Have you ever had one of those jobs that made you feel like you were stealing every time you got paid?
As Cubs players and coaches report to Spring Training, I’d imagine they feel much the same way. I’ll be Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo are saying to one another, “eighty-five percent of the freakin’ world is working. The other fifteen percent come out here.”
But given the tenor of the Cubs conversation over these past few months, it’s doubtful they’d feel the need to quote much more of Lee Elia’s expletive-laden diatribe. While I’d love to print that rant here in all its glory for sheer comic relief, this is a family program. By the time you clean it up for content, it’d be like listening to the Wal-Mart version of The Chronic or watching Pulp Fiction on daytime network TV.
I know this might be hard to believe, but I’ve never had the experience of participating in a big league camp. I know, I know, you’re all terribly disappointed. I do, however, have an experience with what I considered something of a dream job. So brace yourselves for some of my patented anecdotal pablum as I recount my Pacers days.
While I’ve fallen away a bit in terms of my following of the NBA, I grew up a huge Pacers fan. It started when I attended a Harlem Globetrotters game at Market Square Arena and saw the logos and realized that we actually had an NBA team in Indiana. You can imagine my delight then when I moved to Indianapolis after college and picked up a part-time job working for the team on gamedays.
By that time, they had moved to Conseco (now Banker’s Life) Fieldhouse, which, much like Wrigley Field, was equipped with a manual scoreboard. Actually, there were two; one at each end of the upper reaches of the arena. My job, along with one or two other people each game, was to track scores from the other NBA games on a the world’s slowest active computer and update them every 4 minutes or so on both boards.
This involved writing the scores on sheets of paper and then heading out to the boards to slide large plastic numbers into their proper places. Sounds easy, right? Well, you have to first consider that we were wedging the numbers in backwards and that some of them had gotten a little worse for wear over the course of a few seasons.
And then there was the super-fun aspect of having to maneuver a rolling scissor lift back and forth along the fenced-in platform behind the board if the top sets of games got started. Never a dull moment when you’re hoisting yourself 15 feet in the air, then leaning and stretching to insert the 3rd digit of the Spurs score.
Oh, I almost forgot the best part: the catwalk. If you’ve been to an indoor arena, you’ve no doubt seen the catwalks that traverse the length of the building to allow access to lighting and various and sundry other mechanical business.
Roughly 80 or 90 feet above the floor and bordered by small guardrails, these narrow walkways are open to all the sights and sounds of the arena and are festooned with stage lights that are constantly popping and flashing. Not a big fan of heights to begin with, you can imagine my terror in those first few treks to the far board.
Eventually, though, I grew accustomed to the situation and could even stop at various points to watch the game below or to wave to friends who would recognize me without being overwhelmed by vertigo. I probably worked close to 100 games, eventually moving up to the coveted role of coach’s tape score-tracker guy.
Yes, my job was to sit in a secluded production room/VHS dumping ground and watch the game on a tiny little screen, updating the chyron with each score. Oh, then there was the time I got to work the Big Ten basketball tournament, sitting beside the backboard standard and reeling in the cable for the cameraman who recorded the near team’s huddle during timeouts.
What a great job…for a while. Over time things became a bit tired. What once was exhilarating turned to tedium with time. Yes, it was cool to walk past Big Show in the bowls of the arena as he readied for a promo for an upcoming WWE event. And having Larry Bird greet you in the hallway never gets old.
There came a time, though, when I just had to give it up. The juice was no longer worth the squeeze. Speaking of, I’m betting those of you who’ve actually made it this far are wondering whether and how I’m ever going to bring this back around to some semblance of a valid point.
Well, I look at my Pacers experience in much the same way as I view the baseball season, particularly those the Cubs have had of late. Spring Training is this wondrous time to get reacquainted with teammates and to meet new guys for the first time. Fans too are excited to see what the team will do. It’s a fresh slate and there’s nowhere to go but up.
It’s a little scary in a way too, particularly for this year’s Cubs team. The safety net of strategically-suppressed success is being removed and these guys are going to have to start standing on their own merit and trying to win games.
But as exciting as things are now and as anxious as we all get this time of year, it’s a long season. The key is to continue to find those little things along the way to keep it fresh, to stave off the boredom that can set in in the dog days like scurvy on pirate ship stuck in the doldrums. That’s where the influx of youth and a guy like Joe Maddon will make a real difference for the Cubs.
Maddon’s antics, the dress-up days and granting late arrival times, just his general attitude, will set the tone for his team. Likewise, the presence of guys like Kris Bryant, Jorge Soler, and Javier Baez will help to maintain excitement for both fans and fellow players.
There is a palpable electricity generated by those prospects, a communal current with enough energy to shock this franchise back to life. That’s not a knock on Jon Lester, Anthony Rizzo, or Starlin Castro, either, but an observation of the power of hope.
For the first time in years, we may be able to watch this team for 162 games not out of duty, but out of desire. And those men in blue pinstripes are going to feel like they’re stealing; they’ll be latter-day John Dillengers, the Robin Hoods of Wrigley.
It may feel interminable at times, but the Cubs and their fans are looking forward making the next few seasons last as long as possible.