Saturday, November 28, 2015

Seeing the World As It Is

Waking up one morning in 1975 I saw my roommate’s dog Casey, an Irish Setter, sitting against my bedroom wall.

“Casey.  Good morning.  Come here girl.”

I made that smooching kissing kind of sound we make to call dogs to us.  She didn’t move.

I was in the smallest bedroom of a country house I shared with two other guys.  I was there temporarily.  Well, we all were there temporarily as it turned out but I was the most temporary of the three.  I planned to leave in the spring for South America, a plan I carried out.

In my little bedroom was a twin bed mattress and box spring, a wooden barrel, some books on the floor, and a backpack with very few clothes on top of it in the corner.  I was covered by a sleeping bag.

“Casey, don’t be silly. Come here.”

I stretched out my arm and wiggled my fingers, promising to scratch her behind her ears which she liked so much.  She was about three feet beyond my outstretched hand.  Still she didn’t move.  I pushed out from under the sleeping bag, closing the gap between us and touched her.

When my fingers touched her I realized it wasn’t Casey but my brown wool sweater.  I had mistaken my sweater for a dog, and was reminded how bad my vision was without correction.  It’s sobering, but you learn to live with it.

I first got glasses, for myopia, in 1960 when I was in third grade.  When I left the eye clinic in Bloomington wearing them I looked down the street and said to my Mom

“I can see every leaf on those trees.”

I loved wearing glasses.   I never took them off.  As I got older my glasses got thicker.  I got contact lenses in 1968 because my coach thought contact lenses would improve my peripheral vision.  He was right.  With them I could see if the base runner leading off first was leaning towards second when I pitched.  When basketball season came I became more aware of the whole court.  I experienced little discomfort, and wore those contacts as much as I possibly could, which was probably a mistake.
My vision became more of a problem in 1972.  After spring finals at ISU I went to my eye doctor because I thought I had scratches on my contact lenses.  My vision was annoyingly blurry, both near and far, as if I was looking through something.  I cleaned the contacts, the old hard kind, little pieces of blue plastic, several times but could see nothing on them.  Turned out it wasn’t my contacts but my eyes.  I was looking through scars on my corneas, like stretch marks.  My corneas had become cone shaped.  I had developed an eye disease called kerataconus. When corneas lose their uniform curve and shape they not only scar but they distort your vision.  There’s no getting around that.

I was fit with special contacts that held back the cone but at the same time irritated my eyes more.  I learned to live with that.   As the years went on with the help of excellent eye doctors I made use of every new technology available.  I was fitted with gas permeable contact lenses which allowed more oxygen onto the surface of my eye and lengthened my wearing time.  But my eyes continued to change.
I flunked the vision portion of my driver’s test in 1990 and went to my trusted eye doctor for a more extensive exam.  He passed me, allowing me to drive, but only after exacting a promise that I would visit an ophthalmologist who specialized in cornea transplants.  Turned out I was a prime candidate for such surgery.

My corneas were replaced a year apart in 1990 and 1991.  After each surgery I snapped that eye’s hard contact between my fingers, the little bastards that caused me so much discomfort, and vowed to never wear contacts again.  The transplants gave me not only a clear surface to look through but reduced my astigmatism as well.  After it was all done my new glasses, rather than being coke bottle thick, resembled those of a normal person.  I thought the transplants would eliminate my eye disease.  But I was wrong.

It crept back.  Astigmatism became the problem.  While my corneas remained clear something about my eye caused them to again lose their shape.  My prescription crept up again, and not uniformly in each eye.  My eyes became very different one from another.  The eye doctors worked so hard to help me see.

I would attempt to explain to my eye doctor, now the son of the man who insisted I see the surgeon, what it was like to see through my eyes, so he could understand what was happening.

“Don’t try,” he said.  “Vision is a hard thing to put into words, especially the vision of people with kerataconus.  Looking through non uniform corneas, each eye different from the other, and each patient’s eyes different from the next, causes unique individual distortion.  It’s distorted in an infinite number of ways.  Your brain can accommodate many of those differences.  But convincing me what it looks like for you is not really helpful to me.  It’s interesting, but not important.  My job is to produce vision for you as good as possible given your eyes, and when I can no longer do that get to someone who can make your eyes better.”

He gave me a prism in one lens after I complained that my eyes watered at night while reading.  Even with it I reported that occasionally the vision of one eye or another suddenly wildly diverged, the print on one side of a sentence jumping way higher than the other side making it impossible to read.
“That is your brain taking a break.  The difference is too great and your eyes go out of focus temporarily.  Your brain can’t hold it together any longer.”

If I stood in front of a wide banner with print trying to read it across, one side of the banner, usually the left, would be clear while the right side blurred out.  I found it better to close the right eye and move my head to scan the entire width with the left.
Occasionally things that I knew were concentric, say targets with equally spaced rings, the kind you shoot arrows at, would not be so.  On one side the rings would scrunch together.  On the other side they would bow out.  But the worst part of living with so much astigmatism, which requires such a strong prescription, is the lack of depth perception.  There was a time before I flunked the driver’s test that I desperately relied on “stop ahead” signs.  Without them I would slam on my brakes at a rapidly approaching stop sign believing I had plenty of time.  No one has told me this but I think corrective prescriptions with high minus make everything appear smaller, yet in relative proportion.  It allows you to see the world more clearly, but not as it really is.

A few years ago my young cutting edge optometrist introduced me to an innovation called Synergize (brand name) contacts.  It’s a gas permeable lens surrounded by a soft contact skirt.  That skirt allows your eye to push the lens out to the curve it needs while the rigid lens stays in place over your pupil.  They fit tightly so extended wearing time is not recommended.  With them I saw amazingly well.  But as time went on I could wear them less and less.  And when I took the contacts out and used my glasses they didn’t function well because of something called corneal molding.  Even when that subsided glasses could not replicate the vision afforded by those advanced contacts.  Finally I had to abandon the contacts because blood vessels began to grow onto the iris in an attempt to bring needed oxygen to the surface of the cornea.   When that happened I was once again referred to a young and respected ophthalmologist.

Beginning this summer he performed a series of procedures to both eyes, incisions which relaxed my cornea and allowed it to take a more normal shape.  He risked cutting into my transplanted cornea, a risk not all professionals of his kind will do.  He was relaxed and confident.  I like him a lot.  I think his confidence comes from not only his skill and experience but because he has the best equipment available, all the latest technology, and a team of people around him who supply him with very accurate information and take no shortcuts.  I felt immediately comfortable in his office, believing I had arrived at a good place.

This past week he concluded his work, performing two cataract removals and replacing my God given lenses with corrected Alcon Toric lenses.  Each of those lenses has six diopters of correction for my astigmatism.  That puts correction inside my eye, in the small lens in front of my retina, rather than on or directly in front of my cornea.  It’s an outpatient procedure done while you are awake.  For the second eye I turned down the pre op offer of Valium so I could pay better attention to what was going on.  I was at the Center for Minimally Invasive Surgery in Mokena, a nice unassuming place by a warehouse off Route 80.  My doctor asked where I wanted the surgery done.  I replied that I wanted to be where he most liked to be.  Totally his call.  He picked CMIC.

In preparation I needed only to strip to the waist before putting on the funky gown.  I even kept my shoes on. They put little booties over them.  A nurse writes something on my forehead above the eye I’m having done, most likely “Cut this one!” and puts both dilating and numbing drops in that eye.  Another asks me to look straight ahead and puts a dot on my eyeball for the doctor to use as a reference when placing the Toric lens.

“Is that a Sharpie?”

She smiled.  “I don’t know.  Sort of.  It’s a felt tip marker of some kind. Special though you know.”

Bianca, a nursing student, was my transporter each time, wheeling me from the staging area to the hallway outside the operating room.  She wrapped a warm blanket around me while I waited.  I was operated on early last Saturday so we talked about the snowstorm and snow removal as we waited.  I was lucky to have made it to Mokena from Ottawa.  Bianca and her family lived in a nearby unincorporated area notoriously bad at plowing snow.  She felt lucky to be there too.

Inside the operating room they tilted my head so the eye being worked on was properly positioned and clamped into something of a soft vice before forcing my eye open with a speculum.  Before I was clamped in I looked at the equipment instruments, big overhead lights, and a giant machine on a massive arm that looked like a movie camera.  On the side of it was the word “Leica.”

“Hey,” I said to no one in particular.  “It’s a Leica.”

“You familiar with the microscope industry?” A nurse asked.

“Not at all.  But Leica used to make very good cameras.  Professionals used their stuff.  I hadn’t heard of them in years.”

While travelling in the 70’s with a Minolta I would run into  world travelers with money carrying Leicas.  They were proud on the verge of snobby about them.

“Well that is a spanking new digital Leica microscope that makes all this work possible.”

“Good to know they’re still around.”

My doctor came in and shook my hand.  He looked different.  We were both wearing hair nets for one thing, and he sported orange crocs on his feet.   He asked the nurse to put the music on.  It was mindless pop.  He sang along to “You Shook Me All Night Long” by AC-DC as he got ready to work.

“Doc, how about telling me what you’re doing as it goes along today?  I didn’t take the Valium.”

“I’d be glad to.  Let me get this instrument in position.  We’re about ready to go.”

He put an extremely bright light directly above my fully dilated eye.  Inside the brightness were three rectangular brighter lights.  It was so bright everything seemed to be turning red.  Nothing I could do about it.  Above me the doctor pulled the camera into position and looked through two eyepieces.

“I have a great view of the interior of your eye thanks to this machine.  Your eye is fully dilated and I can see your lens very clearly.”

“OK, I’m making a 2 millimeter incision on the side of your eye, and inserting my probe through that incision.  Your lens has a diameter of about 6 millimeters.  First I dissect it, then I apply radio waves that break  up those large pieces into bits small enough to be sucked out by the probe.  It’s called phacoemulsification.”

I felt nothing.

"This is going well.  Now I’m beginning to clean this out.  I’m vacuuming out your old lens in a sort of sac it rests in while leaving the snug place it fit into intact.  I’ll insert the new lens in that same place and in time it will incorporate itself into that same place.  The eye will grow around it somewhat.”

As he did this a sound like a video game came from my right side.  Bloops and bings of various length and tones  burbled along.

“What’s that funny noise?”

“The machine gives me some audio feedback on material entering and going through the probe. Along with what I’m seeing it helps me know when I’ve gotten all the loose material.”

“OK.  I’m done with that part.  Now I’m putting your new lens into my probe.  I’ll put it near the site and then release it.  When I do it unrolls and takes shape.  It has a diameter of about 6 mm like your natural lens with arms of another 7 mm that are used to hold it in place .  So in total its 13 mm.”

“And you get that thing all rolled up into a cylinder that fits through a 2 mm incision?”


“That sounds like magic.”

“I know it sounds like magic but it is actually wonderful material and great science.”

“I forget about great science sometimes.”

“It’s easy to do that.  But in my work I see firsthand what a difference it makes.”

“OK your new lens in nicely situated.  Now I’m going to rotate it to the proper axis.”

“Is this where the dot on my eyeball comes in?”

“Yeah.  Not high tech at all but very effective.”

“OK.  One more look around.  Like leaving a hotel room and making sure you didn’t forget something.  OK we’re done.  That went well Mr. McClure.  I think you’ll have a good result.”

“Do you glue the incision shut?”  I knew I didn't have a stitch the previous time.

“None needed.  It’s so small.  It should close and heal nicely on its own.”

“So that’s it?”

“Well, your careful compliance with the follow up regimen of drops is important. But other than that I’ll see you tomorrow, and in a week, and then my job is done.  You do know to call me if you have any kind of emergency at all, right?”

“Yes.  What would that emergency be?”

“Anything you think is a problem is an emergency.  Call if you have any concern but especially in the event of pain.  You should experience little if any pain.  Perhaps some discomfort for a while after the numbing drops wear off, like a speck of something in your eye, but nothing serious.  Just call if you have a worry.  See you tomorrow in my office.”

And with that he was gone, off to take care of the next person in the hall.  Bianca wheeled me out, gave me coffee and snacks.  Another nurse went over discharge instructions, and before you knew it I was back on Route 80 headed home.  I was there just over an hour.

That was a week ago today.  I’m writing this now with no glasses, no correction at all.  I’ve been driving in town.  On Thanksgiving I drove the Buick to pick up my son at the train station in Joliet.  Hell I used to drive to Springfield and Chicago with corrected vision much worse than this.  I’m pretty confident I could pass the test at the Driver’s License place right now.  I think I’ll need a slight correction in the end, but it’s evident that I am seeing better than I have seen since before I was nine, and maybe ever.  I’m amazed.

Given that I will need these eyes for only twenty more years, give or take five or so, this could be my last big fix.  (Knock wood.)  Even if my eyes deteriorate and my prescription changes I’m starting at such a good place I may never need the kind of correction I needed just four months ago.
And so this Thanksgiving I am glad to be living in these times when such technology is available.  I’m thankful for these caring doctors:

              Dr. Tim Ortiz, Optometrist - Ortiz Eye and Hearing Center
              Dr. David Lubeck, Ophthamologist - Arbor Eye Care

And I’m thankful for the staff that support these doctors.  Like many who lead or have led organizations, they may in the end be only as good as their staff.  Those two doctors are surrounded by good people.

And while I’m at it let me express my thanks to the Alcon company, and Leica, and all the producers of the equipment and materials that go into these amazing new technologies and procedures that have been developed.  I can and do criticize our health system for many things: high costs and profits, lack of access, and other shortcomings, but when I realize all it has done to enhance my life and the lives of others it shuts me up some.

So yes I’m thankful for the insurance company and the structure they work within.  I had fallen into a gap between my wife’s teachers insurance and Medicare.  She qualified for Medicare while I did not, and I was no longer eligible to ride along on her policy.  So I took out a Blue Cross/Blue Shield policy to get me by.  Thanks to Obamacare it covered all my preexisting conditions.  This deal cost me some, but given the outcome that cost is ridiculously low.  How do you put a value on clear sight really?

At this time last year I was on a solo road trip to Florida via two lane roads through Kentucky, Tennessee, and Alabama.  This year, to celebrate these new eyes, I’m going to take a similar trip, in a new used Buick with a gas gauge that works, going further east before heading south.  I hope to catch West Virginia, North Carolina, all of Georgia, and central Florida.  The Blue Ridge Mountains are out there somewhere as are the Appalachians.  I’ll leave January 4th and blog along the way, reporting on what I see.  If you are familiar at all with that route and have suggestions for places to visit by all means let me know.

Trust me, I am very grateful to be able to make such a trip again.       

Monday, November 16, 2015

An Escape into Food

Last weekend I wore myself out along with my family and many of my friends by preparing and serving a seven course dinner which was auctioned off this spring at YSB’s Blue Tie Event.  The successful bidders opted to have the dinner for 12 in the upstairs dining hall of Reddick Mansion, an old Italianate Mansion in Ottawa on the town square.  It’s the default dinner site, although we’ll prepare and serve a meal anywhere the bidder chooses (within reason) providing there’s a suitable kitchen.

Sadly we’ve lost track of how many years we’ve done this, but it’s gone on for a while now.  I started out doing it mostly myself, but quickly I recruited help.  It’s pretty clear now I couldn’t pull it this meal off without the help of my family and friends.  Here’s a description of the courses and a few other random thoughts about the ingredients and all.  Eating is one of the real pleasures in life, and eating well is a bonus. The only thing better than eating fine food is writing about it.  I hope you like it.  Who knows?  Maybe you’ll buy it at YSB’s fundraiser next year.

Dinner at the Mansion November 7, 2015
  • ·       Fancy cheeses with crackers, olives, hummus with warm pita bread
  • ·       Fresh greens with handmade dressing
  • ·       Smoked Pork Belly with Apple Chutney and carrots
  • ·       Jumbo Shrimp in Cajun sauce with Polenta Cake
  • ·       Sour cream Gnocchi with red sauce (grated cheese?)
  • ·       Prime Rib with horseradish sauce, green beans, and carrots
  • ·       Pumpkin crème brulee, espresso, and liquers

We have prepared some new and old dishes for you Saturday night.  Let me tell you a little about them.

The appetizers are uncomplicated finger foods to get you started.  My son Dean makes the hummus from scratch soaking good dry garbanzos and adding the best tahini and olive oil he can find.  He won’t tell you all the spices he uses.  We offer some cheeses you might not usually buy for yourself, and fresh olives to go with them along with warm pita bread.  Enjoy the appetizers as you have a glass of wine, meet the other guests, and get ready for a serious meal.

The salad is made from seasonal greens and is simple, topped with goat cheese and hot pear slices sautéed in butter.  My daughter Moe makes a vinaigrette dressing by hand with Champagne vinegar and other good stuff which is served on the salad.  If you would like an alternative, or would prefer to have it on the side please let us know.  Again, pretty straightforward up to this point.

Your group will be the first to experience our seared pork belly.  This idea comes from Moe’s friend Don and has been fun to do.  I bought a local pork belly from the Wyanet Locker, which keeps them on hand to make their own bacon.  Pork Belly is just what it suggests, the belly or bottom cut, between the front and rear legs of a mature hog.  It is uncured, and includes a layer of rich fat.  We brined that belly overnight in a mixture of water, kosher salt, brown sugar, bay leaves, peppercorns, and garlic.   The next day Tom Gardner smoked it for about four hours on the South Side of Ottawa using applewood chips for flavor.  Prior to serving we seared it in a hot iron skillet, plated it on a bed of homemade apple chutney, and drizzled it with a bourbon and brown sugar syrup.  We think you’ll like it.

On the chance that he might know, I inquired to the butcher at Wyanet Locker about the pig from whence the belly originated.  Wyanet is a small farm town west of Princeton and the locker plant there not only does its own butchering but arranges its own slaughtering, often buying local pigs from area farmers.  He was unfamiliar with that particular pig but knew the farmer who sold it and promised to talk to him.  I gave him my cell phone number.
The next day the farmer called.  He remembered that particular hog he recently sold to the people at Wyanet and told me a little about him.  Actually he told me a lot about him.  I had the feeling he missed him.
He recalled that as a young pig he was rambunctious, full of life, and a vigorous eater.  He came from a big litter and enjoyed his time with his litter mates.  He was, if not the biggest, certainly one of the biggest of all the shoats on the farm, and could always be found cavorting around the pig pen.

“Happy as a pig in shit,” the farmer recalled.

He was castrated at a young age, which mellowed him.  As a barrow he settled into a life of solitude, often seen standing alone at the edge of the sty gazing beyond the horizon.

“Dreamy like, you know?” the farmer said.

I know full well.  Contemplative, meditative, content with life.

His life was short.  He was slaughtered at eighteen months, his body cut to pieces with his best parts on sale in the Wyanet display case.  Miscellaneously, he can be found in their sausage.
His belly will be on your plate, soon to be a part of you.  Enjoy.
The next dish, Jumbo Shrimp, is a McClure variation on shrimp and grits.  The polenta, the Italian version of corn meal, is fashioned into something of a soft cornbread slab.

Over that are lightly cooked jumbo shrimp topped with a bayou inspired Cajun sauce.  The shrimp are local from the Fox River.  No they’re not.  I’m putting you on.  We have no idea where the shrimp came from.  Whole Foods.  Wild caught somewhere in the Pacific.
We sneak in a new vegetarian course next, simple gnocchi with a red sauce.  We were going to put them on the next plate but we thought the plate, and your palate, would be crowded with too many tastes.  Gnocchi are a little dumpling cooked like pasta, popular again in Italy and places crawling with Italians, like Argentina.  These are a variation, made with sour cream added to flour, which makes them light and delightful.  Don’t you delight in light food?  Hence delightful.

We serve them with Caton Road marinara sauce, not enough to overpower them but enough to give you that nice tomatoey garlicky taste.  That’s Caton Road garlic too by the way.  We might give you fresh grated Parmesean Reggiano cheese on top of that dish, and then we might not.  We don’t know if we can line up enough graters.  We’ll surprise you with that.

We finish the entrees with an old standard, prime rib of beef served with homemade horseradish sauce (made from horseradish root dug from my garden in Field’s Hill).  The prime rib, bone in, is I think the best cut of beef from our friends the McGrogans at Handy Foods in Ottawa.  We serve it with freshly steamed and sautéd green beans and roasted organic carrots.  The carrots were grown in Sharon Loudon’s raised bed backyard garden just across the river. Sharon is one of your servers and her garden is only, I’d say, a good drive, a solid three wood, and a five iron (maybe an easy four) from where you’ll be sitting.  The carrots were in the ground till yesterday.  This dish is not fancy, but it is damn good.  You can screw up good food trying to be sophisticated.  We keep it simple and hope you appreciate it.

We finish with an old favorite, crème brulee.  Owing to the season we will add some pumpkin and pie spice.  We make this ahead and burn the sugar on top just before serving it to you.  It is rich and sinfully good, if I do say so myself.  We like serving this to our dinner guests, because they like it so much.  With it you get, if you wish, espresso coffee in teeny cups and saucers with tiny spoons (NO  DECAF-DON’T ASK) and assorted shots of three after dinner liquers, take your pick, in fancy ass little glasses.

And that’s it.  We hope you like the food, the surroundings, the wine and the company.  Enjoy yourselves.  Drink plenty but not so much that you don’t remember the meal.  Be kind to your server, they’re both volunteers and our friends.  And feel free to tip them.  All gratuities go to YSB.

Thank you for supporting the kids and families Youth Service Bureau of Illinois Valley works so hard to help.  They’re not eating as well as you are tonight, I guarantee.

Bon appétit,

Dave McClure

P.S.-That farmer didn’t really call me.

Photos by Wynn Venard

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Farewell 2015 Cubs and Thank You

So much has been written about the Cubs, but now with the World Series over and the time changed, all the hype fades till February when pitchers and catchers report to spring training.  The baseball news gets skinny in the regular press; confined to trades, acquisitions, and the business side of baseball.  I took down the Tribune full page player photos and the W towel from the shack. 

I’ll miss the games, the radio and TV broadcasts, the slow unfolding of division races in the standings, and the individual achievements of the players.  They’re out there somewhere, the Cub players, relaxing I hope.  It was quite a run for them in 2015.

Monday I watched the Kansas City Royals finish off the Mets in New York.  I appreciated the camera shots of the Met fans at the conclusion of the TV broadcast.  Grim, dejected, downcast, and mournful faces were rife in the home stands.  It’s awful to lose, especially after achieving so much.  I knew how they felt.
I was in Wrigley Field for the last game of the National League Championship Series.  I had barely taken my seat in the left field bleachers when the Mets went ahead in the top of the first inning.  They stayed there, stomping my young Cub team, making them look bad, exposing their weaknesses.  After the Mets had scored six I left for a half inning, roaming Wrigley’s refurbished back bleacher area and finding Hot Doug’s (I had the tasty Rick Reuschel sausage.). It wasn’t supposed to end like that.  It had been a story book season, the story was drawing to a close, and it was not a happy ending.  There would be no miracle finish.  Unlike the previous game I attended, the first of the Division Series at Wrigley, when they hit six home runs against the Cardinals, the Cubs lost soundly and decisively to the Mets.  I felt like that sad Paul Simon baseball song from “Crazy After All These Years.”

But wait.  They Cubs lost while playing for the championship of the National League.  It suddenly came to me.  This is a victory. 

I wrote about the 2014 Cub season last fall in a blog post called “You Are Where You Are.”  If you scroll down through the posts it’s still there.  I tried as best I could then to put a positive spin on what was a losing season.  They finished last in their division you know.  Here’s an excerpt from that piece written at the end of September.

Did Cub fans have high hopes for their 2014 team in spring training?  No.  We expected them to have a losing season.  It was called a rebuilding year from the start, which is a misnomer.  For the Cubs it was simply a building year.  They had nothing to rebuild from.  Rebuilding implies you once had a solid structure to restore.  The Cubs have been in shambles, as far as their won-loss record, since their last winning season in 2008.  They lost 101 games in 2012.  Winning seasons have been few and far between since 1908.  It’s a very sad history to own.  But such is the history of the Chicago Cubs.  They are where they are.

The Cubs finished in the cellar in 2014 with a record of 73 wins and 89 losses.  They were in last place of the National League’s Central Division for the fifth year in a row.  Thirty teams make up Major League Baseball in America, fifteen teams in both the American and National League.  The best team in baseball, Numero Uno during the regular season, were the Los Angeles Angels with a record of 98 wins and 64 losses.  The Cubs, looking purely at wins and losses now and not beer sales at home games, tied with the Philadelphia Phillies as 23rd best team in baseball with a winning percentage of .451.  But then, everybody has to be somewhere.

Though few recognize it there is each year a king of the cellar dwellers, the team that happens to find themselves last in their division but with the best record of the worst losers.  It happens this year that the Cubs tied the Phillies as being “Best of the Worst.”  You won’t find this kind of analysis on ESPN folks.  It’s a shame to allow the title of “Best of the Worst” to end as a tie.  I personally believe it should be decided by a one game playoff.

Never, when I wrote that sentence about a “Best of the Worst” playoff last fall, did I envision the Cubs involved in a one game playoff to make the playoffs at the conclusion of the 2015 regular season.  But there they were.  I am still amazed.  Here’s what the Chicago Cubs accomplished in the regular season.

The Cubs won their last eight games, ending the season with a record of 97 wins and 65 losses, and finished third in their division.  Their record was third best in Major League Baseball, behind the Cardinals with 100 wins and the Pirates with 98.  Had they played in any other division in either league they would have finished first.  The division winning Mets won 90, the Royals 95, the Texas Rangers 88.  They did with a lineup that started as many as four rookies at times.

They won by scoring early and staying ahead.  They scored late and won by coming from behind.  They won close games with good pitching.  They won by hitting home runs.  They led the league in walks and strikeouts.  They made mistakes.  But they won.  They played small ball when they needed, executed double steals, rubbed their helmets when they got on base, laughed, dumped water on each other, rushed the field and mobbed the player with the walk off hit, and had so much fun.   It was raucous inside the clubhouse.  They danced after victories, accompanied by a smoke machine and a disco ball.   They ignored curses (what goat?) and dismal history.   They weren’t born when that stuff happened.  Some of their parents weren’t even born then.  They didn’t care.  And they drove the entrenched pessimism right out of the hearts of old and jaded Cub fans like me.  As the season went on and they grew braver and more confident I could feel the fear of collapse, misery, and my own personal baseball squalor leaving me.  It was wonderful.
Both the players and the fans fell in love with new manager Joe Maddon.  He played a new kind of baseball in Chicago, moved players in and out of the lineup, up and down the batting order, from one position to another.  He took charge and showed both the rookies and the veterans what it took to win.  And win they did, over and over.  Success was infectious.  You could see it grow.  The summer grew hot.  July came and they were still winning.  August was even better.  Then they had a simply magnificent September.  Joe made pre-game batting practice optional. And, miracle of miracles, the Cubs kept playing into October.  Wrigley Field was resplendent in October, the ivy just starting to yellow.  I know it was true because I was there.  Who would have thought?  Not me.

The Cubs didn’t win the World Series.  They fell short.  They were on fire at the end of the regular season, winning their last eight, winning their ninth against the Pirates to earn the right to play the Cardinals.  They lost their first game in St. Louis, only to win the next three.   Before they were swept by the Mets they went on a 12-1 tear.  But in the end it was the Mets who were hot, until they played the Royals.  It may be the team puts themselves in a position to win and gets hot at the finish.  The Cubs are very close to being that team.
As the young talented Kansas City Royal players celebrated in New York I imagined the Cubs in their place.  Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo putting on the victor’s tee shirts, Addison Russell and Jake Arrieta donning World Series Champs hats, Kyle Schwarber in catcher’s gear (get him out of left field for God sake) lifting Hector Rondon off the ground.  World Series champs.  I could actually imagine it.  A once unimaginable scene is now possible.  What a difference a year can make.  The Cubs are transformed as I am along with them.

That young Kansas City team, essentially the same line up this year as last, lost the series in 2014, leaving a runner ninety feet away on third base as the Giants took them down.  They paid their dues, learning the hard way what it takes to win it all.  The Royals built their team as the Cubs have, with patience, developing young talent.  It’s a winning strategy, and it’s the path the Cubs are on.  Unlike 2008, when the Cubs paid too much for players at the end of their career, essentially taking an unsustainable shot at post season glory, this team has legs.  We have these great young kids for years into the future.

Now I really mean it when I say “Wait until next year.”  The sarcasm is gone and the next year filled with promise.  The Cubs are in a different place, and I like where they are.  I can’t wait till spring 2016.  Go Cubs.  Thank you for giving us hope.