Cubs

Kaplan: Why Harry Caray was simply the best

Kaplan: Why Harry Caray was simply the best

Growing up in the Chicago area, we have been fortunate to hear some of the greatest names in sports broadcasting. From Jack Brickhouse to Harry Caray to Pat Foley to Jim Durham to Pat Hughes to Wayne Larrivee, the list is long and illustrious of the best play-by-play men in Chicago sports history.

For me, growing up listening to and watching many of these men on an almost daily basis only served to stoke my interest in pursuing sports broadcasting as my chosen career. All of the greats were obviously well prepared and technically excellent calling their respective sports, but for me one man stood above the rest because of his irreverence and ability to entertain people in a variety of ways. I ran home from Middleton School in Skokie to watch the final innings of many afternoon Cubs games in the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s, and I loved Jack Brickhouse and the enthusiasm he brought to each and every broadcast.

However, Harry Caray was the one that captured my heart and pulled me toward this great field of radio and TV broadcasting. Harry was one of the best technical baseball announcers in the history of the sport, but many people who only became aware of him as the announcer for the Cubs on WGN-TV only got to experience him in the twilight of his career, when he was best known for singing the Seventh Inning Stretch and his mispronunciations of players' names.

In the main portion of his 50-plus-year career, Harry called some of the game's greatest moments and saw many of the all-time greats. As the voice of the St. Louis Cardinals, Oakland Athletics and the White Sox, he became one of the best in the sport with his colorful calls and honesty about the team he was working for. Fans loved his willingness to tell the truth and to openly cheer for the team he was affiliated with. However, when he was hired as the voice of the Cubs on WGN-TV, he became larger than life. With the power of the superstation behind him, he reached another level. A whole new generation of young people became Cubs fans — even if the team wasn't very good — because of the man in the funny glasses who was wildly entertaining.

I fell in love with his style and his entertainment ability. He was must-watch TV even when the games weren't very good. Until the Cubs signed Jon Lester and he became a key member of a World Series champion, Harry Caray was the single best free-agent signing in the history of the Cubs. From 1982 to 1997, he was bigger than almost every player who wore Cubbie Blue. Former All-Star first baseman Mark Grace remembered with a wry smile a story from his days as a Cub that shows just how big Caray was in relation to even the biggest-name players.

"We were playing the Marlins in Miami, and I was signing autographs alongside Rick Sutcliffe and Ryne Sandberg," Grace said. "There were long lines for each of us, and then Harry poked his head out of the Cubs dugout. The fans spotted him and someone yelled: 'Hey everybody, there's Harry!'

"I'm not kidding, everybody ran over to him, and the three of us were left with no one to sign for. We looked at each other, and Sutcliffe says to us, 'Guys, now you know where we rank on the totem pole.'"

Harry Caray was a legend and for me. He was the most entertaining play-by-play man I ever listened to. I still find myself listening to old tapes of him, and I am still as entertained today as I was then. Harry was simply the best.

Fallout from Albert Almora Jr.’s scary foul ball incident, one year later

Fallout from Albert Almora Jr.’s scary foul ball incident, one year later

A year ago Friday, a foul ball off the bat of Cubs center fielder Albert Almora Jr. struck a young girl in the stands at Minute Maid Park in Houston.

The young girl was rushed to the hospital and her family later revealed she suffered several head injuries as a result. The moment brought forth league-wide changes to protect fans from injury. 

One year later, here is a timeline of key dates in the fallout from the incident.

Fallout from Albert Almora Jr.'s scary foul ball incident

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How Cubs' Albert Almora Jr. regrouped after emotionally trying 2019 season

How Cubs' Albert Almora Jr. regrouped after emotionally trying 2019 season

Among the more interesting Cubs storylines sidelined with the rest of baseball during the coronavirus shutdown was the career restart center fielder Albert Almora Jr. seemed to promise after an emotionally trying 2019 season.

A tumultuous, wrenching 2019 season unlike any he had ever experienced in his baseball life.

“That’s a fact,” Almora said after a strong start in spring games, and just before professional sports across the country were shut down indefinitely in March.

Friday marks the one-year anniversary of the harrowing night in Houston when Almora’s foul ball struck a young girl in the head, an incident that caused serious, lingering injuries, resulted in league-wide action to better protect fans and that in the moment dropped Almora to a knee, shaken and in tears.

TIMELINE: Fallout from Albert Almora Jr.'s scary foul ball incident

It was the most emotionally fraught moment in a Cubs season that was otherwise filled with competitive extremes that finished on a low note, off-the-field drama that finished with the release of a former All-Star shortstop and failed expectations that finished with the manager getting fired.

What followed for Almora was his worst performance as a baseball player, including a .215 average and .570 OPS the rest of the season, and a two-week demotion to the minors in August.

Almora has repeatedly denied his performance was impacted by that moment in Houston.

“No,” he said again this spring. “That’s an excuse.”

But the father of two young kids won’t deny that “it definitely impacted me.”

What’s certain is that by the time he returned to the team this spring, he had a new, quieter swing and a renewed mindset that had him in what he called a better place mentally.

A strong inner circle of friends and loved ones were part of the reset, he said, and in particular “just me listening and opening up to new advice.”

Almora, of course, did nothing wrong, and there was nothing he could have done to prevent the horrible moment — like so many other players and fans and similar moments at games that came before that one.

And while that knowledge won’t eliminate the emotions that might linger, one valuable outcome of the incident was near immediate action by the White Sox and Nationals to extend their protective netting to the foul poles at their ballparks — and MLB announcing in December all teams would expand protective netting by the start of the 2020 season.

Almora’s response, meanwhile, has been about just that — focusing on his response to the way his performance fell short last year, on the things he could change to regroup and restart a career that seemed on the rise until 2019.

“I’m glad [the struggles] happened,” he said. “You have to grow from things like that. You have two options: You can fold and let it beat you, or you learn from it and grow.

“I’m fortunate I had good people around me that gave me an easier chance to just turn the page, man. You hear that phrase a lot in this game: Turn the page, turn the page. But it’s hard. It’s hard when you’re constantly failing and constantly not performing the way you know you can and letting your guys down …

“It was tough,” he added. “And it’s not figured out. No one here figures it out. But you do the things you can control. … I’m in a good mental spot right now, and that’s all I can really ask for.”

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