A heartwarming visit to the old ballpark


To state the obvious, it's been a miserable year for baseball. Probably the worst since the Black Sox Scandal.

Besides last season's disastrous strike and its bitter aftertaste, the usual drug problems and the whining by players, there were other embarrassments.

It was bad enough that wealthy stars from the present and past sold their autographs, but several recently pleaded guilty to not paying taxes on this easy pocket money.

Even Mickey Mantle's surgery had many people saying that a lifelong lush didn't deserve a new and sober liver.

But not everybody in baseball is a self-obsessed, immature stiff. It just seems that way. There are a few exceptions, and here's one of them.

"I left Chicago in 1980," said Richard Sturm, 48, "and moved to the Pacific Northwest to get away from the big city. I wanted to find that smaller town where people still cared about people."

Sturm, a business executive, found that friendliness in Eugene, Ore.

"But on July 4, I lost my father and I had to return to the Midwest. My brother and I had to go into Chicago to tie up some loose ends."

Sturm's father, Harry, who died at 80, was formerly second-chair cellist for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and later first cellist with the Milwaukee Symphony.

"He loved music and he loved baseball. A very quiet, nice guy. Very athletic, too.

"When my brother and I got to Chicago, we were driving past Addison Street, and we looked at each other and said, 'We're not that far, are we?'

"So we doubled back and headed for one of Dad's favorite places. Ours, too.

"We parked across the street, got out of the car and stood for a moment and just stared. We were kids again, full of excitement. We were standing in front of Wrigley Field.

"As my brother Fred put it, 'A place where it will always be spring.'

"My brother looked at me and said that if there was a game today, we're going. But at the ticket booth, we got the bad news, they're out of town for the week.

"So, oh, well, we could take a walk around the park and reminisce.

"As we were walking, I pushed on a large iron gate and it opened. I said to my brother, 'Let's go.' It was trespassing and we knew it, but it didn't seem wrong.

"We walked up the stairs to the right-field side and the field came into view. It was an emotional moment for both of us.

"We sat on the concrete steps and stared at the field -- and all the stories Dad told us came rushing back. How, when he was a boy, he would show up at Wrigley to clean up the stands, put up seats and get into the game free. It was the only way he could afford to see a game.

"I noticed a groundskeeper out on the field. Thinking I had nothing to lose, I went over and told him why we were there and asked if we could walk on the outfield.

"He opened the gate to the field and all he said was, 'Sorry about your dad. Make yourself at home.'

"We couldn't believe it. We were actually walking on the outfield grass of Wrigley Field, touching the ivy. We were kids again.

"About 15 minutes later, Mike -- that was this groundskeeper's name -- walked toward us. I assumed we had overstayed our welcome.

"But as he approached, he said, 'These aren't new, but here's a couple of game balls. I thought you might want to take these with you.'

"We shook his hand, and when he walked away, he said it again: 'I'm really sorry about your dad.'

"It didn't end there. Mike's boss asked him who we were. When he found out why we were there, his boss suggested that we might like to sit in the dugout for a while.

"Gosh, you sit in the dugout and you see the field and the dimensions like you've never seen it before. My brother said: 'Look, the wind is blowing out. It's a home run day.' We were sitting there, where Ernie Banks used to sit. And we could look up at the right-field bleachers where my father caught a home run once.

"We stayed for more than an hour, walking the field, sitting in the dugout, playing catch in the outfield.

"When we left, I tried to give Mike a couple of $20 bills. He said: 'No way.' He and his boss wouldn't let us even buy them lunch.

"They just said that it was nice to have friendly people come to the park but that they were sorry it was under these circumstances.

"I was wrong back in 1980. You don't have to move to the country to find decent people. We'll probably never see Mike again, but I'll always consider him a friend."

Maybe the team should take away Mike's rake and make him a coach. There's a lot he could teach the players.

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