Fergie Jenkins just got back from Lowe’s.
“They want people to stay inside,” he said. “I went out to get some fuel for my weed whacker.
“There’s still a lot of people shopping.”
The legendary Cubs pitcher spoke by phone from home in Frisco, Texas, late last week, the day after Texas’ stay-at-home order went into effect.
Jenkins, 77, is well aware he’s in the high-risk age range for COVID-19 reaction. So he’s being careful, mostly staying inside, using a lot of hand sanitizer, he said, and taking precautions the few times he goes out.
He picked a hell of a time to move from Scottsdale, Ariz., to his new place just north of Dallas — arriving barely a week ago just as the state of Texas braces for what authorities expect to be a steep rise in coronavirus cases in the coming weeks.
It’s why he needs a few more trips to the hardware store than usual as he tries to settle in, for a lamp, a small appliance or a screwdriver. And why he usually needs to stop at the local Kroger’s grocery while he’s out or to handle another delivery of furniture when he gets back.
“I wash my hands about every 30 minutes,” he said, “with Dial soap and dry off with a paper towel. And I have Lysol spray. When I make a sandwich, I spray down the kitchen counters, and I spray the doorknobs, everything.”
If there’s a small silver lining in the moment for Jenkins, who expected to be spending last week in Chicago for the Cubs’ home opener, it might be that his focus on the move and on staying safe has distracted him from the closed ballparks during a time on the baseball calendar that was once his signature week throughout a 19-year Hall of Fame career.
Only nine pitchers in history have made more Opening Day starts than his 11 — including a franchise-record seven for the Cubs.
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His last Opening Day start was 37 years ago today in his final season; his best, 49 years ago today when he pitched 10 innings to beat Bob Gibson 2-1 at Wrigley Field on a walk-off home run by Billy Williams.
“That was the fun part of it,” said Jenkins, whose Hall of Fame opponents in openers also included Jim Palmer, Steve Carlton, Jim Bunning, Dennis Eckersley and Bert Blyleven. “Just to tell yourself after all the hard work you did in spring training that if I’m not ready to compete today, I’m going to lose.”
He almost always was ready — his 2.58 career ERA on Opening Day compared to 3.35 the rest of the year attesting to that much.
The one he remembers most fondly is the first, in 1967, against the Phillies — his original team — at Wrigley Field with his parents in attendance.
“My mother had glaucoma and had never seen me pitch. She listened to games on a transistor radio. My dad had watched me pitch other ballgames in relief,” he said. “And just the fact that Leo [Durocher] gave me that opportunity in 1967…”
He pitched a complete game and beat Bunning 4-2.
A half century later, he finds himself opening boxes instead of seasons and wondering like the rest of us when the world — including sports — will find a semblance of normalcy again.
Jenkins, an ambassador with the Cubs, was in camp during spring training until Major League Baseball shut things down in mid-March and delayed the start of the season.
A year after losing his wife following a long series of health issues, he bought his new place in Texas at the end of last year, but he didn’t make the long drive from Scottsdale for the move until a couple of weeks ago.
“It’s been an experience. A little different,” he said. “I’m just doing things one day at a time.”
That means making use of his Weber grill, considering making use of his new bike in the new neighborhood and continuing his Cameo side gig on Twitter — which he used to help raise money for suddenly displaced game day workers at Sloan Park in Mesa after the shutdown last month.
“The world’s going through a crisis, and sports is the last thing on people’s minds right now,” Jenkins said. “When we had 9/11, especially in New York, they thought by playing baseball it would help give people something to think about besides what had just happened on 9/11.
“This is totally different.”
Ongoing. Uncertain. Spreading.
“It’s scaring people,” he said.
“Sure, I miss the sport. I especially miss seeing hockey and basketball,” added the Canada native and one-time Harlem Globetrotter.
“Now it’s all changed. Now you turn the news on and see how many [new cases and media briefings] we’re having. And the president trying to do this and that. The world’s changed, and not for the good. Even beyond this [crisis].”
Jenkins said he’s confident baseball will be played this season, whether a 100-game season or 80, mostly based on a faith in medical science to provide at least more definition, if not reliable treatment for the virus.
A return in June? July? “Who knows?” he said.
What he might know as well as anyone, however, is the collective attention span and endurance level of a group of ballplayers during a lengthy shutdown.
As Cubs and other big-league players use Twitter and Instagram to show how they’re individually working out during shelter-in-place practices, Jenkins recalls how he and Texas Ranger teammates handled the longest single-season shutdown in major league history.
The Rangers were 33-22 and 1 1/2 games out of first place in the American League West when players began a two-month strike in June of 1981.
“Maybe 15 guys stayed around,” Jenkins said, rattling off the names of teammates such as Jim Kern, Doc Medich, Buddy Bell and Jim Sundberg.
They procured about six dozen balls from the team, Jenkins said, and then went to local parks to throw, run, take infield and take batting practice.
“Just a regular park,” he said. “Everybody would phone each other every day: ‘You coming to the park?’ … ’You coming to the park?’ “
After a day of workouts, they would head somewhere for an early dinner and talk about the latest strike news, he said.
“After about 40 days guys got sick and tired. It got to the point where guys were getting bored,” he said. “Then only a half-dozen guys were showing up. It just petered out.”
It would be another three weeks at that point before the 1981 season restarted.
If that experience is indicative of anything, it might simply underscore the need for at least three or four weeks of a second “spring training” once a start date is determined — if not suggest a reminder for how much of a gift any baseball at all this year might be.
As Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo said the week after the shutdown: "If there’s not [a season], then obviously our world’s not in a good spot. This is bigger than baseball.”
Until then, Jenkins has a grill and a weed whacker to fire up. And Lysol to spray.
“I’m going to stay busy,” he said, mentioning some bass fishing he’d like to do once the stay-at-home order is lifted.
So he'll do his best to stay safe and well, he said.
“People are taking it to heart now, what’s going on. A lot of people are losing their lives. And now it’s the younger people,” he said. “It teaches you a lesson. They tell you what to do: Just do it.”
After all, this is a guy with a lot more Opening Days in mind — including this one.
“If they get everything settled, I’ll be back,” he said of joining the crew of Cubs Hall of Famers who were scheduled for the opening festivities, including Williams, Andre Dawson, Ryne Sandberg and Lee Smith.
“Hopefully, we’re all there,” Jenkins said, then laughed a little. “If we’re all still kicking.”