Yup, I won a game for the Cubs when I was 9 years old, a kind of pre-pubescent reverse-Bartman deal. The next day's Chicago Tribune called the anonymous fan who interfered with a critical eighth-inning play "the fourth outfielder," which. with its resonance of "The Four Horsemen of Notre Dame," may have been the nicest thing anyone has ever called me, even if it implied I was playing that day for the Mets when I knew for sure that I was actually helping the Cubs. The picture in theChicago Sun-Times showed me with my eyes closed as I tried to make the catch just above the ivy on the wall.
The date was June 9, 1967, and I had my own "Summer of Love" going at Wrigley Field. My family lived in an old Victorian on Hawthorne Place, a leafy street a mere seven blocks from the Friendly Confines, so close that we could sometimes hear the crowd roar. In exchange for completing two or three modest chores (OK, two), my mother, the late Joanne Alter, packed me a brown bag lunch and gave me around $2, which came out to $1 for admission to the bleachers, 25 cents for a Frosty Malt frozen dessert and an extra 75 cents that was supposed to be only for emergencies but often got accidentally spent at either Tony's Hot Dogs near Broadway and Cornelia or for a late-afternoon snow cone on Addison.
I'd been going to Cubs and White Sox games with my grandfathers since I was 5 years old. In those days, it was kosher to root for both teams, but you still had to be careful, as I found when I wore what I assumed to be a flannel Sox uniform to kindergarten on the North Side and was teased for showing up in my pajamas. Grandpa Sol was raised on the South Side and thus took me to night games at Comiskey. Grandpa Harry, who was not prone to exaggeration, told me he had gone to speakeasies with the Cub Hack Wilson (whose 191 RBIs in 1930 will never be broken) during Prohibition and had witnessed Babe Ruth's famed "called shot" off Charlie Root in the 1932 World Series, though unlike retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, he saved no ticket stubs to prove it. Harry sprung for $4 box seats at Wrigley.
The first Cubs season I dimly remember was 1961, the year owner P.K. Wrigley had the brilliant idea of replacing a single manager with a "College of Coaches" to run the team by committee. This failed to achieve the desired results, but it did set a pattern of predictably dashed expectations that has provided valuable consistency to the lives of millions of Cubs fans. When I was in second grade, I obtained Ernie Banks' autograph at a banquet and my allegiance was settled for good.
My faith deepened in 1966 after my dad and I saw Ken Holtzman throw a no-hitter through eight innings against Sandy Koufax and the World Champion Los Angeles Dodgers. Just two days after Yom Kippur, it was Jew lefty vs. Jew lefty. I was a Jew lefty, too! The Dodgers broke up the no-hitter in the ninth, but the Cubs prevailed 2-1. This provided some compensation for the perfect game Koufax threw against the Cubs the year before, though not enough. The Cubs finished 59-103 under new skipper Leo Durocher, in 10th place. But things were about to look up.
"The Cubs will be heavenly in '67ly!" Ernie Banks enthused. Sounded right to me. That was the year my parents first allowed me to go to the ballpark without parental supervision. It was day baseball, they figured, and walking distance, safe enough if I went with a friend like Billy Foster or Casey Dinges. Little did the adults know that their darling fourth-graders would spend a chunk of their summer days in the company of bartenders, guys just off the graveyard shift, unemployed layabouts, lesbians (though we recognized them only as nice ladies who knew a ton about sports and came even when it wasn't Ladies Day), and pimply faced, beer-swilling juvenile delinquents who always out-raced me over the bleacher benches to batting practice balls. These fine fans, the source of much valuable information about life, were soon to be immortalized as the Bleacher Bums.
On this June day I was with Casey and as usual we fully intended to bring our mitts to the ballpark to increase our odds of catching a home run. But as fate would have it, I was sporting a first baseman's glove (homage to Ernie) that covered about half of my scrawny right arm and hadn't spent enough time under my mattress to be properly broken in. So we left our gloves at home that day, a fact that would soon take on great importance.
On arrival that morning for batting practice, we had a choice between left field with the Bleacher Bums or better seats in center right, and we chose the latter. After a rain delay, we moved to the first row, just above the 368 foot sign. This was a couple of years before the installation of the mesh baskets that now jut out from the top of the wall, another highly relevant factor in the game's outcome.
The Cubs were getting some decent relief pitching from Chuck Hartenstein (later known as "Twiggy" after the British model) and hulking Dick Radatz, but still trailed 5-3 in the bottom of the eighth. With one out, Ernie Banks doubled and scored when Norm Gigon, playing at third base for Ron Santo, bounced one through the legs of Bud Harrelson. Randy Hundley struck out, which brought Adolfo Phillips to the plate — the "gay Panamanian," as the Tribune described him the next day, by which the paper meant happy and high-spirited.
Phillips hit a high drive, deep to center, and it was coming right at me as a homer and my heart was pounding and my first baseman's glove wasn't there and the next thing I knew the ball had stung me and bounced back on to the field. The Mets right fielder, Tommie Reynolds, started pointing at me and then the Mets manager, Wes Westrum, argued to second-base umpire John Kibler that it was fan interference and thus a ground rule double, which would have sent Gigon back to third.
Instead, the umpire ruled that Phillips had tripled and thus Gigon's tying run counted. I had tied it up for the Cubs! In the ninth, Banks singled home the winning run, giving the Cubs a 6-5 victory.
Forty-five years later, I dug up the snippy New York Times description of "the invisible spectator" who helped cause the Mets loss that day. Invisible? I knew what I had done and Casey knew and the Mets sure knew.
The next season was exciting, too, and the one after that — 1969 — well, let's just say the Mets got their revenge for me muscling my way into their outfield. As the Cubs cratered in August, one of the great chokes in sports history, I would walk home from the ballpark, my head hung like a failed Fergie Jenkins curve ball, past the Mexican snow cone man on Addison without stopping, then straight past mom, wordless, up the back stairs for a sullen rendezvous with the baseball cards in my room. Day after gloomy day, loss after shattering loss. If that built "character," as the cliché went, I'd rather be a reprobate.
In the years that followed, I found plenty of Cub joy, especially when two of our children, Tommy and Molly, caught the bug even though they've lived their whole lives in New Jersey. We followed the team to St. Louis and chatted up Derrek Lee and Ron Santo in the Pfister Hotel in Milwaukee. On the night of Greg Maddux's 3,000th strikeout, Molly charmed her way into two baseballs tossed into the Wrigley grandstands. In August 2010, a large group of family and friends watched me throw out the first pitch in a game against the Braves, the thrill of a lifetime, especially since I avoided grounding the ball in favor of what Tommy charitably described as "a high changeup, just a little inside."
But I wouldn't have missed the bad times either. In 2003, I was at Wrigley for game six of the National League Championship Series and from the press box witnessed the Bartman incident that may or may not have cost the Cubs the pennant. Like Jimmy Breslin interviewing the gravedigger after J.F.K.'s assassination, I sought out the Andy Frain usher who had helped hustle the benighted fan out. I took note of the cheese nachos under Bartman's seat. Did they play a role? We'll never know.
The next day, I spoke at my alma mater, the Francis Parker School, and asked for a show of hands from anyone who thought it was something he or she did — sitting on the couch in the wrong position, going to the fridge in the middle of an inning — that jinxed the Cubs. Dozens of superstitious students — Larry Davids all — raised their hands.
This was crazy! Fans can't affect the game from home! And even those interfering in play like Bartman aren't fully to blame. The rational mind knows that it was Alex Gonzalez's fault for booting that grounder, and Mark Prior's for falling apart.
And yet another part of me felt with burning certainty that we each have it in our power to change the fate of the Cubs. I know, for I performed such a miracle nearly half a century ago.
Jonathan Alter, a columnist for Bloomberg View and MSNBC analyst, is the author most recently of "The Promise: President Obama, Year One."Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times