I got to thinking after writing Friday's recap as to why Kerry Wood's farewell to baseball meant so much to us as Cubs fans. Beyond the unfulfilled hope for a great career that Kerry represented, why do events like this resonate so much for us?
One reason has to be, unfortunately, that we don't have championships to celebrate. Much as we want them, Cubs fans have had no titles to cheer for in the memory of anyone living today. We've got a handful of winning games in recent memory that happened at Wrigley Field and sent the team to the postseason -- the wild-card tiebreaker game in 1998, the division clinchers in 2003 and 2008 -- but that's about it, as far as recent meaningful events that fans gathered at Wrigley could truly celebrate.
Something that occurred to me late Friday night was this: we have almost never had a chance to say goodbye to our heroes, in the way that we did Friday afternoon.
Over the last 50 years, despite the lack of World Series titles, there have been many great and popular players who have worn Cubs uniforms and been beloved by fans.
But how many times have we been able to say goodbye to them?
Before Friday, only three, by my count, and at least one of them was uncertain.
On September 26, 1971, Ernie Banks played his final game of that season at Wrigley Field (he did not travel with the team for its last three games of that year, played in Montreal). Tribune articles published at the time said that Banks received a standing ovation from the smallish crowd of 18,505, but also noted that Banks had not officially announced his retirement and "hoped" to play in a 20th season in 1972. Ernie was officially a player/coach in 1971 and did not hit well, playing just 39 games and batting .193 with three home runs. It was quietly announced in mid-November, 1971, that Banks would not return as a player in 1972, but instead would become a full-time coach (though team statements indicated it might be possible Banks could be eligible to be activated as a player after May 15, 1972 -- that never happened, obviously).
On September 20, 1997, the Cubs held a pre-game retirement ceremony for Ryne Sandberg; he spoke briefly, balloons were released, and as was common for that 94-loss team, they dropped it to the Phillies 3-2. Oddly, this was not Sandberg's last game at Wrigley Field -- he also played the next day, September 21, and was removed in the fifth inning for pinch-runner Miguel Cairo, upon which he received a heartfelt ovation.
On July 29, 2006, Greg Maddux threw six strong innings against the Cardinals and then was removed to a thunderous ovation, because most people thought he'd be traded by the non-waiver deadline just two days later. I wasn't personally convinced he would be gone, though I certainly did give him the applause he deserved. It wasn't quite the same as saying goodbye to Sandberg, though, because Maddux had his best years in Atlanta.
But other greats or popular fan favorites?
Ron Santo's last game as a Cub at Wrigley Field was in front of 1,913 on October 1, 1973; he went 0-for-4. Many fans had turned on Santo; he often got booed when striking out, which happened more frequently in his later years with the team. No one knew at the time that he'd be traded away two months later.
Billy Williams also went 0-for-4 in his last game at Wrigley as a Cub on September 29, 1974. Again, no one knew at the time that he'd be traded away and would spend two years in Oakland.
Fergie Jenkins' last season in his first stint with the Cubs was rancorous; he had a bad year and during one game, angry at being lifted by manager Whitey Lockman, he went back to the dugout and hurled bats on the field. When he was traded to the Rangers in October 1973, many fans shrugged. Fergie didn't get a farewell in his last game in his second go-around with the Cubs, either; he had a pretty good year in 1982, but at age 39 in 1983 had declined to the point where he had been removed from the starting rotation. His final appearance was in relief; he threw one inning and gave up two runs on September 26, 1983 in front of 3,137 who had no idea it was his last game, since he came to spring training in 1984 intending to make the team. He was hit hard in spring camp and released.
Mark Grace, not a Hall of Famer but a popular Cub who had a very good career, got sort of a goodbye on September 28, 2000; it wasn't clear at the time whether the Cubs would re-sign him as a free agent or let him walk. Grace wanted to return. The crowd of 22,916 gave him "a standing ovation", according to the Tribune. He grounded out in what turned out to be his final Cub at-bat, since he did leave via free agency. He finished his career playing three seasons for the Diamondbacks, so there was no final farewell as there was Friday for Kerry Wood.
That's why Friday's lovefest for Kerry Wood was so special. We don't have that many opportunities to do things like this, and unfortunately, no championships to celebrate. Days like this are meaningful, at least until we do finally see players in blue Cubs pinstripes hoist the World Series trophy.