"It was a little chin music," said Rich Buhrke, his eyes gleaming as he paced Kenmore at its intersection with Waveland Avenue, just north of Wrigley Field. "No doubt about it, a definite brushback."
"Yeah . . . yeah," said J.R. Neumiller, a pudgy, bespectacled young man with earphones tuned to the Cubs game. Over the wall and chain link fence just a few yards away, Wrigley's roar temporarily drowned Buhrke out; he quickly looked to the skies for a home-run ball.
Neumiller poked at the air with his index finger, his "yeahs" like a backup chorus to Buhrke, fortyish, lanky, and wearing a Mazido first-baseman's mitt as he stalked the street corner. But after a few seconds of waiting for the bail to come over the fence, Buhrke gave up. It had crashed inside the ballpark, foul and unclaimed.
It was Wednesday and the talk all day long had been about Cubs batting hero Andre Dawson, hit in the face the day before by a pitch from San Diego Padre Eric Show. Due to the 24 stitches the injury required, Dawson, swollen-cheeked and surly, had been removed from the lineup. As a result, the corner of Kenmore and Waveland, where home-run balls are usually eaten up like peanuts, was practically empty but for Buhrke and Neumiller.
"That statement by Show--that was total crap," Buhrke (pronounced Burr-kee--the h is thrown in "for the hell of it") growled about Show's written apology to Dawson.
"Yeah .. . yeah," Neumiller concurred from under the tiny earphones, a little red transistor held in his hand like a cold beer.
"Brushbacks--it's in the repertory. Everybody does it. You gotta keep the batter off the plate," Buhrke continued, by now swinging invisible bats and jumping away from invisible home plates in the middle of the street.
A brushback, or chin music, in baseball parlance is a pitch that comes so close it forces the batter away from the plate for fear of being hit.
"Yeah . . . yeah . . ."
"I just had a feeling that beanball was going to happen; Andre was too hot!" Buhrke said, his eyes wide with wonder. "But I couldn't possibly have imagined!"
Nearby, 13-year-old Alberto Cintron, sweet-faced and soft in the middle, sat on the curb next to his bike and watched the shenanigans. It was his first day on Waveland Avenue, but he knew just by watching Buhrke and Neumiller that he'd found a new pastime: ball hawking.
At Wrigley Field, it's what one policeman called part of the system. "They're neighborhood guys," said the officer about the hawks--the men and boys who'd rather catch home-run balls that come over the fence than watch the game itself. "They're good guys; I mean, if you're going to have a hobby, what could be more harmless and all-American than catching baseballs?"
Andy Mielke, blond, athletic, and handsome, is one of the younger regulars on Kenmore and Waveland, and he swears the police love them. "Listen," he said with a wide grin, "when we're hanging around, the cops know nobody's going to mess with parked cars or anything. One time we even caught a pickpocket."
But it isn't civic duty that regularly brings Mielke and about a dozen others out to the ballpark on game days. They all say it's the baseballs, but on Thursday, when the hope of Dawson's return to the lineup had rekindled their catching fever, what became clear was the sheer fun and camaraderie of it all. (Dawson didn't actually come back until the next day.)
A few hours before the game, the guys had the streets covered during batting practice. Every time a ball flew over the fence or hopped off a nearby roof, a swarm of boys would follow, mitts and hands outstretched. Sometimes the ball fell to the ground and a tussle ensued. But always, when the winner held the prize up above his head for all to see, there were smiles and high fives, grunts, pats on the rear, and tips of the caps.
"We're all friends," Mielke explained. "We might all be living someplace else now, but we all grew up around here and love the Cubs; we love baseball. We hang out together, even during the off-season."
Jim Buhrke, Rich's tall, even lankier 18-year-old son, said that there is a definite "us" and "them" mentality. "The regulars get most of the balls," Jim, a 1987 graduate of Lane Tech, explained. "It's very unusual for a passerby to get one from us . . . you know, from the guys in the group. I mean, we're buddies, sometimes we even go to road games together, travel and stuff."
"It's a loose group, though, kind of ad hoc," Mielke added. "There's no membership or organization or anything like that. It's a good day when we all catch one."
The ball hawks, alternately loved and hated by Cubs management according to Mielke, rarely go into the ballpark, but their networking extends to the famous Wrigley bleachers.
"I have friends in the bleachers that'll signal the direction of a ball for me," said Jim Silva, a chunky Saint Gregory High School senior who was on a hot streak with four balls to his credit during Wednesday's batting practice. The balls were neatly stored in a plastic grocery bag hanging off a neighbor's chain link fence.
"It's not enough to just have your ear to the radio or be watching that little TV that Rich brings out here," Silva said. He'd been hot the day before too, taking home Jim Sundberg's game-winning grand slam. Rumor had it that Sundberg wanted the ball back, but Silva was holding out for a deal. "I want a bat for it," he said.
Rich Buhrke, the unofficial king of the hawks, has a number of prized balls, including third base star Ron Santo's 300th home run. "I've been at this 29 years," he said. "I've got 1,952 balls already." The director of a nighttime hockey program in nearby Niles, Buhrke deliberately chose his profession to fit his daytime passion of ball hawking.
Buhrke keeps his home-run balls in plastic cases and gives away or plays with the fouls and practice balls. "The ones in good shape we give to the Boys Club where I used to play when I was little," said Jim Buhrke. The ones that aren't up to par are used to play catch or fast pitch against the walls during the games' slow periods.
"There was a time you could turn the balls in and management would let you into the games for free," said the elder Buhrke. "But that was a long time ago."
Mielke, who's been fielding balls outside Wrigley since 1982, has 350 "career" balls and 40 from this season alone. But unlike the others, who can only dream about being the power behind one of those home-run balls, Mielke, a starter for Northeastern Illinois University's baseball team, has been scouted by professional clubs such as the Cleveland Indians and the Oakland A's.
"I don't know if I could go on to the majors," he said, his eyes scanning the sky for a ball said to be on its way over. "But I'd love to kick around in the minors for a few years."
He jumped; the ball--allegedly hit by Cubs catcher Jody Davis--was just clearing the wall. It took a high bounce on the street and hit a house, disappearing into the bushes on the front lawn. The boys piled up. Finally, after the yelling and screaming was over, a beaming Alberto Cintron emerged with ball in hand.
"They let me have it," he said of the older guys. "God, they're great guys."
Mielke laughed. "Can you imagine," he asked, "being able to play baseball for a living, even for a little while?"
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Paul L. Merideth.