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Backstage with the Arcada Theatre’s Ron Onesti: Sports, the Way It “Used To Be”

Ron Onesti:  Sports, the way it “used to be”

Not meaning to trivialize the words of the great Martin Luther King, Jr., but I never thought “Free at last” would be evidenced by a full-to-capacity Chicago Cubs game!  After fifteen months of unimaginable circumstances, some sense of normalcy, albeit a “new” normalcy, is slowly emerging from the ashes.

Focusing on that Cubs game on June 11 for a moment, seeing stands at Wrigley packed with collared shirts with loosened ties, kids with baseball gloves wearing oversized jerseys, “Animal House”-like frat brothers and sorority sisters loudly “wooo-hoo-ing” and sporting a Budweiser in each hand, and a sea of blue from the bleachers to the boxes gave my heart a warmth it has not felt since the 2016 World Series.  Not one square foot of sidewalk or street could be seen from neither Clark to Sheffield nor Waveland to Addison.  The fans, Wrigleyville, and baseball were back!

Actor and legendary Cubs fan Bill Murray belted out an emotional “Take Me Out To The Ballgame” as he peered down to see peanuts, Cracker Jack and hot dogs flow through the crowd like ants sporting crumbs of a half-eaten sandwich into an abyss of soil.

The “Route 66 Rivalry” between the Chicago Cubs and the St. Louis Cardinals has spanned over 125 years and over 2200 games.  The electricity at the first “full-capacity” Cubs-Cards contest was reminiscent of the 1998 season that pitted the Cards’ Mark McGwire and the Cubs’ Sammy Sosa against each other in a fierce battle for the Home Run King Crown.

And battle they did.  The Cubs rallied back from a 5-2 deficit ultimately emerging victorious with a 7-5 win.  Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo led the North-side warriors by defending his batter’s box over thirteen pitches, with the fourteenth sailing into the seats tying the game at 5-all.  No, not a movie script.  Just another day at the “Old…Ball…Game!”

This game brought me back to the sports environment of my youth.  My dad would read the Chicago Sun-Times cover to cover, that is, back cover (Sports Section) to front cover.  His AM transistor radio with the earpiece was constantly on as he intently listened through the static to whatever game was happening while masterfully sewing together a piece of wearable art only an age-old tailor could do.

I know many of you have places in your hearts for the ’85 Bears, the “Six-Peat” Bulls of the ‘90s, the 2005 White Sox and the 2013 & 2105 Blackhawks.  The 2016 Cubs of course, are right up there as well.  But this is more about my yearning for thing the way they “Used to be”.

What comes to mind for me when my childhood sports recollections are involved is not much of the “recent” triumphs in Chicago sports.  Although I will forever be in the debt of those teams that provided the pure joy of victory we all shared in Chicago after decades of being “in the basement” by the end of each of the seasons.

The early “warmth” involved the voices of Jack Brickhouse and Lou Boudreau on black and white television (with that “Hey Hey” in white block lettering on the bottom of the screen) and AM radio, respectively, and Pat Piper over the loudspeaker giving the lineup and reminding us to “get our pencils and scorecards ready.”  Ron Santo doing his heel kick as the team would walk to the locker room door in Left Field.  Ernie Banks rounding the bases over five hundred times.  The myriad of White Sox uniforms worn by the likes of Bill Melton and Richie Allen, and six decades on the field with the Sox legend Minnie Minoso.

Dick Butkus being a rock-solid Army tank on the gridiron represented a true “Monster of the Midway”.  The bravery of Brian Piccolo and the loyalty of Gale Sayers.  Those toothless and helmet-less faces of Bobby Hull, Stan Mikita and Keith Magnuson, the one-dimensional cracked white mask of Tony Esposito, and the thunderous rendition of the “Star Spangled Banner” at the Chicago Stadium. And I thought all managers and owners had the weathered faces of Leo Durocher and Bill Veeck!

Of course, there are countless more Chicago sports highlights and heroes I have had since the early Sixties, but these I have mentioned are the first to come to mind when I think of my sports past.

So here we are, experiencing one of the most challenging social, political and economic times in our history.  But still, the “Pastimes of America” are what join us, leveling the “playing field” of all cultures.  At one time the happiness I am experience now about the return of sports would have been because of the roar of the crowds and the crack of the bat. But now, for me, it represents what little we have left of what “used to be”.  Live music and sports…brotherhood and sisterhood fields and in stadiums.  THAT”S the “way things used to be” I miss the most.