Members of the Cubs bullpen watch for foul balls during a game against the Braves at Wrigley Field on Aug. 21, 2015.
On top of a television cabinet in a Lakeview condominium sits a small jar filled with dirt. While the jar isn’t important, the dirt is. The dirt is from the visitors bullpen at Wrigley Field and represents about 30 summers spent with a small group of people who became more like family than friends.
For nearly 81 days (and nights) or so every year between April and October we enjoyed each other’s company. Mickey and Steve. Chris and Cele. Mary and Pat. Steve and Pat. Molly and Michael. We were season ticket holders in the first two rows of Section 36.
And like any other family, we eagerly anticipated the visits once or twice (or three times, if they were in the same division) of our out-of-town relatives. Sometimes it would feel like a joyous reunion, other times like, "Oh, you again."
But 2016 was the end of an era at Wrigley Field — in more ways than one.
Not only did the Cubs win the World Series for the first time since 1908, but it also marked the end of the on-field bullpens, those little nooks in foul territory that housed the teams’ relief corps. A low brick wall separated us and them, but it seldom interfered with across-the-wall conversations. Or the rare occasion when you could swap food (peanuts, hot dogs) for an autographed baseball. Sometimes it felt as if you were sitting in a city park just watching some youngsters at play and kibitzing with neighbors.
Like the time a couple of seasons ago when then-Cardinals reliever Carlos Villanueva returned to Wrigley Field with sterling credentials (an ERA around 2.00) after two fairly mediocre years (ERAs above 4.00) in the Cubs bullpen.
"How come you’re pitching so well for St. Louis after you stunk when you were here?" yelled someone who should know better (me).
"I wasn’t that bad," he replied with the hangdog look of a child.
"Yes, you were," I insisted.
We kept that up until it was explained to me by a savvier fan that Villanueva’s problem with the Cubs was that management couldn’t decide whether to use the right-hander as a starter or a reliever.
So on the Cardinals’ next visit, I apologized, which surprised him even more. After that, he and I were friends, even when Villanueva joined the Padres last year.
Photos of the ongoing renovations at historic Wrigley Field.
But what most people remember of our section was the night the Dodgers broke over the wall in May of 2000 to reclaim a cap stolen by a drunk (you couldn’t really call him a fan) off the head of catcher Chad Kreuter. It happened in a flash and before anyone knew it, we were face-to-face with a bunch of angry, well-chiseled players and coaches.
My wife, a music critic and not particularly fond of sport to begin with, had made a rare appearance that night and fled in terror, not to return to the ballpark for a few years despite the Cubs reaching out to her, even offering to pay for the flowers I sent her as peace offering.
While the cap never was found (and the drunk arrested), the peace and serenity we had taken for granted was gone, replaced for a while with a security guard and a reminder to behave.
It took awhile for the section to return to normal, but return it did. And with it, the natural repartee between fans and team personnel.
Some players, like Brewers reliever Curtis Leskanic, fashioned themselves as stand-up comics, once shouting back at a heckler: "Hey, do I yell at you when you’re picking up my garbage?" Then-Reds pitcher Randy Myers, would sit quietly on the cushioned wooden bench with a pair of binoculars. Why binoculars? Because every now and then Myers would swivel around to check out the women in the crowd.
Most familiar were the team bullpen coaches and catchers from the friendly Marcus Hanel (Brewers), Heberto Andrade (Pirates) and Ricky Bones (Mets) to the grumpy Marty Mason (Cardinals) and Jeff Murphy (Cardinals, but you can see a pattern here since they both worked for the joyless Tony La Russa).
When bullpen mates Mark Cresse and Todd Maulding were with the Dodgers, they couldn’t have been more accommodating to the fans. They would give out baseballs, autographs and the occasional treats (gum, energy bars) from the team’s bullpen duffel bag of goodies.
Octavio Dotel, when he was a young Astros closer, would discuss how he wanted to be a professional volleyball player while growing up in the Dominican Republic only to be convinced he could make more money in baseball. He chose wisely.
And then there was Stretch Suba, the longtime bullpen catcher for the Astros. He became such a part of our little family that when his dad would join the team for one of those father-son road trips, Suba would make sure his dad sat with us.
Another Astros reliever, Vicente Palacios, made his own connection with a family from downstate Benton, Ill., after a couple of teenage sisters visited our section with their mom and spent most of the game flirting with the Houston bullpen crew.
Palacios was so taken with the girls that he invited them — and their mom — to visit him when the Astros played in St. Louis. And, according to Mom, has kept in touch ever since.
So I’ll miss my little family. Gone are Mickey and Steve, who opted not to renew after 40 some years because of the addition of four rows of very expensive seats in front of us. And a few others have decided to move to other sections for a better view.
I’m staying, along with Chris and Cele and Pat and Mary. Maybe we’ll make new friends. But it won’t feel the same without the out-of-town relatives, like Villanueva, coming by for a visit. It’s doubtful the new bullpens under the bleachers will lend themselves to the byplay and high jinks we shared in our little patch of paradise.
And that jar of dirt? It’s as treasured a souvenir of all my years at Wrigley Field as my World Series ticket stubs.
Steve Nidetz is a former Chicago Tribune sports writer and editor.