What I learned about life playing center for the Cubs

When I was a kid in the 1950s, all I wanted to be was center fielder for the Chicago Cubs.

My preparation was playing catch in an alley behind our apartment, three blocks away from the ballpark. Tommy Lentzen threw balls to my left, my right, in front of my feet, above my head, and I learned to catch them all, even soaring above the gutter for the ones he lofted above garage roofs.

I learned to hit by playing "fast pitching" in a schoolyard with a square chalked on the wall for a strike zone and a tennis ball for a league ball. When I was 13, I tried out for a Pony League team on a field two bus rides away that had a fence and seats. The coach hit balls at me in center and despite a leaping grab of a liner while on the run and a bullet throw from center to home I didn't make the cut. When it came time for me to hit, I found that a tennis ball was as different from a hardball as a suction-cup dart was from a guided missile.

When I wasn't playing catch in the alley, I was playing softball with the other street urchins on the corner of Lakewood and Eddy Streets. The manhole covers were bases and we played all summer with the same old ball until it was as soft as a pillow.

Even so, you'd better not smack it too far down the middle or it might crack the window of an apartment building. You had to pull the ball to the street on the left or punch it down the street to the right. You began playing after school and didn't stop until your mother called your name from a wooden porch or the setting sun painted the windows gold and the streets turned dark.

Legend has it that my father took me to my first Cubs game when I was a week old. He pushed the buggy up the ramp to the top of the bleachers in left center, charming a sweet old lady to babysit me so he could join Uncle Charlie and his pals down in the first row and drink beer and hoot and howl and maybe catch a homer. I had a perfect view from my perch and plenty of time to survey the territory for when my time came to play center field for the Cubs.

Our one-bedroom apartment faced Addison Street. At 11 a.m., I looked out the window at the happy people parading toward the park to watch batting practice before the game. In those days, our neighborhood was not called Wrigleyville, but Lakeview, a working-class neighborhood where summer days were for swimming in Lake Michigan or going to Cubs Park -- that's what we called it, because it was a park.

It wasn't winning that drew us -- that was not going to happen much. It was hanging out on this day with nice people under the sun with a lake breeze cooling our faces, and making happy talk as we washed down 10 cent hot dogs with 5 cent Cokes and cheered on our "lovable losers" for three hours that seemed like one. That's why Ernie Banks used to say, "It's a beautiful day! Let's play two!"

My second favorite team was the Brooklyn Dodgers. One day after a game, I stole down to the Dodger dugout to see if a player would give me a used ball. Carl Furillo, their tough right fielder who wore a 12 o'clock shadow that made him look like a villain out of a Dick Tracy comic, was rubbing his glove with oil.

 "Hey, Carl, great game! You wouldn't have any balls that are no good, would you?"

Carl smiled. He knew the routine. He picked up a Louisville Slugger bat that had a tiny crack near the knob and said, "How about this instead?"

It was his bat. He had used it that day. He couldn't use it again. I would use it for the next 20 years.

I taped the crack with black adhesive and swung it that summer hundreds of times a day, shredding tennis ball after tennis ball when we played fast pitching.

I tried to use it when my turn came to hit at the Pony League tryout. The coach said no, it's too big. I had to use one of their aluminum bats. It was like trying to smack frozen meatballs with a breadstick. "Sorry, kid." It was on that afternoon that my dream to play center field for the Cubs almost died.

Cubs Park was my open-air basilica, but St. Andrew's was my neighborhood church, and I also wanted to be a priest like Fr. Jack Gorman, who had a great jump shot. So that September, I went to Quigley Preparatory Seminary.

When I was 17, Johnny Pritcher and I took the L train from Quigley to Wrigley after school to sneak into the park for the end of the game. The Cubs had lost nine in a row and were in last place in the league.

After the game, a handful of players stayed for batting practice. Johnny and I made our way to the dugout and asked coach Dutch Leonard if we could shag flies.

"Sorry, kids, you might get hurt."

"Aw, c'mon, Dutch, we won't get hurt. We got our gloves. Please."

"What the hell. Go ahead. Be careful."

Johnny went to shortstop and I went to center. A line drive whistled past his ear, almost ripped his head off. I was hanging out with a couple of rookies in an outfield I had first mapped out at 1 week old. This was my chance. Mike Leach, at centerfield for the Chicago Cubs! I'd prove myself! I'd do something spectacular! I'd made sensational catches of a hardball in the alley a million times!

Crack! A towering fly soared toward the sky. My inner GPS saw it dropping just in front of the ivy.

"I got it! I got it!" I pedaled backward. I'd make a basket catch like Willie Mays.

I bumped into Moe Drabowsky. The ball landed just behind his head.

"What's the matter with you, kid?"

"I thought I got it … I'm sorry."

I picked the ball up. I had one more chance. I wound up and took a couple steps forward and threw that ball with all my might to home plate. I'd make it on a bullet, just like I did at Pony League.

The ball almost made it to second.

On a roll.

My soul learned a lesson in humility that day. Being a star isn't happiness. Ernie Banks was a star but always knew what I had known in the alley and then forgot: the joy of just playing.

Baseball, like life, sets you free only when you play it for fun.

[Michael Leach watches Cubs games from his home in Connecticut. He gave his Furillo bat to a kid at Maryville Academy in 1968. All the Soul Seeing columns are available at NCRonline.org/blogs/soul-seeing.]

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