THE CUBBIES BASEBALL

I really liked it with the A’s, and I probably would have stayed there. Tony LaRussa was, for me personally, the best manager I ever had. He treated me like a man. Nothing against anybody else (laughter), but he treated me like a man. He told me what was going to happen, and he never lied. Afer the ’92 season, the A’s were figuring out what they were going to do. Some of the guys were starting to go elsewhere. That’s when Tony called me up and said he’d love to have me back, but … So, I decided on the Chicago Cubs. The reason I went with Oakland was because when I was younger I liked the unis and they had a good team. The reason I went with the Cubbies is that I had always wanted to experience the National League. I had always heard about it, and at the time I was starting to watch afternoon baseball I saw them all the time on WGN. I don’t know if there was another team out there trying to get me. The Cubs wanted to give me the same amount of money I was making with Oakland. So, I went with them. Just like two years before when I went to the A’s, this was different. The Cubs trained in Arizona. Just like the A’s, but the Cubbies were a little different. When I first got there and walked into the locker room, Randy Myers was there and had one of those electricity guns – bzzzzzt, bzzzzt. He was wearing a bandanna and army fatigues and chasing this young guy around the locker room with one of those taser things. He’s joking, but that’s the first image I saw in the clubhouse. Then he stops, and he yells at me, Hey, Idol! Randy turned out to be a really good friend on the Cubs. They were kind of a young team. He bought me a leather chair. Everybody else in the clubhouse had regular chairs, and Randy bought me this big leather chair. That was kind of cool. The first spring training, Jimmy Piersall was there as an instructor and coach. We were doing some infield practice, and he told me, You’re smooth out there when you are doing stuff. That was kind of neat to have Jimmy Piersall say that. I remember watching the movie the Jimmy Piersall Story. So, it was quite an experience and I could relate to him in a lot of ways. What would happen is that he would say that to me, and in the next breath he would jump on this young guy kind of yelling at him. He would say, You think I’m crazy … I got the papers to prove it. I’m like, Wow. 

There was a bunch of good guys. I really got along with Mark Grace, the first baseman. I thought he was a gamer. Ryne Sandberg was a quiet leader. I had never been around a leader who was that quiet. He did it all by example. I think I kind of helped get Ryno out of his shell. We went out a couple of times in spring training, and I got to know him a little better. I had this saying, That’s a beautiful thing … when it’s working. I’d say it when sitting in the dugout as a sarcastic joke. He would look at me, and I would say it at an opportune time, and he would start laughing. That was pretty cool. Ryno was a good dude. Mike Morgan, I got a really good chance to hang out with him. Steve Lake was about my age. They were good people. They also had a bunch of younger guys like Shawon Dunston, Derrick May, Dwight Smith. They were good kids, but really into being in the big leagues. Dwight Smith could really sing, and I thought that was great because I liked singing, too. It was good to be in the National League. I was going through the same thing I had with the A’s, being with new guys and trying to fit in and all that kind of stuff. I wasn’t trying to impress anybody.

The Cubs fans didn’t take to me right away. I signed with them and they got Candy Maldanado from the Blue Jays. The Jays had just won the World Series, and I had just lost to their team in the playoffs. I thought they were getting a couple of pretty good players. What I didn’t know is that the Cubs had gotten rid of Andre Dawson. He goes to Boston. But down in spring training, you don’t read the paper or really hear from the fans at that time. Unbeknownst to us, we were getting pummeled in the papers because everybody thought we were the reason they traded Andre Dawson, their beloved Andre Dawson. When we opened the season in Chicago, boy, there were some boo birds. We were getting booed when we stepped on the field, and we couldn’t understand why. Then, later on, we found out it was because they blamed us for Andre Dawson getting traded. It was really cool to play at Wrigley – really cool to see the vines come in. When you first get there at the start of the season, the vines are all bare and brown with just a few leaves. Then you go on a road trip, and it gets a little warmer. The leaves just pop out. And the Wrigley people out there are fanatical. They love their team. I wanted to try and win them a championship. But there were a lot of things going against that. It wasn’t too hard to make the transition to the National League as far as the pitchers were concerned. Everybody was starting to switch from one league to the other, and I ran into a lot of guys who had been in the American League. One funny thing did happen. You know the National League always considered itself the senior circuit and in the American League we were the junior circuit. They played real baseball the regular way in the National League, and in the American League we had the DH. So, the first time I get a hit in the opening game of the year I’m standing at first base and the umpire, I think it was Bob Davidson, says to me, Welcome to the National League. Getting to play in Wrigley Field as a Cub finished off my career.

I got to see different cities. San Diego was beautiful. I got to go back to Philadelphia – where they jumped on me like crazy because of 1980. Man, they were jumping on me so bad. I got back at them late in the season, though. We were playing in Philly in September of that year. Steve Buechelle homered to left in the sixth inning. I was up next and homered to right, and then Steve Lake completed the trifecta with a home run to left field – back-to-back-to-back. That was pretty cool and it made me feel good because I silenced some of the Phillies fans. Boy, they were getting on me. The Cubbies had a new manager that year, Jim LeFebvre, the father of Royals broadcaster Ryan Lefebvre. He was an extraordinarily good batting coach. It was only his second managing job, and we heard the reason he got rid of Andre Dawson is that he didn’t like veteran players. He wanted young guys that he could mold. We started off against Atlanta that year so I got a chance to face (Tom) Glavine and (John) Smoltz and those guys. I was hitting almost .500 against the Braves, then had a rough series against the Phillies. I think I started nine of the first 10 games. We didn’t win every game, but we were in the games. Then we went to Philly, and Lefevbre said he was going to give me a day off. He had Dwight Smith play. Dwight hit a home run. So, I knew my starting days were over (laughter). He (Lefevbre) liked that. He wanted home run hitters. That’s what he was teaching as a hitting coach. I didn’t balk because I thought I would get to play plenty. It turned out that it was kind of true that he didn’t like veteran players. He sat me down and sat Candy down. He couldn’t sit Ryno down because he was sort of a Chicago legend. The hard part for me was that I really wanted to continue the trend of having at least 20 stolen bases every year. I had 11 years with 30 or more stolen bases. Then my final two years with the Royals and the two with the A’s I had at least 20. So, I really wanted to keep that going. I wasn’t in the games enough to really keep that going. Subsequently, every now and then I would bitch and moan. It wasn’t pleasurable, but I dealt with it. The upsetting thing for me was the standard that the manager set for the team. He said, and this is a quote, Our goal this year is to be a .500 team. I had no idea what that was about. I had never been around a manager who would say that. I don’t know what he was thinking about. Tony LaRussa wanted to be the last team standing. Every manager I had before that wanted to be the last team standing. I just didn’t understand that you were making our goal to be just a mediocre team.

The Cubbies had not been .500 in 18 of the previous 20 years, and I think we ended up finishing four or five games over .500 (84-78). I guess it wasn’t that bad. But we didn’t win anything. Part of that first year with the Cubs, baseball was secondary on my brain. My grandmother died in 1993. She was my love. She’s the one who raised me when I was a little child. I learned of it when my cousin Michael called me early in the morning on a day when we were traveling to Houston with the Cubbies. I answered the phone like you do in the morning when you’ve been woken up. He told me my grandmother died. I was so sleepy, I hung up. I laid my head back down on the pillow, then immediately opened my eyes and realized what he said and called him right back. We sat there on the phone and cried like babies. I … I’m still feeling it a little bit when I talk about it right now … that really hurt. I flew to Houston with the team on April 28, then went to Montgomery where we were making funeral arrangements. I was going in and seeing her and just really missing her. Having to go back to the ball club really didn’t sit well. The next year we come back and there is a new manager and a new coaching staff. That was Tom Trebelhorn. As soon as I had gotten used to Lefebvre, I gotta go through months of getting used to another manager. Trebelhorn wasn’t a bad guy, but I’m going through a long learning period. I really didn’t get a chance to learn from him that long because I was released in May. I wasn’t playing too much in 1994. I think I played only 17 of our 35 or so games before I was released in May. I was mostly being used as a pinch runner or defensive replacement late in the game. I only had five hits and 23 plate appearances.

I knew I was not long for the Cubbies world when about a month into the season the GM came down and started talking to me in the locker room. I had been in the league for 19 years, and whenever the owner or the general manager or somebody from the front office would come down into the locker room and talk to players they would be gone in a day or two. In early May the GM came down and started talking to me in the locker room, saying I was doing this and that, and they liked what they were getting out of me. When he left, I turned to Mark Grace in the locker next to mine, and I said, I’m going to be leaving in a few days. He goes, What are you talking about. I said, Man, I have been here too long. This being my 19th year in the league, I knew what was going on.

My final game was May 16, 1994. The Cubbies were playing the San Diego Padres. I wasn’t starting, but I was getting in quite a few games as a pinch runner or a late-inning defensive sub. By that time I was getting pretty close to Ryne Sandberg. We were having a good time, and Ryno was opening up a little bit. I got into the game in the seventh or eighth inning – I didn’t get an at-bat. We’re in the ninth inning, and Randy Myers is pitching. He would always tell the outfielders to shade the hitters the opposite way because he threw everything away from hitters. So, if it was right-handers, they were going to hit it to right field. If it was left-handers, they were going to hit it the opposite way in left field. I’m playing just shaded a little way into right-center field. Randy threw it, and he didn’t get it away from the hitter. He laid it down the middle, and the guy just goes, Boom! and it’s going to left-center. I think there was a runner on first base. It was like instinct. I just took off, looked at the ball, put my head down again just running full tilt. I raised my left arm, and the ball just went in the glove. When I turned around I could see Ryno just jumping up in the air. All I can remember is that everyone was excited. Randy struck out the next guy to end the game, and we were all celebrating as we were coming off the field.

I wish that my catch had been the last out of the game because it would have been pretty cool to have that be the very last play of my career. It was still pretty cool to make that catch in my last game. It was a hard hit ball. It was a hell of a catch, then we went inside and it was all over. Afer the game I’m sitting there in my big old leather chair, and Jose Martinez comes over to where I’m sitting. Jose was one of the first coaches and guys I met with the Royals so long ago back in rookie ball and the instructional league and then in my first few years with the Royals. Now he is coaching first base for the Cubbies, and I guess they thought Jose was more close to me than any other coach so they asked him to come and tell me that Trebelhorn wanted to see me upstairs. He says, Chili Bean – that’s what he called me – Chili, the manager wants to see you. I say, OK, tell him afer I take a shower and put my clothes on I’ll be in there. No. No. He wants to see you now. 

Tell him I will take a shower and then come and see him. I wanted to be dressed to go upstairs and get the news. Then, I wouldn’t have reporters standing around my locker while I was getting dressed afer hearing I had been released. I went in, took the shower, got dressed. And when I went up to his office, there was every coach just sitting in that room. They’re just sitting there. I was thinking to myself, What? Do they think I’m going to beat him up? I guess they have the coaches there just in case someone goes crazy and wants to fight or that kind of stuff. Trebelhorn says, Willie we’re going to have to release you. They had a young guy down in the minors who was a switch hitter. He told me the young guy could do what I had been doing for them. I think his name was Kevin Roberson. I said, OK, where do I sign? The only thing I asked was, Do I get paid for the rest of the year? They said I would. I signed the papers, thanked everybody in the room, thanked the Cubs for having me. You know 1994 was such a strange year. I was getting weird feelings coming to the ballpark. I had never been nervous about playing in games since about the first or second year I was in the majors. I was always excited, but never nervous. Then, one day I was driving to Wrigley and coming in through the back way through the neighborhood where you see the big Cubs emblem and my hands started sweating. That last week or so my hands started sweating every day I was coming to the ballpark. I didn’t feel like I wanted to be there. I knew in my brain that I didn’t want to be there. I always remember Hal McRae saying, Don’t take the uniform off. Make them take it off. That way you are still going to get paid. For a few days I knew I didn’t really want to be there. Maybe I knew I was done because we were playing Cincinnati one day, a right hander – I can’t think of his name – he strikes me out three or four times that day. They were all fastballs. That’s when I was like, I don’t miss fastballs. If I can’t hit a fastball, I’m done. Mentally, I was just done and I was really ready to go. I knew they were going to release me, so I just said, Where do I sign? 

Of course, by that time all the reporters were gathered around my locker when I came back downstairs. I say goodbye to Gracie, say goodbye to (Mike) Morgan, say goodbye to Ryno. I just went to my locker, grabbed all my valuables out of the lock box and started to leave. One of the reporters said, That’s it? That’s all you are going to do? I turned around and said, Nah … goodbye and I just left.

I walked to the car kind of in a little daze, and people were still hanging around and wanting autographs and this and that. I was living in an apartment building in downtown Chicago. There was a guy who parked your car. I got to the apartment, and the doorman – he called me Money because I would tip him well to do my car – he says, Money, Money, what’s going on? I say, Thank you, man. I’m going to be leaving in a few days. He was like, Wow, you, too. I had to wait three days to clear waivers to see if anybody wanted to put a claim on me. I sat up in the place for three days, and I didn’t go outside. I basically didn’t leave the apartment. It was almost surreal. In your brain you imagine what people are saying and what people are thinking about you. I remember getting in the elevator when I was taking my stuff down to pack my car and there were a couple of people in the elevator who had a little smirk on their face. I don’t know what was said on the radio or the TV, but it just made me feel like crap when they were sort of smirking that I had lost my job. The emphasis is never on how the guy who is 38 or 39 years old feels when he loses his job. I don’t think I was really liked in Chicago. They never really got a chance to see me. They got to see the old me, the 39-year-old me. I got a phone call from my agent, and he said the Texas Rangers wanted me and the Pittsburgh Pirates wanted me. I didn’t want to stay in the National League, so I said to him let’s see what happens with Texas. A few hours later he called me back and said somebody blocked the deal.

I didn’t really want to play for Pittsburgh, so I told my agent I was just going to go home. I didn’t really want to play anymore anyway. I was done. Mentally, I was done. Physically, I was OK. It was frustrating to sit there and watch young kids play and young kids make mistakes and then at the end of the game they put the old guy in. I packed everything in my car and waited for the appropriate moment and I drove home to Kansas City. It was really kind of fitting. Chicago is a pretty good drive, nine or 10 hours. I was driving through the Midwest, coming through Iowa. I would see road signs, and it would say Cedar Rapids and I would start remembering A ball. Then Waterloo, Iowa, and all the A-ball stuff when I played in the Midwest League. I kind of reflected all the way going home. At one point, I can remember thinking how ironic it was. Here you are just going back in time. Driving home was actually a peaceful drive. No more pressure. No more thinking about strikeouts or yelling or screaming. I was going home and remembering everything and thinking about everything. … And basically going: What am I going to do now? 

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