A 19-year-old college kid quit school just before sophomore classes were scheduled to start, loaded up a ‘74 Vega hatchback on a warm September day with a suitcase, some books and a case of oil, then drove out of Spokane, Washington, headed for Chicago.
He called home from a payphone in Idaho to let people know about his visions of working for the Chicago Tribune with the great Mike Royko in a two-team baseball town he’d never come within 1,500 miles of actually visiting.
A tough, short conversation included his dad saying, “You might find the people there aren’t as nice as you’re used to.”
And: “I don’t know how long you plan to stay there, but you left your coat on your bed.”
A few days later, it was still sunny in Chicago when the Vega pulled off the highway right after the “Wrigley Field” sign, a few blocks down Addison for gas and a map, and eventually into the parking lot of the Diplomat Motel on Lincoln.
The kid was such a rube that he walked into the Tribune Building the next day looking for a job with a hand-written resumé and almost every story he’d written in the last year literally ripped from the newspaper and stuffed in a file folder.
As it turned out, the Trib — and its security — didn’t operate like the Spokesman-Review.
“I’d like to see the sports editor, please?”
“Do you have an appointment?”
“You need an appointment.”
“Oh. OK. … What’s the sports editor’s name?”
A trip back down the elevator and a call on the lobby payphone back upstairs to make an appointment only resulted in finding out Gene Quinn was on vacation.
The obvious next stop was Wrigley Field, where $5 bought an extra ticket from somebody trying to get rid of a box seat for the makeup game against Andre Dawson and the Expos, even as the Cubs were in the middle of chasing history down the stretch that day in 1984.
And for a kid who thought the Kingdome was the paragon of big-league ballpark virtue, the first glimpse of the field was spectacular; the sights, sounds and smells, sensory overload; Dawson, a mountain of a man standing in the on-deck circle several rows but what seemed like three feet away.
By the end of that week a chain of small papers was willing to hire the kid as a sports stringer, and McDonald’s had a help-wanted sign in the window. But the travel money was running low, the Diplomat too luxurious to afford, the winter looming, the coat still in Spokane and Quinn still on vacation.
The Vega lasted just long enough to get back to the Northwest plus a week or so.
Whether such things as omens, harbingers, fate or destiny are real, it’s pretty obvious that persistence, vision and focus are.
Because one college degree, three baseball beats and 23 years later the rube was back at Wrigley Field, albeit for the Sun-Times competing against the Tribune and Royko’s former legman, Paul Sullivan, instead of working for the Trib.
It’s been pretty much all Cubs, Wrigley and Dewar's in the 16 seasons since then — a stretch that included a reunion with the first manager I covered on a beat (Lou Piniella), a manager I’d covered for a year in Anaheim as a bench coach (Joe Maddon), a manager I went fishing with for a back-page Sun-Times story (Mike Quade), and most recently a manager with whom I have exchanged a number of well-intentioned double birds.
It also included arguably the most celebrated championship in American team sports history, the first two — yes, two — tanking rebuilds in history for an elite-revenue MLB team since the dawn of free agency, a job change along the way to NBC Sports Chicago, a lot of great dudes (and a few douches) to cover over the years and countless great colleagues who became great friends.
Turns out my dad was wrong about that nice-people thing.
(Or he was just ahead of his time if he was talking about Musk-ass Twitter).
It’s been a wild ride.
And the only thing for sure as this rube’s contract has run its course with NBC is that the ride is far from finished.
It’s hard to know for sure where the road turns next — harder still to imagine someplace else feeling as much like home if that road takes a turn that heads back out of Chicago.
But no matter how hard the game seems to push against those who play the longest, even on this side of the business, it’s nothing compared to the heart that still skips a beat in one certain, older kid when it’s game time on a summer day at a ballpark.
Call it fate or focus.
Call it destiny, but don’t call any of it the destination.
Thirty-eight years later it’s still about the journey. And all the miles left to go before I let anybody sleep.
The Vega is long gone, but some of us are still burning oil.