Chicago ties bind the mayor of Cooperstown

COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. — Several years ago, Karen Katz walked into her son's parent-teacher day at his preschool in Lincolnshire expecting to have a conversation about 4-year-old Joey.

But when Katz introduced herself as Joey's mom, she got a baffling reaction from the teacher.

"The response was 'Joey? There's no Joey in this class,' " Katz's husband Jeff said in a recent interview.

After providing a description, the problem was settled. It turned out Joey had told everyone his name was Frank.

"Joey was obsessed with Frank Thomas, as I kind of was," Jeff Katz said. "It was hard not to like Frank Thomas from the day he came up (to the White Sox). … Joey had told everyone his name was Frank. It was incredible.

"That's how deep the Chicago baseball world infiltrated our lives."

The trajectory of Jeff Katz's life followed a pattern that might look familiar to a lot of young professionals in Chicago: graduate from college, get a job, move to Chicago, get married, start a family, move to the suburbs.

But it's the next part of Katz's life that might cause a bit of head-scratching: move to Cooperstown, N.Y., get elected mayor.

Katz, who has been mayor of the sleepy but famous village of about 1,800 in upstate New York since 2012, will be part of the party welcoming Thomas and Greg Maddux into the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown next weekend. As a former season-ticket holder for both the Cubs and White Sox, he feels a special connection with the two and the Chicago area, where he lived from 1987 to 2003 and had three sons with Karen, whom he married in 1986.

The impending inductions have brought memories of Katz's time in Chicago flooding back as preparations are finalized in Cooperstown this week.

"As a born-and-raised New Yorker, I figured every city was like New York," Katz said. "But Chicago wasn't — in all good ways. I totally fell in love with Chicago."

Katz, who was born in Brooklyn and graduated from SUNY Binghamton in 1984, worked as a broker and trader while in Chicago and shared season tickets for the Cubs and Sox for many seasons. So much of Katz's nostalgia for Chicago baseball revolves around his time spent at Wrigley from 1995-2003.

"Section 131, Row 8, Seats 105 and 106 have a firm place in my heart," Katz said. "I really had the best of all worlds because I wasn't a Cubs fan so I didn't have to suffer, but I had great seats at Wrigley and I would go 30 times a year."

He remembers being at the first game of a doubleheader July 22, 1997, when Maddux mowed down the Cubs on 76 pitches — 63 strikes — in a 4-1 Braves victory. He remembers being at his final game before moving to Cooperstown in 2003, when Mark Prior beat the Yankees. And he remembers being at the Cubs' first home game after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, when Ernie Banks came up to him and initiated a conversation.

"I don't know if he thought he knew me, which there would be no reason he would," Katz said. "But he was like, 'Hey! How are you?' Came over, signed my program and we talked. It was a strange, surreal experience."

For Katz, it was tough to leave Chicago and experiences like that behind.

"I thought this was heaven," he said.

So why give up your seat in heaven? Family was the catalyst. The Katzes' oldest son, Nate, was born high-functioning autistic. Jeff and Karen were concerned with how Nate would perform in a large suburban high school.

They decided to leave Chicago to find a more comfortable atmosphere for Nate, now 23, who works as a professional artist. Jeff, who had visited Cooperstown several times, always had thought it would be fun to live there. The family agreed, and in June 2003, they all made the move.

In 2005, a friend persuaded Katz, who had quit his job as a trader, to enter local politics. He ran for a seat on the village board and, after an unsuccessful mayoral run in 2010 in which Katz said he got "smoked," he ran unopposed in 2012.

The job certainly has its perks. Katz gets to mingle with Hall of Famers and other important baseball figures such as Sox Chairman Jerry Reinsdorf. He spoke with Reinsdorf about the strike-shortened 1981 season, on which Katz is writing a book. He talked with Paul Molitor about his love of Bruce Springsteen. And he joked with Don Sutton about a little-known cameo Sutton had in a Jerry Lewis movie.

"In the back of my mind, I'm like, 'Look at me! I'm just some regular trader guy like so many others in Chicago,' " Katz said. "I'd go to Bulls games, go to Sox games, Cubs games. Now I'm the mayor of Cooperstown and shooting the breeze with Jerry Reinsdorf."

In recent weeks, Chicago has returned in a big way to Katz's life. He's expecting several friends in town, along with about 50,000 other people, for the induction ceremony next Sunday.

In May, President Barack Obama visited the Hall accompanied by former Cub Andre Dawson. Katz had come to Chicago in 1987, the same year Dawson arrived. For Katz, it was like seeing his life come full circle. While leaving Chicago was a hard choice to make, it seems like it was the right one for Katz.

"Only on a day do I get to meet Obama is getting to talk to Andre Dawson for 10 minutes No. 2 on the list," Katz said. "Only from being mayor here do I get two experiences like that in one day.

"I wouldn't trade places with Rahm for anything."

Twitter @ChristopherHine

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