Bleeding Cubbie Blue

The Cubs Force is strong in my family.  My grandfather had it.  My grandmother, too.

My father…he doesn’t have much of it, but he has some of it.  My brother…well, actually, he has none of it.yoda-cubs

But the rest of the Theis clan…my aunts and uncles and cousins, even my beloved wife, they all have it. And they’ve got it bad.

And now…the Cub Force is strong in my children, too.

It’s like handing down a genetic defect, really.  Or a disturbing personality trait.  Or a particularly unnerving eye color.

cubs-3You don’t mean to do it.  It’s just something you inflict on your kids unintentionally.

True story:  One night last week, during a very close Giants/Cubs playoff game, I looked over at Milo and saw how tense and upset he was and I made a point of sincerely apologizing to him, from the bottom of my heart, for raising him as a Cub fan.

Because the curse….the legendary and pervasive and seemingly unending curse…it isn’t just on the team, my friends.

It is on the fans as well.

And sometimes…it hurts.

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I feel no need to establish my Cubs bona fides.  I am a third generation Cub sufferer and between me and the rest of my family, we have gone through more Cubbie heartbreak than any group of people should have to endure.black-cat

But none more so than my Uncle John and Aunt Mary Jane.  No Cub fans in the city of Chicago have suffered more than the two of them. They have, in their lifetimes, sat through the best and the absolute worst that the Cubs have to offer.

How bad has it gotten for them?  Bear witness:

John and Mary Jane were actually in attendance at Wrigley Field the very night of the infamous “Bartman Incident.”

bartmanOh, yes.  They were there.  Five outs away from beating the Marlins and seeing the Cubs move on to the World Series and there sat John and Mary Jane, watching one of the greatest collapses in the history of major league baseball unfold before their disbelieving eyes.

[Side note:  It is important to emphasize that Steve Bartman, the poor sap, had absolutely nothing to do with the collapse of the Cubs during the 2003 playoffs.  As any true Cub fan will tell you, it was Alex Gonzalez bobbling what should have been an inning-ending double-play about five minutes later that actually cost us the game. Please bear this in mind later in the story.]gonzalez-error

But I’ve had my own, personal share of Cubbie heartbreak over the years.  I moved back to Chicago after college just in time to see the rise- and spectacular fall- of the 1989 Cubs (still my favorite Cub squad of all time) when they ultimately got stomped by the Giants during the playoff series.

cubs-89Between 1989 and 2009, I attended every single Opening Day game at Wrigley Field.  Froze my ass of most of the time, too.

I watched and wept through the playoff losses to the Braves in 1998.  The 2003 Marlins fiasco.  The 2007 collapse against the Diamondbacks.  The 2008 Dodgers defeats.  And, of course, last year’s heartbreaking NLCS sweep by the Mets.

In short- I’ve got my Cubs scars and I’m not afraid to show them.

So this year, finding myself in Los Angeles with my son Milo when the Cubs posted the most winning record in all of baseball and moved on to the playoffs against the local L.A. team…

….well.  We just had to try and see our beloved Cubbies play here in town.

Didn’t we?cubs-dodgers

******** GAME THREE **********

The Cubs played the first two games of the 2016 playoffs against the Los Angeles Dodgers in Wrigley Field and they were both, by any measure, thrilling games.

NLCS Dodgers Cubs BaseballGame One was a game that will forever shine in the hearts of Cub fans everywhere, if not just for the win, for the swing of a single bat in the eighth inning.

Oh, my friends.

On behalf of every living Cubs fan, let me just say that when Miguel Montero smacked that eye-popping grand slam in the eighth to put the Boys in Blue ahead by four runs (which Dexter Fowler soon followed with a long ball of his own), there were ecstatic Cubbie faces from sea to shining sea.montero-2

That’s not the way things usually work out for us.  No, in the past, what would happen was: Montero strikes out, stranding three runners, and we all say “Oh, darn. Wouldn’t it have been great if he hit the ball?”

And then black cats and goats and bees and bats descend on Wrigley Field in a buzzing, whirling mass and we lose the game in spectacular fashion.  That’s always what happens.

cubs-1We don’t expect grand slams to be hit by pinch hitters in clutch situations.  We simply aren’t used to that level of joy.

But we were willing to get used to it.

The final:  Cubs win, 8-4 at home. Series score:  Cubs 1.  Dodgers 0.

The next night, for Game Two at Wrigley, things did not fare nearly as well for the good guys.  It was a true pitchers’ duel and when the dust cleared, Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw had mastered the best hitting team in the game and eked out a 1-0 win.  (Oh, and John and Mary Jane were there to watch it, of course.  Suffering is what we Theises eat for dinner.)kershaw

Series score:  Cubs 1, Dodgers 1.

Then…the series moved to L.A.

Now, I should mention that, prior to the Cubs flying in to Los Angeles for Game Three, Milo and I already had tickets to see them play here.  My father had urged us (and staked us) to buy tickets to one of the games through StubHub if- and only if- we could find an affordable pair of seats.

stubhub-logoSo even before the playoff games began in Chicago, I researched what it might cost to get Milo and I into a game out here. And I did so with great trepidation, knowing that if I tried to get tickets to a game in Chicago, I would have had to ask Milo to forego college in order for us to afford a pair of seats.

But here?  I won’t say they were cheap, exactly.  But they were easily going for about a third of what they would cost if I tried to get seats at Wrigley.

The only real question was…which game do we see?  The teams were scheduled to play three games here:  Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday (if necessary).  Thinking over my options, I decided to try and get tickets to Game Four because….dodger-tickets

C’mon.  You know why, right?

Well, all my Cub fan friends know why.

Because…if the Cubs swept the series, Game Four in L.A. would have been the clincher. Absolutely had to pick that game, right?

So we bought the tickets and were all set for Game Four at Dodger Stadium.

But.

dodgers_seatWhen Tuesday (the day of Game Three) rolled around, I went back to StubHub, purely out of curiosity, just to see what the tickets were going for that night and…

…hmmm.  Not bad.  Not great, but not bad.  “Boy,” I thought, “It sure would be fun if we could…if we could….”

That’s when I had my epiphany.

Milo and I were going to play a little game.  And that game is called:

StubHub Chicken.chicken

Here’s how you play:

You get in your car and you start driving toward the stadium where you want to see a game. All the while, you have the StubHub website open on your smart phone. The theory is, the closer you get to game time, the lower the prices will drop on the tickets you want to buy.

The catch is:  They stop selling tickets on the site about ten minutes before the game begins. So if you drive all the way there and don’t time it exactly right, you could blow your chance to get into the game and have to fight your way back out of the neighborhood with stadium traffic.nervous-drive

So there we were, driving towards Chavez Ravine with the StubHub site open on Milo’s phone, watching the ticket prices fall incrementally every few minutes.  And sure enough, the closer we got to the stadium, the lower the prices fell.

$120 a ticket….$115 a ticket…$110….$100…$90….

“Should we get them now?” Milo asked.

“Hold on,” I said. “We’re still a mile or so from the park. Let’s see what happens.”

smartphone-in-car-on-locationWe got in the long line to get into the Stadium parking and started easing forward.

$85 a ticket…$80…$75….

“Now?”

“Almost there.”

I felt like Red Leader from Star Wars.  “Stay on target…stay on target….”

red-leaderFinally, we got close to the gate…and the tickets dipped down to $69 apiece.

“Now?!?”

“Now.  Do it.  Grab ’em.”

Milo punched a few buttons and…

…we were in.

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The elation of that moment, when we realized that we had played and won our fast and furious round of StubHub Chicken, would last…about four innings.  Then things went straight into the crapper.  But we had no clue of that at the time.MLB: OCT 03 NLDS - Cardinals at Dodgers - Game 1

For now, walking into Dodger Stadium for Game Three, bedecked from head to foot in our Cubs gear and ready to watch Jake Arrieta show these Dodgers what pitching was supposed to look like well…there’s just no feeling like it.

We were way out in the left field bleachers, about halfway up, which allowed us a commanding and satisfying view of the field.  We were surrounded by Dodger fans, as you’d expect, but there were a lot of Cub fans there as well.

arrieta-jpbAs I explained to Milo:  We are legion.

I won’t give you the entire play-by-play of the game, of course, because (a) you’re probably well aware of what happened that night and (b) it is just too depressing to relive. Let me just say this:

It was awful.

When Arrieta began to unravel and the Dodger runs started piling up…oof, it was like a punch in the gut.home-runs

To be sitting there, so miserable, so bereft as the Cubs offense went inning after inning without a run on the board and to watch our pitchers, one after the other, continue to give up hits, runs, homers….it was simply torture.  (Also, Dodger fans, when they see you dressed up in your Cub gear, love to yell “Bartman” at you for some reason.  They think it drives us mad.  Go figure.)

All the while, I’m texting Sara back in Chicago who, along with Milo and I, was dying just a little bit inside with every Dodger run.  It was misery in Cubville.

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Now let me be clear:  When I’m in Wrigley Field cheering for the Cubs, I am very…enthusiastic.  Ask anyone.  You go to Cub game with me, you’re in for a loud and eventful afternoon.wrigley-2

Frankly speaking:  I’m obnoxious.

(There are rules, however.  No swearing, for example.  You got kids there, come on.  But beyond that?  Hoo boy.  Things get nuts.)

Sitting there in Dodger Stadium, amidst a sea of guys exactly like me, I came to a very swift conclusion:

It’s only funny when I do it.

face-expression-man-3-clip-artGod, I hated them so much. I deeply and bitterly resented their joy. I positively despised their ecstatic and thunderous cheering. As Milo and I sat there, watching the score tick up to three….four….five….six to nothing…my hatred flowered like a black rose and I wanted nothing- nothing more in life – than to see a late-inning, stunning comeback that would silence these awful, terrible, happy people.

Until that time, even as a Cub fan, I had always had a special place in my heart for the Dodgers. Once upon a time, their fans had suffered as we had suffered. We were the Lovable Losers, they were Dem Bums. We were simpatico.  Brothers under the skin.dem-bums

No more.  In the space of two hours, the bromance was over.

Now, I wanted the very skies to open up and a fiery hail to rain down upon them. I wanted thirty thousand bolts of lightning to strike them all at once and silence their deafening cries. I wanted birds of prey, fierce raptors to cascade down into the stadium and claw at them mercilessly until they just gave up one. Stinking. Run.buzzard

But it was not to be. The Dodgers prevailed, the Cub bats were dead and the slow march back to the car was a heavy slog.

We could only hope that the next night…things might be slightly better.

cubs-dodgers-2

**************GAME FOUR*************

We were in the hole.  The series now stood at Dodgers 2, Cubs 1.  It wasn’t a “must win” game but…it felt like it.

lackeyOn the hill, we had John Lackey, the veteran right hander we had picked up from St. Louis earlier in the year.  Not our best arm, but a fierce competitor and a guy who had seen his share of post-season games.

And with Dodgers rookie left-hander Julio Urias facing us, the only question was: Would the Cubs offense finally come alive?

sleeping-bats-copyAlmost all of our key players- particularly first baseman Anthony Rizzo- had been asleep at the plate.  The entire team hadn’t scored a single run in two games. Could they- at long last and under this kind of pressure- finally turn things around?

The answer?  Oh yeah.  And then some.

And then…just a little bit more.

It started in the fourth, with a bunt single by Ben Zobrist, which broke up Urias’ fledgling no-hitter.  Then Javie Baez blooped a single into left field.  Contreras then followed suit, allowing Zobrist to score on a lousy throw to home.  After Jason Heyward grounded out, driving in Baez and moving Contreras at third, up stepped Addison Russell, the Cub shortstop, with the score 2-0.

MLB: APR 27 Pirates at CubsRussell was having a terrible post-season.  His timing was off, his hitting was almost non-existent and he had been moved further and further down the lineup as the playoffs progressed.  He was really suffering at the plate.

And then…boom.

Russell jacked a two run homer to deep center field to put the Cubs ahead 4-0 in the fourth.  Milo and I, for the first time in three days, could breathe a little easier.

Not relax, mind you.  But breathe.  Just a bit.

rizzoThe next inning, the Cubs’ first baseman, the so-far disappointing Anthony Rizzo stepped up after striking out twice earlier in the game and…well, we weren’t really all that excited.  Why should we be?  He hadn’t really hit anything since the regular season ended.

Rizzo ran up the count to 3-1 (on a long, fly ball that hooked just foul) and then, on the next pitch, took what he thought was ball four.  He actually dropped his bat and started for first but…the umpire called it a strike and Rizzo had to pick up the bat and step up again with a full count.

He was having a rough post-season, there was no doubt about…

….CRACK.

home_runRizzo suddenly, inexplicably came alive, sending the next ball screaming over the center field fence at the exact same spot where Russell had drilled his homer.  Rizzo’s dry spell was over and the once cocky Dodger fans were now in a pretty deep funk.

Deep, that is, until their team roared back and answered with two runs in their half of the inning.  The score after five:  Cubs 5, Dodgers 2.

With just a three run lead, Milo and  I were suddenly nervous again. In all honesty, it didn’t take much. But our tension would only last an inning.

Because in the sixth, Rizzo (clearly making up for lost time), came up with the bases loaded and….zap.  Two more runs driven in and the score was 8-2.

Circus.jpegThen the circus came to town.  It was ugly and it was embarrassing and even the Cub fans knew better than to laugh.

With Bryant at third, Rizzo at second and Zobrist safe on an infield single up the line, Javier Baez stepped up to the plate with one out.  He proceeded to loop the second pitch into center field that almost dropped for a single….

…but Dodger center fielder Joc Pederson made a spectacular diving catch and came up throwing, to try and nail Bryant tagging up from third.

Pederson’s throw was wild, though, and dribbled all the way to the backstop where it was retrieved by the reliever Avilan, Bryant safe by a mile.  Rizzo was trucking towards home after the bad throw though and Avilan tried to toss the ball to the catcher to stop him but…he missed his target, too.  The ball scooted away and Rizzo scored as well.

cubs-win_1460433412087_1172617_ver1-0The score:  Cubs 10, Dodgers 2.

As the great orange Trumpkin might say:  It was nasty.

And that, folks, was the ballgame.  In fact, by the time the seventh inning stretch was over and we all sang “Take Me Out to the Ballgame,” the stadium crowd was pretty much 2-1 Cub fans.  Most of the Dodger faithful had left. After all, there’s faith…and there’s a blowout.

Milo and I (and every other Cub supporter) stayed right to the end, of course, as we needed as much good juju as we could get after the previous night’s debacle. We weren’t just enjoying this victory, we were reveling in it.cubs-2

By the time they finally wrung down the curtain on the evening’s festivities, we knew two things for sure:

This series was going back to Chicago.

And we were coming back tomorrow for another round of StubHub Chicken.

Cubs v. Dodgers 3.jpg

*************GAME FIVE*************

It must have been pretty comical:  Milo and I lining up to park at Dodger Stadium, reaching the gate…and then zooming back down the hill to get back in line…and then doing it again and again because we didn’t have tickets yet.

upFor this, the third game in L.A., the StubHub Chicken game wasn’t working.  The ticket prices were not coming down to a level I considered affordable (given that I make my living talking in a closet) so…we kept going back down the hill and joining the back of the parking line, hoping that the prices would finally came down to a reasonable level.car-line

Finally, at 5:00, after driving up and down the hill a few times with no luck, the sale at StubHub ended.  We were, we thought, locked out.

But we weren’t giving up.  There were two other websites offering tickets and one of them, we happily discovered, had a pair at $80 apiece so…we grabbed them.

Only to be informed, seconds later, that we were too late.  They were gone.

And by then, the game had started.

dodger-stadium-parking-entranceWe could probably have kept it up and finally gotten a pair of tickets if we had been persistent.  But we would have had to drive around for a while until the ticket sellers gave up and, even then, probably wouldn’t have gotten into the stadium until the third inning so…we decided it wasn’t worth it.

We wanted to watch the game and didn’t want to spend our entire night motoring up and down that ridiculous hill so…we headed back down into Silver Lake, called up an old buddy from Chicago, Ben Carr, and on his recommendation plopped ourselves down in a sports bar on Sunset to watch the game.33-taps

I won’t take you through it.  You know what happened.  The Cubs turned in a beauty, backed by formidable pitching of Jon Lester and supported by the bats of Rizzo and Russell (again) as well as my newest, bestest buddy, Javier Baez.

baez(When Baez pulled up at second after knocking in three runs on a base-clearing double in the eighth and looked, momentarily, as if he’d been injured, I will guarantee you that every Cub fan in America stood up and hollered “Nooooooo!” at the same moment. Thankfully, he was fine but…damn.  Milo and I don’t need that kind of tension.)

sports-barAs the game wore on and the Cubs started taking a bigger and bigger lead, the Dodger fans in the bar weren’t all that nuts about me, frankly, but I managed to make friends eventually.  One guy next to us, seemingly taken with my…enthusiasm actually bought me a beer (which is the sports equivalent of throwing gasoline on a fire).

lester-2But by the end, the Dodger fans in the bar and I were all old chums, swearing our respective teams would whup each other in the Chicago rematches.

And there we leave it, my friends…the series evened up, 2-2.  It will all be decided in the Friendly Confines over the next couple of days. (Remember to watch for John and Mary Jane in the stands!)

DSC02301.JPGMilo and I were blessed to be able to catch two games in Dodger Stadium during the Cubs’ trip out West and neither of us will ever forget the experience.  (Thanks, Dad!)

Now…we hand it off to our loved ones in Chicago and pray for a happy ending.

I can hardly wait. And I will, no doubt- along with my son, daughter, wife and family- dread every single moment of it.

Go, Cubs.

Go.

wrigley

 *********UPDATE – GAME SIX********

Milo and I have spent the past week together, watching this playoff series unfold game by game. (Two of them, as you’ve seen above, live and in person at Dodger Stadium.)  We’ve been cheering, grumbling, jumping up and down, sulking, glaring pensively at the TV, scaring nearby animals with our feral cries..it’s been quite a roller-coaster ride of emotions this week, no question.cubs-v-dodgers

Tonight, with the potential series-clinching game in Chicago, I had been looking forward to watching the game with Milo again, but…tonight was the Homecoming Dance and, well, there are some things you just have to do in high school and dressing up fancy to go meet your friends is one of them.

ghchsLuckily, the game began at five and the dance at seven, so were were able to watch most of the game together here in our little Northridge apartment.

We were nervous, of course, because…well, we’re Cub fans and we knew what to expect. LA was throwing their ace at us again, the formidable, three time Cy Young award winner (and announcer Joe Buck’s BFF) Clayton Kershaw. True, we had one of our best guys- Kyle Hendricks- on the hill for us but…the last time Kershaw pitched in Wrigley Field, it was also against Hendricks and Clayton had pretty definitively silenced our bats so…we were nervous.
kershaw

The game kicked off and…the Cubs wasted little time.  Dexter Fowler led things off with a double, Kris Bryant singled in the first run and all of a sudden..things were happening. We were scoring runs in the first dang inning!

I felt bad for Milo…the poor kid was trying to get dressed, get his suit looking good, brush his hair and all that…and I kept whooping with delight in the next room and distracting him.

tolesWhen Anthony Rizzo lined the ball to left and the Dodger outfielder Andrew Toles drifted over to catch it, I figured (like everyone else) that it would be an easy grab for the first out of the game but…Toles took his eye off the ball for just a moment, it bounced off his glove, hit the ground and by the time they were done scrambling for it…Bryant was at third and Rizzo was hugging second.

I hollered bloody murder.

“What…what?!?!” Milo yelled from the next room.

“Toles…he dropped…it should have been…Rizzo hit the…oh just, just watch the replay.First Inning.jpg

Neither of us could really believe it. One run. Men and second and third. No outs.

Against Kershaw.

Who’d thrown about six pitches.

Next batter, Ben Zobrist, hit a sacrifice fly to center and Bryant, tagging up, scored, too. By the time Kershaw finally got out of the inning, the Cubs had drawn first blood and it was 2-0.

Well, well.

Next inning, it was deja vu all over again as Addison Russell, like Fowler before him, led things off with a double. Two batters later, Fowler pulled a Kris Bryant, smashing an RBI single to bring Russell home.  3-0 Cubs.

My oh my.

Milo had half an eye on the game, half on his outfit and a third eye on the clock.

contreras_1280_s_vktp3q7c_akefk692Then Willson Contreras came up in the fourth and….ka-BOOM.  A ball went screaming over the left field wall.  Cubs up 4-0.

Conteras homered!” I screamed.

“You’ve got to be kidding me!” yelled Milo from the other room. He stormed in looking furious.  “You’ve got to be kidding me.”  For a minute, I didn’t think he was going to go to the dance at all but…he looked mighty sharp. How could he not go?

14711047_10153867409066976_8887567892145301217_o

The latest in Cubs gear.

Next inning…it was Rizzo’s turn.  Bricka-POW!  Good-bye Mr. Spalding!  Cubs 5, Dodgers 0 and…hey, we gotta split! The dance was about to begin!

I should mention that, all this time, Hendricks was just as solid as a rock. Unflappable, practically unhittable and totally in control. All that, with all of Chicago baseball history pressing down on him.  It was an awesome sight.

rizzoSo confident in Hendricks was Manager Joe Madden (and buffeted by a five run lead), he let Hendricks take his licks at the plate in the sixth inning so he could keep pitching. The kid was dominating the Dodgers and there was nothing they could do.kendricks

I dropped Milo off at the school in the sixth inning (promising to text him all the news as it happened) and dashed over to this neighborhood bar called “Taps” to catch the end of the game.  I had to be amongst people, even if they were sympathetic to the other side.

Sure enough, when I walked into the place, it was like the old Western cliche where every head turns and conversation grinds to a halt. (I wanted the old record scratch sound, too.) I was the only Cub fan in the joint and I was not feeling exactly…welcomed at that moment.

tapsI kept my head down, found a quiet place at the bar and tried to stay quiet.

In the meantime, my phone was exploding.  Texts to and from my wife and daughter in Chicago, my aunts, uncles and cousins all across the country, Facebook messages and posts from Cubs fans from sea to shining sea.

I was alone…but I wasn’t lonely. I felt like the whole Cub Nation was in that bar with me.

The end of the game kept closer and closer.  Nine outs away.  Then six.

chapmanThen Hendricks, with one out, walked a man in the eighth and..that was it.  Madden walked to the mound, relieved him of the ball and sent for the reliever, Chapman. Wrigley Field, as a man, reared up on its hind legs and roared their appreciation for the exiting starter. Kyle had come through in great style under enormous pressure.

And here it was…the moment when they either destroyed us all over again by blowing this game in truly spectacular style (as only the Cubs know how) or…they finally break the curse.

Three outs away.  Then two.

praying.jpgAnd I couldn’t help it.  Being that close…sensing that my beloved Cubbies could be on the cusp of history…thinking of my grandfather, buried with a Diehard Cub Fan membership card in his pocket…realizing that the long wait- a wait that had lasted my entire life- might finally be over, I started to well up.

Sitting there, my back to the Dodger faithful, the tears began to come.  Two outs away from destiny.

Then Chapman walks Ruiz.  And you start to think, “No…no it can’t be.  Not in the ninth freakin’ inning…”

cubs-winAnd then…Dodger Yasiel Puig grounds the first pitch he gets to Addison Russell at short…who flips the ball to Baez at second for one…who then turns and fires it to Rizzo for two and…

The Cubs win the pennant!  The Cubs win the pennant!

Well, I just completely flippin’ lost it.

My phone rang. It was Sara and Gwen, cheering and crying in Chicago.  Text messages from all my relatives started pouring in, each more jubilant than the last. Even my Dad, who had stayed up to watch the game on the East coast, called from New York to join in the fun.

Finally, the messaging and joyful phone calls slowed and I sat there, alone and quiet in my little neighborhood bar, my eyes wet with joy, the only Cub fan- maybe the only happy sports fan- within a square mile.

lester-baezOne of the Dodger fans sitting at the table behind me- a big guy with a dark beard and an LA cap- walked up to the bar, motioned to the bartender and said, “Hey…” She looked up.  He looked at me and said “His next one’s on me.”

I was completely gobsmacked.  I stammered out my thanks.

“Hell of a series,” he said, smiling through his disappointment. “Just do me one favor.”  And then he leaned in close and said: “Kick Cleveland’s ass, okay?”

In my current emotional state, all I could really manage was:

“I’ll do everything I can.”

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There is Joy in Mudville, my friends.

The curse (at least the 1945 curse) is no more.

cubs-winThe Chicago Cubs are the champions of the National League.

The Chicago Cubs didn’t just win the wild card or the division or the divisional series. Nope.

The Chicago Cubs have won the National League pennant for the first time in 71 years.

The Chicago Cubs…

…and I can’t believe I’m saying this, even now…

The Chicago Cubs…are going to the World Series.

Hey, Chicago…whaddaya say?

cubs-win-w-flag

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Bucket Listing

I don’t mean to rag on Los Angeles, which is a fine place with a lovely climate and a surprising number of interesting places to see and visit but…L.A. isn’t fit to hold San Francisco’s hilariously flamboyant thong underpants.  It just isn’t.san-francisco

Milo and I took advantage of the three-day weekend last week (Happy Rosh Hashanah! Are you still writing 5776 on your checks?) to drive up to San Francisco and drop in on my mother-in-law (Milo’s grandmother) Marilyn Nichols for a long overdue visit.

And it was terrific to see her and spend family time together for a day or two, but I’ll be honest: I never need an excuse to visit San Francisco. Apart from Chicago (and I’m including New York, boys and girls), the City by the Bay is my favorite town in the country.

San Francisco, CA, USAIf you’ve never been, let me give you a brief summary:

Imagine, if you will, a city that has virtually everything: a hip, urban environment, a simmering and exciting arts scene, year-round mean temperatures that hover in the upper 60’s to mid-70’s, fascinating and eye-popping tourist attractions at every turn, stunning architecture (including the most gorgeous bridge in the US) and some of the most beautiful natural sights – the bay, the parks and one of the largest redwood forests in the world- either in or just minutes away from the heart of the city.

Yes, okay:  Every once in a while, the earth will shake and everything will fall down.  But honestly: it’s totally worth it.

Oh, and don’t call the place “Frisco.”  Nobody does.

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Milo and I motored our way up to Grandma’s house in what is known as the “quick way,” straight up highway I-5, right after Milo got out of school last Friday.  We wanted to get there late on the first night so we could have two full days on Saturday and Sunday to zip around the city before heading back to Los Angeles the slow way on Monday (more on that later).bay-bridge-2

It generally takes you about five hours to get to San Francisco if you take this route and, sure enough, before we knew it we were zooming across the Bay Bridge, which had been completely refurbished since my last visit and is now- on the Eastern portion of the span, anyway- completely breathtaking.

The Giants were playing the night we drove in and you could see the lights of AT&T Park beaming out over the water as we whisked across the Western portion of the bridge and into the heart of town.

giants-parkAh, the Giants.  Great team, the Giants.  Really fine squad.

Sorry, got ahead of myself there, didn’t I? Back to business:

We got to Marilyn’s house late- after 11:00- but we stayed up jawboning with her anyway, telling her about life in the Valley, Milo’s school and the various adventures we’ve been enjoying down here.  Finally, as the wee hours approached, we called it a night and turned in.

Day one in San Francisco awaited.

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I was trying to think of the last time I had visited the city and realized it had been longer than I thought, at least six years or so.  Thinking back, I remembered going to this crazy place called “The House of Air” with Milo and Gwen and spending the day bouncing around in the place, as they have not one, but two entire rooms of trampolines.house-of-air

That’s right:  Rooms comprised entirely of trampolines.  You can spend hours in there, treating yourself like a human pinball, and never get tired of it.

Hey, quick question:  Do you know what will make a guy in his mid-40’s feel like someone hit him squarely on the top of his spine with a sledgehammer?  If your answer was “bouncing on trampolines for a couple of hours,” congratulations.  You win a handful of very strong opioids.

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How it felt to be there.

I spent the next couple of days after visiting the “House of Air” wincing with pain every time I took a step.  The place had destroyed me and the mere act of perambulating about the city for the rest of my visit was a slow and steady torture the likes of which I had never known before.

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How I felt the next day.

Well this time around, I wasn’t going to make the same mistake.  In fact, the only exercise I had planned was a nice, leisurely run along the Embarcadero, past Alcatraz Island (shining like a dirty jewel in the bay), across Ft. Mason Park toward the Golden Gate Bridge and a quick visit (at the turn-around) to one of my favorite places in town, the exquisitely beautiful Palace of the Fine Arts.

Marilyn’s apartment is at the foot of Telegraph Hill, right below Coit Tower and on previous visits, I had regularly made this run and had been treated to some of the best views in the city for my trouble.sf-running-route

Well.

It turns out that jumping on trampolines isn’t the only thing that can kick my ass now that my 50th birthday is in my rear view.  Running the six miles round-trip to the Palace through the hills of San Francisco is, it appears, all it takes to rock me back on my heels these days.  I don’t know why I imagined my destination being so much closer than it actually was but…that’s what time will do to you: cloud your damn memory.

Palace of Fine Arts

I made it to the Palace and back, albeit barely, and staggered back into the apartment completely wiped out…

…just in time for Milo and Marilyn to announce that they were ready to begin sightseeing.

Oy.

Still, when you are offered the chance to walk down the Embarcadero in San Francisco to the Ferry Building for the weekend Farmer’s Market with a stop off at the Exploratorium, you don’t turn down an opportunity like that no matter how loudly your dogs are barking, so I cleaned up, strapped on my walking shoes and we hit the road.

exploratorium_bannerThe Exploratorium is this amazingly cool and vast museum/workshop/science fair type of place that is half Museum of Science and Industry and half Montessori School.  The whole thing consists of room after room of things to flip, turn, crank, pull and spin that show off various scientific theories and factoids involving gravity, centrifugal force, optical illusions, electricity…everything you can think of.

It is supposed to be for kids.  Pfft.  Please.  I could have spent the day there.

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Milo and Milo

After having our minds blown and our curiosity sated, we toddled down to the Farmer’s Market for some spectacular fish tacos and were thinking of heading back to Marilyn’s when she had a brainwave: let’s go see the Kubrick exhibit at the Contemporary Jewish Museum.

Having just turned Milo on to three Kubrick films in the past year (“Dr. Strangelove,” “The Shining” and “Full Metal Jacket”) and being a giant fan of (almost) all his films, I immediately agreed and so we hopped aboard one of the city’s famed electric trolleys for a quick zip down to the city center. (Anything to avoid walking.)

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There are few directors in the history of cinema that deserve a retrospective as comprehensive and fascinating as this one and Kubrick, with his arresting visual style, his graphic and sometimes disturbing themes and, of course, his wide-ranging interests (war, space travel, violence, sex, oppression and axe-murdering), is certainly among this very small number of artists.kubrick-sign

In room after room- in cases or mounted on the wall- were photographs from the films themselves, actual notated original scripts, props, costumes, masks, Kubrick’s actual director’s chair, sketches of movie poster drafts, set models, various lenses and cameras Stanley used…each room stuffed full of movie history. clockwork-room(They had wisely blocked off the “Clockwork Orange” room as the images, props and film clips in that room were…particularly disturbing.)

It was truly a movie fan’s playground and we stayed until they kicked us out.kubrick-2001

Thus inspired (and, one of us anyway, completely spent), we made our way back to Marilyn’s to rest up before setting out for dinner at Fisherman’s Wharf where they have the best clam-chowder-in-a-sourdough-bread-bowl imaginable.

And that night, I didn’t just just turn in for the night.

I collapsed.

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Day two in San Francisco and, naturally, I wanted to start the day right.

So I went for a run.

No, not nearly as far as the previous day.  I’m not that dumb.  But I’m sorry, the route I take through the wharf, up through Ft. Mason Park…you can’t not do it if you have the chance.  It’s that gorgeous.

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Ft. Mason Park.  I mean…come on.

But this time, I only went about half as far as the previous day and arrived back fresh as a daisy and ready to roll.

First stop: Japantown.japantown

Sara’s family being full-blooded Japanese on her mother’s side, I have been happily introduced to some of the finest food that her ancestral country has to offer and this day was no different.  Marilyn took us to one of her favorite little places where we feasted on roasted squid, sushi and maki rolls.

Paradise.

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Our weekend trip to the city just so happened to coincide with one of San Francisco’s most beloved music festivals, a sorta-kinda bluegrass thingy called, appropriately, “Hardly Strictly Bluegrass.”hardly-strictly-bluegrass-2016-featured

The title says it all, really.  They feature a lot of bluegrass/country bands on about six different stages scattered through Golden Gate Park, but they’re not terribly anal about the type of music the bands play.  Artists of all stripes are welcome and, on this, the last day of the festival, they were featuring some of their most popular acts, including the Dropkick Murphys, Roseanne Cash, Emmylou Harris and the great T. Bone Burnett.goldengatepark

We drove down to Golden Gate Park and stashed the car under the de Young Museum and made the long trek deep into woods in search of music.

And lemme tell ya: Central Park in New York is a pretty big place, but Golden Gate is a good 20% larger and this walk- a slightly milder version of the Bataan Death March- made me hearken back to the comparatively blissful run to the Fine Arts Palace the day before.

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Like Woodstock, but with slightly more pot.

Finally, we arrived at the entrance to the Festival and fell into step with the rest of the concertgoers streaming in.  As promised, the various stages (which had names like the “Banjo Stage” and the “Rooster Stage” and so forth) each sported a different set of acts and were set apart at enough of a distance that they didn’t interfere with each other’s sets.

We plopped down at the Rooster Stage and took in an artist called Jonathan Richman but, sadly, he played exactly the kind of country music that makes Milo’s hair stand on end. By the end of Richman’s set, my son looked ready to go full-Altamont on this guy but…he wrapped things up and the lovely Ms. Roseanne Cash took the stage.roseanne

Thankfully, Roseanne – vocally that is- takes more after her Momma than her Daddy and her set was simply glorious and her voice strong and sweet.  She played not one tune that belonged to her parents; it was an entirely original set and each song was better than the last. (Her band was pretty spiffy, too, though every time the slide guitar started playing Milo began eyeing the exit.)

14468461_10211024697839785_5960553209706461262_oIn between sets, I was thrilled to have the chance to reconnect with an old Chicago friend (and now San Francisco native) Gina Raith, who was there with her beau to see Emmylou Harris.  Gina and I hadn’t seen each other in about twenty or so years and given that the last time we’d laid eyes on each other we were both working for this tyrannical Chicago lawyer whom we both despised, we both seemed much, much happier than back in the day.  After a brief visit (and with T. Bone due up soon), Milo and I bid them a hasty farewell and ran back to join Marilyn waiting in the grassy hills.

t-boneFinally, T. Bone took the stage and woke the crowd right up.  As we had to fetch our car early, we only caught a couple songs of his set, but he was in fine fettle and the crowd roared back it’s approval.

As we made our way our of the park and back to the car, the music fading in the background as we trudged away, I reflected once again on what a simply wonderful city this was.

San Francisco really does have it all.  A spectacular looking city with a year-round temperate climate and a culture that is artsy without being fartsy, great food, natural beauty and a pretty fine ball club to boot.

Say, whatever happened to those Giants anyway?san-fran-2

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The next morning, it was time for Milo and I to hit the road and my chance, at last, to knock off two items from my bucket list.

The first?  To drive south along US 1, the Pacific Coast Highway, and take in what was supposed to be one of the most beautiful scenic highways in the world.highway-1-central-coast-4

The second, a visit to Xanadu.  Milo and I had plans to stop off at the storied Hearst Castle in San Simeon to see what kind of house can be built when a man has both unlimited funds and a ridiculously huge ego.

We bid Marilyn farewell and, following her recommendation, took the 101 down toward Monterey before cutting over to US 1.  And by this route, you end up taking the PCH through some decidedly un-coastal areas.

pch-2But then, once the highway lurches back toward the sea…oh my.

You have likely seen the views (and the highway) in a dozen or so movies.  The sweeping cliffs, the crashing waves, the mini-islands jutting up out of the surf, the multi-colored coastline.

Well, until you’ve actually driven along the edge of those cliffs, you truly cannot imagine just how majestic it is.pch3

Every mile or so, it seems, there is a “Vista View” pull-over stop and by the time I parked in the tenth one, Milo was getting a little sick of it.  But then, we’d get out of the car and…

Breathtaking.  That’s all I can really say.  It simply draws the breath right out of your body.

For lunch, because it is “the thing to do,” Milo and I stopped at the legendary US-1 eatery, Nepenthe.  You can certainly see how the place gained it’s reputation.  Perched atop a seaside cliff, with a view up the coast to rival any we had seen, it is the only restaurant I’ve ever dined in where the tables all face one direction:  Out.nepenthe-view

And based on the burger I ordered at the place, the world-famous “Ambrosia burger,” what you’re really paying for is the view.  (“Ambrosia” my eye.  I’ve had better burgers in a 7-11.  But the view is very nice.)

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“Ambrosia”?

We got back on the road and continued our twisty way down the coast, stopping for the occasional photo-op and then zipping back onto the highway.  As you’d imagine, this route adds hours to your trip, but it is worth every second.  It is without question the prettiest drive I’ve ever enjoyed in this country.

Eat your heart out, Italy!pch

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Finally, getting late in the afternoon, we arrived at San Simeon.  You can see Hearst Castle from miles away as it is situated on top of a hill overlooking the coast and is….well, a castle.hearst

I’d always wanted to see Hearst Castle as it’s owner, William Randolph Hearst, was the model for one of the most famous characters in film history- Charles Foster Kane from Orson Welles’ classic “Citizen Kane.”  Welles and his Mercury Players made no secret of the fact that Kane, an egocentric, power-hungry newspaper magnate, was based on Hearst and Hearst himself so bitterly resented this “homage” that he did everything he could to quash the viewing of the film. kane

In the movie, the eponymous tycoon builds a monument to himself and calls the resulting, ridiculously over-the-top mansion “Xanadu” after Kubla Khan’s stately pleasure dome.

Hearst, the real-life mogul, was not nearly as creative as his cinematic counterpart and simply called his place, “La Cuesta Encantada” which means both “The Enchanted Hill” and “My Huge F**king House.”

hearst-2And it is difficult to properly describe the Hearst Castle without tripping over into hyperbole.  But let me just say that I thought I had prepared myself for the ostentation of the place and…I clearly had not. To see just how far Hearst was willing to go to complete this extravagant, too-big-to-be-believed monument to himself was truly jaw-dropping.

Designed and built over the years by architect Julia Morgan, the mansion is actually incomplete, the final wing of the place left unfinished by the time Hearst died. But what they did complete…holy cats.  It almost defies description.hearst-castle-dining-room-1024x682

A dining room that would make Henry VIII say “Wow, that’s a bit much.  Can we pull back on the grandeur?”  A library that would be impossible to read in because you would be constantly looking up from your book saying “Jesus, this place is ridiculous.”

My favorites:  Hearst’s private bedroom, which was actually quite cozy when compared with the rest of the house, but which connected via hallway to his mistress Marion Davies’ bedroom on the other side of the tower.

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Hearst’s room.  Cute, huh?

Think of that.  The guy was married, stowed his wife in an apartment in New York and literally built an entire tower in his California manse where he and his mistress could cavort.  But he maintained a separate bedroom for each of them because, well, propriety and all that.  Amazing.

The “Celestial Bedrooms,” in case you were wondering, are the two little rooms just under the bell towers where Hedda Hopper used to stay (along with half of the Hollywood celebrities of the day) and which command absolutely stunning views of the coastline.

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Celestial Bedroom. Because why not?

And then there are the pools.  Yes, that’s pools plural.  The first is the famed “Neptune Pool,” which is such an avalanche of marble, gold and statuary as to make Caesar blush. At over 345,000 gallons, it took fifteen years just to build and was expanded three times before Hearst deemed it finished.  (Apparently a tiny little 250,000 gallon pool isn’t quite enough for some people.)

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The Neptune Pool.  I can’t even…

The second pool (situated under the tennis courts, as you’d expect), is modeled after the Baths of Caracalla in Rome (you’ve been, haven’t you?) and comes off as a dark and forbidding looking place at first until you realize that it was likely the spot where all the Hollywood stars did their skinny-dipping and then it seems like the perfect spot to swim.underground-pool

The Hearst Family donated the house and the surrounding estate to the State of California soon after Hearst’s death (avoiding a huge tax bill every year, coincidentally) and allowed the State to convert the place from a private residence to a tourist destination, but, they had one caveat:

The State could keep and run the mansion as they liked and bring in filthy tourists to view the place and all that, but…only under the condition that the Hearst family be allowed to use the place for private events whenever they wished.  Thus, bachelorette parties for the Hearst granddaughters and great-granddaughters are regularly held poolside at the Castle as the occasion warrants.  (Though I’m sure they have to bring their own ice.)hearst-1

I could honestly write about the place all day.  How it used to house the world’s largest private zoo (complete with polar bears, leopards, jaguars, chimpanzees and more). How the working ranch that now occupies the property still has zebras among its herd to this day. The thirty-eight bedrooms.  The forty-two bathrooms.  The private theatre, billiard room, three guest houses, servants quarters…the place is just nuts.

And this was the house Hearst used to call the “Little Ranch.” Because he had bigger estates elsewhere.

Let that sink in.

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We finally left Hearst Castle (which takes a while, actually, as the grounds are so enormous) and soon pulled away from US 1 to take a more direct route back to Los Angeles.

The entire drive, which had been about five hours to complete one way the previous Friday, took about twelve hours to navigate on the return trip.

Worth every minute.

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