Authors: David Aretha
Tags: #Fiction, #Mystery, #Adventure, #Baseball
Joe, Kevin, and Omar are back for the second installment of The Baseball Geeks Adventures. When Omar's dad takes the boys to Wrigley Field to see a Chicago Cubs game, the Geeks find themselves in a sticky mess after Omar is blamed for costing Chicago a very important game. Soon he feels the wrath of a long-frustrated fan base and is afraid and ashamed to go out in public. Is Omar going to remain the newest curse in Cubs history? Or will Kevin and Joe figure out a way to save their best friend from having to hide forever?
After nine antsy hours in Mr. Ovozi's Pontiac Aztek, we finally reached our destination city.
“Welcome to Chicago” stated the green sign, which glistened in the September sun.
“We made it, dudes!” exclaimed Kevin, our anxious friend, who high-fived Omar and me in the backseat. “The City of Big Shoulders.”
“The City That Works,” added Omar, our African-Uzbek-American pal.
“Who said âCity That Works'?” boomed Mr. Ovozi through his accent.
“That's what they call Chicago,” replied Omar.
“So what, Chicago is the only city that works?” Mr. Ovozi said. “At my company, we bust our humps six days a week. Come to ClevelandâI'll show you a city that works.”
Mr. Ovozi took the weekend off to take us Clevelanders to Chicago. His brother, who lives there, had four extra Cubs tickets. That evening, we were going to Wrigley Fieldâ¢! And what a game: the first-place Cubbies vs. the second-place Cincinnati Redsâunder the lights.
For Omar, Kevin, and meâknown in our school as the Baseball Geeksâthis would be the first big-league game we ever attended outside of Cleveland. Of course, some still wonder if the Cleveland Indians
a big-league team.
“So who has the more pathetic history?” I asked. “The Cubs or the Indians?”
“Pathetic or cursed, Joe?” asked Kevin.
“Cursed,” Omar said.
That was a good question. The Cubs hadn't won the World Series since 1908âor even been there since 1945. Some Chicagoans blame the “Curse of the Billy Goat.” During that '45 season, Billy Sianis attended a World Series game at Wrigley Field. Sianis, who owned the Billy Goat Tavern, brought his pet goat to the game. That sounds cute, but the old goat stank, which bothered fans. Wrigley officials asked Sianis to leave and take his smelly goat with him.
On his way out, an angry Sianis declared, “Them Cubs, they aren't gonna win no more.” And they didn't.
“And that's the Curse of the Billy Goat,” I said.
“Yeah,” said Omar, as he straightened his Indians cap. “But we have the âCurse of Bobby Bragan.'”
The Indians last won a World Series in 1948. Four years after that, they fired manager Bragan. According to legend, Bragan returned to Cleveland Municipal Stadium and placed a curse on the team.
Ever since, the Indians have been plagued by bad luck. Just one example: In spring 1987, the Indians made the cover of
. The headline read: “Believe it! Cleveland is the best team in the American League!” They finished the season with a record of 61â101.
“But the Indians were good in the '90s,” I said.
“Yeah,” said Omar, “but they never went all the way.”
That's right. They were on the verge of making the playoffs in 1994, but then the major-league players went on strike and the playoffs were canceled.
In 1997, they were leading Game 7 of the World Series 2â1 in the ninth. But the Florida Marlins came back to win.
“Still,” Kevin said, “that's nothing compared to the black cat.”
Kev was referring to another Cubs curse. On September 9, 1969, the Cubbies were in first place in the National League East, ahead of the second-place New York Mets. But that day at the Mets' Shea Stadium, a black cat ran onto the field while the Cubs were batting.
A black cat is a symbol of bad luck, and the Cubs fell victim. They lost that game and fell into a bad slump. The Mets went on to win the World Series.
Through heavy traffic, Mr. Ovozi inched his way down Clark Street in Wrigleyville. I'd never seen a street as cool as this. Lining both sides were restaurants, pubs, theaters, and shops. We passed Murphy's Bleachers, Nuts on Clark, The Cubby Bear lounge. The streets were swarming with people, many of whom were in Cubs clothes.
“Let's not forget the ugliest hex of all time,” Kevin said. “The Bartman Curse.”
Poor Steve Bartman. He was just a regular guy, in a Cubs cap and glasses, rooting his team to victory.
“But he was in the wrong place at the wrong time,” Omar said.
It was Game 6 of the 2003 National League Championship Series. The Cubs led three games to two over Florida. They were leading this game 3â0 in the eighth inning, with one out. All they needed was five more outs to reach the World Series for the first time in fifty-eight years.
That's when the Marlins' Luis Castillo lofted a fly ball to left field. It was a foul ball near the stands, but Cubs left fielder Moises Alou felt he could catch it. He arrived at the wall and reached over to make the grab. But at the same moment, Bartmanâwho was sitting in the front rowâtried to catch it, too. He got his hands on the ball, preventing Alou from making the catch.
Bartman hadn't realized that Alou was below him. He had been concentrating on the ball in the sky. He felt terrible for his mistake. Fans started yelling and throwing things at Bartman, and security guards escorted him out of the park.
The Marlins scored eight runs that inning and won the game 8â3. They then beat the Cubs the next day to win the series. The whole episode ruined the poor guy's life.
Prior to that game, Bartman had been a Little League coach whom all the kids liked. After the game, he was getting death threats.
People hated himâjust because he had reached for a baseball. He had to go into hiding, and reporters staked out his house.
“Bartman didn't do anything wrong,” Omar said.
“Yeah,” Kevin said, “but if he had been in the men's room that inning, the Cubs would have gone to the World Series.”
“All I can say,” Omar concluded, “is I'm glad I wasn't in his shoes.”
As we drove further down Clark Street, Mr. Ovozi's face lit up.
“Look at this, guys!”
Peering out the window of the Aztek, we saw it: the world-famous red sign, towering above us. “Wrigley Field: Home of Chicago Cubs,” it said.
“Whoa . . . ,” Kevin said, wide-eyed.
“Awesome,” Omar added.
After Mr. Ovozi paid for parking (“Forty dollars!” he exclaimed), we finally got out of that darn car. Omar stretched his long arms and wiggled his fingers. Kevin, who's kinda short, like me, marveled at the statues outside the old park. His favorite was the one of Hall of Fame shortstop Ernie Banks. “Mr. Cub” always had a smile on his face. He's the guy who said, “It's a great day for baseball. Let's play two!”
The atmosphere outside the ballpark was electric. The Cubs were six games ahead of the Reds in the standings with just eleven games to go. Fans could “taste” the playoffs.
A group of young women in Cubs T-shirts clapped their hands and chanted “LET'S go, CUB-bies!” A trio of jazz musicians played “Sweet Home Chicago” on their horns.
The smell of hot dogs was in the air, and the noise of the gathering crowd grew louder and louder. My body tingled as we waited in line with our tickets.
But today, as I look back on that September evening, I'm haunted by our discussion of Steve Bartman. “I'm glad I wasn't in his shoes,” Omar had said.
Little did he realize that in less than three hours, he would be.
“Hey, hot dog here!” boomed the chubby Wrigley vendor. “Who needs one?”
“I do,” Kevin said, raising a $5 bill.
“You got it, pal,” the vendor replied.
It was the fifth inning, and Kevin and I were sitting in the left-field seats. We were in the lower level, in foul territory, a couple rows behind the Ovozis. Omar and his dad sat in our section but in the first row.
The place was packed. Loud chatter was constant, and between-innings organ music added to the ballpark ambience.
The vendor yanked a boiled weenie and a moist bun out of his containers.
“What do you want
it, slugger?” he asked.
“Just ketchup,” Kev said.
“Ketchup?” the vendor retorted. “You must be an out-of-towner, 'cause Chicagoans don't put ketchup on their dogs.”
“We're actually from Cleveland,” Kevin said.
“Oh, yeah?” the vendor replied with a chuckle. “Indians fans?”
“You have my sympathies,” he said. “I predict a CubsâIndians World Seriesâin the year 5000.”
We smiled, and Kev paid the guy five bucks for a $4.50 dog.
“Keep the change,” Kevin said.
“Thanks, champ,” the guy said. “Go Tribe. . . . Hot dog here! . . .”
“That guy's like one of those âChee-ca-go' guys,” Kevin said.
“Yeah,” I said. “I thought he was gonna start saying, âDa Bears! Da Bulls!'”
Kev with a Chicago accent: “Yeah, after all dose beef sanwiches, I dink I'm gonna have anudder hart attack!”
We cracked up.
Wrigley Field was a whole lot of fun. There's no other ballpark like it. The outfield fence is made of red brick, and that brick is completely covered with ivy (green vines and leaves). The park is a hundred years old, and a large, green manual scoreboard towers in center field.
Wrigley is the only major-league park that sits in a neighborhood. People live in condo buildings across the streets. You can see a bunch of the buildings behind the outfield bleachers. In fact, some people have constructed bleachers on top of the condo buildings. They watch the games from their rooftops!
“This place is awesome,” Kevin said through a bite of his hot dog.
Kevin was a different person at Wrigley. He was normally a nervous Nellie, but Wrigley had a way of putting fans in a good mood.
Except the two guys directly behind us. They were about nineteen or twenty years oldâand obnoxious. One guy wore a Reds cap; the other a Joey Votto Reds jersey. Both were big muscular guysâlike football playersâwith neatly shaved heads. They continuously heckled the Cubs, who were leading 4â2.
“NINE-teen, OH-eight!” they chanted, referring to the year the Cubs last won the World Series. “It's choking time, Castro!”
“I heard Babe Ruth called this place a dump,” said the guy in the cap.
“It smells like one,” said the other. “And the hot dogs taste like the crap they serve in our cafeteria.”
Kevin rolled his eyes. It was hard for us to ignore them.
Down below, I saw Omar eating something out of a cardboard basket.
“What do you think the Big O is eating?” I asked Kevin.
“Oh, I saw those,” he said. “Cholula Tater Tots. They're potatoes with sour cream, cheese, and hot sauce.”
“The hot sauce is probably why he needs that giant Pepsi,” I said.
Omar appeared to be enjoying himself. He was pointing to the field and explaining a lot to his dad. Like, “On a fly ball, the runner on third has to go back and tag the base.”
Mr. Ovozi is from Uzbekistan, and I'm sure they don't know much about baseball in that Eastern European country.
Thankfully, we no longer had to deal with the Reds fans. After Cincinnati couldn't score in the sixth, they left in a huff.
“Cubs suck!” one of them yelled as they walked away.
“What sucks,” Kevin said to me, “is mean people. Let's hope we never become jerks like those guys.”
“I hear ya,” I said.
Soon we all rose for the Seventh Inning Stretch. At Wrigley, broadcaster Harry Caray used to lean out of his WGN booth and sing “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” with the fans. Ever since he died in 1998, celebrity guests have entered the booth and sung the songâfrom race-car driver Jeff Gordon to singer Ozzy Osbourne. On this day, a player on the Chicago Bears led the rendition.
In front of us, Omar and his dad sang along and swayed to the song. Omar turned and gave Kev and I a thumbs-up and a beaming smile.
But twenty minutes later, everything went horribly wrong.
In the top of the ninth, the Cubs led 4â2, but the Reds were threatening. With two outs, Cincinnati had runners on first and second. That's when the newest Cubs curse beganâand our friend Omar was right in the middle of it.
A Reds slugger lofted a high fly ball to down the left-field line. Andres Cabreraâthe Cubs' superstar left fielderâraced into foul territory near the wall. With the ball headed in our general direction, I took a quick picture with my cell phone camera.
Fans in the first three rows crowded togetherâright around Omarâtrying to catch the foul ball. I couldn't see what happened, but most everyone else in the ballpark could. The fans' reaction can only be described as a collective gasp, followed by a large “Ohhhhh.”
“What's going on?” I asked Kevin.
“Look,” he said.
The woman in front of us was watching the game live on her iPad. We leaned over and saw Cabrera screaming at the third base umpire. The fans were booing their lungs out.
“Why's Cabrera all wet?” I asked.
“Somebody spilled their pop on him,” the woman said.
They showed the replay: as Cabrera was waiting to make the catch, a fan in the first rowâseveral feet above Cabreraâdropped his large Pepsi on the player's head! Temporarily blinded by the beverage, Cabrera couldn't catch the ball. It fell harmlessly foul.
Now we watched the “action” on the field. Cabrera was enraged with the umpire, claiming that the ump should have ruled “fan interference.” Cabrera thought the ump should have called the batter out, which would have ended the game.
Cubs manager Joe Hargrove tried to corral his star player, but Cabrera broke free and shoved the ump. In baseball, that's a huge no-no.
“Oh, he's so gonna get suspended,” Kevin said.
The umpire ejected Cabrera from the game, eliciting a huge “boooo” from the crowd. While that was happening, a ruckus brewed in the first few rows. Fans were throwing cups and paper wads and food at, of all people, Omar!
“Loser!” someone cried.
“Go home, you moron!” shouted another.
I looked at Kevin, and he at me.
Pepsi!” I said.
We looked at the replay on the iPad. The fans were bunched together, so it was hard to tell exactly what was going on. But sure enough, the large cup of Pepsi fell out of Omar's hand.
“Oh, my gosh,” Kevin said.
Amid the bedlam, security guards were surrounding Omar and his father, shielding them from flying objects. They escorted the Ovozis toward the exit.
“Kick 'em out!” a fan yelled.
Since the Ovozis were our ride, we had no choice but to follow. Kevin's vacation from his anxieties was over. Stress lines returned to his face.
“Where are they taking him?” Kev asked.
I had no clue. But we followed the Ovozis as the guards rushed them out of the seating area and down the concourseâthe walking area between the seats and the food stands.
“Omar!” I yelled.
With guards' hands pushing him forward, Omar turned around and gazed at us. I could see the worry in his eyes. He looked like a kid who had just been arrested.
The guards opened a door and led the Ovozis into a room. When Kevin and I reached the door, it was slammed shut in our faces.
“I can't believe this is happening,” I told Kevin.
We leaned back against the wall and slunk to the floor. Kevin performed his most nervous habit: rubbing his tooth with his finger until it made a squeaky noise.
Meanwhile, on a TV monitor next to the Connie's Pizza stand, we watched a nightmare play out before our eyes.
The batter who had hit the two-out foul fly ball to Cabrera wound up cracking a double. Both runners scored, tying the game. He himself scored on a single, making it 5â4. And now, in the bottom of the ninth with the game on the line, the Cubs went down, one-two-three. Omar's cup of Pepsi was the reason they lost the game.
When the final out was made, the crowd vented its anger with a chorus of “boos.” As they left their seats and flooded into the concourse area, many fans were visibly upset.
“Why do these things always happen to us?” pouted a redheaded young woman in a Cubs cap.
“It was that kid who blew the game,” barked a grumpy old man. “Just when things start to look up, something like this happens.”
“I feel so sorry for that boy,” a mother told her two young sons. “That's all Chicago is going to talk about.”
As we watched the fans rumble by and grumble about our friend, I felt sick to my stomach. Sure, Omar was weird, but he wasn't a bad kid.
“Well, at least it was just one game,” I managed to say. “They're still in first place.”
“It's not like they could blow a five-game lead with ten games to go,” Kevin said.
A man in a mustache and a “1908” T-shirt overheard Kevin.
“What did you say?” the man asked.
“Huh?” Kevin replied. “I just said that they're still five games ahead of the Reds, so that should be safe.”
“Son, you're so naÃ¯ve,” the man said with a chuckle. “This is the Cubs we're talking about!”
Kevin noticeably gulped. He and I feared the doom that may lie ahead. We didn't want to say it, but we knew what fans would call it.
The Curse of Omar.