

Moats, according to what one of his teammates told my dad back then, was known an avid weightlifter.

Even though he was only 11 years old.

Nevertheless, my dad defeated Moats and the boys from ‘Bama 3-1, providing me with what’s probably my favorite of all of his baseballl anecdotes.

Many of the rest of the Jaycees’ memories, however, were captured nicely this past Sunday in an article written by Steve Soucie of the Kankakee Daily Journal .

The story is posted below. And I just want to say, I’m proud of ya, Dad.

And I’m glad I never faced your curveball.

I wouldn’t have stood a chance.

50 years later, Jaycees are still Illinois’ best

By Steve Soucie

Assistant sports editor

When Little League’s postseason slate began in 1958, most of those in the know believed the Kankakee Jaycees entrant in the tournament wouldn’t even get out of town.

But in reality, the team was about to begin a journey that has never been bettered by an Illinois squad in Little League baseball history.

The tournament was a single-elimination event at every one of its stages in 1958, which required capable teams to never have a bad game or even a bad inning, lest their fate be decided with a loss.

Fortunately for the Jaycees, they were built in a fashion that wasn’t apt to allow that to happen. The club won 12-consecutive games using an iron man pitching staff of two arms to claim the U.S. Championship before losing a 10-1 decision to a loaded Monterrey, Mexico, team in the World Championship game.

Not bad for a team that was an underdog from the start.

The postseason begins

In 1958, the tournament began with a Sub-District, which was contested prior to the District Tournament. The Jaycees earned wins over Wilmington and Bradley to earn a berth in the District Tournament, but most, including some of the players themselves, believed the Kankakee Lions (now the Kankakee Knights of Columbus) might be too powerful to overcome.

“In the District Tournament, the Lions were supposed to be the team to beat,” Jaycees third baseman Mike DeBetta said. “They had some huge players.”

But Spring Valley took care of the Lions in District semifinal game, and the one-and-done format ended the so-called favorite’s run in their tracks. The Jaycees topped Coal City 12-0 in the other semifinal and then bested the upstarts from Spring Valley to move along.

The Jaycees had little trouble in the Sectional but ran into a bit a rough patch in the State Tournament, fending off tough teams from Marion and Evergreen Park to keep the dream alive.

Through it all, Don McKay and Joe Wischnowsky (who strangely went by the name of Wischnowski throughout his athletic career, never bothering to correct an erroneous spelling of his name) did all of the pitching. McKay threw a bit harder than Wischnowsky and would often throw the first game of the tournaments. Wischnowsky, armed with a surprisingly good curveball, would then pitch the second. The duo alternated between shortstop and pitching positions..

Only once was either of the two relieved for during tournament play — when McKay was forced out of the World Championship game after being plunked by a batted ball. Wischnowsky was unavailable having pitched in the U.S. title game, so outfielder Brian Adame was pressed into action.

“There’s no doubt Joe Wischnowsky was the better pitcher of the two of us,” McKay said from his home, just outside of Dallas, Texas. “Take a vote of the team and he’d win in a landslide.”

That tandem pitched back-to-back shutouts in wins over Gary, Ind., and Birmingham, Mich., at the Regional.

At that point, the team had achieved what basically nobody thought was possible — a berth in the Little League World Series.

At Williamsport

The format at the Little League World Series was just as unforgiving as the previous tournaments. One loss ousted a team from the tournament. The four U.S. qualifiers (Kankakee Jaycees, Darien, Conn., Gadsen, Ala., and Portland, Ore.) were joined by international representatives from Canada (Valleyfield, Quebec), Latin America (Monterrey, Mexico) and the Pacific (Honolulu, Hawaii). The Hawaiian team had to go through Pacific qualifying as Hawaii wouldn’t become a state for two more years.

The odd seven-team bracket had the Jaycees opening against the squad from Oregon. McKay locked horns with Portland‘s ace pitcher Rick Wise. Wise would later win 188 games in Major League Baseball with Philadelphia, St. Louis, Boston, Cleveland and San Diego.

But on that day, Wise was just another pitcher the Jaycees had to topple to keep the dream alive.

It was an epic battle.

Portland drew first blood with a run in the third inning, but DeBetta who emerged as a serious threat with the bat in the postseason, blasted a Wise offering over the fence for a game-tying tally.

“That was something,” DeBetta said. “I still get asked about that. I don’t hesitate to talk about it, either.”

The two teams stayed deadlocked until the sixth inning when Tom Fowler, the Jaycees strapping first baseman, connected for another home run off of Wise.

“I didn’t know him, of course, but what he did always left an impression on me, Rick Wise was at home plate congratulating Tom,” Wischnowsky said. “That’s sportsmanship. I don’t know if you’d see that today.”

McKay needed to get three more outs to get the Jaycees to the U.S. title game. He maneuvered that minefield successfully, and the Jaycees unbelievable run continued.

Alabama was next and the only team standing in the way of the U.S. title. Wischnowsky handcuffed Gasden for four innings before giving up a solitary run in the fifth. The Jaycees offense wasn’t exactly potent, either, but managed to turn two hits into three runs for a 3-1 victory.

Against Mexico

The U.S. title game was quickly followed by an opportunity to win the whole ball of wax. But Monterey, Mexico, the tournament’s defending champion, had overpowered each of its foes throughout the tournament and did so again, toppling the Jaycees 10-1 in the championship game.

“They were by far the class of the tournament,” Wischnowsky said. “What struck me was how mature some of them were. I think some of them were already shaving; it was like men against boys. We were hoping to beat them, but it was obvious pretty early on we weren’t going to.”

Hector Torres, a 9-year Major League veteran who played the 1971 season with the Cubs, stymied the Jaycees’ bats, limiting them to just three hits and a lone sixth-inning run, well after the outcome was decided.

But few, if any of the Jaycees, focus on the loss. For them, it’s about the journey that came before it.

“It was just a really fine collection of boys,” coach Gus LaRoche said. “We played great defense and we had really good pitching. It was something else. One loss and you were out. We didn’t get that loss until the last game.”

The celebration that ensued following the team’s return to Kankakee was impressive. A large contingent of team supporters caravaned the team back to Kankakee before a huge reception back at Beckman Park.

Banquets and other perks followed, including an on-field tour and recognition at Comiskey Park, where the team brushes elbows with Chicago White Sox greats Sherm Lollar and Nellie Fox.

“We knew it was it something special, but we were kids and we were just having fun, and I don’t think we realized the magnitude of what we were doing,” Wischnowsky said. “But as we look back, we realize it. I still get thrilled about it, even 50 years later.”

General

A new California angel

Longtime Wisch List readers dating back to my days in Ottawa – or those of you who own my book – likely will recall the columns I wrote in 2003 about my irrepressible pal Mark Wiebe, a wheelchair-bound high school student who weighed just 40 pounds but carried more weight than an army of men in the hearts of those who knew him.

Five years ago this June, Mark — who collected marbles, ran his own Web site (tagline: Wiebe Jammin’) and sang in the school chorus — died at the age of 17 after battling the paralyzing disorder Spinal Muscular Atrophy his entire life.

But despite his limitations, Mark’s spirit, intelligence and quick wit enabled him to become larger than life in the eyes of so many, including myself.

Such was the case with James Melroy, a newspaper sports editor in Long Beach, Calif., who passed away in his sleep last Friday at the age of 36. 

Born with arthrogryposis, a rare congenital disorder that left him in need of a wheelchair to get around, James didn’t let his disease keep him from pursuing his passions to the fullest.

And leaving a legacy on the southern California prep sports scene.

To read a touching tribute to James – who I didn’t know, but wish I had – in the Long Beach Press-Telegram, click here.

Trust me, it’ll be worth your while.

And, James, say hey to Mark for me.